July 11, 2017

Repeating history

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”  - George Santayana

There are those who want us to forget the bitter lessons of martial law and the Marcos dictatorship. They say these hard-earned lessons should be discarded as irrelevant to our current situation because the threat of ISIS-inspired extremism is real and only martial law can stop it.

There is also the claim that President Rodrigo Duterte is motivated only by the desire to save the country from “terrorists” and the menace of illegal drugs. To do so, he has not hesitated in using the full might of the state — martial law — in order to finally slay these evils as no other previous administration has been able to.

We go back to the first lesson of martial law under the Marcos dictatorship: a mailed-fist approach to quash rebellions, much more revolutionary struggles, espousing causes that resonate with and draw support from the people — is bound to fail.

Even as we condemn terrorist activities that do nothing but violate human rights and harm civilians, we cannot turn a blind eye to the historical, socio-economic and political roots of the armed conflicts among the BangsaMoro.

Assuming for the sake of argument that ISIS-inspired or even ISIS-funded rebel forces are active in Mindanao, it still cannot be denied that these are the offspring, albeit illegitimate, of the centuries-old oppression and discrimination suffered by the Moro people.

It is well known that some of them, such as the Maute Group and the BangsaMoro Islamic Freedom Forces or BIFF, broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), because they perceived the latter as abandoning the fight for self-determination in exchange for a flawed peace agreement with the government.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) initially also claimed to have a political agenda akin to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the oldest armed secessionist force in Muslim Mindanao, but eventually deteriorated into a bandit group notorious for its kidnap-for-ransom activities. Recall that Senator Aquilino Pimentel had exposed the dubious origins of the ASG, a likely creation of the AFP and CIA in order to sow dissension among the MNLF as well as to undermine its political legitimacy.

Curiously, the government, especially the AFP, has always diminished the threat posed by these groups. We were told that these are small groups operating in circumscribed areas with narrow support from the Moro populace. At the onset of the operation to capture alleged ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi City, the connection of these groups with the dreaded Daesh or ISIS in Iraq and Syria, was at best tenuous. (The AFP repeatedly said these groups merely claimed allegiance to ISIS in a bid to boost its fearsome reputation and perhaps acquire foreign funding.)

President Duterte says he recognizes the legitimacy of the MILF and MNLF as representing the nationalist aspirations of the BangsaMoro.  He has nothing but contempt for the combined Maute Group/ASG/BIFF forces he categorizes as “terrorist” with no redeeming value.

Unfortunately he had been led to believe that the latter exist in a vacuum or have sprung up out of nowhere due to an evil, fanatical, foreign-inspired ideology.  In the beginning of the Marawi siege, it appears he had been led to believe that these groups were an inconsequential number and could be crushed militarily in a matter of weeks so long as the armed forces of the state are given free rein.

But this was not to be. The ferocity and protractedness of the fighting shows how much the AFP had underestimated the rebel groups in Marawi City. The recourse to bombardment of the city to flush out what seems to be an elastic number of rebels has led to its destruction and depopulation with hundreds of casualties and no clear end in sight.

These subsequent developments served to bolster the argument for martial law in Marawi City and even adjoining provinces, but why the recourse to it in the entirety of Mindanao?

Defense Secretary Lorenzana admitted at the press conference in Russia that “other rebel groups” including the New People’s Army was also a target. GRP chief negotiator Bello countered Lorenzana’s seeming slip of the tongue only as a prelude to chastising the CPP-NPA’s call for intensification of tactical offensives against government forces in response to martial law.

This was followed by a chorus of peace spoilers questioning the NDFP’s sincerity in the ongoing peace talks.  It is a line repeated ad nauseam in the mass media as the trigger for Duterte’s decision to withdraw the GRP negotiating panel from the 5th round of talks. It conveniently obfuscates the fact that martial law was indeed intended and in actuality is being used against the CPP-NPA and communities suspected to be under its sway.

In fact, with the acquiescence of Congress to Proclamation 216 and the imprimatur of the Supreme Court, the AFP has become more openly assertive about targeting the NPA.  While Duterte has not withdrawn his “all-out-war” declaration against the CPP-NPA since February and has now cloaked the military’s abuses with the “legality” of martial law, Lorenzana has the gall to call for the collapse of the peace talks citing recent NPA tactical offensives.

Duterte’s martial law is actually the anti-thesis of his touted “movement for change”. In the hands of the pro-US militarists in the Duterte regime, it is being used as an extraordinary tool for fascist repression.  The thousands of extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s ruthless “war on drugs” is a portent of what is bound to happen in the intensified “war on terror” under martial law.

