U.S. Military Aid and the Paramilitaries Behind the Philippine Election Massacre

By Katrina Abarcar 12-11-2009

For many of us in the U.S., the sometimes vicious attack ads of last year's presidential election are more than just a recent memory. The Philippines, a longtime ally of the U.S., is gearing up for its own round of elections in 2010. But in the Philippines, attacks are not contained to the TV and newspapers. Vicious attacks on an opponent can literally mean murder.

On Nov. 23, 2009, around 60 people were massacred in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. A number of victims were part of a convoy en route to file the registration papers of an aspirant for governor. It was one of the most open and horrendous acts of election-related violence in recent Philippine history. Among the victims were women, two human rights lawyers, and 30 journalists. In fact, it was the single deadliest attack on journalists on record. The private army of the Ampatuan family, a ruling family in the province with close ties to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, are believed to be behind the attack.

While the enormity of the violence committed is new, the brazenness with which the act was committed has been common in the Philippines over the past eight years of the Arroyo presidency. Acts of abduction and murder have been carried out with impunity by the police, the army, and people aligned with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Security forces have evaded conviction and some, such as General Jovito Palparan, have even been rewarded for their performance. In Maguindanao, the recent act was committed in broad daylight and the perpetrators appeared confident that they would get away scott-free. In the days after the incident, with not one arrest, it almost seemed like they would. In a surprising turn of events, on Dec. 4, Arroyo declared martial law, Proclamation 1529. The declaration, coincidentally, occurred as the media focused on the cache of around 1,000 government-owned, high-powered firearms and "ballot boxes" found on the Ampatuans' grounds, and the Ampatuans' supposed threat to tell all about electoral cheating in 2004 and 2007, of which President Arroyo was the major beneficiary.

And while the declaration of martial law in the Philippines has headlined U.S. news, there has been little focus on the ugly truth that the Ampatuan family is suspected to have committed the crime with the help (direct and indirect) of national security forces, the Philippine National Police, and the Philippine Army. The Ampatuans' private army consists of paramilitary outfits subsidized by the government and known to serve as hired mercenaries in their role as auxiliary units of the police and army. These types of units are used to carry out operations as part of the Philippine government's counterinsurgency plan, Oplan Bantay Laya 2, which has been highly criticized for encouraging human rights violations in the name of fighting terrorism. Even worse, it is plausible that the arms and bullets used by the warlord Ampatuan clan were bought from the U.S. by the Philippines (care of U.S. tax dollars) in the form of Foreign Military Financing (allocated to the Philippines for the purpose of buying U.S. weaponry).

Disappointingly, there are reports that the Philippines may see an increase in the amount of Foreign Military Financing it currently receives in FY11. Also, the State Department may choose to release the $2 million in military aid to the Philippines that Congress fenced in with human rights conditions in 2010, pending improvements in the nation's human rights record and the Arroyo government's supposed compliance with the human rights recommendations made by U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Allston.

The Maguindanao Massacre shows that human rights violations continue to rage throughout the Philippines, under the direction of the Arroyo administration. With election season in the Philippines upon us now, U.S. tax dollars to the Philippines in the form of military aid might be lighting the fuse on a pile of dynamite.

The magnitude of the Maguindanao Massacre has also garnered more attention for the human rights situation in the Philippines than anything else in recent years. In June, Katarungan organized an Emergency Human Rights Summit on the Philippines in anticipation of this very violence. We must remain on watch and be ready to expose all acts of election-related violence in the next 5 months -- especially with the message that the Philippines should not receive more military aid until it ends its current counter-insurgency policy and resolves the existing human rights crisis. We also need to oppose military solutions (i.e. martial law) to criminal cases.

portrait-katrina-abarcarKatrina Abarcar coordinates the work of Katarungan, which seeks to promote peace, justice, and human rights in the Philippines through research, education, and grassroots advocacy.

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