February 25, 2010

EDSA myths (Part I)

A ruling president shunning people power and a presidential aspirant eagerly laying claim to it. Neither one can be expected to explain to the people what Edsa was all about, what was achieved and what could not be achieved. And what is its continuing relevance to our people’s situation today.

De facto President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is conspicuously absent again at the official celebration of the anniversary of Edsa I, the people’s uprising that toppled the dictator Marcos 24 years ago. In 2001 Mrs. Arroyo, then Vice President, was catapulted to power after a second unarmed uprising cum military rebellion dubbed “Edsa Dos”. But she quickly eschewed people power as she chose to anchor the legitimacy of her presidency on the legal fiction that President Joseph Estrada had “resigned” rather than being ousted, claiming that she merely assumed the office when there was a vacancy, no thanks to people power.

Presidential candidate Sen. Noynoy Aquino, on the other hand, struggles to lay claim to the Edsa people power legacy in his latest television advertisement. Young people are gathered around him in the style of the grandmotherly storyteller, Lola Basyang. He preaches, “Sa Edsa nagsimula and laban, sa Mayo ipagpapatuloy natin ang laban…” (The fight began in Edsa, in May we will continue the fight…) Of late it is the crassest example of how the EDSA I uprising has been debased in an attempt to appropriate it and turn it into political capital for the May 2010 elections.

First of all, one needs to explode the myth that EDSA I happened overnight, like some kind of inexplicable phenomenon, and that it all started with the military rebellion led by then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Philippine Constabulary chief Fidel Ramos. It didn’t.

It took all of fourteen years before the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown; throughout that time our people struggled against despotism and misrule. This found concrete expression in the broad urban resistance movement both underground and above ground, the armed revolutionary movements of the CPP-NPA and MNLF, and the various anti-Marcos opposition groups both here and abroad.

From the outset, it was from the ranks of the poor, exploited and oppressed classes that resistance to authoritarian rule emerged: workers who were not allowed to strike over legitimate grievances; poor peasants who were being driven off their land; the urban underclass whose homes were being demolished to give way to Mrs. Imelda Marcos’ beautification projects; students from the hotbeds of activism like the state universities who were being rounded up or gagged from expressing their dissent.

In time, personalities and groups from among the middle forces began to raise their voices in protest. Notably it was the religious who ventured out of their comfort zones, breaking bread with the struggling masses wherever they found them, sharing their weal and woe, until they themselves were targeted by the military as “subversives” or “communist sympathizers”.

Later, professionals such as lawyers and physicians also took up the cudgels for human rights victims, asserting their right and duty to minister to those in need regardless of ideological or political orientation. Teachers and other government employees also became restive borne of their own economic issues and the political repression they were subjected to by the authoritarian state.

Even artists joined the fray with noted film directors, writers and painters becoming activists against censorship and the climate of suppression of freedom of expression. The “mosquito press” was pioneered by the xeroxed newsletters of the religious then the newspapers fearlessly put out by press freedom icon, Joe Burgos and others.

The politicians in the anti-Marcos opposition were outstandingly represented by Senators Lorenzo Tañada, Jose W. Diokno, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino and Jovito Salonga. They distinguished themselves by the fact that they fought martial law from the outset, courageously, consistently and with a clear-sighted and statesmanlike appreciation of the need to unite the broadest array of social forces to topple the dictator, including those on the Left of the political spectrum.

The sector of big business, especially the foreign chambers of commerce and their local partners, welcomed martial law and benefited from the dictatorship’s foreign investment-friendly policies. It was only when Marcos cronies and favored multinational corporations started to elbow out other vested interests, when the economy started to go down, and the political situation became more unstable (especially with the raging communist-led and Moro secessionist armed struggles in the countryside) that sections of the economic elite began to abandon Marcos and look to the anti-Marcos opposition for an alternative leader from the same elite mold.

