Swans Commentary » swans.com April 25, 2011  



Post-Dictatorship [Red White And] Blues Brings Low-Intensity Warfare To The Philippines


by Michael Barker





(Swans - April 25, 2011)   Removing a dictator from power does not necessarily lead to a decrease in oppression. The ousting of the longstanding US-backed dictator of the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos, in February 1986, provides a case in point. In the early 1980s, the US government recognized the threat to their national military interests in the region posed by an increasingly powerful people-power movement, and intervened to ensure that if Marcos had to go, he would be replaced by a reliable figurehead for Empire. (1) The individual chosen by the US government's "democracy-promoting" community for this imperial assignment was Cory Aquino, an extremely pro-American member of the Filipino ruling class.

Although the violent part of the Filipino people-power movement is regularly underplayed by scholars of nonviolence, it is critical to recognize that just prior to the ousting of Marcos in 1986, the Communist Party of the Philippines' New Peoples Army had a force of over 24,000 fighters that was growing daily "with a mass base of nearly two million supporters..." (2) Moreover, as Kurt Schock points out...

... the growing armed insurgency in the countryside promoted regime defection and increased the willingness of the United States to break with Marcos and support the democratic opposition. Thus, while the New Peoples Army (NPA) was unable to topple the state through violence, it did promote a context that increased the leverage of the democratic opposition. (3)

Of course, upon Cory Aquino's assumption of power the NPA did not just simply fade away, and Aquino's US backers, who were stout anti-communists, were eager that she moved to quickly break the back of the resistance movement -- both the NPA and the nonviolent aspects of the opposition, most notably the members of the KMU labor center. Thus, "In coping with the legitimation crisis that roiled the democratic transition, President Aquino refused to expand 'the scope of participation' and instead relied on the powerful security services for repression." (4) Alfred W. McCoy continues, observing how:

In this turn to repression, Aquino enjoyed the full backing of US military advisers, who were rearmed, in the post-Vietnam era, with a new counterinsurgency doctrine called low-intensity conflict (LIC) that they were eager to test under actual combat conditions. During this period of democratic transition when social reform became possible for the first time in a generation, Washington again lent its power to suppressing the signs of social unrest, redoubling the state's repressive capacity and reinforcing its ruling oligarchy. (5)

For further details of what low-intensity conflict actually meant for the people of the Philippines we can turn to the work of Stephen Zunes and Lester Kurtz and their brief observations on this matter. (6) However, while Zunes and Kurtz tend to see low-intensity warfare as being limited to the "client dictatorships" of "the United States, [and] other major powers," in the case of the Philippines' President Aquino amply demonstrates that this phenomenon thrives under so-called democratic administrations as well. This is an important amendment to Zunes and Kurtz's analyses: either way, they write that low-intensity warfare has...

... been highly effective in ruthlessly suppressing armed opposition groups and their allies through assassination, forced relocation of potentially sympathetic populations, conscription of peasants into progovernment militias, and selective but highly effective bombing and other military incursions which fall short of full-scale intervention but still have a devastating impact on society. The use of death squads -- paramilitary units with ties to government security services -- have taken the threat from armed insurgencies as an excuse to murder thousands of government opponents. (7)

Furthermore, such warfare is not limited to fighting armed opposition groups, and Zunes and Kurtz acknowledge that...

... a number of governments -- particularly those which rely on substantial foreign support -- have developed a means by which they apparently have been able to effectively suppress nonviolent movements by using violence without fatally undermining their legitimacy. This method we refer to as the "privatization of the repressive apparatus." This takes place when elements of a regime, ranging from middle-ranked military officers to top political officials, allow or encourage private vigilantes, often with the direct support of elements of the police and the military, to violently suppress leaders and participants in nonviolent movements as a means of terrorizing the population into submission. Despite being sanctioned by key sectors of the governing apparatus, these "death squads" are distinct enough from the official chain of command so that the regime can plausibly deny responsibility. While most of the nonviolent actionists still blame the government, important neutral sectors of the population as well as foreign backers of the regime, critical players in the political jiu-jitsu equation, may accept the portrayal of the regime as a moderate force doing its best to curb violence and extremism on all sides. (8)

Zunes and Kurtz suggest that the doctrine of low-intensity warfare was honed in El Salvador in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but add that it has also "been utilized in other counterinsurgency situations as well, such as Guatemala, Colombia, and the Philippines." (9) Although it is not clear whether they are referring to post-Marcos Philippines or not (it would appear not), McCoy on the other hand is clear that Marcos's democratic successor, Cory Aquino, "devoted much of her term (1986-92) to preserving and even perfecting the police apparatus introduced under U.S. colonial rule and refined under Marcos's authoritarian regime." (10)

In fact, just months after Aquino came to power, the US military had published its Field Circular: Low Intensity Conflict (July 1986), which contained "a detailed explanation of the new tactics that the Philippine military embraced with apparent enthusiasm." Several months later President Reagan then "signed a 'finding' that authorized two-year, $10 million CIA counterinsurgency effort in the Philippines." (11) Sadly, in McCoy's opinion, the following incident "[m]ore than any other... illustrates the Aquino administration's reliance upon repression rather than social reform to maintain order during a difficult democratic transition."

