May 24, 2015

Real score on the BBL

Malacanang’s damage control measures for the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) after the Mamasapano fiasco is going full throttle.  No less than President Benigno S. Aquino has applied carrot-and-stick pressure tactics on his congressional allies.  This has resulted in the passage of the latest Malacanang-stamped version by the Lower House Ad hoc Committee on BBL by a vote of 50 to 17. 

The railroading in the Lower House is nothing new.  We’ve seen this before during the impeachment hearings against Mr. Aquino and the investigation into the Mamasapano incident.  Not even a modicum of serious discussion and debate transpired and herd voting (likely fed by hefty doses of Malacanang largesse) was again the norm.

The Senate is turning out to be a bit more difficult what with feisty Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s committee report, already signed by at least six of her colleagues, holding fast to the conclusion that the BBL is unconstitutional, requiring no less than honest-to-goodness Charter amendments. 

“Civil society” endorsements were put into high gear with the creation by Mr. Aquino of a supposedly “independent” National Peace Council top heavy with representatives from big business, the Catholic Church hierarchy, legal experts, and assorted NGOs.   The pro-BBL chant is that it is pro-peace, pro-development and pro-social justice.

Now the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is being regaled as law-abiding (proof is their having killed wanted “terrorist” Basit Usman although the military earlier disputed the claim), business-friendly (photo-ops with top honchos of the domestic corporate world), respectful and submissive to Congress and all but pacified after the crescendo of anti-MILF commentaries coming from many quarters.

Thus the battle to pass the BBL has shaped up to be mainly between the Malacanang-led proponents on one hand and the anti-Moro opposition on the other. What they have in common is that both are driven by strategic vested interests (which have nothing to do with the Bangsamoro’s aspirations for the right to self-determination) and narrow immediate interests more related to winning in the 2016 elections than to putting an end to the armed conflict.
Whichever side prevails, the BBL will be a far cry from what the Bangsamoro Transition Commission drafted and submitted to Malacanang for its approval. More so with what the MILF had fought tooth and nail for before they settled for the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB).

The most formidable legal obstacle to the BBL’s passage comes from the view that many key provisions of the original draft bill submitted to Congress are inconsistent with, contrary to or even undermine the Philippine Charter. 

This should not come as a surprise.  All revolutionary movements of the Bangsamoro, from the MNLF to the MILF, challenge and are inherently an affront to the status quo as reflected in the legal document called the Philippine Constitution.  In fact, the MILF split from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) when the 1976 Tripoli Agreement under the Marcos regime clearly subsumed the GPH-MNLF peace process and the agreement itself to the Philippine Republic’s legal framework as well as legal and political processes.  This fatal flaw as pointed out by the late MILF founding chair Hashim Salamat was then affirmed and sealed in the 1996 GPH-MNLF Final Peace Agreement under the Ramos regime.

The MILF had been persistently batting for Charter amendments to reflect the key provisions in the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) negotiated with the GPH under Arroyo and later the FAB and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) under Aquino.  These are on ancestral domain (later denoted simply as territory), on self-governance (not only within the confines of  ARMM autonomy ergo the use of such terms as “substate”, “associative relationship” and “asymmetry”); on control of the use of natural resources; on control over government instrumentalities such as the Comelec and police deemed crucial in reforming, if not overhauling, the extremely depraved political set-up in the former ARMM.

Too bad at some point and with heaps of “expert advise” from the US government’s Institute of Peace and the cajoling if not deceptive assurances of the GPH, the MILF gave in and no longer pressed the issue.  What has come to pass is that the objections based on constitutionality have been the leverage used to water down an already watered down BBL. 

The Ad Hoc Committee BBL draft is essentially a rehash of the ARMM law.  The ARMM, admitted by no less than Mr. Aquino to be a “failed experiment” has now reemerged as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR), touted as a “bigger and better” ARMM.  For example, BBL proponents point to an “opt in” proviso: aside from the provinces and cities listed as covered by the plebiscite, the political exercise could also cover all other contiguous cities and provinces where there is a resolution of the local government unit or a petition of at least 10% of the registered voters asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to ratification.  But this can only take place on the fifth and tenth year after its enactment.  Moreover, the core territory of the ARMM will have to undergo a plebiscite once more to ratify inclusion in the BAR. 

