Death and democracy in the Philippines

By Shay Cullen
October 22, 2009

Why would Philippine judges hamper a human rights investigation into a killing field where many human remains are found in Davao, victims allegedly of the infamous death squad? Why would the members of the Commission on Human Rights be charged themselves? Human Rights Watch says local authorities are obstructing the course of justice and investigation into almost a thousand assassinations in the past decade. How can this be in a democracy?

Most people in northern democracies presume that there is a democratically elected government in the Philippines and that human rights will be generally respected and upheld. It also presumes that the rule of law prevails most of the time and that the democratically elected government will respect the provision of treaties, conventions and protocols it has signed. In the Philippines that is not so.

Corruption is widespread and election fraud, cheating, vote-buying and intimidation are common. The same powerful wealthy family dynasties continue to dominate the so-called election process and it is not so much rule by the people or for the people, but the rule of the elite for their own interests. In the Philippines, traditionally, an oligarchy of a few very powerful families rules the country and controls the economy. They place their family members into government positions to advance their own economic interests.

They thus control the congress and other branches of government. Many are incompetent to govern and form a military and police force built around their own relatives, friends and beneficiaries. Therefore the forces are loyal to the patriarch or family head, not to the people. They are selected not on the basis of their professional merit and competence, but on their loyalty to the head of the dynasty. Promotion in the ranks of the military and the police depends on the power of their patron.

Thus, history of street protest shows the police and military shooting dozens of protesters who challenge the ruling elite. The military will stand against the farmers and protect the interests of the powerful land owner. Human rights are cast aside in favour of protecting politicians and the ruling families.

The 'Democratic' Philippines is a myth and the persistence of the death squad and the cover-up is proof of that. Death squads exist in many cities, creating a culture of fear and control and suppressing the people’s protest against injustice and unendurable poverty.

Davao City and the surrounding province is rife with inequality, land exploitation, injustice and widespread poverty. A few vastly wealthy families control the land and the banana industry. The military and police protect their interests against impoverished peasants or militant social and human rights activists demanding land reform, just wages and health care.

Davao is the most prominent example of death squads which kill even street children, although the situation is similar in all other Philippine provinces. It is said that their origin was the ground-swell of protest by organized impoverished farmers and their supporters in 1970 and 1980 This frightened the ruling families who set up the assassination squad to eliminate the protestors. The insurgents countered with their own assassination squads.

There was much killing and violence. The government-backed assassination squads triumphed and a permanent well paid assassination squad was established.

Men dressed in black clothes, equipped with radios, guns and knives and riding motor cycles calmly ride up to suspects and shoot them dead. Up to the present day, the squad operates with impunity. National and International Human rights organizations have continually called for an investigation and for the killers to be brought to justice.

When Human Rights Commission chair, Leila De Lima made such a call this year, she was met with uncooperative justices, officials and citizens. The politicians and police commanders say that rival gangs are killing each other.

Politicians deny the exixtence of the assassination squad but the discovery of many corpses makes that stance untenable. The authorities are desperate to prevent the truth from being revealed. International pressure on the government to end the killings and to disband the assassination squad is growing. If they do, those suffering poverty and injustice may again surface to challenge the 'democratically' elected elite. What a strange democracy this is.


(c) Shay Cullen is a Columban priest and director of the human rights centre PREDA, which is best know for its campaign work and investigations into syndicates and paedophile rings, its rescue and rehabilitation of children, and for bringing successful prosecutions against Filipino and foreign offenders. Visit for more related articles.

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