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Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray has voiced opposition to the Anti-Terrorism Law. Photo: Xinhua

Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism law unites beauty queens, nuns and former militants in opposition

  • The controversial law, which critics fear could be used to stifle dissent, has met opposition from all sections of society
  • President Duterte has approved the measure, but lawyers have filed petitions to the top court in a last chance bid to stop it coming into force
From beauty queens and basketball players to big business, communists, former Muslim secessionist leaders, university officials, lawyers, students and nuns – all these disparate groups have united to oppose the Philippines’ incoming Anti-Terrorism Law.
Lawyers, academics and lawmakers on Monday filed four petitions to the country’s top court to stop Republic Act 11479 from taking effect later this month after President Rodrigo Duterte signed it into law on Friday.
Opponents of the law say its definition of “terrorism” is vague and could be used against human rights defenders and to muzzle dissent. The lawyers argued in their petitions that parts of it violate the bill of rights enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has already signed the law into force. Photo: AP
However, that has not stopped the Philippine government with ploughing ahead. Since Congress approved the law on June 3, opposition has gone into overdrive on social media, prompting prominent figures from all sections of society to speak out.
Among those to have tweeted opposition are Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach and Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Grey, who has one million followers. While Duterte supporters responded by questioning Grey’s citizenship, the beauty queen was unbowed, posting in a follow-up tweet that “the anti- terrorism bill is essential to protect the country and its people, but we cannot pass a bill that is susceptible to potential abuse of power and human rights violations”.

And the opposition goes far beyond beauty queens.


Sixteen mainly business groups led by the Makati Business Club and the Management Association of the Philippines said they opposed “in the strongest possible terms … the enactment at this time of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020”, arguing current laws were sufficient. “In these trying times of the Covid-19 pandemic, what we need is national unity.”

Amnesty Philippines warned that with the law, “even the mildest government critics could be labelled terrorists”.

Left-wing groups that have so far managed to avoid being designated as terrorists by the courts also fear the law’s effects as it will ease the procedure for outlawing groups, arresting suspected members and freezing assets.

What’s behind the Philippine obsession with beauty queens?

In a reference to the Communist Party of the Philippines, its armed wing New People’s Army and the National Democratic Front, the presidential communications office undersecretary Lorraine Badoy recently claimed an 82-year-old Catholic nun, Mary John Mananzan, was “a long-time ally … of the unholy triumvirate of terror”.

The nun has denied the accusation. Her fellow Benedictine nuns staged on June 13 a protest against the measure in front of the 114-year old St Scholastica’s College which the religious order runs. The nuns said the measure was “not targeting real terrorists but dissenters, political opposition, critics, activists”.

Benedictine nuns protest against the Anti-Terrorism Law in the Philippines. Photo: Facebook

Meanwhile, in the southern Philippines, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority has also voiced fears over the law. The authority governs the Muslim Mindanao region following a peace deal and is led by Chief Minister Ahod Murad Ebrahim, leader of the former secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).


The 80-member authority held an emergency session on July 2 in which it unanimously approved a resolution urging Duterte to veto the anti-terror bill. While it supported the initiative to prevent terrorism, it said the law was too vague and had no provisions to guard against human rights violations. It singled out aspects such as provisions for warrantless arrests, wiretapping and detentions of up to 24 days without charge.

Women members of the former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels wait for transportation to a weapons decommissioning ceremony in Mindanao in 2019. Photo: AFP

While Ebrahim said the authority respected Duterte’s decision to sign off on the law, the authority has asked for representation on the Anti-Terrorism Council though that request appears unlikely to be met. Before signing the peace deal with Duterte in 2018 government security forces had routinely branded the MILF as a terrorist organisation, while Duterte himself has previously claimed members of the group masterminded the bombing of Davao City’s airport terminal and wharf.


Despite widespread concerns over the law, Duterte’s national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon insisted “law-abiding citizens” had “nothing to fear”.


The law did not include “advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action and other similar exercises of civil and political rights” and would not curtail people’s right to stage peaceful protests, he said on Monday. Esperon’s briefing came two days after police in Laguna province southeast of Manila arrested 11 students, without warrants, for protesting against the law.

Duterte, a former city prosecutor, has not commented on the petitions by the lawyers opposing the law, but his spokesman Harry Roque said there would be no interference with the court process, while Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the Supreme Court would be the “final arbiter of all the constitutional issues raised against the Anti-Terrorism Law”.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Photo: EPA

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana appealed to the public “to give this law a chance and not be swayed by misinformation and disinformation”.


He called it “a much-needed measure to clothe law enforcement agencies with the necessary power to contain and eradicate terrorists who don’t play by any rules and who hide behind our laws to pursue their evil deeds”.

The detained opposition Liberal Party senator Leila De Lima was sceptical of the government’s assurances. She said four soldiers, in pursuit of Abu Sayyaf extremists, had been massacred by nine policemen in the southern Philippine province of Jolo on June 29 and this showed those tasked with enforcing the law could not “even recognise among themselves who the friendly forces and who the terrorists are”.

“God help us,” added De Lima, who was once accused of conspiring with three Muslim officials to release nabbed Abu Sayyaf militants when she was the justice secretary. The Ombudsman cleared them all in 2018 saying the allegations were “devoid of evidence”. However, De Lima continues to be detained on drug trading charges, based on eyewitness accounts of life termers and jail officers.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Opponents launch last-ditch bid to halt Anti-terror law