Who is Solving the Political Killings in the Philippines?
In recent months, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, already battered by numerous scandals, has had to answer some unpleasant questions about why so many leftist activists have been getting killed under her watch. Amnesty International, in an August report said, “The attacks, mostly carried out by unidentified men who shoot the victims before escaping on motorcycles, have very rarely led to the arrest, prosecution and punishment of those responsible.” In Finland a few days ago, Arroyo was faced with President Tarja Halonen assailing the Philippines human rights record on the eve of the 6th Asia-Europe Meeting, largely because of the killings.
While the exact toll is hard to pin down, leftist human rights activists say about 750 leaders and members of above ground leftist groups have been killed since Arroyo assumed office in 2001. More sober estimates mention a figure of about 250. The government says 110 such murders are under investigation. Either way, it’s a lot of bodies.
On August 1, the government named a police Task Force to investigate and gave it 10 weeks to solve at least 10 killings (the task force says it has “solved” 36 killings before the deadline, according to press reports). The Task Force did not calm the waters so recently Arroyo appointed a new commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to look into the killings.
None of it will make much difference because the truth is the structure of the justice system, polarized politics and just plain fear make it unlikely any of these killings will ever really be solved.
Take George and Maricel Vigo of Kidapawan, North Cotabato in Mindanao. Well known locally, the part-time journalists and full-time activists with ties to the left, on June 19 were slain by an unidentified gunman riding on the back of a motorcycle near their home.
But that is about the only thing anybody agrees on. The police promised to solve the high-profile killing immediately and within days they said it was solved and that the Vigos were victims of the Communist New People’s Army. No arrests have been made and the suspect they named is not in custody. The NPA denies having anything to do with the murder. The family says the suspect works for the military. People close to the victims believe they were killed by soldiers in the employ of a local mayor angry over a political rivalry. Leftist groups say the killing is a warning to other activists because the couple had been advocates of land rights for local indigenous tribes.
Of late, the family has stopped talking to the police and witnesses are afraid to come forward, fearing reprisals. The police have left the murder in the solved column and the local Roman Catholic Church is appealing to Arroyo’s new commission to reopen the inquiry. It may or may not do so.
In short, no one trusts anybody and the pattern is repeated over and over. (And even if a case gets to court, delays are inevitable and a victim’s family is unlikely to get any measure of justice unless they have the resources to retain a “private prosecutor” to push the creaky system along. It can take many years.)
Then there is the politics of the investigations. The largest and noisiest human rights group in the country, Karapatan, is widely viewed as having links to the underground communist movement and thus their findings are viewed with skepticism by many who think they are out to score propaganda points. The government’s own Commission on Human Rights, a constitutional body, has few resources and only reacts to complaints; it has no power to arrest and few investigators.
The national police, meanwhile, are regarded as hopelessly corrupt and susceptible to political pressure. (They have also recently been drafted into Arroyo’s strategy of total war against communist insurgents, which she announced with much fanfare earlier this year and which many analysts believe has aggravated the killing situation.)
Then there is the Army, which has stepped up its campaign against insurgents. One provincial governor near Manila said the towns in her province were being systematically “cleaned” of leftists, regardless of whether they are members of legal above-ground activist groups or armed rebels. She protested against the army’s tactics after several people went missing and turned up dead and was told to butt out.
“What happens when I ask the military what happened,” said a police chief in a province south of Manila when he was asked about soldiers implicated in a string of killings. “They don’t answer.”
The Army, of course, remained loyal to Arroyo back in February this year when a military coup plot was uncovered to topple her. It is almost impossible to imagine Arroyo seriously disciplining soldiers loyal to her tottering administration.
So who is going to solve the political killings in the Philippines? Nobody.