July 27, 2016

After the celebration, how to proceed

A resounding victory for the Philippines!  That is what the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on the Philippine suit versus China’s expansive claims to 90% of the South China Sea (SCS), in effect encroaching on 80% of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and 100% of its Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) amounts to.

The Tribunal’s ruling has strategic implications to the country’s economic development in so far as our exclusive claim to the resource-rich West Philippine Sea (that part of the SCS where we have unequivocal maritime rights).  It also poses a challenge as to how the new Duterte government can chart an independent foreign policy in the wake of big power rivalry in our backyard.

The Court dashed the 9-dash line claim of China to smithereens by declaring any so-called historical claims as superceded by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both the Philippines and CHina are signatories.  Moreover, it rejected China’s claimed exclusive control of almost the entire SCS by merely showing historical navigation and fishing by China in these waters.

On the issue of China’s activities in the SCS, the Tribunal ruled that China had violated the Philippine sovereign rights to its EEZ and ECS when it prevented Filipinos from fishing within these areas while abetting Chinese fishermen; when it interfered with Philippine oil exploration in Reed Bank; and when it built installations on Mischief Reef without authorization from the Philippine government.  It also ruled that China’s large-scale reclamation work and construction of artificial islands had severely damaged fragile coral reef ecosystems and had undermined the arbitration proceedings.

In the Philippines, the PCA ruling was hailed from Left to Right of the political spectrum. We recall that three and a half years ago, mainstream media and not a few pundits were bemused, if not unbelieving, when the quintessential communist revolutionary, Prof. Jose Maria Sison, announced that he was in agreement with the move of the dyed-in-the-wool pro-US President BS Aquino III to initiate the arbitration proceedings against China before the PCA.

There are some quarters though who pooh-pooh the legal victory as a mere scrap of paper what with the absence of any international enforcement mechanisms, China’s refusal to recognize the tribunal’s decision, and the Philippines’ obvious lack of military capability to enforce the award on its own.  They even go so far as to say the Philipines should never have filed the case to begin with, that it only manages to further antagonize China and make bilateral negotiations for mutual benefit more difficult than ever.

Some Filipinos justifiably wary about the US stoking the maritime conflict between the Philippines and China for its own imperialist ends argue that it would have been the better part of wisdom for the Philippines to have persisted in bilateral negotiations with the lesser hegemon, China, using the latter’s rivalry with the US as possible leverage.

The principled and patriotic stand is to assert our national sovereignty, in this case, not so much over some rocks or even purported islands, but on our maritime entitlements in the resource-rich West Philippine Sea versus China, a fast rising regional power.  National interest dictates that we utilize all available avenues to do so — legal, political (including fostering more people-to-people relations) and diplomatic, whether bilateral or multilateral.  Our high moral, political and legal ground is the linchpin for defeating China’s seeming overwhelming economic and military superiority.

The key to pursuing the national interest and asserting our rightful sovereignty over the area is to be neither intimidated by Chinese bullying nor to rely on the false premise that the US is here to defend our territory and maritime entitlements.

Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio cautioned against expecting immediate and automatic availment of the PCA award.  He said the road to enforcing the ruling would involve several generations of Filipinos. Nonetheless our people can take heart that ultimately international public opinion can move even the most intransigent and arrogant big power.

Such is what happened in Nicaragua’s victory at the International Court of Justice against US funding and training of the Contra mercenaries who were organized to overthrow the ruling Sandinista government. After years of refusing to recognize the judgement, the US eventually gave Nicaragua compensation to the tune of half a billion dollars to avoid further political isolation in the international community over the settled dispute.

International law experts aver that the Philippines can file resolution after resolution at the UN General Assembly for that body to affirm the PCA award. (Unfortunately in the UN Security Council where “right” is backed up by “might”, China will surely veto such a resolution.) The Philippines can also unify the ASEAN countries, most especially the four other countries with territorial claims in the SCS, on the PCA decision. When push comes to shove, the Philippines can sue for damages and rental arrears from China in countries where China has all kinds of assets that can be subjected to legal judgement in favor of the Philippines.

