December 16, 2010

Free all political prisoners!

Pundits, activists and civil libertarians alike are still speculating on what actually led to last week’s order by President Aquino, auspiciously announced on Human Rights Day, for the Justice Department to withdraw all charges against the Morong 43, a move expected to lead to the court’s ordering their immediate release from prison.

Mr. Aquino had hemmed and hawed interminably about what he would do about the 43 health workers arrested in Morong, Rizal just months before the end of Mrs. Gloria Arroyo’s term of office. They stood accused of being members of the New People’s Army who were undergoing training to make bombs. They were subsequently charged with the non-bailable offense of illegal possession of explosives and firearms.

In time Mr. Aquino publicly acknowledged that the arrest of the Morong 43 was illegal and therefore all the so-called evidence being brandished by the military were next to useless in pursuing a case in court.

Still he insisted that the matter was out of his hands and only the courts could order the detainees’ release.

This pronouncement sat quite well with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The AFP spokesmen continued to harp on the guilt of the 43 and to deny any illegality in the raid on the Morong seminar house and the rounding up of the health workers. But they were in complete agreement with Mr. Aquino that only the courts should decide the fate of the 43.

Facing the government’s intransigence, the detainees undertook their ultimate weapon: they began an indefinite hunger strike. This was accompanied by sympathy hunger strikes and fasting by their supporters including other political prisoners.

Still, Mr. Aquino was unmoved. As late as three days before his order to the DOJ to withdraw the charges against the 43, he was quoted by media as saying “with finality” that he would leave the decision to the courts.

What allowed the Morong 43 to eventually prevail? Undeniably it was their courage; the refusal of the majority to be cowed in the face of torture, threats and cajolement by their captors; and their steadfast struggle to prove their innocence that made this astounding victory possible.

Equally important, the health workers strength of spirit arose from their not giving in to selfish impulses, i.e. each going their own way and trying to save his or her neck regardless of the rest. Perhaps being health workers, they were wont not to think only of their own well being; they were also fighting for the rights of others.

Underlying their fortitude is the reality that truth has always been on the Morong 43’s side. The facts and circumstances of the their arrest pieced together from their own accounts and from the investigation and public hearings conducted by the Commission on Human Rights provided incontrovertible proof that, at the very least, their rights against unreasonable search and seizure had been grossly violated.

What aroused local and international outrage was the way the 43 were blindfolded, manacled, tortured and subjected to all sorts of threats and indignities the whole time that they were in military custody, all in the name of “national security”.

The campaign to vilify and demonize the 43 as “communist terrorists” who constituted a “threat to society” utterly failed when it became obvious that this was part and parcel of the military’s squid tactics to cover up their human rights fiasco.

No longer would reckless accusations that one is an NPA so easily justify the military and police practice of egregiously violating basic human rights as part of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.

The government also grossly underestimated public sympathy for these doctors, nurses and community health workers ministering to the health needs of poor and underserved communities. The head of the Philippine Medical Association asserted that it mattered little if in the course of their humanitarian work these health workers actually treated members of the NPA since theirs is not to discriminate against patients on the basis of political beliefs.

Perhaps the case of the Morong 43 had dragged on for far too long with no indications of going away.

Perhaps, Mr. Aquino’s advisers were able to convince him that the political cost of his continuing to wash his hands of the military’s blunder was already too high while the legal remedies were quite simple and straightforward.

After all, objectively speaking, it was the unsavory leadership of Mrs. Arroyo over the military that was on the line not that of the new commander-in-chief.

With Human Rights Day coming up, it seemed most propitious that Mr. Aquino should make the much-waited announcement that his administration was taking the necessary steps to bring about freedom for the 43.

Whatever and whoever convinced Mr. Aquino to do the right thing, it is entirely to his credit that he finally did so, for he could have chosen to tread the same crooked path as his predecessor.

Perhaps the more important question at this time is what Mr. Aquino’s action on the Morong 43 signifies for other victims of human rights violations under the Arroyo regime.

Of immediate concern are the more than 350 detained all over the country on politically-motivated charges, i.e. like the Morong 43, illegally arrested and charged for crimes they did not commit or alleged officials and members of the CPP/NPA charged with common crimes like murder, kidnapping, arson and robbery, instead of with the appropriate crime of rebellion.

There are also the special cases of individuals designated as consultants of the National Democratic Front in the GRP-NDFP peace talks who are either languishing in jail or who have been forced to go underground to avoid arrest on persecutory charges invented by the Arroyo regime’s now defunct Inter-Agency Legal Action Group. The latter include Messrs. Rafael Baylosis, Randall Echanis and Vic Ladlad.

Not only do these cases highlight blatant violations of safety and immunity guarantees jointly agreed upon by the two parties, these constitute continuing stumbling blocks to the progress of the peace negotiations.

It can only be hoped that the impending resumption of the formal GRP-NDF peace talks may provide forthwith the favorable conditions for granting freedom to all political prisoners. #

Published in Business World
17-18 December 2010

December 09, 2010

Looking forward: the GRP-NDFP peace talks

Contrary to skeptics’ views, there are objective conditions that auger positively for the upcoming resumption of formal peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the revolutionary alliance that includes the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed component, the New People’s Army (NPA).

The new President, formerly a member of the anti-Arroyo opposition in Congress, whose battle cry then and now is the call for “change” and “reform”, is in a very good position to jump start the stalled talks amidst renewed hopes that a just and lasting peace may again be on the horizon.

Historically, any change in administration presents a unique opportunity for departing from, if not overhauling, its predecessor’s policies and approaches to festering problems such as the decades-old armed conflict between government and the CPP-NPA-NDF. President Benigno Aquino III has promised as much in sweeping terms vis a vis the sins and failings of the Arroyo regime as he sees it as well as on the specific issue of peace and security.

The head of the government peace panel Atty. Alex Padilla and the NDFP chief negotiator Luis Jalandoni, met informally last week in Hong Kong and emerged with the announcement that a holiday ceasefire would take place and preliminary and formal talks would resume in January and February of next year.

This announcement together with specific guarantees that the person and liberty of Mr. Jalandoni and his wife and co-peace panel member Coni Ledesma while in the country for a “private visit” would be respected has generated some excitement about the possibilities for a peace pact between the warring parties.

To anchor heightened expectations on peace prospects under the Aquino administration, certain premises and historical antecedents need to be recalled, clarified and reiterated.

Neither skepticism nor uninformed peace mongering should be allowed to rule the day.

The Hague Joint Declaration is a foundation agreement that everyone advocating a just peace must grasp firmly and uphold as the indispensable general framework without which the GRP-NDFP negotiations could not have taken place much less advance to the point of inking four more bilateral agreements, including the landmark Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

It states that the purpose of the peace negotiations is to arrive at a just and lasting peace by resolving the roots of the armed conflict. It contains the essential principle that the talks are not about getting either side to surrender but on negotiating the terms of a peace settlement covering the major areas of 1) human rights and international humanitarian law, 2) social and economic reforms, 3) political and constitutional reforms, and 4) end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

Deceptively simple and straightforward, the Hague Joint Declaration makes clear that government cannot hope to convince, hoodwink or coerce the NDFP to agree to give up its arms without addressing the abovementioned areas of contention not just with token promises of reform but with iron-clad agreements that stand the test of concurrent implementation such as on respect for human rights and IHL.

The Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees or JASIG, on the other hand, ensures that the negotiating panels on either side, including their staff and consultants who may or may not be organic to or intrinsic to their principals’ organization, will not be subject to surveillance, arrest and to being charged in court for their involvement in the peace negotiations during and even after the peace process is terminated.

Obviously, without this agreement, the NDFP would be at an extreme disadvantage since it is a proscribed, underground organization in the Philippines, albeit an armed revolutionary one. The comings and goings of staff and consultants necessary to buttress and support the work of the NDFP panel would unavoidably lead them to incur serious risk in operating in enemy territory, that is, in areas where the CPP/NPA/NDFP have no control or influence.

The listing of the CPP and NPA in the “terrorist” roster of the United States, the European Union and other countries, including the Netherlands where the NDFP office is located, upon the instigation and with the cooperation of the Philippine government, has already grossly undermined the purpose and effect of JASIG.

In the aftermath, Chief Political Consultant to the NDFP peace panel, Prof. Jose Ma. Sison had been arrested and detained for several weeks and the NDFP office and residences of its officers and staff had been raided and properties confiscated.

JASIG was unilaterally suspended by the GRP August 2005. Since then one NDFP consultant has been assassinated, at least eleven are under detention, five have been abducted by suspected state security agents and have not been surfaced since and scores, including Mr. Jalandoni and Mr. Sison, have been charged for various crimes with pending arrest warrants.

It stands to reason why the NDFP seeks categorical affirmation of the effectivity of JASIG and that this commitment of the GRP is relayed widely to the military, police and even to state prosecutors and the courts for their proper guidance and action.

CARHRIHL is the first bilateral agreement to be inked on one of the four substantive agenda of the peace negotiations, eloquent proof that it is after all possible for the two warring and seemingly irreconcilable parties to craft and sign a crucial agreement.

Not only does it constitute a breakthrough in terms of a mutual commitment to adhere to clearly defined HR and IHL standards, it also set in place a concrete mechanism by which both sides could be held accountable by human rights victims together with the domestic and international human rights community,

Unfortunately, while the Joint Secretariats of the GRP-NDFP Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) that is mandated to monitor implementation of CARHRIHL has been constituted, the JMC itself has never met. The Arroyo government insisted that the JMC could not function while the peace talks were suspended, a position that finds no basis under the terms of CARHRIHL.

Thus cases of human rights violations filed by both sides have piled up but no joint investigations much less joint efforts to attain justice and prevent future violations in accord with CARHRIHL have taken place.

Without progress in the implementation of this vital agreement, the prospects for inking binding agreements on more contentious socio-economic, political and constitutional reforms appear dim.

The clamor for a peaceful settlement to armed conflicts must be attended by an informed and critical understanding of what had gone on in the past, what had caused snafus and breakdowns and what will be needed to move forward.

Without a doubt, past agreements that have gone through painstaking and hard-nosed negotiations must be upheld and complied with by both sides or risk having no substantial starting point to speak of.

On the part of the Aquino government, a clear manifestation of openness and resolve to discuss basic social and economic reforms that would address the underlying reasons for the poverty, oppression and injustice that drive people to protest and rebel, would be a gesture peace advocates everywhere would welcome and applaud.#

10-11 December 2010
Published in Business World

December 03, 2010

Education blues

The adage that Filipino families put top priority on education – after basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter – is often held up as an example of traditional values that we can be proud of as a people and that holds us in good stead in our endeavors, nay struggles, to achieve a better quality of life for our children.

But this seeming truism appears not to be shared by government as records show how education as a budget priority has been steadily and alarmingly eroded over the decades until today, students and faculty are up in arms over extensive cuts in budgets of state colleges and universities (SUCs). Campus-wide walk-outs, student strikes, rallies to Congress and to Malacañang have taken place involving hundreds if not thousands in Manila and other major cities in a span of a few days.

The Aquino government, with its claims to practicing transparency and accountability to its constituents, has disappointed many over this controversy. Mr. Aquino, his budget secretary and Liberal party mates, have engaged in so much double talk in order to becloud the issue.

Budget Secretary Abad and Senators Drilon and Sotto chorus, “No, there is no budget cut.” Accordingly, the old budget allocations were never given in the first place since these were only “congressional insertions” and the Arroyo government simply vetoed the budget items arguing that there were no funds available. Therefore, these are tantamount to “ghost” appropriations and were simply removed from the proposed 2011 budget.

The Aquino administration and its allies would still want to pass the blame on the unlamented Arroyo regime that it has replaced by arguing that what Congress had approved as much needed additions to the 2010 budget of SUCs had practically been torpedoed by Gloria. That being the case, the supposed increase in their budgets was illusory. However since the SUCs managed to survive with much less than what was appropriated, in 2011, they can do so again.

The protestors on the other hand are saying that historically, the budget the SUCs have been getting has been so inadequate that the quality of their physical facilities and of education in general has been on a continuing decline. Moreover, SUC administrators always invoke the constantly diminishing budget especially in real money terms as the reason for hiking tuition and other school fees and for leasing or disposing of their so-called idle assets such as land and buildings to private entities for commercial and not educational purposes.

Mr. Aquino appears to do one better than his subalterns and loyalists by readily admitting in ambush interviews that there is indeed a budget cut thereby validating what he said in his budget speech in August, to wit:

“We allocated P23.4 billion to 112 State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) in 2011. This is 1.7 percent lower than the P23.8 billion budget for 2010. We are gradually reducing the subsidy to SUCs to push them toward becoming self-sufficient and financially independent, given their ability to raise their income and to utilize it for their programs and projects.”

That should settle the matter yet Mr. Aquino also attempts to dissemble by saying that education as a whole got an increase although basic education is the focus since more of the poor avail of elementary education while it is those who can afford who go on to tertiary education.

In the first place a huge chunk of the 32 billion peso increase in the education budget, 23 billion or seventy per cent, will go to an automatic increase in salaries because of the Salary Standardization Law.

The remaining amount is a paltry sum and will hardly make a dent in the tremendous backlog in classrooms, textbooks and teachers the country faces.

But it is also intellectually dishonest to argue that government money is better spent on poor students still trying to get some basic education than students, many of them also economically disadvantaged and struggling, who have managed against great odds to step into a state college or university. The latter’s achievements are now used against them in the matter of enjoying a state subsidy for the education prized so highly but now priced beyond reach for a vast majority of our youth.

Mr. Aquino only manages to affirm that his administration’s “reform budget” has nothing by way of reforms underlying it since the same old mispriorities exist. Concretely, 58 centavos for every peso will go to debt servicing; for the military, 7 centavos; while only 1.6 centavos will go to all 112 state colleges and universities.

Put it another way, there is no money for SUCs but plenty for legislators’ pork barrel - increased by more than P13.9 billion for a total of P24.8 billion and Malacañang’s lump-sum funds amounting to P245 billion of which P68 billion is audit-free presidential pork.

But there is more to the SUCs and the education budget cuts than diverting more funds from basic social services to debt service, pork and military expenditures.

The more fundamental question underlying the raging debate and the heated street protest is that of education for whom?

In the seventies, the Dictator Marcos instituted educational reforms that issued out of the Presidential Commission to Survey Philippine Education (PCSPE). It was funded and pushed by the International Monetary Fund to orient Philippine education towards vocational courses and thus provide more skilled workers and technicians for multinational corporations. The tradition of higher education in the liberal arts was derided as a waste of government money citing the lack of employment opportunities for graduates in such fields.

What was deliberately glossed over was the fact that such a tradition had provided intellectual space for the development of a radical counter-culture that was nationalist, anti-imperialist and fiercely anti-authoritarian and democratic. It breathed life into a vibrant youth and student movement that threatened the US-backed dictatorship and the status quo.

The Aquino regime has propounded as its far-reaching educational reform the enhanced K-12 program, that would overhaul the basic and secondary education curriculum by adding two more years to the system. Mr. Aquino has said that he wants to concentrate on reforming at the basic level rather than attempt to try to “fix the problem” later on. This would allegedly bring Filipino graduates at par with global standards.

Does this mean that the Aquino administration has made a conscious decision to abandon the hundreds of thousands of Filipino youth who aspire to attain college or university degrees to their own devices? Is this why he has no qualms much less sympathy for the students’ appeals to rescind the budget cuts? #

Published in Business World
3-4 December 2010