The Militarization of a Pandemic and the Struggle for Peace

Regletto Aldrich Imbong,
Mari Elise Gwyneth Lim

Summary: The response by the Philippine state to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to ever-greater militarization and repression by President Duterte. Its impact is detailed in this article by two leftwing scholars and activists – Editors


“In the name of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, and with the help of the staff of the Philippine National Police [PNP] and the soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines [AFP], we will enforce starting now a strict enhanced community quarantine.” These words were the warning of PNP Chief General Archie Gamboa to the public as the government enforced lockdowns in response to the pandemic. He went on by threatening unwarranted and unwarned arrests against supposed lockdown violators. The threats were never mere lip service as these resulted to not only the arrest of thousands of alleged quarantine violators but also the implementation of Martial Law-like lockdowns. The situation of the Philippines prior to the pandemic has already been characterized by an ever-increasing militarization of the state bureaucracy and the blurring of lines between civilian and military authorities. However, such militarization scaled and intensified as it has never before – or at least during the post-Marcos dictatorial years – during the entire stretch of the pandemic.

No less than President Duterte himself downplayed the threats of the novel corona virus. After the first reported COVID-19-related death in the country last 1 February 2020, also the first reported COVID-19 death outside of China, Duterte insisted that “everything is well” and that there was no need for the people to be hysterical. Without showing any concrete plan to ease the growing anxieties of the public, Duterte merely asked them to be resilient and to “keep faith with humanity,” and assured the public that “even without the vaccines, [the virus] will just die a natural death.”  In another occasion, a day after he declared the State of Public Health Emergency, Duterte mocked his own presidential security group by poking fun on their protocol of no-touch policy as he expressed willingness to “shake hands with everybody” and to even swim in the beach with his tourism secretary. On the succeeding days, the Filipino people witnessed Duterte cursing the virus several times on national television as more cases of infection were recorded.

These were the comical scenes that the Filipinos witnessed weeks before they were faced with the horrific spectacles of lockdowns, mass arrests, and killings. The militarized measures that the Duterte administration later executed not only betrayed the earlier assurance that “everything is well” but also unconcealed the cracks both in the surface level of governance and in the latent structures of Philippine society.

Anxious that these cracks will cause the entire governmental edifice to crumble, the Duterte administration rolled out a series of responses that are, in both substance and form, militaristic. The militarization of the governmental edifice could be traced in various institutional reorganizations and legal enactments. In these institutional-legal responses, one can see not anymore a tension between civilian and military authorities but the encroachment of the former by the latter. As the militarization escalated, it was not so much the health experts and the health care system that drove the entire governmental response as the military and police personnel and their security-oriented structures.


The Discursive Framing of Militarization

An analysis and comparison of Duterte’s and other world leaders’ (Angela Merkel of Germany, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, and Moon Jae-In of South Korea) public speeches concerning the pandemic are revealing of just how militarization is distinctively and discursively advanced by the chief executive of the Philippines. Merkel and Lee made one public speech each while Moon and Duterte had twelve and sixty public speeches, respectively. The COVID-related public speeches of these world leaders are processed through the software AntConc to see what terms predominate their discourses. The top twenty terms of their speeches are segregated according to their politico-economic (PE), socio-medical (SM), and security-related (SR) contents.


Table 1: Top 20 words of Merkel’s speech


Table 2: Top 20 words of Lee’s speech


Table 3: Top 20 words of Moon’s speeches


In a summary, PE terms like people and government, and SM terms like COVID and health are shared by the four world leaders. However, it is only in Duterte’s speeches that SR terms not only are present but also made it to the top twenty list. For example, in Duterte’s speeches, the term police/pulis was mentioned 226 times, making it the top seven most used word, while the term military/military/sundalo was mentioned 160 times, making it the top thirteen most used word. While the term police was mentioned once in one of Moon’s speeches, it was within the framework of a social support. In the 25 February 2020 speech, he explained that “the Government has launched an all-out support system nationwide, including the deployment of troops and the police, and the dispatch of private medical personnel.”


Table 4: Top 20 words of Duterte’s speeches


The analysis and comparison of Duterte’s speeches with the speeches of other world leaders reveal not only his consistent mobilization of SR terms but also the framing of the governmental response toward the pandemic within the discourse of war. In many occasions, Duterte portrayed the current efforts of the government as a war against COVID or the virus. In his 16 March 2020 speech, Duterte narrated how “we are at war against a vicious and invisible enemy, one that cannot be seen by the naked eye. In this extraordinary war, we are all soldiers.” This framing conditions a militarist psychology among the citizens where they not only contribute to the victory of the war but also submit themselves to the military and police authorities for its victory to be achieved. In his 16 March 2020 speech, Duterte ordered the public to “obey the police and the military,” a rather awkward advice given the socio-medical nature of the crisis.

Consequently, the imperative to kill comes along with this war. Spread sporadically across his speeches is the term kill/patayin, mentioned fifty-seven times. However, what is alarming is how the scope of this war is virtually extended to include not only unruly violators but also rebel communists, as if they become accomplices if not allied forces of the detested enemy, the virus. For example, in his 17 August 2020 speech, Duterte warned that “if you destroy my country, I will kill you.” In his 04 April 2020 speech, Duterte advised the security forces that if their lives are put in danger, then they should take the initiative of killing the threat.


