March 29, 2012


If peace could be won through press releases and other public announcements, the Bangsamoro should be exercising their right to self-determination and enjoying genuine autonomy by now.

The Government of the Philippines-Moro Islamic Liberation Front (GPH-MILF) 26th formal exploratory peace talks ended last March 21 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Joint Statement did not say much except that the two sides continued to discuss “substantive issues” and had agreed to an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) representative to sit as an observer in the talks.

Contrary to perceptions that the GPH-MILF talks are moving forward (fanned by government propaganda claiming “peace” is in the offing) it has not gone anywhere far with Aquino going on two years in office. In fact it is lagging far behind the government’s self-imposed deadline of March 2012 for signing a “comprehensive settlement” with the Moro liberation movement.

The much-publicized meeting between GPH President Aquino and MILF Chair Murad boosted hopes that the resolution of the armed conflict is at hand with statements signifying common understanding of the roots of the conflict, capped with the agreement and resolve to fast-track the negotiations.

Eight months and several exploratory talks later, GPH announces that talks are now on substantive issues, with procedural ones settled. This may sound positive and upbeat to the uninformed but senseless at best and even deceptive to those who are closely following the developments in this front.

GPH statements appear oblivious to substantive talks and agreements inked under previous administrations. Unfortunately this amnesia extends to GPH proposals and counterproposals to the MILF draft “Comprehensive Compact Proposal” proffered as early as February 2011.

The “3-in-1” moniker for the GPH proposal in response to the MILF draft essentially offers the following “doables”: (1) a joint committee to oversee socio-economic development; (2) 9-person Bangsa-Moro Commission - 3 from GPH, 3 from MILF and 3 jointly nominated - termed the "convergence" formula and (3) joint rewriting of Moro history to correct historical injustices.

In review, after the disastrous “all-out war” policy of the Estrada administration, the GPH-MILF peace negotiations were resumed under the Arroyo regime. In the landmark 2001 Tripoli Agreement on Peace, the substantive agenda of the talks was agreed upon, specifying three key issues termed “aspects”: Security, Rehabilitation and Ancestral Domain.

Agreements were ironed out on the first two aspects resulting in a ceasefire and mechanisms for implementing this (although this did not prevent continuing armed clashes between the armed forces of the two parties) and the creation of the Bangsamoro Development Authority.

The Ancestral Domain aspect was divided during subsequent negotiations into what was termed four “strands” -- Concepts and Principles, Territory, Resources and Governance. Negotiations on this last remaining “aspect” of the substantive agenda culminated in the 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).

Contrary to its official pronouncements and posturing, GPH is currently attempting to nullify on the negotiating table previously-inked agreements with the MILF – including what constitutes the substantive agenda -- and totally ignores the spirit and substance of MOA-AD which the Arroyo government reneged on at the eve of its signing.

In truth and in fact, the Ancestral Domain Aspect is the core of the political settlement past Philippine governments and the MILF had agreed to negotiate to end the armed conflict. In this the Bangsamoro people determine their own political set-up, i.e. government.

The MILF has gone to great lengths to find a formula for self-rule short of secession and independence, one that essentially and substantially grants them their right to self determination through a negotiated political settlement.

From the concept of a Bangsamoro Juridical Authority which the GPH unceremoniously torpedoed along with the MOA-AD already initialled by the chief negotiators of both panels, the MILF shifted to a “substate” in a so-called “asymmetrical relationship” which would appear to give a more explicit recognition of being still part of and subordinate to the central GPH state but exercising genuine autonomy.

But even this is unacceptable to the GPH, which for all intents and purposes is adamant over asserting central governance over whatever Bangsamoro entity may be formed. Instead of the "substate", GPH proposes a "reformed ARMM" in “partnership” with GPH and other concerned sectors (including remnants of the moribund MNLF) that is basically a cooptation of the MILF.

The official and legal excuse for the backtracking is that the GPH is bound by its Constitution in its duty to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words the GPH is sticking rigidly to its constitution as the framework for the peace negotiations.

GPH feigns ignorance of the historical fact that the MILF arose out of the dispute within the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Nur Misuari on whether to accept the 1976 Tripoli peace agreement with the GRP (the old term for GPH) framed upon the GRP Constitution.

