In a strong show of force, 59 global, regional, and national organizations from across Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Europe issued a joint statement demanding the immediate release of the 57 peasant leaders and human rights advocates, including minors, arrested by local authorities in Negros Occidental (around 710 kilometers south of Manila) in the central Philippines last October 31.

Among those that signed the joint statement are international human rights and pro-democracy civil society groups and networks of peasant movements, agricultural workers, and women’s rights advocates from Bangladesh, Belgium, Cambodia, Cameroon, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and Zambia.

The groups expressed concern over the worsening human rights situation in the country, particularly on Negros island where the recent mass arrests were just the latest in a string of cases of harassment and assaults and even extrajudicial killings against farmers and land rights defenders.

They condemned, in particular, the arrests of members of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines or KMP) and the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW). The two have long advanced the calls for the distribution of land and resources to tillers and small food growers.

“There is an obvious campaign that systematically targets groups critical of government policies, including on rural development and agrarian reform. These include the use of court-issued search warrants along with the alleged planting of firearms and explosives as evidence to legitimize police and military operations,” part of the statement read.

The local police and military allegedly seized firearms and ammunition during the simultaneous raids of provincial offices of several progressive groups. Local human rights watchdogs later belied this claim and denounced the counterinsurgency operations used to justify the persecution of people’s organizations.

Many of the arrested individuals were indeed targeted because of alleged links to armed insurgents in the region. “We join the campaign for a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict by addressing what fuels it in the Philippine countryside — the abject landlessness and poverty of rural people,” according to the statement.

Fifty national organizations signed the statement and are joined by nine regional and global networks led by PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP); Asian Peasant Coalition (APC); Coalition of Agricultural Workers International (CAWI); Asian Rural Women’s Coalition (ARWC); GRAIN; Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD); Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN); European Network for Justice and Peace in the Philippines; and Youth for Food Sovereignty (YFS).

The groups noted that violent and repressive policies have only historically stoked greater social unrest. The filing of fabricated cases could also further threaten the safety and wellbeing of community leaders and activists.

“They are vulnerable enough to violence without legal persecution making it even more daunting for them to work unencumbered by fear for their life. The government crackdown on them serves only to subdue the sectors they help mobilize against everyday injustices,” the statement concluded.

Press release from PAN Asia Pacific. Photo from Arkibong Bayan.