Tag Archives: War on Terror

CHANGE VERSUS CONTINUITY IN THE PHILIPPINES

26 Mar

 

CHANGE VERSUS CONTINUITY IN THE PHILIPPINES

 

After more than 30 years I recently spent a week in the Philippines, giving a few arranged talks at universities, meeting with NGOs, and old friends who shared their understanding of this fascinating fast growing country of approximately 105 million people living on an archipelago that consists of more than 7,107 islands. Additionally, of course, Manila is a mega-city that exhibits traffic at its worst, colorful jeepneys by the hundreds that are a distinctive national mode of urban transportation, a kind of customized bus service in smaller vehicles colorfully adorned, and now almost as many malls as churches epitomizing the economic and social intrusion of neoliberalism in the guise of globalization. Probably because of the large number of affluent expats living in the Makati neighborhood of Manila, the malls in the vicinity of my hotel offered visitors a wide range of world cuisines in numerous restaurants, cafes, bistros, and of course, a large Starbucks, staying open late into the night. As well, there were housed in these malls the same upper end array of global stores (e.g. Gucci, Coach, Cartier, Burberry, Zara, and so on).

 

My visit coincided with two preoccupations in the country: the celebration of the 29th anniversary of the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship by the People Power Revolution in 1986 and the current obsessive national debate about how to understand and react to the bungled counterterrorist operation in the Mindanao community of Mamapasano located in Manguindanao province that took place in late January of this year. Each of these occurrences offered a politically attuned visitor a finely honed optic by which to grasp the central tensions currently gripping the country.

 

There is little doubt that the people power movement of the mid-1980s remains a source of national pride for many Filipinos, although its overall results are not nearly as emancipatory as were the original hopes and aspirations. Procedural democracy seems to have become firmly established, and the fact that the president of the country is the son of Benigno and Cory Aquino. Benigno Aquino who had been assassinated as he stepped on the tarmac in 1983 is an important symbolic expression of a reformed political order. Marcos denied the crime, and there have been two inconclusive trials of military officers alleged to be responsible for planning and carrying out the assassination, but the event has not been authoritatively explained to date. Yet despite the momentous changes brought about by this populist rising, the political economy of the country remains as enmeshed as earlier in a web of entanglements with predatory globalization, making income and wealth disparities ever larger while massive degrading poverty persists. The oligarchic structures of land tenure have been tweaked by mild reformism without loosening their chokehold on the nation’s vital arteries.

 

The Philippines have long been beset by insurgent challenges, which also seem likely to continue indefinitely. After decades of struggle the New Peoples Army founded in 1969 and operating on Maoist principles of ‘peoples war’ remains in control of a number of remote communities in several of the important islands, clashes with government forces are reported in the media from time to time, and negotiations with the government with the goal of ending the conflict have been undertaken from time to time. This persevering movement appears to remain under the ideological leadership of Jose Maria Sison, who has been living as an exile in Utrecht for decades.

 

Given far more recent attention for both internal and international reasons are the several violent movements seeking autonomy and other goals in the largely Muslim island of Mindanao. There had been lengthy negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that agreed finally on a resolution of this conflict through the autonomy arrangement embedded in the Bangsamoro Basic Law that seemed on the verge of enactment until the Mamapasano incident of January 25th put off adoption at least until June, and possibly forever. Opponents are now raising Islamophobic fears that Mindanao would become a platform for political extremism if the agreement reached with such difficulty goes into effect.

 

What for me was particularly strange was this deeply ingrained national experience of successfully challenging intolerable aspects of the established order without being able to follow through in some way that achieves the goals being sought. In one way it is a rather impressive sign of reconciliation to realize that the son of Fernand Marcos Jr. is an influential senator, and is even contemplating a run for the presidency in 2016 despite never repudiating the policies and practices of his father, which are movingly on display in a small museum dedicated to the crimes committed by the Marcos regime during the period of martial law (1972-1981). Additionally, Imee, the oldest Marcos daughter is the governor of the Ilocos Norte province, their home province, and even Imelda Marcos has been forgiven her excesses, shoes and otherwise, and serves as a popular member of the House of Representatives since being elected in 2010 by a plurality of over 80%. This is a remarkable type of rehabilitation of a family dictatorship believed responsible for siphoning off public monies in the billions and suppressing its opponents by reliance on torture, brutality, and assassination. The Marcos clan has never recanted or expressed remorse, but explains that whatever wrongs occurred during that time as either ‘mistakes’ of subordinates or the unproven allegations of opposition forces.

