Peace for Life: Philippine Perspectives

International Conference on Peace for Life in North East Asia
Korea Christian Faculty Fellowship
15. – 19. May 2005 at Roman Catholic Retreat Center, Uiwang, Korea

A panel presentation
Carmencita P. Karagdag

First let me extend warm greetings of solidarity to our Korean hosts and organizers, particularly the Korean Christian Faculty Fellowship, who have convened this important consultation to address extremely pressing issues confronting peoples in Asia and other parts of the world in light of the immense challenges posed by the US war on terror and its mad drive for Empire and global hegemony.

I am specially privileged to share with you some perspectives on peace for life based on our experiences of pain and suffering as well as of struggles and strivings for freedom in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia. This space for sharing of people’s stories, analyses and visions has become invaluable at this time when we as peoples sharing a common humanity—irrespective of faiths and ideologies—are faced by a common enemy, a resurgence of Empire. Today’s Empire, much more powerful, totalizing and encompassing than in the past, has become the one single, most formidable force obstructing the attainment of the deeply held values of life, human dignity, peace, justice and integrity of creation.

Like Northeast Asia where tensions that could degenerate into a nuclear conflagration have been induced as well as exacerbated by increasing US interventionism, the Philippines is part of the Asia-Pacific region that has been only too appropriately dubbed the “American lake”. Sitting astride some of the world’s critical sea lanes, it is a region that has been historically considered of strategic importance to the US and to the continuing Cold War policy of containment against what US policy makers perceive as their enemies or rivals for economic preeminence and global suzerainty. Its former Cold War rival, USSR and the Soviet-led socialist bloc, may have unraveled, but the US is now training its sights on China, which given its rapidly growing economic and military power, has been increasingly seen as the main strategic threat to US preponderance today.

US involvement in Asia Pacific has been historically characterized by the three-fold objectives of economic expansion, political as well as socio-cultural hegemony and military outreach. Since the end of World War II in which the US and its allies emerged victorious, relations between the US and Asia-Pacific countries has been dominated by the strategy of forward deployment or stationing of US military facilities and naval forces in or near areas considered as current or potential flashpoints of conflicts. As a result relics of the Cold War persist, with the divided Korean Peninsula still bristling with conventional as well as nuclear weaponry and sprawling US facilities still stationed in South Korea and Japan. Where foreign bases have been dismantled or where public opposition to overt military presence or deployment of foreign ground troops is strong, secret bilateral and multiple access agreements, not to mention intrusive operations aimed at forces working for self-determination, have been invariably resorted to. 

US presence in Asia-Pacific has in fact deepened in the past decade due to the aggressive drive for market integration and untrammeled expansion of capital under the regime of globalization, coupled by the more recent US war on terror in response to the September 11 tragedy. This borderless and permanent war as played out specially in the Middle East— Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Palestine—has been increasingly exposed as but a pretext to protect America’s economic sphere of influence, further enlarge its market, and ensure continuing control of the world’s oil and other vital natural resources. Not surprisingly US military involvement and, more recently, increasingly unabashed and bare-faced aggression, have largely focused precisely on geographical areas that are rich in raw materials and strategic resources.

This is true not only in the Middle East, which contains the largest oil reserves in the world, but also in the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines, particularly its southern Mindanao island whose rich oil and gas reserves have yet to be fully tapped and exploited. In the case of the US pre-emptive strike against hapless Iraq and its arrogant unilateralism, both illegal in terms of prevailing international law, a major objective was to seize oil resources and effect a reconfiguration of the Middle East for the further control of the global oil market and the flow of oil to other regions where the US seeks to maintain hegemonic control. The US, in addition, seeks unrestrained control over the region’s critical sea lanes that constitute a “strategic part of the network of oil extraction, production and distribution and are irreplaceable links with the Caspian and Gulf regions, oil and natural gas fields in Asia, markets and the American mainland”.

Moreover continuing US war preparations and the arms race that has ensued, all justified in the name of the war on terror, has served to strengthen and secure the central place of the US military-industrial complex in today’s globalizing economy. The war on terror has simply enabled the US to ride roughshod over nationalist sensitivities and Asian people’s hostility to more overt US military presence. No amount of chicanery, even the use and appropriation of religious language and symbols to cloak and legitimize the US expansionist agenda has succeeded in deceiving the freedom-loving peoples of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as the peace-loving peoples of Europe and North America who today have begun to form a groundswell of resistance against globalization and the deadly wars that it engenders.

The Philippines, a former American colony which has traditionally served as staging ground for the projection of US military power in Asia, continues to be been seen by Washington and the Pentagon as the linchpin of the US security framework in Asia-Pacific. Specially valuable to the US is the country’s proximity to long-standing flashpoints of conflict, i.e., the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Straits, as well as to China, perceived as a strategic threat to its hegemonic ambitions. The dismantling in 1992 of the American bases in the Philippines—then the largest US military facilities outside its territory—has not prevented the US, however, from imposing alternative access arrangements which give the US high command the right to use the country’s major ports, military installations, and airfields, while being relieved of the burden of taking responsibility for the upkeep and operation of these facilities. The desire to maintain a strong presence (including the permanent bases and deployment of ground troops) has never been quenched, however, so that when opportunities present themselves, the US has been quick to seize them.

