Philippines: Arroyo turns the "war on terrorism" into war on the left

by Eduardo R.C. Capulong in Manila

International Socialist Review, September/ October 2002


Washington and Manila could not have more shamelessly scripted the escalation of their "war on terror." Secretary of State Colin Powell concluded his eight-country tour of Southeast Asia here August 3 to coincide with what was to be the end of "Balikatan," the military operation launched by the two countries against the kidnap for ransom group Abu Sayyaf in February. Yet days after his overnight stay, government officials announced that U.S. combat troops-about 1,160 of them-would be staying after all. Their new targets: "communists" and trade unionists.

The move was as deceptive as it was predictable. When Balikatan began, few believed that a small group of bandits-one report said they numbered no more than 60-could provoke such a huge military mobilization. All told, some 1,200 U.S. and 6,000 Filipino troops-11 battalions-backed by $100 million in ordnance, were unleashed on the Abu Sayyaf. The results have been dismal. Three weeks after officials claimed that the group was finished, it resurfaced and kidnapped six Christian preachers, beheading two. Earlier, the elite troops botched the rescue of three hostages, leading to the deaths of two- American Martin Burnham and Filipina Ediborah Yap-and wounding of the third, Burnharn's spouse, Gracia.

The incompetence matters little as the Abu Sayyaf has always been a pretext. The real goals, officials now admit, are the eradication of forces deemed more "destabilizing" and, with it, ratification of the Mutual Logistics Security Agreement (MLSA), a multi-year pact that would provide the U.S. permanent basing rights in the country-a key demand since the ouster of its military bases in 1991. As Admiral Thomas Fargo, the highest ranking U.S. military official in Asia-Pacific said at the Balikatan closing ceremony, "Our efforts to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines develop an enduring, self-sustaining counter-terror and counter-insurgency capability did not end with this exercise." The U.S. has made the signing of the MLSA a precondition for new war exercises set for October, said Philippine Representative Gerry Salapuddin. It is likely to be signed within the next three months.

"Those who terrorize factories that provide jobs"

On cue, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made clear exactly who their new enemies are. "The war on terrorism does not distinguish between ordinary terrorists and those espousing a political ideology," she said. "We will wage war against criminals, terrorists, drug addicts, kidnappers, smugglers, and those who terrorize factories that provide jobs." Oblivious to the dozens of progressive activists who have been killed in the past year, Arroyo warned, "We shall not relent in the fight against terrorists and criminals hiding behind the veil of human rights advocacies or other seemingly deceptively legitimate political advocacies." She even charged some with committing human rights violations themselves, an apparent reference to her main target, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People's Army (NPA), which have been waging a guerrilla war since 1969. In short, she is attempting to expand the "war on terrorism" into a war on the left.

U.S. and Philippine officials have followed up their threat with the redeployment of troops to areas where the NPA operates. With $55 million more in military aid recently approved by the U.S. Congress, Manila plans to recruit 7,000 new soldiers and 15,000 militiamen, raising the specter of the dreaded Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUs), which operated with impunity in the countryside during the Marcos dictatorship. The Philippines is now the fourth highest recipient of U.S. military aid globally and the highest in Asia. Arroyo also revived 13-year-old gun charges against two prominent leftists, one of whom is now a legislator.

For his part, Powell announced the inclusion of the CPP and NPA on the U.S. list of "foreign terrorist organizations (FTO)," allowing him to freeze their assets and ask other governments to do the same. Britain and the Netherlands, where the CPP leadership is based, have already complied. Inclusion on the FTO list, Powell warned, also barred sympathizers from materially supporting these organizations, a likely precursor to the targeting of solidarity groups in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Unity in the left

Despite confusing responses from the CPP-leader Jose Ma. Sison first called for adventurist attacks on power facilities then pressed for the resumption of peace talks-key figures on the left have united in denouncing the attacks. Arroyo tried to split the opposition and isolate the CPP after her initial pronouncement, saying "communism is not contrary to law... what is against the law is armed struggle to overthrow the government." Other "communist groups" like Akbayan, Sanlakas, the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas may be "irritating," she said, but they are not illegal.

The tactic has not worked. "Who's next?" asked Akbayan president Ric Reyes. Patricio Ramirez, a spokesman for the underground Partido ng Manggagawang Pilipino (PMP), also expressed his group's "openness to link up arms with the CPPNPA and other groups in the fight against the common enemy." The armed struggle being waged by revolutionary groups against the "institutionalized violence exercised by the reactionary state is legitimate and justifiable," he said. "Today it is the CPP-NPA that U.S. imperialism and the Arroyo regime misrepresent as a terrorist organization. Tomorrow it will be the turn of other revolutionary groups, whose primary form of struggle may be unarmed and legal but are just as resolute and militant in fighting globalization and the reactionary system.

Mainstream opposition

Opposition has also come from Arroyo's own quarters. In a recent speech, Vice President Teofisto Guingona, who resigned his post as foreign secretary after Balikatan, criticized the administration's new policy. He also cautioned against dragging the Philippines into the U.S. war on Iraq.

In response to accusations that he was a "communist lover," Guingona invoked similar attacks on Abraham Lincoln as a "Negro lover." "He (Lincoln) said, 'I am not a Negro lover but I look upon him as a human being. I am fighting to preserve the union for all Americans which include the whites of New York and the Negroes of Alabama."

"When I speak out for the protection of the nation, that includes Filipinos of whatever creed or conviction," he continued. "When I fought for human rights during martial law, I stood for all Filipinos, regardless of ideology."

Just as the equation of terrorism with Muslims, Arabs, political dissidents, and others is a prelude to the sweeping abrogation of civil rights in the U.S., so too is Arroyo's equation of terrorism with "communism" in the Philippines. Her sagging popularity-she placed third in a recent poll, behind her former education secretary Raul Roco and predecessor Joseph Estrada-ensures that she will pursue this new U.S.-dictated policy with zeal. Only a broad movement with clear revolutionary leadership can defeat the escalation of war and Arroyo's witchhunt. The thousands who demonstrated against Powell's visit provides a good start.


Eduardo R C. Capulong is a member of the International Socialist Organization in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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