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November 19, 2012
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the Philippines’ civil war. In tonight’s dinner conversation with a former leader of the New People’s Army, I hear some things I did not know before. I think I’m from a part of the world that, when People Power got rid of Marcos and his well-shod wife and the much-loved, sainted Cory took over, all was well. And we quit paying attention for awhile. My dinner companions cite one statistic after another to make their point: Cory was in many ways as obedient a puppet of U.S. interests as her predecessor ever was.
Corazon Aquina thwarted as many bills meant to rein in U.S. plunder; extrajudicial killings escalated sharply, with more journalists killed during her years in power than during Marcos; it was her military on her orders who fired on a march of peasant farmers demanding real agrarian reform, killing 13 of them on Mendiola Street outside the gates of Malacañang Palace a year into her presidency. The Philippine version of maquiladoras were set up as ‘free economic zones’, free of taxation, free of work-place regulation, free of living wages. She appointed a mining executive to head up DENR (Department of the Environment and Natural Resources) and lead the government’s aggressive expansion of large-scale commercial mining. The NPA grew, in the late 1980s to its greatest strength, with more than 57,000 members responding to Cory’s militarised violence and broken promises – land reform, water, health care, education, energy, resource extraction, employment. The oligarchic, dynastic politics of the Philippines did not end with Corazon Aquino; if anything, the ‘families’ found all of their fears assuaged.
The 1983 assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr in the airport that now bears his name was widely regarded as a ‘trigger moment’ that transformed a dispirited opposition that he had led prior to his imprisonment and three-year exile into the formidable People Power that non-violently overthrew the Marcos régime eighteen months later.
His widow, Cory’s, successor in 1992, Fidel Ramos, was hailed by many as the architect of the economy that put the Philippines on the path to Asian Tiger-hood, a project still-born in the midst of the currency crisis that turned tigers into poodles. For others, Ramos was regarded as an opportunist, de-regulating and privatising, neo-liberalising and re-orienting the economy towards exports. Later commentators viewed his peace agreements with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), his repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law and legalising of the Communist Party of the Philippines as key incentives in his government’s foreign investment agenda. The country adopted neo-liberalism’s diabolic language of ‘export quality’, saving the best for export, from Lambunao’s coffee to Capiz’ fish, Negros’ organic muscovado sugar to Cebu’s copper and Zamboanga’s gold. A play written and performed by Filipinas living in the United States adds another commodity to the list: Daughters of the Philippines: Export Quality.
The Philippines’ answer to Ronald Reagan, Joseph Ejercito Estrada parlayed his cinematic stardom into a presidential win by a large margin in 1998. Enraged by the ongoing activities of the MILF in Mindanao, he sent the military on a number of false-flag operations which were blamed on the MILF, providing him the rationale he needed to declare ‘all-out war’. But it was corruption and plunder charges that brought his presidency to an early end. When an impeachment court refused to consider the most serious charges, People Power II once again took to Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). He was sentenced to life in prison, pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), strangely enough and with a straight face, running once more for the presidency in 2010. GMA herself was charged in November 2011 with electoral fraud and imprisoned in the Veterans’ Memorial Hospital. After a brief stay of charges, she was last week charged with new crimes, including theft of state lottery funds, a favourite sideline for oligarchic pols unaccustomed to the wages of elected office.
My dinner companions go on to talk about their fact-finding trip to Silapay and the Maricalum Mining site, comparing notes with our visit a couple of days ago. Oddly enough, it is included in a local tourism brochure that takes the tourist from Dumaguete, on the south coast of Negros, ending at Silapay. It’s not a pretty site. While we were permitted onto the derelict grounds with a security guard who insisted that the only reason the mine shut down was due to the company’s refusal to meet workers’ demands for a pay rise and that the white coating on everything is gypsum, our companions told a very different story. The white coating is what remains of the mining refuse that poured out of the shifting, clay tailings ponds in 1996, devastating the town below and flooding 500 hectares of rice fields, the main source of food for 500 families. Guayaba trees are stunted, their trunks, leaves and fruit looking more like bonsai. In the path of the tailings, little grows. Though unpaid wages were an irritant, no doubt, the reasons for the shuttering of the mine included the high cost of land rehabilitation, ₱256 million in unpaid taxes, local opposition to re-opening and a temporarily unfriendly LGU (Local Government Unit) – destined for ‘fixing’ with the next elections, the security guard assures us).
Today’s insurgencies have their roots in the peasant rebellions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially aimed at disrupting 350 years of Iberian rule, their object shifted to reflect the replacement of one yoke with another, following the Spanish-American war. U.S. colonial and neo-colonial power bracketted the war-time Japanese occupation, with residuals of rebel, agrarian reformist and Maoist groups contributing to the founding of the New Peoples’ Army in 1968. As with all insurgency movements, they arise out of situations of oppressive violence and maldistribution of power, wealth and resources. Insurgencies are never the first violence. Initial, generative violences are structural; counter-violence is reactive, both introjected and projected. The third violence is repressive, counter-insurgent.
No one in this room is untouched by this war; there is not a family or tribe or neighbourhood innocent of its impacts. Journalists, priests, pastors, anti-mining activists, teachers, farmers, sacadas – sugar-cane workers, citizens of all sorts have died in this war. Not too far from here, there is an inauspicious sign, easy to miss, that marks the place where Maria Luisa Posa-Dominado and her friend and driver, Nilo Arado, were abducted, joining this country’s long list of desaparecidas. To mark the Day of the Disappeared a few weeks ago, a set of three sculptured totems was unveiled in nearby Oton, dedicated to Luisa and Nilo, and bearing the faces of the 202 others, local activists, who likewise disappeared during the years of the Macapagal Arroyo presidency. The country’s leaders do not seem to have learned anything, as the gap grows between the rich and the poor, forming the iconic, soaring, pointed triangle of the oligarchic few and the indebted many. This week, in preparation for the 2013 elections, many have filed their Certificate of Candidacy, from billionaires interested in expanding their repertoires of power to bicycle repairmen hoping for trickle down.
Amongst the Baptists here, two are curiosities. Every trainer watches some in particular, perhaps wondering why they, of all people, are here, their path to here not clear. Robert is one of those. In the course of the complex and discombobulating exercise of introductions, he makes clear his determination to skate the surface. Robert is laconic, taciturn, solidly built and appearing, at time, stolid. He and his colleague from Mindanao jumped the invitation queue and asked to be here; they are Southern Baptists – not because they are from this archipelago’s southernmost island but because they are part of the harvest of U.S. Southern Baptist evangelism.
As the days go by, he shows himself to be an ardent learner, taking notes, snapping photos of the board and flipcharts. His responses to questions grow gradually in number and length. On the fourth day, in a lunch-time conversation for which I can’t remember the genesis, Robert suddenly spills forth, his revelations taking me by surprise. Cory’s army killed two of his brothers. They were activists, protestors, victims of something – I cannot recall. He responded to their murders by joining the ranks of the New Peoples’ Army, part of its commando-raid justice, for 18 years. Seven years ago, he came across something of Jesus that drove him into a different calling, that of pastor. Though he seems to regard that encounter as a crossroads, a rupture from his past, he seems to have found something to hold onto here, perhaps redeeming that past in an encounter with Jesus as vagrant and executed rebel.