June 30, 2011

Independent foreign policy

The territorial dispute over the resource-rich and strategically-located Spratlys islands, highlighted by alleged recent incursions and other aggressive actions of China into areas also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, underscores the importance of an independent and non-aligned foreign policy for small and weak nations like the Philippines.

This is in stark contrast to the current tack of the Aquino administration of invoking the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty and so-called historic ties as well as undertaking high-profile diplomatic lobbying in the US to involve it in the conflict. US meddling, under the cover of the Philippines’ entreaties, would surely complicate and becloud matters, heighten tensions and likely fuel open hostilities.

Renewed public attention on the Spratlys issue is thereby an occasion to review and deepen our thinking on international relations.

At the outset, we must set aside narrow notions of nationalism that underlie the emotional appeal to engage in China bashing – including egging the Left to demonstrate at the Chinese embassy and twitting them for being unpatriotic when they don’t – just because the Philippines is staking its claims.

The Aquino administration’s actuations so far unnecessarily and mindlessly drag into the controversy the big-power rivalry between the US and China and declare the Philippines as squarely on the US side no matter what. This makes the Philippines appear ridiculous to the international community since neither China nor the US, at this point, have any intention or interest in a confrontation - even a diplomatic one - over the Spratlys.

In the first place, there is no imminent danger or immediate possibility of any armed confrontation between China and the Philippines, with or without US backing. China has no use for driving away the Filipino troops and inhabitants of the Kalayaan Islands nor blasting away the Philippine facilities there. Neither can the US afford provoking China at this point, what with its forces already engaged in three major theaters. The AFP on its own challenging the Chinese troops is absolutely out of the question.

Like a half-awake volcano, the dispute may continue to fester and even exacerbate, or it could fizzle out now but surely reemerge at a future, more volatile moment. That is because the underlying interest of China and the US, the two big powers in the region, is not only the oil and natural gas beneath the Spratlys, but the sea lanes through which half of their trade pass. The US and China are both racing on trajectories that are bound to bring them to a future collision, and the South China Sea and the Spratlys in particular could one day be that point of intersection.

Unfortunately what is consistent and highlighted through all this is the Aquino administration’s propensity to turn to Uncle Sam, reminding if not beseeching, the US of its “responsibility” to take up the cudgels for “little brown brother”. For in truth, the country’s capabilities for external defense, after decades under US tutelage and purported assistance, are pathetic if not laughable even in comparison to those of similarly small and weak co-claimants like Vietnam and Malaysia.

This mendicant and servile approach of the Aquino administration is antithetical to the principles of an independent foreign policy which is the bedrock of any truly sovereign and free country. For small and weak countries, non-alignment or neutrality is also an indispensable aspect of foreign relations. This was true in the era of the Cold War; it is true now with the US as lone Superpower and China fast emerging as an economic, if not yet military, powerhouse.

The principles undergirding an independent, non-aligned foreign policy are well articulated in the Afro–Asian Summit Conference - also known as the Bandung Conference – of 1955. It remains a shining historic precedent wherein small and weak nations uniting against colonialism and all its vestiges and post WWII reincarnations, hammered together a Declaration of Ten Principles to guide state-to-state relations and international relations in general.

This was preceded in a substantive way by the formulation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in 1954 by China and India. The principles are mutual respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

One might say these are all principles that are up in the air and matter little in the real world when push comes to shove in actual disputes between countries especially between an elephant like China and a flea like the Philippines.

On the contrary, because these principles are grounded on the objective interests of the vast majority of countries and their peoples, most especially the poor and weak ones dominated by the forces of imperialism, big power chauvinism and racism, they provide the correct and only viable frame for the Philippines to assert its national interests.

Perhaps the more relevant question is whether the Aquino administration, given the Philippine state’s long-standing neocolonial relationship with the US and its own demonstrated eagerness to be considered the latest reliable vassal regime, would even consider hewing to such principles much less translating them into practice.

It would appear that Mr. Aquino is using the Spratlys issue to reinforce the mindset and policy frame that keeps the country dependent on the US for its external defense, including the so-called “modernization” of the AFP, and the pursuit of its “national interests” vis a vis other countries.

The US, for its part, loves the game because it has a platform to swear by its undying “friendship” for the Philippines, making much ado about the long-debunked RP-US “special relations”. It reiterates vague allusions to unfounded claims that the MDT provides for US backing in case of a shooting war over the Spratlys. The US is also able to project its vested interests in the South China Sea in order to justify any future interference in the area for tactical and strategic purposes.

