October 21, 2010

On amnesty and other intriguing questions

The debate on whether President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III’s amnesty proclamation for soldiers who had rebelled against the government of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is justified begs for more clarity. A confirmed putschist, retired colonel Rex Robles, twitted Senator Joker Arroyo, a political ally of Mrs. Arroyo and President Corazon Aquino’s executive secretary, for the latter’s general amnesty of communist rebels when she assumed power from the dictator Marcos in 1986.

Mr. Robles reduced the issue to one of red-baiting. He implied that Mrs. Aquino’s policy on the communist-led rebellion was soft due to the influence of human rights lawyers like Sen. Arroyo. In contrast, Mr. Robles sees amnesty for military rebels more than justified because they were impelled by noble motives, i.e. the desire to rid the military and police establishments of corruption and to expose the Arroyo administration’s complicity if not instigation of wrongdoing.

Mr. Robles does a disservice to the cause of his boss, Senator Antonio Trillanes (the preeminent military officer accused in the alleged Oakwood Mutiny of 2003) by resorting to this low blow.

Sen. Arroyo is perfectly correct in reminding all and sundry: “That policy initiative was in recognition of the immense contribution of these armed groups to the downfall of President Marcos. They suffered casualties, death, wounded, hamletted, tortured, imprisoned without charges in the fight against martial rule.”

As for Trillanes and company, they were protesting corruption and other criminal activities by the top brass of the Philippine armed forces under their commander-in-chief, Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo.

Mr. Trillanes’ victory in the 2007 elections is significant considering he campaigned while in detention charged with leading a coup d’état. Yet he convinced enough Filipino voters disgusted with the Macapagal-Arroyo regime that as senator he would act as a fiscalizer in government.

With the change of administration to one that ran on a platform clobbering corruption and other malfeasance in the previous regime, it stands to reason that Mr. Aquino would eventually grant amnesty to the rebel soldiers. The decision is a popular one except for loud protestations from the former president’s camp and legitimate questions about the timing of the presidential proclamation.

Criticisms that the amnesty will embolden future coups seem to be overtaken by sympathy for the rebel soldiers’ avowed cause. It has been pointed out and rightly so that military rebellion is here to stay so long as government misrule, and other social evils that urge soldiers to rebel, persist.

Sen. Arroyo, tongue in cheek, now uses the argument to oppose the amnesty saying that all other rebels can now rightfully demand amnesty for themselves as well.

He cites the infamous case of the 43 health professionals and community health workers arrested and detained on military claims that they were New People’s Army rebels undergoing training in bomb-making, collectively dubbed Morong 43.

But the national and international clamor for the release of the Morong 43 is not about pardoning political crimes. It is about rendering justice to innocent people wronged by their own government.

The incorrect comparison has been triggered by calls for their release in the wake of amnesty for the rebel soldiers. The question raised is if the Aquino administration can pardon military rebels – even ahead of the verdict promulgation by the court that had been trying the case for seven years -- why can't he act with greater dispatch on the case of the illegally arrested, tortured and unjustly detained forty-three health workers.

The grounds for correcting the injustice inflicted on the Morong 43 are even more pressing, the executive act required less complicated (the prosecutors simply withdraw the charge since the accused have not been arraigned) and there is little substance to any charge that Malacañang would be
Interfering in the independence of the courts.

Meanwhile, the real revolutionaries in this country, be they from the NPA or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), are not exactly clamoring for amnesty nor showing any indication that they would be open to this in lieu of a negotiated peace settlement or outright military victory.

Nonetheless, the communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF) has consistently joined peace and human rights advocates in demanding the release of political prisoners, i.e. those unjustly detained for dissenting against the previous regimes.

This is not the same as calling for amnesty for CPP/NPA/NDF or the MILF rebels.

While not the crux of the matter, it might also be worth pointing out that all but buried beneath the debate is the fact that the offense for which the soldiers were imprisoned and are on the verge of being amnestied stemmed from their strong aversion to and protest against grand corruption in the military (not to mention implicating their superiors, all the way up to defense sec Angelo Reyes, in the bombings of civilian establishments in order to create “terrorist” scenarios).

The question begs to be asked, why is President Aquino now saying that Mr. Trillanes and the Magdalo soldiers may have been victims of injustice, while his administration does not go after the big-time corrupt generals in the military and police establishments against whom these soldiers rebelled?

There is still the question of timing. Some quarters have observed that the amnesty comes at a time when a group, trying to pass itself off as the anti-government opposition with the distinction of having military men in their roster, was poised to come out with a statement against the Aquino regime. Is the amnesty of soldiers more a political maneuver than a decisive move to render justice?

With what has been happening so far, Mr. Aquino is not just failing in giving firm direction to his fledgling government, he is also creating confusion if not dismay among those who want to know where his “daang matuwid” is leading and how he plans to get there.

