Update on the Philippines

Since Pierre Rousset sent us his “postcard from the Philippines” last May , a number of developments have occurred. The fusion which he discusses has indeed, as he feared, failed, with the Revolutionary Workers’ party dividing along regional and political lines. Felisa Sanchez, who recently visited Europe and spoke to Spectre, is a member of the Mindanao organisation which has now broken away from the group in the Visayas region at the centre of the archipelago.

Despite these divisions, the radical left did score some successes in the elections which were imminent during Rousset’s visit.  Under the name AMIN (child of Mindanao) the Mindanao organisation won one seat, which went to a member of the Muslim community. Two other parties or movements of the radical left won seats via the national lists: Bayan Manu, a front for the Philippine Communist Party (Maoist) won three,  Akabayan! (Citizens’ Action Party) one, and a small farmers’ party one.

Peace on Mindanao remains fragile. In order to reassure investors and multi-nationals about conditions in the centre and north of the Philippines, the Muslim and Lumad must be dispossessed and displaced.  The government has taken advantage of September 11 to re-launch a military offensive against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and not only against the armed gangs of Abu Sayyef.

New attempts to overcome political, regional and community divisions offer some hope. Felisa Sanchez spoke to Steve McGiffen and Marjorie Tonge about the current situation in her country.

The toppling of Estrada came after revelations of extensive corruption. Ferlisa Sanchez: “Daily presentation of the court case against Estrada in the papers and on television led to popular unrest. There was the case of the famous envelope – which contained incriminating evidence – which the Senate refused to have opened. So people began to ask, why not open the envelope? There was a massive protest in the streets.  It took five days of massive demonstrations.”  The demonstrators, however, did not generally come from the most impoverished sections of the population. “Most people on the streets were from middle income families.”

The turning point came when Estrada lost control of crucial parts of the state apparatus. “It was the defection of the military which tilted the balance,” Sanchez explains. “It would not have been possible to dislodge him while he had the support of the military.  Some sections of the radical left were already preparing for a confrontation, but as it turned out the removal of Estrada went smoothly.”

As is generally the case in this regionally divided country, different areas reacted differently. “The movement to get rid of Estrada began in the capital region. Estrada had been popular in Mindanao, my island.  62% of the population is made up of Christian settlers, many of whom are business people, and they supported him.  The local politicians were divided, some supporting Estrada.”


Estrada’s downfall was followed by new elections under rules which on paper appeared fairer to smaller parties. In reality, the election was marked by the same problems which have always characterised Philippines politics. Sanchez: “The last election was the dirtiest.  It was all about money, and not really about anything representative of the people. You have to have money to run – poor people can’t be congressmen. And of course you need money to popularise yourself. But the party lists election did give some chance for marginalised sectors to gain a voice.”

The lists operated alongside constituency-based elections which favour richer, bigger outfits. In order to qualify, a group must be deemed “marginalised”, and the definition is vague enough to be interpreted toonarrowly or too broadly, as suits those making these decisions. Whatever the definition, Sanchez says, “there were certainly a lot on the lists who did not represent marginalised people. They were established by those with the money. We got up a petition against this and it succeeded in preventing a list made up entirely of businessmen from sending seventeen people to congress.  I would define the marginalised groups as farmers, the urban poor, people living below the poverty line. Certainly not businessmen.”

Felisa Sanchez’ own group won one place in Congress through this system, but it is now having to fight to have this confirmed. Five months after the election, list results have still not been officially proclaimed, and there are fears that parties unfriendly to the established letter may  be cheated. “Compared to the original count, our list emerged in the tabulation with only 3,000 votes, 80,000 fewer than we actually won, wiping out our success in electing someone to congress.”  Felisa keeps an open mind as to whether this is deliberate or a simple administrative error. “It actually said the correct total written out in full, but in numbers it was wrong. It could have been deliberate, but whether it was or not we now have to hire an expert lawyer to prove our case.”


Outside the sphere of parliamentary politics divisions on the left are long-standing - but more apparent than ever since September 11. Sanchez: “The government is behind the United States. The left is trying to work against terrorism and war, working with other political blocs. The government has also used this to return to its ‘all out war’ policy against the MILF and others in Mindanao. There are claims that people have been sent from Mindanao to fight alongside the Taliban, but no proof, only sensationalised stories.  The government’s all-out war is supposed to be directed against ‘bandits’, but the result is that tens of thousands of people have been displaced.”

Peace talks between the government, the MILF and the NDF guerrillas have been held, but Sanchez points out that ordinary people are excluded from such bilateral talks. “The NDF simply surrendered – their peace agreement is no more than a surrender.” She argues that peace talks should be widened to include ordinary women and men and representatives of civil society organisations.”

