Faux Democracy: A Report on Conditions in the Philippines

The basic point that I want to make, and have previously made as a result of serving in Manila and Mindanao as a member of the Peoples’ International Observers Mission to monitor the May 2007 mid-term elections, is that the country has the trappings of democracy but is, in fact, a faux democracy. Using that façade of democracy, the oppressive regime of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), following neo-liberal policies and with the support of the Bush gang to which she has given loyal support, has been a disaster for the vast majority of the Filipino people.

Division of Humanities
Macquarie University
Posted by Bulatlat

The basic point that I want to make, and have previously made as a result of serving in Manila and Mindanao as a member of the Peoples’ International Observers Mission to monitor the May 2007 mid-term elections, is that the country has the trappings of democracy but is, in fact, a faux democracy. Using that façade of democracy, the oppressive regime of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), following neo-liberal policies and with the support of the Bush gang to which she has given loyal support, has been a disaster for the vast majority of the Filipino people.

By a faux democracy I mean that the democratic institutions of the state do not function effectively, either individually or as a system, to provide even the minimal democracy we would expect in a liberal parliamentary country. Basically there is a shadow play – in Filipino a moro-moro – in which a quite extensive array of “democratic” institutions go through the motions of formal democracy, but in general produce no democratic outcome, often after an arbitrary and corrupt process. Nor is there adequate accountability/transparency in the decision-making processes of the state. Thus if a democracy is a country in which decisions should be taken in the public interest, and decision-makers accountable to their fellow citizens, then the Philippines does not qualify as a democracy.
Profits for business, bullets for people

The neo-liberal policies of the Arroyo government (super-charging policies initiated by Pres. Aquino and continued by her successors) has meant, basically, open slather for the exploitation of workers and peasants, and the rape of the environment by national, but especially international, capital. And the political form of faux democracy is also good for business. It presents a form of corporatism. The business sector, from where most of the financial corruption emanates, has close links to the state (often through the military eg the “taipan”/tycoon Lucio Tan’s tobacco group with which the late General Abaya was connected). And of course there is little effective government regulation, accountability or transparency viz a viz business. However, if there is a conflict with the GMA clique, as there has been with the Lopez Group (a continuing pattern given that Marcos also was an enemy of theirs) then there will be a wave of measures taken involving measures such as court cases, challenges to ownership or control, media barrages to de-legitimate the opponent eg claiming that the business is over-pricing and /or sucking in super-profits.

The lack of effective representation/participation in governing processes is such that a deep and understandable cynicism exists amongst the people. There is a long tradition in the country of corruption and repression, especially following Marcos’ ascent, and in particular the period of Martial Law and the years following when he tried to hold onto power. Yet there is a widespread belief that corruption is far worse today: financially, more money is involved, and politically, it is all pervasive. The repression is said to be no less, and perhaps is worse, than ever. The fact that President Arroyo is surrounded by Generals she has appointed (some three dozen serving or retired by my count) indicates not only the extent that corruption in the form of patronage is alive and well, but that policies for meaningful reform are constantly seen through a militarist framework which has for a long time opted for “extra-judicial” killings, disappearances, torture and harassment (legal and illegal) instead of the social welfare measures demanded by the people. It is, too, a sign that Arroyo understands that as the most unpopular President at least since Marcos, and given the military rebellions which, along with mass action by the people, “took out” two of her predecessors, plus a number of attempted coups/mutinies in her own tenure, her longevity depends primarily on keeping the military on her side.

