Philippines: The Killing Fields
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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.