The coup d’etat this week in Thailand came as a surprise to many that were not aware of the corruption and friction between the King and the Prime Minister. The local Filipino community is also concerned of the growing corruption and extra-judicial killings that are destroying public trust in Philippine authorities.
As more journalists and political activists are murdered, local Filipino Americans fear the political climate is nearing the worst point since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power in 2001.
Dr. Paul Bloom, a member of the Philippine Study Group of Minnesota, an organization that has helped to free more than 30 political prisoners since the Marcos administration, said the issue of extra-judicial killings are the subject of various investigations and are a noted concern of the U.S. State Department.
Many Filipino Minnesotans are returning from the Philippines with grave concerns and even some personal experiences of how bad things are getting.
Pastor Ely Fernandez, a theology professor at the United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, knew the Reverend Edison Lapuz, a member of his church’s national council who worked for the rights of farmers and fishermen. He served as a regional coordinator for the Bayan Muna political party. He was active in seeking justice for the killing of a local human rights lawyer, Felidito Dacut, shot by two men riding a motorcycle.
The Rev. Lapuz told Pastor Fernandez that he was under surveillance by the military and believed his life was in jeopardy. Uniformed military personnel questioned his sister about his work.
Rev. Lapuz was killed on May 12, 2005, by two unidentified men in the house of his father-in-law, whose funeral he had been attending earlier that day. Amnesty International reports that local residents saw four men on motorcycles parked at a nearby store before the shooting, wearing their helmets.
Amnesty International reported serious concerns about police investigations into Reverend Lapuz’s death. Witnesses were not offered adequate protection and the investigation stalled. Now, more than a year and a half later, there are still no arrests or charges filed.
“The failure to identify and investigate suspects is fuelling a lack of trust in the police and aggravating the lack of convictions,” stated Tim Parritt, a Southeast Asian researcher with Amnesty International. “Witnesses are afraid to come forward. Victims’ families are liable to refuse to involve themselves in police investigations or to withdraw from court proceeding.
“Those responsible, including any from the security forces, must be prosecuted and punished,” he added. “It must be established whether there was an official chain of command underlying both the crime and its cover-up.”
Amnesty International reports that after 66 politically motivated killings in all of 2005, the number has increased to 66 in the first six months of 2006. The leadership of the armed insurgency has threatened to form retaliatory assassination squads.
On August 21, President Arroyo signed an act titled, “Creating an Independent Commission to Address Media and Activist Killings,” to establish a special Melo Commission to investigate the issue of extra-judicial incidents. The Melo Commision must clear or disprove all pertinent statements by any member of the administration relative to its investigation of the violent attacks. Then follow through with a report to Arroyo with recommendations, including appropriate prosecution and legislative proposals, if any, aimed at eradicating the root causes of extra-judicial killings and breaking such cycle of violence once and for all.
Arroyo said that extra-judicial killings became inconsistent with Philippine law when her administration abolished the death penalty. “The Arroyo administration condemns political killings in the harshest possible terms,” she said.
“That sounds like the kind of thing we are looking for; but if it doesn’t play out on the ground, then it doesn’t matter what is said,” said Gary King of Fridley, a lifelong human rights activist, and a specialist on Philippine government, who was instrumental in bringing the growing concern to Amnesty International.
King said the president would need to come out and clearly say that things are going to be different. She would need to allow investigations by a human rights commission. Until then, the public believes that the flow of money into the Philippines to fight terrorism has amounted to labeling opposition groups and “blurs the line on what is a terrorist and what is opposition.”
“The military is targeting people who speak out lawfully,” said King. “…Groups that are calling for the impeachment of president.”
“No one is denying there are people with guns,” he added. “But, the reality is that people are being threatened by the military police and killed. Eyewitness have detailed information, but the soldiers (suspected in the killings) are transferred and the matter settles down.”
Maj. General Jovito Palparan, Jr., who became known as “the butcher of Mindoro for directing brutal policies in dealing with “low intensity conflict,” is suspected to be behind much of the killings. Palparan was promoted and named commander of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division in 2005. When he was reassigned to Samar, the increase in killings began in that region.
“If (Arroyo) fired General Palparan then the world would cheer,” said King.
When President Joseph Ejercito Estrada was impeached in 2001 for corruption and illegal gambling charges, he lost the confidence of the people when he rigged a judicial prosecution. The nationwide protests led the armed forces to support vice president Macapagal-Arroyo and then Estrada fled power. With the presidency vacant, the Supreme Court validated her as the constitutional successor.
After charges of corruption and vote rigging in 2004, the Arroyo administration faced a coup attempt in February 2006, but was put down by the Philippine military. She was able to outmaneuver impeachment proceedings. She is scheduled to visit Washington, D.C. in November.
“This is a bizarre situation,” said King, who feels there will not be a coup as long as the money keeps coming in for the military. He said Arroya is doing what she thinks must be done to stay in office. As her popularity sinks to the single digits, King says the people think of her as honest, but incompetent.
Arroyo could do many things in a relatively short time to improve the situation, said King. She could ensure that the government respects the lives of all citizens. This could begin with classes for the military and the police on the constitutional limits of their authority.
“Killings do not cause peace, but they do promote terrorism,” said King.
“Stemming this tide of killings requires genuine political will to ensure prosecutions in all cases — not only the ten cases in ten weeks recently called for by President Arroyo,” said Tim Parritt.
The discussions between the government and the New People’s Army and the left had been going on for years and suddenly stopped. King said that as long as money is coming in to fund the fighting, then the military does not want it to end.
“There could be negotiations,” he said. “They take offense at the terrorist label and believe that they are helping people defend themselves.”