Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hands Off Satur Ocampo!

Congressman. The image evokes fancy offices with big leather chairs, powerful and wealthy members of the elite in expensive suits making deals. For Satur Ocampo, a congressman in the Philippines, his position has led in a very different direction: to a prison cell and the danger of assassination. Ocampo’s pro-people politics and leadership of the Bayan Muna (People First) party-list has earned him the ire of the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and placed his freedom and life in grave danger.

Ocampo, the son of landless peasants, has a long history as a political activist fighting for social justice. As a student during the late 1960’s he was a founding member of Kabataang Makabayan (Patriotic Youth) and the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism. When the Marcos military dictatorship took over the Philippines in 1972, Ocampo went underground and was instrumental in the foundation of the National Democratic Front, uniting the forces fighting to overthrow the dictatorship.

In 1976, Ocampo was captured by the fascist government and for the next nine years held in various prison camps where he was regularly and brutally tortured. Even in the camps he continued to organize, leading protest actions by thousands of political prisoners. Despite his long imprisonment and cruel treatment, the military courts set up by the dictatorship could not convict him of any crime. After nine long years of captivity, Ocampo escaped from prison and rejoined the underground movement.

With the fall of the dictatorship in 1986, Ocampo resurfaced as the lead negotiator for the NDF with the new civilian government of Corazon Aquino. Hopes were high for a peaceful settlement to the civil war in the countryside. These hopes were dashed when Aquino ordered the military to open fire on peasant demonstrators during a rally against Aquino’s policy of fake land reform. 18 farmers were killed and scores more injured. The peace talks collapsed and Ocampo returned to the underground until he was captured again in 1989. Again the courts could not convict him and after three years in prison he was released.

Popular pressure by the common people of the Philippines forced the government to allow the social movements to form party-lists to run in elections. Ocampo was a founding member and leader of Bayan Muna party-list and was elected to Congress in 2001 and again in 2004. The Filipino people saw tangible results in the form of the Overseas Voting Act and Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, legislation introduced by Bayan Muna and enacted into law. Ocampo spearheaded the Legislators Against War alliance to oppose the American war in Iraq and elsewhere as well as the Legislators-Businessmen-People’s Forum to protect Philippine businesses and agriculture from the destructive effects of globalization.

The Arroyo government, more concerned with protecting American business interests and the power of local elites, has responded to Bayan Muna’s success with repression and violence. They attempted to silence Ocampo with trumped-up multiple murder charges allegedly committed in 1984 – while Ocampo was still in prison! The weakness of the state’s case was proved in April when the Supreme Court criticized the state’s case as “defective” and ordered Ocampo released on bail, even though the charges were non-bailable. Despite this victory, Bayan Muna members and supporters are still being arrested, beaten, kidnapped, or murdered by security forces.

Bayan Muna is not the only group facing repression. Rep. Crispin Beltran, a 75 year-old labour leader and member of Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) party-list has been held for 16 months in a military prison hospital, also under trumped-up charges of rebellion against the Marcos dictatorship 25 years ago. There has also been an escalation in the number assassinations, particularly against members and supporters of progressive party-lists, trade unions, peasant, womens, and indigenous peoples associations, human rights monitors, and even members of the clergy.

The method of killing is repeated over and over again: two young men on motorcycle shoot their victims in broad daylight in close proximity to a military or police camp. Witnesses to assassinations are themselves killed in “mop up” operations. While all evidence points towards state security forces as the perpetrators investigations are done only for show, arrests are incredibly rare and convictions rarer still. After 840 killings and 200 disappearances since Arroyo’s taking office, only three low-ranking soldiers have ever been charged.

On a business trip to China last year, Prime Minister Harper promised the Canadian people that he would not “sell out important Canadian values - our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights” for the sake of trade and investment. Yet with $1.5 billion in trade between the Philippines and Canada every year, the Canadian government has failed to use its influence to pressure the Arroyo regime to stop harassing and killing their political opponents. People in this country must demand that their government stop supporting the Arroyo regime!