The Philippines Revisits a Dark History, Cambodia in the Spotlight

Hello friends!

Before we start — here’s me this week for Splice Newsroom on Brunei’s new outlet the Scoop. I’m super excited to see what they get up to in the next few years so expect to be seeing a lot more Bruneian news!

No letter next week, I’ll be in transit and sitting in KLIA Popeye’s absolutely fuming about my fellow commuters while trying to connect wi-fi.

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See you in a fortnight!

Erin Cook

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The last few weeks have been ultra Asean for the Philippines, so today I’m going to fill in some blanks on some other key stories.

First, I want to talk about former president Benigno Aquino III and the charges laid against him at the start of the month. Aquino was president from 2010 until last year, including during the Mamasapano clash in 2015 over which he now faces charges.

Remember all those MILF and BIFF headlines in 2015? That’s this. On January 25 that year Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Forces launched Oplan Exodus, an operation aimed at cleaning up the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and capture/kill Malaysian terror top dog Zulkifli Abdhir. Mamasapano is in the province of Maguindanao in the Muslim autonomous region of Mindanao.

The operation was a mess from the get-go, eventually leaving five civilians, 18 MILF and BIFF members and FORTY FOUR PNP dead. Abdhir was among the killed. A further 29 PNP officers were rescued by Armed Forces after they were encircled by MILF/BIFF.

Quite understandably, the local community freaked, worried about continuing fighting in the area. PNP leadership were unhappy and the Special Forces boss was let go of his post while officers around the country marched in support and remembrance.

So that’s the bones of it. There’s loads of further reading out there on this if you’d like to know more. There’s a lot of easily found, awful videos of the gruesome deaths of some of the PNP officers which has been noted as a cause of the public sentiment shift against MILF.

So where’s Aquino at? He’s been in the shit for this ever since, but Duterte really ramped it up in January on the two year anniversary with the establishment of an independent commission. At the same time, PNP Director General Alan Purisima and SAF Director Getulio Napeñas were indicted for their role — including allegedly bypassing the chain of command. Duterte wants to know why the PNP were involved at all and not the AFP, and raised the CIA spectre which had been denied by the US embassy shortly after the event but continues to loom.

There have been attempts to see Aquino done on murder charges, but the Office of the Ombudsman turfed them fairly quickly. Now, he faces graft and ‘usurpation of authority’ charges. The idea is Aquino allowed PNP boss Alan Purisima to launch the operation even though he was suspended at the time on his own graft charges. Aquino’s charges both stem from Purisima’s involvement which violates both the Graft Law and the usurping authority (I did Arts, okay, this isn’t my thing).

Aquino probably isn’t going to go to the slammer, but there’s a lot of strong opinion on this so it’s one to watch.

It’s Supreme Court time for the War on Drugs! Last month two lawyers filed separate petitions regarding the PNP and Duterte’s war on drugs, so come November the Supreme Court said it would hear oral arguments specifically in terms of EJKs.

The two petitions had been fairly different — the Center for International Law-Philippines addressed police harassment while the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) touched on the language used, saying ‘neutralise’ does not mean the PNP can kill. I really like this piece from Coconuts Manila, which I think has done a great job in breaking down that language argument.

Anyway, so the hearing started this week. I think it probably doesn’t matter what the court returns, it will continue. But I just want to chat about this because I feel like I’m going mad.

So, as previously mentioned here, the PNP had been pulled out of the war by Duterte (for at least the second time) to which myself — and others! — said, yeah righto see you lot back here in a few weeks when he changes his mind again. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Martires grabbed onto this during the hearing and asked what’s the point of questioning PNP if the whole thing is now being operated by Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). And literally the same day he’s saying this, Duterte’s up here at the dais like ‘PNP get back in here’.

I got whiplash.

Okay, last one from the Philippines this week. Thursday marked the eighth anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre. Also down in Mindanao, the massacre saw 58 people killed including 32 journalists in what is the worst incident of election violence in the country’s history.

The group had been on the move together to file a candidacy for Esmael Mangudadatu, challenger to the son of Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., when they were ambushed and murdered. Nearly 200 people face charges for the killings including Ampatuan Sr., although he died two years ago. The families of the massacre victims have used the date to call for justice. Phil Star takes a look at the investigations.

The Palace released a statement hoping the case would be resolved within the next four years. I really hope the families do find their peace, but we need to talk about the hypocrisy of Duterte in this moment. Duterte, who at the time was the mayor of Davao City just a few hours drive away, has been very vocal about his support for the victims’ families — good. Part of this support includes promises to address violence against journalists, but time and time again he says something that makes you wonder why he bothers making these promises at all.

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Have we got a bit of movement at the station in Cox’s Bazaar? Maybe. Agence France Presse reported yesterday Bangladesh and Myanmar had brokered a deal to begin repatriations of Rohingya refugees in two months time. Details are still fairly scant — we don’t know much about the process but a ‘working group’ will be established by the end of the year to hash that out. Around 620,000 Rohingya refugees have made their way to the massive camps across the border from Rakhine State since August and a lot of the very in-depth reporting has featured refugees who have said they’re terrified of returning, so I’m interested to see how this will be navigated.

The agreement comes after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Myanmar. A week later he said the ‘horrendous atrocities’ from the military amount to ‘ethnic cleansing’, prompting praise and criticism. It’s time for the US to get more involved, argues Angshuman Choudhury at the Diplomat, with this a fairly tepid statement by the previous administration’s standards. Maybe so, but it’s a good start for a man whose time at the helm has been light on the human rights, says the Washington Post editorial.

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I think we’ve kind of missed a lot of Cambodia this month. Let’s catch up quick! So Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is donezo. Julia Wallace, as always, has a great report on the court proceedings which found the party involved in a “United States-backed plot to overthrow the Cambodian People’s Party and its powerful leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen”. The Phnom Penh Post also an excellent piece discussing what the ruling means for the coming election and the future of the country. A leaked recording shows Hun Sen telling cadres the CPP could still lose the election, which is a bit ominous.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is pissed. Sweden is the first EU nation to pull in aid funding in response to the crackdown. The US has issued increasingly heavy rebukes, but after a bit of confusion will continue funding the US$2 million a year program to remove landmines. Hun Sen, for his part, seems to not give a shit.

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If next fortnight I start this newsletter with the words ‘Setya Novanto won his pretrial motion’ I will lose it. Indonesia’s Speaker of the House and Golkar Chairman Setya Novanto has been arrested! Rather than going with the traditional orange-vest-perp-walk of corruption suspects, Setya went with the wheelchair after an unfortunate run-in with an electricity pole last week. His lawyers have again filed a pretrial motion, which sunk the KPK against him last month, but other lawmakers appear to have sensed the mood in the air and are backing his at least temporary removal from parliament. Sure, it’s largely political, but who doesn’t love it when it gets messy.

This whole story actually really gets on my nerves a lot because it’s so frustrating. If anyone wants to shout about it with me week after next on a Kuningan rooftop, pls do let me know. In the meantime, John McBeth at Asia Times has a great round-up of the case.