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The Philippines’ political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 as a result of serious, high-level corruption allegations; the pardon of former president Joseph Estrada; and a spike in political killings in the run-up to legislative elections.
The May 2007 legislative elections yielded increased support for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the House of Representatives and a stronger opposition hold on the Senate. Meanwhile, the findings of the Melo Commission and a UN investigation added to mounting evidence of military involvement in extrajudicial killings and abductions of leftist activists in recent years. A full-scale offensive was launched in August against Islamist militants in the south following the beheading of 10 marines on the island of Basilan. Macapagal-Arroyo’s pardon of former president Joseph Estrada and the scandal surrounding a national broadband contract with a Chinese company brought notable setbacks for anticorruption and transparency efforts during the year. In November, yet another coup attempt spearheaded by elements of the military was thwarted.
The Philippines came under U.S. control in 1898, after centuries of Spanish rule, and won independence in 1946. Once one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest nations, the Philippines has been plagued by insurgencies, economic mismanagement, and widespread corruption since the 1960s. In 1986, a popular protest movement ended the 14-year dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos and replaced him with Corazon Aquino, whom the regime had cheated out of an electoral victory weeks earlier.
Aquino’s administration ultimately failed to implement substantial reforms and was unable to dislodge entrenched social and economic elites. Fidel Ramos—a key figure in the 1986 protests—won the 1992 presidential election. The country was relatively stable and experienced significant if uneven economic growth under his administration.
Ramos’s vice president, Joseph Estrada, won the 1998 presidential election by promising concrete socioeconomic reform, but his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption almost from the outset. Massive street protests forced him from office in 2001 after a formal impeachment process failed.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), Estrada’s vice president, assumed the presidency upon his departure, and her political coalition soon won 8 of 13 contested Senate seats and a majority in the House of Representatives in the May 2001 legislative elections. She nevertheless faced questions about the legitimacy of her unelected administration. In the 2004 presidential election, GMA initially seemed to have defeated her challenger by some 1.1 million votes. However, claims of massive electoral fraud quickly circulated. Demonstrations followed, and some members of the administration verified the accusations.
In June 2005, an audiotape of a conversation between the president and election officials surfaced, supporting the previous year’s vote-rigging allegations. Many cabinet officials resigned to join a new opposition movement, an ultimately unsuccessful impeachment bid was launched, and frequent protests called for the president’s resignation.
The administration mounted several efforts to undercut the opposition movement in 2005, using gag orders, punitive prosecutions, and the announcement of Executive Order 464, which prevented high-level public officials and military officers from testifying before Congress without presidential approval. An alleged coup attempt by a supposed right-left alliance prompted GMA to declare a week-long state of emergency in February 2006. Security forces raided antigovernment press offices, arrested opposition officials without warrants, and brutally suppressed public protests. The congressional opposition responded with a second unsuccessful impeachment bid that June.
In the May 2007 legislative elections, the propresidential Team Unity (TU) coalition increased its majority in the lower house, ensuring that future impeachment bids would be unlikely to succeed. Meanwhile, the Genuine Opposition (GO) coalition increased its majority in the Senate. Of the 12 Senate seats contested, the GO took 7, TU won 3, and the remaining 2 were captured by independents. The number of political killings, which have dramatically increased under GMA, spiked in the run-up to the elections.
The Commission to Address Media and Activist Killings, also known as the Melo Commission, was established in August 2006 in response to a spate of assassinations earlier that year. The panel released a report in February 2007 that acknowledged military involvement, but it lacked any enforcement capacity. UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston conducted a 10-day investigation at the invitation of the government in February. His report, issued in November, found that a significant number of recent extrajudicial executions of leftist activists were “the result of deliberate targeting by the military as part of counterinsurgency operations against the communist rebels.” The August 2007 escape of two farmworkers abducted in Central Luzon in May 2006 added further evidence that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were behind recent kidnappings and practiced torture. The abuses are believed to be encouraged by a government mandate to eradicate the prolonged Communist insurgency by 2010, blurred lines between legitimate leftist parties and illegal groups affiliated with the rebel New People’s Army (NPA), the president’s dependence on high-level military support to retain power, and a persistent culture of impunity.
