October 31, 2016

Restoring a people’s dignity

I watched the cultural show  “Hugpungan” (“encounter” ) mounted by the national minorities — Moro and indigenous peoples — together with UP students at the Diliman Theater last week and was at one point moved to tears.  A powerful choreography performed by youngsters, lumad from different tribes in Mindanao, depicted their pride in their culture, forces attempting to grab their ancestral lands, their determined defense as well as assertion of the right to self determination.  The word that crossed my mind was “dignity” and the beauty of their struggle to uphold their dignity as distinct peoples.

Filipinos from the national majority, most especially those who consider themselves modern and urbane, have much to learn from our sisters and brothers from the mountains.  Those who joined the Lakbayan 2016, a long journey to the National Capital Region bringing their issues and struggles combine the native wisdom and feistiness of their elders with the socio-political activism of the later generations.

Most of us grow up looking down on the national minorities as backward, uncouth and uncivilized although they are considered picturesque in their colorful “costumes” (actually their native wear) and their innocence is appealing to jaded souls from the metropolis. (The Moros, on the other hand, with their history of armed resistance to colonialism and post-colonial national chauvinism and oppression, have been caricatured as shrewd traders if not conmen and prone to violent reprisal for perceived grievances.)

How to “integrate” them into mainstream society and “improve” their lot has been the battlecry of succeeding governments. When a few of their young people are able to get higher education, they inevitably melt or are swallowed into the dominant culture and society losing their identity and distinctiveness.

The ruling elite in this country, those who partner with foreign mining companies, agricorporations and the like or are in their pay, are incredulous that these “natives” know and assert their rights.  They conclude that these people must have been “indoctrinated” by “outsiders” (the communist New People’s Army or NPA, to be more specific).  

Ergo the problem is the NPA and the solution is a counterinsurgency program to drive out the NPA by entrenching soldiers inside their communities and recruiting paramilitary groups from their ranks to terrorize them into submission.  When “peace and order” is restored, the military and other government agencies come in with social services to win back the national minorities’ “hearts and minds”. 

A simple and straightforward “solution” that has failed again and again. It is anchored on the objective of perpetuating exploitation and oppression and denying the national minorities their inherent right to determine their own future. Counterinsurgency programs no matter their “peace and development” guise only engender resistance.  Having somehow retained or, perhaps, rediscovered their dignity and strength as a unified people, the national minorities are fighting for their lives and their very existence.

We now reflect on President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncements and moves to leave the US sphere of influence in the light of our most recent encounter with our national minorities.  

What is most striking is that Mr. Duterte is the first president since independence who has explicitly stated he will not be a US lapdog.  He is bringing back our pride and dignity as a people when he says the Philippines will no longer be a “doormat” of the US. Under his watch, the country will hew to an independent foreign policy, an aspiration enshrined in the Philippine Constitution yet consistently observed in the breach by the political class who rule this country.

A senior citizen expressed the sentiment thus, “I never thought I would see the day when a Philippine president could say ‘F—k you!’ to the leaders of the Western powers and the international institutions they control for their brazen and hypocritical denunciation of the body count in Mr. Duterte’s campaign against addictive drugs.  They have the blood of countless Arabs, Africans, Asians and black and native Americans on their hands because of their wars of colonization, aggression and plunder.”

Mr. Duterte is using the presidency as a bully pulpit to awaken the people’s patriotic sentiments buried under an avalanche of US colonial miseducation, lies and distortions of history, mass media-fed taste for US commodities including cultural goods, and non-stop propaganda about the US being the epitome of modernity, progress, democracy and the good life.

I was pleasantly surprised when the police officer assigned to negotiate with demonstrators at the US embassy last Thursday said another clash between protesters and the police should be avoided at all cost since it would only please the Americans.  He also grumbled about the US giving crumbs to the country, its supposed long-time ally, when it allocates hundreds of billions of dollars to Israel. (It appears that all the public discussion generated by Mr. Duterte’s bold, and to some, outrageous statements, had filtered down even to the men in uniform.)

