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On Distant Shore

On Distant Shore (43)

Almost exactly nine years ago, in the morning of November 23, 2009, a convoy of six vehicles, including two carrying 32 journalists, rolled out from Buluan town in Maguindanao to accompany the wife of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu who was set to file her husband’s certificate of candidacy for governor of Maguindanao in the Commission on Elections office in Shariff Aguak.

 

Mangudadatu, who said he received reports that he would be chopped off if he filed his certificate of candidacy, had sent his wife, lawyers and relatives, mostly women, and requested 37 media members to witness the filing in the hope that his rival, Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., son of the powerful Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., would not dare touch a group of women and journalists.

 

He was wrong.

 

The 58-member convoy was stopped by more than 100 armed men, believed to be members of the Ampatuans’ dreaded private army and militia men, as they neared Shariff Aguak, herded and brought to a hill in Ampatuan town where they were executed and later buried in shallow graves, some of them still inside their vehicles.

 

The wife of Mangudadatu was reportedly slapped and shot in close range allegedly by Ampatuan Jr. himself while some of the other women, including four female journalists, were reported to have been raped before being shot to death by Ampatuan’s men.

 

The first people to arrive at the scene saw several bodies still lying near the vehicles with the others half-buried on the Ampatuan hill as the operator of the provincial government-owned heavy equipment fled after seeing a helicopter hovering above.

 

It was a horrifying scene, described by the International Crisis Group as “one of the worst acts of political violence in modern Philippine history, and the largest number of journalists slain on a single day ever, anywhere in the world.”

 

“This looks like Rwanda,” Peruvian forensics expert Jose Pablo Baraybar was quoted as having described the massacre site. Baraybar was referring to the tiny African nation where 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutu militiamen at the height of a civil war in 1994.

 

We are narrating the events of that fateful day based on the accounts of some journalists and witnesses so that we may never forget the cruelty and barbarism of that infamous incident and in the hope that the government will finally do something to end the culture of violence and impunity in our country.

 

A total of 197 were originally accused of multiple murders when the trials began in January 2010, but only 103 remain under trial, including prime suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr., and his brothers Zaldy Ampatuan and Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan, the latter out on bail after the court granted him bail in January 2015. Twelve other surnamed Ampatuans are in the list of the accused. The patriarch, former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., was also included in the charge sheet but he died in detention on July 17, 2015.

 

The trial court has already heard a total of 273 witnesses — 166 for the prosecution and 107 for the defense. The transcripts of stenographic notes have reached 59 volumes, while the records of the cases are 129 volumes thick, plus 10 volumes of prosecution’s evidence.  Some potential witnesses have reportedly been killed while others are missing.

 

And yet, nine years and three administrations since the gruesome murders, not one of the accused has been convicted. The Department of Justice said on Monday that Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes was expected to now set the promulgation of the case where she would decide whether to convict or acquit Ampatuan and the other accused. The decision, according to the DOJ, would most probably be reached in the first quartet of next year, as early as January.

 

Year after year on the day of the massacre, November 23, journalists and relatives of the victims light candles in the hope that it would move the government to give priority to the resolution of the case and, therefore, show that amid the darkness, the light of justice would eventually prevail.

 

Will justice finally prevail?

 

The need to render justice on this horrific incident becomes even more important and urgent in the wake of recent murders of media men that have increased the tally of unsolved media killings, and the recent upsurge of political violence ahead of the mid-term elections in May next year.

 

Almost every week, we hear of mayors, vice mayors, councilors and other local politicians being ambushed or assassinated with the coming elections -- expected to be bloodier because of the culture of violence and impunity that has been heightened by President Duterte’s reckless speeches -- still six months away.

 

Convicting and rendering the harshest possible sentence on those found guilty of the Maguindanao massacre will hopefully send a strong signal to political warlords that they can no longer decide the outcome of elections by violence, and that the rule of law still prevails in the country.

 

The culture of impunity will continue to cast a dark shadow over the country unless the government shows its resolve to arrest the suspects of media and political killings and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law and in the fastest time possible. Finally finding justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre would be a good start.

 

The reason that the culture of impunity continues is because nothing has been done to make the wheels of justice run faster. The Maguindanao massacre numbers are glaring: 58 dead, 9 years, 0 justice.

 

Will it finally become 58 dead, 9 years, 103 guilty? Will the yearly candles finally bring justice into the light amid the darkness that has prevailed over our country for decades?

