October 26, 2007

Multiple cover-ups

People by and large are not buying government's explanations for the bribery attending the overpriced NBN-ZTE deal, the "dole-outs" to Congressmen and governors in the wake of a move to preempt the impeachment of Mrs. Arroyo with the filing of what Speaker de Venecia called “a joke of an impeachment complaint”, and the flip-flopping of the government as to what really caused last Friday’s highly destructive explosion at the Glorietta shopping mall that killed eleven and wounded close to a hundred.

The reactions range from skepticism to anger to feeling insulted at what appear to be crude attempts to cover-up egregious wrongdoing, mislead the public and thereby squelch the clamor for an honest-to-goodness investigation.

Under the Arroyo watch there is quite a long list of grievous scandals she has yet to answer for: the “Hello Garci” electoral fraud; large-scale graft and corruption; unsolved deadly bombings of civilian targets; unabated extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances of activists; barefaced bribery, devilish machinations and the abuse of executive power to emasculate both Congress and the Judiciary.

All these have shocked the nation. In all the modus operandi has been -- first, pretend nothing is amiss or deny any misconduct; then go through the motions of investigating (but quickly insulate Mrs. Arroyo) while preventing any genuine probe from taking place; if necessary, come up with a scapegoat to take the heat off the Chief Executive. Although the regime’s explanations don’t wash because they don't jibe with the facts, are illogical and assault one's common sense, somehow the controversy simmers down without any real or credible resolution of the issue.

Predictably, rather than deter the culprits at the highest levels of government, each “dying out" of the crisis merely emboldens them to continue with their anomalous schemes and embark on more and bigger ones. Not even the prospect of exposure can constrain them, since they are confident of their capacity for eventually covering up their culpability and putting the lid on the controversy. It matters that they also consider the masses gullible and public opinion easy to manipulate.

What we are witnessing now with the Malacanang bribery scandal and the Glorietta carnage is a series of "explanations" that would have been comic had they not incurred such a huge cost in terms of innocent people’s life and limb and citizens’ hard-earned money.

Once again the attempt to confuse, mislead and deceive: a series of denials by Malacanang and Mrs. Arroyo’s herd of loyalists among the congressmen and local government officials; then pseudo-investigations by the Presidential Anti-graft Commission and the Ombudsman. Finally, after almost two weeks, officials of the League of Provinces of the Philippines led by Governor Ben Evardone, known presidential defender and apologist, claim that the bags of money distributed at the Palace came from them, part of the LLP’s “capability building project” to assist neophyte governors .

Questions beg to be answered. Were the millions of cash distributed to the governors public monies and if so, why was there no attempt to get any proof of receipt to ensure transparency and accountability by these government officials? What excuse does the LPP have for giving out bundles of cash, in the same kind of gift bags handed out to the governors, to the congressmen who admitted receiving “early Christmas gifts” on the same occasion? Is it just a coincidence that a subject matter of the meeting of Mrs. Arroyo with the congressmen and governors was a suspicious two-page impeachment complaint filed by a certain Attorney Pulido, in the wake of the NBN-ZTE scandal?

The Pulido complaint is widely perceived to be a move to “inoculate” Mrs. Arroyo from a serious impeachment initiative because of the one-year bar to the filing of another impeachment petition once an earlier one is considered “initiated”. As a consequence of the meeting at the Palace, House Speaker Jose de Venecia was forced to allow the Pulido petition to be transmitted to the Justice Committee (ergo to be “initiated”) despite his previous announcement that he would first investigate attempts by Malacanang lobbyists to bribe Opposition legislators to support it.

In so far as the Glorietta mall blast, police investigators have jumped from one conclusion to another with every passing day. At first, the blast was attributed to an exploding tank of liquefied petroleum gas but this was quickly discarded for the “terrorist” theory that became the favored one of Police Chief General Razon, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief General Esperon and National Security Adviser Gonzales . Until traces of an explosive exclusively used by the military called C4 was gathered by the government’s own bomb experts and started to problematically point in the direction of the AFP. All of a sudden the “terrorist” angle has been dropped. A new one pointing to a purely industrial accident -- methane gas explosion triggering a diesel explosion -- as the cause of the blast is now the main, if not the only, explanation being purveyed by government. All other leads have conveniently come to a dead end.

