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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Enhancing torture by the CIA

 
 
The US Senate Report on the use of torture by the CIA in interrogating alleged terrorist suspects underscores the problem of identifying the responsibility of both the Executive and Congress over the state’s apparatus for gathering intelligence necessary in its war against terrorism. It’s not only the brutal methods employed by the CIA that are highly disturbing but also the Report’s absence of finding or acknowledgment of culpability beyond the pay grade of the CIA operatives conducting those investigations.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
talks to reporters after coming out of the Senate in Washington on
December 9, 2014. Reuters Photo
In addition to the finding that the CIA’s interrogation techniques were more brutal and employed more extensively than the agency portrayed, the Torture Report also brings out two other significant points: one, that the interrogation program was mismanaged and lacked adequate oversight, and two, that members of Congress and the White House were misled by the CIA about the effectiveness and extent of its brutal interrogation techniques.
 
The question to ask therefore is: Who are the authors or leading officials who presided over the CIA’s regime of torture? Whether it was its intention, the Senate Report did not address who ultimately must bear the political responsibility for torture.
 
Like the Nazi criminals during the Nuremberg Trials, US top leaders—Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and Senate Intelligence Committee chair, Diane Feinstein— have pleaded “we didn’t know,” “we were misled,” and “the CIA didn’t tell us.”
 
If a similar Nuremberg Trial were convened today to prosecute those responsible for the CIA’s reign of torture, no judge would believe what these leaders say. There is no international court of law that would even be slightly persuaded by these pleas of ignorance of the CIA’s decade-long practice of torture. After all, former US Vice President Richard Cheney, one of President Bush’s unabashed architects of American aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, even lauded the CIA practice of torture on television and boasted he would implement the same policies again.
 
After 9/11, torture has been the method of choice as revealed by top military officials during the Abu Ghraib investigation. During the administration of President Bush, Jr., CIA leaders submitted detailed reports on intelligence, including the sources and the methods of obtaining the information routinely—with videos and ‘live feeds’ for the politicians to view. Nothing was “held back” then and now, as current CIA head John Brennan testifies. Everyone who attended high-level national security meetings knew how intelligence was obtained, and if they failed to ask it was because torture was accepted as the normal operating procedure.
 
Pleading ignorance is not a valid and winning argument. Former Vice President Cheney is more reckless in admitting his preference for the use of torture in ferreting out information from captured prisoners of war. During Cheney’s appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, he was asked if the Geneva Convention applies to this type of situation.
 
Cheney replied: “Sure there is. But remember, the terrorists were not covered by the Geneva Convention. They were unlawful combatants. And under those circumstances, they were not entitled to the normal kinds of courtesies and treatment you would accord to those.”
 
But the Geneva Conventions, a group of four international treaties covering different aspects of how civilians, prisoners of war and soldiers are to be treated once they are rendered incapable of fighting, guarantee a certain level of protection for former combatants, including prisoners of war and civilians. They set out in detail the requirements for food, clothing, shelter, safety from combat, access to medical care, and other matters.
US soldiers escort a detainee to his cell at Guantanamo Bay
Naval Base. Reuters Photo.
These fighters qualify for these protections if they adhered to some basic rules of law such as wearing uniforms, carrying arms openly, answering to a chain of command, and not committing war crimes. Many of those who were detained in Guantanamo Bay and other sites were from non-state terrorist groups and did not adhere to these rules. These are the unlawful combatants whom Cheney refers to and were not guaranteed the same protections afforded prisoners of war.
 
Is Cheney right?
 
There is in fact a distinction in the level of protection afforded under the Geneva Conventions, for those who receive extensive protections and those who do not. While detainees who do not have POW status don’t get the top level protection, they get more basic protections from the Geneva Conventions which would have shielded them against some of the brutal and harsh treatments mentioned in the Senate report.
 
Article 3, which is common and identical in all of the four Geneva Conventions, prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” as well as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”
 
Besides, the United States Supreme Court in its ruling in Hamsdan vs. Rumsfeld, a watershed case on detainee rights, has already ended the debate on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The Supreme Court made it completely clear, that whatever their status is, detainees are entitled to some minimal protections under the Geneva Conventions. Such ruling is binding law in the United States, no matter what Cheney says.
 
Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions as one source of basic protection for detainees is also bolstered by other international agreements as well. Article 75 of the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions includes minimal protections for all people, whatever their status, who are caught in a conflict. Two other international agreements to which the United States is a party, the 1984 Torture Convention and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
 
In a more critical assessment of the Senate Torture Report, i.e., beyond the sheer brutality of the enhanced interrogation techniques employed by the CIA, James Petras, Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, wrote: “The Senate Report is an exercise in institutional power—a means for the Senate to regain political turf, to rein in CIA encroachment. The Report goes no further than to chastise “inappropriate” techniques: it does not proceed from crimes of state to prosecute officials responsible for crimes against international and domestic laws.”
 
“We know, and they know, and as every legal authority in the world would know, that without the punishment of political leaders, torture will continue to be an integral part of US imperial policy: Impunity leads to recidivism.”
 
The grim reality is that the Senate Torture Report will not result in a radical shift in CIA interrogations because to the United States, the war on terrorism can never be left to erring on the side of caution to maintain a level of respect for law and human rights. Torture will always be necessary, even though it is not the official policy, in gathering information that could prevent loss of or harm to human life. Those who rely on torture will always find a ticking time bomb to justify its use.
 
Such justification for the use of torture was in the heart of Israel’s Supreme Court ruling in 1999, holding that interrogators can employ torture to extract information if it prevents a bombing, and has now earned currency among the CIA and White House lawyers.
 
As the tempest in the teapot continues to boil over the Senate Torture Report, don’t expect resignations, let alone prosecutions and trials. Worldwide indignation may be heard but the US government will never be held to answer for its use of torture.
 
The CIA operates under the notion that international law and Geneva Conventions have to be modified, or at the very least, be interpreted generously to allow enhanced interrogation techniques even if by their nature they constitute acts of torture.
 