Human rights and wrongs

The human rights record of all Filipino Presidents from Marcos onward has been shocking (surprising to many, this includes Cory Aquino). But the Arroyo regime is setting new records. The Extra-Judicial Killings (EJK) continue to mount almost daily (as I write news has reached me of the murder of a KMP peasant leader in Eastern Mindanao). Extra-Judicial Disappearances (EJD) also continue, as do torture and harassment This has all been documented by Karapatan, by Human Rights Watch, by a number of foreign lawyers groups eg American, Dutch, Japanese. The UN Human Rights Committee has recently condemned the Arroyo government, sheeting home to it responsibility for abductions and the failure to act to investigate, compensate or provide remedies for the victims and/or their survivors. And most notably the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial killings, Philip Alston, an Australian Professor of Law has held the government responsible for the massive violations of human rights which, in the main, he attributed to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Who are the people being killed, disappeared, tortured and harassed? ( The latter can be both “legally” eg false charges and detention for long periods, which is currently being stepped up; or a variety of “surveillance’ tactics, as well as invasive techniques eg search and seizure without legal authority. Or a combination of all over time!) A majority of the victims-numbering in the thousands- are peasant and labor leaders. But it also includes anyone who attempts to resist the repression of the masses, or who disagrees with government policies, or who is a social activist, including human rights proponents. Notably, this regime also targets bishops, priests/pastors (mainly Protestant-probably because the regime relies on the support of the Roman Catholic Church, which so far has given it though with some wavering and a few notable exceptions); others are journalists; and judges/ lawyers. With regard to these last three categories, the Philippines is near the top in world rankings as a dangerous country to work in. Much of the repression is done by AFP secret “death squads” or PNP undercover operatives. This savage onslaught on cadres of workers and professionals reminds one of the Phoenix Program in Viet Nam, for which the USA has been rightly condemned. There are also similarities to the work of government “death squads” in many of the formerly fascist Latin American countries during the long dark half century after World War II. (These were, of course supported by the US and the operatives and implementers were in large numbers trained at the notorious School of Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA.)

Not an honest answer to be had

It is, however, the all pervasive corruption of state institutions (as well as private ones) which I believe is highly significant, and perhaps more deleterious in daily experience than even the fear of violence etc from the military forces. While the violence and other human rights abuses should be condemned, of course, they are the direct result of government policy and could be lowered substantially by an honest, determined, progressive and therefore popular regime. Under pressure from the UN after the Alston report, and a number of countries including even the US (Australia has been largely silent) because of the attention EJKs (nearly a thousand now) have attracted, the Arroyo government shifted somewhat to harassment and intimidation; thus EJKs slowed for a time in late 2007 and early 2008,although they have begun to mount again.

However, the corruption of the state cannot be changed without a reconstruction of Philippine society and thus both state and private institutions. For too long the Filipino culture has been eaten away by cynicism at the corruption which fills-and cruelly distorts-everyday social relations.

I offer a brief example of the way in which corruption operates at the basic levels affecting human existence in the Philippines. Fire is the cause of much tragedy, including the loss of life and, of course, homes and other personal assets. Just this week 6 workers and a child died in a Manila factory fire, caused it seems from the poor electrical wiring which is endemic to structures of all kinds in that country. Wiring is often illegal because in violation of various codes, and often not approved nor inspected by an official paid to ignore them, or approved after a bribe has passed. Note that these deaths were of “sleep-in workers”, probably homeless. It is an illegal phenomenon, but typically unregulated, and certainly the result of the massive poverty and exploitation which is rampant, much of it based on corrupt practices and a lack of enforcement of codes and laws, which allows 14-16 hour working days, six days a week. Many employees are lucky even to get paid regularly!

But my example is of a specific fire which I was able to observe from my unit about 2 kilometers away. Our unit overlooks a mixed semi-industrial, poor working class area of highways, shops and factories, and one of the older Shopping Malls in the city, nestling in the shadow of an elevated Metro line. One early morning not long after dawn, we noticed a wisp of brownish smoke rising from the Puregold Mall. In the next hours the fire raised a pall of smoke over a substantial part of Manila, a sprawling city of about 11 million. For hours there was no response to the fire. Subsequently we could hear sirens as slowly, and at lengthy intervals, fire trucks went to the scene. The smoke continued to pour forth, sometimes sending huge plumes skyward, but at other times nearly disappearing. Many residents were evacuated; shops and factories were closed and the commuter trains were halted. This pattern went on into a third day. Even beyond that there were still smoke plumes. This was one of 4 similar fire episodes during the 3 months I was in Manila. It was said in each case that it was probably not arson, but there could have been problems with the wiring. (Arson, of course, is another area in which corruption exists on a significant scale I was told.)

