August 27, 2009

Standing on the wrong side of history

Navy Lieutenant First Grade Nancy Gadian stirred a hornet’s nest when she accused retired Lt. General Eugenio Cedo and other senior officers of corrupt misuse of Balikatan funds in 2007. After winning a protective writ of amparo from the Court of Appeals and being given sanctuary by intrepid nuns she faded from newspaper headlines.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) sustained a propaganda blitz clearing General Cedo and others of malfeasance and claiming that Lt. Gadian’s charges were baseless; the diminutive whistleblower appeared unable to keep up tit-for-tat.

And the public, accustomed to all sorts of corruption scandals under the Arroyo regime, thought that was that.

This time around Lt. Gadian, recipient of several commendations and medals, has delivered an even more explosive revelation: detailed testimony on the virtual basing and combat role of US military forces in the country. Ironically, the refusal of the military top brass and their Commander-in-Chief to investigate the endemic corruption in the AFP has laid the ground for the first Filipino officer, a woman at that, to come out with what she knows about another “well-kept secret” of the Arroyo regime and the US government.

Ms. Gadian’s damaging revelations come in the wake of a recent New York Times report citing Pentagon sources that US Defense Secretary Robert Gates “decided to keep an elite 600-troop counterinsurgency operation deployed in the Philippines.” The decision was made reportedly after Mr. Gates and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Panetta visited the Philippines last June as a prelude to the July 31 White House meeting of US President Obama and Mrs. Arroyo and the August visit of Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of American forces in the Pacific.

The NYT describes Special Operations Forces as “the most highly skilled in the military at capture-and-kill missions against insurgent and terrorist leaders. Within their ranks, Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, have for decades been training allied troops on their home soil and conducting counterinsurgency missions.” More specifically, the article cited senior officials saying that the SOF and CIA were “instrumental in successes by the Filipino armed forces in killing and capturing leaders of the militant (sic) group Abu Sayaff and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ...”

Lt. Gadian spoke of joint military meetings she attended where US officers conducted briefings including combat intelligence information on the ASG and MILF. This corroborates the boast of Pentagon officials regarding the critical US role in combat operations against the two groups, short of spelling out that US soldiers join actual combat missions.

Lt. Gadian testified to persistent reports she had received that US soldiers were “embedded” in AFP combat units. These soldiers, she stressed, are invariably elite members of the US Special Operations Command, the same forces described by the NYT article.

Ms. Gadian also confirmed that the US forces often plan and undertake various operations without the knowledge of their Philippine counterparts, including the Filipino overall commander under which they are supposedly operating. This is patently unconstitutional and violates even the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and other US-RP military agreements.

Even the infrastructure projects carried out by US troops and the medical-dental missions they conduct are clearly for counter-insurgency purposes contrary to the usual government and US embassy press releases that these merely underscore and reinforce the continuing “good relations” between the two countries.

Unnamed officials spoke of pressure on the Pentagon to shift the JSOTFP to Afghanistan or Iraq. This is a clear indication that US forces are overstretched and unable to simultaneously wage and quickly win wars in two global regions as envisioned in the US neoconservatives' "Project New American Century" under Pres. George W. Bush . The decision to maintain the JSOTFP underscores both the strategic and tactical importance of maintaining US military presence in the Philippines and implies that the permanent US presence is both for local as well as global and regional reasons.

Despite the rhetoric of “Change”, the Obama administration is at base continuing the geopolitical thrust of consolidating US hegemony in the world with minor changes in approach and methods, e.g. talking with “rogue states” instead of threatening them with preemptive first strike option, without necessarily giving up that option. This includes continuing and strengthening US military presence overseas.

Specific to the Philippines, this translates to increasing military aid and so-called training exercises and permanent US military presence as exemplified by the JSOTFP deployment and forward operating sites in Mindanao despite the 1991 Philippine Senate decision to terminate the RP-US Military Bases Agreement.

This is indeed reassuring news for Mrs. Arroyo because it opens the door for more quid pro quo between the Obama and Arroyo regimes. Remember when Mrs. Arroyo kept trailing Mr. Obama’s shadow even when he was just the Democratic presidential candidate, more so when he became US president, but couldn’t even get close to a handshake much less a photo-op?