Torture should not be universally condemned and its practitioners be prosecuted: this is a core belief that the CIA relies upon for as long as it provides useful information in preventing terrorists accomplish their objectives. Such is what is expected of an imperial power like the United States, and nothing less.
 
To paraphrase James Petras, the only way for torture to disappear is when politicians are put on trial for their crimes against humanity. “Only when the empire is transformed back to a republic: where impunity ends, justice begins.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Breaking down the culture of impunity

 
 
It all started with the Marcos dictatorship. In two decades of iron rule, Marcos perfected a system of oppression that knew no bounds, without fear of punishment for illegal wrongdoing for in his own mind his word is the law. Thousands had been killed, jailed and had disappeared. Torture and extrajudicial killings were widely practised with no one brought to the halls of justice for human rights violations.
 
The Marcos years spawned a culture of violence and impunity, and his successors would quietly condone the practice of extrajudicial executions and disappearances of those who voiced their protests against the government. Violence and impunity have become a way of life for the state, so pervasive they have been ingrained into our culture.

Remembering the victims of the Ampatuan massacre, 58 people, 
32 of them journalists, who were brutally murdered 5 years ago in
Maguindano province.
In June 2013, during the World Economic Forum East Asia in Myanmar, President Noynoy Aquino declared that the culture of impunity in the Philippines was over and invited investors to the country. Aquino said: “The culture of impunity is over. Much of what we have done is based on the belief that a sense of justice and the predictability of outcomes breed prosperity.” He added: “It is clear that good governance has created a climate of confidence in the Philippines. If there is no corruption, there will be no poverty.”
 
What was President Aquino thinking? Is he from another planet?
 
I had an almost similar serendipitous experience about two weeks ago in an Internet forum when I brought up the issue of culture of impunity as a stumbling block to a fair, accessible and efficient system of justice. A forum member asked if I was referring to the culture of impunity among lawyers in the bench and other high places. What?
 
It’s high time that President Aquino and like-minded people understand that a culture of impunity is neither caused by corruption or poverty, and that lawyers as a professional group are not responsible for fostering such culture. This a very serious matter and not something we could just quibble with.
 
Impunity simply means exemption from punishment, or the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. As such, impunity constitutes a denial of the right of victims to justice and redress.
 
The Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Action to Combat Impunity of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights defines impunity as “the impossibility of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account – whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings – since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims.”
 
Now that we have a clear idea of what impunity means, perhaps we can begin a thorough understanding of what we need to do to combat this pervasive culture of impunity in our country.
 
For journalists alone, the Philippine Centre of Media Freedom & Responsibility reported that an average of six per year is killed for their work. This number may be lower compared to the Gloria Arroyo regime but the number of slain journalists under the Aquino presidency has surpassed those of the administrations of Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada.
 
The Centre fears that this continuing violence against journalists will not abate before the end of Aquino’s term in 2016, which shows the failure of the Aquino administration in preventing attacks against the press.
 
The killing of journalists is linked to the larger culture of impunity when wrongdoing of all kinds goes unpunished. For the thousands who had been killed or disappeared during the oppressive Marcos dictatorship, and for the continuing extrajudicial executions and disappearances, not one has been made responsible under the law for either their murder or violations of human rights.
 
Those in authority like the President or his loyal military officers exploit the long arm of the law in persecuting dissenters or those in their judgment are planning to overthrow the government. And if no one is prosecuted for violating the people’s right to express themselves by making them disappear or silencing them permanently through extrajudicial execution, the system of justice breaks down and it spawns a culture of violence.
 
Take the case of former General Jovito Palparan, who is alleged to be the mastermind in extrajudicial abductions and killings of government critics during his military service. Palparan earned the nickname “Berdugo” (“the Butcher”) for his alleged involvement in numerous human rights violations, such as the murder of Edwin Marcellana and Eddie Gumanoy, and the disappearance of University of the Philippines’ student activists Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno.
 
In 2006, the Melo Commission headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo rendered a report which concluded that most of the killings of militant activists and journalists were instigated by the military, and recommended that General Palparan and other military officials be held liable. Yet then President Gloria Arroyo did nothing to prosecute Palparan but instead continued with greater impetus the execution of Oplan Bantay Laya, her government’s anti-insurgency operations.
 
Now that Palparan has been arrested after being on the lam for three years, it is highly doubtful if the government will be serious this time around. Palparan is charged with the kidnapping and serious illegal detention of UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno.
 
According to Senator Antonio Trillanes, once a navy officer, General Palparan only followed orders during his time in the armed forces. In other words, he was just doing his job. But Trillanes has forgotten, or perhaps, he didn’t know, that the defence of following orders has already been debunked by the Nuremberg trial and succeeding cases. Besides, military generals are not strangers to the concept of command responsibility. Maybe, Trillanes was simply channeling himself, a convicted mutineer who staged a coup against his commander-in-chief, that he himself was not fully punished for the crime of rebellion and why should Palparan be made liable when he was simply doing a heroic job to fight communism in the country.
 
Chances are, the prosecution of Jovito Palparan will drag on until the press is no longer interested to report about him, exactly what’s happening to the Ampatuan massacre whose trial is yet to be set down. Five years ago, 58 people, 32 of them journalists, were brutally murdered in Maguindanao province, a most gruesome and brazen massacre in Philippine history. It was the worst attack on the press in history and the most violent single election-related incident in the Philippines.
 
The court proceedings have only dragged on under the watch of President Noynoy Aquino whose administration has shown little interest in pursuing justice for the victims of the massacre. Despite strong international outcry, many are being led to believe that the massacre would end up as another statistic in the long list of unsolved political killings in the Philippines. 
 
