34 Years Since Martial Law, Despotism Still Reigns

Sep. 16, 2006

Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: Chilling similarities

The similarities of the atrocities during martial law and today are chilling. Hooded men knocking down doors and dragging out victims in the dead of night. Assassins on motorcycles. Killers shooting victims in cold blood, often in close range. Anguished relatives looking for answers and, most important of all, justice.

By Carlos H. Conde

MANILA Four years ago, Dee Batnag-Ayroso, a 37-year-old mother of two, lost her husband Honorio when gunmen abducted him. Honorio was never found. And much as Dee still wants to cling to the hope that hes still alive somewhere, the continuing killings and abductions of Honorios fellow activists heightens her desperation.

Dee was in her home last month when she heard on the radio that Ernesto Ladica, a member of the leftist political party Bayan Muna, was shot dead while having coffee with his three sons outside their home in Misamis Oriental. Dees husband was also a member of Bayan Muna; many of the victims of these murders and forced disappearances were members and leaders of this group.

In the past few weeks, more activists and peasant and tribal leaders were shot dead in separate incidents. These murders brought to more than 750 the number of activists killed since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power in 2001.

Nearly 200 activists have gone missing since 2001. Two of the latest desaparecidos were young student activists from the University of the Philippines who were abducted in the dead of night in July just north of Manila by men believed to be soldiers.

To many, the killings and abductions are a grim reminder that the age of despotism has not really died with Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who, exactly 34 years ago next week, on Sept. 21, 1972, declared martial law and plunged the country into one of its darkest and most violent periods.

Indeed, the similarities of the atrocities then and now are chilling. Hooded men knocking down doors in the dead of night. Assassins on motorcycles. Killers shooting victims in cold blood, often in close range. Anguished relatives looking for answers and, most important of all, justice.

The latest killings and abductions still make me feel cold inside, like how I felt four years ago, Dee said. I am saddened but mostly enraged at what keeps happening, at the injustice everywhere.

The murder of Ernesto Ladica and hundreds of others, and the continued disappearance of Honorio Ayroso and dozens more, has become a grim reality that is increasingly consuming a country that, for decades under Ferdinand Marcos, suffered these same atrocities and thought that the nightmare would end with the ouster of the dictator in 1986.

Dee, as well as critics and relatives of victims, believe the military to be behind the murders and abductions. They have also denounced Arroyo for allegedly officially sanctioning these.

In her State of the Nation Address before Congress in July, Arroyo condemned the killings but, in the same breath, praised army general Jovito Palparan, who has been accused of being behind many of these murders and abductions, for his campaign against the Left. Palparan, Arroyo said, has come to grips with the enemy.

International human-rights groups urged Arroyo to do more. She must now show she means business by implementing concrete measures to prevent the deaths of more activists,” said Tim Parritt, deputy director of Amnesty International in a statement last month.

The Hongkong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, which completed a fact-finding mission in the Philippines last month, expressed alarm over the wave of violence and the governments allegedly ineffective and inconsistent responses.

In July, the new papal nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, weighed in with these words: “I am surprised to see that in the Philippines there is still an activity of high incidence of a moral and political violence against those who profess different political ideologies.

He implied that the government was behind the killings. “It will truly be a contradiction, if on the one hand, we practically abolished the death penalty and yet on the other hand we are not respecting or implementing the rights of the human race,” referring to Arroyos abolition of the death-penalty law, which she had said was here gift to the Vatican during an audience with the Pope in June.

The Commission on Human Rights, an independent constitutional body, said the killings are the responsibility of government. We couldnt care less what colors the killers are. Is the government so helpless? said the commissions chairman, Purificacion Quisumbing, in May.

The commission said the Philippines was in danger of being blacklisted by the United Nations for failing to submit reports on human-rights abuses over the past decade. This failure has been roundly criticized by human rights advocates as proof of the governments alleged disregard of, if cavalier attitude toward, human rights.

The Philippines is a signatory to several human-rights treaties and was recently elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, an election that the Arroyo administration trumpeted as a testament to its respect for human rights.

Oscar Calderon, the head of a police task force investigating the killings, had earlier cleared Palparan. The general, Calderon said, “was never implicated in any of our investigations.

The government has repeatedly said that it was not behind the killings, that there was no state policy against activists, and that, it said, the murders were perpetrated by the communists themselves and pin the blame on the government.

In June, Arroyo created a team to investigate the murders. Those who perpetrated these senseless killings will not go far, said Ignacio Bunye, Arroyos spokesman. “The law enforcement authorities are on their tracks and we need the cooperation and support of all concerned sectors to get them.”

