Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Philippines Army – Its Own Worst Enemy

Military only helps fan flames of suspicion by their refusal to open themselves up to civilian inspection.
By Alan Davis

Is it any wonder that many people in the Philippines and abroad ask whether the country’s military has something to hide when it refuses the heads of constitutional human rights bodies fair access to camps where it is alleged that activists were illegally held captive, tortured and subsequently killed?

Lest we forget, the former Commission on Human Rights, CHR, head and current head of the Department of Justice Leila de Lima says she and her staff were repeatedly denied access to military camps to meet prisoners and to investigate alleged human rights abuses, including reports of enforced abduction, disappearance, torture and killings. The CHR was also recently prevented from meeting with the so-called Morong 43 health workers who, the military claim, are members of the New People’s Army.

Without accusing elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP, of any complicity or responsibility, commanders only help many to imagine the very worst by their refusal to open suspected camps to duly designated inspection, as well as failing to make available officers accused of the most serious crimes of kidnapping, rape and murder.

Such officers might have been unfairly maligned and subject to the worst kind of slander and libel – or they may have a serious case to answer. The problem is we don’t know and for some it is too late – some have themselves been killed already. One such case is the abduction, rape, torture and killing of poor Rebelyn Pitao in Davao del Norte in March 2009, when military officers were first identified as the key suspects.

Rebelyn happened to be the young schoolteacher daughter of a key Mindanao commander of the New People’s Army, NPA. She could not be held accountable for the alleged “sins” of her father and yet it is extremely likely she was killed and subjected to a terrifying death simply because she was her father’s daughter and for absolutely no other reason.

I attended the family’s memorial to mark the 40th day after her death and it was one of the most moving and heart-breaking events I have ever attended.

The days after she was abducted and killed, no lesser figure as then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said that no stone would be left unturned, while the then head of the AFP said it was a heinous crime and that the military would fully collaborate in the subsequent investigation to show they were hiding nothing and were wholly committed in helping to find the culprits whoever they were.

But they didn’t help. In fact, they did the very opposite and obstructed justice.

A few weeks after the killing, I went to Davao to look into the police investigation and I met with the senior police officers running Task Force Rebelyn. Sadly, one of the first things they told me was that the local military command - especially the military intelligence units - were not allowing them to access or interview the named suspects. The military were even refusing to give the police photos of the suspects to show to witnesses.

Now the officers might have been entirely innocent, but it is doubtful we will ever now know. Some have been killed – murdered, in effect, summarily executed – by the NPA and the case is currently cold.

Rebelyn may have actually been killed by factions within the NPA wanting to attack and undermine her father and in reprisal for other killings allegedly committed by those under his command. It is certainly a theory with some possibility. Unfortunately, we will probably never know and justice will never be served.

What we do know is that the military is culpable for its refusal to follow the law and that sometimes it’s its own worst enemy and only helps to fan the flames of suspicion by their refusal to open themselves up to civilian inspection and accountability.

In most countries, the police have ultimate jurisdiction and authority to go where they please and need to, subject to the necessary warrants and procedures. Here in the Philippines, the military seems to simply ignore that and act as if it does not apply to them.

That is not helpful and only undermines the claim that human rights is at the forefront of military thinking and policy. It in fact suggests the exact opposite and they can in effect do what they like.

Again, this is not to accuse military officials or the establishment of anything – but it is time for the army to show that it abides by the rule of law and respects the supremacy of the police when it comes to law enforcement and criminal acts. People’s confidence and respect and support for the military can only increase. And as we sincerely believe, soldiers can be victims too.

Alan Davis is the director of IWPR’s Project Target EJK/ED (extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances) in the Philippines - http://www.targetejk.net/.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.