Death squads target trade unions and progressive groups in the PhilippinesSeptember 4th, 2013 | Posted by in Overseas Jurisdictions
At the end of May, Oxfam New Zealand’s report on labour and environmental conditions in the Philippine banana plantations, that supply the large fruit importing company Dole, received widespread media attention. The report documented a number of serious abuses of workers’ rights including the use of child labour, workers being paid below the local minimum wage and planes spraying noxious pesticides overhead as workers toiled in the fields below. One section of the Oxfam banana report provides alarming details of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) intimidating workers who wanted to join a union. A worker described being held at gunpoint by soldiers and told to leave the union. Others reported that during an industrial dispute soldiers visited the homes of union members and threatened their families that the workers should leave the union and accept the company’s contract that offered poorer pay and working conditions than the one the union could negotiate. The soldiers claimed the union was a front of the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose armed wing the New People’s Army (NPA) has been fighting the government since the 1960s. The AFP’s behaviour in this situation is emblematic of a wider wave of killings, disappearances and other serious human rights abuses that have targeted left wing organisations over the past decade.
Violence in the Phillipines
During the Presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010) the Philippine human rights organisation, Karapatan, documented 1206 killings of members of trade unions, farmer organisations and church based advocacy groups. Under the 1987 Philippine Constitution 20% of the Congress is reserved for partylists that are elected proportionally and are meant to represent a marginalised sector of society. Left wing partylists, such as Bayan Muna (People First), Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) and Gabriela, a party list that represents women, have been particularly hit hard by the killings. The killings usually follow a similar pattern. A political activist is labelled as a supporter of the NPA by the Armed Forces. Later a gunman riding tandem on a motorcycle with no number plates shoots the activist dead before speeding off. The Armed Forces has denied responsibility for the spate of killings and disappearances. However, evidence gathered by Philippine and international human rights organisations has linked the military to a number of well known cases. For example, the Philippines’ Court of Appeal recently declared the Armed Forces responsible for the abduction and disappearance of Jonas Burgos, a farmer activist who has not been seen since being kidnapped in 2007. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch profiled seven killings and three disappearances in which a large body of evidence suggests AFP involvement.
Many had hoped there would be an improvement in the Philippines’ human rights record once President Aquino was elected on 2010, as he had denounced breaches of the rule of law by the Arroyo Administration. However, the most recent statistics released by Karapatan show there have been 142 cases of extrajudicial killings and 16 enforced disappearances since Aquino came to power. Political killings have continued this year. In March, gunmen riding on the back of a motorcycle gunned down Cristina Jose, a 40 year old mother of three and elected councillor for a small town in Davao Oriental in Southern Mindanao. In the weeks prior to her death Jose had organised demonstrations calling for the proper distribution of relief aid to the areas that had been ravaged by the deadly Typhoon Pablo in December 2012. Her neighbours reported that soldiers told villagers she was a supporter of the NPA. Again, on 25 May a co-ordinator of the Anakpawis partylist, which represents Filipino workers in the Congress, was shot dead in nearby Compostella Valley.
Last year President Aquino issued an executive order to set up a ‘superbody’ comprised of the Department of Justice, Presidential Human Rights Committee, the Armed Forces, Philippine National Police and other government departments to investigate extrajudicial killings. Unfortunately on a number of other occasions, President Aquino has displayed a dismissive attitude to those raising concerns about human rights abuses. During his recent visit to New Zealand in October 2012 President Aquino told Radio New Zealand that human rights concerns were amplified by the very ‘vocal leftist community’ in the Philippines who were ‘very good at making propaganda’. He argued that the Philippines was making good progress at combatting extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. His comments were echoed by his Presidential spokesman Ramon A. Carandang in an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, which responded to a piece by Murray Horton of the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa, condemning continuing human rights abuses in the Philippines. Mr Carandang wrote that:
Mr Horton’s views resemble misinformation commonly being disseminated by a number of individuals and organisations with ties to extreme leftist elements in the Philippines.
He went on to suggest that a 2011 arrest warrant made for General Palparan, whom is suspected of involvement in the 2006 disappearance of two young female university students, showed that progress was being made in combating impunity for human rights violations in the Philippines. However, nearly two years after the arrest warrant was issued, Palparan is yet to be apprehended, let alone tried or convicted. There is widespread speculation that he is being sheltered by elements within the Armed Forces. Therefore the case makes a poor argument that soldiers responsible for human rights violations will face justice.
