Over 140,000 pre-trial detainees are being held in overcrowded Philippine prisons, many on trumped up drug charges; 75 percent of the total prison population still awaits their day in court, let alone conviction. On top of this, assassinations of human rights lawyers, journalists, labor and peasant organizers, indigenous leaders, clergy, teachers, and activists are spiraling out of control.
Duterte has systematically silenced voices of political dissent, jailing Senator Leila DeLima, an early drug war critic; ousting Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who opposed the imposition of martial law in Mindanao; and now arresting Maria Ressa, internationally renowned journalist and executive editor of the indy outlet Rappler.
Meanwhile, less known to U.S. audiences, Duterte has dropped bombs on Philippine soil over 368,391 times — and some 450,000 civilians have been displaced by militarization. After scuttling peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), Duterte has jailed internationally protected peace consultants. And in January, consultant Randy Malayao was murdered in cold blood by armed hit men.
Ever since the Philippines attained formal independence in 1946, the U.S. has maintained a military presence on its former colony, guiding and supporting “counter-insurgency” operations to put down constant rebellions against an oligarchic government. Today, the Philippine armed forces overwhelmingly direct violence not against outside invaders, but at poor and marginalized people within its borders. U.S. military aid is only making internal conflict worse.
U.S. taxpayer funds are bankrolling the worsening human rights crisis in the Philippines.
Duterte’s repressive regime is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in Asia.
In 2016, the U.S. helped inaugurate Duterte’s drug war by giving $32 million to the Philippine police (supposedly for “training and services” in “policing standards” and “rule of law,” besides equipment). In July 2018, the United States announced an additional $26.5 million in U.S. tax dollars to beef up support for Philippine police, in the name of “counter-terrorism.”
In FY2018, the Defense Department provided roughly $100 million in military aid, including equipment, weapons, and aerial surveillance systems, to the Philippine military and police, though Operation Pacific Eagle — a so-called “overseas contingency operation” that is exempt from congressional limits on spending. The amount demanded for this program will increase to $108.2 million for FY2019 — even as the Defense Department has admitted it lost track of transactions for 76 of 77 arms sales conducted under bilateral agreements with the Philippines.
In 2018, on top of the above, the U.S. sold the Philippine police and military over $63 million worth of arms. It also donated 2,253 machine guns, over 5 million rounds of ammunition, surveillance equipment, and other weapons. Military aid totaled at least $193.5 million last year, notincluding arms sales, and donated equipment of unreported worth. At least $145.6 million is already pledged for 2019.
In January, Trump authorized $1.5 billion for the Asian Pacific region, including the Philippines, from 2019 to 2023. Although this appropriation includes a stipulation that counter-narcotics funds will not go to the Philippines (“except for drug demand reduction,” a potential loophole), it’s too little, too late. The set-aside has no restrictions on weapons funding for the Philippine military. And separately, the State Department already plans to deliver $5.3 million this year to the Philippine police for anti-narcotics activities. Worse, rampant corruption together with a total lack of transparency means it’s hard to ensure where military aid could actually end up.
U.S. military equipment forms the backbone of Duterte’s “military modernization” program.
Although the above aid is tiny compared to the U.S.’s own bloated military budget, this tremendous transfer of weapons and surveillance technology is significant in propping up the Philippine armed forces’ capacity.
Duterte has embarked on an ambitious program to “modernize” the Philippine military, massively increasing funding and pouring more money towards this than spent in the last 15 years. (Meanwhile, he’s doubled the salaries of military and police.) He could not do so without U.S. aid and arms.
For its part, the U.S. is particularly interested in expanding aerial “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” missions over Mindanao, the largest island in the Southern Philippines, rich in untapped mineral resources. Without U.S. aid, the Philippine military would lack the airplanes and technology to perform this surveillance.
What’s more, this year’s Operation Pacific Eagle budget sets aside an extra $3.5 million for U.S. military efforts to collect and analyze “local media in native languages” — underscoring that the U.S. is striving for an upper hand in directing Philippine military operations. And in winning an information war over public opinion.
In recent years, the U.S. has had up to 5,000 troops deployed in the Philippines at any one time. Officially, U.S. troops are limited to “joint exercises” and war games. But questions have been raised over possible U.S. personnel involvement in secretive missions, resulting in killings of civilians and human rights abuses.
