COVID-19, Governance

#DutertePalpak: PH worst in Southeast Asia in COVID-19 response amid surge in new cases

For two straight days, the Philippines posted record highs in daily new COVID-19 cases. The DOH reported Mar 20 that the country registered 7,999 cases, breaking the previous all-time high of 7,103 monitored just a day before.

The surge in new COVID-19 cases in the Philippines is the second worst in Southeast Asia. Based on data compiled by the Economist, the Philippines registered 78 confirmed new cases per 100,000 people in the past 28 days as of Mar 20. That puts the country behind Malaysia which had 166 new cases per 100,000. Indonesia ranked third with 70 confirmed cases.

But what is even more alarming for Filipinos is that amid the surge in new COVID-19 cases, the response of the Duterte government to the pandemic more than a year into the crisis remains grossly inadequate and incompetent. While implementing the strictest and longest lockdown in the region, the Philippines continues to lag behind our neighbors in Southeast Asia in actually responding to the pandemic.

To illustrate, Malaysia, which has the worst surge in new cases over the past month, has been providing more than 97 vaccinations per day per 100,000 people. The Philippines, on the contrary, is providing only 23 per day per 100,000 people. Indonesia, which has a comparable intensity of surge in new cases with the Philippines, is way ahead in terms of vaccination as it administers 139 vaccinations per day per 100,000 people.

We are lagging behind even the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. The Philippine economy is about 14 times the size of the Cambodian economy but the latter is providing six times the number of vaccinations per 100,000 people than the Philippines.

As of today, only 0.3% of the Philippine adult population has at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine – the worst among Southeast Asian countries with high levels of cases. Poorer neighbors like Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos have even much better vaccination numbers.  ###

Standard
Governance, Human rights

A weaponized justice system brings the worst injustices

On Mar 7, yet another wave of coordinated arrests and alleged extrajudicial killings struck the activist and cause-oriented groups in the country. According to media reports, nine were killed and six were arrested in simultaneous operations carried out by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Southern Tagalog. The victims are activists from organizations of workers, urban poor, farmers and fishers, as well as from human rights groups based in Batangas, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal provinces.

This latest spate of attacks against activists came a mere nine weeks since the PNP launched a similar operation in Panay island. Nine people were killed and 17 were arrested by the police in several indigenous Tumandok communities on Dec 30, 2020. 

Common to both cases is the PNP claim that they were enforcing search warrants against the targeted activists for supposed illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Even more strikingly similar is that in both police operations, apparently the same judge issued the search warrants – Judge Jose Lorenzo R. Dela Rosa of Branch 4 of the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC). (Note: in the Tumanduk case, another Manila RTC judge, Judge Carolina Icasiano Sison, was also named as behind the warrants.)

Less than two weeks prior to the Tumandok operations, the PNP also searched the houses of activists in Metro Manila and nabbed seven people on Dec 10, 2020. Again, the police secured search warrants for firearms and explosives to legitimize their operations. Providing the warrant was Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of the Quezon City RTC Branch 89. Villavert first gained notoriety for issuing the search warrants that led to the arrest of 57 individuals (including 15 minors aged 12 to 17) in Negros Occidental on Oct 31, 2019. 

Activists and communities in the island of Negros have been repeatedly targeted by joint police and military operations using court-issued search warrants as a cover. On Mar 30, 2019, state forces, in the process of enforcing 36 search warrants, killed 14 people and arrested 16 more in Negros Oriental. Just three months earlier, on Dec 27, 2018, six people were killed and 31 were arrested in simultaneous police operations in the same province. This time, the PNP was armed with more than 80 search warrants, according to reports. One judge sanctioned both Negros operations – Judge Soliver Peras of Branch 10 of the Cebu City RTC. 

The Duterte administration has blatantly weaponized the regional trial courts and included the legal system in its arsenal against activists and the marginalized communities and sectors they serve. When the justice system itself is weaponized to repress the people, the injustices committed become doubly abhorrent. Where else are people supposed to go to correct the wrongs made against them when those who are supposed to dispense justice are perceived as hoodlums themselves? 

The police and military template of taking in activists based on concocted lies and justified by dubious warrants has naturally led to ludicrous cases of arrests. In several instances, the arrested victims involve elderly women whom state forces laughably insist are in possession of explosives and firearms in her home, a household that usually includes young grandchildren. Even the United Nations Human Rights Office in a June 2020 report raised the alarm (in the context of Duterte’s equally vicious drug war) on how the Philippine police would “repeatedly recover guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations” during their operations. 

