The Killings in the Philippines Grow More Brazen
Photo Credit：Reuters/ TPG Images
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The recent murder of a well-known activist signals a turning point in the campaign to eliminate dissent.
By Nick Aspinwall
Earlier this month, days after Manila went back into a hard lockdown due to a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections, unidentified assailants slipped past the Philippine capital’s strict quarantine measures and approached the home of Randall Echanis, a left-wing party leader and longtime activist. When they left on the morning of August 10, Echanis and his flatmate were dead, marked with stab wounds and alleged signs of torture.
City and national police launched into a cycle of denial and contradiction all too familiar to the families of slain activists in Mindanao, Negros and the provinces far from the capital where environmental and land defenders have been killed at alarming rates since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in 2016.
Police initially refused to identify Echanis, then moved his body without his wife’s consent and held it for three days before releasing it to his family. They claimed Echanis’s flatmate, Louie Tagapia, may have been the target of the killing because an alleged tattoo indicating an affiliation with a criminal group. One police chief claimed there was “no forcible entry” in the case, despite a photo showing a broken doorknob on the apartment door.
When Duterte put Mindanao under martial law in 2017 and other areas, including Negros island, under a heightened “state of national emergency” the following year, critics warned that the regions were a “laboratory” for the rest of the country. As killings of activists continued to rise in rural areas — the Philippines was Asia’s deadliest country for environmental defenders last year, according to Global Witness — Duterte’s critics in Manila wondered when the bloodshed would enter the capital city.
The death of Echanis, at the height of a strict lockdown and in the wake of a controversial anti-terrorism law, has thus signaled a turning point in the wider campaign to eliminate dissent. Any pretense that the killings resulted from local conflicts over rural land struggles, out of sight and mind from Manila, is now gone.
Echanis’s party, Anakpawis, and other left-wing voices have alleged his killing was “state-sponsored.” There’s no hard evidence for this claim, just as there’s no ironclad proof of state involvement in the killings of the nine sugar workers killed in Negros in 2018 or their lawyer, Benjamin Ramos, who was shot dead by unidentified gunmen weeks later. Police responded to these cases by first naming activists as potential suspects before eventually letting the investigations run cold.
It’s a story familiar to the families of the