“The Philippine government harasses and threatens Indigenous communities when they fight for their rights”

Czarina Musni

Lawyer, human rights defender

Czarina Musni.
Czarina Musni. Author: Queralt Castillo Cerezuela
Czarina Musni (born in the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines) is a human rights defender. She works as a lawyer in the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NULP) and the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM). Both provide free legal services to victims of human rights violations.

In her country, her work and activism are branded as terrorist acts. Her work is focused on defending the urban poor, human rights activists, environmentalists or the Lumad (Indigenous people of the southern Philippines, who account for 10 to 20 percent of the country’s total population), among others. She also accompanies local communities in defending their lands against the extractive industry. In September 2020 she received three months of international protection in the Netherlands, through the organization Justice and Peace, however she cannot return to the Philippines. Musni has been red-tagged and her life is in danger: she has been the subject of threats, persecution and harassment. In 2019, the Philippines were considered the deadliest country for farmers and Indigenous people over land disputes, according to rights advocacy group PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP). She is now in Barcelona, hosted by the Catalan Association for Peace (Associació Catalana per la Pau, ACP), under another program for the protection of human rights activists.

Nationalia: You are in Barcelona because you have been threatened by Duterte’s government for defending human rights.

Czarina Musni: I am a human rights lawyer from the Philippines, and a member of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NULP) and the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM). Both are very active and they work on the same causes. As members of these organizations, we provide pro bono legal services to marginalised sectors such as Indigenous people, farmers, women, or the urban poor.

N: Where do you get the funds for the programs?

C. M.: We get funds from the German embassy, and also from the European Union itself. Obviously, we do not get funds from our government. However, we are very particular with the funders. We work better with Europe than with the United States, because we have some issues with the US and their imperialism. Most of our funders are other small NGOs. We work with partnerships.

N: Who are your clients?

C. M.: Most of them are human rights defenders themselves, or promoters of human rights. With the urban poor we have a lot of causes related to social housing. in the case of Indigenous people, their causes are related to the demand for the respect of their ancestors’ domains. When these people voice demands, the response by the State is public vilification, harassment, and red tagging.

N: What is “red tagging”?

C. M.: If you dissent with the government in any questions, you are red tagged: that means you are a red, a communist. The Communist Party is considered a terrorist organization, so they label you as a terrorist. This is very dangerous because when you are linked to the reds, attacks against you or your family may happen. In the Philippines, human right defenders are being red tagged. They are under surveillance, persecution, harassment, and extrajudicial killings. In the last two years a lot of people have fled or have been evacuated. That is why I am here. I was red tagged by the government.

N: Your first flew to the Netherlands.

C. M.: I spent three months there and I will be here in Barcelona until 2025. I was supposed to go back to the Philippines after the months in the Netherlands, but it was not possible because it is not safe. During my time in the Netherlands, people in the Philippines told me I appeared in government leaflets as a funder of terrorists and as a high-ranking official of the New People’s Army. My life is in danger.

N: During 2017 and 2018 Duterte made lots of headlines in international media, but since then he seems to have somewhat disappeared.

C. M.: Duterte is still not open to any criticism, especially when it comes to international actors. But in terms of the relations with the media, it is important to consider that Duterte recently closed down one of the biggest media in the Philippines, ABS-CBN. Under Duterte’s influence, the Congress did not renew their franchise. Maybe that is one of the reasons why international media are not able to pick up the information: ABS-CBN is not broadcasting any more. Duterte has not changed, he still has the same attitude: he does not respect international actors or the international media. The situation is pretty much the same than 2018, or even worse.

N: Why worse?

C. M.: Duterte is now facing charges in the International Criminal Court over the thousands of killings under his anti-drug crackdown. The official records state that around 6,900 people are related to what they call “incidents of death”, but human rights organisations and independent researchers recounted more than 20,000 extrajudicial killings. In this context, complaints were filed against Duterte, the Philippine National Police, the military, and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Rodrigo Duterte will be charged with crimes against humanity, it is a matter of time.

N: Do you think he will get judged in the future?

