More than 300 people gathered in Washington, DC, on July 16 to 18, to participate in the International People’s Tribunal on Crimes Against the Filipino People, convened by human rights defenders, peace and justice advocates, political activists, lawyers, jurists, academics and church people. Survivors, relatives and witnesses to Philippine government human rights abuses – like extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances – and violations of economic, social and cultural rights testified in front of a panel of jurors.
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Activists at the tribunal condemned the United States’ support for the Philippine government’s abusive policies and US military involvement in the Philippines. Their main goal was to hold the Philippine and US governments accountable for war crimes and human rights violations. After a weekend full of stories about extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights abuses, the jurors, composed of lawyers, academics, activists and members of the clergy, decided to indict both the Philippine and US governments. The stories told at the tribunal highlight an aspect of US foreign policy that often gets overlooked, namely US military involvement in the Philippines.
Truthout spoke to one of the people who testified at the tribunal. Amirah Ali Lidasan, a Moro activist with the civil society groups Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Bangsamoro) and Initiatives for Peace in Mindanao, told the jurors about the Philippine government’s ongoing war against the Moro people of Mindanao, who have long fought for their island’s autonomy. They emphasized the United States’ role in that war. Lidasan is from the Maguindanao province of Mindanao, the second-largest and southernmost major island in the Philippines. The Moro people are a population of indigenous Muslims, comprising 13 different ethnic groups, in the southern islands of the Philippines. Maguindanao is where the infamous Mamasapano massacre occurred last January. In the massacre, dozens of people were killed in a bloody clash between Philippine police and Moro separatists in the area.
When the United States colonized the Philippines, it imposed the concept of private land ownership.
Lidasan was born in 1974, which, she told Truthout, “was the height of martial law and height of Moro armed resistance in Mindanao.” At the time, the Philippines was led by Ferdinand Marcos, who served as president from 1965 to 1986. Supported by the United States, Marcos was a dictator known for corruption and brutality. He implemented martial law in the Philippines from 1972 to 1981. In 1986, the People Power Revolution overthrew Marcos and restored democracy in the Philippines, which led to the election of Corazon Aquino as president of the Philippines. Aquino was the first woman president of the country – and mother of current president Benigno Aquino.
In the 1970s, Lidasan’s parents were involved in resistance against martial law in Mindanao, and when Lidasan was a young child, they were forced to flee to and work in Saudi Arabia. Lidasan had to relocate, and was raised by her uncle and grandparents elsewhere in Mindanao. Living under martial law meant the military harshly governed the lives of Filipinos, particularly the Moro people in Mindanao. Lidasan described the experience as “growing up in a dark area.” As a Muslim growing up, she said she faced discrimination and always felt singled out for her beliefs.
Lidasan’s biological father, Ibrahim Sarenas Lidasan, was arrested, detained and interrogated for months by the military for violating curfew in 1973 – before she was born. Even though her grandfather was mayor of the town they lived in, he could not do anything to get Ibrahim out of jail because the military controlled everything and disregarded his leadership. When Ibrahim was released months later, everyone knew he was tortured because “his body was battered,” said Lidasan. Ibrahim later died of cancer. Lidasan was 3 months old when her father died.
She attended the University of the Philippines in Manila in the early 1990s, which is when she became politically conscious. Since this was before 9/11, yet after the overthrow of Marcos, Lidasan and other student activists of similar backgrounds were “free to organize Muslim groups and Muslim student associations” and protest against the national government’s policies. Things weren’t perfect of course: When Corazon Aquino came to power, even though she recognized an autonomous Muslim Mindanao, “she was the one who picked who should lead that [government] and mostly it’s those who are loyal to her political party,” Lidasan said. This meant Mindanao was still attached to the Philippine national government, even though autonomy was recognized.
Fighting for Autonomy Across the Centuries
Islam was brought to Mindanao by Muslim missionaries in the late 13th to early 14th century. The first sultanate was established in Sulu in the early 15th century and Islam spread throughout the rest of Mindanao. Because of this, Mindanao was largely able to remain an autonomous region. During the 300 years of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines, the Moro resisted to maintain their autonomy, especially as Spain violently converted the rest of the indigenous Filipino population to Christianity. When the United States colonized the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, it imposed the concept of private land ownership in the country. Before that, land in Mindanao was communally owned. “Through class legislation and discriminatory processes, the ancestral lands and economic resources of the Moros and Lumad would gradually drift into the hands of Christian Filipino settlers and large US corporations,” according to Dr. Jamail A. Kamlian, author of Bangsamoro Society and Culture. The Moro people also lost their self-determination since their land was incorporated into the colonial bureaucracy.
