June 11, 2017

A cure worse than the disease

It has been close to three weeks since a botched police operation against Abu Sayaff leader Isnilon Hapilon evolved into a shooting war with his supporters in Marawi City, the Maute Group, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao. The historical Islamic City of Marawi is being reduced to rubble by aerial bombardments and is a virtual no man’s land.

Majority of its 200,000 inhbitants have evacuated for fear of being caught in the crossfire leaving behind all their worldly possessions. Some two thousand individuals are feared still trapped in their homes unable to get out, starving and gripped in terror. The military says there are still several hundreds of the Maute Group fiercely fighting government forces.

The government claims to be in control of 90% of the city but are unable to decisively take down the remaining holdouts of the Maute Group. US Special Action Forces (US SF) have been sent into the fray upon the request of the Duterte government, their involvement allegedly limited to giving “technical support” to combat operations.

Are these not the same US forces “invited temporarily” by the Arroyo government in 2002 to help the AFP crush the alleged Alqaeda-affiliated Abu Sayaff Group then reputed to be only 100-strong? Fifteen years hence the ASG are still thriving and nobody remembers US President Bush declaring the Philippines as the second front in the “war on terror”. The Special Forces never left the Philippines but rather got enmeshed in the botched Mamasapano operation where they trained and provided “technical assistance” to the massacred PNP SAF. With that record behind them, it appears that the US SF as well as the Maute Group are here to stay.

Considering President Rodrigo Duterte’s public excoriation of the US in the past over its brutal suppression of the Moro people when it colonized the Philippines and its bloody record of armed intervention in the Middle East, this development indicates the level of desperation of his government in dealing with the situation. Or perhaps it reflects the long-time dependence of the Philippine military on “assistance” by the US Armed Forces for its counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations.

Since returning from Russia, Duterte has been making the rounds mainly of military camps trying to boost the morale of soldiers by assuring them that he has their back (in case they are accused of criminal abuse such as rape and other human rights violations) and of generous financial aid should they get killed or wounded in action.

Human rights group Karapatan has reported on the worsening human rights situation in Mindanao as a result of Duterte’s martial law declaration and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.  The military and police have been given the green light to carry out counterinsurgency operations with renewed gusto under the cover of martial law and sans legal niceties such as the bill of rights getting in their way.

In rural areas, extra judicial killings, illegal arrests and detention, aerial bombardment, displacement of communities, military and paramilitary encampment in schools and other civilian centers — all of which had been taking place even before martial law due to the Duterte government’s declaration of all-out war against the communist-led New People’s Army — have escalated and hapless lumad and peasant folk are bracing for the worst.

In urban centers of Mindanao, added to the unrelenting extrajudicial killings in the government’s “war on drugs” mainly targetting the urban poor, are the arbitrary check points, arrests of ordinary folk who cannot produce identification cards, the police profiling of Muslims, violent dispersals of workers’ strikes and the banning of protest actions.  Duterte has warned — or is it threatened — to expand the coverage of martial law to the rest of the country should the problem of “terrorism” spill over from Mindanao.

What is truly worrisome is that the military’s version about what is happening in Marawi City in terms of the “terrorist” threat has grown by leaps and bounds.  It is worrisome because the ISIS connection seems to be gaining credence, at least in the public mind if not in actuality, ergo providing the necessary conditioning for the extension of the duration of martial law or even its expansion outside Mindanao.

From earlier official statements minimizing the capabilities and denying the links of the Maute Group/Abu Sayaff to the dreaded ISIS, the military is now say that there are “foreign fighters” among them and that they are well funded from foreign sources.

A video has been released by the military purportedly showing Hapilon, the Maute brothers and several others plotting the take-over of Marawi City that they would then supposedly declare as part of the ISIS caliphate-in-the-making.  Assuming this video is bona fide, it bolsters the government’s claim that the ensuing firefight in Marawi, when security forces attempted to capture Hapilon, was part of a rebellion hatched by the unified enemies of the state in that part of Mindanao.