Unfortunately for government, the owner of the mall has disputed the facts on which the government’s line is based and more independent and credible experts from the University of the Philippines have questioned the likelihood of an explosion occurring under the conditions propounded by the police. And despite government investigators citing the supposed findings of US and Australian explosives experts that they found no trace of an “improvised explosive device”, no official report from these foreign experts has been shown to the public.

It is useful to recall at this juncture the Meiring blast incident in Davao City in 2003. Mr. Meiring was an American suspected of possessing bombs that he accidentally set off in his hotel room. Was he an American terrorist? What was he doing in Mindanao, a region that both US and Philippine authorities loudly proclaim to be teeming with “terrorists”? The point is we will never know because a US embassy official and Central Intelligence Agency operatives reportedly whisked away the wounded Mr. Meiring thus aborting an investigation being conducted by the Davao police. It was a patent case of violation of Philippine sovereignty, not to mention an unresolved case involving national security that the Arroyo government has not bothered to address, then or now. In light of this experience, any so-called US expert opinion cited by government officials must be subjected to stringent scrutiny and independent verification.

It is clear by now that nothing in these series of scandals has ever been resolved and cover-ups have become more ludicrous and ineffectual each time these are attempted. Whatever little credibility the Arroyo regime has left is being eroded even more as a growing number of people are becoming angry, dismayed, disgruntled, disgusted and just fed up with Mrs. Arroyo and her ilk.

Will things come to a head sooner than the 2010 presidential elections when Mrs. Arroyo must step down? At the rate the Arroyo regime is going in provoking the ire of the people, the Oust/Resign Gloria Movement may yet gather enough steam, generate massive protests and achieve the unexpected. ###

*Published in Business World
26-27 October 2007

October 18, 2007

Audacious and praiseworthy

The Joint Statement of Senator Maria Ana Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) negotiating panel on the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the NDFP opens up a new channel for the stalled talks to move forward at a time when all avenues seemed to have been shut as a result of the arrest of Chief NDFP Political Consultant Professor Jose Ma. Sison and the raids on NDFP office and residences by Dutch authorities last August 28.

Senator Madrigal deserves recognition for thinking out of the box; that is, breaking out of the constraints of a militarist mindset and the narrow political exigencies that have so far characterized the approach of de facto President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to peace negotiations with the communist-led revolutionary movement.

The Senate Committee on Peace, Unification and Reconciliation is headed by Ms. Madrigal. If reports are accurate, there were apparently no takers for the committee aside from her. Unlike the Blue Ribbon Committee whose chairmanship was stiffly contested by administration Senator “Joker” Arroyo and opposition stalwarts Senators “Ping” Lacson and Allan Peter Cayetano, the Peace Committee is not a “sexy” committee that would afford much opportunity for putting its chair in the media limelight.

Ms. Madrigal has expanded her room for maneuver as a legislator by maximizing the Peace Committee’s potential in determining the real reasons for the lack of progress in the talks under the Arroyo administration, in involving the most affected and concerned sectors of society and in demonstrating the way towards resuming the formal talks “during or after the term of the Arroyo regime”.

The Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) peace panel and Mrs. Arroyo have abdicated their role and even acted contrary to their mandate as negotiators and principal by wantonly violating earlier agreements such as the Hague Joint Declaration and the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and willfully setting up one obstacle after another to the talks resumption.

In a follow-through to the Joint Statement, Luis Jalandoni of the NDFP Negotiating Panel lists the impediments the Arroyo regime, in connivance with the US and now the Dutch government, have created since 2001, when it started using the "terrorist" tag as leverage to pressure the NDFP into a negotiated capituation, to the recent arrest of Mr. Sison.

Mr. Jalandoni clarifies, “Doing away with such impediments is not a precondition but a matter of compliance with existing agreements of the GRP and NDFP. If the Arroyo regime persists in keeping the impediments, preparations can still be made for clearing the way for the peace negotiations after the current regime is changed.”

Ms. Madrigal, as a well-placed senator of this republic, and the NDFP negotiating panel have demonstrated both the good will and the determination to pick up the pieces of the broken-down peace talks and salvage what has been achieved so far. This consists of ten agreements including the landmark Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), the formation of the Joint Monitoring Committee or JMC authorized by both parties and recognized by the Norwegian government as Third Party Facilitator to oversee the implementation of CARHRIHL and discussions on each side’s draft of socio-economic reforms (SER) that are needed to address the underlying causes of the armed conflict.