The Philippines can do this knowing that the logic of China’s unbridled capitalist development is to expand its markets and investments overseas at a time of slowing domestic growth.  It is also clear that China wishes to match its unprecedented growth in the last three decades with a greater regional, if not yet global, political and military clout.  Certainly China would not want to be perceived as an international bully, or worse outlaw, contrary to its projection as a benign giant rising peacefully to take its rightful place in the world.

US self-serving designs are another matter and they are for real. The US “Pivot to Asia” strategy includes the transfer of 60 per cent of its military, especially naval, forces from the Middle East to Asia as well as the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, an ambitious regional trade grouping that excludes China.  China has good grounds to consider these US moves as part of the effort to isolate China and make it more vulnerable to external pressure to reform its economy and political system to the liking of the US and its allies.

The Aquino III regime has willingly played the US fugleman in Asia.  Former President Aquino has used the patriotic card while engaging in bellicose rhetoric against China in relation to the South China Sea dispute. In the process, he has encouraged latent anti-Chinese racist sentiments among the Filipino public.

Invoking a Cold War-era Mutual Defense Treaty, Aquino then calls on Uncle Sam to defend the Philippines in its tiff with China. In return Aquino justifies the increased presence of US troops, war materiel and so-called joint war exercises through the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

In the wake of the PCA ruling, pro-US groups have started saber rattling to underscore the need to use US military power to stop China’s aggressive behavior in the SCS and to enforce the favorable ruling while providing the Philippines its defense shield.

The situation post-PCA ruling provides the Philippines a golden opportunity to take stock of what are our country’s real interests and how best to advance these without falling into the trap of being dominated by either the US or China and being a pawn in the big power games they play. #

Published by Business World
25 July 2016

July 05, 2016

Finding Rody

I had a dream several weeks ago. It wasn't surreal; in fact it felt quite real. In my dream I was writing my column and the words, sentences, and paragraphs flowed logically, clearly and easily. When I woke up, I still remembered what I had "written" and its title  "Finding Duterte".

My husband urged me to write everything down before I forget. He said I should change the title to "Finding Rody" in a play on the popular animated film then showing, "Finding Dory". But I didn't follow his advise which is why I did forget the column written in my dream.

Now I have to struggle to capture the impetus for that column in the wake of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's inauguration and the myriad write-ups and opinion pieces on the man, his family and growing up years as a probinsyano, his student life (and encounters with a certain Professor Jose Ma. Sison), his stint as public prosecutor, his track record as a long-time Davao City mayor (including a checkered history), his character traits and personality quirks (that either endear or disgust) and even his love life as a philandering husband.

What strikes me now is that Mr. Duterte is like the proverbial elephant that several blind men are trying to "characterize" based on the part of the mammoth that they are groping. Everyone is trying to figure out and give an opinion on what kind of Chief Executive he will be. As to be expected, the initial judgments are quite disparate, even conflicting, depending on one's socio-economic class, philosophical worldview, political leanings and pet advocacies or pet peeves.

Meanwhile those who know him best, his Davao constituents, say the man has got it in him to slay the dragon of endemic corruption, official indifference and ineptitude and wildfire criminality. Dr. Celia Castillo, a practicing physician at the Davao Doctors Hospital, sums it up thus, "We believe in Digong. He may be uncouth, rude and overly transparent, but he knows what the essential matters are and does his best to confront them, conducts consultations, allowing all sides to be heard before he makes major decisions. He listens, especially to people on the ground. But when he comes to a decision, it would be hard to make him budge, come hell or high water. What people think of him matters very little."

Indeed, Mr. Duterte is keeping all of us guessing as to how his presidency will turn out.  How will he reconcile conflicting ideas, statements and promises that have emanated from him yet are reflective of the underlying conflicts among the classes and interest groups that exist in Philippine society.  Concretely, how will he bring together antagonistic class and factional interests as manifested in his choice of cabinet secretaries and their initial pronouncements regarding government policies and programs.

