Australia Is Enabling State Violence in the Philippines
Australia has a long history of meddling in the affairs of its Pacific neighbors. In the Philippines, right-wing strongman Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” amounts to state terror — which Australia's government has enthusiastically supported through military aid and legal advice.
In October 2020, when asked about the Australian government’s stance on the Philippines’ infamously sweeping new anti-terror legislation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was coy. “We are concerned about legislation in this area,” said DFAT’s acting first assistant secretary for the Southeast Asia division Tom Connor. “We are paying very close attention to it.” Asked whether Australia had provided “development assistance or technical support” in the law’s drafting, Connor took the question on notice.
Months later, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that DFAT had, in fact, provided substantial “technical assistance” over three years to the Philippine government in drafting the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. DFAT itself stated that such assistance was intended to “bring Philippine counter terrorism legislation to modern international standards, including consistency with UN guidance.”
For its part, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights deemed the anti-terror laws “worrying.” Indeed, under the legislation, anyone fitting the vaguely defined charge of terrorism can be arrested without a warrant, detained for up to twenty-four days without charge, and surveilled or wiretapped for up to ninety days — among other things.
Enforcement has largely rested with the notoriously violent Philippines National Police (PNP) and the military, alongside a presidentially appointed anti-terror council. In tandem with President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” the legislation has played a crucial role in legitimizing and intensifying state violence in the Philippines.
This particular collaboration is indicative of Australia’s involvement in the Philippines, and throughout the region more broadly. Yet despite the sustained support of violence and repression in the Philippines, there has been almost no public scrutiny.
A History of Dependence
This year, Australia celebrated seventy-five years of diplomatic relations with the Philippines. In a May 2021 video, Prime Minister Scott Morrison commemorated the occasion by reflecting on the countries’ entwined World War II histories, saying: “We stood together against the militarism and the cruelties of those terrible times. Together we won a peace, together we won a war.”
“Diplomatic relations” are of course not limited to military ties, but these are the sole focus of Morrison’s statement. He reels off salient points in Australian-Filipino history, all of which relate to warfare: the 1944 Battle of Leyte, the 1945 bombardment of Lingayen Gulf, and the ongoing Mindanao conflict.
The implication is clear: without Australia, the Philippines would be overrun by military forces and mired in violence and cruelty. Australia’s ongoing intervention, the logic goes, is crucial to “peace” across the archipelago.
Closer examination of Australia’s influence in the Philippines suggests anything but peace. Since 2017, Australia has spent an estimated $52.6 million on the military task force Operation Augury, which at its peak saw “two spy planes, two navy patrol boats, a team of special forces and more than 100 ADF personnel” deployed to the Islamic City of Marawi. Criticized for its secrecy, Augury also facilitated the deployment of eighty Australian military trainers with expertise in “urban warfare” to upskill Filipino soldiers “in the finer points of close range combat.” Defence Portfolio Budget Statements from 2021–22 show the operation is ongoing.
Australia has also extended support to the Philippines National Police, which has been instrumental in enacting Duterte’s “war on drugs.” In 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Australia’s “comprehensive,” “multimillion dollar support” of the PNP through the provision of equipment, instruction in surveillance techniques and counter-terrorism, and training of over twelve hundred officers. This support, Lindsay Murdoch wrote, came in spite of mounting evidence of the involvement of PNP personnel in “targeted assassinations and vigilante hit squads.”
According to the PNP’s own statistics, 7,884 Filipinos have died in anti-narcotic police operations in the four years since the beginning of Duterte’s presidency in July 2016. Human Rights Watch estimates that the actual figure is closer to twenty-seven thousand, factoring in extrajudicial killings by vigilantes believed to have PNP support. SOS-Torture Network reports that 122 children — including those murdered as “proxies when the real targets could not be found” — are among those killed.
Terrorists or Activists?
Offenses under the anti-terror legislation include incitement through “speeches, writings, proclamations, emblems, banners, and other representations” and acts intended to “damage public property” or “interfere with critical infrastructure” — all common modes of activism.
Indeed, the legislation has been used to target those who publicly criticize Duterte’s government, including land rights advocates, environmental defenders, and indigenous activists. In June 2021, the Anti-Terrorism Council designated the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) — a coalition that includes the Communist Party of the Philippines, trade unions, and indigenous rights groups — a terrorist organization.
