Philippines: Death Squad Democracy
by James Petras and Robin Eastman-Abaya
Counter Currents, March 31, 2007
Nearly a thousand union leaders, clergy
members, lawyers, human rights activists, peasants and elected
officials of the social action party lists led by Representative
Ocampo have been victimized.
While the Philippine government, headed
by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is under investigation in
the US Senate for the ongoing murder of her opponents, Senator
Ocampo is charged, together with 50 other government critics,
of having ordered the execution of a group of Marcos opponents
22 years ago. The government ignores the fact that Ocampo was
in prison at that time, a political prisoner of the Marcos dictatorship.
The irony of a former victim of human
rights abuses being accused of 'crimes against humanity' by a
regime under growing international censure was not lost on the
Philippine public. They are accustomed to the macabre behavior
of military officers who cart around skeletal remains ('re-cycling
the bones'), disappear and re-appear incarcerated 'witnesses'
who testify and recant, only to testify again.
Satur Ocampo, a 67-year-old veteran of
the anti-Marcos struggle, heads the Bayan Muna ('People First')
coalition. Within the pro-democracy public in the Philippines
there is a serious and urgent concern for the safety of Ocampo,
now in police/military custody. National elections are set for
May and the human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating. Over
the last six months the killing and harassment of members of the
coalition of social action parties have increased in tandem with
the growing turnout at their public meetings. Political observers
have feared that this campaign will culminate with the killing
or arrest of the entire slate of leftists campaigning in congressional
elections. Their electoral base among the urban poor, workers,
peasants and women is especially vulnerable to political killings.
Unlike the upper and middle class politicians
in the major elite-based traditional political parties (called
'trapos' or rags, by working class Filipinos), Ocampo is the son
of poor farmers who was born and raised in Central Luzon, a hot
bed of peasant rebellion. Many of the famous Communist HUK guerrillas
who fought to expel the Japanese occupation forces during World
War II were from this region. As a young activist and journalist
in the 1960's, Ocampo helped found the nationalist youth movement,
the Kabataan Makabayan and the Movement for the Advancement of
Nationalism. He was a well-regarded journalist and was elected
vice-president of the Philippine Press Club. When Ferdinand Marcos
declared Martial Law in September 1972 he was forced into hiding.
He played a major role in the formation of the National Democratic
Front, which was a key element in the overthrow of the Marcos
regime in February 1986.
Ocampo spent 9 years in prison under the
Marcos dictatorship, where he was brutally tortured. In prison
he led several protests by the thousands of political prisoners.
Despite prolonged imprisonment he was never convicted by the military
courts set up by the dictator. In May 1985, he escaped prison.
He re-surfaced in 1986 to head peace talks between the new Philippine
President, Corazon Aquino, and the National Democratic Front.
These talks collapsed in 1987 when Aquino ordered the military
to fire on farmers who had been demonstrating over land reform
issues near the presidential palace, killing and wounding scores.
Ocampo was re-arrested in 1989 with his wife, a fellow journalist
and academic, but the Courts released them in 1992 for lack of
In early 2001, under popular pressure
the Philippine Government agreed to allow the participation of
social action parties in national elections. Ocampo headed the
list of a coalition of leftist candidates as president of the
Bayan Muna (People First) Party and won almost 12% of the national
vote. This entitled the coalition to 3 seats in the Philippine
Congress. For the first time in many decades, progressive nationalists
and leftists took their place in Congress, debating and proposing
popular social legislation. Their advocacy of socio-economic reforms
won them a great following among the majority of poor Filipinos.
Membership in their grass roots organizations rose phenomenally.
For the first time in recent decades the poor had some of their
'own' as elected representatives in Congress.
On January 16, 2001 President Joseph Estrada
was ousted for corruption. His Vice President Gloria Macapagal
Arroyo took over the presidency. Shortly after the May 2001 national
elections Bayan Muna officials, elected provincial representatives
and activists in the more remote parts of the country, like the
Visayas region, Bicol, Mindanao and Mindoro, were assassinated.
President Macapagal took advantage of President Bush 'war on terrorism'
to eliminate her opposition. The Philippine president immediately
pledged her regime to Bush's 'coalition of the killing' and linked
her leftist opponents with 'global terrorism'.
