SONA 2017: Business interests with ties to Duterte to benefit from Martial Law extension

President Rodrigo Duterte with his Martial Law administrator Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and implementor Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Año (Photo from Al Jazeera)

As expected, the so-called supermajority in Congress granted the extension of Martial Law that President Rodrigo Duterte asked for. Martial Law would be in effect in Mindanao until the end of the year.

Malacañang said that with the extension, the country could now “get on with the job of nation-building and contribute in the attainment of the full promise of Mindanao.” The Duterte administration intends to “transform Mindanao into a land of fulfillment”.

How exactly Martial Law could contribute in “nation-building” is unclear. What is clear is that the 261 lawmakers who rubber-stamped the presidential request have further built up the nation’s fear of an authoritarian regime that Duterte wants to establish.

Martial Law in Mindanao and its extension could indeed be just a dress rehearsal and forebodes an of all-out fascist rule that Duterte and his Martial Law generals plan to unleash on the entire country.

Meanwhile, the “attainment of the full promise of Mindanao” pertains to the unrestrained exploitation of the region’s resources. Despite decades of corporate plunder, many areas in Mindanao are still not yet fully exploited.

Business interests with ties to the President appear to be among the beneficiaries of the extension of Martial Law in Mindanao.

Investment opportunities

The World Bank, for instance, in an August 2016 report said that: “Mindanao has 10 million hectares of land, of which 59.4% or 6.066 million hectares are classified as forestlands… if properly delineated, and rights are defined, can potentially increase the land inventory for large- scale investments.”

It noted that of the 6.07 million hectares of forestlands in Mindanao, only 700,000 hectares are covered by industrial forest management agreements, mainly by corporations. There are 700,000 hectares more that are still not covered by any form of tenure instrument. Another 400,000 hectares of public forests that are unclassified – all potential areas for big corporate investments.

In addition, of the remaining 4.14 million hectares of alienable and disposable (A&D) lands in Mindanao, a huge 2.24 million hectares have not been covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). These millions of hectares of forest and A&D lands offer enormous opportunities for investment and profits.

“If we push for massive agri investments in Mindanao, we need to start looking at the availability of these lands for consolidation to achieve economies of scale,” said the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), a government body created to among others promote and facilitate investments in the region.

Under the Duterte administration, MinDA and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) are also working to fast-track the Mindanao Ecozone Masterplan. The plan will develop existing and new economic zones around Mindanao to increase trading activities and attract more foreign investments.

There are 81 accredited ecozones in the region covering agro-industry, manufacturing, information technology and tourism. The Duterte administration is currently conducting an inventory of areas in Mindanao that can be developed as “ecozone cities”.

But many of these supposedly idle areas or available lands are actually occupied by lumad and peasant communities. Their firm resistance and the strong presence of the New People’s Army (NPA) are the biggest obstacles to the massive expansion in Mindanao of corporate plantations, big mining companies, and export-driven industrial enclaves – and the construction of hard infrastructure to support their operation.

The resistance is not against development but against the land and resource grabbing and massive displacement of local communities that often accompany big-ticket investment projects in Mindanao. That is why the NPA, and the lumad, farmers and farmworkers are the real targets of the extended Martial Law in Mindanao.

Big business interests

Indeed, Duterte’s Martial Law is apparently more about providing security to big investors who want to further exploit Mindanao. And it appears that the business sector feels encouraged by the strongman rule that Duterte is imposing. The organizers of the recently held Davao Investment Conference (ICON), for instance, reported record-breaking confirmed attendance, including about 100 foreign investors.

In an earlier report, the organizers said ICON participants include the country’s biggest conglomerates like San Miguel Corp. (SMC) as well as 30-40 “big Chinese investors”, among others.

SMC and the Chinese are among those most aggressive in expanding in Mindanao particularly in establishing vast plantations and constructing infrastructure. Chinese investors have been reportedly discussing with the Duterte administration the possibility of a 6,000-hectare tea plantation in a territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Duterte has been actively seeking Chinese patronage, mainly in the form of official development assistance (ODA) or loans as well as military assistance. Among those that the administration is pitching to China are multi-billion infrastructure projects in Mindanao including expressways, coastal roads, seaport and airport development, and the Mindanao railway system.

On the other hand, SMC (together with Malaysia’s Kuok Group) is developing about 18,495 hectares of forestlands covering four Davao del Norte municipalities for oil palm production. Just last August 2016, SMC also opened a 2,000-hectare industrial estate in Malita, Davao Occidental that also has a 20-meter deep seaport that can accommodate container vessels.

Earlier, the conglomerate was reported to be looking at a total of 800,000 hectares of lands for development as commercial farms in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Sarangani, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, North Cotabato and Agusan del Norte.

