May 31, 2012

Change or more of the same

The impeachment trial has been hailed as historic because it is the first time an erring high public official, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court no less, has been tried before an impeachment court, the trial completed and a conviction rendered in accordance with the Constitution and in consonance with the public demand for justice and accountability.  But already many are asking how much of a change can Corona’s removal from office really bring about?

Recent history itself reminds us that the removal from office of the highest public officials guilty of plunder and gross abuse of power, while desirable, righteous and even imperative has not led to any significant reforms nor resulted in the general improvement in the quality of our people’s lives.

The Corona conviction by a vote of 20-3 is being touted by Malacanang as a victory for President Aquino’s quest for good governance including an honest, fair and independent judiciary.  It is also being held up as a testament to the vibrancy of Philippine democracy and that this augers a “paradigm shift” in the country’s political culture.

We are asked to believe that from a political system that has always been debauched and profited from by the entrenched political and economic elite in this country we are now on the road to one where corruption will be stamped out and where the ideal of “public office for the public good” will be realized.

Unfortunately the propaganda spin has not much to stand on.

This prettified, sanitized version of what were the stakes in the Corona impeachment trial, who were orchestrating the moves of the Prosecution and the Defense, the actual arbiters in the decision-making of the Senator-judges, and the intended and unintended consequences of the Corona ouster from the SC is not derived nor can it be sustained by the facts and circumstances of what actually transpired whether already of public knowledge or still to be pieced together from information or commentaries slowly filtering out.

From the start, the Aquino-LP-led campaign to oust Corona from the Supreme Court was spurred by clashing factional interests within the ruling elite.  Aquino’s move to neutralize Arroyo’s appointees in the Supreme Court is not entirely for the declared intent of ensuring an independent Court and removing the obstacles to the prosecution of Arroyo for her crimes. The apparent lack of resolve to prosecute Corona for favoring Arroyo and using his position to allow her  to leave the country shows that the Aquino-LP clique have other more important reasons for removing Corona and reinforcing their own  influence over the Court.

The excessive focus on Article 2 and the dropping or dowplaying of the other charges against Corona reveal the objective of using the impeachment trial to highlight and revitalize Aquino’s anti-corruption rhetoric.

The Senators’ vote similarly reflected partisan lines and quid pro quo as well as keen awareness of  2013 elections. Many of the Senators’ speeches dealt at length and unnecessarily on their own personal concerns and interest, while some embarked on calls for accountability, honesty, etc. as though in an early campaign speech. Not a word was uttered by any of them on the more urgent and imperative tasks with respect to the original declared impetus for the impeachment trial – bringing Aquino and her accomplices to the bar of justice, and paving the way for fundamental political and social changes.

Having said this, it must be pointed out that Corona’s trial and conviction has objectively provided unusual openings for the pursuit of a degree of political reform.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Corona’s second unconditional waiver provides a standard by which to challenge and set the bar for other high public officials not least of whom are President Aquino, his  Cabinet members, the House of Representatives starting with the congressmen who voted to impeach Corona, and the Senate that convicted him.  Will they follow suit or will we hear only excuses or reasons for exemption?

The unusual zeal by which Malacanang, the Aquino-appointed Ombudsman and Aquino’s allies in Congress were able produce the evidence to bring about the conviction of Corona must be similarly demanded in connection with running after Arroyo and her cohorts for the more grievous crimes of plunder, human rights violations, electoral fraud, etc.  In this Aquino’s track record remains dismal thus the clamor for concrete results must be amplified.

The public should be on the look-out for who Aquino will eventually appoint as Chief Justice and whether such an appointee will exhibit the probity, independence and fairness that was supposedly lacking in Corona.  Vigilance is needed to ensure that the erstwhile Arroyo Court is not simply replaced by one more pliant to the pressures and demands of the Aquino presidency.

