July 29, 2010

Smoke and mirrors

“Pnoy the Magician” in bright yellow. This was how activists depicted President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in effigy in last Monday’s annual State-of-the-Nation street demonstration. They were proven prescient in more ways than one as soon as Mr. Aquino started delivering his SONA that turned out to be vintage smoke-and-mirrors demagoguery.

Rather than lead the people to an understanding of the true state of the nation, his seemingly straightforward rhetoric was used instead to conjure illusions and deceive not unlike the way a magician uses optical illusions to create believability while actually performing tricks.

The main trick is to continue to appear as the harbinger of the “change that people can believe in” that worked well enough to get Mr. Aquino elected.

However, despite the effort to make the Aquino regime appear poised to undertake far-reaching reforms in government, in the economy, in resolving armed conflicts and even in turning around public sentiment from pessimism to hopefulness, cynicism to unity and cooperation, Mr. Aquino’s SONA only confirms that there is nothing new, innovative, not to mention any attempt at a radical break from the past, in his prescriptions.

What we heard are more of the same policies and programs of old dressed up to dazzle and give false hopes.

Once more corruption is presented as the overarching problem. Mr. Aquino’s speech used simple and folksy language to whip up the public’s hatred for corrupt politicians and other government officials by laying out more horror stories from the previous regime: Mrs. Arroyo’s pampering her province with government funds to boost her congressional bid; the over-procurement of imported rice at the cost of billions of pesos which was then left to rot in government warehouses; MWSS top officials wallowing in pelf and privilege while the country suffers a water crisis.

Salacious new details these but nothing surprising. Why not tell us the progress in case build-up on the biggest corruption scandals that plagued the Arroyo administration? Why is the Truth Commission still nowhere in sight, much less near to having Mrs. Arroyo and her partners in crime brought to the bar of justice?

Mr. Aquino stated categorically that his administration would not tolerate murderers and plunderers. He crowed about solving “50% of the cases of extralegal killings” that occurred soon after his assuming office or three out of six reported cases with the identification of suspects.

Assuming this to be true, however, his complete silence on government’s current counterinsurgency or COIN program as the underlying cause of most of the killings as pointed out by independent international human rights bodies places in serious doubt Mr. Aquino’s earnestness in putting a stop to and solving these murders by state security forces.

More specifically, the lack of immediate action to disband the legalized private armies called “civilian volunteer organizations” that the military uses to augment its COIN operations, renders Mr. Aquino’s boast inconsequential in ending criminal impunity. Such a reign of impunity gave rise to the still unresolved Maguindanao massacre on top of the more than a thousand unsolved extrajudicial killings in almost a decade of Oplan Bantay Laya.

It is not surprising that Mr. Aquino’s take on the peace talks reveals his apparently shallow and short-sighted view about armed conflicts and how to resolve them. His insistence on a permanent ceasefire as a precondition to the resumption of the talks with the CPP/NPA/NDF and his insinuation that the NDF has not made any worthwhile proposal on the matter indicates either ignorance of what has previously transpired or a dangerously militarist mindset intent on throwing a monkey wrench on the talks rather than in undertaking the fundamental reforms needed to attain a just and lasting peace.

Stopping corrupt practices, judicious use of government resources, and so-called private-public partnership are touted as the strategy to lift up the economy and miraculously solve all other related problems such as massive unemployment and underemployment, the budget deficit, decrepit social services as well as crumbling public infrastructure.

Mr. Aquino completely and conveniently overlooks genuine land reform not just as a basic social justice measure but a question of breaking free from a backward, semi-feudal agricultural economy.

He is completely mum about neoliberal policies that destroyed whatever was left of manufacturing, further undermined agricultural development and food self-sufficiency and rendered the domestic economy more than ever vulnerable to the vagaries of the international market as shown in the recent regional and global financial crises.

We can safely presume that his macro-economic policy framework will not depart from those of all his predecessors including Mrs. Arroyo.

So much ado about how Mrs. Arroyo wasted public funds for narrow political ends leaving the Aquino government with little left to undertake vital programs and services. But he says not a word about the P300 billion pesos automatically set aside for debt payments considering many of these are onerous debts that date back to the Marcos dictatorship as well as to the graft-ridden Arroyo regime.

Ibon Data Bank puts forward concrete doable measures to address the fiscal deficit but apparently Mr. Aquino does not countenance any of them.