Violence associated with the separate Muslim insurgency in the south escalated during 2007. A group of 14 marines were killed, 10 of them beheaded, amid violent clashes in July on Basilan Island—a stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The marines entered the area to search for an Italian priest kidnapped in June. The AFP initially blamed the attacks on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Islamist militants known for terrorist bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings, but the MILF claimed responsibility, maintaining that the troops had entered the territory without prior coordination, in violation of ceasefire terms. After an international monitoring team failed to draw firm conclusions, the AFP launched a full-scale offensive against Muslim militants on the islands of Basilan and Jolo, where clashes with the ASG have recurred in recent years. Talks in Malaysia between government and MILF negotiators reportedly yielded agreement on the borders of a Muslim homeland in Mindanao in November, though no formal accord was signed. In December, the MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—a rival separatist group from which the MILF split in 1976—pledged to resolve their differences, which continue to impede peace in the south, by September 2008.
Also during the year, the Sandiganbayan, the country’s antigraft court, found former president Estrada guilty of plunder in September and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The verdict marked the first time a Philippine president had been convicted of a crime. However, GMA pardoned Estrada one month later. The move came as GMA was herself implicated in a major corruption scandal involving a national broadband contract approved by the Philippine and Chinese governments in April, spurring claims that GMA was using the pardon to block any precedent for incarcerating former presidents. Amid allegations of high-level bribery, the Supreme Court put a restraining order on the Chinese contract in September. Pro-GMA forces subsequently launched a disingenuous impeachment campaign, apparently as a preventative measure linked to a constitutional provision that bars more than one impeachment bid per year.
Two explosions in the fall seemed to signal further instability. A blast attributed to methane-gas buildup at a mall in Manila’s business district killed 11 people and wounded more than 100 in October. In November, a bombing at the House of Representatives killed four, including Basilan representative Wahab Akbar, and injured 20 others. Akbar was believed to be the target of the attack, either because of clan warfare in Basilan or his defection from the ASG in the late 1990s.
Also in November, the military thwarted a coup attempt in which former navy lieutenant and current senator Antonio Trillanes and Brigadier General Danilo Lim led roughly 20 soldiers out of a courtroom, where they were being tried for previous coup attempts, to seize a conference room at the Peninsula Hotel in Manila. Additional supporters, a former vice president, and a Roman Catholic bishop joined the men in a live television broadcast to call for GMA’s removal from office on the grounds of electoral fraud and corruption. The AFP stormed the hotel and forced their surrender. Several military rebels and at least 30 journalists covering the event were detained, and a curfew was imposed in Metro Manila and two neighboring regions.
The Republic of the Philippines is not an electoral democracy. The country’s democratic status has been degraded by the high level of violence ahead of the 2007 legislative elections; reports of cheating and intimidation during that voting as well as electoral fraud in the 2004 polls; the thoroughly discredited nature of the country’s elections commission; and persistent concerns about coup attempts in 2005, 2006, and 2007. The Philippine National Police reported 121 incidents of electoral violence in the run-up to the 2007 legislative elections. This marked a decline from the 192 reported incidents during the 2004 presidential poll, but political violence in the country, while also tied to local rivalries, has increasingly targeted leaders of legitimate left-wing parties that are perceived to be associated with leftist guerrillas. One far-left party, Bayan Muna, has endured the murders of 125 members since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) took office in 2001. In March 2007, Bayan Muna leader Satur Ocampo was detained for allegedly murdering 15 Communist rebels in the mid-1980s, and the press was banned from interviewing him. Election violence and intimidation are especially prevalent in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), although the problem is due more to local rivalries than to ongoing guerrilla conflict with the MILF.