Finally, the people must be wary of and oppose the way the reactionary elite with their vested interests utilize the Corona conviction to shore up the status quo with the myth of elite democracy at work and that they are champions of that democracy.

The people must be forewarned that this mystique will be used by the Aquino administration  to manipulate public opinion and  push for anti-people policies and the further consolidation of power by his clique, immediately, with the 2013 elections in view.

Rather than set the tone for reforming the political system, the Corona conviction, if left to these reactionary interests to capitalize on, will only become a tool for further deceiving the people and change nothing. #

Published in Business World
1-2 June 2012

May 24, 2012

Crowning revelation

Until last Tuesday, it seemed to a growing number of people that the Corona impeachment trial had become a huge waste of time and resources.  That is to say, for the Senate which otherwise should have paid attention to myriad matters of national importance;  for the prosecutors and defense lawyers who presumably have other cases to attend to; and not least of all, for the Filipino people, who are paying for the entire exercise and who had hoped to see some measure of justice meted out not just against the accused Chief Justice Corona but, prospectively, on the one person he sought to use his exalted position to protect from prosecution and punishment – former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Bayan Muna and other progressive party lists in the House of Representatives voted in favor of CJ Corona’s impeachment despite the lack of consultation that attended its passage tantamount to what some representatives denounced as railroading.  The main reason was the desire to clear the way to Mrs. Arroyo's prosecution and punishment for all her crimes against the people, foremost of which were the rampant extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and reign of terrorism enforced by state security forces in rural and urban poor communities.

That CJ Corona is a lackey of Mrs. Arroyo and was installed into the highest position of the Supreme Court by her despite Constitutional prohibition (predictably set aside by the same High Court packed with Arroyo appointees) precisely to be mobilized at an opportune time to save Arroyo’s skin was what roused overwhelming public opinion to support the impeachment complaint. There was widespread outrage that the Arroyo couple’s brazen attempt to flee the country and be beyond the reach of its justice system was made possible by the Corona-led Supreme Court.

The people had been made by the Aquino administration and the Liberal Party to expect that the impeachment trial would fully expose the nefarious link between the midnight appointee Chief Justice and his erstwhile patron, Mrs. Arroyo.  It was something that would not have been possible in any ordinary judicial process, what with the highest magistrate himself sitting on the bench as the ultimate adjudicator.

But alas, such high but perfectly reasonable expectations were far from met.  

From day one, the lack of expertise and competence of the prosecutors was displayed not only in the amateurish fumbling and unfamiliarity with court rules and procedures, but worse, in the lack of preparation and cohesion in mustering and presenting the evidence on the charges against the accused.

The incohesion would further be manifest, though not publicly, in the disagreements within the prosecution on what the direction and focus should be.

Eventually, the Aquino-LP tack prevailed, that the charges mainly be on Corona's non-disclosure of his wealth (presumably ill-gotten) rather than the abuse of his authority in using the SC to allow and cover the flight of the Arroyos from the country to escape prosecution for plunder and other high crimes. This culminated in the prosecution's precipitate withdrawal of five of the eight original charges, focusing almost solely on Article 3 and paying only token attention to Article 7.

While the Defense reinforced by some evidently pro-Corona Senator-Judges made capital of the prosecution's weaknesses in presenting their evidence, it proved to be no better in preparing its own documentary and testimonial evidence and arguments.  Most of the Defense witnesses were ineffective, some counterproductive. And what would be the ominous prelude to the worst blunder of Corona testifying was calling in Ombudsman Carpio-Morales as a hostile witness.  This provided the introduction of testimonial evidence about Corona’s US dollar accounts that up until then could not be done by virtue of the Impeachment Court’s decision to be bound by the Corona SC’s prior TRO covering said dollar accounts.

What is noteworthy is that the Defense, in focusing on the bank accounts and SALN issue, managed or chose to totally ignore Article 7 with regard to Corona’s falsifying or misrepresenting the SC en banc decision so that the Arroyos could fly out of the country, as if by mutual agreement of the two court protagonists.