The White House, the US State Department and neoconservative US political pundits are getting very worried that Mr. Duterte’s anti-US tirade, including dredging up almost forgotten historical atrocities against the Filipino people that would be considered crimes against humanity today, are going to be backed by official action.  

President Duterte has said he wants US troops out of Mindanao nonetheless a new batch of “rotating” US Special Forces numbering more than a hundred recently arrived in Zamboanga City.  He has announced that joint military exercises this October would be the last during his term but military and defense officials have countered his pronouncement by saying such exercises have been scheduled ahead of time and cannot just be cancelled without doing damage to the two countries’ military alliance. 

In response to veiled threats by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russell about the possible consequences of Mr. Duterte’s turning his back on the US and embracing China, the Commander-in-Chief said that he could very well scrap the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a lopsided bilateral agreement that allows the de facto setting up of US military installations inside so-called Philippine bases, crucial to the US “pivot to Asia”.  Having been upheld by the Philippine Supreme Court as an executive agreement, it is well within the power of the Chief Executive to rescind EDCA.  But Mr. Duterte has backtracked and said he will consult the DND and AFP top brass before making such a decision since it is a “national security” concern.

What is clear and categorical by now is that the Duterte administration is moving farther away from the ambit of US domination economically and militarily with his recent state visit to China where he was warmly received and purportedly brought home a bonanza of economic investments, soft loans and outright grants.  Without giving up the favorable decision rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), Mr. Duterte was able to arrive at a peaceful settlement of the Scarborough Shoal stand-off with the immediate effect that Filipino fisherfolk are again able to fish there without being chased away by Chinese coast guard ships.

Mr. Duterte’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy is eating away at one of the biggest factors pushing China’s aggressiveness in the disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea; that is, the Philippines’ identification with US geopolitical imperatives and kowtowing to US dictates.  # 

Published in Business World 
2 November 2016


October 25, 2016

Palovian reflex

It was shockingly painful to watch the video footage of a police van mowing down protesting indigenous and Moro people in front of the US embassy last Wednesday.  The rabid zeal and brutally with which the police used their might to inflict injury on anyone they could lay their hands on and arrest as many as they could (including those already hurt and the First Aid team of doctors and nurses attempting to attend to the wounded) was all too familiar yet still disturbing if not revolting.

Another case of police over zealousness in protecting the US embassy? The usual small, unruly crowd of youth activists getting out of hand and requiring more stringent and forceful police crowd management? In fact, no.

The demonstrators easily numbered more than a thousand composed of the different tribes of Lumad and Moros from Mindanao, Igorots from the Cordillera, Dumagats from Southern Tagalog, Aetas from Central Luzon and even Tumandok from Panay.  They were joined by a smaller number of supporters from Metro Manila coming from different sectors including students, workers and urban poor.

They caught the police contingent providing perimeter security for the embassy by surprise and were able to maneuver to get as close to the embassy walls as possible, of course with a lot of shoving and shouting.  They painted the pristine walls red with slogans such as “Go Duterte! Junk EDCA!” and “Yankee go home!”

When the dust had settled, the police, some of them splattered with red paint, resigned themselves to the situation and allowed the demonstrators to hold their almost 2-hour long program in peace.

As the protesters wound up their program of speeches and cultural numbers, a certain Col. Pedroza arrived.  He berated his men for allowing the demonstrators to get the better of them without putting up a fight and allowing him to lose face with US embassy officials.  He then ordered a completely unwarranted violent dispersal of the protest action that was already about to end without further incident.

Several questions have come to fore as culled from social media.  The standard one, “Weren’t the demonstrators asking for it?  Didn’t they ‘provoke’ the police?”  From many witnesses and raw video footages, it is clear that the initial confrontation occurred when the demonstrators asserted their right to bring their message to the very threshold of the embassy.  They succeeded to do so by overpowering the police phalanx with their sheer size and militance.

