April 20, 2015

The peace talks fallout after Mamasapano

Things haven’t been looking good on the peace front after the Mamasapano fiasco.  The GPH-MILF peace process suffered a direct hit and now the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is floundering in Congress.   The same is true for the GPH-NDFP negotiations.  While formal talks have been stalled since the middle of 2011, a breakthrough was in the offing early this year.  That is, until the January 25 firefight between the Special Action Forces (SAF) and the armed wing of the MILF (as well as the latter’s breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters or BIFF) dashed all hopes for some positive development in the peace negotiations for the remainder of the Aquino presidency.

The holding of the “National Peace Summit” last week by a network of four of the most consistent and persistent peace advocates’ alliances was thus a hopeful sign in an otherwise bleak horizon.  The Citizens Alliance for Just Peace (CAJP) brings together the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), the Pilgrims for Peace, Sulong CARHRIHL (Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law) and Waging Peace.  CAJP is  distinctive for having brought together groups from varied political persuasions.  While specifically geared towards giving moral and political support for earnest negotiations between the GPH and the NDFP, CAJP’s individual organizations have also been closely monitoring and supporting the GPH-MILF talks. 

In their summit statement, the group deplored the “outburst of anti-Moro bias” and rejected the call for “all-out war” in the wake of the Mamasapano incident.  They appealed to all concerned to learn important lessons from the fallout, surmount obstacles, set the process back on track and pursue the peace process with even greater resolve.

CAJP asserted, “Both the GPH-MILF & the GPH-NDFP peace talks can only lead to genuine and lasting peace if they lead to reforms that  address the root causes of the armed conflict. In the GPH-MILF process this means upholding the Bangsamoro right to self-determination and rectifying and giving redress to the centuries-old oppression & exploitation of the Moro people."

In truth, the GPH-MILF peace process is at its lowest point today even when compared to 2008 when the  GPH-MILF Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was scuttled due to the Supreme Court decision that is unconstitutional.   Adverse public opinion then was largely informed by the deep anti-Moro prejudice among the majority Christian population and fanned by economic and political vested interests in Mindanao opposed to a Bangsamoro homeland. 

The MOA-AD negotiated by the MILF with the GPH under the Arroyo administration was unsalvageable because of the degree of political isolation suffered by the Arroyo regime.  President Gloria Arroyo was widely suspected of riding on the call for amendments to the Philippine Constitution as a consequence of the MOA-AD in order to sneak in an amendment that would allow her to extend her term of office.  

It was further complicated by the US role in shepherding the MOA-AD and taking an inordinate role in the GPH-MILF peace talks leading some quarters to accuse the US of wanting to bring about the pacification in Muslim Mindanao in order to push its economic and politico-military agenda unimpeded. 

The dooming of the MOA-AD led to a split in the MILF camp with the more militant forces emerging under the umbrella of the BIFF The BIFF undertook  military offensives versus the Armed Forces of the Philippines that led to hundreds of thousands of civilians affected by the renewed fighting.

In the wake of the Mamasapano debacle of the Aquino administration, the situation is far worse for the GPH-MILF peace process.   Anti-Moro prejudice has been unleashed by the huge numbers of SAF commandoes killed (never mind that many Moro fighters and civilians were also killed).  Charges of MILF brutality and violations of International Humanitarian Law are rife in light of videos showing the seeming execution of wounded SAF unable to fight back and the stripping of the SAF men’s uniforms and personal effects apart from their weapons. 

There is the mistaken notion drummed in by some vocal legislators and amplified by other opinion makers equally biased or ignorant (or both) that the ceasefire between the GPH and the MILF together with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) is tantamount to the end of hostilities between the two.  There is the wrong expectation that the MILF, in effect, has already demobilized.

But what really have helped put the peace process in extreme jeopardy are these: the obfuscation of the fact that the GPH had indeed violated the ceasefire and had provoked the firefight with the Moro fighters;  the obfuscation of the fact that the ill-fated Marwan operation was also due to the lack of necessary coordination with the AFP for back-up and the apparent command to restrain use of AFP artillery fire leading to greater casualties on GPH side; the propensity to blame the MILF for the bloody firefight in order to shield President Aquino from accountability and blunt calls for his resignation.

