Dr Aurora Parong has been a close observer of the human rights situation in the Philippines under three regimes — Marcos, Aquino, Ramos. Rather than moving into medical practice after her graduation from the University of the Philippines, she chose instead to dedicate herself to the emerging community health movement. Arrested on charges of "subversion" in 1982 and imprisoned for 18 months, she nonetheless continued in the treatment of the victims of torture and human rights abuses through the work of the Medical Action Group (MAG). In 1990 she received the Distinguished Physicians Award from the Australian Medical Association for the Prevention of War, which sponsored her recent visit. In Sydney she spoke with Peter Anderson about conditions in the Philippines today.
"The Aquino government had conducted a policy of gradual political tightening", said Parong, "a policy conceptualised by President Ramos himself. He described the strategy as removing the water from the fish — by which he meant the insurgents — so that the fish would be isolated and would die".
General Fidel Ramos was installed as Philippine president in June, replacing Corazon Aquino. Parong said the appointment of several former generals to important government posts does not promise a bright future either for economic development or for the human rights situation.
The new executive secretary was the holder of a logging concession — an industry that has caused irreparable damage to native forests. The agriculture secretary owns a banana plantation in Mindanao and was known as an opponent of land reform under the Aquino administration. Former general Jose Almonte, who has a record of devious practices, is now the director of the National Security Council (NSC).
Almonte was responsible for what became known as the Big Bird scandal, in which it was proposed that illicit methods be used to retrieve some of Marcos' hidden wealth in Switzerland instead of going through the court system.
Through the NSC, Almonte plans to start some sort of intelligence operation inside government institutions and agencies to spy on government officials and employees. He also plans a national ID system.
So far, there have not been any killings of health workers under the Ramos regime, but the harassment of community health workers is again on the rise. Already, one MAG regional coordinator has been arrested on charges of subversion.
"There have been many cases of our members being detained and questioned for several hours, and we have faced more difficulties going into the rural areas, especially the so-called military areas, and difficulties too in servicing the evacuation centres."
The Medical Action Group, made up of health professionals, workers and students, since 1982 has delivered health care to victims of human rights violations and also has undertaken human rights advocacy and education in the health sector. There is also a need to give medical services to internal refugees displaced by the massive military operations against the rebels.
"It was primarily during the time of President Aquino that we had more domestic refugees to attend to as a result of the internal dislocation. There was a lot of harassment of health workers that disrupted and sometimes stopped the community-based health programs. Under Marcos there were more cases of individual torture, as there were many more arrested."
Some 118 health workers are known to have suffered harassment in the years 1987-1991, including nine killed on separate occasions.
Presidential Decree 169, issued by Marcos, has been the vehicle for much of this victimisation. PD169 required doctors to report any case of physical injuries they treated, especially gunshot wounds, under pain of penalty and imprisonment for failure to do so.
"Aquino simply replaced PD169 with Executive Order 212 according to which, instead of reporting to the Philippines constabulary, the physician must report physical injuries to the Health Department.
"The process is more one of harassment than of actual repression. But we still feel we have the sword of Damocles over our heads."
The MAG was labelled several times as a communist front because of its alleged links with the rebels. But Parong insists the group simply renders services to victims of human rights violations, "regardless of politics, political affiliation, religious beliefs, sex or social status".
"We do not see a very bright future for the Philippines, and we don't really think there will be fundamental changes to improve life conditions. Previously, we thought with changes in government (the downfall of Marcos) we would not have the reason to exist any more, but that is not so."