Of course, SMC’s top man Ramon S. Ang is known to be “close” to Duterte. The SMC president was among Duterte’s campaign contributors in 2016 giving an undisclosed amount and perhaps other forms of support as Ang wasn’t even listed in the official Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE).

Ang also offered to buy Duterte a private jet (worth as much as US$65 million) that he could use as President while donating Php1 billion to the Chief Executive’s pet campaign, the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s former campaign spokesperson and Irrigation chief Peter Laviña and his group Philippine Palm Oil Development Council Inc. has been reportedly lobbying the government since Aquino’s time to develop at least 300,000 hectares of Mindanao lands for palm oil production targeting MILF territories as well as CARP and lumad lands.

These are some of the big business interests in Mindanao that stand to benefit from the state repression of local communities opposed to their operations. Apparently, Martial Law is more than what President Duterte, his Generals and their allies in Congress are telling us. ###

‘Dutertenomics’: golden age of oligarchic and foreign interests in infrastructure?

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Duterte’s economic managers present “Dutertenomics” – a grand plan that they said will usher in a “golden age of infrastructure” (Photo by Marianne Bermudez/Inquirer.net)

Build, build, build” is said to be the foundation of the Duterte administration’s development plan, which his economic managers are packaging as “Dutertenomics”. The plan is supposed to usher in a “golden age of infrastructure”.

But despite the attempt at branding, Dutertenomics is neither new nor unique. Its cornerstone of massive infrastructure development is still built on the neoliberal agenda of opening up additional profit-making prospects for big local and foreign business, including through “development” lending, building and operating the infrastructure themselves and/or constructing facilities that would benefit their commercial interests.

Worse, the ambitious plan may not usher in a golden age of infrastructure but instead a golden age of oligarchic and foreign interests in infrastructure while the public bears more onerous financial burden arising from greater debts and taxes.

AmBisyon Natin

There is no denying of the urgent and huge infrastructure needs of the country, especially transport. The Philippines has the worst overall infrastructure and worst transport infrastructure (roads, railroads, port and air transport) among major countries in Southeast Asia, according to the 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The intolerable traffic in Metro Manila and the state of disrepair of the public transport system illustrate the dismal shape of transport infrastructure in the country.

Thus, infrastructure, specifically the transport sector, has been made the cornerstone of Dutertenomics. It is a key component of AmBisyon Natin 2040, a vision to make the Philippines a “prosperous, predominantly middle-class society” that President Rodrigo Duterte has adopted as guide for long-term national development planning.

AmBisyon Natin listed priority sectors that include the development of infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports, bridges and communication (“Connectivity”) as well as housing and urban development. It also identified “investment in high-quality infrastructure to make the cost of moving people, goods and services competitive” as one of the policy instruments to make the aspirations of AmBisyon Natin a reality.

The Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022 is the first medium-term plan anchored on AmBisyon Natin. Under this PDP, the Duterte administration aims to make its six-year term the so-called “golden age of infrastructure” with spending on infrastructure increasing substantially (i.e. 5.1% of gross domestic product or GDP in 2016 to 7.4% in 2022). Concrete and measurable indicators have been set for transport infrastructure (road, rail, air and water transport); water and power resources; and social infrastructure (classrooms, health centers, housing units).

(Download the PDP’s Chapter 1 – Introduction and Chapter 19 – Accelerating Infrastructure Development)

The “golden age of infrastructure” includes an initial list of 64 big-ticket projects for implementation or in the pipeline that are mostly transport infrastructure such as major road networks, railway systems, bus rapid transit systems, and airport and seaport modernization. These are on top of 15 ongoing infrastructure projects, which are either locally funded, with official development assistance (ODA), or through public-private partnership (PPP).

Hybrid and unsolicited PPP

PPP, which is essentially the neoliberal privatization of infrastructure development and commercialization of services, will continue to be the main program to meet the country’s infrastructure needs. The PDP will promote PPP by addressing “bottlenecks in PPP planning and implementation” and pursuing “reforms to enhance the business environment” to encourage investors. To do these, among the legislative agenda under the PDP is the amendment of the BOT Law and its implementing rules and regulations (IRR).

In the previous Aquino administration, such policy reform has taken the form of the PPP Act that will among others institutionalize state guarantees on financial and regulatory risks of PPP projects. (Read “Aquino’s PPP legacy”) In the current 17th Congress, bills to introduce the PPP Act and BOT Law amendment have already been filed in both chambers. At the Senate, Sen. Sonny Angara filed Senate Bill (SB) No. 951 (“PPP Act”) while at the House of Representatives Rep. Vilma Santos-Recto filed a counterpart proposal (House Bill or HB No. 1944). HB 2727 of Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, meanwhile, aims to amend the BOT Law. There are also moves to introduce foreign investment liberalization through the PPP Act.

