In the last two weeks, there have been massive outpourings of grief and outrage over the brutal Ampatuan Massacre. Filipinos from all walks of life watched shocked and angry as images of torn and bloodied bodies strewn across a grassy hilltop were shown on television, and as the reports why they were there and who were behind their deaths began to come out. Now we all wait with bated breath – and some with raised and clenched fists—as martial law is imposed in Maguindanao and the investigations into the Massacre continue.
The nine years of the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency, democracy and human rights continue to deteriorate. A shocking 1,118 victims of extrajudicial killings has been recorded and documented since 2001 when she ascended to office. Three hundred fifty-seven (357) more were documented to have survived assassination attempts. Another 204 have been abducted and remain missing to this day. Scores have been tortured while thousands have been displaced and harassed, and hundreds have experienced physical assault in the course of military operations or while exercising their rights to assembly and free speech. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) recorded 29 journalists killed in the course of their work during the same period, but this excludes the 30 killed in the Ampatuan Massacre.
The Macapagal-Arroyo government issues declarations that it is appalled by the extrajudicial killings, but largely these pronouncements are aimed to appease the increasing criticism against its lack of genuine and thorough actions to put an end to the bloodbath. For the most part, the responsibility of finding the perpetrators and piecing together the circumstances surrounding the murders largely falls in to the hands of the families, their attorneys and human rights groups. In all cases, the effort of making inquiries and proving the liability of the security forces is an uphill battle.
Political murders are conducted continually at the hands of the AFP and its mercenary allied forces such as the CAFGU. In cases filed with the CHR, the UN, and the police, complainants and witnesses point towards ski-masked in motorcycles without license plates as the perpetrators, but also name elements of the AFP down to the actual Infantry Battalion and army command they belong under.
In the meantime, hardly any formal investigations were initiated by the Philippine National Police (PNP) or the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to clarify the circumstances of these killings.
The phenomenon of extrajudicial killings assumed alarming proportions in 2001 and spiked to a gruesome high in 2006. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism and in line with counter-insurgency efforts, the AFP and its Death Squads have carried out almost 900 politically-motivated executions.
Now, a climate of fear and intimidation reigns over those defending human rights, exposing government corruption and opposing the anti-people, anti-sovereignty policies of this government. The safety of activists, progressives and defenders has worsened considerably over the past decade, most significantly following denunciations against human rights abuses committed by the police, military and paramilitary forces, and against corruption by state officials and against impunity.
Impunity. How has the culture of impunity became so entrenched?
Public institutions in the Philippines have been politicized and many fail to perform their functions as required by the law. What do we mean exactly by politicization? Simply put, it is the direct interference by the government or by politicians into the workings of public institutions so as to deprive these institutions of their independence and their capacity to control themselves from within in terms of the norms and standards that they are supposed to uphold.
Primary among the most politicized institutions are the police and the military.
It is both a tragedy and a cause for outrage that the very institutions and individuals sworn to protect human rights are the ones abusing them in the most unspeakable ways. They stand not with the people in defending civil liberties and democratic rights, but against them. We must not mince words in saying this: the system of accountability in the military and police – as is frequently the case in the three branches of government — is so weak it is all but non-existent.
It’s not at all surprising that so many Filipinos have grown to despise politicians and to be cynical of elections. They see politicians as primarily self-serving, only aiming to fatten their pockets through underhanded and corrupt means even as they enjoy the privileges of being government officials. As for elections, these are viewed as mere formal and legal version of contests between the ruling elite for control of resources from the main government, and for profit from illegal economic activities.
The contest for control over these resources and illegal wealth gives a premium to leaders with skills in manipulating illegality and the uses of violence. Since these contests are joined in elections, candidates with these skills, plus the money from these rackets, always have the advantage. Victory in elections means access to central government resources, control over police and to a lesser degree the military, and a level of influence over the judicial process Victory in elections through the use of guns, goons and gold. In short, massive electoral fraud.
This is what many Filipinos insist happened in Maguindanao. This is what many strongly suspect the Macapagal-Arroyo regime succeeded in doing in tandem with the Ampatuan clan. And it has taken the sacrifice of 57 lives to finally blow the lid of this enormous can on worms. The Ampatuans were confident and killed with impunity because they controlled the police and to some extent the military. They were arrogant and killed with impunity because they confident they had Malacanang’s support and backing. It was, and is , a relationship of mutual and despicable convenience and benefit.
There is an inherent conflict between national security and democracy in this country. Why? Because when Malacanang speaks of the former, it primarily refers to its own security against the popular clamor for the executive’s resignation and ouster. Democracy, the voice of the people demanding genuine change, is only paid lip service, and worse, often in democracy’s name to the powers that be commit so many abuses against the Filipino people.
There is also an inherent conflict between enforcing national stability and protecting human rights. Why? Because national stability, again in the vocabulary of this government, means Malacanang watching its own back and preserving itself at the expense of the truth and justice. To preserve itself, this government declares there “is a need to ensure national stability” or “peace and order against destabilizers.”
To preserve itself, its allies among the ruling classes, and the very corrupt system they benefit from, this government attacks civil liberties and human rights in the guise of protecting democracy.
