When Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. first embarked on his travels to the US, UK, and Indonesia this May – he commented, “All we are worried about is the peace and the safety of our people, here and abroad.”
Indeed, peace and safety would be a welcome development in the Philippines. Thousands of Filipinos leave their home country every day only to find precarious work abroad. Filipinos make up the highest percentage of seafarers in the world, a job known for its peril and isolation. Though Filipino health nurses comprise only 4 percent of nurses in the USA, ⅓ of Covid-related nurse deaths over the course of the pandemic were Filipino. On April 23, labor leader and LGBTQ activist Alex Dolorosa went missing and was found dead with signs of torture near a chicken coup. In the Philippine countryside, the civil war between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Government of the Philippines continues on. Peace talks remain stalled since former President Duterte scrapped them. Just in the month before Marcos’ visit to the United States, the Philippine military brutally murdered three National Democratic Front peace consultants – Rogelio Posadas, Wilma Tiamzon and Benito Tiamzons – further aggravating an already tenuous climate for peace talks.
Military agreements and economic frameworks, however, remained at the forefront of the jet setting President’s global tour. While Marcos sells his priority as peace in the Philippines – his actions indicate quite the opposite.
On May 1st, the Biden & Marcos bilateral highlighted the new US-PH Bilateral Defense Guidelines, which update decades-old bilateral agreements to consider non-conventional domains like cyberspace, transnational crime and terrorism, to cover concerns about the Indo-Pacific region and South China Sea more explicitly, and to elaborate on emerging regional security alliances. The Agreement emphasizes the whole-of-nation approach and military-civilian partnership, frameworks which have already aggravated human rights issues in the Philippines through the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, an entity which has worsened the dangerous practice of red tagging and further sidelined peace talks in developing solutions to the social and economic problems at the root of armed conflict in the Philippines.
The Marcos Administration followed up the bilateral with Biden with dinners with Filipino billionaires and meetings with corporate leaders. The Philippine President boasted of over US$1.3 billion pledged in investments, especially in nickel and lithium extraction. While Marcos Jr. celebrated these as investments in “clean energy,” the Philippines remains one of the deadliest for environmental defenders. With ancestral lands rich in resources, indigenous people in the country have long faced displacement and likely face more with greater foreign investment.
When asked about the recent murder of Alex Dolorosa, Marcos Jr. dodged commenting and rather discussed the war on drugs. Marcos Jr. claimed the resignation of former police as a victory in addressing human rights concerns brought about by the war on drugs. But in the end, Marcos showed no inclination towards genuine accountability – neither through investigation nor prosecution, nor through holding the architects of the human rights crisis at the highest levels responsible, including former President Duterte.
Marcos Jr. came to the United States preaching peace, but his conduct and agreements made in the United States will only make Filipinos more vulnerable to war. The Biden Administration, in working with Marcos Jr. so fervently, has also revealed its own prioritization of US military and economic interests over the dire human rights situation. Despite the prodding of civil society to meaningfully hold Marcos Jr. and the Philippine Government accountable, The Biden Administration carried on with its Indo-Pacific Strategy above all else.
But community members & civil society organizations are not going along with it. On May 2nd, 4 protestors were arrested while confronting Marcos during one of his lavish dinners. 117 faith organizations called for support for the Philippine Human Rights Act. 14 representatives of Congress joined Jan Shakwosky in demanding for genuine accountability mechanisms be put in place and a strong judicial system in the Philippines guaranteed. The Biden administration may not be moving its stance on the Philippines; but many are bravely standing for genuine peace in the Philippines. Civil society can be on the side of peace and likewise support the Philippine Human Rights Act, which calls for the suspension of military aid to the Philippines until serious changes in the human rights situation occurs.