March 21, 2013

UP wake-up call

Disbelief and dismay were not uncommon reactions to the initial news that a UP coed had committed suicide, apparently despondent over her inability to continue her studies due to financial difficulties.  One could only make some sense of the tragedy when more background information was disclosed by her parents and a teacher-confidante, including some insights into the kind of student the sixteen-year-old freshman, Kristel Tejada, had been.

An honor student from elementary to high school, Kristel had overcome the initial disadvantages of not having studied in one of the exclusive, top-rated schools to pass the highly competitive UP entrance exams.  She was one among 10,000 who made it out of 50,000 examinees.

A Psychology major, she dreamt of going to medical school, but from the outset her quest was hobbled by her family’s financial difficulties. The father had a good-paying job two years ago but was laid off; her mother was a housewife raising three other young children.  From a modest middle class status, the Tejada family found itself pushed to the brink of poverty, having to make do with the small and unstable earnings of its sole breadwinner who had been reduced to driving a taxicab part-time.

Still, Kristel held fast to being a UP student and her dreams of helping her family overcome poverty despite the daily strain and even humiliation of being hard-up.

The public is not privy to what other problems weighed her down. But the fact is, this fledgling university student was stripped of her status as a student in good standing after having attended almost the entire semester as a 'sit in', hoping that somehow her father would produce the money needed to pay her loans or that the school authorities would grant her another reprieve.

Unfortunately neither happened and two days after she was forced to go on a leave of absence as well as surrender her precious UP student identification card, she laid dead, a suicide.

Whatever the reason or reasons for her suicide, any responsible administration, from UP Manila all the way up to Malacañang, should consider it a wake-up call to re-examine its policies and conduct in implementing these, and seriously, if contritely, pursue corrective measures to prevent this tragedy from happening again rather than wash its hands of any responsibility and worse, pass on the blame to the victim.

By being defensive and resorting to the distasteful tack of insinuating that serious family problems likely triggered the suicide, UP officials not only miss the entire point but also the opportunity to confront the real problems plaguing the entire university.

This is nothing less than its growing inaccessibility to the best and the brightest of our nation’s youth because of high tuition and other fees in a backdrop of endemic poverty, worsening unemployment and underemployment, incessantly rising cost of living and state abandonment of the already meager and pitiful provision of basic social services including education.

Since 1989 UP has been implementing the so-called Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP) wherein students are bracketed according to their family’s income levels. The well-to-do students (incomes of more than 1 million pesos) pay full tuition and other fees while those with incomes of 135,000 pesos and below enjoy free tuition sans all other fees and those below 80,000 also get a stipend.

At first blush, it appears to be a fair and rational approach to the university’s dilemma of growing expenditures versus a shrinking budget where students subsidize other students.  But in its more than two decades of implementation, the STFAP has resulted in a big percentage of passers of the UP entrance exams unable to enrol at UP for lack of means and only 1 in 100 students able to avail of free tuition.  To be “lucky” enough to be categorized as destitute and therefore “deserving” of free tuition, a student must undergo a laborious and oftentimes demeaning process.

More to the point, the STFAP has actually been used to justify the periodic raising of tuition fees with the inevitable result that the socio-economic profile of today’s UP student is a far cry from that more than half a century ago up till the early seventies when students with peasant or working class background, from the provinces, and graduates of public high schools had a fair chance of entering and graduating from UP.

We have observed that UP has become quite attractive even to the “burgis” whose children graduate from Ateneo, La Salle and other exclusive, sectarian high schools.  The scare that their children will become “atheists” and/or “communists” given the tradition of liberalism and activism at UP no longer seems to matter in the face of skyrocketing costs of quality private university education.

But the UP system itself is a victim of wrong government policies even as university officials have basically bought into the same and tailored the university's policies in conformity with these.  The prohibitively expensive and commercialized tertiary educational system we now have is the inevitable outcome of unrelenting budget and subsidy cuts for state colleges and universities coupled with almost complete deregulation of the private sector.

These policies are the result of successive Philippine governments blindly following neoliberal policy dogma and prescriptions of imperialist institutions like the World Bank that are premised on the state’s renunciation of its responsibility for upholding social rights such as education and health and relegating these to the workings of the “free market” in the name of efficiency and viability.

In plain language, public resources for social services are sacrificed for debt servicing, defense (aka internal security and counterinsurgency programs) spending, bloated infrastructure projects and the ever present systemic graft and corruption; meanwhile students and their struggling families are rendered easy prey to the profit-hungry private colleges and universities.

