Imperial Humanitarianism In A U.S. Neocolony: Torture Of Women Prisoners In The Philippines


Listed early this year by the UK ECONOMIST as an upcoming Asian Tiger with 6-7% GDP growth, the Philippines (with half of its hundred million citizens subsisting on less than $2 a day) is more renowned as a haven of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf than for its minerals or its bountiful supply of advertized Filipina brides and maids for the world market. A recent chic staging of Imelda Marcos' fabled extravagance in New York City may cover up the nightmare of the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986) for the elite or the gore of the 2009 Ampatuan massacre.

But the everyday reality of human misery and plotted killings cannot be eluded.

Dan Brown featured Manila as the "gate of hell" in his novel Inferno. Are we in for a super-Halloween treat? What often pops up between the cracks of commodified trivia are the detritus and stigmata of U.S. intervention in the ongoing civil war. Prominent are the thousands of unresolved extra-judicial killings, torture and abuse of political prisoners, warrantless detentions, enforced disappearances or kidnappings of dissenters by government security forces mainly funded by Washington. We are confronted with a "culture of impunity" that recalls the bloody rule of Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile, and the ruthless generals of Brazil and Argentina in the years when Ronald Reagan and Bush patronized the Cold War services of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

A classic colony of the United States from 1898 to 1946, the Philippines remains a semi-feudal neocolony ruled by holdover oligarchs led today by President Benigno Aquino III. Resisting the U.S. behemoth in 1899-1913 Filipino-American War, 1.4 million Filipinos perished in the name of U.S. "Manifest Destiny." Since then the Philippines has functioned as a strategic springboard for projecting U.S. power throughout the Asian-Pacific region. This has become more crucial with the recent Asian "pivot" of U.S. military resources amid territorial disputes among China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.

State terrorism thrives in the Philippines. Tutored and subsidized by Washington-Pentagon, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) are the two state agencies tasked with pursuing a U.S.-designed Counterinsurgency Plan (now named "Oplan Bayanihan") against the Communist-led New People's Army (NPA) guerillas and other revolutionary groups led by the National Democratic Front. They are aided by government-established "force multipliers" such as Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVO), police auxiliary units, and the notorious Citizens' Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU), whose members double as agents of local warlords. Scrapping peace-talks with the insurgents while astutely temporizing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerillas (with U.S. and Malaysian mediators), Aquino's coercive surveillance and enforcement apparatus obeys the privatization-deregulation policy/ideology of finance capital, resulting in severe unemployment, rampant corruption, widespread poverty and brutal repression.

U.S. imperial hegemony manifests itself in the unlimited use of Philippine territory by U.S warships and military through the Visiting Forces Agreement and other treaties. This has allowed hundreds of U.S. Special Forces, CIA and clandestine agencies to operate in helping the AFP-PNP counterinsurgency plan–such as bombing and strafing communities of peasants and indigenous communities that are protesting mining by foreign corporations. From 2001 to 2010, the U.S. provided over $507 million military assistance (report by Jerry Esplanada, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 31 Oct 2011). Recently, the U.S. raised the aid by 2/3%, from $30M to $50M for patrol boats against Chinese incursions in the disputed Spratley Islands (Reuters 31 July 2013). Part of this grant was spent in civic action projects reminiscent of the U.S.-CIA schemes during the anti-Huk pacification campaign under Ramon Magsaysay's presidency.

An observer of recent elections in the Philippines, Australian law professor Gill Boehringer addresses the "culture of impunity" and provides a background for the dehumanization of the regime's critics: "The Philippines is following the typical neo-liberal program whereby inequality worsens, hunger and poverty continue at high rates, citizens are driven overseas so their family may have better income while unemployment, under-employment and child labor remain significant problems… In a country with a a semi-feudal political-economic system generating a huge gap between rich and the masa [masses], the former will fight in every way possible to maintain the structure of social, political and economic relations–including relations of coercion, violence and state-corporate terror–which have made the Philippines a paradise for the wealthy and purgatory for the rest" (Karapatan Interview, 30 June 2013).

To keep the country underdeveloped, secure for investments by predatory multinational coporations, and safe from strikes and political dissent, the U.S. supports a tiny group of political dynasties and their retinue whose victory in periodic "democratic" elections, such as the one last May, guarantees the perpetuation of a society polarized into an impoverished majority and a privileged minority. Violence and a corrupt, inefficient court system underwrite the maintenance of a business-as-usual status quo for profit-making and legitimization of torture, kidnappings, assassinations, and other State crimes against citizens.

Since the 1986 fall of the Marcos dictatorship and its destruction of constitutional process and civil liberties, the volume and scope of human rights violations have jumped to staggering proportions. In 2011, for instance, Amnesty International stated: "More than 200 cases of enforced disappearances recorded in the last decade remained unresolved, as did at least 305 cases of extrajudicial execution (with some estimates ranging as high as 1,200). Almost no perpetrators of these crimes have been brought to justice" (Bulatlat, 20 May 2011).