Just consider some of the grim realities surrounding the trial: four witnesses have been killed so far, obviously to prevent them from testifying; authorities have failed to arrest 98 suspects who remain at-large; 41 accused policemen have been granted bail because the evidence is found not strong; the head of Army’s 601st Brigade who turned down the victims’ request for security escort has been promoted despite the massacre; allegations that the prosecution team has accepted bribes; and the continuing threats on the victims’ relatives and pressures that they settle amicably with the Ampatuans.
 
President Aquino was criticized before for dismissing media killings as not always work-related. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a total of 33 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since Aquino took office in 2010 and the President is still bedazzled why. Perhaps this could also explain why he doesn’t understand what a culture of impunity is.
 
On her part, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno highlights the problem as one of procedural weakness in the justice system, where the courts lack the capability to execute their own writs and processes. In one of her rare public speeches, the Chief Justice admitted that the courts have no means to serve arrest warrants and have little resources to ensure the protection of their servers from the very real threat of retaliation.
 
The culture of impunity is a real enemy, and the indifference of President Aquino has only emboldened those in power to entertain no trepidation in eliminating their most vocal critics and opponents, not excluding those in the media. Offering a lame excuse like the Chief Justice’s most important dilemma in enforcing the law will not solve the injustice in our system. It’s a frame of mind, a way of thinking that has been implanted in our psyche by the long years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos. T

An art exhibit marks the 5th anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre.
The Philippines has an enviable record when it comes to signing up-to-date human rights treaties and ratifying international conventions and agreements, but without a determined and robust prosecution of violators and torturers, all these human rights commitments become empty promises.
 
What must be done?
 
For starters, set down the Ampatuan case to trial, without any more delays, or ifs and buts. The President needs to set aside his ego-bruising experience when the Supreme Court overturned the Disbursement Acceleration Fund. He should extend his hand to the Chief Justice in working together to ensure and secure justice to the victims of the Ampatuan massacre.
 
Next, release all political prisoners and put an end to the state position of repetitive denials that the Philippines does not have political prisoners. In dismissing the existence of political prisoners, the Aquino administration is only replicating the same pronouncements of the Marcos dictatorship which started the practice of rounding up and detaining government protesters.
 
As of November 2014, there are 491 political prisoners in the Philippines, 220 of them were arrested during the current regime. There are 43 female political prisoners, 53 are ailing, 42 are elderly, and six are minors.
 
By releasing all political prisoners, the government will acknowledge that they are not the enemy of the people but the plunderers and those who perpetuate violations of human rights. These are the true enemies of the people who should be jailed.
 
Lastly, establish a genuine Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will be tasked with the final investigation of all past political crimes committed by the state, including illegal imprisonment of those who criticize the government, extrajudicial executions and disappearances. The late President Corazon Aquino decided not to establish such commission after Ferdinand Marcos was deposed apparently because of pressure from the military which was responsible for most of the atrocities and violence committed by the Marcos regime. Most countries who wanted to break from the past like South Africa, Chile, Argentina and others have gone this route and benefitted immensely from the findings and recommendations of such commissions.
 
But we are not talking of a fact-finding body such as the Philippines Truth Commission that was established by Noynoy Aquino upon his ascendancy to the presidency in 2010. Such commission was invalidated by the Supreme Court for violating the equal protection clause for singling out the Arroyo administration. That commission was tagged by the court as vindictive and focused on selective retribution. 
 
Picking up on the Chief Justice’s suggestion of promoting a counter-culture, which she did not define, to the culture of impunity, the words of the Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel, seem apt for us to take to heart: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Who’s to blame for vote-buying?

 
 
Most Filipinos, especially the educated ones, have always blamed the poor for the kind of leaders they elect. To them, that we have corrupt leaders is the fault of those who willingly sell their votes to elect these people. As if bribery and vote-buying were legitimate while the poor who accept money in exchange for their votes are guilty as hell.
 
Thus, the dumbing of the electorate, majority of whom are poor, is the voters’ fault and not the handiwork of powerful and rich politicians. Why this upside-down view of reality?

Vote-buying in the Philippines. Photo by Photoville International.

We need to review our political history as a nation to fully understand why we have this skewed perspective of who we are.
 
In 1902, then U.S. Governor General of the Philippines William Howard Taft wrote a book, Political Parties in the Philippines, where he examined the historical development of Philippine political parties and analyzed the level of political maturity of Filipinos. Taft wrote that Filipino politicians have yet to learn the idea of individual liberty and the practical elements of a popular government. He recommended the establishment of a popular assembly, to be composed of affluent Filipino politicians, to serve as a training ground for self-government. This assembly became the Congress of the Philippines, and the Jones Act of 1916 created the Senate replacing the Philippine Commission.
 
The membership of the Philippine Congress then was oligarchic at the time, which makes the present-day Congress not that all different. A representative democracy that draws upon all classes in society did not develop and it was partly the fault of the American colonial rulers. The Americans did not change the Filipino social structure. They merely imposed a political system that allowed the existing social structure to gain political power. Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute Congress resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuated their hold on political offices.
 
An oligarchic and elitist social structure was allowed to flourish by the American colonial rulers. In an article, “The Philippine Muddle,” for Harper’s Magazine in 1926, William Howard Gardiner, who also worked as a consultant to the U.S. Navy and State Departments, wrote that mostly Chinese and Spanish mestizos were able to absorb the new emphasis on English, academics and American political history in the school curriculum at the time. The great masses, the common tao, who were children of peasants, virtually were left out uneducated and uninstructed in anything that would help them live their peasant lives more effectively.
 
The mestizo politicos, otherwise known as ilustrados, would eventually lord over the wretched millions of ordinary people who were ruthlessly exploited and forced to be absolutely subservient. Assisted by politically-appointed justices of the peace and fiscals, or magistrates and prosecuting attorneys, these mestizo politicos would hold the common folk in servile bondage, while the chief politico in each barrio would tell them how to vote. While it was the result of natural mestizo cupidity, Gardiner wrote that “it has been possible only because of the political incapacity of the tao millions and because of American neglect and ignorance of Philippine conditions. But as the power to prevent or to correct is ours, we Americans and not the natives, whether politicos or taos, are at fault.” Instead of presiding over the evolution of a sound popular self-government, American colonial rule established the foundation for patronage politics which engendered the formation of oligarchic elites.
 
