July 26, 2015

Aquino’s SONA, what legacy?

This year’s state-of-the-nation address (SONA) is President BS Aquino’s last.  He is expected to deliver a powerful speech replete with his regime’s achievements for the last 5 years with a summation of the legacy he will leave behind as he winds up his term. The Palace is agog about the Aquino regime’s  so-called “legacy of reforms”.  Speculation is rife, less than a year before the 2016 presidential elections (no doubt stoked by the “yellow” media to dispel the fact of a lame duck president with not much political capital remaining) about who will be his “anointed” to “continue the legacy”.

But the smoke-and-mirrors presidency that this column described upon its inauguration in 2010 has run out of magic tricks especially when it has to make something big out of basically nothing much. All the catchy, folksy slogans, in Filipino even, have boomeranged because they have been unmasked as empty or false and merely calculated to deceive and disarm.

The hard sell is that the Aquino presidency is qualitatively different, especially from the one that preceded it, that of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  Former president Arroyo is the proverbial whipping girl as far as Mr. Aquino and his coterie are concerned, for all things wrong in government before Mr. Aquino, an erstwhile non-performer in Congress, arrived on the political scene. 

But unlike the Arroyo regime that at least saw the successful prosecution and conviction for plunder of Mrs. Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, the cases against GMA have either been set aside, dismissed or are languishing in judicial limbo.  The student activists have a term for it: Mr. Aquino has been “Noynoying”, content with keeping GMA under hospital arrest and somewhat constrained from plotting against him, the ends of justice be hanged.

In reality Aquino’s campaign for good governance against abuse of authority, corruption, obstructionism and incompetence have been exposed as mere demagoguery, tokenism, selective prosecution of those in the anti-Aquino Opposition, and sometimes petty vindictiveness sparing the truly accountable from among the “kabarkada, kaklase, kabarilan”. Police General Alan Purisima, Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, LTO Assistant Secretary Virginia Torres, Budget Secretary Butch Abad and Presidential Peace Adviser Ging Deles come to mind.

The Malacanang propaganda line is that the Aquino regime made a real difference to the hardscrabble lives of the majority of Filipinos.  But the reality is more entrenched poverty and economic backwardness; unprecedented inequality marked by healthy profitmaking for multinational corporations and the local elite; untouched feudal relations in the countryside; auctioning of the national patrimony and unabated environmental destruction.  This in the midst of impressive growth rates, credit-rating upgrades, and high scores in “competitiveness” by foreign and local big business and the World Bank. (For a more comprehensive analysis see “SONA 2015: A Legacy of a Disconnected Economy” http://ibon.org/ibon_features.php?id=517)

The illusion that the Aquino regime has been trying to conjure is that it has championed national sovereignty and defended territorial integrity pointing to the government’s filing of a case in a UN arbitral tribunal and appeals for support in other international venues with regard to the heated West Philippine Sea dispute with China over maritime rights and territory. 

The Aquino government’s acquiescence to the lop-sided Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) on top of the obsequious implementation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in order to allow the permanent stationing of troops and war materiel and unhampered operations by the US military on Philippine territory (nothing less than the return of US military bases as part of the US “pivot” to the Asia Pacific region) is covered-up as a necessary adjunct to building a “credible external defense”. 

The abject lack of an independent foreign policy -- in the process placing the country in the crosshairs of the actual and potential enemies of the lone Superpower -- is passed off as pragmatism, or worse, an alignment of national interests.  The latter has historically been proven as completely false: from the devastation of World War II brought on by being the lone US colony in the region; to the economic losses, social degradation and political costs of hosting the two biggest US bases outside the US mainland; and to the decrepit and weak state of the Armed Forces of the Philippines under US tutelage -- with its long-standing orientation towards counterinsurgency rather than national defense and its hand-me-down equipment purchased at supposed discounts according to the terms of lopsided military assistance pacts.

The big picture moreover shows the surrender of economic sovereignty to the international financial institutions dominated by the US, EU and other advanced capitalist countries, to their governments especially the US, and to the powerful lobby of foreign chambers of commerce in favor of neoliberal policies and programs.  Such policies as liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization akin to the punishing conditions that Greece has recently been placed under have actually been implemented continuously since the late seventies by Philippine governments.
Under Aquino, the Philippine economy and people are further squeezed to favor monopoly capitalist impositions like never before, e.g. regulatory risk guarantees for foreign investors in Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) that go even farther than sovereign guarantees for foreign loans.  What’s more, the refusal of the Aquino regime to support domestic agriculture and build a genuinely Filipino industrial base -- the true “sound fundamentals” of a self-reliant economy -- is consistent with its subservient economic policies.

