Postcard from the Philippines

Postcard from the Philippines

Pierre Rousset, a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League, French section of the Fourth International), and a full-time worker for the secretariat of the European Parliament United Left Group (GUE-NGL), visited the Philippines in May, 2001, as a staff member of the EP’s South-east Asia & Korea delegation. This is his report

The first objective of the information-gathering mission was to assess the situation as it stood after an event of such huge importance (the removal from office of President Estrada in January) and before the general elections scheduled for the 14th of May, in one of the countries covered by the Southeast Asia + Korea Delegation. One of our party’s MEPs, Alain Krivine, sits on this delegation.

This visit was also an opportunity to consolidate political and parliamentary links with a variety of  progressive parties and popular movements.

I have given particular attention to the large southern island of Mindanao, heavily militarised, profoundly marked by the “total war” campaign launched last year by the Estrada presidency against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and where the situation remains quite critical. Faced with the growth of conflicts, in-depth work has been undertaken by a variety of movements in order to maintain or  tighten solidarity relations between the “three peoples” of the island: the tribal Lumad mountain dwellers, the Moro Muslim populations and the Filipino Christian settlers who have now become the majority in the region. Inter-communal solidarity work constituted the main thread of my presence in Mindanao.

My stay was organised in collaboration with the associations Alfatiha in Manilla and Sumpay in Mindanao. During the three days I spent in the capital, I was able to discuss with representatives from political parties and a number of NGOs. In Mindanao, an 11 day tour with 7 stopping points, gave me the opportunity to cover a large part of the island and meet with the tribal Lumad communities, the Moros (Muslims) and peasant and fishermen trade unionists, feminist activists and those in NGOs, and political cadres particularly involved in the electoral campaign.

The electoral campaign provoked renewed violence : running in the election cost a lot and kidnappings multiplied in order to cover election costs. It also provoked a number of factional assassinations.  I was supposed to meet the Subanen tribe (Lumads) and Moros in the interior mountain areas, but three successive attempts to visit them were cancelled for reasons of security: each time, a kidnapping or an assassination rendered the situation in the zone concerned too precarious. I finally attended a conference with the Subanen in the plains (near Dipolog) and met Moro activists in the city (Boog).

In the parliamentary field

The Philippino electoral system has recently been modified. In addition to deputies elected by constituency, party lists can present themselves on the national level and obtain  parliamentary seats if they receive at least 2% of the votes. A number of small parties ran for only the first or second time. This has aroused within the left a new interest in the electoral field. So much so that, during my stay, I was generally asked to present my views on two questions: international resistance to liberal globalisation and the experience of parliamentary work.

Moreover, the communities endangered by the latent state of war in Mindanao and the movements fighting to bring together efforts for more lasting peace hope to receive a more solid international support in the future, particularly from progressive parliamentarians.

As a result of this mission, I find the following three proposals especially worth considering (although others could also be envisaged):

1.      Constitute in the Philippines one of the Asian poles of the international parliamentary network post-Porto Alegre

We are actively engaged, in the European Parliament, in the construction of an international parliamentarian network initiated by the Final Declaration of the World Parliamentary Forum of Porto Alegre. This network should notably be built around “regional poles”. It will probably not be possible to build a unified grouping covering the whole of Asia, but several countries could play a motivational role in their region. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines could be one of these.

162 party lists are presently running for the legislative elections. Only a few will get seats, and there are several left slates  that have a real chance. I had the chance to discuss with cadres active in the campaign from two lists: Akbayan! (Citizens Action Party) and AMIN (Anak Mindanao - Child of Mindanao).

The Philippine electoral game is complex. To have a hope of winning, the party lists have to attract “command votes” (where their influence is dominant and where, for example, a village will give them a block vote),  “market  votes” (“free” voters that must be convinced by the campaign) and “negotiated votes” (agreement with a candidate for Congressman or for Mayor for  reciprocal support or with a group which does not intend to run, such as the MILF in Mindanao, for it to “give” a part of its “command votes”). They also  have to face the power of money: vote-buying exists massively (from 100 pesos for a municipal councillor to 10,000 pesos for a mayor...), and poor voters find this legitimate (it is the only benefit they are likely to get from the elections ). As for the official agents of the electoral commission who transmit the results, they too often take into account the candidate's buying power more than the ballot box results (in particular in Mindanao).