Adding to the ISIS scare are newspaper reports that Indonesia warned the Philippine government that a thousand “Islamist extremists” have entered the country.  Subsequently news reports on the ongoing crisis in Marawi have repeated the speculation that ISIS has decided to shift its base of operations from the Middle East to South East Asia because of their alleged setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

Another video supposedly downloaded from the ISIS website no less, shows armed men trashing a church that the CBCP has confirmed is a Catholic church in Marawi City whose parish priest the Mautes have taken hostage. Add to this earlier reports that Christians in Marawi were being mercilessly killed by the group for merely having a different religion.

The discovery of tens of millions of cash and bank checks in an abandoned house in Marawi City seems to be a fit to the big puzzle the military is trying to piece together. Duterte himself provides the clincher by his emphatic assertion that the Maute Group is allied with drug lords who in turn are being coddled by or are in fact powerful local politicians.  “War vs terrorism” meets “war on drugs”. Perfect.

Several petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the imposition of martial law in Mindanao.  Most notable are the two that raise doubts on the factual basis of Proclamation 216. They emphasize that the current fighting in Marawi CIty was government-initiated, in a failed bid to capture or neutralize Hapilon, and the armed clashes resulted from his followers resisting such attempt. To them, this does not constitute an actual rebellion of such magnitude that it endangers public safety, most especially in the entirety of Mindanao.

The President’s Report to Congress justifying martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus has subsequently turned out to be inaccurate, false, or overstated.  Nonetheless the ferocity of the ongoing armed conflict in Marawi CIty, the resulting humanitarian crisis for the civilian population and the threat of an ISIS foothold in Mindanao fanned by government and “terror experts” are muting opposition to martial law.

It is only recently that grave abuses perpetrated by military and police forces in the course of their supposed mopping up operations are being brought to light.  The Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Lanao del Sur, in an open letter to President Duterte, condemned “illegal searches and seizures in Marawi City by military men, police and other law enforcement agencies which results in rampant loss and deprivation of properties and possessions of innocent civilians.”

Coupled with the aerial bombings of Marawi CIty, it now appears that the “cure” provided by the Duterte regime has become worse than the “disease” of the ISIS-inspired terrorist acts by the Maute Group/ASG. What else can anyone expect from a Commander-in-Chief whose values could make him candidly declare that “Marcos’ Martial Law was good”? #

Published in Business World
12 June 2017

June 04, 2017

Precarious times for GRP-NDFP peace talks

The GRP-NDFP peace talks appear to be hanging by a thread.  The GRP delegation withdrew from participation in the fifth round of talks scheduled to open last May 27 in Noordwijk,The Netherlands, upon instructions of their principal, President Rodrigo R. Duterte.  Despite frenzied attempts to prevent the cancellation of the fifth round, or salvage it by means of informal talks to try to iron out differences, achieve some progress, even if tentative, in the substantive agenda so as to make good use of the time and resources, Duterte chose to scuttle it.

More ominously, while GRP chief negotiator, Sylvestre Bello III, stated categorically that only this round would be aborted while the peace talks would continue, Duterte subsequently said in a speech he gave at the founding anniversary of the Philippine Navy that he would order the rearrest of the NDFP consultants out on bail to participate in the peace negotiations because, to put it mildly, he questioned the sincerity of the NDFP side in negotiating peace.

In response, NDFP Chief Negotiator Fidel Agcoaili stated in no uncertain terms that should the GRP disregard and set aside the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), then the peace talks could no longer continue. Both the JASIG and the peace negotiations would in effect or de facto be terminated.

What brought about this unexpected impasse considering that the mood going into the fifth round was quite upbeat with the success of four rounds of formal talks and progress in the work of reconciling the drafts on CASER through unilateral meetings and bilateral consultations between rounds?

Unfortunately, intervening events - the Marawi crisis and the declaration of martial law in Mindanao - served not only to complicate and confound the situation, the related subsequent actions and counteractions of the two sides have set into motion a train of events that could end up torpedoing the GRP-NDFP peace talks all together.