It would be foolhardy to think DUterte was merely engaging in hyperbole when he said that like Marcos’s martial rule, his would be just as “brutal”.

Should Duterte extend martial law beyond 60 days and/or expand its coverage to the rest of the country, he will be dooming any remaining reformist impetus in his regime.  In so doing, he will also doom the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations already in limbo because of the GRP’s insistence on a premature bilateral ceasefire before any agreements on basic socio-economic reforms and Duterte’s policy of holding political prisoners hostage to the NDFP’s capitulation.

And yet the second major lesson from Marcos’ martial law comes to the fore.  Rather than douse the flames of rebellion and revolution, martial law can only fuel more armed and unarmed resistance.

In fact, Marcos’ martial law was said to be the number one recruiter of the New People’s Army.

The US-backed Marcos dictatorship was eventually ousted from power by a people roused by its rapacity, brutality and mendacity.

Martial law could indeed be the harbinger of a revolutionary upsurge that could seriously challenge, weaken and even bring down a completely reactionary and isolated Duterte regime. #

Published in Business World
10 July 2017

Dealing with Duterte

We have been getting “I-told-you-so” and “why-do-you-still-put-up-with-him” reactions from quite a number of well-meaning people here and abroad after President Rodrigo Roa Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao and withdrew the government negotiating panel form the 5th round of peace talks with the NDFP effectively causing its collapse.

As far as they are concerned, President Duterte and his regime are not so much as “unfolding” but more of “unravelling”. Now a quick explanation on the difference between the two as applied to the Duterte phenomenon and as it is currently being used in the Left’s parlance.

“Unfolding” essentially means Duterte can either turn more to the Left or the Right in so far as his policies and actuations depending on several key factors and developments.  “Unravelling” means he is what he is - a conventional/traditional politician who has managed to reach the top of the heap and is now the CEO of the reactionary ruling system - ergo he will inevitably reveal himself as such despite his claim that he is “Leftist” and “socialist”.

The implications of whether one leans to the “unfolding” or the “unravelling” scenario is crucial because it informs one’s attitude towards the Duterte regime and how one deals with him.

After Duterte’s one year in office, it is clear that the national democratic movement in the country - ranging from the revolutionaries waging armed struggle to the political activists leading the struggle for basic reforms in the legal arena - have no illusions about the current regime.

Duterte’s rise to power has not made a dent on the semifeudal, semicolonial character of Philippine. The local oligarchy of big landlords, big comprador and bureaucrat capitalists still lord it over society, tightly controlling the levers of power. The country’s former colonizer, the US of A, still dominates and interferes in all spheres of national life - economic, political and cultural. This despite Duterte’s rant spiced with curses against the US and the oligarchy in general (and some specific ones he just can’t abide), and grand promises of socio-economic reforms to benefit the people.

All the statements coming from the Left of the political spectrum on Duterte’s first year are highly critical and on many policies and programs, even denunciatory - martial law; the Marawi siege; the so-called war on drugs; the counterinsurgency program against the CPP-NPA-NDFP; political repression of peasants, workers and urban poor fighting for their rights; the continuation of anti-people/pro-elite and anti-national/pro-foreign monopoly capitalist economic policies; US military presence and involvement in internal armed conflicts; persistence of corruption, bad governance, patronage politics and impunity for grievous human rights violations.

But still the Left is giving Duterte some benefit of the doubt mainly because of two major policy changes - the resumption of peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDFP and the appointment of their nominees in three Cabinet positions.  This is what is being referred to as significant and concrete evidence of the “unfolding”.

To some this would appear to be self-serving but in reality, there is sound basis for giving weight to these hallmark decisions of President Duterte.  If the peace negotiations are to be pursued by both sides in earnest in order to address the underlying roots of armed conflict and thereby arrive at a negotiated settlement on the basis of fundamental socio-economic and political reforms, then we are looking at the dawning of the just and lasting peace our people have been longing for.

In the same vein, the appointment of outstanding and competent leaders from the Left in the Duterte Cabinet is an unprecedented move that is in tandem with his peace initiative.  It is a grand confidence-building measure that gives credence to his idea of “inclusivity” in his government.  Moreover, given the integrity, commitment and hard work the three Cabinet officials have consistently demonstrated in the last year - they are a boost to the Duterte regime in more ways than one.

