The Philippines has no coherent plan for dealing with the challenge of Islamic terrorism, and the mixture of inept policing and savage crackdowns is leading to the erosion of human rights in that country.
Institutional weaknesses, a general breakdown in law and order and persistent rumours of a military coup are scaring off foreign investment. Last month a coalition of American-based companies with interests in the Philippines sent a letter to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, urging her to act against a wave of political killings which, according to one source, has topped 700 since 2001.
The country’s problems were underscored by a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Asian Studies, Kit Collier, when he contrasted the situation in the Philippines with that of Indonesia in the wake of the Bali bombings.
Speaking to a meeting of the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Dr Collier said that within a year or two of the bombings Indonesia had held dozens of transparent trials with convincing convictions which effectively defanged the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group. “Yet in the Philippines, while there have been lots of convictions of local Abu Sayyaf members and small-time kidnapping racketeers, there have hardly been any of major transnational terrorists,” he said.
This is incredible when there is strong evidence that since the early 1990s JI has been using southern areas of the country as a refuge from Indonesian law and a training ground for future generations of terrorists.
The Philippines security forces’ arrest record is appalling, but it comes as no surprise when the inaction of legislators is taken into account. Despite grappling with Muslim and communist insurgencies for decades, counter terrorism measures are still largely based on presidential decrees describing penalties for the possession of explosives and kidnapping, issued during the Marcos era in the 1960s.
Cases are usually built around eye-witness testimony which can easily be tampered with, and in many cases suspects are set free on bail and disappear. Dr Collier says this has led to widespread cynicism over the seriousness of the terrorist problem.
“If the government can’t convict terrorists, and if the congress cannot get around to passing counter-terrorism legislation, which it has been debating since 1997, why should anyone believe there is any urgency?” he asked. “The problem is that the draft legislation includes sweeping definitions that could be used to suppress all opposition, violent or non-violent. The language is far from satisfactory, but the government refuses to take international advice and change it.”
Given the turbulence of their recent history, it is no wonder many Filipinos, including prominent opposition politicians, are seeing the proposed legislation as a backdoor attempt to reintroduce martial law.
The failure of law and order and due process became only too apparent in the March 2005 uprising in a prison south of Manila when 26 inmates died in a bloody crackdown. Most of the prisoners had never been tried or convicted; some had been there for four years, rounded up by security forces tired of trying to do things by the book.
Dr Collier said the prisoners had been subjected to arbitrary arrests, often on the basis of blatantly manufactured testimony given in exchange for financial reward. “Some of the depositions were based on the affidavits of three characters who later offered to withdraw their testimony in exchange for money,” he said.
Needless to say, the ruthless crushing of the prison revolt played into the hands of Abu Sayyaf propagandists who could argue that the government was just as capable of committing atrocities and could certainly claim no moral high ground in the conflict. It is a grim message, but one that resonates powerfully among the Philippines’ Muslim population which has been subjected to militarism, oppressive martial law and violence which has left an estimated 100,000 dead since the 1970s.
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