June 07, 2015

The only real deterrent to China’s aggression

In recent months, China’s flurry of reclamation work and building of military installations on several of the islets and reefs in the disputed portions of the West Philippine Sea (WPS)/South China Sea (SCS) have set alarm bells ringing about China’s aggressive design to claim almost the entirety of the area as part of its national territory.  The Philippines, being one of the parties to the disputes over maritime rights and territorial claims in the WPS/SCS, is rightfully aggrieved.

The WPS/SCS encompasses traditional fishing grounds not only for Filipino fisherfolk but those from several other ASEAN countries.  (China has been denying their access to these fishing grounds.)  The bountiful marine resources and rich marine biodiversity of the WPS/SCS is nature’s endowment to our peoples; it should be wisely conserved while being sustainably exploited.  (Chinese fishing vessels are well known to be engaged in destructive overexploitation of the marine environment.) There is substantial, commercially-valuable petrochemical and gas deposits in the underlying seabed that would be a much-needed boost to the economic development of any of the claimant nations. (China is suspected of wanting to hog these resources.)

The WPS/SCS is a geopolitically strategic and sensitive area.  It contains vital sea lanes for much of the global trade in the region.  Historically, it has been a stepping stone for western imperialist inroads into China.  Currently, it is a critical part of the Asia Pacific where US military might is being shifted to contain a resurgent China and maintain the US’ unchallenged dominance in the region.

The Filipino people must see through the geopolitical power play between the declining but still militarily superior US and its rival China, the new economic powerhouse, albeit with a far distant offensive military capability.  The Filipino people must not allow the country to be used as a pawn in big-power competition, collusion and confrontation.  Unfortunately, there is the widespread yet dangerous thinking, reinforced by a lingering colonial hangover, that the best, if not only, way to defend our sovereignty against any foreign country’s encroachments is to call on Uncle Sam for help. 

The conventional wisdom is that the Philippines, being a poor, backward country has no capacity to defend itself against China’s bullying and anticipated worse depredations to come; neither now nor in the foreseeable future.  Besides, it is argued, hasn’t the Philippines always been under the US security umbrella through long-standing military agreements? 

What is undeniable is the fact that the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and other such lop-sided pacts have not resulted in the promised modernization of the AFP, ergo our external defense capability is one of the weakest among claimants.   The year-round Balikatan joint military exercises that are supposed to be improving “interoperability” between the state-of-the-art war machinery of the US and the decrepit, outdated equipment of the Philippines merely reinforce the Philippine military’s state of awe, dependence and subordination to the US armed forces. 

With the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the Philippines’ role as provider of forward stations aka “agreed locations” for the basing of the US military troops and materiel is sealed.  Once more the justification is EDCA will cover the gaping holes in our external defense, acting as a deterrent against China based on the groundless presumption that the US will go to war against China in our behalf. 

Philippine authorities and other wishful thinkers mindlessly cling to the illusory notion of Big Brother immediately coming to our defense despite the fact that the US has repeatedly stated that it will not intervene in the territorial disputes in the WPS/CHS.  They also ignore the reality that the US has far bigger, more important stakes in its relations with China -- trillions of dollars in trade and trillions more in loans -- than it has with its former colony.

This was made clear by no less than US President Obama when he declared during his visit in April 2014, at the height of the tensions over the WPS/SCS, that US-PH military agreements, such as the MDT, do not bind it automatically to take military action to defend the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack.  Moreover, the presence of US troops, war materiel and facilities on Philippine territory, especially on the basis of a military alliance, could only serve as a magnet for attack from the enemies of the US, as in WW II when Japan attacked the Philippines which was then a US colony.

So if the Philippines cannot rely on the US against China’s aggressive posture and actuations in the WPS/SCS where can it turn to?  Many foreign policy experts have pointed to the need for ASEAN countries to unite and pressure China to agree to a binding Code of Conduct in settling WPS/SCS disputes.  Other opinion makers call for strengthening ties with India and Japan as a counterpoint to both China and the US.  However this ignores the fact that Japan remains more than ever the US fugleman in Asia while the US has, in recent years, forged closer economic and diplomatic ties with India.

Others call for quiet diplomacy at government-to-government and people-to-people levels with China geared towards minimizing frictions and increasing understanding and cooperation.  While beneficial, it would be naïve to think that such diplomacy will, by itself, temper China’s aggressiveness. The logic of China’s burgeoning capitalist economy fans its expansionist ambitions despite declarations of its intention to a “peaceful rise” as a global power.

Still others say the thing is to be able to beat the two contending powers at their own game by playing off one against the other utilizing a battery of experts in various fields to craft and implement such strategy and tactics.

All these approaches however overlook and grossly underestimate the power of a united people rising in mass protest and pushing the government to do what is necessary to uphold national interests including imposing economic sanctions on Chinese enterprises in the country such as in construction, real estate, agribusiness, import-export, power generation and transmission, mining, banking, etc.

The Vietnamese people angrily took to the streets to denounce China’s grab of its claimed territory and exclusive economic zone in the WPS/SCS. In the past the Vietnamese navy has dared to confront the far stronger Chinese navy.  Such courageous and defiant acts have stymied China’s intrusions to a significant extent.  China has been given notice that Vietnam is no pushover.

The Filipino people need not feel helpless in the wake of stepped-up Chinese aggression in the WPS/SCS.  Building a revitalized patriotic movement that draws its strength from its own people, neither taking sides nor relying on one power to defend itself from the other, is the key to the assertion and defense of our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The time to build such a movement is now. #

Published in Business World
8 June 2015

May 24, 2015

Real score on the BBL

Malacanang’s damage control measures for the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) after the Mamasapano fiasco is going full throttle.  No less than President Benigno S. Aquino has applied carrot-and-stick pressure tactics on his congressional allies.  This has resulted in the passage of the latest Malacanang-stamped version by the Lower House Ad hoc Committee on BBL by a vote of 50 to 17. 

The railroading in the Lower House is nothing new.  We’ve seen this before during the impeachment hearings against Mr. Aquino and the investigation into the Mamasapano incident.  Not even a modicum of serious discussion and debate transpired and herd voting (likely fed by hefty doses of Malacanang largesse) was again the norm.

The Senate is turning out to be a bit more difficult what with feisty Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s committee report, already signed by at least six of her colleagues, holding fast to the conclusion that the BBL is unconstitutional, requiring no less than honest-to-goodness Charter amendments. 

“Civil society” endorsements were put into high gear with the creation by Mr. Aquino of a supposedly “independent” National Peace Council top heavy with representatives from big business, the Catholic Church hierarchy, legal experts, and assorted NGOs.   The pro-BBL chant is that it is pro-peace, pro-development and pro-social justice.

Now the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is being regaled as law-abiding (proof is their having killed wanted “terrorist” Basit Usman although the military earlier disputed the claim), business-friendly (photo-ops with top honchos of the domestic corporate world), respectful and submissive to Congress and all but pacified after the crescendo of anti-MILF commentaries coming from many quarters.

Thus the battle to pass the BBL has shaped up to be mainly between the Malacanang-led proponents on one hand and the anti-Moro opposition on the other. What they have in common is that both are driven by strategic vested interests (which have nothing to do with the Bangsamoro’s aspirations for the right to self-determination) and narrow immediate interests more related to winning in the 2016 elections than to putting an end to the armed conflict.
Whichever side prevails, the BBL will be a far cry from what the Bangsamoro Transition Commission drafted and submitted to Malacanang for its approval. More so with what the MILF had fought tooth and nail for before they settled for the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB).

The most formidable legal obstacle to the BBL’s passage comes from the view that many key provisions of the original draft bill submitted to Congress are inconsistent with, contrary to or even undermine the Philippine Charter. 

This should not come as a surprise.  All revolutionary movements of the Bangsamoro, from the MNLF to the MILF, challenge and are inherently an affront to the status quo as reflected in the legal document called the Philippine Constitution.  In fact, the MILF split from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) when the 1976 Tripoli Agreement under the Marcos regime clearly subsumed the GPH-MNLF peace process and the agreement itself to the Philippine Republic’s legal framework as well as legal and political processes.  This fatal flaw as pointed out by the late MILF founding chair Hashim Salamat was then affirmed and sealed in the 1996 GPH-MNLF Final Peace Agreement under the Ramos regime.

