February 25, 2005

Credibility or the utter lack of it

Last Tuesday, at the official commemoration of the EDSA I "people power" uprising, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo chose to renew her pledge to end graft and corruption in government. This paper thought the story merited only a brief news item in the inside pages entitled "Same old vow." The title pithily summarizes the news of GMA's grand production at EDSA and handily dismisses it.

Of course, the huge problem with all this talk by the President about fighting corruption is credibility. The automatic reaction of the woman on the street is, "Look who's talking," or "She can't be serious." You see, once you've sullied your reputation by your own doing, no amount of preaching and pouting and stomping of one's feet is going to clean it up.

Earlier, GMA announced that the fiscal crisis was over even when, by her own allies' reckoning, Congress had passed only two revenue bills, with one, the so-called sin taxes, in a watered-down form, thanks to the irresistible lobby of cigarette and alcoholic beverage companies.

As it turned out, the unusual forthrightness of the President in initially acknowledging the fiscal crisis was merely a calculated ploy to bring public opinion behind her as she pressed Congress to pass her unpopular tax measures. This led some quarters to suspect, others to conclude, that the GMA administration was never serious about undertaking reforms, such as debt relief, that would address the more fundamental causes of the fiscal crisis.

Government then crowed about the 2004 GDP growth being the highest since '97. GMA's economic managers and spin masters pointed to this, along with the slight appreciation of the peso, the lower-than-target budget deficit, improved investor confidence as supposedly shown by a bullish stock market, etc. as proof that the economy is on an upturn, if not definitely on the road to recovery.

However, the credit rating agencies' uniform verdict -- downgrade -- paints an all together different picture that does not jibe with government's rosy interpretation of statistics and upbeat forecasts. These hard-nosed, cold-blooded creatures of the realm of The Market, that GMA and her Wharton Bright Boys try so hard to satisfy, are obviously not satisfied. Despite government's declarations and the actual measures it has undertaken to deal with the fiscal crisis, Moody's and Standard and Poor's assessment of the situation was stinging but closer to reality. For it was not their concern to face-save for the government.

Truth to tell, the Arroyo administration is not at odds with the credit rating agencies. They're on the same side: they see things the same way and agree on the solutions. They chorus that the people, a majority of whom can hardly make ends meet, must be made to carry the burden of new revenue-enhancing measures coupled with decreased government services due to the premium given to debt servicing and military and police expenditure. (Certainly, when 85% of total government revenue goes to paying debts, an insecure government would see the logic in spending scarce funds spying on and repressing its own citizens.)

The Arroyo administration keeps harping on the same line regarding the VAT hike: It is a small price to pay in exchange for preventing the fiscal collapse of government, including the inability to render vital social services.

But again, it's a question of credibility. Unfortunately, most people nowadays are convinced, by their own painful experience, that one can't expect any help from government especially when you most need it. On the other hand, a growing number appear not to be averse to seeing this particular government collapse, and not just in the fiscal sense.

For sure, no amount of government media blitz can stop the stomach rumblings of the hungry. And it doesn't take much arithmetic to conclude that the proposed increase of two percentage points, or 20%, of the VAT's current rate will trigger widespread price increases affecting the most basic commodities and services. The increase is indeed significant since a large portion of daily consumption and expenditures are covered by VAT. Opponents of the VAT increase are one in denouncing it precisely because the VAT is a regressive form of taxation which, when increased, will impact most heavily on the poor.

According to Bayan Muna party-list:

"VAT is regressive because people are taxed not based on their ability to pay, but based on a fixed rate. Rich and poor pay the same VAT for a particular product, but the rich actually pay less relative to his or her income. With minimum wage nailed to the floor and with inflation at a six-year high of 7.9%, the VAT hike could not come at a worse time."

Further, Bayan Muna lambasts government for penalizing honest taxpayers by passing to them the burden of shortfalls in VAT collections.

Bayan Muna sees the VAT hike as a long-overdue imposition of the International Monetary Fund so that the country can raise revenues and continue paying odious foreign debt. According to them:

"As early as 1999, the IMF had recommended an increase in VAT rates as outlined in its Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies. The proposal was revived last year in the aftermath of government's declaration that the nation was facing a fiscal crisis. It is safe to assume that the revenues that will be generated by the VAT hike, like the revenues generated from other new tax measures, will be intended to pay for maturing foreign loans. The new revenue measures are not intended to increase the budget for social service which will benefit the people."

Indeed, government has painted itself into a corner because it allows itself to be limited by conditions and prescriptions imposed by the IMF-World Bank, no matter that these translate into intolerable burdens on the people and bring the economy deeper into the quagmire of debt, destruction of productive capacity and loss of economic sovereignty.

