November 16, 2014

The festering Hacienda Luisita problem

Ten years is a long time to await justice for the massacre of striking farm and sugar mill workers at the Hacienda Luisita Incorporated (HLI), the sprawling 6,435-hectare sugar plantation owned by the Cojuangco-Aquino clan, by a combined force of military, police and private security guards. 

Peasant families who have lived and worked for generations at the hacienda and militant peasant organizations and land reform advocates providing unwavering support, marked the tenth year of the brutal, premeditated killings with protest actions in front of Malacanang Palace and at the massacre site itself inside HLI.  Their pained yet defiant cries for “Justice!” and “Land to the tillers!” reverberate together with demands for the ouster of President Benigno S. Aquino III, scion of the powerful and entrenched landlords of Hacienda Luisita.

The search for justice has reached a dead end with the Ombudsman earlier on having thrown out the criminal complaints filed by the victims’ families. Seven strikers and their supporters lie dead and the official line then and now is that the victims attacked the phalanx of well-armed security forces, soldiers and police provoking a defensive reaction on the part of the latter.  How it is that the dead and wounded only came from the ranks of the protesters strains credulity but apparently this fact is immaterial to the state’s spineless investigators.

The land problem in Hacienda Luisita remains unresolved to this day despite the widely decried massacre and scores of related extrajudicial killings of supporters of the farm and mill workers including Iglesia Filipina Independiente Obispo Maximo Alberto Ramento and Tarlac Councilor Abel Ladera.  The  Supreme Court final ruling for the HLI land be distributed to its farmer-beneficiaries has yet to be implemented properly and fairly.

This can only be because President BS Aquino has been able to move Congress to impeach and convict a sitting SC Chief Justice who, while being a Gloria Arroyo hold-over and point man in the SC, also had the temerity to lead the High Court in making decisions favorable to the peasants of HLI versus the Cojuangco-Aquino hacienderos. 

This same president holds sway over the Department of Agrarian Reform that has embarked on means most foul to further dispossess the farmer-beneficiaries, break their unity and weaken their organizations in thinly-veiled collusion with the HLI management. What comes to mind in the light of this brazen display of abuse of one’s position is the famous one- liner by Senate President Jose Avelino, a Liberal Party stalwart of old: “What are we in power for?”

To those who say that agrarian reform has been achieved by the series of land reform programs pre- and post-independence  -- think HLI.  To those who say that the Philippine economy has progressed from the backward agricultural, in fact feudal, mode to that of a modern, manufacture-based one – again, think HLI. 

To those who decry the deep, widespread and multi-generational poverty of our people and all the socio-economic evils that go with it – open your eyes to the abject plight of the HLI peasants and their families. 

To those who sing paeans to democracy in the Philippines – can this mean anything so long as landlordism is alive and well, upheld by the law and protected by the state apparatus of coercion as well as airbrushed as part of the heritage of the “old rich” and therefore not susceptible to charges of graft and corruption unlike the ill-gotten wealth of the “new rich”?

To those who believe the yarn that the New People’s Army (NPA) is the cause of the agrarian and labor unrest and that before the NPA and union organizers became active in HLI there was peace – think the peace of the graveyard and the peace of coopted yellow labor union leaders.

Isn’t is hypocritical that the pro-Aquino/Liberal Party camp and the yellow media make much ado about the alleged 150-hectare Binay hacienda and the Binay dynastic hold on Makati City that paved the way for the institutionalized plunder of Makati coffers while turning a blind eye to the decades-old land problem in the Cojuangco-Aquino hacienda that Cory Aquino’s fake land reform program and its extension up till the administration of her son, BS Aquino, has perpetuated? 

Is it coincidental that only when the ruling regime is not held by the Cojuangco-Aquinos but by their actual or eventual political rivals and with the intensification of the rivalry between them, that there are some legal victories in the farmers’ struggles to retake the land that is historically, morally and legally theirs to begin with?

Hacienda Luisita, with its vast land area equivalent to Makati City and its adjoining two cities, stands out as a national symbol and well as actual stronghold of feudal exploitation and oppression in the 21st century. 

It also showcases the abuse of the highest political office, the Presidency, to circumvent land reform, displace dirt-poor peasant families from their tenuous hold on the land, convert wide swathes of the hacienda for more profitable non-agricultural purposes and quash any and all efforts and struggles of the peasantry to liberate themselves from their shackles.  A president who is of cacique origin and continues to derive substantial wealth and privilege from being heir to his clan’s landholdings can never sympathize with much less uphold the rights and aspirations of the landless peasantry. 

Hacienda Luisita is a microcosm of what ails Philippine society today.  The social, including armed, conflicts that have been spawned by the rank social injustice in Hacienda Luisita is repeated many times over in the rest of the country.  Which is why a radical overhaul of society brought about by the autonomous mass movement of the impoverished, immiserated and disempowered provides the only remaining hope for true social emancipation. #

Published in Business World
17 November 2014

November 06, 2014

Our country’s mercenary armed forces

The Aquino government, most especially the Philippine military, has displayed nothing but disdain and absolute lack of sympathy for the kin of murdered transgender woman Jennifer Laude as well as her German fiancé, Marc Susselbeck, who have simply asked that the suspect US serviceman Pemberton, be placed under Philippine custody so that the wheels of justice may turn in accord with Philippine law.

From the beginning, President Benigno S. Aquino III and AFP Chief Pio Catapang have been more concerned with upholding and defending the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) by saying that the Laude murder is an “isolated case” and has nothing to do with the purported validity and correctness of the VFA nor the claimed mutually beneficial relations between the Philippines and the US.  Philippine authorities immediately stated, even ahead of the US ambassador, that the VFA granted custody over suspect Pemberton to the US despite the fact that the crime clearly had nothing to do with the US soldier’s “official duty” and was committed against a Filipino national. 

Pemberton was brought by US authorities to the Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) facility at Camp Aguinaldo, to ward off suspicion that he was already out of the country.  This time around -- unlike US soldier Lance Corporal Smith who was convicted of raping a Filipino woman but was whisked away from the Makati City jail and detained instead at the US embassy with the connivance of high-level US and Philippine officials – Pemberton has been brought to what is made to appear as a Philippine facility, but is in fact a US one, within a Philippine military camp.

Philippine military authorities are indignant at how Susselbeck managed to join Jennifer’s sister in climbing over the fence surrounding the JUSMAG facility and in approaching the container van supposedly holding Pemberton to try to see for themselves how the suspect looks and whether he is indeed detained inside as claimed by authorities.  Immigration authorities had prevented Susselbeck from leaving the country and had charged him with being an undesirable alien subject to deportation proceedings.  They gloated at having upheld the country’s “dignity” and “sovereignty” over a foreigner guilty, if at all, only of trespassing.

Apart from appeasing the loss of face by the Philippine military, the abovementioned moves are calculated to shift the onus of blame to the relatives and boyfriend of the murder victim and away from the government.  The US-backed Aquino regime has failed to immediately undertake basic police and prosecutorial proceedings against suspect Pemberton because of its subservient attitude towards the US and the lop-sided provisions on criminal jurisdiction contained in the VFA. In the process it may very well have irreparably compromised if not undermined the Laude case.

The Laude family must realize by now that they are up against not just an individual American soldier who is suspected of having mercilessly murdered their kin.  They are actually facing the might of the imperial US government bent on protecting its questionable prerogatives on Philippine soil, granted under unequal agreements, and with the full backing of the Philippine vassal state.

It is imperative to review Philippine history to begin to understand the sorry plight of the Laude family and how this scenario of injustice will play itself out again and again so long as an indeterminate number of US troops are free to roam our territory for an unlimited time; engage in various overt and covert activities; bring in and stockpile their war materiel unimpeded; and wantonly abuse our women, children and the environment with impunity.

In exchange for reparations after World War II and as a condition for the grant of independence, the Philippine legislature was forced to ratify the Bell Trade Act of 1946 that granted among other onerous conditions, parity rights to US citizens and corporations in the exploitation of Philippine minerals, forests and other natural resources, despite provisions in the Philippine constitution (1935) to the contrary.  Then President Sergio Osmeña, an unabashedly pro-American president, called it a "curtailment of Philippine sovereignty, a virtual nullification of Philippine independence."

In the sphere of the economy, so also in security affairs.  The Philippines was forced shortly after to agree to several unequal military agreements with its former colonizer, most prominent of which were the RP-US Military Bases (MBA) and Military Assistance Agreements (MAA) of 1947 and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951.  These agreements turned effective control of the Philippine armed forces over to the US: the latter retained immense influence if not decisive say over the AFP’s strategic planning, logistics, training, indoctrination as well as orientation.