Granting Mr. Duterte's goal of uplifting the lives of ordinary Filipinos -- by curbing  criminality and corruption (stamping out seems to be a really tall order) and redistributing wealth through a pro-poor and pro-people social policy -- the truth is this will not be enough.

Good governance and social welfare per se will not bring us out of a backward, pre-industrial economy. These will not guarantee decent jobs and livelihood to sustain basic needs and keep our human resources from migrating in droves. These will not prevent the plunder of the economy and national patrimony by unscrupulous monopoly capitalists and their domestic partners. These will not ensure the growth of sufficient social wealth to fund the requisite social services and public utilities to make them accessible to all Filipinos regardless of socio-economic status.

Mr. Duterte will have to face the reality of a highly unequal society where there are not just rich people but exploiters and oppressors -- the big landlords (harking back to the hacienda era), big business honchos (traders and bankers not captains of industry) and bureaucrat capitalists (politicians who have enriched themselves through their public positions). They constitute social classes that have enjoyed their privileged status on the backs of the toiling and subjugated masses.

He also knows that the Philippine state has hitherto existed primarily to protect and promote the interests of the entrenched elite against the vast majority. Furthermore, that this is a neocolonial state, meaning no president has gotten elected or kept his hold on power without the seal of good housekeeping from the country's former colonizer, the US of A.

Mr. Duterte, like it or not, confronts a situation where government policies in the economic, socio-cultural, political and foreign relations spheres are designed and have been sustained to keep this unjust and dangerously unstable status quo. The military and police, the prosecutors, courts and jails -- these are the means of the state to keep social restiveness, political dissent and armed revolution under control, if not completely eliminated.

How far is he willing to go to resolve the underlying roots of armed conflicts in order to forge a just and lasting peace with the communist-led and Moro revolutionary movements?  How far is he willing to go against entrenched elite and imperialist interests?

No matter Mr. Duterte's subjective intentions, the big question is how far can he effectively mobilize the support of the people behind even only moderately radical reforms. As a corollary, can he manage to broaden the united front behind his presidency's call for genuine and substantial change; i.e. can he carefully determine his real and potential friends and enemies in this herculean endeavor.

In this regard, the role of politically conscious, progressive people's organizations and the Left in general becomes clear -- to arouse, organize and mobilize the people to support Mr. Duterte's progressive policy statements, intentions and concrete actions.
The umbrella organization Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), together with peace and human rights advocates and other social reform champions, convened the National People's Summit a day before Mr. Duterte's inauguration as president.

The Summit's product, the People's Agenda for Nationalist and Progressive Change, was delivered to the president through a delegation of leaders who were given the unprecedented opportunity to have a private audience with him after he was sworn into office. They were backed up by thousands of cheering demonstrators at the June 30 rally in front of Malacañang.

Furthermore, the setting and revving up of the machinery that will assist the progressive Cabinet members is ongoing. Most notably and auguring well for the Duterte presidency, the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines are slated to take place in Oslo, Norway in the coming weeks.#

Published in Business World
6 July 2016

June 20, 2016

Peace talks 101

The significance of peace talks resumption between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the revolutionary umbrella organization that includes the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army (CPP-NPA ), is not as easy to appreciate and be enthused about as one would think. The subject matter is complex and its prolonged history full of twists and turns. Many times, optimistic rhetoric has given way to recrimination and impasses.

Many commonly raised questions in the public sphere are infused with cynicism that any kind of reasonable and realizable agreement can be reached by two diametrically opposed and warring parties. Yet as borne out by experience, common ground can indeed be found to move the talks forward and arrive at bilateral agreements beneficial to the people, and maybe even reach the point of truce and alliance between the GPH and the NDFP in the short to medium term, without either one surrendering to the other at the negotiating table.

But there must be a basic commitment to pursuing peace negotiations not just to still the guns of war but to address its underlying causes.