The U.S. State Department's Country Report on Human Rights in the Philippines for 2011 also confirmed the persistence of "arbitrary, unjlawful, and extrajudicial killings by national, provincial, and local government agents," including "prisoner/detainee torture and abuse by security forces, violence and harassment against leftist and human rights activists by local security forces, disappearances, warrantless arrests, lengthy pretrial detentions, overcrowded and inadequate prison conditions," and so on (U.S. State Dept., Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2011).

The Human Rights Watch also affirmed that "hundreds of leftist politicians and political activists, journalists, and outspoken clergy have been killed or abducted since 2011" (World Report 2011).

The highly credible NGO human rights monitor Karapatan documented the human-rights record of Aquino from July 2010 to April 30, 2013: 142 victims of extrajudicial killings, 164 cases of frustrated killing, 16 victims of enforced disappearances (Press Statement, 29 June 2013). High profile cases of the killing of Father Pops Tenorio, Dutch volunteer Willem Geertman, botanist Leonardo Co, and environmentalists Gerry Ortega remain unresolved. Military officials like ex-General Jovito Palparan, Major Baliaga, and others linked by the courts to the kidnapping of Jonas Burgos, Sherley Cadapan and Karen Empeno remain at large.

Karapatan chairperson Marie Hilao-Enriquez noted that the victims of State terror are "those who challenge inequality and oppression," those who were displaced by logging and transnational mining companies, and those branded as sympathizers of the NPA by the counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan which, to date, has yielded 137 extra-judicial murders and thousands of detained suspects (Press Statements, 16 January 2013; 29 June 2013).

Women stand out as the prime victims of the Aquino regime and patriarchal authority in general. They are discriminated and inferiorized by virtue of gender, caste, class and ethnicity (on women as caste, see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Outlaw Woman, 2002). In 2011, half of the 78 political detainees arrested by the Aquino regime were women. Since 2001, 153 women were targetted by extrajudicial assassins sponsored by the AFP-PNP.

The Center for Women's Research observed that women political prisoners suffer twice the violence experienced by men; they "are more vulnerable to intimidation, sexual harassment and abuse, as well as torture." Former political prisoner Angie Ipong and the women members of the Morong 43 [health-care workers arrested by Arroyo's military in 2009] can attest to this" (Bulatlat 15 December 2011).

The sixty-year old Ipong was arrested in March 2005 without warrant, blindfolded, and physically abused without relief for several days. After six years of obscene subjugation in different military stockades, Ipong was released by a regional trial court which dismissed the charges of double murder, double frustrated murder, and arson charges against her (see her personal testimony, A Red Rose for Andrea, 2012). Ipong's case epitomizes the systematic degradation of women of all ages in Aquino's tropical paradise of U.S. military ports, minerals, and versatile domestics.

As of December 31, 2012, there are 33 women political prisoners (of the total of 430) in the Philippines. Twelve are elderly, 45 are sick, and one is a minor. A significant number belong to ethnic or indigenous communities. They languish in jail branded as "enemies of the state," charged with rebellion and all kinds of fabricated criminal charges. They suffer all kinds of torture, in particular sexual abuse and rape, perpetrated by their military and police captors. Many of them are human rights defenders or activists involved in advocacy for national sovereignty and genuine economic development for the poor and marginalized. Because they work for the deprived sectors of peasants, workers, urban poor, youth, and indigenous communities, they are accused of being supporters of the communists (the NPA is labelled a "terrorist" organization like the Abu Sayyaf, following U.S. State Dept. doctrine) to justify their illegal arrest and continuing detention in horrible quarters.

This article reveals only a tip of the monstrous iceberg of cruel and inhumane punishment inflicted on women by the neocolonial order. Because of space limitations, I can only select the following cases and urge everyone committed to justice and human dignity to demand their immediate release and indemnification for unspeakable afflictions suffered over the years.

E. SAN JUAN, Jr. is emeritus professor of Ethnic Studies, English and Comparative Literature; former fellow of WEB Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, and the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas; and previously a Fulbright professor of American Studies, Leuven University, Belgium. His recent books include In the Wake of Terror (Lexington Books), Critique and Social Transformation (Mellen Books), and US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (Palgrave). Thanks to Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, for valuable assistance in furnishing documents, etc.

1. Vanessa de los Reyes, 27 years old, critically wounded in an encounter with the military in Davao Oriental in May 2011; subjected to heavy interrogation, now under hospital arrest due to a spinal surgery resulting in body paralysis.

