August 15, 2017

No love lost between Duterte and the Left

One need not be such a keen observer of Philippine politics to note the quite dramatic deterioration in the relationship between the Left and President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, self-styled “Leftist” and “socialist” president of the Philippines.

At the beginning, a de facto tactical alliance existed between the two.  It was premised on Duterte’s promise that he would bring about a real change in government.  For the Left, foremost was the release of all political prisoners, peace talks to arrive at fundamental socio-economic and political reforms and an independent foreign policy to reverse decades of US neocolonial domination.

A year later, Duterte has reneged on his promise to amnesty all political prisoners and has practically, if not formally, scuttled the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations. He is brandishing what he thinks is a more formidable “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA-NDFP topped by a martial law declaration in Mindanao, targeting what the AFP claims to be the movement’s strongest base of operations.

For the Left, Duterte has emerged as a full-blown reactionary president, a fascist defender of the exploitative and oppressive status quo, while still trying to deceive the people with token, populist measures and an image of being tough against corruption and criminality.

The signal fire, in retrospect, was when Duterte collapsed the 5th round of GRP-NDFP peace talks saying that he would not pursue negotiations unless the CPP-NPA-NDFP entered into an indefinite bilateral ceasefire. Echoing the hawkish line of his security officials, Duterte said talks can not go anywhere if the NPA continues to launch attacks against the AFP and engages in “criminal extortion” or what the CPP-NPA calls “revolutionary taxation”.

But what supposedly got Duterte’s ire was the directive of the CPP leadership to the NPA to intensify its tactical offensives against the military and police upon the declaration of martial law in Mindanao. Glossed over is the fact that no ceasefire was in effect at that time because the Duterte government failed to declare a unilateral ceasefire before the 4th round of talks even though the two sides had earlier agreed upon a simultaneous declaration of unilateral ceasefires.

The preconditioning of the peace talks to an open-ended ceasefire before any bilateral agreement on socio-economic reforms had been reached not only violates previous agreements that the Duterte government affirmed when it revived talks with the NDFP, bottom line is that the GRP wants the revolutionary movement to agree to its voluntary pacification in exchange for nothing. In effect, to surrender on the negotiating table as a prelude to surrendering in the battle field without achieving any meaningful reforms through a supposedly negotiated political settlement.

It appears that the NDFP Negotiating Panel tried its best to salvage the situation by proposing ways of easing pressure on the Duterte government with the onset of the Marawi crisis.

Unfortunately, Duterte quickly swung Rightward. He allowed the militarist troika of Lorenzana-Año-Esperon to lead the way, not only in dealing with the ISIS-inspired Maute rebellion in Lanao province by aerial and artillery bombardment leading to the destruction of Marawi City, but in pursuing the government’s counterinsurgency program against the CPP-NPA-NDFP, this time utilizing the vast powers of martial law in all of Mindanao to tamp down any opposition.

Flush with the imprimatur given by the Supreme Court to the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, Duterte railroaded its extension until yearend via a pliant Congress.  Independent reporting on the continuing devastation of Marawi City and its after effects is virtually impossible with the military controlling all sources of information. Heightened human rights violations in other parts of Mindanao have been swept under the rug.

The direct involvement of the US Armed Forces in the military campaign against the Maute Group has been welcomed and justified by Duterte despite his posture that he is against US intervention in the country’s internal affairs. (Apparently he was only referring to US criticism of his bloody anti-illegal drugs campaign).

His anti-US tirades have softened of late and been replaced with friendly meetings with the US ambassador and US Secretary of State; echoing the US line against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and reports of an agreement to allow armed US drones to strike at ISIS and other “terrorist” targets.

Clearly the ISIS “threat” is being overblown as an excuse to prolong martial law and possibly even expand it outside Mindanao. It is also providing the rational for expanding US military presence in the country and steadily growing US military involvement in armed conflicts labelled as “terrorist”.

Duterte’s attempt to appear conciliatory when he addressed the Left-led SONA protest failed to mollify the protesters who persistently chanted their calls for genuine reforms, an end to martial law and the continuation of peace talks.  Duterte was forced to end his pretense at openness and departed in a huff.

Duterte’s speeches have become consistently virulent against not just the revolutionary Left but also political and social activists who are leading the fight for reforms. He threatened to bomb lumad schools that he said were NPA schools.  He said he would not hesitate to use violence against militant urban poor if they again tried to occupy abandoned public housing. He rained invectives on activists and said he would not heed their demands even if they resorted to non-stop protest in the streets.

In response, activists are stepping up their opposition to what they now call the “US-Duterte fascist regime”.

What is interesting is that Duterte has not fired 3 Leftist Cabinet members despite the downward spiral of relations with the Left. For one he has no basis to kick them out except that they are identified with the Left. For another, they are no threat to him; in fact, one might say they are objectively helping to deodorize his regime by just doing their jobs competently and consistent with their pro-people stand.

Neither have the 3 tendered their resignations to the wonderment of those who tend to think the Left one-track minded and monolithic.  Perhaps this is all that remains of what once was a promising alliance between Duterte and the Left. A tenuous bridge for communications before all hell breaks loose.

# Published in Business World
15 August 2017

July 30, 2017

Unmasking Duterte

These days, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is turning out to be his own worst enemy.

He cannot keep himself from rambling on and on, revealing his bloodlust, megalomania, contempt for objectivity and truth, small-mindedness and bigotry, gullibility for the “intelligence” briefings by the AFP and the propensity for using strong-arm techniques to get his way.

