Politically motivated killings in the Philippines–the United States’ former colony and staunchest ally in Asia–have swelled since 9/11. According to Karapatan, an umbrella group for various Philippine human rights organizations, close to 900 men and women have been summarily executed since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over in 2001 from disgraced President Joseph Estrada. Continuing to support Bush’s “global war on terror,” President Arroyo has ratcheted up her government’s pressure on the Philippine left, reviving memories of the Marcos dictatorship and its dirty war against the opposition. Manila knows that as long as it supports the Bush Administration, thereby obtaining economic and military assistance from the United States, it can get away with murder–literally.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights First have criticized the Arroyo government for failing to prevent–and even abetting–such killings. A report to the United Nations by Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, based on a fact-finding visit in February, echoes such criticism. Alston points to two underlying causes for the unchecked murders: the indiscriminate labeling of left-wing groups as “front organizations” for “armed groups whose aim is to destroy democracy” and a government “counter-insurgency strategy” that encourages “the extrajudicial killings of activists and other ‘enemies’ in certain circumstances.” Even the 2006 government-appointed Melo Commission blamed rogue elements in the military for these murders.
Those assassinated include pastors, labor leaders, student activists, farmers, workers and journalists–at least thirty-two of the last have been killed for reasons directly related to their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks the Philippines as one of the most dangerous places for its profession. As veteran Manila columnist Luis Teodoro writes, “The killings are an integral part of the policy to dismantle whatever else remains of the democratic and populist legacies” brought about by the 1986 overthrow of the Marcos regime.
Last February the Philippine Congress passed the Human Security Act (HSA)–a virtual copy of the US Homeland Security Act–and many expect even more human rights abuses in its wake. By broadening the government’s arrest and detention powers, the law seriously undermines civil liberties. With its vague definition of what constitutes terrorism, HSA criminalizes dissent; thus, burning an effigy could be seen as a terrorist act.
Last August, in one of the first instances of the law’s application, three visiting women’s rights activists who are members of the US-based Gabriela Network (an affiliate of Gabriela Philippines, the nation’s largest militant feminist group) were initially prevented from leaving Manila: Annaliza Enrile, a US citizen and professor at the University of Southern California; Judy Mirkinson, also a US citizen; and novelist Ninotchka Rosca, a US permanent resident. Having attended the tenth Women’s International Solidarity Affair in the Philippines, the three found themselves on a government watch list because of suspected ties to the Taliban.
Liza Maza, Gabriela’s elected representative to the Philippine Congress, calls the charge “utterly preposterous,” given Gabriela’s politics and the Taliban’s medieval, misogynistic bent. Rosca, a political detainee under Marcos, describes such tactics as part of a larger strategy by President Arroyo, whose 2004 re-election was tainted by charges of cheating, to “crush…the left and other advocates of dissent before 2010, which is when her term ends.” According to Rosca, Arroyo intends to “push through a constitutional amendment…to enable her to remain in office.” In what was perhaps a dry run, Arroyo declared a monthlong state of emergency in early 2006. Arroyo might also be turning a blind eye to the military’s excesses to ensure its loyalty, which is tenuous–as demonstrated by a failed coup in late November.
Not coincidentally, this dirty war was revived shortly before US Special Operations Forces landed in Mindanao in January 2002–the first time American troops have been in the Philippines since US bases were shut down in 1992. Even though the Philippine Constitution forbids the basing of foreign troops on native soil, the US military has kept between 100 and 500 personnel in the Philippines for the past five years. Their presence is justified under the bilateral 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows for joint military exercises and permits the US military to advise and train Filipino troops. The arrangement is supposed to be provisional, but neither government has set an end date.
According to Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank that monitors US military activities, US soldiers have been more active than their technical roles allow. They’ve been photographed, by Agence France-Presse and Reuters, accompanying Philippine troops in their hunt for the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), alleged to have ties with the Southeast Asian terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah. Lee McClenny, US Embassy spokesman in Manila, states that the troops “are not involved in any combat roles but will fire back if fired upon…. Our role is to advise and assist the Philippine military.”
Oddly, Philippine military units vastly outnumber the ASG, a small, violent and essentially criminal gang. Besides, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) knows the terrain much better than its US counterparts, having battled the Maoist New People’s Army, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for decades without any US advisers on hand. The command structure, however, is corrupt and plagued by persistent accusations that the ASG has paid off higher-ups in the past. It isn’t tactical intelligence or foreign advisers that the AFP needs but sweeping reforms.
Equally disturbing, the United States is building installations for its troops, recently awarding a $14.4 million contract to Global Contingency Services of Irving, Texas, to construct these “temporary” structures. In the context of Philippine-US relations, “temporary” is a word fraught with irony. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the US naval fleet steamed into Manila Bay, ostensibly to aid the Filipinos in their revolution against Spain. Instead, the brutal 1899 Philippine-American War ensued when it became clear that the bluecoats were taking over the archipelago. Except for a brief hiatus in the 1990s, they have never left.