Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

You would think that someone who had been the object of coup plotters would take a more arms-length, even skeptical, attitude towards the military. But not Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (alias GMA), now in her sixth year as President of the Philippines. Despite at least two coup attempts against her, she continues to be a defender of a military whose human rights record makes Vladimir Putin look like the head of Amnesty International. To understand her, you’ll need a little personal history and a crash course in Filipino politics.

The ruling political class of the Philippines is a tight-knit group in which the names of the same oligarchic families pop up again and again. Arroyo is the daughter, for example, of Diosdado Macapagal, a President from the 1960s. Once authoritarianism and scandal sink one of these oligarchs, another steps into the breach. So it was that the Marcos dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s was replaced by the reforming Aquino family and at the turn of this century megalomaniac actor Joseph Estrada was pushed out by Arroyo and her allies. The other two players in Filipino politics are the military, which changes sides at key moments in order to preserve its power and substantial privileges, and a powerful leftwing movement that has grown up in response to the crushing inequality and foreign domination of society. The Philippines has gone from being one of the bright stars of Asia in the 1950s and early 1960s to its present ‘basket case’ status.

It’s a volatile mix. A fertile leftwing political culture has always been kept in check by ruthless military methods. The level of conflict ebbs and flows but has as its backdrop a long, simmering guerrilla war between the orthodox Stalinists of the New People’s Army (NPA) and a security apparatus willing to use any means necessary to defeat them.

To do this the military, currently under the leadership of General Esperon, a former police commander, refuses to make any distinction between the NPA and the hundreds of thousands of leftists who are simply civilian activists. Lawyers, trade unionists, farmer organizers and students are all targets for a military that now proudly wears ‘War on Terror’ credentials issued by Washington. Even leftist members of parliament are not immune, while more journalists have been assassinated in the less populated Philippines than in Putin’s Russia – but with much less fanfare.

The equation is simple: if you are against the Government you are a leftist and if you are a leftist you are in league with the NPA. Since Arroyo came to power in 2002 there have been over 800 murders of activists in the Philippines. The vast majority remain unsolved, indeed never seriously investigated. The most high-profile recent case is that of Jonas Burgos, an agronomist defender of farm workers’ rights, who was snatched from a Quezon City restaurant on 28 April 2007 and bundled into a vehicle with military licence plates. He has never been seen since. His mother, Edita, has launched a one-woman international campaign that has seriously embarrassed Arroyo and her generals.

Arroyo’s training as an economist (she was a classmate of Bill Clinton at Washington’s prestigious Georgetown University) made her particularly acceptable to the inner circles of the IMF and World Bank as Manila’s local enforcer of the neoliberal orthodoxy. She has had some success, particularly in keeping down inflation – always a bit of a fetish for economists. Her bill opening up the lucrative mining sector to foreign takeover engendered a fair bit of domestic criticism. But from the beginning her government has been beset by scandal. This has run the gamut from the accusations of electoral fraud that followed her 2004 re-election (she admitted to ‘inappropriately’ contacting election officials) to charges of influence-peddling against her husband, son and son-in-law. Two attempts to impeach Arroyo have fallen short. But these are just minor blips when _Forbes_ magazine declares you ‘the fourth most powerful woman in the world’, as they did in 2005.

Unfortunately the spate of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and tortures is becoming increasingly difficult to keep under the rug. They hit the international headlines when, in February 2007, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston accused the Filipino military of being ‘in denial’ over their role in the killings. He found the military’s explanation for the killings – that they were a purge by the NPA – ‘especially unconvincing’.

The Government and the military were livid. ‘I believe that Mr Alston himself might be in a state of denial,’ barked General Esperon. But Alston was soon joined by everyone from a Roman Catholic bishop to the officially appointed Melo Commission. Arroyo, forced into a corner, pronounced: ‘The Government is not in denial, these killings will be resolved and the armed forces will continue to be a vanguard of freedom.’ Esperon muttered that the report was ‘strained, unfair and a blank accusation.’

Don’t hold your breath for a resolution any time soon. One of the most infamous generals, Jovito Palparan, was ‘cleared’ after a couple of phone calls from Esperon and now plans a career in politics. He is known unofficially as ‘the butcher’ and has most recently been implicated (although not charged) in the disappearance of two students in 2006.

Arroyo appointed Esperon head of the military and has twice promoted Palparan. Why? It’s easy enough to figure out – the military has too much on Arroyo and she has too much on them. For the foreseeable future Filipino activists will have to continue to watch their backs.

New Internationalist issue 407 magazine cover This article is from the December 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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