May 22, 2014

Connecting the dots

Three seemingly unconnected events have been unfolding in the past days and weeks – the expose on the “Napolist” or list of legislators acting as alleged partners-in-crime of pork barrel scam queen Janet Napoles;  the death of two-day-old Diona Rosal, baby girl of Andrea Rosal who the military claims is a top-ranking New People’s Army commander and who also happens to be the daughter of renowned Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army spokesman “Ka Roger” Rosal; and the World Economic Forum on East Asia extravaganza in Manila that top bills the government-claimed Philippine success story.

The Napoles list is contained in a supposed tell-all affidavit of the notorious Ms. Napoles who is under arrest for serious illegal detention filed by whistleblower Benhur Luy and who is also facing plunder charges for her role in the ten-billion-peso scam involving the lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).  Prior to this, she had always denied the accusations against her and even refused to answer any questions at a Senate inquiry. 

According to Justice Secretary Leila De Lima, Ms. Napoles had a sudden change of heart after suffering a serious illness and executed her affidavit during a five-hour meeting with Sec. De Lima in her hospital room.  Curiously, after announcing dramatically that Ms. Napoles had provided further damaging evidence against three incumbent senators already indicted for plunder, Messrs. Juan Ponce-Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, Sec. De Lima clammed up. 

Soon after former Senator Ping Lacson and whistleblower Sandra Cam announced that they too had bona fide but unsigned copies of what is now dubbed the “Napolist”.  Lacson warned of moves to “sanitize” the list. No less than Pres. Aquino said he had seen two disparate lists, one of which had come directly from the Napoles camp. In time, the Lacson copy and the list held by Sec. De Lima were made public revealing the names of Aquino allies.  The Philippine Daily Inquirer meanwhile started publishing the contents of a hard disk from Mr. Luy containing more names of legislators, other government officials, media practitioners and private persons who were either conduits or beneficiaries of the Napoles racket.

As muddled as the entire episode on the pork barrel scam is at this point, whether by design or happenstance, one thing is clear, Ms. Napoles has upped her value to both the Aquino administration and the Opposition (exemplified by the three indicted senators).  Even though at first glance, Ms. Napoles’ credibility appears to have reached rock bottom what with her conflicting statements and avowals, it seems both the Aquino camp and that of the three senators see her value in mudslinging, if not providing crucial evidence, for putting the other side on the political defensive.  Thus Ms. Napoles has the temerity to offer herself as a state witness and to claim immunity from prosecution or some such deal with the state prosecutors.

In this light, it should be no surprise why and how Ms. Napoles has enjoyed special treatment from the time she sent feelers to Malacanang about surrendering (no less than President Aquino and several of his Cabinet officials met with her and escorted her to jail) to her actual detention arrangements (a far cry from the lavish residences she has been accustomed to but also much more comfortable than a hot and congested city jail where she belongs).  It is also a no brainer how she has managed to get herself a private room with amenities, albeit in Makati’s public hospital, attended by her top-of-the-line private physicians and how there is such a flurry of media attention about her non-fatal health condition.

Contrast this with how a pregnant Andrea Rosal has been treated disgracefully and without an iota of humanity by the state’s security forces, its prosecutorial arm (the Justice [sic] Department), its courts, and its jail wardens (BJMP).  Ms. Rosal was on her seventh month of pregnancy and was about to have a prenatal check-up when she was arrested last March. She had been having uterine cramps and after an ultrasound at the behest of human rights advocates (which they paid for), was recommended for hospitalization given her delicate condition and the possibility of a high-risk pregnancy.  It took a month and a half before the court ordered her hospitalization (after insisting on so many requirements and strictures). While in jail, only doctors mobilized by human rights organizations ministered to her medical needs.

Ms. Rosal was brought to the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) the evening of May 15 but was brought back to Bicutan early morning the following day after being told she was not yet in labor and that there was no vacancy.  When the human rights doctor attending to her found out about this, she personally made arrangements with the hospital authorities and urged BJMP officials to immediately bring Ms. Rosal back to the hospital.  After much dilly-dallying, she was brought to PGH late evening of May 16.  She gave birth the following morning to a full-term baby girl.  Unfortunately, the newborn was having difficulty in breathing and remained in critical condition until she expired the following day.

