Noynoy Repeats his Mother's Mistake

It's bad enough that Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III has not made any categorical statement ordering his military to stop its counter-insurgency campaign called Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Freedom Watch). It's even more atrocious that he has decided to extend the life of this brutal policy up to January 2011.

To those who put so much faith in Aquino -- those who, perhaps naively, believe that he is a much different person from his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and that he respects human rights because, as his spokesmen always point out, he and his family had been victims, too – this decision to extend Oplan Bantay Laya, the so-called "blueprint for terror," should come as a rude awakening.

Why would a president who promised to bring change to this country, who promised to tread the straight path ("daang matuwid") and who promised to be president of everybody, including his critics – why would this president continue implementing a program that has been blamed for the thousands of cases of extrajudicial killings, tortures and enforced disappearances in the Philippines?

Those who are shocked by this decision (but truly believe in respecting human rights) may have been so because they, like many Filipinos, drank the Noynoy Aquino Kool-Aid for far too long. The problem with Aquino is that many Filipinos have wrapped around him the myths of the supposed liberal tradition of his mother Cory, and father Ninoy. They projected the parents' supposed libertarian qualities onto the son and, voila!, we have a president who embodies the best of his folks. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Has Aquino done anything that would remotely suggest he respects human rights? I can't recall anything. What I recall, however, is that, a day after the 2004 carnage at Hacienda Luisita, the sugar plantation that he and his family own, Aquino, then a congressman, delivered a privilege speech in Congress practically putting the blame for the massacre on the leftist groups that supported the striking workers – not on the soldiers and police officers on the scene who sprayed bullets on the workers, killing at least seven of them (some reports say 14) and injuring countless others.

Worse, his allies, particularly his social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman, insisted that the number of casualties had been bloated because, according to her, she saw only two bodies at a wake. Aquino's bodyguards had also been accused by Hacienda Luisita farmers of shooting workers in a separate incident during the strike.

Recently, during his inauguration and State of the Nation Address speeches, Aquino did not even bother to mention the terrible human-rights situation in the Philippines. The best he could do was form a Truth Commission, which many Filipinos thought would also investigate these human-rights abuses. Later, Aquino and his supporters insisted that the abuses would not be one of the areas the commission would look into. They even mocked the public by claiming that Aquino never said the commission would do this, although he actually did mention it briefly during a press conference announcing the members of his Cabinet.

Moreover, immediately after his inauguration, Aquino hopped from one service of the armed forces to another to deliver speeches that assured the military they would get from him whatever it is they need. Just name it, he seemed to be saying, and you'll have it. Meanwhile, he never told his soldiers to drop Oplan Bantay Laya. All he could muster was blanket and shallow rhetoric about respecting human rights, but no specifics.

And by considering the appointment of Etta Rosales as chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, Aquino betrayed his contempt for leftists, who are the majority of human-rights victims who have been vilified by Ms. Rosales and her group, Akbayan, by lumping them with communists at the same time that the military was on a killing spree victimizing communists, alleged communists, and alleged communist sympathizers.

Oplan Bantay Laya is the worst scourge of human rights and civil liberties since Ferdinand Marcos. It was the brainchild of Arroyo, who used it to threaten, harass and stifle her critics from the left who had joined the clamor for her ouster. Under this program, the military does not distinguish the armed communist guerrilla in the countryside from a student activist who carries a "Down with capitalism!" placard in the streets. The underlying principle of this campaign is to defeat Asia's longest communist insurgency by killing, torturing and jailing its supporters and sympathizers. The marching order to the soldiers under this program is to kill anybody who quacks like a communist duck.

Because it targets unarmed civilians not just in the countryside but in the urban areas as well – civilians who may have nothing to do directly with the revolution going on -- Oplan Bantay Laya is even worse than Aquino's mother's "total war policy" against the communists. Cory unleashed this policy soon after she came to power, resulting in human-rights abuses that victimized many more and traumatized a country still reeling from the dictatorship. It blotted her presidency and convinced many that she was no saint at all.

As this article points out:

In March 1987, in her commencement speech at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), Aquino unsheathed the sword of war and declared that "the answer to the terrorism of the left and the right is not social and economic reform but police and military action." It was a crucial departure from an earlier policy of engagement with the left when, immediately after she took power, Cory released dozens of political prisoners, among them the top leaders of the Communist movement.

Aquino's "total war" policy was essentially patterned after the US military strategy of "low intensity conflict" or LIC. The US came out with the LIC doctrine in the aftermath of the US defeat in the Vietnam war. Instead of direct involvement of American troops in combat, local troops of "host" countries were trained to fight "proxy wars" with rebels or insurgents. The US government was the principal author of Cory's "total war" scheme, in charge of funding, equipment, training, intelligence and other requirements...

Just as Oplan Bantay Laya did not end the communist insurgency (the Arroyo regime earlier said the campaign should end the insurgency by last June -- yes, last June), the "total war policy" was a failure. It was one of Cory Aquino's earliest and costliest mistakes. And her beloved son, by extending the life of Oplan Bantay Laya, is right now repeating it.

Carlos H. Conde blogs at Dateline Manila for Asian Correspondent (www.asiancorrespondent.com), with which Asia Sentinel maintains a content-sharing agreement.