That opportunity surfaced anew only three years ago, when Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, was designated by the Bush administration as the “second front of the war on terror” after its invasion of Afghanistan. Riding on the crest of popular revulsion and a heightened sense of vulnerability resulting from the terrorist attacks in the very heartland of capitalism, the US lost no time in lunging into Afghanistan, shoving wide open the borders of Asia. This was justified by the claim that many Southeast Asian countries are providing refuge for Islamic fundamentalists supporting the Al Qaeda and the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiah group linked to a string of deadly attacks including the 2002 bombing of Bali.

The US has also aggressively pressed for greater military concessions from its client regime in the Philippines, which has earned the dubious distinction of being the first in Asia to have embraced the US war on terror. With the connivance of the subservient regime in Manila, the US has taken advantage of the Mutual Defense Pact of 1951, a Cold War vintage, and the Visiting Forces Agreement for redeploying thousands of American troops and special forces in the guise of joint military exercises. Despite public furor since 2002 over the so-called Balikatan exercises which are being carried out in places of actual combat, using live ammunitions and targets, joint military exercises have continued unimpeded. This year alone some 28 joint military exercises have been lined up in different parts of the country—and, not surprisingly in critical areas suspected as stronghold of Muslim or communist rebels like Sulu in Mindanao, Central Luzon and Eastern Visayas. In 2004 alone some 25,000 US troops were deployed for joint exercises in different parts of the country. Again in the name of the war on terror, the US conspired with the Macapagal-Arroyo dispensation to include the Philippine national liberation movement led by the underground Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front in its list of notorious international terrorists, leading to the complete breakdown of the then already faltering peace talks. This has had the effect of criminalizing and undermining a national liberation movement which, under existing international humanitarian law, is supposed to enjoy even minimum legal protection.

It is not difficult to see the link between the designation of the Philippines as the second front of the war on terror and the US’s overriding ambition to plunder and seize control of Southeast Asia’s rich resource base. Chalking up a combined GNP of US$700 billion, Southeast Asia is the fifth largest trading partner of the US. But with strong Islamic nationalists firmly entrenched in Indonesia and a fiercely protectionist regime under Mahathir and his successors in Malaysia, the US badly needs a reliable and militarily equipped vassal in the region, with an oil-rich Mindanao to boot, to secure its geopolitical interests. In fact, the US has started to exploit the gas and oil resources of the country through the Malampaya project controlled by the Texaco-Chevron-Halliburton combine and the Royal Dutch Shell. Still to be fully exploited are the natural gas deposits in the Liguasan Marsh, our rich gold and mineral deposits and the still-untapped deuterium in the Surigao deep in Mindanao. The criminal activities of Abbu Sayyaf, a Muslim group that has degenerated into a kidnapping-for- ransom gang, which the US has continued to link with Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, have been conveniently used as justification for US-backed and directed militarization in Mindanao. In this light particularly ominous is the public allegation made only last week by the outgoing US ambassador to the Philippines that a Mindanao province, Cotabato, is the doormat for international terrorists.

A short background on Mindanao may be pertinent. Owing to stubborn Muslim resistance to the incursions of Spain, the Philippines’ colonial master for nearly four centuries, Mindanao was not effectively annexed to the Philippines until American invasion and occupation at the turn of the previous century. The relocation of landless Christian peasants from Luzon island to the fertile parts of the Mindanao, systematically undertaken in response to growing peasant discontent in the 1950s, led to the massive dislocation and pauperization of the hitherto thriving indigenous communities and Muslim populations. More recently, the indigenous tribes and Muslim communities have been further pushed out of their ancestral lands by development aggression conducted by agribusiness corporations, cattle ranchers, big loggers and multinational mining companies. A number of mega dams have been likewise constructed to generate hydroelectric power for new industries, further displacing the indigenous tribes. Not only have these large-scale mining and other forms of development aggression resulted in debilitating poverty and starvation, these have likewise caused the erosion of native culture and beliefs. According to reliable statistics, Moros and tribal peoples who used to collectively own all the land in Mindanao on the eve of US colonization today own less than 17 percent of Mindanao’s land. In effect, over 80 per cent of Moros and indigenous peoples have been reduced to landlessness. And today independent studies suggest that despite its abundant resources and substantial contributions to the national economy, Mindanao is home to many of the country’s poorest, with more than 60 per cent of its population living below the poverty threshold.

