August 05, 2006

Skepticism over GMA pronouncements

A week after Mrs. Gloria-Macapagal Arroyo's State-of-the-Nation (SONA) wherein she condemned political killings, urged witnesses to come forward and promised to stop extrajudicial executions, six more people, five of them identified with the Leftist national democratic movement, and one, a photojournalist and relative of a reporter murdered last May, lay dead,
felled once more by assassins' bullets.

Only the three latest killings merited front page stories. Perhaps it was because they all happened in just one day and the victims were not so dirt-poor and faceless -- a 21-year-old League of Filipino Students (LFS) leader in Bicol, the Bayan Muna Coordinator for Kalinga who was the wife of a prominent physician and civic leader in Tabuk, and a media practitioner in Metro Manila.

Mrs. Arroyo's response was significant in that for the first time she gave the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Justice Department a deadline, 10 weeks, within which to solve some of the killings. The concerned officials dutifully said they would try to comply with the directive of Mrs. Arroyo.

Nonetheless, why is Mrs. Arroyo's latest pronouncement, like her SONA three-liner and her creation of the PNP Task Force Usig several months ago, met with even more skepticism?

Let's set aside the general problem of the Arroyo administration's credibility generated by its unsatisfactory, to say the least, handling of serious charges of electoral fraud, corrupt government deals and the tyrannical abuse of executive powers. Let us not even venture into recalling the many times she has made promises with such dramatic flourish only to renege on them so blatantly later on.

Let us zero in specifically on the question of violations of civil and political rights under Mrs. Arroyo's watch. Why is it that we know that this government is not to be believed when it says it will stop political killings?

First, the killings don't stop. The facts speak for themselves.

Second, there is no credible, much less speedy, investigation of the killings, the involuntary disappearances and the claims of torture while in the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) or PNP. The reasons the authorities provide are questionable and self-serving. If we are to believe the excuses they routinely dish out, the government's ludicrous inutility in the face of this patent breakdown of law and order is further exposed.

Government says there are no witnesses. Certainly, few witnesses will dare testify even at the investigation stage because they inevitably become the next target of harassment if not fall victim to being killed themselves. More to the point, government investigators are suspect because of the common perception that the police, military or their assets are involved as part of national security policy and the current counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, not to mention their unenviable track record as human rights violators.

But are the only means available to government investigators the reliance on witnesses to the actual killing? What about the physical and circumstantial evidence? What about information from kin, co-workers and associates about probable motive and possible suspects? When state forces are implicated, why do the investigations stop dead in their tracks?

Earlier attempts by victims or relatives to file charges have only resulted in endless delays at the Justice Department, the inexplicable dismissal or downgrading of charges and not a single conviction.

Then there is the clear, unequivocal message sent to all concerned when implicated AFP or PNP officials are promoted and, for the special few, lauded ever so publicly during the Commander-in-Chief's SONA.

Sometimes there is someone brave or foolish enough to be a witness. Take the case of the two female UP students and their companion who are alleged to have been taken by military men in Bulacan more than a month ago. A 14-year-old boy provided an eyewitness account. A writ of habeas corpus was issued by the Court of Appeals for military officials in the area of responsibility to produce the three missing persons but the response of AFP Chief of Staff General Esperon is to scoff at the court order and deny that they have the three in their custody.

The third basis for our skepticism is the overarching frame of "all-out war" against the Left that Mrs. Arroyo, her generals and the most virulent anti-communists in her inner circle have embraced as the ultimate solution to the decades-old, communist-led revolutionary armed struggle in this country.

Recently the PNP Spokesperson said there is no government policy that says "specifically or even implicitly, run after them" (i.e. unarmed activists and progressives referred to as the legal Left). Instead he says that there is an aggressive policy to break the spine of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army, through intensified military operations and legal offensives.

What the official doublespeak doesn't say, however, is that legal activists are considered by the government as communist rebels in sheep's clothing; that is, they are accused to be merely fronting for the communists, are therefore equally guilty of rebellion and ergo are fair targets of
government's all-out war.

We can come to no other conclusion than this: unarmed political opponents of the Arroyo regime using their ideas, words and bodies to express their political beliefs are treated as legitimate military targets, human rights covenants and international humanitarian law be hanged.

According to the report of the International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM) organized by Dutch and Belgian lawyers groups in June, "To this date, the Arroyo administration rejects national and international criticism on its human rights record, by simply referring to its democratic institutions and human rights treaties, laws and policies."

"Taking into account that all democratic institutions are formally in place, the IFFM considers the situation especially alarming. This makes it abundantly clear that either the constitutional state does not function properly or that there are powers undermining its proper functioning."

To paraphrase the IFFM report, until and unless the Arroyo regime agrees to constitute and fully support an independent body, i.e. not controlled by the government, to investigate the killings, threats and harassment and to follow its recommendations, all its bombastic statements mean next to nothing.

Business World
5-6 August 2006


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