Silencing the critics: a look at the human rights situation in the Philippines
While having lunch at a shopping mall in Manila, Jonas Burgos was abducted by three unidentified men and a woman and forced inside a waiting vehicle. An agriculturist who manages their 12-hectare family farm in Bulacan, Jonas is also a member of a farmer's advocacy group that calls for genuine land reform. The vehicle used was later found to be in the possession of the 56th Infantry Batallion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, pointing to the role of the military behind the abduction.
Two years have passed and Jonas is still missing. After having exhausted all legal means at home, Edita Burgos, the soft-spoken sixty-six year old mother of Jonas is bringing their quest for justice overseas. At a forum in Centro Zonarelli in Bologna on November 14, speaking in behalf of the organization of families of the disappeared, the Desaparecidos, she explained how increasing international pressure could lead to the surfacing of their loved ones and help stop the chain of human rights abuses in the country.
Jonas has no known enemies, she said, the only reason behind the abduction is to silence him and stop him from pursuing his advocacies. Her son had been teaching poor farmers the methods of organic farming to make them less reliant on commercial fertilizers and pesticides. She remembered the night her son came home wearing a worn out set of clothes and old slippers because he had given his away to a poor farmer. The military however has tagged Jonas' organization, the Alliance of Farmers in Bulacan, along with other civil organizations as a “front” of the armed communist movement, the New People's Army making him and other activists legitimate targets for military operations.
Ugly human rights picture
The counterinsurgency program that targets civilians based on the flawed and unfounded premise that they serve as “fronts” of the armed movement has given the military the license to commit human rights abuses with such great impunity. Over the past eight years, since President Gloria Arroyo assumed office, cases of human rights violations has risen to alarming proportions. During this period, formal peace talks was suspended in favor of an all out military solution that unfortunately, only have civilians as casualties. At the end of 2008, the human rights group Karapatan recorded 201 cases of forced and involuntary disappearances. Even more disconcerting is the number of extrajudicial executions that has reached 991.
The manner of the killings were brazen. Two human rights worker Eden Marcellana and Edwin Gumanoy were shot to death after armed men stopped their vehicle on their way to a fact-finding mission. In another incident, the car of Vice Mayor Juvy Magsino, a local government official, and another human rights advocate were riddled with bullets by two motorcycle riding men, killing them instantly. A Protestant bishop was gunned down in his own home. The targets are civil society leaders, activists and members of the media with the obvious objective to intimidate and sow fear among the ranks of progressive and militant section of the population.
The situation has already caught international attention. The United Nations sent Special Rapporteur Philip Alston to investigate the killings, illegal abductions and cases of torture. In a report addressed to the UN General Assembly published last year, Alston recommended the elimination of extrajudicial executions from the Philippine government's counterinsurgency operations as well as the abolition of institutions that legitimize such acts. One such institution that has gained notoriety is the existence of paramilitary groups that serve as civilian auxiliary units of the military and the police that do not have clear accountability. Another is the creation of special task forces that appear to have overlapping civilian, judicial and military powers.
The Report also asked the Philippine government to direct all military officers to cease making public statements linking political or civil society groups with armed insurgencies. Such tasks, it rightly claimed, should remain within the hands of civilian authorities. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPR), the Geneva Conventions as well as the Second Additional Protocol, it reminded the government to observe its respective commitments.
Unfulfilled promise of democracy
To the outside world, the ugly human rights picture in the Philippines may appear puzzling. After all, didn't the Marcos dictatorship ended in 1986? Edita might have asked herself the same question. Her late husband, Jose was a key figure in the anti-martial law struggle and was named by the International Press Institute as one of the the “50 Press Freedom Heroes of the Century”. He was a well known columnist and ran two independent newspapers that exposed the abuses and excesses of the dictatorship. She knew very well the feeling of being harassed by the police and military. Her husband was jailed and their publishing office was raided. But little did she expect that her family would suffer the same trauma again after the fall of Marcos. This time, the victim is her son.
Silencing the critics
More than two decades after People Power, the peaceful uprising that ousted Marcos, genuine democracy still remains an elusive dream in the country. Poverty remains a serious problem with fifty percent of the population living on as little as 1.3 euros a day. Income inequality remains high with the richest 10 percent accounting for 32 percent of the country's consumption. While political reforms had been instituted such as the imposition of term limits to electoral positions, the ruling elite has managed to circumvent these policies in order to perpetuate their dynasty by fielding in their wives, children or relatives. The land reform program also contained provisions that allowed landowners to effectively evade distribution. In such a context, it is not surprising that the marginalized sectors of society would express their dissatisfaction and the members of organizations representing them would grow in number. The correct response would have been for government to tackle these issues, and address the root causes of poverty. Instead, it has chosen to silence them.
The series of corruption scandals and electoral fraud that has rocked Arroyo's administration has also made her unpopular with big business, the church and factions of the ruling elite. In the past, such a scale of political isolation had led to an implicit broad alliance between the left, the right, the middle class, the church and big business that led to the ousting of two presidents, Marcos and her predecessor, Estrada through a people's uprising. It appears that this is actually what Arroyo is trying to prevent from happening. Insecure of her power, she has relied increasingly on brute force to sustain it. Political convenience on her part also dictates to target the marginalized sectors first.
2008 Year-End Report on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines, KARAPATAN (Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights) (
Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions- Mission to the Philippines (A/HRC/8/3/Add.2), Philip Alston. 16 April 2008. (