Too bad the GRP-NDFP peace talks have been subjected to a lot of delays and now, a major impasse, because of the countervailing pressure of the right-wingers - pro-US militarists and rabid anti-communists - whose idea of the peace negotiations is providing a graceful exit for the surrender and cooptation of the revolutionary movement but without conceding any significant socio-economic and political reforms.

This has translated into the insistence on putting the cart before the horse; that is, getting the NDFP to agree to an interim, bilateral, open-ended ceasefire ahead of inking the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Political and Constitutional Reforms (CAPCR).

The GRP insists that a bilateral ceasefire complete with terms of reference as to buffer zones, what constitute violations, third party monitoring, etc makes for an “enabling environment” for the peace talks. This goes along with the notion propagated in the mass media by the GRP and so-called peace advocates that ceasefires are sine qua non to peace negotiations between two warring parties.

The NDFP for its part will only enter into a bilateral ceasefire, even an interim one preceding a Comprehensive Agreement on End of Hostilities and Disposition of Forces (CAEHDF), when the CASER is signed and all political prisoners are released in accord with the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

The NDFP sees a premature bilateral ceasefire as anathema to the objective of achieving a just peace. They anticipate that the GRP will lose all interest in negotiating, much less implementing, CASER and CAPCR once it gets a bilateral ceasefire. The revolutionary forces are admittedly on the strategic defensive because of the huge disparity between the strength of the Armed Forces of the Philippines versus the New People’s Army. A bilateral ceasefire would put it on the tactical defensive as well, tying the NPA’s hands in terms of defending territory under its shadow governance and protecting the gains of its revolutionary programs in the countryside.

The CPP-NPA-NDFP knows from experience that the GRP will not cease its counterinsurgency operations that wreak havoc on peasant and indigenous peoples’ communities even when short-term, unilateral simultaneous ceasefires are in place as in the 5-month period spanning the resumption up till the third round of peace talks.

Too bad as well that the confirmation of the progressive Cabinet officials, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano and Social Work Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, hang in the balance certainly not because of any charges of corruption, incompetence or partiality but because Duterte’s enlightened policy in dealing with the Left is steadily being undermined as he swings to the Right.

Meanwhile, the Left as a whole is not passively watching Duterte and events unfold. The task of exposing and opposing the anti-people policies of his regime is firmly being carried out. All forms of struggle - armed and unarmed - are being pursued in order to defend and uphold the people’s rights and welfare. Through the peace talks, the progressives in the Duterte Cabinet and most especially the democratic movement of peasants, workers, urban poor and the middle forces in society, the Left continues to engage - unite and struggle as the case may be - the Duterte regime.

It is a complex, difficult and often dangerous approach but must be done if the Left is to seize and maximize all openings for pushing truly meaningful change in this country, with or without Rodrigo Roa Duterte. #

Published in Business World
3 July 2017

June 11, 2017

A cure worse than the disease

It has been close to three weeks since a botched police operation against Abu Sayaff leader Isnilon Hapilon evolved into a shooting war with his supporters in Marawi City, the Maute Group, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao. The historical Islamic City of Marawi is being reduced to rubble by aerial bombardments and is a virtual no man’s land.

Majority of its 200,000 inhbitants have evacuated for fear of being caught in the crossfire leaving behind all their worldly possessions. Some two thousand individuals are feared still trapped in their homes unable to get out, starving and gripped in terror. The military says there are still several hundreds of the Maute Group fiercely fighting government forces.

The government claims to be in control of 90% of the city but are unable to decisively take down the remaining holdouts of the Maute Group. US Special Action Forces (US SF) have been sent into the fray upon the request of the Duterte government, their involvement allegedly limited to giving “technical support” to combat operations.

Are these not the same US forces “invited temporarily” by the Arroyo government in 2002 to help the AFP crush the alleged Alqaeda-affiliated Abu Sayaff Group then reputed to be only 100-strong? Fifteen years hence the ASG are still thriving and nobody remembers US President Bush declaring the Philippines as the second front in the “war on terror”. The Special Forces never left the Philippines but rather got enmeshed in the botched Mamasapano operation where they trained and provided “technical assistance” to the massacred PNP SAF. With that record behind them, it appears that the US SF as well as the Maute Group are here to stay.

Considering President Rodrigo Duterte’s public excoriation of the US in the past over its brutal suppression of the Moro people when it colonized the Philippines and its bloody record of armed intervention in the Middle East, this development indicates the level of desperation of his government in dealing with the situation. Or perhaps it reflects the long-time dependence of the Philippine military on “assistance” by the US Armed Forces for its counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations.