 

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For decades, Filipinos have been talking about political empowerment in the United States. Despite the many valiant efforts of many of our kababayans, we still have to prove that we are a potent force in our adopted country.

 

We don’t have to illustrate the importance of having Filipino votes matter or of having our representatives in America’s corridors of power. We need to show that we have the numbers to influence policies and legislation in Washington, in our state capitals, and in our cities. We also need to show that we have the vote to elect our fellow Filipinos and other candidates supportive of our concerns to key positions nationally and locally.

 

With our numbers, we should be able to make American politicians listen to what we have to say and therefore help protect and promote the welfare of Filipinos both here in the US and in the Philippines.

 

It remains a wonder that despite our huge population and our high ranking in household income among ethnic groups in the US, we have remained politically invisible. As a group, we have largely been ignored politically for decades.

 

But there are good signs that we will soon achieve our longtime dream of political empowerment. The new generation of Filipinos, raised in the great democratic tradition of America, is beginning to rise up and yearn to be heard and be counted.

The coming mid-term elections will give Filipino-Americans another shot at being recognized as a potent force in American politics. Many Filipino-Americans are running for key positions in various cities throughout the United States.

 

For example, in Texas’ 23rd congressional district, Democratic candidate Gina Ortiz-Jones, 37, a native of Pangasinan and a graduate of the University of the Philippines, is running against Republican incumbent Will Hurd in District 23. She hopes to become the first member of the US Congress of Philippine descent.

 

Two other women are running for Congress: Cristina Osmena in California’s 14thcongressional district; and Dr. Jennifer Mijares-Zimmerman in Florida’s first congressional district. Zimmerman is a Democrat running against Republican incumbent Matt Gaetz while Osmena of the Philippines’ Osmena political clan is a Republican.

 

All three are running uphill battles as Jones and Zimmerman are Democrats running in  Republican strongholds while Osmena is a Republican running in a strongly Democratic state.

 

Another FilAm, Joshua Price is running for US Representative of District 39 in Arkansas while Edwin Duterte tried to be an official candidate but was knocked out of the running earlier in the primary for US Representative in California's District 43 early.

 

 Rep. Bobby Scott, meanwhile, is running for reelection in Virginia's District 3.

 

Multiple times Mayor Jose Estevez is seeking a return as mayor of Milpitas City against six opponents while lawyer Garry Barbadillo is running for reelection as council member. Estevez and Barbadillo are both Republicans, according to Philippines Today editor in chief Alfred Gabot.

 

Here in Southern California, the foremost Filipino-American candidates are Carson Councilmember Elito Santarina, who is seeking his fifth term; Artesia Councilmember and former Mayor Victor Manalo and Melissa Ramoso, for Artesia City Council; and former Anaheim Councilmember Lorri Galloway, for Anaheim mayor.

 

There are other candidates running for various positions, from district school boards to city councils, but for this article, we will focus on the candidacies of our fellow Filipinos in the cities of Artesia and Carson where there are sizeable Filipino populations and where our bets are locked in tight races.

 

In Artesia, Manalo and Ramoso are vying for three available council seats. Manalo and incumbent Ali Raj are running for reelection while a third seat was rendered vacant by the retirement of Mayor Sally Flowers.

 

Filipinos have a strong chance to land two seats in the council for the first time since three seats are being contested. While five other candidates are also running, Manalo has a very good chance of being voted back to a seat he has occupied since 2007, including a stint as mayor in 2010-2011. Ramoso, who is running for the second time, also has a fairly good chance of winning this time, probably along with Manalo and Taj.

 

But as in any election, nothing is given. Candidates have to work hard to get the voters’ nod, not just from Filipinos but also from other voters. Filipinos can help assure this by voting and solidly supporting Manalo and Ramoso. First, all eligible Filipino voters must register and all qualified ones must make sure to go to the polls or mail in their absentee ballots with the names of Manalo and Ramoso on them.

 

Carson, which has seen numerous Filipinos in the city council and other key positions since the early 1990s, is an even tougher race with only longtime Councilmember Elito Santarina, who is seeking his fifth term, battling it out with seven other candidates, including longtime Councilmember Lula Davis-Holmes, former Mayor Jim Dear, and Planning Commission Chair Mona Pimentel.

