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Shattered Peace Talks and Grinding Conflict: How U.S. Support Bolsters the Philippines' War on Dissidents

The government of the Philippines has continued to harass the opposition and extrajudicially kill dissenters.
 
 
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President Barack Obama with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Oval Office on July 30, 2009.
Photo Credit: Pete Souza/White House

 
 
 
 

“Another one was killed. Another one had disappeared.” Human rights violations…keep on happening without let up. In the nine (9) years of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s reign, more than a thousand are victims of extrajudicial killing and 206 forcibly disappeared. 1,099 tortured, 2,059 were illegally arrested. On the other hand, in a span of two (2) years of President Noynoy Aquino’s presidency, Karapatan [1] documented 137 victims of extrajudicial killing, 14 of enforced disappearance, 72 of torture, 269 of illegal arrest. [Statement of the End of Impunity Alliance, April 25, 2013, delivered by Father REX RB. Reyes, General Secretary, National Council of Churches in the Philippines]

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At the end of April 2013, barely covered in the US media, the government of the Philippines unilaterally ended peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the coalition led by the Communist Party of the Philippines, which has led an insurgency for over forty years. In violation of the protocols established for these talks, and after repeated harassment of the NDFP—including the imprisonment of several NDFP negotiators—the government of the Philippines apparently felt comfortable that it could act with impunity.

The on-going conflict in the Philippines rarely garners much interest and attention in the USA except and insofar as the issue of “terrorism” is raised. The manner in which alleged terrorism is used to describe the conflicts in the Philippines tells one a great deal about the motives of the Philippine government and their US government supporters.

The insurgency led by the Communist Party of the Philippines, its military wing (the New People’s Army) and the NDFP can be understood as the continuation of an on-going conflict that commenced when the US illegally annexed the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War (1898). An indigenous Philippines revolutionary movement, on the verge of defeating the Spanish, was smashed by US invaders who initially presented themselves as friends of the Filipino people. In a war that cost at least 1.5 million Filipino lives, the US subjugated the population and controlled it outright until 1946, at which point the country received nominal independence. This was followed by another guerrilla insurgency against the neo-colonial regime in Manila, initiated by the Communist-led Hukbalahap movement [2].With the active involvement of the USA, the Huks—as they were referenced—were crushed. Corrupt regimes, very compliant with interests of the USA, followed ultimately resulting in renewed guerrilla war led by a refounded Communist Party of the Philippines. This was joined by a very separate insurgency in the southern island of Mindanao, where the largely Muslim Moro population fought for self-determination. Two main formations emerged in Mindanao, first the Moro National Liberation Front and later the split-off, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Ultimately a very strange outfit appeared that received a considerable amount of US media attention: Abu Sayyaf.

Although there was hope for peace when Corazon Aquino replaced the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, war continued, largely at the instigation of elements of the Philippine military who were not interested in peace with either the NDFP or the Moro insurgents in Mindanao. Peace talks have been going on between the government of the Philippines and the NDFP since the mid-1990s, but with little progress having been made. The objective of the government has been to, in essence, force the NDFP to capitulate rather than address any of the issues raised by the NDFP. Separate discussions have taken place in Mindanao, leading recently to a framework for an agreement with the MILF. During the NDFP-CPP-NPA insurgency the USA has done nothing to encourage a negotiated settlement, rather remaining a staunch supporter of succeeding Filipino governments, beginning with that of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

In the aftermath of Al Qaida’s 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA, the US role in the Philippines shifted. In 2002, the US declared the Philippines to be the second front in the war against terrorism. Then, out of nowhere, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the USA was putting the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army on the list of terrorist organizations. This step not only did nothing to encourage a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but instead upped the ante by treating the CPP/NPA as the equivalent of Al Qaida, a completely fraudulent analogy given the ideologies, histories, strategies and tactics of both organizations. Interestingly, the USA did not put either the MNLF or the MILF on the terrorist list, but instead placed great attention on the role of the shadowy Abu Sayyaf organization, a group that many observers have actually tied to the Philippine government, i.e., as a sort of Wizard of Oz created to scare the population, influence world opinion, and justify the further militarization of conflict in the Philippines. The further militarization has brought with it a greater involvement by the USA. This has included the use of the so-called Visiting Forces Agreement in order to station US troops in the archipelago, engage in joint trainings as well as certain joint military exercises.

Though negotiations continued with the NDFP—up through this past April—they did so under very difficult conditions. One of the oddest conditions, referenced earlier, has been the imprisonment of members of the NDFP negotiating team, the “peace consultants.” The government of the Philippines chose to violate protocols on the status of negotiators and allege various crimes on the part of the NDFP team members. Such a step is not only outrageous in the realm of diplomacy, but undermined the ability of the peace talks to proceed. Of those NDFP team members imprisoned, the NDFP noted in a recent statement that those team members released were released not due to the good will of the Philippine government, but rather as a result of litigation taken by representatives of the negotiators.

