February 12 marks the fourth year since the National Consultation on the Campaign in Defense of Socio-Economic Initiatives and Development Workers Under Attack was held at the NCCP Conference Hall in Quezon City. It was attended by NGOs from the different regions who have experienced various forms of harassment, threats, and vilifications from government agencies and state security forces. Even worse was the extra judicial killing of two Executive Directors and two Board Members of these NGOs under the Aquino administration. They were Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio of the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc. (MISFI) in 2011, Wilhelm Geertman of Alay-Bayan Luson, Inc. (ABI-Luson) in 2012, Romeo Capalla of the Panay Fair Trade Center (PFTC) in 2014, and Emerito “Emok” Samarca of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) in 2015.
The Conference served as a venue for the participants to share their experiences, document these, and launch a campaign that would expose these human rights violations and systemic attacks against NGOs that are delivering the much needed socio-economic projects and programs in far flung areas of the country. These include alternative schools for indigenous peoples, community-based health programs, sustainable agriculture, appropriate technology, community-based disaster risk reduction, among others. The campaign eventually led to the formation of the Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network (ASCENT) and the participating organizations became its founding members.
Four years later, ASCENT’s raison d’etre has remained relevant even more with the continuous attacks perpetrated by the Duterte regime and its police and military agents against development workers and human rights defenders. ASCENT’s own Consultant, Benito Quilloy, and staff, Rita Espinoza, were illegally arrested last October 19, 2017 in Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental due to trumped-up charges of murder, attempted murder, and arson with robbery in Bayugan, Agusan del Norte. Their belongings were then planted with a grenade and a caliber 45 pistol, and they were later charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. They are currently detained at the Butuan City Jail.
On November 6, 2018, Atty. Benjamin Ramos was shot dead by unidentified men. He was the Executive Director of the Paghidaet sa Kauswagan Development Group (PDG) and people’s lawyer in Kabankalan City. Last year, a series of office raids and mass arrests were done by police forces against activists, peasant and labor leaders, alternative media journalists, human rights defenders, and development workers in Bacolod City, Metro Manila, and recently, in Tacloban City.
In light of these crackdown and human rights abuses, ASCENT remains firm in its advocacy of helping to defend the socio-economic initiatives of progressive NGOs and development workers against the unrelenting attacks of government forces.