By Philippe Revelli
Le Monde Diplomatique, June, 06 2008
The government, armed forces and vested interests in the Philippines have used the excuse of counter-terrorism to murder, kidnap and pressure trade unionists and farmers’ organisations. They want a nation of docile labour and emptied land that can be sold on the world markets.
Joey Javier was the president of a farmers’ organisation Kagimungan. On 11 November 2006 he was on his way to Baggao, in the province of Cagayan in the north of the island of Luzon, for a meeting. “It had rained heavily the previous night,” remembers his widow. “Just after the bridge, the tricycle got bogged down in the mud. Just as my husband got off to push, two men appeared and shot him point blank. The army base was less than 100 metres away, but there was no attempt to catch the killers.”
Anthony Licyayo took over as head of the organisation, only to be assassinated two weeks later. A month after that, his successor Pedro Frances barely escaped a murder attempt.
On 21 January 2007 two more Kagimungan activists were shot dead. On 7 August the home of Ambot Asucena, the leader of its youth wing, was riddled with bullets. Before he died, he identified his attackers as soldiers from the 21st infantry battalion. On 9 September soldiers from the 17th infantry battalion abducted two farmers belonging to Kagimungan; when their bodies were found, they showed signs of torture.
Isabelo Adviento, Kagimungan’s current head, said: “In July 2006 the army occupied Baggao, where the hard core of our movement is located. The same month the premises of Radio Cagayan, which we had just launched, were set on fire and over the next few months there were more and more extra-judicial executions.
Soldiers rounded up people from their homes and took them to propaganda meetings that attacked us as accomplices of the guerrillas. The farmers were told to give up – give up what? They were forced to act as scouts for the army or to join the Cafgu (1) paramilitaries.”
Kagimungan is a legal organisation established by the province’s small farmers. Over the past few years it has campaigned against the sharecropping system: growers have refused to hand over half their yields to the landlords. It has also managed to force merchants to buy crops on terms less unfavourable to small producers (2).
Recently Kagimungan expressed anxieties about the expropriation of land for the introduction of genetically modified crops as part of the North Luzon Super Region economic plan. This vast project involves the construction of an ultra-modern port in the north of the island, the creation of free zones and the development of crops for export. It depends upon massive amounts of foreign capital and, according to the authorities, the Kagimungan leaders are now the final obstacle in its way. Adviento claimed this was just pointing out targets to the killers; for his own safety, he has left his village and never stays in any one place for long.
‘Excuse to conduct a dirty war’
Renato Reyes is the secretary general of Bayan, a leftwing coalition of grassroots organisations. He said that the situation in Baggao was emblematic of what is going on elsewhere in the country. “President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is using the struggle against terrorism as an excuse to conduct a dirty war against anyone who opposes her ultra-liberal policies.” Since her election in 2001, she has pledged to make the Philippines a first world country by liberalising trade and investment, reforming the tax system and privatising state property.
According to Reyes: “The regime boasts about how fast the country is growing, but it’s just a balloon inflated by borrowing and massive injections of foreign capital. To attract investors, the government is undermining labour rights, handing over vast swathes of the country to mining multinationals, opening up protected areas to oil prospectors and signing commercial agreements that drive out our farmers and replace them with monocultures for export or biofuel production.”
At present, 80% of the population live on less than $1.50 per day; the number of children under 15 who do not attend school rose from 1.8 million in 2001 to 3.1 million in 2006; 26% of those who benefited from agrarian reform (3) were forced to resell their land; and this agricultural nation is now one of the world’s leading importers of rice.
Reyes said: “Despite everything, there are a number of active workers’ organisations in the Philippines, many of which emerged from the struggle against the dictatorship or the campaign against US military bases. They oppose the government’s economic policies. To keep them quiet, the government is using a policy of terror, what it calls a counter-insurrection strategy.”
Successive Philippines governments have had to deal with movements committed to armed struggle. The New People’s Army (NPA), founded in 1969, is a Marxist guerrilla organisation (the military wing of the CPP, the Communist Party of the Philippines), which is thought to have some 8,000 combatants fighting on 62 fronts across the country. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Abu Sayyaf group are Muslim separatist groups on the southern islands of Mindanao, Sulu and Jolo (4).
