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Repression and Resistance
in the Philippines

The Spark 26 June 2002

Talk given by Sarah Helm - unionist and activist - at the Anti-Capitalist Alliance public meeting in Wellington 2 June 2002, and in Auckland on 19 June, hosted by the Anti-Imperialist Coalition

KiaOra Koutou Katoa, I’ve just returned from a seven-week exposure with Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) the genuine, militant trade union of the Philippines. My exposure was hosted by the KMU, but involved time with a number of the sectors. I also attended the KMU’s International Solidarity Affair, marking 100 years of militant unionism in the Philippines.

The Philippines is a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country, which has been subjected to 300 years of colonial rule under Spain, and over 100 years of colonial rule under the United States. The people have been subjected to harsh and oppressive governments, including that of the infamous Marcos who put the country under martial law. Marcos was thrown out in ‘people power 1’ in 1986, by a massive people’s uprising. However, the United States maintained its military bases in the country until people were able to mount sufficient opposition in 1991 to throw them out.

The Filipino people are again being subjected to a repressive regime, following the ouster of Joseph Estrada in October 2000. The regime of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is being likened to that of Marcos, particularly the human rights atrocities that are at a similar level now as that under Marcos. Estrada was thrown out by a massive people’s mobilisation (people power 2), against massive corruption. That left a gap in the Presidency - to which Ms Arroyo was appointed. She gave a verbal assurance that ‘workers’ rights under that Constitution will be respected and upheld’, but barely a week into her administration she had already issued a policy statement to foreign big business that neo-liberal globalisation would remain the cornerstone of the economic vision for the country. She has intensified the attacks on the Filipino people, including:

increasing militarisation

blatantly violating human rights

embracing a return of the US military

increasing power rates at the same time as increasing oil and water rates.

refusing increases to the minimum wage, which is set regionally by the state. Traditionally annual increases are announced on May 1, but even this has been refused. The minimum wages are approximately $NZ10 a day, which is less than half of what is needed by an average family to even subsist.

continuing to promote fanatical neo-liberalism.

She is also now promoting constitutional reform, which will, for the first time, allow foreign ownership of Filipino land.

In November last year, Arroyo met with Bush in the United States, the meeting prompted by September the 11th events. It was there that Arroyo signed the Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement, which promotes the return of US troops to the Philippines, in joint military exercises, namely the ‘Balikatan’ [supposedly to track down Abu Sayyaf guerrillas-Ed]. It also agrees to alter the constitution to permit foreign ownership of Filipino land and, I was told, that the agreement reached was also to place President Arroyo at the head of a coalition of Christian countries in the region.

This is very revealing about the United States’ desire to use the Philippines as a foothold on the South East Asian region, as the US has done previously. The ‘Balikatan’ was started under the guise of targeting the Abu Sayyaf. The Abu Sayyaf were originally introduced by the CIA to act as a counter-revolutionary group to undermine the Muslim people’s liberation group, the MILF. The Abu Sayyaf has acted as thugs in the region for years, and have taken funding from corrupt government officials. There were around a hundred Abu Sayyaf suspected to be in the area of Mindinao, when the US sent in their troops. Mindinao is the only area where there is any real number of Muslims in the country, and that is in the very south of the Philippines. Yet despite the fact that there are only a hundred Abu Sayyaf troops, the United States brought in a thousand troops, in conjunction with many more Filipino troops. While I was there they had only just managed to catch a small handful of very young Abu Sayaff, after many weeks of the operation. But by then the United States had already declared its secondary target of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front (NDF). And now they have brought in a further two thousand troops into Central Luzon; nowhere near any Muslim people, let alone the Abu Sayyaf. The US has been openly antagonistic towards the New People’s Army.

As suspected, and experienced elsewhere, the United States is using September 11th to make war on, and intimidate the people’s movements in the Philippines. And innocents are being victimised by this attack. One example that illustrates the level of indiscriminate and random violence that they are perpetrating was a young Canadian born Filipino woman I met at the International Solidarity Affair. She went to Mindinao as part a human rights group fact-finding mission. While they were walking down a road, an overhead helicopter fired them at. They had to hide in some bushes until it passed over.

The Balikatan has therefore had three main objectives: to maintain a US stronghold on the region; to attack the people’s movement and therefore maintain the capitalists’ super-profits being extracted from the workers and undermine the potential threat to capitalism; and lastly, to plunder the resources that are present in the area. Particularly this is true in Mindinao, which is resource-rich, including oil.

