January 18, 2007

After the summitry, more of the same

As expected, de facto President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lost no time in trying to parlay her claimed “success” at the 12th ASEAN Summit and the East Asian Summit into glowing predictions about the economy not just in the medium-term but within the year 2007.

Understandably, Mrs. Arroyo is basking in the afterglow of two regional summits that turned out to be one grand production (incidentally, with a price tag of two billion pesos) in terms of the sprucing-up of the public infrastructure of Cebu; the elaborate table-settings and sumptuous food served at the official receptions; the pleasing song-and-dance numbers in the program and historical reenactment sideshows; and the spike in the military cum police forces-to-civilian ratio.

There were plenty of nice photo-opportunities and good sound bytes for the expectant foreign and local media that had turned surly after the seemingly arbitrary change in the original schedule last December based on suspiciously manufactured grounds of a threatening tropical storm that turned out to be a brewing political one.

But was there anything of substance, especially for the majority of Filipinos experiencing unprecedented joblessness and poverty? From news reports, the security agenda was the main course and the Convention on Counterterrorism the main output. The so-called legally-binding ASEAN charter, with mechanisms for bringing erring or uncooperative member countries in line, is just so much whipped cream at this point.

While firming up of the trend towards bilateral trade agreements under the auspices of the WTO and the signpost of neoliberal globalization and pushing ASEAN countries into supporting the return to the Doha Round of the stalled WTO negotiations, there is the illusion being foisted that ASEAN has the makings of a regional economic block that can rival something like the European Union.

To understand the outcome of the latest ASEAN pow-wow, there is a need to backtrack a little and revisit its brief and lackluster history. The ASEAN was formed in 1967 with the blessings of the US and initially included only five countries: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Its main thrust was to be a bulwark against the spread of communism, specifically, from the perceived threat of China, North Korea and Indochina. Over the decades its range of concerns has broadened from political and diplomatic concerns to also include economic issues and now, in the post-9/11 era, to overtly security matters. It also grew to include Brunei, Myanmar (Burma) and all three Indochinese countries by 1999.

Its members vary widely in terms of economic development and political histories which factors combine to make it, so far, a loose and non-binding organization that, according to the policy studies group, Institute of Political Economy (IPE), has been “unable to deal, on its own, with sensitive and potentially divisive internal issues” as exemplified in the tepid ASEAN responses to the 1978 Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, the East Timor crisis, and the long-standing Spratly Islands dispute.

Moreover, IPE points out that the ASEAN is “unlike the European Union (EU) which, pooling economic and political resources to better challenge the US, has formal mechanisms for majority voting in major policy areas that obliges corresponding domestic economic policies. It also does not have ‘supranational’ institutions like the European Commission, European Courts and the European Parliament”.

The same goes for efforts to achieve regional economic coordination. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992 was a milestone for ASEAN in being its first real region-wide economic integration effort. In practice, however, it was a very limited deal that was even overtaken by aggressive unilateral liberalization moves by member countries. The AFTA merely gave the appearance of political cooperation on economic policy changes that were happening anyway.

The IPE observes that “such weaknesses consequently limit the extent to which the organization can be used to advance region-wide agendas.” Nonetheless, the group recognizes that “recent global developments may be forcing a change in this (situation).”

It is not difficult to see what these developments are, namely the renewed aggressive global political-military and economic offensive of the US at the onset of the 21st century. Since 9-11, this has been packaged as a US-led “war against terrorism” working hand-in-glove with the US drive for “free trade globalization”.

It is no wonder that, despite the conspicuous absence of US government officials at the Cebu extravaganza (last December, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was rumored to grace the occasion), the US economic and politico-military agenda was more than adequately carried by the Philippine delegation, with Mrs. Arroyo more than eager to play the US drummer girl in the regional body.

As a case in point, the ASEAN Convention on Counterterrorism falls in neatly with what the neoconservative cabal in the Bush administration dream of as a “New American Century” of US global hegemony conveniently wrapped in the rhetoric of the “global war on terror”.

