July 31, 2009

The travails of Melissa Roxas

“Keeping silent is like silencing forever all the voices that have been silenced,” says Melissa Roxas. A writer, poet, community health worker and, incidentally, an American citizen of Filipino ancestry, Melissa Roxas is altogether something else. Last May, she and two Filipino companions were abducted by 15 armed men in Tarlac province while doing a health survey in the barrios. She was tortured to the brink of death by people she suspects to be members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

After her unexpected and unexplained release, she left for the United States to be with her family and to be as far away as possible from the reach of her tormentors. She could have stayed there until the safety and comfort of home washed away all the grim memories of her ordeal. Instead, she came back to Manila to seek justice.

She had played along with her captors in order to stay alive. She feigned willingness to turn her back on her leftist politics and her affiliations. She promised she would keep quiet. She needed to stop the beating, the harsh interrogation and the “dry submarine” torture wherein a plastic bag was put over her head to simulate drowning and caused her to suffocate.

After six days she was brought to the home of her Filipino relatives by several men and a woman pretending to be the “good guys”: they had seen to her personal needs while they guarded her and even offered friendship upon her release. They gave her a book as a “souvenir” and told her to keep in touch through a cell phone number they gave her.

There is no denying that Melissa Roxas is a victim of illegal detention and torture. But by whom and why? She says she has every reason to believe that the military is behind her ordeal. She is an activist by her own declaration and confirmed by her affiliations. Her interrogators kept forcing her to admit that she is a member of the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA) and to give information on them. The brazen manner by which she and her companions were taken and the confidence of her abductors that their operation had been “clean” -- that is, their identities could not be traced and no one was after them -- indicate the involvement of state security forces rather than mere lawless elements.

Given the Arroyo regime’s despicable human rights record, it is more than reasonable to give Melissa’s claims credence. There are thousands of precedents -- cases of summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture, illegal arrest and detention of leftist leaders, activists and their supporters who had been targeted for “neutralization” under the government’s counter-insurgency program.

Both the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Committee of the House of Representatives conducted public hearings to listen to Melissa’s testimony. The Supreme Court initially granted her a writ of amparo to protect her from probable harm and harassment by the very same state forces she accuses of violating her human rights.

Ms. Roxas went to great lengths and at a huge risk to herself and her family to seek justice under this country’s legal justice system. It is too much to impute that as part of her political activism she would concoct her story then go through the rigors and renewed torment of recounting her ordeal under oath.

At first the military simply dismissed Melissa’s story as untrue. As far as they were concerned, it never happened. Or if it happened, the military were not involved in any way.

The military’s response fits the past, worn-out pattern of blaming the victims and the NPA for the atrocities. But the cover-ups and lies woven by the military and police have been so self-serving, riddled with inconsistencies, full of speculation and devoid of any evidentiary value. All of the supposed state witnesses’ testimonies were proven to be perjured, not even the pro-government Melo Commission could give these military and police “findings” credence. Neither could it escape the conclusion that state security forces were indeed behind the extrajudicial killings.

But because Ms. Roxas’ testimony is so compelling and believable, the military had to find a way to punch a hole into her credibility as a victim-witness. From out of nowhere, a video surfaced that allegedly proves Ms. Roxas is a member of the NPA. Two pro-government and rabid anti-communist party-list representatives -- notorious human rights violator, retired General Jovito Palparan, now Bantay representative, and self-proclaimed anti-communist vigilante Pastor Alcover Jr., now ANAD congressman -- called a press conference and distributed the video to the media.

The Palparan-Alcover tandem aver that Melissa is an NPA member as shown by the video. Ergo she shouldn’t be believed because she is motivated by her desire to smear the good name of the AFP. They say there is a witness who swears that NPA themselves are responsible for her abduction and torture because they learned that she wanted to surrender to the authorities. According to them, Melissa herself may not be aware of this, that she may have been deluded into thinking that the military is behind her torture.

