Forces of darkness

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2007, 12:00am

The men arrived at the house around 2am and rapped on the door. Inside were two female students who had travelled to the house in northern Luzon to work as volunteers for a farmers' rights organisation. One, Sherlyn Cadapan, an athlete and varsity scholar, was midway through a bachelor degree in sports at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Manila. Her friend Karen Empeno was working on her sociology thesis on agrarian communities in Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.

The knocking woke up the neighbours in the village of San Miguel. One, a young boy who is now in hiding, saw what happened next: a group of armed men dragged the women out of the house and bundled them into a jeepney together with a local farmer, Manuel Merino. None have been seen since.

Erlinda Cadapan says she has no doubt it was the Philippine military that abducted her daughter Sherlyn, whose 30th birthday was one week ago. Last year, Mrs Cadapan filed a joint habeas corpus writ in the Supreme Court against the army chief of staff and several senior officers in the northern Luzon command whom she suspects of involvement in the disappearance.

But despite the legal challenge and public appeals from university officials, Sherlyn Cadapan hasn't surfaced since the night of June 26, leading her mother to fear the worst. 'I'm so worried, I feel something has happened. I hope she's not dead, maybe only tortured. I hope she's still alive,' Mrs Cadapan said.

If not, Sherlyn Cadapan would join a list of several hundred suspected political killings in the Philippines, a tally that has soared since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001. The outcry over the killings, and foot-dragging by an administration stacked with military officers, has shone a spotlight on a dirty war being played out across the nation.

Human rights groups say that political activists, unionists, farmers, lawyers, human rights workers and churchmen have been slain in what appears to be a systematic campaign to silence anyone tagged as loyal to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). About half the victims were members of legal leftist parties that Mrs Arroyo's security chiefs have repeatedly labelled as communist fronts that are in league with the CPP's armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA).

Critics say the killings bear the hallmarks of military death squads seeking to hit back at an insurgency that has grown bolder in recent years. They complain that the military's counter-insurgency strategy makes no distinction between legal organisations agitating for reforms and the NPA's estimated 7,000-8,000 armed regulars. Some have drawn comparisons with the brutal dictatorship of former president Ferdinand Marcos that ended 21 years ago this week.

These complaints gained an important backer this week when a UN investigator laid the blame for a significant number of killings on the security forces. Philip Alston, a law professor at New York University and a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said the military was in a 'state of denial' about its involvement and needed to properly investigate its ranks.

Mr Alston, who concluded a 10-day visit on Wednesday at the invitation of the Philippine government, said he didn't believe the violence was state-sanctioned, but criticised the military's controversial counter-insurgency doctrine. 'The way in which certain strategies are formulated and, more importantly being pursued in particular areas, is very conducive to extrajudicial executions,' he said.

While Mr Alston's indictment of the security forces is an embarrassment for Mrs Arroyo, his report is unlikely to end the culture of impunity in the powerful 117,000-strong military, not least because of its tight grip on national politics and the web of overlapping interests between its top brass and the political and business elite.

The military is receiving substantial US help to fight Islamic extremists in the southern Philippines, where elite troops are being trained and equipped by US Special Forces. Since 2001, when Mrs Arroyo rallied behind US President George W. Bush's 'war on terror', up to US$500 million has accrued to the Philippines in military aid. Mrs Arroyo has also ramped up budget allocations to a military that has long profited from corruption.

Security officials reject claims of military death squads as propaganda by communist fronts. A police taskforce set up last year to probe the violence has pinned much of the blame on the CPP itself. In a presentation to Mr Alston's team, police officials cited 49 court cases related to the murder of left-wing activists. Of these, 23 had been perpetrated by communist groups during purges and internal struggles, the police claimed.

Deputy police chief Avelino Razon, who oversees the taskforce, said the internal strife had intensified since Mrs Arroyo declared an all-out war on the CPP last year. 'We think they're doing a series of purges, and this is timed during a government campaign against their insurgency,' he said.

Mr Alston, however, told reporters that claims of internal communist purges weren't credible and smacked of military propaganda. He also brushed aside the military's complaint that the NPA had killed more than 1,000 state officials and security personnel in recent years.

General Razon said some police and army personnel were involved in a handful of extrajudicial killings of left-wingers, but insisted they were acting alone. 'If we have evidence of orders from above, we would file charges against the officer issuing the orders,' he said.

Mrs Arroyo voiced similar claims earlier this month after an independent commission led by retired Supreme Court judge Jose Melo told her it blamed the military for most of the political murders since 2001. The Melo commission report was released on Thursday after weeks of pressure on the administration to reveal its findings.

But analysts say the 'few bad apples' theory of military misconduct doesn't hold water, given the scale and intensity of the killings. 'You can't have a few bad apples in every province whacking people. It requires logistical support, communications and planning,' said Scott Harrison, a former CIA officer and managing director of PSA Group, a security consultancy in Manila.

There is disagreement over the extent of the violence. Karapatan, a leftist human rights watchdog, has recorded more than 800 killings since 2001, but observers say that number includes some unrelated murders and undocumented cases. Police officials recently paraded in public two activists that Karapatan had earlier listed as murdered. The list also includes dozens of journalists slain in murky circumstances.

As the number of killings rose in recent years, Mrs Arroyo repeatedly sought to play down the violence against left-wing organisations. Only persistent pressure from European Union officials ahead of a visit last year prompted her to appoint the Melo commission to look into the violence. She was also embarrassed when foreign investors raised the issue at public forums, citing reports by international human rights groups.

While Mr Alston's accusations appear to be a setback for Mrs Arroyo, who faces crucial mid-term elections in May, some observers are sceptical that they will prove a domestic liability. Indeed, her chances of holding onto Congress and averting another impeachment attempt - her biggest fear after the upheavals of 2005 - may be unaltered.

'Her strong calculation is whether there is a slab of Filipino voters who care about a bunch of leftists being dispatched. Her calculation will be no,' said a western diplomat in Manila.

Ironically, Mrs Arroyo benefited in 2001 from left-wing groups that rallied in Manila to protest against former president Joseph Estrada, who had tried to buy his way out of an impeachment vote in Congress. As the crowds swelled with middle-class voters and the military switched sides, Estrada was turfed out of the presidential palace, and Mrs Arroyo, then vice-president, moved in. Estrada is now under house arrest on corruption charges.

But Mrs Arroyo's temporary alliance with left-wing activists didn't last. Analysts says she began to tack rightwards, shedding progressive politicians and turning to increasingly hawkish advisers who see no daylight between left-wingers in Congress and in the jungles of northern Luzon where Sherlyn Cadapan went missing.

The participation of legal leftist parties in Congress is a legacy of a 1990s peace initiative to bring activists into the political arena and cut ties with armed insurgents. Security officials say these ties persist, and accuse left-wing lawmakers of channelling congressional funds to their comrades.

Even Mrs Arroyo's critics concede that the public expects a tough response to counter the NPA and its frequent attacks on government targets. But declaring all-out war on communists, and tarring all activists with the same brush, isn't the way forward, says Randy David, a newspaper columnist and sociologist at the University of the Philippines.

'This is a terrible approach to the insurgency. Those who are already in the underground may even welcome this. It focuses attention on their struggle, and in the long term it forces people underground,' he said.