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The Legacy Of The 2nd Front Of The War On Terror

The Legacy Of The Second Front Of The War On Terror:
The Philippines


By Moana Cole

“For globalisation to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower it is… The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonald Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps”.
(Thomas Friedman, New York Times, March 28 1999)

This year I was invited by the Philippines National Council of Churches to participate in a fact finding mission on the effects of the ‘war on terror’ on the most vulnerable of society, women and children. With an international delegation consisting of twenty-five women, I traveled to Central Luzon, one of the most militarized areas of the Philippines. Central Luzon is currently hosting 2665 US soldiers in the latest Balikatan (Cooperation) exercises. It was there we met with farmers, indigenous communities, sex workers and the children of the US servicemen. After eighteen days of intensive investigation, I concluded that in order to understand what’s going on, New Zealanders are going to have to look beyond the rhetoric of the “war on terror” and understand that for many countries, the war waged by the US and its allies has only served to undermine peace negotiations, democratic movements, pluralism and aggravates the terrible plight of farmers, workers, women and children.

In launching the new project of empire building, the Bush administration took decisive steps to destroy all restraints on the exercise of power. Through skilful mass media imagery repeated endlessly throughout the world, a localized terrorist incident was transformed into an event of world significance, which in turn was used as the basis for a world wide military crusade. As part of his State of the Union address on the 29th January 2002, President Bush referred to the expansion of the war on terror to new fronts, “We now have troops in the Philippines”. Thus, the second front was opened in South East Asia. President Bush’s speech on June 4th took the war to a new doctrinal plane. Emphasising that that the doctrines of defence and deterrence were inadequate for the war on terror, he said “we must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge”.

The pro-US Philippine President Macapagal-Arroyo readily rode on the wave of the fantastic western media characterisation of the Abu Sayyaf group as an ideologically driven Muslim fundamentalist group with connections to Al Qaeda. This served to justify US involvement in an essentially domestic matter of enforcing the law against kidnapping and murder. Despite this popular characterisation, the head of the Catholic Church in Basilan (where the Abu Sayyaf is believed to be hiding) said that to attribute the spate of kidnappings in Basilan to Islamic fundamentalism is wrong, Islam “was merely being used as a cover of these people”. The characterization of Abu Sayyaf as Islamic extremists is particularly irresponsible because it tends to ferment anti-Muslim sentiment among a broad segment of a misinformed Christian majority and serves to undermine the concept of a pluralistic society. Despite this, the Philippine Government has committed their support and offered their land, air and seas for any US military offensive against any nation the US considers its enemy.

With the demise of Indonesian strongman Suharto, on whom Washington had relied heavily, the US Council of Foreign Relations Report pointed out that the region’s strategic significance as “a place of great geopolitical consequence that sits aside some of the world’s most critical sea lanes”. The Balikatan military exercises, in the context of the “war on terror”, should be seen for what it really is: a permanent US presence in the Philippines.

Rather than terrorists, the majority of Philippinos are the victims of exploitation and terror on a daily basis. The result of Philippine peasants demanding land reform has led to massacres, harassments and illegal arrests and detentions. Political parties that advocate social change and human rights organizations are also targets. Organisations such as GABRIELA, a national alliance of women’s organizations whose aims include “a self reliant economy that is primarily geared to people’s needs”, “giving equal value to the role of women in production”, “genuine agrarian reform which include recognition of women’s equal right to own land” and, most dangerously, “national sovereignty in Philippine economic and political life” has been labeled a “communist front”, and thus a legitimate target for anti-terror initiatives.

I met the eldest son of Expedito Albarillo, a Bayan Muna (a progressive Philippine Political Party also labeled a “communist front”) coordinator and local councilor, whose twelve-year-old sister saw members of the 16th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army drag her mother and father out of the house on April 8 of this year. Expedito sustained eight gunshot wounds in his body, had one of his eyes gauged out and the back of his skull beaten open. His wife was shot under her right eye which shattered her neck. They left behind eight children. Because their lives are in danger, the children have been located to an internal refugee camp, living in absolute poverty away from their extended family, the land their family has lived on for generations and entirely dependant on the outside world to survive.

Behind the beautiful resorts of Mindoro, the seventh largest island in the country, lie thousands threatened lives and violations of basic human rights. At Quezon City Jail, I met the Manburao Six, poor farmers belonging to the Golden Country Farmers Organisation in Mamburao, Mindoro Occidental. They were falsely accused of ‘stealing mangoes’ in the Golden Country Farm where the powerful landlord, former Rep. Ricardo Quintos, stood in the way of their 604 hectare land that was long overdue for distribution under the governments land reform program. In 1998, when the two sons of Quintos were gunned down, police and intelligence agents arbitrarily arrested the farmers and were bought to Manila jails under the orders of Quintos. The New People’s Army claimed responsibility for the killings, but Quintos continues to use his power to keep the six in jail. If found guilty, they face the death penalty.

As a response to the brutal repression of peasant organisations, the New People’s Army (NPA) was established in Central Luzon in 1969. While we were in the area, the military and NPA were skirmishing. During an earlier encounter, the Chief Head of the military unit was killed and the NPA fled to the mountains. The military went back to the area of the encounter and killed five fishermen from the local area. Thus, the Peace Process constituted a sign of hope in a country engaged in civil war. However, on August 9, the State Department tagged the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA as a “foreign terrorist organization”. Because the Philippine government announced it would not negotiate with terrorist organizations, the pronouncement only serves to undermine the peace talks and imperil its resumption. In an October 1st article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the National Police Director was quoted as saying “This (the armed conflict) is a political problem. If we look at it only as a military problem, them we can’t solve it… It starts as an economic (problem), then it grows into a social, political and military problem”.

A close scrutiny of the list of 34 “foreign terrorist organizations” designated as such by the US Secretary of State clearly show that only a few (ironically, those created or mentored by the US) could really be considered as terrorist organizations. The majority are either humanitarian organizations or national liberation movements espousing causes and programs opposed to US intervention and economic domination. International Law experts are unanimous in their view that any definition of terrorism must consider the gains in the development of international law, particularly in the field of human rights and humanitarian law, and the current international realities of tyranny and injustices that result in struggles of oppressed and exploited peoples all over the world. Some advocates further believe that the causes of terrorism must likewise be examined. In this context, the US “war on terror” must be condemned in the strongest possible language because this “war” seeks reprisals, makes mockery of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, violates human rights and international humanitarian law and, above all, is a mere pretext to promote US global strategic goals at the expense of other nations and peoples.

During my stay in the Philippines, one bomb blast took place outside a bar frequented by US soldiers. In the two weeks since my departure, another three bombs have exploded in Manila, killing and injuring many more. But to treat the blasts as isolated incidences is a mistake. I saw evidence of many unreported (by the media) instances of repression and terror committed by those very same forces fighting the “war on terror”.

If the New Zealand Government is serious in its condemnation of terror, its first act must be to withdraw its troops from the state terror still being inflicted against the people of Afghanistan. A war that has killed almost 8000 civilians, half the casualties being children. For the “war against terrorism” is the foremost terrorist operation of them all.

- Moana Cole is an activist, freelance writer and student at Canterbury University.


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