Philippines ‘Dirty War’: Public Likes the Results Despite High Human Costs

<i> John J. Carroll, S.J., a Catholic priest and sociologist, is director of the Institute for Church and Social Issues at the Ateneo De Manila University</i>

With the end of the Marcos regime, Filipinos thought the killings were over. But that has not been the case.

Sixteen people died in late November when gunmen shot up a prayer meeting of a local religious sect in a remote mountain village on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. The military quickly blamed the communist-led rebels; others suspected that vigilantes supported by the military were behind it. Now it appears that the motives were largely personal, although the gunmen may have belonged to a local rebel militia. Meanwhile escalating conflict on the sugar-producing island of Negros has pitted the military, plus paramilitary groups funded by the landlords, against a communist-led insurgency whose leadership is becoming progressively more hard-line. The people, meanwhile, suffer both poverty and violence; a bishop has called for “zones of peace” where they can take refuge from the fighting.

As the war with the insurgency has heated up, the military has made use of religious fanatics, vigilantes and half-trained paramilitary units to secure remote villages and “root out” the underground support structure of rebels in the rural areas and urban slums. The rebels have responded by fielding assassination teams called “sparrow units” in urban areas. In Davao City alone, until vigilantes drove them out, the rebels were killing two or three persons a day; in Manila, during 1987, they killed more than 100 policemen, soldiers and local officials.

The next step in the escalation of violence turned out to be anti-communist death squads in Manila, which have kidnaped, tortured and murdered human-rights workers and lawyers, political and labor leaders and others believed to be linked to the “movement.” People suspect that this “dirty war” is being carried on by soldiers and policemen. To what extent they are operating with the connivance of their superiors is not clear, but the perpetrators are rarely if ever brought to justice.


The military tactics appear to have been effective, at least in the short run. Many areas of the country once in turmoil are now relatively peaceful--rebels have withdrawn and there are no more ambushes or military operations; people are not afraid to be on the roads at night. And interestingly, a nationwide public-opinion survey conducted in August showed that more than 70% are satisfied not only with President Corazon Aquino but also with the military in its “role in maintaining peace and order.” Secretary of National Defense Fidel Ramos received a satisfaction rating of 79%, even higher than Aquino’s 73%.

The level of satisfaction with the government’s protection of human rights was lower, but there was little expressed dissatisfaction. This may reflect the people’s resentment of “revolutionary taxation” and executions of non-cooperative, troublesome individuals and suspected informers by the rebels, along with a basic desire to be left in peace. Only 16% of the respondents were aware of vigilantes operating in their areas.

The human cost of achieving such peace has been high, however, in areas contested by the military and the rebels. In one such “hot” area of Mindanao, 100 civilians, most of them active in the Catholic or Protestant churches, were killed by military, paramilitary or fanatic groups between 1981 and September of this year. In addition, an undetermined number of fanatics and paramilitary were killed, plus retaliatory house-burnings by the military.

Task Force Detainees, the largest and most prominent human-rights organization, reports 82 “disappearances” of activists, some of them its own personnel, in the first six months of 1988.


The political cost is equally high. The human-rights issue has provided the communist-led National Democratic Front with a most effective weapon in its efforts to delegitimize and isolate the Aquino government internationally. It is making full use of that weapon, and most local human-rights groups appear to be actively lending a hand. The political stance of these groups is evident in the tone of their publications and in the causes they do or don’t espouse. The cover of the April-May Human Rights Update, published by Task Force Detainees, depicts Uncle Sam stepping on two hapless Filipinos and handing Aquino, herself standing on a prostrate peasant, a bag of money in return for the use of the U.S. military bases.

The human-rights groups will not investigate or denounce arbitrary killings by the rebels or their sparrow units. They insist that these are “common crimes” to be dealt with by the state. Thus the government is held responsible not only for the abuses committed by its own forces but for those of the rebels as well.

Despite the political damage, Aquino seems unable to stop the abuses. The government’s own Human Rights Commission has proved just as political as the non-government groups, constantly pointing to the crimes committed by the rebels and doing little or nothing to curb those of the military. Thus the whole tragic situation is reduced to invective.

The real remedy is peace. And peace will be fragile as long as poverty and injustice holds sway. Meantime, the House of Representatives has appointed a known vigilante supporter as chairman of its Commission on Human Rights, and a Negros landowner, an ardent opponent of land reform, as vice chairman of the Committee on Agrarian Reform.