The MILF had been persistently batting for Charter amendments to reflect the key provisions in the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) negotiated with the GPH under Arroyo and later the FAB and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) under Aquino.  These are on ancestral domain (later denoted simply as territory), on self-governance (not only within the confines of  ARMM autonomy ergo the use of such terms as “substate”, “associative relationship” and “asymmetry”); on control of the use of natural resources; on control over government instrumentalities such as the Comelec and police deemed crucial in reforming, if not overhauling, the extremely depraved political set-up in the former ARMM.

Too bad at some point and with heaps of “expert advise” from the US government’s Institute of Peace and the cajoling if not deceptive assurances of the GPH, the MILF gave in and no longer pressed the issue.  What has come to pass is that the objections based on constitutionality have been the leverage used to water down an already watered down BBL. 

The Ad Hoc Committee BBL draft is essentially a rehash of the ARMM law.  The ARMM, admitted by no less than Mr. Aquino to be a “failed experiment” has now reemerged as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR), touted as a “bigger and better” ARMM.  For example, BBL proponents point to an “opt in” proviso: aside from the provinces and cities listed as covered by the plebiscite, the political exercise could also cover all other contiguous cities and provinces where there is a resolution of the local government unit or a petition of at least 10% of the registered voters asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to ratification.  But this can only take place on the fifth and tenth year after its enactment.  Moreover, the core territory of the ARMM will have to undergo a plebiscite once more to ratify inclusion in the BAR. 

A higher share of revenues from natural resources for the BAR was wangled in the BBL and there is assurance of a bigger share in the national coffers through a “block grant”.  The ad hoc committee draft, however, takes away the autonomous government’s right to contract and receive grants and donations from foreign governments as these would require national government concurrence.  There is also the novelty of a parliamentary form of government that is touted to be more representative and ergo democratic but such a form is also more easily controlled and manipulated by long-entrenched political dynasties in Muslim Mindanao.

With strong anti-Moro prejudices, distrust and chauvinist bias unabashedly displayed, and weighing in on arguments of both pro- and anti-BBL camps, it is difficult to imagine how the BBL could still be a product of an intelligent discourse on how a just and lasting peace can be achieved for the Bangsamoro and the entire country.

But more important, the prevailing anti-Moro sentiments and deep-rooted national chauvinism on display in the national discourse on the BBL clearly and concretely prove why it is impossible for any national minority such as the Bangsamoro to exercise their right to self-determination through an autonomy granted under a state where the majority does not consider nor treat minorities as equals. #

Published in Business World
25 May 2015

May 09, 2015

Ordinary people stand up for their rights

Celia and Cesar Veloso are admirable parents who wouldn't give up the fight to bring their daughter, condemned overseas Filipino worker Mary Jane, back to the Philippines – alive, safe and free -- against seemingly insurmountable odds. 

They were up against an international drug syndicate, recruiting poor and desperate men and women on the promise of good-paying jobs abroad, who end up as unwitting drug mules and when caught, languish on death row, in countries that impose capital punishment for drug trafficking. They only knew about the syndicate through Mary Jane’s illegal recruiter, Ma. Cristina Sergio, and her live-in partner, Julius Lacanilao, who warned them from the beginning to keep quiet about their daughter’s plight and not to seek help either from the government or mass media on pain of being “dealt with” by the drug syndicate and worsening Mary Jane’s situation.

When the Velosos summoned the courage to seek help from government agencies they were met by indifference, even disdain.   Government functionaries were unmoved by their pleas for help for their daughter when she was arrested and was being tried in an Indonesian court.  Concerned government agencies, foremost of which are the DFA and PDEA, continued to drag their feet and failed to take decisive action even when she was already convicted and handed down the death penalty.  They finally scrambled to take legal and diplomatic last-ditch efforts when Mary Jane faced imminent death by firing squad at which time local and international mass media had already trained the spotlight on her case.

The Velosos are what would be called "masa".  They are from poor peasant stock, trying to make ends meet by resorting to odd jobs and the proverbial attempts to land jobs overseas to break the cycle of poverty, lack of education and joblessness.  Mary Jane was easy prey to illegal recruiters and since she didn’t even have the money to pay for the necessary papers and an airplane ticket to work abroad, to being hoodwinked to carry illegal drugs across national borders.  When she run afoul of Indonesian law, she was helpless, not having the resources, the connections and the faculties to navigate the legal labyrinth in a foreign country much less defend herself and prove her innocence or victimization.