A higher share of revenues from natural resources for the BAR was wangled in the BBL and there is assurance of a bigger share in the national coffers through a “block grant”.  The ad hoc committee draft, however, takes away the autonomous government’s right to contract and receive grants and donations from foreign governments as these would require national government concurrence.  There is also the novelty of a parliamentary form of government that is touted to be more representative and ergo democratic but such a form is also more easily controlled and manipulated by long-entrenched political dynasties in Muslim Mindanao.

With strong anti-Moro prejudices, distrust and chauvinist bias unabashedly displayed, and weighing in on arguments of both pro- and anti-BBL camps, it is difficult to imagine how the BBL could still be a product of an intelligent discourse on how a just and lasting peace can be achieved for the Bangsamoro and the entire country.

But more important, the prevailing anti-Moro sentiments and deep-rooted national chauvinism on display in the national discourse on the BBL clearly and concretely prove why it is impossible for any national minority such as the Bangsamoro to exercise their right to self-determination through an autonomy granted under a state where the majority does not consider nor treat minorities as equals. #

Published in Business World
25 May 2015

May 09, 2015

Ordinary people stand up for their rights

Celia and Cesar Veloso are admirable parents who wouldn't give up the fight to bring their daughter, condemned overseas Filipino worker Mary Jane, back to the Philippines – alive, safe and free -- against seemingly insurmountable odds. 

They were up against an international drug syndicate, recruiting poor and desperate men and women on the promise of good-paying jobs abroad, who end up as unwitting drug mules and when caught, languish on death row, in countries that impose capital punishment for drug trafficking. They only knew about the syndicate through Mary Jane’s illegal recruiter, Ma. Cristina Sergio, and her live-in partner, Julius Lacanilao, who warned them from the beginning to keep quiet about their daughter’s plight and not to seek help either from the government or mass media on pain of being “dealt with” by the drug syndicate and worsening Mary Jane’s situation.

When the Velosos summoned the courage to seek help from government agencies they were met by indifference, even disdain.   Government functionaries were unmoved by their pleas for help for their daughter when she was arrested and was being tried in an Indonesian court.  Concerned government agencies, foremost of which are the DFA and PDEA, continued to drag their feet and failed to take decisive action even when she was already convicted and handed down the death penalty.  They finally scrambled to take legal and diplomatic last-ditch efforts when Mary Jane faced imminent death by firing squad at which time local and international mass media had already trained the spotlight on her case.

The Velosos are what would be called "masa".  They are from poor peasant stock, trying to make ends meet by resorting to odd jobs and the proverbial attempts to land jobs overseas to break the cycle of poverty, lack of education and joblessness.  Mary Jane was easy prey to illegal recruiters and since she didn’t even have the money to pay for the necessary papers and an airplane ticket to work abroad, to being hoodwinked to carry illegal drugs across national borders.  When she run afoul of Indonesian law, she was helpless, not having the resources, the connections and the faculties to navigate the legal labyrinth in a foreign country much less defend herself and prove her innocence or victimization.

But Celia and Cesar did what they could with whatever resources they could muster.  They kept their wits about them, communicated with Mary Jane and approached the PDEA and local government authorities to run after Sergio and Lacanilao.  They asked Mary Jane to send even just a handwritten account of what happened to her because they were told by authorities that they could not act without it.  Mary Jane did so twice but for some reason her letters were pilfered and her account was missing.

The Velosos were eventually able to visit Mary Jane together with her two children.  Jail wardens who had become Mary Jane’s friends put up the money to bring her family to Indonesia.  When the Velosos approached the DFA for help in obtaining passports, they were met with mocking disbelief that they could “afford” to travel.  They were also advised, incorrectly, that they could only visit their daughter if they were given explicit permission to do so by Indonesian authorities.  But they persisted and refused to be intimidated or misled by the government bureaucrats who dealt with them.  They were able to talk to Mary Jane and get her version of what happened.

Things started moving fast when the Velosos learned that Mary Jane’s execution was already scheduled for April 28.  Only an international meeting to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first large-scale Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia on April 19 to 24 had provided a temporary respite since the Indonesian government did not want to hold the executions during this time.  Local mass media put the Velosos in touch with the OFW advocates’ group Migrante International.  The latter contacted the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and by April 7, the pro bono legal services of its lawyers were engaged by the Veloso family.