Hopeful Filipinos thought this indicated that the new US president, unlike his predecessor, Mr. Bush, would indeed usher in a new era of a more enlightened foreign policy. Surely Mr. Obama had heard of Mrs. Arroyo’s shameful and bloody record as an illegitimate and despised ruler and would act accordingly.

Thus for many, it was with extreme disappointment that they received news of Mr. Obama’s personal phone call to Mrs. Arroyo last year in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling citing as unconstitutional US custody of US Corporal Daniel Smith, convicted rapist of a Filipina. It was obvious that the call was timed to secure a favorable outcome for the US in the judicial and diplomatic impasse.

As we had pointed out in our previous column, there was also more to the lavish dinners in Washington and New York than profligacy and callousness, coming as they did in the wake of the much sought-after audience with Mr. Obama. We believe that the GMA camp was in a euphoric celebratory mood because they felt they had won a most precious and coveted prize -- assurance of continuing US support. But that was not without its price. Doubtless, it was won at the cost of Philippine sovereignty.

For the Filipino people, the signal is that the US is not going to lift a finger to stop or even just rein in its anointed "anti-terrorist" surrogate in the region. When Mr. Obama declared in his inaugural speech “to those leaders around the globe … who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history…”, it seems he had not meant he would not be standing by their side.#

August 20, 2009

A reason to celebrate

Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her cabal are at the end of their rope and they don’t know it, or pretend not to. They are so isolated, so inured from criticism and have so far gotten away with so much mayhem that they do not half realize how outraged the people are. Having lied and bribed their way out of the “Hello Garci”, NBN-ZTE and other scandals, they think they can get away with their orgy of lavish dining in the US through flimsy explanations, ridiculous alibis, worn-out justifications and squid tactics.

Presidential buffoon aka spokesperson Serge Remonde tried McCarthyist red-scare tactics by simply dismissing the New York Post news report of the Le Cirque million-peso dinner for the presidential party as the invention of the Leftist alliance BAYAN. According to the intellectually-challenged Mr. Remonde, BAYAN is a communist-front organization whose sole purpose in life is to bring down the Arroyo government ergo it cannot be believed on anything much less the report that the Arroyo party was spending precious public funds in restaurants for the rich and famous like there was no tomorrow.

When that didn’t work and news of another pricey meal and then another surfaced, Mrs. Arroyo’s defenders, including her son Congressman Mikey Arroyo, tried to pooh-pooh the dinner as inexpensive by US standards, saying that one can’t compromise the dignity of the office of the President of the Republic by having her eat at a hotdog stand or turo-turo.

Such a ludicrous equation of one’s self-worth with the price tag of one’s meal fell to pieces once the press reminded everyone that US President Obama and his Vice-President are not above dropping in on their friendly neighborhood hamburger joint for a quick, satisfying meal. In fact, such folksy behavior has the immediate and perhaps intended effect of boosting the popularity of Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.

But what’s the big deal, says the Palace, the government didn’t foot the bill after all. Mrs. Arroyo’s political allies like multi-millionaire Congressmen Messrs. Romualdez and Suarez representing dirt-poor provinces like Leyte and Quezon were honored to pay for the presidential repasts. Someone always happened to pick up the bill and it would have been impolite to ask who, so why the big hullabaloo?

Given the penchant of this administration for quickly washing its hands of any wrong doing by passing the buck to someone else, the public isn’t biting. More especially when the promised accounting for the outlay of the US trip doesn’t materialize; when House Speaker Nograles feels compelled to declare in a press conference that congressmen, like himself, who joined Mrs. Arroyo’s US trip will personally pay for their own expenses once they get the statement of account (so the junket was indeed a freebie to begin with); when the Justice Secretary admits that her office paid for her expenditures during the trip; and most telling of all, when Malacañang is forced to admit that while the allocation for presidential foreign travels since 2001 up to the present is P1,439,232,000, the actual costs have skyrocketed to P2,499,280,595.08 or over a billion pesos more than budgeted.