The Political Conext
Some may wonder why killings of government opponents have continued in the Philippines even though formal democracy was restored to the country following the demise of the Marcos martial law dictatorship in 1986. But the Philippines remains highly unequal society. Foreign visitors to Manila are often surprised to see both a Lamborghini dealership and urban squatter communities within a short distance of each other. A 2011 study by the Philippine public policy consultancy firm, the Stratbase Research Institute, found that the Philippines had the highest rate of inequality of all the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The political environment is dominated by a small number of wealthy dynasties who often also have large commercial interests and landholdings. As in Latin America and other South East Asian countries, such as Indonesia, the armed forces and paramilitary groups have been deployed against organisations that challenge entrenched inequality and structural discrimination against the poor, such as trade unions and left wing political parties.
The criminologist Maurice Punch has documented how many states around the World, when faced by an insurgency or rebellion within their borders, have felt the temptation to support ‘wide deviations from the rule of the law’ to defeat insurgents, such as the use of covert death squads, torture and other forms of illicit violence.[i] When states have succumbed to this temptation, death squads have not only targeted insurgents but also civilians deemed to be potential sympathisers. Punch gave the example of the use of the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL) death squad by Spanish government officials in the 1980s, which not only targeted members of the Basque armed group ETA but also non-violent Basque independence activists and civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.[ii] In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in the 1980s tens of thousands of civilians were killed by government forces ostensibly in campaigns to defeat left wing guerrillas.
The Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA grew rapidly during the Marcos dictatorship years (1972 – 1986), when democratic rights were curtailed. In the early 1990s the movement’s capability declined significantly when the Communist Party suffered a split in its ranks. However, from the late 1990s through the 2000s the movement’s strength grew.[iii] Many of the grievances that motivated the rise of the movement during the Marcos era, such as rampant inequality, government corruption and brutality by the state security forces, continue to plague the Philippines and continue to motivate support for the NPA.
Some commentators have argued that desperation by some Philippine political figures and the AFP to finally defeat the NPA has led to the increased use of death squads and other dirty tactics to scare potential sympathisers. The Canadian geographer William N. Holden, has compared the killings to the infamous CIA Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War, in which death squads were used to murder tens of thousands of civilians alleged to have supported the National Liberation Front (popularly called the Vietcong in US media).[iv]
New Zealand’s relationship with the Phillipines
There have been long standing solidarity links between people’s organisations in the Philippines and human rights groups, churches, unions and other community groups in New Zealand dating back to the Marcos era. Union organisers at First Union give a small weekly donation to a fund that supports union organisers from the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a Philippine trade union organisation that has been at the forefront of many important battles for workers’ rights in the Philippines, including those of the Dole banana workers. The Human Rights Lawyers Association also hosted a meeting on the Philippines earlier this year, in which a Filipino trade unionist spoke.
This international communication and collaboration is a useful way of providing practical and moral support to the Philippine movement that helps build awareness of human rights abuses. These activities can also help keep the human rights crisis in the headlines in the Philippines’ media, as Philippine news websites often picks up stories about international activities in support of the Philippines’ human rights struggle. Last year the news website Bulatlat featured pictures of signs being raised on Mt Eden condemning the killing of Willem Geertman, an executive director of an NGO in Angeles City, Philippines. Statements have also been featured on the website of the Philippines Daily Inquirer, the country’s main daily newspaper. The New Zealand government can also contribute to efforts to end human rights abuses by raising human rights concerns when meeting with the Philippine government. There is at least some anecdotal evidence that Helen Clark raising concerns with President Arroyo helped lead to the release of a pastor who had been kidnapped in 2007.
Last year I attended a conference for human rights advocates at the University of the Philippines. One of the speakers, a member of the Anakpawis partylist, now walks with a cane after being shot 9 times during an attempt on his life. He was offered asylum overseas but decided to turn it down to continue working to expose death squad killings in the Philippines. It is hard not to be moved by those who continue to brave severe repression to stand up for fundamental human rights.
Cameron Walker is a BA/LLB student at the University of Auckland and a member of Auckland Philippines Solidarity. In November 2012 he took part in an exposure programme with the Philippines human rights organisation Karapatan.
[i] Maurice Punch State Violence, Collusion and the Troubles: Counter Insurgency, Government Deviance and Northern Ireland (Pluto Press, London, 2012) at 29.
[ii] At 38.
[iii] Paz Verdades M. Santos “The Communist Front: Protracted People’s War and Counter-Insurgency in the Philippines (Overview)” in Soliman M. Santos Jr. and Paz Verdades M. Santos (eds) Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines (Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2010) 17 at 24.
[iv] William N. Holden “Neoliberalism and State Terrorism in the Philippines: The Fingerprints of Phoenix” (2011) 4 Critical Studies on Terrorism 331 at 331.