The IPE notes, “In 2000, then US Pacific Command Chief, Admiral Dennis Blair, declared that ‘current security arrangements are inadequate for handling the challenges of the 21st century’ and proposed a regional ‘security community’ for Asia. At the same time it was asserted that ‘U.S. bilateral treaties and security partnerships remain the framework for deterring aggression and promoting peaceful development in the region.’ ASEAN correspondingly began to expand its involvement on security issues and, at its 7th Summit in November 2001, issued the ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism which signified ASEAN’s unequivocal alignment with the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’.”

On the other hand, the recent declaration to accelerate the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 instead of the original target of 2020, only underscored the ASEAN member countries’ current trend to be sucked into the vortex of the neoliberal doctrines of liberalization, deregulation and privatization peddled by the US- dominated WTO/IMF/World Bank combine.

The ASEAN once more proved itself to be basically a grouping of neocolonial client states of the US or of governments, like those in Indochina, transitioning from their previously socialist moorings, and eager to become integrated into the world capitalist system. The heads of state that gathered at the 12th ASEAN Summit continue to represent their respective countries’ political and economic elites and not the majority of exploited and oppressed peoples in the region.

The ASEAN is not about national economies coming together to strengthen themselves through such a regional formation and merely reflects consistent efforts to open up/liberalize such economies for imperialist plunder.

At the end of the day, the “success” of the 12th ASEAN Summit bodes more of the same failed national policies and regional “cooperation” for facilitating imperialist domination and plunder aka “globalization” and “war on terror”.###

January 04, 2007

Caving in to US bullying

On top of everything else – the lying, stealing, cheating and murdering spree against those her regime has demonized as “enemies of the state” – Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo today takes the cake as super toady to the Superpower bully, the United States of America. In the process she has managed to stir up latent nationalist sentiments that have been all but smothered by ubiquitous propaganda about “globalization” and the hype about a borderless “war against terrorism” fought with the mighty US war machine.

By authorizing the hasty, clandestine and deceitful transfer of convicted rapist Lance Corporal Daniel Smith to the custody of the US government by means of his illegal, non-court authorized release (prosecution lawyers have categorically labeled it as an assisted escape of a convicted felon) from detention in the Makati City Jail and delivery to the US Embassy, Mrs. Arroyo has proven that she is indeed the US puppet repeatedly condemned in countless protest rallies and demonstrations.

Why does Mrs. Arroyo’s belated admission that it was her decision to get the convicted American soldier out of a Philippine jail and her plea for “understanding” sound pretty much like her "I'm sorry" spiel after being caught red-handed engaging in wholesale electoral fraud? Why are we reminded all over again of her emotional "I will not run (for president)" speech, a promise she promptly abandoned after manufacturing a spurious groundswell of support as well as allegedly receiving divine inspiration to run anyway?

There are three reasons: first, is the familiar ring of insincerity; two, the blatant lying about the grounds for her highly questionable and legally untenable actions; and third, the thinly-veiled attempt to assuage an enraged populace whose reaction to this latest atrocity, Malacanang has obviously underestimated.

This time Mrs. Arroyo’s offense -- or rather, offenses -- is much, much worse. She used her high office to undermine the rule of law, undercut the judicial process as well as surrender national sovereignty to a foreign power.

It was bad enough that her government did little to help, or more accurately, helped to sabotage the fight of the Subic rape victim, Nicole, to attain justice by way of the damaging pronouncements and decisions of the Justice Secretary and his deliberately bungling set of public prosecutors. Furthermore, the executive department automatically and consistently concurred with the US interpretation of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) provisions on criminal jurisdiction that clearly favored the accused US marine over the Filipina rape victim. The Arroyo regime, in fact, lawyered for the US government (and, effectively, the accused US soldiers) on the issue of custody from day 1 of the commission of the crime.