The Philippine government has a long way to go to gain credibility in its pose of upholding and defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity, a critical missing ingredient in its loud assertions of Philippine claims in the Spratlys.

In the final analysis, only a truly democratic and patriotic government can stand for a self-respecting and genuinely independent foreign policy. In the meantime, it is up to a strong people's movement for genuine democracy and freedom to push and fight for one. #

Published in Business World
1 – 2 July 2011

June 23, 2011

Foreign intervention: bane or boon?

One aspect of the debate over what the Philippines can do in its territorial dispute with China over the Spratlys is the wisdom of inviting, nay imploring, the US, by invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty and waxing sentimental over “historic ties”, to back up the Philippine claims militarily.

Even assuming that the US has such obligations under the MDT (something which US officials have hemmed and hawed about for the longest time and which nationalists like Recto, Taňada and Diokno have categorically exposed as non-existent in the letter and spirit of the MDT) there is the more basic question: Would US military intervention be a good thing at all?

Much has been said about US involvement in Vietnam: the real and manufactured stakes for the US; US underestimation of the resilience of the Vietcong backed by the inexhaustible support of the Vietnamese people; how the war of attrition drained US resources, troop morale and public sympathy; the inherent instability and weakness of the successive US-backed – and discarded - puppet regimes.
Here we have, once more, another serious political conflict, this time in far-away North Africa. It has much of the hallmark of past foreign military adventures of the US and other imperialist countries.

This time the justification for US-NATO meddling is couched in “humanitarian” terms: Libya’s Moamar Gaddafi having been successfully demonized as a crazed, brutal and overstaying Strongman allegedly poised to commit a blood bath on protesting Libyans inspired by similar unrest in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.

Nonetheless, the conflict inside Libya is indisputably an internal one with no “communist-backed external threat” as the North Vietnamese were depicted by US war propaganda.

There is the Gaddafi regime and its supporters on the one hand and motley anti-Gaddafi forces on the other, the most prominent and best-armed of whom having been organized and backed by the CIA and British MI-6. Not surprisingly, the latter have been cobbled together into a touted National Transition Council recognized by key NATO countries as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people through whom substantial military and financial support for the armed insurgency is being coursed.

Recently, from a returning Filipino priest who spent years in Libya ministering to Filipino OFWs (his name is withheld for his own safety) we gathered a fuller view of the situation inside Libya. Much of the information he shared are eye-openers that belie most of what has been dished out by the western-dominated media.

The recent uprisings in Benghazi and Tripoli and spreading to other parts of Libya are partly fueled by the brewing discontent among the new generation. The young people are restive over the lack of changes in the political sphere after more than 40 years of Gaddafi rule and the entrenchment of a socio-economic elite despite the eradication of mass poverty and universal access to state-guaranteed social services.

People are not complaining about poverty and hunger as we know it in the Philippines. Libyans can get cheap basic goods and there is an abundant food supply. All Libyans enjoy free schooling and hospitalization. Families with a newborn baby are given an S$100 state subsidy per month while the youth are subsidized with free meals and clothing

But the youth are demanding more tangible changes such as more democratic participation in the way government is run together with greater respect for human rights. While others, especially those in the lower strata are boldly calling for equitable distribution of their country’s wealth.

Some groups are demanding a republican constitution and form of government; some, seek greater transparency as to who benefit most from the oil revenue and an end to the Gaddafi family's control over the wealth of the land.

The "opposition" or "rebels" include the Al Qaeda who are “numerous”; followers of ousted ruler King Idris (who are highly organized in the US and the UK); elements of the Muslim Brotherhood (one of the largest and oldest Islamist groups in many Arab states); the First Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (an Islamic fundamentalist group with links to Al Qaeda); relatives of victims under the Gaddafi rule; and defectors from the Gaddafi cabinet and military (with the TNC headed by the erstwhile justice minister.)

Among the tribal groups - more than 130 in the whole of Libya – the anti-Gaddafi ones are the Warfllah, considered the biggest, and the Zuwayyax, both of which benefit from the oil refineries. The majority, more than 80 tribes, are for Gaddafi such as the relatively smaller Quaddasa, where Gaddafi himself originated and the Barasa, the tribe of the Gaddafi’s second wife.