This story illustrates much that is wrong in the Philippines. First, endemic, pervasive corruption directly affects the lives of the mass of people. There is virtually no social intercourse involving government and business which is not tainted by corruption. International surveys, eg Transparency International, continue to rank the country as one of the most corrupt in the world and the most corrupt in Asia. In the Puregold Mall case, a local government official with experience of dealing with fire stations, explained to me that fire-fighting is often preceded by negotiations: is the owner of the property willing to make a “special payment” to the stationhouse chief (which may or not be split with lower ranks) and if so, how much? Not surprisingly, where such behavior is the norm, property owners tend to pay-up sooner or later. It depends on a “cost-benefit” analysis I learned. As a result of the negotiations, delay occurs and damage is increased. In addition, firefighters who, like other public officials, are poorly paid, will take the opportunity to help themselves to property which is moveable and for which they have use, or can later sell. Again, this is standard practice, a wage supplementation.

Second, there is a lack of proper equipment. I was told by a senior fire official that there was a serious lack of essential equipment ranging from gloves and boots to breathing equipment. This last explains why the smoke which we saw continued for several days. The firefighters were unable to get to the core fire because of the smoke hazard (we saw on TV a fireman who had taken the risk in a fire and was hauled out nearly dead from smoke inhalation). Obviously the delays necessitated by a lack of safety equipment puts at risk large areas surrounding such fires. Not only is firefighting handicapped by lack of funding , in part because Budgets are always white-anted by those who “skim” a % for themselves, but this happens in other departments where lives are directly at stake. Thus the AFP is also under-resourced because of massive corruption in procurement. The same is true of the health sector. Similar problems bedevil education where there is a huge shortage of schoolrooms, texts as well as teachers (30,000 more are needed, the Secretary of Education recently announced); money is literally “disappeared”, and students, teachers and buildings suffer.

Third, state institutions with “oversight” responsibility- supervisory, regulatory, investigative-and those with sanctioning powers, fail to perform effectively to ensure that operational agencies of the state perform their duties properly. And where they do act against corrupt and other illegal practices, there is always another agency, or higher level venue, or a friendly politician who can “speak” to someone. Thus those few culprits who have been successfully pursued for wrongful behavior have a good chance to get the result they want. Often cases brought successfully in one body just disappear for years in another agency. So even though someone dares to make a complaint (often putting their life at risk), corrupt practices are not adequately dealt with even if they are dealt with at all. Thus even though there is an array of such agencies-courts, Ombudsman, Commission on Human Rights etc. to supplement an array of local and national policing agencies, there is a poor record in dealing with corruption and associated illegalities and in fighting human rights abuse.

The recent scandal involving a number of Judges of the national Court of Appeal indicates the heights to which corruption goes. As in previous cases, several judges were found to have been approached to fix an important civil case. It illustrates a number of problems within the state-business nexus. The bribing of Judges or improperly attempting to influence their decisions are well known and common practices, seemingly at all levels. In this important and bitterly fought case, both sides (one a governmental agency, the other the Lopez group’s hugely profitable Manila Electric Co) tried to fix the result. On the Lopez side, a businessman offered a huge amount of money to one of the judges. But note who was involved in improperly approaching another judge, who happened to be his brother. It was the Chair of the Presidential Good Government Commission, an Arroyo appointee. And this illustrates the depth and intractable nature of the problem. The President has power to appoint hundreds of people to positions where they can manipulate results in cases brought before any of these agencies. The process of appointment is itself corrupted. One example: in appointing to the Supreme Court the President has to select from a list which has been prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). In one instance, when Arroyo got the list her favorite was not on it. In violation of the Constitution, she sent the list back with instructions that the name should be put on the list. It was, and she got the judge she wanted. She can appoint 3 more next year and 4 the year after. There will be almost no one then who has not been appointed by her. This has been a serious problem in the fight against corruption. In several recent cases where hundreds of millions of dollars were alleged to have been involved and corruption by senior members of the government, including the President and her husband, the Supreme Court, in a split decision, protected the suspects by making the concept of “executive privilege” so broad as to allow it to cover corrupt/criminal behavior. The non-Arroyo appointees, including the admirable Chief Justice Reynato Puno, dissented. (It was he who, in the face of government inaction, convened a national “Slays Summit” in 2007, in order to get some action on reducing the rampant human rights violations.)