Now, to blame the poor or the “taos” for the corruption, bribery and vote-buying we have at present does not comport well with our political history. It is the elitist contempt of the uneducated poor that the self-denying educated classes propagate whenever they blame the masses for their political and economic misery, as if this condition is self-inflicted and there is no one to blame but themselves. On the balance of power, the perpetrator of corruption or the one who bribes and buys votes has all the necessary means to exploit the poor. The poor never get elected and the corrupt politicians maintain their stranglehold of power, which in turn they abuse to recoup the money spent for their election and to amass their illegal wealth.
 
Corruption in politics is not endemic to the Philippines. On a much larger scale, corruption is also prevalent in the U.S., the Philippines’ role model for governance since colonial times. It is even more worrisome in the U.S. because its Supreme Court has ruled that corporations in Citizens United are also people and have a right to free speech. This led one American writer to comment that “the Supreme Court has defined democracy as a branch of capitalism, right up to the point of actual vote-buying. And actual vote-buying is a pretty low-rent form of corruption anyway.”

The justices who decided the Citizens United Supreme Court case.

Citizens United struck down certain restrictions on political spending by corporations, which according to the U.S. Supreme Court, more particularly Justice Anthony Kennedy, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. What this means is that corporations are no longer restrained in spending millions in supporting the election of their candidates and their political programs as they are only exercising corporate speech which ought not to be censored.
 
In effect, Citizens United amounts to massive vote-buying, measured in millions of dollars spent by corporations in television advertisements and political contributions with the end in view of influencing the results of the elections. This gives corporations a very big right of speech while giving others a very small right. As a result, it damages equal citizenship, making corporations more equal than others. Worse, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, this is democracy at work.
 
Vote-buying in the Philippines thus pales in comparison to the limitless ability of American corporations to influence the electoral process. What has been made legal by a court decision, the other one is blameable to the poor for accepting the bribe. Both ways, they make a mockery of democracy.
 
Since accepting a bribe in exchange for a vote is illegal under Philippine law, it is interesting to find out how many have been actually charged and prosecuted in court. The height of hypocrisy is when there is a bigger number of people charged for accepting bribes than those politicians and their followers for bribing voters.
 
The common denominator between Citizens United and vote-buying in the Philippines is who has the money, the most amount of wealth that can be used to influence the election.
 
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United affirms that those who have economic power, i.e., large private corporations, will always have the upper hand over the small citizen whose right of free speech is no match to that of the corporation in determining the result of the election. On the other hand, the oligarchy and wealthy families have more access to political power in the Philippines because they have the means to buy votes or even rig the electoral process in their favour. The poor have been made the scapegoat of the rich for the election of corrupt leaders as if they have a choice, their lack of discernment equated to their class status and lack of education.
 
Filipinos need to put a stop to this blaming game. It’s not the poor who are responsible for vote-buying and corruption. We need to build a foundation for a strong idea of democratic citizenship, one that is not just based on who has the money or wealth to buy votes to influence the elections. Otherwise, we will always get the kind of democracy we pay for, which is not much democracy at all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Power writes history

 
 
We never learn from history. Or we tend to remember only events and personalities that appeal to our baser instincts. We recall only those we would like to hear.
 
Take, for example, a recent conversation I had, or perhaps more of a disagreement with someone on her interpretation of the Marcos dictatorship and the insignificant role of a certain fraternity from the University of the Philippines in the struggle against the oppressive regime. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll call her Ms. D. Inglesera for her self-declared impeccable grasp of the English language. By insignificant (my word, not hers), I mean from the point of view of the overall Marcos protest movement, which takes into account the greater and more direct role played by nationalist, student, labour, and civil society organizations, more particularly the hundreds of thousands of nameless ordinary people who braved the sun and rain and bullets and brutality of the military and police riot squads during those tumultuous years.

Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos declares martial law on
September 21, 1972.
Fast forward to the present, more than 28 years after Marcos was driven out of MalacaƱang, this aforementioned Ms. Inglesera would only remember the more famous among the members of that UP fraternity whom she claimed bravely stood up to their fellow fraternity brother who hijacked the presidency of the country for more than twenty years. As if their participation which is highly suspect was the turning point in the people’s ultimate rejection of the Marcos regime, thus leading to the restoration of democratic rights, albeit in their most basic form.
 
It is common for the powerful to write history, according to American author and cultural critic Greil Marcus. He said that “events that do not change into power or that take place outside of the normal circuits in which power is exchanged, outside of the institutional distribution and control of social goods – such events, in certain ways, do not make history at all. They are resistant to history, because history does not know how to account for them, and history resists them, because it can get away with it.”
 
This is true in the case of traditional and bourgeois interpretation of history, or of Philippine history, for that matter. Accounts of the 1896 Philippine revolution and the ensuing Filipino-American War from 1899 to 1902 focused on the exploits of so-called leaders and less on the contributions of ordinary folks and soldiers who had remained both faceless and nameless throughout the armed conflict that resulted in more than 20,000 Filipino deaths. The name of Emilio Aguinaldo was mentioned in most of these accounts perhaps by well above a significant number of times than Andres Bonifacio who was acclaimed the leader of the Philippine revolution. Naturally so because in the context of power and social status, Bonifacio was illiterate and was born to a poor family. Whereas Aguinaldo was educated and a member of the landed gentry.
 
During the resistance against Japan, General Douglas MacArthur and the US military were remembered as the significant personalities in the liberation of the Philippines, with little highlight given to the Hukbalahap and Filipino guerrilla movement. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Filipinos died during the Japanese occupation, yet written history glossed over this fact and focused most entirely on the return of General MacArthur during the liberation period as a bigger than life hero.
 
The same is true with the expulsion of the dictator Marcos in 1986. After the downfall of the dictatorship, glowing accounts were written about the martyrdom of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. and some members of his UP fraternity, singling out their supposed objection to the repressive rule of their fraternity brother. Except for the assassination of Senator Aquino who was Marcos’s formidable political opponent at that time, the alleged contributions of the rest or other members of their college fraternity in disposing Marcos were overrated and perhaps simply the handiwork of the Philippine media which they had great influence over.
 
The German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin spoke of such events as an attempt to “seize hold of memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” Because such moments do not turn into history, they lose their shape, and turn into stupid self-parodies, legends, nonsense or old stories told by cranks.
 
The re-election of Marcos to the presidency in 1969 signaled the stirrings of a dictatorship in the making, which became apparently clear when he declared martial law three years to his second term, thus paving the way to his unchallenged stranglehold of political power. Our friend Ms. Inglesera who sang praises to the dictator’s fraternity brothers failed to mention that the said fraternity or its more famous members she singled out never led, planned, or conspired a robust and widespread challenge, whether on the streets or the illegal underground. It was left to national democratic organizations which were declared subversive and illegal associations at the time to plant the seeds of resistance that culminated in the 1987 EDSA Revolution. Here again was another historical anomaly – the people’s success in driving the dictator out of the country was snatched by the powerful oligarchs and their friends in big business and newly-minted allies in the military establishment.
 
In writing about the history of the people’s resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, ignorance of things past seems to be the easier tendency, thus sustaining the earlier argument made by Marcus that power writes history. That is exactly what Ms. Inglesera did, by cherry-picking on better-known personalities of the time who incidentally were members of a leading UP fraternity and intentionally ignoring the nameless but true heroes of the revolution.

Leaders of the Marcos opposition stage a protest march in October 1984.
I had very close friends who were killed in the prime of their youth during the oppressive years of the Marcos dictatorship, two former companions in the struggle who were recently detained in peace time by the military for sticking to their political convictions, and met hundreds of thousands of nameless fellow marchers in street rallies against Marcos, but alas they will be continually ignored and forgotten as mere part of the landscape of protests and demonstrations.
 
So unlike Ms. Inglesera’s favourite names from the past whom she would display in her pedestal of fame: the fateful fraternity brothers of the dictator who did nothing close to the sacrifices of the faceless genuine makers of history. Since she assumes that she is entitled to her own opinions, she can choose or name people she believes made or are making history. 
 
American writer and former editor of Harper’s Magazine Lewis H. Lapham wrote: “History is a work in progress, a constant writing and rewriting as opposed to museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble.” Every era changes its interpretation of the past to fit the present context. It is the task of the historian to find the facts that will prove the truths of his or her interpretation.
 
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in On the Use and Abuse of History that while we need the services of history, we must also accept that an excess measure of history will do harm to the living. This is particularly true when talking about distortions or misunderstanding of history, in the sense of being restrained by the past in current action, which has a limiting effect on the intellect.
 
By deftly cataloguing her sources to puff up the deeds of the band of fraternity brothers Ms. Inglesera has chosen to pay homage to, she has fallen to the similar ploy taken by others who simply regurgitate the events of the past and nothing more. Old news, as someone would be apt to say. How we define the past, not to simply glorify a particular few we personally like and want to be on our side, is a matter of importance because it points to the future we are trying to construct.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bad exemplars of good

 
 
History seems to repeat itself quite frequently. Such as a brain cramp I had recently, but unintentionally, which people in my present age would describe as a minor lapse in senior moments.
 
I’m talking about the Hyatt 10, and whether it left us with a noteworthy political legacy or that it was in the grand scheme of things simply an irrational, thoughtless and high-minded display of moral superiority, self-righteousness and arrogance. Perhaps, one might even call it an improbable shot or maybe a fart in the dark. 
 
Someone in an Internet forum I belong to reminded me of the courage of the members of the infamous Hyatt 10 in standing up to their boss, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, when they demanded her to step down or else they resign. This happened in 2005 at the height of the “Hello Garci” scandal involving massive cheating and fraud during the 2004 elections that gave President Arroyo a full six-year term. The scandal precipitated attempts to impeach the President in Congress, and a public demonstration led by former President Cory Aquino asking Arroyo to resign.
 
Some members of the infamous Hyatt 10, left to right: Guillermo
Parayno, Cesar  Purisima, Florencio Abad, Imelda Nicolas, Teresita
Deles, and Corazon Soliman.  Photo courtesy of the Manila Times.

This member raised the ghosts of Hyatt 10, not just to remind me but also to re-educate me on the conditions in the Philippines, which I have left many years ago. Understandably, conditions have changed and I might not be familiar with them as she pointed out. But the emergence of wireless technology took care of that.
 
The Hyatt 10 came from a group of Cabinet secretaries responsible for the then Arroyo administration’s economic management and planning as well as those in-charge of social welfare ad peace negotiations with the country’s insurgents. The Hyatt 10 resignation was this forum member’s rebuttal to my post in the forum about the resignation of two high-ranking cabinet members of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe’s government that such similar resignations are unlikely to happen in the Philippines.
 
Of course, the comparison was off-tangent, without likeness. Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet ministers were elected in Parliament and resigned because of allegations of financial improprieties. The resignation was triggered by shame and the potential scandal to the government, a sacrifice or moral choice Japanese politicians are only too willing to take for the sake of a higher purpose.
 
The Hyatt 10 accomplices, however, were unelected and appointed to serve under the pleasure of the President whom they wanted to resign because they believed she had lost the trust and confidence of the people. It was unimaginable, for example, that an entire office staff would threaten to resign simply on the ground that their manager or supervisor has lost credibility. This was highly unprecedented and the Hyatt 10 never had any legal or moral ground to demand the President’s resignation, except for their arrogance and preconceived notions of moral superiority.
 
Yuko Obuchi, Japan's economy, trade and industry minister bows
during a news conference as she announces her resignation from
cabinet. Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg.
Whether Hyatt 10 was a resignation en masse or mass firing is not historically significant, save for the infamy it has engendered. President Arroyo served her full term of the presidency and left office with an improved economy. However, the allegations of fraud and plunder hounded her, which became the bane of her existence after stepping down from the presidency. She is now detained indefinitely pending trial, which is taking the Sandiganbayan an inordinate amount of time to set down.
 
In the meantime, some members of the Hyatt 10 were rehired by the current Aquino government. Florencio Abad, who was also Aquino’s campaign manager during the elections, has been appointed secretary of the Department of Budget and Management. Together with Janet Napoles, Abad has also been alleged as the true mastermind of the multimillion-peso pork barrel scam. He is also the author of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) which has been struck down by the Supreme Court as illegal and unconstitutional.
 
According to stories circulated in the news media, the steep decline in the popularity of President Aquino in poll surveys persuaded his sisters to prevail upon him to let go of Abad. But here came the Hyatt 10 again to the rescue, threatening the President with their resignation if Abad would be axed. Rumors kept swirling around that the President and some members of the Hyatt 10 were worried about detention in Crame after their term was over. It was the group’s instinct for survival that kept them to stick together. An article by a well-respected journalist has alleged that Abad threatened to expose the President about his involvement in the pork barrel scam and the illegal DAP if he were to be sacked, which suggested that the Hyatt 10 might be hijacking the President by putting a noose around his neck.
 
Dinky Soliman denied all the rumours about the Hyatt 10 ganging up on the President. One of the most outspoken members of the Hyatt 10 during their mass resignation in 2005, Soliman was rehired by President Aquino to her original cabinet post as Secretary of Social Welfare and Development, an appointment which took 4 years before it was confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.
 
Soliman expanded the Arroyo’s conditional cash transfer program, otherwise known as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), but which was disparaged by many as a dole-out instead of assisting the poor to get out of their dire straits. She was also criticized for mishandling the relief efforts after Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the country in 2013, even admitting that her agency did not monitor funds given by private donors. Soliman’s detractors, however, were not successful in forcing her resignation as President Aquino stood by her as he did for Abad.
 
Another prominent member of the Hyatt 10, Cesar Purisima who was Arroyo’s Secretary of Finance and was appointed to the same position by President Aquino. Purisima was alleged to have played a significant role in the pork-barrel scandal and the illegal Disbursement Acceleration Program hatched by Budget Secretary Abad.
 
The recycling of the Hyatt 10 conspirators by the Aquino government shows the fungible nature of Philippine politics. Yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies. That is how easily exchangeable Filipino politicians are; there is no ideological basis for their loyalty and trust. If there is anything we can learn from the Hyatt 10 is the politics of opportunism.
 
To consider, therefore, that Filipino politicians, as suggested by my Internet friend, are capable of summoning the better angels of their nature like the Japanese is a huge overstatement. That they would give up their high positions in government to preserve integrity and honesty in government has never happened that frequently in the country’s history and political development. Former Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri resigned from the Senate when the election protest of Aquilino Pimentel Jr. was about to be upheld, thus proclaiming the latter as winner of the election. The same can be said about Senator Juan Ponce Enrile who stepped down as Senate President amid allegations of distributing cash gifts to senators when it was already clear at the time that he was going to be deposed.
 
There were only two significant incidents in Philippine history where the resignation of elected officials really mattered and were triggered by political convictions rather than by a false claim of moral ascendancy akin to the Hyatt 10 political motivation. The first happened during the Tejeros Convention in March 1897 where the first-ever Philippine presidential election was held. Emilio Aguinaldo was elected president over Andres Bonifacio who was acclaimed as leader of the Philippine revolution. Bonifacio humbly accepted his election as Director of the Interior but later withdrew when Daniel Tirona demanded that another person believed to be more qualified should be elected instead of Bonifacio who had no formal education and a lawyer’s diploma. Shamed and insulted, Bonifacio, in his capacity as Supremo of the Katipunan, declared the election null and void. He would later be executed by Aguinaldo’s men.
 
A similar incident happened in 1946 when Luis Taruc, leader of the Hukbalahap, and seven other colleagues from the Democratic Alliance were elected to the House of Representatives but the government of Manuel Roxas did not allow them to take their seats in Congress. The Taruc faction opposed the parity rights amendment to the Philippine Constitution that the United States required as a condition for payment of reparation for the Second World War. Consequently, Taruc and his men would return to the hills to take up arms against the government.
 
The Hyatt 10 resignation in 2005 and the 2014 revival of another of threat of resignation by the same group did not alter the political map nor engender the development of a higher sense of morality in politics among Filipinos. If there ever was a political statement that could be ascribed to the group, it would be that opportunism and arrogance are the necessary building blocks to a successful career in politics and government.
 
To embrace the idea that the Hyatt 10 or the members of President Aquino’s inner sanctum are beyond reproach and possessed with incorruptible qualities is almost analogous to a lowering of the standards of morality and integrity in government. If being fundamentally good is to have other people’s interests in mind, especially by people in authority or in government, then in order to be good, one must exhibit some genuinely selfless motivations.
 
This is not however the underlying motivation of the Hyatt 10, nor of the men or women in President Aquino’s cabinet, or perhaps of the whole body of the current Congress. Goodness and greatness are never the exceptional qualities of our elected leaders. In confronting our moral progress as a society, this cabal called the Hyatt 10 has failed us miserably, and by those who blindly follow their twisted path.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bridging the religious divide

 
 
 
Some critics of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) now undergoing congressional review and debate are quick to draw attention to what they perceive as an apparent bias or partiality toward one religion over the others. This understandable disapproval tends to gloss over the historical context of the struggle for self-determination of our brother- Muslims in Southern Mindanao.
 
Perhaps this religious-based criticism could also be traced to the emphasis placed by Muslims on religion as the basis of everything. To Muslims, all matters in life, whether governance, justice, culture, social relationships, family, etc., emanate from religion.

President Noynoy Aquino witnesses the turnover of the proposed draft Bangsamoro
Basic Law between Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace negotiator Mohagher
Iqbal and Senate President Franklin Drilon.
As the Al Qalam Institute on the Bangsamoro Basic Law of Ateneo de Davao explains: “What is religious is political and conversely, what is political is religious because the two are so intertwined in the life of the Muslims. Therefore, no religious test must be used to assail the autonomy being granted to the Bangsamoro.”
 
Therein lies the controversy. How do we bridge this contradiction between the secular world perspective we have been used to after gaining independence from Spain on one hand, and the Muslim’s belief in the transcendence of religion over all others, on the other?
 
If the principal objective of the BBL is to construct a closed Islamic society or state for its constituents alone, and not for the entire people of Mindanao who are still subject to the secular central and local governments, then what is highly objectionable in this kind of arrangement? It is not Islamic hegemony that is being fostered by the BBL but a type of asymmetric relationship to the constitutionally-recognized national government, where some political powers are devolved upon the new Bangsamoro community, yet it is still subordinate to central governance.
 
Does the integration of the Islam religion with the political and social affairs of the Bangsamoro contradict the inviolability of the separation of Church and state under the Philippine Constitution?
 
A textual exegesis of the Philippine Constitution shows that many concepts enshrined in the document such as justice, peace, equality, freedom, protection of life and property, respect for human rights, the sanctity of family, among others, have their roots in Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. Arguably, such concepts are also accepted and practised by other religions, thus bringing us to the conclusion that Muslims are probably on the correct side of the argument in saying that all matters in life can be traced to one’s religion.
 
What the Constitution clearly proscribes is a situation where the government allows the Church and its leaders in controlling the affairs of the state, e.g., President Aquino asking the Archbishop of Manila to run the government for him. He may personally ask the Cardinal for his prayers but he cannot turn over the government to the clergy. Or inversely, President Aquino declaring the Roman Catholic Church as the country’s national and only church.
 
Similarly, the head of the Bangsamoro government may ask the Imam for spiritual guidance but not surrender the affairs of government to him. The Bangsamoro government is not a theocratic entity like Iran where the Supreme Leader or the Ayatollah controls the government in order to protect the Islamist ideology.
 
There seems nothing wrong in allowing religious traditions, customs and practices of one community to prosper. But it has always been difficult for many to understand and appreciate the impact of the Muslim religion because there is this tendency to attribute all forms of religious violence to Islam.
 
Did we ever question whether the terroristic acts committed by the Islamic State or ISIS are sanctioned by the Qur’an? Rather, we immediately resort to a knee-jerk reaction so typical of many who would equate religious violence with Islam. A case in point is the TV pundit Bill Maher who has argued that Islam is unlike other religions, because to his view, Islam has “too much in common with ISIS.”
ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. AP Photo/Militant Website File.
To most Muslims, and they are more than in the majority, those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are not really Muslim. They would distance themselves from extremists in their community, that too often, religious violence is not motivated by religion.
 
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has waged and continued the Moro’s armed resistance against colonization and in redress of their grievances against the central government in Manila. But it was never in the name of religion, or against the dominant Christian religion. There are other factions among the Muslim insurgents who might have used Islam as their inspiration but it is doubtful if their resistance was actually religiously- motivated.
 
Naturally, there are critics of religion who lack the ability to understand religion beyond its absolute and literal interpretations. They would comb the scriptures for examples of savagery and point to extreme patterns of religious bigotry, and to which they can generally ascribe the causes of oppression throughout the world.
 
This religious narrow-mindedness is what is fuelling the general antagonism to Islamic jihad, whether by the few Muslim extremists or the more peace-loving followers of Islam. It is the more heinous, radical and barbaric practices of extremists that get the attention of the news media and this type of coverage tends to band together all Muslims in a one-size-fits-all category. The barbarism of ISIS must be condemned but not to the extent of demonizing all Muslims in general.
 
It would be an unfortunate setback to the MILF and its government partners if the current debate on the proposed BBL is somehow hijacked by the horrors of Islamic extremism exemplified by ISIS. Already we are hearing murmurs on the side that if Congress fails to enact the BBL, it would have catastrophic consequences to the quest for lasting peace and could possibly swell the ranks of dissatisfied Muslim extremists in the South. That would be a great tragedy if the BBL is scuttled due to religious malice, not because of constitutional or other reasonable legal objections to the proposed law.
 
But first it should be clear to Congress that the proposed BBL does not aim to favour and put one religion over another. There should be a religious debate but not necessarily to determine why Islam should be accommodated. The purpose should be to address any misconceptions about Muslims in the South, that they are not the ISIS-garden variety. This exchange should not divide Muslims, Christians and other faith communities.
 
When that religious divide has been bridged, then the debate on the constitutional and other legal issues about the BBL should resume and it is best that these legal issues are settled without amending the Constitution.
 
The news media and the whole of social media should be involved in a robust and public debate on the merits of the BBL. A free and democratic exchange of opinions is important, not a railroading of the proposed BBL in Congress without serious deliberation, for after all both houses of Congress are controlled by the President’s political party that it might give the President and his rabid supporters the idea that a free debate is no longer necessary.
 
Scouring the news media and the various fora on the Internet, it is quite disheartening to notice the lack of a vibrant discussion on the BBL. Stories of the Binays’ alleged illegitimate wealth build-up seem to preoccupy the newspapers and discussions in social media. As the principal proponent of the BBL, President Aquino should be at the forefront of promoting it, but it seems he is either uninterested or simply confident that his majority in Congress will approve the proposed law no matter what.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bangsamoro hopes as ISIS looms

 
 
According to Mohager Iqbal, chairman of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, enactment by Congress of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) would bring to a close the suffering of the Bangsamoro people, foster unity, bring about economic development and end radicalism among Muslims in the Southern Philippines.
 
