KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 3 / July-August-September 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Peace and Justice Issues in the Philippines
Three Australian Peace Movement groups: JUST PEACE, AUSTRALIANS FOR A JUST AND CIVIL SOCIETY INC., and PALESTINIAN JEWISH DIALOGUE FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE organised a public meeting in Brisbane on August 20, 2002 titled TWO VOICES OF RESISTANCE TO THE 'WAR ON TERROR'. NERI JAVIER COLMENARES was a guest speaker. The following are extracts from his speech.
IN 1985 two young Filipino students died while pasting anti-bases posters in the streets of Manila. There was nothing communistic in the poster, nothing subversive, it merely said "US Military Bases Out Of the Philippines Now!" These two students died, and many others died, thousands died, at the time of one of the most brutal, bloody chapters in Philippine history when President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law.
One of the major issues in the Philippines at the time was the presence of US military troops and US military bases in the Philippines. But it did not start at the time of Marcos. It started a long long time ago in 1898 when the Filipino people and the Philippines was invaded by the United States in the little known fact called the Philippine-American War.
In the Philippine-American War of 1898, 120,000 US troops were deployed in the Philippines and it is estimated that nearly 400,000 Filipinos died directly or indirectly as a result of the war. I was in the US once and an American student came to me after the talk and he said, "We were never taught in school that we invaded you. We were never taught that there was a Philippine-American war and that 400,000 Filipinos died." And I said, "How were you taught in schools about how we became your first and probably your only direct colony in the world?" He said, "We were taught in school that you were sold to us by Spain for 10 million dollars." And I don't know which is worse, being sold or invaded. But that is how they were taught.
When the United States took control of the Philippines we became one of the most Americanized countries in Asia. We were already the strange country in Asia because we were under Spain for 300 years. As they say, "300 years in the convent was completely obliterated by 50 years of Hollywood." And we loved American food, McDonalds, American books, American movies. Ronald Regan would have won if he ran for President of the Philippines.
But then the US began to scout for military bases areas. In fact in 1947 after they 'granted' us independence the US Government signed the Military Bases Agreement with its erstwhile colony, the Philippine Government which reserved 23 military installations and bases all over the Philippines in strategic places. That's when the bases started. The two largest US military bases outside continental USA, Subic Navel Base and Clark Air Base existed in the Philippines, housing thousands and thousands of US troops, as launching pads of aggression to Libya, to Kuwait, to Vietnam, wherever.
During those times it was not heaven for us Filipinos. Many issues began to crop up. Gradually we began to realise that the Americans did not invade the Philippines for altruism, but to a large degree to put up these installations as a forward position for their military.
Thousands of women were forced to prostitute themselves within these base areas. Thousands of child prostitutes were there. Filipinos were killed for going inside the bases. There were drugs and smuggling going on. There were many other things happening in the Philippines apart from the US Bases issue, but this was one of our major problems at the time. This continued for a long period of time, until we were able to overthrow the dictator who propped up to a large degree these military bases in the Philippines. In 1986 President Ferdinand E. Marcos was overthrown.
In 1991 the Military Bases Agreement was about to be renewed. Due to the massive protests from the Filipino people, the Philippine Senate was forced by a margin of one vote not to renew the US military bases. And in recognition of the massive protest and animosity that it generated during that time, the new Philippine government inserted in the Philippine Constitution a provision, Section 25 Article 18, which says that no foreign military troops, bases or facilities will be allowed into the Philippines unless by a treaty recognised as such by the parties to the treaty. So in 1991, we, the Filipino people were able to overthrow the presence of US military bases with the non-renewal of the Military Bases Agreement and the final closure in 1992 of the US bases in the Philippines.
Now, in February 2002, a few months after September 11th, 660 US military troops and 160 military advisers were deployed in the south, then a further 1,600 troops, and reportedly an 8,000 US troop contingent is arriving in October to launch military operations in the second front of the war on terror.
This war on terror is supposed to be against the Abu Sayyaf. But what is the Abu Sayyaf? Do you know of the infamous bandit group in the Philippines that have taken tourists as hostages?
There are many rebel groups in the Philippines. First there is the New Peoples Army (NPA) - this is a Marxist group that believes in national democracy and plans to overthrow the government through armed struggle and has between 11,000 and 12,000 armed regular troops. The second is the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which had peace with the Government and has a large army also. The third is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which is fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the Philippines and has a huge number of troops, estimated at 16,000 to 18,000.
In the mid 80s, there was a young ideologue in the south called Abdurajak Janjalani who said to the Islamic people in the south, we have to go to Afghanistan to fight the war against the Soviets. And the US - we don't have evidence to prove this but it is a well known fact in the Philippines - the US organised the group to go to Afganistan. This group of Abdurajak Janjalani was called in Afghanistan "Bearer of the Sword", or Abu Sayyaf, that was his nom de guerre. He returned to the Philippines, and he was fired up by the belief that the solution to the problems of the Islamic people of the Philippines is the creation of an Islamic state. However, when he died the group collapsed.
So we have now a problem whereby the US government organised mercenaries to go wherever they want to go, and after they return to their country, they are an armed group of battled-scared veterans with nothing to do who have become a hostage-taking kidnap-for-ransom group. Therefore we believe that the United States in using this as a reason for going back to the Philippines is the greatest irony of them all.
