Reprinted from The Common Good, No 56, Lent 2011

The Philippines: A Culture of Impunity

Corazon Miller

A largely corrupt political system, volatile criminal justice processes, the overpowering presence of the ruling class and an impoverished people. All these combined with a simple word – impunity - create the fabric of the ‘culture,’ which permeates the South-East-Asian nation of the Philippines with far reaching consequences.

In a 90-page report presented by Filipino Church leaders in March 2007 at a United Nations office in Geneva, impunity from detection and prosecution was labeled as the catalyst for many of the human rights violations in the Philippines. Despite years of international attention and outrage the US-based news outlet Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle (FRS) says impunity remains rampant in the Philippines. It is a situation the FRS says lies parallel to the years of the Marcos dictatorship, the last ten under martial law, when more than 3,000 people were murdered.

Though under Arroyo the count has not been as high, the circumstances that surround – impunity, corruption, poverty and oppression – are quite similar. Fewer than one per cent of those responsible for killing ‘leftists’ journalists and others have been convicted during the reign of previous President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.’

Witness intimidation

Witnesses brave enough to challenge perpetrators and this long-standing culture of impunity have not being protected by the Filipino government. Suwaib Upahm, an employee of the Ampatuans for some time, spoke out about the killings of three drivers ordered by the Ampatuans, following the massacre. No charges have been filed in these cases. Unfortunately for Upahm, speaking out came at a price and he was killed in Parang Maguindanao on June 14, three months after he told prosecutors representing the journalists killed in the massacre that he would testify against the Ampatuans in exchange for protection.

As P Sales stated in the journal Contemporary Politics, it is this lack of protection that ensures this culture of impunity continues to prevail in the Philippines. Witnesses are fearful of speaking out when they see what happens to those who have tried to stand up against the perpetrators. For this reason there are rarely witnesses to murderers. In the time it takes for the trial to be completed, stories are retracted and witnesses fail to turn up to court due to the harassment, threat of reprisal and intimidation.

And would you blame them? Sales points out that nearly every mother in the Philippines knows the name of the man who killed her son. ‘Assailants kill in broad daylight and do not bother to even wear masks.’ Impunity and intimidation of witnesses gives them that luxury.

Maguindanao Massacre

In November 2009, 57 unarmed civilians, 32 of whom were journalists, were ambushed and killed in the Maguindanao province of Mindanao whilst on their way to register Esmael Mangudatu for federal election in opposition to the rival clan. For the previous decade, the rival Ampatuans had ruled Maguindanao with a reputation as fearsome warlords, using their private armies to terrorise any opposition to their rule.

The Maguindano massacre drew international attention and criticism when it hit the global news network. The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, though many saw this to be an ‘incomprehensible bloodbath,’ it is tragically not when put into the Philippine context.

The unprecedented scale and barbarity of the attack may have been singled out for international scrutiny, but the circumstances which led the Ampatuans to systematically slaughter an unarmed group is not just an isolated incident. ‘Political violence, corruption and clan rivalry – fanned by impunity – are all too familiar undercurrents eroding the Philippine democracy.’

Today the trial of defendants charged with involvement in the massacre is underway. However, trials in the Philippines can take many years.

Impunity impairs media freedom

Even after the gruesome massacre in Maguindanao caused international outrage, the murders have not ceased. As the Arroyo administration came to an end the enemies of the press once again went on a killing spree killing three journalists in five days. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUPJ) blames this on the apparent hesitance of the previous government towards capturing and bringing to account the killers of the 104 journalists slain since Arroyo came to office in 2001. The ‘culture of impunity’ is sending a message to those would be perpetrators of crimes that it is okay to target the media, to target opposition or anyone who criticizes or undermines their power – it is okay to kill to win.

What in some ways is even more frightening is the way the ‘culture of impunity’ appears to be working to silence the voices of many journalists – no story is worth a life. Killing and threatening journalists with impunity has negative consequences for democracy and the rule of the law. H.B. Macale states in his article Journalists threatened by the culture of impunity, this systemic culture of impunity in the Philippines does not only stifle press freedom but also every other major institution.

Human rights defenders, advocates, activists, union workers and others have become victims of impunity and their victimisation seems likely to continue unless the political leadership commits to stopping it with all the political will it can muster.’

Impunity in the ruling class.

The Philippines is a ‘class-based’ society. Minnie-Anne Mata-Calub, Unit Head for Faith Witness and Service at the National Council of Churches of the Philippines, says her country is rich with agricultural resources. But the tragedy is there are an elite few who are in control of the regional power and they have created an uneven distribution of wealth, leaving the common people to fight for themselves.

People ask why the Philippines has the New People’s army (the armed military of the Communist Party of the Philippines). It’s because they are fighting for a more democratic nation.’

Impunity in the military.

Early in 2007 a United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston went to the Philippines to investigate the huge number of political killings in the Philippines. Alston condemned what he saw as the repressive elements of the Philippine State with specific criticisms aimed at the Philippine Armed Forces. What he found was a culture of impunity that prevailed within the military. Yet the Arroyo administration had failed to do enough to address the problem or to protect the common people from it. From his visit it was made clear how inadequate the Philippine government was performing in human rights and where the UN mechanism had failed to redress the poor performance.

As FRS points out at least 19 per cent of murders are believed to have been perpetrated by members of the armed forces of the Philippines, another 9 per cent by police officers and unidentified armed men commit most of the rest of the crimes.

Ending impunity

This ‘culture of impunit’’ in the Philippines is a decades old situation borne out of a dictatorship that had the power to generate a system which allowed elements of the ruling class to get away with corruption and violence against justice and human rights advocates, against the poor and the middle-class.

Abolishing impunity is not about revenge. It is about changing a whole culture, sending a clear message to the people that they cannot create their own laws. There will be consequences for those committing human rights violations and crimes.

But for this to happen, political will is needed. A newly elected president and senate have a chance to do that. When impunity is indeed abolished hopefully there will make a crack in the prevailing cycle of poverty, corruption, greed and killings. Only then can a truly democratic Philippines be built.

Corazon Miller is a Filipina Kiwi who grew up in a Catholic Worker family in Christchurch. She is a nurse and freelance journalist now living in Auckland.