Citing the recent Scottish referendum in which those against independence from Britain won and Scotland decided to remain under the Union Jack, Iqbal was also confident that the Bangsamoro entity would not rift the country apart but rather unify it. But this could be wishful thinking because at this stage, the new Bangsamoro state is still very much an elusive dream.

Supporters of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro show their
jubilation upon signing of the agreement between the Philippine government
and the MILF peace panels.
Even if the Aquino-controlled Congress could easily steamroll the enactment of the BBL, it is likely to face a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court, and its ratification by the constituents of the Bangsamoro nation is not expected to be a sure thing. With the growing spectre of the Islamic State in the Middle East (ISIS or ISIL) reportedly having reached Southern Philippines, particularly among the more radical and disenchanted members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the formerly Al Qaeda affiliate, Abu Sayyaf, the urgency of a Bangsamoro state looms even more urgent as the only peaceful alternative to a never-ending insurgency or to the establishment of a dreaded Islamic Caliphate in Mindanao.
 
There are constitutional landmines that the BBL needs to hurdle before Congress can enact the law. Assurances from the government panel that amending the Constitution is not necessary only appear to blindside the obvious constitutional questions. The new Bangsamoro entity envisaged under the BBL will clearly have a wide range of political powers not hitherto delegated or devolved to any other existing political subdivision like a province, city or town. The mere idea of forming a substate or a nation within a bigger nation is inconceivable because the Philippine Constitution does not allow it.
 
Pursuant to the mandate under the current Philippine Constitution, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created on August 1, 1989, through Republic Act No. 6734. The ARRM was officially inaugurated on November 6, 1990, in Cotabato City.
 
President Benigno Aquino III has said that the ARRM experiment was a complete failure because of corruption that plagued the new entity. In repealing the organic act that created the ARRM, the proposed BBL however goes beyond the framework of the current Constitution under Section 15.  For one, the BBL undermines the national sovereignty as well as the territorial integrity of the republic.
 
Although the BBL states that the Bangsamoro territory shall remain part of the Philippines, there are doubts however that it could be a preparation for ultimate secession from the republic. With a different government from the rest of the country based on the parliamentary system, exclusive and concurrent powers with the central government, and a shariah justice system for Muslims only, the BBL looks like a complete and comprehensive template not just for self-government, but for eventual independence.

Map showing the proposed new Bangsamoro territory.
Recall that the concept of a Bangsamoro nation is not the original creation of the peace panel that helped draft the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Muslims or Moros in Mindanao have long believed they could not identify with the rest of the country, thinking that they do not belong. It has always been their claim that they were a sovereign people before colonization by Western powers, that their integration was forced upon them. It was this lost identity that led to the formation of the Mindanao Independence Movement in Cotabato in 1968, and later embraced by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This stirring for a separate nationhood is evident in the slogan of The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that seceded from the MNLF and is now the major partner of the current administration for the enactment of the BBL: “We are Moros, not Filipinos.”

But if the BBL is the most viable non-violent alternative to Muslim self-determination in the south, then it should be laid out to the front so that the current Philippine Constitution could be appropriately amended to reflect that objective. The current text in the Constitution on the creation of autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao is obviously insufficient to accommodate a Bangsamoro territory as envisaged by the BBL.
 
The problem with the current Aquino administration is its inability to stay within the parameters of the Constitution as evidenced by the pork barrel allocations and illegal transfers of government funds, and its lack of respect for equal protection under the law when apprehending perpetrators of corruption. The notion that the state can just suspend the fundamental rights of individuals by detaining them without trial reeks of injustice and offends the rule of law.
 
President Aquino and Congress should not cut corners in enacting a law that promises so much for our Muslim brothers in the south. In these crucial times when Western powers are being tested by a nascent and more extreme form of Muslim radicalism, one serious misstep like an error in constitutional judgment can foment and provoke choosing violence as the only available option for self-government.
 
The history of the Muslim struggle for self-government antedates the Philippines’ own independence movement against the Spanish and American colonizers. In the 1950s, the Kamlon uprising reminded us that the Moro rebellion has not been finished after the Philippines became independent from the United States in 1946. Beginning in the 1970s, secession had become the battlecry of the Moros of Mindanao. The MNLF waged a three-decade war against the central government until it accepted political autonomy under the 1996 peace agreement. But that didn’t last long and the MILF seceded from the MNLF which also spawned other disenchanted and more radical factions of the Muslim secessionist movement.
 
The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the MILF and the present government probably has the best chance of achieving the lasting peace that has eluded all previous attempts toward a negotiated settlement of the Muslim problem. But if the government of President Aquino fails to deliver the Bangsamoro state to the MILF, what could be the last option for the Muslim rebels but embrace the more radical jihad of the Islamic State. They would seem better off to continue fighting for their own independence since that would ensure loyalty to their Islamic traditional beliefs, whether they follow the revivalist practices of Wahhabism espoused by Saudi Arabia or the extremism of Al Qaeda or of the ISIS.
 
Fixing the constitutional shortcomings of the BBL is not the only problem the government must do to satisfy the MILF. Conducting the plebiscite to get the ratification of the BBL is in itself a huge challenge. The proposed law is a voluminous text for the constituents of the Bangsamoro territory to digest and understand before they can make up their minds whether to ratify the law. The plebiscite is not just going to be like a referendum on sovereignty where a simple question that can be answered by a yes or no would suffice.
 
An example of a question which needs to be asked is how would the separability clause in the BBL be implemented in the event that some provisions of the BBL are rejected. How would that influence the entire law, or should it be allowed to stand despite some paragraphs being struck down?
 
If the constitutional objections to the BBL are cleaned up, the promise of the Bangsamoro state is an ambitious undertaking that could either break or make the Aquino administration. Previous presidents have failed, yet this current president who is perceived to be without a strong character but with the moral certitude bigger than the sum of his personality, could possibly emerge as a champion for the Muslim minority in the South if he knows how to play his cards correctly.