This is the train of events from the time Migrante and NUPL got involved:  On April 8, upon the advice of NUPL, Sergio’s picture was made public by Migrante; the latter called for government to immediately take Sergio into custody.  On April 16 and 17, the NUPL wrote PDEA, NBI and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) with attached sworn statements of Mary Jane’s family and the transcript of her own handwritten account (the original copy of which was lodged in the Philippine embassy in Jakarta but is still nowhere to be found up to now) asking that the appropriate investigation be conducted against Sergio.  On April 22, immediately after conferring with Indonesian lawyers in Jakarta, NUPL asked IACAT for certification of status of any investigation against Sergio. 

Meanwhile Migrante, Gabriela, the Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) and many other support groups stepped up protest actions at the DFA and the Indonesian Embassy and mass petition signing to “Save Mary Jane”.  Chapters of Migrante in other countries swung into action and also organized mass actions at Indonesian embassies.  NUPL coordinated with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) in mobilizing human rights activists and international institutions and democratic personalities to call for a stop to Mary Jane’s execution.

Perhaps most critically, Indonesian migrant labor, human rights and specially women’s rights activists, took up the cudgels for Mary Jane and zealously undertook actions, from mass lobbying to dialogues with high government officials including President Widodo, to draw parallels between Mary Jane’s case and those of hundreds of Indonesians also facing severe punishment, if not execution, abroad but who are in fact victims of human trafficking and miscarriage of justice.

It must be underscored that prior to the filing of the first motion for judicial review of Mary Jane’s conviction on 19 January 2015, her Indonesian lawyers had already asked the Philippine embassy to ask concerned government agencies in the country to investigate Sergio. PDEA reportedly visited Mary Jane around March 29 but the PDEA report was translated into Bahasa by the Philippine embassy and submitted to her Indonesian lawyers only on April 23.

The first judicial review was rejected and a second motion for judicial review was filed by Indonesian lawyers on April 24, four days before her scheduled execution but this was also rejected.   Sergio reportedly surrendered to Philippine police the morning of April 28. Indonesian President Widodo ordered the stay of execution close to midnight of April 28.

On May 5, Sergio and partner were arrested and their inquest took place. The Justice Secretary herself stated there was formidable evidence that Mary Jane had been tricked into bringing illegal drugs into Indonesia by a syndicate that had been, in the first place, engaged in large-scale human trafficking.

So far, Celia and Cesar Veloso have been vindicated in their dogged efforts to prove Mary Jane’s innocence.  Their unwavering call for accountability of government agencies and personnel responsible, by their criminal negligence, for Mary Jane’s conviction and death sentence cannot remain unheeded. #

Published in Business World
11 May 2015

May 03, 2015

Mary Jane Veloso is Flor Contemplacion 2

The story of Mary Jane Veloso is Flor Contemplacion Part II but for the much happier ending: her execution by firing squad for drug trafficking having been held in abeyance by Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo at the eleventh hour.  In the case of Contemplacion, which by the way happened twenty years ago, last ditch efforts by volunteer lawyers led by the late human rights lawyer Atty. Romeo T. Capulong failed to save her from the gallows what with Singapore’s unbending justice system and Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy of authoritarianism.

Since the hanging of our kababayan, Contemplacion, one would think the government would have learned its lessons.  After all heads rolled – not just embassy officials but the labor and foreign affairs secretaries were forced to tender their resignation – when it became clear that the mother of three from San Pablo, Laguna had been tortured by police to admit to murdering her friend, a fellow Filipino domestic worker, in order to cover up for the culpability of the victim’s Singaporean employer.  Subsequently Flor was convicted and sentenced to death, a victim of gross miscarriage of justice, while embassy officials twiddled their thumbs and did close to nothing.

The explosion of public outrage against the Ramos government and sympathy for the doomed Flor and her hapless family was unprecedented.  Flor’s wake in her hometown and the funeral cortege that wound through the streets of Manila drew hundreds of thousands with houses along the route dotted with improvised streamers or placards denouncing the government and expressing sympathy for the plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). 

Avowals by foreign affairs and labor officials that they did “everything” to try to save her life could not placate the public, many of whom have relatives who have migrated abroad to find better-paying jobs in order to support their families and therefore could easily identify with Flor’s travails and be filled with dread by her tragic ending. 