The Palparan-Alcover "theory" (now adopted by the military) is riddled with self-contradictory claims. They say that the video proves Ms. Roxas is an NPA member when the authenticity and the source of the video are unclear and still very much open to question. Melissa testified that during her interrogation her captors showed her pictures of a woman in an alleged NPA camp. They tortured her to make her say that she was that woman but she repeatedly refused. Just as she consistently denied that she is a member of the NPA.

Now she asks, and rightly so, where did the Palparan-Alcover tandem get the copy of this video which she says was used by her interrogators, unsuccessfully, to try to force her to incriminate herself. And assuming for the sake of argument that the woman in the video is indeed Ms. Roxas, does that constitute proof that she is an NPA member?

If anything, the abduction and torture of Melissa Roxas indicates that the perpetrators and authors of these heinous crimes against progressive leaders and activists are still on the loose. Government is not lifting a finger to stop them. Despite official pronouncements to the contrary, so-called “enemies of the state” are still open game, either for “legal offensives” (i.e. the filing of false criminal charges in order to arrest and detain activists) or as targets of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance.

Such would have been the likely fate of Melissa Roxas had she had not been an American citizen. #

July 23, 2009

Peace overtures

I was tempted to submit a column for the week with the title “Arroyo’s SONA accomplishments” followed by a blank space but quickly realized I didn’t have the advantage of youthful irony to get away with the trick. More importantly, that would be a waste of valuable column inches just to underscore the obvious.

A worthwhile subject matter is the announcement, made separately by the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, that their formal peace talks will resume next month. Both sides appear to be gung-ho about taking another stab at a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict.

For the Arroyo regime, this appears to be such a turn-around in its “all-out war” policy against the communist-led armed movement. It seems antithetical to Malacanang’s declared objective of decisively defeating the revolutionary group by the end of Mrs. Arroyo’s term in 2010. All prior attempts of the Norwegian government, acting as Third Party facilitator, to reopen the talks have been torpedoed by government’s intransigence over its demand for an indefinite ceasefire. What gives?

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has been trying mightily to deliver on its promise to decimate what government considers the number one “security threat” to the republic. But as the deadline draws near the press statements have become more guarded about the likelihood of success.

Military spokespersons have started to say that a home-grown insurgency such as that being waged by the New People’s Army, with its roots in poverty and injustice, cannot be stamped out by military might alone. What they don’t admit is that even the ongoing “dirty war” marked by extrajudicial killings and other state terror tactics against unarmed activists and civilian populations have not achieved the same end either.

The bogus Commander-in-Chief’s commitment of billions of VAT-generated pesos into the counter-insurgency effort along with the boost in US military aid in the wake of President Bush’s declared “war on terror” have not produced any prospect of victory over the CPP-NPA in the remaining ten months to government’s self-imposed deadline.

Perhaps that is one major reason for this unexpected dovish approach of the Arroyo government, erstwhile dominated by the voices of the hawks, warmongers and rabid anti-communists. Indeed, failure can be covered up and made to appear as enlightened policy.

What makes such a failure more politically costly is the bloody record of human rights violations that has become the hallmark of the Arroyo regime and has made it a pariah in the international human rights community. Amnesty International, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings and a host of other independent human rights bodies have rightfully pointed to the government’s hardline policy against the decades-old revolutionary movement as the underlying reason for the unacceptable and condemnable rise in human rights violations during Mrs. Arroyo’s nine-year watch.

An apparent softening of the regime’s mindset and policy with the scheduled resumption of the formal peace talks may neutralize the political fall-out especially in the international arena.

Together with the recent abolition of the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), the government arm created specifically to file trumped-up cases against NDFP consultants and staff members as well as progressive personalities and activists on the left of the political spectrum, the reopening of the peace talks is indeed a welcome development.

Nonetheless, many sectors are wary and distrustful in the light of continuing extra-judicial killings, disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests and fabricated charges against the Arroyo regime’s critics, oppositionists and dissidents.

Moreover, the nefarious machinations and maneuvers of the Arroyo cabal to retain power beyond 2010 including convening an illegal Constituent Assembly to ram through Charter amendments and stage managing a political scenario (complete with alleged terrorist bombings) to justify the imposition of emergency rule, do not auger well for any kind of peaceful transition to a new government much less a negotiated peace settlement with committed revolutionaries.

