Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Declassified - the SIS spies and Philippines Solidarity

By Maire Leadbeater

The SIS papers suggest a high level of Security Intelligence Service infiltration and surveillance of the Philippines Solidarity Movement of Aotearoa.

FOR ME, the most disturbing material in my recently declassified NZ Security Intelligence Service (SIS) file is that relating to my involvement in the Philippines Solidarity Movement in the latter half of the 1980s and the early 1990s. The documents, taken with others such as those released to my brother Keith Locke, Green MP, and former Philippines Solidarity Network national coordinator, suggest a high level of SIS infiltration and surveillance of the movement.

The New Zealand Philippines Solidarity Network was launched at a highly successful Conference on Philippine Concerns in August 1984. A key driving force behind the initiative was the late Father John Curnow, a visionary leader in the Catholic Commission for Evangelisation, Justice and Peace, who had visited the Philippines many times since 1971. From the start, the network had roots in the union movement and support from the Labour Party hierarchy, but many key activists were drawn from the ranks of the (since disbanded) Workers Communist League (WCL).

Why were we a magnet for SIS attention?
The 1988-89 Peace Brigade was perhaps the most ambitious project of the Philippines Solidarity Network in that time, and arguably one of the most effective. There were many other New Zealand delegations visiting the Philippines and important tours of prominent Filipinos to this country which also interested the spies, but the Brigade serves as a good case example to help understand why we were the focus of such close attention.

Keith drew the short straw back then – he organised our 17 strong team and journalist David Robie to accompany us, but then stayed back to handle the media response in New Zealand. I made my first unforgettable visit to the Philippines as the leader of the team. The Peace Brigade (or Peace Caravan as it was dubbed in the Philippines) was designed to offer international guests from 18 countries an “exposure” experience to learn more about the struggle against foreign military bases and other linked campaigns for human rights, labour rights and land reform. The programme culminated with the Asia-Pacific Peoples Conference on Peace and Development and a two-day peace caravan to protest at two major US bases: Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base.

Earlier in 1988, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials warned Keith of the safety problems of organising visits to the Philippines and the Labour government’s Associate Foreign Affairs Minister, Fran Wilde, even suggested that such visits could amount to “foreign intervention in domestic affairs”.[1] It is fair to assume that there was a two-way flow of information and intelligence between the two governments concerning our activities.

To the casual observer we must have seemed an unlikely combination of people: some of our group were peace activists of long standing but many in the group were quite new to political activity and our ages ranged from 17 to 73. No matter, we were subjected to Red scare propaganda even before we arrived. A letter from the Philippines Embassy’s Consul-General, Apolinaria Cancio, received by tour organiser, Keith Locke, just prior to our departure advised that if we violated any of the terms of our visas we would be arrested and deported. We were specifically warned not to take part in any “teach-ins”, not to contact any leaders of the banned Communist Party of the Philippines, or to incite people to commit sedition. Unlike the delegations from other countries, we were all searched at Manila Airport and some of our newsletters and documents were seized.

Not long after our arrival in the country, the Manila newspapers carried stories alleging that the Peace Brigade was interfering in the country’s affairs. The Chief of the Philippines Constabulary, General Montana, said we would “be treated like common criminals and paedophiles” if we stepped out of line. But, I think the threats merely served to ensure that we were especially determined to participate to the full in the Brigade programme and wear with pride the “Peacenik” name the Philippine media conferred on us.

The international delegates were allocated to small teams for local exposure missions, each with its own Filipino guide. Our guide was Del Abcede (who later became a member of PSN in New Zealand). Journalist David Robie was also attached to our team. Our group went to militarised Mindanao. We spent the first few days in Cagayan de Oro, where we took part in peace rallies and seminars, but left for Bukidnon after military police came knocking on the door of our guest house. In Bukidnon, we stayed in the simple dwellings of the families inadvertently in the front line of a counter-insurgency war. One night we camped out with a large group of displaced people – they had been forced off their land by military operations and were trying to get the local authorities to take some responsibility, but in the meantime their children were succumbing to sickness and their food was running out.

Embarrassing governments in Philippines and NZ
I had asked to visit Bukidnon, Mindanao, because it was the site of New Zealand’s major aid project to the Philippines at the time, the Bukidnon Industrial Tree Plantation. The project had attracted criticism locally on account of the failure of the project managers to consult effectively with the local Lumad tribal people, the impact of the project on ancestral land claims and the likelihood that the forestry infrastructure would be used by the military to tighten their grip in the area. Our hosts arranged meetings for us from the local Governor, barrio captains, tribal leaders and local householders. Our visit stirred controversy in the Philippines and anger back home - especially from then Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fran Wilde, who later tried to discredit two Lumad tribal leaders while they were making a speaking tour of New Zealand.

While in Bukidnon we also interviewed a number of people about a secret base believed by NZ peace researcher Owen Wilkes to be a “scorekeeper” base designed to detect and record nuclear explosions. We were not able to visit the heavily guarded base but later at the Manila Conference the claims about this base caused a major media stir.