That's something Mrs. Arroyo's solemn vows to stamp out corruption in her term just can't quite cover up.

February 25-26, 2005

February 18, 2005

A people's lawyer and champion

Last Feb. 15, United Nations ad litem judge Romeo T. Capulong, a most outstanding human rights lawyer, one of a rare breed of Filipinos who we can all be proud of, celebrated his 70th birthday. Those who gathered on that auspicious day represented a truly broad spectrum of political forces from left to right; from government officials to leaders of cause-oriented groups and people's organizations; from the well-heeled to the simplest folk.

People who would ordinarily not mix politically, much less socially, got together under one roof simply to honor a Filipino who, according to admirers, epitomizes the "rare combination of brilliance and skill, fearlessness, and an unwavering commitment to serve the poor and downtrodden."

There are many adjectives one can use to describe Judge Capulong, to which there would hardly be a dissenting opinion. He would universally be hailed as abogadong de campanilla, a lawyer's lawyer. He is highly respected by both adversaries and allies in the legal profession as well as in the political arena. He is esteemed and loved by his clients, both paying and, especially, pro bono.

Judge Capulong is a master of the justice system in this country even if his attitude and approach to practicing under such a reactionary body of laws and judicial processes is nothing short of radical, if not heretical. Still, he has one of the highest batting averages in terms of winning cases, including the seemingly unwinnable ones.

A sampling of the outstanding cases he and the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) have handled includes the human rights victims' class suit against the Marcos dictatorship; the controversial case of Filipina migrant worker, Flor Contemplacion; the double murder of Kilusang Mayo Uno and Bayan leader Rolando Olalia and his driver; countless cases of ordinary folks and alleged leaders of the communist movement arrested and charged with subversion, rebellion as well as criminal cases; the defense of Jose Ma. Sison both here and abroad; challenging the constitutionality of the Visiting Forces Agreement; the Estrada impeachment trial; the defense of landless farmers in Hacienda Looc and Hacienda Luisita; the defense of Gen. Raymundo Jarque, the highest ranking military official to defect to the New People's Army; union struggles in PLDT, Meralco and countless banks; suits of consumers opposing oil and power price hikes, privatization of water services and Napocor; urban poor struggles for decent housing and basic services; the defense of Moros rounded up in Maharlika Village on charges of terrorist bombings; the double murders of Eden Marcellana and Eddie Gumanoy, and of Atty. Juvy Magsino and Leima Fortu, all fearless fighters for human rights in Mindoro Oriental; building up ironclad cases in corruption scandals such as the scandalously overpriced Diosdado Macapagal avenue; and the list goes on.

Even when the cases do not prosper in the "Department of Injustice" and in the "Courts of Lawlessness," Judge Capulong makes sure that in the bar of public opinion and in terms of the struggle to uphold human rights, freedom, democracy and social justice, panalo pa rin.

How does he do this? Many bear witness to the fine qualities and sound approach to his work that are keys to his success as a lawyer, in both the conventional sense of winning legal battles, and in the unconventional sense of gaining the moral and political high ground for continuing struggles and eventual victories.

Judge Capulong has developed an unusually keen political sense honed through years of rich practice as a trial lawyer and as an outstanding progressive political leader. He has a vast network of friends, allies, colleagues and supporters domestically and internationally, from which he is able to draw the most useful information and assistance. He is a stickler for a careful and methodical mustering and documentation of the facts and circumstances; of an assiduous study of the applicable laws; and of a very deliberate and all-sided analysis of the political and other relevant factors impinging on each and every case.

But more than these characteristics that one can surely find in any outstanding law practitioner, there is Judge Capulong's abiding faith in the masses, the common folk who constitute a significant proportion of his chosen clientele.

Judge Capulong has taught many a young activist-lawyer as well as grizzled mass leader the importance of listening to and then organizing the aggrieved, the victims of human rights violations, to fight for themselves and help win their own legal and political battles. Time and again he has pointed out that without the people's movement, there can be no people's lawyers; that the people's movement is the secret weapon, if not equalizer, in an existing justice system biased for the exploiter, the oppressor, the unconscionably rich and the ruthlessly powerful.

On top of all these admirable qualities, Judge Capulong is one fearless person who won't back off from a good fight, especially when he sees it as a case of a David versus a Goliath: be it a bully mayor against urban poor settlers; peasant victims of the government's counter-insurgency campaigns; or the politically persecuted, like the founding chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Ma. Sison, who has been unjustly tagged as a "terrorist" by the US and other foreign governments.

