History Used for the Wrong Reasons: violence flares on Pinochet anniversary

Clashes have broken out in several Chilean cities on the 40th anniversary of the coup conducted by General Augusto Pinochet which ushered in 17 years of brutal dictatorship. Dozens of people have been injured and arrested in a not uncommon remembrance of this dark event in Chile’s history.

Human rights activists campaigning for justice for Pinochet's victims have resorted to violence
Human rights activists campaigning for justice for Pinochet’s victims have resorted to violence

Pinochet’s military dictatorship was synonymous with government-sponsored kidnappings, extrajudicial murder and torturous interrogations of political prisoners. The man Pinochet overthrew as Chilean leader was Salvador Allende, the first Marxist leader of a Latin American country. Allende allegedly committed suicide at his headquarters after the military coup and subsequent bombing of his political base by Pinochet’s subordinates.

Allende's headquarters bombed - 1973
Allende’s headquarters bombed – 1973

Within a year of his ascent to power, Pinochet had smashed the Chilean left, with some 30,000 supporters of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition having fled the country. Privatization and free-market economics were forcibly enacted as the socialist dream died.

The overthrow of Allende and the destruction of Chilean socialism in the 1970s still rankles with the left today and with good reason. Michelle Bachelet, the former president and current opposition leader, has used the anniversary not only to denounce the Pinochet dictatorship but also his economic and political reforms that bare resemblance to those of Sebastian Pinera’s centre-right government.

Pinera, meanwhile, whilst also denouncing Pinochet and calling for national reconciliation, has not missed a chance to comment on Allende’s legacy. It was his “repeated violations of the law”, Pinera claims, that led to Pinochet’s takeover. This “inevitable” event was the product of socialism.

This is a bold statement; Pinera is not far from suggesting that the failings of socialism were the direct cause of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Whilst both he and Bachelet pledge the need for national unity, both are equally unscrupulous in using the anniversary to score political points against one another in an election year.

Pinera and Bachelet have intensified disorder with unwise statements
Pinera and Bachelet have intensified disorder with unwise statements

Instead of promoting national unity, this provokes political divisiveness as both sets of political supporters attempt to foist the blame of Chile’s darkest hour on their opponents. The violence this has helped create is a shameful indictment on the political classes.

At the same time, others are seeking to take advantage of the anniversary for more personal gain. Looting and the settling of personal grievances are hidden behind a political facade by youths ignorant or uncaring of their country’s past.

Whilst dwelling on the Pinochet era is unlikely to heal any of Chile’s wounds, a recognition of shared culpability by all political representatives for allowing it to happen would bring about a greater chance of reconciliation.

The battle between ‘right’ and ‘left’ on the political spectrum is stronger nowhere than in Latin America, which has seen both extremes throughout the 20th century. Pinochet, it must be believed, would not be displeased to see the violence flare; it would give the military the excuse it needs.

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Violence in Mindanao: the Islamic threat to Catholicism’s Asian jewel

Philippine troops are maintaining a stand-off with Islamic separatist rebels of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Zamboanga city on the restive southern island of Mindanao.

Many civilians have been caught in the crossfire of a massive troop deployment (source:BBC)
Many civilians have been caught in the crossfire of a massive troop deployment (source:BBC)

Approximately 81% of the Philippine people identifies themselves as Roman Catholic and yet Islamic separatism has proved a persistent problem in the country’s recent history.

It was the legendary Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan who first claimed the Philippines for Spain and Christianity in 1521 during his attempted circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan would die in the territory shortly afterwards yet by 1565 Spanish colonisation of the Philippines had begun in earnest.

The Spanish had not been the first colonisers to arrive, however. From as early the 14th century, a variety of Islamic sultanates had arrived on Philippine territory and begun the spread of their religion. By the time of the Spanish arrival, Islam was already entrenched on Mindanao, whilst even Manila in the north had a large Muslim population.

The Spanish rule from 1565 to 1821 that trend comprehensively reversed. Ruled as a province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Philippines as we know it was born; a largely united political entity increasingly under the sway of a single overpowering religion in Catholicism, which served as a way of life.

The Spaniards did not lose their Philippine colony until the Spanish-American War of 1898, which spilled over from Cuba. Already long past her glory days, Madrid was powerless in the face of a new global might.

The Spanish-American War replaced one Christian power with another in the Philippines
The Spanish-American War replaced one Christian power with another in the Philippines

The seeds of Islamist separatism had already been sown during the 19th century, emerging at the same time as Catholic revolutionaries finally lost faith with Spanish rule. With a rapidly declining economy, religious tensions intermixed with societal decline. American occupation, which effectively lasted until 1946, after the end of WWII, increased discontent amongst the still sizeable Muslim minority, now largely confined to Mindanao.

When a finally independent Philippines emerged there were no concessions for the Muslims. Although the Catholic-dominated state was theoretically secular, there was no doubt that Islam was a distant second in terms of economic and political representation, a stark contrast to the Malaysian Bumiputera model or Indonesian development; such was unusual status of the Philippines.

By the 1960s the MNLF had been established, soon to be followed by the equally violent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which has continued a more high-profile battle against the Philippine government ever since.

With links to global jihadist movements, the MILF are well equipped for guerrilla warfare
With links to global jihadist movements, the MILF are well equipped for guerrilla warfare

Only 10% of Mindanao’s population are Muslim, thanks to government-sponsored Catholic emigration at the beginning of the 20th century, yet the sporadic battle for an independent Islamic caliphate in the Philippines has been particularly bloody. Both the MNLF and MILF have become linked with international jihadist movements, even spawning the indigenous Abu Sayyaf, which has been responsible for a slew of terrorist atrocities.

All this in the Catholic capital of Asia; the most surprising success story of a remarkable spiritual and political movement: the Spanish missionary movement.

Maybe it is the pride of the Philippine people in their Catholicism that so angers the Muslims of Mindanao and why the government cannot afford but to be ruthless in its attempts to suppress separatism. Either way, the problem is unlikely to die away quickly.