How State Violence in the Philippines is Propped Up by the US

“The killing clowns, the blood money men
Are shooting those Washington bullets again”

— The Clash

This month is the anniversary of the murder of Fred Hampton in 1969 by the FBI and the murder of the Mary Knoll sisters in 1980 murdered by U.S. backed Salvadoran death squads.

The U.S. is pouring huge resources into the conflict in Ukraine and the ethnic cleansing in Gaza.

The latest episode of the Green and Red Podcast is about Washington supporting violence in the Philippines. We talk with activist Brandon Lee who survived an assassination attempt by Philippine military forces in 2019, but was left a quadriplegic.

Those Washington Bullets never stop.

The Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in the world for environmental defenders, with 30 environmentalists murdered there in 2018. Former Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte notoriously called land and environmental activists communist sympathizers and terrorists in an effort to silence them.

In August, 2019, human rights activist and land defender Brandon Lee was the target of an assassination attempt by the Duterte government. He’d been living in the Cordillera region on the island of Luzon working with the Igorot people defending their land. The assassination attempt left him a quadriplegic.

In the latest episode, we talk with Brandon about state violence in the Philippines under the governments of Duterte and Marcos Jr. against social movements and communities. We also talk about how the U.S. props up these repressive regimes. And how the recent APEC meeting in San Francisco was an attempt by Philippine government to recast Marcos Jr. as a moderate and climate conscious leader.

Rush Transcript:

Scott Parkin: Welcome to the Silky Smooth Sounds of the Green and Red podcast. I’m your co host Scott Parkin in Berkeley, California. And as always, I am joined by

Bob Buzzanco: from Houston, Texas….it’s Bob Buzzanco.

Scott Parkin: Today, we’re joined by Brandon Lee. Who is a environmentalist and indigenous rights activist who is based in San Francisco. He’s a member of the San Francisco Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines and was a recipient of Environmental Concerns Environmental Hero Award in 2020. As Many of you are aware, the Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in the world for environmental defenders with 30 environmentalists murdered there in 2018, but every year is a year where we see environmental defenders and land defenders murdered, and injured and threatened and harmed, often, by the government.

There was a lot of media around former Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who had notoriously called land environmental activists, “communist sympathizers” and “terrorists.” And now we have a new Filipino president. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., son of notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Brandon’s joining us today to talk about the Philippines and talk some about the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC.)

Brandon, welcome to the Green and Red Podcast.

Brandon Lee: Thank you, Scott. Glad to be here.

Scott Parkin: So maybe you want to just start off with telling us a little bit about your story of what you were doing in the Philippines and what happened to you.

Brandon Lee: Sure. Oh first of all, I’m not Filipino. I am a Chinese American born and raised in San Francisco in the Sunset District, I got involved with Filipino issues when I first joined the Afghanistan war protests in 2001.

As there was a war on resources for the US and its multinational corporations to gain access to oil. And from there, yeah, Afghanistan or the Philippines was declared the second front on terror by our president then George Bush, and I started to get to know the Philippines. Through reading about it.Through joining organizations to advocate for national liberation through the League of Filipino Students at San Francisco State. And eventually I found my way to the Philippines in 2007, when I went on my first exposure trip. And there we joined the different sectors, the workers, the peasants, and the indigenous peoples.

And for myself I found myself gravitating toward the indigenous struggle to preserve their ancestral lands from multinational corporations and militarization. And in 2010, I made the bold move to move to the Cordillera region, particularly in Ifugao, which is in the northern part of the Philippines.

And yes, I wrote about my experiences, what I saw, the militarization, the impacts of these dams and mines to the indigenous peoples themselves, and found myself to be on the eyes of the government through the militarization. They start to “red tag” me, which in essence is like terror tagging us, saying we are terrorists by getting involved in helping indigenous peoples.