With regard to Judge Capulong's incomparable contributions to the forging of landmark agreements between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines through a highly contentious and extremely complicated peace process, let us hear it from Mr. Luis Jalandoni:

"Every agreement signed in the peace negotiations, since 1992 has benefited from (Judge Capulong's) sharp legal expertise, unwavering standpoint for the fundamental interests of the Filipino people and outstanding negotiating skills. These negotiating skills are marked by firmness of principle and utmost flexibility in creatively seeking and finding mutually acceptable formulations."

Judge Capulong likes to admonish young lawyers earning their spurs as public interest law practitioners to strive to reach "the highest convergence of professional law practice and service to the people." As his colleagues at the Philippine Peace Center wrote:

"Indeed, those who know him well cannot help but marvel at his uniqueness, at how he has managed to steer his legal career -- nay, his entire life -- to such an extraordinary trajectory, toward this 'highest convergence.'"

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, we in the people's movement salute Romeo T. Capulong, the people's lawyer and champion!

Feb. 18-19, 2005

February 11, 2005

The "War on Terror" and us

Just as US President George W. Bush and his cabal of warmongering neoconservatives have used the "war on terror" as a convenient pretext for invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, overthrowing sovereign governments, murdering at least a hundred thousand innocent civilians, and trampling on the civil rights even of US citizens, so too has Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) and the rightwingers in her unabashedly pro-US regime used the "war on terror" to justify continuous and increasing US military presence and activities in the country, the intensification of militarization and pacification campaigns in suspected civilian strongholds of the communist and Moro armed revolutionary movements, and violently suppressing legitimate dissent such as the Hacienda Luisita strike and earlier protests against electoral fraud, Philippine support for the US war in Iraq and rising prices of all vital commodities like fuel, electricity and water.

Recently, the AFP and US Pacific Command jointly announced the holding of 28 RP-US war games for 2005. Not that the US troops have ever really left Philippine territory since the controversial Balikatan 02-1 "training exercises" three years ago that progressives and nationalists denounced as a violation of the constitutional provision prohibiting the stationing of foreign troops on Philippine territory as well as their participation in AFP combat operations against local armed opposition groups, much less a local bandit group like the Abu Sayyaf.

American military presence especially in Mindanao has now become de rigueur. Unidentified US military officers flying into Jolo at the height of current military operations against alleged followers of jailed MNLF leader Nur Misuari are now merely referred to by the Southern Command as "our consultants." How many they are and what exactly are they doing there are apparently the kind of questions that are no longer being asked after the Senate ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Malacañang's midnight approval of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA).

Moreover, a US facility is reportedly being built inside the AFP General Headquarters compound in Camp Aguinaldo, ostensibly to serve as a JUSMAG-type coordinating center for joint US-RP military actions. It will evidently serve as a major command post for US military activities (i.e. intervention) not only in the Philippines, but in the Southeast Asian region.

These developments only validate the persistent objections to the VFA and MLSA by a significant section of Philippine society; to wit, the VFA opens up the entire Philippine territory to US troops and activities without a treaty, contrary to Article XVIII, Section 25 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. The VFA does not set a time limit to the presence and activities of "visiting" US troops and is vague about the kinds of activities that are allowed. The MLSA, on the other hand, allows the US to use Philippine facilities and set up its own facilities anywhere, anytime in Philippine territory.

The peace negotiations between the government and the NDFP are another one of the early casualties of the so-called "war on terror."

US ambassador Francis Ricciardone last week announced that the Bush administration has decided to maintain the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People's Army (CPP/NPA) in its list of "foreign terrorist organizations." According to news reports, Mr. Ricciardone justified the US government's action by asserting that the CPP and NPA are "still engaged in terrorist activities and are known around the world as terrorists."

Interestingly, Mr. Ricciardone's loose and catch-all working definition of "terrorist" as revealed in his statement that the CPP/NPA must be a "terrorist" organization since it "...kills and boasts about killing and threatens to kill, and burns capital investments and livelihood for the people" is applicable, not least of which to governments engaged in state terrorism such as the US itself and its client regimes like the newly "elected" Iraq government and our very own government whose police and military stand accused of grievous human rights violations committed in the course of counter-insurgency campaigns.

It will be recalled that a year ago, government and the NDFP had inked an agreement "(to) resolve the outstanding issue of the 'terrorist' listing of the CPP/NPA and the NDFP chief political consultant" by way of undertaking "effective measures" in consonance with the Hague Joint Declaration, the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), and other bilateral agreements.