 

The City of Carson is one of the most diversified cities in the United States, almost equally divided among Filipinos, African-Americans, Latinos and whites. Filipinos, as of latest count, comprise the biggest group, reportedly with 27 percent of the population. The other ethnic groups range from 20 percent to 25 percent.

 

It should have been a cinch for a win for Santarina considering that Filipinos are the biggest voting bloc in the city. But the entry of Jim Dear, who is married to a Filipina, makes it a bigger challenge for Santarina. Holmes is expected to get solid support from the African-Americans and is favored to win one of only two seats up for grabs.

 

For decades, Filipinos have shown it is a force to reckon with in Carson. They have produced one mayor, Pete Fajardo, and three councilmembers – Santarina, Lorelei Olaes and Manny Ontal. Many Filipinos have also occupied key posts in various commissions in the city. And candidates from other ethnic backgrounds make it a point to woo Filipino votes.

 

With an expected close race among Santarina, Holmes, Dear and Pimentel, it is hoped that Filipinos would show its unity and work together to support and vote Santarina. We cannot afford to lose a seat in the Carson City Council.

 

Santarina and the other elected and appointed Filipinos before him have done so much to promote the welfare and pride of Filipinos in that part of Southern California. For example, the Philippine Independence Day celebration is one of the biggest and most-attended events in Carson because of the city government’s support largely won by the tireless efforts of Santarina and other Filipino leaders.

 

Also, Carson remains the only California city to host a life-sized statue of our national hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal, which is located in front of the City Hall grounds highly visible from Carson’s main street. It is the only city that celebrates a special holiday in honor of the great Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong on Oct. 25 wherein city employees are paid holiday pay. Through mostly Santarina’s efforts, the city also celebrates Rizal Day on Dec. 30, the Leyte Landing Day on Oct. 20, and the Fil-Am History Month in October, among others.

 

Without Filipino representation in the city council, these may all go to naught and city support and funding for these important events may be removed.

 

In conclusion, Filipinos should stand as one to ensure political empowerment in America. This coming election is a good start to show that as a people, we can be a potent force in American politics, with a voice that reverberates in the country’s corridors of power.(This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

 

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With its top two economic managers warning of the dangers of the rush to federalism, a third Cabinet member expressing doubts to the country’s readiness to the shift, and big business groups opposing a charter change, it’s inconceivable why the Duterte administration continues to insist that the proposed break-up of our tiny country into 18 federated regions remains its priority.

 

Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III, the head of the administration’s economic team, said the draft federal charter would widen the budget deficit, downgrade the country’s credit ratings, and may lead to job losses and fewer funds for the administration’s infrastructure program.

 

In unequivocable terms, Dominguez said “the possible repercussions could result in dire, irreversible economic consequences.”

 

Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, on the other hand, said the shift would be too costly for the government and may disrupt the economy’s growth momentum. Pernia, who also heads the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), said the shift to federalism would directly cost the government P120 billion, not including costs such as disruption of government projects, and would take critical funds from the administration’s centerpiece “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

 

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, describing the draft submitted by the constitutional committee created by President Duterte as “confusing,” warned that the country is “not yet” ready for the proposed change in the government system.

 

In calling for “full, open, and dispassionate dialogues” about federalism, several business groups, led by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), said they worry that the high cost of shifting to a federal form of government might lead to a fiscal deficit of 6.7 percent of the gross domestic product, which is way beyond the target of the economic managers.

 

“We worry about the dire consequences that such fiscal imbalance could have on the economy and the flagship ‘Build, Build, Build’ program of the current administration,” the business leaders said.

 

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., who has opposed federalism from Day One, said: “The Charter change and federalism proposed in the CCCOM would not bring (to the people) the manna from heaven, but tyranny, injustice, corruption, poverty and penury.”

 

Davide also said the Supreme Court has already ruled last month that the 40 percent IRA for the local government units shall be based on all ‘national taxes,’ not only on ‘internal revenue taxes.’

 

According to Davide, the LGUs can now collect their shares in all the national taxes from 1992, upon the effectivity of the Local Government Code. Under this decision, the amount owed by the national government to the LGUs effective 1992 until the present would reach P1.5 trillion.  

 

This ruling effectively removes the main reason being cited by federalism proponents, who said government funds are concentrated in “Imperial Manila” and local government units in other regions do not get their fair share for development.