As of March 28, there are 15 awarded PPP projects worth Php310.51 billion, based on the latest status report of the PPP Center. Of these, four are completed and operational (Php31.77 billion); seven are under construction (Php150.01 billion); and four are under pre-construction (Php128.73).

The country’s richest and most influential oligarchs control these PPP projects. The San Miguel Corp. (SMC) group accounts for 45.9% of the total cost of ongoing and/or completed PPP projects as of March 2017. The Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) and Ayala tandem, meanwhile, comprises 21.5% on top of MVP’s own projects comprising 18.9 percent. All in all, the SMC, MVP, and Ayala groups collectively control 10 of the 15 ongoing and/or completed PPP projects worth Php275.15 billion or equivalent to 88.6% of the total cost. (See Chart)

Blog 05 Dutertenomics infrastructure Chart

These same oligarchs are positioning themselves to corner more infrastructure projects as the Duterte administration promotes unsolicited projects and the so-called hybrid PPPs to push its grand infrastructure plan.

Unsolicited projects proposed by the big oligarchs now total Php2.6 trillion, mostly in the transport sector as they see opportunity in the traffic crisis. These big oligarchs take advantage of unsolicited projects to build infrastructure that they will not only profit from but would also benefit their other business interests (e.g. SM’s unsolicited proposal to build a Php25-billion toll road that will link its malls in Pasay and Makati). This further weakens the central role that government should be playing in rationally planning and deciding which key infrastructure projects are needed, where to put them, and how they serve the overall development plan.

Hybrid PPP, on the other hand, is a worse form of PPP because it puts even heavier load on the public sector than the already onerous burden it shoulders under a regular PPP. In a regular PPP, the private sector will raise funds to build the infrastructure, and then operate and maintain (O&M) it in a fixed period to recover investments and earn profits. In a hybrid PPP, the public sector will finance the construction of the infrastructure through official development assistance (ODA) loans and then give the O&M to the private sector. The public will thus be burdened with direct debt servicing for the ODA loans (in a regular PPP, debt is often a contingent liability), profit guarantees and other perks for the private operator, and high user fees.

With preference for unsolicited projects and hybrid PPP, and the pending Traffic Emergency Bill – supposedly meant to address the traffic crisis – the stage to favor certain big oligarchs is set. With emergency or special powers, the Executive could fast track the implementation of transport infrastructure projects through negotiated contracts in the pretext of solving the urgent traffic crisis.

Increased foreign role

Meanwhile, as bilateral relations with China warm up under Duterte, the administration is actively seeking Chinese financing for big-ticket infrastructure projects through bilateral ODA loans, as well as multilaterally through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to fulfill the so-called “golden age of infrastructure”.

Reports say that China is set to finance Php172.4-billion worth of infrastructure projects this year. This is part of the 15 projects identified for Chinese financing under the Duterte administration estimated at a total of $6.96 billion (Php349.92 billion). Earlier reports indicated that one of the projects that China will finance is the South Line of the North-South Railway Project (NSRP) for $3.01 billion (Php151.33 billion). China also expressed initial interest in bankrolling “Duterte’s dream” of Php218-billion, 830-kilometer Mindanao railway system.

Aside from China, other imperialist financial institutions are also lining up to fund Duterte’s “golden age of infrastructure”, also mostly in the transport sector. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has committed to finance three mega-transport projects with a combined cost of $8.8 billion (Php442.42 billion). Eleven other projects are being pitched as well to Japan for possible funding including irrigation and flood control projects. These projects are: $4.3-billion initial phase of the Mega Metro Manila subway system connecting FTI in Taguig City to the SM North EDSA and Trinoma malls in Quezon City; the $2.7-billion commuter line extending to Los Baños, Laguna, the south line of the North-South railway project, and the $1.9-billion high-speed rail extending to the soon-to-rise Clark Green City of the North-South Commuter Railway connecting Tutuban in Manila and Malolos, Bulacan.

The US-controlled World Bank, on the other hand, is providing $64.6 million (Php3.25 billion) for the first line of the Metro Manila bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

With increased ODA borrowing to fund infrastructure development, Duterte’s economic team has been pushing for a package of tax reforms that would be shouldered more heavily by the poor and ordinary income earners. The tax reform package entails additional burden that includes higher value-added tax (VAT), expanded and higher excise tax on all petroleum products, as well as the sugar excise tax. While the poor bear the brunt of these reforms, the rich get tax benefits such as lower corporate income tax as well as tax cuts in real estate and property-related transactions. And these rich include the oligarchs that corner the infrastructure projects (including those to be funded by ODA) the costs of which the taxpaying public will shoulder.

