A Call to Care
November 6, 2008 10:20 AM
Someone must have forgotten to tell the Americans. The front page must have been filled to capacity. A document must have been stamped “confidential.”
Whatever the reason, the lion’s share of U.S. citizens remains blissfully unaware of the political unrest and bloodshed in the Philippines. Since current president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was elected in 2001, it has been estimated that more than nine hundred people critical of the Philippine government have been executed under painfully tyrannical and extrajudicial conditions.
The League of Filipino Students (LFS), a student-run activism group based out of San Francisco State University, has made it their goal to educate Filipino Americans and Americans in general about the current situation in hopes of bringing an end to the political killings.
“The situation going on in the Philippines, and really nearly all Third World countries, is in direct consequence to the lavish and ignorant lives we live here in our First Worlds,” says JR Arimboanga, a member of LFS.
In a supposed effort to fight Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the southern region of Mindanao, the American government sends millions of dollars each year to the Philippine military, an army that the Human Rights Watch has blamed for targeting and killing civilians. In an eighty-four-page report released last year, “Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines,” the HRW compiled more than one hundred interviews and other evidence supporting allegations of the military’s involvement in many of the unsolved and unprosecuted murders.
This year alone, Congress allocated nearly 30 million dollars of military aid, a grave mistake according to LFS. “In these times of economic crisis, we don’t want our U.S. tax dollars going to support a government that’s basically committing crimes against its own people,” says Lyle Prijoles, chair of LFS. “Why do you need to send bullets to a country that can’t even feed itself?”
Under Philippine national law, U.S. troops stationed in the country are prohibited from fighting in armed conflict, but they have provided sniper and small-unit tactics training.
“The Philippines is really dependent on the U.S., so for me, it’s really important to just expose that kind of relationship,” says Melissa Reyes, vice-chair of LFS. Reyes claims the training is often used to teach military personnel how to perform executions on anyone believed to be working for the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the communist party in the Philippines. “Any organization that is critical of the government is basically tagged as sympathizers or supporters of the New People’s Army,” says Reyes.
It is believed that a multitude of teachers, artists, social workers, religious and union leaders, among others, have all been targeted. During Baliksambayanan 2008, an annual LFS summer tour in the Philippines, Reyes met members of LFS who run the risk of being killed or abducted for doing the same type of organizing and educating she does in America.
“There are people there who are just like us,” she says of the Filipino students she met during the trip. “They’re doing the exact things we’re doing; they’re stressing over school, they’re organizing. But at the same time, they’re way more threatened because the political climate there is so intense.”
This intensity was on full display when twenty-year-old Cris Hugo, a member of LFS in the Philippines, was murdered on March 19, 2006. Two other students, twenty-one-year-old Riemon Guran and twenty-two-year-old Farly Alcantra II, were killed within the next year. Another LFS student, twenty-two-year-old Karen Empeño, was abducted and has been missing since June 26, 2006.
LFS proved how much change individuals in our backyard can evoke with 2007’s “Stop the Killings” campaign, in which they joined with other non-governmental human rights groups to disperse and collect petitions urging the government to cut funding to the Philippine military. The grassroots campaign came on the heels of the bloodiest year to date under the Arroyo regime in which it was estimated that more than two hundred people were killed.
The large volume of petitions (which were sent to the late congressman Tom Lantos and congresswoman Nancy Pelosi), along with a national campaign led by the umbrella group of Philippine liberation organizations known as Karapatan, put enormous amounts of pressure on the American government to act. Corresponding investigations by groups such as Amnesty International and the U.N., all of which concluded that the Philippine military is in denial about their own participation in the killings, put even more tension on the U.S.
In response, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a special hearing on March 14, 2007 to address the issue. The hearing seemed to have made lasting impressions as the U.S. government put two million dollars of aid on hold until the Philippine government could prove they were addressing the killings. That year, Karapatan reported that seventy people were murdered, a significant decrease from the 210 deaths reported in 2006. At their mid-year report this June, the numbers dropped again, as twenty people were reported killed.
While the number of deaths is going down, the Philippine government is still finding ways to suppress the voice of the opposition. Disappearances are replacing murders, meaning Filipinos are still losing their loved ones, and U.S. aid continues to flow into the country. Not a single arrest has been made and intimidation has become a part of everyday life for many Filipinos.
During the LFS trip this summer, Reyes met a woman living in the poverty-stricken area once called Smoky Mountain—for the piles of garbage that burned there year after year—who is constantly bombarded by spies. The woman had recently helped organize a rally at Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address and men continued showing up at her apartment, seemingly day after day, urging her to give up the names of her fellow organizers. Reyes was astonished to see that the day she visited offered no exception.
A couple of the men came into the apartment as Reyes was speaking to the organizer, but didn’t say a word. The men were dressed in normal clothes and stood watching as Reyes and other members of LFS spoke with the woman. “They were trying to disguise themselves as people trying to get information about the community, when in reality they were trying to get information about certain organizers in the woman’s organization,” Reyes says.
Other forms of intimidation are more direct and violent. During the trip LFS took in 2007, Prijoles visited churches turned into interrogation sites; sacred places transformed into sanctuaries of horror where people were tortured and sometimes killed. “A lot of the children there have a lot of mental issues because they’ve seen a lot of indiscriminate firing,” says Prijoles.
The student also met a spokesperson for a union striking against a nearby Nestlé factory that, like many other corporations in the Philippines, was treading on basic human and worker rights. The military was keeping close watch on the organizers and the president of the union had already been killed. No one had the luxury of assuming they were safe.
The spokesman thought his time had come when he was stopped along a desolate road by a group of armed motorcyclists wearing dark black masks. Directly in front of the man, close enough to hold a gun to his head, one of the men offered an omen. “You’re next,” the masked man screamed before speeding away.
With the Obama administration entering the White House, it will be more important than ever for Americans to thrust themselves into the situation and put pressure on the newly appointed leaders. This means gaining back ground that may have been lost with the shift in power. “Even if we pressure the government today, nothing’s going to change tomorrow,” Reyes says.
Perhaps most challenging is the lack of interest from the Filipino community at San Francisco State. There are more than two thousand Filipino undergraduate students, making up over 10 percent of the undergraduate population at the college, yet LFS has less than thirty active members.
The Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE), another student-run organization that is focused more around Filipino culture and less around Filipino politics, has closer to two hundred active members. Despite its popularized and broad base that is forty years in the making, PACE may never posses the same potential for international impact as LFS.
“What separates us from other organizations is that, the reason why we’re really concerned with issues in the Philippines is because we really see the reason why we’re here,” Prijoles says. “If things were okay, if things were cool in the Philippines, then our parents wouldn’t have had to leave. That’s one of the reasons why we really want to connect to our past and to our homeland: to really find the answers of what’s going on in the Philippines.”
The League of Filipino Students has the answers. It’s on us to ask.
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