The US bases covered 135,000 hectares of prime agricultural land including pristine forests and were US enclaves wherein the US exercised extra-territorial rights and Filipinos would have no control whatsoever. These bases became important staging areas for US wars of aggression and intervention worldwide such as the Vietnam War.  Civilian communities surrounding the bases bore the brunt of the bases’ disastrous effects: scavengers were shot dead by US soldiers who claimed they mistook them for wild pigs; women and children became victims of sexual assaults by soldiers and never got justice; the drug and sex industry proliferated. Moreover, toxic contamination of the soil and water covered by the bases accumulated over the years and were never corrected nor were affected areas rehabilitated.

In 1991, the MBA was terminated and a new agreement was rejected by the Philippine Senate after a sustained anti-bases campaign by nationalist and anti-imperialist forces.  It didn’t take long for the Philippine government under Fidel Ramos to negotiate the VFA that was signed and ratified under the Joseph Estrada presidency.  In the absence of a basing agreement, the VFA provided for the legal status of US servicemen who are engaged in so-called military training exercises in the Philippines.  It essentially grants extraterritorial rights to US forces in any part of the country without any limitations on their number or duration of stay.

The lesser known MAA has shackled the AFP to the USAF in terms of equipment and weaponry.  The Philippines cannot buy weapons from a third party, i.e. another country, without the permission or “mutual agreement”, with the US government.   The Philippines is dependent for almost all of its armaments and logistics on what is sold to it by the USAF and US defense companies.  Because training is usually tied in with arms purchase, and alongside the AFP availment of various US training programs, the US exerts a strong and pervading influence with regards to the orientation and training of the AFP officer corps. 

Furthermore, the MAA created the JUSMAG.  The term “joint” refers to US military personnel from the different branches of the USAF: army, air force and navy and not to joint US and Philippine forces.  It is a composite force permanently stationed in the country whose work is focused on facilitating the logistical & training requirements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines for counter-insurgency/internal warfare.  While supposedly serving to upgrade and modernize the AFP, more than six decades have passed and the Philippines remains one of the most backward armed forces of the ASEAN region.  The AFP’s backwardness continues to be the excuse for maintaining the one-sided military agreements and overall lopsided relations between the Philippine and the US rather than taken as a wake-up call for genuine independence, self-reliance and a nationalist, pro-people orientation.

Is it any wonder then that the Philippine military has not transcended its colonial tradition – from the Macabebes during the Philippine-American War and the Philippine Scouts in the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) -- of being a mercenary and puppet armed forces under the effective command of the US Pacific Command? 

The RP-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) effectively seals that tradition and seals the doom of many more Jennifer Laudes to come. ###

Published in Business World
3 November 2014

October 18, 2014

Unequal relations invites impunity

Much to the consternation of US and Philippine officialdom, the brutal killing of Jennifer Laude by suspect Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton has placed the issue of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) front and center of the demand for justice in this latest crime committed by a member of the US Armed Forces against a Filipino citizen.  From day one it has been crystal clear to all except the Philippine Armed Forces chief (who insists the killing will "not affect our relationship with the United States") that this crime is inextricably bound to the unequal relationship between the Philippines and the USA as expressed in the VFA, in particular, its provisions on criminal jurisdiction.

The police and prosecutors should have no difficulty whatsoever in nailing this case were it not for the fact that the suspect is a US serviceman.  Unlike in the 2005 case of the Filipino rape victim, “Nicole”, both the court proceedings and the public discourse revolved around whether a rape had actually occurred.  In the Laude case, the corpus delecti is there for all to see.  And no amount of speculation about what caused Pemberton to go on a murderous rampage (ranging from his discovery that Jennifer was not a “bona fide” female after having engaged her for “sexual service”, Jennifer attempting to rob Pemberton or this being a case of a “hate crime” against a transgender woman) can change the fact that Jennifer lies dead at the hands of a US soldier who several witnesses have positively identified.

Moreover by no stretch of the imagination can the offense be construed to be “arising out of any act or omission done in performance of official duty”.  Cases in point are the shooting of farmer Buyong-Buyong Isnijal in Tuburan, Basilan in 2002 involving American soldier Reggie Lane and the shooting of Arsid Baharon in Barangay San Roque, Zamboanga City in 2004 by an American soldier whose identity US authorities withheld and other transgressions and crimes by US troops while engaged in so-called joint military exercises.  In the latter, the involved soldiers have simply been spirited away by the US with the Philippine government complicit in the surrender of Philippine criminal jurisdiction and national sovereignty.

More than a week after the commission of the crime, the alleged killer has not faced any Philippine investigator.  The Laude family has not been approached by any responsible official of the Aquino government to advise them on their legal rights and inform them what the government is doing to protect and uphold these rights.  Instead its officials have gratuitously announced that custody must remain with the US authorities as stated in the VFA.  The Aquino government has had to form an inter-agency body consisting of the VFA Commission, the departments of foreign affairs, defense, justice and social welfare and development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police to “discuss coordination” with US authorities on this latest imbroglio.

Were it not for the public uproar and the protest actions of the LGBT community, nationalists and activists, especially at the US embassy, the aggrieved relatives of the victim would have had no recourse but to merely beg authorities to act swiftly and arrest the perpetrator.  Whether this case will go the way of all previous crimes committed by US soldiers against Filipinos, on Philippine territory, or result in the conviction and punishment of the perpetrators (as what happened to two US Navy sailors convicted and hauled off to jail for robbing and raping an Okinawan woman) will be a function of the vigilance and unwavering demand for justice by the Laude family and supporters in the Philippines as well as globally.

Now the VFA, Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and the even more lopsided Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) are argued to be in accord with the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).  On November11, 2011, the 60th anniversary of the MDT, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton signed a Manila Declaration reaffirming the MDT as “the foundation for our relationship for the next 60 years and beyond.”

The MDT was imposed on the Philippines under severely unequal conditions.  The US then had emerged practically unscathed from WWII as the most powerful and prosperous state, while the Philippines had barely begun to recover from the devastation wrought by war.  The Cold War, deceptively billed as nothing less than a life-and-death struggle between good and evil, democracy and communism, was just beginning to unfold.  The Philippines and the US, as enshrined in the MDT, were to be allies “against the spread of communism” and the pursuit of “democracy and world peace”.

Over the past century, no one comes close to the US ignominious record of sovereign states invaded and occupied, governments overthrown, dictators installed and propped up, fascist surrogate armies trained and armed, bombs dropped on populated areas, and innocents massacred. It has the distinction of having had to coin and popularize a phrase – collateral damage – to justify as unavoidable, to desensitize and soften the impact of deliberate, indiscriminate targeting and slaughter of civilians.

All in the name of democracy and world peace.

It is not as though Malacanang and Padre Faura are unaware of these and are uncritical of the myths they peddle.  In his memoirs, former foreign affairs secretary Carlos P. Romulo writes how in the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine and create the Jewish state of Israel, Pres. Manuel Roxas had believed that the partition would aggravate the crisis and conflict in the Middle East and even escalate the wars.  He thus instructed the Philippine UN Delegation to vote “no”.  Romulo recounts how the US threatened withdrawal of economic aid to pressure the Philippines and other smaller countries to reverse their vote.

More recently another foreign secretary and retired diplomat admitted that the VFA and EDCA have provisions that surrender national sovereignty and are detrimental to national interest.  But she explained that the lopsidedness is a reality the Philippines could not change because the US is now the sole Superpower and can do as it pleases.  She said that the Philippines still needs to grow stronger economically and militarily, and its people and government to learn to adopt a more independent mindset to change this detrimental imbalance.  A tall order considering the former colonizer’s domination of the country extends to economic, political and cultural spheres, each one reinforcing the other.

Some foreign policy experts view the surrender of national sovereignty to the detriment of national interest as a symptom of the disconnect between foreign and domestic policy, whereas the rule of thumb is that foreign policy is or should be an extension of domestic policy.  The truth is that the kowtowing of successive administrations dating back to the American colonial period to US foreign policy is indeed a mere reflection of their subservience to US interests and dictates in the domestic arena.

Until that chain of servility and dependence is broken, the Philippines will be doomed to unequal domestic and foreign relations, and to impunity in the perpetration of transgressions on its national sovereignty and interest. #

Published in Business World
20 October 2014