Philippines – battle of the ballot box

Montreal, June 28, 2007 -- Over 50 people attended a report-back event with Montreal delegates to the People’s International Observers’ Mission to the Philippines for the May 2007 elections. The event entitled Philippines – battle of the ballot box was organized by the Centre for Philippine Concerns (CAP-CPC) at St-Paul’s Anglican Church.

The delegates had raised money to travel to the Philippines where they joined participants from 12 countries. They responded to a call from Philippine human rights and church groups for international witnesses to be present during the mid-term elections where widespread vote-buying, fraud and violence was expected.

The evening started with a photo collage of the Mission prepared by Joey Calugay and a short film by delegate Stefan Christoff and Kodao Productions in Manila. Then MCs Marie Boti and Tony DeJesus of the CAP-CPC introduced speakers Christoff, Minerva Gutierrez, Freda Guttman and Fr. Art Calaycay. Whisper translation in French, English and Spanish was provided by Antonio Artuso, Josée Beauregard and Sophie Schoen.

Christoff, an independent journalist and social activist, told the crowd that the Philippines was a far cry from “vibrant, thriving democracy”, projected by Washington and Ottawa, and instead, the mid-term elections were engulfed in an atmosphere of “coercion, corruption and violence”. He personally witnessed vote-buying and interviewed residents of the Tondo slum area who were visited by the military and told how to vote.

He pointed out that the elections were taking place in a context of more than 850 politically-motivated killings and 200 abductions since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2001. He said that human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations special rapporteur, Philip Alston, have implicated the current government, its military and police in the wave of killings.

Freda Guttman, a social activist and internationally acclaimed visual artist, surveyed the elections in Makati, whose ultramodern office buildings house the major foreign multinationals operating in the Philippines alongside sprawling slum communities. She witnessed attempts at vote buying through offers of money or free electricity and massive disorganization at polling stations. Guttman described a surprise visit at the polling station from a prominent businessman close to President Arroyo. “He strode into the arena with armed body guards looking like Mussolini,” Guttman said, “and asked the people doing the counting which party they represented.”

Freda described how moved she was when she was able to return to the island of Negros two decades after her first visit. She met some of the people, now in their twenties, who she had first photographed as children in the 1980s. She was shocked by the lack of fundamental change on the island in the past 20 years, where the sugar plantations continue to be run in “slave-like conditions”.

Minerva Gutierrez, a social worker originally from Mexico and member of the political party, Québec Solidaire, described how her Mission delegation was blocked on two occasions by the military as they travelled to and from a small isolated village on the island of Cebu. She noted that election workers from the Philippine election body, COMELEC, who were assigned in the village were young, inexperienced and seemed disinterested in the proceedings. Minerva had seen similar problems as an international observer during the 2003 elections in El Salvador.

Fr. Art Calaycay, a local priest with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church), described the killing in October 2006 of the Supreme Bishop of his church, Bishop Ramento, following several threats to the Bishop’s life. But Fr. Calaycay said there are some positive signs, including the first ever election of a Catholic parish priest, Fr. Ed Panlilio, as governor in Pampanga. This province has been ruled for generations by powerful landowning dynasties. A former director of the province’s social actions centres, Fr. Panlilio personifies a new leadership that is “respected, accountable and transparent,” said Fr. Art.

All the delegates pointed out that it was almost impossible to have truly democratic elections in a country where the overwhelming majority live in crushing poverty while a small landowning elite enjoys incredible wealth and power.

During the Q&A Christoff pointed out that Canadian mining companies are active in the Philippines and that Ottawa is helping to train Philippine police. “The Canadian government should stop its hypocrisy, denouncing human rights abuses in some countries and ignoring them in the Philippines,” he said.

Malcolm Guy

* For more information contact the Centre for Philippine Concerns at:
* Visit the Stop the Killings campaign at: http://www.stopthekillings.org

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