The lie that the Aquino has been peddling, with some success in the beginning, is that his “bosses” are the Filipino people, especially the poor and disadvantaged.  But as he readies his last SONA and prepares to exit from Malacanang (no doubt to continue his carefree, bachelor’s pursuits as a privileged scion of big landlords) the main thoroughfare leading to the Batasang Pambansa looks like a war zone fortified with concrete barriers, concertina wire, container vans etc. to be secured by 6,000 strong police force and standby military contingent.

Mr. Aquino’s real bosses have clearly emerged – foreign multinational corporations, the US Superpower, the domestic comprador capitalists (by definition, “agents for foreign organizations engaged in investment, trade, or economic or political exploitation”) and the big landlords.

On the human rights front, Mr. Aquino will not tire of crowing about the law passed to compensate human rights victims of the US-backed Marcos dictatorship, the arrest of the murderous General Jovito Palparan and the counterinsurgency (COIN) program deceptively dubbed “Oplan Bayanihan” that pretends to uphold the pursuit of peace, human rights and development while militarily crushing the “insurgents” and “terrorists”.

Mr. Aquino however will not admit to supporting incessant efforts to deny compensation to Marcos victims that are identified or associated with the local communist-led revolutionary movement; the coddling of the retired Gen. Palparan by the military establishment before and even after his arrest and the climate of impunity that cloaks human rights violators then and now.  Military officials implicated in the torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killings of activists have been promoted and appointed to sensitive and top positions of the defense establishment to the chagrin of the families of their victims and human rights defenders.

Gross and grievous violations of human rights under the aegis of Oplan Bayanihan, the hallmark of all COIN programs, are now papered over with references to “human security”, “whole-of-nation” approach, etc. and are even peddled as the military’s contribution to community development.  But the effect on the communities of indigenous peoples, landless farmers and farm workers is the same: massive displacement with entire families evacuating from their homes to escape militarization; extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances; and illegal arrests with prolonged detention on the basis of trumped-up charges in connection with the ongoing armed conflict.

Most recently, there is the stepped-up and brazen harassment of activists, union organizers in the private and public sector, progressive church people and even health professionals coupled with the filing of a slew of baseless criminal charges in the months leading up to Mr. Aquino’s SONA.  Alarmingly, charges such as human trafficking, illegal detention and the violation of children’s rights, etc. in connection with the sanctuary and support given to lumad evacuees fleeing military and paramilitary violence are being used to justify violent assaults on church institutions and personnel as what happened last week in Davao City.

Mr. Aquino is trying mightily to salvage the GPH-MILF peace negotiations (after the Mamasapano fiasco) by pushing for the passage of a version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law that has little resemblance to the terms of political settlement the two parties had already reached and hold little promise for achieving the aspirations of the Bangsamoro for self-determination. 
He is also trying to pass off as his peace program what in truth is his program to defeat the CPP/NPA/NDFP militarily -- with a huge dose of psychological warfare and the targeting of non-combatants for “neutralization” -- in order to make completely unfounded claims of leaving behind the legacy of “a just and lasting peace”. 

What Aquino leaves behind is a bloody human rights record, peace agreements reneged upon, and promises broken.   Indeed it is a legacy of more unjust war against a people rising up to assert their democratic rights; to defend themselves from elite depredation and state terrorism; from imperialist plunder and war. #

Published in Business World
27 July 2014

June 07, 2015

The only real deterrent to China’s aggression

In recent months, China’s flurry of reclamation work and building of military installations on several of the islets and reefs in the disputed portions of the West Philippine Sea (WPS)/South China Sea (SCS) have set alarm bells ringing about China’s aggressive design to claim almost the entirety of the area as part of its national territory.  The Philippines, being one of the parties to the disputes over maritime rights and territorial claims in the WPS/SCS, is rightfully aggrieved.

The WPS/SCS encompasses traditional fishing grounds not only for Filipino fisherfolk but those from several other ASEAN countries.  (China has been denying their access to these fishing grounds.)  The bountiful marine resources and rich marine biodiversity of the WPS/SCS is nature’s endowment to our peoples; it should be wisely conserved while being sustainably exploited.  (Chinese fishing vessels are well known to be engaged in destructive overexploitation of the marine environment.) There is substantial, commercially-valuable petrochemical and gas deposits in the underlying seabed that would be a much-needed boost to the economic development of any of the claimant nations. (China is suspected of wanting to hog these resources.)

The WPS/SCS is a geopolitically strategic and sensitive area.  It contains vital sea lanes for much of the global trade in the region.  Historically, it has been a stepping stone for western imperialist inroads into China.  Currently, it is a critical part of the Asia Pacific where US military might is being shifted to contain a resurgent China and maintain the US’ unchallenged dominance in the region.

