ARROYO’S DESPERATE SCHEME: TORTURE OF MORONG “43” A REHEARSAL FOR EMERGENCY RULE
In less than three months from now, de facto president Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines will step down from power—unless martial-law or emergency rule intervenes. Or the failure of election is declared due to the breakdown of the automated voting/counting system plagued with problems. On May 10, either her critics Senator Manny Villar or NoyNoy Aquino, son of the late Corazon Aquino and Sen. Benigno Aquino, takes the helm. Her own chosen candidate, Gilberto Teodoro, a U.S.-sponsored candidate, has neither charisma nor achievement to propel him to third place, behind ex-president Joseph Estrada, and assorted oligarchic caciques.
What needs careful analysis and vigilant monitoring is the way events are unfolding in seemingly wayward but tendentious fashion, as the May election looms. What seems accidental or gratuitous actually hides premeditated calculation by a few players occupying powerful niches in government and civil society who stand to benefit or lose as personnel changes. Meanwhile, except for a growing number energized by Bayan Muna and other progressive groups, the majority of Filipinos still remain cynical: “guns, goons and gold,” the mantra for political success, will determine the May elections for president and senate.
Ghouls of the Ampatuan Carnage
Less than three months ago, on Nov. 23, 2009, 6o people were massacred in Ampatuan, Mindanao. The victims were ordinary Filipino citizens: numerous women, 30 journalists, two lawyers, and innocent passers-by. Generally agreed as one of the most horrendous election-related killings in recent Philippine history, the master-minds were the Ampatuan clan and their patrons whose monopoly of power in the province can be credited to their delivering crucial deciding votes, the first for Arroyo when she ran for president in 2004 (known as the “Hello Garci” cheating scandal), and for her party during the 2007 senatorial elections. The Ampatuan warlord clan and their absolute control of the police and bureaucracy in Maguindanao is entirely due to Arroyo’s decade-long patronage.
A report by the International Crisis Group released last Dec. 23, 2009, offered this insight: “Political patronage by successive governments in Manila, most notably by the Arroyo administration, allowed the Ampatuans to amass great wealth and unchecked power…[national and local revenues as well as profitable business contracts are administered through them]” (John Berthelsen, “Massacre in Mindanao,” Asia Sentinel, 22 dec. 2009). One example: by circumventing the Constitutional ban on private armies with her Executive Order 546 in 2006, Arroyo contributed single-handedly to legitimizing private armies of gangsters, which, in a mocking turn, she now calls for disbanding. Who can believe Arroyo wants to dismantle her own quasi-feudal retainers and para-military agents?
At first, in order to obviate her accountability, Arroyo declared martial law in Maguindanao on Dec. 4, 2009. It was an attempt to defuse public outrage, but also test the waters for a possible extension of Arroyo’s term. Intense universal protest pushed Arroyo to lift it on December 13. The alibi of Ampatuan’s anti-state rebellion was too fictitious to maintain. Currently, the trial of Andal Ampatuan Jr. for that brutal slaying has been energizing local and foreign media to scrutinize the fetid Amapatuan-Arroyo symbiosis. Long-standing charges of massive human rights violations, now claiming over two thousand victims of extra-judicial murders and abductions, may lead to more shocking revelations of crimes by Arroyo, her military and police officials, that can mobilize the International Criminal Court and various European and Latin American governments to indict Arroyo and ilk for crimes against humanity. Arroyo’s lawyers may be warning her of the changing global climate for notorious malefactors whose ill-gotten wealth are deposited in properties and banks abroad.
As the Ampatuan trial heats up public passions, the atmosphere threatens the normal process of Arroyo grabbing a congressional seat to represent her home province of Pampanga—part of her plan to maintain her authority. She wants immunity from prosecution by enraged citizens and international organizations. The media focus on the Ampatuan monstrosity also risks opening up legislative inquiries into unresolved corruption imbroglios (all dealing with government contracts and pillage of public revenues) that deeply involve the Arroyo family, as well as flunkeys and servitors. Ampatuan’s trial may also incite further probes into hitherto unexamined electoral frauds, as well as jeopardize the ruling clique’s scheme to enlist the rival Mangundadatu clan into clandestine manipulation of votes this coming May.
The deteriorating economic climate, sky-rocketting unemployment, flare-up of hostilities with the Moro Islamic National Liberation Front as well as with the New People’s Army, plus the accelerating return of migrant workers (their remittance alone props up the country’s foreign reserves and thus the capacity to pay the foreign debt), are all frightening pressures that may explode in a “people power” revolt. All these risks need to be defused, suspended, or neutralized by media manipulations, family scandals, terrorist menace, and old true-and-tried formulas to generate moral panic and public alarm.
Fascism Filipino Style?
