US-Backed Repression Soars Under President Gloria Macapagal
Since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo joined the US global "War on Terrorism",
the Philippines has become the site of an on-going undeclared war against peasant
and union activists, progressive political dissidents and lawmakers, human rights
lawyers and activists, women leaders and a wide range of print and broadcast
journalists. Because of the links between the Army, the regime and the death
squads, political assassinations take place in an atmosphere of absolute impunity.
The vast majority of the attacks occur in the countryside and provincial towns.
The reign of terror in the Philippines is of similar scope and depth as in Colombia.
Unlike Colombia, the rampaging state terrorism has not drawn sufficient attention,
le3t alone outcry, from international public opinion.
Between 2001 and 2006 hundreds of killings, disappearances, death threats and
cases of torture have been documented by the independent human rights center,
KARAPATAN , and the church-linked Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and
Research. Since Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2001 there have been 400 documented
extrajudicial killings. In 2004, 63 were killed and in 2005, 179 were assassinated
and another 46 disappeared and presumed dead. So far in the first two months
of 2006 there have been 26 documented political assassinations.
An analysis of the class and social background of the victims of this systematic
state terror in 2005 demonstrates that the largest sector, about 70, have been
peasants and peasant leaders involved in land and farm labor disputes. The military
has invariably accused the murdered and disappeared peasants of links to or
sympathy with the communist guerrillas or Muslim separatists. The victims include
members of the national farmers' association, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas
(KMP), as well as Igorot, Agta and Moro indigenous minority peasant leaders
involved in protecting their lands. One notorious massacre occurred in late
November 2005 when 47 peasants and their legal representatives held an open,
public meeting over a land dispute in Palo, Leyte in the Visayas. A large force
of soldiers surrounded and attacked the meeting killing 9 peasants outright
and arresting over a dozen. An additional 18 'disappeared' and are presumed
dead. The 'Palo Massacre' of the members of the San Agustin Farmers Beneficiaries
Cooperative and Alang-Alang Small Farmers Association was at first presented
by the armed forces as a military encounter with the New Peoples Army and a
few homemade weapons were planted on the victims. In this, as in all other cases,
none of the perpetrators have been punished and there has been no official investigation.
Workers and labor leaders form the next largest group of victims of assassination
(at least 18) not including the disappeared and presumed dead. Members of a
national labor federation, Kilusan Mayo Uno (May First Movement), Nestle's Worker's
Union, Central Azucareara de Tarlac, Negros Federation of Sugar Workers, a leader
of the Department of Agrarian Reform Employee Association, regional college
employee union leaders and various militants in both the electrical company
and bus company employee unions were murdered in 2005.
Earlier in 2005, 26 unarmed Muslim detainees in a military prison in Manila
were shot protesting against their prolonged and arbitrary detention, lack of
a trial date and horrific prison conditions. These men were mostly vendors and
displaced peasants and fishermen living with their families in Manila. They
were accused , but never convicted, of membership in the 'Abu Sayaf' kidnapping
Seven print and radio journalists and writers were killed in 2005 as well as
seven attorneys and judges involved in human rights, labor and land dispute
cases. Among the religious community, there were 3 targeted assassinations of
clergy and 7 church workers, all involved in advocacy work with the poor, peasants,
workers and national minorities.
This listing of killings in 2005 doesn't included attempted assassinations,
illegal detention and torture and unreported disappearances. The victims were
killed by death squads controlled by the military with the aim of protecting
the power of the large landowners and land grabbers, timber and mining barons
and company bosses with the connivance of the regime.
Another important group of victims, which overlaps with peasants and workers
associations, are the 83 leaders and members of the popular left political party,
Bayan Muna (The People First) and its 'party list' affiliates. Most were systematically
murdered in the provinces outside of Metro Manila between 2001-2005 (67 in 2005
alone). Leaders and coordinators of allied party-list groups, such as the women's
party Gabriela and the urban poor people's party, Anakpawis (Toiling Masses),
have been murdered, disappeared or wounded. Elected officials from Bayan Muna,
such a Tarlac City councilman, Abelardo Ladera , were shot in broad daylight,
prompting defiant provincial funeral marches. His killing followed the notorious
2004 massacre of hacienda union workers in Tarlac and the subsequent systematic
elimination of witnesses.