While the Philippines achieved independence in 1946, the economic and political situation of the Moro people did not change. As Kamlian explained, “The US imperialists, while relinquishing formal political rule to Christian Filipino (and some Moro elite) protégés, ensured that they remain the wielders of economic power. Thus, the neocolonial government continued to protect and strengthen foreign economic interests. For instance, multinational corporations retained control and monopoly of the Bangsamoro economy particularly in the agri-export industries of pineapple, banana and rubber.” This contributed to economic underdevelopment in Mindanao.
The Philippine government used 9/11 as an opportunity to wage an Argentina-style dirty war against political dissidents.
“The backward agricultural economic situation in the ’70s is the same [as it is] now,” said Lidasan. The main difference is that there is now a national highway in Mindanao – but even that has brought very little economic development. Many people in Mindanao still use old farming methods. “No one invested in machinery. No one invested in any new method of farming. Because most of the people there who own the land would rather get something from the rent rather than develop the area. Developing the area and investing in machinery would mean bigger crops for the farmer and the farmer would eventually have their own land,” she explained. That is why the elites who own vast tracts of land in Mindanao do not want to develop it. Lidasan added that the government does not care because many officials own land in Mindanao, too.
According to Philippine government statistics, the country’s poverty rate is 25.8 percent. (In the United States, it is 14.5 percent.) In Mindanao, it’s even worse. Mindanao has 10 of the country’s poorest 16 provinces – Lanao Del Norte being the poorest with a 67.3 percent poverty rate. While the government passed an agrarian reform bill to help poor farmers – the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPER) – it has continuously failed to meet its benchmarks. Even though the Philippines has the conventional hallmarks of democracy, like popular voting, corruption and oligarchy are major problems. A relatively tiny group of family dynasties governs most of the Philippines, a country with 100 million people. Of the Philippines’ 80 provinces, 73 – more than 90 percent – are run by 178 dynasties. According to Al Jazeera English, “Half come from the old landed elites, while the rest turned up after the 1986 popular revolt that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos.” Lidasan explained that even though the country has popular voting, a candidate needs lots of money and resources to run a successful campaign and spread their message throughout the Philippine archipelago.
According to Lidasan, lack of self-determination and economic power, combined with state violence by Philippine security forces, are the main reasons for armed resistance in Mindanao, particularly from Muslim groups.
The US Presence Runs Deep
The US war machine works closely with Philippine security forces. The United States has operated military bases in the Philippines ever since it became independent. However, in 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to kick out the US bases. A few years later, the US and Philippines signed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – put in effect in 1999 – which allows for joint military exercises between US and Philippine militaries. With territorial disputes intensifying in the South China Sea and the United States shifting its military power to the Asia-Pacific region to counter China, the US and Philippines are continuing to tighten their military cooperation. In 2014, the United States and Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a 10-year pact that gives US military personnel greater access to certain Philippine military bases.
The war on terror provided an opportunity for greater US military involvement in the Philippines. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Philippines joined the United States in its fight against “terrorism.” According to Lidasan, “9/11 came and this war on terror was so expansive that because there’s a Muslim population in the Philippines, they’ve [the US] already mapped us out and called us … the ‘second front‘ of the war on terror. Even though we are not part of the Afghanistan war, we do not have weapons of mass destruction, but because we are their [the United States’] former colony, we are the ones that they can control there. And our government is so complicit.”
The United States established a counterterrorism task force composed of special operations forces to assist Philippine security forces in fighting Islamic militants, particularly in Mindanao. At its height, the force had 500 to 600 US commandos working with Philippine forces. The United States’ main target is the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf. In 2012, a US drone strike targeting Abu Sayyaf and another militant group called Jemaah Islamiyah killed 15 people in the Philippine island of Jojo. Even though the task force officially ended, US special operations forces are still advising Philippine security forces, and US counterterrorism missions will most likely continue in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the Philippine government used 9/11 as an opportunity to wage an Argentina-style dirty war against political dissidents under the guise of fighting communist guerrilla fighters and “terrorists.” The Philippine government’s counterinsurgency campaign does not distinguish between armed combatants and civilians. From 2001 to 2010, under the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, 390 people were extrajudicially killed in the Philippines, the vast majority of whom were activists, government officials and other noncombatant opposition members, like journalists, lawyers and religious leaders. Only 8 percent of those killed were rebel fighters, according to a legal report on the Philippine government’s extrajudicial killings.