Now, what is the impact of the American troops in the Philippines? One of course is that this will again lead to the social ills we had thrown out in 1992. Secondly this will result in a lot of human rights violations again, not just by US troops but also by the Philippine troops who are part of the US military operations. We do not know how many people have been killed in the rural areas, there is no counting. How can the American troops point out the Abu Sayyaf from the MILF, or the MNLF or from the ordinary Muslim citizen? The Philippine military had a hard time distinguishing between rebels and ordinary Filipinos in the 20 years that Marcos was in power. How well can the Americans do?
Therefore another problem for us is that there is now a threat to the peace process between the Philippine government and the various Philippine rebel groups. Because the Americans have declared war on the Abu Sayyaf and other rebel groups, including the New Peoples Army, it is feared that the peace process that was slowly and gradually advanced in the many years since Marcos was overthrown will now be completely lost. We are at war again, and we know what war means. It's the most horrible thing that can happen to a people.
And, we believe that the presence of US military troops within the context of this US war against terror is not only a threat to the peace in the Philippines but a threat to the Asia-Pacific region as well, because of the arrogance of the Americans. They are the lone super power in the world today and they hold the moral high ground right now because they suffered on September 11th. They are using, and they're going to use again and again, September 11 as the justification for all this. There is a saying that goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And that is why they have become so dangerous. The susceptibility of the Americans to commit very adventurous moves is really very present today. Iraq is just an example.
That is why we are saying that these US troops in the Philippines, this war in Afghanistan, this war in Palestine, these affect us all. This is a borderless war. This is not the Viet Nam war, this is a borderless war.
Recently, when chatting with an Australian friend, I said, "how does it feel to be in a state of war?" He said, "but, we are not in a state of war."
"I think you are," I said. "You send your Australian troops with the US to a foreign country. You violate the integrity and sovereignty of that country, you shoot at their nationals, their nationals shoot back at you. Isn't that war?" He said, "well, no, because it's not declared." And I said, "that's a bit legalistic. Do you need a parliamentary declaration for war?"
International humanitarian law has been written precisely to counter that tactic of many countries of not declaring official war. The common Article Two of four Geneva Conventions says that a state of war exists even if not declared by the parties to it, or not recognized by any or one of the parties to it. What a country will do is not declare war, but still go to war, torture and kill civilians and prisoners of war and then they will say, we are not under any obligation because this is not war, we have not declared it. That is precisely why common Article Two was put in place, to avoid that.
So I think there is no need for an official declaration of war. "You are in a state of war," I said. "Just change the situation. You are looking at Afghanistan now, a third world country that cannot fight back. But change it to another country, change it to Russia, change it to China - you do the very same thing that you are doing in Afghanistan - you send Australian troops with US troops there, you shoot at Russians, you shoot at Chinese, Chinese shoot back at you - is that not war?"
He said, "maybe it's war." I said, "you know why? Because the Russians can send war planes and bomb Darwin or bomb South Bank, that is why you think it's war. But because Afghanistan cannot send planes, you think it's not a war." And then he said, "yeah, okay, we're in a state of war, it's undeclared, but so what? We've been in undeclared wars before. Viet Nam was an undeclared war."
"But this is a different war," I said. "This is not the same as the war in Viet Nam or the other wars you went into during ANZAC. This is a borderless war. In this war, body bags will not happen in Hanoi. If this really escalates, body bags will happen in St Kilda, body bags will happen in the Sunshine Coast. Because this is a war where there are no territories. The so-called enemy is everywhere. You may call them terrorists, you may call them communists, you may call them rebels, whatever - this is a different war. And secondly, in war the first casualty is democracy."
In the Philippines today we have an anti-terrorist bill which is basically the same as any other anti-terrorist bill around the world. It will curtail rights, freedoms, civil liberties. Why? Because we are in a state of war. If the Australian anti-terrorism bill is passed, you don't know where it will go. First they will probably arrest Lebanese or Egyptians or Palestinian-looking people. But then who knows, if an Australian is a friend of the Palestinian people, then they could arrest an Australian, or a Canadian, or an American, or a Filipino, or a Chinese, or even a Jew, just because that person is a friend of a friend of a friend who is suspected of knowing something about a terrorist plot.
War is something that is horrible. We've suffered the pain, the deaths, the hardship and brutalities of war right in our midst in the Philippines and we do not want that to happen to any other people. That is why the issues in the Philippines and the issues in Palestine are issues for all of us, because the moment this escalates, the moment this grows, then, as I said, body bags will just happen everywhere.
If America is involved in a shooting war in the Philippines, which is most likely if they persist in their military operations in October, I am very sure that the first thing that the Americans will do, is to ask for Australia to support its military operations. And I'm very sure that the Howard government will say "yes".
Do the Americans need Australian military to quell the Philippine rebel troops? The Americans are so powerful, they have thousands and thousands of troops and anti-aircraft guns and everything. They don't need Australian military support. What they're actually asking of Australia is to give their operations a semblance of legitimacy, a sense of international mandate. Because even if Australia sends only one trooper, one soldier, or 100 soldiers, it doesn't matter. Australia becomes part of the operations in Afghanistan, in the Philippines, in Iraq, and that makes America's operations legitimate. That is the real reason. And we cannot afford another war.
I'd like to end by correcting myself: the first casualty in war is probably not democracy, the first casualty in war is probably ourselves. Thank you.
ABOUT NERI JAVIER COLMENARES: A graduate of the College of Law, University of the Philippines, Neri is a human rights lawyer in the Philippines, the General Counsel of Bayan Muna, and is currently a doctoral student with the University of Melbourne. He is researching the impact of the International Criminal Court on the Philippines and the systemic impediments to the prosecution of human rights violators. Neri was imprisoned for four years by the Marcos regime for being a student activist with the Philippine Student Christian Movement.