A breakdown of the 66 death squad killings of members and supporters of the
progressive political parties in 2005 include 33 from militant urban poor peoples
party Anakpawis and 30 from Bayan Muna. Five members of Anakpawis and 3 from
Bayan Muna have 'disappeared' and are presumed dead in 2005. So far three Bayan
Muna officials have been assassinated in the first 10 weeks of 2006.
Since 2003, the Philippines became the second most dangerous country for journalists
after Iraq because of the staggering number of reporters killed and disappeared
by death squads. Most recently a radio reporter involved in exposing abuses
at a local mine was kidnapped by death squads working for the mine owners in
late February 2006 and is presumed dead.
State-sponsored terror today is reminiscent of the worst days of martial law
under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986). As under Marcos the entire
countryside is virtually under military control sharply limiting the role of
civilian administrators. A manual published by the Macapagal regime, entitled
"Knowing the Enemy" is used by the Armed Forces throughout the country
to label legal mass organizations and civil rights groups, like the Philippine
Association of Protestant Lawyers, as supporters of 'terrorism'.
The combined military-death squad campaign has all the earmarks of US-sponsored
'low intensity' warfare against the civilian population. The military "proscribes"
or labels individuals and groups as terrorists on the basis of what it claims
to be 'secret intelligence' in order to criminalize their right to resist oppression
and fight for self-determination and justify their elimination. The creation
of these 'lists' is outside of the process of judicial scrutiny and limits any
legal protection for the victims or their survivors. Using the black propaganda
of a psychological warfare operation, the victims and their associations are
invariably described as 'terrorists'.
A de-facto civilian-military alliance has been ruling the Philippines, since
with the declaration of Martial Law by Marcos in 1972. In the 1960's most economists
considered the Philippines to be the most economically progressive nation in
South East Asia. With the advent of the liberalization of the economy, it has
become one of the poorest and most socially polarized country in Asia, with
a per capita GDP of $950/year, about half of Thailand's. With over 50 per cent
of total private assets controlled by 15 extended super-rich families it is
one of most unequal societies in the world. In stark contrast to the rest of
Asia, there has been no economic progress in the past two decades. The Philippines,
with a population of over 85 million, has one of the highest unemployment rates
(20 per cent) and an additional 30 per cent underemployed in the informal sector.
Over 40 per cent of the households are unable secure adequate shelter and food;
they are the indigent poor. The once highly regarded public educational and
health systems have sharply deteriorated due to big government cuts in social
spending and privatization. The nation, whose research institutions produced
the high yield 'miracle rice', is now a net importer of rice and other food
staples. Malnutrition is widespread, according to the World Health Organization.
Upwards of eight million Filipinos, unable to find decent work at home, are
working abroad to support their families 'Better to die working in Iraq, than
to stay home and watch your family starve' was the pitiful, but common slogan
of Filipino workers clamoring for exit visas to perform menial work for the
US occupation army in Iraq. As many as 4,000 Filipino workers are believed to
be in Iraq.
In the years following the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship (Feb. 26, 1986)
by a military and Church-backed revolt, the subsequent elected presidents have
failed to stem the ongoing deterioration of the country. The new rulers like
Corazon Aquino (1986-1992), and former General Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), simply
favored a new set of oligarchs and set the stage for the rise to power of a
corrupt populist, Joseph Estrada. His "anti-oligarch" rhetoric brought
him to the presidential palace in 1998 with widespread support among the poor.
Estrada became an irritant to Washington and the traditional oligarchy by welcoming
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 1999 and for his populist social policies,
such as handing out thousands of land titles to urban squatters.
US-designed, upper class-backed, street demonstrations supported by sectors
of the military elite culminated in the ouster of Estrada in January 2001. The
same forces hoisted his Vice President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the Presidency.
Macapagal is a US educated, neo-liberal economist and favorite of the US Embassy.
This political putsch led to the expansion of US military basing rights and
a new military agreement, quickly signed by Macapagal after a two year delay
during Estrada's presidency. With the rise of Macapagal-Arroyo, Washington has
a reliable client.
From Populism to Neo-Liberal Terror
The newly 'installed' Macapagal Arroyo quickly instituted a neo-liberal program
of privatizations, drastic cuts for public education and public hospitals and
onerous value-added taxes which impacted the poor and lower middle-class. By
2005, the Philippine total external and internal debt ballooned to over $100
billion dollars and yearly debt servicing exceed 30 per cent of the budget.
