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PHILIPPINES: Army Deployment Ahead of Polls ‘Not Cute’

Stella Gonzalez

MANILA, Mar 27 2007 (IPS) - The Philippine military calls it ‘pacute’, a Tagalog colloquial term which means something a person does to endear oneself. PACUTE is also an acronym for Philippine Army Community, Unity, Teamwork Enhancement, a controversial programme that involves the deployment of soldiers in civilian areas.

But there is nothing cute about the deployment of fully-armed soldiers on the streets of select urban poor areas of Metro Manila and also quartered in barangay (village) halls.

Some see this ‘civil-military training programme’ as a step towards militarisation and others as an attempt to influence the outcome of the May 14 elections for half of the 24-seat Senate and all of the 250-seat House of Representatives.

Leftist groups accuse the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) of actively campaigning against ‘party-list groups’ in the communities where the soldiers are deployed, and have filed a complaint before the Commission on Elections (Comelec). But Comelec said the deployment was a purely military affair.

The party-list system allows voters to choose from among political parties representing various sections of society, and those that receive a certain percentage of the votes can get a maximum of three seats in the House of Representatives. Previous party-list elections have been dominated by leftist groups, and recent public opinion surveys show that they still lead people’s top choices.

The elections are crucial for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is fending off opposition moves to have her impeached. Since winning the 2004 elections she survived two impeachment motions thanks to the majority she enjoys in the House of Representatives.

Political analyst Bobby Tuazon of the Centre for People Empowerment in Governance said the military was trying to ‘marginalise’ leftist party-list groups in the May elections. He said military deployment in 27 barangays and a number of school campuses in Metro Manila, known leftist strongholds, was timed to coincide with the election campaign period.

But Renato M. Reyes Jr., secretary-general of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance), said the military campaign is not just election related. “The soldiers were deployed (in the communities) as early as November, and we believe that they will remain there even after the elections,” he told IPS.

”The physical presence of the military is part of the administration’s anti-Left campaign,” Reyes said, dismissing the government’s line that the soldiers were only being trained in civil-military operations prior to assignment in the countryside.

While military and government officials claim that the soldiers do not harass residents, Reyes claims to have proof to the contrary. He cited the case of a community leader in Tondo, Manila, who cannot go home because soldiers have been looking for her. Reyes said the soldiers loiter in front of the woman’s house.

In most communities, he said, the soldiers screen anti-communist documentaries for the residents. They ask for names of those who join rallies. “They are preventing the people from exercising their right to organise, and they consider joining rallies as a crime,” Reyes said.

Tuazon said that by law, the armed forces “should operate only in areas where there is rebellion or armed conflict à there is no such thing happening in Metro Manila.”

While some people are saying that soldiers are only there to help maintain peace and order, Tuazon said this is the job of the police, not the military.

Tuazon is alarmed that armed soldiers have been reported entering school campuses to conduct sessions where they allegedly tell students not to join militant party-list groups such as Bayan Muna (People First) because these are ‘communist fronts.’

“Schools are supposed to be grounds for academic freedom and excellence; they are not war zones,” Tuazon said. “This is worse than during the Marcos dictatorship.”

The military, in justifying the visits to the schools, said it was only meant to stop the recruitment programme of the New People’s Army (NPA) among students. A military spokesman said students are being “blindly lured” to join communist rebels and must be made to realise what the NPA really is.

The controversial deployment of soldiers has so far not generated as much local or international uproar as extra-judicial killings of left-leaning individuals – serious enough for a fact-finding mission to the Philippines led by a United Nations Special Rapporteur and hearings in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Tuazon said there existed a ‘’culture of impunity that has created a chilling effect on the people, including those not directly affected by the killings and militarisation.”

Some people even welcome the presence of the soldiers “on the flimsy reason that they serve as a deterrent to crime,” said Reyes. “It was much like the mentality of people who welcomed martial law (under then president Ferdinand Marcos) because the crime rate went down.”

But there was also the fact, Reyes said, that the deployments were ‘’relatively small”. “It’s a low-level type of operation where small groups of soldiers spread some fear and a bit of intrigue (against leftist groups) among the residents.”

But the affected communities are starting to organise and there have been attempts to confront the military. The party-list group Kabataan (Youth) has launched a signature campaign calling for the immediate pullout of troops from schools and the communities. Others are planning to file cases against the soldiers before the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

“This deployment of soldiers is not only election-related. This is why we’re going to the CHR,” Reyes said. “It’s harassment and a violation of the people’s rights to organise without fear.”

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