Kristel Tejada’s death is an indictment not just of the restrictive policies of UP Manila nor of the UP system’s STFAP, it is an indictment of the Aquino administration’s education policy which amounts to an abandonment of its bounden duty to provide universally accessible education to the Filipino youth.

A word about student protests in light of Kristel’s unacceptable demise. Whether the UP administration will acknowledge it or not – the big protest actions in 2010 and 2011 including campus strikes by a broad array of UP’s constituencies paved the way for higher state subsidy for UP the following year.  It was not the kind heartedness or the enlightenment of the Aquino regime that underlay this hike in UP’s budget; rather, government’s neoliberal policy thrusts being beaten back by the UP community’s vigilance and militancy.

* The second installment of a 2-part series on the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations will continue in the next issue of BusinessWorld.

Published in Business World
22-23 March 2013

March 14, 2013

Peace talks: frozen on its tracks

The GPH-MILF peace negotiations are seen to be moving forward at a fast clip with the Framework Agreement signed, negotiations on annexes ongoing and the composition of the Transition Commission finalized.  In stark contrast, the GPH-NDFP talks have been at a standstill not long after the formal talks were resumed two years ago, this time with the new Aquino government.

Recently the NDFP released a report on how a GPH-proposed “first historic moment”, wherein Pres. Aquino and Communist Party of the Philippines founding chairperson Jose Maria Sison were to meet in Hanoi ala the Aquino-Murad meeting in Japan, was scuttled by alleged government duplicity.  Malacañang has responded by denying there was ever such a “promise” or that Mr. Aquino’s special representative, Mr. Ronald Llamas, was ever authorized to make such a “promise”.  What, indeed, is going on?

Recall the handshakes and beaming smiles after the February 2011 formal talks in Oslo; the announcement of an accelerated timetable for negotiating the three remaining items on the substantive agenda most specially social and economic reforms; the flurry of public forums and meetings with peace advocates by both the GPH and NDFP representatives.  All these served to revive flagging interest and diminishing hope that a resolution to the intractable armed conflict could come about through a negotiated peace settlement between the two parties.

Not long after, another prolonged impasse.

The warning signs were evident at the close of the Oslo talks with the GPH placing on record its view that The Hague Joint Declaration of 1992 was a “document of perpetual division” rather than a viable framework containing the goal of a just and lasting peace, mutually acceptable principles and the substantive agenda covering human rights and international humanitarian law, socio-economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

Among the GPH reservations to the Hague Joint Declaration appear to revolve around the phrase “no precondition shall be made to negate the inherent character and purpose of the peace negotiations”.

The NDFP firmly and consistently asserts that this means neither side can impose its legal and constitutional framework on the other in the negotiations.  The CPP-NPA-NDFP, being a revolutionary formation waging armed struggle to overthrow what it deems to be an anti-people and anti-national state and install a regime of the opposite character and nature, cannot  allow itself to be subsumed by the GPH’s legal and constitutional framework since this is tantamount to capitulation.

On the other hand, the GPH insists that the NDFP submit to its legal and constitutional authority in word and deed, something that it has not been able to enforce in the battlefield nor in the “hearts and minds” of the revolutionary forces and their mass base.

This is the reason why both sides have zealously watched out for formulations in any of the joint statements, declarations or agreements that would grant such a submission of one party to the other.

Unfortunately, the GPH appears determined to derogate, set aside and even renege not only on The Hague Joint Declaration but other critical bilateral agreements such as the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) which constitute indispensable building blocks for the peace talks to continue unimpeded and arrive at solid agreements to resolve the underlying roots of the armed conflict.

The GPH claims that the JASIG is no longer in effect ever since the attempt to verify the Documents of Identification (DIs) of the detained NDFP consultants and other JASIG-protected persons failed because the encrypted files of the DIs stored in the safety deposit box in The Netherlands could not be decrypted. The decrypting keys were apparently corrupted while in the possession of the Dutch police who had seized all the electronic files found in the raided offices and residences of the NDFP panel members, consultants and staff in August 2007.

The GPH refuses the NDFP’s recourse to reconstruct the DI list without advancing any practicable alternative.  Instead it accuses the NDFP of deviousness in using enciphered electronic copies of the DI list instead of unencrypted hard copies susceptible to unintended disclosure or espionage.  Thus the GPH displays its unreasonableness as well as its real intent, to put up obstacles to the resumption of the peace talks and putting it back on track.