Fourth, even though there is a lively media, it suffers from several significant limitations, and recently the country has been down-graded in international ranking (by Freedom House) of countries with a free media. First, there is a draconian law of criminal libel. If a publisher publishes defamatory material (eg about a corrupt judge) and cannot prove its truth, they will probably receive a prison sentence of about 5 years, as well as a substantial fine (as happened recently to the publisher of an anti-Arroyo daily, though it is under appeal). In another case, the charges were brought about 9 years after the original publication. Thus there are legal weapons which hang over the heads of media people and organizations, ready to be used when deemed strategically useful. Second, the government may organize harassment of the owners, directly eg as in the Marcos successful seizure of control of the Lopez media empire, or indirectly as in the more recent Arroyo attacks on the Lopez group’s Manila Electric Co. (see above). This was an action which effectively challenged control of the Group’s ownership of Meralco, but it is widely believed it is a campaign indirectly targeted against the Lopez controlled media (newspapers and TV) which is anti-Arroyo. (In the Martial Law period, Marcos wrested control of its media interests from the Lopez Group which was a rich prize for him, and cronies, and was also anti-Marcos by then.)

Third, in 2006, the regime declared an “emergency” and closed down for some weeks the same paper whose publisher was this year sentenced to prison( see above). Under Martial Law, Marcos closed all non-government media.

Fourth, journalists who are critical of the regime can be murdered as 6 have already been this year and over 50 during GMA’s tenure. Many are threatened with murder, and many are tortured, disappeared, and harassed. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work. (So far as I know, unlike Iraq and other countries high on the list, it is only Filipinos who are targeted.)

To sum up, although the country is rich in natural and human resources, the life experience of an over-whelming majority is far from what it would be if those resources were not systematically and corruptly siphoned off by an incredibly predatory elite and, in a minor role, middling business and government opportunists. Across a wide spectrum, state institutions which should provide justice, fairness, security and opportunity do not operate effectively for ordinary people; they do operate arbitrarily in favor of the wealthy and powerful; and they operate abusively or in violation of the law against the working class, and are shielded from effective sanction-or reform. Corruption, of various kinds, operates to favour the top and distort the lives of those below.

Contemporary political issues

Many Filipinos consider the Arroyo regime the most corrupt they have experienced, even more than the Marcos “crony capitalism” of 30 years ago. Increasingly it is being seen as more brutal than its predecessors, including Marcos’ regime. Surveys such as Social Weather Survey (SWS) and Pulse Asia indicate that Filipinos dislike their President, do not think she can be trusted, that she lies, and that her Presidency is illegitimate. She was never properly elected ie she took power in a coup organized with others while she was the Vice-president, and she cheated-demonstrably- to get the Presidency in the 2004 elections. Being in office by fraud is bad enough. But no one has been punished for that flagrant illegality, with one telling exception-the whistleblower on her election fraud, an Army Sgt who revealed incriminating tapes of her arranging the “padding” of her votes with a Commissioner for Elections.

There is a strong feeling in the country that the Arroyo regime must be ended by one means or another, but no later than the elections in 2010. Even sections of the RC Church have begun to express the view, in guarded terms, that she has been a disaster and should be removed. A majority view in the country is that the neo-liberal policies which were originally imposed by Presient Aquino, then super-charged by her successor Fidel Ramos, followed by President Estrada until he was removed, and taken further with relish by Arroyo, have been a nightmare for ordinary Filipinos while a bonanza for the rich and politically powerful. These policies have brought a social crisis which in turn has called forth the repressive policies which have seen about 1000 activists and others killed, hundreds disappeared and widespread torture and harassment. This is the classic combination “free market, strong state” as Andrew Gamble expressed it decades ago. In view of such a crisis and the coming worsening of the economy, some of the rich and powerful are weighing their options!