 

When I asked how was it possible that the Marcos past has been so cleanly erased from the contemporary blackboard of Filipino awareness, I received various answers: “They have lots of money” “They never lost popularity in their home province where lots of development took place while Marcos governed ” “The past no longer matters; it is the present that counts” “the oligarchy still rules the country and includes all leading families regardless of their political affiliations.”

 

There are attractive aspects of this experience of ‘reconciliation without truth,’ that is, without some formal process of reckoning and accountability, at least the palliative of a truth and reconciliation commission. Such a spirit of resigned moderation is in some respects the opposite of the sort of polarization that afflicts so many countries at present. It is not only that the Marcos’s have been allowed to participate prominently in the political system without being compromised by their past, but also those on the left who in the Marcos period were ‘underground’ and enemies of the state are now to be found in the Congress or even in the cabinet of the president. Perhaps, the Philippines is quietly experimenting in the practice of ‘pluralist democracy,’ while ignoring the more radical features of ‘substantive and restorative democracy.’

 

A similar pattern of ‘conscious forgetfulness’ is evident in relation to the colonial past for both its Spanish and American versions. There is no bitterness despite the cruelties and harshness of the Spanish colonial legacy. Catholicism is still firmly rooted in the country as it was when it was a willing partner of the Spanish rulers in the oppressive past, and continues to flourish in a manner that has not occurred in any other post-colonial Asian country. When Pope Francis visited the country in January it was the largest celebratory event in the country’s history. This status of Catholicism is also remarkable considering the Church’s persistent opposition to birth control for poor families that are continuing to have large families that they unable to support; over 30% of Filipino children are reported to be stunted due to the effect of malnutrition and hunger.

 

The bloody counterinsurgency war fought by the United States in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898 crushed the Philippines expectations of national independence that had been promised by Americans as part of their own anti-colonial identity. Most absurdly, the American president at the time William McKinley, actually justified administering the Philippines as part of its responsibility to Christianize this most Christian of countries. The decision to break the American promise of independence made to anti-Spanish nationalist leaders in the Philippines was articulated in the brazen spirit of Manifest Destiny, putting a moral ad religious face on America’s first flirtation with undisguised colonialism. McKinley’s words are memorably revealing: “..there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them..”

 

My initial contact with the Philippines was as a supporter of the ‘Anti-Bases Coalition,’ which in the 1980s was seeking the removal of the two huge American military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base. This has been a struggle with strong nationalist overtones, and engaging leading political figures in the country. The bases were eventually closed, but consistent with the tendency to exhibit the truth of the French adage ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose ‘ [the more things change, the more they remain the same] the strategic relationship with the United States was sustained, even deepened, and certainly continued. There were American special forces units operating rather freely in the country as part of the global war on terror, and there were intimations that the role of the United States in the Mamapasano incident was responsible for the bloodshed that generated a political crisis in the country.

 

Of course, there are explanations for this seeming contradiction between getting rid of American military bases and maintaining military cooperation. The government in Manila was benefitted by the assistance of the United States in dealing effectively with its domestic insurgent challenges from the left. Beyond this, the Philippines turned out to be one of the anti-Islamic battlefields in the post-9/11 ‘war on terror,’ and the United States exerted pressures on the government in Manila to give its consent to counter-terrorist operations within its borders. In the background, but not very far removed from political consciousness, were the flaring island disputes with China and the overall security concerns associated with the regional rise of China. In this geopolitical setting, the United States was seen as a necessary friend to offset the more immediate and direct existential threats posed by China. In important respects, these patterns can be understood as the post-Cold War securitization of Asian relations in the shadow of the transformative impacts of the 9/11 attacks.

 

The Mamapasano incident is emblematic of these realities. Under apparent pressure from the United States to capture or kill a much wanted terrorist known as Marwan, the Filipino elite special forces units were persuaded to carry out the operation. In the process 42 of these highly trained troops were killed, along with Marwan, and there were many repercussions. The United States role was at first disguised, but investigations revealed involvement, including a drone watching and maybe guiding the operation, along with the allegation that the Filipino soldiers were ‘sacrificed’ to spare American lives in a situation where heavy armed resistance should have been anticipated. Some blamed the president, and there were demonstrations during my days in the country demanding his resignation, despite his popularity remaining quite high. It is not clear what will be the outcome, whether there will be a downgrading of cooperation with the United States and some accountability imposed on those who are alleged to have bungled the operation. Yet if the past is any guide, the crisis will pass, and continuity of U.S./Filipino relations will prevail in the security domain.