These include implementing increases in tariffs and withdrawing huge incentives given to foreign investors. IBON estimates government losses of around P200 billion in potential revenues each year because of tariff reduction. Fiscal incentives to foreign investors have in turn led to huge tax losses estimated by the Finance Department to be around P43 billion.

Mr. Aquino has a fondness for using the metaphor of crossroads to describe his administration’s core values and trajectory. He likens a leader’s choice to taking the straight path of “good governance” or the crooked one so dishonorably exemplified by the Arroyo regime. What all this clever use of metaphors has been concealing all along is the truth that corruption is not the root cause of our nation's poverty and hardship.

It is the wanton exploitation and oppression of our people by foreign powers, mainly the US, with the collaboration of the local ruling elite. Together they appropriate the social wealth produced by our people's labor. Together they impose and implement socio-economic and political programs and policies that deliberately favor foreign capital and their local agents while relegating our economy -- our local industries and agriculture -- to backwardness and dependency.

All this magic may serve to deceive and even entertain our hungry and suffering masses. But they will not forever drive away the pangs of hunger, the homelessness and the scourge of disease. No matter how many SONAs repeat the same deceptive tricks and clever lies, more and more in the streets, in homes, factories, fields and mountains, will see the through the smoke and mirrors, see the truth and find the real path to freedom, democracy, progress and peace. #

July 22, 2010

Nothing personal (Or why Akbayan's Etta Rosales is not fit to be CHR Chair)

The controversy over the possible appointment of former Akbayan party list Representative Loretta Ann Rosales as Chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) merits closer scrutiny. Apart from the importance of appointing a new chairperson who can carry on the outstanding work left behind by Atty. Leila de Lima, it is as important to clarify certain human rights concepts and principles that the controversy has brought to the fore so that the CHR’s mandate is not undermined at the outset by distortions coupled with plain ignorance and muddle-headed thinking.

Ms. Rosales declares that the main reason for the opposition to her appointment by people’s organizations like the Kilusang Mayo Uno and human rights groups like Karapatan harkens back to her stand to fight for the “universality” of human rights. She said some groups get angry when she criticizes human rights violations allegedly committed by the communist New People's Army (NPA).

Ms. Rosales says further, “It is not just the military and police that commit human rights violations but non-state agents such as private armies. If the military and police try to extort, I condemn that. But if the New People's Army tries to extort, I also condemn that."

On the surface, her position appears fair and neutral. But in fact it rests on the fallacy of her concept of "universal human rights" to mean that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and NPA are equally liable for human rights violations and therefore the CHR should address NPA violations as much as those of the AFP.

In the first place, the facts and circumstances of more than a thousand documented extra-judicial killings (EJKs) of activists and others critically opposed to the Arroyo regime all point to the involvement of state security forces including paramilitary groups cum warlord private armies allied to the regime.

They also reveal a pattern: The victims were at one time or another demonized by the AFP as “communist terrorists” or “communist fronts”, harassed and shadowed by military or paramilitary forces prior to being assassinated under suspicious circumstances such as close proximity to military camps or police check points. Investigations into the murders are marked by stone-walling on the part of the AFP and foot-dragging and white-washing by the Philippine National Police (PNP).

In the debates in Congress on the recently passed Anti-Torture bill, Akbayan representatives Etta Rosales and Riza Hontiveros, were isolated and failed to push their view that supposed “non-state actors” - the category where they lump the NPA with private armies and alleged “terrorist” groups -should be included as equally liable.

Civil libertarian senators and congress persons clearly saw that to do so would render the bill out of focus and defeat its purpose.

It would obfuscate the real perpetrators and real victims of torture leading to the failure to serve as a deterrent against state security forces employing torture as a means of extracting information and self-incriminating “confessions”.

It would also blunt the law’s effectiveness as a means to identify, prosecute and punish those state forces that use torture despite clear prohibition by law.

Ms. Rosales and Ms. Hontiveros only managed to display their ignorance, if not deliberate distortion, of international human rights norms which define torture as acts committed "at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." (UN Convention on Torture)

These two pseudo-leftists follow the tack of various right-wing ideologues and politicians abroad in inventing new semantics to discredit and stigmatize people’s movements fighting for national and social liberation. By calling the CPP-NPA-NDF "non-state actors", they denigrate these revolutionary forces in contrast to “duly-constituted state actors”.

