Columnists

Matthew Behrens
Corporate and military plunder in the Philippines

| October 28, 2015
Photo: Keith Bacongco/flickr

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For many in the Global North, certain countries only appear on our radar screens as discount winter vacation hotspots. Other times, when natural disaster strikes, these countries serve as empathy-building backdrops to raise millions for charities that, after skimming some off the top, may distribute some of the contributions for the clean-up effort.

One such country is the Philippines, which made Canadian news headlines this month because of a typhoon, and which may again generate some news coverage if Justin Trudeau decides to attend the Asia-Pacific economic summit next month. The Philippines might be mentioned in passing as one of the largest sources of Canada's live-in caregiver program and of  "temporary foreign workers," both groups painfully separated from their loved ones for years by Canada's restrictive immigration policies.

Widespread human rights abuses 

The Philippines also made news this month because two Canadians are among a group who were kidnapped from a resort on the island of Mindanao on September 21, allegedly held by a group calling itself Abu Sayyaf. A video released by the group shows one of the Canadians, Robert Hall, calling on family and friends to "contact the Canadian government and … plead with them to co-operate with the Philippine government to stop the bombings and the problems that are going on here."

While one hopes the Canadian government will go beyond its normal lackadaisical approach to helping citizens wrongfully held overseas, the video message itself contains an unexplained reference to a little-reported, relentless series of human rights abuses carried out in the name of "national security" over the past 15 years by the Filipino military and state security forces. As the Philippine human rights group Karapatan reports, from January 2001 to October 2009, the Philippines witnessed 1,118 extrajudicial killings, 204 enforced disappearances, 1,026 documented cases of torture, 1,946 illegal arrests, and 255 political prisoners put behind bars under trumped-up charges.

Those numbers have continued to grow, with, by June 2014, an additional 204 extrajudicial killings, 21 enforced disappearances, 99 instances of torture, and 664 illegal arrests and detentions. Such numbers can be mind numbing, but keep in mind each one represents a human being with family, friends, and colleagues who have been terrorized by the violence unleashed against someone they know and care about.

This repression has been carried out with relative impunity, with Human Rights Watch reporting:

''At the lowest ranks, the military has created an environment in which foot soldiers have readily participated in killings of leftist activists. A military insider told [us] that even if the local commander did not give the order to kill, 'he knows of everything' and will protect his soldiers. Soldiers have also been paid as hired killers, acting on behalf of private interests or other government agencies.''

With groups like Human Rights Watch pressing North America and Europe to push for improvements in human rights, especially with respect to the Philippine military, such abuses have been glossed over in favour of the Obama administration's "Asian pivot" military strategy to "contain" China, and Canadian efforts to open up further trade opportunities. In May 2015, Canada's then-trade minister Ed Fast led a delegation for four days of talks, calling the Philippines "a priority market under Canada's Global Markets Action Plan," with bilateral merchandise trade estimated at $1.8 billion in a market where the "business-friendly environment [is] introducing reforms such as lowering the corporate tax rate."

A cozy military partnership

As always, the dreadful human rights situation on the ground is only of passing concern for Canadian military and corporate officials. In February 2014, Canada and the Philippines formalized a military training co-operation program to bring Filipino soldiers to Canada. Canada's ambassador to the Philippines, Neil Reeder, declared: "Canada and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have enjoyed a strong military training partnership since 1997, and today's signing allows that partnership to continue and flourish even further," enthusing further that "I am proud to say that to date we have trained more than 150 Philippine military personnel in Canada from all major services of the AFP." Among the training provided to Filipino soldiers are everything from "senior management courses" to "national security," the latter an umbrella phrase allowing military abuses in which civilian casualties are dismissed as "collateral damage" or, as drone operators refer to their victims, "bug splat."

Reeder's glowing comments neglected to address the well-documented carnage committed by members of the very military to which Canada continues cozying up.