 

The Mamapasano incident is a clear instance of the new global security paradigm: the centrality of non-state actors, the role of covert operations by foreign special forces, the transnational dimensions of political conflict, the erosion of territorial sovereignty, the primacy of information and surveillance, and the hierarchical relationship between the United States and most governments in the global south. To make this last point evident, it is inconceivable that Filipino special forces would participate in an operation to capture persons residing in the United States suspected of affiliation with insurgent movements in the Philippines.

 

There is a complex redesign of world order underway, with one set of developments reshaping the political economy of globalization by way of the BRICs [but see acute skeptical analysis in William I Robinson, “The transnational state and the BRICS: a global capitalist perspective,” Third World Quarterly, 36(NO.1): 1-21 (2015)] and the Chinese initiative with respect to investment banking, [Asian Infrastructure Initiative Bank]; another set of developments concerned with securitization, ranging from the global surveillance apparatus disclosed by Edward Snowden to the incredible American global presence featuring over 700 foreign military bases and special forces units active in over 150 countries; and still another, is preoccupied with the rise of religion and civilizational identity as a political force, and what this means for stability and governance.

 

We still lack a language to assess this emergent world order, and possess no regulatory or normative framework within which to distinguish what is legitimate, prudent, and permissible from what is illegitimate, imprudent, and impermissible. Neither international law nor the UN have been able to adapt to the contemporary global agenda, and show few signs of an ability to do so. While this fluidity and normative uncertainty persists global warming worsens, the risks of nuclear war increase, and leading states shape their policies without accountability. It is not a time for complacency. Such a state of affairs is dangerous, and likely unsustainable. And yet what can be done remains elusive.

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Seeing in the Dark

11 Apr

Seeing in the Dark with Victoria Brittain

 

            As with the best of journalists, Victoria Brittain has spent a lifetime enabling us to see in the dark! Or more accurately, she has shined a bright light on those whose suffering has been hidden by being deliberately situated in one or another shadow land of governmental and societal abuse, whether local, national, or geopolitical in its animus. These patterns of abuse are hidden because whenever their visibility cannot be avoided, the liberal mythologizing of the decency of the modern democratic state suffers a staggering blow. In recent years this unwanted visibility has permanently tarnished the human rights credentials of the United States due to the spectacular exposés of the horrifying pictures of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or various reports of grotesque treatment of Guantanomo detainees. As with Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, the U.S. Government should be embarrassed by its response: a preoccupation with these unwelcome leaks of its dirty secrets, while manifesting indifference to the substantive disclosures of its endorsement of torture and other crimes against humanity. But it is not, and that has become and remains a deep challenge to all of us who wish to live in a society of laws, not sadistic men, a society based on ethics and human rights, not cruelty and dehumanization. Once such secrets have been revealed, all of us are challenged not to avert our gaze, being reminded that upholding the rights and dignity of every person is the duty of government and the responsibility of all citizens, and when flagrant and intentional failures along these lines remain unchallenged, the credentials of decency are forever compromised.

 

            This is but a prelude to commenting briefly upon Victoria Brittain’s extraordinary recent book of humane disclosure, SHADOW LIVES: THE FORGOTTEN WOMEN OF THE WAR ON TERROR (London: Pluto, 2013; distributed in the United States by Palgrave Macmillan). Brittain is a journalist who not only sees in the dark, but what is even rarer among the restless practitioners of this profession, she stays around long enough to listen. Here she listens with empathy and insight to the words and experience of women whose male partners have been targeted in Britain and the United States by the rapacious masters of homeland security in the years since the 9/11 attacks. These women and their children, mainly living in Britain, are the forgotten and neglected ‘collateral damage’ of those who are detained year after year without charges or trials as terrorist suspects. As the book makes clear, Muslims as a distinct ethnic and religious group, have been deprived of rights available to others accused of political crime. She quotes an American lawyer, Linda Moreno, “After 9/11 the Constitution was suspended when it comes to Muslims, especially Palestinians.” (p.161) But it was not only the liberal governments that were at fault, it was also the media that stereotyped anyone accused of being a jihadist or somehow sympathetic with the aims and activities of those alleged to be guilty of acts of terrorism as unquestionably evil, and such a menace as to deserve ill-treatment. In Brittain’s words, “[t]he enormity of the injustice perpetrated over a decade and more has been airbrushed out of America’s and Britain’s mainstream consciousness.” She goes on to ask a question we need to ask ourselves with all due gravity—“How did we get so coarsened that this is virtually unremarked?” (p.23)

 