On top of the Balikatan there has also been a general increase in militarisation under Arroyo in the Philippines. The military are being used to attack the people’s movement, targeting workers, peasants, urban poor, NPA and Bayan Muna activists (a legal political party).

The human rights group Karapatan, has recorded a total of 678 human rights violations in the period from Jan 2001- April 2002. Of these 118 were assaults on workers’ picket lines, and 105 arrests and detentions. There were 66 killings and 108 cases of harassment. Specifically, there have been 17 coordinators and members of Bayan Muna (the legal political party which has three members in the Senate) killed in that period. Four activists have been abducted and are still missing in two of the provinces alone.

There were two Bayan Muna activists killed while I was in the Philippines. They were a husband and wife, and have left behind 8 children. In the same week three young people from Karapatan were killed in Mindinao. In addition there have been countless random victims.

I met with a group of indigenous people from Mindoro Island - the Mangyan. Mindoro has been extensively mined, as well as being a lucrative tourist trap. In order to protect the multinational’s investments the Government has militarised the non-tourist part of the island. The indigenous people I met were ‘internal refugees’, driven from their ancestral homeland by random violence being perpetrated against them by the military. They had fled their homes with nowhere to go, no one would help them, except for the militant human rights group Karapatan and one ‘radical’ church, which has provided them with temporary shelter. Their stories were horrifying. One woman had lost her husband. One man had his 70 year old mother decapitated by the military, who claimed later that she was an NPA supporter. She was out collecting food when she was murdered. One woman had her leg in a cast - she cannot afford to get treatment. She had answered a knock at her door, while carrying her baby one night; the military shot her in the leg. Another woman was stripped in front of her community, and interrogated. The reason for these attacks? They are accused of being New Peoples Army supporters. (The NPA is the people’s revolutionary army, aimed at national democracy). The whole community is having their food rationed so that they can’t supply to the NPA. Nevertheless, the people are organising themselves and continue to protests against the state’s treatment of them.

The workers have also been subjected to increasing militarisation. Human rights abuses against workers have doubled under Arroyo - 109 in 2000, and 218 in 2001. Militarisation has also increased due to globalisation, and multinationals’ demands.

The workers in Southern Tagalog, an industrial area just south of Manila, are an example. There are a number of factories on strike at the moment - Isuzu and Nissan have been on strike for over seven months; Nestle for around four months, and RFM (a sausage factory) for around six months.

Nissan strikers have been subjected to extreme violence and intimidation. One leader has been shot, and scores were arrested. They were asking for a one per cent pay increase on their minimum wage wages. They were forced to go on strike by a boss who refused to negotiate. This followed an attempt by the boss to install a company puppet as the union leader. He threatened to sack workers who did not vote for the puppet. When the independent candidate won anyway, the company refused to negotiate the collective agreement. The workers want to return to work - even without their pay rise and the Department of Labour have ordered that they take the workers back, but the company are allowed to ignore the three orders that have been issued.

The Nestle workers are on strike because the company - Asia’s biggest - has refused to negotiate their collective agreement unless the workers agree to remove all of their existing retirement benefits. Many of the workers have worked there for over 15 years, so the benefits are critical. They are currently preparing to blockade the gates, which ‘scabs’ have been entering through, and maintaining 25 per cent production. However there have been full-riot-gear private guards and cops armed with semi-automatic weapons for the duration of the strike. I am fearful that some of the workers could be badly injured.

Strikes, and legal picket lines are commonly broken and dispersed using water canons, fire engine hoses, tear gas, batons and guns. I participated in a strike for a medium sized bus company where the SWAT team were brought in. One worker had earlier had his eardrum perforated by a water canon. Later a worker was stabbed. The workers won union recognition however, and the boss agreed to negotiate.

Contractualisation (or casual/temporary work) is a mounting problem. In the factories that I visited contractual workers by far outnumbered the regular workers. At Laws Textiles in the National Capital Region there were huge queues of women waiting to get interview for jobs that last for only six months.

Many workers are classified as informal and are not allowed to join unions - including cleaners and street vendors.

There are massive unemployment problems. As a further indication of grave domestic joblessness, around 2,700 Filipinos leave the country every day to seek employment overseas. Some 866,590 workers were deployed overseas last year (3 per cent more than the previous year) - adding to the estimated seven to eight million documented and ‘undocumented’ of the Filipino labour force already abroad which is equivalent to 10 per cent of the entire Philippine population! The government still relies on a massive labour export to generate much-needed dollars, such that President Arroyo has now taken to calling them ‘Overseas Filipino Investors’ - as if a more high-sounding sobriquet would somehow alleviate the wretched exploitation, isolation and indignities endured by overseas Filipino workers.

