Somber message in Sparks
The Philippines’ president called her opposition ‘terrorists,’ so the United States joined her war
On Independence Day eve, seven people gathered in a small church in an East Sparks strip mall to hear somber words. Members of the Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church listened to Bishop Eliezer Pascua recount killing after killing after killing in his homeland, a nation which shares its independence day with the United States.
Pascua, general secretary of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, gave nine lectures on a tour from California to Nevada to Chicago. He spoke not just to re-trace the details of several of what he counts as nearly 900 illegal executions since President Gloria Arroyo took office in 2001, but to prick American consciences.
“The particular Philippine experience of human rights violations exposes … the universal character of human rights violations,” Pascua said in Sparks, “particularly the path of American government, particularly in terms of giving military aid to the Philippines, which is being used by our military in perpetrating human rights violations.”
There have been repeated warnings that other nations label their domestic opponents as terrorists in order to internationalize internal disputes and gain support from the United States, much as governments used to paint their critics as communists to gain U.S. aid.
The Philippines is usually cited as Exhibit A of this scenario.
“Continuing to support Bush’s ‘global war on terror,’ President Arroyo has ratcheted up her government’s pressure on the Philippine left, reviving memories of the Marcos dictatorship and its dirty war against the opposition,” wrote author Luis Francia in December. “Manila knows that as long as it supports the Bush Administration, thereby obtaining economic and military assistance from the United States, it can get away with murder—literally. … For Arroyo and [her political party], internationalizing long-running domestic insurgencies and recasting them as terrorist threats to an ill-defined world order has meant tapping into U.S. aid once again.”
Similar concerns have been voiced by a United Nations investigator, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, War Crimes Prosecution Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the Philippines, business groups have begun joining religious opposition to Arroyo.
U.S. soldiers are in harm’s way in the Philippines, and the dead include Kerry Firth of Nevada, who died Feb. 21, 2002, in a helicopter crash in the southern Philippines.
Human rights tour
This wasn’t Pascua’s first trip to the United States. In March 2007, he testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee: “The victims came from all walks of life—farmers, fisherfolks, workers, indigenous people, Moro people [Muslims], journalists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, young persons, women, and even children. I would like to make particular mention that church people were also not spared.”
In Sparks, Pascua reported on Philippine pastor Berlin Guerrero’s torture in May 2007. Pascua read from the now imprisoned Guerrero’s testimony to the Philippine commission on human rights: “They brought me to a place unknown to me. … Men took turns interrogating me while beating my head with their fists and blunt objects. Layers of plastic bags were put on my head. My torturers would tighten the bags until I could no longer breathe. I passed out twice. … After about 12 hours, they put me back in the van, still hands tied and blindfolded. They threatened to kill me.”
Pascua further quoted the U.N. investigator: “The armed forces of the Philippines remains in a state of almost total denial. … The president needs to persuade the military that its reputation and effectiveness will be considerably enhanced, rather than undermined, by acknowledging the facts and taking genuine steps to investigate.”
Groups around the world are investigating human rights abuses in the Philippines. Depending on their definition of extra-judicial, meaning outside the law, estimates of military murders of Filipinos range from 300 to 900. Those condemning the human rights record of the Philippine government since 2001 range from the U.S. State Department to Philippine and international nongovernmental watchdog groups. (A Philippine church organization this month warned that expected Arroyo efforts to get the Vatican to silence Filipino bishops would come to nothing. “[The] Vatican will never silence bishops critical of President Arroyo,” said a spokesperson.)
Pascua was invited to speak in the United States about Philippine human rights violations by Walnut Grove Community Presbyterian Church pastor Larry Emery, who chairs a Presbyterian partnership between the Sacramento region and the Philippines. At another appearance, in Sacramento, he spoke to the Nevada/California Methodist Annual Conference. Some delegates had recently returned from the Philippines.
As part of the Sparks presentation, Emery recounted his experience as an observer of the 2007 Philippine general election. “We would often see people from the military, armed with rifles, walk up to people as they were voting. … We would ask people on their way out, ‘What did the army say to you as you walked into the polling place?’ And most people refused to answer us. … Those who did answer us would tell us, ‘Oh, they reminded us what would happen to the village if the [other party] won.’ “
Pascua said that voices opposed to the government are silenced in a “spate of killings follow[ing] a pattern.” He quoted from a United Methodist Church 2006 human rights delegation report: “Because of the high level of fear and intimidation among victims, it is difficult to identify perpetrators. Maybe it appears that they enjoy impunity for their actions. … The real cause of the problems in the Philippines is poverty, landlessness, and the inequitable distribution of wealth and power. These must be addressed in order for the nation to find peace and prosperity.”
From late June to early July in the United States, Pascua not only gave talks, but he and Emery spoke with staffers of California and Nevada congressional representatives. An influential target of their advocacy is Senate majority leader Harry Reid. But what good are American politicians to stem Philippine violence against its own people?
Plenty, according to Pascua’s congressional testimony. “The Philippines is the number one beneficiary of U.S. military aid in Asia and fourth worldwide. As the U.S. launched its global war on terrorism after 9/11, it also initiated the process of militarizing its aid relations with strategic partners.”
During a lobbying trip to D.C. last month, Arroyo gave a Philippine award called the Order of the Golden Heart to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and other legislators who she believes have advanced Philippine government interests.
After meeting with Arroyo during that trip, George W. Bush praised her.
“I congratulated the president on her strong stand on counterterrorism—more than strong stand—effective stand on counterterrorism, as well as laying out a vision for peace. The President has been very strong in having a carrots-and-sticks approach—sticks, of course, say we’re not going to allow for people to terrorize our citizens; the carrot approach is that there’s peace available.”
According to a Congressional Research Report updated May 1, 2008, “The United States shares important security, political, and commercial interests with the Philippines, a major non-NATO ally and front line state in the global war on terrorism.” The report shows an average of more than $120 million of U.S. aid going to the Philippines annually from 2005 to 2008. The 2009 estimate, however, drops to $99 million.
The U.S. Presbyterian Church attributed the decline in part to activism and publicity thrown on the situation in the Philippines.
Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church member Steve Stevenson, a retired army intelligence officer, listened to Pascua and wants change. “We support their military and they should behave themselves, instead of going out and shooting people apparently with no reason.” he said.
Pastor Bruce Taylor had stronger words.
“My tax dollars are paying for something that I believe is totally immoral and evil,” he said. “Of course, our government has a long history, unfortunately, of propping up such regimes simply because we think of it being in our security or economic interests. As a Christian, I think that we have to have a larger view of that. … [I]t’s not simply a political situation, it’s a moral situation. Therefore, it’s one that demands Christian responsible action.”
Walnut Grove pastor Emery urged the handful at the Sparks church not only to contact their elected representatives, but also to ask others to send copies of the letter he distributed. The goals, he said, are “to reduce the amount of money that is given in aid, and second of all, to condition all of the money on … human rights conditions. … No matter what your political party or your political viewpoint is, it just might be that you feel deep inside that it’s wrong for American money to be going to a military who so arbitrarily kills voices of opposition within its country.”