May 28, 2009

The launch of Pagbabago!

The founding assembly of the Pagbabago! People’s Movement for Change became the unintended launching pad for self-declared presidential wannabe, Paquito Yu, Paq for short. Actually, he is the group’s satirical mascot, the amalgamation of all that the people find laughable, irritating and downright pathetic in Philippine traditional politics and the cast of characters it breeds.

Paq gamely mixed with the crowd and gave interviews to the media even before the affair started. He insinuated himself in the program by climbing on stage and having a photo-op with guest speaker Archbishop Oscar Cruz, the young man who sang an inspirational song with indigenous instruments, and most especially with celebrity whistleblower, Engineer Jun Lozada.

He then delivered his quintessential political speech complete with giant cue cards that called for intermittent applause. His main platform was a dig at the Filipinos’ chase after greener pastures in the US of A: a strategy for getting the Philippines admitted as the 52nd state and forever banishing the need for Filipinos to submit themselves to the US embassy grinder in getting their much-sought-after US visa.

The media got the impression that Pagbabago! had endorsed Paq’s candidacy. Not true. Mother Mary John Mananzan, co-chairperson of Pagbabago!, categorically stated that it would remain non-partisan and refrain from endorsing any candidate as a group. Instead, it would draw up a “People’s Criteria” based on its 11-point program of substantive reforms. (Log on to On this basis it would measure candidates’ qualifications and track record and disseminate its evaluation widely as one of the group’s contributions to voters’ education.

The audience of founding members and guests lapped up Paq’s antics but paid even closer attention to the serious agenda for the day. For after all, they were there in earnest. From all walks of life – high and low, religious and lay, professors and students, activists and plain concerned citizens – they came. To affirm their yearning for meaningful change in Philippine society and politics and to organize a new movement that would capture the people’s imagination and move them to bring about real, lasting change.

The group’s leadership is a mix of human rights, peace and development advocates; political and social activists; anti-corruption and good governance crusaders; and artists and writers with a cause. In two months’ time, it’s membership roster grew to over a hundred. Professor Judy Taguiwalo, co-chairperson and University of the Philippines faculty regent, is confident that the movement will grow by leaps and bounds, not just in Metro Manila but in the provinces, as people learn about and identify with its ideals, objectives and the means with which it aims to shake up and change the status quo.

In their collective keynote address, the Organizing Committee emphasized that Pagbabago!, while born out of the broad movement to oust Mrs. Gloria Arroyo, seeks to go beyond that objective and answer a common question asked by many Filipinos: what government policies must be put in place for real change to take place and who should take the helm of leadership?

With their 11-point “People’s Agenda” and the vow to act as a “People’s Watchdog” before, during and after the 2010 elections, the group is girding itself for the long haul, in the fight for genuine change against the powerful who seek to perpetuate the status quo, amidst a climate of public cynicism and despair over traditional politics. It also sees non-traditional leaders arising out of the movement itself, in the dynamic and often unpredictable process of struggling against great odds to achieve our people’s aspirations and dreams.

Pagbabago! calls for internal change: for fellow Filipinos to shed backward and counter-productive ideas and ways such as being uncritical and unconcerned, passive and fearful , and most of all, inured and resigned to the way things are - no matter how wrong, no matter how bad.

The group warned that the 2010 elections could be derailed or disrupted by massive automated cheating or a designed-to-fail automated elections. It called for vigilance and action in the light of unrelenting efforts by Malacañang, through its allies in Congress, to railroad a change in the system of government that would allow Mrs. Arroyo to remain in power even after her term. It called attention to machinations by the Arroyo camp and its major co-conspirators among the elite such as the likes of Danding Cojuangco to engineer the most dire of scenarios, including emergency rule.

It sees Mrs. Arroyo’s political body language as indicative of her intention to cling to power despite the fact that hers is a lame duck administration considering that Mrs. Arroyo is constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office. The rising incidence of extrajudicial killings, abductions, illegal arrests and detention and the renewed filing of trumped-up cases against media and the Arroyo clique’s perceived enemies indicate that political repression is the regime’s answer to any and all serious efforts to institute change.

An agitated woman asked in the open forum, “Is this movement more than just talk?” while a more subdued man drew attention to scores of urban poor communities being demolished and people thrown willy nilly into the streets, asking what Pagbabago! offered them.