It must be remembered that the peace negotiations between the government and the NDFP cover four substantive agenda: human rights and international humanitarian law, socio-economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms and cessation of hostilities/disposition of forces. The peace overtures of the Arroyo regime amount to little while it persists in the very same anti-people policies and programs that the revolutionary movement and the people have been fighting against.

Peace advocates everywhere, especially those whose concept of genuine peace is that of a just peace, must support and encourage any openings in the peaceful path towards resolving armed conflict, no matter how narrow and small. But more important is to work for those conditions that will bring about a just peace, i.e. constantly struggling to achieve substantial reforms in all aspects of government and society in order to extirpate the root causes of social unrest and revolution.

In the end, it is not the sincerity or trustworthiness of the Arroyo government that matters but the strength of the people’s movement for meaningful change. #

July 16, 2009

GI June

Bombings, the threat of emergency rule, coup rumors, official visits by US security officials including the new US CIA director, and revitalized street protests against the de facto President’s maneuvers to hold on to power beyond 2010 -- all constitute major elements roiling the political cauldron in the run-up the forthcoming State-of-the-Nation address. Ordinarily they can provide more than enough material for weekly political commentary. Yet this week, I choose to write closer to home.

My psychiatrist-sister has just been diagnosed with cancer. These past weeks she has been hit by a tornado of events, thoughts and feelings brought about by the discovery of this life-threatening disease. She - and I - need to gain a proper perspective on this and according to a nondescript-looking book she shared with me, The Book of My Healing by Peggy Schmidt, writing about a serious illness or accident, can do that, apart from actually promote self-healing.

Being a doctor, June didn’t ask the question “Why me?” in a metaphysical way. It was not like her to look to God for an explanation for every catastrophe, personal or otherwise. She looked into the family medical history and there were nine other close relatives who also developed cancer with some eventually dying of it.

She reviewed how conscientious she was in having her regular medical check-ups as well as in seeking expert advice about various physical ailments. In fact she had been given a clean bill of health after undergoing a full executive check-up two months before her diagnosis.

She reflected on her lifestyle, work load and general mindset, noting her share of stress factors, bad eating habits and unhealthy practices, like daily losing precious sleep doing email or chatting on line.

She belatedly acknowledged that once a person reaches her golden years, a lot of body parts, including one’s genetic material, start to go out of kilter, causing abnormal cells to grow uncontrollably. Not even the most saintly, health-conscious and prudent person is exempt from developing the disease.

It was a seemingly endless series of tests that she had to go through to finally pin down the type of cancer, the stage and what had to be done to save her life. Being a doctor had its plus side: she was conversant with the experts and could participate with relative ease in her medical management; she could seek second and many more opinions from an array of doctor-relatives and doctor-colleagues before making critical decisions; she could do her own research or ask her bioresearcher-daughter to come up with the latest on diagnosis and treatment.

But it had its down-side too: June could not keep herself from thinking in detail about the most dire of scenarios: like not having a treatable kind of cancer and being consigned to palliative treatment; or of brain metastasis (that would be the end of her professional career); or chemotherapy turning out to be far more debilitating and crippling than the cancer itself.

For too long a time she was her own general physician: she wrote down her medical history, she ordered the tests she thought she required; she called on the specialists she thought needed to be consulted. She see-sawed from trying to be clear-headed as a doctor, with the cold objectivity she was trained to apply, to being overwhelmed by fear bordering on panic like any patient with the dreaded disease. She could not help noting the sins of omission by some of the physicians whose help she had sought and who had dismissed or missed her signs and symptoms.

Then there was the matter of cost. Chemo alone would be a hefty hundred forty thousand pesos per cycle; she needed six to eight cycles. At first she had hoped she could be included in a clinical protocol researching a new drug for the kind of cancer she had. That would have meant all or almost all of the expense of further diagnostic examinations and treatment would be shouldered by the research sponsors.

