New Philippine counter-insurgency strategy fails to address the causes of conflict

A new, purportedly human rights-orientated counter-insurgency strategy has little chance of success in the Philippines if the clientelism of a flawed political and economic system is not simultaneously addressed, argues Mark Dearn
Mark Dearn
24 January 2011

2011 marks the dawn of a new strategic approach to combating insurgencies that have long bedevilled the Philippines. An internecine conflict, bred by a political system that entrenches the segmental concentration of power in the archipelago, has resulted in a catalogue of state-led extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. The new tactic - ‘Oplan Bayanihan’ (‘Operation Community Volunteerism’) – purportedly promotes the protection of human rights within a framework of community-centred development, drawing on the American Counter-Insurgency (COIN) Guide of 2009 [pdf] composed under General David Petraeus.

Bayanihan succeeds ‘Oplan Bantay Laya’ (‘Operation Freedom Watch’), which lumped together in one bracket armed insurgents, student activists, priests, teachers and anyone else who gave tacit support to countervailing ideologies. However, without direct recourse to addressing the systemic politico-economic underpinnings of conflict which encourage new cadres to oppose the state, Bayanihan may represent only a cosmetic shift in addressing insurgency.

A year on from the Maguindano killings, a starkly visceral evocation of an endemic culture of political violence, much is claimed to have changed in the Philippines, yet, much remains the same.
Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino, son of 1986 ‘democratisation’ heroine Corazon Aquino, won office in May 2010 from outgoing president Arroyo, widely castigated for her legion of human rights abuses, alleged electoral fraud and corruption. Aquino’s electoral platform, as with many predecessors, was reform. Within ten days of ascending to the presidency, five extrajudicial killings spurred a group of leading bishops to question his commitment to eradicating the prevalent “culture of impunity”, while by September the tally was sixteen extrajudicial killings and two enforced disappearances. Aquino’s commitment to human rights has also been questioned by the decision to avoid the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony, passed off as a diplomatic double-booking error. Yet few should be surprised at the president’s willingness to capitulate to his most influential overseas patrons: Aquino decided, against the grain of regional diplomatic niceties, to snub Asean in favour of a first overseas visit to America.

While initially endorsing and renewing Bantay Laya - which as a former Philippine army officer admitted to this author led directly to the conflating of civilian activists and armed rebels by frontline soldiers - Aquino has now endorsed Bayanihan. The shift is reflected by a growing discontent and recognition in Philippine society of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing, with the film ‘Dukot’ (‘Disappearance’), which chronicles the abduction of a student activist and his girlfriend by the military, winning at the Famas (Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards) awards.

The language of Bayanihan is designed to inspire renewed belief in the military’s attitude to insurgency while concurrently placing blame for past violations on low-ranking soldiers and absolving the military hierarchy of responsibility. It is tagged as a ‘people-centred’ strategy focusing on development and protecting human rights; notably, a soldier’s handbook on human rights has been produced, while soldiers’ wages will double.

However, as Anakpawis representative Rafael Mariano argues, the policy, “promises so-called development while maintaining the status quo...the monopoly and control of the few of the country's resources”. It is the potential to reverse this economic and political status quo, in existence for as long as the structures of the modern Philippine state, which will determine the success or otherwise of Bayanihan.  
While the Philippines has enjoyed strong economic growth averaging more than five percent per year since 2001 and is currently matched only by Thailand in the Asean region, some thirty percent of people livebelow the poverty line: growth has markedly failed to alleviate the poverty, inequality and disenchantment that fuels the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology of Philippine communists and other insurgents.

Why then, in a democracy, do the populous not vote for a change in governance that would bring greater socio-economic equality and opportunity? Put simply, Philippine ‘democracy’, hailed for its vibrancy with scant regard to its efficiency, lack of a functioning party system, and predilection for provincial co-optation, does not give this option.
While democratic governance reaches back to the colonial era, it ensures now as it did then that for provincial elites and the presidents who manage to co-opt them, political power and its concomitant of economic wealth and further ‘electoral’ success will be guaranteed in an un-virtuous circle, regardless of society’s wishes. It was colonial rule that ensured the predominance of effectively party-less provincial ‘caciques’ (‘chiefs’) over the Philippine state and the manner in which national leaders are beholden to provincial clans and warlords enmeshed in a factional system promoting violence and fraud to gain the spoils of office.

American democracy, installed with the colonial rhetoric of benevolent assimilation after the massacre of some 500,000 Filipinos, failed in producing policies of note to benefit wider society. However, the system did, as planned, enrich caciques eager to lithify their provincial power through collaboration with their colonial masters. Legislation such as the Payne-Aldrich Act led to massive cacique enrichment through having in-demand tropical crops produced under a tax-free tariff wall providing access to American markets; concurrently, the majority were ostracised from a system in which national power was rotated among provincial rulers, none of whom would consider undercutting local power.

Andal Ampatuan of Maguindanao, the man behind the 2009 massacre, is a shining example of the colonial inheritance of provincial power and national-provincial clientilism. Ampatuan was well known to be close to Arroyo: Arroyo’s closest rival recorded no votes at all in three towns he controlled in the 2004 presidential elections. In return, he held a private army of 500 men, ran uncontested in gubernatorial re-election bids, his son was permitted to stand for governor in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao – becoming the first governor with no rebel links – and he held a government memorandum authorising his civilian volunteer organisations to bear arms.  

Against this backdrop, well understood by anti-state actors, the potential success of a policy which seeks to halt conflicts which have their roots in political and economic inequality without addressing the systemic causes of that inequality is questionable at best. 
As insurgency expert Robert Kilcullen notes, the aim of counter-insurgency is to “return the insurgency’s parent society to its normal mode of interaction.” In the Philippines it is the normal mode of interaction itself which promotes insurgency, with the veneer of Philippine ‘democracy’ and economic growth sating only the relatively few who benefit from it.

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