According to our informant, although there are frictions and even divisions among Gaddafi’s followers, the core of officers in the Libyan armed forces are still loyal to him. The Libyan army has had hundreds killed and hundreds more injured since the US-NATO bombardment but are still a formidable force.

Clearly from the abovementioned, there is a wealth of legitimate issues that the people are raising against the Libyan government even as the more well-organized and funded anti-Gaddafi groups come from a disparate political spectrum including Islamists, moderate and radical; remnants of the pro-royalist, pro-Western groups identified with the anti-nationalist regime that Gaddafi ousted in the late 60s; and turncoats from the Gaddafi camp.

From all indications there exists a stalemate between the pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces even with the all-out backing of the imperialist powers for the latter and intensifying sanctions against Gaddafi, his family members and Cabinet apart from the daily bombings that have affected populated areas in Tripoli and elsewhere in the government-controlled West.

Military intervention by the US and NATO, even with UN legal sanction, has not resulted in its purported main aim, protection of civilians. In fact NATO has been forced to admit its responsibility for the recent mass killing of nine civilians in a building hit by an alleged wayward bomb.

It has not even resulted in its real objective, the overthrow of Gaddafi. Meantime the armed conflict is causing the destruction of lives and property while the economy of Libya takes a beating and all of Libya is suffering.

Calls for a ceasefire, humanitarian aid to all affected Libyans not just the rebels, diplomatic efforts and political negotiations to seek a peaceful way out of the civil war grow stronger even from those who had supported the initial call for “no-fly zone” and for Gaddafi to step down.

The Arab League head has backtracked and says now that a military solution is out of the question. Italy has broken away from NATO in calling for a ceasefire. Both in the UK and US there are stronger criticisms about the US-NATO war including those over ballooning cost, questionable legality, dubious justification and likely unsatisfactory outcome.

Such recent developments give all freedom- and peace-loving peoples more reason to renew the calls for an end to US-NATO bombings and a chance for Libyans to undertake political and social reform without interference from outside forces, least of all those with vested interests that are antithetical to those of the sovereign Libyan people.

The Gaddafi government might do well to heed calls for transparency, an end to the elite cornering the wealth of Libyan oil, greater democratic participation etc. The warring parties must be brought to the negotiating table through the mediation of acceptable third parties including the elders in Libyan society who reportedly exercise moral and political suasion in Libyan society.

Military interventionism by foreign powers under any guise, on any pretext, is a dangerous thing. History has shown this to be so and current events in the Middle East and North Africa continue to underscore the painful lesson. #

Published in Business World
24-25 June 2011

June 09, 2011

For shame!

What is there left to do except decry - again and again – the brazen attempts of the country’s political elite to obliterate the people’s victory over authoritarianism, martial rule and the wanton plunder of the nation’s economy and resources, this time by allowing “full military honors” to accompany the burial of Dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos’ refrigerated remains.

After supposedly consulting with “concerned” sectors (foremost of whom were Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, Governor Imee Marcos and Congresswoman Imelda Marcos) Vice President Jejomar Binay has recommended to President Benigno “Noynoy: Aquino III that “full military honors” be accorded to the dictator should his remains be interred in Ilocos province, his political bailiwick.

Mr. Binay nixed burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, presumably because he wished to avoid any impression that the Aquino government considers Marcos a hero, that being far too controversial.

But to say that the late unlamented dictator deserves “full military honors” just because he was a former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, no matter that the majority of the same armed forces mutinied against him in the wake of the EDSA people’s uprising, is not at all a “balanced” solution as Mr. Binay claims. Far from it.

Should Mr. Aquino allow such “full military honors”, it would unfailingly lead to the full reinstatement of Ferdinand E. Marcos to the country’s Hall of Fame rather than where he was right after his ouster and where he should remain forever, the nation’s Hall of Perfidy and Shame.

What’s more, it would be another step in the direction of fully reinstating the Marcoses politically and will give his heirs a stab at the highest positions in the land including the Presidency. This is why the Marcoses are delighted at the outcome of the Binay “survey” although they try to appear coy about it.

The proposal is a grave insult even to the Philippine military, at least the remaining decent and upright members of the military.

Marcos used the armed forces to usurp the people's sovereign power. He then dragged it down to the depths of corruption, criminality and human rights abuse,

The Philippine military's reputation was at its nadir when Marcos' power was at its peak and the military has never quite rid itself not only of the stigma but also of the criminal mindset it had acquired under the fascist dictatorship.