It is therefore difficult to predict who will really win. But it is possible that a number of members of Congress from the left, belonging to different lists, get elected (Akbayan! had one seat in the last elections). If this is the case, this should make the Philippines the main or one of the main parliamentarian poles in Southeast Asia  directly linked to social movements and which is also pluralist and progressive. This should help considerably in the constitution of our international network in Asia. In the meantime, as we await the election results, let's hope ... 

2.      The Teduray's Call for Solidarity

The first leg of the circuit in Mindanao: I went to Upi in the Teduray land (a Lumad tribe). This zone is quite remote, with no access by land. To reach the place, one has to take a 90 minute flight from Manila to Cotabato, followed by an hour-long ride on stony roads and then a further hour-and-a-half ride along the coast in a “pumpboat ” (a narrow motorised canoe with balancing poles) and finally five hours of steep mountain-climbing (the natives do this much faster naturally, ignoring  the road bends: the rough path leads straight upwards). An inland path that is less difficult exists, but takes a whole day's walk from the town of Upi.

As I was on mission for the Parliament, I was met by the Council of Elders, a traditional, unofficial governing structure of the tribe. The Lumads fight for the recognition of their ancestral lands, but they have no private land titles. The government considers these lands as public domain, which it can sell to a third party or manage as it sees fit. Certain  tribes, notably the Subanen in Zamboanga, have succeeded in having their claims approved, but this it not yet the case for the Teduray.

A law on indigenous rights has recently been adopted, but the implementation orders have not yet been published. The Teduray therefore decided to render this law meaningful by setting up a House of Justice, by making public the Council of Elders and by affirming the existence of their self-defence forces. They thus provided me with military protection. A white man (big and stout in addition) attracts the attention of kidnappers who operate in the whole region. In Teduray country, the risks are certainly limited, but my hosts did not want to take any risks at all. Their self-defence unit did not wait discreetly away from the coastal village. They carried out their duties openly; and our mountain-climbing at night was because we were very much delayed in relation to our original plans, and  not because we had to pass unnoticed. Likewise, the soldier-carpenters help during the day to build the House of Justice without thinking it necessary to remove their battle uniforms or hide their M16 rifles.

A big feast had been planned to celebrate the construction of the House of Justice. Five thousand people were expected (four thousand Lumads from the vicinity and one thousand lowland Filipinos and Moros who have come to express their solidarity). I should have been present; unfortunately the date was changed to the beginning of May, because the construction was not yet finished. The Teduray place great importance on this initiative. But the Council of Elders know that the struggle of the Teduray and other Lumad tribes has entered a crucial phase. They can either achieve their sovereignty or undergo retaliatory attacks from the private armies and goons of big landowners or other paramilitary groups in the area. The threats are explicit.

It is in this context that they hope that European parliamentarians will be ready to support their fight for self-determination, to help avert danger. The Moro question is somehow well-known internationally but this is not the case for the Lumads, the direct descendants of the original population of the island. It is important to dissipate the "invisibleness" of their situation for their specific interests to be recognized.

3.      A Parliamentary Initiative on Mindanao

The Philippine government had to cease its “total war” policy in Mindanao, particularly due to its financial cost (which accelerated the critical situation of the Estrada presidency). However, the partial withdrawal of the regular army is compensated by the rapid growth of paramilitary groups. In Mindanao, it is not armed groups that are lacking: “vigilantes” and fanatics of various religions, gangs who serve the elite, contrabands, extortionists and kidnappers, guerrilla units of the CPP or other clandestine organisations, Muslim pro-independence movements, Lumad self-defence forces, several governmental army corps, police forces, paramilitary groups linked to the military… Name it and you have it.

At first glance, the urban centres are less ostensibly militarised than the Paris metro (France holds the record in this area), even if the military checkpoints are common along the main roads. Travelling is peaceful, but marked with prohibitions: not to use certain roads after nightfall, not to take a walk further than 100 metres from the meeting premises on the city outskirts (the extortionists haunt the riverbanks close by), not to show oneself in the car when passing an area where Abu Sayyaf informers are known to be numerous...  

