Murray Horton: Filipinos deserve real democracy

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Prime Minister Key must raise human rights during the Philippines President's visit, writes Murray Horton

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III waves as he arrives for the Leaders Meeting at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Philippines President Benigno Aquino III waves as he arrives for the Leaders Meeting at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Some of the most harrowing stories to come out of the February 22 Christchurch earthquake involved people trapped alive in the collapsed CTV Building desperately ringing their families, but dying before they could be rescued. A number of them were among the Filipinos who died in that building.

They were a group of nurses attending an English language school. More and more Filipinos are coming to New Zealand to work, either by themselves or with their families. Unlike Kiwis who go overseas to travel and work, Filipinos are not here on their OE.

They leave their homeland because there are no jobs for them, there is no welfare system, and unless you can support your family by sending money back from overseas, they will starve. That is why we are seeing an ever growing influx of Filipinos.

By and large they do the sorts of low-paid menial jobs (such as retirement home nurse aids) that Kiwis aren't keen on and they live very humbly.

I doubt that any of them live in the circumstances of their Coatesville compatriot Mrs Dotcom. People are the Philippines' biggest export; they have become the Irish of Asia.

President Benigno Aquino is visiting New Zealand this month to drum up business and trade ties. But the fact is that New Zealanders know very little about this English-speaking Asian neighbour. There are no direct flights; it is off the tourism radar. Why is it that millions of Filipinos have to go overseas to find work, including in New Zealand? It is not a poor country; quite the opposite, it is blessed with a wealth of natural resources. But the vast majority of the people of this rich country are very poor indeed, and not because of any fault of their own.

The Philippines' biggest problem is that land and wealth (still very much the same thing) and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of extremely rich families who are not disposed to share it, let alone give it up.

There has never been any genuine land reform. Aquino himself is from a major land-owning family, and these dynasties are the ones who control political power, with elected offices handed down from one generation to the next. The Philippines has the formal trappings of democracy but, in reality, it is still very much a semi-feudal society.

Three things reinforce the ruling dynasties' stranglehold on wealth and power. One is institutionalised corruption on a truly staggering scale. New Zealanders have heard of Imelda Marcos and her shoes. The Marcos' conjugal dictatorship of the 70s and 80s personified the word "kleptocracy" - massive theft from their own people.

More recently, another President was tried for corruption on a comparably breathtaking scale; and President Aquino's immediate predecessor has also been charged with corruption and electoral fraud offences.

The second and third things go together - institutionalised violence towards all opposition, and a culture of impunity that sees both corrupt politicians and the members of official death squads (soldiers, police, and paramilitaries) go completely unpunished. Aquino was elected in June 2010 but, despite his own father having been the most high profile victim of Marcos' many political murders, nothing has changed.

As of this September there had been 113 political murders during his Presidency. There are more than 400 political prisoners (who are charged with concocted "criminal" offences); torture is routine and was only very recently criminalised; "disappearing" someone has still not been and is widely practised.

The military and the ruling dynasties they serve have a very broad definition of "enemies" - the world's worst ever massacre of journalists (32, out of 58 people killed) took place in the Philippines only three years ago. Nobody has been convicted for this and witnesses have since been murdered.

When the previous President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, came to New Zealand in 2007, Helen Clark raised the human rights issue with her.

We challenge John Key to do the same with President Aquino.

The long-suffering Philippine people deserve all the international support they can get (the US backs the status quo there, as it always has, because the Philippines has always been a loyal satellite). Filipinos don't take this lying down - they gave the world People Power when they peacefully overthrew Marcos in 1986; opposition to the system ranges from a vibrant popular movement representing many sectors of society, right through to the decades of armed struggle waged by Communist and Muslim guerrillas.

We owe it to our Filipino workmates and neighbours to urge our Government to demand of President Aquino what he intends to do to make the Philippines an actual democracy and a fair society for all of its people.

* Murray Horton is the secretary of the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa.

- NZ Herald

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