The reports presented by the Working Groups of Pagbabago! - organizing and education, research, “getting-the-message-across”, electoral and campaigns - reflected the commitment, hard work and creativity of the people at the core of the budding movement to translate the group’s aims and ideals into concrete action and output.

And while Pagbabago! has yet to prove its mettle in the day-to-day, life-and-death struggles of ordinary Filipinos, there can be no question as to its relevance, timeliness and potential to make a major contribution as a people’s movement for change. #

May 21, 2009

One brave woman

Should Lieutenant First Grade Nancy Gadian manage to live to tell her story about anomalies and corruption in the Armed Forces of the Philippine (AFP), she will have carved a niche for herself among the thinning ranks of today’s whistleblowers. For Lt. Gadian has all the disadvantages working against her. She is a junior officer accusing a general; she is not a graduate of the fiercely fraternal Philippine Military Academy; and, not least of all, she is a woman in a time-honored bastion of machismo. She will have trumped her military detractors, persecutors and wannabe assassins (those engaged in character assassination as well as the more physical kind) without having to launch an armed rebellion to gain attention.

Lt. Gadian accused retired Lt. General Eugenio Cedo, then chief of the Western Mindanao Command, and other senior officers of misusing the P46 million intended for the RP-US Balikatan exercises in 2007. Gen. Cedo has denied the accusations. As the deputy chief for civil-military operations during Balikatan 2007, she was well-placed to know what activities had been planned, how funds were allocated, how the money was actually spent and who were responsible for any misappropriation or outright misuse of these funds.

AFP officials reacted to Lt. Gadian’s accusations by painting her as a “lavish spender” who couldn’t account for an expenditure of P14,000; as someone with an axe to grind against her superiors because she was the object of administrative sanctions; as a “deserter” for having gone AWOL or absent-without-leave even as she had already filed her resignation a week before her leave ended; and worse of all, as a soldier guilty of “insubordination” for airing her charges in public rather than reporting these to her superiors (the very same ones who she perceives to be oppressing her with trumped-up charges).

The AFP officials appear to be in a panic over her accusations and what more she may be willing to reveal. They have alternately tried to assure her of her safety and lenient treatment if she will surrender to them and then threatened her with a manhunt, arrest, court martial and the loss of all her retirement benefits.

Her relatives have been scared out their wits by the heavy surveillance that Lt. Gadian and her children have been subjected to given her explosive public statements and the precedent of the fate that befell another whistleblower, Navy Ensign Phillip Andrew Pestaño, who was found dead inside his stateroom on the ship BRP Bacolod City(LC 550) in 1995, a victim of foul-play according to his parents and a Senate investigation, but a suicide according to the AFP.

Lt. Gadian’s sister has filed in her behalf a petition for a writ of amparo with the Supreme Court. Her lawyers have argued that she deserves the protection of this new writ because she has good reason to fear for her life, safety ad security. Should Lt. Gadian’s petition be granted she will gain a reprieve from the AFP’s manhunt and will give her enough breathing space to testify and even file charges against her persecutors.

Lt. Gadian is one brave woman. According to her lawyer, she has a reputation for being honest, competent and for being a hard worker. If all she wanted to do was to get herself off the hook with regard to the administrative complaints against her, she could have just found herself a padrino. Going through the trouble, not to mention the danger, of getting back at your commanding officer in order to evade responsibility for a a minor charge does not make any sense.

Now if the accusations are baseless and all the Balikatan 2007 funds accounted for, as military spokespersons aver, what have the generals and Malacañang got to fear from a mere lieutenant crying wolf?

In fact, they should have welcomed Lt. Gadian’s testimony, recognized the difficult situation she is in, and at the minimum assured her of her safety while acting with dispatch to do an honest-to-goodness investigation. Instead they immediately rose to the defense of Gen. Cedo, reiterated that all Balikatan accounts were “cleared” and turned their guns on the whistleblower who, as if she were the guilty party, was challenged to file a complaint before the “proper” body.

One doesn’t have to be an expert to recognize that a whitewash had already been set into motion the minute Lt. Gadian uttered her accusations.

A Commission on Audit report has recently come to light showing the military’s failure to return to the national treasury unused remittances from two consecutive Balikatan exercises, in 2006 and 2007. This was only belatedly admitted by the AFP and indicates that not all is fine and dandy as the military authorities want to make it appear. The case is serious enough for Malacañang to have ordered a special investigation into the matter by the defense department.

