Philippines: Extrajudicial killings and the struggle for land reform under ‘Noynoy’ Aquino

Satur Ocampo.

Satur Ocampo, Bayan Muna president, interviewed by Reihana Mohideen

August 11, 2010 -- Some 1205 extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, largely political activists and journalists, took place under the government of former Philippines president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, according to the human rights organisation Karapatan. In the few weeks since the June 30 inauguration of the new president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, six extrajudicial killings have taken place, three being members of organisations aligned with the Bayan Muna (Country First) party.

Bayan Muna is an electoral formation and Satur Ocampo is its president. Ocampo is a former member of the Philippines Congress representing Bayan Muna, when Bayan Muna topped the 2001 and 2004 party list elections (the system of proportional representation for the marginalised sectors). Ocampo headed the peace negotiations panel of the National Democratic Front, allied with the Communist Party of the Philippines–New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), after the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.

Ocampo spoke to Reihana Mohideen about prospects under the new administration of “Noynoy” Aquino.

The character of the Noynoy government

“The current period under the ‘Noynoy’ presidency is similar to the transition from the Marcos dictatorship to the Cory [Aquino] government, but to a lesser degree, in light of the initial statements of Noynoy, [where] there is not much promise of fundamental change.

“The Cory government promised to be the exact opposite of the Marcos dictatorship, but change did not lead to any fundamental shifts in economic development, US relations or the basic redress of historical grievances. The response of Noynoy, like the response of his mother, falls short of the reforms necessary for people to feel the difference in their daily lives. Noynoy is in a similar position to his mother, [but] Cory at least had the authority to dismantle the martial law decrees, policies and programs, but didn’t do it.

“Noynoy is hobbled by having [the former president] GMA [Gloria Macapagal Arroyo] as a member of the House [of Representatives] leading the opposition, which still has a substantial number, just less than one-third  [of the House of Representatives]. They can make it difficult for his anti-corruption measures.

“The Truth Commission [established by the president to investigate corruption charges under the previous Arroyo presidency] can only recommend actions against GMA and high-ranking officials. It lacks the authority to act, to proceed [on its recommendations]. It depends on the Ombudsman [headed by a close ally of the Arroyos] to act on these recommendations.

“While the elections gave a mandate to Noynoy, his party – the Liberal Party – does not have a majority in the House or the Senate. So I also think that Noynoy is being careful about how he moves… He has opted for the option of compromising.

“His cabinet clearly represents the interests of big business, especially in people such as Rogelio Singson (secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways). His recruitment pool is very narrow. [The cabinets include] those who served under Cory, the previous administration, such as the Hyatt 10 [a bloc of right-wing social democrats who were former cabinet members of the Arroyo administration]. No one in his cabinet represents new ideas. So it’s business as usual, except that he says that he will do away with corruption.

“His approach is oversimplified. He does not lay down the direction for economic planning, how to develop agriculture in relation to industry [and other] key elements that would answer major problems, such as job creation.  He says that job creation will follow with investments in infrastructure, in post-harvest facilities … but this is nebulous. … Defence -- he allows the  [Armed Forces of the Philippines] chiefs to articulate policy, without any comments from him on whether he supports it or not.

The counter-insurgency against the CPP-NPA

“When he appointed his new army chief Arturo Ortiz [commanding general of the Philippines Army], he said that they would defeat the CPP-NPA in three years (GMA said that she would do it by 2006). The counter-insurgency Operation Bantay Laya [launched under GMA] targeted both ‘legal’ [activists in the open mass movement] and armed activists. The ‘theory’ was that in order to defeat the armed component you had to defeat the political structures – the open mass movement had to be paralysed and its leaders neutralised. Noynoy has said nothing about this [Operation Bantay Laya]. Have these operations ended?

“Already, since Noynoy assumed the presidency six activists have been killed, three of them members of our party-list groups. It looks like Noynoy will not disturb the counter-insurgency program.

“We also want human rights violations to be a part of the Truth Commission. Noynoy has not categorically stated his position on the extrajudicial killings. He says that the six killings so far under his watch will be resolved, but this is only under his watch and nothing about the preceding cases. It looks like he’s following in the tracks of the first Aquino government.

“The criminal cases filed against us [54 persons have been charged with murder, including the party list Congress representatives and Jose Maria Sison, the National Democratic Front (NDF) consultant based in Holland] still remain. They said that I represented the central committee and went to Leyte and gave orders to cleanse the ranks.[1] But in 1984 I was still in military custody [in the period that the killings were supposed to have taken place] and I only escaped in 1985. Then the military changed the dates … [and] a warrant of arrest can still be issued.”

The struggle for land reform

A key focus of the struggle for land reform in the country today is Hacienda Luisita, some 6453 hectares of land belonging to the Cojuangco-Aquino clan (Cory Cojuangco Aquino was a member of the Cojuangco clan). The land is subject to the land reform provisions of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, a cornerstone land reform program of the former government of Cory Aquino. The Cojuangco-Aquino clan have resisted the redistribution of their land to the farmers and workers at Hacienda Luisita. Some of the main farmers and workers organisations involved in the struggle for land reform at Hacienda Luisita belong to the Bayan forces.

Ocampo points out that “Noynoy is very quiet about Hacienda Luisita. He didn’t mention it in his inaugural address, although during the election campaign he expressed his desire to redistribute the land, but he was contradicted by his cousin who is managing Hacienda Luisita. The family does not want to let go of the land. The Supreme Court is currently reviewing the petition of the family against the decision of the Department of Agrarian Reform, in 2006, to distribute the land. When the Cojuangcos acquired the land in 1958 they signed an agreement that they would hand over the land in ten years, but they did not do so. There are a lot of problems facing Noynoy and he may not be able to size up the degree of the problems he faces.”
The Hacienda Luisita struggle for land reform has once again heated up in the last few days in the lead up to the Supreme Court decision due on August 18. In order to pre-empt the court’s decision and evade the implementation of land reform the Cojuangco clan have reached a so-called compromise deal with some farm worker leaders – a deal that provides only a small portion of 1366 hectares of the hacienda for “redistribution option”. Furthermore, the compromise deal runs against the spirit of the 1987 constitution.  

Ocampo concluded: “We have seven representatives [in Congress]. Our party list representatives and the mass movement are working on a people’s agenda, for the legislature and for the long term. If things continue with more of the same with Noynoy, ultimately we will be at cross-purposes. We are still waiting for the signals of change.”

[1] In the mid-1980s the CPP carried out a campaign to cleanse the party of “deep penetration agents” who had supposedly infiltrated the organisation. The campaign resulted in the torture and deaths of hundreds of party members. Recently a grave of several bodies was found in Leyte. The GMA regime claimed that these were the victims of the “anti-DPA” campaign by the CPP and charged several allegedly CPP leaders with murder.