For those who view the resort to armed struggle to bring about societal change as unnecessary, believe that the long-running armed conflict merely exacerbates poverty and underdevelopment, and deem the overriding goal of the talks should be to get the CPP-NPA to lay down their arms and join the political "mainstream", peace talks can be a desirable and viable way to arrive at a political settlement in a conflict that has been going on for close to five decades.

For those who believe that armed revolution is necessary to overthrow an oppressive and exploitative system; that armed struggle is bringing an end to feudal relations in the countryside and empowering the rural folk through a form of shadow government; and who believe the ultimate way to a just and lasting peace is for the revolutionary forces and people to prevail over the defenders of the unjust status quo, peace talks remain a desirable and viable way for the two parties to negotiate an interim or a final political settlement, depending on the prevailing conditions.

People ask, "Are they negotiating in earnest? Do they really want to arrive at a political settlement?" The hardliners argue that by the very nature of the armed conflict, and especially the ideologies underlying each side, the peace talks are mere shadow play, utilized by either side for their own political ends, and thereby are doomed to fail .

Experienced peace advocates, on the other hand, have learned that "sincerity" is not at issue or shouldn't be. Given favorable conditions and circumstances, whatever the motivations of the leadership of the parties at any time, when they muster the political will to sit down and talk peace, this is a most welcome development deserving of everyone's support.

The important thing is that the framework -- the agenda and modalities or "terms of reference" -- allows and compels the two parties to forge a series of agreements that benefit the people in the short run and pave the way for a final peace agreement that addresses the roots of the armed conflict, leading to a just and lasting peace in the long run.

In the current GPH-NDFP peace negotiations, the 1992 Joint Hague Declaration effectively set this foundation for the peace talks. It has, within three years of the start of formal talks in 1995, resulted in the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) that would mitigate the impact of armed conflict on the people even as the more difficult socio-economic and political reforms that address the deeper roots of conflict are being negotiated. Unfortunately, little has been achieved on the substantive agenda since then.
The sad news is that in various degrees, successive GPH regimes, with plenty of encouragement and instigation from the US, took a hardline stance and attempted to circumvent, if not outrightly undermine, the framework agreement. The GPH could not and would not pursue peace talks unless the NDFP agreed to: 1) accept the GPH constitution and legal processes as framework for the talks; 2) abandon the armed struggle and enter into an immediate and indefinite ceasefire for the duration of the talks; and 3) conclude a "final peace agreement" sans any implementation of socio-economic and political-constitutional reforms that would demonstrate to the people and the revolutionary movement that the peace pacts were being upheld.

In short, the GPH was insisting on "surrender talks".

In the case of the outgoing Aquino regime, the militarists in the AFP and the OPAPP had convinced Mr. Aquino that the CPP-NPA and the rest of the NDFP are a spent force and that a fine-tuned counterinsurgency program cloaked with the mantra of "Daang Matuwid" could easily render them "politically irrelevant".

The Aquino peace panel, at the first and only formal talks held in Oslo in February 2011 went to the extent of declaring the Hague Joint Declaration a "document of perpetual division". Eventually, it said the GPH no longer wanted to talk about the social causes of the armed conflict, and insisted on starting from scratch, casting aside all previous agreements.

The good news is that under the incoming Duterte presidency, the designated GPH peace panel inked a joint statement in exploratory talks with the NDFP held June14-15 that resumes formal peace talks this July in Oslo, Norway in accordance with previously signed agreements.

The agreed upon agenda for the first round of formal talks with the Duterte government's peace panel is substantial including the accelerated process for negotiations; reconstitution of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG); amnesty proclamation for the release of all detained political prisoners, subject to concurrence by Congress; and mode of interim ceasefire.

What could not be agreed upon in more than five years of the Aquino presidency were settled in a matter of two days! Nothing short of amazing.

The time for animosity, cynicism, rigidity, conventional and ultraconservative thinking is now past. As the man says, "Change is coming."

Published in Business World
20 June 2016