One month later, not surprisingly, came even more gravy train, with the Philippines agreeing to buy $100 million worth of Canadian Bell 412 military helicopters, manufactured in Montreal. They were received a year later for, as Reuters reported, "close air support and air reconnaissance in counter-insurgency operations." At the time, the NDP's Paul Dewar wondered why the sale agreement was secret (rather like the secret Saudi $15-billion weapons deal with General Dynamics in London, Ontario), telling the Ottawa Citizen's David Pugliese, "If it's good for the economy or jobs then great, let's see the deal. There's no reason not to have full disclosure on this."

Despite being foreign affairs critic, Dewar did not come out and ask directly why a military that has been implicated in gross human rights abuses gets a free pass on new equipment whose primary function is murder and terror from the skies.

Indeed, readily available reports from the likes of Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been clear. The same year (2012) Canada signed another memorandum of understanding on military procurement with the Philippines, HRW reported:

"Human rights violations are not new for Filipinos. They have heard over and over again about the extrajudicial killings of activists, environmentalists, journalists and critical members of the clergy, among others. When Benigno S. Aquino III, the son of the late president Corazon Aquino, took office in 2010, he promised sweeping reforms, including stopping abuses by state security forces. While the number of incidents has dropped, the lack of accountability remains a problem.

"Court cases and investigations are barely moving, even as new violations are being committed. Worse, there is evidence that the Philippine armed forces has frustrated investigations. 'Our problem is that the military has been very uncooperative," Loretta Ann Rosales, the chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, complained, referring to a case in which the military took more than a year to turn over evidence."

Environmental plunder

Early in the so-called War on Terror, the U.S. declared the Philippines a second front, increasing its presence in a country that has had a lengthy history of colonial invasions and unending occupation by the likes of the United States. Canadian and American support for long-time brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos  (one of many blots on Jimmy Carter's human rights record) was always strong, both because the nation is treated as a massive air base for foreign military forces and also, as a Wikileaks-released cable written in 2006 by the U.S. embassy revealed, ''the Philippines may have untapped mineral wealth worth between $840 billion and $1 trillion.'' Mindanao, in particular, is seen as ''a treasure trove'' of minerals:

"[U]p to 70 per cent of the Philippines' mineral resources may be in Mindanao. Interest has grown significantly since a December 2004 decision by the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Mining Act. Companies that are up to 100 per cent foreign-owned may now pursue investments in large-scale exploration and development of minerals, oil and gas. As of early 2006, there were 23 mining projects nationwide. Multinational firms are already eyeing areas in Mindanao for possible projects."

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), there are "approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the South China Sea that have yet to be tapped."

The Philippines and, especially, this mineral-rich area in Mindanao, is also home to centuries of Indigenous resistance, historically viewed by U.S. and Philippine government authorities as "terrorist." In addition, in March 2012, the drone war shifted focus with a strike on Jolo Island that killed 15 people, followed by an announcement that the U.S. would increase its drone capacity there by 30 per cent to bolster the role of American troops who are there in an "advisory role." As the Brookings Institute reported, "The expansion of the U.S. drone war has the potential to further enflame a volatile conflict involving the southern Muslim areas and Manila, which has killed around 120,000 people over the past four decades." It goes on to explain that while the U.S. has tried to target Abu Sayyaf, groups that have been fighting to right grievances for centuries all tend to get painted with the same Abu Sayyaf brush.

Others who might be seen as security threats -- a not uncommon occurrence -- are those opposed to the opening of environmentally devastating mining operations. Canadian mining companies are globally notorious for their connections to local human rights violations and environmental destruction, as well documented by This Magazine in 2009. In Mindanao, one such company is Canadian TVI Pacific Ltd. As the Toronto Star reported:

"In 2005, a foreign affairs committee looked at allegations that TVI Pacific was employing paramilitary forces to trample tribal grounds and abuse human rights. The committee called for an investigation. The Liberal government at the time responded, saying it recognized 'the difficulties Canadian companies can face when operating in foreign jurisdictions' and said the TVI case 'highlights the complexities of evaluating company activities against standards that may be either unclear or inconsistent between governments.'"

The government failed to investigate further.