But one restriction after another stood in the way of her inclusion until she gave up trying to be the square-peg patient in the stringent round-hole research protocol. It seems only patients who have absolutely no means end up agreeing to be human guinea pigs; that is, they are research subjects first and foremost and patients second. All the delay while trying to qualify for the free treatment had eaten into June’s precious window of opportunity to get at the fast-growing malignancy. We urged her to start chemo ASAP; the money for the rest of the treatment cycles would be found somehow.

It was when the bill came that June found out that she had just contributed twentyfive thousand pesos to government coffers in her effort to get well. Yes, Sen. Mar Roxas, that’s 20% VAT on life-giving medicines despite all the government hoopla about bringing down the price of pharmaceuticals.

A doctor classmate of June quipped that it would be interesting to see how she would “process” in her mind what she was going through the way she had helped hundreds of her patients and thousands more to whom she had given stress management seminars. How would she summon the physical strength, the will power, intangible stuff like faith and hope, and always, the lightheartedness and sense of humor, to steer her through a sea of anxiety, pain and worry about the future.

As it turned out, loved ones, friends and even strangers, came forward to provide the sympathetic ear, the useful tips on mitigating the chemo side-effects, the quiet place to rest and recuperate and the indispensable financial assistance.

And June, ever the psychiatrist, teacher-researcher and gritty fighter soon summed-up some of the things she learned after her first round of chemo. As a patient who, coincidentally, is also a physician, she wrote, tongue-in-cheek, in her first email to all and sundry:

1) Don't refer to all cancer patients who took chemo and lived beyond the time frame everybody else or even their doctor thought possible as "cancer survivors". They are more appropriately called "chemo survivors" since the chemo is really more toxic than the cancer.

2) Don't let people know you have cancer until your doctor has told you what specific kind you have. Otherwise, you will be flooded by text messages asking whether they will still see you next year.

3) Be careful giving your announcement piecemeal or telling some people about your condition confidentially. It will still spread like wildfire and some people will feel hurt that they didn't merit being in your priority list.

4) If you get advice which really sounds too radical or even weird, don't argue. Just say you'll think about it.

5) Important to note. Chemo meds are "cash on delivery".

6) Not all chemo come with the famous dreaded side effects of nausea, vomiting, bleeding and hair loss. Forgive people who will tell you, the worse is still to come, for they know not what they say.

7) By the way, it really makes you feel in control if you shave your hair ahead of time. (It may not fall but...) You may even discover the new hairdo suits you and keep it beyond chemo. One suggestion: Tell the barber to set his clipper only at No. 2 not zero. You only want to look like Demi Moore not Yul Bryner!

She signed her email “June aka GI June” in humorous reference to her newly-shaved head. #

*Published In Business World
17-18 July 2009

What it takes

The political future of this country continues to defy simplistic and worn-out notions especially about how the festering crisis of legitimacy hounding the Arroyo regime can be quickly resolved. Those placing their hopes in the 2010 elections as the definitive way to end Mrs. Arroyo’s shaky and detested reign have been jolted by Malacanang’s brazen maneuverings to maintain hold on power. The run-up to the 2010 elections is hands down already the most chaotic, riddled with controversy and shrouded with doubt and uncertainty.

There is the last-ditch attempt to amend the 1987 Constitution by utilizing Mrs. Arroyo’s hold on the Lower House of Congress to convene a supposed “constituent assembly” sans Senate participation. The plan includes getting judicial stamp of approval for this political jujitsu from a Supreme Court dominated by Mrs. Arroyo’s appointees and who have time and again proven themselves pliant to her wishes.

The Arroyo clique would then move to shift to a parliamentary system that would allow Mrs. Arroyo, by this time representing her hometown district in Pampanga, to run for Prime Minister. Should she win she would enjoy all the power, perks and privileges of the office including immunity from suit for the multiple crimes of plunder, human rights violations, electoral fraud and treasonous ceding of national sovereignty and patrimony to foreign interests. By the way, the post of prime minister, by nature of the parliamentary system, would have no term limits; theoretically, Mrs. Arroyo could go on ruling this god-forsaken country indefinitely.