The break off of negotiations must also be understood in the context of the adoption, by the Philippine government, of a policy known as Oplan Bayanihan. A well-crafted document, Oplan Bayanihan outlines steps that the Philippine government seeks to take in order to gain internal peace and security. Reading this document one could conclude that the Philippine government seeks to narrow military operations and engage in activities to win over the population. In fact, there is an interesting statement in the Executive Summary of the report that reads in part: “To highlight the AFP’s [Armed Forces of the Philippines—author] mandate as wielders of legitimate force, military operations shall focus only on the armed components of insurgent groups. Under this concept, the AFP shall employ distinct methodologies for the NPA, MILF, and ASF and other terrorist groups [3].” Such a statement stands in contrast to the actions of the Philippine government and its allies, raising the provocative question: who are the real terrorists?

If terrorism is the use of violence against non-military targets in order to advance political objectives, the Philippine government should be indicted, at the minimum, in the court of world opinion. Terrorist attacks, euphemistically referenced as “extrajudicial killings” take place on a regular basis in the Philippines against opponents of the government and social reformers. Human Rights Watch noted that while extrajudicial killings dropped in 2012, not a single case has resulted in prosecution since the assumption of office by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino. Compounding this are the, apparently, disingenuous actions of the Philippine government when it responds to pressures in connection with human rights abuses. Karapatan noted, for instance, that among the nine members of the interagency body to investigate extrajudicial killings are the chiefs of both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, institutions that have regularly been criticized for complicity in such abuses. [4]

Extrajudicial murders and disappearances are, by definition, not official actions and are not necessarily committed by people in uniforms. An apparently common form for carrying out the murders has been what are called “riding-in-tandem liquidation units,” whereby two people on a motorcycle pull up and assassinate a particular target.

Extrajudicial murders and disappearances, along with bogus arrests followed by torturing, is not aimed solely at supporters and alleged supporters of the insurgencies. Indigenous organizations, including those that have found themselves engaged in struggles against multinational corporations (such as against mining interests), have faced the wrath of the Philippine government both officially and unofficially. [5]

The Philippine government has repeatedly attempted to dismiss charges of human rights abuses committed by the government and its allies, but to no avail. The extent of the documentation is considerable and difficult to refute. Nevertheless, compounding the difficulties of this overall situation has been the silence of the US government in the face of the charges of human rights abuses, along with their continued support for the regime itself, all in the name of allegedly fighting terrorism.

There is little question but that pressure from the US government and a de-militarization of the involvement of the USA in the Philippines would transform the situation. That said, there is little incentive for the Obama administration or any past administration, to alter its relationship to the Philippines. The Philippines exists as a neo-colony and base area for the USA. In the changing geo-politics of Asia, the Philippines is a front-line country in the efforts to surround the People’s Republic of China. The strange dance in which the USA and China engage includes periodic bouts of military tension. The US government, despite its need for an economic relationship with China, fears Chinese influence. Among other reasons this helps us understand the increased US involvement in the Philippines.

With apparent US support, the government of the Philippines believes that it is positioned to crush the CPP-NPA-NDFP insurgency by, literally and figuratively, bleeding it, through extrajudicial murders and disappearances, arrests, executions as well as through efforts at cooptation of units of the New People’s Army. There is no particular reason to believe that their efforts will succeed, however. What they will do is demonstrate the manner in which state terrorism is a source of instability and horror for both intended and unintended targets.

What is missing from the approach of the Philippine government was summarized directly by Dr. Carol Araullo, Chairperson of BAYAN (the New Patriotic Alliance), when she noted, with regard to the roots of the insurgency:

Despite all the claims of a reinvigorated economy, the hard reality of a chronic jobs crisis, unrelieved poverty and socio-economic inequity remains. Landlessness in the vast countryside continues to be pervasive and industry has been stagnant in the past half a century…Unless a program for national industrialization, genuine land reform and an independent foreign policy is pursued, unjust socio-economic conditions in the country will continue to provide fertile soil for the revolutionary movement to persist and grow with the support of the people. [6]

How many times have we heard something similar? And, in the absence of pressure from within the USA, how often is such a viewpoint ignored by the US elite?

[1] Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights

 

[2] Which gained a great deal of credibility during World War II in leading the resistance to the Japanese occupiers.

 

[3] Executive Summary: AFP Internal Peace and Security Plan, p.vi.

 

[4] 2012 Karapatan Year End Report on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines, p.4. The full report is riveting.

 

[5] See, for example, the Karapatan report, pp.37-8.

 

[6] “The Aquino government is insincere in peace talks with NDFP,” www.bayan.ph/site/2013/04/the-aquino-government-is-insincere-in-peace-talks-with-ndfp/

 

 

 

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, on the editorial board of BlackCommentator.com, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com

 
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