May 17, 2017

Finding Rody, a year after.

A year ago I described President Rodrigo Roa Duterte as a conundrum. Is he a “Leftist” or “Rightist”; a democrat or disguised autocrat; pro-people or wily demagogue; reformer or defender of the establishment? Is change really forthcoming or is this another empty slogan, the latest version of the politician’s con game?

Whimsically, I compared him to the smelly but heavenly durian fruit of Davao because of his foul mouth, sexist comments and general crassness while making refreshing, if progressive and radical, political statements unheard of from any previous Malacanang occupant.

The reactionary character of the Duterte administration is defined by the fact that there has been no radical rupture from the “nature” of the Philippine state as protector, enabler and promoter of foreign and domestic elite interests in a highly inequitous social system.  Perhaps to underscore this point, Duterte has stated matter-of-factly that as Chief Executive, he is now “The Enemy” because he is “sworn to” preseve the ruling system.  At the same time, the self-proclaimed “Leftist” and “socialist” says the CPP-NPA-NDFP is presented with a golden opportunity to arrive at a negotiated political settlement with the Philippine government precisely because he is the current president.

Duterte is a political maverick to say the least. For the first time, the country has a president who was once a radical student activist under the tutelage of Jose Maria Sison, founding chair of the CPP. He has a history of pragmatic, some say quite friendly, relations with the CPP-NPA during his decades-long stint as Davao City mayor. Duterte stood up to the US government on matters of security and national sovereignty while mayor. He even agreed to be an NDFP consultant in the peace talks until he was reminded he could not do so being an incumbent government official.

But Duterte is also quite within the bureaucrat capitalist mold having had a long, successful career as a local politician enjoying the perks and privileges of office while defending the status quo.  What is unusual is his being catapulted to the presidency of the land without having previously held national office; being from far-flung Mindanao considered the country’s backwoods; and not at all endowed with the traditional political pedigree.

While Duterte’s win was somewhat of a fluke, then again it is not so unfathomable. Every election time, candidates project their being the harbinger of change, the champion of the poor and downtrodden, with vastly different leadership qualities compared to the outgoing president.

Duterte’s “kanto boy” demeanor coupled with his bold pronouncements and promises of eradicating the drug menace, criminality, and corruption; his simple, no-nonsense manner of speaking peppered by curses and off-color jokes; his touted executive ability that transformed Davao into a progressive, safe and peaceful city; even his “promdi” persona — all these captured the imagination of the electorate fed up with the rule of the the old rich and the political dynasties. Duterte's election was clearly a stunning rebuke of the administration of Benigno Aguino III.

So what has Duterte got to show for his first year in office? We daresay, a mixed bag of surprisingly good and outrageously bad.

Top of the list for the good is peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDFP going on its fifth round end of this month. Difficult, contentious, and at one point on the brink of a complete breakdown, nonetheless the peace negotiations are still on track, making significant and unprecedented headway on the substantive agenda of socio-economic reforms; not least of which is an agreement on the principle of free distribution of land to the tillers as the basic land reform policy. All these have been made possible by Duterte's decision to affirm the validity of all bilateral agreements with the NDFP, including the JASIG, and releasing detained NDFP consultants so that they could participate in the talks.

It remains to be seen whether government negotiators will continue to insist on placing the cart before the horse; that is, on an open-ended, bilateral ceasefire agreement before a pact on socio-economic reforms and before general amnesty or release of all political prisoners.

It also remains to be seen whether the militarists and rabid anti-communists inside and outside government will succeed in sabotaging the talks through intrigues, labelling revolutionaries as “terrorists”, and the continued surveillance, harassment and arrests of NDFP peace consultants and other JASIG-protected personnel.

Closely related to the peace talks are the presence of three progressives in the Duterte cabinet nominated by the NDFP — Social Work Secretary Judy Taguiwao, Land Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano and National Anti-Ppverty Commission head Liza Maza.  All of them have proven themselves highly competent, hardworking and with nary a whif of corruption. They are key to the implementation of whatever socio-economic reforms will be agreed upon in the GRP-NDFP peace talks.

Unfortunately, the rejection by the Commission on Appointments (CA) of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez due to a powerful pro-mining lobby and the obvious lack of support by Duterte raises questions about the fate of Taguiwalo and Mariano who will also need to hurdle the CA.  Will Duterte weigh in and prevail on his Congressional allies to confirm the two or will pork barrel-hungry legislators and landlord interests win the day?

On the other hand, top of the terribly bad, are the grievous human rights violations, most especially the extrajudicial or summary killings by government security forces, of the poor and powerless, in its brutal anti-drugs and bloody counterinsurgency campaigns.