Now the AFP has given this single mother of two growing children a 48-hour deadline to turn herself in or else she would be declared a deserter and dropped from the rolls after 90 days. This is curious because military spokespersons have already done just that, declare her a “deserter”. As to wanting out from the military establishment that she had served for the better part of her productive years, she had already resigned before she was due back from her leave of absence.

If the AFP general headquarters means to dangle Lt. Gadian’s retirement pay as bait for her to surface, it would seem that is now the least of her concerns. Staying alive and keeping her kids safe is her priority until she can be given a chance to give her testimony and blow the lid off the endemic corruption in the military.

The Navy spokesperson says the AFP has issued the surrender deadline because it “can no longer allow itself to be dragged in an unfounded controversy”. In the same breath, he declares, “There has to be an investigation as to who misused the funds and who caused it so that there will be determination of guilt, rectification and correction of certain policies.”

Perhaps the AFP needs reminding that an investigation is probably what Lt. Gadian wanted in the first place. The immediate denial of wrongdoing by AFP spokespersons and bully tactics against Lt. Gadian together with the initial hemming and hawing exhibited by Malacañang only underscore the point that any investigation to be believed will have to be undertaken by a completely independent and trustworthy body. Certainly not by members of The Old Boys Club in Camp Aguinaldo nor the militarized defense department that has been reduced to a mere civilian appendage of the AFP.

Lt. Gadian appears to be no push-over. She knows through the bitter experience of the Pestaño family that her neck is now on the line. She also knows that the AFP and Malacanañg are doing everything they can, by fair means or foul, to prevent the public from concluding that the only “good” coming out of the RP-US military exercises sanctioned by the Visiting Forces Agreement is that the corrupt generals get to have another fat milking cow to gorge on.

She deserves our wholehearted sympathy and support. #

May 14, 2009

Not an isolated case

Cheche Lazaro, a veteran and multi-awarded journalist, who has maintained her independence from the two big networks dominating the broadcast industry in the Philippines by having her own production outfit, would be the last media person one would expect to be on the receiving end of a harassment suit. Her reputation as an investigative journalist who would probe into a controversy as far as she could in order to get at the truth is balanced by her sterling credentials as a fair, honest, thoroughgoing and circumspect reporter. She is an outspoken advocate of media freedom and responsibility and has sufficient connections in high places to somehow inoculate her from the inevitable backlash of her hard-hitting reports. Or so it seemed.

Ms. Lazaro was issued a warrant of arrest on the basis of a suit filed by a certain Ella Valencerina, Vice President for Public Relations and Communications of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). Ms. Valencerina complained that Ms. Lazaro and several others were guilty of violating the Anti-Wiretapping Act when they recorded a phone conversation between her and Ms. Lazaro and subsequently aired a portion of said conversation in a feature story “Perwisyong Benepisyo” about the GSIS premium-based policy in the television show, Probe.

In brief, Probe was investigating complaints of public school teachers that the GSIS policy deprived them of the benefits they were entitled to by basing their qualification on the actual premium payments made by the government agency they worked for rather than the length of service of the employee concerned. They correctly pointed out that delays in premium payments by the Education Department (DECS) cannot be used as justification for depriving them of their social security benefits.

Probe sought an explanation from both the DECS and GSIS. Education Sec. Lapuz accommodated Probe’s request for an interview to get their side of the story but GSIS refused. In an official letter explaining why, Ms. Valencerina said that GSIS would not accede to interviews by reporters connected to ABS-CBN as they had had the sad experience of biased reporting. The official letter asked that Probe give their explanation of their refusal to be interviewed instead of delving on the substance of the charge that GSIS was unfairly and arbitrarily treating its members with the premium-based policy.

The subsequent phone conversation between Ms. Lazaro and Ms. Valencerina revolved around Ms. Lazaro’s appeal that GSIS reconsider its refusal to air its side. But to no avail. When the story was aired, Probe used a portion of the phone conversation, which from the transcript and from the official reply of GSIS to Probe’s request that they give their side, merely stated what GSIS all along had been saying, that they would not explain their side to a media outfit they deemed biased. Whether the image of GSIS was tarnished by the Probe story because of the GSIS management’s obvious lack of transparency and unwillingness to respond to members’ complaints is their own lookout.

But why is GSIS pursuing this case in the first place? What is their aim? To retrieve their reputation? To punish an intrepid journalist? To deliver the message to the media to keep their prying eyes away from GSIS? All of the above?

