How we're Helping the Philippines in its Dirty War


When Georgia and Russia went to war briefly last month, there was initial outrage that anyone would try to use the Olympics as a diversion while they attacked and killed thousands of civilians.

Meanwhile, just to our north, and without attracting much attention, the Government of the Philippines was carrying out its own dirty war as usual against the bangsamoro people on the southern island of Mindanao.

With few exceptions, the international media has ignored all that the government of that benighted archipelago has chosen to do to its own people – including the return to all-out war against its Muslim population. Last year the Australian legal scholar and United Nations Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings, Professor Philip Alston, visited the Philippines and condemned the human rights situation there.

He was immediately showered with abuse and the Arroyo regime later sought to have him removed from his UN post. Alston concluded that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) perpetrates major human rights abuses through a counter-insurgency program underwritten and supervised by the United States.

A bloody separatist struggle in the southern Philippines has continued intermittently for centuries. Over recent years the contest has been led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which was negotiating a peace settlement with Manila.

The prevailing view in the international press is that the maligned Moros have gone on the warpath again. In this, the wire services choose to rely upon official press releases of the Manila regime. Another favorite ploy is to discredit the Moro cause by linking it to kidnap-for-ransom gangs like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). No matter that the ASG was originally set up by the CIA in Afghanistan; now they are terrorists identified with the MILF. There is strong evidence, too, that military agents are behind many of the bombings that have been blamed on the separatists.

Negotiations concerned with ancestral domain – a concept which translates fairly accurately as native title – were underway and a Memorandum of Agreement was due to be signed early in August. Then the Supreme Court of the Philippines – frequently the upholder of elite interests – issued a restraining order and the talks collapsed. The 102nd and 105th Base Commands of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Force (BIAF) immediately occupied a number of communities in central Mindanao and intermittent fighting broke out between Government forces and separatist rebels.

During these manoeuvres, Manila refused to admit that the AFP had already sent its own ruthless vigilantes – the Civilian Armed Forces Geographic Units (CAFGU) and other paramilitaries – into these areas to provoke maximum terror. President Gloria Arroyo, who many Filippinos believe is the most corrupt president in the country’s history, desperately needs the support of the political elite in Mindanao. In relying on patronage and such cronyism, she creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Of further concern, Manila has linked peace in the south to a new federal form of government which would allow Arroyo to retain power after her term of office expires in 2010.

Since fighting erupted again in central Mindanao in early August, at least a quarter of a million people have been forced from their homes. These evacuees remain in peril, exposed to war and weather as donations of aid go missing. The army has run amok in their abandoned villages, burning homes, killing livestock, and stealing meagre household items. Farmers who sneak back to tend their crops are killed. The relief centres are ill-equipped and disease is rampant. Many people have been dispossessed several times in recent years and an entire generation of children is receiving almost no education at all. This disgraceful situation is unfolding on our back doorstep – and with the active connivance of Western powers.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has drawn attention to the current humanitarian crisis, but the Philippine Social Welfare Secretary, Esperanza Cabral, declared that evacuees were "used to conflict". She continued, "They already know if there’s an exchange of gunfire they should leave their homes; then if the shooting ends, they go back to their homes. That’s a way of life in Mindanao." Maybe, but shocked aid workers have responded that evacuation is still traumatic and poses risks to life, limb, property and sanity.

Whatever is happening in Mindanao, it has little to do with the sanitised broadcast version. The dissembling by powerbrokers, the severity with which critics are silenced, and the circumstances in which local journalists have to work are at once terrifying and dispiriting.

And Australia’s record in Mindanao is appalling.

At the end of 2006, then Defence Minister Robert Hill was in Zamboanga offering financial support to the Barangay Intelligence Network, which contains cultists like the Bagong Ilaga (New Rats), described by the Asian Human Rights Commission as "an insidious disease".

Former Australian ambassador Tony Hely toured the archipelago as an apologist for Australian mining companies and other enterprises responsible for immense environmental damage. Rod Smith, our new man in Manila, was last month in the southern Philippines, talking with Douglas Cagas, governor of Davao del Sur. Not so long ago Cagas was an architect of the dreaded counter-insurgency program that pioneered ritual murder, cannibalism, and a host of other horrors by groups calling themselves Tad Tad (Chop Chop) and Kill a Kommie for Krist (KKK). The Australian embassy is apparently hoping to use Cagas as an agent in promoting our exports and expertise in Mindanao.

Both Smith and US Ambassador Kristie Kenney have urged that the AFP be given free rein to restore order and stability in Mindanao. Presumably neither diplomat has bothered to read Professor Alston’s report, because to have read it and still support the role of the AFP in Mindanao is to condone the atrocities they are committing.

Why have consecutive Australian governments supported the Philippine tyranny through its various incarnations? Why do we provide assistance to the ruthless, coup-prone AFP and bring scores of their officers to Australia for training? Even the so-called Berdugo sa Mindoro (Butcher of Mindoro), the former Major-General Jovito Palparan – who Alston identified as being involved in dozens of murders and massacres – was invited to Queensland’s Canungra training camp. Australian taxpayers’ money goes towards financing a reprehensible military machine which Australian companies such as Sagittarius Mines, Oceana Gold, and others employ to protect their own rapacious concerns throughout Mindanao.

Australia has played a terrible part in prolonging the misery of thousands of impoverished families forced from their lands under a hail of artillery and aerial bombardment and murdered by death squads to make the area more pliable for foreign interests.

The world was right to condemn the cynical attempts of Russia and Georgia to use the Olympics as a cover for their military actions.

But it’s an even greater shame that those behind the human rights violations against the bangsamoro people don’t even feel the need to cover their activities with a diversion, since organisations such as the Australian Government refuse to notice anyway.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.