One option is impeachment. This has been tried three times, but Arroyo’s allies in Congress have blocked it. A current attempt is being discussed in Congress at the moment. My view is that it will not succeed as Arroyo has the numbers and should be able to hold them as she is busy passing out bribes up to 500,000 pesos to ensure survival. This is on top of similar amounts which were passed out to about 150 loyalists last year, seemingly for the same reason. Given that she and her husband have been party to every major scam in recent years, amounting to hundreds of millions of US dollars, it is fair to say she can easily spend her way out of impeachment trouble. It is that blatant. Recently a new name for the country appeared in the press: SCAMDINAVIA

In the past 20 years, military mutinies and People’s Power deposed two Presidents. But a third attempt-against Arroyo’s ascent, failed, as have subsequent “mutinies” by largely junior officers of the AFP. It would seem that there is little chance of such a revolt today. The military repression has been a significant factor in deterring such an action. Leadership cadres have been killed etc and the masses in a sense “de-mobilised”, not least because their struggle for existence is intensifying. And after two successful changes at the top, nothing much has changed except that conditions are worse. The result has been a deep cynicism which I discuss in a later section.

Blunder in Mindanao

The one development which could bring the people back onto the streets, and possibly with military intervention is the anticipated Arroyo coup ie achieving Constitutional Change which would allow her to stay in office beyond her legal limit of 2010. Here I discuss the situation in Mindanao as a way of indicating the high stakes she is willing to play for. In a flank maneuver to achieve her goal of Constitutional Change and thus her term extension, she seemed willing to see part of her country effectively separated. The story takes us to the Morolands of southwestern Mindanao.

Arroyo’s Peace Team (led by two former Generals) negotiated a settlement with the MILF with which it has been fighting,, sporadically, for many years. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) provided a very considerable degree of autonomy to the Bangsamoro people, going well beyond that achieved by the Moro National Liberation Front in the mid-90s. Dissatisfaction with the limits imposed in the then newly created Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, caused the MILF to split away and take up armed struggle. They thought they had achieved a great deal with the 2008 MOA. It seemed to be very close to sovereignty, and it could be seen as only a small step away from independence That may not have been their immediate, or even long term goal, but in the current context, it looked extreme to many Filipino commentators when the MOA was leaked to the public just before it was to be signed (in Malaysia with many dignitaries-Filipino and foreign, not surprisingly including the US Ambassador). There was a political firestorm in the rest of the Philippines. The matter was temporarily enjoined by the Supreme Court on issues of possible unconstitutionality. Arroyo’s allies were in disarray, and in view of the outrage the MOA caused even amongst her supporters, she began to back-track. It would not be signed, and the final disposition would have to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision on the broader issues. The MILF , of course, was outraged. The document had been initialed after many months of negotiation. They thought they had been shabbily dealt with. Several of their field commanders went on the attack. War had commenced as the AFP-aided by the Americans- counter-attacked. The result was about a hundred and fifty civilians killed, dozens of soldiers on both sides killed, and about 500,000 civilians displaced at least temporarily.

Arroyo announced that the MILF would no longer be a negotiating partner. There would be a continued hunt for the two MILF Commandants who had started the fighting. She was insisted, to no avail, that the MILF give them up. Twenty million pesos were put on their heads. In future, the government would enter into consultations, presumably leading to negotiations for a new MOA, with community groups and other, non- MILF, leaders. It was made plain that the new MOA would be less generous to the MILF than the one they thought they had in the bag.

What was going on with the MOA process? There are different interpretations. It may have been an elaborate scheme by which the wars in Mindanao could be finally brought to an end, and the Philippine government would try to ensure that the least liberal reading of the final agreement would be imposed, and thus like the previous arrangement with the MNLF, the area would remain in the control of the Republic. The goal was also to try to achieve Charter Change. Others argue that the priority was always an extended term for Arroyo (and Congress, provincial governors, etc.) and that Arroyo and her clique dreamed up a scheme to ensure, in a roundabout (some would say ham-handed and/or deceptive) manner, Constitutional Change. That is, if the MOA was pushed through Congress it would require a change in the political structure of the country (essentially a Federation would emerge) and with that opened up, the Arroyo goal of term extension could easily be rammed through on the numbers. It was a daring, even breath-taking scheme. It was also hare-brained. And proof to many Filipinos that their President was not only illegitimate, but extremely dangerous. She was willing to trade her own interest in remaining in office to further accumulate riches, and probably out of fear of prosecution if she was no longer President, for what to many appeared to be a step toward the dismemberment of the country. Whatever it might have led to, the MOA failure also, importantly, showed what a deceptive and arrogant regime, one lacking in political judgment and any semblance of morality, was in charge of the nation.

