Editorial : Murder, She Said

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 41, Pentecost 2007

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines visited New Zealand in May 2007 for the Asia-Pacific Regional Inter-faith Dialogue. Her visit has bought the Philippines into focus here and raised major justice issues on the plight of its people in a country where the collective cry for justice is constantly attacked by state forces and bandit militias and undermined by corruption at the highest level. In the past six years, more than 800 human rights activists, church workers and trade unionists have become victims of extra-judicial executions as the president and her allies attempt to stay in power. The recent elections in mid-May 2007 were marked by widespread ballot rigging, coercion and fraud. In this significantly Catholic country, social justice for the people is noted more by its absence than its presence.

In March 2007, the ecumenical National Council of Churches produced a damning report on human rights abuse in the Philippines. The report, Let the Stones Cry Out: An Ecumenical Report on Human Rights in the Philippines and a Call to Action, tells the story of a people in torment. It is the agony of people who are unable to bear the pain any longer and feel that the remaining peaceful recourse is to shout to the world and cry for justice. Yet, it also tells the story of an undying hope in the divine promise of redemption. It is the story of faith communities being renewed in order to be genuine agents of social transformation.

The Philippines is a country under siege by its own government as potential social change is nipped in the bud by security forces using violence, detention and murder as tools. Structural injustice developed during colonial times remains untouched. The huge gap between the rich and the poor grows by the year. Millions of people live beneath the poverty line on less than $1 per day. The richest 20% of the population account for 53% of the income pie while the bottom 20% get only 4.63%. This is primarily because ownership of the country’s productive assets such as land and capital are in the hands of a relatively few families. This denies the poor the ability to improve their lot even as the rich grow richer. Infant mortality rates are high. Tens of thousands of children get no education and are forced to either beg or work for a pittance.

Under the guise of becoming the Bush regimes ‘second front in the ‘war on terror’’ the Philippine Government has launched a war of terror against its own people. There are widespread violations of basic human rights inflicted on any who try and work for social justice in the country. As a recent report from the National Council of Churches stated, ‘the human rights crisis is a product of iniquitous social relations, poverty and injustice that have colonial beginnings and the resultant long-standing armed conflicts and rebellions to which the state’s response has been the use of counter-insurgency strategy instead of the needed comprehensive social, economic and political reforms.’1

State agents have systematically targeted any who stand up to them in the interests of social justice. The net result has been disastrous. From January 2001 to November 2006, some 6990 cases of human rights violations affecting nearly 400,000 people were recoded by the human rights group Karapatan. Since 2001, the number of victims of extrajudicial killings has reached 858. The number of people killed thus in 2006 alone numbered 207. Amnesty International noted in an August 2006 report that there was a pattern in such killings which can be attributed to the State.2 Under the Marcos dictatorship, there was an average of 100 extrajudicial killings each year. Under the current regime, there have been 135 per year.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has raised the issue of human rights with the President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on separate occasions, the latest recently in Auckland. The response has been inevitably fudged – a little hand-wringing and a hollow promise before going on to the next State banquet. In recent years, bodies as wide ranging as the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the World Council of Churches, the Christian Conference of Asia, the European Union, the May 1st Movement, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the joint foreign Chambers of Commerce, the ILO, and a wide range of international trade union and NGOs have called on the Philippine Government to return to the rule of law and democratic principles. The bishops declared that ‘it is not right that people be killed simply because they have different political beliefs.’ ‘The killings,’ they say ‘leave deep scars on the memory of people especially members of their families which no amount of talk about national security will completely erase. This is a sin against life, a sin against human dignity.’

What a contrast the reality of life is at home compared to the image portrayed in the popular mind here in New Zealand. Most Kiwis see the Philippines as a hardworking, very Catholic, usually stable friendly nation. This image has been reinforced to a degree by the 20,000 Filipinos living in New Zealand who are perceived as friendly, reliable and trustworthy people. And indeed most are. They are valued immigrants.

But there is a dark underbelly to life in the Philippines. This reveals a rich powerful political elite backed by the US Government, the army and the police ruling a country dominated by widespread poverty, intimidation, a military anxious for power, corrupt politicians and ‘cowboy’ militias. Underpinning this is a largely devotional religiosity too ready to acquiesce to the power of the State and either unwilling or unable to confront, expose and unmask the ‘principalities and powers’ rampant in most areas. It is the ordinary Filipino who suffers as this entrenched political elite uses violence and corruption to manipulate the Constitution, the courts, the electoral system, the corporate media and the largely uneducated masses and deny them basic human rights and social justice.

New Zealand does have some moral authority in the region. In promoting our interests we need to speak clearly and often as to where we stand on these human rights abuses, or we run the risk of being seen as collaborators with a repressive regime.

1 Let the Stones Cry Out – An Ecumenical Report on Human Rights in the Philippines and a Call to Action, National Council of Churches report, March 2007

2 ibid

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