In addition to financing PPP projects, increased role for foreign interests is expected as the push to further liberalize infrastructure development continues. The US, for instance, has renewed calls to lift constitutional restrictions on foreign investments to allow and encourage American firms to participate in the Duterte administration’s PPP program. Another route being promoted by the US for American involvement in PPP is through the relaxation of limits set under the Foreign Investment Negative List (FINL). Meanwhile, Duterte himself has said that he is supportive of lifting constitutional limits on foreign investments through Charter change (Cha-cha).

Already, the PPP Center under the current administration has launched a UK-funded (Php4.35 million) Development of Foreign Investment Framework Project that “will facilitate the legal and institutional push to further build a favorable PPP business environment for foreign investors”. The output of this project will be translated into inputs to the PPP Act and its IRR.

Another pending legislative proposal to allow full foreign participation in key infrastructure sectors is HB 446 that seeks to amend the Public Service Act and redefine public utility. When passed, it will open telecommunications, transport and power industries to 100% foreign ownership.

Policy issue of profit-driven infrastructure

Ongoing PPP/infrastructure/transport projects continue to burden the people. The Php62.7-billion MRT-7 project (SMC) – the second largest among active PPP projects – for instance, is fraught with onerous contractual terms that are disadvantageous to taxpayers (state guarantees on private debt, amortization payments, etc.) and end-users (guaranteed fare adjustments) while causing massive displacement among urban poor and farmer communities. The same thing is true with the LRT-1 (MVP-Ayala) PPP project. (Read “How MVP-Ayala will squeeze LRT 1 commuters dry”)

Ultimately, it all goes back to the policy issue of private sector and profit-driven infrastructure development that the so-called Dutertenomics promote. The country needs to urgently address its infrastructure crisis but as IBON has repeatedly raised in the past, infrastructure development for transport as well other key sectors carried out with profit-driven agenda contradicts and undermines the role of infrastructure in improving the living condition of the people and serving the overall economic development and general public interests of the country. ###

This article was first published as IBON Features

(Exchange rate used: Php50.2752 per US dollar, March 2017 average, BSP – http://www.bsp.gov.ph/statistics/spei_new/tab12_pus.htm)

#OccupyBulacan and the anarchy in housing and urban development

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Photo from Kadamay

When the urban poor group Kadamay (Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap) led the occupation of idle housing units in a government relocation site in Pandi, Bulacan last week, President Rodrigo Duterte called the action “anarchy”. He even threatened them with eviction.

Latest report says that the urban poor families – numbering about 5,000 people – have already occupied six government housing sites in Pandi and in San Jose del Monte, also in Bulacan.

But if there’s anarchy in this situation, it is not the occupation by the poor of some 4,000 houses that have been left empty for years. It is the flawed, profit-driven public housing program and government’s continuing neglect of the chronic housing crisis that have brought about anarchy in housing production and meeting the needs of the poor and homeless.

These housing units have been unused not because of lack of demand. According to the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), the housing backlog as of December 2016 is pegged at 2.02 million units. From this backlog, the total housing needs is expected to swell to almost 6.80 million units by 2022, growing annually by more than 796,000.

Meanwhile, there are more than 1.50 million informal settler families (ISFs) nationwide, of whom 39% are concentrated in Metro Manila, based on government’s latest data.

The actual figures are much higher of course considering how official poverty data understate the real extent of poverty. A September 2016 survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), for instance, estimates that 36% of Metro Manila’s population count themselves as poor. That’s equivalent to around 4.64 million urban poor in the capital alone.

Amid such a huge (and growing) housing backlog and enormous number (official count or otherwise) of urban poor who need decent shelter, there are idle housing units like those in Bulacan. The National Housing Authority (NHA) said that the there are about 52,341 idle housing units as of last year.

This is the anarchy that Duterte should be concerned with, one that raises the question of not only bureaucratic inefficiency and neglect, but more fundamentally, of state policy and social justice.

The anarchy is actually not just in the housing program but also in the overall urban development plan of government, implemented mainly through public-private partnership (PPP), that is biased against the poor and skewed towards oligarchic interests.

To illustrate, profit-oriented infrastructure development in urban centers via PPP such as the construction of mega business districts often leads to the blatant marginalization of poor communities from access to basic social and economic services. Government promotes these projects with its neoliberal bias of allocating public lands not based on the social and development needs of the people but on the most commercially profitable use of urban lands.

One example is the Php65-billion Quezon City Business District (QCBD), a 2009 joint venture between the NHA and Ayala Land Inc. for 10 years. QCBD is touted as the country’s “first transit-oriented, mixed-use business district” and will include, among others, the construction of 45 towers over 29 hectares of property.

The project covers an area where the Ayala group already has established business interests such as the Trinoma Mall and LRT-1. Thousands of urban poor settlers in the area have already been dislocated, with more to come. The NHA estimates that the QCBD will displace over 15,000 families. Even the public Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC), which mainly serves poor children, has been under threat of dislocation by the QCBD.