Efforts to reform the fraud-ridden electoral process by installing an automated system that would cut short the time for counting, transmitting and consolidating the poll results have only added confusion to an already confusing situation. From the simple idea of speeding things up using computers, it has become increasingly clear that what could actually happen -- with a questionable and even flawed bidding process, a cheating mafia still embedded in the Comelec , and technology only a curiously select few control – is large-scale automated cheating OR a pre-determined failure of elections.

The latest twist has the winning bidder for the automated electoral system or AES inexplicably caught up in what appears to be “irreconcilable differences” not unlike a marriage gone sour even before the honeymoon had started. The withdrawal of the local partner TIM from its joint venture with the Dutch company Smartmatic is another explosive ingredient to the extremely volatile election run-up with just a little more than 10 months to go. The belief is rife that TIM's move is part of a scheme to ensure and strengthen the Arroyo regime's control of the election results.

The various conspiracy theories behind the TIM-Smartmatic break-up; the most recent spate of bombings including, according to the police, intentional duds; fresh rumors of a military coup; and the shrouded but no less ominous threat of a Palace coup via the National Security Adviser’s call for a “transition government” preceding the shift to a parliamentary system as the only way to resolve the political crisis -- are testament to the confusing state of affairs the country is currently embroiled in.

The Arroyo regime is always quick to accuse the entire breadth of the legal opposition of politicking, destabilization, sabotage and worse. We suspect it does so not so much to convince anyone except the most ignorant or naïve but to give the Arroyo loyalists something to defend her with, no matter if they sound like a broken record.

For good reason most people suspect government behind every hitch or problem that crops up. This kind of thinking only shows the extent and degree to which the Arroyo regime has lost its credibility. More so it reveals how the regime has mangled its mandate and responsibility to the people beyond redemption and how its overweening ambition and desperation to stay in power pushes it to bring the ruling system perilously to the brink.

There are those who, fed up with accusations and counter-accusations, hold government and the opposition equally responsible for the deteriorating situation, for seeding doubt and cynicism in the political atmosphere to suit their own sinister and self-serving ends. It is a view that the Arroyo regime at times welcomes, and even deliberately nurtures. For it somehow obscures and glosses over the fact that it is government that is vested with the power and resources to promote national interest and the common good.

There are those who stick their heads in the sand ignoring the dangerous developments taking place. For example, some persist in “Get out and vote!” campaigns seemingly oblivious that at the rate things are going, there may be no elections whatsoever or that only a thoroughly corrupted electoral process would actually take place.

Some, especially presidential wannabes and other candidates for the 2010 elections, have not skipped a beat in their single-minded determination to win, going full blast with their campaign advertisements, provincial sorties and machinery building.

Self-proclaimed “alternative” candidates or putative movements for change and good governance come up with all sorts of seemingly novel approaches to choosing deserving candidates in the 2010 elections without facing the reality of a downright rotten and discredited electoral system that would frustrate any attempt to express and uphold the will, if not the true interests, of the electorate.

What is needed at this time is a concerted, unwavering and focused political campaign to thwart the Arroyo clique’s evil scheme to convene the bogus “constituent assembly”, acquire the Supreme Court’s imprimatur for this, and thus gain the legal leeway to shift to a form of government, including the institution of a transition period, whereby Mrs. Arroyo remains in power.

This requires massive and sustained mobilizations or demonstrations (and the widespread information and educational campaigns that are their sine qua non) up to and including the possibility of a popular, unarmed uprising to oust this criminal gang from the Presidential Palace. The rank and file and junior officers of the military and police must be convinced to refrain from being used to violently suppress such a protest movement. Those in the civilian bureaucracy must be convinced to withdraw their support in various creative ways for this outlaw of a regime. The international community must be convinced that the Oust Arroyo Movement is legitimate, popularly and broadly supported and inevitable -- should Mrs. Arroyo push through with its ill-disguised grab for power.

Nothing short of this monumental display of direct people’s action -- of “people power” -- can stop the Arroyo cabal in its tracks. #

*Published in Business World
2-3 July 2009