‘Modernizing’ repression

The Washington DC, USA-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is concerned over the sale to the Duterte regime of $2.5 billion worth of US fighter jets and precision guided missiles.

In an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post, HRW’s Washington Advocacy Officer Elisa Epstein warned that the Biden administration would be “reward(ing) an increasingly abusive government with such a large weapons sale.”

Epstein pointed out that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) had only recently asked for approval to begin an investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed in connection with the thousands of extrajudicial killings in President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs.” The weapons sale would be contrary to US President Joseph Biden’s pledge “that the new administration would put human rights at the center of US foreign policy.”

The Biden administration, Epstein recalled, had earlier approved the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Egypt and Israel, despite those countries’ human rights record.

“To put it bluntly,” she continued, “the Biden administration is selling weapons to at least three human rights abusers — the Philippines, Egypt, and Israel — despite a pledge to make human rights central to its foreign policy.”

It is not only the Biden administration that has pledged to do so. The 39th US President, “Jimmy” Carter, also made the same pledge, and other presidents also implied in their criticism of other countries that they were of the same mind. But the US has continued to support through such sales, military and economic aid, and other means the rule of some of the worst human rights abusers in Asia and Latin America.

The key factor in US support for such governments has always been whether they serve its economic and strategic interests, as summed up in the policy of “full spectrum dominance” that, cloaked in its supposed mission to bring democracy and freedom to benighted lands, drives the foreign relations of every US administration.

HRW shouldn’t have been surprised about the sale of weapons to the Philippines. It is, after all, only one more indication of what motivates US foreign policy, the practice of which has had a long and troubling history in this country.

During a visit to the Philippines in 1966, then US President Lyndon B. Johnson for example referred to Ferdinand Marcos as “my right arm in Asia.”

No one knows what Marcos thought of his being so cavalierly described as another head of state’s instrument because he never said anything about it — at least not in public.

But his resentment, if he did resent it, was presumably assuaged by the joint communiqué between him and Johnson that they issued at the end of the US President’s visit. Among others, that document committed the US to providing funding for the allowances, equipment, and other needs of the engineering battalion that Marcos eventually deployed in Vietnam to support the then US effort to make it appear that the war it was waging there had the support of the international community.

There was also the promise of additional economic aid to the Philippines. Pressed to reveal what exactly was motivating him to send troops to Vietnam, which he had earlier opposed, Marcos demurred, and some opposition congressmen and senators warned that the US bonanza could end up as pork barrel funds. They were of course right: Marcos had yielded to US pressure because it was also to his and his allies’, cronies’ and cohorts’ advantage as well as that of the US’.

Marcos had not yet placed the Philippines under martial law during the 1966 Johnson visit. But his having done so six years later in 1972 did not prevent George H.W. Bush (later US President and the father of George W., who himself became President from 2001 to 2009) from proclaiming in 1981 that he and the US, then led by Ronald Reagan as President, and of which he was Vice-President, “love (Marcos’) adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes,” and following that up with the pledge that “we will not leave you in isolation.”

What not leaving him “in isolation” meant the Marcos regime had been amply demonstrating since Sept. 23, 1972 when his Presidential Proclamation 1081 went into effect. Not only were the troops that arrested and detained journalists, his opposition, student, labor and farmer leaders, academics, artists and writers and other dissenters; or who abducted, tortured and summarily killed others — brandishing US-manufactured weaponry. The blankets, food trays, and drinking cups issued to political detainees during their incarceration were also all stamped “made in USA” and were part of the US military aid that the Marcos regime was using to keep itself in power.

Some analysts may argue that in selling advanced weaponry to the Duterte regime, Biden and his defense and security advisers are looking at it as a means of enabling the Philippine military to resist with some credibility Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea. It is also their response to Mr. Duterte’s declaration that for the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to continue, the US “will have to pay.” Despite the reality of despotic rule, and the US’ interest in “containing” Chinese military and economic ambitions, it would still be to the Philippines’ advantage to “modernize” the military as possession of advanced weaponry would do.

Unfortunately, those weapons would also “modernize” repression. The defense of Philippine interests and sovereignty against foreign incursions in its territorial waters has not been Mr. Duterte’s preferred role for the military. Rather, that role been explicitly and loudly limited to the suppression of dissent. Thus did the Commander-in-Chief only recently reiterate his instructions to “his” soldiers to kill alleged members and sympathizers of the New People’s Army (NPA), which he and the military very loosely define as activists and anyone else who dares criticize the regime.

The Philippine military has never been an instrument against external aggression, as its failure to prevent the country’s falling into Japanese hands during World War II showed and as it is currently demonstrating in the West Philippine Sea. Seventy-five years after 1946, the Philippines is still relying on the US to defend it, because, like the guardia civil of the Spanish colonial period, the military has always been an internal pacification force charged with the very same task of silencing social protest that the Duterte regime has assigned to it.

Indeed, as HRW and other human rights groups fear, the likelihood is that the sophisticated weaponry the US will be supplying it with will be used against those Filipinos the Duterte regime has labeled “enemies of the State” and to bomb with the use of US-sourced aircraft supposedly NPA-influenced communities as it is already doing.

Despite its human rights prattle, that hardly matters to the US government. Regardless of which party is in control of it, whether Republican or Democrat, the bottom line is if, in its calculation, arms sales and aid to “increasingly abusive government(s)” will contribute to the advancement and protection of US interests.

The Duterte regime’s policies over the last five years should be proof enough that the Biden administration is mistaken in assuming that selling it arms will be to the US’ benefit. It will not only be at the cost of its own interests, and also those of the Filipino people’s. And that will be even more evident if Mr. Duterte and company succeed in keeping themselves in power for another six years beyond 2022.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
July 29, 2021

Featured image by Business World

Share This Post