Why do we court leaders who are complicit in murder?

Democracy is a problem for the rich everywhere in the world, and no more so than the Philippines. Like most countries in South-east Asia it has a minority of enormously wealthy people, while the vast majority live in poverty and squalor.

Most of us remember President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country with an iron hand from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. He was America’s man helping to keep the country safe for American investment and as a staging post for United States intervention in South-east Asia.

Marcos’s wife, Imelda, will be remembered for her hundreds – or was it thousands? – of pairs of shoes. While she lived a life of extravagant luxury, she also cried crocodile tears for the poor. But she was as divorced from the slums of Manila as Queen Marie Antoinette of France was from the poor of Paris two centuries before.

The problem for the ruling elite is how to keep the poor in check. Whether or not they have a nominal vote, they have the habit of objecting to being treated like expendable slaves. Worst of all, they create organisations and political movements to get a fairer deal.

So how did Marcos keep these unwashed masses at bay? Early in his life, he was convicted of murdering one of his father’s political opponents, and when he came to power, he used the same brutal methods on the representatives of the poor.

Targeted assassinations were a feature of his rule. One military historian has detailed 3257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 torture victims and 70,000 people incarcerated during his reign as president.

About the same time, in nearby Indonesia, a similar programme was carried out, which would better be described as genocide. The vicious dictator Suharto oversaw the killing of more than one million citizens. Trade unions and political movements advancing the interests of the poor were the targets. These were communist sympathisers, and in this purge Suharto was backed by the US.

Marcos was eventually overthrown in a popular rebellion in 1986, and Suharto was deposed in 1998, but little has changed in either country since.

In the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been president since 2001, and she has used the same brutal methods to remain in power as Marcos. No fewer than 837 people have been assassinated on her watch, and a further 198 have disappeared.

In response to international protests, the United Nations sent special rapporteur Philip Alston to the Philippines to investigate the killings. He confirmed what was already known.

“Virtual impunity” prevails in the Philippines with regard to the extrajudicial killings, which are “convincingly attributed” to the military. No surprises there.

Alston’s report, released in March, said: “The executive branch (of the Philippine government), openly and enthusiastically aided by the military, has worked resolutely … to impede the work of party-list groups and to put in question their right to operate freely”.

This has meant not only the killing of activists, but the arrest and imprisonment of elected parliamentarians such as Satur Ocampo, representative of the Bayan Muna (People First) political party, which wants a better deal for the poor. About 130 members of Bayan Muna have been murdered.

Also under arrest is union activist and Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) party representative Crispin Beltran or “Ka Bel” as he is popularly known. The 74-year-old is in ill health and has been detained for 16 months in hospital despite international appeals for his release. As Ka Bel puts it, “if helping the poor and fighting for freedom is rebellion, then I plead guilty as charged”.

Two weeks ago, Arroyo was re-elected president in an election farce, with 126 assassinations carried out in the lead-up to the ballot. No prizes for guessing which political groups were targeted for killings.

This week, Arroyo, fresh from this electoral bloodbath, will be hosted by the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, at an “inter-faith dialogue” at Waitangi, which aims to “strengthen regional security while promoting peace and tolerance”. How bitter is the irony of that?

Also, within the last week New Zealand has welcomed the former foreign minister of the Suharto regime, Ali Alitas. Alitas was the chief apologist for Suharto’s genocidal policies and the invasion and occupation of East Timor, in which about one-third of the population was killed by Indonesian troops.

Along with Alitas is the current Foreign Minister of Indonesia, Dr N. Hassan Wirajuda, who is the regime’s spokesman for the oppression of the people of West Papua, where since 1962 the Indonesian military has killed 100,000 locals.

It is a bad week for human rights when New Zealand welcomes people who in other circumstances would be charged with complicity in murder and genocide.

New Zealand has been keen to condemn the likes of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and ban him from the country, but when murder and mayhem take place much closer to home, our Government’s concerns are quietly murmured. Once more, we stand with those complicit in murder rather than with those fighting for a fair go.