The immediate effect is the GPH’s non-compliance with the agreement to release “most if not all” of the 17 detained NDFP consultants and other JASIG-protected persons before the scheduled June 2011 formal talks.   That meant then a minimum of 9 out of 17 detained consultants.  As of  now only a minimum of three remain to be released for the formal talks to resume,  since six have been released, mostly on the merits of the case and not as a result of the agreement since  February  2011 .

An offer of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP) to act as custodians for the NDFP consultants who can be released on recognizance (ROR) was effectively shot down by the GPH.  It set conditions that the PEPP deemed unreasonable and which eventually the consultants deemed unacceptable. The custodians must (1) guarantee that the released consultant “remains visibly aboveground”;  and  (2)  “visibly participates in the peace negotiations”; and (3)  the guarantor must be responsible for any and all actions of the released person.

The irrationality of these conditions is shown by the fact that  one of the consultants released in 2011 , Jaime Soledad,  remained aboveground but was  rearrested in May 2012;  while  early on,  Sotero Lllamas, who was very visibly aboveground and participating in the peace negotiations since his release in July 1996,  was assassinated  by suspected state security forces in April 2007

The GPH stance that the JASIG is not in effect has imperilled the entire negotiations itself by placing the NDFP panel members, staff and consultants and others who participate in activities related to the peace talks at the mercy of the GPH, vulnerable to surveillance, arrest, detention and prosecution at any time.

With the formal peace talks seriously stalled the NDFP attempted to go around the problem by pursuing a “special track”.  This, simply put, is an offer by the NDFP of truce that is by definition, a temporary cessation or suspension of hostilities by agreement of the opposing sides, and alliance with the GPH on the basis of a firm agreement to put in place major social, economic and political reforms demanded by the people.

Thereafter, formal peace negotiations or the “regular track” would flesh out and ink bilateral agreements on the remaining substantive agenda so as to arrive at a final peace agreement and a permanent cessation of hostilities. (Next week: The “special track” falters) #

Published in Business World
15-16 March 2013

March 07, 2013

Cacique diplomacy

Why is it taking forever for Malacanang to state whether it acknowledges the official claim of the Philippines to Sabah and will pursue it with vigor or will drop it like a hot potato?

Many are beginning to surmise that the Aquino regime is not at all convinced that the Sabah claim has merit and his description of it as a “hopeless cause” is not just a slip of the tongue indicating “ignorance or incompetence” as Sultan Jamalul Kiram III suspects but his regime’s point of view and even policy on the matter.

The objective of the so-called study ordered by Mr. Aquino appears to be to find holes in the claim rather than determine its veracity and validity.  Otherwise, why has the “study” not come up with anything at all so far?  Surely the DFA and other government agencies can dig up the documentation on the Philippines’ Sabah claim whilst Mr. Aquino consults the many experts that have specialized in scholarly, legal and historical, study of the same.

The Aquino regime’s indifference to the Philippines’ Sabah claim underlies his 1) disdain over Sultanate’s political act of asserting their claim of ownership; 2) belief that this is merely part of a grand conspiracy by his political enemies to make trouble, in particular to throw a monkey wrench into the GPH-MILF peace negotiations; 3) refusal to negotiate in earnest with the Sultanate’s heirs instead resorting to publicly-aired ultimatums and threats of criminal prosecution against Sultan Kiram III and other “co-conspirators”; 4) speaking and acting as if he fully concedes Malaysia’s sovereignty over Sabah, that is, the Sultanate’s unarmed followers and members of its “Royal Security Forces” are the transgressors and the Malaysian government is justified in using all-out force to exterminate them.

Too bad for Mr. Aquino it is not going to be easy to rewrite the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history with regard to North Borneo now Sabah.

The facts are clear and incontrovertible.  The Sulu Sultanate came to own and rule over North Borneo in 1704 when the Sulu Sultan’s relative, the Sultan of Brunei, granted the territory to the former in return for helping him quell his enemies.

In 1878, the Sulu Sultanate entered into a lease agreement with the British North Borneo Company, a private trading company; for a consideration of 5000 Malayan dollars per year, the BNBC could exploit and develop North Borneo’s natural resources and administer the territory in the Sultanate’s behalf.  This was upped to 5300 dollars in 1903 when Sultan Jamalul Kiram II signed a document leasing additional islands in the vicinity of the mainland of North Borneo.

Subsequently, the British Crown in collusion with the BNBC deliberately misinterpreted the term “padyak” in the 1878 agreement to mean “cession” instead of “lease” in order for the British to land grab North Borneo and falsely claim dominion or sovereignty over it.