Indeed it is in Mindanao that the war on terror has been played out to the hilt in Southeast Asia. Intensified militarization and all-out war against Muslim insurgents or suspected sympathizers have meant escalation of human rights abuses, including summary executions, indiscriminate arrests and torture. In-Peace Mindanao, a peace and human rights group, has recorded 85,000 cases of human rights violations and 35 mysterious bombings that have claimed around 100 lives under the Macapagal-Arroyo administration. Only a few months back in February this year a full-scale war erupted anew in Sulu, after a Muslim secessionist group that has in fact concluded a peace agreement with the government attacked a military post killing several soldiers. This was in retaliation for the massacre of a Muslim family believed to be perpetrated by the military. During the past five years, the US-trained military has subjected to unrelenting military pressure the inhabitants of Sulu, who have endured bombardment, strafing of civilian communities from both ground and airborne troops, burning of houses and properties, destruction of mosques and holy places of worship, and hamleting of whole villages. Renewed military campaigns early this year led to the dislocation of some 50,000 residents of eight towns in said island province.

This disquieting pattern of killings, forced disappearances and heightening political repression is now being replicated in all parts of the country, bolstering the view that there is now de facto martial law in the country. According to reliable reports, 36 political activists have been systematically gunned down in a series of incidents across the country during the first quarter of the year. In March alone 19 are said to have fallen victim to assassinations and forced disappearances. In the Aquino-owned Hacienda Luisita in Central Luzon, center of a long-running labor dispute which cost the lives of 7 striking farm workers in November last year, 13 people have been summarily executed and 5 remain missing. What particularly shocked many church people was the brutal slaying in March of a priest of the Philippine Independent Church, an indefatigable supporter of the striking workers of Hacienda Luisita. This was followed only a few days before I left Manila by the equally unconscionable murder of a conference minister of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, who was similarly a human rights activist. Victims come from diverse backgrounds—progressive party list members and elected local government officials, mass leaders, organizers of women’s groups, lawyers, journalists and church workers. The scale and enormity of political repression as evidenced in the recent spate of politically motivated assassinations has so reached truly alarming proportions that the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia has responded to the appeal of the Philippine churches for solidarity and pastoral support by sending a high-level 10-person ecumenical delegation to the Philippines in July this year that is aimed at generating local and international attention to the culture of impunity being cultivated by the local implementers of the US war on terror.

All these are happening at a time when the Arroyo-Macapagal regime is instituting a national ID system and fast-tracking the enactment of an anti-terrorism bill, the Philippine version of the US Patriot Act, whose dangerously broad definition of terrorism, can only result in the further erosion of hard-won rights and civil liberties. Only recently, the military disclosed in a security briefing that it has listed several legal militant mass organizations, church-related human rights movements and progressive party lists as “enemies of the state” and thus fair target for political repression, if not outright physical elimination. But also included in the military list are legitimate church organizations like the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, the NCCP, the PIC, the UCCP and the United Methodist Church in the Philippines. A section of the manuscript even implicates the WCC which was allegedly infiltrated by the CPUSA or Communist Party of the USA. Also disturbing is the recent disclosure that an anti-terrorism center will soon be erected in an army camp in Central Luzon. Partly funded by Japan, the research facility is envisaged to serve as a training center for joint exercises between Filipino and US troops and a venue for security officials in different countries “to compare notes and exchange ideas”, a euphemism for sharing of intelligence or espionage.

In return for its unabashed loyalty to the Empire, the Philippines has become the world’s fourth largest recipient of foreign military financing and Asia’s biggest recipient of the International Military Exercise and Training Program. Also as a so-called “major non-NATO ally”, the Philippines has become eligible for the stockpiling of defense articles, effectively turning the country into a staging ground for US military expansionism.

It was in this context of renewed US military interventionism at the expense of Philippine national sovereignty and long-standing aspirations for self-determination, that the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, in cooperation with the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia, convened the International Ecumenical Conference on Terrorism in a Globalized World in Manila in September 2002. It is our great privilege in the Philippines that some of you in this international meeting have also been a part of this historic conference, billed as the largest ecumenical gathering in response to the US war on terror and credited for having been the first to expose the inextricable nexus between globalization and war, to characterize the US war on terror as state terrorism of historic dimensions and to unequivocally name Empire as the main threat to peace today.

A major proposal of the Manila Covenant was to develop Asian or more broadly South-South and North-South coalitions and movements to confront Empire. In response to this compelling call for solidarity, Peace for Life, a new people’s forum and global movement for justice and peace, was initially launched in an international workshop hosted by the National Council of Churches in Korea in Seoul in October 2003 and later formally inaugurated at an international assembly in Davao, Philippines in December last year. This new ecumenical and interfaith initiative seeks to reclaim the progressive tradition of the ecumenical movement and harness the resources of faith, i.e. spirituality and theology of resistance, for transformative action towards peace, justice and life.

The present gathering of scholars, academics, geopolitical experts and theologians committed to the vision of Peace for Life in Northeast Asia is yet another significant effort to build international coalitions to expose the US agenda of Empire and its dire implications for world peace, people’s security and integrity of creation. We in the faith communities and social movements in other parts of Asia look forward to joining forces with you all so that together, hand-in-hand, we can help build a stronger global force in defense of life and in resistance to Empire.

Carmencita P. Karagdag: Coordinator, Peace for Life