The military also are frequently involved with demolitions of the homes of the urban poor and peasants. I stayed at a lakeside settlement where the local fisherfolk had just had their homes demolished the week prior. There is a tourist development being constructed on the same lakeside as their homes; it is not the same spot, but the people are considered an eye-sore for the development. The company came in without any legal permits or rights to the land, and brought 500 armed security and police, who tore down the 25 families’ homes using sledgehammers. Ten people were hospitalised after the violence used against them that day, and two women had miscarriages. These fisherfolk are totally dependant on the lake for the livelihood. They can’t move away, and have nowhere to go anyway.

After the demolition the fisherfolk erected temporary houses using tarpaulins, where their old houses used to stand. Then the company brought in a private army who lived in the same space, and would wander through their homes carrying semi-automatic guns - intimidating the people and their children. The military have gone now - one small victory, but the people anticipate that they will return. The head of the fisherfolk organisation, Pamilikaya, fears for his life.

Increasingly fisherfolk and farmers are forced off of the lands that they till. The deregulation of food imports mean that they have to compete with imports, including rice. This means that the prices they receive for goods has decreased and there is less demand. At the same time land is being converted to industry and tourist traps. So many are leaving their land through force. They often end up in urban areas looking for work without much luck. They then end up squatting in one of the many shanty-towns, living in houses erected out of scraps of wood, cardboard and corrugated iron.

To make matters worse President Arroyo has announced a policy for power rate increases. Public pressure is mounting against these increases, which coincide with similar increase in oil and water prices. The same company that owns the power company, Meralco, as well as one of the major television channels runs the water supply of Manila. A national day of action was being planned for the 5th June.

The Government is proposing to legalise prostitution, which the national democracy movement fears will legitimise the sex tourism industry in the Philippines, and provide increased access for the US troops to prostitutes. Prostitution began to be a problem in the Philippines with the arrival of US troops many years ago. There are also massive numbers of women and children trafficked out of the Philippines as sex slaves.

Women in the Philippines are paid much less than men. Sugar workers are some of the worst paid workers, with men earning 60 pesos a day - the equivalent of $NZ3. Women earn only $NZ1.50 a day, and children $NZ1 a day. Women are at the bottom.

Gabriella is the women’s organisation, which organises women at the grass roots in the different sectors - youth, peasants, workers, urban poor, and even professional women. Both men and women in these sectors are educated on the oppression of women.

Women are discriminated against on the basis of age, marital status, and physical appearance - even height. It is hard to get a job if you are under five feet, which is common in the Philippines. Also women must be between 18 and 26 years old to get a job. They must be single, and not sexually active. Women are given virginity tests in the export processing zones, to prove that they aren’t active. The companies claim that women with children cost them money.

Gay and lesbian Filipino’s have a lot of struggling left to do. There has not been a ‘liberation’ movement in the Philippines yet. And in a deeply Christian country much prejudice exists. There are regular reports of killings of gay men in the national capital region, Manila. Many are relegated to the sex industry. Progay organises gay men as part of the national democracy movement now. I visited Progay in Cavite, where they had had their first gay pride march. It had brought many out of the closet, and raised awareness of the issues for working class, and poor gay and lesbians. The movement has been slower to organise lesbians, but I met with Lesbond, Lesbians for National Democracy in Baguio. They are also organising working and poor lesbians. One of the textile factories I visited were proposing to start a lesbian group because of the high number of lesbians on site. A resolution was passed unanimously at the International Solidarity Affair of the KMU to uphold the rights of working class gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual people.

The people’s movement is incredible. It is an integrated movement including: women, peasants, workers, youth, students, indigenous people, urban poor, gay and lesbians. They also have organisations such as a human rights group, cultural groups, a legal political party, and research NGOs.

On the other hand the illegal underground movement has the Communist Party (CPP), and the New Peoples Army. The latest statements from the CPP reported a significant advance in the people’s armed revolutionary struggle now in its 33rd year. Based on these reports, thousands of New People’s Army guerrillas are presently operating and conducting revolutionary work in 128 guerrilla fronts in 823 towns and cities (or about 54 per cent of the total), and about 8,500 barrios or barangays (or about 18 per cent of the total). The political and military capabilities of the NPA have markedly increased.

The grass roots members of the movement, be they workers, peasants or urban poor are incredibly well educated about Marxist theories, the national and international situation. They are committed and understand the need for a people’s revolution, and that that will entail an armed struggle. o

At the end of the talk a collection was made to support the strike struggles in the Philippines for the KMU to distribute to strike funds.