Philippines: State of Emergency for the U.S. Empire

On the morning of February 24, 2006, President Gloria Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017 (PP 1017), which declared a State of Emergency throughout the Philippines.  Using identical words as those of Ferdinand Marcos when he declared martial law in 1972,  Arroyo ordered the armed forces to suppress “any act of insurrection or rebellion.”  Arroyo claimed there was an imminent danger of a coup planned by the “extreme left” and “extreme right,” with the goal of setting up a “military-communist dictatorship.”  The Arroyo regime, with US backing, apparently believed that the bigger the lie, the more likely it would be believed.

It was no coincidence that Arroyo issued PP 1017 during the nationwide 20th anniversary celebrations of People Power 1, which resulted in the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.  In fact, the State of Emergency, which lasted for a week, was aimed at the main forces of the Philippine left: Nationalist, democratic organizations such as BAYAN and Gabriela, six progressive congressional representatives from Bayan Muna (People First party), Gabriela Women’s Party, and Anakpawis (party of workers, peasants, and urban poor), and the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army.  These forces had been working to unite all political forces to bring down the Arroyo government and replace it with a transitional government composed of patriotic and democratic forces.

Arroyo’s State of Emergency revoked all rally permits, called out police to break up peaceful demonstrations, instituted press restrictions, and permitted warrantless arrests of opposition figures.  Within days, Arroyo’s Department of Justice released a list of 59 alleged coup plotters, including the 6 leftist congresspeople and 47 alleged leaders and members of the CPP (headed by Jose Maria Sison, the founding CPP chairman currently exiled in the Netherlands).  Six military officers were added to the list in order to promote the fiction of an extreme right-extreme left coup attempt.

24 February 2006, The Philippines
Photo by Voltaire Domingo

On the afternoon of February 24, the government moved to break up a BAYAN-led march to the People Power Monument in downtown Manila, which went ahead in defiance of PP 1017.  Thousands of riot police, using truncheons and tear gas, attacked the marchers, who set out to join a larger gathering of anti-Arroyo groups in the Makati business district.  Students streamed into Makati in spite of the government’s order to shut down college and high school campuses.  Late in the evening, riot police moved in on the peaceful gathering of 50,000 people in Makati, dispersing it by force.

Photos by Voltaire Domingo
24 February 2006 24 February 2006

The following morning, police agents arrested 74-year-old Crispin Beltran, a veteran labor leader and Anakpawis representative in Congress, and took him to Camp Crame in Manila for interrogation.  The pretext for Beltran’s arrest was a warrant issued by Marcos in 1985!  Soon afterwards, armed plainclothesmen attempted to arrest Bayan Muna representative Satur Ocampo, one of the longest-held political prisoners under the Marcos dictatorship.  As troops massed outside TV stations, police agents raided the editorial offices of the Daily Tribune, an anti-Arroyo newspaper.  The first political fatality of the State of Emergency was a 54-year-old teacher-activist, Napoleon Pornasdoro, gunned down by a suspected military death squad south of Manila.  His name was added to the list of more than 250 leftist activists murdered since Arroyo came to power in 2001.

On February 25, protests broke out throughout Manila and in outlying provincial centers.

BAYAN called for continued defiance of PP 1017 in the streets, schools, factories, and communities.  The National Union of Journalists called for the end of the State of Emergency and of attacks on the media.  Hundreds of workers, led by the leftist KMU, gathered outside Camp Crame, demanding Rep. Beltran’s release.  Messages of support came in from labor leaders and Philippine solidarity groups around the world.

The congressional representatives who had not yet been arrested, including Ocampo and Liza Maza of Gabriela Women’s Party, made their way to the House of Representatives.  Rep. Ocampo issued an appeal to the Filipino people to “hold fast to our hard-earned rights and liberties. . . . Mrs. Arroyo’s true colors have emerged.  Her regime is nothing but a fascist dictatorship in the works.”  All but a few Arroyo loyalists in Congress voted for a resolution opposing the arrest of the leftist legislators, concerned that this would set a precedent that could be used against them.  These moves produced a stand-off with the police and troops waiting outside.

