July 31, 2016

Dark clouds over GPH-NDFP peace talks

President Rodrigo Duterte’s dramatic declaration of a unilateral ceasefire vis a vis the CPP-NPA-NDFP to usher in the peace talks slated to resume on August 20 was, for all intents and purposes, one of the high points of his one-and-a-half-hour-long State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 25.  He said it was to be effective immediately.

The President’s announcement was generally met with applause, enthusiasm and great expectations. The public awaited a similar declaration from the CPP-NPA-NDFP leadership in reciprocation of Mr. Duterte’s bold and grand gesture.

Immediately, Louie Jalandoni, NDFP Chief Negotiator, sent a formal message to his GPH counterpart, Sylvestre Bello III, stating that “the NDFP shared with President Duterte the determination to work for a just and lasting peace…(and that) the NDFP would be able to respond to or reciprocate the unilateral ceasefire declaration of the GRP soon after receiving its full text." He assured Bello that “the NDFP would study it carefully and make the appropriate response.”

The NDFP was referring to the AFP SOMO (Suspension of Offensive Military Operations) and PNP SOPO (Suspension of Offensive Police Operations) orders that give concrete guidelines on the conduct of the GPH ceasefire. The following day, Jorge Madlos aka Ka Oris, Spokesperson of the NPA National Operational Command issued a statement that the NPA would be on “active defense” while it awaits the CPP and NDFP guidelines on how it will respond to the Duterte declaration.

The AFP issued its SOMO on 26 July while the PNP issued its SOPO only on July 27.  As in previous ceasefires, the SOMO and SOPO categorically stated that civil-military, “peace and development” and law enforcement operations would continue, as well as the “legal offensive” against persons suspected to be key members and leaders of the revolutionary movement. AFP spokespersons emphatically stated that there would no withdrawal of troops to barracks from their offensive operations in NPA-controlled or influenced areas and from their occupation of communities, schools and other civilian establishments.

On July 27, NPA guerrillas ambushed a composite Philippine Army, Citizen Auxiliary Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) and Alamara paramilitary group in Kapalong, Davao del Norte killing one and injuring four others.

Speaking before AFP troops in Nakar, Quezon on July 28, Mr. Duterte threatened to cancel government’s unilateral ceasefire if he does not get an explanation before the end of the day on why the NPA ambushed government forces. The NDFP asked for time to investigate the incident.

By 29 July, NPA spokesperson Aris Francisco said that the ambush was in self defense and explained the facts and circumstances of the clash. Another statement from the NPA-Southern Mindanao Region described in detail the AFP and paramilitary deployment and offensive actions especially against lumad communities, clearly showing the AFP was violating and sabotaging President Duterte's own ceasefire declaration.

Meanwhile, Prof. Sison pointed out in media interviews that the CPP was poised to declare its own unilateral ceasefire by 8pm of 30 July when Mr. Duterte lifted the government’s unilateral ceasefire at 7pm.  As of this writing, the CPP has not announced its unilateral ceasefire.  Mr. Sison nonetheless reiterated that as far as he was concerned the resumption of the peace talks is still a go despite the public recriminations expressed by Mr. Duterte.

It is so unfortunate and so unnecessary that this breakdown in communications between Mr. Duterte and the NDFP has happened.  Originally, the mode of interim ceasefire was to be threshed out at the peace talks resumption.  Mr. Duterte jumped the gun on the NDFP by declaring the government ceasefire at his SONA. That was his call but without the operational details of this ceasefire, it is understandable that the NDFP would ask for time to study it and how to respond.  It would be irresponsible for the CPP-NPA-NDFP to haphazardly call out to its forces to observe a ceasefire without any guidelines or parameters such being contingent on how the government’s ceasefire would be operationalized.

Mr. Duterte eventually gave his view that GPH unilateral ceasefire did not include the pullout of military, police and paramilitary from communities where they had garrisoned especially in areas acknowledged to be part of the revolutionary forces’ mass base. However, the view of the CPP-NPA-NDFP is that without this pullout and ongoing military operations as described in the AFP SOMO, there is the strong likelihood of clashes taking place. Moreover encroachments on areas under CPP-NPA-NDFP influence would go on unabated placing the latter at a clear disadvantage apart from ongoing human rights abuses against the civilian population.

The CPP-NPA-NDFP reported that the AFP was in fact violating their Commander-in-Chief’s unilateral ceasefire declaration in several areas and by means of certain actuations.  Indeed, it was claimed that there was no real ceasefire in the NPA’s Southern Mindanao Region area of operation that covers Davao City, Mr. Duterte’s stronghold.

