Friday, December 22, 2006

Confronting the face of terror in the Philippines

Philippines’ notebook
Confronting the face of terror in the Philippines
By Ted Alcuitas
Dec. 11, 2006

(For five days from Nov. 16-20, Ted Alcuitas, a Filipino-Canadian journalist, traveled to the Central Luzon provinces of Nueva Ecija and Bulacan as part of a nine-member Canadian fact-finding mission to investigate the human rights situation in the Philippines. They sought out victims and families and documented their stories, often facing military harassment. He remains in the country to cover the ASEAN Summit in his home province and files this report.)

Cebu City , Philippines – As the Philippines’ premier southern city prepares for next week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit, Cebuanos seem oblivious to the devastation of typhoon Reming’s deadly toll just a week ago which claimed more than 500 lives in Albay. Organizers must have been relieved that the typhoon spared the city that almost did not have its P515 M Peso (P40 - $1 Cdn.) convention center finished in time for the 12-nation summit that begins December 11th till the 14th.

The feverish pace of sprucing up the city includes bulldozing ‘squatters’ to make room for the controversial Cebu International Convention Center (CICC). They are shoved to the side of the behemoth structure and conveniently hidden behind a wall of earth so they cannot be seen by the 17 heads of state including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Each is given a can of paint so that they can paint the tin roofs of their shacks to sanitize the area. Vagrant children and even stray dogs are rounded up to make sure no wayward animals or humans stray unto the path of visiting dignitaries.

The city is teeming with soldiers in full battle gear supposedly to thwart any ‘terrorist’ plans to disrupt the meeting. Yet, not one of them was redeployed to help in rescuing or evacuating the people in the mudslides of Daraga, Albay, where people were left on their own to escape the devastation. The eerie images of people running for their lives reminds one of the same images in the Katrina hurricane a year ago when U.S. soldiers were conspicuously absent as they were busy fighting a war in Iraq and elsewhere but left their own citizens to drown in the floodwaters of New Orleans.

War of words

For now, there is a war of words between the government and militant groups converging on the city to have their own parallel meetings. When Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez vowed to throw militants to the sharks in the waters of Mactan Channel, fisherfolk who plans a ‘fluvial parade’ promptly corrected him by saying there are no sharks in the water where they fish. The real sharks according to the fisherfolk are in Malacanang with the U.S. as the great white shark and the IMF-World Bank as the loan shark.

‘Collateral damage’

In our brief incursions to the villages (barangays) where there were reported incidents of political killings, we encountered the face of terror among the people we met and talked to.

The terror of a father who survived a military attempt to kill him in front of his wife and 2-day old son and 2-year old daughter, because he was suspected as a communist sympathizer. He was shot in the neck with the bullet exiting to his side. After he fell, another shot was fired at his leg. Today, his traumatized daughter’s first words when asked about his father are: “Papa? Bing! Bing! Bing!”

The terror of a sister who can’t stop wailing as she narrated the bludgeoning of his brother by five soldiers as the wife and four children watched in horror.

The terror of a mother whose brother-in-law hanged himself after his best friend was killed by the military, repeatedly asking us why we are conducting an investigation and what would happen to her and her family when we leave. She pleaded not to take any pictures of her family.

The anguish of a father resting his head on his hands as he struggles to listen to his wife narrates the circumstances of the abduction, torture and disappearance of his young daughter by military elements.

The terror of a father who returns to his village to see for the first time the charred remains of his house after it was burned by the military because he is suspected as a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines who is waging a three-decades old war of national liberation with the government of the Philippines.

The terror of a young Catholic priest as he showed us the death threats on his life contained in a letter and a .38 caliber bullet thrown into the collection box.

These are the collateral damage in the global war on terror as played in the Philippines – the ‘second front’ in this deadly war. And President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is only too willing to oblige her U.S. master, closing her eyes to the searing images of terror and anguish as her military follows a deadly pattern of killings of the ‘enemies of the state’, never before seen in the Philippines –not even during the time of the infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

And the country is not officially under martial law.

Her propagandists vilify and demonize the work of the human rights groups, singling the country’s largest alliance of human rights workers - Karapatan, who, despite losing more than 27 of its own workers to the killings, continue the thankless and risky job of documenting cases of human rights violations. Karapatan’s dedicated core of human rights workers are undaunted by the relentless attacks on their ranks, risking their own lives serving as our ‘security’ buffer as we tried to venture into forbidden territory during the course of our investigations.

Faced with this formidable ‘cordon sanitaire’, Karapatan turns to independent international bodies such as ours to pursue their work. Arroyo’s spin-doctors try to discredit the organization and deftly question Karapatan’s numbers. On Dec. 1 the alliance released its year end report and called 2006 the “worst year for human rights in the Philippines” since Arroyo took power in 2001. Their last count now approaches almost 800 political killings. The Canadian fact-finding mission is also labeled as ‘tools’ of Karapatan.

Yet, this writer came face to face with terror no amount of propaganda can dispute.
And more.
No civil rule
Unmistakably martial rule reigns in the barangays we visited. The military not only acts as judge and jury but also the executioner.

A young man we interviewed was arrested and tortured by the military for selling a stolen goat. He was paraded around town together with another accomplice, wearing a sandwich board tied around his neck proclaiming that he was a thief – the stolen animal reluctantly following them.
In another instance, we were told by the barangay captain (the highest civilian official in the local government unit) of an army lieutenant who was accused of conduct unbecoming an officer. He was ‘paddled’ by his superior in the town square in the presence of the villagers. Paddling means being hit in the back repeatedly by a 2x 4 until you bleed and fall to the ground.
In these two cases there were no due process – in the first case, crime is a police matter not a military prerogative. In the second case, military law should apply, not the medieval and barbaric beating of an accused.
In these far-flung villages, the military is the law. If you are labeled as a supporter of the NPA and do not report to them to ‘clear’ your name you automatically end up in the Order of Battle or OB.
Such were the case of the people whose relatives we interviewed – for failing to convince the military that they had nothing to do with the insurgents, they ended up in the OB and ultimately paid for their lives.
Innocent victims of the unrelenting war of terror now gripping this country of 85 million people most of whom escape the grinding poverty by working in 186 countries around the globe – ten million of them euphemistically called Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW).
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo calls them the ‘modern heroes’ . Their remittances of around $10 billion a year props up the moribund economy of the country.
Meanwhile, those who are left behind are killed with impunity while the government hosts a regional meeting and puts up a benign face to the world.

Certainly not a benign face but the face of terror!




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