Since returning from Russia, Duterte has been making the rounds mainly of military camps trying to boost the morale of soldiers by assuring them that he has their back (in case they are accused of criminal abuse such as rape and other human rights violations) and of generous financial aid should they get killed or wounded in action.

Human rights group Karapatan has reported on the worsening human rights situation in Mindanao as a result of Duterte’s martial law declaration and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.  The military and police have been given the green light to carry out counterinsurgency operations with renewed gusto under the cover of martial law and sans legal niceties such as the bill of rights getting in their way.

In rural areas, extra judicial killings, illegal arrests and detention, aerial bombardment, displacement of communities, military and paramilitary encampment in schools and other civilian centers — all of which had been taking place even before martial law due to the Duterte government’s declaration of all-out war against the communist-led New People’s Army — have escalated and hapless lumad and peasant folk are bracing for the worst.

In urban centers of Mindanao, added to the unrelenting extrajudicial killings in the government’s “war on drugs” mainly targetting the urban poor, are the arbitrary check points, arrests of ordinary folk who cannot produce identification cards, the police profiling of Muslims, violent dispersals of workers’ strikes and the banning of protest actions.  Duterte has warned — or is it threatened — to expand the coverage of martial law to the rest of the country should the problem of “terrorism” spill over from Mindanao.

What is truly worrisome is that the military’s version about what is happening in Marawi City in terms of the “terrorist” threat has grown by leaps and bounds.  It is worrisome because the ISIS connection seems to be gaining credence, at least in the public mind if not in actuality, ergo providing the necessary conditioning for the extension of the duration of martial law or even its expansion outside Mindanao.

From earlier official statements minimizing the capabilities and denying the links of the Maute Group/Abu Sayaff to the dreaded ISIS, the military is now say that there are “foreign fighters” among them and that they are well funded from foreign sources.

A video has been released by the military purportedly showing Hapilon, the Maute brothers and several others plotting the take-over of Marawi City that they would then supposedly declare as part of the ISIS caliphate-in-the-making.  Assuming this video is bona fide, it bolsters the government’s claim that the ensuing firefight in Marawi, when security forces attempted to capture Hapilon, was part of a rebellion hatched by the unified enemies of the state in that part of Mindanao.

Adding to the ISIS scare are newspaper reports that Indonesia warned the Philippine government that a thousand “Islamist extremists” have entered the country.  Subsequently news reports on the ongoing crisis in Marawi have repeated the speculation that ISIS has decided to shift its base of operations from the Middle East to South East Asia because of their alleged setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

Another video supposedly downloaded from the ISIS website no less, shows armed men trashing a church that the CBCP has confirmed is a Catholic church in Marawi City whose parish priest the Mautes have taken hostage. Add to this earlier reports that Christians in Marawi were being mercilessly killed by the group for merely having a different religion.

The discovery of tens of millions of cash and bank checks in an abandoned house in Marawi City seems to be a fit to the big puzzle the military is trying to piece together. Duterte himself provides the clincher by his emphatic assertion that the Maute Group is allied with drug lords who in turn are being coddled by or are in fact powerful local politicians.  “War vs terrorism” meets “war on drugs”. Perfect.

Several petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the imposition of martial law in Mindanao.  Most notable are the two that raise doubts on the factual basis of Proclamation 216. They emphasize that the current fighting in Marawi CIty was government-initiated, in a failed bid to capture or neutralize Hapilon, and the armed clashes resulted from his followers resisting such attempt. To them, this does not constitute an actual rebellion of such magnitude that it endangers public safety, most especially in the entirety of Mindanao.

The President’s Report to Congress justifying martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus has subsequently turned out to be inaccurate, false, or overstated.  Nonetheless the ferocity of the ongoing armed conflict in Marawi CIty, the resulting humanitarian crisis for the civilian population and the threat of an ISIS foothold in Mindanao fanned by government and “terror experts” are muting opposition to martial law.

It is only recently that grave abuses perpetrated by military and police forces in the course of their supposed mopping up operations are being brought to light.  The Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Lanao del Sur, in an open letter to President Duterte, condemned “illegal searches and seizures in Marawi City by military men, police and other law enforcement agencies which results in rampant loss and deprivation of properties and possessions of innocent civilians.”

Coupled with the aerial bombings of Marawi CIty, it now appears that the “cure” provided by the Duterte regime has become worse than the “disease” of the ISIS-inspired terrorist acts by the Maute Group/ASG. What else can anyone expect from a Commander-in-Chief whose values could make him candidly declare that “Marcos’ Martial Law was good”? #

Published in Business World
12 June 2017