The latest government line is that budget overruns for Mrs. Arroyo’s foreign travels are not illegal and they are more than justified by the “billions in investments’ that such trips bring to the country. Apart from the glowing government press releases about agreements for future investments or expressions of business interest in investing in the Philippines, the available data about a decreasing trend in foreign direct investments since 2008 tend to belie official claims even as there is serious criticism as to whether such investments have actually been beneficial for the country or have in fact deepened its mal-development over the years.

A lot has been said, correctly and in righteous indignation, of how outrageous and out rightly scandalous the orgy of lavish dinners was. All commentaries attribute the Palace faux pas to insensitivity, lack of delicadeza, gluttony, etc but one wonders if we have gotten to the bottom of things or exhausted all the reasons why the Arroyo entourage did not think twice about squandering millions of pesos on two meals in a single day.

At first glance, all these would appear to be quite the “natural” behavior of a president in hubris -- especially an illegitimate, plundering and profligate one -- who is about to bow out of office and all its perks and privileges. Eat and enjoy all you can, while you can, critics be damned.

But look again. Would any congressman, even the most loyal, blow a million bucks for a single meal if he thought Mrs. Arroyo was a lame duck president? Was the much sought-after audience with Mr. Obama a factor in going into an orgy of lavish dining after the 40-minute meeting?

Of course Mrs. Arroyo, with her negative popularity ratings has, for the longest time, been desperate for a photo-op with the popular US President. The brief audience, regardless of the result or content, was reason enough to celebrate. More than being a propaganda coup, it was by all indications a boost to her legitimacy, much to the chagrin of uncritically pro-US opposition leaders. The designation as anti-terrorist coordinator for the US in the ASEAN ups Mrs. Arroyo’s image and stature as closest US ally and collaborator in the region. This translates concretely into more US military aid, political backing and financial gains, e.g. loans and investments as a result of a better image of political stability.

It is worthwhile to note that shortly after this designation, the US Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command Adm. Timothy Keating arrived for a meeting of the Enhanced Security Board with Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief Gen. Victor Ibrado. Was it mere coincidence that the AFP launched a military offensive to capture a major Abu Sayyaf stronghold in Basilan during the visit? The operation, if successful and with minimum casualties, would have been impressive pogi points for Mrs. Arroyo and the AFP. But the fiasco of suffering 22 dead and more wounded, and the unexpected involvement of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the battle, spoiled all plans and attempts to claim a major victory in the counter-terrorist war and affirm the designation as Southeast Asia’s counter-terrorism top honcho.

But why, in the first place, would a lame duck president and her retinue of ass lickers be so thrilled and elated at her being named regional counter-terrorist czar that she couldn’t help splurging on a USD 15-thousand lunch followed by another USD 20-thouand dinner?

In the same vein, why would Mrs. Arroyo want to purchase a new presidential jet worth 1.5 billion pesos less than a year before she steps down from office, the comfort and security of the next Malacañang occupant being the least likely of her concerns.

There is one more than plausible explanation. None of those insatiable creatures, whose craving for pelf and power is matched only by their appetite for exorbitant wining and dining, ever believed that Mrs. Arroyo would be stepping down in 2010. That, more than anything else, is what they felt they had come closer to achieving with the Obama audience. #

August 06, 2009

Cory, the people and people power

In death as in life, former President Corazon “Cory” Aquino continues to be a political phenomenon. The Aquino family themselves had not anticipated the people’s outpouring of love, adulation and respect for their mother after she died last August 1. Tens of thousands lined up to view her remains and hundreds of thousands more accompanied her funeral cortege to the cemetery. It evoked a sense of déjà vu in people old enough to remember her slain husband Ninoy’s own mammoth funeral cortege more than 25 years ago.

It was also reminiscent of the huge crowds that Mrs. Aquino drew in her presidential campaign against the dictator Marcos; the gigantic rally in Rizal Park where she called for civil disobedience to force him to step down after the exposure of massive electoral fraud; culminating in the popular mass uprising, eventually dubbed “people power”, that finally ousted his hated dictatorship. Yellow was the color of the day; the air reverberated with shouts of “Cory, Cory”; and the hand sign for the letter “L” meaning “Laban!” sprung to life once more.

