Philip Alston reminded me of Bill Nighy. Not the aging rockstar Bill Nighy of “Love Actually”, but the silent and clueless Bill Nighy in that socially aware but acutely naive film “The Girl in the Cafe”. Well, Alston, at least, kind of looked like Nighy, and even had that soft-and-slow academic/NGO voice that people like Randy David and Walden Bello like to imitate, evoking an image of a well-meaning intellectual making sense out of the chaos of this world within the confines of his comfy professorial chair. Intelligent but unaggressive, left-leaning but not militant.
Alston was here fairly recently. On paper, at least, he was here “on invitation by the government of the Philippines”, but actually at the behest of a host of human rights, church and people’s organizations. He had been asking the Arroyo government to allow him to visit the country since 2004, when the spate of extra-judicial killings targetting civilian activists was just beginning to earn the attention of international observers.
The visit was ten mere days, but it was long enough for the good NYU professor to be convinced of what the human rights groups have been saying all along — that military death squads prowling the countryside are behind the killings. And not only that, to no surprise to anyone, it was long enough for him to be subjected to all kinds of intimidation and insults from officials and politicians who like foreigners (especially those having the address of “1201 Roxas Boulevard”) a lot but not Alston’s kind. For ten short days, Alston managed to poke around where the government and Raul Gonzalez (his principal host) did not want him to. By setting up meetings with HR groups like Karapatan (during Valentines, at that), Gonzalez in effect said, Alston had betrayed to the public where his heart truly lies.
It was all such a welcome change, of course, for human rights groups and victims’ kin. Alston taking a much more “victim-centered approach” compared to the Arroyo creations Task Force Usig and Melo Commission convinced victims’ kin and HR groups to fully accomodate the UN expert. “[R]oughly half of my time here was devoted to meetings with representatives of civil society, in Manila, Baguio, and Davao,” stated Alston. “Through their extremely valuable contributions in the form of documentation and detailed testimony I have learned a great deal.”
In his dialogues with government officials, Alston pointedly asked them, specifically, Justice Sec. Gonzalez, why left-leaning party-list organizations were being branded “enemies of the state” even with the Anti-Subversion Law long repealed. This understandably irked Gonzalez, who declared his suspicions in front of the media that the UN expert may have been “brainwashed” by the leftists, led by the satan-worshipping “sonomaguns” in human rights group Karapatan.
Similarly, former Marcos henchman and now Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who, in supreme irony, chairs the Senate committee on human rights, boasted of the “scolding” he gave Alston during the latter’s meeting with the Senate committee. “I told them, Look, have you ever handled an insurgency problem in your country?’ They said No.’ And I said: Well, don’t lecture to us about how to handle an insurgency problem,” Enrile said. (Interestingly, American military officials, too have never handled insurgency in their own country, but Enrile listens to them all the time. They lectured to him a lot during Martial Law. They lectured to him when they asked for the Visiting Forces Agreement. And he’s still all ears everytime they lecture to the government during Balikatan exercises, when American troops tell their little brown brothers how to fight insurgency.)
But where Enrile’s statements were hilarious, Gonzalez’s were downright embarassing. Bereft of any sense of “kahihiyan” were his statements calling Alston a “muchacho”, and a “minor figure in the UN”, after the UN rapporteur made public his initial findings calling unsubstantiated and irrelevant government claims of CPP-NPA “purges” to explain away the killings. AFP chief Hermogenes Esperon, for his part, took a shot (pun intended, for this guy obviously knows how to shoot) at Alston, saying that it was not the military but Alston himself who is in a “state of denial” in refusing to believe the “purge” theory.
To top it all off, here was Jovito Palparan, claiming that the Melo Commission might have been “infiltrated” by leftists. How the leftists might have infiltrated a commission put up by President Arroyo herself and composed of a bunch of right-wingers like Jovencito Zuño to Rogelio Vinluan, only Palparan, with his highly developed intelligence-gathering skills, knows.
Fact is, Arroyo and the military establishment should even be grateful for the Melo group for merely zeroing in on Palparan as a possible fallguy in case things get any worse for them. As it is, even without the cooperation of human rights groups and victims’ kin, the commissioners saw it fit to conclude military culpability in the murders. Arroyo is right in stating that the report is a tentative one. A more complete one would have her and her cabal of internal security oversighters being subjected to a modern-day equivalent to death by stoning.
It was reported in the Tribune that Arroyo had tried to persuade Alston to withold the initial findings until after the elections, to which the UN expert replied that he does not wish to intervene in the country’s politics and would make the statement as scheduled. The president might have thought of doing what it did at first to the Melo report. Good thing that Alston stood his ground. Now the president, already faced with the prospect of being confronted by an opposition-dominated Congress after elections, now has to contend with the festering smell of corpses rotting beneath the presidential red carpet.