Under the pressure of brutal economic exploitation, repression, banditry, political factionalism and inter-communal conflicts, Mindanao has become a real powder keg. However, a large number of civic, religious and grassroots organisations are co-ordinating their efforts to campaign for peace. They organised last year the Mindanao Tri-People Peace Caravan which crossed the island. They demand the inclusion of people's movements in the peace negotiation process, so as to strengthen the dynamics of the peace process, to ensure the presence of the different communities and in order to express the needs and demands of the social sector. They are convinced that a simple tête-à-tête between the government and the MILF, with the negotiations reduced to the military and institutional aspects, will not be enough to achieve long-lasting peace.

The co-existence on the island of the “three peoples” (Moro, Lumad and Christian Filipino settlers) requires a global response and  solidarity. The movements in Mindanao are working to build this type of solidarity in each of their specific, day-to-day activities. It is a difficult task, sometimes dangerous, and merits international support. The international dimension of the Mindanao crisis is moreover underlined by the involvement of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and by the varied types of economic intervention of powerful trans-nationals.

Evolution of the Left

My assessment of the left after this visit was necessarily incomplete. However, I feel able to  summarise four important aspects:

 1.      The dynamism of the popular left as a whole

Once again, as has generally been the case since 1986 (the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship), the elite has imposed its solution to the regime’s crisis (replacement of Estrada by Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the reconstitution of the traditional governmental alliances). However, the militant left played a central and highly visible role in extra-institutional mobilisations.

As in 1986, the presidential power caved in when faced with the joint forces of an opposition with often contradictory objectives: democratic uprising, intervention of the elite and business sector, the influence of the Churches, the threat of a coup d’etat and the shift in the army's position. However - also as in 1986 -  it was the mass mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of people which tipped over the balance and forced the changes, while institutional means were blocked. This gives a renewed legitimacy to direct  democratic and social action.

In this  context and also in general, the radical left and its different elements appear today to be politically dynamic, as is reflected in the electoral campaign. But  difficulties remain.

2.      The crisis of the RPM-P

The LCR has solidarity links with a large range of militant organisations in the Philippines.  But it is with the RPM-P (Revolutionary Workers’ Party of the Philippines) that the links have been most formalised.  Today this organisation is in crisis.

The RPM-P  was born in 1998 out of a fusion between the forces which emerged from the crisis of the CPP in 1992: the Central Mindanao region, a part of the Visayas region (in Negros particularly), and the person formerly responsible for the urban partisan units in the capital.  This fusion was facilitated by the fact that it brought together independent regions (each regional leadership remains "a master in his own home") but for the same reason it has remained fragile.  Everything is not yet finalised but it seems that the fusion will not hold, particularly in view of the differences which emerged during the course of the year 2000.

The majority of the leadership (Visayas, Nilo in Manila) signed, in the name of the party, a peace agreement with the Estrada presidency in December, which numerous observers consider as amounting to capitulation.  The agreement was rejected by Mindanao, a wing of the movement in Manila, and South Tagalog.  Also, the majority of the leadership has denounced the mobilisations for the overthrow of Estrada as a manipulation by the elite and by Washington (Erap was a "populist" president and not belonging to the big Filipino clans);  it therefore appeared  to be ‘pro-Estrada’, following the example of some other currents and left personalities. On the contrary, the other components of the RPM-P were part of the mobilisation.

The negative effects of the ongoing split could be limited by the fact that each component can maintain its own dynamism, in its region, (at least this seems to be the case in Mindanao, as I was not in the Visayas).  However, the failure of the RPM-P fusion shows the difficulties of the Philippine revolutionary left to overcome their regional or sectoral fragmentation  following the 1992 crisis.  Indeed, the constitution of this organisation represented the main attempt at regrouping the forces organised territorially and coming directly  from the underground CPP.