In the case of the 2015 Mamasapano massacre, supposedly under the jurisdiction of Philippine police and military only, hearings later uncovered U.S. guidance and surveillance support, despite U.S. denials. Meanwhile, U.S. troops who themselves commit human rights abuses, murder, or sexual assault, are insulated from being held accountable by the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement.
What are the consequences of the bonanza of military aid for Duterte?
The bottom line is, the U.S. government is complicit in — and actively supporting — the deepening human rights crisis in the Philippines.
Police are linked to the killings carried out by unidentified vigilantes in the War on Drugs, and their corruption abounds. Besides tagging the unarmed people they have murdered as “fighting back,” police have planted evidence; sexually assaulted women and children, in exchange for release or dropping drug charges; and detained people without charges and tortured them to extract bribes, including through the use of secret holding cells.
In addition to the drug war, repression is unfolding on other fronts, as well. Twelve journalistswere killed in the first two years under Duterte — the highest number of murdered journalists in the first two years in office of any Philippine president. At least 34 lawyers have been assassinated, including Benjamin Ramos of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, an attorney representing the Sagay 9 — peasants, including women and minors, massacred for trying to claim land they were legally awarded.
At least 48 environmental campaigners were murdered in 2017 alone, making the Philippines the second most dangerous country for environmentalists, after Brazil. By 2018, 14 massacres, killings mostly of farmers who were fighting for land reform, were perpetrated by police, military, or paramilitaries.
Labor leaders are being slaughtered using tactics similar to those in the drug war. Edilberto Miralles, president of R&E Taxi Transport union, was shot in broad daylight in front of the National Labor Relations Commission in 2016. Linus Cubol, chair of Kilusang Mayo Uno in Caraga, was murdered in November by vigilantes riding in tandem. Police brutally beat peacefully picketing NutriAsia workers on strike and their supporters, wounding scores; then they charged the picketers with assault, planted weapons, and attempted to suppress journalists’ coverage of the dispersal.
Under Duterte, over 134 human rights defenders have been killed. In just one case, in 2017, Elisa Badayos and Eleuterio Moises were murdered while serving on a fact-finding team investigating human rights violations due to militarization in Negros Oriental.
Since 2017, Duterte has imposed martial law on Mindanao. Increasing militarization is resulting in rampant abuses against indigenous and Moro people. Aerial “surveillance” missions already make up the bulk of U.S. aid to the Philippine military. Most likely in direct relation, bombings in Mindanao have escalated — particularly over indigenous lands, causing mass evacuations. Simultaneously, reminiscent of U.S.-sponsored tactics in Latin America resulting in indigenous genocide, the Philippine military, together with paramilitary groups it arms and guides, are terrorizing indigenous communities. The military has recruited and even forced indigenous people to become paramilitaries as a means of divide-and-conquer.
Indigenous groups’ resistance is at the forefront of the struggle against climate change, both in the Philippines and globally. Now, their lands, such as those in Mindanao’s Pantaron Range, are some of the few remaining to be opened up to extractive logging and mining by multinational corporations. The militarization of indigenous lands, purportedly in the name of counterinsurgency, seeks to quell this organized community opposition to corporate land-grabbing and environmental degradation.
The military and paramilitaries are targeting indigenous community schools — turning their grounds into military encampments, shooting teachers and students, bombing the schools – to force their closure. Indigenous children and their teachers are the victims of this campaign.
In September 2017, Obello Bay-ao, a student at Salugpongan’s school in Dulyan, Talaingod, was killed by Alamara paramilitaries while walking home from farming. He was shot 24 times in the back. In the same community, another 15-year-old student was gunned down by Alamara in 2016, while a 14-year-old girl reported being gang raped by soldiers in 2015.
In May 2018, Beverly Geronimo, a teacher of indigenous children, was gunned down in Trento, Agusan del Sur while buying school supplies. In November 2018, four teachers, Tema Namatidong, Julius Torregosa, Ariel Barluado, and Giovanni Solomon, were abducted by the military in Lanao del Sur.