Further, the two sides agreed to "jointly and separately, call upon the Government of the United States, the Council of the European Union and other concerned foreign states and governments, to support the efforts of the parties in resolving the outstanding issue of the 'terrorist' listing of the CPP/NPA and the NDFP chief political consultant in order to advance and promote the peace negotiations and address the root causes of the armed conflict."

Since then, the Arroyo government has done nothing to implement its side of the bargain, giving the lame excuse that the US and European Council "terrorist" listings are sovereign acts to which the Philippine government is not a party to and which it cannot in any way influence.

Of course, the facts belie the Arroyo government's claims. The US listing in August 2002 was made in the wake of President GMA's all-out support for the US "war on terror" and was promptly "welcomed" by Mrs. Arroyo.

Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople had crowed about the government's success in having the NPA and Jose Ma. Sison, the NDFP chief political consultant, also listed as "terrorists" by the European Council of Ministers soon after.

As point in fact, the NDFP has not even demanded that the government specifically ask the US to delist the CPP/NPA and Mr. Sison. The Arroyo government has a range of legal and political options for it to distance itself from the "terrorist" listings and assert Philippine sovereignty by pushing for progress in the peace negotiations with an entity it cannot even officially categorize as "terrorist" given that it has a publicly stated policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

The actions of the US and Philippine governments, by their own pronouncements, are intended to "stigmatize and isolate" the CPP, NPA and Mr. Sison and pressure them into "laying down their arms" and "rejoining the mainstream of society." The NDF has condemned these moves as attempts to force them into capitulation.

In this light, renewed threats by the Arroyo administration to scuttle the peace talks should the NDFP refuse to agree to a ceasefire are mere grandstanding. It is clear that the US "war on terror" has shifted the balance heavily in favor of the hawks in government and pacification, not a just and lasting peace, is its real agenda.

Feb. 11-12, 2005

February 04, 2005

Wolf in sheep's clothing

It has come to this. US ambassador Francis Ricciardone virtually admitted his government has deployed around 70 intelligence operatives (in layman's parlance, they would be called spies) in Mindanao to purportedly assist the government in its anti-terrorism drive versus the Jemaah Islamiyah, the more fearsome and formidable terrorist organization alleged to be the international link of our homegrown Abu Sayyaf to the al-Qaeda, and there is hardly any ripple of reaction worthy of the revelation.

That is, except for the expected statements of protest from the progressive party-lists such as Anakpawis, the militant alliance BAYAN, as well as its activist member organizations and some of the more intrepid peace advocates under the umbrella of In Peace Mindanao. And the expected denials from Malacañang which did not even tackle the more fundamental objections to the deployment of spies/setting up of a spy network by a foreign entity, so candidly admitted by the cocky US ambassador, but to the question of whether or not the US had bothered to notify the government.

Unfortunately, most people in this country take a quite unrealistic, even fantastically benign, view of the strategic objectives, tactics, operational methods and actual conduct of US military forces within our territory, a supposedly independent nation-state. This despite the extent to which much of the current US geopolitical doctrine and practice has been the subject of much debate and has reaped criticism and even denunciation in the mainstream press, more so in the less censorship-prone wide, wide world of cyberspace.

Not surprising, considering how only a small minority of Filipinos living in the cities have access to the Internet information highway and most cyber cafés have become the watering hole of some young people indulging their favorite pastime -- video games. Add this to the unimpressive growth of newspaper readership and the much greater reliance on television and radio, arguably more prone to superficial sound bytes, to bring news and public affairs to the ordinary Filipino's neo-colonial consciousness.

It is thus incumbent on this column to devote some precious space to help unmask what revolutionaries and activists the world over have unflinchingly identified as the "enemy" --US imperialism -- the veritable wolf hiding beneath sheep's clothing. Before it is too late and an apocalyptic Iraq, Afghanistan or a Vietnam-type scenario is already upon us.

It is now common knowledge that the US war on Iraq had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, nor the al-Qaeda, nor the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, as President George W. Bush had so vociferously yet so falsely claimed. It had everything to do with changing a supposedly evil, totalitarian regime hostile to the US with a much more pliant one, by means of a preemptive strike that brought about a destructive war of aggression and the colonial occupation of a sovereign country that, by the way, happened to be sitting atop one of the largest oil deposits in the world the US had long coveted.

Whatever vestige of national sovereignty, democratic rights and ancient civilization the Iraqi people had zealously kept alive under the most difficult of circumstances (the Saddam regime and the US embargo) was literally obliterated by the awesome military might of the sole superpower in this dangerous, unipolar world.

