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Enemies of the people

Written by Bruce Van Voorhis
May 29, 2008

In most nations, the primary role of the armed forces is to defend the country while that of the police is to maintain law and order. Both the military and police have a responsibility to uphold the country's Constitution. However, in the Philippines, these assumptions are apparently erroneous. Two incidents that occurred in March this year will highlight this mismatch between the perceived duty and obligations of the armed forces and the police, on one hand, and the manner in which their responsibilities are carried out in practice, on the other.

On March 10, units of the 7th Infantry Division established a detachment at the Cruz Barangay Hall in Guiguinto in the province of Bulacan in Central Luzon north of Manila. According to the local mayor, the soldiers were stationed there to maintain peace and order in Guiguinto.

However, based on their actions in the following weeks, their mission is to interject themselves in the labor dispute between the United Association of Footjoy and the Footjoy Industrial Corp., a company producing shoes and slippers owned by Antonio Tan, an industrialist in the Philippines. In this dispute, the workers have been on strike since February 2001 over the closure of the factory, a cessation of production that the management initially announced was temporary before beginning to move machinery out of the factory. Since then, the picket line outside the factory has become the home of many of the dismissed workers because they can no longer afford to pay rent.

Since their deployment, soldiers from the unit have been regularly visiting the picket line and asking numerous questions as part of a purported survey: What is the name of the union president? Where does the union president live? When does the union president usually visit the picket line? What does the union president do when they are on the picket line? What are the names of other union officers and the striking workers? Why are they on strike? How long have they been on strike? Do other groups and organizations support them? Is their union a member of the Bulacan Workers' Movement (Kilusan ng Manggagawa sa Bulacan or KMB) or the May First Movement (Kilusang Mayo Uno or KMU)?

In addition to asking the workers many questions about their union and its activities on the picket line, soldiers have also visited and questioned some of the workers in their homes. Later some workers were taken to the military detachment in the middle of the night, and at least one worker was asked to become a member of the intelligence brigade in the barangay (neighborhood).

Since their arrival in Guiguinto in early March, the interrogation and surveillance of the workers has continued, and Mercy Santomin, the union president, has been in hiding. She has not appeared on the picket line for almost two months even though she is leading the union. In their interactions with the workers, the soldiers have told the workers that Santomin is a leftist, that she is evil, that she is a disciple of Satur Ocampo, a congressman who has been a champion of human rights and an advocate of the poor. The soldiers have told the workers that communists want to weaken and destabilize the economy, which is why they encourage workers to go on strike, and that they want to bankrupt successful companies.

This ongoing episode raises a number of serious questions. For instance, while the soldiers are entitled to their opinions about communists or anyone else, is sharing their ideological views part of their military role? Is it illegal to be a communist or a leftist in the Philippines today? Moreover, why are military troops questioning workers on a picket line? Why are they recruiting workers as spies against other workers? How is this related to defending the nation from its enemies? Are the workers the enemies of the nation?

Similarly, the Philippine National Police (PNP) is operating outside the boundaries of its mandate at times as well.

On March 6, about 500 protestors from Southern Tagalog south of Manila arrived in the capital after marching for four days to demonstrate outside the national office of the Dept. of Labor and Employment (DOLE) against the delay of labor cases pending before the agency. After protesting for about six hours, PNP Chief Superintendent Rogelio Rosales ordered his officers from Manila Police District (MPDC) Station 5 to disperse the demonstrators. Thus ensued a violent attack on the workers, urban poor, activists and others who had assembled in front of the DOLE headquarters. The police beat the protestors on the head with their truncheons, stepped on them while continuing to beat them and hit them with their shields. They even beat the demonstrators as they tried to run away. One of the protestors had his little finger cut off with a bladed weapon wielded by one of the policemen, and some of the demonstrators were beaten unconscious. Firemen also sprayed the protestors with highly pressurized jets of water from fire trucks. Six of the demonstrators were arrested, and at least 10 of them were hospitalized.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that this police unit has employed the same violent tactics on peaceful demonstrators. Workers were viciously dispersed in September 2007 outside the DOLE headquarters, and public school teachers received similar excessive treatment in October 2007.

Again, like the military, the actions of the police above raise a number of significant questions: Why was such violence used to disperse people who merely wanted to peacefully air their grievances with government officials? Do the rights of free expression, assembly and association enshrined in the Constitution have any meaning? Do government officials want to remain deaf to the problems of the people? Is the government accountable? Is it democratic?

It has been widely reported in the past few years that the military has compiled a list of enemies of the state on a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Knowing Your Enemies." Many of the names on the list are trade unionists, peasant activists, lawyers, journalists and church leaders and lay people. Many of the names on the list have become victims of extrajudicial killings and disappearances since 2001 when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became president. If ordinary people who seek to exercise their rights or to protect the rights of others have become enemies of the state, then the military is no longer defending the nation but is protecting the state from its own people; then the police are no longer maintaining law and order but are subverting it and contributing to disorder; and neither the military nor the police are upholding the Constitution. Moreover, if ordinary people who seek to exercise their rights or to protect the rights of others have become enemies of the state, then conversely, the state, especially its armed forces, police and those in government who command them, have become the enemies of the people. In a democracy, is such a relationship healthy? In a democracy, how long can such a relationship exist?

Bruce Van Voorhis
(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)


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