Mr. Duterte twitted the NDFP for lacking trust in him when he had already professed his sincere willingness to negotiate peace with them. On the part of the NDFP, they are still awaiting progress in the releases of NDFP consultants as a litmus test of Mr. Duterte’s sincerity. Not one has been released and there have been no humanitarian releases either.

What is worrisome for families of political prisoners and human rights advocates are the pronouncements of Mr. Duterte and his Peace Adviser Dureza that the NDFP consultants will only be released on bail so that they may join in the peace talks but that negotiations must be concluded within six months from resumption. Should the talks fail or be terminated earlier, their bail would be revoked and they go back to jail. In the meantime their cases are not scuttled or even archived; these hang like a Damocles sword over their heads.

This view and the conditionalities that the GPH is imposing on the NDFP consultants totally negates the legal and political bases for the release of political prisoners, i.e. they were illegally arrested and in certain cases were manhandled or even tortured; multiple trumped-up criminal cases were filed against them; and they are being vilified as terrorists in order to justify their continuing detention.  In the case of the NDFP consultants, despite avowals of the GPH panel and Mr. Duterte that they will respect and uphold all previous agreements including the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), they refuse to acknowledge that the arrests in themselves are violations of JASIG and must be rectified by releasing the consultants forthwith.

The good news is that both the GPH and the NDFP have expressed their desire to hold the formal peace talks this August despite the lifting of the GPH ceasefire, the angry exchange of words, and the continuing AFP and paramilitary operations and killings..

What now hovers as dark clouds that could spell another delay in the resumption of the formal talks is the frustrating and inexplicable snail's pace with which the GPH undertakes measures to effect the release of detained NDFP consultants slated to participate in the peace negotiations.

Once more the political prisoners are being held hostage to the outcome of the peace negotiations.

Clearly, despite Mr. Duterte’s gung ho posture, hardliners within his government especially the AFP top brass are maneuvering to throw a monkey wrench into the situation to undermine if not derail Mr. Duterte’s peace initiative.  Moreover, the same old thinking and schemes that characterized the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) during the Aquino administration are very much in place; that is, GPH is demanding a ceasefire before anything else, before consultants and other political prisoners are released, and before any negotiations on socio-economic reforms that benefit the people.

Perhaps the hardliners and peace saboteurs are taking advantage of Mr. Duterte’s popularity to gain the upper hand in the propaganda war, to make the NDFP appear as the hold-outs - insincere and unreasonable - as a prelude to launching a new counterinsurgency program under the Duterte regime. #

Published in Business World
1 August 2016

July 27, 2016

After the celebration, how to proceed

A resounding victory for the Philippines!  That is what the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on the Philippine suit versus China’s expansive claims to 90% of the South China Sea (SCS), in effect encroaching on 80% of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and 100% of its Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) amounts to.

The Tribunal’s ruling has strategic implications to the country’s economic development in so far as our exclusive claim to the resource-rich West Philippine Sea (that part of the SCS where we have unequivocal maritime rights).  It also poses a challenge as to how the new Duterte government can chart an independent foreign policy in the wake of big power rivalry in our backyard.

The Court dashed the 9-dash line claim of China to smithereens by declaring any so-called historical claims as superceded by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both the Philippines and CHina are signatories.  Moreover, it rejected China’s claimed exclusive control of almost the entire SCS by merely showing historical navigation and fishing by China in these waters.

On the issue of China’s activities in the SCS, the Tribunal ruled that China had violated the Philippine sovereign rights to its EEZ and ECS when it prevented Filipinos from fishing within these areas while abetting Chinese fishermen; when it interfered with Philippine oil exploration in Reed Bank; and when it built installations on Mischief Reef without authorization from the Philippine government.  It also ruled that China’s large-scale reclamation work and construction of artificial islands had severely damaged fragile coral reef ecosystems and had undermined the arbitration proceedings.

In the Philippines, the PCA ruling was hailed from Left to Right of the political spectrum. We recall that three and a half years ago, mainstream media and not a few pundits were bemused, if not unbelieving, when the quintessential communist revolutionary, Prof. Jose Maria Sison, announced that he was in agreement with the move of the dyed-in-the-wool pro-US President BS Aquino III to initiate the arbitration proceedings against China before the PCA.

There are some quarters though who pooh-pooh the legal victory as a mere scrap of paper what with the absence of any international enforcement mechanisms, China’s refusal to recognize the tribunal’s decision, and the Philippines’ obvious lack of military capability to enforce the award on its own.  They even go so far as to say the Philipines should never have filed the case to begin with, that it only manages to further antagonize China and make bilateral negotiations for mutual benefit more difficult than ever.

