One of the anticipated highlights of President Noynoy Aquino’s trip to the US is the formal signing of the $434-million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). For the cash-strapped Malacañang, the aid is significant not only because of its size, which for a foreign grant is quite big. Politically, the MCC grant is also an unmistakable sign of strong US confidence in the new administration as a reliable ally in protecting American interests in the region. According to an ABS-CBN report quoting Washington insiders, the MCC Board led by State Department Sec. Hillary Clinton did not even wait for their regular fourth quarter meeting to act on the Philippines’ grant application.
Actually, as early as 2009, the country was already eligible for a “Compact” with the MCC. Formal signing, however, was delayed for political reasons. The Obama administration apparently feared that the “integrity” of the MCC grant might be questioned if it will sign the compact with the Arroyo government, which had an awful corruption record and an even more terrible human rights record. The MCC supposedly helps only those countries that practice “good governance”. While Mrs. Arroyo had displayed avid support for the US in the nine years she was in power, her administration was already too unpopular to be useful for American interests. Thus, the US had to wait for the results of the May 2010 elections and ensure that its favored candidate will win.
Stronger RP-US military and security ties
Early developments indicate that Philippine-US relations under the Aquino administration will be defined by stronger military and security ties, with Washington providing more defense and counter-insurgency-related assistance. In July, Reuters reported that the US has pledged to provide $18.4-million precision-guided missiles this year that will be used against Moro rebels. In August, US Ambassador Harry Thomas announced that the US has donated four “sophisticated” gunboats worth P72 million to the Philippine National Police (PNP) for coastline security. Later, the US Embassy disclosed that Washington has decided to increase its law enforcement assistance to the Philippines from P495 million this year to P630 million in 2011.
But the MCC grant is so far the largest assistance that the US has committed to the Aquino administration. Technically, the $434-million grant is not categorized as a military or counter-insurgency aid. According to MCC and Palace officials, the money will be used for the Philippine government’s development and poverty reduction efforts. However, since the Bush administration released its post 9/11 National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2002, development aid meant for poverty reduction has been systematically aligned with US war on terror efforts that target legitimate rebel and anti-US imperialism groups in its neocolonies such as the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – New People’s Army (NPA).
Militarization of US development aid
The 2002 NSS established “global development”, for the first time, as the third pillar of US national security along with defense and diplomacy. Budget justifications for foreign assistance also began to underscore the anti-terrorism campaign as the top foreign aid priority of the US. The Bush administration also made it clear in its 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism that a state’s stand on terrorism will be considered when providing aid to that country. It was in this context that the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) as a new development assistance program was created. Under the Obama administration, foreign aid is expected to play an even deeper role in protecting and advancing US geopolitical interests, especially since all-out military interventions such as the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq have lost legitimacy and have proven too politically and financially costly for the crisis-ridden US economy.
In the Philippines, for instance, the MCC grant will be used to bankroll known counterinsurgency projects masquerading as development/poverty reduction initiatives. These so-called development projects have been designed and initiated by the Arroyo administration, which taking its cue from the US’s National Security Strategy, crafted its own National Internal Security Plan (NISP). Arroyo’s NISP systematically combined military campaigns and poverty alleviation/social development initiatives, some of which are funded by official development assistance (ODA) such as the MCC grant.
Under the NISP, the Arroyo administration implemented the Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL) military campaign, which aside from assassinating, abducting, and persecuting political activists from legal people’s organizations, also had “peace and development activities” that aim to undermine the influence of the CPP-NPA in remote barangays in the countryside. Elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) participated in the implementation of poverty alleviation and development efforts of civilian government agencies, an approach that the military leadership claims has significantly weakened the communist rebels.
KALAHI for anti-insurgency
One of these projects is the Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan (Unity against Poverty– KALAHI) program. KALAHI is the national government’s overarching program for a focused, accelerated, convergent, expanded, and strategic effort to reduce poverty. Among its main components is the KALAHI-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (CIDSS), which started in 2003 with $100-million in funding from the World Bank. Under the MCC grant, KALAHI-CIDSS, a “community-based, rural development program”, will be expanded through a $120-million funding.
As envisioned in the NISP, KALAHI shall have an inter-agency convergent mechanism composed of the National KALAHI Convergent Group (NKCG) and the Regional KALAHI Convergent Group (RKCG). Among the functions and responsibilities of the RKCG, which is made up of the regional counterparts of national agencies in the NKCG plus Local Government Units (LGUs), is “close collaboration with the AFP and the PNP” to ensure a strong link between the anti-poverty and internal security efforts of the government. More than half of KALAHI sites are classified as conflict areas, most of which are CPP-NPA guerilla fronts. (Read here for an example)
Development projects for militarist pacification
In reality, the KALAHI-CIDSS is essentially the “social development” component of the AFP’s pacification campaign. For example, to help implement the projects in Muslim areas in Mindanao under the KALAHI-CIDSS, Mrs. Arroyo announced in 2003 the formation of Salaam Soldiers. Salaam means peace and in this case is an acronym for the Special Advocacy on Literacy/Livelihood Advancement for Muslims.
At least half of this special team is composed of Muslim regular soldiers and integrees (former MILF or MNLF rebels) who have been tasked to provide “psycho-social and medico-civic services” as well as to ensure peace and order in their area. But the AFP itself said that the Sala’am Soldiers are similar to the special operations teams (SOTs) deployed in insurgency areas in the early 1990s.
The SOTs combined civic action with intelligence-gathering and were largely credited for the decline of the communist insurgency in some regions of the country. Together with vigilante and paramilitary groups, they were accused of countless human rights violations in Mindanao.
In addition, the AFP, the Department of National Defense (DND), and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) also directly implement development projects under KALAHI through the KALAHI-KALAYAAN to supposedly “address the needs of the poor communities in conflict areas”.
Another project that will be funded by the MCC grant is the $214-million construction and repair of 220 kilometers of roads that cut across the most marginalized communities of Samar Island. The so-called Samar Road will pass through 15 municipalities and aims to improve access to markets and services for farmers, fishers, and small businesses.
But why did Samar get such special attention from the Philippine government and the MCC? According to the AFP, the island remains “a big challenge” to the Army when it comes to crushing insurgency. Meanwhile, in a recent press conference, Samar Governor Sharee Ann Tan-Delos Santos said that in order to help the government and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in their aim to eradicate the problem of insurgency in the province of Samar, there will be constructions of additional provincial roads that will inter-connect the far-flung towns and barangays in Samar. The AFP’s 8th Infantry Division is also currently implementing KALAHI-KALAYAAN projects in various villages around the province.
Samar has been described as a “killing field” due to an intensifying counterinsurgency campaign of the AFP in the province. Among the victims of assassination by suspected military elements was parish priest and human rights advocate Reverend Cecilio Lucero of Catubig, Northern Samar, which according to human rights group Karapatan is the first recorded assassination of a Catholic priest since the Marcos dictatorship. Just last August 25, Casiano Abing, a Bayan Muna member, was shot dead in Balangiga, Eastern Samar. Karapatan lists Samar as among the most heavily affected by human rights violations involving state security agents.
Distorting development work, more human rights abuses
Despite the many cases of human rights violations under the Oplan Bantay Laya including the extrajudicial killings (more than 1,000 since 2001), abductions (more than 200), and legal persecution of innocent civilians tagged by the military as CPP-NPA members or supporters, the Aquino administration has decided to extend the campaign until yearend. (Read the latest report on the human rights situation in the Philippines here) Under Aquino’s three-month old presidency, seven activists have already been assassinated under the murderous OBL.
A new counterinsurgency campaign that will supposedly replace the OBL is currently being developed, and according to an Army spokesman, would entail more “developmental projects”. And it seems that like his predecessor, President Aquino will increasingly use foreign development aid such as the $434-million MCC grant as part of government’s counterinsurgency campaign.
Development workers and activists have been questioning the use of poverty reduction projects for the AFP’s militarist pacification campaign. Resources intended for poverty alleviation and development but used within a strategic framework of subsuming the peace and development process under a military-defined internal security effort will only help perpetuate the conflict and the rampant violation of the people’s most fundamental human rights.
It is true that the greater the poverty of the people, the more that they will embrace revolution to achieve social justice such as the four-decade civil war being waged by the NPA. But using supposed poverty reduction and development projects as part of a military campaign to end the insurgency shortcuts the process of achieving genuine and lasting peace, and thus could never truly address the root causes of the conflict.