The division of the population into three distinct ethnic groups provides the context for these developments. The smallest group, the Lumad, the island’s original indigenous people, count 18% of the population, the Muslim Moros 20%, and the most recently arrived, Christian settlers, 62%.  Within these groups are subdivisions which have their own conflicts one with another. But conflict between them is not the result of some perversity of human nature of local custom. Successive rulers have adopted divide-and-rule tactics, while the Christian settlers have been privileged by the country’s ruling elite and taught to see the other groups as inferior. “So when war is declared against the Muslims,” Felisa Sanchez explains, “they can use this to gain support amongst the Christians, setting one group against another. The real aims are to increase control of the exploitation of  the island’s natural resources – rubber, bananas, pineapples and other crops - by trans-national corporations, taking land from small farmers. Of course our communities have differences of religion, custom and culture, but there are common issues which should unite us, issues to do with control and ownership of land, with self government. The constitution says that indigenous people, the people working the land, should own land. After 1986 and the fall of Marcos the peasant movement was strong and some land was redistributed.  But the peasant movement was undermined by violence. Farmers were massacred. And the laws on land redistribution can easily be evaded by big landowners, for example by their writing land over to relatives.”

During 1999 representatives of the three communities co-operated on a project to demand peace and justice.  At the time, two-thirds of the personnel of the Philippines’ armed forces were stationed on Mindanao.  “Everyone was affected,” says Sanchez. “We wanted consultations as part of the peace process, so that everyone could speak out. We showed that it was possible to work together for peace.”

As well as their country’s own military, Philippines people may have to contend with an increased American presence. Sanchez: “There are no US troops at the moment, but the government would like to sign an agreement giving the US military access to various areas, allowing them to train, to set up bases.  Existing access rights cover a much wider area than was previously the case.   

  The “Peace Caravan” toured the island during ten days, mobilising 15,000 people on the last day. It was followed by other peace initiatives, the organisation of  coordination bodies, a ‘Mindenao Peace Army’, and an ‘agenda for peace’. As Sanchez explains, “We had made it clear that we didn’t just want generals talking about peace. Civil society had to talk about an agenda for peace. We had some limited success – we were invited as observers by the government.” The different communities have also learnt more about each other as a result of working together for peace: “There is more respect. We work together for sovereignty and autonomy. Settlers, for example, have always looked down on the Lumad as uneducated people, but in working together they have listened to Lumad arguments that education is about much more than going to school, that their people have their own kind of education. Indigenous people can identify medicinal plants, for instance, and others find this impressive. The traditional view that they are ignorant and inclined to kidnapping and other crime is thus challenged.  The settlers also saw the Muslim people as naive, simple. Many Muslim people were killed fighting Christian Spaniards and the perception this created on all sides has been passed down through the generations.”

Women like Felisa Sanchez have been at the forefront of these developments. “Women have played a full role,” she says, “participating in the peace movement. They have many responsibilities, of course, but many women find time to attend meetings and be active.” As well as learning more about each other, women have taken their experiences back into their communities.  Lumad women, for instance, have questioned their exclusion from the Council of Elders, and within each group traditional practices oppressive to women are being challenged.

Historically, Mindanao has suffered not only from inter-communal conflict but, with an irony often apparent in parts of the South which have suffered the most from the attentions of imperialism down the centuries, from the very wealth which should have made it a viable, prosperous society. The extraction of super profits by foreign capital and the subservience of the local ruling elite have resulted in an uneven and underdeveloped economy. The most advanced forms of capitalism co-exist with pre-capitalist forms.

This deliberately inflicted underdevelopment is made worse by neoliberal globalisation. Under the dictates of the World Bank and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and its commitments under the WTO, the government ensures that underdevelopment, or distorted development, will continue.  The form this takes is by now familiar: trade liberalisation, privatisation of profitable areas of the economy, including those delivering social services, and financial deregulation.

With government support, big landowners undermine land reform or distort it to their own ends, maintaining control of the supply of rice and other vital commodities. The feudal self-sufficient economy has been eroded, replaced by one characterised by, on the one hand, the big landowners and, on the other, a limited number of small entrepreneur farmers who have thrived in the production of rice, fruit and vegetable crops for the local market and in contract growing cash crops – maize, bananas and pineapples – for big foreign corporations.  Small self-sufficient farmers are being driven from the land, adding to urban problems. Even those who have benefited from land reform have for the most part been forced in the end to relinquish their land rights because they have been unable to adapt to this increasingly dominant market-oriented society. This process has been aggravated by government deregulation which has drastically reduced state support to irrigation facilities, as well as opening the local market to cheaper imported agricultural products.

Felisa Sanchez was in Europe to increase understanding of these issues, of, as she puts it, “globalisation and how it affects us. From time immemorial we have been confronted by war. Now we want peace. We want our people to be listened to.”

Because Spectre isn’t Time magazine, but a resource for activists, we asked Felisa what people who live in the prosperous countries of the North where our readership for the most part resides can do to help. “You can help to get our voices heard,” she says. “You can help to expose the results of foreign investment in agriculture, and in mining and other industries. We hope to see a conference in Europe to publicise what is happening in Mindanao. Finally, we want to make contacts with indigenous peoples and others facing similar problems elsewhere, for example in Latin America.”

The current situation in Mindanao is making life dangerous for those who seek change. For this reason, the name of Spectre’s interviewee has been changed at her request.