Some Filipinos justifiably wary about the US stoking the maritime conflict between the Philippines and China for its own imperialist ends argue that it would have been the better part of wisdom for the Philippines to have persisted in bilateral negotiations with the lesser hegemon, China, using the latter’s rivalry with the US as possible leverage.

The principled and patriotic stand is to assert our national sovereignty, in this case, not so much over some rocks or even purported islands, but on our maritime entitlements in the resource-rich West Philippine Sea versus China, a fast rising regional power.  National interest dictates that we utilize all available avenues to do so — legal, political (including fostering more people-to-people relations) and diplomatic, whether bilateral or multilateral.  Our high moral, political and legal ground is the linchpin for defeating China’s seeming overwhelming economic and military superiority.

The key to pursuing the national interest and asserting our rightful sovereignty over the area is to be neither intimidated by Chinese bullying nor to rely on the false premise that the US is here to defend our territory and maritime entitlements.

Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio cautioned against expecting immediate and automatic availment of the PCA award.  He said the road to enforcing the ruling would involve several generations of Filipinos. Nonetheless our people can take heart that ultimately international public opinion can move even the most intransigent and arrogant big power.

Such is what happened in Nicaragua’s victory at the International Court of Justice against US funding and training of the Contra mercenaries who were organized to overthrow the ruling Sandinista government. After years of refusing to recognize the judgement, the US eventually gave Nicaragua compensation to the tune of half a billion dollars to avoid further political isolation in the international community over the settled dispute.

International law experts aver that the Philippines can file resolution after resolution at the UN General Assembly for that body to affirm the PCA award. (Unfortunately in the UN Security Council where “right” is backed up by “might”, China will surely veto such a resolution.) The Philippines can also unify the ASEAN countries, most especially the four other countries with territorial claims in the SCS, on the PCA decision. When push comes to shove, the Philippines can sue for damages and rental arrears from China in countries where China has all kinds of assets that can be subjected to legal judgement in favor of the Philippines.

The Philippines can do this knowing that the logic of China’s unbridled capitalist development is to expand its markets and investments overseas at a time of slowing domestic growth.  It is also clear that China wishes to match its unprecedented growth in the last three decades with a greater regional, if not yet global, political and military clout.  Certainly China would not want to be perceived as an international bully, or worse outlaw, contrary to its projection as a benign giant rising peacefully to take its rightful place in the world.

US self-serving designs are another matter and they are for real. The US “Pivot to Asia” strategy includes the transfer of 60 per cent of its military, especially naval, forces from the Middle East to Asia as well as the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, an ambitious regional trade grouping that excludes China.  China has good grounds to consider these US moves as part of the effort to isolate China and make it more vulnerable to external pressure to reform its economy and political system to the liking of the US and its allies.

The Aquino III regime has willingly played the US fugleman in Asia.  Former President Aquino has used the patriotic card while engaging in bellicose rhetoric against China in relation to the South China Sea dispute. In the process, he has encouraged latent anti-Chinese racist sentiments among the Filipino public.

Invoking a Cold War-era Mutual Defense Treaty, Aquino then calls on Uncle Sam to defend the Philippines in its tiff with China. In return Aquino justifies the increased presence of US troops, war materiel and so-called joint war exercises through the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

In the wake of the PCA ruling, pro-US groups have started saber rattling to underscore the need to use US military power to stop China’s aggressive behavior in the SCS and to enforce the favorable ruling while providing the Philippines its defense shield.

The situation post-PCA ruling provides the Philippines a golden opportunity to take stock of what are our country’s real interests and how best to advance these without falling into the trap of being dominated by either the US or China and being a pawn in the big power games they play. #

Published by Business World
25 July 2016

July 05, 2016

Finding Rody

I had a dream several weeks ago. It wasn't surreal; in fact it felt quite real. In my dream I was writing my column and the words, sentences, and paragraphs flowed logically, clearly and easily. When I woke up, I still remembered what I had "written" and its title  "Finding Duterte".

My husband urged me to write everything down before I forget. He said I should change the title to "Finding Rody" in a play on the popular animated film then showing, "Finding Dory". But I didn't follow his advise which is why I did forget the column written in my dream.

Now I have to struggle to capture the impetus for that column in the wake of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's inauguration and the myriad write-ups and opinion pieces on the man, his family and growing up years as a probinsyano, his student life (and encounters with a certain Professor Jose Ma. Sison), his stint as public prosecutor, his track record as a long-time Davao City mayor (including a checkered history), his character traits and personality quirks (that either endear or disgust) and even his love life as a philandering husband.