C. M.: Yes, I do not have any doubt. In June 2021, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda published the results of her preliminary investigation related to the war on drugs. She said there are reasonable bases to conclude that crimes against humanity were committed in the Philippines from 2016 to 2019. For this reason, Bensouda requested an ICC investigation. But Duterte says the ICC has no jurisdiction in the Philippines and he has already stated that he will not cooperate with them. However, we see this as a sort of a crack in his immunity.

N: Does Duterte have legal immunity?

C. M.: Under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the president has immunity, but this does not extend to a vice-president. And he is set to run for vice-president in the next general election.

N: Can his party win again?

C. M.: It can, because it has a lot of power and resources.

N: When Duterte won the 2016 election, he had a lot of support. He was very popular.

C. M.: Let me tell you something: my family and I supported Duterte from the very beginning. We campaigned for him. When he was the major of Davao, he was open to peace talks. During the campaign, he was the only candidate, among six, who was for the resumption of peace talks. In his first year of presidency, he resumed peace talks with the government and the Communist Party. At that time, you would never have thought how things would develop. In his second year, his real personality came out.

N: He got corrupted?

C. M.: Probably.

N: You are here, among other reasons, because you defend the Lumad, the Indigenous people of the Philippines. What are their demands?

C. M.: Their main demand is the right to self-determination. They fight for their territory. For Indigenous people, land is their life. The problem is that the rules, the regulations and the laws related to land are unfair for them.

N: The Philippines promulgated the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act in 1997 but have not ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

C. M.: It is ironic and does not make any sense. We have a domestic law to protect Indigenous rights, but it is only the name that is beautiful. The content is not. A case in point is what is considered to be the ancestors’ domain. Law recognises that the Indigenous people have a native title over their ancestors’ domain. No documentation is necessary because it does not exist, it is not available, as you inherit the land since immemorial time. On the basis of this native title, Indigenous people can ask for the certificate of ancestors’ domain title. The point is: when applying for the certificate, it will be given unless a prior right exists, and this prior right may come in the form of other land titles or in the form of free patents given by the government to individuals or corporations. There is a lot of inequality. Most times, local and international companies have titles over land. Then, that paper prevails over the ancestors’ law. This is our struggle for land. Indigenous people have no prove, no written documentation, no photos.

N: What does the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples on that?

C. M.: The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples is used by the government to harass and threaten Indigenous communities when they fight for their rights against the mining industry and other corporations.

N: So, the Lumad are threatened by the government but also by the extracting industry.

C. M.: The two actors are very much connected. The extractive industry could not go to the ancestors’ domain without government approval and its permits. Precisely, the Lumad are fighting to protect their land from this extractive industry based on mining, logging, corporate plantations of pineapple and banana, construction of dams, etc. All these activities are affecting the ancestors’ domains. The Lumad oppose these projects, so they are red tagged.

N: Lots of Lumad join the New Peoples’ Army (NPA), now considered a terrorist group.

C. M.: I think so. This is why we support peace talks. We understand that the root cause of the armed rebellion is the agrarian reform. When referring to the agrarian reform, we always have to take into consideration the Lumad. Those people have no other choice but to rise up in arms. Even if there was a real reform, mining companies would continue extracting minerals in their areas and corporate plantations would not respect the lands. What would you do? We all would go up to the mountains like them. We see a lot of Indigenous people joining the NPA because they have no other choice. They are already there, they know the terrain and they know how to live in the mountains. It is very easy for them to join the NPA. The truth is that most of the families have a relative who is an NPA member. That is a given fact. All those families who are not members of the guerrilla, but have a relative who is in, are red tagged and considered terrorists.

N: How many Lumad are enlisted in the NPA?

C. M.: We don’t even know. I cannot give you figures.

N: The government has recently passed an Anti-Terror Law.

C. M.: Peace talks were broken and the NPA, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines are now considered terrorists. With the passing of the Anti-Terror Law, it is easier for the government to designate terrorist groups. Before, you had to go through courts. And that was a long process. The Anti-Terror Law was created along with an Anti-Terrorism Council, which has absolute authority to designate, above anyone, individuals or organizations as terrorists. So, anyone being related to the NPA, the Communist Party of the Philippines or the National Democratic Front of the Philippines becomes a terrorist.

