The military has become accustomed to excessive privilege and power. Reform will depend on how much Aquino can use her power, based on grassroots support, to exert civilian authority over the military.
“It is not enough that Marcos has been removed,” declares Father Orlando Tizon, known as Dong to his friends. The legacy left by Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, he says, remains intact: poverty for 84 percent of the population, a powerful military and landowner elite, and domination by multinational companies.
Key to the resolution of these problems, Dong believes, will be the actions of cause-oriented groups representing peasants, workers, teachers, students, political prisoners and others.
Dong, a secular priest, chairs a human rights group based in Mindanao called SELDA, “Semahan ng mga Ex-Detainee Laban sa Detensyon at para sa Amnestiya,” translates as Association of Ex-detainees Against Detention and for Amnesty. “Selda” also means prison in Spanish and Pilipino.
SELDA, formed in late 1985, has about 2,000 members out of 7,000 identified ex-political prisoners. Members represent all political perspectives; but as detainees, they share common goals: the release of other detainees, rehabilitation and genuine democracy and independence for the Philippines.
Between September 20, 1982 and March 5, 1986, Dong was a political detainee. He was seized in Davao, along with four others, during a raid which resulted in the death of a student leader, Edgar Jopson. At the time of arrest, Dong was part of a research project on farmers and agriculture in the region. Dong and the others were charged with the political crime of conspiracy to commit rebellion and the criminal act of illegal possession of explosives.
Dong notes that the military has historically used such criminal charges to deny the existence of political prisoners. Although prisoners were seized because of their political views, their records described them as murderers or as illegally possessing firearms. This policy, Dong says, allowed Marcos to shamelessly claim that The Philippines had no political prisoners.
Don’s release came after one of Aquino’s first decrees ordered the release of all political prisoners. Initially, the military did not respond, claiming that they were “processing” the releases. Aquino has to give a second order, after which the military began to release prisoners in Manila and Quezon City, including such prominent leaders as Jose Sison, reputedly a founder of the Communist Party of The Philippines.
However, no releases occurred in the provinces. The Task Force on Detainees of the Philippines, an advocate for political prisoners, asked friends and relatives of detainees to go to the regional military authorities to find out what was happening. Again, the military stalled, citing orders from Manila to end releases and to “process” names of political prisoners. Adding to the confusion, the national daily newspapers started printing the names of political prisoners supposedly released, but who were actually still held.
It took more than a week before Dong and other prisoners in Davao were released. Even now, Dong says, 400 political prisoners are held. Dong suspects that President Aquino does not know about them and that the military uses its “processing” to change the status of prisoners from political to criminal. Dong hopes Aquino will assist in this release because the court process is unlikely to free prisoners very quickly. Dong knows how slowly cases proceed. When he was released in March, 1986, the prosecution in his case had only presented its first witness.
So far, political prisoners have not received compensation, and charges have not been pressed against the perpetrators, primarily the military. Although Aquino had earlier ordered the Minister of Social Services to help rehabilitate political prisoners, the Social Services office lacked sufficient funds to do so. In Davao City, ex-political prisoners are allowed to borrow money, but it is a small amount. SELDA, among other human rights groups, is pressing for indemnification of victims of torture and salvaging (wanton killing of civilians by the military). As yet, they have not received much cooperation from the government, especially in the investigation of human rights violation.
Aquino also appointed a Committee for Human Rights which has been compiling data and facts on violations of human rights during the Marcos regime. The Committee has not yet filed a case. Minister of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile objected, “The military is not in favor of investigations of human rights because that could be divisive.” Enrile and General Fidel Ramos have also claimed that the government should also give amnesty to perpetrators, not just the victims, of human rights violations.
Dong suggests that these differences between Aquino and the military reflect a deeper power struggle. The military was a tool of the Marcos dictatorship for nearly 20 years. During those years, the military became accustomed to excessive privilege and power. Military reform will depend on how much Aquino can use her power based on grassroots support, to exert civilian authority over them.
Dong believes structural and organizational changes are necessary. For example, the military has been virtually autonomous in its promotion system and budgeting of funds. The military, Dong believes, must be more accountable to the president, the legislative body, and above all, the Filipino people. The Philippine military is so dependent on the U.S. military, he says, that it appears to pursue U.S., rather than Filipino, interest.
Dong hopes the new constitution being drafted by the Constitutional Commission will contain safeguards against military abuses. The conditions for declaring martial law and suspending the writ of habeus corpus must be outlined. The bill of rights must be protected and implemented. A professional judicial system, independent of the military, executive and legislative bodies, is essential.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is already upsetting this delicate balance between Aquino and the military. The U.S. supports and encourages a military solution in the insurgency of the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front (NDF). Two months ago, before Aquino had asked for any kind of aid, the U.S. offered military aid. Aquino refused, stating, “We don’t need military aid, we need economic aid.” Aquino has already begun negotiating for a ceasefire with the NDF. However, General Ramos has stated that the military is not interested in a ceasefire, and, in fact, the military is currently conducting operations against the NPA in several provinces.
Although it has been suggested that the insurgency would disappear once Marcos was removed, it remains quite strong. The U.S. government believes the increased democracy under Aquino will only give the insurgents more room to expand. The NPA claims to have about 20,000 combatants, and the NDF reportedly leads five to eight million supporters, organized in 63 of 72 provinces in The Philippines.
The NDF states that is it for peace and is interested in a ceasefire. However, it distinguishes between a ceasefire and a surrender, and it will not give up its arms. The NDF has considerable support since it effectively organizes around the needs of the peasants, workers and other oppressed sectors of Philippine society.
Father Tizon seeks American and Canadian support for the people’s power which thrust Corazon Aquino into the presidency and which she needs to stay there. The greatest fear is that the U.S. government may intervene to protect its military and economic interest. Support for the people’s power movement can prevent such an intervention, he says.
Tizon’s visit to Seattle was coordinated locally by the Filipino Association for Community Education. He spoke at a benefit for the Philippine Peasant Movement. His North American tour is sponsored by the Alliance for the Philippine Concerns and the Church Coalition for Human Rights in The Philippines.