But Celia and Cesar did what they could with whatever resources they could muster.  They kept their wits about them, communicated with Mary Jane and approached the PDEA and local government authorities to run after Sergio and Lacanilao.  They asked Mary Jane to send even just a handwritten account of what happened to her because they were told by authorities that they could not act without it.  Mary Jane did so twice but for some reason her letters were pilfered and her account was missing.

The Velosos were eventually able to visit Mary Jane together with her two children.  Jail wardens who had become Mary Jane’s friends put up the money to bring her family to Indonesia.  When the Velosos approached the DFA for help in obtaining passports, they were met with mocking disbelief that they could “afford” to travel.  They were also advised, incorrectly, that they could only visit their daughter if they were given explicit permission to do so by Indonesian authorities.  But they persisted and refused to be intimidated or misled by the government bureaucrats who dealt with them.  They were able to talk to Mary Jane and get her version of what happened.

Things started moving fast when the Velosos learned that Mary Jane’s execution was already scheduled for April 28.  Only an international meeting to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first large-scale Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia on April 19 to 24 had provided a temporary respite since the Indonesian government did not want to hold the executions during this time.  Local mass media put the Velosos in touch with the OFW advocates’ group Migrante International.  The latter contacted the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and by April 7, the pro bono legal services of its lawyers were engaged by the Veloso family.

This is the train of events from the time Migrante and NUPL got involved:  On April 8, upon the advice of NUPL, Sergio’s picture was made public by Migrante; the latter called for government to immediately take Sergio into custody.  On April 16 and 17, the NUPL wrote PDEA, NBI and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) with attached sworn statements of Mary Jane’s family and the transcript of her own handwritten account (the original copy of which was lodged in the Philippine embassy in Jakarta but is still nowhere to be found up to now) asking that the appropriate investigation be conducted against Sergio.  On April 22, immediately after conferring with Indonesian lawyers in Jakarta, NUPL asked IACAT for certification of status of any investigation against Sergio. 

Meanwhile Migrante, Gabriela, the Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) and many other support groups stepped up protest actions at the DFA and the Indonesian Embassy and mass petition signing to “Save Mary Jane”.  Chapters of Migrante in other countries swung into action and also organized mass actions at Indonesian embassies.  NUPL coordinated with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) in mobilizing human rights activists and international institutions and democratic personalities to call for a stop to Mary Jane’s execution.

Perhaps most critically, Indonesian migrant labor, human rights and specially women’s rights activists, took up the cudgels for Mary Jane and zealously undertook actions, from mass lobbying to dialogues with high government officials including President Widodo, to draw parallels between Mary Jane’s case and those of hundreds of Indonesians also facing severe punishment, if not execution, abroad but who are in fact victims of human trafficking and miscarriage of justice.

It must be underscored that prior to the filing of the first motion for judicial review of Mary Jane’s conviction on 19 January 2015, her Indonesian lawyers had already asked the Philippine embassy to ask concerned government agencies in the country to investigate Sergio. PDEA reportedly visited Mary Jane around March 29 but the PDEA report was translated into Bahasa by the Philippine embassy and submitted to her Indonesian lawyers only on April 23.

The first judicial review was rejected and a second motion for judicial review was filed by Indonesian lawyers on April 24, four days before her scheduled execution but this was also rejected.   Sergio reportedly surrendered to Philippine police the morning of April 28. Indonesian President Widodo ordered the stay of execution close to midnight of April 28.

On May 5, Sergio and partner were arrested and their inquest took place. The Justice Secretary herself stated there was formidable evidence that Mary Jane had been tricked into bringing illegal drugs into Indonesia by a syndicate that had been, in the first place, engaged in large-scale human trafficking.

So far, Celia and Cesar Veloso have been vindicated in their dogged efforts to prove Mary Jane’s innocence.  Their unwavering call for accountability of government agencies and personnel responsible, by their criminal negligence, for Mary Jane’s conviction and death sentence cannot remain unheeded. #

Published in Business World
11 May 2015