The Filipino people must see through the geopolitical power play between the declining but still militarily superior US and its rival China, the new economic powerhouse, albeit with a far distant offensive military capability.  The Filipino people must not allow the country to be used as a pawn in big-power competition, collusion and confrontation.  Unfortunately, there is the widespread yet dangerous thinking, reinforced by a lingering colonial hangover, that the best, if not only, way to defend our sovereignty against any foreign country’s encroachments is to call on Uncle Sam for help. 

The conventional wisdom is that the Philippines, being a poor, backward country has no capacity to defend itself against China’s bullying and anticipated worse depredations to come; neither now nor in the foreseeable future.  Besides, it is argued, hasn’t the Philippines always been under the US security umbrella through long-standing military agreements? 

What is undeniable is the fact that the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and other such lop-sided pacts have not resulted in the promised modernization of the AFP, ergo our external defense capability is one of the weakest among claimants.   The year-round Balikatan joint military exercises that are supposed to be improving “interoperability” between the state-of-the-art war machinery of the US and the decrepit, outdated equipment of the Philippines merely reinforce the Philippine military’s state of awe, dependence and subordination to the US armed forces. 

With the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the Philippines’ role as provider of forward stations aka “agreed locations” for the basing of the US military troops and materiel is sealed.  Once more the justification is EDCA will cover the gaping holes in our external defense, acting as a deterrent against China based on the groundless presumption that the US will go to war against China in our behalf. 

Philippine authorities and other wishful thinkers mindlessly cling to the illusory notion of Big Brother immediately coming to our defense despite the fact that the US has repeatedly stated that it will not intervene in the territorial disputes in the WPS/CHS.  They also ignore the reality that the US has far bigger, more important stakes in its relations with China -- trillions of dollars in trade and trillions more in loans -- than it has with its former colony.

This was made clear by no less than US President Obama when he declared during his visit in April 2014, at the height of the tensions over the WPS/SCS, that US-PH military agreements, such as the MDT, do not bind it automatically to take military action to defend the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack.  Moreover, the presence of US troops, war materiel and facilities on Philippine territory, especially on the basis of a military alliance, could only serve as a magnet for attack from the enemies of the US, as in WW II when Japan attacked the Philippines which was then a US colony.

So if the Philippines cannot rely on the US against China’s aggressive posture and actuations in the WPS/SCS where can it turn to?  Many foreign policy experts have pointed to the need for ASEAN countries to unite and pressure China to agree to a binding Code of Conduct in settling WPS/SCS disputes.  Other opinion makers call for strengthening ties with India and Japan as a counterpoint to both China and the US.  However this ignores the fact that Japan remains more than ever the US fugleman in Asia while the US has, in recent years, forged closer economic and diplomatic ties with India.

Others call for quiet diplomacy at government-to-government and people-to-people levels with China geared towards minimizing frictions and increasing understanding and cooperation.  While beneficial, it would be naïve to think that such diplomacy will, by itself, temper China’s aggressiveness. The logic of China’s burgeoning capitalist economy fans its expansionist ambitions despite declarations of its intention to a “peaceful rise” as a global power.

Still others say the thing is to be able to beat the two contending powers at their own game by playing off one against the other utilizing a battery of experts in various fields to craft and implement such strategy and tactics.

All these approaches however overlook and grossly underestimate the power of a united people rising in mass protest and pushing the government to do what is necessary to uphold national interests including imposing economic sanctions on Chinese enterprises in the country such as in construction, real estate, agribusiness, import-export, power generation and transmission, mining, banking, etc.

The Vietnamese people angrily took to the streets to denounce China’s grab of its claimed territory and exclusive economic zone in the WPS/SCS. In the past the Vietnamese navy has dared to confront the far stronger Chinese navy.  Such courageous and defiant acts have stymied China’s intrusions to a significant extent.  China has been given notice that Vietnam is no pushover.

The Filipino people need not feel helpless in the wake of stepped-up Chinese aggression in the WPS/SCS.  Building a revitalized patriotic movement that draws its strength from its own people, neither taking sides nor relying on one power to defend itself from the other, is the key to the assertion and defense of our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The time to build such a movement is now. #

Published in Business World
8 June 2015

May 24, 2015

Real score on the BBL

Malacanang’s damage control measures for the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) after the Mamasapano fiasco is going full throttle.  No less than President Benigno S. Aquino has applied carrot-and-stick pressure tactics on his congressional allies.  This has resulted in the passage of the latest Malacanang-stamped version by the Lower House Ad hoc Committee on BBL by a vote of 50 to 17. 

The railroading in the Lower House is nothing new.  We’ve seen this before during the impeachment hearings against Mr. Aquino and the investigation into the Mamasapano incident.  Not even a modicum of serious discussion and debate transpired and herd voting (likely fed by hefty doses of Malacanang largesse) was again the norm.

