Duterte’s “New Rules” Criminalize Missionary Work

Duterte’s “New Rules” Criminalize Missionary Work

By David Chan

On February 22, 2018, three United Methodist missionaries, Adam Thomas Shaw, Tawanda Chandiwana, and Miracle Osman, participated in an International Fact Finding and Solidarity Mission (IFFSM) to look into the human rights violations in Mindanao. Since their participation in the IFFSM, their targeted persecution has ensued. The Philippine government had been attempting to forfeit the missionary visas of the three, along with Australian nun, Sr. Patricia Anne Fox, because of their participation in activities that the government deems outside the scope of what it considers “missionary work.” 

On July 4, 2018, Shaw left the Philippines to go back to the United States. Chandiwana, after being in detention for fifty-seven days, returned home to Zimbabwe on July 5, 2018.

Before leaving, Shaw was able to share his thoughts about his own encounter with the Duterte administration, the current authoritarian climate in the country, and the role of the church in matters of human rights. 

Shaw is a United Methodist missionary through the General Board of Global Ministries. After college, Shaw applied to the GBGM’s Mission Intern Program, which placed him in Mindanao with InPeace Mindanao for one and a half years, from September 2011 to January 2013.

During this first experience in Mindanao, Shaw saw the first-hand impacts of former President Noynoy Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan, a counterinsurgency program. 

“A lot of church workers were being extrajudicially killed (EJK) and the most high profile one was Father Fausto Tentorio’s killing, a Catholic priest who was not a Filipino, which is why it was such a big deal,” Shaw said.

“I think that is one of the most dangerous parts currently for foreigners, especially for foreign missionaries, that the rules now are fluid and dynamic and it seems like Duterte’s administration is constantly making up new rules,” he added. 

Shaw gives an example of Duterte’s "new rules.”

“They said that the address that we would write on our immigration form where we were living is the only place that we can engage in missionary work, which is silly,” Shaw said. “Why would we even need a Philippine visa if my visa is only good for Davao City?”

“Under Duterte there have been more EJKs than there were under Benigno Aquino III and we are only in the second year,” Shaw said. 

One strategy that Duterte’s administration employs in its targeted persecution of missionaries is their arbitrary use of the term “terrorist.” The administration labeled the IFFSM that Shaw participated in as an activity of a “communist terrorist organization.” Furthermore, when Shaw was detained in February 2018, he was suspected of being a member of ISIS, which Shaw found absurd and funny. 

“Terrorism is the antithesis of valuing human rights and human life,” Shaw said. “I learned here under Duterte that it was easy to call someone a terrorist when you disagree with someone. If you call someone a terrorist, it immediately delegitimizes what they say.”

Because Duterte’s administration labeled the work that he was doing in Mindanao as “terrorist,” Shaw believes that the government does not understand what mission work is or what missionaries do.

“The government understands mission work as being relegated to within the four walls of the church and praying,” Shaw said. “I had read in my order that I had forfeited my missionary visa by engaging in works that were not defined as missionary work.”

Shaw clarifies what mission work is and how it benefits marginalized communities.

“I think the church, especially in the Philippines, will always be with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized because it is part of our mandate as people of faith to be supporting, to be a platform, and to give space for their voices,” Shaw said. “I think my role as a missionary with those communities is to bring their stories to the people that I am connected with outside of the mission.”

Shaw provides the example of the 2016 United Methodist Church general conference to show how mission work can be used as a platform to amplify marginalized voices.

“In 2011, the stories of the Lumad people, an indigenous group of southern Philippines, were not really out there,” Shaw said. “In 2016, we had our large church gathering, and there were Lumad constituents there and they brought their voices to the general conference. My church came out with a resolution on Philippines Democratic Process, Peace, Governance, and Human Rights, so I think that is one of the largest impacts that we can have on an international level.” 

In Shaw’s opinion, a missionary’s ability to amplify marginalized voices is the reason why the government is persecuting missionaries like himself.

Shaw views his own persecution as sad and cruel. He was placed on a watch list and a black list, preventing him from returning to the Philippines in the future.

“When I was blacklisted, that’s when it really hit me,” Shaw said. “I have been involved in this work for six or seven years, which is not as long as other people, but for me it’s pretty long time, and being removed and not being able to come back is really hard. I think that’s just cruel to me.”

Yet, being on the watch list and the black list is not the worst thing that can happen to Shaw.

“Because I had my prior experience in Mindanao, witnessing all these things happen to people that I work with, having trumped-up charges, being disappeared, being arrested, and some being killed, that maybe I’m a bit more numb or more understanding,” Shaw said. “Yes, I’m on the watch list but it could be much worse. Yes, I’m on the black list but I’m still alive and I haven’t been disappeared. It kind of puts it more in a reference.”

Shaw expresses his disappointed with Duterte, his administration, and his policies. “I was excited during the 2016 elections, thinking that we could turn a corner with the Philippines and improve the lives of more than 70% of the Filipinos living below the poverty line who don’t have ownership of their land,” Shaw said. “And then it turns out that the worst option was elected.”
David Chan is a fourth year student at Swarthmore College, studying Film and Media, English Literature and Asian Studies. Last summer, David was exposed to the plight of the people in the Philippines who continue to fight for a genuine democracy for the country through his internship with the Filipino Community Center in San Francisco. David is currently an intern with Karapatan | Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights.