February 24, 2011

Reality check

The resumption of formal peace negotiations between the Philippine government (GPH) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in Oslo from February 15-21 almost ended in a cliffhanger with the two sides unable to agree on certain key points in the Joint Statement well over the original 3pm timetable for the closing ceremonies. The Joint Statement was finalized at 7pm after more hard bargaining, with the two panels both keenly aware of the ominous implications of not coming up with one at the same time holding fast to what each side deemed to be non-negotiable positions.

It is no mean feat what with clear-cut agreements on steps to bring the negotiations forward. At the same time any impression created in the media by government press releases that the 18-month timetable for arriving at a final peace settlement is a shoo-in and that the NDFP has softened up and is willing to sign a peace accord short of ensuring that basic reforms are put into place must be corrected with a reality check.

The closing statements of the two negotiating panel heads indicate the difficulties that lie ahead as the negotiations hunker down to the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), the substantive points on socio-economic reforms and preparing the ground for talks on political and constitutional reforms while effecting the protection of JASIG for negotiators, their staff, consultants as well as other resource persons.

It is not just mistrust but the wide chasm that has to be bridged in perspectives, understanding of the problems, and preferred modes of resolution that will make arriving at agreements more difficult than the GPH panel seems to recognize and broadcast to the public.

As we see it, the 18-month timetable can only be achieved if the Aquino administration musters its political will to forge agreements that will resolve the roots of the armed conflict, including addressing the problem of landlessness, industrialization, US/foreign domination and control of the economy, etc.

In essence, these are agreements that will benefit the people as against the vested interests of those who are already in power and benefit the most from the iniquitous social and economic system.

If we understand correctly, the NDFP is prepared even now to enter into a “truce and alliance” with a government so long as it co-signs a concise agreement that upholds the national and democratic interests of the people, as culled from the common points in both the GPH constitution and the NDFP's 10-point program.

However government perspective appears to veer farther from “mutually acceptable principles including national sovereignty, democracy and social justice” as stated in The Hague Joint Declaration.

The GPH, while agreeing to jointly reaffirm The Hague Joint Declaration and all bilateral agreements previously entered into with NDFP, insisted on submitting its “separate and unilateral affirmation with qualifications” as some kind of framework for disagreement -- a wellspring for all kinds of future obstacles that the two panels will need to hurdle and could threaten to disrupt the 18-month timetable if not altogether render it impossible.

The NDFP was then compelled to register its rebuttal of the GPH's qualifications. It asserts that no matter how much the GPH argues that it is the only sovereign power, the reality of dual political power or authority in the Philippines can no longer be denied what with extensive guerilla zones governed by NDFP “organs of political power”. Moreover, the GPH has had to face the NDFP across the negotiating table de facto as an equal or else there could be no negotiations at all.

It has also been argued by the NDFP that the GPH's continual acquiescence to US and IMF-World Bank impositions, if not subservience to foreign interests, makes a mockery of its claims of being the sole sovereign power.

The inclusion of national sovereignty as a mutually acceptable framework and foundation principle for the talks was meant to establish and enhance an essential basis of unity and acknowledge that both Parties hold this principle as sacrosanct.

It is thus grossly unfortunate that the new GPH panel has chosen to persist on the derogation of what was meant to be an essential anchor for the talks by implying that The Hague Joint Declaration is a source of “perpetual division”.

All this can be explained by the reality that the GPH, as its panel chair reminds us, is not a monolithic creature and cannot be expected to be solidly behind the peace negotiations with the NDFP, much less the goal of forging a political settlement with it. Aside from, or more important than having to deal with the militarists and the powerful elite who benefit tremendously from the iniquities of the current ruling system, the GPH must contend with foreign, mainly US, imperialist interests.

We shall see in the coming months whether or not the GPH under President Noynoy Aquino would or could stand up to such powerful pressures or find ways of circumventing them if it were to join the NDFP as a partner in addressing the roots of the armed conflict in order to reach an enduring political settlement that would lead to a just and lasting peace.

It is deja vu, not quite apparent but very real, as the nation celebrates the fall of a hated dictator and the ascension to the presidency of a most popular widow. The parallel does not end with the replacement of an unpopular leader by the widow's son 25 years later.

Just as President Cory was faced then with the opportunity to reverse decades of neocolonial and anti-people state policies that served the interests of big landlord and compradors collaborating with foreign capital, so now Pres. Noynoy is facing the real possibility of doing so and negotiating a truce leading to the end of decades of civil war.

The GPH call for support from the people is a positive step but there is a lot more to be done, beyond marching in peace processions, towards building a potent and vibrant peace constituency that could serve this end.

Both the GPH and NDFP must step up their information and peace education efforts to involve the broadest and largest sections of the population in the discourses on social and economic reforms, and eventually, on political and constitutional reforms.

It is only through the people’s support that the two Parties can draw the strength needed to withstand all negative pressures, ensure the efficacy of bilateral agreements and the successful end-result of the peace negotiations. In the final analysis, that is the meaning of the people being the true sovereign power, a fact which neither side disputes.

Difficult and daunting as it is, forging and signing a peace agreement is by itself not the guarantee that peace would reign in our land. That peace agreement must be an expression of the people's will and uphold their interests if it is to lead to the fruition of their long-held aspirations. #

Published in Business World
25-26 February 2011

February 18, 2011

Thaw in the winter freeze

It was 11 below zero last Feb 15 in Oslo, a thick blanket of snow had turned the panoramic view outside Holmen Fjordhotel into a monochrome of white and grey with scattered dots and slivers of black. Our Norwegian hosts described this winter as "extremely cold".

But the atmosphere was definitely warm and sunny inside the conference hall, Bryggesal 3, where formal peace talks between the Government of the Philippines (GPH nee GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) finally resumed after more than six years of suspension.

The opening statements of OPAPP Secretary Teresita Quintos Deles, representing the GPH, and NDFP Negotiating Panel Chair Luis Jalandoni reflected the thaw after the longest running suspension of the formal talks under the Arroyo administration in the 20-year peace negotiations between the two Parties.

From Secretary Deles: "... (T)here is a growing, surging current that says No more to war and war games. From the remotest mountain and coastal village to our own urban poor and middle class communities, the clamor for peace cannot be denied. Our people are saying, the landscape of war must give way to the imperatives of peace."

From NDFP Chief Negotiator Jalandoni: “(W)e stand at the threshold of a new beginning… We are resolved to do everything we can to make these talks succeed and move us forward towards forging fundamental social, economic, political and constitutional reforms that will address the roots of the armed conflict and be of lasting benefit to the Filipino people.”

There is good reason to believe that the optimism of the two Parties and their kind, conciliatory words to each other were not mere political rhetoric put on to add spice to the occasion.

Clear commitments were made that ended the impasse in the talks and set into motion the operationalization of the Joint Monitoring Committee tasked to implement the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL)), the substantive talks on social and economic reforms (SER), as well as the formation of
working groups to jumpstart the work on political and constitutional reforms (PCR)
ahead of the formation of the Reciprocal Working Committees on PCR.

It will be recalled that in the preliminary talks last month that paved the way for this historic occasion, the two sides had already agreed not only to proceed with the substantive agenda defined by the Hague Joint Declaration, but on a general, if flexible, time frame of concluding the talks in three years or so with a comprehensive political settlement.

Secretary Deles noted: “Clearly, there is much that divides the two panels that come to this table…but there is also much that unites us – the vision of a just society, the desiderata of national sovereignty, the wish to reverse the drain in human and natural resources, the imperative of good governance and more. It is on this common ground…that we come to the negotiating table, seeking to negotiate our differences and to deepen our unities.”

NDFP Panel Chair Jalandoni cited the presence of NDFP RWC- SER members Rafael Baylosis and Randall Echanis as "concrete proof of the efficacy and respect for the JASIG" (Joint Agreement for Safety and Immunity Guarantees), that had been unilaterally and illegally suspended by the Arroyo regime in 2005.

He expressed the NDFP's expectation that the GPH will continue to work for the lifting of the warrants of arrest and withdrawal or dismissal of charges against Baylosis, Echanis and Vicente Ladlad as well as facilitate the "expeditious release of detained NDFP consultants and JASIG-protected persons in compliance with JASIG as well as in the spirit of goodwill or for humanitarian reasons".

Even more remarkable, if not surprising to many in the audience, was the NDFP Chair's offer for an “alliance and truce” based on a “concise agreement for an immediate just peace”.

While this proposal may sound radically new to those who are not too familiar with the recent history of the negotiations, it is really a reiteration of a proposal made by the NDFP six years ago, in August 2005, which the GRP panel of the Arroyo regime totally ignored.

The reiteration comes in the light of the continuing acute global and domestic economic crisis containing proposals that the NDFP deems “doable” in the medium and long range. It is "a challenge to the Aquino regime to release itself from the dictates of US imperialism, especially the already bankrupt neoliberal economic policy and the futile US Counterinsurgency Guide... to strengthen national independence and carry out national industrialization.”

For her part, Secretary Deles said, “We have no illusions that signing a peace treaty will solve all our problems. Not at all, for peace without justice, peace without development is a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. But a political settlement, a peace treaty, will be a beginning. Stilling the guns of war is essential for harnessing all our resources for nation building, especially at a time when the global economic crisis has hit hard countries like the Philippines.”

Notwithstanding all the reasons for optimism and hope that the peace talks are finally on the roll again, the two Parties agree that the way forward is a formidable challenge, strewn with unexpected twists and turns and fraught with pitfalls and obstacles.

In this regard, both the GPH and NDFP panels expressed their gratitude to and acknowledged the invaluable support of the Royal Norwegian Government in facilitating the negotiations since 2001 and in particular its efforts to help surmount the obstacles to the resumption of formal talks.

Secretary Deles sounded the call for “building and strengthening our peace constituencies”.

We can only resonate to that call and expound on it by calling for our people’s unwavering support to the GPH-NDFP peace talks under the Aquino government.

Such a peace advocacy must: 1) eschew the militarist solution to armed conflicts; 2) acknowledge the underlying socio-economic roots of the war and therefore the need to address these in order to achieve a just and lasting peace; and 3) call for accelerating the peace talks along the course agreed upon by the two Parties, i.e. tackling each substantive agenda in sequence and working out and implementing agreements as basis for a comprehensive political settlement that will finally still the guns of war.

Indeed, the only guarantee that the GPH-NDFP peace talks can and will bear the fruits that future generations can partake of rests entirely on our people’s burning desire and continuing struggle for freedom, justice, equity and an enduring peace.#

Published in Business World
17-18 February 2011

February 10, 2011

Faking peace advocacy

The resumption of formal exploratory talks between the Philippine government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and formal talks between the GPH and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) has spurred a flurry of activities in peace advocacy especially on the part of certain “civil society” groups working hand-in-hand with the government.

In the spirit of contributing to a healthy and conducive atmosphere for the peace talks between the government and the two armed revolutionary movements, allow us to dissect the framework and objectives of such peace advocacy and its usefulness in the current resumption of talks.

We understand that a series of consultations had been held upon the instance of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) or in cooperation between certain schools and non-government organizations (NGOs) and the OPAPP, AFP, PNP and other government agencies seeking an exchange of views on “peace and security” issues.

This is apparently part of the current "peace and security" (read: counterinsurgency) program of the Aquino government entitled Oplan Bayanihan and a complementary government-NGO plan for “peace constituency building”.

While Oplan Bayanihan is long on the rhetoric of shifting from an “enemy-centric” approach to one that is “people-centered” and of mobilizing all “stakeholders” in pursuing the Aquino government’s “Internal Peace and Security Plan” it all boils down to the same objective of suppressing the revolutionary forces and the people to keep them from overthrowing the status quo and replacing it with their vision of a just, prosperous, equitable and democratic system.

The basic problem is in the attitude towards armed conflict, or the relationship between "insurgency" and development. The government and the AFP have consistently harped on the line that the “insurgency” is the obstacle to development, to wit: "If only the armed rebels stop fighting the government and lay down their arms, there will be peace and development in our country".

This argument turns the truth upside down and stands it on its head. This kind of thinking is totally blind to the real roots of the armed conflict and is incapable of appreciating, much less grasping, the need to address these roots in order to achieve a just and lasting peace.

Concretely, Oplan Bayanihan says that “there is no direct causal link between low economic status and armed conflict”. What exists are “perceptions of relative deprivation” which are “correlated with the emergence and persistence of conflict in the Philippines”.

Thus, instead of acknowledging and addressing concrete socio-economic and political issues like landlessness, unemployment, grinding poverty and injustice that drive people to take up arms against the government, the government will work on changing “perceptions” that the system is not working for the people by bringing in or improving government services including the much ballyhooed “anti-poverty” programs pushed by the World Bank.

While OPAPP and the AFP seek to mobilize "civil society" support for and pay lip service to the attainment of a just and lasting peace, their statements appear to seek merely an end to violence without necessarily eradicating its only too real causes.

A document, “Working Paper for Peace Constituency Building”, prepared by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (J3) for a planning meeting of government agencies and NGOs reflects this same point of view: “The resumption of the peace talks is a golden opportunity to finally put an end to the violent conflicts that have ‘hostaged’ (underscoring mine) the country’s development for so long…”

According to them, the goal is to “mobilize a constituency for peace and security (and) make the silent majority declare their commitment to peace.”

Yet the document is silent on what constitutes peace and security in the first place. Is it the suppression of dissent, the cooptation of revolutionaries and reformers and the entrenchment of the ruling system?

One specific objective is “(to) apply social pressure to (sic) armed groups to give up violent acts”.

Obviously this refers only to the CPP-NPA and the MILF since the AFP and the PNP are clothed with the authority to engage in acts of violence while cloaked with impunity in undertaking extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights violations in the course of their so-called “internal security operations”.

But what about the kind of state terrorism resorted to, for example, by the AFP’s Special Operations Teams or SOTs in the rural and even some urban areas?

“The SOTs most of the time disguise themselves as rebels to sow terror on the civilian populace in order to malign the revolutionary groups. Development projects are implemented in a piece meal basis. It was not for the purpose of improving people’s life but as a tactic to pacify and neutralize the people’s cry for change.” (Total War, Ma. Socorro Diokno).

What underlies this brand of peace advocacy is a reprise of the “active non-violence” line peddled by the likes of die-hard anti-communists Jesuit priest Fr. Archie Intengan and PDSP’s Norberto Gonzales that condemns the revolutionary violence resorted to by an exploited and oppressed people against the violence of class exploitation and oppression but obscures the latter, much less draws the connection between the two.

The purpose is only too clear, the government hopes once more to appropriate for itself the mystique of “peace” advocacy while at the same time misrepresenting revolutionary movements as “violence-prone” and purportedly consumed by the desire to topple the government in order to seize power.

They would deny the revolutionary movements the political legitimacy of waging revolutionary armed struggle precisely to overhaul society for the betterment and liberation of the people.

Instead of just the OPAPP, AFP, PNP and other government instrumentalities repeating this, they would like the “silent majority” led by government-organized, -subsidized and otherwise -approved NGOs to echo this erroneous line.

In the final analysis, who are the real actors and beneficiaries of the quest for a just and lasting peace?
Is it not the Filipino people, especially the toiling masses, who, by varying means of struggle, are trying to achieve their aspirations for national and social liberation?

The peace negotiations must address the underlying causes of social unrest and armed conflict. Failing to do so, no amount of fake peace advocacy can change the unbalanced equation. #

Published in Business World
11-12 Februrary 2011

February 03, 2011

Only the tip

Former military budget officer Lt. Col. George Rabusa’s revelations of big-bucks, institutionalized corruption within the Armed Forces of the Philippines during the Senate investigation into the deal struck between government prosecutors and Gen. Carlos Garcia, former AFP comptroller charged with plunder before the Sandiganbayan, has opened up a veritable can of worms.

Heidi Mendoza, a former state auditor who examined the financial accounts of the AFP in connection with the Garcia case, subsequently testified that she found evidence of anomalies in the handling of a P200 million UN fund transferred to the AFP during the time of Gen. Garcia and other serious irregularities. She was prevented from pursuing her investigation by her superiors in the Commission on Audit, one of whom said that a Malacañang official had expressed concern about the inquiry.

When a new Ombudsman was appointed, prosecutors suddenly changed tack, claiming that the evidence against Garcia was weak and it was better to enter into a plea bargain that would allow the government to recover some of the money Garcia purloined in exchange for which he and his co-accused wife and sons would be spared hefty jail terms.