3.      How is the CPP going to evolve?

The CPP (Maoist) and the current which it leads (the National Democrats) have lost the political and organisational hegemony they benefited from during the years 1975-1985.  However, the party remains, at least numerically, the strongest part of the Philippine revolutionary left, particularly in terms of its armed forces.  Since the crisis of 1992, the CPP closed itself up on ultra-sectarian lines. A change of orientation came about  by the end of the year 2000. The national-democratic current was actively involved in the mobilisations against the former President Estrada.  It is presently participating in the election campaign for the Bayan Muna list, after having denounced the opportunism of groups which did the same thing in the previous elections.

This evolution could be very positive and has been favourably welcomed by progressive circles in the Philippines.  The ‘Nat-dems’ have become popular once again. But looking at it more closely, it may be too soon to celebrate.  The CPP has widened its  tactical alliances - but toward  the anti-Estrada Right  and the elite, rather than toward other forces of the radical left.  Which means that it has not necessarily broken with the ideas which gave most cause for concern after the 1992 crisis: the ‘Rev/Counter-rev. Framework’ (that is, the  CPP would represent the only revolutionary current and all "dissidence" would be counter-revolutionary).

The leadership of the CPP created a blacklist containing the names of numerous leaders and cadres who had left the party and whom it considered to be counter-revolutionaries, meaning they could be eliminated (their names are listed in the Order of Battle of the New People's Army). Over the course of a few years, a certain number (still small) of dissident cadres was thus killed by the CPP . These were truly premeditated  and planned assassinations and not confrontations which had degenerated into violence.

Now, nothing seems to have changed in this area. For example, a short time before my visit to the Philippines, one of the main leaders of the RPM-P of Mindanao (the organisation with which the LCR has established the most formalised links) was assassinated by the CPP, the kind of thing which had not happened since 1992. This is not very reassuring and does not lead to a softening of political judgement. The  CPP may close down the democratic space that popular struggles have created within society. In  Central Luzon, the CPP also attacked the leaders of the MLP (Marxist-Leninist Party), one of its most recent dissidents. The MLP finally retaliated and so far at least 18 people have died from both sides.

Now that  the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the CPP have resumed (in Norway), the political opening up of the national-democratic current could be for the best or for the worst. For the best if it means a retreat from sectarianism. For the worst if it is coupled with a renewed hardening of the party's military line,  in situations where it can physically threaten the other progressive forces. The CPP could well combine this opening up (of its wide-ranged tactical alliances) and shutting off (in its territorial control). In several places, the CPP is attempting today to prohibit, by the use of threats,  other left party lists from carrying out their election campaign. Even Akbayan! is undergoing pressure in these areas, whereas Akbayan is an organisation totally above-ground and is not in competition with the CPP in underground revolutionary areas.

4. Factional violence and unitary dynamics

The CPP is not the only source of deadly factional violence. After the overthrow of Estrada, Popoy Lagman was assassinated. He was one of the principal leaders of the CPP in the capital region of Manila-Rizal before the splits of 1992. He formed a workers' party, the PMP, and was at the head of a mass front,  Sanlakas. Nobody seems to hold the CPP responsible for this murder. But it will be very important for this crime to be cleared up because suspicion poisons the atmosphere in the left.

At the moment, the factional violence has been contained and remains localised. But if it is not eradicated there is a risk that one day it will spread and escalate. It is worrying that it has lasted for a decade after the 1992 splits. This basically shows the impact on Philippine society of the multiple forms of militarisation in the country and of the extreme violence which still characterises the social relations of exploitation in many sectors, as I realised once again with regard to the coconut industry in Lala (the last leg of my stay in Mindanao).

Having said that, the essential political phenomenon since 1986 remains the learning, by the majority of left wing organisations in the Philippines, how to work in a unitary spirit and practice which previously existed only in embryonic form. Evidence for this would be  the various attempts at fusing (even if they failed), the taking off of an "electoral party - political movement" such as Akbayan!, the forming of multiple coalitions, the capacity to pursue common campaigns over a period of time, and the recognition by many components of the left of the pluralism within the popular and revolutionary movement.

In the Philippines there is a very rich militant fabric - trade unions, peasant movements, associations and NGOs - that could give substance to unitary convergences.