PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III has “vowed,” say media reports, to get the killers of Fr. Fausto Tentorio even if they should turn out to be members of the paramilitary groups he, Aquino, has refused to dismantle.
The call has been made often for the dismantling of paramilitary groups, among them the Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) and Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) armed and trained by the Armed Forces and that have figured prominently in the assassinations and massacres, illegal arrest and detention, and abduction and torture that in many areas of the Philippine countryside occur with impunity. But that call assumed particular urgency in the aftermath of the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009, in which the CVOs that were functioning as part of the private armies of the Maguindanao warlords figured prominently.
By no means was the Fr. Tentorio killing the only incident of its kind. Others, including priests, community activists, and Muslim and lumad leaders, have also been killed in Mindanao, both prior to and during the present administration.
One of the most shocking cases was that of another Italian priest, Fr. Tulio Favali, who was murdered in 1985 when the brutal reign of Ferdinand Marcos was still in place. Fr. Favali was killed by a group of paramilitaries known as the Ilaga, led by one Norberto Manero and his brothers, who were local hoods funded and armed by the Philippine military to suppress such signs of communist sympathies as the wearing of red t-shirts, and resistance to the Marcos autocracy. Manero and his brothers were convicted in 1987 for the murder. Manero’s pardon by Joseph Estrada in 1999 was revoked because of another murder case against him, but his brothers were released in 2003.
The Marcos regime was overthrown in 1986. But despite a brief respite, the killings and other human rights violations—illegal arrest and detention as well as disappearances and torture–resumed almost immediately. During Corazon Aquino’s term the killings in the countryside continued. In addition, however, the Aquino administration was also characterized by ambushes on and the assassination of presumed leftist leaders in the cities, including Manila.
The killings did not stop in the succeeding administrations of Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, and in fact escalated to martial law levels during the nine years that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was in power. From 2001 to 2010 the killing of journalists also reached new heights, culminating in the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009, which was both the worst incident of political violence in the Philippines as well as the worst case of journalists and media workers killed both for the number of its casualties (58) and the brutality with which the crimes were committed.
The reason why extra-judicial killings have continued is clear enough: despite EDSA 1 and its promise of fundamental political and social reforms, nothing has really changed in terms of the wielders of power, whose interests are deeply rooted in the preservation and even enhancement of the social and economic structures that have kept the majority poor. To defend those interests they frustrate every demand for reform, among them the dismantling of the paramilitary groups that in their estimation they need to help the Armed Forces keep social movements at bay.
That conviction supersedes every other consideration, whether it be to halt or merely minimize human rights violations, restraining if not stopping the headlong rush– led by various interests and abetted by the government– to environmental ruin, or stopping the killings for which, uniquely among the countries of Southeast Asia, the Philippines has gained dubious distinction.
Despite the paeans his media and civil society choruses periodically sing to him, and his own reformist fancies, Benigno Aquino III is no different from his predecessors. He has demonstrated this a number of times, which include (1) his refusal to even consider the dismantling of the paramilitary groups that together with the police and the military were responsible for such crimes as the Ampatuan Massacre; (2) his approval of the military decision to put those groups in charge of security in the mining companies; (3) the obsession with “national security” that’s behind his antipathy to a freedom of information law; (4) his adopting of a supposedly “new” anti-insurgency strategy that has been blamed for a number of human rights violations; and (4) overall, his failure to live up to his promises of defending human rights, and to assure rapid state response to the killing of journalists.
Mr. Aquino’s so-called assurance that his administration would “get” the killers of Fr. Tentorio was not all that reassuring. Lost to the reporters to whom he made the assurance that the killers would be apprehended even if they belonged to the military or paramilitaries was the caveat that the involvement of the latter groups was, after all, only a theory and that there were others involving “other threat groups.”
Mr. Aquino’s tepid statement occurred in the context of the military’s outright dismissal of the charge, leveled by Fr. Tentorio’s constituents among the lumad, that local CAFGU members were behind the assassination.
In a puzzling twist of logic, a military spokesperson argued that CAFGU members could not have been involved because Fr. Tentorio was against mining and criminality, which presumes that CAFGU members are also against mining and criminality, despite past evidence to the contrary and their present assignments as mining company security forces (over the objections of such human rights groups as Amnesty International) and, in not a few instances, their backgrounds as local hoods and guns-for-hire.
One would have expected some admission at least that the involvement of the CAFGU was possible and worth looking into, if only to allay suspicions that the military’s covering up the involvement of its paramilitary clients.
The disturbing thing is that Mr. Aquino has only the military to rely on for insights into who did what to whom, and how badly the country needs the services, despite their involvement in massacres, assassinations , abductions and various other human rights violations, of the paramilitaries. But what’s even more disturbing is the distinct possibility that like his predecessors, Mr. Aquino believes that only by preserving the reign of assassins will he and his ilk be assured of keeping the power and the perks that for centuries, so they’ve often told themselves, have been theirs by right.