A year ago, at the beginning of Duterte’s presidency, his crassness seemed to be just an idiosyncratic style born of his being an uncouth politician from the boondocks, used to the rough-and-tumble and straight-talking ways of those who are reared in the frontiers of Mindanao.
Many ordinary folk found him engaging, even refreshingly tactless, hence appearing to be honest and sincere.

What was important is that he promised to wipe out the illicit drugs trade in 3 to 6months by means of a bloody “war on drugs”; zero tolerance for graft and corruption; a stop to the practice of “endo” (end-of-contract) that undermined workers’ security of tenure; easing the burden of taxation while spending more on social services for the poor; siding with landless peasants in their fight against the landed oligarchy; an end to the despoilment of the environment through large-scale mining; to release all political prisoners and stop the policy and practice of criminalizing political offenses; and to top it all, bring about a negotiated, peaceful settlement of armed conflicts by engaging in peace talks. He also did the unexpected by appointing 3 avowed Leftists in his Cabinet.

High hopes abounded as well as serious misgivings. The revolutionary and progressive forces on the Left of the political spectrum decided to give Duterte a chance to prove his claims to being the first “Leftist” and “socialist” President.

While long-time mayor of Davao City, traces of his Leftist background surfaced in so far as 1) he acknowledged the CPP-NPA as a political entity born of endemic poverty and oppression; 2) he had a modus vivendi with the CPP-NPA with regard to their de facto existence as a shadow government, including their collection of revolutionary taxes and punitive actions against exploitative and oppressive businesses; 3) he did not consider “all-out war” as the correct or even viable solution to insurgency; 4) he maintained open lines of communication with the CPP-NPA 5) he upheld the human rights of rebels and political activists; 5) he asserted political independence versus US military intrusions in Davao City; 6) he welcomed peace negotiations as a means of resolving armed conflicts by addressing their root causes in unjust socio-economic and political structures.

A short year later, Duterte is close to fully unfolding towards the Right.  Whatever background of activism in his youth has become overwhelmed by the conservatism of his adult years as a politician in the mold of a bureaucrat capitalist until winning the presidency and becoming CEO of the reactionary state.

President Duterte has scuttled peace talks by insisting on an indefinite, bilateral ceasefire even before reaching a comprehensive agreement on socio-economic reforms (CASER). Duterte not only failed to fulfill his promise to amnesty and release all political prisoners, he continued his regime’s brutal counterinsurgency program including the bombardment of civilian communities suspected to be supportive of the CPP-NPA and the targeted killings of unarmed activists.

He resorts to lies and ad hominem attacks on NDFP Chief Political Consultant and CPP Founding Chairperson Joma Sison to belittle, insult and dismiss him as a revolutionary leader. He parrots the worn-out AFP line demonizing the CPP-NPA as terrorists and plain criminals extorting from the people and businesses.

Duterte is in over his head.  His conceit is that his overrated stint in Davao City provides him the blueprint for dealing with the complexities of the country’s historical ills. He misrepresents authoritarianism for political will and resort to mass murder and bullying tactics for decisive leadership.

Duterte’s opportunistic alliances with the Marcoses and ex-President Gloria Arroyo, his over dependence on the pro-US, militarist troika of Lorenzana-Año-Esperon and pandering to the AFP and PNP to preempt a coup attempt by his rivals — all these reveal that he is indeed an ultra-reactionary contrary to his self-delusional pose as a “leftist”.

But as a Marcos wannabe, Duterte lacks sophistication. His expressed intention to bomb lumad schools as a counterinsurgency measure makes him vulnerable to charges of genocide and other war crimes. His demagoguery is repetitive and tiresome. His resort to martial law in Mindanao and the destruction of Marawi City to deal with the disastrous Mamasapano-like police operation against Isnilon Hapilon is a testament to his incompetence and brutality as a commander-in-chief.

Duterte’s “war on drugs” is an unmitigated failure.  It’s outcome: an unending body count of alleged small-time drug users and dealers, victims of extrajudicial killing by police and touted vigilantes incited on their murderous killing spree by no less than President Duterte. Impunity reigns with Duterte shielding the police establishment that he once described as “rotten to the core” from investigation by the Commission on Human Rights and the Ombudsman. A police official, coincidentally surnamed Marcos, who stands accused of murdering a suspected drug lord while in jail has been reinstated and will soon be eligible for promotion upon the specific instruction of no less than President Duterte.

Duterte’s economic policies and programs have not departed from the failed policies of his predecessors in keeping the economy backward and the majority of the people eking out a precarious existence with no stable sources of livelihood or forced to take their chances working overseas. His resort to dole-outs, including one-time subsidies for higher education, is unsustainable. Social services like housing and health care remain unaffordable, of poor quality and inadequate.  Whatever economic growth benefits foreign multinationals, their domestic business partners and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

Finally, Duterte has maintained his off-and-on diatribe against the US, citing its track record as a brutal colonizer of the Philippines and as an exponent of wars of aggression against sovereign countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. His tirades intensify as criticisms from US quarters of his regime’s bloody war on drugs intensifies and as the US government hedges on the delivery of armaments and other forms of military aid.
But as the US well knows, Duterte is not about to touch any of the lopsided military agreements such as EDCA and the VFA that allows US military presence on Philippine soil and power projection in the Asia Pacific region.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s courtship of China for loans and investments is leading us to debt peonage to a new master and abandonment of our sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.

The Duterte regime is headed towards complete unmasking and isolation as anti-people unless it drastically changes course. Unfortunately, there are few signs that this can or will happen. #

Published in Business World
31 July 2017

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