Waging Peace in the Philippines

With innovative tactics, U.S. forces make headway in the “war on terror”

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Pakila Datu beamed. Exactly.

It struck me that the most pressing problem in today's Philippines isn't terrorism or even government corruption but poverty and a lack of social mobility. People at the bottom of society are trapped. That view has been expressed by Tina Monshipour Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network based in New York City. "Powerful ruling families stay in power because, after Spanish colonization, society is still essentially feudal. Those who don't own land have no voice, no rights, and virtually no representation." Since World War II, the Philippines has gone from being one of the richest countries in Asia to one of the poorest. About 15 percent of its people live on less than $1 a day, and the nation has one of the world's fastest-growing populations. People who don't own land have no way to feed their families other than to work, as they have for generations, on property belonging to large landowners like Pakila Datu. That's how these "rebels," and others like them, have ended up on the battlefield, fighting not for their own rights but for those of the big men they serve.

Before I left his camp, Pakila took me aside and said he wanted to start prospecting for oil. He wondered if I knew any American oilmen who might pay for the use of his land.

Filipino attitudes about America vary. Alfred McCoy, a University of Wisconsin historian and an authority on the Philippines, notes that many in the Filipino middle and upper classes regard America as an oppressive colonialist power that they successfully cast off, much as we see the British. But many working-class Filipinos believe in the American dream, and hope to move to the United States to work. (There are about 2.5 million Filipinos in the United States.) And many Filipinos still claim abiding allegiance to the United States because of America's role in liberating the islands in World War II. "The Philippine conception of America runs from idealization to demonization," McCoy says. "In the Philippines, we have a burdened historical relationship unlike any other country involved in the war on terror. On the one hand, we know them and they know us, so we can operate there. On the other, that relationship comes with baggage." Still, I found no overt anti-Americanism in the north or south of the country. Likewise, there is also very little support for the so-called terrorists, who are seen as criminals first and foremost, not defenders of Islam.

There are, of course, critics of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines. Some argue that the war on terror has provided Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—a conservative member of the political elite, who was first elected in 2001—a blank check to destroy political opponents. "Arroyo is using a tool of the [Ferdinand] Marcos regime, extrajudicial execution," says McCoy. "She has run one of the most brutal state assassination campaigns—not on the terrorists, but on the remains of Socialist parties and activists." Earlier this year, Arroyo declared "all-out war" against leftist groups. Amnesty International has decried the government crackdown, saying it has led to more than 700 extrajudicial killings by paramilitary death squads since 2003. "President Arroyo is using the war on terror as a license to kill," says Monshipour Foster, the New York-based justice activist.

One target of the government-backed death squads, human rights advocates say, is the leftist political party Bayan Muna (People First), 93 of whose members have been killed. The party is headed by Congressman Satur C. Ocampo. Earlier this year, President Arroyo declared a state of emergency and issued a warrant to arrest Ocampo and five other House of Representatives members for alleged ties to Communists. To escape arrest, Ocampo lived in the House for 71 days until a judge threw out the case. "It was a ridiculous claim," he told me. Ocampo, an outspoken opponent of U.S. presence on Philippine soil, is sharply critical of what he perceives as American neocolonialism couched in terms of security. "The United States can now maintain a military presence here at any time," he said. "We should learn from Afghanistan and Iraq that pursuing a military end to the war on terror in countries like the Philippines with a long history of anti-imperialism is not going to work."

For their part, U.S. officials have condemned the killings. "What they so gracefully here call extrajudicial killing, that's actually murder," the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney told me. "It doesn't matter who's doing it. This has got to stop."

McCoy says the U.S. role in the Philippines is akin to its involvement in Pakistan, where the United States has supported a military dictator in order to apprehend a small number of terrorists, while the nation as a whole loses out on real democracy: "It's symptomatic of the contradictions that run throughout the war on terror. We see this in the Philippines more sharply than anywhere else."

The Philippine equivalent of Guantánamo Bay is a high-security camp inside Taguig Prison in Manila. The camp, called New Vision, houses more than 1,000 inmates, including numerous members of Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist guerrilla groups. In 2005, during a riot here, Abu Sayyaf seized a guard's weapon and held 100 people hostage for 24 hours until government troops stormed the building and shot 17 Abu Sayyaf inmates.

Visiting the prison isn't easy. After a score of phone calls and the intercession of a friendly politician, I was finally allowed inside the concertina wire. The warden led me to the Abu Sayyaf cellblock. From behind their orange-barred cells, three tiers of bearded men peered down at me in the visitor's gate. A Filipino journalist accompanying me gave me a nudge. "Go on," he said. I approached and called out to a young man: "I'd like to talk to Ahmed Santos." He shuffled off, and soon returned following a thin man in his mid-30s wearing rimless glasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with Malaysia's Twin Towers. Santos looked at me blankly. I launched into a lecture as to why he should talk to me, but he said yes before I had finished. I think he agreed because it was something to do.

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