International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: The dirty war that deepens Philippine divisions
CEBU CITY, Philippines An increasingly dirty war between the Philippines government and leftists is threatening the rule of law, without which no democracy can survive. While the government makes fitful progress though negotiation toward limiting the level of insurgency in the Muslim south, killings in this other war, which has several widely separated hotspots, have been increasing.

Attacks on military and police personnel by the Communist New People's Army not only continue on a regular basis but have become the sotto voce excuse for extrajudicial killings of leftists, either at the instigation of the police or armed forces or, in some cases, by the landlords who hold much sway in many rural parts of the nation.

Last week President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told the IHT that she was setting up a commission of inquiry into extrajudicial killings, which have been estimated at about 700 since she came to power, with their frequency gathering pace.

The most prominent targets have been labor organizers for farm workers and fishermen, and activists for the two national left-wing parties represented in the legislature, Bayan Muna and Anakpawis. Over the past year there has been a notable surge of such killings in central Luzon Province, which have been widely attributed by the left to a particular police general, though he was cleared by an internal investigation.

Rather belatedly, this dirty war is beginning to receive some international attention. Amnesty International recently criticized the government's failure either to stop the killings or identify and indict the culprits. The United Methodist Church of the United States last week made a similar appeal, noting the deaths of many church workers who were deemed "subversive" because of their work for the poor.

The army and the police are known to believe that infiltration of political parties and church groups by New People's Army activists forms part of Communist tactics. They complain that while extrajudicial deaths of civilians are widely reported, there is little outcry locally or internationally at the continuing deaths of soldiers and police at the hands of the NPA.

However, the use of dirty-war tactics against above-ground political and labor group organizers threatens to exacerbate divisions within the Philippines. The NPA was a huge and growing force in the latter Marcos years but was largely neutralized by the return of elected government in 1986. Freedom of the left to organize - albeit not very effectively - and acquire a few seats in the legislature via party lists created a sense that society could be changed through democratic action.

Some killings have, as claimed by the police, doubtless been the work of the NPA itself, which went through a period of internecine warfare in the late 1980s. Others seem to have been more personal than political. But few observers doubt that the police and army are behind many of them. For some commanders, who make no distinction between NPA killers and NPA-aligned political activists, the end seems to justify the means.

Arroyo recently gave law-enforcement agencies a 10-week deadline for identifying at least 10 suspects in recent killings. Some scapegoats will probably be hauled before the courts, but there is scant sign of any change in the fundamental situation.

The police and military are often seen as being in league with landlords against tenants and workers. In 2004, troops killed seven striking farm workers at Hacienda Luisita, the family estate of former President Corazon Aquino. Since then, the huge estate has been accused of hiring a private army of former policemen and soldiers to threaten worker activists. There are similar stories from other parts of this still semi-feudal country.

Assassinations of politicians (and journalists) are nothing new in the Philippines. But the increased level of killing seems a response partly to the revival of NPA activism and partly to the fragility of the government. Arroyo's legitimacy has always been in question as a result both of the way in which her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was removed and the accusation of ballot rigging in the 2004 election. Arroyo needs the continued support of the military and the police, and while their men are dying at the hands of the NPA, some of them expect the right to take the law into their own hands.

Increased international attention, and some changes in the police hierarchy, may reduce the level of killings. But the wider social malaise that the dirty war represents will remain.