And I was under surveillance for a number of years and ultimately, and 2019 on August 6. I was on the receiving end of an assassination attempt and four bullets entered, and I’m now quadriplegic. I have no sensation or movements from my chest down. I have no hand motor functions. And this is happening to a lot of people in the Philippines who are activists, who dissent from what government wants and their policies and programs.

Scott Parkin: First thing, I’m sorry that happened to you. That’s so terrible. I’ve known about you for a while and got to know you a little bit through the recent APEC organizing. Would be working with these indigenous communities in different parts of the Philippines, what is the government’s goal in targeting land defenders and environmental defenders?

And why do they do things like assassination attempts on activists? What is the gain for them out of this?

Brandon Lee: Thank you. They’re pushing a lot of the neoliberal policies. So for peasants they just want a little land to farm which historically none of the land that they’re farming belongs to them.

They’re working plots of lands that they’re grandfathers, grandmothers have been working for and generations before them have been working on and all they want is a little piece of land for workers. It’s just better working conditions and welfare. And these neoliberal policies actually weaken the labor laws.

In these countries like the Philippines, and for the indigenous people. It’s just their right to their ancestral land and their right to self determination, but they’re considered squatters in their own ancestral land because the government sees that. any land with the slope of 18 degrees or more as government land.

So what the government wants to do with these hillsides or mountain, they want to use it for resource extraction. So instead of protecting the people themselves, the government wants to make money for these corporations. for these rich landlords who happen to be the politicians themselves.

Bob Buzzanco: What are the resources involved in these indigenous lands? What are they trying to extract there?

Brandon Lee: It’s rich in natural resources, such as gold, silver, copper. Magnesium and nickel just to name a few. And then of course, it’s a great abundance of natural resources in the rivers which companies come into them. And there are multinationals there from other countries, American companies etc.

So it’s mostly from first world countries, those that already produce a lot of the pollution around the world, and they come in and they want to offer like their expertise and renewable energy. like American, Australian, Norwegian companies. And yeah, and they’re also the ones that contribute to the global warming through mining companies.

Scott Parkin: One question, one question I have is, and I’m somewhat familiar with how American like oil companies and mining companies operate, they not only work with like government entities and government police agencies and the like, but they also work with, extrajudicial groups of people such as paramilitarie. I’m like familiar with that in places like Indonesia, Mexico and Colombia. Is that also part of the case? Do we have non-government paramilitary types working for these companies as well as security or things like that?

Brandon Lee: Yes. Oftentimes these companies hire their own private security. And they oftentimes get partnered with the Philippine security forces, whether that’s the Philippine National Police, or the Philippine military themselves, or the CAFCU, which is a Philippine paramilitary group and these groups are considered the investment defense force.

They protect the interests of investment rather than the civilians themselves.

Scott Parkin: Did the level of violence escalate with Duterte or was there already like a, was there already a you know, high levels of violence before, before he was elected.

Brandon Lee: The cases of extrajudicial killings changed between presidents.

Under Marcos the first dictator in the 70s and 80s, there were a lot of extrajudicial killings and abductions and arrests illegal detentions. And then under Cory Aquino the next president after Marcos those numbers drop, but there were other kinds of conflicts like surveillance and threats.

And then we have different presidencies like Gloria Macapagal Royal during the early 2000s until 2010 with 1200 extrajudicial killings of activists. So we go back to Duterte’s time, which is just six years of presidency. He already got 450 extrajudicial killings of political activists, but the killings of the urban poor under the guise of the drug war was estimated to be more than 30,000.

Scott Parkin: And has that been continuing with Marcos Jr

Brandon Lee: He tried to distance himself from Duterte by Sing more rosy words and not defamatory words toward women. He postures themselves as a green president, but he actually carries a lot of the same policies as his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, which is expansion into the build program, which Marcos calls “Build Better More.” With the the drug war killings, he still continues that program as well.

Bob Buzzanco: Before this horrible assassination attempt, had you already been in conflict with the government there? So you said that you were on their radar. So what kind of stuff were they doing before that?