The Institutionalization and Legalization of Militarization

The militarized content of Duterte’s speeches were translated into concrete institutional-legal responses. In the institutional level, a national task force was created to lead in the national action plan of the administration. The task force is headed by retired military generals Delfin Lorenzana, Eduardo Año, and Carlito Galvez. Under them are the heads of various departments that are likewise led by retired police or military officers. The task force encroached on all government agency that mattered and even gained control over the local government units across the nation. An instance, for example, was how Duterte assigned General Roy Cimatu to lead the overall pandemic response of Cebu City, in Central Philippines. The appointment was seen by many as an encroachment on the authority of Mayor Edgardo Labella being the duly elected leader of the City. Intermittent police and/or military checkpoints were installed especially in areas that were considered to be centers of the pandemic. The image of a militarized response in the country was further reinforced by the Martial Law-like lockdowns imposed in areas that had a high number of COVID-19 cases. Here, state security forces in camouflage and tanks roam the streets and in the interior of barangays to enforce the lockdown.

In the legal level, Duterte signed into law the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (BHOA). Under the BHOA, the chief executive is given emergency powers. Except for the two powers of taking over the operations of private establishments and requiring businesses to prioritize contracts for materials and services needed for the pandemic, Duterte delegated all the powers to specific individuals. This act of delegation further empowered the military officials heading the national task force with the emergency powers of the chief executive. While the BHOA expired last 25 June 2020, a second version of which was signed into law which extended not only the emergency powers of Duterte and some specific individuals but also the state of emergency itself.

Interestingly, Duterte and his allies also railroaded the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL) at a time when the nation suffered from the pandemic. The law was sponsored by the former police chief and now Senator Panfilo Lacson, who saw the Martial Law (ML) then in the island of Mindanao to be a toothless exercise of power against alleged terrorists. He explained that there would be no need of an ML in Mindanao should an anti-terror bill be passed into law. Civil society organizations and human rights groups feared the weaponization of the ATL against critics and dissenters as it is laden with an ambiguous definition of what terrorism is and empowers a security sector-dominated anti-terrorism council to proscribe, surveil, and arrest supposed terrorists.


Militarized Lockdowns on Welfare, Freedoms, and Peace

The militarization of the pandemic is characterized by the triple lockdowns on welfare, freedoms, and peace. The lockdown on welfare refers to the state’s mishandled response to the pandemic crisis that prioritized militaristic solutions at the expense of social welfare and support. In the early days of the community quarantine, Duterte’s administration earned the ire of the Filipino people for the lack of a comprehensive solution, let alone a plan for the health crisis. For example, the Department of Health (DOH) failed to promptly contact trace early on those who were on the same flight with the first affected by the virus. Such a failure was no mere oversight, for the lack of action naturally resulted from the lack of an action plan. The absence of an overall comprehensive solution or plan was evident in the number of times Duterte in his public speeches downplayed the virus. Eventually, issues of the Duterte administration’s mishandling of the pandemic started to fill the news daily. Stories about poorly implemented lockdowns that limited movement for daily wage workers, patients who walked themselves to hospitals for medical care, locally stranded individuals who struggled to survive in crowded facilities, urban communities locked down without socio-economic support, and insufficient if not missing financial aid especially for the displaced workers and the poor flooded the headlines every day. It was supposed to be later in July 2020, in time for Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), that the roadmap to recovery be presented. But there was no mention of it during the SONA. Around this time, more than 80,000 cases of infection have been recorded.

The Philippines’ response to the pandemic was headed by the security sector. With the latter at the helm – a sector not so much trained with epidemiology or other health sciences as combat strategies – the direction was expectedly militaristic. Medical experts as well as social workers and activists have offered insight in the handling of the pandemic and alternatives in light of fast and early recoveries of nations such as Viet Nam. Despite such informed opinions, the Duterte administration has chosen to ignore these advices and rather continued with the militaristic solutions of the IATF. However, a hundred days after the implementation of strict quarantine measures, the IATF still had “no clear guidance on surveillance and epidemiological monitoring,” as expressed by Philippine Senator Joel Villanueva. The mishandling even reached to the point of the Duterte administration erroneously assuring the public that the health situation was under control. Ultimately, IATF’s utter disregard to properly handle the pandemic was best exemplified in its choice to focus on its aggressive and ineffective lockdowns and its preference to ignore the advice of medical experts, legislators, and social activists for a comprehensive socio-medical solution to the health crisis. Today, such lockdowns are again imposed in the National Capital Region as cases are apparently on the rise again, despite rigid militarist solutions in the past.

To further pressure the government in rolling out a socio-medical rather than militaristic response, several rights groups in the Philippines launched an online signature campaign that raised ten public health demands. These demands generally called for an immediate, concrete, and comprehensive socio-economic solution to address the needs of the various sectors of the Philippine society such as those in the busines, education, social services, and healthcare.  However, despite the heightening of these demands, the Duterte administration only turned a deaf ear to it. Consequently, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country continued to rise, without even a glitter of hope for the flattening of the curve.