For those killed during bloodstained police operations, even Duterte’s Justice department could no longer fully rationalize the “nanlaban”narrative (i.e., the victims resisted arrest and were killed by the police in the process). In a report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Justice department admitted that in more than half of the nanlaban cases they reviewed in the drug war, law enforcement agents did not follow protocol and no full examination of the recovered weapon was conducted. 

While the victims are involved in legitimate advocacies on the issues of land, labor, human rights, etc., they have been set up for state-perpetrated assaults through the non-stop red-tagging (labelling activists and their organizations as communists terrorists) by the regime. All these – the red-tagging, the use of courts to legitimize the raids on the houses and offices of activists, and the consequent killings and arrests, are part of the counterinsurgency campaign of Duterte. The made-up narrative is that the activists belong to the armed communist rebellion, thus the search warrants for firearms and explosives.

The UN Human Rights Office pointed out that that “the vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics are being increasingly institutionalized and normalized” in the country, as it noted how red-tagging “has posed a serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression”. It correctly argued that activists have become the targets of verbal and physical attacks, threats and legal harassment as “human rights advocacy is routinely equated with insurgency and the focus diverted to discrediting the messengers rather than examining the substance of the message.” 

What exactly is the substance of the message?

Some of those who were killed and arrested in the latest attacks in Southern Tagalog are workers and labor rights advocates. The minimum wage in the Calabarzon region (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) is between PHP 317 and PHP 400, barely 20% of the estimated cost of living. Southern Tagalog workers and their supporters, as elsewhere in the country, have every reason to organize and struggle for their interests and rights, including on decent living. This is especially so under Duterte whose presidency is the worst in terms of addressing the issue of low wages.

Some of those who were killed and arrested are farmers, fishers and peasant rights advocates. With chronic landlessness and lack of government support, farmers suffer the worst poverty in the country. Based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the poverty incidence among farmers is at 31.6% – the highest among all sectors, followed by fishers with 26.2 percent. Meanwhile, based on the official Census of Agriculture, as high as 62% of farmlands in Calabarzon in terms of area are not fully owned or controlled by the tillers. Farmers and peasant rights advocates in Southern Tagalog have every reason to organize and struggle for their right to land and life; especially so under Duterte who has openly instructed the police and military to shoot and kill farmers who are asserting such rights.

Like all the oppressed, the workers, farmers and people of Southern Tagalog do not only have the reasons to fight their oppression – they also have the legitimate right to do so. Indeed, no court warrant can arrest or kill the people’s collective right to resist injustice. ###

Standard
Governance, Human rights

Junk Duterte’s terror bill

Terorista lang daw ang target ng anti-terrorism bill ni Duterte?

The farmers, the lumad – they are the biggest victims of terrorism, by the state. Duterte made the Philippine countryside the deadliest place in the world for farmers, indigenous people and the advocates of their rights.

In 2019, for instance, we ranked first in the list of countries with the highest number of monitored extrajudicial killings of farmers, farm workers, indigenous people, and land activists with 38 cases and 50 victims. That’s about one killing per week. Colombia, another country notorious for its political killings of rural people and activists, was a far second with 21 monitored cases and 27 victims.

Read the full report here: https://bit.ly/2MwguyF

Standard
COVID-19, Global issues, Governance

Duterte: COVID-19 figures not so bad; Data say otherwise

As Metro Manila and other areas prepare to transition from modified ECQ to GCQ, Pres. Duterte said Thursday (May 28) that figures on COVID-19 in the Philippines are “all in all, not so bad”.

“The death toll is 921. So you would see that the Philippines has…ratio and proportion vis-a-vis with the population, we have a low rate of mortality here in this country,” Duterte claimed.

But latest available data (as of May 28) show otherwise.

In ASEAN, the Philippines actually has the worst record in terms of COVID-19 deaths in relation to the population. Eight Filipinos die of COVID-19 per 1 million people in the country. In comparison, the death rate in Brunei and Indonesia is five per million people. Malaysia and Singapore have four deaths per million; Thailand has one.

Overall, the Philippines is the 12th worst country in Asia in terms of COVID-19 deaths relative to population size (as of this posting). We’re the worst among all countries not just in Southeast Asia but also in South Asia and East Asia. (See data here)

Relative to the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Philippines ranks next to Indonesia in terms of the worst mortality rate in ASEAN. Indonesia has 6.10 deaths per 100 cases of COVID-19 while the Philippines has 5.91. Thailand has 1.86; Malaysia, 1.51; Brunei, 1.42; and Singapore, just 0.07. ###

Standard
COVID-19, Governance, Human rights

PH has strictest lockdown in Asia, but ineffective vs. COVID-19

COVID-19 Strictest Lockdowns

If you feel that the COVID-19 lockdown being imposed by the Duterte regime is very strict, data say you are right. In fact, Duterte’s lockdown is the strictest in the region, even more rigid than that of his fellow authoritarian ruler Narendra Modi of India.

Compiling Google’s data on six categories of public mobility (retail and recreation; grocery stores and pharmacies; parks; transit stations; workplaces; and residential areas), the Nikkei Asian Review reported that the Philippines posted the largest average decline at 50.83 percent. With severe restrictions, the Duterte administration brought down public mobility by 85% in transit stations; by 79% in retail and recreation; and by 71% in workplaces. India ranked second with an average decline in public mobility by 47.83 percent.

But data also say these repressive lockdowns are not effective in the fight against COVID-19. While the Philippines and India are imposing very tight rules to restrict public mobility, they are still failing to bring down the number of new COVID-19 cases, which continue their upward trajectory after almost two months of lockdown.

On the contrary, countries that implemented less severe measures to control public mobility like Taiwan (2.16% decline in public mobility); South Korea (11.0%); Japan (13.83%); Vietnam (29.5%); and Thailand (31.66%) are significantly doing better in terms of bringing down the number of their daily new cases, as shown in the charts. (From EndCoronavirus.org)

Lockdowns are meant to hide the sorry state of public health systems and a convenient cover for leaders like Duterte (and Modi) to consolidate their authoritarian rule. The effective way to contain the spread of the new coronavirus are not repressive measures but reliable health and medical interventions, including testing.

Not surprisingly, there is an inverse correlation between testing and severity of lockdowns. Countries that conduct less tests tend to implement more severe lockdowns. India only conducts 1,042 tests per 1 million people while the Philippines conducts 1,379. Compare these figures to those countries that restricted public mobility less severely: Taiwan (2,790 tests per 1 million people); South Korea (12,773); Japan (1,502); Vietnam (2,681); and Thailand (3,264). (From Worldometer)

Standard
COVID-19, Global issues, Governance

COVID-19 charts: PH death rate, testing capacity among worst in ASEAN

You know the Philippines is in deep shit when it has the highest number of #COVID19 deaths relative to the population and one of the worst testing capacities in the region, and yet all President Duterte could talk about are Martial Law and the NPA.

As of Apr. 24, the Philippines is averaging four COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people, the highest in ASEAN. This is twice the rate of Singapore and Indonesia, the top 2 countries in the region with the most number of novel coronavirus infections in absolute terms. (See Chart 1)

COVID-19 Deaths ASEAN for FB

Meanwhile, COVID-19 tests in the Philippines are among the lowest in ASEAN, pegged at 660 per 1 million people. Brunei is conducting more than 28,400 tests per million; Singapore, more than 16,200. Even Thailand is conducting thrice the number of tests that the Philippines does relative to its population. (See Chart 2)

COVID-19 Tests ASEAN for FB

Standard
Governance, Human rights

The people are not afraid of you, Mr. President

 

COVID-19 protest

“WE’RE STARVING”. Residents of an urban poor community in Sitio San Roque in Quezon City trooped to EDSA on Apr. 1 amid strict lockdown rules due to COVID-19 to demand relief from government. (Photo: Yahoo! News)

President Duterte’s militarist response to the COVID-19 crisis took a turn for the worse on Tuesday, Apr. 1. In a televised address to the nation, he warned people seeking government relief amid the pandemic that he will “shoot them dead”. His unscheduled speech was apparently triggered by the protest of an urban poor community in Sitio San Roque demanding the government assistance promised to them when the capital region was put on enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

The police arrested 21 of the protesting urban poor, adding to the more than 17,000 mostly poor people arrested nationwide for violating government’s lockdown policies. Compare the number of people arrested by the Philippine National Police (PNP) to the number of persons tested by the Department of Health (DOH) to combat COVID-19, which stood at just 3,938.

Filipinos have been enduring Duterte’s mindless and violent rants for four years now. But his latest incendiary rhetoric of ordering his police and soldiers to kill without hesitation those who violate his authoritarian ECQ hits differently for most. Locked down, deprived of mobility and productive work, starved and grappling with fear and uncertainty so much as with the unfamiliar virus as with government’s overall response to contain it, the people are enraged.

Duterte, as he is wont to do every time the legitimacy of his leadership is challenged, framed his virulent tirade as a warning to the Left, whose only desire according to the long ailing Chief Executive is to destabilize his government. He thought that this would justify his violent diatribe because the Left is supposedly an enemy of the state.

But the public felt it was not just addressed to the Left; or more likely they have already identified with the legitimate demands of the Left from this regime. Whichever is the case, Duterte is picking a fight not just against the politically organized sections of society, but all the people harshly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and government’s tyrannical response to a public health crisis.

The erstwhile apolitical, be they public personalities or one’s family and friends, are speaking up over Twitter or dinner against Duterte’s heartless verbal onslaught and its real implications to people’s welfare, especially those who are vulnerable to more hunger and poverty. The ECQ may have prevented public gatherings, but it also gave people more time online to discuss, share and process their collective thoughts and sentiments against the regime. It gave families and neighborhoods more time together to agree as a group how insufferable and contemptible the President and his men have become.

The ECQ meant to isolate the people from each other because of COVID-19 is ironically bringing more and more together in the conviction that the current state of the nation is no longer acceptable and tolerable. The people are not afraid of you, Mr. President. They are increasingly finding strength and courage from each other.

Duterte and his Defense and military people who are behind and in charge of the lockdown wrongly thought that their dastardly agenda of repressing dissent and democratic rights under the pretext of political stability has been made easier by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the contrary, the crisis and the government measures to supposedly address it in fact have heightened the conditions for greater social unrest and conflict, and for people to organize and take collective political actions.

The existing and emerging material conditions for these are unmistakable. Duterte’s own economic managers are forecasting an economic contraction of as much as 0.6% and job losses of as high as 1.8 million (one million in Luzon alone) this year due to the pandemic. Total economic losses could reach as much as PHP 1.36 trillion, with Luzon accounting for more than one trillion These estimates assume that the ECQ will only last for a month.

As the crisis is global, the economy could not rely on foreign exchange, including remittances from overseas Filipinos and foreign trade, to boost domestic consumption. The world economy may already be in a recession that some economists say is comparable in severity to the 2008-2009 Great Recession. Or it can even be worse. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for instance, estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic could wipe out up to 24.7 million jobs worldwide. For comparison, the global financial and economic crisis 10 years ago claimed 22 million jobs.

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) expects remittances to drop by as much as PHP 8.5 billion this year due to the crisis. Many Filipino families will face hardship in the coming months, even long after the lockdown has been lifted. They include not just the urban and rural poor, who are the most exposed to the impacts of pandemics and economic declines, but even those who used to have the means to spend more. The pressure will further increase for government to provide social and economic services, something that the COVID-19 crisis has shown the regime is incapable of.

There is a disease spreading in government that is plunging the nation into chaos and death. It is not caused by the novel coronavirus, but by the old, familiar virus of authoritarianism. To get rid of this virus and heal as one, the country truly needs a bayanihan – to determinedly and strongly work together as a people in building a government and a nation that is truly theirs. In this battle, all the oppressed are frontliners.

Standard
Economy, Governance

How People Economics can solve the transport crisis

✅ Develop the countryside, to ease the heavy congestion in urban centers like Metro Manila with the creation of longterm economic opportunities in the regions

✅ Build Filipino industries, to supply the needs of building and maintaining the country’s transport infrastructure as well as the needs of transport rehabilitation and modernization programs

✅ Protect the environment, by utilizing domestic renewable energy resources to power mass transport especially rail systems and funding the rehabilitation and modernization of current modes of public transport like jeepneys

✅ Uphold people’s rights and welfare, by ensuring the reliability, accessibility, efficiency, safety and affordability of public and mass transport at all times, which entails, among others, reversing the privatization of the county’s rail systems, toll roads, etc. and discarding the neoliberal user pays principle in mass transport

✅ Finance development, and ensure the mobilization of sufficient public resources to fund national, regional and local transport infrastructure development, including subsidizing their operation and maintenance

✅ Strive for sovereignty and independence, because those mentioned above will not be possible if Philippine policy making and determination of national development agenda will continue to be shaped by foreign interests with ties to local oligarchs and bureaucrats who run the transport system and build transport infrastructure for private profit

#MayMagagawa

(People Economics is a campaign led by research group IBON Foundation to articulate and enrich the people’s alternatives to the failed policies and programs of neoliberalism in the national economy.)

Standard
Consumer issues, Governance, infrastructure

LRT-2’s decline amid funds misuse and dubious deals

LRTA misused LRT-2 rehab funds

Presidential mouthpiece Salvador Panelo called the challenge to commute. The dare arose from his callous remark about the state of the metro’s transport system. There’s no crisis he said, since people are still able to go wherever they need to. Enduring the daily torment of long queues and endless waits, overcrowding and hellish traffic, the commuting public are of course outraged.

