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. ###

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Economy, Governance, Human rights, Military & war, SONA 2017

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. ###

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Consumer issues, Power industry, Privatization

Mindanao power is more expensive than Asia’s major cities

Mindanao power is more expensive than electricity rates in major cities in Asia but Aquino wants the region to pay more to supposedly address its power crisis (Photo from manilastandardtoday.com)

Mindanao must pay more to end the rotating brownouts, the President declared in his Power Summit speech. The region, said Aquino, needs more power supply but “cheap” power rates are discouraging private investors from building new power plants to meet Mindanao’s growing energy needs.

Pay more

“But how can you entice anyone to invest—and this is the question—if their generating cost is more than their selling cost?” Aquino, in his speech, asked. “The simple truth is: we can have a lot more energy, but we have to provide the incentives for businesses to come here to put up those plants. Therefore, there will be a change in what we have to pay. We will have to pay, perhaps, a bit more… You have to pay more because this is the reality of economics… Everything has its price. We have to pay a real price for a real service. There are actually just only two choices: pay a little more for energy, or live with the lack of energy and the continuation of the rotating brownouts.”

Cheap rates?

Aquino must apologize to the people of Mindanao for blaming them for the power crisis and accusing them of being spoiled by “cheap” power rates. Aquino must apologize for being shamelessly insensitive to the plight of Mindanao where 36% of the country’s poorest families live (based on the latest official poverty statistics released by the National Statistical Coordination Board or NSCB).

The premise that Mindanao has been unjustifiably enjoying “cheap” power rates is totally wrong. True, Mindanao has lower power rates than Luzon and Visayas. Latest available comparative data show that the region has an effective residential rate of P6.69 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Luzon has P9.84 while Visayas has P8.19. (Data from 18th EPIRA Implementation Status Report, which may be downloaded here)

Most expensive in Asia

Aquino, however, did not mention one very important fact. Mindanao power is “cheap” only because the country has the highest electricity rates in Asia. In a survey conducted by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Manila posted the most expensive residential rate (P10.16 per kWh), while Cebu (P8.39) is ranked third (Singapore ranked second with P8.83). JETRO conducted the survey in January 2011 to compare investment-related costs, including electricity, in 31 major cities in Asia and Oceania. (See the table at the end of this article for the complete list; Download the JETRO survey here)

While Aquino is blaming the power crisis on the people of Mindanao for being pampered by “cheap” power, Mindanao is actually paying much more than most major cities in Asia. Did you know that residential consumers in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Cagayan de Oro City, Northern Mindanao, and the Davao and CARAGA regions are paying twice the electricity rates of residents in Seoul and Beijing? Except for CARAGA, all the Mindanao regions I mentioned also have more expensive residential power rates than Hong Kong. These areas in Mindanao, plus Cotabato City, Iligan City, SOCCKSARGEN, and the Zamboanga Peninsula all have higher residential rates than major Asian capitals like Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, New Delhi, Bangkok, and Shanghai, among others. All in all, Mindanao is paying an average of P1.82 per kWh more for electricity than the collective average residential rate of the 31 major cities in Asia and Oceania surveyed by JETRO.

I summarized these findings in the chart below, which culled data on residential rates from the JETRO survey and data on average residential rates of private distribution utilities (PDUs) and average systems rates of electric cooperatives (ECs) from the 18th EPIRA report. The red bars represent Mindanao regions and cities.

Poorest region

Note that Mindanao has an average official poverty incidence of 33.5% of families (the national average is 20.9%). The country’s three poorest regions are in Mindanao – CARAGA (39.8%), ARMM (38.1%), and Zamboanga Peninsula (36.6%). ARMM does not only have the most expensive power rates in Mindanao, it also has (consequently) the highest cost of living (more than P1,287 based on the family living wage released by the NSCB in July 2008) among all regions in the Philippines, while the minimum wage there is just P232 (or just 18% of the cost of living). Amid this condition, the people of Mindanao are being forced to pay for electricity that is way beyond the rates in Asia’s richest cities. Yet Aquino wants Mindanao to shell out more money to supposedly solve its power crisis.

Blame EPIRA

Mindanao has lower rates than Luzon and Visayas not only because it sources its energy supply from cheaper hydropower but also because the region has been relatively and temporarily spared from the privatization and deregulation drive under EPIRA. State-controlled/owned installed capacity in Mindanao is still about 82% of the total (as of 2010 data from the DOE), compared to 18% in Luzon and 36% in Visayas where most power plants have already been privatized and are now controlled by the country’s profit-seeking “power lords”. Furthermore, unlike Luzon and Visayas, Mindanao does not have an EPIRA-created wholesale electricity spot market (WESM), which has only become a venue for price manipulation and speculation by power monopolies, sparking off wild spikes in power rates.

But EPIRA is also to blame for Mindanao’s energy insecurity. While government retained control over most of the installed and dependable capacity in Mindanao, it did not invest in additional capacity to meet the growing power demand of the region. Government abandoned its strategic role to design and implement power development projects consistent with a long-term industrialization plan and instead focused on selling the assets of the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) to private investors as mandated under EPIRA.

Reverse privatization

To fully solve the energy insecurity of Mindanao and the rest of the country as well as the problem of expensive electricity, there is no other recourse but for the state to take over. Aquino could no longer use the excuse that doing so will just further bankrupt the government. Despite the EPIRA, NAPOCOR remains trapped in deep debt (read here). So instead of further wasting limited public resources on a flawed energy program – which only made electricity bills more exorbitant and power supply more insecure – government should start reversing the privatization and deregulation of the energy sector. #

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