The lockdown on freedoms points to the systematic repression of rights and the normalization of this repression. Since March 2020, more than 100,000 individuals were arrested for supposed violations on health and lockdown protocols. As the pandemic stretched in time, the nature and priorities of the Duterte administration were revealed. In the weeks leading to the passing of the ATL, the state forcibly clamped down on the constitutional rights and freedoms of a discontented and disquiet people. On 5 June 2020, eight individuals were illegally arrested for allegedly violating BHOA protocols and disobedience to authorities. The arrest happened after activists conducted a peaceful and organized protest action against the anti-terror bill then in Cebu City. Just recently, the charge of alleged violations of BHOA protocols was dismissed by the court, proving not only the justness of the protest action but also the arbitrariness if not abuse of the police intervention. Weeks after the incident in Cebu City, 20 activists in Metro Manila were also arrested. The said activists gathered to celebrate the pride month and also to protest against the anti-terror bill. Activists in Iligan City, in Mindanao, were also arrested after peacefully gathering to celebrate what ironically is the nation’s Independence Day last 12 June 2020. And again, in Cebu province, peasants in their farm communities joining an online protest during Duterte’s fifth SONA were apprehended by the police. More incidents of repression took place and intensified during the pandemic, signaling a worsening political climate amid the pandemic.

But what is distinctive in the time of the pandemic is the normalization of repression itself. In this normalization of repression, fundamental and constitutionally guaranteed rights such as those of assembly and speech are curtailed if not altogether denied. Yet the state forces legitimized such a repression based on supposed health protocols, implying the idea that it is abnormal to exercise fundamental freedoms amid the pandemic. Consequently, the state forces became increasingly intolerant to protest actions. At the core of this intolerance is the systemic repression of freedoms and the normalization of the repression itself.

The lockdown on peace refers to the worsening situation of unpeace resulting from the vilification and attacks on peace advocates and the general abandonment of the socio-economic reform agenda. Prior to the pandemic, the situation of unpeace has worsened, with socio-economic conditions tumbling down for the worst and human rights violations at an all-time high. Several “counter-insurgency” policies were put in place by the Duterte administration to supposedly answer the decades-long civil war in the country. The most infamous of these is the Executive Order (EO) 70 or the Whole-of-Nation Approach headed by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict or NTF-ELCAC. The latter’s composition is similarly dominated by officials from the security sector. The said institution has been slammed by civil society groups for its notoriety in red- and/or terror-tagging activists, progressive individuals and institutions, and militant parliamentarians.

Since 2016, there have been an estimated 20,000 victims of state-sponsored killings, several of these being human rights advocates, peace advocates, and peace consultants. The most notable and recent of these is the brutal murder of the 72-year-old Randall Echanis last August 2020. Echanis was a well-known peace advocate and consultant, whose long experience and leadership in the peasants’ struggle made him an important resource person especially on issues pertaining to the agenda of genuine agrarian reform. Another recent incident was the murder of the church worker and peace advocate Zara Alvarez. Coming from the heartland of sugarcane production in the country, the Negros island, Alvarez was aware of the centuries-long miserable conditions of sugarcane workers in the island. In many occasions, Alvarez consciously articulated the sentiments of rural workers along with the other marginalized sectors of society and lobbied for socio-economic reforms based on national industrialization and genuine agrarian reform as requisites of a just and lasting peace.

Just and lasting peace in the country could only be viably pursued through socio-economic and political reforms. At the core of these reforms is the abandonment of an economic framework that has perpetuated the situations of unpeace, neoliberalism. However, what took place during the pandemic is not only the Duterte administration’s abandonment of the socio-economic reform agenda but also the strengthening of neoliberalism itself. This manifested in an overly foreign or import dependent crisis response that apparently rendered the country as an idle spectator awaiting whatever external support is donated to it. Such a foreign and import dependent response is reflected, for example, in the skyrocketing debts contracted during the pandemic alone and Duterte’s frequently repeated hope in a future imported vaccine.

While the pandemic has obviously laid bare the cracks of the neoliberal socio-economic edifice – a profit-driven healthcare system, a precarious workforce that anytime translates to the army of the unemployed, an export-oriented import-dependent trade that cripples domestic industries and production, and a ballooning debt obligation that further leads to more fiscal deficits and onerous taxes – there is no hint that the Duterte administration will finally abandon the neoliberal road in favor of a macroeconomic policy that is more hospitable to reforms, equality, and social justice. The militarization of the pandemic should be a wakeup call for all the democratic forces in the country to push for reforms that not only minimize the debilitating effects of a future crisis similar to today’s pandemic but also generally lay down the foundations for democracy and a just and lasting peace.


Regletto Aldrich Imbong is an assistant professor of philosophy of the University of the Philippines Cebu. He is also an activist and the president of the All UP Academic Employees Union – Cebu Chapter.

Mari Elise Gwyneth Lim is an anthropology student at the University of San Carlos. She is also an activist and is the spokesperson of the Save Our Schools Network – Cebu.


Recommended Readings

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