In the final analysis, Cheche Lazaro is likely to win her case seeing as the charges are so groundless. But she will be made to squirm and the message will have been delivered in the meantime. Newer, younger reporters with neither the weight of experience, nor the awards nor the connections, will learn the lesson that it doesn’t pay to cross the powers-that-be, especially those with hotlines to the highest reaches of public office.

One must remember that GSIS top honcho Winston Garcia is the scion of powerful political allies of de facto Pres. Gloria Arroyo who delivered a comfortable margin of votes for her in Cebu in the fraud-ridden 2004 elections. He allowed himself and the GSIS to be used by the Arroyo administration in a proxy war with the Lopez clan in order to wrest control of the power firm MERALCO from them and as a prelude to establishing itself and its cronies in the lucrative energy sector.

Is Cheche Lazaro’s case an isolated one? Just another case of an untouchable government bureaucrat with a thin skin and a generous amount of hubris ticked off by a pesky, even if professional-looking, reporter?

The answer must be sought after in light of the recent spate of law suits against figures in the opposition, whistleblowers and the unrelenting persecutory criminal suits filed against leaders and members of activist organizations and progressive party lists through the efforts of the Inter Agency Legal Action Group or IALAG.

The perjury case filed against Engineer Jun Lozada by ex-presidential aide Mike Defensor has been widely perceived as part of the continuing persecution of the star witness in the $329-million NBN-ZTE corrupt deal by the Arroyo administration. The case had previously been thrown out by a Metropolitan Trial Court in Manila but reinstated by a higher court.

Personalities from the political opposition have not been spared. Film actor Rez Cortez, a leading figure of the Fernando Poe Jr. Movement, is facing arrest arising from his involvement in the exposé of the “Hello, Garci” tapes, a charge that was thrown out by the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) but was suddenly revived by the Court of Appeals (CA). It will be recalled that the “Hello, Garci” scandal involved no less than de facto President Gloria Arroyo who was caught red-handed talking to Mr. Garcellano alias “Garci”, a top election commissioner, on how she would fraudulently garner a million additional votes to “win” in the 2004 presidential elections.

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Amnesty International (AI) and other human rights groups have already raised the issue of the Arroyo administration’s use of the criminal justice system as a tool for systematic repression against its political enemies.

They point to the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), formed in 2006, as the government body behind the filing of trumped-up criminal charges against leaders and members of progressive people’s organizations and party-list groups.

In his April 2009 follow-up report, Mr. Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, pointed out that “The Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) continues to label members of civil society organizations as suspected members of the CPP/NPA/NDF, and the Government has not taken any steps to abolish IALAG. The central purpose of IALAG remains to prosecute and punish members of the CPP and its purported front groups as enemies of the State…”

Mr. Alston noted “The Supreme Court has yet to use its constitutional powers over the practice of law to impress upon prosecutors their duty to uphold and protect human rights and to provide reasoned decisions for probable cause determinations.”

Under the current regime, grave anomalies such as fraud, plunder, extrajudicial killings and abuse of authority of previously unimaginable degree and magnitude have become the order of the day. No wonder Mrs. Arroyo is moving heaven and earth to remain in power if only long enough to find a way out of imminent prosecution once stripped of presidential immunity. #

May 07, 2009


The Lozada perjury case may be the most celebrated example of the Arroyo regime's abuse of state authority to attack the innocent in order to cover up the truth, protect the guilty, perpetuate itself in power and continue plundering the nation's coffers, but it is not the only one and certainly not even the worst.

One does not have to look too far back in space and time to find more horrifying examples.

The recent murder of Agriculture Undersecretary Gumersindo Lasam, who had testified that it was then Usec. Jocjoc Bolante, who gave the orders to disburse the funds in the notorious fertilizer scam, calls to mind the similar murders of journalist Marlene Esperat and peasant leaders Ofelia Rodriguez and Nilo Arado who also testified against Bolante.

In some ways, the Arroyo regime has proven itself a more vicious monster than the hated regime of the dictator Marcos.

To begin with, assassinations and extra-judicial killings of progressives, activists and their sympathizers as well as opposition personalities, including whistleblowers, in the urban areas were few and far between during the fourteen martial law years. In contrast, the Arroyo regime has chalked up an appalling number – hundreds -- in the last five years alone.

