Arroyo Backed into a Corner Over Assassinations

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo may be on a

collision course with her military establishment after she succumbed to

international pressure Wednesday and ordered the release of a critical report

into a continuing plague of political assassinations of leftist organizers.

Following harsh criticism early in the day from a senior UN

official over the killings, the presidential palace reversed course and said it

would release the report of a commission chaired by a retired supreme court

justice that has reportedly placed the blame for some of the killings on senior

military officers.

The Melo Commission report was finished in late January but Arroyo’s

office tried to prevent its release, saying it was “incomplete,” a charge the

commission itself denied. Copies of the report are to be made public on Thursday.

Wednesday morning Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur of

the United Nations Human Rights Council on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary

executions, ended a 10-day mission to the country by calling on Arroyo to

release the report and urging the military to acknowledge its role in the

situation. Alston had been given a copy of the report by the presidential

palace.

“The armed forces are in a state of almost total denial”

over the killings, Alston said.

Arroyo, he said, needs to convince the military “of its need

to respond effectively and authentically to the significant number of killings

which have been convincingly attributed to them. The president needs to

persuade the military that its reputation and effectiveness will be

considerably enhanced, rather than undermined, by acknowledging the facts and

taking genuine steps to investigate.”

The first step, Alston said, was for the Melo Commission

report to be released to the public. “The president showed good faith in

responding to allegations by setting up an independent commission,” he said.

“But the political and other capital that should have followed is being slowly

but surely drained away by the refusal to publish the report.”

Human rights groups here say that more than 800 people,

mostly left-wing activists, have been assassinated since Arroyo took office in

2001, a figure the military challenges. The military says most of the deaths

could be attributed to internal purges of the communist party, an assertion

ridiculed by many witnesses and rights activists.

The killings have occurred in all regions but have been

largely concentrated in Central and Southern Luzon

and have included church pastors, labor leaders, peasant activists, journalists

and others. In some cases, victims have disappeared. Almost no arrests have

been made, there are few court cases and activists charge that a massive

military-led cover-up is underway.

“We have documents to show that indeed, in the NPA [New

People's Army] there has been purging,” Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Bacarro,

armed forces spokesman, said shortly after Alston’s remarks.

Alston said he did not know how many had died, but added: “I

am certain the number is high enough to be distressing. The impact of even a

limited number of killings of the type alleged is corrosive in many ways. It

intimidates vast numbers of civil society actors, it sends a message of

vulnerability to all but the most well-connected, and it severely undermines

the political discourse which is central to a resolution of the problems

confronting this country.”

The lightning rod for the issue has been retired Major Gen

Jovito Palparan, who until September was the commander of the Seventh Infantry Division

in Central Luzon, the unit blamed for many of the killings. Palparan has been

warmly praised for his work by Arroyo but he reportedly is named by the Melo

Commission as one of the officers responsible for some of the killings.

In an interview late last year, Palparan said he had given

orders to “cleanse” villages of communist influence, including the presence of

legal activists he says support the communist movement.

“I was the Division Commander and my policy was to clear the

barangays (villages) of insurgency. Whatever they have done, I wanted those

barangays cleaned,” he said shortly after he retired.

Palparan said he dispatched teams of soldiers to villages to

eliminate the communist presence, although he would not admit to ordering

specific killings. He said he told his officers, “I should not see them anymore”

in reference to leftist sympathizers and organizers.

While there are an estimated 7,500 armed communist

insurgents in the country, military leaders are furious over the presence of a

handful of leftist leaders in Congress as a result of a “party list” system

designed to give peasant, labor and other groups access to mainstream politics.

The party list was part of a policy of reconciliation urged

by former President Fidel Ramos during his term in office in the 1990s. Arroyo

has since moved away from reconciliation, declaring “all-out war” on rebels

during a speech in June last year.

Victims of the killings say they are terrified of going

forward to testify before police or government bodies, fearing they will also

be targeted for assassination.

“I said (to the police), ‘What am I to do? He’s already dead

and anyway the killers belong to you, the government,’” the wife of victim

Armando Javier said in an interview last year as she showed where her husband was killed by gunfire from

an M16 as the couple watched television at night in their small home in late

2005. She refused to cooperate in any official investigation.

Javier was a former rebel who was active in a party list

group representing peasants in Central Luzon.

His wife blamed the murder on soldiers then under the command of Palparan who

had established an outpost in their village.

Politically, Arroyo is in a precarious position. It is

difficult for her to move forcefully against the military because she risks

alienating the soldiers who installed her in power in 2001 when then-President

Joseph Estrada was ousted by a coalition of military officers, businessmen, and

church leaders when she was vice president.

The military also stood by her last year during an alleged coup

attempt when reform officers were accused of plotting with Leftists to oust

her.

Internationally, her administration has drawn fire from the

European Union and now the United Nations over the assassinations and the

country is suffering serious image problems as a result. So far she has

attempted to use cosmetic responses but the Melo report, if it is reasonably

strong, may force Arroyo to confront at least some of the officers involved in

assassinations.

“The increase in extrajudicial executions in recent years is

attributable, at least in part, to a shift in counterinsurgency strategy that

occurred in some areas,” Alston said Wednesday. “In some areas, an appeal to

hearts-and-minds is combined with an attempt to vilify left-leaning

organizations and to intimidate leaders of such organizations. In some instances, such intimidation

escalates into extrajudicial execution.

This is a grave and serious problem.”

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