The wisdom of Ms. Madrigal’s audacious move lies in (1) her recognition that the current militarist line of the GRP is not only a dead end but will further escalate the armed confrontation with the New People’s Army (2) the only way to genuine peace is by seriously addressing the roots of the armed conflict and (3) in concrete terms, this means continuing to adhere to the Hague Joint Declaration and other agreements that were painstakingly negotiated and eventually inked by the two sides.

The succeeding moves of the Senate Peace Committee have the potential to shatter the prevailing cynicism about the peace negotiations that has been created by the false notions cultivated by Mrs. Arroyo and other hawks that predominate in the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security (COCIS). They have misrepresented peace talks as merely the “cessation of hostilities” or ceasefire without addressing much less ensuring the institution of necessary comprehensive and basic reforms that will bring about a truly just and lasting peace.

Coming as it does from the government, albeit the legislative and not the executive department, the Senate Peace Committee’s initiative has the necessary modicum of credence and thus cannot just be dismissed by the Arroyo administration as a mere rebel ploy. In fact, Ms. Madrigal’s bold act has put Malacanang’s sincerity about the peace process to the test.

More importantly, it can demonstrate what is in the realm of the possible regarding the peace negotiations: how the talks can advance towards agreements that can bring about actual benefits to the people and the country, immediately and in the long-term, all the way to reaching a negotiated political settlement that can end bring an end to the war. Conversely, it will demonstrate how foolish is the current administration's policy and practice in practically scuttling the negotiations with the connivance of interfering foreign governments, specifically, that of the United States and the Netherlands.

The Peace Committee can investigate and determine whether the GRP’s refusal to convene the JMC is valid or not and help find ways to address the ongoing gross human rights violations such as the massive displacement of civilian communities, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture of suspects in accordance with CARHRIHL even while the formal talks have not resumed.

It can initiate wide-ranging consultations with various sectors, especially the basic sectors of peasants, workers and low-income earning families who constitute the largest percentage of population and who are seldom heard in the national discourse on the fundamental problems of Philippine society.

It can also investigate the reasons underlying the delays, impasses and breakdown of formal talks by examining the reasons given by both sides and getting the views of the Third Party Facilitator and various peace advocates.

The Madrigal opening move is pregnant with positive developments that auger well for the peace process, a process that has been almost criminally aborted by the hard-line and foolhardy positioning of Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal of war mongers.

This bold initiative deserves the wholehearted support and unstinting cooperation of all Filipinos who seriously want a just and enduring solution to the armed conflicts in our strife-torn land. ###

October 11, 2007

Para la patria

The Arroyo regime has less than three years to go before its term ends in 2010. Malacanang’s strategy for surviving till then (which is not to assume that she will be stepping down in 2010) is to wallow in a state of denial, continuously stonewall investigations, engineer covers-up, outmaneuver and repress the legal Opposition while utilizing the State’s iron hand against both armed and unarmed dissidents.

The regime’s culture of impunity covers everything from extrajudicial killings to multibillion peso scams that bilk the taxpayers dry to repeated election cheating orchestrated at the highest levels.

In another clumsy attempt to ward off criticism and belittle the consistently negative approval ratings of Mrs. Arroyo in popularity surveys for the past three years, Press Secretary Bunye declared, “We don’t mind poor survey ratings as long as economic indicators are improving.”

This is not the first time government apologists have resorted to calling attention to the “good news” in the economic front in order to draw attention away from scandals, anomalies, gross human rights violations, etc. It’s bad enough that the inevitable reaction of city dwellers to government reports of economic growth is that they don’t feel it, what is worse is that the great majority of Filipinos – the peasants in the countryside -- suffer from more and more intolerable living conditions despite the so-called improving economy.

Indeed the lot of the peasantry should be the prime measure of the health of the economy.