After Hashim Salamat and others bolted out of the MNLF and formed the MILF, Misuari subsequently agreed to the 1996 Final Peace Agreement and became the first governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that was a far cry from the self-determination the Moro people had been clamoring for. The ARMM has also been adjudged by independent quarters and even by the GPH as a failure no matter how one looks at it.

On the other hand, MILF strength grew by leaps and bounds as former MNLF Vice Chair then MILF Chair Hashim Salamat was proven correct in his refusal to subsume the Moro liberation movement to the constitutional and legal framework of the government it had been waging war against for decades.

The 1976 and 1996 GRP-MNLF peace agreements dismally failed to bring peace to the Moro people precisely because these continued to deny them their right to self-determination, the very root of the armed conflict. It is apparent that the GPH with Aquino at its helm is trying to lure the MILF into a repeat of the mistakes of the MNLF in the 80s and 90s.

To paraphrase one MILF senior official who put it bluntly, the MILF is not naive, nor is it ignorant about the lessons of history. Neither are its leaders interested in elective or appointive positions in a “reformed ARMM” that are being dangled to them as bait. In this light, the GPH proposal to jointly rewrite Moro history "to correct historical injustices" is laughable and ridiculous, if it were not so insensitive and callous.

The MILF is negotiating in earnest to solve the Bangsamoro problem, i.e. to attain the aspirations for self-determination of a people who it lays legitimate claim to representing because it has led them in armed struggle to achieve those aims. It is not about to surrender either on the negotiating table or in the battlefield.

In sum, as MILF Chief Negotiator Iqbal pointed out, “The GPH draft (counter-proposal) has no meeting point with the MILF peace panel draft; hence, will not fast track the negotiation....(It) is not solving the Moro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao but it is a formula to prolong it.”

So much for the Aquino government’s much ballyhooed claims to being near the achievement of “peace” in Muslim Mindanao, much less a just and lasting peace.

Published in Business World
30 March- 31 March 2012

March 14, 2012

Unjustly accused and detained

In the fabled Land of Yellow where the President lays claim to the democratic mantle by being progeny to parents who fought a dictator, there lies hidden in the crowded, dank and dark crevices of the realm some 350 plus political prisoners.

Officially denied as existing; labelled as terrorists and treated as plain criminals without exception; hardly worth passing mention in the mass media except when the military announces the arrest of an alleged top-ranking communist cadre - they are denied their basic right to due process and consigned by the state to rot in jail while the wheels of justice are made to grind exceedingly slow.

A new book written by Angie Ipong, the oldest woman political prisoner until her release last year, together with some of her fellow prisoners of conscience entitled “A Red Rose for Andrea”, graphically lays bare the gravest human rights violations and injustices inflicted on Filipino political prisoners. At the same time, the book inspires and uplifts as it talks about their continuing struggles for freedom and justice, prisoners’ rights and welfare and reforms in the prison system, despite the most repressive prison conditions.

Ipong and co-writers describe their personal experiences that consistently include a litany of violations - illegal and warrantless arrest and detention; physical and psychological torture; denial of access to legal counsel and family members; harsh if not inhumane conditions of detention; multiple manufactured criminal charges; agonizingly prolonged and unfair processes of indictment, arraignment and trial; and finally, wrongful conviction. These harrowing experiences are premised on the prisoners’ ironical good fortune of not having become victims of enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killing.

One can imagine such brutalization happening under fascist martial rule almost half a century ago. But not today, not under the aegis of supposedly democratic rule where the current President does not tire of reminding the country about his moral rectitude, his democratic credentials and his experience as a so-called human rights victim.

Of course military captors offer the political prisoner two options during the period of tactical interrogation: cooperate and receive good treatment or resist and be subjected to a nightmarish experience you would not even wish your worst enemy.

For those who choose the former it could mean admitting to crimes you didn’t commit or implicating and causing the illegal arrest of others. From then on, such a coopted political prisoner becomes a witting or unwitting tool of the military in the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns until he or she becomes expendible and even becomes a victim of extra-judicial killing conveniently attributed to the rebel New People’s Army.

On the other hand, those who are able to summon the strength of character and conviction to assert their rights, survive the torture and retain their integrity as political activists, eventually discover that by so doing they can continue to struggle to defeat the repressive system even under detention.