It was only when the military abandoned Marcos did its reputation suddenly improve in the eyes of the people to the extent that wily generals like General Ramos jumped at the opportunity to launder its past and started calling it the “New” AFP.

But no real reforms ever took place as the thousands of extrajudicial killings and billions of stolen AFP funds post EDSA I attest to.

Marcos, who was largely responsible for bringing dishonor to the military as well as bringing the military into dishonor and disrepute, is the last person to deserve “full military honors.”

Mr. Aquino acts in so unpresidential a manner by passing on the apparently politically risky decision to his ambitious Vice President (for whom he has no special feelings unlike his bosom friends, shooting buddies and close relatives).

His moronic excuse is that he will be perceived to be biased, being the son of Benigno “Ninoy”Aquino, Marcos’ arch enemy, and Corazon “Cory” Aquino, his political nemesis.

But, like it or not, he is the President of the country. Eventually, it will be his decision whether to accept Mr. Binay’s seemingly harebrained but supremely foxy recommendation.

More likely, the people pushing for this “grand reconciliation” represent the same vested interests that supported both Noynoy’s and Bongbong’s candidacies. These shadowy figures can not fathom any fundamental differences between the two - except for a complex historical thread tying their past and their future together - that cannot be bridged by practical politics.

The Marcos loyalists have also started crawling out of the woodwork, primarily the politicians in Congress who signed on to a House Resolution calling for a hero’s burial for Marcos.

Apart from being a demonstration of crass opportunism, this development provides ample proof that Mrs. Marcos and her children have not only survived their ouster from power, they have retained enough of their ill-gotten wealth to engineer their political comeback and are now skillfully accumulating even more political capital under the Aquino dispensation.

So where is the “Yellow Crowd” in all this? Except for the members of the Makati Business Club who made it their business to condemn what they rightfully called “historical revisionism at its deceitful worst”, we hardly hear any outraged voices from the vaunted “Corystas”.

Does this indicate that those among the privileged classes who celebrated the so-called restoration of democracy via “people power” (and thereby their restoration to positions of pelf and power) are finally done with “people power” and all its messy implications and consequences to the ruling elite?

The sins of omission and commission of those in a position to finally bury the onerous, odious and completely reprehensible legacy of the Marcos era have caused the creeping collective amnesia about it, now to be capped by “full military honors” for Marcos.

But the human rights victims of the Marcos dictatorship who bear the scars of brutal repression have stood up to say NO! and FOR SHAME!

The progressive legislators have countered the impudent House Resolution of the Marcos loyalists and their backers.

Human rights lawyers and advocates, progressive church people, the social and political activists from all classes and sectors and even some patriotic members of the military have also not forgotten and refuse to give up the fight.

In the name of all the martyrs and real heroes who died in the shadow of martial rule, we hope and pray that they shall, in the end, prevail. #

Published in Business World
10-11 June 2011

June 02, 2011

Demolition and resistance

The protest march last Monday called by the urban poor alliance KADAMAY, to denounce a rash of violent demolitions of urban poor communities in Metro Manila, was quite daunting, what with the sweltering heat under the noonday sun. Nonetheless, my activist instincts impelled me to walk with the diminutive but fiery urban poor leader, Ka Mameng Deunida who, at 80-something, remains at the forefront of their uphill struggle.

What struck me immediately was that many of the rallyists were scrawny women who had even scrawnier babies, toddlers and pre-teens in tow. Even the leaders were mostly women, a testament not so much to women’s liberation it seems, but to the extent of desperation that had taken hold of their households and was forcing the mothers to take a stand.

The protesters’ placards showed that things hadn’t changed much since I began as an activist organizing in urban poor communities some 40 years ago, except that it had obviously gone from bad to worse. The demands remained to be “No to demolitions! Yes to jobs, decent wages, affordable housing, education and health care!” and a fairly new one “Stop urban militarization!”

President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III had signed a 10-Point Covenant with the Urban Poor as a presidential candidate and had promised an end to forced evictions. According to the pro-Aquino Urban Poor Advocates, Mr. Aquino was also committed to “decent relocation” that meant “relocation with quality housing, adequate basic services and sustainable livelihood support.”

The return to the practice of forced evictions under the Aquino watch jolted many urban poor communities back to the harsh reality that after elections, they were back to being “eyesores” and “hazards to public safety”.