They then proceed to put them in the same criminal basket together with the “private armies” (in reality, these are government-financed paramilitary groups legalized as “civilian volunteer organizations” under the supervision of the AFP) or misrepresent them as “terrorist” in the same league as the dreaded Abu Sayyaf Group.

In the recent elections, Akbayan, and prominently Ms. Hontiveros, took this a step further and plunged even deeper into the dung heap when they persistently toed the AFP line of linking Makabayan senatorial candidates Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza to the CPP-NPA, hoping thereby to demonize Ocampo and Maza and win more votes for Akbayan and Hontiveros.

It is not true that the problem lies in Ms. Rosales’ denunciation of alleged NPA human rights violations.

The controversy lies in her propensity to magnify these in a way that she equates their importance to the violations by the AFP, to the point that she even wittingly or unwittingly contributes to the AFP/PNP line that the victims were killed by their own comrades, i.e. the NPA, for a variety of reasons.

These purportedly include: internal conflicts, infractions of the NPA rules or for having a change of heart and cooperating with the military.

This line not only totally lacks credibility, it maligns the victims, tries to instigate intrigue among those they left behind, and certainly ends up protecting the real killers.

If Ms. Rosales’ only point is that the NPA should also be held liable for HRVs, she is arguing a false issue.

Being a proscribed organization, the NPA has, for several decades, been the object of unrelenting military and police operations. The full force of the law is being made to bear on the NPA for waging armed revolution, how much more their alleged HRVs?

Furthermore, in 1998, the CPP-NPA-NDF, through peace negotiations, signed the landmark Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) with the Philippine government. Even a cursory reading of the CARHRIHL would clearly show that the CPP-NDF-NPA acknowledges that its forces may be liable for human rights violations and agreed on a mechanism for accepting complaints, investigating and taking proper action on these.

The new Aquino regime may hope to utilize Ms. Rosales to put the national democratic movement on the defensive on the issue of alleged NPA human rights violations, pacify the AFP and contribute to the illusion that the regime gives top priority to implementing a counterinsurgency program that is HRV-free (an oxymoron). But he will be sorely mistaken.

Indeed, we wager that the torturers, hit-teams and other human rights violators within the AFP, PNP and the paramilitary units would be mighty pleased to have Ms. Rosales chair the CHR. #

*Published in Business World
23-24 July 2010

July 09, 2010

Mr. Aquino, stop the killings!

The cold-blooded assassination of Bayan Muna Aklan coordinator and Lezo town councilor Fernando Baldomero last Monday is forcing the hand of President Benigno Aquino to not only denounce extra-judicial killings (EJKs) and promise to go after their perpetrators but to deal with its obvious link with the government’s counterinsurgency program called Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL).

Will he acknowledge it as something he has inherited but abhors and intends to put an end to? More important, what he is going to do about it, knowing full well that the people, his acknowledged "Boss", would demand more than the same avowals and promises they had likewise heard from the murderous Arroyo regime?

Mrs. Arroyo herself was forced to make some general condemnation of EJKs after the indignant reaction to the fulsome praise she heaped on a notorious general accused precisely of ordering such killings. Rising concern in the international community about the unabated murders of unarmed activists and other progressives may also have pushed Mrs. Arroyo to appoint a feisty chairperson for the nonetheless toothless human rights commission.

But there have been no credible investigations; no arrests; no successful prosecutions; and most of all, no acknowledgement that EJKs have become part and parcel of government’s counterinsurgency operations.

Thus although the numbers of EJKs and other gross human rights violations came down for a while, these started to climb up once more especially as the government’s self-imposed deadline for ending the insurgency drew near.

Mr. Aquino’s pronouncements so far about national security and peace talks and his latest address to the Philippine military in turn-over ceremonies have fallen far short of sending an unequivocal message of his administration’s commitment to uphold human rights.

Despite the gravity of the problem, it is not clear at this point whether part of building “strong, capable and disciplined security forces” includes weeding out those guilty of EJKs and their cover-up. Will Mr. Aquino give them the same leeway as did Mrs. Arroyo or will he relentlessly go after them, in as much as he is called upon to uncompromisingly seek the truth and achieve justice with regard to all the anti-people crimes of her regime?

Even with regard to the so-called Truth Commission, Mr. Aquino has so far been quite general in its announced goals, i.e. anomalies under the Arroyo government, without mention of human rights violations despite local and international outrage over hundreds of unsolved cases and clear signs that these are continuing despite a change in leadership.