With the unmistakable show of US displeasure as expressed in US President George Bush’s pronouncement and the abrupt and unilateral cancellation of the annual RP-US joint war exercises known as Balikatan as well as humanitarian assistance to typhoon-ravaged areas, the Arroyo regime literally caved in. It did the unthinkable – gross, ill-disguised flouting of the independence of the judiciary and grave abuse of authority – in springing Smith from his Makati prison and delivering him to the US embassy in true-blue lackey fashion.

The Arroyo administration could not wait for the legal fig leaf of a court order when it failed to get a favorable ruling from RTC Judge Pozon, who had earlier found Mr. Smith guilty, sentenced him to 40 years imprisonment and ordered his temporary incarceration in the Makati city jail until the court decides otherwise, pending diplomatic negotiations between the Philippines and the US as to what detention facility, on Philippine territory, would be used to jail the convict. Failure as well to get a Temporary Restraining Order from the Court of Appeals on Judge Pozon’s order to retain custody over Mr. Smith by incarcerating him in a Philippine jail apparently caused alarm on the part of both Malacanang and the US authorities.

Thus the legal cover used by Mrs. Arroyo’s hatchet men amounted to nothing more than the US position that the VFA grants it custody of its erring soldiers no matter that the crime committed is a heinous one under Philippine laws, it had nothing to do with Mr. Smith’s duties as a member of the US military, and he was, in fact, off duty when he committed the rape. In the guise of fidelity to its obligations under the VFA, the Arroyo regime attempts now to cover-up its latest impeachable crimes.

This incident is once more threatening to blow up in Mrs. Arroyo’s face revealing just how shaky her regime is and how fearful it is of losing the backing of the US. That is the real meaning of “strategic RP-US relations” for this client regime as it has been for those that preceded it. (The last time this same line was invoked was during the Senate debates on the renewal of the RP-US Bases Agreement when then President Corazon Aquino even led a street march to the Senate to dramatize her support for the bases’ continued stay and thus endeared her to US policymakers.)

On the part of the US, it exposes the narrow and aggressive mindset of the current neoconservative leadership of the lone Superpower, used to getting its way unchecked by international law and international public opinion. It also reveals just how much respect the US political leadership has for the dignity and independence of its former colony, now reduced to nothing more, it appears, than disdain for a current neocolony, a vassal state of the Big White Father.

The Balikatan war exercises are certainly a critical part of US military strategy – having to do with the continuous deployment of US forces and materiel in key regions so as to ensure military readiness and maneuverability in exercising its hegemony. Is the decision to cancel it a measure of its concern for its troops? We think not.

The US makes clear that it doesn’t want another bad precedent of a client state (aka “ally”) reneging or failing to implement lop-sided military agreements that protect US interests and not get punished for it. The US clearly twisted the arm of the Arroyo regime and got what it wanted. Of course US spokespersons maintained the propaganda line that this was about implementing the VFA; that this was about protecting its troops. In truth it is about the US having its way in complete disregard of a sovereign country’s justice system and sovereignty and delivering that message loud and clear to the entire world.

US imperialist objectives are of course so much easier to achieve when it deals with a subservient government desperate to cling to power like that of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.###

*Published in Business World
5-6 January 2007

January 02, 2007

Just another day

The year is ending and a new one is just around the corner. For those who are able, for the most part, to take control of their lives, having set out with clear-cut goals and being conscious of making progress in the achievement of these goals, the end of the year is usually a time for taking stock. All the better to welcome the new year with renewed hope for a better time to come, with a reinvigorated spirit to address life’s challenges or travails, depending on one’s circumstances and outlook.

What of ordinary folk? What does the unique juncture of an old year, fast fading away, and a new one, to be welcomed with the customary fireworks and cheerful greetings, mean for them?

I asked Lorie, a forty-year-old cook in a middle class family that she has loyally served for the some twenty-odd years, how life was for her and what she looked forward to in the coming year.