How dare we say this? Because immediately after such declarations, there is a wake of human rights violations in various forms, from higher taxes, anti-people executive orders or proclamations, to campaigns of militarization, harassment, abduction, and extrajudicial killings of human rights activists and other critics and watchdogs of government.
The Arroyo administration pretends to champion human rights when it in fact violates them. It declares itself to the international community as a defender of freedom and liberty, but it ruthlessly wields force, deception and violence to attain its self-serving goals. It uses the guarantees of democracy to try to destroy democracy. They who have been sworn to be protectors of democracy daily prove that are its sworn enemies. Even without the national declaration of martial law, the abuses against Filipinos’ human rights are no different from those perpetrated under a dictatorship.
The Philippines today is a barely-functioning democracy with a press under siege. While it is true that it’s almost impossible for any infraction of human rights to go unnoticed for an extended period, it only through the insistence of a vigilant media, and not because of any effort of the government. Who can deny that there have been relentless attacks on the media and anyone who expresses dissent? These have been recorded in hundreds of cases in the Commission on Human Rights, the House and Senate committees on human rights, even in police blotters.
Supporters of Malacanang may well say that the administration has taken steps towards bringing justice to victims. But anyone with the slightest sense of logic will see that there have been very insufficient efforts to ensure that these government-established mechanisms function in terms of credible standards.
For any domestic justice mechanism to be credible and legitimate, a number of basic standards, principles and norms – both within the framework of local human rights laws and international law – have to be met. None of this has been done. For instance, it is necessary to ensure victims’ right to an effective remedy including reparations for human rights violations recognized under local and international law, but to this day, he compensation bill for the victims of the Marcos dictatorship remains in limbo.
And what effective remedies can this government boast off? Have it’s so-called solutions worked? Have the killings stopped? Have the families of those abducted, disappeared or killed received justice for their love ones? And what has happened to the plans for the resumption of the peace negotiations with the National Front of the Philippines (NDFP) where remedies to the armed conflict should be discussed? What has happened to this government’s so-called commitment to a just and lasting peace?
On a more timely note — can we be assured that before Macapagal-Arroyo’s term ends, justice will be rendered the victims of the Ampatuan Massacre, the private armies disarmed, the killers and masterminds placed behind bars to serve the just and necessary sentence?
The president has time and again asserted that her government does not allow impunity and says that the country must pursue national healing and reconciliation.
But again and again it has also been pointed out — can there really be peace without justice? Can genuine peace exist in a society where economic and political interests clash and it is always the poor who suffer injustice at the abuses of the ruling elite?
And who believes that there is no impunity in this country when the blood of so many, many civilians – men, women and children — has been spilled? When the killers of these over 1,000 human rights advocates, members of progressive people’s groups, activist lawyers and members of the clergy remain at large at unpunished? The need to strike a blow against the deeply entrenched cycles of impunity has never been greater.
For those who believe in the struggle for reforms, and I do, there is a necessity for thorough and uncompromising reforms of the general system of governance are needed to prevent the recurrence of further serious human rights violations. Such reforms are essential and urgent if it is to be made clear to the killers in uniform, the warlords, the militarists and war-mongers that justice will be rendered, all perpetrators will be apprehended and punished, and that there will be no exemptions. All this will require credible and concrete efforts and measures to depoliticize public institutions such as the police and the military.
The issues of the rule of law and the immediate need to end the culture of impunity requires a serious response from the government – and this is a message we address to the government that will succeed the Macapagal-Arroyo administration. The next presidency must rise to this challenge, to this great task and heed the demand of civil libertarians, human rights defenders and all peace and democracy-loving Filipinos to end impunity. It must try to achieve what the incumbent administration has failed miserably to do.
Who among us does not share the vision of a Philippines freed from the fetters of economic crisis and political turmoil? A country where the majority of the people – the poor and working classes – do not suffer the yoke of poverty and exploitation. A country where the needs of the majority for education, health and housing are met; and there are countless opportunities for them and their children to develop their skills and gifts, so they can create art and beauty even as they also build a self-reliant, independent and self-sustaining economy.
What we need, what we aspire to is a Philippines where the government is untainted by corruption, and its leaders are not greedy and power-hungry; where there is no impunity and where justice cannot be escaped by those who commit crimes that destroy hundreds of lives in a myriads of ways.
What we work for is a country that does not exist in the shadow of foreign powers; a country not indebted or enslaved, and its territory cannot be taken over by foreign troops that their own nations’ economic, political and military interests to the extreme detriment of our nation’s sovereignty, internal security, and at the risk of the Filipino people’s safety.
The path to a just and lasting peace – and hence genuine progress and development – is the people’s determined and continuous struggle to cut the roots of the nation’s problems including the 40-years’ armed conflict through fundamental social, economic and political reforms.
The Filipino people, for the last four decades, have waged the fight for genuine land reform and national industrialization, for genuine independence and democracy, for economic sovereignty and against unequal treaties and agreements. They fought against the US-backed Marcos regime and the anti-people and anti-national regimes that followed. The continue to oppose anti-people policies and programs, administrative corruption and impunity against accountability.
As the Filipino people shoulder their historic task for genuine social change, we can do no less. We must do all that we can to fight this government and the culture of impunity.
Mag-aklas at baguhin ang gobyerno, palitan ang sistema.