Who would’ve thought that just days after the joyous Masskara festival a horrible crackdown would be unleashed in Bacolod?

And so as the rest of the nation started Undas and as folks were marking Halloween, combined teams of the Philippine Army and the Philippine National Police swooped down on October 31 on the headquarters of several people’s organizations in Bacolod. Dozens of activists were arrested.

The Halloween operation could be called “Gabi ng Lagim” for Bacolod’s cause-oriented groups, activists, cultural workers, and a community journalist. The “ninja cops” and military counterparts wore their standard costumes for their version of a Halloween party. Like the rest of us, the activists were mostly enjoying the holiday downtime.

Nobody was hurt in the raids and arrests, only the rights to free association, to dissent, to due process and to free expression.

According to press reports, the raiders claimed to have found guns and grenades in the activist offices. Many people and media in Bacolod are surprised: They have never seen their neighborhood activists bring or use guns. Their chosen weapons have always been the leaflet, the primer, the discussion guide, the streamer, the placard and the flag. There have never been New People’s Army trainings at the NFSW office just off Libertad. The denizens there would’ve found out about it.

The names of arrested activists are familiar to the people of Bacolod and Negros. They are their peasant leaders, their labor leader, their partylist leaders, their community journalist, and their cultural workers. They have seen them many times at demonstrations and in the news. In many cases, they are their neighbors and friends.

Now in police custody are: Butch Lozande, secretary-general of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) and fourth nominee of the Anakpawis partylist; Danny Tabura, another NFSW leader; Aldrin Dela Cerna, an organizer of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas-Negros; labor leader Noli Rosales; Bayan Muna leader Romulo Bito-on Jr. and wife Mermalyn; and human rights defender Proceso Quiatchon.

Also arrested were members of cultural groups Teatro Obrero and Teatro Bungkal.

Community journalist May-anne Krueg of Paghimutad media group in Negros was able to livestream the raid as it happened, but she herself was arrested later.

It is important to note that the Bacolod crackdown follows a spate of killings of farmers and farmworkers across Negros, which the arrested activists helped report and condemn to their city and to the country.

Now, it could only be a matter of hours before President Duterte’s recently-appointed Bacolod police chief would come out in a grand press conference. We’ve seen this done elsewhere. Yes, the activists who the police know as neighbors and kababayans, and who the police would coordinate with during mass actions, would be presented as “rebels”. The planted evidence would be on hand for maximum publicity.

An executive judge from faraway Quezon City supposedly issued the warrants. What pieces of convincing evidence and compelling legal arguments won the Metro Manila judge’s approval for a sweeping Gestapo-like operation in Bacolod, we have yet to know.

We’ve seen the same schtick from the past and present regimes whenever confronted with protests and dissent from activist and cause-oriented groups. Instead of responding to legitimate grievances, they would be Red-tagged, demonized and slapped with trumped-up, non-bailable charges. In other countries, the cases are called SLAPP, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. The regime may not expect to win the cases. They just want the activists demonized in the court of public opinion and saddled by the laborious and expensive defense in the judicial courts.

The Duterte regime is acting fast to break the backbone of mass movements starting in the provinces, because it knows the organizing and mobilizing capabilities of activists and cause-oriented groups. By cracking down on activists, the regime hopes to make it easy for more tyrannical and oppressive measures to be imposed on the people. Whether it is about the tax on “tuyo”, the phaseout of jeepneys, the mass transport crisis, the installation of the defeated vice presidential candidate, or tightening the grip of landlords and oligarchs — the regime cannot afford to allow activists to go out freely. They must not only be silenced. They should be blamed as trouble-makers. 

What’s worse is that the Duterte regime pursues the story line that the activists are marionettes of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and that the cause-oriented groups are recruiters for the New People’s Army. In the regime’s warped mindset, Filipinos cannot think for themselves or take political action together: There’s no other reason why people protest, except that they have been brainwashed by the communists!

One does not need to be a communist to be a good, engaged and committed citizen. But the Bacolod crackdown, the Negros killings and the general pattern of counter-insurgency operations that target activists and cause-oriented groups paint a picture of a regime scared to death about what citizens could think and do. As many other countries erupt in protests against tyranny and neoliberalism, the regime that’s known for the same maladies is desperate to nip in the bud any nationally-coordinated protests that could be mounted in the coming weeks or months.

History teaches us that crackdowns can impose an artificial peace only for a short time. Ferdinand Marcos tried but failed to crush the resistance through martial law and fascist terror. Instead he fanned the flames of armed rebellion by pushing the otherwise legal activists to the underground. It didn’t take long for the people to realize that the “peace”, wasn’t for their good. It was for the dictator to freely steal, without complaints from anyone.

Duterte seems to repeat the same mistake, perhaps hoping for a different outcome. Let’s defend Negros now, before the monstrosity is imposed on the nation. ###

Published in Manila Bulletin