Thus, the impeachment court and the interest and attention of the public had been successfully diverted from the bigger crimes and anomalies that pervaded the GMA regime.

The bulk of Corona’s testimony capped the whole process, with Corona dwelling emotionally and in great detail on absolutely unimportant, irrelevant and immaterial details of his childhood and upbringing, his in-laws' family feuds, maligning the character even of the long dead, etc.

Penultimately, what was meant to appear as a magnanimous act by CJ Corona turned out to be a cheap trick designed to resonate with the public’s general suspicion regarding their congressmen’s propensity towards corruption.  Corona conditioned the waiver on his hidden bank accounts and other information related to his assets, liabilities and net worth on the execution of the same waiver by the 188 Congressmen who had voted to impeach him and by the unabashedly anti-Corona Senator-Judge Drilon, a condition Corona knew would be impossible to achieve.

Until, when he was almost done, Corona did what his even his most critical detractors had not imagined he was capable of.  Declaring himself “The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines”, Corona with utmost effrontery walked out of the proceedings and thus put himself above the Senate Impeachment Court he said he would subject himself to and above the very Constitution he had sworn to uphold.

With that, Corona unwittingly revealed to the entire nation, whose sympathy and support he had sought by appearing in the impeachment court, what kind of person and public official he really is.  It was absolutely the opposite of what he had tried to paint himself to be. Only the blind and naive could have missed it.

Ironically, it was this inadvertent revelation -- as well as the spontaneous outburst of disapproval it elicited -- that could prove to be the saving grace of the impeachment trial.  For if there was ever any doubt in anybody's mind that CJ Corona would be capable of such malfeances as blatantly distorting the Court’s en banc's decision to favor Mrs. Arroyo,  then all doubt must have disappeared at that moment.

For the impeachment trial to have not gone to waste, it would not be enough to conclude that CJ Corona indeed had deliberately misdeclared his SALN to conceal his financial transactions and his wealth.  Corona had argued as much and indeed it is a persuasive argument that such is not necessarily an impeachable offense.

Yet in the end Corona displayed the same arrogance and abuse of power, pitting himself and the SC he arrogates to be his own, against the Senate and HOR, above the law, in the very same way he did when he mobilized the Court and misused his powers to flout the Justice Department’s Watch List Order against the Arroyos.

Now that is absolutely and irrefutably an impeachable offense for which Corona should be adjudged unfit to remain Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. #

Published in Business World
25-26 May 2012

May 20, 2012

Mutual respect, mutual benefit

Just when the Philippines and China appear to be trying to ease tension over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a state-of-the-art US attack submarine suddenly surfaces in the former Subic US Naval Base in Zambales, less than 200 kilometers away from the contentious maritime area.

The unmistakable message from the US is that like it or not, the Chinese and Philippine governments will have to take into serious account US interests in the East Asia region, and these are not necessarily consistent with the mutual interests of China and the Philippines.

The Aquino government had initially denied the unannounced presence of the submarine or feigned ignorance of its arrival.  Then, when forced to admit its presence, the lame explanation and obvious lie was that this was a “regular port call" much like those of other vessels from other countries.  Are they saying that warships from other countries also regularly make port calls at Subic or other Philippine ports?

At the very least, it could reignite the controversy over the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA), and give credence to the view that the Philippines is in fact yielding its sovereignty to the US through the unhampered entry, stationing and exit of US forces and warships anywhere on the archipelago even as it adamantly protests and tries to fend off alleged Chinese incursions into its territorial waters.

The Aquino regime had earlier set off on the wrong foot when it called on Big Brother US for help, invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty, and bringing up the issue in the 2+2 defense & foreign affairs ministerial meeting.  The US, as expected, gave only a vague response citing the two countries’ long-standing alliance and so forth and so on but not giving the categorical commitment to rush to the Philippines’ aid in case of an armed confrontation with China.

