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Punishing a "Strong Anti-American Attitude":

The Terror War Targets Maoist Exiles

by GARY LEUPP

As soon as the Bush administration announced its “war on terrorism” last September, I thought I had some idea of what was coming. On the one hand, the U.S. government had never lucidly defined “terrorism,” that most hopelessly vague of “isms.” (It hadn’t tried to, really, perhaps because to do so with the sort of rigor one might attempt in an ethics seminar, in a college or seminary, would raise uncomfortable questions about U.S. military history, from the Trail of Tears death march of 1838 to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, to the School of the Americas curriculum; and the record of U.S. association with the Contras of Nicaragua, the Mujahadeen of Afghanistan, Angola’s UNITA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, etc.)

On the other hand, the government had very clearly specified whom it considers “terrorists.” Since October 1997 the State Department had regularly compiled a roster of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTOs). Aware of its content, I assumed that sooner or later, all those included in the list (few of whom have any connection to al-Qaeda, and most of whom are not even associated with “Islamist fundamentalism”) would come into the crosshairs of those prosecuting the Terror War. In particular, I anticipated that the Bush crew would find new ways to attack the revolutionary left. I have suggested as much in CounterPunch pieces since January this year (especially in “Red Targets in the ‘War on Terrorism,'” June 19, 2002), and my apprehension has been amply validated.

At present, 34 groups appear on the FTO roster. It includes maybe 15 Islamist organizations, and a handful of more secular Arab groups, alongside the bizarre Japanese millenarian Aum Shinrikyo cult that released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, the Spanish Basque group Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), the late Rabbi Kahane’s anti-Arab “Kach” organization, the leftwing nationalist Kurdish Workers’ Party in Turkey, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the Real IRA, etc. It is obviously a highly disparate assemblage. Some of the groups bother the White House more than others; the Maoists rank way up there.

The Terror List

So how does an organization make the list? The requirements are spelled out in section 219 the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952, recently amended by the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. The organization must (1) be foreign, (2) engage in terrorist activity, and (3) threaten the security of U.S. citizens or U.S. “national security” as the powerful conceptualize it. What constitutes “terrorist activity”? Section 212(a)(3)(B) of the INA defines this as “any activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed (or which, if committed in the United States, would be unlawful under the laws of the United States or any State)” and which involves hijacking or sabotage of any aircraft, vessel, or vehicle; kidnapping; violent attacks on “internationally protected” persons; assassination; use of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons; use of explosives or firearms “with intent to endanger, directly or directly, the safety of one or more individuals or cause substantial damage to property;” and/or the threat, attempt or conspiracy to do any of the above, or to incite people to do so, or to collect information on potential terrorist targets, or to collect funds for terrorist attacks.

The State Department officially lists the intended “effects of designation” of “terrorist” status. Designation “stigmatizes and isolates designated terrorist organizations internationally.” It “deters donations or contributions” to listed groups, “heightens public awareness and knowledge” about them, and signals the world’s governments that the U.S. is serious about combating them. So anyone anywhere in the world, undertaking any violence against state forces, can be pegged as “terrorist,” and thus stigmatized and isolated, if he/she targets U.S. citizens in the process (even, say, military or intelligence personnel). A demonstrator smashing the window of a McDonald’s in a foreign country becomes a “terrorist,” and if the McDonald’s is owned by an American citizen, and the demonstrator belongs to a group, the latter may, for State Department purposes, be listed as an FTO.

The status of listed organizations is reevaluated every two years; some are dropped (because they’ve disappeared or because it is in the interest of “national security” to remove them). The State Department announces to Congress any additions or deletions, and the Congress has a whole week to comment before the updated list appears in the Federal Register, but there is no real oversight. It’s not illegal for a U.S. citizen to disagree with the list, or the idiosyncratic mindset underlying it. (It’s still legal to point out that Boston’s Minutemen in the 1770s, or the French Resistance in the 1940s would surely be “terrorist” by the State Department’s definition.) In 1996, 220 members of Congress signed a letter protesting the listing of the Mujahadeen Khalq, a leftwing organization that challenges the regime in Iran, as a terrorist organization. (The legislators felt the group might be useful in bringing down the mullahs’ rule.) But once the State Department, in its wisdom, places an organization on the list, it becomes illegal for U.S. citizens to offer it “material support” of any kind. So if, say, a senator respectfully disagreeing with the government’s assessment of the Mujahadeen Khalq were to, for example, subscribe to a publication produced by the group, if only to keep posted on its activities, he or she could in theory be subject to prosecution for abetting terror by paying for the subscription. Far worse might befall a citizen who, rejecting the State Department’s assessment of a foreign organization, might assist it through fund-raising, provision of supplies, or participation in its activities.