Political cynicism and response

With good reason, most Filipinos have become cynical about the game of politics which has been played over many years. It is a game in which powerful families known as dynasties, and other elites vie for power. In that competitive game, they all get richer from their access to funds which are then siphoned off from budgets intended for schools, hospitals and health care, roads and other infrastructure projects.. Their “constituents” have gotten poorer as a result. Indeed, since the traditional politicians or trapos (in Tagalog, trapo means that cloth or rag which you wipe your feet on before entering a house) switch allegiances, parties, alliances with no regard to loyalties, policies or the interests of the people who have followed them or voted for them. There is only self-interest-thus no constituents in the normal sense. The cynicism is fueled by the realization that when previous Presidents were removed having lost the support of some elements in society, the problems of ordinary people did not go away. The main difference in the longer term was that different elite snouts were in a trough full to over-flowing with state monies.

The result of such cynicism differs. Many people are simply not interested in politics and play no role in it. At elections some may vote as there is a very strong culture of participation, abstracted from the reality of the game that is being played out. They are also often paid or intimidated, or even directed to vote (in a certain way). These people just try to get on with their difficult and fraught life.

Others, about 10%, have chosen to go overseas either to get employment (estimates of real unemployment in the Philippines suggest it is 25%, far higher than the government is willing to admit), or to get better pay and conditions. This is a difficult choice for a number of reasons, and many have very bad experiences. Nevertheless, the flood outwards continues. Because the remittances from these Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) at US$17million ranks 3rd in the country’s sources of income, many aspects of government policy militate towards increasing the number of OFWs. Indeed, recently GMA has been bragging about these labor “heroes”. She points with pride to the top world ranking the country has achieved in the diabolic scheme to ease pressure on her regime by effectively forcing people to leave the country, often at great risk and danger to themselves, deprivation of parental relations for their children, and the sorrowing down-grading of their hard earned occupational achievements and qualifications. A majority of OFWs are women. They especially are vulnerable to being exploited terribly, and abused, perhaps because of the domestic work so many obtain. Others fall into criminal and other behavior which can result in severe sanctions, public or private, including death. Some, thinking they are going to ordinary domestic or entertainment jobs, are instead “trafficked” into sexual exploitation.

A third response is, of course, to take advantage of the corrupt environment to make a living, sometimes a very good living, from crime. This can be tax evasion, smuggling, the top two areas where the state leaks revenue, much of it aided by corrupt officials and largely involving businessmen who appear to be law-abiding. Other kinds of rackets include drugs, gambling (especially the numbers game jueteng (which is dominated in many areas by political clans who use the proceeds to stay in power, buying votes etc; this is the game which President Estrada was supposed to have made millions from), and human trafficking. A number of books have been written by investigative reporters dealing with a number of these types of activity and establishing not only the widespread involvement of business and government officials from top to bottom, but the consequential loss of finance for much needed pro-people projects.