In 2010 and 2014, Scarborough Liberal MP John McKay unsuccessfully put forward a number of private member's bills whose purpose was to:

"[P]romote environmental best practices and to ensure the protection and promotion of international human rights standards in respect of the mining, oil or gas activities of Canadian corporations in developing countries. It also gives the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of International Trade the responsibility to issue guidelines that articulate corporate accountability standards for mining, oil or gas activities and it requires the Ministers to submit an annual report to both Houses of Parliament on the provisions and operation of this Act."

McKay won re-election under Justin Trudeau's Liberals; whether he will be able to get his bill through a Liberal majority government remains to be seen.

Ending repression

This brings us back to the video reference to an unexplained violence taking place in one region of the Philippines where two Canadians are held hostage. Canada may well be compromised in its ability to negotiate unless it acknowledges these broader violations and does something to end them.

There are plenty of organizations working toward such changes, so the Canadian government, if it does wish to play a constructive role, needn't look far for advice. Indeed, representatives of 20 countries and 140 organizations from six continents met in a remarkable gathering in the Philippines' Quezon City at the end of July for the International People's Conference on Mining. They issued a powerful statement of unity, declaring they:

"[E]ngaged in profound conversations -- sharing each other's experiences of resistance and struggle -- gaining lessons from victories, as well as defeats -- in order to move forward and guarantee a better world for future generations. These insights and conversations have inspired us to remain committed and steadfast in our resolve to stop the further onslaught of imperialist mining plunder and greed against the people and the environment. Our coming together has brought us hope. Hope that in working separately in our own particular contexts and countries, and together through co-ordinated international actions and solidarity, our collective resistance for the defence of rights, the environment and a common future, will bring forth triumph for people over profit, nature over neoliberal mining policies, and social justice over death and destruction."

A month after participants from this inspired gathering headed home, they woke to the gruesome news on September 1 that three of their colleagues from Mindanao had met a brutal fate at the hands of the Canadian-supplied Philippine army. Emerito Samarca, who had been the executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, and a staunch supporter of Indigenous rights, "was bound, beaten, stabbed, and had his throat slit almost from ear to ear. He was last seen with elements of the 75th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in the ALCADEV grounds with a rope binding his neck, hands, and feet, in the afternoon of August 31." Also murdered by members of the paramilitary Magahat/Bagani Forces group (largely viewed as a creation of the Filipino military) were Dionel Campos, chairperson of the Indigenous organization MAPASU, and Datu Bello Sinzo, a Lumad leader (Lumad is the collective name for 18 Indigenous groups on Mindanao).  

In a subsequent statement, Call for International Action and Solidarity Against Mining and Militarization in Mindanao, conference participants reiterated that:

"The Lumad peoples of Caraga, recognizing that large-scale mining projects will push them out of their lands and destroy their lives and livelihoods, have been fiercely defending their ancestral lands against the entry of large-scale mining. Their resistance has resulted in the brutal militarization of their communities to silence dissent and pave the way for large-scale mining activities. Presently, there are nine battalions of the Philippine army deployed in the region, in addition to two infantry brigades, special security forces of mining and logging companies, and paramilitary groups.

"We call on the Philippine government to respect the rights and dignity of Indigenous peoples and uphold human rights and justice of the law. We demand that all anti-people and anti-environment policies and projects such as foreign large-scale mining operations must be immediately stopped. Lastly, we call on all our friends, allies, and colleagues worldwide to stand with us in action and solidarity to demand justice and accountability for these brutal killings and put an end to militarization, the persecution of Indigenous peoples, and an end to large-scale mining plunder, destruction, and injustice."

As Justin Trudeau considers a November trip to the Philippines, larger questions loom for Canada's newest prime minister: will the rush for mineral wealth continue to roll over human rights in the Philippines and elsewhere? Will he support the introduction of a new bill to mandate Canadian corporate respect for human rights standards and environmental responsibility? Will he stop supplying some of the world's worst regimes with military equipment used to repress their own populations?

The answers to those questions do not rely solely on Trudeau's response. They ultimately depend on our own.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Keith Bacongco/flickr

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