Even 8 million overseas Filipino workers (including a significant section of
the educated professionals) sending home $12.5 billion dollars of remittances
in 2005 could not begin to cover debt servicing. The Philippines bears the dubious
distinction of being the only country in Asia to have seen a drop in per capita
GDP during and since the heady years of the 'Asian Tiger' boom.
Macapagal Arroyo's family and cronies have been implicated in the same levels
of corruption as that attributed to the deposed President Estrada. Mike Arroyo,
the President's husband, remains in self-imposed exile in the US to avoid facing
charges of graft and fraud. Macapagal Arroyo maintains her support among the
military by offering lucrative concessions to favorite generals and key officials
in the military leading to deep discontent among the junior ranks of the armed
forces forced to survive on low wages. As a result, several mutinies of junior
officers and soldiers occurred, the largest of which was the takeover of an
upscale Manila shopping and apartment complex in July 2003 by 300 soldiers from
the special forces and the more recent uprising of Marines in January of this
Military intelligence has been implicated in a campaign of bombings both in
Manila and on the southern island of Mindanao, targeting markets, buses, commuter
trains, airports and mosques. The Macapagal regime blamed a Moslem kidnapping
gang, Abu Sayaf, and used the bombings as a justification for greater militarization
of the country. The curious timing of the bombings, for example the December
2004 bombing of a Manila shopping center, which killed 15, happened very soon
after a devastating landslide burying almost 1,000 townspeople in a province
near Manila, exposed the regime's incompetence in civil assistance.
Local journalist with sources in the military believe the campaign of bombings
have been carried out by the regime itself to justify requests for more military
'aid' from the US.
The US Connection
In December, 2002 the US announced a significant expansion of its joint US-Philippine
military training exercises. The first contingent of US troops landing on the
southern island of Mindanao engaged in field operations against the Muslim separatists.
In early 2003 then-Assistant US Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz called
the Philippines the 'Second Front in the War on Terror'. Since then tens of
thousands of Muslim villagers have been forcibly displaced and hundreds have
been tortured, killed or disappeared. As a result Muslim guerrilla activity
In October 2003, during a visit to the Philippines, Bush cited the Philippines
as a model for the re-building of Iraq. Passing, needless to say, over the US
invasion of the Philippines in 1898 and the 13-year pacification campaign when
upwards of 1 million Filipinos died, Bush described the Philippines as a "model
of democracy" a bonafide death squad democracy.
The Bush Administration's support for the Macapagal Arroyo regime has been
reciprocated:. Over the protests of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, a contingent
of Philippine troops was sent to Iraq. These troops were only withdrawn when
Iraqi resistance fighters threatened to execute captured Filipino laborers in
Iraq: the Philippine economy is more dependent on remittances from its workers
in the Middle East than on US aid. The lucrative reconstruction contracts, which
the Philippine elite had expected to be awarded for its services to the Bush
Administration in Iraq, never materialized. During 2006, another contingent
5,500 US soldiers are scheduled to arrive in Mindanao and the number of joint
exercises has doubled.
US troops are not confined to the separatist stronghold in the far south of
the country. More and more "joint operations" occur in the central
islands and Luzon where the communist New Peoples Army has been conducting a
campaign against the government for 40 years over issues of land reform and
oligarchic-imperialist control of the economy. With an estimated 10,000 fighters,
the NPA is clearly viewed as a threat to US and local ruling class interests.
Urban Popular Protest and Emergency Decrees
In 2004, Macapagal Arroyo narrowly defeated her rival in the Presidential elections
in a campaign marked by violence and fraud. An audiotape released in the spring
of 2005 recorded the President discussing with a top election official the rigging
of the election. Amid resignations of members of her cabinet and calls for her
resignation from the general public, she narrowly escaped a vote of impeachment
in November 2005.
Macapagal Arroyo's disastrous neo-liberal economic policies, the growing social
and economic deterioration of the country, frantic attempts by the professionals
to escape through immigration, moves by restive middle level officers and demonstrations
by popular mass social movements put the Philippines back in the international
news. In early February 2006, an even more devastating landslide brought on
by rains and de-forestation, buried almost 2,000 townspeople on the island of
Leyte. The inability of the regime to provide even the most basic aid to the
victims angered the entire nation.
