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The Philippines: "Stop the Killings"

Protesters march with a banner saying, Stop the Kilings.

Activists during a September 20, 2006, demonstration demanding an end to political killings. (Photo courtesy of Arkibong Bayan)

It was a Saturday night in Davao City and the open-air bar was filling up with young people. As they streamed in, their eyes fixed on the band playing a song by Coldplay, they seemed dazzled by the bright, colorful light emanating from the stage of Kanto Bar, one of the more popular hang-outs in this city on the island of Mindanao, in the southern Philippines.

"We should switch seats," Omar Bantayan told me as I was about to sit with my back facing the wall. "I want to see the people entering the bar," he explained. "It's always better to be safe."

Bantayan is only 28. In jeans and a white T-shirt, he looked like an ordinary person out to have some fun on the weekend. But Bantayan told me he was a marked man. As the local secretary-general of a leftist labor group called Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement), Bantayan said he's been in the crosshairs of the military for the past three years, with suspected military agents tailing him constantly.

Between swigs of San Miguel beer, he recounted how two men had approached his home in a poor neighborhood of downtown Davao City on the morning of September 12, just as he and his bodyguard were stepping out. Bantayan said he locked eyes with one of the men, who reached for his waist -- "presumably to draw his gun" -- but Bantayan and his bodyguard were quick enough to step back and duck into the house.

As the local secretary-general of a leftist labor group, Bantayan said he's been in the crosshairs of the military for the past three years.

Bantayan said the two men immediately ran away, racing past several of Bantayan's curious neighbors. One neighbor later reported that he saw one of the men drawing a gun just before they fled. Another neighbor told Bantayan that the men had said they were looking for houses for rent.

Across the Philippines, such a modus operandi is common: Men on motorcycles tail a target, approach him and shoot him point-blank, often in the head. Last November 5, Rodrigo Catayong, a leader of a human-rights group in the central Philippine province of Eastern Samar, was murdered in front of a church, just minutes after he heard Mass. The week before, two other activists had been killed in much the same way, while a farmer in a northern province who had been reported missing turned up dead in a coconut grove.

Karapatan, an independent Philippine human-rights group that the government has accused of being biased toward leftists, has reported that nearly 800 political activists, human-rights advocates, peasant leaders, farmers and church workers have been murdered execution-style since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power in 2001.

In August, Amnesty International, which investigated several of these murders, said that 51 political killings occurred in the first half of 2006 -- compared to 66 such killings in all of 2005.

Karapatan and other Philippine human-rights groups say the series of killings under President Arroyo is the worst since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in a "People Power" revolt in 1986.

Omar Bantayan at a political march in Davao City.

Omar Bantayan (center in black shirt) at a demonstration demanding the ouster of President Arroyo, in Davao City in October 2006. (Photo by Barry Ohaylan)

The groups have been blaming the Arroyo government for this war of attrition against aboveground leftists and activists. The government, they said, does not distinguish between armed guerrillas in the hills and the activists in the streets. While the Arroyo administration has consistently denied the charge that it was behind the murders or that it has a policy in place to eliminate both the armed communists and the aboveground activists, it has always accused them of conniving to try to overthrow the government.

The Philippine government deals with at least three national security threats: the 36-year-old communist insurgency, the three-decade old Islamic separatist movement, and terrorist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf. But it's the communist insurgency that has given the government the biggest headaches. Peace negotiations with the communists began in 1986 but they faltered, and no substantial progress has been made toward ending one of the longest-running communist insurgencies in the world.

Since the time of Marcos, the Philippine government has racked up a sordid record of human-rights violations in dealing with the communists, ranging from torture of suspected communist sympathizers, illegal detention and forced disappearances to outright assassination. More than 10,000 victims of these abuses during the Marcos regime are still suing for damages. These violations have been consistently recorded and denounced by international human-rights groups and even by the U.S. State Department in its annual human-rights report.

Since Arroyo came to power in 2001, critics have accused her of being held hostage by the military establishment, which is largely credited with installing her as president in the 2001 "People Power" revolt against then-President Joseph Estrada. Karapatan and other human-rights groups claim that she has given the military carte blanche in dealing with enemies of the state. They say the military is targeting not just the armed rebels but also organizations the military believes are communist fronts, such as the leftist political group Bayan Muna, as well as trade, peasant and religious groups affiliated with it.

Since Arroyo came to power in 2001, critics have accused her of being held hostage by the military establishment, which is largely credited with installing her as president.

The government has repeatedly said that it was not behind the murders. The military, specifically, has said that it respects human rights and has even added human-rights education to the curriculum of military schools.

At the same time, however, the military, particularly National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, has said that Bayan Muna and other leftist groups have been supporting the communist movement.

Arroyo essentially endorsed the military's new strategy by promoting Jovito Palparan, a general who is known as "The Butcher" for his reputation of leaving behind a trail of activists' blood. Karapatan says it has documented Palparan"s abuses and found him directly responsible for such killings in the provinces where he was assigned.

