Economic inequality is a central element fueling political turmoil and grassroots rebellions in the country. According to the United Nations, an estimated 45 million people in the Philippines live on less than two US dollars per day.
Instability in the Philippines extends beyond the current economic crisis, as a growing international controversy surrounds the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Political killings in the country are on the rise; the Philippines is estimated by Amnesty International to have one of the highest rates of politically-motivated murders in the world.
In 2006, Amnesty concluded that "over recent years reports of an increased number of killings of political activists, predominately those associated with leftist or left-orientated groups, have caused increasing concern in the Philippines and internationally."
Today, political organizers implicated in movements for social change in the Philippines are under the gun.
In Manila, human rights advocates point to aid from the governments of Canada and the US as supporting the governmental-backed targeting and killing of local activists.
It is commonly estimated that over 860 people have been killed in acts of politically motivated violence in the Philippines since the beginning of Arroyo’s term in 2001, which many local human rights activists attribute partially to a US backed "counterinsurgency" program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Union leaders, religious figures, progressive politicians and community organizers have all been targeted in killings that leave a bloody trail pointing to the highest levels of political power in the nation.
"Despite major international pressure, Arroyo’s government has not halted the ongoing political killings," explains Benjie Oliveros the managing editor of Bulatlat, a popular alternative online news publication based in Quezon City.
"The Armed Forces of the Philippines denies that they are involved in the killings, although everyone understands implicitly that the military is directly involved," Oliveros told the Dominion over tea in Manila, "we believe that international media has a responsibility to amplify the untold violence that progressive movements are facing in our country today."
In 2007 Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council, accused the current government of "encouraging or facilitating the killings" through the AFP. According to Alston, President Arroyo and the national military were not only in a "state of denial" about the political killings, but "complicit" in the systematic executions of those labeled "enemies of the state."
"In some areas, the leaders of leftist organizations are systematically hunted down by interrogating and torturing those who may know their whereabouts," outlines a additional United Nations report released in August 2007, "they are often killed following a campaign of individual vilification designed to instill fear into the community."
"I cannot agree on that," Lieutenant-General of the state military, Alexander Yano, told Reuters news agency in a recent interview, in contradiction to the recently published UN report, explaining "that there could be some rogue elements in the military", but it was "not state policy to allow extra-judicial killings and disappearances."
Until today the Armed Forces of the Philippines and left-wing guerrillas of the 10,000-strong New Peoples Army (NPA), remain locked in a decades-old battle for political control throughout the Pacific archipelago. Commonly viewed as one of the longest running guerrilla wars in the world, the battle between state military forces and the NPA dates back to the 1960s, when communist-driven national liberation movements spread throughout Asia.
Since 9/11, the ongoing struggle between state forces and the leftist guerrilla movement in the Philippines has been swept into the international "War on Terror," as both the NPA guerrilla movement and also the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), an umbrella organization representing left movements in the country, have been designated as "terrorist" organizations domestically and internationally by western governments, including the US and Canada.
Today, the Canadian government delivers approximately $20 million on an annual basis in overseas development aid to the Arroyo government in Manila, mainly through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Officially, the outlined objectives of CIDA’s development strategy in the Philippines is to "foster efficient, responsive, transparent and accountable governance at all levels."
Canada’s international development agency describes the Philippines as a "functioning democracy with a vibrant civil society," despite the rise in political killings in the country.
In addition to Canadian "development aid," Canada’s Military Training Program (MTAP) has provided army personnel from the Philippines with training in Canada on "peace support operations, staff training and language" since 1997.
According to the Department of National Defense, military personnel from the Philippines participate in training activities in Canada on an annual basis, despite official Canadian policy guidelines barring the government from offering military support "to countries that are involved in armed conflict or whose governments have a persistent record of human rights violations."
As Canadian military aid to the Arroyo government continues to flow, the southern Philippines has been labeled a "new front" to the US-driven ‘War on Terror’ opened shortly after 9/11, in an effort to legitimate the heightened targeting of armed movements rooted in the minority Muslim community by both the Philippine military and US forces stationed in the country, according to human rights advocates.
In 2002 the Bush Administration launched Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines, in which thousands of US soldiers and military personnel were deployed, including more than 1200 members of the United States Special Operations Command, Pacific. Armed Muslim movements such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the shady Abu Sayyaf group are facing an overt military campaign from government and US troops in this new battleground of the War on Terror."
A 2007 feature article in USA Today claimed that in the Philippines, the "US is making progress in war on terror; US special forces have helped kill, capture or rout hundreds of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas." According to one US Army Major operating in the Philippines, "they’ve been kicking some butt… I think they’re close to breaking this thing open."
Hundreds of Filipinos civilians are missing or have been killed in the military violence. Those affected by the military campaigns are overwhelming the Philippines’ impoverished majority.
Muslims in the Philippines are estimated to comprise five per cent of the national population, known locally as Moros — the term dates to Spanish colonial forces which ruled the islands from 1565 to 1898 — and widely regarded as playing a central role in the struggles against both Spanish and US colonization. In recent years, grassroots political parties representing minority Muslim communities in the Philippines such as Suara Bangsamoro — "Voice of the Moro People" — have built alliances with left movements running in national elections.
100 years ago, US forces battled Moro fighters in the southern Philippines, during the Philippine-American War, in which an estimated one-tenth of the Filipino population lost their lives. Violent US military campaigns in Philippines during the early 20th century are a haunting historical reference point for the current US military role in the southern islands; until today, US forces have never been able to permanently subdue the Moro population.
US writer Mark Twain authored a disturbing account of US military action in the early 20th century. "We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them," Twain wrote, "destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and children out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots."
Silencing "disagreeable patriots" in the Philippines remains a seemingly impossible task today, as modern weaponry and US troop deployments to the Philippines as part of the "War on Terror" manifest echoes of the history of US colonialism in the country.
"People in the Philippines today are facing a deathtrap, as the international economic system creates a massive monetary outflow from the country, with over 70 per cent of our annual budget going to payments on our national debt, as administered by international creditors including the World Bank," explains Teddy Casino, sitting congressman for the progressive political party Bayan Muna.
"This economic system squeezing the people of the Philippines is a new colonialism, enforced by the Arroyo government through military force," continues Teddy Casino, "a government that is waging a war with US support against the progressive movements in this country with armed violence and repression."
A battle of ideas is apparent everywhere you visit in the Philippines, a battle that pits western-backed economic and military policies endorsed by the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo against grassroots progressive movements in the country, which according to all indicators are on the rise throughout the nation.