Arroyo, in a trip to Europe this week, trumpeted her administration’s efforts to solve these killings and uphold human rights.

Palparan, meanwhile, dismissed the allegations against him. The killings are being attributed to me, but I did not kill them, he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer last month. We are not admitting responsibility here, he said, adding: What Im saying is that these are necessary incidents. He said he just inspired the killers.

This month, the administration, in a gesture widely believed by many to be an endorsement of Palparans allegedly murderous methods against the Left, floated the idea of naming Palparan deputy National Security Adviser. He would be tasked mainly with counter-insurgency matters.

Satur Ocampo, a congressman who leads Bayan Muna, blamed Arroyo for the wave of extrajudicial killings and for sanctioning the allegedly extrajudicial methods of Palparan.

“Mrs. Arroyo’s public display of admiration for General Palparan is a shameful endorsement of his terrorist mindset and terrorist acts against all activists and its role in her total war,” Ocampo said.

Karapatan, meanwhile, said it noticed an increase of the killings and disappearances of civilians since Arroyo declared, on June 17, an all-out war campaign against the communist insurgency, which she vowed to crush between two to five years.

Most of the recent murders, it said, occurred in the provinces the government had earlier identified as its priority areas for a counter-insurgency program that seeks to neutralize and destroy the political infrastructure of the Communists.

But Jessica Soto, the executive director of Amnesty International in the Philippines, believes that theres more to this campaign than anti-communism. The killings, she said, are meant to discourage dissent.

This is an assault against dissent in general, she said in an interview. The government, Soto said, is using McCarthyism once again to legitimize its campaign against those who wish to undermine it.

Soto argued that the killings, in a way, are much worse today than during Marcoss time. The killings during the Marcos years took place under martial law. There was a clear dictatorship. Activists during that time were sitting ducks but they knew what they were up against, Soto said. But weve since won back democracy, and in a democracy, youre not supposed to kill a person just because you did not agree with his beliefs.

Soto and other critics of the government argue that the campaign against the Left intensified after allegations that Arroyo cheated in the elections surfaced and damaged her administrations credibility and stability. The government has often accused the Left of conspiring with rightist elements in the military in attempts to overthrow it.

Arroyos desperate pursuit for political survival has virtually turned her into a new dictator and the nation in a state of undeclared martial law, said Marie Hilao-Enriquez, the secretary-general of Karapatan.

Leaders of the Left were among those who filed the impeachment complaint against Arroyo last year. They have always been the noisiest, most vociferous critics of the government, and are able to mass thousands in the streets. Bayan Muna has been spearheading most of these anti-government demonstrations.

After surviving impeachment and alleged coups detat, Arroyo cracked down on the Left by outlawing demonstrations and arresting Leftist leaders, even as the killings continued particularly in the provinces.

Prior to this, officials demonized the open and legal groups such as Bayan Muna, accusing them of being communist fronts and of allegedly funneling money from Congress to the insurgency. Leaders of the Left vehemently denied this charge and challenged the government to prove its case in court.

Leftists also see a confluence of interests at play between the Arroyo administration and the military. Arroyo came to power and survived several coup attempts because of the support of the military. Also, one of the nagging and most damning accusations against her is her alleged use of some members of the military to cheat in the 2004 elections. In return for these favors, Leftists have said, Arroyo had given the military a free hand in dealing with the three-decade-old communist insurgency.

The problem now, however, is that, due to the extrajudicial nature of the campaign against the Left, no one is actually in control, Soto of Amnesty International said. And if the government is not in control of a situation like this, its dangerous for all of us.

Malu Cadelia-Manar, a hard-hitting radio commentator and newspaper correspondent in the violent south, knows this danger only too well. In May, the military accused her of being a member of the New Peoples Army, the armed wing of the communist party, after she contradicted, through her reports, the armys propaganda against the communists.

Aside from actually being called a communist by a military officer, Manar received a package in May that contained a manila paper scribbled with these words: Death to supporters of the NPA.

The experience unnerved Manar who, a few months earlier, had to move out of her city after receiving death threats. It would seem to me that these accusations would be a justification for harming me, the 35-year-old journalist said in an interview. She subsequently filed a complaint against the army.

To victims like Dee Batnag-Ayroso, one of the ways to end the nightmare is to remove the president. It would be part, she said, of the healing process. Theres still hope for justice when Arroyo is ousted, she said.

Tragic as it may seem, that is exactly what many victims of Marcoss abuses thought at the height of the dictatorships atrocities. (Carlos H. Conde/davaotoday.com)

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