This development would have gone by unnoticed had it not been leaked to the press and caused much uproar.

Which way the Garcia trial and the renewed investigation into high-level shenanigans in the AFP will go and what reforms, if any, can be brought about remains to be seen.

On the one hand, it is of utmost urgency that the deal between the Ombudsman and Garcia, which the Sandiganbayan has acted upon by allowing Garcia to post bail, be struck down. Either the Ombudsman rescinds their accession to the plea bargain and/or the Sandiganbayan rejects it, plain and simple.

Should the plea bargain be upheld, public opinion must be mobilized and legal action taken to put a stop to this insulting and injurious conspiracy by the accused, prosecutors and the court itself to flout justice.

Mendoza’s account of how her efforts to find a paper trail documenting Gen. Garcia’s and possibly other officials’ wrongdoing were being thwarted, her reports disregarded, and eventually, her findings junked as useless in prosecuting Garcia, must be thoroughly investigated.

The revelations of Col. Rabusa regarding hundreds of millions of people’s money being systematically siphoned off into a slush fund for the generals and other senior officers during the Arroyo regime also deserves a major investigative effort by the Aquino administration.

This should not be difficult for Mr. Aquino to do since the people eagerly look forward to seeing guilty Arroyo officials, if not Mrs. Arroyo herself, finally get their just deserts – their ill-gotten wealth confiscated, their reputations exposed to match their ignoble careers and the rest of their retirement years served in prison.

In particular, the AFP’s rank and file including still idealistic young officers, would be a strong ally of a determined presidency to uncover and run after the top brass who have treasonously appropriated money that should have been used for proper armaments and supplies, the soldiers’ salaries and welfare but instead were diverted for the generals’ and their families’ lavish lifestyles.

Likely there are several more Col. Rabusas and Heidi Mendozas waiting to be provided the right incentive and environment to reveal what they know and thereby lighten the burden of their consciences. Already, Lt. Col. Antonio Ramon “Sonny” Lim, has stepped forward to add what he knows and corroborate and support the testimony of Col . Rabusa, having been Col. Rabusa's assistant in the AFP budget office.

There is the purported concern by active and retired officers that the military institution would be placed at risk by a thoroughgoing and systematic examination of the extent of the corruption that has seeped into it. But this is the refuge of the guilty – by those who profit from the corrupt system and those in responsible positions who look the other way for one reason or another – in order to fend off a wide-open investigation.

It will not be enough to run after the military officials who presided over and benefitted from the corrupt system during the Arroyo years. Two senators, both former military officers, have already pointed to the culpability and likely complicity of Mrs. Arroyo herself as Commander-in-Chief as well as Defense officials in allowing such abusive practices such as the Provision for Command-Directed Activities or PCDA slush fund.

Apart from a hefty military budget that the erring AFP officials could then plunder at will, there were juicy military contracts, generous US military aid, dollar-denominated UN peacekeeping funds and even the poor foot soldiers’ savings and loan associations that the money-grubbers were allowed to get their hands on.

The motives of the Arroyo clique are not hard to fathom: the military, the generals to be precise, stood as the last line of defense for a thoroughly unpopular, if not despised, and embattled Chief Executive who was on the verge of being ousted at several points in her nine-year rule.

All must be reminded though that to get at the root of why corruption has become so pervasive and institutionalized in the military (and the police establishment for that matter) one must take a good look not just at the last nine years of the Arroyo reign.

Let us recall how the state security apparatus became transmogrified by the US-backed Marcos dictatorship into its private army to suppress dissent and crush opposition using all sorts of bribes and inducements.

Let us study history and understand how the military and police evolved from a mercenary and reactionary tradition of protecting the interests of foreign interlopers and their partner elites. Such an anti-people history and orientation cannot but lead to the current depraved and debauched outcome.

Seen in this light, it is clear that Garcia, to borrow a cliché, is only the now visible tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is much more to this sordid affair than plunder and certainly more people in higher places than Gen. Garcia who are not only complicit but guiltier.

Justice will certainly not be served and there can be no real “pagbabago” or “daang matuwid” until all the rot that has festered so long in the AFP - and above it - is thoroughly exposed and exorcised. #

Published in Business World
4-5 February 2011