Earlier, war-torn Afghanistan, with its notoriously primitive, brutal and bin Laden-friendly Taliban regime, as well as its strategic location and rich gas deposits, had become an acceptable first front in the US "war on terror." Its predictable defeat at the hands of the avenging US bully provided a nasty preview of things to come.

Unspeakable horror by means of a middle- to low-intensity type of war of occupation amidst fierce resistance by domestic anti-US forces. A life of hunger, misery, violence and daily indignities under the heel of foreign occupier masquerading as liberator. Puppet traitors installed as the new rulers, no better, or even far worse than the old.

In the era of the US-fabricated "war against terrorism" foisted on the world by a fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, warmongering and state terrorist outlaw that is the current regime of US President George W. Bush, universal standards of human rights and international humanitarian law are being brazenly and wantonly violated. Torture, illegal detention and absolute deprivation of any due process have gone on at Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq, at the US prison facility in Cuba's Guantanamo, and even in undisclosed detention centers right in the heart of the democratic US of A where hundreds of terrorist suspects, mostly of Middle Eastern and South Asian ancestry, are being held without charges and without any legal rights whatsoever.

Moreover, the neo-conservative Bush administration is resorting to patently illegal, abusive, inhumane and universally eschewed means to prosecute its "war against terrorism." These are unprovoked military attacks against sovereign states; overt and covert operations to undermine duly constituted governments and replace these with US-sponsored regimes; the use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear "dirty bombs" in regional or local conflicts; demonization of anti-imperialist movements through "terrorist" labeling and smear campaigns and the abduction and assassination of their leaders anywhere in the world; the legalization of fascist measures through legislation such as the US Patriot Act and copycat versions put in place by US client regimes; and the massive deployment and stationing of US troops and war materiel outside the US mainland in accord with its doctrine of "shape, respond and prepare" to effect US political and economic dominance in the world.

In the Philippines, the foremost example of US interventionism with the direst of implications to the sovereignty and security of the country is the indefinite stationing since 2001 of an indeterminate number of US military forces anywhere in the country under the anachronistic Mutual Defense Treaty and the unconstitutional Visiting Forces Agreement.

Notwithstanding official US and Philippine government denials, such US troops have clearly engaged not just in training exercises, but also in combat operations, as evidenced by the following: Balikatan 02-1 was undertaken in actual battle zones in Basilan and Zamboanga; live ammunition was used; and a disturbing incident was uncovered by an International Solidarity Mission wherein an American soldier in a raiding unit, with a specific mission to arrest an Abu Sayyaf suspect, had shot that suspect in the leg. The US soldier was quickly spirited out of the country in total disregard of Philippine laws and civilian authority and without so much as a token investigation by the latter.

After the controversy over the Balikatan 02-1 had died down, the levels of US troops deployment, semi-permanent stationing and their various activities in the country were quietly and discreetly downplayed and relegated to the background. Any official announcements regarding the matter were thereafter treated as routine and nothing out of the ordinary.

Thus did the US armed forces graduate from civil-military operations like road-making, tooth-pulling and becoming "adopted sons" of various cities, towns and other locales, to intelligence gathering and sharing and up to continuing participation in combat operations in the guise of training, counter-terrorism and relief and rehabilitation work.

It is no wonder then that Mr. Ricciardone's announcement that "70 US military personnel were training troops in the southern Philippines in intelligence gathering, leading to the arrest or killing of 25 identified, known, no-doubt-about-it terrorist leaders" scarcely caused a ripple. After all, the Philippines has been given the dubious distinction of being the "second front" in the US "war on terror."

Less readily interpreted as interventionism, but no less insidious and effective in undermining national sovereignty, aggravating existing armed conflicts such as the communist-led armed struggle and the Moro struggle for self-determination, and posing obstacles to the peaceful resolution of these conflicts through negotiations, are the US listing of the CPP/NPA and NDFP political consultant, Jose Ma. Sison, as "terrorist."

I will leave the entire question of whether or not the CPP/NPA and Mr. Sison deserve such a pejorative label and all the bad repercussions that go with it to another column. Suffice it to say, given the track record of the Bush administration in terms of dishing out distortions, half-truths and outright lies for crassly self-serving and megalomaniacal visions of unrivalled US global hegemony, its word should count for very little.

Ominous but true, renewed US military presence and activity in the Philippines today is anything but benign.

Unfortunately, the recent CNN survey showing the Philippines as one of few countries, three in all, that does not consider the Bush II administration as a threat to world peace is a sorry testament to the deeply ingrained pro-Americanism in this country, traceable in large part to the treasonous neo-colonial relationship of a succession of post-independence regimes with imperial America.

Feb. 4-5, 2005