Development of urban infrastructure under PPP does not only burden the public with exorbitant user fees, state guarantees, tax incentives, etc. but even compromises the usefulness of the infrastructure itself as projects are designed not for public interest but to meet the specific and narrow business interests of the private project proponents.

This is illustrated, for example, by the controversy on the common station of the LRT-1 PPP project. The Ayala group, which is part of the consortium that won the said project, wanted to build the common station – that will link LRT-1 with MRT-3 – in front of its own Trinoma Mall even if it undermines the access and convenience of commuters, on top of additional costs that the public will shoulder.

Turned over to profit-seeking business interests, infrastructure development has become anarchic instead of being planned and coordinated within a pro-people urban development framework. This has resulted to the dismal state of public housing, transportation system, public utilities, and other key economic and social infrastructure.

It is the State that Duterte now represents that brought anarchy to the urban poor. The Occupy Bulacan, on the other hand, is an organized political action by the poor to expose and challenge this anarchy and to assert the legitimate people’s right to shelter and development. ###

Duterte’s Defense chief, US imperialism’s reliable point man

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Photo from Rappler

It is fitting that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made the first public declaration of the Duterte regime’s all-out war against the New People’s Army (NPA).

Duterte’s termination of the peace talks, after all, is the culmination of the military and security establishment’s relentless campaign to undermine the peace efforts by the NPA, Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

Amid the peace negotiations and indefinite unilateral ceasefire separately declared by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the NPA, the AFP under the executive supervision of the Defense Secretary, occupied some 500 barrios nationwide and pursued combat operations against the NPA.

Apparently meant to provoke the NPA, Lorenzana has actively spread the propaganda that these combat operations are anti-criminality initiatives of the police, assisted by the AFP, against supposed lawless elements.

In addition, it can also be assumed that it was the defense and military establishment headed by Lorenzana that convinced Duterte to renege on his earlier commitments to release the political prisoners.

The increasingly untenable unilateral ceasefire and issue of political prisoners proved to be the really thorny issues in the peace talks from the onset until its eventual termination by Duterte.

The role and agenda of Lorenzana in sabotaging the peace talks – which based on the last joint statement of the NDFP and government panels were moving positively overall and faster than expected despite the contentious issues – is better understood by exposing what is at stake for US imperialism and the latter’s ties with Duterte’s Defense chief.

For all the scathing remarks of Duterte against former US President Barack Obama and the independent foreign policy rhetoric, the volatile President isn’t the biggest foe of US imperialism in the Philippines. It is still the CPP-NPA-NDFP, and its revolution for national democracy and sovereignty that the US and its string of trusty puppet regimes have failed to defeat in the past 48 years.

A successful peace agreement with the revolutionary groups would seriously impair US imperialism’s strategic political, military and economic interests in the country and region. At a time of prolonged global monopoly capitalist crisis, rise of China and its strengthening alliance with Russia, and America’s own uncertainties under a Trump regime, it is crucial for US imperialism to protect its dominant position in its neo-colonies like the Philippines.

And here comes Lorenzana, a retired Philippine Army General, as US imperialism’s reliable point man.

For most part of the past two decades, Lorenzana was based in Washington DC. He was the Philippines’ defense and armed forces attaché from 2002 to 2004 and special representative for veterans’ affairs from 2004 to 2015. (Read Lorenzana’s profile on the Defense department’s website)

Among his tasks was to supervise and monitor the bilateral military relations between the Philippines and the US. It covers the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), military exercises, military aid, training, and foreign military sales.

Lorenzana was among those who developed the terms of reference (TOR) for the Balikatan exercises in 2002. That TOR was the first in Balikatan history that allowed US involvement in domestic combat operations.

The US State Department trained Lorenzana on crisis management. The US Armed Forces bestowed on him the Legion of Merit, a military honor for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements”.

It’s not only in the peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDFP that Lorenzana capably played his role as US imperialism’s point man. Remember how he tempered Duterte’s tirades against the US and threats of rescinding the VFA and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and stopping the military exercises with the US?

Now, we ended up with the US building military facilities inside agreed locations under the EDCA as announced recently by Lorenzana, of course, as well as 258 joint exercises with the US military this year under the VFA.

But it is important to stress that Lorenzana’s key role in promoting the interests of US imperialism does not absolve President Duterte of accountability in the scuttled peace talks and the continuing US military presence and intervention. As President, the ultimate and biggest accountability still rests on him.

By Lorenzana’s own account, he and the President first became close when he was assigned in Davao in the late 1980s to lead counterinsurgency operations against the NPA. A product of that stint of Lorenzana in Davao was State sponsorship of the anti-communist vigilante group Alsa Masa, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU).