And so, in the early morning of Feb. 4, 300 heavily armed soldiers and police of the Southern Luzon Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Rizal National Police forcibly barged into the farmhouse of Dr Melencia Velmonte and arrested 43 community health workers and doctors. They were participating in First Responders Training seminars sponsored by the Community Medicine Foundation (COMMED) and Council for Health and Development—all legal organizations. The health professionals were violently frisked, blindfolded, handcuffed for more than 36 hours, denied food, and sexually molested. They are now detained at Camp Capinpin, headquarters of the 202nd Infantry Brigade. Their personal belongings and training materials were confiscated. Relatives and friends have not been allowed to visit (even Congressman Satur Ocampo was refused, demonstrating AFP disregard for the supremacy of civil authority and citizens over the military), nor were they allowed legal counsel during 24-hour interrogations.
Leila de Lima of the government’s Commission on Human Rights stated that the Morong 43 suffered ”mental torture through long hours of blindfolding and scare tactics, including threats to kill the detainees and their loved ones if they don’t cooperate.” KARAPATAN, the local human rights monitor, testified that the detainees were physically tortured and sexually harassed (e.g., when they urinate, the military is present to handle their underwear). As time goes by, more details of fascist operations will surely be confirmed by court testimonies and interviews.
The scene is outrageous, but the reports of so many incidents like this may strike the reader as boring and repetitious in a U.S. neocolony. If you are arrested by the AFP and other state security agents as a suspected “terrorist,” you are guilty until you prove your innocence. For peasants and ordinary workers, arrests usually lead to beatings and death. For middle class citizens, “disappearance” without any trace. So what else is new in Arroyo’s police-state?
Majority of the thousands victimized by extrajudicial killings and abductions during Arroyo’s tenure have been accused of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Called “terrorists,” their murder or kidnapping has been justified by the Department of Defense and successive administrations. No one seems to question the accuser and judge: the AFP. Col. Aurelio Baladad of the 202nd Infantry Brigade AFP, together with his superiors in the hierarchy, claims that the health professionals were NPA members or sympathizers training in how to make improvised explosives. The AFP also announced that they confiscated guns, ammunition, money, etc.—evidence planted at the training venue, according to Dr. Eleanor Jara, director of the Council for Health and Development.
Meanwhile, Dr. Delen de la Paz of the Health Action for Human Rights denounced the AFP for this illegal intrusion without a proper search warrant: the name used in the document was not the owner of the house, nor did it specify an exact address. Dr. Jara and Dr. Julie Caguiat of the Community Medicine Foundation both condemned the violation of the health workers’ human rights, an example of “state terrorism” of the Arroyo regime and her officials. Dr. Geneve Rivera, head of the Health Alliance for Democracy, charged that “the mental and physical torture inflicted by the AFP is inhumane and criminal” (media release, 9 Feb. 2009).
At the Mercy of Executioners?
After their lawyers filed for the writ of habeas corpus, the Supreme Court ordered the AFP to present the detainees at the court within 24 hours. Gen. Brawner, the AFP spokesman, refused to offer the “high-value targets” because of laughable excuses: lack of logistics, the NPA is out to ambush them, etc. Temporizing, delay, and postponement are the usual tactics—everything to distract from Ampatuan, news of more corruption deals uncovered, etc. Denied their constitutional rights, the Morong 43 continue to be interrogated and terrorized (one of them, Dr. Alex Montes, has been subjected to repeated beating and electrocution). Bernadette Ellorin, chair of BAYAN-USA, observed that the Arroyo regime “is sending the message that Filipino doctors and nurses are welcome to go abroad to work, but they are labeled rebels if they stay in the Philippines to serve the poor.” This is exactly what happened to activist health professional Dr. Chandu Claver, a target of the Arroyo para-military death-squad, whose wife died in an ambush on July 31, 2006. Luckily Dr. Claver was only wounded, but with mounting death-threats he was eventually compelled to seek refuge in Canada.
The AFP and the Department of Defense target activists and critics of the Arroyo regime as “members of front organizations of the communists” and “enemies of the state.” They can legitimately be arrested, detained, tortured or killed. This is not just Cold War rhetoric, or post-9/11 cliches about security. Michael Tan, a Manila newspaper columnist, reminds us that the human rights abuses under Arroyo exceeded the Marcos’ scale to the point where the European Union sent an investigating team to verify the pattern of political repression.
Two years ago, Prof. Philip Alston, human rights rapporteur for the United Nations, charged the military for the habit of impunity in carrying out the counter-isurgency Oplan Bantay Laya, wreaking havoc on the lives of thousands of Filipino peasants, women, church workers, journalists, lawyers, teachers, and youth. Tan rightly argues that “if arbitrariness and impunity are allowed to rule, those in power can easily use the “NPA” tag on anyone who disagrees with them, and can have the military round them up in raids” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 9 Feb. 2010).
Aside from the tactical use of distraction of public view away from the Ampatuan carnage and Arroyo’s involvement and of reviving the communist/terrorist scare, the case of the Morong 43 easily falls into the Arroyo strategy to defeat the communist insurgency by the time Arroyo vacates her presidential office. To be sure, this is foolish wish-fulfillment that will not even entertain rabid American neocon ideologues. Such predictions of AFP victory over the NPA have become nervous tics, if not fascist mantras for local Rambos. Ever since the Marcos dictatorship, the AFP has been boasting that it will crush the rebels in two or three or five years. Meanwhile, their innocent victims—“collateral damage,” as the U.S.-Pentagon lexicon has it–multiply as they conduct daily raids to terrorize peasant communities and urban squatters.