Unstable Regime

The State of Emergency was an act of desperation of the US-backed Arroyo government, faced with a rapidly shrinking base of popular support.  Its credibility was shredded by blatant fraud in the 2004 presidential elections.  Arroyo was caught on tape with her elections commissioner discussing how to steal one million votes from the opposition.  The economy is in constant crisis, with 2/3 of the budget being spent on servicing the foreign debt and support for the bloated armed forces.  The economy would go into a free fall without billions of dollars in remittances from overseas workers, now making up 10% of the country’s population.

The AFP (army) and PNP (national police) are shot through with corruption.  They have been suffering mounting losses of manpower and weapons in engagements with the 10,000-strong New People’s Army, which operates in 130 guerilla fronts throughout the archipelago.  The NPA has begun to make contacts and establish cooperation with disillusioned junior officers and enlisted men.  The day after the State of Emergency was issued, the NPA in one area of Mindanao launched 7 tactical offensives to punish military units with particularly egregious human rights records. 

At the same time, the CPP, which leads the NPA, reiterated its policy of opposing military coups.  The CPP’s strategy is to isolate and disintegrate the Arroyo regime politically and militarily through a combination of agrarian revolution and guerrilla warfare in the countryside, and the development of powerful mass movements in Manila and other major cities, where the regime’s power is concentrated.

The deepening economic and political crisis, including the military reverses suffered by the AFP and PNP, have also pushed high-ranking rightist officers into plotting coups against Arroyo.  Senior commanders of the elite Scout Rangers, Marines, and PNP Special Action Force named by Arroyo may have been involved in such machinations.  However, they are fierce opponents of the left, and many advocate an open form of military rule.

The U.S. Connection

Alarm bells are ringing at the State Department and Pentagon over the deteriorating situation in this former U.S. colony.  Since the declaration of formal independence in 1946, the Philippines’ economy, politics, military, and culture have all been dominated by U.S. imperialism.  President Arroyo went to Georgetown University with Bill Clinton.  No Philippine President has been “elected” without U.S. approval.  Some of the top military chiefs are West Point graduates, and the Philippines is now the 4th largest recipient of US weapons and other military aid in the world.

Just days after PP 1017 was issued, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill showed up in Manila to meet with President Arroyo and her advisers at Malacanang Palace.  These emergency meetings certainly discussed strategies to suppress the left, to end the threat of coup attempts by rightist officers, and to do so without completely dropping the fig leaf of democracy in the Philippines.  Hill then traveled to inspect a US military base in southern Mindanao, the center for “joint training exercises” involving over 5,000 US marines and Special Forces.  Meanwhile, a spokesman at the American embassy piously expressed support for “democracy and respect for the rule of law.”

This flurry of U.S. activity around the Philippines comes at a time of increasingly strong tremors in the U.S. neo-colonial empire, breaking out in Iraq, Palestine, Haiti, Bolivia, Venezuela, and many other countries.  The U.S. government is also acutely aware of the advances of the revolutionary movements in South Asia.  Bush’s trip to India this week is described as strengthening relations with “the world’s largest democracy.”  One key item on their agenda will be how to counter the rise of Maoist revolutionary movements in India and Nepal.  The Communist  Party of India (Maoist) is active politically and militarily in 12 Indian states.  Across the border, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has liberated nearly all of the countryside from centuries of oppressive rule and is working closely with seven parliamentary parties to topple one of the last monarchies in the world and to set up a democratic government in Kathmandu. 

What’s Next?

The State of Emergency in the Philippines was lifted today.  PP 1017 was a quick fix; it didn’t address the underlying crisis in the Philippines.  It won’t stop rightist military coup attempts.  It won’t stop the revolutionary strivings of the workers, peasants, urban poor, women, youth, the church sector, and the Moro and indigenous peoples.  Greater repression, which is likely to come, will only swell the ranks of the legal mass organizations in the cities and send new streams of young workers and students to join the NPA in the mountains.

In the coming days and weeks, we can expect to see media show trials of the 6 leftist congressional representatives and communist leaders of various sectors of the people.  Opportunists and unsavory characters, coached by Philippine intelligence officers, will come forward with evidence of an “extreme left-extreme right” coup attempt and other alleged crimes against the state.  It will convince few.  The Empress is running out of clothes.

Dave Pugh is a teacher and anti-imperialist activist in New York City.  For a background article on the developing crisis in the Philippines written in July 2005, see Dave Pugh, “Ring-Tone Revolution in the Philippines” (MRZine, 23 July 2005).