The Senate is turning out to be a bit more difficult what with feisty Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s committee report, already signed by at least six of her colleagues, holding fast to the conclusion that the BBL is unconstitutional, requiring no less than honest-to-goodness Charter amendments. 

“Civil society” endorsements were put into high gear with the creation by Mr. Aquino of a supposedly “independent” National Peace Council top heavy with representatives from big business, the Catholic Church hierarchy, legal experts, and assorted NGOs.   The pro-BBL chant is that it is pro-peace, pro-development and pro-social justice.

Now the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is being regaled as law-abiding (proof is their having killed wanted “terrorist” Basit Usman although the military earlier disputed the claim), business-friendly (photo-ops with top honchos of the domestic corporate world), respectful and submissive to Congress and all but pacified after the crescendo of anti-MILF commentaries coming from many quarters.

Thus the battle to pass the BBL has shaped up to be mainly between the Malacanang-led proponents on one hand and the anti-Moro opposition on the other. What they have in common is that both are driven by strategic vested interests (which have nothing to do with the Bangsamoro’s aspirations for the right to self-determination) and narrow immediate interests more related to winning in the 2016 elections than to putting an end to the armed conflict.
Whichever side prevails, the BBL will be a far cry from what the Bangsamoro Transition Commission drafted and submitted to Malacanang for its approval. More so with what the MILF had fought tooth and nail for before they settled for the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB).

The most formidable legal obstacle to the BBL’s passage comes from the view that many key provisions of the original draft bill submitted to Congress are inconsistent with, contrary to or even undermine the Philippine Charter. 

This should not come as a surprise.  All revolutionary movements of the Bangsamoro, from the MNLF to the MILF, challenge and are inherently an affront to the status quo as reflected in the legal document called the Philippine Constitution.  In fact, the MILF split from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) when the 1976 Tripoli Agreement under the Marcos regime clearly subsumed the GPH-MNLF peace process and the agreement itself to the Philippine Republic’s legal framework as well as legal and political processes.  This fatal flaw as pointed out by the late MILF founding chair Hashim Salamat was then affirmed and sealed in the 1996 GPH-MNLF Final Peace Agreement under the Ramos regime.

The MILF had been persistently batting for Charter amendments to reflect the key provisions in the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) negotiated with the GPH under Arroyo and later the FAB and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) under Aquino.  These are on ancestral domain (later denoted simply as territory), on self-governance (not only within the confines of  ARMM autonomy ergo the use of such terms as “substate”, “associative relationship” and “asymmetry”); on control of the use of natural resources; on control over government instrumentalities such as the Comelec and police deemed crucial in reforming, if not overhauling, the extremely depraved political set-up in the former ARMM.

Too bad at some point and with heaps of “expert advise” from the US government’s Institute of Peace and the cajoling if not deceptive assurances of the GPH, the MILF gave in and no longer pressed the issue.  What has come to pass is that the objections based on constitutionality have been the leverage used to water down an already watered down BBL. 

The Ad Hoc Committee BBL draft is essentially a rehash of the ARMM law.  The ARMM, admitted by no less than Mr. Aquino to be a “failed experiment” has now reemerged as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR), touted as a “bigger and better” ARMM.  For example, BBL proponents point to an “opt in” proviso: aside from the provinces and cities listed as covered by the plebiscite, the political exercise could also cover all other contiguous cities and provinces where there is a resolution of the local government unit or a petition of at least 10% of the registered voters asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to ratification.  But this can only take place on the fifth and tenth year after its enactment.  Moreover, the core territory of the ARMM will have to undergo a plebiscite once more to ratify inclusion in the BAR. 

A higher share of revenues from natural resources for the BAR was wangled in the BBL and there is assurance of a bigger share in the national coffers through a “block grant”.  The ad hoc committee draft, however, takes away the autonomous government’s right to contract and receive grants and donations from foreign governments as these would require national government concurrence.  There is also the novelty of a parliamentary form of government that is touted to be more representative and ergo democratic but such a form is also more easily controlled and manipulated by long-entrenched political dynasties in Muslim Mindanao.

With strong anti-Moro prejudices, distrust and chauvinist bias unabashedly displayed, and weighing in on arguments of both pro- and anti-BBL camps, it is difficult to imagine how the BBL could still be a product of an intelligent discourse on how a just and lasting peace can be achieved for the Bangsamoro and the entire country.

But more important, the prevailing anti-Moro sentiments and deep-rooted national chauvinism on display in the national discourse on the BBL clearly and concretely prove why it is impossible for any national minority such as the Bangsamoro to exercise their right to self-determination through an autonomy granted under a state where the majority does not consider nor treat minorities as equals. #

Published in Business World
25 May 2015