As for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Marcos made sure the hierarchy was well-fed from the trough of the kleptocracy such that the era of multi-millionaire generals all started under his regime. It was only when the rivalry between the Marcos/Ver faction and the Enrile/Ramos faction heated up that the ground became fertile for the establishment of the Reform The Armed Forces Movement (RAM), the organization of military officers that eventually figured in the failed coup attempt preceding the Edsa uprising. The god fathers and leaders of RAM were fiercely anti-communist, had track records as human rights violators, were beholden to the US and had a messianic complex about their role in bringing about reforms, not just in the AFP, but in Philippine politics in general.

Verily, it was after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino that the simmering cauldron of resistance and protest boiled over into a wave of non-stop massive demonstrations calling for Marcos to step down until, with the not-too-gentle prodding of his principal backer, the US, he called for snap elections.

The snap presidential elections of 7 February 1986 pitted Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the unassuming widow of the martyred opposition leader, Ninoy, and Ferdinand Marcos, the ailing Strongman believed to be behind her husband’s brazen assassination. Mrs. Aquino quickly became the rallying figure for a people sick and tired of years of unmitigated suffering under authoritarian rule; the elections, the opening they had been waiting for to kick out Marcos.

But it was not to be. Marcos was declared the winner in a massively fraudulent electoral exercise triggering an outpouring of protest culminating in gigantic demonstrations where Mrs. Aquino claimed victory and called for civil disobedience to enforce the will of the people. The Left began preparations for a people’s strike to up the ante in the anticipated showdown between the democratic forces and Marcos’ armed minions.

These events preceded the failed coup d’état led by Enrile/Ramos who, in the first place, planned to install a military junta in lieu of Marcos. Thus when Cardinal Sin called on the people to flock to the gates of the two military camps traversed by the main hi-way named Epifanio de los Santos or Edsa to support the beleaguered military rebels, the response was instantaneous and overwhelming.

The days of the dictatorship were numbered. ###

February 18, 2010

Morong 43

Respected human rights lawyer, Romeo T. Capulong, minced no words in stating before the Court of Appeals hearing on the petition for habeas corpus of the Morong 43 that de facto martial rule was in effect vis a vis his clients.

This started from the time of the February 6 raid without a valid search warrant; their mass apprehension without valid arrest warrants; their ordeal of torture - being continuously interrogated while denied food and sleep, threatened bodily harm or actually being beaten while blindfolded and handcuffed, treated to indignities like having their private parts handled by soldiers when they used the toilet; their being held incommunicado and denied visits by relatives, lawyers, physicians and human rights officials; their questionable ongoing detention in a military camp rather than a police detention facility; up to the military’s initial defiance of a Supreme Court ruling that the detainees be produced in court citing security concerns.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has tried to get away with its patent disregard of due process and even its human rights abuses by insisting that the 43 health workers are members of the New People’s Army.

To make the NPA label stick further, the military made much of the presence of progressive legislators and senatorial candidates, Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza, during the hearing on the habeas corpus petition; the battery of defense lawyers headed by Atty. Capulong, a veteran human rights lawyer who has successfully defended hundreds of activists, progressives and even avowed revolutionaries; the campaign paraphernalia of progressive party list groups as well as acupuncture needles apart from the firearms and explosives allegedly found in the seminar house; and the way some of the detainees raised their fists in protest when brought to court as constituting positive proof that the 43 are indeed NPA combatants.

What they succeeded in doing, however, is underscore the policy and practice of the Arroyo regime in its counterinsurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, of demonizing activists and their supporters as “communist terrorists” and subsequently targeting them for “neutralization”, military doublespeak for extrajudicial execution, enforced disappearance, illegal arrest, torture and illegal detention.

When Human Rights Commissioner Leila de Lima rebuked the military that even assuming the detainees are all NPA, they continue to have rights especially the constitutional presumption of innocence, Gen. Jorge Segovia retorted that soldiers should also be accorded “presumption of innocence”. With a straight face, the general said, “We know we are right; we know we did not commit those allegations.”

This statement only shows the military’s utter ignorance of what constitutes human rights and state responsibility in upholding and protecting them. On the other hand it is also an unwitting admission that the military itself is on trial before the public eye.