We saw how President Gloria Arroyo handled the Angelo de la Cruz case to avert a potential source of political instability even before she could be sworn into her controversial second term of office.  De la Cruz was a truck driver who had been taken by Iraqi rebels fighting against US armed occupation of their country and held hostage till their demand that Philippine soldiers deployed in Iraq as part of the US-led “coalition of the willing” be pulled out.  Arroyo agreed to the pull-out in exchange for De la Cruz’s freedom in spite of US pressure (for after all, her political neck was at stake) even as mass actions calling on her government to do precisely that were violently suppressed.  (This columnist has a three-inch scar on the scalp courtesy of the police who dispersed a demonstration at Plaza Miranda while she and other leaders tried to negotiate a peaceful and orderly retreat.)

The point was made.  Government’s labor export policy, of promoting Filipino brawn and brain as a major dollar-earning commodity for export, should at the very least be accompanied by all the diplomatic, legal, financial and moral support that government can muster to protect our countrymen overseas.

As for the policy itself that dates back to the Marcos martial law era, Ramos' Labor Secretary Nieves Confessor quite candidly, if lamely, justified it by saying labor export served as a “safety valve” given the high unemployment rates in the country; otherwise, there would be unmanageable social unrest.  She even cited labor export as a vital part of the government’s counterinsurgency program as it dissuaded job-hungry malcontents from joining the New People’s Army!

Two decades have passed and currently more than 800 OFWs are languishing in prison in several countries, with 88 of them on death row.  Most are drug trafficking-related, a testimony to how the risks for OFWs have grown in such dangerous and complex ways.  Unfortunately, save for cases where the impending execution of a Filipino becomes a national issue with adverse political implications for certain government officials or for the entire government itself, help for the doomed OFW always comes too little and too late.  Sometimes, the attempts are dramatic, i.e. special diplomatic missions of high public officials to appeal for clemency, but nonetheless futile, as more vital legal and political measures had not been taken much earlier.  In too many instances, the condemned OFWs are unceremoniously executed and bereaved relatives are left only with the task of picking up the remains of their loved ones if by luck these are repatriated.

Did the Aquino government indeed do everything that they could to save the life of Mary Jane Veloso?  And with the happy outcome that her execution was eventually stayed, doesn’t that prove irrefutably that President Aquino no less deserves accolades and not brickbats since he personally intervened with President Widodo?  For those interested there is a timeline of events regarding Mary Jane’s five-year journey to the brink of death and her close-to-miraculous escape. (Please search #SaveMary Jane TIMELINE OF EVENTS: Let the facts speak for themselves) 

In brief, it shows clearly that Mary Jane did not have a lawyer when she was tried and convicted; she was provided an Indonesian student interpreter whose English she couldn’t understand.  Upon conviction the Philippine embassy hired an Indonesian law firm that appealed her case.  The Indonesian lawyer had already advised Philippine authorities to run after Mary Jane’s recruiter.  Proof that she had been a victim of human trafficking and was merely duped into becoming an unwitting drug mule would be crucial in proving her innocence.  But the Philippine authorities did not take that critical step until days before her scheduled execution. 

Meanwhile the parents, who had initially been threatened into silence by Mary Jane’s recruiter (they were told that the drug syndicate was powerful and that it would go after them if they approached the mass media or government officials and that the syndicate would get Mary Jane off the hook) started knocking on the doors of the DFA and PDEA when they learned she was on death row but their appeals received only scant and diffident attention.

It was only when sympathetic media persons alerted Migrante International of Mary Jane’s plight and connected them with the family did the campaign to save Mary Jane begin in earnest starting with heroic efforts to draw government and media attention on her case.  Pro bono lawyers were mobilized who immediately got in touch with their Indonesian counterparts.  Indonesian migrant advocates and human rights activists were alerted and also took action including gaining an audience with the Indonesian president himself.   OFW communities the world over and their allies among international social movements also sounded the appeal to save Mary Jane’s life.

In short, the Aquino government took notice and went into high gear for Mary Jane only when it loomed as a possible public relations disaster not just domestically but internationally.  It is important to get it straight that government is in fact one of the main reasons OFWs find themselves in their dire predicaments even if it is true that they “voluntarily” sought to work abroad.  To obscure or muddle this would undermine any real effort to remedy the situation of our OFWs on the short and long term.  #

Published in Business World
4 May 2015