But if indeed Mr. Aquino knows where he is bringing this country, why is he caught not telling us the entire truth or giving us the entire picture thus triggering self-inflicted controversies for his administration. #

Published in Business World
22 – 23 October 2010

email: carol_araullo@yahoo.com

October 14, 2010

No transparency, no accountability

President Benigno Aquino III’s handling of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) report on the August hostage-taking fiasco exposes his administration’s lack of transparency; his abuse of presidential prerogatives in order to shield his friends and allies from accountability as public officials; and his propensity to operate by means of ad hoc “reviewers” of policy when it suits him even when this jeopardizes the rule of law and undermines the authority of government agencies and institutions.

In suppressing critical parts of the IIRC report thereby preventing full accounting of responsibility for the fiasco, Mr. Aquino also undermines serious efforts to prevent similar crises from ending once more in tragedy when proposed measures are applied selectively, unevenly and in a band-aid fashion.

The foremost purpose of the IIRC, after determining the facts and circumstances of the botched hostage crisis management, was to determine official culpability.

The Palace acknowledged that the findings of facts contained in the IIRC report are correct and indisputable. Thus Mr. Aquino’s order for a review of the IIRC report, purportedly “to find the viable legal actions which can be taken against the concerned parties” and thus avoid “frivolous lawsuits” smacks of a complete cop out.

What better judge of legal viability is Mr. Aquino looking for when the head of the IIRC is no less than the justice secretary who supervises and oversees all prosecutors’ work?

Unless, as many quarters suspect, Mr. Aquino used the review to gain time and eventually let certain people of the hook, pick out those who would take the rap (yet still soften the blow by merely recommending administrative charges), and design a “communications plan” to help sell the whitewash.

Not only did Mr. Aquino set aside the principle of command responsibility by exculpating Local Government Undersecretary and de facto National Crisis Management Committee head Puno and former Police Chief Verzosa, he also did the same with Manila Mayor and Local Crisis Management Committee head Lim, who merely got a slap on the wrist with an administrative charge.

Why does the Aquino review implicitly uphold the position that the crisis was a local one when it is loud and clear, especially from the IIRC report no less, the hostage situation had developed into a crisis of national proportions?

Not only were there twenty five hostages, twenty one of whom were foreign nationals, the situation was dragging on and in fact deteriorating in the wake of the patent incompetence of the ground command and the weak and later wrongful overall leadership provided by the local CMC.

At the minimum, the corresponding national supervisory authority, from the police headed by General Verzosa, to the National Crisis Management Committee headed by Usec Puno, are guilty of criminal neglect of duty.

In fact, Mr. Puno’s decision “to downplay the situation due to the apprehension that the hostage taker might ask bigger demands if national officials are seen” is not only a mistake in judgment, it led to the concerned national officials abdicating their role of supervising government response in light of the dangerous and volatile situation.

Mr. Aquino, after giving the impression that he means business and wants to get to the bottom of the messy incident, was faced with a dilemma when the report pointed to people close to him as being administratively and criminally liable for the hostage-taking fiasco.

Mr. Aquino was looking for scapegoats given the international uproar over the incident and the need to assuage the Chinese government and the Hong Kong people. When his initial attempt to blame the media did not wash, he accepted responsibility in principle and created the IIRC.

He tried to buy time as the IIRC, a quasi-independent body composed of credible government and private individuals, labored to investigate and piece together the evidence. But their findings and recommendations didn’t come up to Mr. Aquino’s expectations and liking.

While he was forced to give the IIRC report right away to the Chinese government in order to squelch further diplomatic repercussions and bad international press before his US trip, he kept crucial parts of it secret from the public. He then subjected it to review by two of his lawyers who would acquiesce to his desired outcome.

Aquino’s avowed interest in determining where police and civilian officials went wrong in order to correct mistakes and prevent future ones was overtaken by his desire to cover up for his friends and allies, shield them from prosecution and justify maintaining one of them within his circle of trusted aides.

It is also important to point out that Mr. Aquino stripped the Interior and Local Government secretary of his mandate and authority over the national police and handed it over instead to his buddy, Mr. Puno.

Until the hostage crisis, many trusted in the Aquino administration being all too transparent. If not for the fiasco, we would not have known the real reason why the DILG post took so long to fill with Aquino even considering taking it on himself. It turns out the only reason Mr. Puno was not given the post, according to him, is that he shuns scrutiny by the Commission on Appointments.

Then the justice secretary de facto loses her mandate and authority to decide whether a government official should be charged criminally or not, that being given to the presidential legal counsel and executive secretary who constituted the low-caliber IIRC “review” committee.

In both cases, the winner is the self-proclaimed closest friend and longtime business associate of the president himself.

Malgovernance is too mild a term to describe the series of anomalous decisions Mr. Aquino has been making.

Indeed, there is a thin grey line between misuse and abuse of presidential prerogatives. That line is easily breached, along with public trust, when there is no transparency and no accountability. #

Published in Business World
15-16 October 2010

October 11, 2010

Ominous first one hundred days

President Noynoy Aquino’s spinmeisters dubbed his speech assessing the first 100 days of his administration as “Isang Daang Araw Sa Isang Daang Matuwid: Report Kay Boss”. The clever play on words is meant to once more invoke the image of a presidency hewing to the straight and narrow path against corruption in government and of Mr. Aquino’s professed accountability to the people as his “boss”.