The military has tried to impugn the credentials of the 43 as health professionals and workers. They accused the 62-year-old doctor, Alexis Montes, of being assigned by the NPA to assassinate a retired military general only to have to conveniently drop the reckless charge when they realized how incredulous it was. (The doctor testified in the CA hearing that the only time he held a gun was in military training in college decades ago.)

The low educational attainment of most of the 43 health workers was also peddled by the military as proof that they could not be bona fide health workers. This was disputed by Dr. Michael Tan, a medical anthropologist and World Health Organization (WHO) consultant, who wrote in his recent column (http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20100216-253597/Barefoot-doctors) that the profile of a majority of the 43 fit that of volunteer community health workers (CHWs) in the tradition of China’s barefoot doctors and Latin America’s promoters de salud or health promoters.

Despite low levels of literacy and socio-economic disadvantages these CHWs have proven highly capable of serving the health needs of their communities. In fact, by the late seventies, their example was being held up by the WHO to be emulated and promoted the world over as part of the global strategy to achieve “health for all by the year 2000”.

Thus the military’s story line has shifted from the tall tale that the Morong 43 are NPA combatants conducting a training on bomb-making, to the taller tale that they are “NPA medical officers” who belong to a “’super body” or what the military claims is the “NPA’s version of the Department of Health.” The military now acknowledges that the group was indeed undertaking a health training but one that was for the purpose of the communist-led guerilla army!

Ironically, even granting that the 43 are "NPA medics", the AFP claim that this catch is the "biggest victory of the government in recent years" unwittingly reveals its lackluster performance and belies all previous grandiose claims such as dozens of guerrilla zones being dismantled and thousands of guerrilla fighters neutralized.

Now the AFP spokesperson avers that since cases have been filed in the Morong regional trial court against the 43 for illegal possession of firearms and explosives, these constitute “sufficient grounds for their continued detention” and “it would be up to them to prove their innocence in court.” Consistently, the military and the public prosecutors have taken the stance that the burden of proving their innocence lies with the 43 rather than the other way around; that is, their accusers, in a democracy, must prove the guilt of the accused.

What the military tries to gloss over is the fact that their entire operation was marked by illegality, including a spurious search warrant and planted evidence. Moreover, the detainees were never accorded legal counsel when they were charged before the fiscal and the case summarily filed before the RTC. Thus the cases filed cannot cure such gross violations of due process.

Under the Arroyo regime, it is clear that the Philippine military can do as it pleases with impunity, trampling on universally-recognized and constitutionally-guaranteed human rights. By the AFP's actions and words, and clearly with the backing of Malacanang thru Executive Secretary Ermita and Defense Sec. Gonzales, the military has been relentlessly undermining the supremacy of civilian rule. Malacanang is caught in a hypocritical cop-out, pretending to take a “hands off” posture now that public, including international outrage, is mounting.

No doubt, the military claim that the 43 are NPA medics will go the way of its other lies, and be proven untrue. One shudders to think what other lie -- or cop-out -- this government, thru the AFP, will come up with to justify its actions. Meanwhile the Morong 43 continue to suffer under this oppressive regime. #

February 11, 2010

Study in contrast

The contrast is too stark to be missed. “But they are NPA (New People’s Army)!” Thus did Executive Secretary and former General Eduardo Ermita justify the arbitrary arrest of 43 health workers and professionals attending a training seminar in Morong, Rizal last Saturday, their torture, subjection to indignities, deprivation of legal counsel, and denial of visits by relatives and officers of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

This is the same Secretary Ermita who, along with other Arroyo henchmen, immediately invoked the right to due process of the Ampatuans, Arroyo’s warlord allies in Muslim Mindanao suspected to be behind the gruesome mass murder of relatives and supporters of their political enemies, a bevy of media personnel as well as innocent bystanders.

To be labeled as NPA, ergo an “enemy of the state”, is tantamount to a death sentence (via extrajudicial execution) or being subjected to the worst human rights violations by state security forces with the blessings of Malacañang. On the other hand, to be a valued political ally of Mrs. Arroyo, able to deliver hundreds of thousands of fraudulently acquired votes for her presidential bid, to beat back government opposition in an entire region and to terrorize a dirt-poor and restless populace is to be dealt with kid gloves despite being the prime suspects in the most heinous of crimes.

