November 03, 2011

No truth, no justice

President Benigno Aquino’s “all-out justice” slogan, coined by his tourism secretary (an advertising man before joining government), seems to be catching on. As a tagline, it aims to capture the administration’s purported commitment to peaceful means, i.e. peace negotiations, to resolve the armed conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), without sacrificing its mandate to “maintain law and order” anywhere in Mindanao, regardless of or unrestrained by any ceasefire agreement with the latter.

It has elicited the approbation of foreign governments, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, an assortment of peace advocates among “civil society organizations” and more so, the MILF leadership.

The “all-out justice” call appears to be in stark contrast to the “all-out war” approach espoused by the rabidly anti-Moro warmongers like former President Joseph Estrada, former Marcos martial law henchman and now Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, military officers like the dismissed AFP spokesperson and a slew of mindless, revenge- seeking and/or military ass-licking and profit-seeking bandwagon commentators in mainstream mass media.

In the aftermath of the aerial bombardment of supposed MILF-cum-bandit lairs in Zamboanga Sibugay, what has the Aquino government to show for its “All-out Justice” campaign against those who overpowered and killed at least 19 members of the AFP’s special forces in Basilan?

One doesn't have to be a soldier or policeman to understand that if the mission is to serve a warrant or apprehend a criminal that mission cannot be said to have been accomplished until the target or object has indeed been captured.

In this case, several bombs were rained upon a cluster of houses, supposedly the camp of the band of "lawless elements" that was the object of the military-police operation. This is standard tactic for softening up a target preparatory to a ground assault, never mind that from the air, it is impossible to distinguish between civilian abodes and huts occupied by “lawless elements”.

In practice, aircraft could always be heard before they reach the target so that anyone who has experienced such bombings can easily escape and hide in the adjoining forested area. It is the elderly, feeble and sick, the women and children who cannot run away fast enough, who end up being “collateral damage”. The livestock, immovable houses, and crops left behind are invariably destroyed by the bombings.

In terms of the government's vaunted and enlightened new policy, how was justice served in dropping bombs on a hapless community -- even assuming without granting that there were "lawless elements" in that community?

All-out justice should first of all ferret out the truth. The MILF leadership's call for an impartial investigation by the International Monitoring Team (IMT) on what really happened is the logical and only sane first step in this direction.

To more critical observers, a grand cover-up appears to be taking place. Mr. Aquino is allowing the AFP to save face with its farcical, open-ended military campaign in Moro areas. Meanwhile tens of thousands of civilians are continuously being displaced in the ensuing military operations. Where is the justice there?

With grave implications to the quest for peace, the cover-up serves to obscure one of the major obstacles to the peace negotiations between the GPH and MILF as well as that between the GPH and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

On the one hand, the GPH has been trying, through peace negotiations, to entice if not coerce the MILF and NDFP to accept a political settlement of the armed conflict. Thus there is the presumption that the MILF and NDFP are political organizations, not criminal syndicates, and that they (MILF and NDFP) exercise leadership and control over their respective armed forces.

On the other hand, the GPH has long been carrying out a policy and practice of criminalizing the political offenses allegedly committed by suspected MILF-BIAF and CPP-NPA-NDFP leaders, members and sympathizers, justifying these as legal actions in accordance with GPH law.

This is supposedly the basis for sending out two special forces platoons to "arrest" an MILF commander allegedly for multiple murders, even if the killings were committed in an earlier battle with government troops. It is also invoked as the basis for sending warplanes to bomb a touted lair of MILF forces that the government has arbitrarily called "lawless elements" and for more ground assaults in Sulu and Basilan.

All these actions are in wanton disregard of the ceasefire mechanisms and processes mutually agreed upon and set up by the GPH and MILF with the participation of international and NGO monitors to deal with such situations.

It is exactly the same case with the GPH-NDFP talks that are now stalled due to the GPH refusal to release at least five NDFP consultants, arguing that it is not obligated to do so.

What the GPH is concealing is that while these detainees were clearly arrested for their alleged links with the CPP-NPA-NDFP, they are all being kept behind bars on the basis of non-bailable charges of common crimes (murder, homicide, illegal possession of firearms, arson, robbery) and rarely for the political crime of rebellion contrary to the Hernandez Doctrine which is part of GPH jurisprudence.

Looking back, it is clear that the GPH deliberately suspended the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees in August 2005 and set up the Inter Agency Legal Action Group to pave the way for filing trumped-up charges, arresting, detaining, and even torturing and killing, suspected CPP-NPA-NDFP elements and sympathizers including those unarmed and openly involved in the peace negotiations.

The current GPH regime of Mr. Aquino acknowledges this as a mistake of the previous administration, yet refuses to rectify or remedy the situation by releasing the political prisoners it keeps in its jails.

The GPH for too long has been using "sole sovereignty" and its obligation to uphold the Philippine Constitution and legal processes as excuses to circumvent if not undermine its own agreements with the MILF and NDFP.

It has never given up on its basic US-inspired counterinsurgency frame where peace negotiations are merely tools for psychological warfare, together with dole-out social welfare programs and civic action by the AFP, alongside continuing or intermittent military-police offensives against so-called insurgents.

The GPH pays lip service to attaining a just and lasting peace but lives are being needlessly lost and innocents are languishing in jail, all because the Aquino government would rather use "justice" as a catchy slogan rather than uphold it as a noble goal to pave the way for genuine peace, social equity and economic progress. #

Published in Business World
4-5 November 2011


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