            The real story here is that of several women who try to live in the ruins created by the detention of their husbands, and seek to do whatever they can to bring normalcy to their family life, and raise their children as lovingly as possible in the process. It is a difficult life where the reverberations of Islamophobia are daily felt via the hostility of neighbors and the treatment experienced in schools and elsewhere. In other words, society, as well as government and the media, are complicit in the incidental, yet severe, punishments endured by these families of targeted individuals. Yet the picture is not entirely grim as these women are also courageous and determined not to be defeated, even as they struggle against depression and acute anxiety, as well as the loneliness associated with the loss of their loving partner and co-parent. And what is worse in some ways, are witnesses to the collapse of their men due to the mistreatment of prolonged prison experiences unalleviated by the reality of indictments and charges. These men are mainly held on the basis of secret evidence that is not even disclosed to their lawyers, and the majority seem entirely innocent, victims of post-9/11 panic politics nurtured by the nanny security state. When in Britain such detainees are released, it should not be confused with ‘freedom’ because the former prisoner is require to wear electronic tags, subject to curfews, daily reporting to local police, living with rigid restrictions on visits by friends, routine intrusions in family space by security personnel, even prohibitions on use of computers. In summing up the overall ordeal of these families, Brittain comments, “[f]or all of them, something worse than their very worst nightmares had come true.” (p.149) One of the daughters who had endured this reality asks plaintively, “[l]isten to my story, then decide if you will be able to live my life.” (p.67) It occasions no surprise that the several of the men attempt suicide or experience paranoid delusion and that the women become clinically depressed.

 

            There is for several of the women a kind of existential double jeopardy. They came to Britain or the United States as refugees to escape from deadly torments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine, expecting at least the benefits of a liberal democracy, and instead were confronted by a far worse existence than what they had reluctantly left behind. Sometimes their memories were filled with happiness, as with one woman describing her earlier time in Afghanistan: “The life was not easy, but it was beautiful.” (p.154) These years of injustice were “intertwined with memories, ghosts and dreams of an Afghanistan or a Palestine—past or future. Those other shadow lives infused everything for them, if you came close enough to listen, and were, with their faith. Their secret lifeline of joy against bitterness and despair.” (p.164) Not only what was remembered, but also what was hoped for, believed in, a faith, often with overtones of the Koran, of a deliverance yet to come, however difficult the life of exile had become.

 

            Especially, the women from a Palestinian background were passionate about educating their children, sometimes doing the schooling at home to avoid the unpleasant atmosphere facing Muslim children in British society. Other children of imprisoned fathers received their education at local schools. Brittain is sensitive to their acute sense of their special circumstances: “One child spoke for several others when she said that now loyalty and duty to her absent father meant excelling at school and remembering to be happy.” (p.158) Remembering to be happy! Every child should be exempt from such a duty!

 

            Victoria Brittain has written a book that we need to read, ponder, discuss, and to the best of our ability, act upon. It is a captivating book of love and dedication, as well as of torments, and it is mainly the intimate renderings of these women doing the best they can under the most agonizing of condition that no decent society should allow to persist. What is made clear throughout is the degree to which the state-sanctioned cruelty to these individuals, including the terrorist suspects themselves, is a blend of panic, sadism, and anti-Muslim hatred, and cannot be convincingly explained away as regrettable but necessary measures to ensure the security of societies threatened by terrorism. In effect, Brittain condemns reliance on such disproportionate means in the alleged pursuit of the end of security, opportunistically sacrificing the few to promote the pseudo-contentment of the many. In his short Foreword, John Berger puts the essence of what makes SHADOW LIVES a mandatory reading experience: “What makes this book unforgettable and terrible is its demonstration of the extent of the human cruelty meted out by the (human) stupidity of those wielding power. Neither such cruelty nor such stupidity exist in the natural world without humankind.” (p.ix). In her Afterword, Marina Warner issues a similar injunction, although more directly: “..we need uncomfortable books like this one, to ask the tough questions.” (p.166) Indeed, we do!

The American and Global Experience of 9/10, 9/11, 9/12 +10:

15 Sep


            There is unacknowledged freedom associated with any event inscribed in our individual and collective experience of profoundly disabling and disturbing public occurrences. For most older Americans what is most vividly remembered among such occurrences is likely to have been Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, and the 9/11 attacks, each coming as a shock to a shared societal sense of exceeding the limits of what could be expected to happen.  I doubt that other societies would have a comparable hierarchy of recollections about these three rupture of expectations that have proved so significant for an understanding of American political identity over the course of the last fifty years. To make my point clearer, most Japanese would almost certainly single out Hiroshima, and possibly the more recent disaster that followed the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima meltdown, and are likely to ignore the events that Americans have found so transformative. Germans, and many Europeans, are likely to be inclined to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and possibly the exposure of the Holocaust, while most citizens of former colonies are undoubtedly most moved by the day on which their national independence was finally achieved.