There are many other forms of criminal operations which directly effect Filipinos in their everyday life. One particular aspect is widespread criminal activity engaged in by police. This includes a wide range of activity including corrupt relations with criminals, especially gangs. But it also involves a high incidence of police violence, often injuring/killing innocent bystanders. Admittedly some of the violence may be in the process of “law enforcement”, for there are many armed desperadoes willing to shoot it out with the police. However, a very worrying phenomenon is police shootings of what are alleged to have been “suspects”. There are few serious investigations and almost no court cases brought against the police in these cases. That this is so, and that such shootings are almost a daily event in Manila, suggests that the police effectively have carte blanche to “rub-out” members of the “underclass” who may be acting suspiciously or committing a crime. It seems there are a large number of officially sanctioned “Dirty Harrys” cleaning up the streets. This is certainly the accusation which has been leveled at the mayor of Davao in Mindanao, where vigilantes have been at work for a number of years. In recent years there have been some big “rub- outs” in Metro Manila which seem to indicate there is truth in this analysis. In the most recent, after a sensational bank robbery wherein all the bank staff were murdered, the police shortly thereafter raided a working-class area and killed 10 “suspects” in or around their homes. A previous bank robbery case a few years ago involved the killing by police of 12 “suspects” in similar circumstances. There were police claims, as there always are, that the victims fired at them first. Relatives and neighbors deny this. The widespread shooting of “suspects” would seem not only to involve widespread violation of human rights, but also a crude symbolic demonstration of the power, and even more scary its arbitrary use, which the Philippine state is prepared to unleash on anyone-especially working class people- who does not conform. It also suggests that the police, or some elements in it could be prepared to shoot those who they “know” are engaged in criminal-or other-activity. It is easy to go across the line-why wait until the crime is or has been committed. In the past week, five trussed-up bodies have been found dumped in garbage mounds, victims of “executions” which even one police spokesperson indicated may have been the work of police.

An amazing example of the arbitrary, repressive and anti-working class “law and order” mentality in a country where corporate and white collar crooks act with a large degree of immunity, concerns the case of a disabled, poor defendant who was given six years of imprisonment for selling five “sticks” (cigarettes, often sold singly on the streets) containing marijuana.

Fourth, many Filipinos join with others in a very dense civil society, one of the world’s leading examples I should think of the determination to collectively oppose an undemocratic regime and to seek to build a better society. The extent and nature of civil society organization and activity is most impressive. In every sector-labor, peasants and fisherfolk, media, law (e.g. the National Union of People’s Lawyers with which I was particularly concerned), church, education, social welfare and others – there are organizations committed to resisting the neo-liberal policies and the consequent human rights abuses of the current regime (and its predecessors). There is a commitment in most of these groups to educating the masses in a socialist direction and bringing them into participatory activity. Much of this work, perhaps the greatest part, is organized by organizations allied with Bayan and associated groups such as Anakpawis and Gabriela which are legal segments of the National Democratic movement. That movement also includes 1) the semi-legal National Democratic Front (though it is recognized by the Arroyo regime for peace negotiating purposes, its members have been harassed, arrested and disappeared in violation of the agreed peace protocols) , and 2) the illegal Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army. While the Party/Army have continued to operate for nearly 40 years, which indicates it retains residual support from the masses, particularly in rural areas where they operate on many of the islands, it has been labeled “terrorist” and targeted by the regime for elimination by 2010. There is no indication that the military forces of the AFP and PNP have the capacity to achieve such a result, even after 2010. Recent indications are that the NPA is gaining in strength and holding its own, even becoming more aggressive in its operations. The military is really stretched as it carries out a war against three sectors: first, the “ dark war” against civil society which is no longer secret, as it was formerly; second, the war against the NPA; and third, the war against the MILF in Mindanao, which I discuss elsewhere.

Dancing the dictator Cha-Cha

At the present time it appears that this most distrusted and disliked President is seeking, once again, Congressional support for a Constitutional Change (Cha-Cha) which will allow her to stay on as Prime Minister for an indefinite period. With her dominance of Congress and having appointed a substantial majority of the Supreme Court justices who have since been loyal in their decision-making, it appears that Cha-Cha may be on. In that case, we are very likely to see very serious civil society resistance. ( A recent SWS survey indicates that 2/3 of Filipinos oppose an extended term) And, very possibly, military intervention; this has been signaled by Senator/former Lieutenant Trillanes who remains in detention despite receiving 11 million votes in recognition of his leadership role in several “mutinies” in recent years.