The Sulu Sultanate came under the control of Spain in the 1880s but not North Borneo.  The 1885 Madrid Protocol signed by  Great Britain, Germany and Spain consolidated Spain’s continued sway over the Philippine islands while Spain renounced all claims of sovereignty over the territories of  Borneo belonging to the Sultan of Sulu.

The United States officially notified Great Britain that North Borneo remained part of the Sulu Sultanate in 1906 and 1920; nevertheless, Britain proceeded to annex North Borneo as a colony in 1946.

The 1935 Constitution defined Philippine territory to include "all other areas which belong to the Philippines on the basis of historical rights and legal claims" and thus effectively covered North Borneo.  The Sulu Sultanate's act of ceding sovereignty to the Republic of the Philippines on 12 September 1962, during the Diosdado Macapagal administration authorized the Philippine government to file the Sabah claim with the United Nations and other international forums.

The so-called plebiscite conducted under the auspices of the British colonialists and their Malayan subalterns in 1963 predictably resulted in a vote in favor of Sabah's incorporation in the Federation of Malaysia.  And so it came to pass that when Malaysia was formed in 1963, Britain's illegal annexation of North Borneo was bequeathed to the new Malaysian state.

It is evident from the above that the Philippines has a solid claim to sovereignty over Sabah, to say the least.  What is incomprehensible to many is why Presidents Macapagal and Marcos, who showed some interest in pursuing the claim at the beginning of their terms, eventually backed off.  Successive regimes after Marcos chose to let the claim lie dormant, with Ramos and Estrada ordering "studies" on the bases and prospects for pursuing the claims, without any concrete or at least announced results.

The answer lies in the fact that the Philippine government's foreign policy is still very much aligned with and influenced, if not dictated by US foreign policy and national interest.  Thus, attempts to explain various regimes' position on Sabah purely on the basis or in the context of Philippine national interest prove inadequate.  Oftentimes, what is good for the US is misrepresented as good for the Philippines, too, especially on questions of “regional peace and stability".   What the US says is good for "regional peace and stability", is good for the Philippines too.

With respect to Sabah, Philippine regimes invariably relegated the Philippine claim to the back burner to avoid confrontation with Malaysia or even antagonizing it in any way. Especially so since 1974 when Malaysia started playing a key role in the Organization of Islamic Conference's intervention in the peace negotiations between the GRP and the MNLF, and more so since 2001 when Malaysia became the official Third Party Facilitator in the GPH-MILF talks.

This partly explains why Aquino, more than his predecessors, evidently has no interest in supporting the Kirams in renewing the Philippines' claim to Sabah. As the Framework Agreement nears completion with most of the annexes agreed upon by the GPH and MILF panels, this is not the best time to incur the displeasure, if not ire, of the Third Party Facilitator, Malaysia. At the very least, it would appear to be an unpardonable act of ingratitude.  At worst, Malaysia could retaliate and put the agreement in peril.

But this does not explain why Aquino has gone a lot farther to the extent of clearly siding with Malaysia. Not only has Aquino refused to acknowledge the peaceful intent of the Sultanate's expedition to Sabah he has desisted from supporting the Kirams' mostly symbolic and political move. He has threatened them with arrest and prosecution, broadcast his supposed doubts on the legitimacy even of their royal lineage, and practically accuses them of acting only at the behest of and in conspiracy with the much discredited Arroyos.

Mr. Aquino had virtually given the Malaysian government the green light to use coercive and armed means to end the stand-off and crush the Filipinos.

To top it all, Mr. Aquino has chosen to do a Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the bloody outcome of his regime's hard-line position against the Kirams.  He has since relegated the handling of the Sabah crisis to his underlings while he blithely campaigns for his senatorial candidates and indulges in pontificating about the Sultan's culpability for the ignominious end of his followers in Sabah.

Many who are still trying to understand the actuation and statements of Mr. Aquino with the assumption that his standpoint derives from the national interest are bound to be stumped and confused forever.  In truth, Mr. Aquino's derisive attitude can only be traced to his cacique upbringing and mindset.

Mr. Aquino, scion of landed elites and heir to the Cojuangco-Aquino political dynasty, can readily sympathize with the land grab of North Borneo perpetrated by the Malaysian state and ruling elite, because this is something he can relate to in light of the experience of the clan's Hacienda Luisita.   He is dealing with the Kirams in much the same way he and his clan has dealt with the Hacienda's farm workers and tenants for decades – using deceit and force – to maintain an unjust status quo. #

Published in Business World
8-9 March 2013