The U.S. Campaign Against the CPP

With such provisions in place, in the post-9/11 political environment, the U.S. government has moved quickly to harass one group on the list which, with no conceivable connection to the Twin Tower attacks, poses a threat, not to the American people, but to U.S. imperialism and the Bush administration’s program for global domination: the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The CPP, with its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), has waged political and armed struggle against the U.S.-backed neocolonial Filipino regimes since Jose Maria Sison, a professor of English literature, re-founded it in December 1968. (The “old” CPP, founded in 1930, had become thoroughly dissociated from the mass movement by the early 1960s.) The State Department estimates the NPA has an armed strength of 12,000, having doubled in the last several years; the CPP claims a higher number and declares that it controls over 8,000 barangays (villages) throughout the archipelago (about 20% of the national territory). It is the leading organization in the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), which includes labor, ethnic, and religious groups numbering in the millions. To call it “terrorist” not only unfairly and maliciously vilifies the organization, but rids the term “terrorism” of any analytical utility.

Yet on August 9, Secretary of State Colin Powell, with some fanfare, added he “Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army” to the terror list. (The groups had appeared on the list several years earlier, but been removed, probably as a result of peace talks between the Manila government and the rebels.) “The CPP,” he explained, “a Maoist group, was founded in 1969 [sic] with the aim of overthrowing the Philippine government through guerrilla warfare. CPP’s military wing, the New People’s Army strongly opposes any U.S. military presence in the Philippines and has killed U.S. citizens there.” (These include a U.S. Army colonel, a military intelligence agent, two U.S. Air Force airmen, and two Ford Corporation employees.) This was the cue for the Council of the European Union (comprised of the E.U. foreign ministers) to add it to their own list, which they dutifully did on October 28.

Meanwhile the government of the Netherlands, sometimes lauded for its liberalism and hospitality to political refugees, cracked down on the Filipino communist exile community in Holland, which includes several dozen persons. The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs explained: “The U.S. regards the activities of the CPP/NPA and Sison as a threat for American citizens and for the national security of the American foreign policy The CPP is characterized by a strong anti-American attitude. The organization is a fervent opponent of the pro-American policy of the current Philippine government and the presence of American troops in the country. In the 80s and 90s, six Americans died in NPA attacks.” The Dutch government targeted Professor Sison, who has resided in Holland since 1987, receiving the small allowance (recently amounting to 202 euros monthly), housing benefits and medical insurance to which he has been entitled as a recognized political refugee under the Refugee Convention and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. On September 10 Sison was informed that from August 15, in accordance with the Netherlands’ sanctieregeling terrorisme (sanction regulation against terrorism) his benefits had been terminated and his bank account frozen. He was also ordered to report weekly to a government office, where he had reported monthly for over a decade. This despite the fact that there are no pending criminal charges against Prof. Sison in the Philippines or anywhere in the world. The city of Utrecht, in which he resides, has offered resumption of his stipend on “humanitarian” grounds, but only if he implicitly accepts the designation of “terrorist” applied to himself.

The persecution of the CPP, depicted by both the U.S. and E.U. as an extension of the “War on Terrorism” is an ominous extension of that war to include the revolutionary left, and specifically, the Maoists, who arguably constitute the most vigorous strain in the international communist movement. Thus August 9 ranks with January 14 (when the White House officially announced its plans to engage in counter-insurgency against Castroite guerrillas in Colombia); January 29 (when Bush, in his State of the Union address, shifted attention from al-Qaeda to Iraq and the “Axis of Evil”); and June 24 (when Bush embraced Ariel Sharon’s view of the Palestinian Authority as a target in the Terror War), as a new milestone in the expansion of the interminable conflict. The U.S. government wants to wipe out the Maoists, not just in the Philippines but in Nepal, Peru, India, Turkey, and elsewhere; the campaign begins in the Philippines, and in the Filipino Maoist community in Europe.

Last December the State Department quietly announced that the U.S. would open up a “second front” in the “war on terrorism” in the southern Philippines, assisting Filipino troops in quelling the activities of the Abu Sayaf Group, portrayed as an al-Qaeda affiliate. The group, in the far south of the archipelago, is a tiny bandit operation, with perhaps (according to the State Department) 200 members, and is surrounded by thousands of government troops. In the spring the U.S. dispatched 660 Special Forces to the Philippines in “Operation Balikatan” (“Shoulder to Shoulder”) to train the Filipinos in “counter-terrorism,” proclaiming victory after the Philippine armed forces rescued an American missionary woman in an encounter that left two other Abu Sayaf hostages (the woman’s American husband and a Filipino nurse) dead. Abu Sayaf actually seems none the worse off for Operation Balikatan, but the U.S. military presence has expanded. The U.S. followed up by sending hundreds more troops to Luzon (where there are no Abu Sayaf bandits, but lots of NPA guerrillas).

The CPP believes that the U.S., having withdrawn its forces from the country in 1991 after the Filipino legislature demanded their removal, ultimately plans to reestablish its military presence in the Philippines, and to target them in the process. It is not a far-fetched scenario. The Filipino state is weak; the government faction-ridden and headed by a president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, dependent upon the generals and enamored of the U.S. military; the economy sick; and the insurgency reviving, after a period of stasis, since the 1997 Asian economic crisis. The CPP has the same growth potential as manifested in recent years by the kindred movement led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or by the Communist Party of Peru (nicknamed the “Shining Path”) during the 1980s through early 1990s. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. government would acquiesce to a Maoist victory in the Philippines, which it governed as a colonial power from 1899 to 1946. So as a step towards throttling the movement, the U.S. has targeted the segment of the Maoist leadership which, living in Dutch exile, is most vulnerable to attack.