Many of the perpetrators of these extrajudicial killings are members of Philippine security forces and possibly paid mercenaries. Few of the perpetrators are rebel fighters. The Philippine military hardly cooperates with investigations into extrajudicial killings and efforts to hold perpetrators accountable. Instead, according to Human Rights Watch, “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 Human Rights Watch that even if the local commander did not give the order to kill, ‘he knows of everything’ and will protect his soldiers.”
From July 2010 to March 2015, according to a report by the Philippine human rights group Karapatan, there were 238 extrajudicial killings, 26 enforced disappearances (kidnappings), 110 instances of torture, five instances of rape, 723 people illegally arrested and detained, and 293 illegally arrested without detention by the Aquino government.
The Philippine government has no jurisdiction over crimes committed by US military personnel on Philippine soil.
One victim of the Philippine government’s dirty war is a US citizen named Melissa Roxas. Roxas is from Los Angeles but moved to the United States from the Philippines when she was 9 years old. She is a writer, graduate of the University of California, San Diego, and an activist who is also a member of BAYAN-USA, a progressive Filipino alliance. During a medical mission to the Philippines, on May 19, 2009, Roxas was abducted by masked Philippine soldiers at gunpoint and tortured for six days. She described her horrific experience at the International People’s Tribunal: “We were staying at a house when approximately 15 men in civilian clothes with high-powered rifles, bonnets, and ski masks forced me and my two other companions, which were health workers, into a van and took us to what I believed to be a military camp. And there I was handcuffed and blindfolded and for the six days that I was there, I was repeatedly beaten, suffocated and underwent other forms of torture.”
In addition to “disappearances” and other forms of internal violence, Lidasan also addressed the lack of accountability for human rights violations committed by US troops on Philippine soil. When she and other nongovernmental organization workers report that they found a US military base, the US and Philippine militaries deny it. She said, the US military “set up a military base inside the Philippine military base. And despite our reports that that is a base, the [US] government and US Pacific Command always deny this and say, ‘No, it’s actually a place where they could sleep etc.’ But when you ask the Philippine military, ‘Can we go inside?’ because that’s not a base, the Philippine military will say, ‘They will not allow us because that’s in their jurisdiction.’ So imagine that: Whatever happens inside those bases, the Philippine government has no jurisdiction in it.” Under the VFA, the Philippine government has no jurisdiction over crimes committed by US military personnel on Philippine soil.
Even though there are reports of sexual violence, other forms of violence and human rights violations occurring in US military compounds, “we cannot investigate” or prosecute a US soldier, Lidasan pointed out, because of the VFA. For example, when a US soldier strangled and killed a Filipina transgender woman, Jennifer Laude, in 2014, the US – rather than Philippine – government had jurisdiction to prosecute him. The soldier who killed Laude, US Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, recently admitted to strangling and killing her.
In early 2010, Karapatan documented the mysterious death of a Filipino civilian worker in a US military compound in Marawi City. Gregan V. Cardeño, a father of three children, got a job as “a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter for the US troops under the BALIKATAN program of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTFP),” which was the US counterterrorism task force in the Philippines that ended earlier this year. After his second day of work, Cardeño called his sister crying, saying, “it was not the job he applied for and that he was having a very difficult time.” The next day, Philippine police called Cardeño’s family saying that he committed suicide and they found him hanging inside his room. US soldiers sent his body to Edwin Andrews Air Base, but there was no death certificate nor “permit to transport his body,” according to Karapatan. When his family asked police for photos of the crime scene, the police changed their story and said they found Cardeño lying on the bed because US soldiers tried to revive him. The family did not buy this story. A post-mortem examination “found wounds inconsistent with suicide,” according to Karapatan. The family also requested an autopsy. The autopsy “stated asphyxia as cause of death but it also noted three hematoma on the scalp and several abrasions and contusions.” However, attempts to investigate were thwarted by threats from the Philippine military.