Brandon Lee: Okay. In 2014, they red tagged me on Facebook. They put my picture along with nine other Ifugao peasant movement members as members of the New People’s Army, which is the armed rebel group. in the Philippines fighting for national liberation. And so that’s my first direct red tagging.

In 2015 I was given a brown envelope addressed to me. With my address as Dugong Ifugao/NorCal, which is where I lived. So they did surveil my background a bit, even knowing our acronym of Northern California as NorCal. And then in 2016, they followed me from Tiger Hill Detention Facility, which is where the district jail is, where I served political prisoners, and they followed me to my office, and then to a nearby inn just gathering grain.

intelligence on what I’m doing. And then in 2017 I grabbed an intelligence officer phone, who was taking pictures of our group before going to the Cordillera Day, where we celebrate the indigenous people’s struggles and look for ways where we can help each other. And when I did that on our way to the Cordillera day in Kalinga, which was more than 14 hours away we were stopped at a checkpoint manned by both the Philippine National Police and the Philippine military.

None of the officers who manned the checkpoint were wearing their name tags, and it was in the dead of night where the signal reception was nil. And they asked me to search my bag because they had top level intelligence that I was carrying a gun with bullets. At one point when I protested that they have no warrant to search, They said we can wait all night, or you can come with us to the police station alone, and I refused, and they said, okay, we’ll just search your bag then.

And when they had me remove the contents of my bag, at one point the floodlights went off, and that was for roughly 10 to 15 seconds. And my colleagues on the bus told me to close my bag, because the police are known to plant guns, bullets, or even drugs, which can get you in a lot of trouble. And then, yeah, In 2018, flyers and posters went up about myself and my colleagues in the Ifugao peasant movement. We are communist supporters. We’re recruiting the students to join the New People’s Army, the armed rebel group, and even targeted my wife as a contact of the New People’s Army. And up until the last several months before they shot me, they visited me in my home and office, and when they could not find me, they were asking my family and my colleagues, where’s my whereabouts, how much was I making, what school does my daughter go to, and things that They were using to profile me until that fateful day on August 6th.

Bob Buzzanco: When you mentioned these like attacks and killings. So these being done, you mentioned the national police. Are these being carried out by state forces like police in the military? Are they’re also like paramilitaries and private forces involved in this kind of repression and surveillance.

Brandon Lee: Usually it’s the state forces themselves, but for my colleague, William Bugatti, he was under surveillance by the paramilitary themselves until he was shot on March 24. 2014 and Ricardo Mei on March 2nd, 2018. He was shot by state agents, but we’re not sure if it’s the paramilitary or the military themselves, but both at nighttime as well as myself.

Scott Parkin: Now, you’re a U. S. citizen. Did the American embassy or consulates or anybody, did you talk to them or did they reach out? Or were they part of the problem for you?

Brandon Lee: I wasn’t able to speak at that time because I was, I had a tracheostomy. They puncture a hole under my neck so I can’t breathe.

And they put me on a ventilator from that attack. But the U. S. government through the U. S. embassy reached out only because there were people demanding the U. S. do something for my case. A lot of activists here in the U.S. was demanding that the U. S. help out.

Scott Parkin: There’s a lot of groups based in California and the Bay Area, which are Filipino groups in solidarity with folks who are doing that work.

Was there a big uproar from buy on groups, et cetera? On the ground after the assassination attempt trying to get the state department or the U. S. government to pay attention?

Brandon Lee: Yes, they reached out to Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, and Dianne Feinstein. The only one that remotely entertained any government response was Nancy Pelosi, who tweeted that the Philippine government should investigate this, but that was it. None of the three really looked into the case much.

Scott Parkin: We see the government trying to connect armed rebel groups to social movements. We’ve seen that in, in a lot of different parts of the world. And, assassination attempts, abductions, things like that with the people in Cordillera. How much is that a part of everyday life? Are they, how much harassment are they getting on a daily basis? I guess either from state forces or from paramilitary forces.