N: The government has been attacking Lumad schools. Why has Duterte targetted the children?

C. M.: This occurs on the basis that Lumad schools are the breeding grounds for the guerrilla. That is why Duterte has bombed them. The schools were created by the Lumad themselves in partnerships with civil society organizations and also international funders. The Lumad are spread in the mountains and they live hundreds of kilometres away from rural centres. We are not even talking about cities, but small rural villages. There are basic structures, but the Lumad live very far, so it is necessary for them to have schools in their communities. For a long time, there were no any schools. In recent years, those schools were given licenses by the Department of Education to operate, and they were in compliance with the Department of Education. But in 2016, the government put its focus on the Lumad. When the schools asked for permit renewals, they were denied. The allegations were that the schools promoted links with the NPA and that civil society organizations supporting those schools were linked to the Communist Party. This situation goes against the right of self-determination of the Lumad and it goes against the right of education.

N: Have you visited those schools?

C. M.: Yes. The Lumad schools teach literacy and numeracy, and they are run by voluntary teachers. They teach basic things. The fact is that, apart from literacy and numeracy, the students learn Indigenous culture and their ancestors’ knowledge. They have classes in farming, gardening, natural medicine, etc. It is very positive for the communities, because the traditional knowledge is not lost. It is about passing the old Indigenous traditions onto the new generations. This system of education was approved by the Tribal Council, so it is a really rich experience.

N: Another problem that the Lumad have is that the area where they live is highly militarised.

C. M.: Under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, militarisation of Indigenous communities is prohibited, unless the Indigenous themselves request it. This is not the case in the Philippines. In fact, the Lumad oppose militarisation in their communities because it means harassment and threats. Lumad communities share stories of sexual harassment against their communities. The military also imposes psychological warfare against the communities. Their presence and their weapons have a chilling effect on the Indigenous communities. The presence of the military silences them.

N: In Mindanao, another armed conflict pitted for decades the Moro Islamic Liberation Front against the government.

C. M.: Because of the peace talks and the negotiation, they now have the Bangsamoro, a Muslim autonomous entity, but I cannot really tell you the details of it because I am not that much in that area. Because of that, there has been relative peace in Muslim Mindanao, but this is very much contradicting the actual scenarios on the ground.

N: What do you mean?

C. M.: In 2017, the city of Marawi, in Mindanao, was bombed on the allegation that elements of the ISIS group were operating there. The government took down the whole city for a few numbers of ISIS fighters. The whole city was closed down and it was bombed. The Moro people had to be evacuated to the nearest city. Once there, islamophobia appeared and the stigma increased, along with hate speech. It was a war situation, but Duterte still feels very proud of it. Martial law was declared in Marawi and it lasted almost three years.

N: And what happened during that time?

C. M.: Duterte did not lift the martial law for three years because of the NPA. ISIS was the perfect excuse to control individuals and civil society organizations. At some point, the military had more power than the civilian government. In fact, the civilian authority was afraid to rise up against the military.

N: The Philippines have always been an important country for the US and China.

C. M.: It is a strategic country for those two giants. It has natural resources: minerals, gas, oil, coast. Duterte promised he would implement an independent foreign policy strategy, so we would not depend on China or the US. Thus, we thought he was the president we needed. The truth is that he has aligned with China, and it has been even worse that being aligned with the US. Duterte has engaged in loan agreements with China because it was a way to get easy money. The loan agreements, however, are very unfair. We will see how it goes.

N: Are Chinese companies very present in the Philippines?

C. M.: Lately, yes. Specially in the eastern part of Mindanao, which is very rich in minerals. It is the mining capital of the Philippines. We have a lot of gold and nickel. A lot of European and US companies are also there, a tiny part of Mindanao. The coastal part is suffering a lot, too.

N: In fact, the Philippines are a very vulnerable country to climate change.

C. M.: There is also a lot of environmental degradation, and that is another reason why we want to protect Indigenous people. Foreign companies are ready to destroy the land. When you defend the mountains there is less flooding, but when you start to get your voice out, you are labelled a terrorist. So, what can we do?