MedNet is a group of negotiators based in the Philippines. They deal with conflicts involving ethnic and social issues.
This interview took place shortly before July failed coup in Manila.
VLTCHEK: You have recently mentioned that extremely small Philippine elite controls well over 50 percent of the national resources. Considering that poor people in your country or in Indonesia or Latin America suffered for decades and centuries while seemingly exhausting most of the peaceful means of the conflict resolution, could negotiated settlement be a realistic goal?
S. AQUINO: The Philippines has the longest running Communist insurgency in the world. Also, many of the development workers who are involved in the peace issues come from the tradition of functioning under the dictatorship. We had Marcos dictatorship for very long time. After the dictatorship, during Aquino administration, the new space was opened for the civil society and for the development work. After that, there was a slight shift from believing in the revolution to hoping to attain lasting peace through the changes of the structures. On the other hand, beliefs in the revolution are still ongoing in some parts of the society. But we in civil society think that there is some space that is open for us to pursue peace; for changing structures by peaceful means. We recognize that it can be a very long process, but for us the revolution may take very non-violent ways. By empowering communities, by changing beliefs, attitudes, values, by recognizing rights and by attaining the social justice.
Q: Some may say, though, that for many people it may come too late. If someone is rotting in the shantytown, if someone is raped at the age of twelve or has to work since ten years of age, he or she may not be inclined to wait for the long-term peaceful solution.
A: But killing each other is not a solution for most of the problems. However, I absolutely agree, in some situations an armed revolt is called for. But what we are trying to do in our group is to equip people with skills, attitudes and knowledge and give them the opportunity to choose. Give them the options, give them the alternatives. We are not very prescriptive in our training programs. We are very far from prescriptive. We donâ€™t say: â€œMediation is the wayâ€ or â€œnegotiation is the wayâ€. We say: â€œthese are the bunch of tools that you carry, which you can choose to use.â€
Q: But is your ruling class capable of changing? Can your tools really lead to some significant change in the society?
A: Well, absolutely. We have done that, proven that. We exercised peopleâ€™s power; we ousted Marcos dictatorship, we have dismantled the United States military bases, we have ousted Estrada. So these are very concrete examples that show that Philippine people were able to take matters to their hands and to resolve things in a relatively peaceful manner; not 100 percent peaceful but with relatively lesser bloodshed than in what might have been.
Q: But changes that you mentioned: do they have an impact only on the elites or on life of the general public as well? Letâ€™s remember Indonesia. Of course there was a popular revolt and Suharto was ousted, but nevertheless the same style of the economic and political governance is still there. Corruption and cronyism are still present under Megawati as they were under Suharto, not to speak about the power that the military is still enjoyingâ€¦
A: Absolutely. In that case itâ€™s not the structural change, only the change in terms of the personalities. But in Philippines, there had been constant gains in other ways as well. Probably not in significantly redistributing economic resources, but at least by creating some space for the ordinary people and some sectors that allowed their agenda to be put forward. Even our extremely elitist and conservative Congress had been able to negotiate some extremely progressive laws. And although even these pieces of legislation are not perfect and their implementation still has to be seen, being able to have them put in some structure of the legal framework is definitely an important step forward.
Q: How do you fell about the US military forces getting involvement in your country? Doesnâ€™t it isolate the Philippines from the rest of the region? While Mahatir (Malaysian PM) next door is warning against the growing Western neo-colonialism all over the world, Arroyo is doing everything possible to get the US involved in her own country.
A: Well, certainly my country had been always a victim in geo-political maneuverings of the super-powers, and this is no exception. Again, this is falling in the framework of the US imperialism and domination. And there is a lot of opposition. Personally I believe that this is a major source of the conflict. It doesnâ€™t resolve the issues here, although they claim that it is along the lines of the global war against terrorism. To me it has a potential to produce more conflict.
Q: How did the US involvement change the conflict in the South of your country?
A: To the certain extent it had escalated the conflict, directly and indirectly. You see shopping mall being bombed just because one US soldier or bunch of the US soldiers are there. Having Western face there is very offensive to many local people in the area, to many members of the militant groups. And then many civilians are put unnecessarily in danger. The US presence in the country is definitely not helping. If itâ€™s helping anyone at all, it would be something along the lines of strengthening the capacity of the military â€“ Philippine military. And in our civil society there is a long tradition against the militarism.
Q: How strong is the Philippine military in terms of the political power?
A: Itâ€™s not as strong as it used to be under the Ramos administration. He used to be a former general of the armed forces and later he put a lot of the former army generals to civilian government positions. Right now there are still some but not as many as in the past. Military is right now experiencing some financial problems. Imagine, we are an archipelago and we are experiencing all kind of problems logistic wise. There are not enough resources for patrolling commercial fishing areas, itâ€™s simply impossible to check all smuggling activities that are going on there. So the military is significantly weakened in terms of its presence in the government, its technology and its capacity. But still, it is used systematically in Mindanao area to suppress Muslim population under disguise of terrorism. And even in other areas when it comes to non Muslim groups â€“ human rights groups report that there is a military repression. Two human rights activists were recently killed on the island called Mindoro. Again, everybody who knows the area says that the crime was perpetrated by the military. But the violence against the civilian population in Mindanao is happening on the daily basis, mainly from the military offenses against the Muslims.
Q: Is Philippine military trained by the United States? You colleague was mentioning something along these lines.
A: Well, there is a Philippine Military Academy, but there was an agreement between the Philippines and the United States for the military exercises. Itâ€™s what he was referring to. It was called â€œBalikatanâ€ â€“ â€œcooperationâ€.
Q: But do Philippine soldiers actually go to the United States to be trained there?
A: Some top generals get training there. But mainly the US troops are coming to Philippines to train our soldiers. In exchange the US soldiers get training in the jungle combat against guerillas.
(Andre Vltchek is an American writer and journalist, chief editor of political magazine WCN (www.worldconfrontationnow.com) He currently resides in Japan and Vietnam and can be reached at [email protected] )