Who then are the political prisoners in the Philippines?

An unpublished paper of KARAPATAN, the country’s leading human rights organization, calling for the grant of general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty for political prisoners, describes them as “those who are arrested, detained or imprisoned for acts in furtherance of their political and social beliefs; (a)s a consequence, they are arbitrarily and unjustly denied their liberty and due process of law.”

KARAPATAN points out that the phenomenon of political prisoners in the Philippines must be seen in the context of an intractable armed conflict with deep socio-economic and political roots. Seething social discontent and organized political dissent have been met with fascist repression by all governments since the inauguration of the republic after US colonial rule.

While it stands to reason that such prisoners should be charged with political offenses, i.e. rebellion, sedition and variations thereof, they are invariably slapped with criminal offenses, usually trumped up and based on fabricated evidence, in order to deny the political nature of their alleged offenses and unjustly keep them behind bars.

In so doing government stigmatizes political prisoners as plain criminals guilty of the most heinous crimes such as murder, multiple murder, frustrated murder, arson, kidnapping, robbery in band, illegal possession of firearms and others.

This also serves the government’s objective of keeping the true extent of illegal arrests and detention suffered by political/social activists, government critics, dissidents and ordinary folk, from being made public and denigrating its human rights record.

More and more, the Aquino regime is proving itself no different, if not worse, than its predecessors in that its pronouncements and posturing have even raised false hopes among some quarters.

At the start of the Aquino administration, high-profile opposition figures, military officers accused of fomenting rebellion against the previous Arroyo regime, were immediately released from detention followed by a general amnesty for about 400 more officers and men similarly situated.

With the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government (GPH) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) a year and a half later, there were renewed hopes that freedom for most if not all political prisoners was at hand, especially those already due for release on humanitarian grounds or whose cases stood on the flimsiest legal basis as well as NDFP consultants covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG).

But this was not to be. The GPH-NDFP peace talks fell into an impasse soon after its resumption last year ostensibly over the issue of whether the GPH was obligated to release all or most of 17 JASIG-protected persons agreed upon in the last round of talks in Oslo. GPH denies it has such an obligation and puts the blame on the NDFP for problems in verifying the identities of the aforementioned individuals.

The NDFP for its part asserts that not only does the GPH have such a commitment, it also has such an obligation under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) signed in 1998. It states that the government “shall abide by its doctrine laid down in People vs. Hernandez ... and shall forthwith review the cases of all prisoners or detainees who have been charged, detained or convicted contrary to this doctrine, and shall immediately release them.”

A recent positive development for the cause of political prisoners is the call by the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), a gathering of religious leaders from five major religious federations, including the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) , the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) , the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP), and the Ecumenical Bishops Forum (EBF).

Late last year, the PEPP called for the release of all political prisoners, including the remaining detained NDFP consultants, while reiterating their appeal to the GPH and the NDFP to immediately resume their formal peace talks.

Early last month, the PEPP followed this up with a more specific call to the GPH to release the remaining detained NDFP consultants in whatever is the most expeditious manner, so that the formal peace talks could resume. The PEPP underscored the earnestness of their call by offering to serve collectively as custodians of those consultants who could be released on recognizance.

Both sides appear to be open to this opportunity for overcoming the current deadlock in the peace talks but for things to move forward, greater public support must be generated.

Anyway one looks at it, the cry for freedom for all political prisoners must resonate into a deafening roar until the Aquino government’s claims, if not pretensions, to an upright and just governance, can be put to an acid test. #

Published in Business World
16-17 March 2012

March 02, 2012

The Aquino-LP agenda

It is no secret that President Noynoy Aquino and the Liberal Party are the prime movers in the campaign to oust Chief Justice Corona from the Suprem Court either through his “voluntary” resignation ala former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez or the more difficult route of a Senate impeachment trial.

Now that the LP-directed prosecution has rested its case against Mr. Corona rather anti-climactically by withdrawing five out of the eight original articles of impeachment, a critical evaluation of the Aquino-LP-led charge against the Chief Justice would be in order.

The manner and substance by which the LP-directed prosecution had prepared for and presented the evidence to prove its case gives us some clues on the motives and tactics of the Aquino administration.