In January 1987 some fifteen thousand peasants paraded peacefully before Malacanang Palace, carrying banners and placards calling for President Corazon Aquino to grant them land reform. Suddenly, without any apparent provocation, a ragged line of riot police and marines began firing into the crowd with M-16 rifles. After fifteen minutes of cascading gunshots, bodies lay bleeding on the pavement, seventeen of them dead and sixty-two seriously wounded. President Aquino did not apologize. Nor did she discipline her top police commanders, Gen. Alfredo Lim and Gen. Ramon Montano. When communist negotiators walked out of ongoing peace talks to protest what they called the 'Mendiola massacre,' the president "unsheathed the sword of war" and spent the rest of her term trying to crush their guerrilla forces with both conventional and covert operations. (12)

Such tragic historical precedents illustrate the necessity for all progressive activists (especially those based in the United States) to familiarize themselves with the way in which the US government has consistently intervened to undermine people-power movements for social change. The Filipino case is particularly important in this regard because it presents a powerful example of how a massively powerful people's movement was, for all intents and purposes, constrained. This is not to say that democracy is not preferable to dictatorship, but if the choice is a US-managed "democracy" or a powerful citizenry intent on bringing about a democratic transition on its own terms, then I would choose the latter every time.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Michael Barker, "A Warning for Egyptian Revolutionaries: Courtesy of People-Power in the Philippines," Jewbonics, February 15, 2011  (back)

2.  Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America's Empire: The United States, The Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), p.437.  (back)

3.  Kurt Schock, Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies (University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p.158.  (back)

4.  McCoy, Policing America's Empire, p.434; for a detailed examination of the nuances of this "democratic transition" see, Kim Scipes, KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994 (New Day Publishers, 1996).  (back)

5.  McCoy, Policing America's Empire, p.434.  (back)

6.  Stephen Zunes and Lester Kurtz, "Conclusion," in Stephen Zunes, Lester Kurtz and Sarah Beth Asher (editors), Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective (Blackwell, 1999).  (back)

7.  Zunes and Kurtz, Conclusion, p.310.  (back)

8.  Zunes and Kurtz, Conclusion, pp.317-8.  (back)

9.  Zunes and Kurtz, Conclusion, p.318. They continue: "Shooting into crowds, it was realized, doesn't work; it merely strengthens the opposition. Overkill can win battles, but lose the war. The government, it was argued, needed to combine repression with nominal civilian control of administration to help convert the population to its cause. Training and cleaning up the local armed forces is an integral part of restoring respectability to the government. At the same time, the government had to go through several levels to neutralize the opposition: wipe out trade union, academic and religious leaders; identify and annihilate grassroots supporters of opposition; and, limit and repress independent human rights groups. This is where the use of death squads have played an important role." (p.318)  (back)

10.  McCoy, Policing America's Empire, p.433.  (back)

11.  McCoy, Policing America's Empire, p.437. "Initially wary of Aquino's promises of reform, local elites resolved their political differences with the new administration during the 1987 legislative elections and began to support its pacification effort. Significantly, this alliance of local elites and regional AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and PC [Philippines Constabulary] commanders produced a combination of accurate information and unrestrained repression far more effective than Marcos's centralized campaign. Through the sum of these efforts -- central and local, Filipino and foreign -- over a hundred anticommunist vigilante groups were formed across the Philippines in 1986-7, including urban groups such as Alsa Masa in Davao and rural messianic cults such as Tatad, famously photographed in 1987 carrying severed heads. Unable to engage the NPA guerrilla units in armed combat, the vigilantes usually found their victims in legal, cause-orientated organizations such as Task Force Detaines (TFD), human rights groups, and labor unions, notably the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) and Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, May Day Movement). Within a year, this local patchwork of conventional combat forces and citizen militias had been stitched together into an effective counterinsurgency strategy." (pp.438-9)  (back)

12.  McCoy, Policing America's Empire, p.433.  (back)


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Published April 25, 2011