Duterte has displayed an unmistakeably fascist bent by publicly inciting the police and other law enforcement agencies to resort to extreme measures in dealing with suspected drug pushers and users, then promising to shield them from any accountability whatsoever. He has also given the military the go signal to bombard mountainous areas to flush out and decimate the NPA regardless of to the death and destruction these indiscriminate attacks inflict on civilians.

The wholesale militarization of the civilian bureaucracy with the appointment of several generals to top posts — Cimatu to replace Lopez at DENR; Año as DILG secretary; Esperon as National Security Adviser; and Lorenzana as Defense Secretary —along with scores of military officers in other civilian posts is alarming.

And who can forget Duterte’s unabashed admiration for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos; his connivance with the Marcos family to bury the dictator’s remainds in the Libingan ng mga Bayani; and his repeated threats to declare martial law to silence his critics and pursue his “war on drugs” unimpeded by the Bill of Rights and due process.

As to unfulfilled promises like ending labor contractualization, boasts like zero tolerance for corruption, and fearless pronouncements such as pursuing an independent foreign policy — Duterte’s limits, weaknesses, lack of political or all of the above are proving to be formidable.

Some of the leading lights of the CPP-NPA-NDFP who face government negotiators in peace talks abroad continue to describe Duterte as “unfolding”, meaning it is too early to dismiss or judge Duterte as a die-hard reactionary disguising himself as a Leftist, and that the basis for an alliance with him on just grounds remains despite unfulfilled promises and other drawbacks .

"Unfolding" does not discount exposing and opposing the "bad" and reactionary, anti-people and anti-national policies, statements and actuations (or sins of omission) of the Duterte regime.  It incorporates supporting and taking advantage of the opportunities presented by it while opposing its reactionary side. So that the unfolding of Duterte can be pushed towards being more progressive. And so that the Filipino people benefit somehow or somewhat in ways not available prior to this administration, whichever way it finally unfolds. #

Published  in Bsuiness World
15 May 2017

May 01, 2017

High stakes confirmation hearing

On Wednesdy 3 progressive cabinet members — Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez, Social Welfare Secrtary Judy Taguiwalo and Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano — are up for confirmation by the powerful Commission on Appointments (CA).

They have been twice bypassed by the CA and subsequently twice reappointed in the interim by President Rodrigo Duterte. But because the current CA has approved a rule that a cabinet member may only be bypassed three times after which the CA will have to reject or confirm the concerned official, it appears that Wednesday will be the final showdown.

The backstory to this is very interesting if only because it is so unusual.  Newly elected President Duterte surprised everyone when, even before he was sworn to office, he offered the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) four Cabinet positions.

Pres. Duterte said the four departments he offered to the CPP - Labor, Agrarian Reform, Social Welfare, and Environment and Natural Resources - dealt with the “most oppressed” and that the Left was known to be “the most vigilant” when it comes to pressing national issues. He also related his offer to restarting peace talks with the revolutionary movement under the umbrella of the National Democratic Front of the Philipiines (NDFP).

In response, NDFP Chief Political Consultant and CPP Founding Chairperson Jose Ma. Sison welcomed the offer but said the CPP could not accept any position not until the peace negotiations had reached the point of a comprehensive peace settlement. In the meantime, Sison said the NDFP could nominate people who are patriotic, progressive, competent, honest, and diligent but not necessarily communists.

Upon the NDFP’s recommendation, Pres. Duterte appointed University of the Philippines Professor and former political prisoner Judy Taguiwalo as secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Long-time peasant leader and former Anakpawis Party List representative Rafael Mariano became secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). The labor portfolio eventually went to former Justice Secretary Sylvestre Bello III, concurrent head of the government peace panel negotiating with the NDFP, while that of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) went to Gina Lopez, a known environmentalist and scion of a wealthy business clan.

The appointment of Leftists and social activists, including former Gabriela Party List prepresentative Liza Maza to the National Anti-poverty Commission, lent credence to President Duterte’s avowal that he too was a “leftist” and a “socialist” even as this became fodder for accusations of his political enemies that the Duterte administration had betrayed the country to the communists.

Policy differences surfaced when the burial of the so-called remains of the Dictator Marcos was allowed by President Duterte at the Libingan ng mga Bayani setting off a torrent of mass protests wherein victims of martial rule and anti-dictatorship activists from the Left figured prominently.  Taguiwalo, Mariano and Maza stood their ground in opposition to the Marcos burial but asserted that this was not sufficient basis for them to resign their posts.

While snide remarks surfaced in social media intimating that the three had sold their souls to the devil, these accusations of cooptation did not gain much traction.  The three have proven to be one of the most hardworking, competent, and upright in the Duterte Cabinet.  They have navigated the perilous course of holding top government positions and being subjected  to myriad pressures and enticements while remaining true to their Leftist principles and continuing to serve their “most oppressed” constituents.