Immediately they were able to splash red paint on the US embassy seal and paint their slogans on the embassy walls as an expression of rage and protest at the Almighty US of A — self-appointed global policeman and number one instigator of wars of aggression and intervention worldwide — again despite the efforts of the police to prevent them.

Having done so and entrenching their ranks in front of the embassy, the demonstrators quieted down and held their protest program. The police too settled down, held their peace and watched the demonstrators from where they had ensconced.

So what had “provoked” the police was the order of their commander to unleash their maximum intolerance for citizens exercising their right to air their grievances so that US embassy officials could be reassured the police were doing their job.  The Pavlovian reflex took over the police forces, having been oriented, trained, equipped and constantly sicced on protesting citizens to protect the status quo, the oligarchy and their foreign overlords.  The real nature of the PNP as protector of the neocolonial state, especially its power centers like Malacañang and the US embassy, was on full display.

But aren’t the police under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte even faintly aware that their Commander-in-Chief is no longer the unmitigated “Amboy” (American Boy) that all previous presidents since so-called independence have been? At the rate Duterte has been raining expletives on the mighty USA, including its President and the US State Department, while elucidating his concept of an independent foreign policy, more mass protests at the embassy should and could have been anticipated and police response adjusted accordingly.

Unfortunately, the puppet and fascist character of the PNP is so ingrained, it will take a major and determined overhaul to change it.  (It doesn’t help that the PNP is getting carte blanche in the Duterte administration’s war on drugs where abuse of power, extrajudicial short cuts, corruption and impunity are still very much in evidence.)

But there are netizens who are alternately perplexed and aghast why there were indigenous people and Moros demonstrating against US imperialism at the embassy.  Was that their issue? Weren’t their legitimate issues about defending their ancestral lands from interlopers or even the killings traced to paramilitary units and even military forces themselves.  Shouldn’t they be at the
DENR protesting corporate mining or at the AFP camps calling for en end to militarization.  Why the US embassy? (They, in fact, had already been to the DENR and Camp Aguinaldo military camp.)

There were even some who imputed that the Left, perennial protestors at the US embassy, had hoodwinked and somehow manipulated the contingents of national minorities to do their bidding and “riot” at the US embassy.

They who had trekked thousands of miles from north to south of the archipelago in what they had dubbed “Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya para sa Sariling Pagpapasya at Makatarungang Kapayapaan” (Journey of National Minorities for Self-determination and a Just Peace) were presumed too politically naive and shallow to grasp how US imperialism affects them and so they had to be “tricked” to protest at the US embassy.

Wrong.  Contrary to the common city goers' misconception, the lumad for one have educated themselves, primarily by their own efforts, setting up at least 146 schools in various communities all over Mindanao.  These schools have been targets of brutal attacks by the military mainly because they have effectively equipped the lumad with the tools to study and understand their situation and to fight for their rights.

Speaker after speaker from among their ranks have clearly articulated the relationship between the encroachments on their lands by multinational mining companies and agribusinesses, the plunder of natural resources and wanton destruction of the environment, and the grievous violations of their rights to US imperialism and its strongest tentacles among the AFP and PNP.

They spoke of the US-patterned, instigated, funded and directed counter-insurgency programs, including the latest Oplan Bayanihan, as behind the militarization of their communities, the divide-and-rule tactic of arming paramilitaries recruited from among them to do the dirty work of
terrorizing their communities in order to drive them away from their communal lands so that the foreign corporate interests and their domestic partners could take over.

The indigenous peoples and Moros have the historical and practical experience of struggling against colonial subjugation and neocolonial oppression and exploitation.  Thus they have sharpened their understanding of the root causes of their abject condition and what they must do to regain their dignity as a people, to exercise their right to self-determination and to live their lives under the ascendance of a just peace. #

October 19, 2016

Thorny issues emerge in Oslo peace talks

The second round of peace talks in Oslo, Norway between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines(GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) ended on a noticeably less upbeat tone compared to the resumption in August.  The weather seemed to forebode such an outcome with the sunny days at the start giving way to overcast skies and a gloomier atmosphere.