The killings and kidnappings spread and
intensified in tandem with the influx of US military aid and the
arrival of military advisers. According to church human rights
groups, the list of murdered political leaders included individuals
from all sectors of civil society: journalists, political and
social activists, union leaders, clergy, lawyers and judges, peasant
leaders and human rights monitors and witnesses to human right
violations were killed. The modus operandi of the extra-judicial
executions closely resemble those of the Colombian death squads
allied to the military and Uribe government: Young men in ski
masks (called 'bonnets') on motorcycles shoot their victims openly,
often within close proximity of police or military camps. Arrests
are almost never made, eyewitnesses are killed and convictions
are unheard of. All the data point to strong ties between the
death squads and the military and the military to the Macapagal
regime. Of the twelve Philippine military and militiamen implicated
by the regime, only three, very low-ranking soldiers have been
charged in connection with the 840 assassinations and over 200
Provincial student leaders affiliated
with any of the Bayan Muna coalition parties and Protestant Church-affiliated
youth social action groups as well as elderly clergymen, women
active in the provincial branches of the Gabriela (Women's) Party,
young school teachers, village mayors and village council-people,
and human rights investigators have been murdered since January
1, 2007. The scope of the political killings and general insecurity
has forced the US, Canadian and Australian Chambers of Commerce
in the Philippines and the governments of Canada, Norway, Switzerland
and Belgium to press the Macapagal regime to rein in the military
sponsors of the death squads. An Amnesty International report,
released in August 2006, pointed to the regime's responsibility,
documenting the killings, torture and imprisonment of government
critics and activists.
On March 20, 2007, the Financial Times
of London reported that even the anti-union Wal-Mart, Gap and
other international business groups, operating in the Philippines,
urged the Philippine government to put a stop to the killing of
labor leaders, lawyers and clergy involved in workers rights.
The government denies military involvement
and the systematic nature of the killing. Macapagal accuses local
and international human rights and religious organizations of
being "fronts for communists". The military and police
high command dismisses the killings as 'communist purges' against
their own members while at the same time, announcing its campaign
to 'wipe-out' Communists and the 'members of Communist fronts'.
Impunity does not encourage logic.
The brazen disregard of international
opinion is illustrated by a recent killing: An eye-witness who
had testified before the United Nations Special rapporteur, Phillip
Alston, on the death squad killing of her father-in-law, was herself
killed in the same fashion - young men with ski masks on motorcycles
within a block of a heavily guarded police camp.
Despite and perhaps in defiance of the
wave of repression and terror, the leftist party list coalition
doubled its elected representatives in the 2004 elections. In
congress the poor peoples' representatives fought for and secured
important legislation benefiting overseas workers, victims of
domestic violence and juvenile protection.
In February this year President Macapagal
Arroyo's National Security Adviser warned her of the growing mass
support for the progressive party list candidates, describing
them as 'Communist Fronts'. With ominous overtures he cited their
popularity as a reason to 'disqualify' them in the upcoming elections
(May 2007). The meaning of 'disqualification' became very clear
when numerous men and women, including several attorneys, leaders
of indigenous minorities and peasants were murdered within days
of filing their candidacy. 'Disqualification' is the Macapagal
regime's codeword for assassination.
There is a genuine danger that Congressman
Satur Ocampo will be harmed or killed if the government or military
succeeds in having him physically transferred out of the capital,
Manila, to the more remote Visayas region where the military and
death squads operate in public with total impunity. Because of
the widespread opposition to Ocampo's arrest, the military attempted
to secretly fly him out to the Visayas in a private 'corporate'
Cesna, despite orders to the contrary from the Supreme Court.
The military were thwarted in mid-air by a judicial ruling in
the Visayas. A petition to the Philippine Supreme Court to reject
the trumped-up charges against Ocampo is pending. The President's
spokesman reported that Macapagal Arroyo turned 'livid' when she
learned that Congressman Ocampo's attorneys had managed to file
a judicial petition with the Supreme Court. Like President Bush,
judicial and constitutional procedures are seen as restraints
on absolute power.
Ocampo is not alone. His comrade in the
Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) labor party, the 75-year-old veteran
labor leader, Congressman Crispin Beltran, has languished for
the last 16 months in a military prison hospital under trumped-up
charges of rebellion during the Marcos dictatorship over 25 years
The government under 'President' Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo (who is on tape instructing her advisers to rig
the presidential election in 2004) has gone to great lengths to
physically annihilate political opponents and social movement
leaders -who are increasingly seen as the genuine representatives
of the great majority of the Filipinos. Except for the unconditional
support of the Bush White House, her regime faces increasing international
ostracism and isolation. Yet unless voices are raised, particularly
in the run-up to the congressional elections, popular leaders
like Satur Ocampo, Beltran and many others will not be allowed
to participate or even escape Macapagal's 'masked motorcyclist'
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