After the exposure we all took part in the Manila Conference, and then in a two-day caravan or convoy which ran the gauntlet of heavily armed military barricades and checkpoints to protest at the giant US Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base. We never quite made it to Subic, but took part in an all night vigil and concert outside Clark. It would be hard to understate the strategic significance of the Clark and Subic, they were sited to ensure US control over the choke points between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and served respectively as headquarters for the US 13th Air Force and a key port for the US 7th Fleet. The bases had served as springboards to intervention in South East Asia (Vietnam, Korea and Thailand) and further afield to Iran and Yemen. At the time their role was seen as essential to preserving strategic superiority over the former Soviet Union in the region.

For me the brigade was a life changing event, perhaps because it was the first time I experienced at first hand the power of a mass peoples’ movement of resistance. The comprehensive network of “cause oriented” groups such as Gabriela and Nuclear Free and Independent Philippines, the workers, peasants and student coalitions worked in unison to ensure the success of all our activities. When I look back on it must have been some kind of miracle that we achieved all that we did, making it through eight military checkpoints to take up position outside the Clark base. As we prepared to depart we international delegates took part in a media conference where we condemned the military repression we had witnessed.

The US bases not only placed the Philippines as a future flashpoint for nuclear conflict, but they also represented US intervention in the wider sense. The US declared the Philippines independent in 1946, but the presence of the bases was seen as a strong signal that colonial control had not ended. Getting rid of the bases was seen as an essential part of regaining Filipino sovereignty over an economy dominated by US transnationals.

It was all a Communist plot, apparently
The Cold War was still very much intact and in the Philippines, the dictator Marcos had fallen but his successor, Cory Aquino, presided over a military-backed government with only a thin veneer of democracy. Those calling for genuine social change, land reform, labour rights and an end to human rights abuses lived daily under threat of arbitrary arrest or worse, and “Red-baiting” was an essential tool in the regime’s armoury.

On the other hand the civil war between the Government backed by vigilante squads and the Communist New Peoples’ Army (NPA) was ongoing in the rural areas of most provinces, and in some quarters the possibility of a full-scale revolution, or another “Vietnam” was contemplated. The Philippines was in the sights of extreme Rightwing groups such as the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) and it was widely reported that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was supporting covert actions against the NPA. The US was determined to retain its bases in the Philippines, beyond the lease expiry date of September 1991, as an essential element of its ability to project its power into the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

If you were around in the 1980s when New Zealand’s nuclear free stand was under vociferous attack, you would remember that there was a plethora of Rightwing think tanks, foundations and anti-Communist organisations that worked closely together. Their agenda was to sow fear of the dire consequences of the “ANZUS crisis” which could leave us open to “Soviet political manipulation”. Naturally these institutions, like the Hoover Institute and Heritage Foundation focused on the Communist threat in the Philippines, and so it was to be expected that this anti-Communist hysteria would not spare New Zealand-Philippines links. In December 1988, not long before our tour began, New Zealand’s Ambassador in the Philippines had to defend a simple aid project about sewing machines because the charity funded, Samakana, had a connection to the women’s organisation Gabriela, declared by some to be Communist affiliated.[2]

Red-baiting NZ media cooperated with SIS
There had also been some rather lurid headlines in the New Zealand Sunday papers about New Zealanders spending time with the NPA during their solidarity visits to the Philippines: “Guerrilla Thrill Trips: Kiwis pay to join Filipino jungle fighters” [3]. When we returned from the Philippines, journalist Bernard Moran, who was becoming a regular at Rightwing conferences on the Communist threat, gained some new ammunition to use in vitriolic articles in the former Catholic paper New Zealand Tablet. He had previously written of a Communist conspiracy that was driving church aid projects in the Philippines. The piece he wrote about our Auckland meeting to report back on the Brigade was a distorted account that zeroed in on the presence of “Trotskyites” and their subversive literature in the sacred confines of the St Benedict’s Church crypt.[4]

It is clear from the SIS documents that the late John Kennedy, the editor of the Tablet, passed information to the SIS. One such report included detailed information about the finances, and the political affiliations of Philippine Solidarity Group (PSG) members in Auckland and Wellington.[5] Bernard Moran also submitted an article in early 1987 to the Washington-based journal National Interest in which he wrote (not very accurately) about me. Flatteringly he dubbed me a “pivotal person in the NZ peace movement”.[6] Fortunately, the “Red-baiting” articles were far outweighed by key articles by David Robie who was then working freelance and had many Philippines articles accepted by the mainstream media (nationally and regionally). He continued to cover the Philippines political situation, human rights issues and the bases debate over the next few years.

SIS spies in meetings in all main centres
Hardened activist that I am, I confess to being shocked to discover the extent to which there were “sources”or SIS spies present at many of the meetings of the Philippines Solidarity Groups in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. Bear in mind the context that these were generally small, relatively informal meetings held frequently in the homes of activists. National meetings which were often held in a relaxed marae setting are also reported on in detail.

