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Omar Hamed: From People Power to Partially Free

From “People Power” to “Partially Free”

Twenty years of struggle for democracy is under threat in the Philippines
By Omar Hamed

A storm is brewing. Troubled times seem to lie ahead for the Philippines. After Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo last Friday declared a state of emergency her government began a crackdown on political opponents and independent media in response to what she alleged was a foiled military coup. Although her government has suggested the state of emergency may be lifted by the weekend, for many in the Philippines it couldn’t come soon enough.

"President Arroyo and her aides may choose to call it a Declaration of the State of Emergency, but the stench of martial law has pervaded the whole country," said The Daily Tribune, a Philippine newspaper that was raided early on Saturday morning by police, seizing editorial and threatening journalists that they would take over the paper. In an ironic sequel to the Danish cartoon saga that aroused cries of “press freedom” from media pundits across the western world, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called the repression in an open letter to Arroyo, “a profoundly disturbing message about the limits of press freedom.” The same pundits are oddly silent on the restrictions on Filipino journalists.

Ever since Arroyo passed Proclamation 1017, she has used it to justify the violent dispersals of peaceful protest marches, cancelling classes at universities and schools nationwide, arresting activists and opposition political leaders and the deployment of soldiers to the Manila compounds of the Philippines’ two largest TV networks. The proclamation declares that the political opposition to her government, which was elected in 2004 in amid cries of corruption and rigged elections, is “adversely affecting the economy”. Arroyo’s moves, which include the attempted abduction of Bayan Muna, the Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives is says many Filipino trade unions and community and religious organizations, adversely affecting democracy.

For Filipinos it was a kick in the shins. Not only had Arroyo declared martial law, but she had done so on the 20th anniversary of the “people power” revolt when one million people stood up to army tanks, forcing dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile. The Global Network (Philippines), said the move, “killed the spirit of People Power 20 years after” and “heightened the threat to democracy by curtailing the people's basic political rights and repressing freedom of expression and dissent.”

The crisis has come less than a week after Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters declared that, “New Zealand has little choice but to play its part in responding to pressing security and development challenges in other parts of the world.” Agreed. It’s high time our government put its money where its mouth is. Helen Clark who is heading to an interfaith dialogue in the Philippines in early March to speak, along with Arroyo, at the opening session of the talks. The government has made no public comment on the situation in the Philippines, and it seems unlikely it will.Quicker off the mark was US based Freedom House, who in a recent report downgraded the Philippines from a "free" to a "partly free" country. The reasons stated for the downgrade were they say, "Based on credible allegations of massive electoral fraud, corruption and the government's intimidation of elements in the political opposition."

In response to the state of emergency the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa has asked that New Zealanders contact Helen Clark and request that during her upcoming visit she “personally convey to the highest levels of the Philippine government New Zealand’s condemnation of the State of Emergency and demand that it be revoked.”

Meanwhile in the Philippines the youth and students from different schools, universities and communities acting with the coalition Youth DARE (Youth Demanding Arroyo’s Removal) have lit a “Candle against Tyranny” on March 1, as a sign of defiance against Proclamation 1017. Youth groups in New York, New Jersey, Seattle and Los Angeles have also committed to conduct simultaneous actions in solidarity with the Filipino youth. New Zealand, well what can I say? We watched on as democracy got eroded in a country not too far away.


Omar Hamed is a writer living in Auckland New Zealand

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