Australia’s role

That Australia is the second largest Aid donor to the Philippines, and an increasingly significant military ally, means that Australia has given important support to a corrupt and brutal regime which has plunged its people into a nightmare of grinding poverty (in the midst of luxury for the elite), widespread hunger, homelessness and joblessness etc while using the military forces to suppress opposition. At the same time, the Aid is very likely to be “skimmed” by corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and other elements in the chain of distribution and implementation. For this is a regime in which people have no scruples in diverting funds away from the public interest into private pockets. In most cases, with impunity. And as with its Aid to other countries in the region, Australia runs the risk of getting entangled in conflicts that we ought not to be in, a pattern which of course does not go unnoticed by our neighbors. It is bad enough that the American military and secret forces are there, still intervening in Filipino affairs and supporting Arroyo (which brings suspicion and hostility towards the USA). Our government should not be involved in that way.

It is imperative that Australia’s governmental, NGO and, to the extent possible, business relationships, with the Philippines be reassessed and redirected. Military relations should be halted. Aid programs should be very carefully scrutinized to see that funds are not misdirected on the ground. All Aid should, from now on, be conditional on the cessation of human rights abuse by military forces (and others operating in vigilante style). Even the US has made a few halting steps in this direction by formally linking military Aid to improvement in human rights protection.

Australian progressive organizations must make serious efforts to develop the consciousness of people in this country as to what is being done to the Filipino people under the Arroyo regime eg most children are not in school, while those who are attend in 3 shifts; a substantial and increasing number of Filipinos suffer from hunger; a large majority are poor and this figure is increasing; health is a disaster area for ordinary Filipinos who cannot pay for medical services, who have to bring their own (folding) beds into many hospitals, and who suffer death from dengue, diarrhea and dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, malaria and other illnesses that can be controlled or eradicated.

Their environment is being destroyed by urban pollution, legal and illegal logging and mining (both of which in turn contribute to pollution and health risks, as well as to the risk of deadly mud/ land slides and flooding). Trying to protect the environment in the Philippines is a very dangerous activity-activists and local people are killed off or in other ways “discouraged” from asserting their rights, often by AFP and PNP squads. It is in this sector where Australian capital is most closely involved with the trauma inflicted on the Filipino people, through the mining which is taking place or is projected, in many parts of the country. Pressure should be brought on these companies in this country to desist from activities the local people see to be destructive of their environment and/or sacred land (much of the mining effects indigenous people).

Finally, civil society sectoral groups should be supported with an array of traditional solidarity relations, and leading alliances such as Bayan, Gabriela and Anakpawis should continue to be supported with even more vigour, especially in the coming campaign to prevent Cha-Cha and what could become Arroyo’s indefinite dictatorship (she and her cronies fear losing office and having to defend criminal charges for corruption and human rights abuse). We are entering a crucial period in the history of the Philippines. Australia, and Australians, should play a positive role in the fight for social justice and against transition from a faux democracy to fascism.

A major constraint on the Arroyo regime is the knowledge that the CPP and the NPA were greatly strengthened by the Marcos turn to dictatorship. They certainly had hoped to be able to destroy them by the time Cha-Cha was implemented and the terms of Arroyo and her cronies extended. The presence of the CPP and the NPA continues to be a major brake on the government’s freedom to choose its course of action. This would explain its recent exploration of opening peace talks with the NDF, in the hope that as with the MILF, it could reach some kind of deal (possibly the offer to seek a de-listing of the organizations from the “terrorist” ranks) which would allow the government to try to defuse the weapon of the people. There is every reason for Australians to support the Filipino people in their continuing struggle – be it by mass action or force of arms- against the illegitimate Arroyo regime. Posted byBulatlat.com

* I was recently in the Philippines for 3 months doing research on several projects. I am writing up what I think is important for outsiders to consider when thinking about the current regime there and the manner in which international solidarity can best be expressed This report is based on my observations in Manila, several provinces of Luzon and (in 2007) Mindanao; extensive coverage of print and TV media; interviews with progressive activists working with many different social movements; conversations with poor and working class Filipinos; attendance at conferences, meetings, lectures dealing with social, political and economic issues of the present period; my reading, historical and contemporary, analyzing Philippine state and society and its neo-colonial location, as well as its present neo-liberal condition.


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