The unraveling of Gloria:
The assassination of seventy-two leftwing activists during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has hardly produced a ripple of indignation abroad and no more then the usual hackneyed statements of protest at home. After all, the world is focused on human rights abuses in Iraq. Who cares that dissent has become a lethal practice in the Philippines under the regime of President Arroyo or that the president, who loses more credibility by the day, appears to compensate for the loss of faith with a persecution of critics not seen in the country since the dictatorial days of Ferdinand Marcos.
November was a particular sanguine month. The assassins concentrated mainly on labor leaders, critics of President Arroyo and social activists, those who denounced corruption in high places including the presidency.
This year alone, according to the Alliance for the Advancement of Human Rights in Manila, there have been 116 political murders in the Philippines, 47 of them political activists and 69 of them leftwing civilians or suspected communists. The leftwing Bayan Muna party lost 14 of its party officials to bullets from assassins.
“The alarming pattern of killings and disappearances in this country is part of a policy of state repression aimed at silencing government critics and quelling dissent. It’s the sign of a paranoid government,” Ruth Cervantes, spokeswoman for the Alliance, told the Inquirer, the one newspaper that has relentlessly headlined the killings.
Since no one is ever arrested for these ‘political’ murders popular belief is reinforced that special army and police units are the perpetuators. These ‘official’ hit-men seem part of a concentrated campaign to intimidate the opposition, decimate the rebellious left and silence the growing clamor for President Arroyo to resign.
Among those gunned down this month was Ricardo Ramos, 47, the labor leader who led farmers in a year long strike on the hacienda Luisita, a vast plantation and sugar mill owned by the family of former president Corazon Aquino.
Remember Aquino? She led the Peoples Power movement that ousted President Marcos in 1986. She became a global favorite though like nearly all Filipino leaders she comes from one of the few dozen wealthy landowner clans that have run and owned most of the country since colonial days. Aquino was no champion of the poor during her presidency although she liked to appear as such. Even today when farmers strike on the family hacienda the private family militia or a co-opted police contingent shoot to kill. Earlier this year seven farmers were gunned down by ‘the forces of law and order’ on Hacienda Luisita and dozens more wounded when the men picketed the sugar mill demanding fairer wages and an end to the scam of awarding them worthless shares in the mill in lieu of other social benefits. The shares, handed out over a number of years, have never paid dividends.
Labor leader Ramos was shot dead in his backyard as he celebrated with friends the successful end of the strike only hours after the hacienda owners had paid $16,000 in back wages to the farmers. The suspicion immediately fell on the Aquino family, peeved by having to back down to labor demands. But soon the blame shifted to President Arroyo, allegedly infuriated by the fact Aquino has been demonstrating in public against the Arroyo presidency.
The plot thickens. According to human rights groups the mastermind behind the spate of recent political assassinations in central Luzon is supposed to be Major General Jovito Palaparan, commander of the Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division. He was assigned to rebellious Central Luzon last September and since then 19 activists have been killed. This was his third post in less then four years. During all his mandates human rights advocates, local officials and lawmakers have accused him of being behind the wave of killings. When he was commander in Oriental Mindoro he was accused in 326 cases of human rights abuses including some eighty killings. Similar allegations were leveled against him during his stint in Samar when human rights groups accused him of having turned a blind eye or sanctioned murder, kidnappings, harassment, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention of civilians and human rights advocates in 199 cases during the four months of his command between February and May this year.
The General was moved in September to central Luzon, a consistent hotbed of disgruntled farmers, militant activists and the shady New Peoples Army, a communist-inspired guerrilla organization with deep roots in the historic grievances of rural workers. General Palaparan keeps denying he is being used as an enforcer against dissent in problem areas in the Philippines. He claims the country’s radical left have turned him into a convenient scapegoat for any killing, many of them part of internecine feuds. Yet even congress members have pointed out he has left a trail of blood wherever he has been in command.
Among the last eight victims of the dissident clean-up in Central Luzon in November was the 27-year old pregnant student leader of the Luzon University. She and her husband were kidnapped by armed men. Their bodies were found two weeks later stuffed into sacks. The assassinations are similar: Either a gunman calmly walks up to the victim and shoots him or her, two men on a motorbike carry out the assassination or armed men take away the victims, torture them and then finish them off with a bullet in the head. Among the corpses of this pogrom against dissidents are some twenty journalists who either denounced official misdemeanors at local and provincial level or strongly criticized the presidency. This prompted claims by the Press Association it is more dangerous to be as journalist in the Philippines today then in Iraq.
Though proud of their democracy Filipino presidents have only managed to rule –and survive- with the tacit approval or connivance of the Armed Forces. The Army backed Gloria Arroyo, then Vice President, in snatching power from President Joseph Estrada during a bloodless coup four years ago. It helped her hang on to power, win an election and survive a recent impeachment procedure over allegations she rigged her election. (She asked the chief election official during a telephone conversation to make sure she would win the election by at least a million votes. Unfortunately for the president someone taped the phone call and released the text.)
The impeachment was thrown out by Congress in which Arroyo enjoys a majority. Soon afterwards the lethal campaign against dissent gained new momentum and so did the rumors, always ripe around Christmas, of an imminent military coup to oust her.