The whole time Ms. Rosal was in the hospital she was surrounded by BJMP guards, including a male, who were right inside her hospital room.  She could not even be given the privacy to grieve her baby’s untimely death.  When her lawyers asked that she be allowed to go to her baby’s wake and burial, the judge only gave her a 3-hour pass to go to the wake in a nearby church.  She was not allowed to attend the burial because of “security” concerns.  Once more Ms. Rosales was accompanied by a plethora of guards at the wake, a spectacle of “overacting” security measures if there ever was one.

Meanwhile, oblivious to and far removed from the madding crowd, comfortably ensconced in luxuriant environs befitting the fantasy world they conjure, six hundred top business executives, state ministers and other similarly privileged are assembled for the World Economic Forum on East Asia (WEF), a regional rite of homage to the world capitalist system.  Paeans are generously bestowed host Philippines for being the "second fastest growing economy“ next only to China, joining the elite class of "emergent economies” and on course to be the "14th largest economy by 2050".     

What does the WEF have to do with Janet Napoles and Andrea and Diona Rosal? 

While the Philippine "success story" is being held up as proof that the system works and, with the  ASEAN integration just around the corner, that the momentum is set for the entire region to prosper and grow, reality bites.  The reality of an unjust system that has brought about a Napoles on the one hand and a Rosal on the other, can only cast serious doubt, if not totally belie, the illusions being peddled at the WEF.

Nobody really expects anything new to come out of the WEF on East Asia.  It is meant to reinforce, if not ensure existing policies and schemes by big capital such as further breaking down trade and investment protectionist barriers.  Lip service will be duly paid to sustainability, inclusivity, environment concerns, various safety clauses, etc. but the purpose is to assuage and reduce opposition, the final goal being to ensure the continuation of neoliberal policies and reap more profit.

On the Philippine front, the vaunted element of good governance is nowhere to be found with nearly half of both legislative houses seriously implicated in the PDAF scams, with Malacanang no less involved in illegal disbursements, and worse, with no clear indication that the guilty would be identified and held accountable.  The indicators bandied about to prove the country’s being “Asia’s bright spot” – high growth rates, credit rating upgrades, healthy profit-taking by the entrenched elite – mean little to the majority of Filipinos mired in poverty, joblessness, hunger and disease.

Ironically, the impunity with which Napoles & her ilk could plunder the entire economy and get royal treatment to boot, coupled with the injustice and inhumanity that snuff out innocent lives such as Diona's are the very ingredients upon which the seeds of protest thrive and meaningful lives are born anew. #

Published in Business World
23-24 May 2014

May 09, 2014

A base by any other name

Official secrecy, obfuscation and outright lies have characterized continuing US military presence and activity in the Philippines since permanent US military bases were booted out in 1991.

Whatever information has been made available by the two governments has been in the form of a sustained public relations campaign.  Front page photos of the US Armed Forces regaling Filipino politicians, bureaucrats and media practitioners with tours on their state-of-the-art aircraft carriers and submarines.   US forces in Balikatan military exercises engaged in civic action: building classrooms, holding medical-surgical clinics and training locals in disaster preparedness.  US participation in the Yolanda relief effort, unlike those of other countries, involve the massive, some say overkill,  mobilization of military forces and military war equipment, subsequently generating incalculable goodwill among the local population.

Filipinos critical and suspicious of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will need to study more deeply what economic and political realities in the US and the world have brought about changes in the US global defense strategy and concomitant major adjustments in its force structure and deployment.  In turn, what political relations and legal arrangements with countries hosting US military forces have become necessary and desirable to secure and advance the strategic interests of the lone Superpower.