At the recent launching of the 2007 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report and the Philippines Midterm Progress Report, Mrs. Arroyo declared that the “ratio of Filipinos living in extreme poverty has been drastically cut from 20.4 percent in 1990 to 10.2 percent in 2005.” She added, “Our vision is a Philippines on the verge of First World status in 20 years when we will have dramatically reduced poverty, created a robust middle class and have all the hallmarks of a modern society in strong and stable institutions.”

A closer and more critical look at the Arroyo government's claims will show that there is nothing in the MDG or, in fact, in government’s economic program that will ensure that these purported goals and alleged gains would benefit the greater majority of the population: the peasants in the countryside and other sectors whose lives and livelihood are tied down to the backward agricultural economy. Without genuine land reform that would unshackle the farmers from feudal and semi-feudal exploitation and bondage, the destitute farmers, farm workers and marginal fisher folk would not have the means to enjoy whatever real gains there are in the economy.

The "gains", in the first place, are illusory. The claimed "drastic cut" in the poverty incidence from 1990 to 2006, for example, is the result not of any economic growth and a more equitable distribution of wealth, but of a statistical sleight of hand in the form of redefining and lowering the poverty line.

In another launching, this time of PATRIA or Pagkakaisa para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo (People’s Alliance for Genuine Agrarian Reform), organizations of peasants, agricultural workers, fishers and their advocates among legislators, church people, social activists, professionals and the academe affirmed their commitment to work and struggle for real land reform in the country.

They underscored the fact that while the Philippines is rich in natural resources, including forty four per cent of thirty million hectares of land area consisting of productive agricultural land, the majority of our people are suffering from severe and unrelieved hunger and want.

PATRIA stated, “The peasantry constitutes the biggest productive force (75 percent of the population) of the Philippine economy. They, together with the fisher folk, produce the staple food of rice and fish for the vast majority of the population. It stands to reason that the farm lands tilled by the peasants and the fishing grounds of the fishers must be taken care of for the benefit of all the people who rely on them. “

Moreover, according to the alliance, “For more than 19 years of the implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), the monopoly in the ownership and control of land resources by big landlords, foreign and domestic agri-corporations and bureaucrat capitalists has not been shattered. Instead, feudal and semi-feudal exploitation and oppression have merely intensified.”

The farmers group, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) pointed to the continuing emasculation of CARL by the fact that the original target of 10.3 million hectares for land reform was reduced by 1995 to 8.3 million; that is, 4.5 million hectares were to be distributed by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and another 3.5 million, by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). This means that of the 12.6 million hectares estimated by the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics as planted to traditional and export crops, roughly 8 million hectares are not even covered by CARL.

The truth of the matter is that DAR’s “total accomplishment report” does not take into account the lands wherein Certificates of Land Transfer, Emancipation Patents and Certificates of Land Ownership Award – documents showing the peasants’ legal right to eventually own the land they till – have been taken back using a variety of reasons. Hundreds of thousands of hectares have been exempted from reform because of land use conversion such as for “tourism zones”. Big haciendas have evaded land distribution to the tillers by means of so-called non-land transfer schemes such as the Stock Distribution Option (SDO) done at the Hacienda Luisita (owned by the family of former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino) and the “corporative scheme” executed at the Danding Cojuangco hacienda In Negros.

The groups decried that landlord violence against peasants, especially those who assert their economic and political rights, is reinforced by the heavy-handed repression carried out by the military, police and paramilitary groups such as the notorious Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU).

Thus their battle cry is it to bring the call for genuine agrarian reform onto the national agenda, as both the correct way to modernize agriculture, develop the rural and national economy, and most importantly, uplift the economic and socio-cultural conditions of more than two-thirds of the population.

They are also calling for the rejection of the CARL, more so its proposed extension by the Arroyo regime past 2008, even as progressive parliamentarians are taking up the cudgels for the peasants in filing a bill containing most of the elements of genuine agrarian reform. Nonetheless, with a landlord-dominated Congress, the alliance expressed a healthy amount of skepticism that such a bill would be passed without overhauling the stranglehold of landlord and other domestic and foreign elite interests in the economy and the state.