There was a listlessness in the air as the two peace panels strived to come up with their joint statement. Down the wire there were changes to the working draft and much shuttling back and forth resulting in a longer final panel-to-panel meeting. When the time for signing came, there was a collective sigh of relief instead of the unqualifiedly cheery reception at the conclusion of the first round.

To be fair, the Parties had achieved the objectives they had set for this round, arriving at common outlines for the substantive agenda on Social and Economic Reforms (SER), Political and Constitutional Reforms (PCR) and End of Hostilities and Disposition of Forces (EHDF).  For the PCR and EHDF, work was easier, smoother and therefore quicker as the Reciprocal Working Groups (RWGs) on both sides generally were well prepared and in agreement on the general topics to be covered. Moreover, they  reaffirmed that the agreements on PCR and EHDF could not run ahead of that on SER.  The latter must set the pace and content of  any agreements to be crafted on PCR and EHDF.

The Reciprocal Working Committees (RWCs) on SER had a much more difficult time getting their act together despite working overtime and holding many one-sided caucuses in between.

Negotiations on SER are facing serious if not overwhelming odds beginning with a whale of a difference in the two Parties’ appreciation of what is wrong with the system and ergo what reforms are needed to address the roots of the armed conflict.  For the GRP, it is a matter of making the system work better, to be more “inclusive”, be less bureaucratic or more responsive to the poor and underprivileged sections of society, and, perhaps, more accommodating to the demands of the NDFP forces that have been fighting for major reforms.

On top of contrasting if not diametrically opposed points of view, was the seeming lackadaisical preparation of the GRP RWC-SER.  They did not even have an honest-to-goodness draft outline comparable to the fleshed-out one submitted by the NDFP.  They insisted on adding a section entitled “Outcomes” that they said was in consonance with the way the GRP organized its executive departments and would make it easier for these departments to see their role and function in a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER).

The GRP panel seemed to expect the NDFP to agree to the premise that socio-economic reforms should dovetail the way the GRP is organized. The current panel apparently has not discarded the framework of its predecessors in keeping reforms strictly within the bounds of the GRP Constitution and legal processes. This contravenes the guideline clearly enunciated by no less than their principal, President Rodrigo Duterte, in the presence of the GRP panel and NDFP panel members and consultants last September 26 in Malacanang. Responding to NDFP Panel Chairperson Luis Jalandoni’s statements on the need for land reform and national industrialization, the President said he welcomes reforms  “as long as these are achievable within the Constitution, or achievable through amendments to the Constitution.”

In contrast, the NDFP presented a radically different analysis of what ails Philippine society and consequently what are the major socio-economic reforms needed to solve these ills. The NDFP-proposed outline reflected this in terms of highlighting the long-standing problem of land monopoly by a few, necessitating a genuine land reform program anchored on the principle of land to the tiller.

The  NDFP draft also confronted the backward, pre-industrial, dependent character of the national economy undergirding poverty and joblessness.  The NDFP contended that no less than a comprehensive overhaul of the GRP’s policy framework is needed.  This would encompass dismantling its neoliberal economic framework and pursuing national industrialization to meet the basic needs of the people, harness the country’s abundant natural and labor resources, and lead the way towards a pro-people, sustainable development.

That a unified CASER outline was eventually arrived at speaks of the remaining goodwill and earnestness on both sides to find common ground considering they are just at the very early stages of negotiating on this key agenda.

Thornier still is the matter of GRP’s release of more than 400 political prisoners including three remaining JASIG-protected NDFP consultants who are serving time in the National Penitentiary after having been convicted on trumped-up common crimes.  The “legal offensive” undertaken by the GRP since the Arroyo regime is clearly intended to harass, arrest and indefinitely detain dissidents - whether armed revolutionaries or plain activists - and keep them from effectively opposing government policies and programs they deem wrong and anti-people.

This GRP continuing practice is a clear travesty of justice, contravenes the GRP’s established jurisprudence that prohibits the criminalization of political offenses (Hernandez doctrine), and also violates the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL). Again, President Duterte had unequivocally stated before the GRP panel and the NDFP panel members and consultants that he would “stop this policy (of charging and detaining suspected revolutionaries with criminal offenses… otherwise, we will never have peace, because there will always be injustice.”