What strikes me now is that Mr. Duterte is like the proverbial elephant that several blind men are trying to "characterize" based on the part of the mammoth that they are groping. Everyone is trying to figure out and give an opinion on what kind of Chief Executive he will be. As to be expected, the initial judgments are quite disparate, even conflicting, depending on one's socio-economic class, philosophical worldview, political leanings and pet advocacies or pet peeves.

Meanwhile those who know him best, his Davao constituents, say the man has got it in him to slay the dragon of endemic corruption, official indifference and ineptitude and wildfire criminality. Dr. Celia Castillo, a practicing physician at the Davao Doctors Hospital, sums it up thus, "We believe in Digong. He may be uncouth, rude and overly transparent, but he knows what the essential matters are and does his best to confront them, conducts consultations, allowing all sides to be heard before he makes major decisions. He listens, especially to people on the ground. But when he comes to a decision, it would be hard to make him budge, come hell or high water. What people think of him matters very little."

Indeed, Mr. Duterte is keeping all of us guessing as to how his presidency will turn out.  How will he reconcile conflicting ideas, statements and promises that have emanated from him yet are reflective of the underlying conflicts among the classes and interest groups that exist in Philippine society.  Concretely, how will he bring together antagonistic class and factional interests as manifested in his choice of cabinet secretaries and their initial pronouncements regarding government policies and programs.

Granting Mr. Duterte's goal of uplifting the lives of ordinary Filipinos -- by curbing  criminality and corruption (stamping out seems to be a really tall order) and redistributing wealth through a pro-poor and pro-people social policy -- the truth is this will not be enough.

Good governance and social welfare per se will not bring us out of a backward, pre-industrial economy. These will not guarantee decent jobs and livelihood to sustain basic needs and keep our human resources from migrating in droves. These will not prevent the plunder of the economy and national patrimony by unscrupulous monopoly capitalists and their domestic partners. These will not ensure the growth of sufficient social wealth to fund the requisite social services and public utilities to make them accessible to all Filipinos regardless of socio-economic status.

Mr. Duterte will have to face the reality of a highly unequal society where there are not just rich people but exploiters and oppressors -- the big landlords (harking back to the hacienda era), big business honchos (traders and bankers not captains of industry) and bureaucrat capitalists (politicians who have enriched themselves through their public positions). They constitute social classes that have enjoyed their privileged status on the backs of the toiling and subjugated masses.

He also knows that the Philippine state has hitherto existed primarily to protect and promote the interests of the entrenched elite against the vast majority. Furthermore, that this is a neocolonial state, meaning no president has gotten elected or kept his hold on power without the seal of good housekeeping from the country's former colonizer, the US of A.

Mr. Duterte, like it or not, confronts a situation where government policies in the economic, socio-cultural, political and foreign relations spheres are designed and have been sustained to keep this unjust and dangerously unstable status quo. The military and police, the prosecutors, courts and jails -- these are the means of the state to keep social restiveness, political dissent and armed revolution under control, if not completely eliminated.

How far is he willing to go to resolve the underlying roots of armed conflicts in order to forge a just and lasting peace with the communist-led and Moro revolutionary movements?  How far is he willing to go against entrenched elite and imperialist interests?

No matter Mr. Duterte's subjective intentions, the big question is how far can he effectively mobilize the support of the people behind even only moderately radical reforms. As a corollary, can he manage to broaden the united front behind his presidency's call for genuine and substantial change; i.e. can he carefully determine his real and potential friends and enemies in this herculean endeavor.

In this regard, the role of politically conscious, progressive people's organizations and the Left in general becomes clear -- to arouse, organize and mobilize the people to support Mr. Duterte's progressive policy statements, intentions and concrete actions.
The umbrella organization Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), together with peace and human rights advocates and other social reform champions, convened the National People's Summit a day before Mr. Duterte's inauguration as president.

The Summit's product, the People's Agenda for Nationalist and Progressive Change, was delivered to the president through a delegation of leaders who were given the unprecedented opportunity to have a private audience with him after he was sworn into office. They were backed up by thousands of cheering demonstrators at the June 30 rally in front of Malacañang.

Furthermore, the setting and revving up of the machinery that will assist the progressive Cabinet members is ongoing. Most notably and auguring well for the Duterte presidency, the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines are slated to take place in Oslo, Norway in the coming weeks.#

Published in Business World
6 July 2016