The ambiguity in Mr. Aquino’s policy statements leaves much room for perpetuating the climate of impunity that persists to this day. As if on cue, the military spokesperson’s blanket denial of any AFP involvement in Mr. Baldomero’s killing and the innuendo that the NPA are more likely to be the culprits behind it reveals the military’s unchanged attitude and line on EJKs.

The victims of human rights violations expect nothing short of concrete and effective steps from the Aquino administration to put a stop to the killings and render justice to the victims. These include:

1) Investigate, arrest and prosecute the direct perpetrators of EJKs, enforced disappearances, etc and the high government officials and military/police officers who provided policy direction and political justification, praised and promoted the notorious military/police officers implicated, provided systematic cover-up and gave all-out support to Oplan Bantay Laya.

2) Put on hold, subject to review and disavow OBL as part of actualizing the statement of Presidential Spokesperson that “EJKs are not a policy” of the Aquino administration.

3) Immediately put a stop to the military’s vilification
campaign against activists and progressives, specifically linking them to the New People’s Army, thereby setting them up for “neutralization” (a military euphemism for elimination) first politically, and eventually, physically. There should be a clear repudiation of the AFP document "Knowing the Enemy" which set the direction, justified and lined up the targets for "neutralization" by the military.

4) Issue a strong warning and undertake summary action against military commanders in areas of responsibility where EJKs take place and against police superintendents who make no headway in investigating EJKs and other gross HRVs.

5) Stop the widespread practice of arresting, detaining and convicting leaders and members of progressive organizations for alleged criminal offenses on the basis of fabricated charges and evidence. Release all political prisoners detained on the basis of false charges.

Moreover, this blight on the government’s human rights record and the rule of law should not be tackled selectively. It is hoped that Mr. Aquino will not take a leaf from the way the US ambassador recently and notably called for quick official action on media killings while being conspicuously silent on the murders of activists known to be on the Left of the political spectrum.

It must be pointed out that prior governments’ track record with regard to EJKs has been dismal including the assassination of Mr. Aquino’s father, Sen. Ninoy Aquino, where the real masterminds were never officially determined, much less prosecuted and arrested.

It is perhaps a testament to the country’s real state of affairs, where the military and police are now more than ever the armed protectors of an intolerably unjust social system and whoever is the current oppressive regime presiding over it. So much so that whatever their abuses against the people, these are swept under the rug, tolerated and even justified in the name of counterinsurgency and protecting the state.

Sooner than later, the Aquino regime will be unmasked by the festering problems of Philippine society that continue to erupt with such manifestations as EJKs, fiscal crises and unmitigated poverty that no amount of feel-good rhetoric can contain and paper over.

Mr. Aquino will then be forced to confront these and will be ultimately judged by his actions and not mere promises. #

*Published in Business World
9-10 July 2010

July 02, 2010

Empty rhetoric?

The Aquino presidency is finally ensconced. If only because this signals the end of the Arroyo nightmare, our people have reason to cheer. But how much different will the Aquino administration be from that of Arroyo or any of the previous regimes for that matter?

During the electoral campaign, Mr. Aquino did not state categorically that he would be the exact opposite of Mrs. Arroyo, the way his mother Cory promised she would be the antithesis of the dictator Marcos. He merely said he would not be a crook while in office; he would run after the crooks in the previous government and would not tolerate them in his; and that he would help the poor and deliver basic services.

The anti-corruption rhetoric is a staple of campaign speeches of politicians everywhere. In the Philippines, Mr. Aquino’s promises resonated with Filipinos who are not only sick and tired of the Arroyo government’s shenanigans but who have had it with “traditional” or old-type politicians running an endemically corrupt system.

What is cleverly hidden in all the sound and fury about corruption, then and now, is that it is only the symptom of a more pernicious disease called bureaucrat capitalism; i.e. government officials using their positions to protect and amass more wealth and privilege at the expense of the people.

Hence one can have different factions of the same ruling classes taking turns running the government, with different and even distinctive styles of preserving the status quo. Invariably the bureaucrat capitalists end up using deception combined with repression in varying proportions and with differing degrees of effectiveness.

Mr. Aquino’s popularity rode on the back of his parents’ combined political mystique, on massive rejection of the odious Arroyo regime, and on inchoate hopes for meaningful change -- a break with a rotten system that has all but destroyed the people’s livelihoods, made their lives even more miserable and robbed them of their future.