The Aquino regime was supposed to be in the last stages of the peace process with the MILF. But Aquino’s vastly diminished political capital (despite his intact presidential pork barrel to be given to cooperative members of Congress) is no longer enough to get Congress to pass Malacanang BBL without drastic changes. 

Widespread anti-Moro sentiments have become the political platform of hard-line anti-Moro, anti-MILF and anti-BBL forces to bring about the rejection of the Aquino diluted version of the BBL or, with the acquiescence of erstwhile pro-BBL Aquino allies,  the passage of far more diluted version of the BBL that will be no better than the old ARMM that Aquino declared to be a “failed experiment”.  Aquino is amenable to “any BBL” and he gambles the MILF will go along with him.

The BBL has come under scrutiny revealing not just constitutional infirmities but what critics claim are unwarranted accommodations such as tens of billions of GPH funding support for the Bangsamoro entity and a larger sharing agreement on income from natural resources than what the ARMM had enjoyed. 

There are also legitimate concerns from pro-people and nationalist quarters that the BBL will only facilitate the unbridled exploitation of resources in Muslim Mindanao;  further facilitate the entry of US troops, war materiel and overt and covert operations; and, due to the big role of Malaysia in brokering the talks, the further abandonment of the country’s legitimate claim to Sabah.

On the other hand, the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations, after a seemingly auspicious beginning when resumed in February 2011, sputtered over the issue of the release of NDFP consultants covered by safety guarantees.  It finally ground to a halt in April 2013 with GPH Panel head Padilla and OPAPP Chief Deles announcing that the GPH would no longer pursue either the “regular” or “special” tracks of the talks.

Only extraordinary efforts by some government emissaries to jumpstart the talks in 2014 resulted to the possibility of formal resumption the first quarter of 2015.  But with the political crisis generated by the Mamasapano disaster, it has come to pass that the much anticipated breakthrough in the GPH-NDFP peace talks is once again stillborn.  #

Published in Business World
20 April 2015

April 06, 2015

The personal is political

Readers of this ten-something-year-old column have likely observed that the essays I write are mostly political in nature; an outcome of my being a social activist from way back when.  But once in a rare while yet for good reason, the theme becomes more personal.  Then again as the feminists of the late sixties phrased it so elegantly -- the personal is political. And so here goes.

Someone once asked me, intrigued by the last part of the blurb accompanying this column that describes me as a “doctor by training, activist by choice, columnist by accident, proud mother of two and happy partner to a liberated spouse“ what that meant. 

I wish today, on the 70th birthday of the “liberated spouse” to expound on what that means for a radical reformer such as myself.  In the process I wish to publicly give credit where it is due, something that has truly been a long time coming.

I met my future husband, Miguel “Mike” Araullo, as I entered the State University, a wide-eyed and eager ex-colegiala. He was on his way out, prolonging his stay in Delaney Hall (DH), the hang-out of members of the UP Student Catholic Action, only because he was reviewing for the engineering board exams.  As an old Filipino adage goes, a bit paraphrased, “Papunta pa lang ako, pabalik na siya.” (I had just embarked on this journey; he was on his way back.)

Having been born “old” – I was given the moniker “granny” for having an over-sized super-ego and constantly reminding all the kids to behave – I didn’t mind the age gap at all.  Of course his being good-looking caught my eye; more than that he struck me as a mature, kind-hearted person with a straightforward, even mockingly honest manner, that I found refreshing compared to the self-conscious cockiness of the younger males at the DH.

In time his perseverance in courtship paid off despite the physical distance (by then he had started to work in Laguna) and my growing involvement in radical student politics (which meant interminable discussion groups, non-stop teach-ins, and a constant stream of protest rallies and marches on and off campus).

Our relationship withstood the sudden separation from my going underground when martial law was declared and my arrest upon re-enrollment at UP.  Still he did not join the revolutionary movement just to be closer to me; he knew that decision had to come from one’s own conviction and commitment.  But he respected me enough and was sufficiently progressive politically himself not to dissuade me from acting in accord with my beliefs.