Brandon Lee: So since, I was shot the Philippine government enacted the anti-terror law and that pretty much was based on our Patriot Act and Australia’s anti-terror law and Europe’s anti-terror law.

So they put all these vague definitions together and they said anyone that protests the government and causes a disruption to people’s daily lives can be tagged as a terrorist. Since that time, there have been a number of activists around the Philippines that have been tagged as terrorists, including four of my friends in the Cordillera Peoples Alliance.

One of my friends, Steve Tauli was actually abducted in November of 2022 and released the next day because of so much public. And there’s another two activists that were abducted in March of 2023. Government already surfaced pictures of them alive. They’re denying that they have them in custody.

We’re saying, how did you have these pictures if you don’t have them in custody? And until today, they’re still missing. And they still refuse that, they have them in custody. Aside from those phosphorus bombs were dropped in 2017 and 2023 in the province of Abra. and Kalinga. And a lot of the U.S. military money, aid, and weapons goes to the Philippines, as well as Israeli arms and weapons also goes to the Philippines. And they’re being trained by both the I. D. F. And the U. S. Military. So for me, I can safely say that the bullets likely lodged in my body were paid by our tax dollars.

Bob Buzzanco: Have any like outside groups, NGOs, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or the UN taken any interest in what’s happening with indigenous activists?

Brandon Lee: Oh, yeah. Amnesty International. There are a lot of international groups, green groups, environmental groups, indigenous peoples, groups around the world that have taken notice that have been pressuring the U.S. So pressuring the UN to do something about it. But as much solidarity as there is, it hasn’t really budged the Philippine government. But they know they are being watched by all these outside organizations pushing the U. S. and the UN.

Scott Parkin: Are the organizations like international human rights organizations like amnesty or global, I know Global Witness actually does the report on environmental defenders every year. Are they able to operate in the Philippines or are they on the ground there? And if they are receiving harassment as well? Or is the fact that they’re like an international organization, give them a more protected status?

Brandon Lee: They do their investigation. They talk to the organizations themselves, and then they talk to government, and they release their findings.Whether government does anything with the findings that’s up to them. Usually they don’t really acknowledge it. They just say our human rights record stands. It’s improving year over year.

Scott Parkin: And the Philippines has been a the Philippines has been a long recipient of USAID, but, since September 11th, because there’s large Muslim communities and in the Philippines. And then more recently, we’re starting to see a new build out of U.S. Military capacity in the Philippines, mostly around the containment of China. I’m wondering how that is influencing the government’s war on social movements and communities and indigenous communities.

Brandon Lee: You’re right, since 2001 the U. S. has tagged the Philippines as its second front on terror where the Moro Muslims live. That’s resource rich area, and they see it as up to five billion dollar investments of minerals there and plantations. And they see as untapped resource.

And then with EDCA, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement passed under former President Obama’s time. It allowed the U. S. to come back. into the Philippines when the Philippine Senate kicked out the U. S. military bases in 1991. And when they did that, the U. S. signed another treaty with the Philippines, which allowed a rotating base of troops coming into the Philippines.

Under EDCA, that allowed the U.S. to use the Philippine military bases as a base inside their base, so they don’t have to pay electricity or water, they just have to pay for the maintenance of the facility itself. And yes, you’re right, it is to contain China. Economically and militarily. The US wants to impose itself on trade and the resources around that region.

Bob Buzzanco: There was a time of after the volcanic explosion where the U. S. bases moved out. I’m assuming now you’re the U. S. presence is back and where it used to be.

Brandon Lee: So back then there weren’t that many U. S. bases, but there were a lot of U.S. troops.

Bob Buzzanco: Yeah, Clark and Subic were the big ones, right?

Brandon Lee: Those were the major ones. Now under ECHA, they had five already. Proposed U.S. military bases all over the Philippines. The recent four was signed this February, which postures itself facing China at one of the U. S. military bases will be built in Gamo Isabella, the home of the 54th Infantry Battalion, which is the battalion that shot me and killed two of my colleagues, William Bugatti and Ricardo Mayumi.