Despite negotiations with the factions (apart from Abu Sayyaf), President Arroyo has favoured force. Peace talks with the NPA broke down in 2004, and in 2007 Arroyo used rumours of a possible coup as an excuse to introduce a state of emergency and declare total war on the armed groups. “There is no provision for a state of emergency in the Philippines constitution,” Reyes said. “The declaration has a theatrical effect, but it also gives the army carte blanche to continue and intensify its dirty war.”
The armed forces copied their counter-insurgency strategies – Oplan Bantay Laya I in 2001 and Oplan Bantay Laya II in 2007 – from the Phoenix Programme that the United States used during the Vietnam war. They target suspected civilian support for rebel groups. Norberto Gonzales, Arroyo’s adviser for special concerns, justified this: “We are no longer dealing with a traditional guerrilla campaign; these guerrillas have infiltrated our democratic process.”
The tactics of General Jobito Palparan, who has led the armed forces in central Luzon since August 2005, are a good example. Ignoring areas of intense guerrilla activity, he has deployed his troops around centres of economic development, notably the Global Gateway project (5), an ambitious scheme to build a road network that has provoked strong opposition from farmers driven off their land or threatened with expulsion, and from road hauliers for whom the introduction of tolls means additional expenses.
There are paramilitary groups operating alongside the army. During 2006, 83 leaders and activists from leftwing, farmers’ and human rights organisations were killed in central Luzon. Unsurprisingly, General Palparan denies having ordered these murders. He told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that these executions were “helping” the army in its battle against those inciting the people to fight the government, and were “small sacrifices” that must be made in the name of the counter-insurgent struggle (6). Targets are identified on the armed forces’ internet site: “The CPP/NPA finds good allies and propagandists in Roman Polintan, Fabian Hallig and Aurora Broquil” (7). Palparan told an Australian television journalist, Karen Percy: “I might have encouraged or inspired people to take the law into their hands” (8).
In August 2006 the government set up the Melo Commission to investigate some of the executions, but the inadequacy of its conclusions confirmed the regime’s reluctance to put an end to these excesses. It is still too early to assess the effectiveness of the Writ of Amparo (9); but the human rights organisation Karapatan claimed that on the same day the law was promulgated, the president sent a directive to the defence department instructing it to prevent either the divulgence of military secrets or any hostile interference in operations relating to national security.
‘Prosecuting civil society leaders’
These measures did not impress UN special rapporteur Philip Alston, who said on 26 November 2007: “In some parts of the country, the armed forces have followed a deliberate strategy of systematically hunting down the leaders of leftist organisations – eliminated civil society leaders, including human rights defenders, trade unionists and land reform advocates, intimidated a vast number of civil society actors, and narrowed the country’s political discourse.”
He described the military’s claim that many of the executions were the result of a purge within the guerrilla movement as “a cynical attempt to displace responsibility” and concluded that “the priorities of the criminal justice system had been distorted,” and had _”focused on prosecuting civil society leaders rather than their killers”.
Jose Cawiding, the coordinator in Baguio province of the leftwing party Bayan Muna (People First), was detained last October, accused of links with the NPA. According to Santos Mero, the provincial leader of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA): “The real objection to him is his commitment to the indigenous population and its struggle.”
Cordillera, where Baguio is located, is in central Luzon and has major deposits of gold and copper, which attracted US companies during the 19th century. The concessions granted to mining multinationals now cover 1.2m of the region’s 1.8m hectares, and the government wants to prioritise new investment.
Mero said that people living there had immediately opposed the expansion of companies that destroyed the land, polluted rivers, caused deforestation and displaced people. “The CPA is now mobilising against this destructive industry and against the construction of new dams to provide it with energy. We demand that the communities affected are compensated and the abandoned sites rehabilitated.”
The CPA has paid dearly for its defiance. In July 2006 Markus Bangit, a member of its administrative council, was shot dead at a bus stop and there was a machine-gun attack on another leader, Constancio Clanet, as he as his wife were taking their daughter to school. His wife was killed; Clanet and his daughter were both wounded and fled to Canada.
The University of the Philippines has also suffered for its long-standing opposition to the regime. In June 2006 two League of Filipino Students activists, Karen Empeño and Sherlwin Cadapan, were kidnapped by soldiers during a visit to their parents in Bulacan province. They haven’t been seen since. There have been 185 disappearances since 2001. Jonas Burgos, an activist with a farmers’ organisation and the son of a leading opponent of the dictatorship, was seized at a shopping mall in April 2007 and bundled into a vehicle identified as belonging to the army.