The list of atrocities continues. In June 2018, 72 schools were unable to hold classes because of military harassment. Over 2,000 indigenous students could not attend school because of nearby military encampments.
The schools under attack are part of a movement led by indigenous groups, together with NGOs and church partners, to provide relevant education for their youth, a service largely neglected by the government. Ninety percent of indigenous children lack access to formal education. In the 2000s, indigenous communities established schools in conjunction with their struggles for self-determination, in hopes that education would help protect them from land-grabbing. The military has sought to brand community schools as “training camps” for communist insurgents, recently launching Facebook campaigns towards this purpose.
U.S. military aid is intensifying the conflict in Mindanao, exacerbating its impact on civilians. U.S. investment in aerial surveillance will escalate an air war that has a brutal and indiscriminate effect on people as well as the environment. The integration of “intelligence” activity in counter-terrorism is dangerous. It will likely worsen repression against anyone organizing for indigenous, labor, and human rights — feeding a growing bloodbath as paramilitaries are employed to undermine these local struggles, while providing cover for government troops to escape accountability.
Today’s violence is inseparable from the U.S.’s imperial shadow. The drug war is a purge of humans deemed worthless in a society where social safety nets were never allowed to be developed, where the failure of neoliberal economic reforms now plays into the hands of despotism, and where U.S.-backed elites regularly employ state-paid goons to undermine democracy.
Placed in historical context, Mindanao, and those lands of indigenous communities under attack, were some of the last outposts resisting Spanish and U.S. rule. The islands — dubbed by Trump “a prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint” — have long served as a stepping stone towards U.S. aspirations of dominance in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. military aid continues a long process of “pacification” — and colonial conquest, now unfolding in neocolonial forms.
People’s movements in the Philippines are calling for international solidarity, to end the U.S.-backed militarization of their communities.
They demand also peace with justice — a peace process that adopts structural reforms like those outlined in CASER, a program the NDFP sought to reach agreement on implementing via peace talks, that includes land reform, rescinding neoliberal economic policies, and respecting indigenous land and self-determination.
In 2016, Sandugo, a historic alliance of indigenous and Moro groups from across the Philippines, formed, uniting for self-determination and a just peace. Three thousand delegates met in Manila, and protesters converged on the U.S. embassy, under a banner calling for an end to U.S. intervention and militarization. At the gates of the U.S. embassy, the Philippine police responded by beating people indiscriminately, and a police van ran over the crowd, injuring dozens.
Three years later, the call to end U.S. military aid and lift martial law continues.
In terms of the drug war, one of the first groups to come out in vocal opposition was Kadamay, a mass-based organization of urban poor people. Instead of killings, Kadamay has called for addressing poverty and the root causes of the drug problem — in short, for drug addiction to be treated as a health, not criminal, issue. More recently, an organization of family members of those killed in the drug war has formed, Rise Up For Life and Rights.
To evade accountability, Duterte has shifted drug war operations from under the Philippine National Police (PNP) to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and back to the PNP’s general operation funds. Recently, he eliminated keeping a separate budget item for the drug war — obscuring how much money is being expended on it. The Philippine Congress has not been able to provide effective oversight.
The continuing drug war killings and rampant human rights abuses only underscore that there is no way to ensure U.S. military aid to the Duterte regime does not enable human rights violations. For its part, U.S. military spending is not only overblown, but also often untraceable, secretive, and unaccountable. From Central America to Palestine to the Philippines, U.S. military aid has a sordid legacy of fueling atrocities.
A growing movement is calling on Congress to cut military aid, arms gifts, and arm sales to the Philippines — as well as to end support for the Duterte regime.
The Leahy Law, which stipulates no funding shall be furnished to foreign security forces if the U.S. knows they have committed “a gross violation of human rights,” needs upheld with regard to the Philippines. (For more information on this campaign, please visit: ichrpus.org.
In 2007, due to movement pressure, Congress held a hearing on rising extrajudicial killings in the Philippines under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s regime. Legislation was passed placing restrictions on military aid. The next year, killings decreased significantly.
Our time to act is now.
Amee Chew has a Ph.D. in American Studies & Ethnicity, and is a Mellon-ACLS Public Fellow.
A version of this article first appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.