She spoke matter-of-factly. New Year ’s Day would just be another day except for the fireworks and her having the day off to be with her family. Her husband, Jun, works as driver to an old couple. He only comes home every two weeks, timed for when Lorie and their daughter would be at their dilapidated home in a low-end housing project. Jun managed to plunk his savings into this tiny piece of property in the outskirts of the city so that someday they could hope to own it. But they are always in arrears: the bank keeps sending warning notices of foreclosure unless they pay up. The water service has been cut because thieves ran away with the meter and the company was charging them double until they pay for a new meter to be installed. Lorie’s Christmas bonus would go to settling their account.

Her 11-year-old daughter lives with her in their employer’s residence and is in a private elementary school where she is an honor student but Lorie wasn’t too sure what the standards of teaching are. She worries sometimes whether she could still afford to put her daughter through high school with her measly salary but she would face the problem when it was already there, staring her in the face.

Lorie has a 19-year-old son by another man whom she met when she was a teen-ager, newly arrived from the province, still finding her way in her strange environs, young and vulnerable. (He never married her because he was already married, among other practical reasons.) The boy barely squeaked through elementary school in Lorie’s hometown in Samar. He grew up there with his peasant grandparents in a postcard-pretty setting of coconut trees, rice fields and mountains, punctuated by intermittent visits of New People’s Army guerillas to their far-flung barrio. He wants his mother to find a job for him in Manila because there are none in Samar and he has become a burden to his aging grandparents. Besides, there were worrisome incidents when some of his neighbors were picked up by the soldiers for some reason and came back beaten up or never came back at all.

Jun has been weighed down by bad attacks of asthma for the longest time, erratically treated because he can’t afford to maintain the proper medication. Lorie hopes that someday, somehow, her husband’s health problems will miraculously get better. For now, it is not too worrisome because he can still hold down a job and, anyway, she doesn’t witness the attacks first hand.

Interestingly, Jun supplements his income by joining anti-smuggling raids and other police operations as a civilian asset, whenever he can get away from his placid day job as a family driver. He was even issued a gun and it gives him a sense of power and reinforces his machismo. His wife is embarrassed to admit that the raiding party snitches some of the smuggled goods they confiscate; Jun brought home brand new t-shirts at one time.

Lorie thinks herself fortunate that she is not relegated to living in some squatter area where life she knows is miserly, mean and bleak. They all eat three square meals a day and are able to listen to the news on the radio or sometimes, even watch a noontime show when their employers aren’t around. Life is the same old routine, day in and day out, but she knows it could be worse and in fact, is far worse, for other unfortunate souls. It is enough that they survive on a day-to-day basis, have had no major catastrophes in the last few years, and can be together as a family every so often. There are no big dreams, no high hopes and their worst fears are held at bay so long as they have the strength to work and are considered useful and congenial enough by their employers.

Lorie finds the antics of the politicians as reported on her portable radio laughable. The chatter of radio commentators about charter change maneuvers by President Arroyo’s allies serve as background noise as she goes about her daily chores. She likes it better when show business news came up that are at least entertaining and she can marvel at the actors’ and actresses’ high living and imagine what it would be like not to be preoccupied with the daily grind of earning a living. She wonders about the rallies and the demonstrations, whether all the noise and bother will amount to anything much. Anyway, she doesn’t have any time now for that.

It is both an irony and a tragedy that ordinary toiling folk who make the goods and provide the services that make new year celebrations happy and the rest of the year productive are less and less able to partake of that wealth and happiness they help make possible. It’s not right by any standard when those who can give us the reason to hope and be happy have themselves lost that right, even just on New Year’s Day.

One wonders if it will be any different for Lorie's grandchildren.

It is our most cherished wish for the coming year, that the path towards a future of hope and meaning is continually being taken by more and more earnest men and women in this country and will indeed spell a difference in the lives of ordinary Filipinos and their families.

Happy new year to one and all!

*Published in Business World
29-30 December 2006