Under the legislation the NDFP, a signatory to the 1998 Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law that established peace negotiations with the Philippine government, has no right to argue their defense. Consequences of the designation include the freezing of NDFP assets and potential exposure of NDFP members to prosecution, alongside reason to anticipate intensified targeting by state forces.
On March 7, 2021, the PNP and Philippine Army raided twenty-four left-wing activists in Calabarzon, arresting six and murdering nine alleged “terrorists” — all of whom were in fact human rights defenders, community leaders, and union organizers. Victims included Ariel Evangelista and Chai Lemita-Evangelista, who were slaughtered as their ten-year-old son hid under the bed.
For some, present-day attacks on Filipino civil society are reminiscent of fourteen years of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, when at least 3,257 people were murdered by the PNP and military. In their view, the current situation, with its legal justifications for murder, is worse.
Vice chairperson of BAYAN Australia, EJ dela Cruz, contends that Australian support of the anti-terror legislation is rooted in fear of Filipino revolutionary movements that deposed Spanish, American, and Japanese forces.
“The history of the Philippines is a history of fighting against external imperial powers,” he says, “Revolutionary forces have always fought, for the people, against imperial powers. [W]hen the word ‘terrorism’ was invented . . . of course imperialist powers would tag any type of force that would compromise their intent ‘terrorists.’”
Going for Gold
Australian mining companies have a deep interest in the Philippines, where there are significant reserves of gold, nickel, iron, and other precious metals. Australia isn’t the only foreign power with its finger in the pie: according to one study from 2014, foreign-owned mining companies currently have access to over eighty-one thousand hectares across the archipelago under fifty-year mining licenses.
Opposition from activist and indigenous groups is met with violent crackdowns by the PNP, making the Philippines the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders and devastate local communities.
One example of the kind of devastation wrought by foreign companies is the case of the Australian-Canadian corporation OceanaGold, whose license to mine gold and copper in Nueva Vizcaya was renewed for a further twenty-five years last month. The renewal came in spite of a 2011 report by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights that OceanaGold had, with the support of local PNP, illegally demolished 187 homes in Cagayan Valley, and without even rehousing those left homeless.
In 2019, a hundred PNP officers used “unnecessary and disproportionate force” to remove thirty protesters blockading the mine after OceanaGold continued to operate with an expired mining license. Following another violent dispersal on April 6, 2020, the provincial government of Nueva Vizcaya issued a restraining order against OceanaGold; the company violated this in November 2020. Weeks later, up to thirty-nine locals died when landslides — phenomena with a known connection to mining — swept through Nueva Vizcaya and neighboring provinces in the wake of Typhoon Vamco.
OceanaGold reported revenue of $148.9 million for the first quarter of 2021 alone. Meanwhile, 11.4 percent of families in Nueva Vizcaya live in poverty.
Toward a Just Peace in the Philippines
Australia’s meddling in the Philippines is not limited to its domestic affairs. Recent moves by Perth-based shipbuilder Austal to acquire “strategically important shipyards” in Subic Bay, a former US military base on the South China Sea, suggest the geopolitical importance of the archipelago as Philippine-US diplomatic relations falter and as tensions with China escalate. Military ties — particularly those that silence local dissenters — to what the Australian Strategic Policy Institute describes as an “important geostrategic location between the Americas, Oceania and Asia . . . a bridge between Southeast and Northeast Asia” undoubtedly strengthen Australia’s power in the region.
If Australia wants to make good on Morrison’s statement that we have “won a peace” in the Philippines, its military support and presence in the Philippines must cease. As Duterte’s presidency enters its final year, Filipino-Australian activist groups have outlined urgent steps for the Australian government: condemn Duterte, support renewed peace talks between the Philippine government and revolutionary groups, and cease aid to the Philippine military and the PNP.
After years of oppression by the Duterte administration, people in the Philippines, says EJ dela Cruz, “deserve a government by the people, for the people.” Securing this will require the cooperation of the international community. For Australians, this means adding our voices to the growing call for action against state violence and for democracy in the Philippines.