Scott Parkin: I was going to actually shift a little bit to some APEC related questions. You penned a great article on the day of one of the big protests two weeks ago in the nation, telling your story and talk and, making the connections between what happened to you and what happens to communities on the ground in the Philippines to APEC and the Marcos government.

How are trade policies influencing what’s going on the ground in the Philippines? The Asia Pacific economic corporations been pushing Indo Pacific economic framework (IPEF)– the agreement that the Biden administration just put on hold, but has been trying to negotiate.

Brandon Lee: Okay yeah. The IPEF is mainly there to counter China’s RCEP, which is the regional comprehensive economic program. That’s China’s trade policy in the region. IPEF would have taken those countries that worked with China and made them trade exclusively with the U.

S. With APEC, they push a lot of the neoliberal policies which denationalizes industries privatizes industries liberalizes industries like mining. With the Mining Act of 1995 it allowed 100 percent foreign corporate profit off of indigenous peoples land, which exacerbated the climate crisis in the world.

Flattening mountains and forests just to benefit the corporate pockets and displaces Indigenous communities. And when Indigenous peoples protest they’re met with state violence. Like in my case, it started with threats, harassment, surveillance, red tagging, terror tagging, and then to the point where they want to neutralize me completely.

They’re doing this around the whole country. They profile activists and whether the form of neutralization is abduction or fabricating cases against activists and falsifying evidence against them, or, yeah, up to the point where they take a life. It’s not easy to be an environmentalist or an activist in the Philippines.

But people are doing it because it means a matter of life or death for them.

Scott Parkin: My other question is around the APEC corporate sponsors which are directly doing business with the Filipino government. I’m wondering if you could talk about some of those I think companies like Boeing sell aircraft and weaponry to the Filipino government.

I’m just wondering if there’s any of those you’d like to talk about and raise up.

Brandon Lee: Yeah, there’s Boeing, there’s Chevron. There’s a lot of companies even Google with their AI, Amazon and their AI. It’s been impacting the Philippines because they A lot of the work that could have been done in the U.S. while they’re being pushed to countries with worse labor laws, like the Philippines, and they work in these underground dens with poor ventilations a These are people just computing for artificial intelligence. When you think of AI, you think of intelligence or something smart, but it’s a lot of people pushing numbers and circling.

Yes, this is a human, or distinguishing between a human and animal, a bicycle and a car just basic things like that. And these are people that are getting paid less than ten dollars an hour, or sorry, ten dollars a day.

Yeah. And Chevron also a global polluter has really reaped a lot of profit in the Philippines off indigenous people’s lands with their geothermal power projects. And yeah, there, it’s not just APEC countries that are being impacted. By Chevron and these world leaders we know what’s happening in Palestine now with the Levitan field, why Chevron invest a lot into Israel.

So they’re doing a lot of backdoor deals in these APEC conference talking not just about APEC countries,

Scott Parkin: Chevron and Boeing were both platinum sponsors of APEC with Exxon and many other companies.

Brandon Lee: Yeah, it’s horrible.

Scott Parkin: I’ve been just doing climate justice organizing in the Bay Area for a long time, there’s a long standing coalition that’s been fighting Chevron, (they’re headquartered in the Bay Area) and then they also have a huge refinery just north of here in Richmond, California. How much of the work that you’ve been doing has overlapped with the Richmond organizing.

Brandon Lee: I haven’t done any Richmond organizing with the local communities. I do support like renewable energy especially here in San Francisco.

I know we tried to get off PG and me but with Chevron itself we only connected. My story through the League of Filipino students at UC Berkeley who attended the 10th anniversary of the Chevron day. I think you were there as well.

Bob Buzzanco: What’s the current status of environmental activism in the Philippines amid this repression and this intimidation?

Brandon Lee: So there are Activists in the Philippines like fighting against reclamation projects those activists were abducted by the Philippine government and there were videotapes of that happening.