The Philippines has a presidential system of government, with the directly elected president limited to a single six-year term. The current president initially took office in 2001 after military pressure and street protests drove President Joseph Estrada from power. She completed Estrada’s first term and then—despite some legal challenges—won her own full term in 2004. Her opponents have repeatedly called for her to step down, partly due to the constitutionally anomalous length of her time in office.
The national legislature, the Congress, is bicameral. The 24 members of the Senate are elected on a nationwide ballot and serve six-year terms, with half of the seats up for election every three years. The 250 members of the House of Representatives serve three-year terms, with 212 elected by district and the remainder elected by party list. Legislative coalitions are exceptionally fluid, and members of Congress often change affiliation, effectively rendering political parties meaningless. In 2007, GMA’s party, the National Union of Christian Democrats (Lakas), retained control of the ruling People’s Power Coalition. The main opposition party is the Struggle for a Democratic Philippines (Laban or LDP).
The Philippines’ Commission on Elections (Comelec) is one of the most powerful election commissions in the world: with the president’s approval, it has the authority to unseat military, police, and government officials. It is entirely appointed by the president and has traditionally been stacked with cronies serving fixed terms. Comelec has been thoroughly discredited since the 2005 “Hello Garci” audiotape scandal regarding cheating in the 2004 elections. No internal investigation was conducted, and the 2007 legislative elections were overseen by the same tainted officials. Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos resigned in October 2007 after being accused of bribing a government official to approve the national broadband deal with China’s ZTE Corporation.
Corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling are rife in business and government. Despite recent economic reforms, a few dozen powerful families continue to play an overarching role in politics and hold an outsized share of land and corporate wealth. Local “bosses” often control their respective areas, limiting accountability and encouraging abuses of power. High-level corruption abounds as well, however. In 2007, the Fraport airport affair—a mix of complex legal disputes, corruption allegations, and international arbitration cases that continues to prevent the opening of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s Terminal 3 and has now spanned three administrations—shared the headlines with the ZTE contract scandal. The latter ultimately yielded allegations involving the president, her husband, the economic planning secretary, the speaker of the House, and the chairman of Comelec. When pro-GMA forces launched a weak preemptive impeachment campaign on the grounds that the president had “betrayed the public trust” by not blocking the bribery-laden deal—an attempt to forestall a more serious impeachment bid based on complicity in the deal—congressional members were allegedly offered significant sums to vote against impeachment.
GMA’s October 2007 pardon of Estrada reversed what could have been a major step forward for anticorruption efforts in the Philippines. Her decision was widely perceived to be motivated by a desire to avoid setting a harsh precedent for her own treatment on leaving office, and to prevent Estrada from becoming a martyr around whom opposition forces might rally. The guilty verdict itself was important for her legitimacy, however, as she had first entered office as a result of Estrada’s ouster.
A culture of impunity, stemming in part from a case backlog in the judicial system, hampers anticorruption efforts. Cases take an average of six to seven years to be resolved in the Sandiganbayan anticorruption court. However, a greater number of cases have been filed in recent years against high-profile suspects who were previously seen as untouchable, and a growing number of umbrella organizations have emerged to combat corruption. The Office of the Ombudsman and the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) have mixed records. Many maintain that the former has been compromised under the current administration, as convictions have declined, while PAGC lacks enforcement capabilities. Of the 90 cases reviewed by PAGC from January to August 2007, 40 were recommended for prosecution, and only 10 were taken up by the office of the president. All but two of those were then dismissed. The Philippines ranked 131 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Government accountability and transparency have deteriorated since the 2005 implementation of Executive Order 464, which prohibits government, military, and police officials from attending congressional inquiries without presidential permission. The Supreme Court ruled against key provisions of the order in April 2006, but the administration filed an appeal for reconsideration, which left the order in effect throughout 2007. This has prevented the Senate defense committee from proceeding with its hearings on electoral fraud, which had been launched in November 2005.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression and the press, and the media express a wide range of opinion, but journalists face extreme danger in the course of their work. The private media are vibrant and outspoken, although newspaper reports often consist more of innuendo and sensationalism than substantive investigative reporting. The country’s many state-owned television and radio stations cover controversial topics and are willing to criticize the government, but they too lack strict journalistic ethics. While the censorship board has broad powers to edit or ban content, government censorship is generally not a serious obstacle. The internet is widely available and uncensored.
