Missing the point—again

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Despite martial law in the Philippines and the defeat of the United States and its favored regime in Vietnam in 1975, is the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) still missing the point?

AFP intelligence does seem to be familiar with events in Vietnam, where the communist-led National Liberation Front (or the “Viet Cong” as the United States referred to them) won power in 1975. But a media briefing by a Philippine Navy intelligence officer last week didn’t mention the country’s own martial law experience at all.

The officer briefed the media on the controversial “Knowing Your Enemy: Are We Missing the Point” briefing paper, parts of which the AFP released last week. The officer warned that something like the Tet offensive in Vietnam and an uprising similar to what happened in Russia in 1917 could happen in the Philippines.

While the Bolshevik triumph in Russia created the first socialist state in history, the Vietnamese experience is more relevant to the Philippine situation. The Philippines’ own experience with martial law has its own lessons to offer.

The Communist Party-led New People’s Army is waging a guerilla war along the lines waged by the Viet Cong. But the Vietnamese experience is also relevant in another sense.

In the late 1960s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), together with the armed forces of the US-backed South Vietnamese regime, launched Operation Phoenix, a program for the systematic assassination of Viet Cong cadres and sympathizers.

When it officially ended in 1971, Operation Phoenix had outrightly killed or tortured to death some 40,000 mostly non-combatant Vietnamese civilians. Those killed included village leaders, students, women–anyone suspected of collaborating with, or of being sympathetic to, the Viet Cong.

The March 1968 massacre of women, children and elderly men in the tiny village of My Lai was part of Operation Phoenix. In that incident, the US soldiers responsible claimed that they had received “intelligence” that the only people who would be in My Lai on the day of the attack would be hard-core Viet Cong guerillas.

Of added interest for Filipinos is the claim in some US publications that the killing, torture and forced disappearances of suspected NPA cadres and sympathizers in rural Philippines during the martial law period were part of a Philippine counterpart program.

But what is of equal interest is that the ongoing killing of above-ground activists who are either leaders or members of legal organizations seems to echo Operation Phoenix. Although on a scale lower than the Vietnam War atrocities, the killings began in 2001 and their number has dramatically risen in the last few weeks.

They have become sufficiently numerous to revive memories of martial law. During that period, an average of three non-combatants a week was being killed by the Marcos military. As of March, however, seven people a week were being killed on average, all of them members or leaders of legal, including party-list, organizations the AFP claims to be Communist fronts.

The irony is that in Vietnam during the US presence, as well as in the Philippines during the US-supported martial law regime, state terror in the form of assassinations, torture and forced disappearances didn’t work.

The US lost a war for the first time in its history, was driven out of Vietnam, and the regime it supported overthrown. The Marcos regime collapsed despite the elaborate machinery of repression the military had created. Along the way the repression managed to help transform the New People’s Army from a rag-tag army of 70 in 1971 to a force the military estimated at 26,000 in 1986.

In both instances the point seemed clear: repression doesn’t end rebellion; it encourages resistance. It does kill people, but invites legions to take their place. It’s simple enough for even morons to understand. The violence of repression gives people no other option except to use violence themselves.

Together with the signal lesson that repression breeds resistance rather than surrender is the lesson that allowing dissent and encouraging reform can be anti-theses to revolution. Dissent convinces people that a political and social system, no matter how seemingly reprehensible, is not without hope. Reforms, even of the most cosmetic kind, meanwhile imply that the same system can work.

The point seemed to have been well demonstrated and understood for the United States to reverse its 1960s-1970s policy of supporting right-wing dictatorships, including those in Latin America and Asia, where the most prominent were those of Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia.

Since the 1980s the US has exerted every effort to prove that it’s on the side of democracy and liberty rather than on that of dictatorship and tyranny, and has counseled its client states to behave accordingly. Even the Bush administration still declares support for democracy as official policy while savaging that democratic precept, self-determination. But the behavior of its Philippine client, the Arroyo government, could suggest a return to the tactics of old in addressing insurgencies.

What has raised alarm bells about the AFP’s “Knowing The Enemy” briefing is precisely that implication. The briefing was prepared and is being disseminated in the context of the ongoing assassinations of legal, aboveground activists, whose organizations it identifies as CPP fronts.

Indeed, their members’ being targeted and some of these organizations’ identification in the briefing suggests that the AFP, rather than focusing on defeating the NPA on the battlefield, is concentrating on the so-called “legal machinery” of the CPP. If the killing of activists and the demonization of sectoral and media organizations, and even of Church groups indicate anything, it is thus a radical shift of government policy from its random intolerance of dissent in the past to systematic repression. If that is the case, both the Philippine government and its military arm could be, once again, missing the point.

(Commentary, Philippine Daily Inquirer)

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