So the government couldn’t get away with it. And when the government said, “Oh yeah, we’re just holding them because They just declared themselves as new people’s army rebels.” We’re doing a press conference right now with them. Those brave young college girls came out and told the world that they were abducted by the Philippine military, that they were forced to make that statement that they were new people, army rebels but they were there to fight.

Against the reclamation project, which would have displaced in fisher folks and polluted the Manila Bay. And then there’s the indigenous peoples all over the Philippines. They’re the last line of defenders for the environment. I think there’s something like less than 25 percent of the land in the Philippines, which is forced it, and they said to have that healthy environment.

It needs to be forced it with 52 percent at least. And these indigenous peoples have been fighting for the protection of the forest and the mountains and the rivers. Now those activists are being tagged as terrorists. Those communities are bombed. Those communities are militarized straight with artillery fire, but yeah, they’re not stopping.

They’re still fighting back and some of them do end up joining the armed rebels fighting against the government’s programs and policies of deforestation, of mining, of dams, and other Environmental degradation projects,

Scott Parkin: That kind of that makes me actually think, we’ve had this global movement around climate where. We have a lot of people in the streets calling for reduced emissions and, global policies on, on, on climate and things like that, as well as actually a growing movement, which I feel from my understanding is actually pretty strong in the Philippines around plastic pollution, and I’m curious, are these, which this seems like a little bit more of a mainstream issue than an indigenous community fighting, deforestation or what have you, particularly because Those indigenous communities are a little bit more out of sight than people in urban areas, but I’m wondering, are those urban climate movements and anti-plastic movements also being targeted the same way?

Brandon Lee: Not as much because those kinds of fights are what the Philippine government prefers. They prefer to fight the single use straws. Yeah, we’re making a big difference. Actually Marcos himself. He’s being touted as a green president because he’s pushing renewable energies, which includes not just dams, but geothermal projects, windmill, solar farms.

Scott Parkin: There’s, I know there’s a big natural gas buildout going on in the Philippines as well, which, which are sometimes, which is often touted as the bridge fuel or the different, a green fuel.

Brandon Lee: He’s appointing all these business leaders in those new renewable energy fields into positions of cabinet. So they are influencing policies that will enrich them at the expense of the environment or even the people themselves, like indigenous peoples.

Scott Parkin: My last one question returns to the APEC organizing. It was a large, diverse coalition which came together. Is there anything in particular that you see from the, we worked for months on that and it was like climate and labor and Asian diaspora and Filipino diaspora groups, Palestinian youth movement, all coming together.

Is there anything in that moment that really, really That you see as a, that you take away is like a really like good or strong moment in that organizing work.

Brandon Lee: Yeah, I remember when we were just starting around April, and it’s more than national liberation groups like.Myanmar Student Union over what’s happening in Myanmar with the military junta taking over the democratic elected leader and the Filipino groups, and I forget the other national liberation groups, I think, CISPES, Haiti Action Committee all coming together. And we protested at University of San Francisco in May, where the the consulate generals of these Asia Pacific regions came together to push APEC.

And then with the launching of the No to APEC in San Francisco in July we were only, I think, 150 at most in that picture, and then just seeing what we culminated at the end, but within the people summit, like I think nearly 1000 was in that room. So it’s beautiful to see climate activists the indigenous peoples around the world coming together.

Workers in San Francisco, around the U. S. Being in the room, and the National Liberation Groups in that room, too. Just seeing that we have this common enemy, and how we can support each other, too. Disrupt and to shut down the bank. I think it was very powerful. I don’t know how you felt about it.

Scott Parkin: Scott. Yeah, I thought it was a “movement of movements” moment. Brandon, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really happy that we got the talk and I’m sure hopefully we’ll talk again soon.

Brandon Lee: Thank you, Scott. Thank you, Bob.

Bob Buzzanco and Scott Parkin host The Green and Red Podcast.