According to General Ermita there was nothing illegal in the arrest of the 43 - two of whom are doctors, two others a nurse and midwife and the rest community health workers - because this is based on solid intelligence information. If this were the case, why were the combined AFP/PNP raiding force of 300 who came in four military trucks and two armored personnel carriers, unable to present any valid search or arrest warrants? Why did they conduct their search of the private resort owned by Dr. Melecia Velmonte, an infectious disease expert at the UP-Philippine General Hospital, to come up with so-called evidence without any impartial witnesses to corroborate their find.

The same military intelligence that led to the "discovery" of a bundle of arms and explosives in a health training seminar had failed to detect an entire arsenal of weapons, ammunition and even armored vehicles in the Ampatuans' possession. It took the declaration of emergency rule and eventually martial law before the authorities could come up with anything substantial against the Ampatuans.

And this same AFP-PNP combine that willfully allowed the Ampatuans to commit the massacre, if they did not actually participate in it by refusing to provide security to the prospective victims, has turned its brutal, coercive power on hapless doctors and health workers whose only intent was to learn how to care for the sick in a setting of want and government neglect.

In order to give the Gestapo military and police time to manufacture more evidence and extract tortured confessions from their victims, the 43 were blindfolded and shackled, held incommunicado, denied food and toilet privileges for maximum discomfort, and deprived of mandatory visits by their legal counsel and CHR officers.

After two days, when the relatives of some of the arrested were allowed in, they were given a very short time to inquire into the condition of their loved ones and always in the intimidating presence of their captors for which reason many could not speak about the despicable treatment they had received.

While refusing to present the 43 to the media, the AFP keeps issuing press releases in a ludicrous attempt to concoct a story about their latest victims: that they were undergoing training in bomb manufacture; that the 60-year-old physician in the group, Dr. Alex Montes, is actually the NPA operative assigned to kill retired General Jovito Palparan, the bloodthirsty general who confesses to “inspiring” his men to kill NPA suspects vigilante style; that several of the women have been identified as having participated in NPA attacks.

And lo and behold, the AFP reported that campaign materials of the progressive party list Bayan Muna were also seized from the group. All the better to keep up the military’s vilification campaign against the party that has successfully won several seats in Congress since 2001 and is now fielding a senatorial candidate? Why limit the propaganda to the AFP’s having chalked up a big blow against the NPA when you can also, by innuendo, implicate Bayan Muna, currently in the thick of the electoral campaign, as an NPA “front” and scare away potential voters?

The raid against the health workers can only be seen as part of the Arroyo regime’s propensity to crack down on those who oppose its policies and its illegitimate rule. The Council for Health and Development, under whose auspices the training was undertaken, is a non-government organization committed to rendering health services to poor and underserved communities. They are critical of government policies and programs that underlie the people’s poverty, ill health and inadequate, low quality health services. As advocates of community-based health care, health training for community volunteers is a staple of their program.

The practice of treating “NPA” or “NPA suspects” as “enemies of the state” and therefore undeserving of due process rights and, more important, non-derogable human rights such as the right to life, against being tortured, against unjust arrest and detention, etc. has brought about a situation wherein military and police officials up to the Executive Secretary can blithely justify their fascist actuations on their mere say so that someone is an NPA.

But more than the fascist military mindset, it is the overweening brutality, ruthlessness and arrogance of power that characterizes the Arroyo regime, in combination with its rabid craving and desperation to remain in power that has cultivated and nurtured the culture of impunity for perpetrating such horrendous atrocities.

With elections crucial to the fate of the Arroyo cabal just around the corner, there is reason to fear that the worst is still to come. #

February 04, 2010

Gut issue

Two surveys done by reputable polling groups last month show presidential candidate Senator Manny Villar closing the gap between him and erstwhile frontrunner Senator Noynoy Aquino. Mr. Villar got a big leap in his ratings while Mr. Aquino slid down considerably; in the case of the Pulse Asia survey, the current difference between the two is considered statistically negligible.

The latest survey results come as a surprise since they were taken at the height of the raging controversy over the C-5 highway that anti-Villar senators kicked into high gear with a Senate report censuring Mr. Villar as having profited immensely from the project. The attacks and counterattacks, including many below the belt, have been hogging the headlines for almost two weeks. Many predicted it would be the undoing of Mr. Villar since it took him some time before he appeared in the Senate to dispute the charges and defend himself.

Mr. Aquino, on the other hand, persisted in presenting himself as the ultimate antidote to corruption. He stood primarily if not solely on his pedigree as the son of the martyr, Ninoy Aquino, and the vaunted icon of democracy, Cory, and his non-controversial if lackluster track record as a legislator. His camp expected he would benefit from the expose on his main rival’s alleged corrupt dealings. And yet it appears that people are not satisfied with Mr. Aquino’s claim to an unblemished name and lineage; they want to know what he stands for, has accomplished and aims to accomplish.

Whatever the reason behind the survey results and regardless of the how accurate or valid, the fact stands out that corruption is not the only issue in this elections, and may not even be the most important for the people.

Corruption is truly a big issue, underscored by its intractability, its scale and the brazenness by which it is carried out by the highest government officials and the biggest names in business in complicity with foreign governments and corporations. The NBN-ZTE scam easily comes to mind.

Yet it is only part of the bigger problem that keeps the vast majority of our people poor and miserable. To them, the most important problem, because it affects their lives directly and on a daily basis, is the state of the economy. The Arroyo regime’s barrage of paid advertisements citing glowing economic figures and touted accomplishments notwithstanding, people perceive the economy as unable to provide jobs and their basic needs.

Perhaps Mr. Villar’s pitch about helping people out of their poverty the way he purportedly conquered it himself through dint of hard work and perseverance connected to more people seeking a way out too. At least, the surveys indicate that Mr. Villar’s massive advertising in the last two months made a dent and overcame questions about the veracity of his claims and the purity of his intentions. (The oft-repeated prediction by his critics is that he would recoup his humongous campaign expenses the minute he won the presidency with more crooked deals rather than fulfill his promise of lifting the people out of poverty.)

We need not assume the accuracy or reliability of these surveys in reflecting the public pulse but certainly we can deduce a growing clamor among the people for ventilating and facing the issues squarely as shown by the many debates and forums with the presidential candidates. While it may still be too early to draw trends much less conclusions, we can take note that people seem to be more critical, not easily swayed by emotional appeal and demanding more substance from candidates.

A group calling itself Pagbabago!, People’s Movement for Change, has drawn up a “people’s criteria” with which to measure candidates in the May elections. (Check them out at http://www.pagbabago.org/cms/) They propose that the criteria be used to measure both the platforms and the track records of all the presidentiables and their running mates as well as the senatorial candidates.

Twelve sets of questions are offered to the electorate covering a comprehensive range of policy questions and concrete issues – from the economy, to human rights, to prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo and cohorts and including foreign policy questions and how to settle persistent armed conflicts.

On the economy, Pagbabago! asks those aspiring to the top posts In the land the following:

1)Will you protect the national patrimony and environment by opposing large-scale, export-oriented, and foreign-led extractive industries such as mining and oil exploration?

2)Will you work for genuine agrarian reform anchored on the distribution of land to the tillers? Are you in favour of scrapping schemes such as the stock-distribution option, land use conversion and others that have allowed evasion of land reform and endangered food security?

3)Will you work for national industrialization? Will you reverse policies of liberalization, privatization and deregulation? Will you keep economic protectionist measures, restrictions on foreign ownership of land in the Philippine Constitution?

4)Will you promote job creation and uphold job security by protecting domestic industry? Do you support the demand of workers for an increase in minimum wage? Will you reverse labor export and labor contractualization policies to protect working people’s rights and promote their welfare?

Whether or not one agrees with the point of view of Pagbabago!, its attempt to raise the issues more sharply and thus help differentiate the candidates from one another based on their principled stand and their political practice is more in tune with what the surveys are starting to show.

Woe to the candidates who choose to ignore the rising discontent with an electoral campaign brimming with populist rhetoric, image building and mud slinging. More surprises are in store from an awakening and discerning people. #