But Panelo’s four-hour, four-jeepney commute circus should not distract us from the fundamental issues. The ordinary working class and students who bear the torture of commuting do not need him to validate what they suffer every day.

Recurrent mishaps

The crisis in the mass transport system is not only real. It is chronic and structural. It did not start when the LRT-2 suspended its operations as the usual glitches hampered the LRT-1 and MRT-3. For as long as we can remember, one or two of Metro Manila’s rail lines break down on an almost weekly basis.

To be sure, the Duterte administration is not solely to blame for the recurrent glitches, passenger offloading and shutdowns of Metro Manila’s rail system. Such decrepit state of the rail system was spawned by decades of accumulated wrong government policies, neglect and corruption. Technical glitches number to thousands per year, according to transport officials.

These train malfunctions started to occur with increasing frequency under the previous administrations of Arroyo and Aquino, and the crisis continues its cumulative deterioration under Duterte. Prior to these recent incidents, LRT-2 is not as notorious as LRT-1 and more especially MRT-3 in terms of service interruptions.

LRT-2 had several mishaps prior to the October 4 fire that brought its entire line to a halt for several days. Last May 18, two of its trains collided and injured 34 people. It was perhaps the second worst accident involving metro rails, just behind the wayward MRT-3 train that rammed through a station and hurt 38 people back in 2014.

The LRT-2 collision happened two days after a lightning hit the train line’s overhead power connection. Unable to operate, the incident stranded thousands of LRT-2 commuters in the middle of a thunderstorm. On June 7, LRT-2 also suspended its operations due to a technical malfunction.

Declining performance

It seemed that the recent major breakdown of the LRT-2, which will take a possible six to nine months to be fully restored, was bound to happen. This noticeable increased frequency in its system’s malfunctions is affirmed by the rail line’s declining performance indicators. From an average of 11 trainsets running during peak hours in 2014 and 2015, the number fell to 10 in 2016 and 2017, and further to just 8 in 2018 and 7 trainsets in 2019.

Passenger traffic has also substantially decreased – from 72.85 million in 2014, the number fell to 62.21 million in 2015. After recovering to 67 million in 2016, passenger traffic in LRT-2 progressively declined to 65.96 million in 2017 and 64.70 million in 2018. Its passenger traffic in the first five months of 2019 is also the lowest in the last six years.

LRT-2’s farebox ratio – or the proportion of fare revenues to total operation and maintenance (O&M) costs – is falling as well. A farebox ratio of 1.00 means that fare revenues cover 100% of O&M cost.  From an upward trend of 1.00, 1.44 and 1.53 in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, the farebox ratio of LRT-2 has gone down continuously to 1.06, 0.93 and 0.81 in 2017, 2018 and 2019 (first five months), respectively.

Actual gross revenues collected from LRT-2, after increasing from Php973.36 million in 2014 to Php1.25 billion in 2015 (the year when fares were substantially hiked) and further to Php1.31 billion in 2016, declined to Php1.27 billion in 2017 and Php1.24 billion in 2018. Comparing similar periods, collected gross revenues in the first five months of 2019 (Php485.59 million) are also the lowest since 2014.

Falling farebox ratio is the result of declining passenger traffic which results to lower fare revenues, and higher O&M costs due to, among others, poor service maintenance of the system. Poor maintenance leads to less trainsets running and less revenues earned. It is a cycle that could be ended through efficiency in management and maintenance of the system.

Misusing rehab funds

Alas, the train line operated by the Light Rail Transport Authority (LRTA) has been obviously poorly managed and maintained.

One reason is that already limited public resources allocated for the system’s improvement are not properly being used. In its 2018 audit report on the LRTA, the Commission on Audit (COA) said that a portion of state subsidy for the rehabilitation of LRT-2 as well as for general administration and support “was not utilized in accordance with its intended purpose”.

Through a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) on June 17, 2016, the LRTA received Php743.56 million from the national government. However, state auditors found out almost half of that amount – Php360 million – was transferred to LRTA accounts not related to the purpose of the SARO (i.e., LRT-2 rehabilitation and administration and support).

“Questionable and doubtful”, according to COA, was the transfer of Php210 million in rehabilitation and restoration funds of LRT-2 to fill the liabilities of the LRTA in a bank account held in trust for bid documents, bonds and retention.

Likewise, state auditors noted the transfer of Php150 million in LRT-2 rehabilitation and restoration funds to a savings account that holds LRTA’s revenues from magnetic ticket sales. It was used as partial payment, interest charges and taxes for an outstanding loan arising from the services rendered by a private contractor with LRT-1.

In its report, released just last June 2019, COA asked the LRTA management to “discontinue using the subsidy funds earmarked for specific purposes and strictly comply with EO (Executive Order) 292 on the use of subsidy fund”. EO 292 refers to the Administrative Code of 1987.

COA also told the government rail agency to “replace the amount taken from the subsidy fund of Rehabilitation of LRT Line 2 System and General Administration and Support”. Further, state auditors asked the LRTA management to submit an explanation on the questionable transfer of Php210 million to bank accounts not meant for LRT-2 rehabilitation.

Dubious deals

Not only is the LRTA mismanaging the funds intended to improve the condition of and services provided by the LRT-2 system. It also continues to make deals with long-time LRTA private contractors that have a questionable track record.

The current maintenance provider for LRT-2 is the AMSCO joint venture composed of APT Global Inc., MultiScan Corporation, and Opus Land, Inc., with the LRTA awarding a Php1.81-billion contract last December 2018.

APT Global has figured in several cases of problematic contracts involving Metro Manila’s rail systems. As the MRT-3 maintenance provider, APT Global was ordered by the COA in 2015 to pay Php211 million for failing to deliver its contractual obligations. Among others, they included failure to deliver trains, defective escalators and elevators and half line operations.

APT Global was also part of the TSPA joint venture (along with Telefonika, STIV and Pacific) that maintained LRT-2 from June 2007 to June 2012. In its 2016 Special Audit Report on the LRTA, COA said that TSPA committed a minimum of 16 trainsets running on LRT-2 but only delivered 13 trainsets. Despite this, LRTA still paid its contract with TSPA in full, worth almost Php1.06 billion, instead of making the necessary cost reduction.

With such an undesirable track record, it is perplexing how APT Global was still able to be part of a joint venture that currently maintains the LRT-2. Apparently, it is one of the favored contractors by those in the LRTA.

The bidding conducted by the LRTA for the procurement for maintenance of the LRT-2 system won by APT Global’s joint venture AMSCO was allegedly fraught with irregularities. Commuter groups RILES Network and United Filipino Consumers and Commuters filed a case before the Ombdusman against LRTA officials last April 2019.

They alleged, among others, that the LRTA designed the bidding process in a way that ensures only AMSCO will bag the contract. It included requiring the use of spare parts that AMSCO’s MultiScan is the exclusive distributor of in the Philippines. Like APT Global, MultiScan is a longtime contractor of LRTA as a supplier of spare parts and consumables of the LRT-2 system in the past two decades.

The real challenge

In other words, the hundreds of thousands of LRT-2 commuters affected by the shutdown are at the mercy of, to the say the least, an inefficient government agency and its inept private contractors that profit millions of pesos in taxpayers’ and commuters’ money.

With the kind of track record that those handling the LRT-2 have, no wonder that the rail system broke down the way it did. It is also not surprising that the damages caused by the fire could supposedly take months to repair, aggravating the already unbearable state of public commute in Metro Manila.

The public sector should continue to operate the LRT-2 as a provider of a vital public service. The transportation department’s plan to privatize its operation and maintenance will only worsen the woes of commuters and further drain public resources as evidenced by our experience in LRT-1 and MRT-3.

But obviously, the current LRTA has been mismanaging the LRT-2 system. Reforms must be put in place to address this, including structural changes that would allow greater public scrutiny of and participation in the rail agency’s operations. Private contractors that have repeatedly failed to deliver should be banned and held to account. Using the crisis to justify the failed and flawed privatization must be opposed.

These are actually small reforms compared to the massive extent of Metro Manila’s transport crisis, but necessary reforms nonetheless to ensure that the LRT-2 becomes a truly publicly run rail system meant to serve the commuters’ interests and welfare.

Is the Duterte administration capable of instituting these reforms to start addressing the crisis? That’s the real challenge to Panelo and his boss. ###

Standard
Governance, Human rights, Military & war

Rising national insecurity amid Duterte’s soaring security budget

 

Duterte with gun

Photo from Interaksyon

With Martial Law in Mindanao, a brutal drug war and an even more vicious counterinsurgency campaign, the Duterte regime vowed to make the country peaceful and safe. However, as once again highlighted by the recent twin bombings in Mindanao, it appears that instead of peace and quiet, the Duterte administration’s heavy-handed approach to national security is not only failing. Duterte’s policies are actually creating more conflict and insecurity for the people.

This even as Malacañang siphons off an ever-growing portion of public resources to its national security efforts, including for the controversial intelligence and confidential funds of the President and his security forces. In its 2020 budget proposal, the Duterte administration is seeking an all-time high of Php8.28 billion in total intel and confidential funds, on top of the hundreds of billions of pesos for the police and military establishments to acquire more arms and hire additional personnel.

Questionable, unjustifiable budget

Such big allocation for intel and confidential funds is questionable and unjustifiable for various reasons. One is that the funds are apparently not achieving their objectives. Aside from the bombings in Mindanao, the illegal drug trade has worsened even, as admitted by no less than Duterte himself. By abandoning the peace talks with the communist rebels and relying more on often bloody military and police operations in the countryside, Duterte is making the same mistakes of his predecessors of further feeding the 50-year old insurgency.

Another is that by their nature, intel and confidential funds are difficult to audit and are thus prone to corruption as has already happened many times in the past. Perhaps even more wicked than corruption is how these funds can be used to bankroll illegal and murderous operations against groups and people it considers as enemies of or threats to the regime.

It is indeed ironic that under a regime that has made anti-criminality and peace and order as its centerpiece program, the safety and security of the public are increasingly at risk. And this insecurity is coming not just from the unabated terrorist attacks and criminal activities that Duterte promised but failed to address, but from the very same policies of the regime that are supposedly meant to protect the people. Martial Law in Mindanao, rights advocates and even parliamentarians from the country’s ASEAN neighbors point out, has been a factor behind the terrible state of human rights under Duterte. Extrajudicial killings that mar Duterte’s drug war and counterinsurgency campaign are so prevalent that 8 out of 10 Filipinos fear that they or someone they know can be a victim anytime.

Mindanao bombings

The incidence of terrorist bombings in Mindanao has increased and has become more frequent under Duterte’s Martial Law. Just recently, two more incidents of bombing happened in the restive region. Last September 8, reportedly another suicide bomber staged an attack in a military camp in Indanan town in Sulu. A day before, at least seven people were hurt in an explosion in a public market in Isulan town in Sultan Kudarat.

This was the second time in four months that Indanan suffered an alleged suicide bombing. Just last June 28, an attack killed eight people (including the two suicide bombers) and wounded 12 more. The attack in Isulan was the second time in five months since a blast rocked a restaurant in the town on April 3, hurting 18 people. There are now five bombing incidents this year, with the deadliest occurring at a cathedral in Jolo, another town in Sulu, when a twin explosion killed 22 people and wounded at least 100 last January 27.

Counting the incidents since last year, there are now nine cases of reported terrorist bombings and explosions in Mindanao, killing 47 people and wounding more than 200. All these have happened under Martial Law, first imposed in May 2017, raising the question of whether or not military rule is really effective in curbing terrorism. (See Table)

Tab 1 Mindanao bombings

Still, Duterte officials continue to defend Martial Law in Mindanao despite the increased incidence of terrorist attacks. While crime incidents and proliferation of firearms in Mindanao have supposedly gone down because of Martial Law, authorities argue that “terrorism is really a different kind of thing”, leaving one to wonder what option more extreme is the regime contemplating to address terrorism. One answer could be the amendment to the Human Security Act (HSA), a priority legislation of Duterte that will make Martial Law nationwide and permanent.

Drugs and homicides

With increased incidence of terrorist bombings in Mindanao, claims by the regime of an improving peace and order environment become ever more doubtful. Widespread and systematic killings under the Duterte administration’s drug war and counterinsurgency campaign paint a picture of a deteriorating rule of law and of deepening impunity even as the Philippine National Police (PNP) maintains that the crime situation is getting better.

According to the PNP, for the entire 2018, there was a 9% decline in crime volume compared to 2017. From July 2016 to June 2018, the crime rate fell by 21.5% compared to July 2014 to June 2016, based on the police’s data. For the PNP leadership, there is an unmistakable correlation between crime and drug abuse. The reported trend of plunging crime volume continues in 2019, with Duterte officials congratulating the PNP for “making our streets safer and making our people feel secure.”

Sadly, many ordinary folk – in particular the victims of alleged extrajudicial killings (EJKs) and their families – do not feel the supposedly improved safety and security under the current regime. Official PNP figures show that the anti-drug operations have killed about 6,600 alleged drug pushers (mostly small-time street peddlers) and drug users from July 2016 to May 2019 (although even official figures are confusing – the latest PNP data being cited is 5,793 drug war killings between July 2016 and July 2019). Moreover, out of these thousands of deaths, a mere 253 police officers involved in the drug war killings have been criminally charged or faced an inquest proceedings. Majority of PNP operatives involved in these killings – 341 police officers – are facing only administrative charges.

Official data on the drug war are not just confusing; they are also not credible as they tend to understate the true extent of the killings. Counting the so-called homicides under investigation or suspected drug personalities killed by unidentified gunmen, there are now reportedly almost 23,000 deaths related to Duterte’s drug war, based on some estimates.

Activist killings

Meanwhile, bodies also continue to pile up under the equally notorious and ruthless counterinsurgency campaign of the Duterte administration. Based on the monitoring of human rights advocacy group Karapatan, there were 250 killed activists, leaders and members of cause-oriented groups from July 2016 to March 2019. Of the total, more than half – 134 killings – happened in Mindanao. (See Chart)

Tab 2 EJK victims by region

Most were from the peasant sector, indigenous people, and Moro as well as from the trade union and youth and student movements. Some were human rights lawyers, supportive local government officials, journalists, teachers and even priests. Perpetrators were usually unidentified gunmen, including those from declared anti-communist paramilitary groups. The aggressive and well-orchestrated propaganda campaign by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the PNP that the groups the victims belonged to are communist fronts is seen as justifying these violent attacks against unarmed civilians and critics of the regime.

Of particular concern recently is Negros Island, which is fast becoming a killing field for anti-communist hit squads and police operatives. Disguising as anti-criminality and anti-drugs operations, coordinated and systematic killings of civilians tagged as communist supporters have been gripping the island and have already claimed 116 victims between July 2016 and August 2019.

Thus, far from feeling secure, an overwhelming portion of the population are becoming more and more concerned about their personal safety amid the unabated EJKs. According to the latest survey (December 2018) of the Social Weather Stations (SWS), 78% of Filipinos are worried that they or anyone they know will be a victim of EJK. The results are even worse than the already high 73% recorded in June 2017.

Even foreigners see the Philippines under Duterte as one of the most dangerous places to live in the world. A 2019 survey of more than 20,000 expats ranked the Philippines as 14th out of 64 countries as most dangerous in terms of peacefulness, personal safety and political stability. In the same survey conducted in 2018, the Philippines ranked 11th out of 68 countries.

Intel funds for what?

In his 2020 budget proposal, Duterte is asking Congress to allocate a massive Php8.28 billion in intelligence and confidential funds for the executive branch, more than half of which (i.e. Php4.5 billion) will go directly to the Office of the President. The AFP and the Department of National Defense (DND) will have Php1.7 billion in intel funds while the PNP and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) will get Php806 million.

Duterte’s (i.e., Office of the President and other executive agencies) 2020 intel and confidential budget is 49% higher than its level in the first Duterte proposed budget in 2017. From just Php5.57 billion in 2017, the intel and confidential funds of the Executive branch have jumped to an average of more than Php7.82 billion in the national budget from 2018 to the proposed 2020 budget.

Intel and confidential funds directly under the Office of the President are averaging Php3 billion per year (2017 to 2020) under Duterte, more than six times the annual average of his immediate predecessor Benigno Aquino III (2011 to 2016). (See Chart)

Tab 3 Average intel funds by president

But the increased intel and confidential funds of the President and of the police and military establishments does not guarantee that the rising terrorist bombings in Mindanao will be quelled. On the contrary, as Duterte’s surveillance funds increased, so has the frequency of terrorist attacks in Mindanao. Among other factors, this is the result of poor military and police intelligence and assessment, despite a huge boost in public funding.

Meanwhile, the illegal drug trade remains robust amid the bloody drug war of the administration and the campaign’s ballooning intel and confidential funds. Billions of pesos of illegal drugs continue to be smuggled into the country such as the Php11-billion worth of shabu that slipped past the customs and then mysteriously disappeared. Subsequent probes established that those who were in charge of customs intelligence, along with police officials, were involved in the smuggling of the enormous shabu shipment. Note that the estimated Php11-billion worth of missing shabu is already equivalent to almost half of the total worth of shabu that Duterte’s drug war has seized from July 2016 to March 2019; and it is just one shipment.

What’s even more disturbing is the very real possibility that intel and confidential funds are being used to bankroll not just shadowy but outright illegal activities that spell the death of thousands on the pretext of promoting national security and peace and order. The vigilante killings that target perceived enemies of the state, for instance, are so systematic that – coupled with Duterte’s notorious past as a longtime city mayor of endorsing, if not using, death squads to shortcut due process – it is not hard to believe that they are state-sponsored operations.

It is clear that Duterte is using the deteriorating situation on terrorism in Mindanao and illegal drugs and the resilient communist insurgency to justify an ever-growing unaccountable budget in the name of national security. In fact, it is using its own failures to sufficiently deal with the country’s national security issues not only to justify greater intel and confidential budget but to push for even more repressive measures. ###

Standard