Unfortunately, GRP’s promises to effect the release of all the political prisoners are appearing to be more and more unreliable, uncertain and perhaps part of a ploy to keep up the hopes of the political prisoners, their families and comrades while being utilized as bait for the NDFP to enter prematurely and unjustifiably into a bilateral ceasefire.

Based on the GRP’s conduct at the second round of formal talks, it has become increasingly obvious that it remains fixated on “reducing the levels of violence” by clinching a bilateral ceasefire and giving this primacy over the negotiations on basic social, economic and political reforms. Like its predecessors, it justifies or rationalizes this track with the worn-out argument that violence or armed conflict is the root cause of non-development, poverty and social inequities.

The NDFP, on the other hand, has repeatedly and forthrightly stated that the progress of negotiations on the CASER and the release of all political prisoners through general amnesty would serve as a huge incentive for the NDFP to work on a bilateral ceasefire with the GRP. The NDFP had in fact declared an unprecedented indefinite ceasefire simultaneous with and in reciprocation of the GRP unilateral ceasefire as a goodwill and confidence-building measure along with measures to accelerate negotiations on the substantive agenda.

The unstated implication is that a bilateral ceasefire would be less feasible, if more grossly disadvantageous to the NDFP, should the GRP fail or fall short in its share crafting the CASER with the NDFP, and in its commitment to release the political prisoners through amnesty or other efficacious means.  Even with the ongoing simultaneous unilateral ceasefires, numerous reports indicate that the AFP and PNP have continued the GRP’s counterinsurgency operations under Oplan Bayanihan. True, there has been a marked decrease in armed encounters between the New People’s Army (NPA) and state security forces. But the attacks by AFP-led paramilitaries on communities, especially in the hinterlands such as the lumad areas, are unabated, again despite Pres. Duterte’s order to the AFP to disarm and control these paramilitary forces.

The GRP’s mixed signals threatens to confound and complicate the GRP-NDFP peace process. #

Published 17 October
Business World

Second round of peace talks on track

It is the third day of the second round of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations here in Oslo, Norway.   Since three weeks ago, autumn has been officially declared (defined as five days with an average daily temperature below 10 degrees centigrade).   The weather is definitely colder than when the talks resumed in August but still pleasant in stark contrast to the deep winter freeze at the resumption of formal talks six years ago in this same venue.

It is still acutely cold for Filipinos used to the tropical clime but the warmth, friendly banter and optimistic air between the two sides was apparent from Day One.

Luis “Ka Louie” Jalandoni has just retired from chairing the NDFP Negotiating panel to give way to younger leaders of the revolutionary alliance. He remains as a senior adviser in the mold of the late Antonio “Ka Tony” Zumel.  He superbly steered the NDFP panel through very rough and even treacherous waters in negotiations with four GRP regimes from Ramos to Aquino III.

Now “Ka Fidel” Agcoaili steps forward with aplomb as the new NDFP panel chairperson whlle Benito “Ka Benny” Tiamzon has been appointed new panel member.

The opening session started with wide smiles and congeniality but later became tense, The GRP side underscored their sanguine expectations that an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire would be reached by end October, a ceasefire more stable than the unilateral, simultaneous and indefinite ceasefires declared by the two sides since last August.

The NDFP side, for its part, gave a not-so-gentle reminder that convicted NDFP consultants continue to languish in prison while no humanitarian releases of the sick, elderly, overly long detained and women political prisoners have taken place.  The general amnesty proposed in May by no less than presumptive President Rodrigo Duterte as the most efficacious way of freeing all politically prisoners is in limbo. The disappointment and frustration on the part of the NDFP side was palpable and could not be assuaged by the GRP’s assurances that they were exerting all efforts to deliver on their promises.