After release from detention, he patiently waited for me to finish an extended Bachelor of Arts course, then another four years of medicine (with summer vacations spent in “social immersion” among peasants in the countryside) while he continued to seek economic stability, first  as an employee then an independent, small-scale entrepreneur. 

At last upon graduation we agreed to get married although I managed to irk him by a sudden attack of panic that neither of us knew how to cook so how could we embark on our own away from his and my mother’s reliable kitchens.  But that was to be the least of our problems. He readily assumed the role of breadwinner while taking up the slack from the untalented and perfunctory homemaker that I turned out to be.

Mike’s progressiveness was certainly tempered by his determination to have a viable family life amidst the trials and tribulations of an economy in doldrums and a spouse whose promising professional career wasn't meant to be; more so, of a politically repressive martial law environment and even more terror and harassment under the supposedly liberal democratic regime that followed forcing me to once again go underground for a time leaving behind two bewildered young children.

Many times he was mother and father to our kids especially when I was wont to be hard pressed by the demands of being a full-time activist through the ups and downs, ebbs and flows of the movement.  Through his dedication and perseverance (and to be fair, my wholehearted cooperation) our two children grew up to be well-rounded, self-assured and disciplined individuals with athletic, theatrical and other extra-curricular accomplishments to boot. 

Mike has largely been the "invisible" partner, quietly in the background while wife and kids drew some kind of limelight for achievements or, in some people's eyes, notoriety.  A couple of years ago, our daughter surprised him with a text message on his birthday saying “you are the wind beneath my wings”.   And he is affirmed each time he reads in published interviews of our son that the latter credits his father for the solid values he imbibed as he grew up and the opportunities to develop whatever God-given talents he had.

We had tried not to be defensive about our being “economically challenged” especially when hard times hit his fledgling business and our kids had to wear their cousins’ hand-me-downs.  A proletarian lifestyle, while not being philosophically averse, was still a source of tension and instability in the family.  Happily, we never really quarreled about money or the lack of it.

Mike suffered silently through my mother's harangues about why he would let his wife pursue risky even dangerous, time-consuming and time-away-from-kids kind of "work", instead of hunkering down to a respectable medical practice but he never actually pressured me to stop my activism.  He not only resigned himself to the fact that a large part of what defines me as a person is my activism, he grew to love and respect me all the more for it.

Mike is a spouse who is most of all a dear friend, and always will be.  He is great to have light, silly chats with in early morning jogs and late night telenovela-watching bonding time; as well serious conversations whenever this activist needs a sounding board, especially a contrary but nonetheless thoughtful and honest view about controversial issues of the day.

What is so much clearer to me now, as we grow mellow in our senior years, I would never have been able to pursue a life of dedicated activism and somehow still manage to have happy, healthy and level-headed progeny and a reasonably functioning home were it not for a partner who has been supporting me through thick and thin, good times and bad.

He has been the more mature, the more understanding, the more forgiving, the more accommodating, the less bull-headed of the life partnership  and for that I am most blessed, a truly “happy partner to a liberated spouse”. #

Published in Business World
6 April 2015

March 30, 2015

Aquino’s “last word” on Mamasapano, the writing on the wall?

President Benigno S. Aquino III’s speech at the PNPA graduation was meant to write finis to the public uproar over the bloody, botched counterterrorist operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.  Instead it only managed to further rile a people sick and tired of the finger-pointing, the obfuscation and lies about what really happened, the stonewalling about key factors that caused the failed operation and, to top it all, the pathetic excuse that the president is, after all, only “human” and also makes “mistakes”. 

But the only mistake Aquino admits to is the total trust he conferred on the sacked SAF Commander Napenas (who he says “fooled” him about the seemingly foolproof design of Oplan Exodus and his capability to lead it) and on suspended Chief PNP Purisima (who he says failed to follow his order to coordinate with the AFP and who failed to give him accurate updates on the progress of the operation).  The question he refuses to answer:  why didn’t he, as Commander-in-Chief/Chief Executive, ensure that AFP chief Catapang and the OIC PNP Chief Espina were in the loop from the very beginning? Why did he rely on a suspended general with no authority whatsoever, and a lower level PNP officer whose authority is not at par with either Catapang or Espina, to call the shots in this complex, high-level and high-risk operation?