The lines began to be drawn for Sec. Taguiwalo during the budget hearings last year.  Many congresspersons, not least of which were those in the leadership of the House of Representatives, objected to and resented the attempts of the DSWD to ensure that the department’s beneficiaries are those truly in need and not merely “lucky” recipients of patronage politics. A compromise was eventually hammered out: congresspersons’ recommendations would be taken into account and given weight by the DSWD even as the set of qualifications specified by the agency would prevail.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The “honorable” congresspersons wanted ironclad assurances from Sec. Taguiwalo that certain funds they had earmarked for the DSWD would only be spent in their districts in accord with their wishes.  In other words the old pork barrel system was alive and well albeit disguised as an informal arrangement between the head of agency and the “honorable” congresspersons. When Taguiwalo refused to play along, her confirmation in the CA was placed in jeopardy.

As for DAR Secretary Mariano, one of his orders that raised the hackles of his fellow Cabinet members particularly the economic managers, was the DAR proposal for a two-year moratorium on land use conversion. Mariano wanted to put the breaks on rampant conversion of farmlands for residential, industrial, commercial or mixed-use purposes. Not only has land use conversion been a tried-and-tested way to go around land reform, it has even been used to cover up landgrabbing itself.  But apart from frustrating the ends of social justice as envisioned by a series of failed land reform programs, this proposed moratorium is in line with ensuring the country’s food security what with the rapidly shrinking agricultural land devoted to food production.

Needless to say, the big landowners in the country especially the owners of sprawling haciendas and corporate farms are literally up in arms over Secretary Mariano’s unflinching support for the right of the tillers of the land - tenants and farm workers - to own their own plots of land.  Recent attempts of DAR to install agrarian reform beneficiaries in land awarded but forcibly taken from them have met with armed resistance from private security guards and hired goons. In some instances, the police have averred that they cannot help DAR enforce its orders because they are outnumbered and outfirepowered by private security forces.

DENR Secretary Lopez’ decision last February to close 23 mines and suspend five others for breaching environmental standards together with the cancellation of 75 contracts for mining projects located in watersheds constituted a declaration of war against large-scale corporate mining in the country.  For this the country’s mining firms banded together to not only oppose her confirmation, but to file corruption charges against her before the Ombudsman.

Too bad Lopez’ anti-mining stance is popular among a public reminded of the horrendous toll on the environment and affected communities from mining accidents and the over-all destructive effects of large-scale mining operations. Moreover her boss, President Duterte, has continued to back her.

For its part, the NDFP recently stated that it views “in very positive terms the presence of (the three) in the Duterte cabinet”.  Fidel Agcaoili, NDFP Panel chair said, “Ka Paeng will play an important role in implementing a program of free land distribution for poor peasants. Ka Judy will likewise play an important role in implementing expanded social services for the people. Gina Lopez meanwhile has expressed willingness to work with the revolutionary forces in protecting the environment against destructive mining operations. They will no doubt be helpful in implementing a Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER) that may be agreed upon by the GRP and NDFP.”

The stakes are truly high in the confirmation hearing of the three officials on Wednesday. Will the people’s clamor for meaningful reforms be dealt another serious blow by reactionary interests through their front men in the Commission on Appointments? #

Published in Business
1 May 2017

April 12, 2017

Fourth round of GRP-NDFP peace talks defies spoilers

The fourth round of formal peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) got off to a halting start last April 3, a full day after the scheduled formal opening.  For a while, it was unclear whether the talks would open at all or just fizzle out unceremoniously leaving both sides frustratingly empty handed.

In truth, dark clouds remained despite the breakthrough achieved in the March 10-11 informal talks wherein the two sides agreed that the fourth round would resume in The Netherlands and that the simultaneous unilateral ceasefires of the two Parties would be reinstated.

For one, the GRP did not declare anew its unilateral ceasefire in contravention of the GRP-NDFP March 11 Joint Statement.  This prompted the NDFP to withhold its own unilateral ceasefire despite a public announcement that it would declare one before the beginning of the fourth round.

Consequently, the GRP principal, President Rodrigo Duterte, announced four conditions for the GRP’s returning to the talks with the NDFP: 1) a signed bilateral ceasefire agreement; 2) that the revolutionary movement desist from claiming any territory; 3) a stop to the collection of “revolutionary taxes”; 4) release of all the soldiers, policemen and others held captive by the New People’s Army (NPA).

A few days before the formal talks, Defense Secretary Lorenzana issued a vitriolic statement labelling the CPP-NPA-NDFP as “terrorists” and declaring ex cathedra that the talks would not happen unless the NPA complies with Duterte's conditions.

