Monday, Nov. 20, 2006
A Philippine Shame
Manila is doing too little to stop the unchecked killings of the country's activists
BY ANDREW MARSHALL
Ruby Sison is waiting for someone to kill her. I met Sison a few months ago at a
cemetery in Kidapawan, a town on the lawless Philippine island of Mindanao. We were
paying our respects to the activists and journalists George and Maricel Vigo, who were
shot dead in June in broad daylight by motorbike-riding assassins while returning home
to their five children. The killers were still at large, and local reporters were braving
multiple death threats by keeping the Vigo murders in the news. A friend and left-wing
activist, Sison had heard that a hit man had already received a down payment to kill her.
"The rest will be paid when I'm dead," she told me.
Sison, I'm relieved to say, is still alive. But the slaughter of reporters, leftists, lawyers,
labor leaders, priests, students and human-rights workers in the Philippines continues
with a fury that recalls the darkest days of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Nearly 800
such people have been killed since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took power in
2001, reports the local human-rights group Karapatan, while Amnesty International
recorded 51 cases of what it calls "political killings" in the first six months of this year,
compared with 66 in all of 2005. When it comes to journalists – 46 have been killed on
Arroyo's watch – the murder rate is second only to Iraq's.
Last week seven major U.S. companies with operations in the Philippines, including Wal-
Mart and Gap, were moved to write a letter urging Arroyo to protect workers, especially
union members, at their local subcontractors.
Most victims are left-wing activists, whom senior government and military officials have
publicly labeled "enemies of the state" for their alleged links to the outlawed New
People's Army (N.P.A.), a communist rebel group that has fought the government in
Manila for nearly four decades. This practice of "red-labeling," says Amnesty, sends a
tacit signal to the Philippine military and other security forces – which many Filipinos
believe are behind the killings – that murdering political opponents is O.K.
Military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon has angrily denied any military involvement in
the killings. He blames them on "internal purges" in the N.P.A., which indeed murdered
hundreds of its own people in the 1980s. Yet there is much to incriminate Esperon's men.
Last week it emerged that a suspected member of one hit squad, which killed
campaigning Methodist pastor Isaias Santa Rosa in August, carried army identification
and orders for a "secret mission" from army intelligence. (The papers were discovered on
the hit man after he himself was killed, apparently by friendly fire.) Before his murder by
two unidentified men last year, left-wing activist Edison Lapuz told friends he was under
military surveillance. And journalist George Vigo, before his death, heard from an
intelligence source that his name was on an "OB" or "order of battle." OBs are widely
believed by activists to be code for hit lists; the military denies such orders exist.
In August, in response to international concern, Arroyo set up the six-member Melo
Commission, led by a retired Supreme Court judge, to probe the killings. Some bereaved
families doubt its independence and have refused to testify. This distrust is symptomatic
of a profound loss of faith in Arroyo herself. She is an unpopular President, plagued by
corruption scandals and slammed for her failure to improve living standards. Arroyo has
condemned the killings, but she will not implicate the military – even as it implicates
itself. Col. Eduardo del Rosario, head of a military antiterrorist unit called Task Force
Davao, admitted to TIME earlier this year that "individual commanders" might be
responsible for the killings.
Investigations into these deaths yield hardly any results. Of 114 political murders
recorded since 2001 by a special police task force, arrests have been made in just three
cases, with no reported convictions. Even if the killers are ever caught and prosecuted,
their bosses will almost certainly remain unknown or untouchable. Last month three men
were sentenced to life imprisonment for the 2005 murder of a prominent antigraft
journalist called Marlene Esperat, shot dead while dining with her children. Rynche
Garcia Arcones, 24, Esperat's daughter, felt shortchanged. "We want the mastermind,"
she told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She is unlikely to get him.
Poverty, corruption and joblessness still plague the Philippines. Now the country must
endure a Marcos-style dirty war too. Is it any surprise many Filipinos feel as if their
nation is hurtling backwards?
Andrew Marshall is a Bangkok-based journalist and author
From TIME asia Magazine, issue dated November 27, 2006 Vol. 168, No. 22