What Aquino is still trying to obscure is the fact that he authorized Oplan Exodus including the so-called “time-on-target coordination” with the AFP, meaning the AFP would only be informed when the operation was already under way.  He also agreed to set aside the ceasefire protocol with the MILF which meant the SAF commandoes would enter MILF territory without any prior coordination whatsoever with the joint AFP-MILF bodies overseeing the ceasefire.  These two factors are what led to the Mamasapano fiasco: the lack of proper and timely coordination with both the AFP and the MILF.

Aquino stonewalls about his authorizing the setting aside of the ceasefire protocol with the MILF despite knowing about the dangers of fully armed contingents of MILF, BIFF and PAGs (private armed groups) in the area and the likelihood of the “pintakasi” phenomenon (where the armed community unites to resist any armed intruder) as clearly pointed out in the BOI report.

According to the BOI report, Aquino never gave any guidance as to how Oplan Exodus would take into consideration the ongoing GPH-MILF peace process. Aquino obviously agreed with the assessment that the MILF was coddling Marwan and was not to be trusted on that score. He apparently did not consider weighty the ensuing fall-out on the peace process should anything go wrong.  Aquino does not admit to any of these and still pretends to be the leader who would do everything to achieve “peace” in Mindanao, even if it only means getting Congress to pass a watered down Bangsamoro Basic Law that he wagers the MILF will nonetheless accept.

These two fatal errors sealed the doom of the SAF troopers who in effect walked into a death trap:  there was no escape and no rescue until it was already too late.

What stands out in Aquino’s speech is that he was most silent about US involvement in the Marwan operation. The Foreign Affairs department had all but exonerated the US by testifying in the Senate hearings that they accepted hook, line and sinker the US embassy’s declaration that US involvement was limited to the medical evacuation of the trapped SAF troopers.

 That claim by the US embassy was proven to be a big lie when a video taken by a SAF commando of a drone flying just overhead and monitoring the battle surfaced. This validated reports from independent fact-finding missions of the presence of drones days before and on the night of the SAF operation.

Forced to amend its statements, the US and some Philippine government officials subsequently admitted that they helped in intelligence gathering (which is allowed under PH-US agreements such as the VFA) but continued to insist that US forces were not otherwise involved, especially in combat operations.

However, SAF commander Napenas testified under oath during executive sessions of the Senate hearings that there were six US officers, three of whom arrived with him, at the Tactical Command Post along with other SAF commanders. The presence of the six Americans, one of whom was even reported to have issued an order to an Army brigade commander to initiate artillery fire, speaks not only of the high interest the US had in the operation but the hand that they were allowed to have by the Philippine government -- Aquino no less -- in directing the operation.

Did the American "advisers" lead Aquino to believe that they had such reliable intelligence information, and they had trained and armed the SAF commandos so well, that arresting Marwan and Usman would be a walk in the park and that there would be no need to inform the AFP and MILF?

Was BSA so enthralled by the thought that personally turning over “international terrorists” Marwan and Usman to the FBI would be a publicity coup without equal?  Coupled with the capping of the Bangsamoro peace process with the imminent passing of the BBL, would this not make him a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize which had eluded his mother? The thought that he could even surpass his revered mom's record and name must have been so titillating, the other side of the coin -- the high probability of a firefight and costly casualties -- was completely  overlooked or shunted aside in his calculations.

As a bonus, a successful operation would redeem the name of his BFF (best friend forever) General Purisima, justifying his decision to allow the latter to direct the entire operation despite his suspension from office on corruption charges.

Some quarters continue to press the question of where funding for Oplan Exodus could have come from.  If the US funded it, then Aquino, Purisima and the SAF could be considered as mercenaries doing the US bidding.  But if not, then Aquino and Purisima could be criminally liable for misusing the SAF personnel and related resources outside of the authorized government budget and chain of command and thereafter for bringing about the unnecessary death of the SAF 44, MILF 17 and several civilians.

For the nth time, Aquino dissembles and stonewalls on the full extent of his and US complicity in engineering the Mamasapano disaster.  The lid on this political can of worms is off and all attempts at a cover-up by Aquino and his apologists are failing. 

The political demise of the Aquino regime is all but written on the wall. #

Published in Business World
30 March 2015