November 28, 2017

Duterte’s 180-degree turn

In a matter of days, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, has made a 180 degree turn in policy regarding peace negotiations with the revolutionary movement represented by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines or NDFP that probably left even the government negotiating panel dumbstruck.

In a series of statements starting November 18 Duterte declared that he would call off the GRP-NDFP peace talks, tag the CPP/NPA as “terrorists” and order the rearrest of NDFP consultants who had been released from prison to participate in the talks. By November 22, OPAPP Sec Dureza announced that all meetings with the NDFP peace panel were called off.  And by November 23, Duterte issued Proclamation 360 “terminating” the peace negotiations.

Unknown to most, the 5th round of formal talks, aborted last May in the wake of the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, was slated to resume November 25 to 27 in Norway. Before this, the two parties held backchannel meetings in the first week of October on how to restart the formal talks. The only hint that Duterte was entertaining a possible resumption was a casual remark to this effect upon the the release of a police office by the NPA in Mindanao.

In October bilateral teams of the Reciprocal Working Committees (RWCs) worked double-time on the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER). Had the 5th round pushed through, an unprecedented breakthrough would have taken place: a draft joint agreement initialed by the GRP and NDFP CASER-RWCs covering agrarian reform and rural development (ARRD) as well as national industrialization and economic development (NIED) would have been approved by the two peace panels.  If all went well, the entire CASER would be fast tracked to completion by the first quarter of 2018, to be closely followed by accelerated negotiations on political and constitutional reforms (PCR), and a common draft General Amnesty Proclamation, something already dangled by Duterte to the NDFP even before he was sworn into office and which the NDFP had always made clear was their highest priority.

On top of these, stand down orders of both government and NPA forces would have been enforced, while earnest discussion on coordinated unilateral ceasefires would take place, the parameters of which would be less prone to violations, sabotage or provocations from either side than in the previous 6-month ceasefire.

To protect the delicate status of the negotiations from “peace spoilers”, the two sides agreed not to make any statements to the press until substantial progress had been achieved. In the face of such a looming advance in the peace talks, why did Duterte torpedo all the painstaking efforts of his own peace panel by issuing such seemingly rash and brash statements?

Duterte blamed the CPP/NPA for continuing attacks against the AFP and PNP that victimized civilians caught in the crossfire.  But since there is no existing ceasefire of any kind, such clashes are bound to happen.  Objectively speaking, there are ongoing peace negotiations precisely because there is an ongoing armed conflict.

NDFP pointed out that so many innocent civilians, accused to be NPA or supporting the NPA, had been killed in the course of the GRP’s counterinsurgency campaign but the NDFP had never made this a reason for abandoning the talks.

Subsequently Duterte said that the CPP/NPA/NDFP were making demands that he could not accede to.  He made reference to how his order to release 19 NDFP consultants had been very generous and had been met with stern disapproval by the AFP and DND top officials.  (Duterte had earlier said that he could not release a significant number of political prisoners since he would lose bargaining chips in the peace negotiations.) Duterte’s reneging on his promise to release political prisoners as repeatedly discussed and agreed upon in the first to the fourth round of talks, stands as the major obstacle to the implementation of what had been agreed upon in the most recent backchannel talks.

On November 21, Duterte issued Memorandum No. 16 directing the NEDA to “exert utmost efforts to lift or ease restrictions on certain investment areas … with limited foreign participation”.  This memorandum goes against the CASER provision on national industrialization agreed upon in the bilateral meetings. So it would appear that the GRP’s economic managers, with Duterte’s approval, have never had any intention of being bound by the CASER.

Duterte’s latest explanation is that the NDFP was demanding that the GRP form a “coalition government” with it, something he could not give as this would be tantamount to an infringement on the sovereignty of the GRP.  A quick fact check however shows that it was Duterte who first made mention of his willingness to offer a “coalition government” with the NDFP as an outcome of the peace negotiations.  Moreover, in none of the drafts on PCR that the NDFP has submitted to the GRP does the term “coalition government” ever appear.

In reality, Duterte’s explanations as to why he has cancelled talks with the NDFP just don’t wash. One must look at other developments and context to find the answers.

For one, Duterte has unfolded as completely reactionary despite his posturing as a Leftist and a socialist and lately, his threat to impose a “revolutionary government”.  He has not implemented a single one of the socio-economic reforms he promised. He has upheld the vested interests of the oligarchs and foreign big business. Despite sidling up to China and Russia to ask for economic and military aid, Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” has not changed lopsided economic, political and military relations with the US. And his much vaunted “war on drugs” has only served to satisfy his bloodlust for small time drug users and pushers while suspected drug lords like his son go scot free.

For another, Duterte’s authoritarian bent and militarism has become fully unmasked.  He brooks no criticism. He is vindictive and uses his vast powers as president to go after his perceived enemies. He would use the state’s full coercive powers – the police, the military, the justice system – in a spree of extrajudicial killing, in declaring an unwarranted martial law, in destroying Marawi City purportedly to crush ISIS-inspired terrorists, in ratcheting up counterinsurgency operations against the NPA and in cracking down on activists and all opposition.  His solution to deeply entrenched social problems is a mailed fist.

Duterte is now itching to declare a “revolutionary government” that is nothing but an open fascist dictatorship.  It stands to reason that there is no room for peace negotiations in such a dire scenario.  #

Published in Business World
27 November 2017

October 17, 2017

“Modernization” for whom?

When once Philippine jeepneys were iconic testaments to Filipino ingenuity, resourcefulness and folk art, the erstwhile “King of the Road” is now derided by government as a backward and inefficient mode of mass transport, polluting and unsafe, their drivers an undisciplined lot commonly viewed as perennial violators of traffic rules and regulations.

Thus the need for a modernization program to phase-out old, smoke-belching, unroadworthy jeeps to make way for new versions with safer design and up-to-standard engines that emit less air pollutants. In tandem with the replacement of the old public utility vehicles (PUVs) will be a “fleet management system” wherein a minimum of 10 PUV units and operators will be consolidated under a single franchise to make operations more efficient.

Sounds rational and laudable.  Why then the stiff opposition from a majority of jeepney drivers and operators?

For one, the threat of economic dislocation is real for hundreds of thousands of jeepney drivers and operators nationwide who have depended on this mode of transport for decades to earn their livelihood and support their families. 

Very few operators will be able to raise the PHP 1.2 to PHP 1.6 million-peso investment in the new PUV units required under the modernization program. With the added requirement of 10 units per new franchise, all the more the cost will be prohibitive for existing small-time operators, many of whom are driver-operators of single units. On top of all this, the new PUVs are required to use beep cards and install a Global Positioning System or GPS, CCTV, Wi-Fi, dashboard camera and speed limiter – gadgets that many private vehicles do not have.

Jeepneys are actually a legacy of the post-WWII recovery period when mechanics like Leonardo Sarao thought of retrofitting US Army jeeps into passenger jeepneys. They are a vestige of the backward preindustrial economy that exists to the present. 

While private cars have always been for the use of the well-off, jeepneys and tricycles are not primarily for personal use but as an income-generating venture. Diesel engines can be maintained indefinitely so long as properly done. The jeepney is a hardy vehicle that can withstand the rigors of unpaved or potholed roads, extremely hot weather or typhoons, perennial flooding and overloading.

In an economy that cannot generate sufficient jobs with decent earnings that can support a family, driving a jeepney has become an attractive and viable option for many of the unemployed or underemployed.  For those with some savings such as overseas Filipino workers, operating one or two jeepneys as PUVs, has been an affordable micro enterprise.
If the LTFRB could sympathize with the plight of driver-operators of Uber when it imposed an order on the company to temporarily cease operations because of violations of government regulations, why can’t it sympathize with the plight of hundreds of thousands of driver-operators of jeepneys who have it even worse since most live hand-to-mouth.

Any attempt to improve and upgrade the jeepney as a mode of transport can not be premised on destroying the livelihood of drivers and operators then leaving them and their families to somehow fend for themselves.  But there’s the rub. The modernization progam is actually a plan to junk jeepneys and to render their drivers and operators extinct. 

The program is matched to government’s Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy (CARS) Program started during the last months of Benigno Aquino and continued by  Duterte. CARS aims to revitalize local car manufacturing by giving PHP 27 billion in tax credits to 3 selected foreign car manufacturers who will invest in assembly plants in the country. The tax incentives will be indexed on how much of the car components are sourced locally and on the volume of cars to be produced. Two Japanese multinational firms have already been chosen, Toyota and Mitsubishi. The CARS program is expected to roll out 600,000 cars over a six-year period. 

So it appears that government is actually creating a market in the public transport sector for multinational corporations and their domestic partners engaged in the local assembly of foreign-branded cars and the marketing of assorted electronic gadgets.

At the same time the “fleet management system” lends itself to the take over by companies with big capitalization of what used to be a viable enterprise for small entrepreneurs such as driver-operators.  Of course, cooperatives can also be formed by the latter but it appears that government is not making this option attractive nor easy for them.

Thus the oft-repeated complaint that mass transport in the Philippines is rapidly being “corporatized”, i.e. gobbled up by private corporations and run for profit, in line with government policy of privatizing what should be state-run and subsidized public services. The thing is, our experience with the badly-run train systems in Metro Manila – the MRT and LRT – gives the lie to unwarranted claims that the privatization cum corporatization thrust will give the commuting public a safe, reliable, affordable and comfortable ride. 

If the forced displacement of transport workers is not a socially just solution to the problem of mass transport, what is?  We opine that the answer is a public transport system set up and run by government to provide an essential social service and not as a profit-making venture of private companies. 

The transition to this system should absorb those adversely affected by reforms in the transport sector such as jeepney drivers and operators.  It will create a market for locally manufactured vehicles, particularly those intended for mass transport, as part of a genuine national industrialization program that envisions forward and backward integration, not just the assembly or reassembly of knocked down vehicle parts imported from abroad. And last but not the least, it includes the rationalization, if not regulation, of the sale of private motor vehicles that are increasingly clogging the streets of Metro Manila and other major urban centers.

The traffic congestion and anarchy in our streets can not be blamed solely on jeepneys. Car sales have been boosted by easy financing for use in Uber and Grab and private car owners trying to get around the color coding system. Meanwhile there is still no well-thought out and efficiently-run public transport system using modern and affordable technology what with the current short-sightedness, corruption and for-profit orientation of government.

The 2-day jeepney strike being led by PISTON and its affiliates nationwide this Monday and Tuesday is a legitimate form of protest for a legitimate grievance. It may be disruptive and a bane to commuters but it can also serve as wake-up call for policy makers and managers of the transport sector, traffic management, and even economic managers to come up with socially just solutions to real problems. #

Published in Business World
18 October 2017

October 03, 2017

Authoritarian creep (pun intended)*

When President Rodrigo Duterte says something really outrageous then it backfires or he is proven to be lying or at least dissembling, he uses several tricks to get away with it.

He or his apologists say he was just joking and because we are so gullible, we are asking for it.  Or they say he just loves to use hyperbole to stress a point and his listeners should learn to discern when to take his word for it and when not to.

His damage-control crew says he was merely misunderstood and taken out of context. So Duterte modifies his previous statements with qualifiers to make what was patently unacceptable, even illegal and morally reprehensible, pass for a justifiable position or policy pronouncement.

He or his alter egos may simply say the exact opposite of what he previously said, without batting an eye, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the highest official of the land to make contradictory statements.  At one point, Duterte was forced to admit that he manufactured supposed foreign bank accounts of Senator Trillanes, an unmitigated lie that he lamely excused as a “bait” to catch his tormentor.

When all else fails, he and his henchmen resort to bullying, Duterte style.

The president and his copycat officials use abusive and insulting language and character assassination to brutalize their targets into fear and submission. This also works to distract people’s attention and muddle the issues.

He and his subalterns accuse those who point out his inconsistencies, factual errors and even outright falsehoods as being biased or just plain stupid.

Those who criticize Duterte’s “war on drugs” because of wanton human rights violations are either harebrained coddlers of illicit drug users and traffickers or perpetrators of such unsavory activities themselves deserving of the same deadly treatment.

Those wary of the Duterte regime’s use of strong-arm tactics to solve pockets of armed rebellion in Muslim Mindanao and the long-running communist-led armed struggle nationwide, as well as his open admiration for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and complicity in the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses, are labelled either “reds” or “yellows” out to destabilize his regime and ultimately oust him from Malacañang.

Duterte taunted organizers of the huge protest demonstration held last September 21, on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of martial law, as either “yellows riding on reds” or “reds riding on yellows”.  He then ended up declaring a “National Day of Protest” where he ludicrously claimed he was one with the protesters (against himself?).
Not only did Duterte cancel classes and close government offices to prevent any massing up of students and employees that could be mobilized for the protests that day, local government officials were told to hold a counter rally at Mendiola near Malacañang while rabid pro-Duterte groups held another one at Plaza Miranda. The government-organized rallies were small and anemic compared to the tens of thousands of impassioned demonstrators gathered at Luneta Park and many other cities all over the country.

Duterte’s creeping authoritarianism consisted first and foremost in ensuring the military’s canine loyalty by plying them with funds, perks and privileges, awards and personal visits. He keeps a tight rein on the police forces by a system of rewards and promotions and promised impunity for extrajudicial killings committed in the course of the “war on drugs”.

The overwhelming dominance of Duterte’s henchmen and lapdogs in Congress and in local government units was only a matter of Malacañang paying each opportunist politician’s price for their blind obedience and cooperation.

Duterte has also packed the civilian bureaucracy with retired generals and lower ranking former military men to the extent that he wryly quipped there was actually no need to declare martial law because the military was already very much in control of his government.

Now Duterte is after the remaining pillars of the remaining liberal democratic façade.  His business cronies are extending their tentacles onto the mass media even as he threatens with closure those outlets he considers anti-Duterte. His supermajority in the Lower House attempted to emasculate the Commission on Human Rights (chaired by a known ally of former President B.S. Aquino and vocal critic of the “war on drugs”) by giving it a measly budget of 1000 pesos. This craven move was only defeated by a strong public outcry.

Two Supreme Court justices have been the objects of Duterte’s ire. One is Justice Carpio for his sharp criticism of Duterte’s policy of appeasing China by reneging on the assertion of Philippine sovereignty over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea. Another is Chief Justice Sereno over her being perceived as another “yellow” loyalist what with her speeches critical of the Duterte regime’s lack of adherence to the rule of law.  The latter is the subject of an impeachment move and Duterte is slyly utilizing contradictions within the Court to further pressure Sereno.

Most recently, Duterte renewed his verbal attacks against the Office of the Ombudsman, not only because Ombudsman Morales is another “yellow” appointee but her office has acted on the complaint of Senator Trillanes regarding the alleged ill-gotten wealth amassed by Duterte and his two children, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte and Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte.
Duterte has gone ballistic, threatening to set up a so-called “independent commission” that will investigate alleged corruption in the Ombudsman’s Office.

It now appears that Duterte is not just “onion-skinned” as some critics say, but highly vulnerable to charges of graft and corruption himself.  He was able to skirt this issue during the presidential campaign. Now his carefully crafted image as a longtime mayor who was incorruptible and maintained his modest means may be blown apart if he is unable to stop the Ombudsman’s investigations. Even though Duterte may not be charged while in office, the political damage caused by these investigations could impact on the stability of his regime.

Such an outcome could be anybody’s guess but it will take more than Duterte’s bluster this time around to save his fast ebbing credibility. #

*Thanks to Sonny Africa who first used the term in his blog post.
Published in Business World
3 October 2017