According to the GRP panel, Duterte and the entire Cabinet Security Cluster took umbrage at the call of the CPP to the NPA to intensify armed offensives against military and police forces in response to the declaration of martial law in Mindanao. This, they said, was despite unprecedented and bold steps that Duterte had taken to push the peace talks forward.

According to the NDFP, the CPP order was in response to heightened military offensives and mounting human rights violations before and after the martial law declaration coupled with the statement of Defense Secretary Lorenzana at the very outset that the NPA was also targeted by the Mindanao-wide martial law.  Moreover, notwithstanding the clarification of GRP Chief Negotiator Bello that this was not the case, field reports continued to be sent to the NDFP belying his claim.

Secretary Dureza spoke of returning to the negotiating table only when “there are clear indications that an enabling environment conducive to a just and sustainable peace…shall prevail”. In effect, the GRP continues to demand no less than an indefinite bilateral ceasefire even before any agreement has been forged on the substantive agenda of the peace talks, most especially on socio-economic reforms, and before the issue of the release of political prisoners has been squarely addressed by the GRP in accord with its obligations under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

Moreover, the GRP panel made it clear at the very beginning that their principal would only allow the fifth round to open if the CPP leadership retracts its order to the NPA to conduct more offensives, even after the Chief Political Consultant and the NDFP Negotiating Panel had publicly announced that they had asked the CPP leadership to reconsider the order.  The NDFP panel replied that it had no mandate to itself retract the order, and that it was impossible to receive an immediate reply from the CPP leadership, especially with intensified AFP operations targeting CPP-NPA units in the countryside.    

The GRP Panel instead proposed that the two panels issue a joint statement condemning terrorism and the Maute group and for cooperating on countermeasures against the Maute attack in Marawi. The NDFP Panel promptly crafted its draft for said joint statement and submitted this to the GRP Panel. But rather than give the NDFP its corresponding draft, the GRP Panel announced that they had been ordered to pack up and go home, and not to engage even in informal talks.

With each passing day, the humanitarian crisis escalates in Marawi City where an estimated two thousand civilians are still trapped inside without food and the military’s aerial bombardment has killed or wounded not just civilians but even soldiers.  The military’s claim that it has contained the Maute group and is now engaged in mopping up operations appears so far to be an overstatement. The GRP seems caught between having to justify martial law by amplifying the terrorist threat from the Maute/ASG in the entire Mindanao while claiming to have everything under control by utilizing its draconian measures.

The GRP is also in a curious bind with contradictory statements being issued about whether the CPP-NPA forces are also the object of martial law even as the military is emboldened to prosecute its “all-out war” against the NPA with complete disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law resulting once more in mass evacuations of civilians,  extrajudicial killings and illegal arrests. Meanwhile, workers on strike, peasants struggling to reclaim land grabbed farms, activists protesting martial law and ordinary folk who happen to be Moro or who are unable to produce an identification card are subjected to harassment, warrantless arrests and detention.

There is anxiety and dread over terrorist threats spilling over to other parts of the country.  Equally, or even more so, there is anxiety and dread over martial law being extended to the Visayas and Luzon or to its prolongation beyond sixty days.  In Manila, panic over a possible ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in a luxury hotel and casino, apparently prevented employees and guests from escaping deadly fumes from fires ignited by a lone gunman who police now aver was unlikely to have been a terrorist.

The economic toll of Duterte’s martial law declaration in MIndanao and nationally has yet to be taken into account.

In these most unsettling of times, the GRP-NDFP peace talks hopefully will not be an unintended casualty.

The talks now appear to be where they were at between the March backchannel communique and the eve of the 4th round, when the NDFP was waiting for the signal from the GRP for the two sides to simultaneously announce unilateral ceasefires.

The difference is that now, the NDFP has proposed instead some form of cooperation with the GRP in fighting terrorism and the Maute group in particular, and the response of GRP President Duterte, despite acknowledging this in passing as a goodwill measure, is that the NDFP should first unilaterally and formally declare that they will stop fighting the government before he sends back his negotiators to the negotiating table.

This is definitely a backslide from the fourth round and into the situation where the status of the peace negotiations and the JASIG are both unclear. #

Published in Business World
5 June 2017