This of course raises the question about the extent to which our SIS was passing on information to counterparts in the Philippines, and perhaps using information gained from the Philippines to refine their surveillance of us. There is no direct proof of this as communications from or to other intelligence agencies have all been excluded from the released information. Every broad social justice movement, such as the anti-nuclear movement or the anti-apartheid movement, has participants from a range of Left parties. Most of us are glad to harness everyone’s energy for the common cause but that is not how the SIS sees the situation!

The Left affiliations of those present at meetings and seminars were all carefully recorded. Tellingly, John Curnow is recorded as warning at a Christchurch Philippines Solidarity meeting that people should not make jokes about supporting the New Peoples Army. “He, himself, had been interviewed a couple of times by the SIS, who tried to tell him he was being hoodwinked by the WCL”. [7]

Tracking visitors to both countries
The SIS also did its best to monitor all visits of New Zealanders to the Philippines – listing all the full names and dates of birth of members of the Peace Brigade after they had obtained their visas.[8] My return flight times are also included in a much later handwritten note[9] with the comment: “There is no trace of any travel during 1990”. SIS Headquarters also supplied a list of Filipino visitors to New Zealand since 1984. The names on the list have been withheld but the rationale is interesting:
It is as comprehensive as our records will allow. It was compiled because of the frequency of such travel, the number of visitors with National Democratic Front (NDF*) or New People's Army (NPA) traces, and, lastly because of the growing links between anti-nuclear groups and indigenous peoples of both countries. We had hoped to carry out a similar study of New Zealanders travelling to the Philippines but owing to the volume of travel and the difficulty of keeping track of their movements, this has not proved to be feasible. Instead we have concentrated on a few individuals who have established good links with the Philippines and who appear to be regarded as valuable contacts by the Filipinos themselves. [10]
Sometimes the sources were rebuffed: “We were unfortunately unable to have source coverage of the PSNA hui on 27-28 September 86”. So the SIS mounted surveillance to record some of the comings and goings but only three vehicles were seen to enter the venue and one female cyclist “aged about 35 with black hair”. The only other thing to note was that one of the participants came out on Sunday morning at 0900 hours “to purchase a newspaper from the local dairy and walk around the block for about 15 mins”. This man was “sporting a full beard and has had his hair permed. He was accompanied on his perambulations by a male aged about 25-30, dark hair, pale complexion”. [11] By the time of the 1990 Lumad tribal and Touching the Bases tours (six Filipinos participated in the latter), it seems that SIS interest was waning, as reporting is sparse.

The lessons? I don’t think any of this covert activity had an adverse effect on the powerful international anti-nuclear campaign for the US bases in the Philippines to be closed. In 1991 the Philippines Senate voted against a treaty allowing the United States forces to remain for a further 10 years. The Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption that year effectively ended the life of the Clark Air Force Base and in March 1992 the last carrier group pulled out of Subic Bay.

The Philippines solidarity movement in this country declined in strength for a few years, until Murray Horton (who was also a Peace Brigade stalwart) and the Christchurch group took over the national coordination task. Now, it is good to see that the network is growing again and focusing on the new US “integrated global presence and basing strategy” as well as on the appalling human rights and poverty situation.

Lessons for future security in our movements?
Of course we should not forget the possibility that any movement for social change can be infiltrated whether by the SIS or possibly the police. But it would be counterproductive to let this get in the way of free communication or make us less welcoming to new members. The publicity around the release of SIS files to many veteran activists has given a new opportunity for a campaign against all spying on social justice and political activists of all stripes. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees to all of us the right to “freedom of opinion and expression … and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

1 Dominion Post, 8/5/88
2 Dominion Sunday Times, 21/2/88
3 Sunday Star, 8/5/88
4 Metro, July 1989, “Bernard Moran and Communist Conspiracy”
5 SIS District Office Southern District to Headquarters, 27/5/86, Keith Locke file
6 SIS District Office Northern District, Original on Bernard Andrew Moran 27/4/87, extracted/copied by (name withheld), on 28/5/87, Maire Leadbeater file
7 NSIS District Office Southern District to Headquarters, 8/6/90, Maire Leadbeater file
8 NZSIS 9/1/89, Maire Leadbeater file
9 NZSIS 7/12/90, Maire Leadbeater file
10 Headquarters (Counter-Subversion) to District Office Northern District & District Office Southern District 10/8/88, Keith Locke file
11 NZSIS District Office Southern District to Headquarters, 9/10/86, Maire Leadbeater file

* The National Democratic Front is the political coalition of underground groups waging the armed struggle, including both the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.

This article was written for Kapatiran, the newsletter of the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa, under the title "The SIS and the Philippines Solidarity Movement". At the time of these events, human rights author Maire Leadbeater was a leader of PSNA and she is now a spokesperson for the Indonesia Human Rights Committee. This article is republished with her permission. The photo of Maire and Café Pacific publisher David Robie is by Del Abcede.

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