On February 23, 2006, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of the
Marcos dictatorship, Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency, banning
all rallies, demonstrations and closing opposition media. She issued orders
for the arrest of 59 individuals including members of the Congress, military
officers and social critics, on charges of rebellion against her regime. Rallies
were planned to commemorate the end of the Marcos dictatorship and to protest
the electoral fraud, corruption, economic mismanagement and human rights violations
of the Macapagal Arroyo regime. Some rallies defied the President's decree,
went ahead and were violently repressed.
Those charged with rebellion included six Congress people from leftwing political
parties, a human rights attorney, retired and active military officers and social
activists. Most of the charges have no substance and are totally arbitrary.
For example, Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Congressman Crispin Beltran, age 73,
veteran labor leader and anti-Marcos activist, was arrested shortly after the
Emergency Rule declaration, at first on the basis of a 25-year-old charge made
during the Marcos dictatorship. When these charges were shown to have been dropped
decades earlier, he was charged with rebellion.
This is the latest of a series of attacks on the part of the Macapagal Arroyo
regime aimed specifically at destroying class-based political parties and trade
union activity, including Bayan Muna and its coalition partners. The campaign
of assassination and disappearances of 80 members of this party alliance between
2001-2005, including mayors and provincial elected representatives has finally
reached the top elected representatives in the Philippine Congress. In 2006,
repression turned from the countryside to the capital, from peasant leaders
to Manila-based Congress people, media, working class and left party leaders.
Of the 26 political assassinations in the first 10 weeks of 2006, 3 have been
Bayan Muna officials.
The arbitrary arrest of Congressional representatives sends a signal to the
legal left that the regime will not tolerate dissent or challenges to its policies
even from within Congress.
Who are the Perpetrators?
According to the KARAPATAN, the independent human rights organization involved
in documenting and providing legal support to victims of human rights abuses,
the disappearances and assassinations are committed by death squads in some
of the most heavily militarized areas in the Philippines. The death squads would
not be able to act with impunity without the complicity of the military. Witnesses
to the killings have themselves disappeared and the Philippine judicial system
has failed to prosecute the intellectual authors or perpetrators. Nor has the
military made any effort to investigate and arrest identified death squad leaders.
Human rights groups provide evidence that death squads operate under the protective
umbrella of regional military commands, especially the US-trained Special Forces.
Macapagal's promotion of the notorious Colonel Jovito Palparan, ('Butcher of
Mindoro') to General, despite extensive documentation and testimony of gross
human rights abuses points to the President's support for military-backed state
terrorism. When Palparan was assigned to Central Luzon in September 2005, the
number of political assassinations in that region alone jumped to 52 in four
months. Prior to his promotion, the regions with the largest number of summary
executions like Eastern Visayas and Central Luzon were under then-Colonel Palparan.
State of the Resistance
In the face of the disintegration of the economy and society, and the regime's
use of force to sustain its hold on power, plus its gross incompetence in the
face of several ecological disasters, popular resistance has spread from the
countryside to the cities. The popular mass organizations, involving peasant
and indigenous minority farmers, industrial workers, teachers, journalists,
civil servants, students, women, artists, human rights workers, lawyers and
clergy have grown despite the campaign of state terror. On the 20th Anniversary
of the 1986 overthrow of Marcos, tens of thousands defied the State of Emergency
and marched in Manila and in cities throughout the country. Over 10,000 women
defied police bans to march on International Women's Day. Students and teachers
are mounting campaigns on the campuses around the country. Former Presidents,
business executives and clergy are calling for Macapagal Arroyo's resignation
and a 'smooth transition' within the elite, while the popular mass movements
and their besieged political representatives are demanding justice for the victims
of state terror, an end to US military presence, a repeal of the value added
taxes, an increase in the minimum wage, land reform, a moratorium of debt payments,
re-nationalization of key economic sectors and consequential peace negotiations
between the state and the NPA and Muslim separatists. That Macapagal Arroyo
will eventually be forced to resign is, according to officials, a likely outcome.
The question is when and by whom?
James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton
University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an
adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and argentina and is co-author
Unmasked (Zed). His new book with Henry Veltmeyer, Social
Movements and the State: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, will
be published in October 2005. He can be reached at: email@example.com