Last January, Philippine police from the country’s elite, SWAT-style unit called Special Action Force (SAF) stormed a small enclave in the Mamasapano municipality in southwestern Mindanao called Tukanalipao to arrest two suspected terrorists – Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan), a Malaysian bomb maker and leader with the Southeast Asian Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, and Abdul Basit Usman, a Filipino militant and another bomb maker with Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Neither of the men were affiliated with al-Qaeda. However, both of them were on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list.
When the SAF forces got to Mamasapano, they got into a bloody firefight with Islamic separatists in the area from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. In the end, 67 people died, 44 of whom were police, while the rest were rebel fighters and civilians. Marwan was killed in the operation. The massacre also forced more than 1,000 people to evacuate their homes and jeopardized prospects for peace between Mindanao and the central Philippine government. The Mamasapano massacre was covered fairly extensively by the Philippine press but garnered only a handful of narrow headlines in the US press. Lidasan said this was because “the US embassy already wanted to shut down the story.”
The United States played a significant role in the Philippine operation, according to two separate government inquiries by the Philippine Senate and Philippine National Police. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that a US drone provided real-time intelligence to Philippine police commandos, tracked Marwan’s location, and “fully funded and provided the training for the Mamasapano operation.” Additionally, at least six US military personnel fed Philippine forces intelligence from US aircraft. One of the US soldiers even went as far as to order a Filipino army general to call in artillery but the general refused.
Some eyewitnesses found a handful of American bodies, who appeared to be soldiers, among the dead. One farmer described one of the dead soldiers as “blue-eyed.” Civilians in the area claimed to have seen a helicopter hover over and carry those “specific bodies.” Another witness, according to a report by the Philippine government’s National Bureau of Investigation, said “two Americans died at Mamasapano” and the corpses “did not look like Filipinos; they had white hair and were ‘good looking.'”
Lidasan criticized the Philippine government for not protecting their country’s sovereignty. She said, the “Philippine government is so noisy about China’s incursion in an island very far from Philippine shore. And yet, the US soldiers and their intelligence are already there in the Philippines, inside our community, yet, they do not say anything about it.”
There is one key reason why the United States is militarily involved in the Philippines – natural resources. Even though the area is poor and underdeveloped, the southern Philippines is rich in natural resources, such as iron, gold, copper, chromite, nickel and other minerals. According to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, in 2006, the US Embassy in Manila estimated that “the Philippines may have untapped mineral wealth worth between US $840 billion and US $1 trillion,” with Mindanao being “a treasure trove” of minerals. The embassy said:
According to data from the GRP Mines and Geosciences Bureau, up 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.
The US Energy Information Administration estimated that the South China Sea possesses approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in both proved and probable reserves. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia all have competing claims to the South China Sea’s oil and natural gas.
Meanwhile, in the late 2000s, ExxonMobil began oil exploration in the South Sulu Sea under the Philippine Department of Energy’s service contract 56, part of the government’s efforts to encourage foreign investment in its energy sector. The Sulu Sea sits in the southwest Philippines, separated from the South China Sea in the northwest by the Philippines’ Palawan island and Malaysia in the southwest. ExxonMobil saw huge potential and expected to yield 750 million barrels of oil in the sea. The oil company even asked the Philippine government for military protection against attacks by pirates and terrorists. But in November 2011, ExxonMobil ended its oil exploration efforts in the Sulu Sea by withdrawing from contract 56 because of unfavorable oil yields. Meanwhile, French oil company Total and Mitra Energy of Malaysia, also under contract 56, began oil drilling in the South Sulu Sea earlier this year.
ExxonMobil’s withdrawal didn’t last long: In 2014, the company renewed its interest in oil and gas exploration in the Philippines. Along with US oil companies Chevron and ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil obtained data on oil sites under the fifth Philippine Energy Contracting Round (PECR 5) – an auction of oil and exploration blocks in the Philippines – indicating an interest in the bidding that began in June. Two oil companies, Israel-based Ratio Oil Exploration and Philippine-based Colossal Petroleum, passed the qualifying stage for PECR 5 last July.
Throughout the war on terror during the past 14 years, the United States invaded and occupied two countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. On top of that, the US continues to drone bomb Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Given the press coverage on these events, one would easily get the impression that the US war machine is mainly targeting the Middle East, but that is not the case. The US war machine is global. The International People’s Tribunal and Amirah Ali Lidasan’s story highlight the extent of US militarism in the Asia-Pacific region – and its destructive consequences.