 

         Because American responses to such transformative events are likely to be global in their effect, there is a greater tendency to acknowledge some American preoccupations but not their interpretation. This diversity amid universality is probably truer for 9/11 than any other recent transformative event, not only because of the drama of the attacks and global visualization in real time, but as a result of the violence unleashed in response, what I identify here as the perspective of 9/12. Shifting ever so slightly the angle of perception greatly alters our sense of the significance of the event. Just as 9/12 places emphasis on the American response, the launching of ‘the global war on terror,’ the day before, 9/10 calls our attention to the mood of imperial complacency and global vulnerability to American power that preceded the attacks. This mood was completely oblivious to the legitimate grievances that pervaded the Arab populace associated with the appropriation of the region’s resources, the American support lent to cruel and oppressive tyrants, the lethal sanctions imposed on the people of Iraq for a decade, the deployment of massive numbers of American troops near to Muslim sacred sites, and the enabling over the course of many years of Israel’s oppressive dispossession and occupation of Palestinian lands. From this perspective, the crimes of 9/11 were widely understood as an outgrowth of the wrongs of 9/10 and led unreflectively to the crimes and strategic mistakes of 9/12.  Such a critical understanding does not diminish the criminality of attacks directed at civilians, a strategic pushback that violates the most fundamental constraints of law and morality.

 

           It is probably misleading to think of 9/11 as primarily a global historical event. Undoubtedly its interpretation is mainly a national experience more affected by 9/10 and 9/12 than by the attacks themselves. Such an observation reminds us that despite the hype about globalization that was so prominent during the dawn of the Information Age in the 1990s, it is our shared lives within a particular sovereign state that continues to dominate our political consciousness. Surely most Palestinians see 9/11 through an optic reflecting their ordeal as understood on 9/10, while most Israelis likely saw 9/11 as a long overdue enabling of the 9/12 response that led Americans to share Israel’s preexisting national preoccupation with terrorism.  A deeper encounter with 9/11 ten years later allows us to sense more clearly that most of us are still living in a world of sovereign states despite the borderless wonders of social networking and other globalizing phenomena of this historical period. Even Europe that seemed to go further toward establishing a state-transcending civilizational identity required only the stress of an economic recession to bring back its strong conviction that what mattered most was not being a European but rather being Italian, Spanish, Greek, or French.

 

            Of course, for Americans this is not so obvious. The United States is truly a global state, perhaps the first in history, with the capabilities and commitment to act anywhere on the planet if its vital interests are at stake. From this perspective, 9/11 was experienced by many Americans as a challenge that could be neither addressed territorially nor by retaliatory attacks on the enemy state that inflicted the harm.  The leaders at the time, but with wide national backing, insisted that future security meant limiting freedom at home while waging war abroad. It was this global projection of this American security response that made it natural for 9/12 to be the day that most stays in the mind of foreigners, perhaps not literally, but through their feelings of victimization that resulted from the American respnse by way of war rather than through reliance on the enforcement of law against those who commit crimes against humanity. This latter road not taken, and not even seriously considered, might have been the most radical peacemaking experiment in all of modern history. It was far too radical for either the leadership or the citizenry of not only America, but the constituted politics of all states.

 

            With this outlook of American geopolitical exceptionalism, globalization seems real. When Barrack Obama was elected the American president in November 2008, it was a global event, with people the world over often believing that his election was more important for their future than the outcome of their own national elections. When Lula went to a meeting in Europe of the G-20 while he was still President of Brazil he said that he prayed for Obama more than for himself. The American role in the world economy and security system is truly global, but does that mean that 9/11 was interpreted as a blow struck against the whole world as George W. Bush insisted at the time? Hardly. For parts of the world it meant new and increased violence in their homeland, drones attacking targets selected in the U.S., special forces and an array of mercenaries roaming covertly in search of terrorist suspects, and new wars.

 

 

           We are, of course, free to remember certain things and to forget others. This is normally not done consciously, but it will explain the incredible diversity of how 9/11 was observed on its tenth anniversary, itself a milestone that causes especially Americans to pause and reflect. For most Americans, this became an occasion for a renewal of remorse, lament, resolve, and anger, if not rage.

 

            The most innocent memories of 9/11 are those of loss, a recollectionthat is both personal and collective, associated with any human tragedy caused deliberately that has a negative impact on innocent civilian lives. Less innocent, and more relevant ten years later, is the complexity surrounding the response that is prompted by fear, revenge, counter-crusading passions, and geopolitical ambition. In these respects, 9/11 is both text and pretext, and gave way to the 9/12 furies that unleashed a global war on terror that has caused widespread destruction, questionable improvements in security, and a general weakening of the American claim to exercise global leadership.