That all-out war obviously did not result in the decisive downfall of the NPA, only in the breakdown of human rights and rule of law. ###

CPP founding anniversary: Peace talks is Duterte’s best option against 48-year old insurgency

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Photo by Southern Tagalog Exposure

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) warned the Duterte administration that it may be forced to soon withdraw its declared unilateral ceasefire amid the continuing armed operations of the military and unfulfilled commitment of the President to release all political prisoners. The CPP made the statement as it marks the 48th anniversary of its establishment today, December 26. (Read here)

About half a million Filipinos in more than 500 barrios nationwide are affected by military presence and alleged human rights atrocities and repression after units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) occupied their areas, in violation of the military’s own unilateral truce and apparently taking advantage of the rebel-declared ceasefire. Meanwhile, some 400 political prisoners remain in detention in various jails around the country.

One week after becoming the clear winner of the 2016 presidential polls, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would seek general amnesty for all political prisoners. The move was seen as a confidence-building measure in pursuing peace talks with the CPP, its political arm the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and its armed unit New People’s Army (NPA). (Watch here)

Before Duterte’s official inauguration last June, his then incoming Labor chief and peace panel chair also said that the new government would release political prisoners covered by the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) even before a general amnesty is granted. Also to be released early supposedly are the elderly and sick on humanitarian reasons. (Read here) The JASIG is a 1995 agreement produced by the peace talks between the NDFP and the then Ramos administration. It prohibits the state from arresting or persecuting rebels who are participating in the negotiations as NDFP consultants. (Read here) Just early this month, Duterte reportedly again committed the release of 165 elderly and sick political prisoners during a meeting in Davao City with top NDFP officials. (Read here)

But now six months into his presidency, only one political prisoner has been released through presidential pardon under Duterte. No detainee has been freed because of JASIG or for humanitarian grounds, much less through general amnesty, with one elderly and sick political prisoner already succumbing to poor health. The 19 NDFP peace talks consultants were temporarily released on bail while another 21 political prisoners won their cases in courts or availed of legal remedies. Further, 15 new political prisoners were illegally arrested and detained since Duterte became President. (Read here)

Meanwhile, despite its own declaration of ceasefire, the AFP continues to militarize the rural areas and to conduct armed and intelligence operations, the CPP claims. The notorious Oplan Bayanihan, according to reports, will not be discontinued by the Duterte administration but will even intensify albeit with “minor additions” in the light of the ongoing peace talks. (Read here) Duterte’s appointment of the controversial and alleged human rights violator General Eduardo Año as the new AFP chief also signals that the anti-communist counterinsurgency campaign targeting the civil and political rights of civilians, including through extrajudicial killings of activists, will remain. (Read here)

It seems that instead of creating a more conducive environment for the peace talks, the Duterte administration is making it even more difficult for the already complicated negotiation on social and economic reforms – the agenda in the upcoming round of talks – to succeed. Coupled with its repressive and bloody drug war that targets the poor and powerless, avowed commitment to continue the neoliberal economic policies that impoverish the people, and role in completing the political comeback of the despised Marcoses, the Duterte administration is in fact creating conditions for greater social conflict and unrest.

The NPA ceasefire, which at more than 100 days is now the longest in its almost five-decade existence, shows the eagerness of the revolutionary groups to negotiate a peace agreement with Duterte that will address the roots of what is essentially a civil war being waged by landless peasants and other oppressed and exploited classes in Philippine society. Despite flip-flopping on his earlier commitments on a general amnesty for all political detainees and the release of those who are elderly and sick, the NDFP still expressed willingness to discuss Duterte’s call for a bilateral ceasefire agreement.

Duterte should not throw away this opportunity. For almost five decades, six regimes with support from the world’s richest economy and most powerful military, the US, have used brutal dictatorship and all-out war, ruthless extrajudicial methods as well as treacherous propaganda to end the civil war, but to no avail.

Despite being up against the formidable machinery and resources of the state and its imperialist backers, the NPA today, under CPP leadership, is said to operate in more than 70 provinces covering hundreds of municipalities and thousands of barangays nationwide and can supposedly move freely in 80% of Philippine territory – a claim bolstered by its string of successful tactical offensives in recent years. (Read here) Indeed, it appears that the negotiating table is the Duterte administration’s best option against the longest running and most resilient insurgency in the region. ###

US aid and imperialism

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Photo from The Philippine Star

For daring the US and others to withdraw their aid, President Rodrigo Duterte has been called a “psychopath”. For those whose way of thinking has been systematically warped by colonialism and neocolonialism/imperialism, it is plain madness. As a poor country, why would we shun the “altruism” of rich countries like the US?

On the contrary, the US would rather not stop its aid program here. Since our nominal independence from the US’s colonial rule 70 years ago, patronage through economic and military aid has been a key component of enduring US imperialist domination and plunder of the Philippines.

