Philippines: The Killing Fields of Asia

Waging war on activists and others, with U.S. support

by James Petras and Robin Eastman-Abaya

Z magazine, May 2006


Since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo joined the U.S. global "war on terrorism," the Philippines has become the site of an ongoing 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 state terrorism has not drawn sufficient attention 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 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 and a half 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 islands. A large force of soldiers surrounded and attacked the meeting, killing nine 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 were mostly vendors, displaced peasants, and fisherpeople living with their families in Manila. They were accused, but never convicted, of membership in the Abu Sayaf kidnapping gang.

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 three targeted assassinations of clergy and seven church workers, all involved in advocacy work with the poor, peasants, workers, and national minorities.

This list of killings in 2005 doesn't include attempted assassinations, illegal detention, 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 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 as Tarlac City councilperson, 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 progressive political parties in 2005 include 33 from the militant urban poor peoples party, Anakpawis, and 30 from Bayan Muna. Five members of Anakpawis and three from Bayan Muna have "disappeared" and are presumed dead. So far three Bayan Muna officials have been assassinated in the first ten 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 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 U.S.-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 to 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 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 the declaration of Martial Law by Marcos in 1972. In the 1960s most economists considered the Philippines to be the most economically progressive nation in Southest Asia. With the advent of the liberalization of the economy, it has become and remains one of the poorest and most socially polarized country in Asia, with a per capita GDP of $950 per year, about half of Thailand's. With over 50 percent of total private assets controlled by 15 extended super-rich families, it is one of the 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 at 20 percent and an additional 30 percent underemployed in the informal sector. Over 40 percent of households are unable to secure adequate shelter and food.

The once highly regarded public educational and health system has deteriorated due to massive government cuts in social spending and privatization.

The nation, whose research institutions produced 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 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 U.S. 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 (February 1986) by a military and Church-backed revolt, 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), 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.

U.S.-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 U.S. educated, neo-liberal economist, and a favorite of the U.S. Embassy. This political putsch led to the expansion of U.S. 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" Arroyo quickly instituted a neo-liberal program of privatizations, drastic cuts for public education and public hospitals, and onerous value-added taxes that 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 exceeded 30 percent of the budget. Even 8 million overseas Filipino workers (including a significant section of the educated professionals) sending home $12.5 billion 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 friends have been implicated in the same levels of corruption as those attributed to the deposed President Estrada. Mike Arroyo, the president's husband, remains in self-imposed exile in the U.S. 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 military officials, leading to deep discontent among the junior ranks forced to survive on low wages. As a result, several mutinies by junior officers and soldiers have 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 year.

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 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 buried almost 1,000 townspeople in a province near Manila and exposed the regime's incompetence in civil assistance. Local journalists with sources in the military believe the campaign of bombings have been carried out by the regime to justify requests for more military aid from the U.S.


The U.S. Connection

In December 2002 the U.S. announced a significant expansion of its joint U.S.-Philippine military training exercises. The first contingent of U.S. troops landed on the southern island of Mindanao where field operations against Muslim separatists were underway. In early 2003 then-Assistant 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 has increased.

In October 2003, during a visit Bush cited the Philippines as a model for the rebuilding of Iraq. Forgetting to mention the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in 1898 and 13-year pacification campaign when upwards of one million Filipinos died, Bush described the Philippines as a "model of democracy"-albeit a bonafide death squad democracy.



The Bush administration's support for the Macapagal Arroyo regime has been reciprocated: a contingent of Philippine troops was sent to Iraq over the protests of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. These troops were 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 U.S. aid. The lucrative reconstruction contracts, which the Philippine elite had expected to be awarded for its services to the Bush administration, never materialized.

During 2006, another contingent of 5,500 U.S. soldiers are scheduled to arrive in Mindanao and the number of joint exercises has doubled. U.S. 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 U.S. and local ruling class interests.


Popular Protest & Emergency Decrees

In 2004 Macapagal Arroyo narrowly defeated her rival in the presidential elections in a campaign marred 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.

Macapagal Arroyo's disastrous neo-liberal economic policies, the growing social and economic deterioration of the country, frantic attempts by 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 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 and were violently repressed.

Those charged with rebellion included six Congresspeople from left-wing 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 Congressperson Crispin Beltran, age 73, a 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 this charge was shown to have been dropped decades earlier, he was charged with rebellion.

This is the latest of a series of attacks 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 congresspeople, 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.

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 perpetrators. Nor has the military made any effort to investigate and arrest identified death squad leaders. Human rights groups have provided evidence that death squads operate under the protective umbrella of regional military commands, especially the U.S.-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 jumped to 52 in 4 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, and faced with 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 other 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 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 U.S. 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 is an activist, writer, and co-author of Empire with Imperialism (Zed 2005). Robin Eastman-Abaya is a physician and has been a human rights activist in the Philippines for the past 28 years.

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