Toward Judgment Day
Universal uproar over this Arroyo mishap continues. Romeo Clamor, deputy secretary-general of KARAPATAN (whose wife, Dr. Merry Mia-Clamor is one of those detained), noted that the raid may be read as “a sign that the military is rushing to meet the deadline of Oplan Bantay Laya 2,” the bloodiest and most brutal campaign unleashed by any Filipino president to eliminate “enemies of the state”—that is, not only the armed movement but also legal organizations critical of the government (report by Janess Ellao, Bulatlat 7 Feb 2010). For this reason, all human rights instutitions around the world, from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Asian Human Rights Commission, World Council of Churches, and the Permanent People’s Tribunal, among others, have criticized the Arroyo regime for its unconscionable “culture of impunity” that allows the military to destroy any feasible justice system and ride roughshod over the bodies and souls of Filipinos. Fascist military diktat hides behind shoddy civilian rule lacking legitimacy or consensus, and thus dependent on guns, jails, terrorist state violence.
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines, in their 2007 ecumenical report, holds Arroyo and her officials accountable for the extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances, and other human rights violations. The Arroyo government is specifically responsible for its non-compliance with measures proposed by the UN Human Rights Committee in October 2003; and for its failure to carry out its pledges to the UN Human Rights Council made on April 19, 2006; and for continuing violation of core provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“Let the Stones Cry Out,” Quezon City, March 2007). Can we expect the neocolonial oligarchy to try one of its own members?
Revisiting a Model U.S. Neocolony
From 1898 to 1946, the Philippines was the only direct colony of the U.S. in southeast Asia and the site of huge astrategic military bases. Today, the Philippines remains a neocolony, with AFP officers trained and supervised by the Pentagon, and logistics/weapons provided by the Obama administration. The federally funded US Institute of Peace (working closely with the U.S. Embassy in Manila) turned out to be the behind-the-scenes mediator/broker for peace negotiations between Arroyo and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Under the pretext of the Visiting Forces Agreement (approved by President Ramos, and reaffirmed by Estrada and Arroyo), annual military exercises by both governments are held, with thousands of U.S. troops and ships and planes involved, presumably to help the Filipino elite suppress the “terrorist” Abu Sayyaf, Islamic separatists, and the NPA. The real intent, of course, is to protect and save the oligarchic system from being altered or reformed by any nationalist, progressive sector, or even replaced by a left-inspired, or social-democratic “people power” revolution.
Every year, millions of US tax dollars are used to shore up an underdeveloped, neocolonial society defined by sharply unequal division of wealth and property, a legacy of almost a century of U.S political, economic and cultural domination. Of course, US politicians stricken with liberal conscience sometimes make critical gestures. Because of rampant human-rights violations, the US Congress has withheld $2 million of military aid to the AFP. However, President Obama met last July 2009 with Arroyo despite her low public approval rating of 26%, and voiced support for her role as the chief U.S. partner in the war on terrorism in Asia.
The Washington Times (26 July 2009) editorialized on the abysmal corruption and human-rights abuses under Arroyo’s tenure, particularly the failure to protect journalists (this was before the Ampatuan massacre). It noted ill-concealed machinations by Mrs. Arroyo to cling to power, in particular the move to amend the Philippine constitution, circumvent the presidential term limit, and gut the elections. The case of the Morong 43 may well be a none-too-subtle maneuver to warn opponents, deflect public attention from the Ampatuan carnage, and assure her supporters that she is not a “lame-duck leader” but a clever politician determined to perpetuate her putrid and moribund dynasty. However, there are signs that the rising upsurge of public anger in the media, as well as a multitude of unreported grassroots mobilization in the provinces, will surely not allow this to happen.
As of this writing, the latest group to blast the Gestapo-like raid is the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers that vowed to make the perpetrators, the Arroyo military and police officials, accountable to the world. The Union denounced “the illegal arrest, continued illegal detention, torture and cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of 43 health workers…This act of the military shows a blatant disregard and disrespect not only of proper legal procedures but also of basic human dignity, and is replete with human rights violations left and right. From the very beginning, the search itself was illegal, because it proceeded from a search warrant that was invalid on its face. But the indubitable fact is that the “evidence” that was presented were routinely planted to justify and cover-up the illegality of this blunder. The arrested health workers were also denied their basic constitutional rights which every civilized society should follow. They were purposely uninformed of the nature of their arrest, and they were simply blindfolded and led away like cattle. Also, all the health workers were denied visit by counsel, doctors, and family, in clear contravention of their rights. Up to now, despite our protestations and assertions as members of the court sworn to perform our duties, we have been denied access to our clients in utter disregard and contempt of the basic right to counsel.”
Up to what level can such barbarism, inspired by the US predatory violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and countless secret torture prisons, descend? –##