It is not at all surprising that Mr. Aquino and his supporters have ended up congratulating themselves on the administration’s claimed achievements and deriding his critics as seeking to merely set back his so-called reform agenda and maintain the status quo. Ominously, he even issued a veiled threat to these critics saying that their days are numbered.

Too bad for Mr. Aquino, there are a growing number of Filipinos who are tired of simplistic campaign rhetoric and crowd-pleasing gestures. They are looking for concrete actions and policy measures in the immediate and a platform of government for the remaining five years and nine months of his term.

Unfortunately too for this administration, while strong survey outcomes and carefully crafted and executed public relations measures are good grist for the media mill, the reality of the ongoing socio-economic and political crises of Philippine society is already catching up with Mr. Aquino’s hyped-up mystique.

In the first hundred days of his administration, Mr. Aquino’s ideological and political mind set - that is, his overall framework, priorities, inclinations and outright biases – has more clearly come to the fore.

Rather than reinforce his claims as a harbinger of much-needed reforms in government, he cuts a more and more conservative if not unabashedly reactionary figure, a traditional politician who will protect, uphold and promote foreign and domestic elite interests rather than those of the common tao.

Organizations of workers, peasants, urban poor, the student youth and professional sectors as well as faith-based organizations say Mr. Aquino has failed dismally where it counts.

He has not moved an inch in the criminal prosecution of former President Gloria Arroyo or any of her minions for graft and corruption on a grand scale.

He has not put a stop to extrajudicial killings and the body count is rising. He refuses to acknowledge the government’s counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, as directly responsible for the Arroyo regime’s bloody human rights record, and he has extended it as his government’s program.

He curries favor with the military and police generals by giving them huge increases in their budgets while looking the other way in so far as their crimes of murder, abduction and torture as well as thievery of soldiers’ pay, benefits and equipment. He has done nothing to break the culture of impunity with which the AFP and PNP perpetrate corruption and human rights violations.

He says hardly a word and takes no steps towards addressing the feudal tenurial relations in the country benefitting big landlords such as the Cojuangco-Aquino clan of which he himself is now the most prominent member. But he and is spokespersons have favorable comments for the management of Hacienda Luisita as they employ all kinds of vile tactics to frustrate land reform from reaching the Cojuangco-owned estate.

He continues with the honorable-debtor policy that was the legacy of his mother and all post-Marcos Dictatorship regimes, not only persisting in the payment of onerous debts but in prioritizing debt servicing over any and all government expenditures, especially basic services such as health, education and housing.

The Aquino administration’s neoliberal economic policy framework is completely unchanged from that of the Arroyo regime with its liberalization, privatization and deregulation thrusts. The result: more joblessness, more poverty and misery, greater environmental destruction and further denationalization and deindustrialization of the economy.

Not only does Mr. Aquino fail to see the connection between the endemic poverty and backwardness of the Philippine economy and these failed policies, he attempts to portray them as something innovative.

This is the case with the private-public partnerships (PPP)held up by Mr. Aquino as his centerpiece economic strategy though they are nothing more than the joint ventures of old. In fact many of such build-operate-transfer projects have ended up over-priced and, for the most part, graft-ridden, with the debts incurred in their implementation guaranteed by government and recovered through unconscionably high user fees and taxes.

US-Philippine relations under Mr. Aquino’s watch are still framed in the old neocolonial mold which Mr. Aquino even continues to describe as “special” apparently oblivious to all nationalist reassessments of the historically and currently unequal, lop-sided relations.

Mr. Aquino’s speech and Q & A in a forum sponsored by the US Council for Foreign Relations during his US trip is revealing. He declared the Philippines as “open for business under new management”. He assures US business interests that his regime will be “investment friendly” and that the doors are wide open to private investment in infrastructure projects, tourism, mining and business process outsourcing.

Mr. Aquino reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to uphold US geopolitical interests and foreign policy thrusts in the Philippines and in the Asia-Pacific region to the point that he was speechless about the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement, the permanent presence of US troops on Philippine soil and related national sovereignty issues.

He displayed first and foremost, for his US audience of big business and policy makers, that he is a leader of the same kowtowing mold as Mrs. Arroyo and even his mother before him. Then he touted his popularity and credibility as one that can - in a gross perversion of “people power” - rally the people behind his regime’s policies, no matter how anti-people and undemocratic these turn out to be.

Mr. Aquino has not taken any steps to end the decades-old armed conflict in the country through peace negotiations and addressing its root causes. Instead he parrots the military’s line that the New People’s Army is a terrorist organization and that a ceasefire is a precondition to any reopening of peace talks.

From Mr. Aquino’s first one hundred days, it seems that the only change our people can expect is a change for the worse. #