We recall the lightning speed with which the House of Representatives impeached Mr. Corona, clearly at the initiative of Mr. Aquino and through the efforts of the LP leadership in the House.

This took place in the wake of the dramatic unfolding of events around the Corona-led Supreme Court’s decision which could have enabled former President Gloria Arroyo and her husband to leave the country on spurious grounds and the subsequent arrest of Mrs. Arroyo for electoral sabotage via the last-ditch efforts of a joint DOJ-Comelec investigative committee.

The Aquino administration rode on public approbation for the thwarting of the Arroyos’ perceived flight from justice and disapproval of the High Court’s role in making the latter’s escape almost a fait acompli.

It would not be long before the general perception would be that the prosecution had not prepared the evidences and witnesses enough to present an airtight case. This was compounded by their lack of litigation experience and skills.

It would appear to many, then, that the prosecution's precipitate withdrawal of five of eight charges was not so much out of confidence that they had built a strong enough case to convict, but was rather made to save themselves from further embarassment.

This may well be so. But the more significant conclusion is that from the start, the Aquino regime was content with exposing Corona to be corrupt and dishonest, enough to persuade the impeachment court to convict him, or at least enough to pressure him to resign. Not surprising since the Aquino regime has consistently trumpeted its anti-corruption campaign as its key solution to poverty and all that plagues Philippine society.

This is immediately obvious from the comparative amounts of time the prosecution allotted and spent for presenting the witnesses and evidence for each article.

Subsequently, when the prosecution faltered in its presentation to the impeachment court, Mr. Aquino went full throttle into demagogically painting Mr. Corona as the epitome of corruption in government and that failure to oust him from the SC would jeopardize its touted campaign to “reform the judiciary”.

Things begin to clarify. Mr. Aquino has been using this impeachment trial primarily to sustain and strengthen the illusion that his regime is all about cleaning up government -- from attaining accountability for past sins of corruption and malgovernance by the Arroyo clique to bringing the “matuwid na daan” to the other branches of government such as the judiciary.

What is covered up is the Aquino regime’s gross incompetence and lack of political will to actually file cases against Mrs. Arroyo for plunder and grave human rights violations even as wrongdoing and rights abuse under the Aquino watch is glossed over, justified and allowed to continue with impunity.

What is obfuscated is that it is implementing the same discredited economic policies and programs of Mrs. Arroyo that are exacerbating poverty, entrenching economic backwardness and further undermining the people’s standard of living in the midst of global economic turmoil.

What is sidelined is Mr. Aquino’s willful susceptibility to US dictates in so far as allowing heightened US armed presence and intervention in the country and in so far as defining the parameters of government’s counterinsurgency program.

But more than providing a circus (aka impeachmnet trial) to distract and preoccupy the people, the Aquino regime’s ultimate objective is to strengthen its influence if not hold over the Supreme Court by installing a new CJ and additional justices more to its liking.

In so doing, Mr. Aquino and his LP clique consolidate their hold on power sans a pesky, opposition-held SC; protect vested economic and political interests locked in dispute before the SC (yes Virginia, it is still all about the Cojuangco-Aquino-owned Hacienda Luisita and, unsurprisingly, the Liberal Party Vice Presidential candidate’s election protest); and prepare the ground well ahead of time for upcoming national elections in 2013 and 2016.

Now that the prosecution has claimed to have gained the high moral ground and willfully, if not prematurely, ceded the initiative to the defense, it remains to be seen whether the latter can demolish the prosecution’s already flawed case and what the Aquino regime still has in reserve in its arsenal and resources to make the senator judges vote for a conviction.

It would not be farfetched for people to surmise that this could include the collection of past political favors or the promise of future ones; the distribution of executive largesse by means of facilitated disbursements of budgets, lucrative contracts and other sources of bureaucratic profit and outright corruption; and even blackmailing some of the venerable-looking senators with skeletons in their closet and other unnamed vulnerabilities.

The people’s stake in the Corona impeachment trial has been considerably dimmed by the way the Aquino-LP campaign to oust Corona is being exposed as a self-serving attempt to enlarge the Aquino regime’s power, influence and room for maneuver. #

Published in Buiness World
2-3 March 2012