In stark contrast was the complete isolation of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the week-long homage to Cory. The unspoken but powerful message from the people is that Mrs. Arroyo has no place in honoring and celebrating her predecessor’s life of selfless service, integrity, humility, simplicity and fortitude. Because these are qualities alien to her and which she has repeatedly and shamelessly trashed even as she laid claim to the highest office in the land.

The Aquino family’s rejection of Malacañang’s offer of a state funeral was an undisguised statement that they did not want Mrs. Arroyo to have anything to do with the funeral rites. Her early morning visit at the Manila Cathedral hours before Mrs. Aquino was laid to rest was marked by stealth (she had to go through a side door), stiffness and brevity. The absence of Mrs. Arroyo at the funeral itself was highlighted rather than made up for by the full honors that were given by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police sans their de facto Commander-in-Chief.

The accolades for Mrs. Aquino’s singular role in bringing down strongman rule and ushering in the return of democratic processes and institutions; the Catholic Church’s rendering of burial rites until then reserved only for their own top hierarchy; and the tearful remembrances of grateful family members, friends and even ordinary staff members – all paled in comparison to the sea of humanity that braved the stifling heat then drenching rains and patiently waited for hours to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Aquino’s flower-bedecked coffin atop a flatbed truck winding slowly through the crowded thoroughfares.

How then do we begin to explain the massive turn-out that took place during the entire duration of the wake until Mrs. Aquino’s burial. Especially in light of the fact that her seeming ability to rouse people power to demand government accountability or to thwart succeeding administrations’ attempts to hold on to power and restore tyrannical rule appeared to be waning.

Let us recall how even after Mrs. Aquino had called for the resignation of Mrs. Arroyo from the presidency, marched to Congress to call for her impeachment, joined numerous protest actions to keep hammering home the point about the Arroyo regime’s illegitimacy, corruption and abuse of power – the people stopped short of pouring out into the streets to support her calls.

Both her admirers and, more so, her detractors came to the conclusion that the “Cory magic” was gone. Some opined that it was after all a “Sin-Cory magic” with Cardinal Sin providing the irreplaceable political astuteness and the moral and organizational clout of the Catholic Church in the partnership. Mrs. Arroyo’s drumbeaters have gleefully proclaimed that the people were “tired” of people power and not even Cory could summon it.

Until Cory, the icon of democracy, dies under conditions of severe political and economic crisis.

What takes place can not just have been nostalgia, a people grateful for Mrs. Aquino’s role in what New York Times writer Stanley Karnow described as “guid(ing) the transition from unscrupulous autocracy to dubious democracy”.

The people’s sense of loss in the passing of a highly respected and beloved leader underscores the fact that despite her shortcomings and limitations, people appreciate, to various degrees, Cory's good traits as essential to a worthy head of state or national leader.

The hankering of the people for the kind of sincere, honest and unadulterated public service that Cory Aquino personified and which is glaringly absent in today’s incumbent leader, Mrs. Arroyo, is palpable and unmistakable. In particular, compare Mrs. Aquino’s gracious and unambiguous readiness to relinquish power as her term ended and Mrs. Arroyo’s equivocation and vile machinations to cling to power far beyond her undeserved nine years in office.

More than Cory’s outstanding traits as a political leader and Mrs. Arroyo’s profound character flaws, the most plausible and inescapable explanation is that the spirit behind People Power 1 and 2 -- the longing for change and the courage, selflessness and determination to match that longing and turn it into reality -- is alive. As much as a collective expression of gratitude to and reverence for Cory, it was also a silent but unequivocal act of protest against the rule of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is generally perceived as Cory's diametrical opposite.

Why then has there been no People Power 3 despite Cory's calls for the people's unified actions against the perpetrators of plunder, fraud and the gross betrayal of public trust?

Perhaps it only indicates that an increasing number of people are becoming keenly aware that it will take more than a replacement of leaders -- more than even another Cory -- to effect genuine and lasting change in Philippine politics and society.

While the Aquino presidency certainly had its mistakes and shortcomings and ultimately failed to live up to expectations in effecting the thoroughgoing socio-economic reforms that would benefit the Filipino people, it was the unabated corruption, puppetry and tyranny of her successors, and most especially of the Arroyo regime, that has driven home this painful lesson. #