Beyond altruism

Data from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) show that from 2001 to 2014, total economic aid to the Philippines reached more than US$1.94 billion (in current prices). Total military aid during the same period reached almost US$566.11 million. That’s a combined US$2.51 billion in 14 years. Annually, the US disbursed US$138.95 million in economic aid and US$40.44 million in military aid or a combined $179.39 million every year from 2001 to 2014.

For 2015, preliminary USAID data show that the US disbursed $180.62 million in economic aid. There’s no 2015 data yet on military aid from the USAID online database. Reports, however, say that US military assistance for the Philippines was about US$50 million last year that will reportedly rise to US$79 million in 2016, on top of another US$42 million from the new US-Southeast Asia Maritime Initiative.

Further, note that US assistance to the Philippines has grown quite substantially under President Barack Obama and his declared US pivot to Asia. From 2010 to 2014, US economic aid increased by almost 15% in real terms annually. Military aid grew by almost 8% a year during the same period.

(US economic and military aid data since 1946 can be generated from USAID’s reports & data)

And we’re counting just the bilateral aid from the US. The US is also a major contributor to multilateral bodies like the World Bank and agencies of the United Nations (UN), which provide development aid to the Philippines as well.

That’s a lot of aid money that Duterte would be foregoing if the he will really spurn American patronage.

But as mentioned, there’s more to foreign aid than the simple altruism of donors. Aid, especially US aid, is used not for development cooperation but to advance the interests and agenda of the donor and deepen their patron-client relationship with the aid recipient. It is an effective neocolonial tool to foster continued dependence and subservience, and steer domestic policy making in directions that the donor wants. Lastly, aid is also a means for the US to directly create profit-making opportunities for their transnational corporations (TNCs).

Education, health, disaster relief

Remember how the US used the public education system as an integral part of their colonization campaign in the Philippines? It was far more successful in making Filipinos subservient to the colonizers than using purely military might. Colonial education was so effective that many Filipinos could not imagine life without the US. Just look at the reaction to Duterte’s stance on independent foreign policy.

It continues to this day through, among others, the use of foreign assistance. Classified by purpose, the largest bilateral US aid disbursed to the Philippines in 2015 was in Primary Education at US$25.33 million. Almost half of this amount, US$12.49 million, went to the Basa Pilipinas project of the USAID. Through this project, the US develops and distributes teaching and learning materials, English books and reading materials, etc. for local teachers to use for their Grades 1-3 pupils. Another US$5.35 million in US aid was also disbursed for Higher Education in 2015. (See Chart 1)

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The second biggest chunk of US aid disbursement last year went to Material Relief Assistance and Services with US$20.37 million. They also disbursed US$3.84 million for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness; US$1.92 million for Emergency Food Aid; and more than US$1 million for Relief Coordination, Protection and Support Services.

The US has been using disaster relief to justify and expand their military presence in disaster-prone countries like the Philippines. The controversial Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), for instance, was justified using the pretext of humanitarian aid and disaster relief. American troops can base in military facilities here so they can preposition not just their weapons and war machines but also “humanitarian relief supplies”. (Read for instance, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement on EDCA made last July 2016)

Family Planning also traditionally gets a big portion of US aid with disbursement reaching US$17.08 million in 2015. Related sectors also got significant amounts such as Reproductive Health Care (US$3.94 million) and Population Policy and Administrative Management (US$0.43 million).

Population control has long been a strategy of US imperialism in the Philippines. In 1974, the USAID and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), among others, produced the “Kissinger Report”. It said that population growth threatens US access to the natural resources of poor countries. A large population of youth must also be controlled because they are most likely to challenge US imperialism. The Philippines is one of 13 countries identified in the Kissinger Report as primary targets of US-led population control efforts.

Public health is another major sector that the US has been long supporting in the country. In 2015, the US disbursed US$16.04 million in aid for Tuberculosis Control and more than US$0.90 million for STD Control including HIV/AIDS. A productive and efficient (and, of course, cheap) labor force is one of the primary resources that US imperialism exploits for super profits. Control of infectious diseases like TB and AIDS helps ensure an efficient workforce, which poor countries with weak public health systems due to imperialist plunder and underdevelopment could not afford

Plus, big US pharmaceutical companies that have monopoly over patented drugs used in these health programs are assured of markets. In the Philippines, for instance, the anti-TB campaign is a partnership between USAID and Johnson & Johnson, an American pharmaceutical and consumer goods giant.

Aid and policymaking

But the biggest impact of US aid in the Philippines is on how national economic policies and priorities are determined. Obama, for instance, introduced the Partnership for Growth (PFG) initiative. It is an aid program participated in and coordinated by the USAID, State Department, Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) and other US agencies as well as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and various UN bodies.

