The Arroyo regime response to the national and international outcry against the extra-judicial killings that it at least tolerates and at most orchestrates as a national policy has so far been two-pronged.
It denies that the killings are even occurring (they’re not extra-judicial killings, they’re merely “unexplained”; besides, there have only been about a hundred or so—a mere “blood speck”—and not 830 as human rights groups have documented).
But it is also trying to prove its claim that it’s not the military that’s responsible. It’s the New People’s Army as well as the leaders and members of legal left groups like Bayan Muna that are doing it in the course of an “internal purge” that began in the 1980s and continues to this day, says the regime chorus.
Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s recent statements are part of the denial approach. Over the last month or so, she’s declared that the Philippines is among the “most democratic” countries in Asia, and that her government is expanding democratic space. She has proclaimed, for all the world to hear, that she has “no tolerance” for human rights violations. After many months of silence about it, she also claimed on at least two recent occasions that she values press freedom.
The approach is at least validated by Joseph Goebbels, who believed, and who was probably right, that if you repeat a lie no matter how big often enough, people will eventually believe it. Goebbels, who orchestrated the propaganda campaign against the Jews during the Nazi period in Germany, did add a cautionary note to the Big Lie, however. “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.”
Goebbels also declared that it is “vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
Translation: you can only lie so much. If you keep declaring that the Philippines is a democratic, prosperous state, you must also conceal evidence to the contrary from the people. What’s more, you must use all the state’s resources to suppress dissent, because the truth will be your undoing.
Although the Big Lie as propaganda technique is often attributed to Goebbels, he had a mentor. Adolf Hitler said something to the same effect in his book Mein Kampf, where he declared that a big lie rather than a small one is more likely to be believed for its very outrageousness. Like Mrs. Arroyo, Hitler also made it a policy never to admit mistakes or accept blame. Instead he attributed everything ill to his enemies, primarily the Jews, and later, when he was at war with them, the Allied forces.
They may not have read Hitler or Goebbels, but the propagandists of the Arroyo regime apparently have the same instincts. In keeping with the principle of attributing everything to your enemies, the military has been trying to prove its claim that it’s the NPA and its “allied” and “co-conspirator” organizations (i.e., the leftwing party list groups) that have been doing the killings of leftwing activists. Not only have the killings gone on for over 20 years, their victims have also included children.
Thus did the military claim to find the remains of 67 alleged victims of an NPA purge some twenty years ago in Leyte. And thus has the military recently claimed to have found another grave, in which the remains included those of two children. All, including the children, were supposedly NPA guerillas the NPA itself executed, in the killing of whom the military had nothing to do with– although the rapidity with which the graves are being discovered does suggest something else.
The military has also filed charges of human rights violations against the NPA before the Commission on Human Rights. It has also lined up one witness after another to testify—more before the media than the courts—against Bayan Muna’s Satur Ocampo, for one, and other people it alleges to be NPA guerillas.
Since NPA guerillas are in rebellion against the Philippine state and will be difficult if not impossible to prosecute, one advantage the military can gain from the discovery of all those “gravesites” is to reinforce the suits now pending against Ocampo and others accused of mass murder in Leyte. But the even bigger gain—or so it hopes—is to prove UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, Amnesty International, the Asian Human Rights Council, and other human rights groups wrong. All have uniformly identified the military as responsible for the killing of political activists, and all have described these killings as “extra-judicial”—i.e., they are a state responsibility.
Will this tack work? Remember Goebbels’ warning that for the big lie to prosper, it is necessary to shield the people from the truth. The imperatives of the big lie require an aggressive campaign not only to suppress free expression, but also a sustained effort to show that the country is not only a democracy but also a prosperous one in which no one is harassed or even killed for his or her views, and no one goes hungry. The big lie also demands proof that it’s not the military but the NPA and the Communist Party of the Philippines—the regime’s main enemies—that are doing the killings.
Can the regime sustain this campaign without further damage to its basement-level credibility? Not likely. After all, it will require the discovery of more and more “graves”, as well as bigger and bigger lies. It is almost certain that more graves will be found not only in Leyte but in other places all over the archipelago. The AFP after all knows where the bodies are literally buried, some of its units having put them there in the first place.
But you can only go so far without digging your own grave, as the economy deteriorates and such other lies as that the country has never been more prosperous fall apart in the face of hunger, mass misery, injustice and official corruption. AFP chief of staff Hermogenes Esperon says neither he nor the AFP is an undertaker, and he’s right. The more accurate term is grave-digger.