Philippines: Shifting Patterns of Political Violence Defy Old Stereotypes


Kit Collier

The release of an Amnesty International report in August focused attention on an 'intensifying pattern' of political killings in the Philippines, particularly of left wing activists. According to Amnesty, there were at least 244 such assassinations since President Gloria Arroyo took office in January 2001. Compared with 66 political killings in 2005, the tempo accelerated to at least 51 through the first half of 2006. The Philippine human rights group Karapatan provides even more alarming statistics, claiming there have been over 700 politically motivated murders under Arroyo.

Arroyo's critics have long likened her to late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and although the scale of extrajudicial executions does not yet parallel the darkest days of his martial law regime (1972-86), it does now surpass anything seen since its early aftermath under President Corazon Aquino (1986-92). In the worst year of the Marcos regime, 1984, 538 political killings were recorded; but the average annual figure under the dictatorship was about 185. If current trends continue, this year's tally may come disturbingly close to the Marcos average.

Comparisons with Marcos were spurred by Arroyo's declaration of a state of emergency last February, outraging human rights activists who recalled his martial law decree of September 1972. Beneath the specious similarities, however, lurk more significant differences between these two emergencies, and their wider contexts, which seem to be passing with little attention or comment.

In their exclusive focus on the state, embodied in the civilian executive, the Amnesty report and the progressive advocacy culture more generally appear stuck in a 20th century human rights rut. As became clear once the panic subsided, Arroyo's emergency was aimed less at seizing dictatorial powers than precluding just such a move by military malcontents in unholy alliance with the revolutionary left. Protestors gave little thought to what a successful anti-Arroyo coup might have meant for their civil liberties, marching instead against the incumbent and lending succour to the conspirators.

If the main threat to human rights in the 20th century came from strong, centralized states, it is now increasingly state weakness and state failure that imperil human security, and non-state actors that maim and slaughter growing numbers of civilians. Human rights activists have not yet caught up with this reality. It is a little known fact that there have actually been more civilian fatalities due to terrorist bombings in the Philippines since Arroyo came to power than the killings on which Amnesty focuses. This is not to excuse the impunity that Amnesty correctly identifies behind the current spate of killings, but it does call for a less simplistic diagnosis of impunity's changing nature.

The killings are doubtless the work of a range of actors with diverse motivations. Military and police elements are surely foremost among them. Yet many of these same elements, far from taking orders from civilian authority, are committed to its overthrow. This agenda has the full support of an ever more opportunistic left. The Communist Party of the Philippines explicitly denies the universalism of human rights, viewing human rights militancy as just another front serving the larger goal of Maoist revolution. Karapatan was born out of the Communist Party's factional split in 1994 specifically to uphold this instrumentalist approach to human rights.

The intimate relationship between the Communist Party, which leads the guerrilla New People's Army (NPA), and groups like Karapatan which became undeniable after the split is the elephant in the room that progressives dare not acknowledge, for this is how the assassins seek to justify their actions. By failing to confront this issue squarely, however, Amnesty helps perpetuate the culture of opacity surrounding political violence in the Philippines. Despite the rising death toll, there is widespread public apathy at the killings because more Filipinos understand Maoist instrumentalism than they did in the days of the dictatorship, and fewer are now prepared to overlook it. And claims by the security establishment that the communists are themselves behind the killings are all too easily accepted, thanks to another fact largely ignored by state-centric human rights activists. Even at the Marcos regime's nadir, more people died in internal Communist Party purges than at the hands of the dictator's goons.

WATCHPOINT: President Arroyo's newly appointed commission of inquiry into political killings, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo, begins hearing evidence on 11 September. Will it unearth anything substantial by January 2007, the proposed timeframe, or, like similar inquiries into terrorist attacks, fade into obscurity?


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