2. Maricon Montajes, 21 years old, a film student at the University of the Philippines; a photographer documenting peasant life; arrested in Batangas in June 2010; wounded by military gunfire; interrogated and abused.
3. Charity Dinio, 31 years old, a teacher and volunteer organizer of a peasant organization in Batangas. Detained for two weeks by the military, she was beaten up and subjected to electric shocks. She writes: "Worse, they undressed me and laughed at my nakedness and humiliation The torture was a nightmare… I was deprived of due process and condemned despite the lack of evidence. Working with the farmers is now a criminal act. In jail, political prisoners are considered criminals. We are in detention cells with inmates charged with common crimes. This is part of the government's modus operandi to hide political prisoners so they may claim that there are no political prisoners in the country today" (New Brunswick Media Coop, Canada; <http://nbmediacoop.org/2013/05/16/cupe-members-send-letters/>)
4. Joverlyn Tawa-ay, 26 years old, accused of being a NPA guerilla; member of the Manobo tribe from Surigao Sur; charged with rebellion; forced to admit her guilt and convicted to suffer in jail for 12-14 years.
5. Lucy Canda, 46 years old, also from Surigao Sur and convicted for being an NPA member, sentenced to 12-14 years in jail.
6. Catherine Cacdac, 31 years old, Compostela Valley, Mindanao; abducted and kept for three months in military stockades; tortured for being an NPA member.
7. Virgie Ursalino Baao, 25 years old, a farmer from Tayabas, Quezon; abducted by the military, detained and severely tortured; accused of being an NPA member.
8. Gemma Carag, 39 years old, peasant organizer and educator from the University of the Philippines, Los Banos, Laguna; tortured for several days by the AFP and PNP in Sariaya, Quezon; accused of being an NPA member.
9. Rhea Pareja, 25 years old, volunteer teacher for the Adult Literacy Program of her sorority Kappa Epsilon in Mulanay, Quezon; tortured severely by paramilitary forces connected to the AFP and PNP; charged as an NPA member.
10. Miguela Pinero, 46 years old, farmer and community health worker; accused of being an NPA commander.
11. Evelyn Legaspi, 53 years old, member of an organization of urban poor, Kadamay; arrested in Bae, Laguna, by the PNP, subjected to abusive interrogation and physical abuse; accused of illegal possession of firearms.
12. Pastora Latagan Darang, 34 years old, member of Kadamay. Arrested and tortured by AFP-PNP and accused of murder, illegal possession of explosives.
13. Rosita Cabus, 56 years old, from Baybay, Leyte. A former peasant organizer, she was arrested (with her husband Rodrigo) on trumped-up charges of murder.
14. Marissa Espidido Caluscusin, 27 years old, from Antipolo City; arrested by the AFP-PNP for being a suspected NPA member, together with researchers for the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front.
15. Moreta Alegre, 65 years old, farmer, the oldest woman political prisoner, from Sagay, Negros Oriental; sentenced (with her husband and son) to life imprisonment for alleged murder of one of the bodyguards of a local landlord; protested landgrabbing.
For the situation of other women political prisoners, please consult the websites of KARAPATAN and SELDA.
Everyday, warrantless arrests and torture of activists are occurring as living conditions deteriorate. With the extra-judicial killing last March 4 of Cristina Morales Jose, a leader of Barug Katawhan (People Rise Up!), an organization of the survivors of the typhoon Pablo in Davao Oriental, it is probable that instead of crowding the filthy prisons and detention centers, the Aquino regime is resorting to outright extermination of protest leaders. If that is the case, it is urgent to appeal to international bodies.
The Cold War phenomenon of the "National Security State" seems to have morphed into the regime's not so subtle fascist maneuver. Practically kept a secret from the public is Joint Order No. 14-2012 of the Department of National Defense and Department of the Interior and Local Government which lists the names of wanted communist leaders, allocating four hundred sixty-six million eighty-thousand pesos (P466,088,000) as reward money for their capture. A bonanza for bureaucrats and officials of the AFP-PNP!  
Under this order, Estelita Tacalan, a 60-year old peasant organizer and rural health worker in Misamis Oriental was kidnapped by AFP-PNP agents on April 27. On May 7, the PNP announced that they have detained Tacalan for being listed in the Joint Order, and charged her with murder and arson (Karapatan Press Statement, 10 May 2013). Countless arrests and detentions have been made pursuant to this Order.
Women have proven to be the most vulnerable victim of such authoritarian measures, based on the history of torture and sexual abuse of political prisoners from the Marcos dictatorship to the Arroyo and Aquino regimes. In effect, the system has criminalized the radical anti-imperialist activism of women.
As Catherine MacKinnon observed, these practices of sexual and reproductive abuse "occur not only in wartime but also on a daily basis in one form or another in every country in the world….widely permitted as the liberties of their perpetrators, understood as excesses of passion or spoils of victory, legally rationalized or officially winked at or formally condoned" ("Crimes of War, Crimes of Peace," On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, New York, p. 87). In the Philippines, they are not legally rationalized or formally condoned by a regime that professes to abide by the UN Charter of Human Rights and all the other international covenants prohibiting the violations of human rights. But just the same, they are violated every day under the humanitarian flag of global free-market democracy, liberty and justice for all.

Leave a comment