The PATRIA initiative is important and relevant to the entire nation and not just to the rural folk whose unrelenting clamor for land and rural justice underlies the intractable armed conflicts that continue to rage in the countryside. Only the path of genuine agrarian reform coupled with national industrialization can in truth lead the nation to economic prosperity, social justice and equality as well as lasting peace.#

*Published in Business World
14-15 Oct 2007

October 04, 2007

Aftermath of the NBN fiasco

Alls well that ends well, or so they say. The National Broadband Network (NBN) government-to-government deal, hounded by charges of malfeasance by high-ranking Philippine officials including, one mustn’t forget, their Chinese counterparts, has been scrapped by de facto President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Chinese President Hu Jintao has graciously accepted her decision; anyway, there are other projects in the pipeline. Not only that, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos, a golfing buddy of officials of ZTE, the Chinese government-owned corporation that would have been the supplier of the contract, has resigned, disappointed that the Senators had chosen to believe the whistleblower, a “drug addict,” over him. He said he would now go on a well-deserved “grand vacation.”

Mrs. Arroyo insists that a worthwhile project that the government had taken years to develop and clinch had been sacrificed in the “political noise” generated by the NBN controversy. She stands by the denial of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo that he had any hand in brokering the deal. Malacanang officials say that Mr. Abalos is innocent of the charges of offering a $10 million bribe to Jose de Venecia III, the business man-son of House Speaker Jose de Venecia and a rival bidder for the project, and another P200 million to the former Director-General of the National Economic Development Agency (NEDA), Romulo Neri, who would recommend the approval of the project.

Malacanang’s troubleshooting efforts paid off when it was able to convince Mr. Neri to invoke the executive privilege of Mrs. Arroyo in order to refuse to testify as to his principal’s involvement in the sordid affair. A firewall has thus been erected to protect Mrs. Arroyo and her fire brigade hopes it is just a matter of time and the whole thing will blow over. But will it?

Despite the regime’s frantic efforts at damage control too much has already been exposed about the deal and circumstances behind its approval. This episode has added to the public’s dismay and anger at the rampant corruption in government as a result of each side uncovering the other’s shenanigans. But it is the Arroyo regime that stands to grow more politically isolated in the wake of this latest expose.

Mrs. Arroyo and her husband can no longer escape from strong suspicion that they had a direct hand in cooking up a deal highly-disadvantageous to government but highly-rewarding to them. Their attempts to stonewall the Senate investigation, and when that didn’t work, to cover-up their criminal tracks, have only added fuel to the fire.

The rift between Mrs. Arroyo and her erstwhile ally, Speaker de Venecia, over the NBN contract has created a big crack in the ruling coalition. The spirit of mutual accommodation and confidence in the hitherto unbreakable alliance between them has been shattered.

It is foreseeable that this will lead to further and intensifying conflicts between them and their followers. For one, despite the scuttling of the NBN deal, Mr. de Venecia III, has continued to speak out against other alleged co-conspirators including a wealthy businessman-benefactor of Mrs. Arroyo’s Team Unity slate in the May elections. His father has not spoken a word to counter or mitigate his statements. The logical thing then for the Arroyo clique to aim for in the near future is to cut Speaker de Venecia down to size.

Will this episode and the cancellation of the deal mean that Arroyo regime has learned its lessons and will, for the remainder of its term, “back off”? Unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate that this is so. In the first place, the main conspirators in this dirty deal have become overweening, flagrant and careless precisely because they had been getting away with even bigger scams before. In the second place, Malacanang has taken the usual route of bare-faced denial of any wrongdoing.

More likely, the lessons the regime will seek and try to learn is “Where did we go wrong”, meaning, “Why and how did we get caught?” Clearly, this time they had grossly miscalculated things and the situation then spun out of control. They will make sure it doesn’t happen again.

However, no matter the fervid intentions of Mrs. Arroyo, her cronies and subalterns, the fact is the corrupt NBN contract is not an exceptional case and there are more that will sooner or later leak out or be exposed. Let us be reminded that this administration has a long string of graft and corruption cases that have not been resolved to the satisfaction of either the public or the ends of justice.

Thus it is only a matter of time when our people will begin to say once more, “Enough is enough!” With every new outrage – whether another corruption case, another scandal, another attempt to cover-up – the bases for massive people’s protests and the strengthening of the movement to oust Mrs. Arroyo are being laid. It is the latter that can push the matter to its rightful conclusion, give just punishment to corrupt high government officials and their ilk and hopefully usher genuine and lasting reforms in government and society. ###