With the US and its allies emerging victors at the end of the Cold War in 1990-91, the US lost its justification for maintaining overseas military bases, having no clear enemies left to fight outside its borders.  Public demand no less from the US citizenry, coupled with fiscal constraints amid lingering economic recessions and crises, forced the US defense establishment to embark on a Base Reduction and Closure (BRAC) program that resulted in the dismantling of 350 military installations worldwide by 2005.

While the closure of the US military bases at Clark and Subic was not contemplated in the BRAC plan, strong nationalist sentiment brought about the rejection of a new military bases agreement that would have retained the US bases for another 10 years. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that came two months before the historic Senate vote hastened the abandonment of the bases by the US forces.

It would not take long, though, for the US to find – or create – another “enemy” that would justify what official US Defense documents would describe as a “robust” overseas military presence.  War, after all, has always been monopoly-capital’s solution, both in the short and long run, to economic crises. In the short run, it provides employment and revives production, although limited to the military industries.  In the long run, military intervention and aggression are needed to seize and maintain strategic resources, markets, cheap labor and dumping ground for excess capital. 

The 9-11 bombings provided the pretext – the “war against terror” – for once again deploying US forces and materiel worldwide in large numbers. The aim this time is not only to consolidate hegemony as the undisputed sole Superpower, but also to prevent the rise of another peer competitor. But with the same political, diplomatic, social and financial constraints continuing to weigh it down, the US could not go back to the old set-up of maintaining large permanent military bases on foreign soil.

Thus, the resort to an elaborate system  of having a few bases called “Main Operating Bases” (MOBs) i.e. “an enduring strategic asset established in friendly territory with permanently stationed combat forces, command and control structures, and family support facilities”. These old-type foreign military bases are combined with several other types of “facilities” with varying degrees of control and ownership shared with the host nation (e.g. Colocated Operating Bases, Forward Operating Sites/Locations, Forward Support Sites/Locations, Cooperative Security Locations, Preposition Sites, etc.), with  corresponding agreements with host nations allowing various degrees of US military presence and types of activities on their soil.

(It is worth noting that “Agreed Locations” is not included in this official list, and is either a newly evolved concept or a newly-coined term  meant to  flexibly cover any of the above types of Base or Location when it suits the US or when it becomes feasible or acceptable.)
Since the abrogation of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement, the sprawling, off-limits, in-your-face type of bases exemplified by the Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base ceased to exist in many countries.  They symbolized and constituted an affront to national sovereignty and territorial integrity; spawned innumerable social and economic problems; provoked nationalist sentiments and gave rise to vigorous anti-bases and anti-nuclear movements in the host nations.

Nonetheless, US military presence in our country has never been more firmly established than today. Fifteen years of the VFA, twelve years of the MLSA and the thirteen years since the launch by the Bush administration of the so-called US “war on terror” has made all these possible.

We are witness to the unending “rotational” deployment of thousands of US troops to the country for “joint training exercises” and so-called humanitarian and disaster response missions on a year-round basis as well as to enjoy “rest and recreation” furloughs.  Increasingly frequent port “visits” and “temporary” stationing of US war ships and air assets in unspecified locations have become the order of the day.  Even the unauthorized, in fact illegal, presence of the minesweeper USS Guardian in the protected waters of Tubbataha Reef causing massive damage to the reef was given “legal” cover by the VFA.

The Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) with its headquarters in Zamboanga, Mindanao is part of an elite, highly covert US military command  that undertakes “special operations” around the world without the host country’s consent like that which led to the killing of Al Qaeda head, Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.  An average of six hundred members of the JSOTF-P are “temporarily” forward-deployed on a “rotational” basis in what amounts to a  “Cooperative Security Locations” (CSLs), a new kind of military basing scheme. 

US DOD literature defines CSLs as “a host-nation facility with little or no permanent US presence...CSLs provide contingency access and are a focal point for security cooperation activities…may contain prepositioned equipment. ..are: rapidly scalable and located for tactical use, expandable to become a FOS (Forward Operating Site) forward and expeditionary.” 