Only after getting a firm assurance from the NDFP peace panel that an interim joint ceasefire agreement would be in the agenda of the formal talks did Mr. Duterte give the definitive green light to the formal opening.  The matter of ceasefire became the de facto primary item on the agenda of the fourth round. An inordinate amount of time and shuttling back and forth between the two sides eventually produced the Agreement on an Interim Joint Ceasefire.

What does the agreement amount to? For one, it does not mean that a bilateral ceasefire is already in place. It does not even mandate the two Parties to declare the restoration of their respective unilateral ceasefires. It does however bind them “(to) direct their respective Ceasefire Committees to meet even in-between formal talks to discuss, formulate and finalize the guidelines and ground rules for the implementation of this agreement.”

In other words, the Parties agree to forge the interim joint ceasefire in the near future by hammering out the ground rules and guidelines governing the aforesaid ceasefire. But while it is not explicitly stated, the NDFP has made it exceedingly clear that such a bilateral ceasefire can only be signed consequent to or simultaneous with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER). Otherwise, the NDFP fears, with due cause, that the GRP will no longer be impelled to address the root causes of the armed conflict with needed social, economic and political reforms.

As of today, sans a return to the simultaneous unilateral ceasefires, the mode is “talking while fighting”.

But once in place, the interim joint ceasefire is a prospective advance on the previous five-month unilateral ceasefires declared by the two sides. The latter are by nature generally more unstable because of the absence of bilaterally agreed terms of reference like buffer zones and zones of safety, hostile acts and the like; that is, each side can set the parameters for a unilateral ceasefire according to its own political and military imperatives thereby blunting or forestalling possible complaints of violations of the ceasefire.

Concretely, while armed clashes between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the NPA went down drastically, the AFP continued to militarize the countryside.  The AFP set up encampments in schools and other civilian infrastructure in the barrios; conducted intelligence and psywar operations disguised as "peace and development” operations including anti-illicit drugs and other anti-crime operations; provided security for big mining operations and plantations; as well as penetrated deep into territory where the NPA forces have established a shadow form of government.

The interim joint ceasefire agreement is different from and “shall be effective until a permanent ceasefire agreement is forged as part of the Comprehensive Agreement on End of Hostilities and Disposition of Forces (Final Peace Agreement).”  It should therefore not be mistaken for the end point of the peace negotiations.

What of the matter of claimed NDFP territory and revolutionary taxation that President Duterte so roundly denounced as unacceptable? With much flexibility and skillful language engineering by the negotiating panels, the sticky points were relegated for discussion and resolution to negotiations on political and constitutional reforms as “matters of a single governmental authority and taxation” and “within the framework of the proposed Federal Republic of the Philippines”.

All in all the Reciprocal Working Committees on Socio-economic Reforms (RWC-SER) met and held discussions bilaterally for only a total of some six to seven hours during the four-day formal talks.  As validated by unofficial explanations from the GRP side, negotiations on CASER could not substantially proceed whilst an agreement on a joint ceasefire had not been signed. In a manner of speaking, the talks on CASER were effectively preconditioned and held hostage to the inking of a ceasefire agreement acceptable to Mr. Duterte.

Having said that, it is noteworthy that the Parties “firmed up their agreement on distribution of land for free as the basic principle of genuine agrarian reform.” This achievement is a solidification of the breakthrough reached in the third round of talks in Rome. It was overshadowed and almost went unnoticed due to the resumption of armed hostilities between the AFP and NPA almost immediately with Mr. Duterte’s declaration of “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA-NDF.

They also agreed to speed up the pace of exchanging drafts, identifying contentious points and proposing formulations that are deemed to be acceptable to both Parties. In this regard, bilateral teams under the supervision of their respective RWC-SER are to meet in between formal talks prioritizing Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ARRD) and National Industrialization and Economic Development (NIED). A work schedule was approved in sync with the fifth round of talks slated to take place once more in The Netherlands from May 26 to June 2.

If one were to assess simply and forthrightly what was achieved in the fourth round of talks, it is this: that the GRP-NDFP peace talks have been brought back on track and successfully concluded with positive outcomes despite all the efforts of peace spoilers to sabotage and torpedo them.

As much as the GRP and NDFP panels and their principals, the RNG Third Party Facilitator deserves credit for having exerted extra effort to help bring the Parties back to the negotiating table.

Royal Norwegian Government Special Envoy to the Philippine Peace Process Elisabeth Slattum succinctly put it in her opening statement, that the fourth round pushed through as agreed upon last January shows the Parties’ determination and capacity to surmount obstacles, break the short impasse in February and March and move the peace process forward. #

Published in Business World
10 April 2017