The GMA regime has also increasingly resorted to attacks on the close kin of known leaders of the revolutionary movement, such as the recent abduction, rape and murder of Rebelyn Pitao, daughter of NPA leader Leoncio Pitao. Prior to this regime, such attacks by state security forces were only prevalent in the countryside.

The abuse of the judicial system through the Inter-Agency Task Legal Action Group (IALAG), in order to (1) persecute, harass, charge criminally, arrest and detain progressive and opposition leaders and whistleblowers and (2) cover up the Arroyo regime’s crimes and protect the particular perpetrators has been stepped-up. Government agencies in IALAG, especially the Department of Interior and Local Government-Philippine National Police (DILG-PNP) and the Justice Department have been employed systematically and relentlessly to ensure impunity.

But like the Marcos dictatorship before it, the Arroyo regime has utterly failed to completely suppress the truth and stifle opposition, despite the use of the entire state machinery.

Jun Lozada, star witness in the investigation into the anomalous NBN broadband deal, has emerged victorious in the early rounds of his fight against the persecutory legal suits instigated by Malacañang against him. The court hearing the perjury charge filed by former Cabinet member Mike Defensor has granted the Senate petition that Mr. Lozada be temporarily released to its custody while the case is being tried. This means that he is free from the clutches of the police who have apparently received instructions from “higher-ups” to inflict “utmost discomfort” on him, in particular, placing him in a hot, stuffy and smelly detention cell with criminal suspects, all the better to break his will.

This bit of good news comes on the heels of a Palace announcement that Mrs. Gloria Arroyo has put up a 25 million-peso fund for the government reward system that would “put an end to political killings” in the country. For its part, the Philippine National Police offered a P21.235-million reward for the arrest of the killers of journalists and activists. The fund includes a P15-million reward for the arrest of Jose Maria Sison, founding chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and Gregorio Rosal, spokesperson of the CPP-led New People’s Army.

Legislators, notably senators, shot down the 25 million-peso reward fund, including Mrs. Arroyo’s call on the solons to contribute P250,000 each from their pork barrel to the fund. They labeled Mrs. Arroyo’s move as buck-passing, tokenism, and worse, empty talk, in light of the Arroyo regime’s abject failure to put a stop to extrajudicial killings. In fact, the number of such killings, enforced disappearances and illegal arrests and detention since 2008 have continued to rise as monitored by both non-government human rights organizations and the Commission on Human Rights.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita himself admitted that the police and the military - the very agencies accused of perpetrating most of the abductions and killings of activists - stood to receive the lion’s share of the P25-million fund. This isn’t just an unfortunate instance of mixed signals from the Executive. It amounts to the cynical use of human rights atrocities such as extra-judicial killings in order to further line the pockets of Mrs. Arroyo’s loyal generals and keep them focused on wiping out as many of the regime’s purported political enemies.

The reported PNP reward money has elicited scornful laughter from human rights advocates in many quarters. The police bounty on Professor Sison is more of a propaganda tool designed to deflect growing public criticism of the brutality, incompetence, nefarious practices and utter lawlessness of the police. Prof. Sison recently achieved a major legal victory against the efforts of the Philippine, US and Dutch governments to pin him down on murder charges and further demonize him as a “terrorist” when such charges where thrown out by the Dutch court as completely groundless.

We stopped to wonder why the Arroyo regime suddenly came up with the not-so-bright-idea of the reward fund apart from the usual efforts to cover up its sordid human rights record. It was only when we received a copy of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston’s 29 April 09 follow-up report, on the status of the recommendations he made after his official visit to the Philippines in February 2007, that we found part of the answer.

Prof. Alston concluded that the Arroyo regime deserved credit “for having sent a message to the military which resulted in a significant decrease in the number of killings.” What this implies is that the sudden drop in the number of EJKs after the UN report came out indirectly confirms that state forces are truly involved in them. Mr. Alston also pointed out that “(a)lthough the number of extrajudicial executions of members of civil society organizations has greatly diminished, too many cases continue to be reported and far too little accountability has been achieved for the perpetrators”.

The Arroyo regime’s reward money is nothing but a crude attempt to whitewash its bloody human rights record and appear innocent and diligent in going after the perpetrators in light of continuing international criticism and denunciation. The Arroyos are destined to exit from the Philippine political scene in disgrace, perhaps even worse than the dictator Marcos. #