National security legislation that may limit journalists’ rights and access to sources was introduced in 2007. In April, GMA issued Executive Order 608, which established a National Security Clearance System to protect classified information. Watchdog groups also expressed concerns that the new Human Security Act (HSA), enacted in July, would allow journalists to be wiretapped based on mere suspicion of involvement in terrorism. A study by the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility noted an improved performance by major news organizations in covering the 2007 elections relative to 2004, but it also found “unabashed bias” on the part of government-run television networks. In a few instances, the media were prevented from conducting interviews with opposition leaders. Coverage of an important national event was obstructed when 30 media workers were arrested at the scene of the failed coup attempt in November. Libel is a criminal offense, and libel suits have been used frequently in recent years to quiet criticism of public officials. The president’s husband, who was notorious for filing defamation charges, dropped 11 suits against 46 journalists in May 2007.
The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work. Two journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2007, as opposed to three in 2006, but the Committee to Protect Journalists has counted a total of 32 journalists killed since 1992 (with a 90 percent impunity rate). Several cases have involved journalists known for exposing corruption scandals or being critical of the government, army, or police. Both murder victims in 2007 were radio broadcasters. Radio broadcasters outside major urban centers—known for sensational political reporting intended to attract high ratings—are the most common targets; at least four other radio journalists were killed or wounded during the year under unclear circumstances. The government in 2006 established a police task force to deal with attacks on journalists, but police are believed to be complicit in many such crimes.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution and generally respected in practice. While church and state are separate, the country is mainly Christian, with a Roman Catholic majority. The minority Muslim population is concentrated on the southern island of Mindanao and, according to the most recent census, represents roughly 5 to 9 percent of the total population. Muslim provinces are among the most impoverished. Perceptions of relative socioeconomic deprivation and political disenfranchisement, and resentment toward Christian settlement in traditionally Muslim areas, have played a central role in the Muslim separatist movement.
Academic freedom is generally respected in the Philippines, and professors and other teachers can lecture and publish freely.
Citizen activism is robust, and demonstrations are common. Permits are legally required for rallies, but this rule was often ignored until the government adopted a stricter policy called “preemptive calibrated response” in September 2005. The new approach was implemented after the July 2005 protest-backed attempt to impeach the president. The Supreme Court ruled against the harsher policy in April 2006, and called for the designation of certain areas where permits would not be required. Most antigovernment rallies continue to be dispersed. Demonstrations against the HSA by left-wing groups in 2007 were forcibly broken up by police.
The Philippines has many active human rights, social welfare, and other nongovernmental groups, as well as lawyers’ and business associations. Various solidarity, labor, and farmers’ organizations that are dedicated to ending extrajudicial killings and helping families of the disappeared face significant threats in their work, and their offices are occasionally raided. Trade unions are independent, and they may align with international groups. However, in order to register, a union must represent at least 20 percent of a given bargaining unit. Moreover, large firms are stepping up the use of contract workers, who are prohibited from joining unions. Only about 5 percent of the national labor force is unionized, including some 20 percent of public sector employees. Collective bargaining is widespread, and strikes may be called, though unions must provide notice and obtain majority approval from their membership. Violence against labor leaders has increased as part of the spike in extrajudicial killings in recent years.
