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Philippines: military targets writers and artists

September 22, 2009

There have been a couple of interesting stories that have caught my eye from the Philippines concerning the surveillance of writers and artists by the military. First, soldiers were discovered to have been watching the house of Bienvenido Lumbera, a major artist. More recently, prize-winning writer, Pedro “Jun” Cruz Reyes Jr. has complained of surveillance of his house by unidentified men in a white van – and this isn’t the first time.

The first incident was dismissed as a ‘training exercise’ by the Philippines Armed Forces (AFP) – which, even if it were true, hardly excuses the actions, although it does attempt to remove the suspicion of a concerted program or illicit policy. Now, with this second complaint, that first excuse starts to sound a little more hollow. But, there are some other facts here that make me more suspicious, in particular the status of both these artists as critical figures in Filipino cultural life, and secondly, a recent controversy over the attempt by the military- and US-backed President Arroyo to award special prizes to some of her favourite popular filmmakers and comics artists, an act which was prevented by the courts after complaints by, amongst others, Lumbera.

Of course, this kind of surveillance as personal harassment (because it is so obvious that it must be designed to be seen by the person being watched) is typically thought to produce a ‘chilling effect’ on democratic debate and criticism. The culture of fear and repression is often the result of the military being over-prominent in everyday life. In the Philippines, with its history of US military-colonial dominance, dictatorship, political killings, and the longstanding conflict between the AFP and Islamic separatist groups (which is also a conflict between landowners and peasants) in Mindanao, such an atmosphere is pervasive.

The treatment of these two artists pales in comparison with the treatment of others. Back in 2007 the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, condemned the use of violence, arbitrary imprisonment and intimidation by both army and police under the cover of ‘anti-terrorism. The worldwide writers support group, PEN, estimates that since 2001, 60 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines, and in total 903 killings and hundreds more ‘disappearances’ of people from all walks of life have been reported. In August, the writer Alex Pinpin, and four friends who made up the s0-called ‘Tagaytay 5’ were finally released after a popular campaign. They had been held for 859 days without access to a lawyer and had been threatened, beaten and tortured in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. They were alleged without foundation, to have been members of a paramilitary group, the New People’s Army.

Read more from PEN here – it’s certainly eye-opening.

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