According to the US DOD, the “Forward Operating Site (FOS) is an expandable host-nation ‘warm site’ with a limited U.S. military support presence and possibly prepositioned equipment. It can host rotational forces and be a focus for bilateral and regional training. These sites will be tailored to meet anticipated requirements and can be used for an extended time period.” 

There is every indication that not only CSLs but FOSs and other types of facilities  exist in the Philippines though neither government explicitly admits this to be the case.  The JSOTF-P was in fact deployed to the Persian Gulf theater at the height of the Iraq invasion and occupation in 2002.  Several eyewitness accounts point to exclusive  US military installations in the AFP Camp Navarro in Zamboanga and inside the Camp Aguinaldo AFP Headquarters complete with physical structures, prepositioned equipment, under the operational control of US officers, and with strictly restricted access to Filipino military and civilian personnel.  Official reports of Dutch Police investigating the charges against Prof. Sison in 2007 make mention of a hitherto secret US facility in the former Clark Air Base as the “neutral US territory” from which they gathered the testimonies of witnesses provided by the Philippine government. 

The inescapable conclusion is that even before the signing of the EDCA, the US had already been provided the authority and the wherewithal to undertake and pursue its military objectives using the Philippines as its base of operations. 

Why then the need for the EDCA?  Certainly with the EDCA, the US will hereinafter be able to “legally”  scale up and expand their presence and activities anywhere in the country as they deem necessary, useful or desirable with a minimum of cost and a maximum of effectiveness. 

The grant to the US of a wide, unlimited access to, and control over Philippine territory, clearly more than what it would need for its military plans and geopolitical objectives elsewhere in the world is curious and alarming.  Can the carte blanche possibly be explained by an intent to intervene militarily even in our purely internal affairs?  #

Published in Business World
9-10 May 2014

May 01, 2014

EDCA - Negotiated surrender of sovereignty

Now we know why the “negotiations” for what would emerge as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation agreement (EDCA) were conducted under a cloak of secrecy.  Not a single byte of the draft was made available to other government functionaries, not even the treaty-making arm of the Philippine state, the Senate, much less to the media and the general public.

In fact, to everyone's consternation, no copies of the EDCA were released even after it was signed by Philippine Defense Secretary Gazmin and United States Ambassador Goldberg hours before the arrival of US President Obama for his swing-by visit to Manila. For surely, had the drafts and the final text of the EDCA been made public earlier, these would have raised the nationalist hackles of Filipinos, activist and non-activist alike, slowed down if not totally aborted the talks, and soured even further what the Aquino administration was trying mightily to project as a feel-good, arms-clasped coming together of two long-time friends and allies. The Aquino government only posted the EDCA on its official website after Mr. Obama had left the country. 

Despite its deceitful language, it is obvious that the “agreement” does not only allow the US to impinge on Philippine national sovereignty and territorial integrity by gaining access to so-called “Agreed Locations” purportedly in exchange for enhancing the Philippines’ external defense capabilities as well as boosting its capacity to respond to disasters.  

Apart from a general statement in Article I, Purpose and Scope, “This Agreement deepens defense cooperation between the Parties…improving interoperability of the Parties’ forces, and for the AFP, addressing short-term capabilities gaps, promoting long-term modernization and helping maintain and develop additional maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities…” there is no other provision categorically stating how this objective shall be achieved.  There is no clear, reciprocal provision stating just exactly how the Philippines will supposedly benefit from the EDCA.

On the contrary, Article III, Agreed Locations, says “Given the mutuality of benefits, the Parties agree that the Philippines shall make Agreed Locations available to the US forces without rental (underscoring ours) or similar costs.” We recall that one of the main objections to the retention of US bases in sprawling areas of Central Luzon was the US refusal to pay a user’s fee while the country definitely shouldered huge lost opportunity costs by hosting the US bases.

And while in Article IV, Equipment, Supplies and Materiel, “The Philippines authorizes the US forces to preposition and store defense equipment, supplies and materiel …at Agreed Locations”, Section 3 states that “(t)he prepositioned materiel of US forces shall be for the exclusive use of US forces (underscoring ours) …”. 

