MANILA —The current president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, whose election in 2004 was deeply flawed, but probably not fraudulent, is currently beset by a sea of troubles that threaten to overwhelm her regime.
The economy is faltering, an energy crisis looms and investor confidence drains away as political uncertainty rises. At the end of November there was a coup attempt led by Sen. Antonio Trillanes who only got elected to the Upper House because of his notoriety after leading a previous attempt to overthrow Arroyo in 2003. He was elected from jail with 11 million, mainly military, votes to become one of the 12 senators voted in last May.
November’s coup attempt was more farce than threat with the police and military swiftly arresting the plotters who had barricaded themselves into Manila’s five-star Peninsula Hotel. Yet it was all too symbolic of Arroyo’s and the country’s situation.
The legality of her own seizure of power in 2001 from former President Joseph Estrada was highly questionable. Now she is walking an almost impossible political tightrope.
On one side the millions in deep poverty are demanding land reform that will break up the plantations of the 40 large families that run the country; the liberal professions want to control AIDS and population with contraception; and the West wants an end to the murder and disappearance of leftwing activists with the army brought under control.
On the other the oligarchs will not tolerate the confiscation of what they see as their land and the destruction of the essentially feudal relationship with the local peasantry, while the Catholic Church will withdraw its support from anyone who puts condoms before the catechism even if it eases grinding poverty and saves lives. While the wave of disappearances and murders orchestrated and led by elements within the army and tolerated when outsourced to plantation private militias continues barely abated.
These extra-judicial killings have increased significantly since 2001 when Arroyo seized the presidency from Estrada. The numbers claimed vary from 900 according to the Human Rights Group Karapatan to an unbelievable figure eight times lower than the police’s.
Those killed or disappeared are leftwing activists, human rights workers and journalists. The government has taken some cosmetic measures to address the problem — the Supreme Court has done more — but the army remains in a state of denial regarding its role. While the situation has eased a little for journalists, activists continue to disappear and die.
All of which is topped off by a series of ongoing insurrections driven by class, nation and religion but not limited to the southern island of Mindanao. A communist insurgency has continued since the 1970s, driven by the inability of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) to organize legally, coupled with the experience of the anti-Japanese resistance struggle in World War II, and sandwiched by major agrarian revolts before and after the war.
The PKP’s military wing, the New People’s Army, was established in 1969. Weakened by a resurgence of parliamentary politics after the fall of Marcos and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, there are still an estimated 7,000 guerrillas in parts of Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. A peace process initiated in the mid-1990s has been in limbo since 2004 and in 2006 Arroyo encouraged a “dirty war” against the party after claiming the PKP’s collusion with that year’s coup attempt.
In Mindanao it’s nation, religion and even tribe that underpin the complex Moro insurgency. A consequence of the increasing marginalization of the indigenous Muslim majority dispossessed of their lands by a rapacious wave of frontier-style Christian colonization. The left-leaning Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a classic colonial liberation movement, signed a peace agreement in 1996 in exchange for autonomy within the newly established Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). This new structure has not been a success with a massively under-resourced administration; deeply corrupt local leaders oversee and manage incompetence and graft.
Despite this failure, the more religiously orientated Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is now engaged in peace talks, brokered by Malaysia, currently stalemated by the demand for ARMM-plus, an enlarged and properly resourced autonomous area for the indigenous Muslim community.
On the fringe the Abu Sayyaf Group that splintered from the MILF terrorizes parts of Mindanao alongside fragments of Indonesia’s al-Qaida franchise Jemaah Islamiyah seeking a safer haven. Recent fighting has seen “rogue” elements of both the MNLF and MILF clash with the Philippines military with over 50 marines killed, some of which were mutilated, with no record of insurgent casualties.
Where do the Philippines go from here? Already there is a jockeying for position ahead of the 2010 presidential elections with personality trumping politics time and again as the 40 families select favorite sons or daughters to carry their interests in the forthcoming elections. Not a recipe for either economic redistribution or discipline and any compromise in solving rural poverty and exploitation.
Yet their may be better news for Muslim Mindanao. The European Union, as opposed to the United States, which has troops with the Philippines Army on the island, is being seen as a facilitator that might move the peace process forward.
The European Commission is already funding a series of integrated rural development programs to raise living standards (18 million euro) and is now beginning to fund (12 million euro) health programs in ARMM. The success in nearby Indonesia of the EU’s intervention to help end the 30-year conflict in Aceh where an offer of real autonomy led the rebels to give up their weapons in favor of the ballot box is a model some look to in Mindanao.
Glyn Ford, member of the European Parliament, recently traveled to the Philippines and Mindanao with a European parliamentary delegation.
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