The NDFP stressed that such releases are a matter of justice since the political prisoners are being held on the basis of trumped-up criminal charges.  Moreover, their continuing detention is a clear violation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

Chief Political Consultant “Ka Joma” SIson stated that the release of political prisoners could have served as a huge incentive for the NDFP to enter into the bilateral ceasefire. Nonetheless he, reassured the GRP side that negotiations on socio-economic reforms (SER), political and constitutional reforms (PCR) and end of hostilities and disposition of forces (EHDF) can continue in earnest. Agreements on the substantive agenda could still be reached depending on each sides’ willingness to address the root causes of the armed conflict.

Norwegian Special Envoy to the Philippine Peace Process, Amb.  Elisabeth Slattum, cooled down the atmosphere by suggesting a recess for a much delayed dinner. Fortunately, rather than resume after dinner for another tension-filled encounter, a short program was held to toast Ka Louie and show everyone’s appreciation for his principled and firm yet gentle leadership over the NDFP negotiating panel through close to 25 years.

There are big delegations on both sides bringing the total number to more than a hundred. On the NDFP side, the biggest number of consultants and resource persons are those working on the draft Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER).  They had been closeted for almost a week before the second round, working hard to improve on the NDFP’s drafts from the original one completed in 1998 and turned over to the GRP panel then headed by Amb. Howard Dee.

On the GRP side, the earlier skeletal composition of their Reciprocal Working Committee (RWC)-CASER and Reciprocal Working Groups (RWGs) on PCR and EHDF has been reinforced with more members and staff persons.  The relatively larger and heavier GRP delegations (as well as better preparation it seems) for the CAPCR, CAEHDF and ceasefire apparently indicates the GRP’s interest and priorities. The GRP also brought with them a delegation from the House of Representatives.

While the RWGs on PCR and EHDF finished their task of coming up with a common outline for the draft agreements they will put flesh on in the next three months, the RWCs on CASER that are setting the pace of the negotiations are still burning the midnight oil trying to agree on their common outline.

The difficulty in arriving at a common outline for CASER portends the arduous road ahead in the peace talks since nothing less than deep-going structural reforms are necessary for uprooting Philippine society from the morass of poverty and backwardness it is mired in and thereby liberate the majority of Filipinos from intolerable suffering, exploitation and oppression.

Nothing less than a truly comprehensive and radically transformative agreement can convince the forces of the CPP-NPA-NDFP and its mass base that waging a revolutionary war is no longer necessary to bring about such a change.

Meanwhile the RNG Third Party Facilitator continues to go all out in providing a conducive atmosphere and excellent working conditions for the peace talks.  The venue for the second round is the Holmenfjord Hotel situated at the mouth of one of the many scenic fjords Norway is famous for. The placid waters and the surrounding verdant hills with the picturesque houses cannot but have a calming and rejuvenating effect on everyone, even the most agitated of negotiators.

Amb. Slattum is at her charming and efficient best as she and her staff facilitate the panel-to-panel and working committee/group meetings in a non-intrusive way, gently nudging the two sides to try to reach some agreement even when they cannot see eye-to-eye on sticky issues.

It seems that the gracious Norwegian hosts have even taken the extra effort to ask the hotel chef to prepare more Asian-like fare. Yesterday’s dinner hosted by Norwegian State Secretary Laila Bokhari was prepared by a Filipino chef and her staff imported for the purpose of preparing sinigang, adobo, mango salad, palitaw and other favorite Filipino dishes.

Food for thought was also very much in evidence.  Amb. Rita Furuseth Sandburg, RNG deputy ambassador to the Columbian peace process, gave a concise but extensive sharing including what were the conditions and factors that may have contributed to the rejection of the peace agreement in a recently held referendum.  The State Secreary Bokhari shared Norway’s affirmative action and continuing commitment to bring in women’s voices into peace processes wherever they could saying that this was “not just the right thing to do but the smart thing” as well.

All remain hopeful that significant progress will have been made at the end of this round of talks to spur the two Parties to work even harder to try to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion and to convince our people that a just and lasting peace is indeed achievable. #

Published in Business World
10 October 2016