But after all the flag-waving and cheering, the excitement and the relief at seeing Mrs. Arroyo being driven out of Malacañang finally, albeit still in the presidential limousine, what do the Filipino people have to be hopeful and thankful for?

It is becoming clearer by the day that there is not much change to be expected from the Aquino presidency judging from his pre-inaugural statements, the composition of his Cabinet, and his inaugural speech.

His promises can be said to be a rehash of the lofty promises of previous presidents in their inaugural and SONA speeches. Nothing much happened afterwards for we all know it takes more than promises to bring about genuine change.

The central weakness of Mr. Aquino’s line is still his trite, superficial and misleading framework that falsely reduces the roots of entrenched and widespread poverty to corruption, followed by the promise to eradicate the latter by means of uprightness in government service.

Mr. Aquino has nothing new to offer in this regard. Cory’s good government commission went after Marcos' cronies and ill-gotten wealth but the Marcoses are back in power. Mr. Ramos went after the so-called oligarchs and monopolies but he merely entrenched them and created new ones. Mr. Estrada went after Mr. Ramos but was ousted himself before he could make anything stick. Mrs. Gloria Arroyo went after Mr. Estrada and had him convicted for plunder but quickly pardoned him anyway.

Corruption has never been rooted out and in fact continues to thrive especially at the highest reaches of government.

Mr. Aquino will have to do much more than go through the motions of prosecuting those who have committed supposed transgressions. In his inaugural speech, he did not even mention what transgressions he was referring to or who these transgressors were. It was noticeable that there was no pointed reference to Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal as criminally culpable for wanton plunder and grievous human rights violations.

His appointment of former Chief Justice Hilarion Davide to the Truth Commission that will purportedly uncover the truth about “unresolved controversies” is not a cause for celebration either considering Mr. Davide’s close and mutually beneficial relationship with Mrs. Arroyo who had amply rewarded him for his services to her regime.

Holding over foreign affairs secretary Romulo and recycling the finance and economic managers from the Cory Aquino, Ramos and Arroyo regimes indicate that the Aquino government will pursue the same IMF-WB-WTO imposed neoliberal policies that are a greater and more direct cause of poverty than corruption.

There is also no mention of land reform, not even the recycled form of his mother’s emasculated land reform program, CARPER. He says absolutely nothing about his clan’s landed estate, the Hacienda Luisita Incorporated (HLI), whether his administration will finally distribute land to the tenants and render justice to the victims of the HLI massacre and related extra-judicial killings.

Mr. Aquino turns a blind eye to US domination of the country’s economic and military affairs. He even echoes the old slogan of former President Ramos to "level the playing field" for foreign investors; that is, to allow the multinational corporations and banks to ride roughshod over Filipino enterprises and productive sectors and foreclose all possibility of national industrialization.

All these negate the possibility of success and reduce to empty rhetoric Mr. Aquino's ambitious plan to "defeat the enemy by wielding the tools of justice, social reform, and equitable governance leading to a better life".

Consistently, Mr. Aquino makes no reference to the need for peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the umbrella formation that represents the communists and other revolutionary organizations in peace talks with government. Instead, he stressed the need to double the strength of the military and police supposedly because the population has doubled but betraying his propensity, like all previous presidents before him, to resort to military means to resolve armed conflicts.

The NDFP Peace Panel’s Chief Political Consultant, Mr. Jose Ma. Sison has pointed out that Mr. Aquino follows the 2009 US Counterinsurgency Guide which says peace negotiations are dispensable for the purpose of destroying, coopting and debilitating the so-called insurgency so long as there is good governance, delivery of services, a strong military and effective use of intelligence and propaganda.

The reappointment of Ms. Ging Deles, who oversaw peace talks with the NDFP and MILF under the Arroyo regime, to the same position may be perceived as a continuation of the failed approaches and tactics of old and does not augur well for any breakthrough in the peace negotiations.

We have yet to see what the feisty former human rights commissioner can accomplish as Justice secretary; the same with the gutsy anti-Arroyo dissenter and former president of De La Salle University, as the new Education secretary.

We shall certainly see in the next few weeks and months who, indeed, is Pres. Aquino's “boss” -- the people or vested interest groups? #

*Published in Business World
2-3 July 2010