Jose Maria Sison in the Crosshairs

Jose Maria Sison was captured by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in 1977, and after years of solitary confinement and torture, released along with other political prisoners after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The new regime of Cory Aquino briefly sought national reconciliation, and hoped to pursue peace talks with the rebels. Upon his release, Prof. Sison undertook a world tour, lecturing on Philippine politics, economics and culture at over 80 universities in Asia and Europe. In Thailand, he received from the Thai Crown Prince the Southeast Asia WRITE Award for the Philippines for essay writing and poetry (Sison is a highly esteemed poet and journalist.). Meanwhile the political atmosphere in the Philippines changed, and Aquino under pressure from the military began to crack down on the CPP. While in Europe, in September 1988, Sison was informed that the Filipino government had withdrawn his passport, and had filed charges against him under the Anti-Subversion Law of the Philippines. He applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, as the Philippines government placed a bounty of one million pesos on his head, and 500,000 on that of his wife Julieta. Since then, he has served as Chief Political Consultant of the National Democratic Front, insisting that the actual leadership of the CPP and NPA are in the Philippines.

In 1990, the Dutch Justice Ministry rejected Sison’s bid for political asylum; but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ recognized his refugee status in 1991, and the Justice Ministry decision was overturned by the Council of State (Raad van State) in 1992. (Meanwhile, the Philippines’ Anti-Subversion Law was repealed in 1992 and the subversion charge against Sison became legally baseless.) Sison’s harassment continued, however: in 1991 Filipino prosecutors filed murder charges against him, accusing him of responsibility for the assassination (widely attributed at the time to the Marcos regime, which we now know arranged the assassination of opposition political leader Benigno Aquino in 1983) of a Liberal Party leader in the Plaza Miranda incident of 1971. Prosecutors dismissed the charge in 1994, and as recently as 1998, the Filipino government explicitly confirmed that there were no outstanding charges against Sison in the Philippines. Nevertheless “a third country,” determined to punish the Maoist leader, has continued to apply pressure on the Dutch to expel Sison from their country, and the current Philippines administration is working hand in hand with that third country.

In 1993, the Justice Ministry again denied Sison’s asylum petition, but in 1995 the Raad van State again determined that he was a political refugee with a well-grounded fear of persecution in the Philippines, and could not be extradited to the Philippines under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In 1996 there was yet another negative decision by the Justice Ministry, and yet another order for Sison’s expulsion. He has successfully appealed such decisions, to the apparent consternation of the U.S. government, which, Sison believes, desires to extradite him to the U.S. where he will be charged with responsibility for the deaths of U.S. military personnel at the hands of the NPA. (A very plausible scenario.)

The U.S.-driven campaign against Sison is complicated by the fact that since 1991 Sison has served as Chief Political Consultant in peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the NDFP, held in the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. Such talks, begun during the administration of Fidel V. Ramos, have continued under the several administrations since, with encouragement from the European Union, as expressed in European Parliament resolutions in 1997 and 1999. They have produced a number of significant agreements and protocols, including the Hague Joint Declaration, and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), and the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG). Thus those favoring peace talks are deeply disturbed by the effort to stigmatize one party to the negotiations. But the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, encouraged by Washington and by elements in the AFP such as Pentagon intimate General Angelo Reyes (widely seen as U.S. favored candidate to succeed Macapagal-Arroyo) has rejected the agreements signed thus far. It has unilaterally suspended peace talks with the rebel movement, demanding, in violation of earlier agreements, NPA disarmament and capitulation as the condition for continued talks. In labeling Sison a terrorist, the U.S. and its allies have effectively terminated the peace talks.

Filipino and Dutch clergy have rallied to Sison’s defense, however, and. Europarliamentarians from Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden have signed a letter demanding the removal of the CPP, NPA and Sison from the E.U.’s terror list. 27 members of the Swedish parliament have protested Sison’s terrorist designation. A Danish member of the European Parliament has publicly inquired how her government, which signed resolutions endorsing the peace talks between the government of the Philippines and the NDFP, can possibly favor the listing of the CPP/NPA as “terrorists.” Even within the Philippines government, Vice President Teofisto Guingona has challenged the designation of Sison as a terrorist, stating “One needs to make a distinction between a rebel who is fighting because of hunger and perceived injustice, and a terrorist who seeks to sow terror and violence.” The powerful House Speaker, Jose de Venicia, calls Sison “my friend.”

But for the U.S. government, hell-bent on its terror war, Sison has become a symbol of the most serious long-term threat to its global hegemony, a threat infinitely more challenging than any sort of anti-U.S. religious fundamentalism: the elemental, inevitable rebellion against (to paraphrase Guingona) hunger and injustice, which the radical left habitually leads. Perhaps some readers feel he deserves their solidarity. U.S. law does not allow one to provide him with material support, of course. I wonder, though, if it might not be suitable and proper to refer the reader to http://www.defendsison.be/, where you can learn of legal, non-material ways to register your opposition to the persecution of Sison, and the stigmatization of the mass movement that holds him in high regard.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu