November 18, 2010

Tragic loss amid climate of impunity

Leonard Co, unarguably one of the country’s foremost botanists and biodiversity experts, as well as an indefatigable conservationist, was killed in a forested area in Kananga, Leyte last Monday, together with two of his companions, while undertaking scientific explorations under the auspices of the Energy Development Corporation. Two others survived.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) immediately claimed that the three killed were “collateral damage” in a legitimate military operation against rebel New People’s Army (NPA) who had been sighted in the area.

More than seven years ago, also in Kananga town, nine civilians were reported by Tacloban human rights groups and people’s organizations to have been tortured and massacred by soldiers of the 19th Infantry Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Oscar Lactao, dubbed the "Palparan of Leyte". The AFP reported the incident as an “encounter with the NPA”.

Human rights groups decried that eight of the victims were shot in the head, at close range, and that there was evidence of torture as shown by scald burns found on the victims’ bodies. Among the dead were Eugenio Tazan, 54-year-old peasant leader of the San Isidro Small Farmers Association, and 24-year-old Rowena Superior of the Bagalungon Small Farmers Association, who was three months pregnant. Four others killed were minors with ages ranging from 13 to 17.

In another infamous case in Palo, Leyte on Nov 21, 2005, a group of farmers resting by a make-shift warehouse before they start work on their plots were viciously attacked by elements of the 19th IB. Hurling five grenades and firing continuously for 30 minutes, the soldiers killed seven farmers, including a pregnant woman, and wounded several others. Not satisfied, the soldiers hit the survivors with rifle butts, forcing them to confess they were armed and members of the NPA. Failing to extract confessions, the soldiers brought in a sack of old rifles and claimed these belonged to the farmers, in the same fashion that the 16th IB PA planted firearms and explosives as evidence against the Morong 43 early this year.

As in most cases of human rights violations in the rural areas, the planners and perpetrators of the Kananga and Palo massacres remain unpunished despite numerous evidence and testimonies. The victims being ordinary folk have been consigned to oblivion, just another statistic in the government’s counter-insurgency drive, as “rebels” who had been properly “neutralized” or as "collateral damage".

Apparently, this is what the AFP wants to happen in the case of Co and the two other victims, forest guard Sofronio Cortez, and farmer Julius Borromeo, who were acting as Co’s assistants. But since the military cannot impugn the character of Co nor raise questions about the legitimacy of his group’s presence in the virgin forest surrounding the EDC geothermal facility, their claim is that the victims were killed in the supposed crossfire between clashing soldiers and rebels.

Unfortunately for the AFP, such claims are being belied by the two survivors of the massacre. “I only heard a continued burst of gunfire. There was no answering gunfire. None. That was what I heard…,” said Policarpio Balute, a member of the Tongonan Farmers Association who served as Co’s guide.

According to Niño Gibe as recounted by Co’s wife, “(Gibe) said that when my husband tried to get up from the ground, another burst of gunfire hit him in the back.” “After the second volley of gunfire, Niño said he held up his hand as sign of surrender and shouted, ‘Tama na, tama na’ (Stop it), and the gunfire suddenly stopped,” the wife said.

Compare these eyewitness accounts to that of Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of the 19th IB who, in a press conference held in Tacloban, claimed that before the shooting started, his soldiers saw a person wearing black and holding an M-16 rifle, prompting them to assume a combat formation. Denying earlier reports that he said a soldier fired the first shot, Tutaan now says, “There was a volume of fire. The bullets ricocheted to different directions.”

Tutaan added that since early November, the 19th IB was on “heightened alert and always on a combat mode” because of intelligence reports that NPA members were planning to attack the EDC complex. He claimed that it was the EDC that had tipped them off on the presence of the NPA yet he also claimed they were uninformed that there were EDC employees in the area.

CENCOM Commanding General Ralph Villanueva betrayed the AFP's mindset and default mode of shifting the blame to the NPAs, if not to the victims themselves, when he said that investigations are being conducted to determine whether the bullets that killed Co and his companions came from the soldiers' rifles or from the NPAs. Assuming without granting that the bullets did not come from 19th IB firearms, how could he tell that these came from the NPA minus ballistic tests on such rifles?

Meanwhile the family of Co has raised pointed questions about the AFP's version of what took place. They want to know why Co was allowed to enter the area if rebel presence had been reported there. And if the military was in such close coordination with the EDC with regard to their ongoing operations, why was Co not forewarned about imminent danger to his group of being “caught in a cross fire”?

Most poignantly, Co’s wife, Glenda asks in disbelief, “Nangyayari pa rin ang ganito kahit na sa ilalim ni Pnoy, bakit?” (“This is still happening under Pnoy’s administration, why?”)

The climate of impunity that pervades the entire AFP and other state security forces evidently emboldens them to continue perpetrating atrocities against perceived or even imagined "enemies". Surely, the impunity with which the 19th IB had perpetrated several massacres and gotten away with them is behind this most recent tragedy.

The AFP has of late been attempting to refurbish its tarnished image with grand claims of upholding human rights.

A day after the killings, General Ricardo David Jr, AFP chief, proudly announced that the AFP was setting up human rights offices in all three major services - the army, navy and air force - and would designate HR officers down to the battalion level. The aim was purportedly “to demonstrate the AFP’s resolve and enhance its campaign in ensuring observance of human rights, international humanitarian law and the rule of law.”

However, an objective appraisal of these welcome words of institutional commitment to human rights in light of the AFP’s most recent actuations and track record leads to the inevitable conclusion that this latest pronouncement is nothing more than a public relations move.

It is in line with the so-called security sector reform being flaunted by Malacañang, whose aim is not really to reform the military, police and other state security forces but to clean up and improve their public image and make them more acceptable and credible.

How President Aquino, AFP Commander-in-Chief, will deal with this indiscriminate and wanton slaughter of a brilliant scientist and his assistants will again test his willingness and capacity to uphold human rights over and above the military’s protestations of innocence. #

Published in Business World
19-20 November 2010

November 11, 2010

Take two on the Morong 43

One would wish that at least part of then presidential candidate “Noynoy” Aquino’s campaign line were unequivocally true - that having been a victim of oppression under martial rule when his father “Ninoy” was kept in solitary confinement by his arch enemy, dictator Ferdinand Marcos, he knows what injustice means.

If so, then he would have empathy with the plight of the Morong 43, health professionals and workers all, who have been detained unjustly for nine months now on the basis of spurious charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

The military had raided a seminar house in Morong, Rizal owned by a well-respected infectious disease expert from the Philippine General Hospital, using a faulty warrant of arrest for a person whose existence, nobody, not even the authorities, has verified up to this time

They rounded up all the participants in a health training course being given under the auspices of the non-government organization, Council for Health and Development, known for its pioneering work in community-based primary health care.

They produced firearms and alleged bomb-making paraphernalia as evidence; since these were garnered without benefit of independent witnesses such as baranggay officials, there are grounds to believe that these were planted by the raiders themselves.

The 43 were hauled off, blindfolded and handcuffed, to a military camp. They were interrogated, subjected to various forms of physical and mental torture, and kept incommunicado until their lawyers and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) were able to assert their right to counsel and visitation by relatives and human rights workers.

A public prosecutor brought in by the military hastily conducted inquest proceedings (to determine if there was probable cause to charge the detainees) but did so without affording the forty-three their right to counsel.

A case was then filed with the regional trial court in Morong for which reason the Court of Appeals (CA), rejected the defense lawyers’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus, on the technicality that the filing of the case “cured” any irregularities in the arrest of the hapless forty-three.

The CA ruling is pending on appeal with the Supreme Court. Defense lawyers argue that the gross violations of the forty three’s right to due process and the flimsiness of the evidence call for the dismissal of the charges against the health workers. The defense lawyers have so far prevailed on the Morong RTC to defer arraignment of the accused in light of the SC appeal.

Meantime, despite resistance from military and police authorities, thirty eight of the forty three were transferred to a regular police detention facility. In this way, they were spared further harassment and rough treatment coupled with enticements to cooperate with their military captors.

Unfortunately, five of the detainees succumbed to the “bad cop-good cop” tactics of the military, purportedly confessed their guilt and currently remain under the custody of the military. Some of their relatives however attest to the severe pressure made to bear on them including threats made by interrogators against their family members.

Hearings conducted by the CHR under then Chair Leila de Lima were able to establish the plain truth that the case of the Morong 43 is a case of a military operation pretending to be a police action for which a patently defective arrest warrant was obtained.

Acting on raw intelligence information, the military pounced on the forty three, initially claiming that they were NPA combatants undergoing training in making bombs. Later, when it could not be denied that the forty three were indeed either medical professionals or community health workers, they amended their line saying they were NPA medics undergoing training in “combat life-saving techniques and bomb-making”.

The AFP trumpeted that the “accomplishment was the biggest victory of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign in recent years”. To underscore the point, they awarded the head of the raiding team a medal for his role in the “accomplishment”.

For the past nine months, numerous prominent groups and personalities have joined calls for the immediate release of the Morong 43. They include several former secretaries of the Department of Health; the dean and professors of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine; the Association of Philippine Medical Colleges; the Philippine Medical Association; the Philippine Nurses Association; and several lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate. International and national groups of lawyers, human rights advocates and churches have also joined the clamor.

But bottom line is the forty three are still languishing in jail. Dr. Alexis Montes, the sixty-year-old physician in the group expressed his frustration by saying that every second in jail feels like an eternity. Two pregnant mothers among the forty three have given birth. Another doctor, Dr. Mary Clamor was rushed to the hospital because of uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension and infected skin wounds aggravated by poor jail conditions. The rest are straining under the weight of uncertainty and the difficult conditions they and their families are subjected to.

Justice Secretary de Lima has submitted to President Aquino her recommendations and, by all indications, these are favorable. The latter has already acknowledged that the “evidence” against the forty-three was obtained through irregular means. He rightly stated, “It is a generally accepted principle that what the lawyers call the fruit of the poisoned tree, evidence wrongly gotten, cannot be used.”

Yet Mr. Aquino chooses to drag his feet on the case arguing that it is “up to the courts” to decide.

In fact, the Executive Department can expedite the release of the Morong 43 in two ways. The Office of the Solicitor General can concur or not object to the defense petition for habeas corpus pending with the Supreme Court and thus give way to the grant of the petition. Or the justice department can order the reinvestigation and thereby reverse the erroneous filing of the case filed by its errant fiscal. The Morong court can then dismiss the case accordingly and order the instant release of the forty-three.

In contrast to Mr. Aquino’s decisive, some say precipitous, grant of amnesty to alleged military rebels, his continued inaction on the Morong 43 rankles. It is also fuelling suspicion that Mr. Aquino is hostage to the generals who object to the release in the guise of such being a setback to the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.

No ifs and buts, it’s time Mr. Aquino mustered political will on such a blatant case of injustice: Mr. President, release the Morong 43! #

Published in Business World
12-13 November 2010

For those who wish to email me their comments or queries, please use

November 05, 2010

Old and tired solutions

The Aquino administration’s conditional cash transfers (CCT) scheme is a quick fix, band-aid solution aimed at giving substance to Pnoy’s claim that he is addressing the poverty problem. It toes the line of the World Bank regarding the right “anti-poverty strategy” and covers up the fact that the same failed neoliberal socio-economic policy framework of previous regimes is in effect. Not least of all, the CCT is bound to be another tool for political patronage favorable to Pnoy’s camp while he turns a blind eye to another huge window of opportunity for corruption in his government.

In sum, the CCT is a jazzed up dole-out program – complete with technocratic justification, a more complex administrative infrastructure, the ideological and political laundering conducted by Pnoy’s allies who used to be critical of the previous regime’s exact same programs, and the big bucks to complete the swindle.

Let us take the more sophisticated arguments used by the CCT defenders including erstwhile critics of the unlamented Arroyo regime’s anti-poverty programs.

There is the disarming admission that the CCT is not a solution to poverty.

It is acknowledged that jobs that bring in decent incomes must be generated and that providing accessible and sufficient social services are key. As for Pnoy loyalists still trying to strike a progressive pose, there is talk about the need for economic growth and the equitable sharing of its fruits as the only way to overcoming poverty. Having said as much, they then proceed to justify the CCT albeit admitting that it is an “ambitious project” that is being rapidly expanded.

In a nutshell, the spin is that CCT saves the so-called poorest of the poor who “have fallen through the cracks of a ruthless market economy.” Since economic policy makers are not about to change gears nor shift tracks in so far as their “free market” orientation, it is reasonable to anticipate more numbers of the absolutely poor to grow hence the need to escalate the CCT.

Doesn’t this line sound familiar?

Recall the much-ballyhooed safety nets that were being touted as the lifeline for those who would lose out when the ruthless structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF-WB were implemented?

Those safety nets were full of holes which left the disadvantaged free falling into greater want, disease and misery than ever before.

Why not do something about the ruthless policies dictated by international financial institutions (IFIs) and carried out by succeeding governments and put a stop to and even reverse them instead of just trying to alleviate the suffering of those who are left destitute in their wake?

The approach is so old-hat and unenlightened it would shame today’s social workers who have long ago realized that dole-outs, no matter what the good intention, are temporary, unsustainable, and encourages mendicancy. They also serve to postpone or even avoid the more fundamental and far-reaching socio-economic policy reforms that only a seriously reform-minded government can initiate and follow through.

And yet the CCT’s current proponents, especially the all-powerful IFIs dangling their grants and loans together with technical briefing papers and so-called expertise, present the CCT as a more elegantly designed program since it will weed out the not-so-desperately poor who may line up for the cash; thus it is said to be more cost-efficient.

Not only that, it is supposed to modify the poor’s behavior for the better, i.e. they will bring the kids to school and mothers will have post-natal check-ups. Of course the working presumption is that they wouldn’t do so on their own while conveniently overlooking the fact that such behavior is not forthcoming because the family doesn’t have the sufficient income to meet basic needs in the first place.

One CCT defender sheepishly concludes that while the program will not restructure the existing iniquitous social relations nor even significantly alter the behavior of poor people, it will at least alleviate hunger and disease and give hope to the despairing.

But if this is the best argument that they can come up with, we daresay it is no argument at all because it merely states the obvious relief that such dole-outs aka cash transfers can give to those at the end of their rope with not much else.

Such an intent and outcome would be enough for charitable institutions and relief agencies but can not be accepted as the government’s approach to tackling poverty, especially the endemic and intractable kind we are afflicted with.

The excuse that generating jobs is not the department of social welfare’s business also doesn’t hold water. The CCT is obviously being touted as a major anti-poverty program of the Pnoy administration considering the amount of money the government has allotted for it even incurring new foreign debt in the process.

The issue of the CCT reveals once more just how lacking in ideas and bereft of true reforming intent is the Pnoy administration for all the soaring rhetoric about bringing about meaningful change. His approach and actual policies and programs are clearly more of the same failed and discredited ones of the Arroyo regime that he so fervently campaigned against.

It is worth quoting in full think tank Ibon Databank’s summation of what is in order in so far as seriously addressing the poverty problem in the country.

“The poor and worsening welfare of tens of millions of Filipinos is a serious development challenge. A genuine poverty-reduction effort means fundamental changes in economic policy towards improving the country’s domestic productive sectors.

“The severe income, wealth and asset inequities in the country also mean that radical redistributive reforms in favor of the poor majority are in order.

“Universal access by all Filipinos to health and education will be more likely achieved through strengthened public health and education systems, not privatized ones and certainly not by selective, targeted and temporary interventions.

“If these progressive socioeconomic policies were in place then programs such as the 4Ps/CCTs would not be necessary – and without such policies no amount of 4Ps/CCTs will ever be enough.”

It can only be concluded that the CCT will merely deepen poverty because it hides the real causes and obfuscates the real solutions required. Not only this, the CCT justifies continuing the wrong policies that have entrenched poverty and inequality in the first place. Politically, what it hopes to achieve is the appearance of poverty alleviation in the new style approved by imperialist funding agencies and in tune with Pnoy’s increasingly tiresome rhetoric. #

Published in Business World
5-6 November 2010