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Indigenous human rights workers are not terrorists. Diplomats should not spread fake news and become accomplice to HR abuses!

October 30, 2017

Statement of Shih-Hsin University Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Cultures, Communications and Empowerment

2018/10/29

To Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines,

We have received an official letter from Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines (TECO), dated October 16 and numbered Fei-Hsin 10710608480, addressed to Shih-Hsin University and Ministry of Cultural Affairs, with copy to Ministry of Education and Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO). The letter requests the Ministry of Culture to remind Shih-Hsin University Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Cultures, Communications and Empowerment and other universities “not to be involved in acts that may constitute interference of other country’s internal political affairs when conducting cultural exchange activities.”

This Center has sponsored a cultural exchange activity between Taiwanese and Philippine Indigenous Peoples in August this year. The abovementioned letter quotes two emails sent to TECO and TECRO from a certain “Mrs. Soledad Balconit” from Barangay Dupag, Tabuk City, Province of Kalinga, and states that: “A group of youth from Taiwan attended a cultural exchange activity in Tabuk City, Northern Luzon on August 12 this year. However, after our investigation, it is noted that the host organization of that activity, Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) is an anti-government group. Alma Sinumlad, the guide from CPA, is a convicted criminal and a well-known supporter of the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army. Both are recognized by the Philippine government as terrorist groups. Philippine laws forbid foreigners from intervening the country’s political affairs, so the letter sent to us calls attention of TECO to this incidence. Thus TECO reminds our citizens to choose partners and contacts carefully when conducting such exchange in the Philippines, in order not to break the laws inadvertently.”

According to our careful verification, there is no official or civil servant named “Mrs. Soldedad Balconit” in either the Tabuk City Government or the office of Barangay Dupag. It is highly inappropriate for TECO to regard the two emails as official correspondence of some sort without basic verification of the source, even when there is no official title, office address, telephone number or other vital information included in the email from “Mrs. Balconit,” and the email address is sent from a Yahoo mailbox, which anyone can get one without identity verification. TECO in effect helps to spread the content from this email from suspicious source, gave the baseless slander a seemingly official appearance, and send it along to government agencies and institutions in Taiwan. Such a careless act shows the woeful lack of basic internet literacy one needs in this age. Whoever is responsible for sending this TECO letter fell short of Taiwanese citizens’ expectation of a modern civil servant, and is dangerously susceptible to being used by people with sinister agendas.

Founded in 1984, Cordillera Peoples Alliance is a famous grassroots mass organization of the Philippine Indigenous Peoples’ Movement, with a long and illustrious history, and a large membership. CPA’s persistent advocacy for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and for environmental protection has won many respect and recognitions from the international community. Former CPA chairperson Joan Carling, for instance, was awarded the prestigious prize of Champion of the Earth, Lifetime Achievement Award by the United Nations Environmental Programme this year. (See the September 26, 2018 Press Release of UNEP at: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/outstanding-environmental-changemakers-receive-uns-champions-earth) Ms, Alma Sinumlag, the person who was smeared as “convicted criminal” in the TECO letter, was invited to serve as a lead discussant in the United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July, 2018. (See: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/204012018_HLPF_and_HLS_Annotated_Programme_with_Speakers_as_of_18_July_For_Posting_clean_FINAL.pdf) Indigenous Peoples’ Groups from Taiwan have worked with CPA in various exchange programs for more than two decades now, and vast majority of Taiwanese participants of these programs throughout the years have found the exchange deeply meaningful and enlightening.

Roderigo Duterte, the current Philippine President, has been allowing and even encouraging the military and the police to conduct extrajudicial killing of numerous innocent people in the name of “Anti-Drug War” ever since he came to power. More than 8000 people have been murdered in this upsurge of shocking violation of basic human rights. The Duterte government is therefore repeatedly condemned by the international community, particularly from human-right institutions of the United Nations, for its alarming behavior. The Philippine government’s response to these criticisms by listing a great number of human rights defenders as “terrorists,” even including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, is apparent retaliation. Although the Regional Trial Court of Manila has ruled this listing unlawful on July 27, 2018, the United Nations Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights still expresses deep concern about the human-right situation in the Philippines. (See https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23466&LangID=E for the press release of the UNOHCHR)

The essentially anonymous emails forwarded by TECO in your official letter is very likely a part of the current Philippine government’s smear campaign against human right workers. It would not be so alarming if not for the fact that past experience has shown that naked violence such as extrajudicial killing often follows and falls upon persons targeted by such smear campaigns.

Human right violations by the Duterte government and its dispute with international human right institutions have been widely and repeatedly reported by media in the Philippines, in Taiwan, and internationally. There is no reason for Taiwanese civil servants at TECO to claim that they have no knowledge about what is going on.

Our country has sadly shared similar history of despicable human rights abuses with the Philippines in the past. The murder of the mother and daughters of Mr. Lin Yi-Hsiung in 1980 is one such gruesome example that should always be remembered. Upholding human rights is by now an indisputable position shared by successive Taiwanese governments after democratization, and a consensus of all political parties. Transitional justice is also a solemn promise of our current government headed by President Tsai.

As diplomats representing the Taiwanese people, we expect civil servants at TECO to understand this value shared by all of us at home. Even though you may be restricted by your ability and are unable to actively help to uphold human rights in your jobs abroad, you should at the least passively take necessary precaution and avoid being used as accomplices to human right abuses. We call upon TECO to seriously examine mistakes you have made in your forwarding fake news and inadvertently taking part in a smear campaign, so that this regrettable incidence will not repeat itself. We also remind the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, and officials in all other government agencies who have received this TECO letter to refrain from spreading the fake news purported in it, so as not to aid and abed human rights abuses in the Philippines yourselves.***

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