The evident resort to the "US card" comes in form of the recently concluded Balikatan war exercises that included a mock retaking of an oil rig supposedly seized by terrorists that was held close to the disputed maritime area; the “2+2” meeting in the US; and now the port call of the USS North Carolina in Subic Bay, an attack submarine considered one of the “stealthiest, most technologically advanced” in the world.  Such types of submarines are capable of carrying and launching Tomahawk missiles with nuclear warheads, a possibility that the Philippine government cannot determine or verify as provided for in the VFA, despite a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons.

It points to the Aquino administration taking the wrong, dangerous, self-contradictory and ultimately counterproductive tack of inviting and even welcoming US intervention to ward off the Chinese.
Since it is clear by now, even to the most avid believers of US protection, that the Philippines has everything to lose from a military confrontation, it stands to reason that a diplomatic settlement based on international law is the most logical, imperative and desirable approach to the impasse.

So far, the public has been made to believe that in this international legal arena, the Philippine position is superior to that of China’s.  The government position that gets repeated in news reports seems simple enough: the disputed shoal is 124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales while it is a far distance of 550 nm from the nearest Chinese province; ergo going by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is clearly part of the 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

Yet scholarly position papers available on the internet have pointed to the frailty or weakness of the legal position of the Philippines regarding sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal notwithstanding greater proximity to our coastline and despite the government’s apparent readiness to bring the issue to international arbitration versus China's rejection of the move.

A paper that came out in an on-line publication of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a non-government and non-profit organization based in Hong Kong, “The Huangyan Island Standoff: A Review of the Claims and the Prospects for the Future” points out that “‘geographic proximity’ has long been dismissed by international law and practice as the principle of the solution of territory ownership.”  On the other hand, China bases its territorial claims on “(f)irst discovery, consistent administration, historical rights of fishing... all recognized as valid in international law to support territory claims.”

Moreover, the paper debunks the Philippine argument that Scarborough shoal is located within the Philippine (EEZ) and therefore it retains sovereignty over the area.  “It’s a false interpretation of UNCLOS. The basic principle of the law of the sea is ‘the land dominates the sea’, meaning it is the territorial sovereignty of coastal states that generates their sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the EEZ and over the continental shelf. The fact that Huangyan Island is within 200 nm off the Philippine coastline does not naturally give the Philippines sovereignty over it or make it part of its territory.”

The papers also argue that it was only in 1997 that the Philippine government staked a claim on the shoals, whereas these were not included in Philippine maps such the 1898 Spanish-American Treaty of Paris and subsequent official Philippine maps.

At the minimum, objectively speaking, sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal is in contention by three countries China, Taiwan and the Philippines even though all three will insist, from their own point of view, that their claim is the rightful or superior one.

Given this fact, would it not be the better part of political wisdom, more so statesmanship, for the Aquino administration to seriously study and issue a rational and sober reply to the points raised by China rather than brandish the Philippines military alliance with the US to act as a counterfoil to China’s military strength and to make up for the Philippines’ military inferiority?

It also serves no purpose to keep whipping up pseudo-patriotic and ultra-nationalist sentiments against China and things Chinese. A sorry attempt by Filipino-Americans unabashedly in support of the Aquino administration and the pro-Aquino Akbayan party list to mobilize tens of thousands in coordinated protests at China’s embassies in the US, Philippines and elsewhere only managed to bring out scores of protesters, provoke counter-protests by Chinese nationals, generate apparently economic retaliatory sanctions by China and undermine whatever attempts of the Philippine government to to tone down the rhetoric and defuse the situation.

The bottom line of all these is that national sovereignty and security from external threats should be based on an independent foreign policy - one that takes Pihilippine national interest primarily into account, is not dependent on any foreign power and is grounded on the principles of mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence (1955 Bandung Conference). #

Published in Business World
18-19 May 2012