Super-typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) devastated the central part of the Philippines but President NoyNoy Aquino was slow to respond. While he was procrastinating, the Armed Forces of the Philippines got the drop on everyone.
Well-armed militiamen and soldiers were soon strutting around the devastated areas and bullying residents. The UN’s Sebastian Stampa observed that in Leyte, “You’ve had quite a lot of security coming in … less of other things”.
Former General Eduardo Del Rosario is now the head of the entire civil defence effort as executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) — the organisation responsible for disaster response to Yolanda. His previous job was in counter-insurgency.
Many don’t know it, but the Philippines is one of the most militarised countries in the world. It’s a semi-feudal system run by warlords — including many governors, mayors, and local military commanders.
Political elites and landowners use the armed forces to maintain a semi-feudal system that condemns peasants and workers to poverty and landlessness. For example, when the Municipal Farmers Association of Carigara constructed communal vegetable gardens to help impoverished villagers to feed themselves, they were terrorised by the army. Soldiers arrested the association’s leaders and destroyed the gardens.
So-called Civil-Military Operations become the means for pacifying restive towns and villages in cases like this. Communities that resist military incursions are invariably tagged as terrorist havens and dealt with accordingly — that was Del Rosario’s job.
As commander of Task Force Davao and the 1003rd (Raptor) Brigade, he previously instituted brutal counter-insurgency measures in rural areas, including hamletting (confining villagers to a restricted area), extrajudicial killings, and other human rights abuses. He earned the title Berdugo, Butcher, among civil society groups.
Most recently, Del Rosario commanded the military agency charged with implementing the Aquino regime’s Internal Peace and Security Plan or Operation Bayanihan (Spirit of the People). This peace and security plan is designed to end the archipelago-wide insurgency of the New People’s Army by 2016, but critics argue that in such a poverty-stricken environment only peace talks can lead to a political settlement.
Del Rosario’s oversight of post-typhoon relief and rehabilitation does not bode well for the poor who comprise nearly all of Yolanda’s victims. Yet nations like Australia are pouring their Official Development Aid into the NDRRMC he heads up, and other government agencies that practice mind-numbing levels of graft.
For example, the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) was tapped by senators, congressmen, mayors, and other officials, in what has been termed the “pork barrel scandal”. They have dispensed development money as patronage, giving millions of pesos to favoured projects to ensure re-election. The flagrant patronage is bad enough, but evidence has recently emerged of extraordinary theft. Sadly, BizNewsAsia described the Philippine Congress in September as the nation’s biggest criminal syndicate.
Taking this context into account, it’s useful to look at the response to previous disasters to see how Yolanda will likely play out. In particular, since Tropical Storm Pablo struck the Davao provinces in the far south during last December, repair and rehabilitation have been cruelly slow.
Promised funds and supplies went missing, and social unrest remains high. Worse, the armed forces have applied de facto martial law in some areas affected by Pablo. The 10th (Eagle) Division is still mounting punitive operations throughout the rebellious Compostela Valley. Several local leaders have been “salvaged” (murdered) there and human rights groups persistently complain of “the militarisation of typhoon and disaster-affected communities”.
Millions of Filipinos are seeking relief not just from disasters like Yolanda, but from the tyranny that also makes their lives a misery. The appalling conditions in the Philippines have led to the exodus of a young and highly skilled workforce. These exiles will now pay to repair the nation they left with their remittances, even those whose families were lost in the storm.
The enormity of the super-typhoon reflects the enormity of the crimes committed against the Filipino people by their political leaders. Implicated in the tragedy are the armed forces and their foreign mentors, including our own Defence Department. With so much international aid continuing to go to the armed forces, there will be no chance to reform the mechanisms of this democracy-in-name-only.
Philippine Senator Francis Escudero recently said of the need to reform his own institution:
“In these times of turmoil and political discord, we face the Herculean task of rebuilding not just the damage wrought by the natural disasters that have befallen our hapless country, but also the shattered image of the Senate as a hallowed institution uncorrupted by the pork barrel scandal that has outraged the nation”.
On 19 November, after the pork barrel scandal exploded, the reform process began in stunning fashion. In a surprise decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Priority Development Assistant Fund to be unconstitutional.
Suddenly, an opportunity beckons. As well as donating money, Australians should plead with Canberra to re-evaluate its policies towards the Philippines. Then perhaps pressure for reform can be reinforced from outside the country.
Filipinos are pleading for our help, but they are also asking that we see them more clearly and that we try to comprehend the full immensity of their plight. Until we manage to do so, natural disasters will continue to be compounded by official criminality and terrifying militarisation, leaving the poorest of the poor ever worse off.