And in Article VII, Utilities and Communications, “The Philippines hereby grants to US forces and US contractors the use of water, electricity, and other public utilities on terms and conditions, including rents or charges, no less favorable than those available to the AFP of the Government of the Philippines in like circumstances, less charges for taxes and similar fees, which shall be for the account of the Philippine government (underscoring ours).”

Thus from these few provisions alone, the EDCA is grossly lopsided.  But over and above this, a close reading of the EDCA reveals that it is indeed a sell-out, nothing less than the surrender of our national sovereignty to our former colonizer, the US of A.

The EDCA allows a much bigger, in fact unlimited, number of US troops to be stationed, together with their unlimited number of prepositioned war vessels and armaments; in unspecified locations, possibly anywhere in the country to be provided by the Philippine government; to undertake a host of activities amounting to using the country as a launching pad for US military adventures; and in a veritable open-ended duration of stay.

Article I on Purpose and Scope, which is supposed to define and delimit the scope of allowed activities ends with a deliberately vague and catch-all phrase "...and such other activities that may be agreed upon by the Parties." This opens up the scope of activities that "the US may take in the territory of the Philippines in relation to the access to and use of Agreed Locations" to any other conceivable activity that is not explicitly stipulated in the Agreement.

One might argue that the Agreement categorically states that these activities are "within" and in relation to its access to and use of Agreed Locations" which, in Art. II  Definitions, "may be listed in an annex appended to this agreement."  However, the listing is not intended to define the territorial limits of these activities, since the provision again ends with the phrase, "...and may be further described in implementing arrangements."

The EDCA is thus far worse than the return of the former US bases and facilities in the country that were booted out by the Philippine Senate’s rejection of the bases agreement in 1991.  Then, the US troops and war materiel were confined in well-defined or specific areas, albeit with extraterritorial rights, and their sea and air war machines could only dock in or land on these military bases. Whereas now, while the EDCA states that US facilities shall only be set up in “Agreed Locations” and again, purportedly, without exclusivity, this proviso is negated by the caveat allowing “Agreed Locations” anywhere both Parties agree on.

A specific provision in Art III, section 2 states,  "When requested the Designated Authority of the Philippines shall assist in facilitating transit or temporary access by US forces to public land and facilities (including roads, ports and airfields) including those owned or controlled by local governments, and to other land and facilities..."  Ergo contrary to the Philippine and US governments’ propaganda that only AFP facilities will host the US troops and war material or will be the site of their activities, the EDCA opens the way for American boots to go anywhere they need or wish to go in Philippine territory including “roads, ports and airfields” used entirely for civilian purposes.

As to the duration of the EDCA, Article XII, Section 4 states, “This agreement shall have an initial term of ten years, and thereafter it shall continue in force automatically (underscoring ours) unless terminated by either Party…” This is a far cry from what the Aquino government wants to make us believe that the EDCA has a definite duration of ten years the way the RP-US bases agreement had a definite termination in 1991.

A most objectionable and potentially explosive issue, being a case where the Executive branch has clearly overstepped its bounds, is the provision in Art XI, Resolution of Disputes.  Any dispute "arising under this Agreement" must be resolved "...exclusively through consultations between the Parties.... (and) shall not be referred to any national or international court, tribunal, or other similar body, or to any third party for settlement, unless otherwise agreed by the Parties.”

This is supposed to mean that neither the Senate nor Supreme Court can question or revise the Agreement. This is a blatantly unconstitutional provision, violating the principle and letter of checks and balances and division of powers in government. Clearly, the Executive has encroached on the Legislative and Judicial branches' powers and prerogatives in barring the subjection of the Agreement to legislative or judicial review. 

In any case, it is now also clear why the EDCA was "negotiated" in addition to the VFA and MLSA which had already in principle and practice opened up Philippine territory and resources to US military forces and activities. The EDCA was crafted to further legalize and justify more obtrusive increased US presence and activities which the vague VFA and MLSA provisions could not as easily or evidently cover up.  #

Published in Business World
2-3 May 2014