Union activist talks about his year in the Philippines

The Spark November 2010

The New Zealand Government has just listed the Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People’s Army as terrorist organisations. The Spark talks to trade unionist, Luke Coxon, who has just spent a year in the Philippines.

Spark: Luke you took a year off work to do voluntary work in the Philippines. What drew you there?

Luke Coxon: I first went to the Philippines as a student activist in 1996. It really shaped my political outlook. Back then I already considered myself Marxist, but I was so inspired by the living movement in the Philippines that it left a lasting impression. I always wanted to go back and in 2007 was part of a fact finding group looking into human rights abuses there. I decided then to go back and volunteer for the KMU, the militant trade union federation.

Nestle picket

Spark: What attracted you to the KMU?

LC: The KMU sees itself as an anti-imperialist trade union federation.
It has a socialist perspective; it’s not just about bread and butter issues such as economic demands, but for wider social and revolutionary change.

Spark: What did you do while you were there?

LC: A lot of the time I was involved in documenting human rights violations against trade unionists. The Philippines is the second-most dangerous country for unionists; the first is Colombia. Both countries have strong armed struggle movements and in both countries unionists are targeted under the US-sponsored counterinsurgency programme.

I spent time in the region of Mindanao documenting the militarisation of the Dole foods plantation. Dole is the biggest pineapple producer and employs 20,000 people in the Philippines. Around 5000 workers are members of a union which is part of the KMU. The other 15,000 Dole workers are categorised by the company as contract workers. The union is fighting to get them recognised as workers with rights.
Under the counter insurgency programme Oplan Bantay Laya ’ (Operation Freedom Watch) militant unions have been targeted for union busting through extra-judicial killings, the imprisonment of trade unionists and militarization of factories. Dole had colluded with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in implementing a union busting campaign. Dole outrightly refused to recognise the union, despite it having 5000 members. When I was visiting the plantation, the military, a company “union” and the government-created pseudo party list group ANAD (Alliance for Nationalism and Democracy), were running forums with the workers telling them to disaffiliate from KMU or be considered members of New People’s Army through affiliation. These threats were often followed by extrajudicial killings, such as what happened to some factories that had been militarized in the Compostela Valley in Mindanao.

Spark: We’ve seen pictures of the poverty in the Philippines, particularly in Manila, of people scouring rubbish dumps. What was your impression?

LC: Manila is a city of extremes. It has 12 million people; massive glitzy shopping malls and big mansions while next door there are homeless ‘squatters’, constantly being threatened with eviction. The poverty really slaps you in the face, you have child beggars everywhere and you can’t help but be affected by seeing how people are forced to live. There are urban poor people’s organizations that organize the squatter communities against demolitions and for adequate housing and their basic needs.

While I was there 43 health workers who were working among urban and rural poor were raided by 300 military elements while attending a community health training seminar. They were accused of attending a bomb making seminar of the New Peoples Army and have been jailed and tortured. I attended a court hearing where they were presented. Among them were women with one arm handcuffed to armed military escorts. They were defiant. When brought to and from the court they raised their other arm in a clench-fist salute. I was blown away by how many people were willing to risk their lives and freedom for the struggle they believed in.

Spark: Is the democratic movement quite strong?

LC: Yes, it has many facets. The national democratic movement struggles against US imperialism, feudalism (continuing land monopoly depriving the vast majority of the peasants of land) and bureaucrat capitalism (where the ruling elite use state power to advance their economic interests, hand in hand with corruption).

There is a vibrant legal mass movement taking on the tasks of organising and mobilising the people in the national democratic movement through parliamentary struggle, rallies, strikes and other forms of mass action.

In the countryside there is the New People’s Army led by the CPP, engaged in armed struggle - people’s war.

These different forms of struggle are being waged towards the goals of breaking up imperialist and feudal bondage and attaining genuine freedom and democracy for the long suffering people.

Spark: Ten years ago there were peace talks taking place between the communists and the government? Why did they stall?

LC: Following the September 11 attacks in 2001 the United States declared the Philippines the second front of the War on Terror and listed the cpp as an international terrorist group. That became a major obstacle for the peace talks. Prof. Jose Maria Sison, founding CPP chair and current NDFP Chief Political Consultant who played a major role in the peace talks, was also listed as a terrorist.

What followed was a militarist approach to the civil war, with the military targeting people in the legal mass movement. It is a state terrorist strategy.

The government said that with the counterinsurgency strategy they would defeat the npa in ten years. But the opposite happened – the NPA has grown. Recently the Cpp announced they aim to reach a strategic stalemate in five years – meaning they would be able to match the state forces in strength.

Spark: Do you think that’s a real possibility?

LC: There are signs that the movement is growing stronger. For instance in the region of Negros it’s very clear the movement is progressing. Negros Island is known as the sugar bowl. It has the legacy of Spanish colonialism with wealthy landlords (hacienderos) and big landholdings (haciendas). The sugar workers live in abject poverty. They have work for just six months of the year and many don’t even get the minimum wage (NZ$9 a day). Those that are unionised in the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW)at least get the minimum wage and are fighting for their rights.

There’s hunger in the midst of all these plantations of sugar. So the workers have begun occupying land and cultivating food. There have been 30 occupations covering a few thousand hectares, and these are examples of real people’s power.

These have been won at great cost. When I was there the military were killing Nfsw members and other activists. Benjie Bayles, a mass leader from a left wing parliamentary party, was killed by two confirmed members of the military. Benjie’s case clearly exposed the existence of death squads within the military. Recently the perpetrators were arrested. Meanwhile, those involved in the killings and abductions of over 1000 activists under Arroyo and at least 16 new victims under current president Aquino have yet to be brought to justice.

Spark: What was your impression of the new government?

LC: The Arroyo government was hated by the people. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the new president who likes to be called Pnoy, is the son of Cory Aquino who rose to power in the historic 1986 People Power. He was a lackluster senator who was propelled to power when Cory died. He promised to challenge corruption, but after 100 days in office nothing has changed. He has the backing of the United States and has extended the OBL counter-insurgency programme. You have had 16 extra judicial killings of activists so far under his watch.

The word is that peace talks are likely to resume under Aquino.

Spark: What would the Government hope to get out of peace talks?

LC: They hope the CPP will capitulate. That won’t happen.

The basis of the talks for the National Democratic Front is human, civil and political rights. Also social and economic problems need to be resolved. That means land reform, industrial nationalisation and the ending of unequal treaties with the US.

The problem with the New Zealand government declaring the CPP a terrorist organisation is that this country then becomes an impediment to peace. The terror listing is a major barrier, and favours a military solution. They should remove the listing, now.

3 Responses to Union activist talks about his year in the Philippines


  2. Ferdinand Gaite says:

    Excellent article!

    Brother Luke Coxon was able to accurately capture the contradictions existng in Philippine society and the continuing struggle of the workers and oppressed masses for national democracy.

    Brother Luke epitomized genuine worker’s solidarity in volunteering to integrate with the militant working class organization in the Philippines, the KMU.

    We, in COURAGE (Confederation for Unity Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees), the leading government employees center in the Philippines, who had the opportunity to know and coordinate with Luke on many activities salute him for his steadfast perseverance. We hope other activists from New Zealand will follow his footsteps.

    Long live the struggle against US imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism!

  3. bulabog labusaw says:

    mr.luke grasp the real situation in our country.a social volcano is about to explode in the midst of all the misery of the filipino people and it will surely happen..

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