Sunshine Matutina, a television director, said: “I wasn’t involved in politics, but Jonas’s kidnapping shook me badly and when friends from the Independent Filmmakers’ Cooperative asked me to make a short film about it I agreed at once.” Fifteen filmmakers contributed to Rights, which was to have been shown in a major cinema in Manila in September 2007. But the day before, the censorship commission banned the screening on the grounds that the film was biased.
‘Break the unions’
Last year, on the island of Mindanao, the trade union Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, May First Labour Movement) resisted redundancies announced by the food multinational Dole, which responded by calling workers into meetings where, watched over by the army, they were shown a violently anti-union film in which KMU activists were accused of complicity with the NPA. Although prominent Filipino actors appeared in the film, there were no credits and no director’s name was attached. Daisy Arago, executive director of the Centre for Trade Union and Human Rights said: “The companies and the authorities have a coordinated strategy designed to break the unions, dismantle workers’ rights and guarantee investors a docile work force.”
After almost 900 extra-judicial executions since 2001, the Arroyo regime can boast of having outdone Ferdinand Marcos,” said Jigs Clamor, secretary general of Karapatan (10). “Forty-seven journalists were murdered over the past six years, making the Philippines the second most dangerous country in the world for the profession [after Iraq].”
Philip Alston called upon Arroyo, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to stop counter-insurrectional operations targeting or causing the murders of people working for organisations within civil society. The US Senate threatened to suspend aid to the Philippines.
Arroyo’s popularity has been undermined by accusations of electoral fraud, particularly during the 2004 election, and by corruption scandals implicating her and members of her family and entourage. At her public appearances she is always accompanied by General Hermogenes Esperon, the head of the armed forces; she relies upon the army, and many active or retired soldiers have been appointed to the public services and the administration.
But life inside the military is not all roses. “Underpaid young officers are sent off to Luzon to handle dangerous and demoralising counter-offensives. They are disgusted by the wealth and privileges of their sedentary superiors in Manila, as well as by the erratic policies of a dubious civilian authority” (11). This has led to several failed attempted military takeovers.
During the most recent, in November 2007, 30 soldiers led by a former officer, Senator Antonio Trillanes, already on trial for a previous attempted coup in 2003, barricaded themselves into a luxury hotel in Manila and called for the overthrow of the government.
The authorities reacted quickly. An armoured personnel carrier rammed the doors of the hotel and the mutineers surrendered without a fight; 30 journalists were also arrested and their material confiscated. Karapatan described “the disproportionate brutality of this repression” as “typical of the regime”.
But most significant sign of the regime’s loss of credibility, even within the ruling class, was the presence alongside the rebels of a bishop, Julio Labayen, and the former vice-president of the Philippines, Teofisto Guingona.
Philippe Revelli is a journalist
(1) Citizens’ Auxiliary Forces Geographical Unit. A 1991 decree allows the military to arm and train groups of civilians.
(2) The major landowners and merchants have taken advantage of the campaign against Kagimungan and attempted to undermine these achievements.
(3) The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was introduced in 1988 to redistribute agricultural land among 8.5 million landless peasants. Although controversial, it was revived in 1998.
(4) See Carmen A Abubakar, “Mindanao : a miniature history”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2003.
(5) Roads will link the port of Subic Bay (a former US naval base), Clark airport and the free zones of Clark and Hacienda Luisita. Monocultural exports will be developed in tandem.
(6) Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2 June and 28 October 2005.
(7) http://www.afp.mil.ph/0/news/propagandists.php Those named are the leaders of Bayan, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, and Kilusan para sa Pambansang Demokrasya (National Movement for Democracy).
(8) Foreign correspondent, ABC, 5 May 2007. Transcript at http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2007…
(9) This law, promulgated in September 2007, is based upon a principle similar to habeas corpus; it can be invoked in cases of arbitrary detention or by anyone feeling under threat.
(10) 2006 was a black year, with 209 murders. Karapatan attributes the fact that this fell to 68 between January and October 2007 to publicity and international pressure.
(11) David Camroux, “The unique Philippines”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2006.
Translated by Donald Hounam
ERRATA: I am not a television director but an editor. Also, the IFC did not ask me to make a short film. We invited independent filmmakers to contribute to the campaign and then eventually asked the help of IFC to provide the venue for the RIGHTS launch. Mr. Revelli must have misheard me since we did the interview at a noisy carinderia along Katipunan. Or it could also be because of the language barrier. :)