Through the PFG, the US deepens its role in national policy making such as through the five-year Joint Country Action Plan (JCAP), which identified priority areas for policy reforms in the Philippines. These include trade and investment liberalization, deregulation, effective enforcement of contracts with private business (such as those engaging in public-private partnership or PPP), as well as fiscal and judicial reforms.

An example of how US steers internal policy-making is the PFG’s centerpiece program in the Philippines, which is the $433.91-million grant from the MCC. The MCC is a highly conditional aid and requires the Philippines to, among others, maintain so-called “economic freedom” to continue receiving the grant.

One of the indicators of economic freedom, as designed by the MCC, is the Trade Policy Indicator. It measures the country’s openness to international trade based on average tariff rates and non-tariff barriers (e.g. trade quotas, production subsidies, government procurement procedures, anti-dumping, local content requirements, etc.) to trade. The “Compact” or agreement between the Philippine government (as represented then by the Aquino administration) and MCC is that the latter may suspend or terminate the grant if the country fails to reverse its policies that are inconsistent with the Trade Policy Indicator and other indicators designed by the MCC.

Also part of the implementation of the PFG is The Arangkada Philippines Project (TAPP) of the USAID and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). Through the USAID-funded TAPP, AmCham is pushing for 471 specific recommendations that promote the interest of foreign corporations in the country through greater liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization. These are contained in the comprehensive advocacy paper “Arangkada Philippines 2010: A business perspective” prepared by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines (JFC), of which AmCham is a key member.

Under the TAPP, the JFC has been producing Legislation Policy Briefs that identify broad recommendations for Congress and the Executive. Among the many proposals of the JFC is the lifting of constitutional restrictions on foreign investments through Charter change (Cha-cha).

All these are in preparation for the country’s future membership in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The TPP is an ambitious free trade deal and the latest campaign of US imperialism to further deepen and consolidate its economic domination in Asia Pacific in the face of a rising China. Just last March 2016, the US Chamber of Commerce, with funding from USAID under the PFG’s five-year US$12.84-million Trade-Related Assistance for Development (TRADE) project, released its “readiness assessment” of Philippine membership in the TPP.

The said report examined the “consistency of the country’s existing policy framework with the agreement’s requirements, and the implied changes that may be necessary if the Philippines is to meet these requirements”. As expected, one of the “implied changes” is liberalization through Cha-cha. (The full report may be downloaded here)

Military patronage

Lastly, the US employs military aid not to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) but to maintain its influence and control over our military. US military aid mostly comes in the form of Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Under the FMF, the US provides grants and loans to help the Philippines buy US-made weapons and defense equipment as well as acquiring defense services and military training.

In 2014, US$50 million in FMF was disbursed by the US to the Philippines out of the total US$57 million in military aid that year. The Philippines is traditionally one of the largest recipients of FMF among all US allies. It ranked fifth in 2014 in terms of FMF behind Egypt, Israel, Pakistan and Jordan. The country also accounted for 64% of US FMF in East Asia and the Pacific. (Data here)

However, military items that the country gets under the FMF and other US military aid programs are either surplus or second-hand and antiquated military articles. They are also not actually given for free but are sold at a discount (with a portion of the amount shouldered or waived by the US through the FMF).

Examples include the five-decade old US Coast Guard vessels (“Hamilton-class cutters”) that the US Navy has retired and sold to the Philippines. Since 2012, the Philippines has already bought two of these decommissioned ships for about US$25 million – and a third one is expected soon – through the FMF, Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Excess Defense Article (EDA) programs.

The weapons systems of the ships have also been removed by the US prior to their turnover to the Philippine Navy. The country had to separately purchase from the US the vessels’ weapons and guns as well as additional technology including radar system, anti-ship missile system, etc. US military aid thus also means more business for the US military industrial complex.

Aside from FMF, other US military aid programs in the Philippines include counter-narcotics, military education and training, cooperative threat reduction, and counter-terrorism fellowship program. (See Chart 2)

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Along with annual military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), military aid fosters complete dependence of the AFP on US military technology, hardware and expertise. It also helps justify the continued presence of American troops in the country. But despite decades of US military patronage, the AFP remains one of the weakest and least modernized in the region. The Abu Sayyaf that the US has long been using to legitimize their military presence in the country persists and continues to terrorize the people.

Mutual respect, sovereignty

Foreign aid is not necessarily bad. It is, in fact, an important element of cooperation among countries to promote development. But as the case of US aid in the Philippines illustrates, aid could also be used to perpetuate the skewed relationship between the donor and recipient, between the colonial master and colony.

Such unequal, oppressive and exploitative relation between the US and the Philippines is the real reason why the country is underdeveloped and Filipinos are starving. If the Duterte administration rejects US aid to pursue a truly independent foreign policy and nurture development cooperation with other countries based on mutual respect and sovereignty, then we are already taking the initial steps to address the underlying causes of our poverty and hunger. ###