Moreover, Arroyo, in a trend that some see as a testament to how beholden she is to the military, has surrounded herself with generals and ex-generals, appointing them to top government positions. Palparan, who has recently retired, is being eyed for civilian government positions, possibly at the justice department.

In light of the recent international attention, Arroyo has created a commission to investigate the murders and has sought an audience with European leaders, some of whom have condemned the killings, as well as with Amnesty International. But the commission is powerless; it lacks money, does not have prosecutorial powers and has not made a dent in its caseload.

In the meantime, the government has expressed concerns about the killings in a propaganda offensive aimed particularly at foreign business groups in the Philippines as well as at major U.S. companies like Gap and Wal-Mart. The government accused the communists of ordering many of these killings themselves, which the military says is part of a "purge" within the communist movement to rid itself of government spies. It has also denounced human-rights groups for being sympathetic to the communists and of distorting the figures to suit what a presidential spokesman referred to as an "insidious propaganda campaign" against the government.

Filipino lawyer Beverly Musni addresses a rally.

Filipino lawyer Beverly Musni addresses a rally in Mindanao in early 2006. (Photo courtesy of Arkibong Bayan)

The military has also criticized Amnesty International for its reports, saying these were hastily done and that the conclusions were faulty. It has declared the group "persona non grata" and wants it banned from the country.

In any case, the toll of the government's "all-out war" against critics has been heavy for Philippine activists like Bantayan. "It messes you up psychologically," Bantayan said in exasperation, rubbing his palms on his chubby face and through his close-cropped hair.

His wife, Diane, and their 4-year-old daughter, Julianne, have also been affected, he said. "There are times when my wife and I would argue about what I do," Bantayan said, referring to his work organizing unions in factories and plantations. He says Julianne has come to hate President Arroyo, believing that the president is the reason why her father sometimes does not come home after being whisked away into hiding because of a serious threat.

When Bantayan was 10, in October 1988, his father, Oscar, was gunned down by suspected military agents. Like his son, Oscar was a labor leader for the May First Movement and was threatened and under surveillance for his work as a union organizer. (The military here almost always considers union leaders communists.)

Bantayan respected what his father did, which is why, in college, he joined radical and political student groups, taking part in protest marches and recruiting other students.

After college, he found himself naturally drawn to the trade union movement, where he worked as an organizer. To this day, he helps workers form unions, assists them during collective bargaining negotiations with companies, and is always at their side during strikes and pickets.

"I feel like I'm living the life of my father," Bantayan told me. "My father was murdered at a time when a Red scare was sweeping the region."

"I feel like I'm living the life of my father," Bantayan told me.

"My father was murdered at a time when a Red scare was sweeping the region," he added. That same McCarthyism is still sweeping the region -- targeting a generation-old dissatisfaction that has refused to go away because of poverty and landlessness, particularly in the countryside, and a political culture that remains feudalistic in many respects. Thus, Bantayan and other activists have found themselves being tagged as communists, effectively marking them for death.

Thirty-one leaders and members of labor unions were killed last year alone -- the highest death toll ever. Bantayan told me that not a single one of these murders has been solved by the police.

But the killing of his colleagues does not deter Bantayan. "We have to adapt to the situation," he said, pointing out that the trick to survival is to not establish a pattern of movements or routine. "If we won't [adapt], we cannot do our political work."

On the day I visited Bantayan in his office, one of his colleagues pointed out the cars parked outside the building, on Anda Street and in front of vendors selling mangoes, bananas, fake Levi's and fake Louis Vuitton bags. Inside one of those vehicles, according to the activist, were military agents casing the building. They would follow Bantayan anywhere he went. "We've gotten used to them," the activist said.

Bantayan himself grimly admitted that, under what he called a "repressive regime," anything can happen. "I hate to admit it but it's true; unless this regime is ousted and unless the government respects the democratic space that we've fought for since the dictatorship, it's just a matter of time."

Carlos H. Conde reports for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He lives in the Philippines.

REACTIONS

Nadia, 4 D Pipol Film Production - Prague, CZ
We made a film about this conflict. If you are interested in getting to know more about it, have a look or write us an email http://4dpipol.blogspot.com/

Bruno Navarra - Campbellsville, Kentucky
Thanks for your Phillipine report. It has to be scary out there.
How to stay safe as a tourist? How safe is Manila?

Stevie Aaron - Bronx, New York
Thank You Angelica, you said it all......

Angelica F - Fremont, CA
So sad, that the government is pointing fingers at major US companies (ie. Gap, Wal-mart). It's too bad that such a corrupt government is also so smart. Arroyo acts like she cares about the situation by creating a commision to look thru the murders, yet does not fund it. Therefore, she can't be blamed. Living in the Philippines, I have seen how much control the government has over the people, and the people, knowing they can't do much, don't do anything about it. Why should they? They have worse things to worry about, like finding food, money for school, etc. To top it off, another thing that has high influence on Filipinos is the media, which never deals with these issues. Rather, they focus on overseas soap operas (ie, taiwanese shows, F4..) and what are the latest trends. Those that do stand up for what they believe are getting killed and nothing's being done. Ridiculous. Please, help.