Judicial independence is strong, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court, which issued a series of rulings against the administration in 2006. The court also spearheaded efforts to resolve the issue of extrajudicial killings in 2007, holding a special summit in July and promulgating the writ of amparo (protection) to prevent the AFP from delaying a case by denying that it has a person in custody. This new judicial tool went into effect in October. Rule of law in the country more generally remains weak. A backlog of more than 800,000 cases in the court system significantly contributes to impunity, while salaries are low and corruption is rampant. The judiciary receives less than 1 percent of the national budget, and judges and lawyers are often dependent on local powers for basic resources and salaries, leading to compromised verdicts. At least 12 judges have been killed since 1999, including two high-profile murders in the controversial Fraport airport case, but there have been no convictions for the attacks.
The HSA gives security forces the authority to detain suspects without a warrant or charges for up to three days and sets penalties of up to 40 years in prison for terrorism offenses. Critics have argued that its broad definition of terrorism would allow the president to use it against her political adversaries. Other opponents said the law’s “compromise” provisions would limit its effectiveness, objecting in particular to provisions that would grant 500,000 pesos (US$10,870) in damages for each day of wrongful detention or asset seizure, and similarly significant fines for police officers who wrongfully detain suspects.
Reports of arbitrary and unlawful detention under harsh conditions, disappearances, kidnappings, and abuse of suspects continued in 2007. Mounting evidence has confirmed the AFP’s responsibility for many of the numerous killings of leftist journalists, labor leaders, and senior members of legal left-wing parties in recent years. The killings have been most prevalent in areas where the NPA is perceived to be strong. Jonas Burgos, a well-known trainer of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, was forcibly abducted in April 2007 in a shopping mall in metro Manila. The car used in the incident was later traced to a military compound, but the case remained unresolved at year’s end. The lack of witness protection has been a key obstacle to investigations, including that of the Melo Commission. About 90 percent of extrajudicial killing and abduction cases have no willing witnesses. Especially problematic is the fact that the Department of Justice oversees both the witness-protection program and the entity that serves as counsel to the military. Similarly, the Philippine National Police, tasked with investigating journalist murders, falls under the jurisdiction of the AFP.
The Muslim separatist conflict has caused severe hardship for many of the 15 million inhabitants of Mindanao and nearby islands, and has resulted in more than 120,000 deaths since it erupted in 1972. Both government and rebel forces have committed summary killings and other human rights abuses. MILF guerrillas have attacked many Christian villages, and the smaller ASG has kidnapped, tortured, and beheaded some civilians. Islamist militants are suspected in a string of bombings on Mindanao in recent years. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, up to 145,000 people were newly displaced in 2007 as a result of armed conflict or human rights violations, with roughly 100,000 people forced to flee their homes in Sulu and Basilan following large-scale military operations from April to August. Meanwhile, the Communist NPA continues to engage in some executions, torture, and kidnappings in the countryside, especially central and southern Luzon. Members of the AFP maintain that the extrajudicial killings in these areas are the result of purges within the Communist movement.
Citizens may travel freely, and there are no restrictions on employment or place of residence. The government generally respects the privacy of its citizens, but the poor security situation inhibits individuals’ ability to operate private businesses. Ten percent of the population works abroad because of the lack of jobs at home, and the economy is heavily dependent on remittances from Filipinos working abroad.
Filipino women have made many social and economic gains in recent years. The UN Development Programme notes that the Philippines is one of the few countries in Asia to significantly close the gender gap in the areas of health and education. More women than men now enter high school and university, and many women control household finances. Women face some discrimination in private sector employment, however, and women in Mindanao enjoy considerably fewer rights.
The trafficking of Filipino women and girls abroad and internally for forced labor and prostitution remains a major problem, despite antitrafficking efforts by the government and civil society. The fact that many women trafficked for illicit labor are heavily indebted by the time they begin working exacerbates the problem. There are reports of bonded labor, especially of children, in black-market trades such as prostitution and drug trafficking. The NPA, MILF, and ASG have been accused of using child soldiers.