Six months into his term, Mr. Aquino was forced to grant a four-month moratorium on demolitions after the valiant defense by residents of their sprawling urban poor settlement in North Triangle, Quezon City. Their homes were being wrecked by the National Housing Authority to give way to a public-private-partnership with a real property developer, Ayala Land, whose owners had supported Mr. Aquino’s presidential bid.

The urban poor have shown that pushed to the wall, they can and will fight back. Stopping the demolition teams by sheer street fighting is a valuable lesson that the urban poor have learned instinctively. As they learn about the roots of their poverty and insecure existence in the cities, their true empowerment begins.

Last April, DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo filed a report to Mr. Aquino on the problem of “informal settlers”, using the more politically-correct term in place of the pejorative one, “squatters”, that is still in use by government, mass media and private property owners.

To his credit, the report forthrightly acknowledges the extent of the problem – 556,526 families, whose total members comprise 25% of the projected 11.5 million population in the National Capital Region for 2010 (NSO).

It also candidly states that the “current and projected government shelter programs are inadequate to fully and effectively address the challenge”. The current shortfall is a whopping 523,765 units.

The Robredo report bats for making shelter a top priority of the national government with the requisite mobilization of financial resources from both the national government and LGUs. It highlights the fact that the average Philippine annual expenditure on housing from 2001-2007 was only .089% of GDP, far below what other southeast Asian countries were spending, from a high of 2.089 in Singapore to a low of .383 per cent in Malaysia.

It also calls for “socially inclusive urban redevelopment schemes” or those that provide poor, working people, whose labor is necessary to any society, a decent place to live.

This translates to a policy wherein “on-site housing solutions shall be exhausted first before considering in-city resettlement, then near-city resettlement and as a last resource, off-city resettlement.” And in order to accomplish on-site or in-city resettlement, the report advocates medium-rise or high-rise buildings to increase density of the population using a “vertical solution”.

A critical point is underscored: while initial capital outlay for such vertical housing is higher than current estimates of off-city relocation, most planners fail to take into account the latter’s attendant social and economic costs.

These include additional government costs in providing basic services (eg water systems, schools, hospitals); costs to the urban poor such as loss of livelihood or hiked transportation expense to commute to and from work or school; and separation of breadwinners from their families because livelihood opportunities are absent in relocation sites.

Of course, government has a habit of dislocating slum dwellers from their already difficult and precarious living conditions only to throw them out into the streets or cart them off to unlivable, far-away relocations sites, hidden from view. That way, they don’t have to bother about any added costs to the government. Moreover, who cares about how the urban poor fare.

The Robredo report, though a welcome departure from previous anti-people government approaches to the “challenge” posed by the urban poor, still fails to address the “push” and “pull” factors underlying the relentless mass migration of rural folk to the cities and the exacerbation of urban poverty and blight as a consequence.

In an earlier column, I tried to summarize these factors; to wit: “The underlying causes of this ever increasing rural to urban exodus are deeply rooted in landlessness (farmers dispossessed, evicted from land they till by land grabbers, land conversion, etc.); entrenched rural poverty and agricultural backwardness (aggravated by neoliberal policies of import liberalization and deregulation, e.g. the removal of agricultural subsidies); landlord and state suppression of peasant struggles against feudal oppression and exploitation; and the continuously deteriorating and overall stultifying living conditions in the countryside.” (See “No titles”, Streetwise 30 September 2011.)

This month the Reciprocal Working Committees on Socio-economic Reforms (RWC-SER) of the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) meet again to thresh out the provisions of a bilateral agreement that, if inked, could lay the basis for a negotiated political settlement of the armed conflict that has been raging for more than four decades.

The plight of the urban poor is squarely addressed in a fundamental and thoroughgoing way by the NDFP in its proposals for a Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER).

The NDFP calls for abolishing land monopoly in the rural areas and redistributing land to the tillers for free; establishing rural industries and supporting agricultural production in order to squarely address the rural poverty that drives mass migration to urban centers.

National industrialization on the other hand is recognized as “the key to a modern and diversified industrial economy” that can ensure livelihoods for the people, guarantee the satisfaction of their basic needs, bring about rapid and sustained economic growth and achieve economic independence from unwanted foreign domination. In this way decent jobs and other livelihood sources are generated for a burgeoning population, greater social wealth is created and government resources are beefed up as well to be used for the common good.

The Robredo report has been sitting on Mr. Aquino’s table unacted upon for more than two months.

Meanwhile the heartless demolitions are back with a vengeance; so too, the people’s growing resistance. #

Published in Business World

3-4 June 2011