People gathered outside St. James Church in Montreal.
Photo: Dylan Fraser
Ranked second in the world for political killings -- over 800 since 2001 -- it may seem obvious that the Philippines is not a shining light of democracy. Yet many Western nations hold it in high esteem as exactly this, as well as a major trading partner and an ally in the war on terror.
A group of people from Montreal who travelled to the Philippines for the country’s mid-term May elections noticed this contradiction.
Speaking in front of the St. James church on June 3, delegation participant Stefan Christoff summed up this contradiction: In contrast to the “vibrant, thriving democracy” that the United States and Canada purport the Philippines to be, said Christoff, the mid-term elections were surrounded by an atmosphere of “coercion, corruption and violence.” He also stated that in the capital, Manila, the group he was with witnessed vote-buying and interviewed residents who were visited by the military and told how to vote.
The four-person delegation from Montreal was part of the larger Peoples’ International Observers Mission, which was comprised of participants from 12 countries. The effort was initiated in response to calls from Philippino human rights and church groups calling for witnesses for the lead-up to the elections for positions in the senate, congress and municipalities. Observers were positioned throughout the country and accompanied by local counterparts.
Freda Guttman, another member of the Montreal delegation, reviewed some of the hindrances to the democratic process discovered by her group operating in the city of Makati, a suburb of the capital. These included attempts at vote-buying through offers of money or free electricity and massive disorganization at polling stations. She said that buildings were plagued by periodic blackouts, during which time voting was suspended, and that many names were missing from voter lists. During the counting of the votes, Guttman also told of a surprise visit from a prominent businessman with close ties to the president. She stated that he “strode into the arena looking like Mussolini, with armed bodyguards” and “asked people counting which party they were from.”
Despite the fact that it is difficult for foreign observers to witness blatant electoral violations, observations like those of Guttman were common throughout the delegation. Their findings were also consistently corroborated by locals they spoke to, who deal with the forces of political pressure on a day-to-day basis, usually without the mitigating influence of international monitors.
The mid-term elections of the Philippines were of critical importance for the ruling regime’s effort to hold onto power amidst growing dissatisfaction with its leadership. Particularly, a 2005 impeachment effort sponsored by some of the opposition parties could be successfully reinitiated if the ruling government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo loses its control of the senate and congress.
The precarious nature of the government’s position on the eve of the elections led to an increased level of persecution of perceived political threats, with over 20 killings reported in the lead-up to voting day. Among such incidents, Malcolm Guy, spokesperson for the Montreal Centre for Philippine Concerns (CPC), noted the disappearance of Luing Posa-Dominado, a friend whom he first met in the 1980s. Posa-Domingo, a human rights activist imprisoned during the Marcos dictatorship went missing with her partner Nilo Arado on April 12, 2007, and neither has been heard of since. Also, two members of the Kabataan youth party were abducted and killed during the election process.
Due to the introduction of party list proportional representation in 1995, political parties such as Kabataan and Bayan Muna have been able to gain greater representation through the electoral process. However, the growth of these type of reform oriented and traditionally marginalized groups has led to their increased targeting.
There is a lot of enthusiasm in the Philippines for initiatives such as the party list legislation and the potential for change they represent, says Tess Tesalona, former resident of the Philippines, and also with the Montreal CPC. But the social elite are feeling their dominance increasingly threatened and are responding accordingly, she says.
Given the political violence and high levels of poverty in the Philippines, bribery and the threat of violence significantly hinder the possibility of legitimate elections. With 80 per cent of the population living on two dollars per day or less, and the richest 10 per cent of the population earning 21 times more than the poorest 10 per cent, it is no surprise that bribery has proven to be an effective political tool for the wealthy to maintain their power in the Philippines.
Although often characterized by the military and government as the result of political infighting between rebel forces, widespread violence is another important tool of political influence, according to organizations such as the Philippine human rights group Karapatan. Most of the 858 politically-related killings since 2001, when the Arroyo government took office, were church activists, lawyers, union leaders and others working for political change through non-violent means. Karapatan says that culpability for these acts lies directly with the state security forces and associated paramilitaries. Circumstances of death documented show that most were killed through methods of professional assassination or murder, preceded by kidnapping and torture. The fact that only verified killings are used in the figure of 858 makes it likely that the actual number is much higher.
In February of this year, UN human rights envoy Philip Alston conducted an inquiry in the country wherein he concluded that many of the political killings taking place in the Philippines can be “convincingly attributed” to the military. Earlier in the year, the Philippine-based Melo Commission drew similar conclusions, with the head of the armed forces conceding that the military was involved in some of the deaths. Both of these reports lack any form of binding recommendations, however, and neither make a link to President Arroyo, head of the Philippine armed forces.
While the social and political environment in the Philippines remains dismal, the country’s relationship with the West is close. This amounts to a problematic situation, according to the Montreal delegation, since countries that publicly espouse common values of democracy and human rights are benefiting from a relationship with a government that is violating these deeply held principles.
For the United States this relationship has been a long and sordid one, beginning in a brutal military occupation that lasted almost five decades. In early 1991, the Philippines banned American military bases from its territory, but this was rescinded in 1999. The island nation has since been regaining a prominent strategic position in American foreign policy. Human rights organizations such as Karapatan believe that the influence of the US in the Philippines is contributing to a familiar situation in which proponents for social change, whether violent or not, are characterized as variations of communist or Islamic terrorism. This is seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement for protecting the interests of both the US and its client regime.
Canadian trade with the Philippines tops one billion dollars per year, according to Industry Canada, and investment in the mining sector has been singled-out by human rights groups, both within the Philippines and abroad, for Canadian firms’ involvement in environmental and human rights abuses.
A recently released report from Rights and Democracy criticizes the Calgary-based TVI Pacific corporation for its project on the island of Mindanao. The report states that TVI has “deprived thousands of small-scale miners of their livelihood,” and “contributed to a militarization of the area” that has had a “negative impact on the ability of the Subanon [the local indigenous population] to enjoy the human right to security and the human right to housing.” These charges refer to actions by the 160-person security force working for the mining company hired from the Philippino army and given tasks such as the displacement of settlements and manning of blockades.
Other Canadian human rights and church groups have cited Vancouver-based mining companies Placer Dome Incorporated and Crew Development Corporation for their record of environmental destruction and lack of transparency in the Philippines.
In a manner that is even more direct, a number of former members of Canada’s military and police forces are working with Grayworks, a Philippine company engaged in combating the guerilla organizations of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf, and the New Peoples’ Army, primarily on the island of Mindanao.
With the elections over, the efforts of Canadian Philippino human rights organizations are being focused on other projects. A national coalition of groups, including the Centre for Philippine Concerns, recently submitted a 5,000-signature petition to parliament calling for a review of all Canadian relations with the Philippines and the impact these relationships are having on human rights in the country. The CPC is also continuing with its demonstrations on the first Sunday of each month, beginning at St. James church at the intersection of St. Catherine and City Councillors Street, in downtown Montreal.
The final tally of the election shows mixed results, with widespread success for the ruling coalition at the local and regional level and opposition parties gaining ground in the senate. In light of the conditions surrounding the election seen by the Montreal delegation, it would be premature to correlate polling results with popular desire and the functioning of a healthy democracy in the Philippines.