Death Squads and Democracy


Why would Philippine judges hamper a human rights investigation into a killing field where many human remains are found in Davao, victims allegedly of the infamous death squad?  Why would the members of the Commission on Human Rights be charged themselves?  Human Rights Watch says local authorities are obstructing the course of justice and investigation into almost a thousand assassinations in the past decade.  How can this be in an Asian democracy?

Most people in northern democracies presume that there is a democratically elected government in the Philippines and that human rights will be generality respected and upheld.  It also presumes that the rule of law prevails most of the time and that the democratically elected government will respect the provision of treaties, conventions and protocols it has signed.  In the Philippines that is not so.

Corruption is widespread and election fraud, cheating, vote buying, and intimidation are common, so democracy is far from real.  The same powerful wealthy family dynasties continue to dominate the so-called election process, and it’s not so much rule by the people or for the people, but the rule of the elite for their own interests.  In the Philippines, traditionally, an oligarchy of a few very powerful families rules the country and controls the economy.  They place their family members into government positions to advance their own economic interests.

They thus control the congress and other branches of government.  Many are incompetent to govern, and they form a military and police force that is built around their own relatives, friends and beneficiaries.  Therefore the forces are loyal to the patriarch or family head, not to the people.  They are selected not on the basis of their professional merit and competence but on their loyalty to the head of the dynasty. Promotion in the ranks of military or police depends on the power of their patron.

Thus, the history of street protest shows police and military shooting dozens of protesters that challenge the ruling elite.  The military will stand against the farmers and protect the interests of the powerful landowners.  Human rights are cast aside in favor of protecting the politicians and the ruling families.

The “Democratic” Philippines is a myth and the enduring “death squads” and cover-up is proof of that.  The death squads existing in many cities are to create a culture of fear and control and suppress the people’s protest of injustice and unendurable poverty.

Davao City and the surrounding province are rife with inequality and land exploitation, injustice and widespread poverty, and a few vastly wealthy families control the land and the banana industry.  The military and police protect their interests against impoverished peasants or militant social and human rights activists demanding land reform, just wages, and health care.

Davao is the most prominent example of murdering death squads that kill even street children, although there is a similar situation in all other Philippine provinces.  It arose they say in the 1970s and 80s when a groundswell of protest by organized impoverished farmers and their supporters frightened the ruling families and they set up the assassination squads to eliminate them.  The insurgents counter with their own assassination squads.  There was much killing and violence.  The government-backed assassination squads triumphed, and a permanent well-paid “assassination squad” was established.

Men dressed in black clothes, equipped with radios, guns, and knives and riding motorcycles, calmly ride up to suspects and shoot them dead.  To this day, the squad operates with impunity.  National and international human rights organizations have continually called for an investigation and for the killers to be brought to justice.  When Human Rights Commission Chair Leila De Lima did so this year, she was met with uncooperative justices, officials, and citizens.  The politicians and police commanders say that rival gangs are killing each other.

Politicians deny its existence but the discovery of many corpses makes that untenable.  The authorities are desperate to prevent the truth from being revealed.  The challenge and international pressure on the government to end the killings and disband the assassination squad is growing.  If they do, the suffering, poverty, and injustice may again surface to challenge the “democratically” elected elite.  Some strange democracy this is.

Father Shay Cullen, nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a priest from Ireland and member of the Missionary Society of St. Columban; he has worked in the Philippines since 1969.  Father Cullen established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo, the Philippines in 1974 to promote human rights, justice, and peace.  Fr. Cullen is also the author of Passion and Power and writes a weekly column in the Manila Times.

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