 

The proposed charter calls for a 50-percent share for the regions from the national government tax revenues, but the Supreme Court already ruled that the local government units are entitled to 40 percent of national government revenues, so why aim for another 10 percent when it would bring all the unnecessary risks of an uncertain and untested federal form of government?

 

In his testimony to the Senate, Pernia noted that any hasty attempt to enforce federalism would set back the country’s economic progress and instead of giving regions a fair share, would just leave most of the regions even further behind.

 

He said only five of the proposed 18 federated regions, have the political and economic infrastructure that would allow them to adopt federalism. He cited four of the five regions—the National Capital Region, Cebu, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog.

 

Indeed, why change the present form of government when it is under this system that the country attained what has been touted as one of the highest economic growth rates in Asia? What can a federal form of government offer that can’t be fixed under the present setup? Why divide a nation that took years and our heroes’ blood to unite?

 

Why can’t the government just focus on sustaining the 6.5 to 6.7-percent economic growth that the country has had in the past several years? Why can’t this administration just focus on other ills that need immediate attention -- such as the runaway inflation, the rising prices that have worsened poverty in the country, the worsening traffic and transportation problems, the declining value of the Philippine peso, the degradation of moral values, the rampant graft and corruption – instead of draining the country’s limited resources and distracting the people and the public officials’ attention to a federal shift fraught with dangers and devoid of clear benefits?

 

The uncertainties that the proposed new system of government present have only added to the chaos and confusion that several policies of the Duterte administration have brought. Capital flight continues to hound the country, with several multinational companies planning to move out to business-friendlier countries such as Vietnam.

 

The stiff taxes that the administration imposed under its much-touted TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) have made it difficult for companies to survive, much less to sustain growth, and for ordinary Filipinos to put food on the table, triggering runaway inflation and threatening to decelerate, instead of accelerate, economic growth. In fact, it was reported last week that the economy has decelerated to 6.0 percent in the second quarter from the 6.6-percent in the first quarter, way below the 7 to 8 percent growth targeted by the government this year.

 

The cha-cha express, the term coined to denote the rush to charter change (cha-cha), and the shift to federal/parliamentary system of government, has only succeeded in derailing the administration’s own TRAIN and in distracting the country from the more pressing goal of accelerating economic growth and combatting poverty, while making our long-entrenched traditional politicians and political dynasties salivate over the prospect of strengthening their stranglehold on their respective fiefdoms and of having deeper coffers to dip their hands on.

 

We all have to raise our voices to stop this nonsense. Stop cha-cha now!

 

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Forgetting to express sympathy for the families of the seven people who have been killed so far and the thousands who have lost their homes and to praise the heroic efforts of some 14,000 firemen fighting wildfires in several areas across California, President Donald Trump would rather blame the state government, quite inexplicably, for its “bad environmental laws” and because, he said, it “diverts” water to the Pacific Ocean.

 

The President, who describes himself as “stable genius,” couldn’t even offer to explain how the state diverts the water to the Pacific Ocean or how California’s environmental laws, which are considered by experts as some of the most protective in the nation, can be considered “bad.”

 

One tweeter who immediately responded to Trump’s incredulous tweet had to remind him: “Water running into the Pacific Ocean is called a river.”

 

With the state suffering from drought for many years now, Sacramento has actually tightened the valve on water use, making sure that the limited supply of water is properly allocated for drinking, agricultural and environment needs and has very little left to drain into the ocean. It is not difficult to understand this when you live in California because most of the rivers in most parts of the state are dry.

 

Scientists, who are definitely more knowledgeable than the “stable genius” in the White House, agree that the problem is not that the state lacks the water to fight fires, but that years of drought have made forests and brush more flammable.

 

These scientists, who have been studying the effects of global warming and climate change on the world’s habitats, point to a shift in the jet stream – the river of high wind in the Northern Hemisphere – that is causing the extremely high temperatures in many parts of the world and is hastening the spread of deadly wildfires all over the world.

 

This phenomenon, a result of global warming, they said, could cause more hot, dry spells more wildfires in the future.

 

The jet stream shift has resulted in soaring temperatures in the West Coast, where temperatures averaged in the 100s in the past two weeks, and in traditionally cold areas like Scandinavia and Japan. Norway and Sweden, for example, which is close to the cold Arctic region, experienced rare 90 degrees last week, while Japan experienced its highest-ever temperature at 106 degrees. Other places, such as the East Coast, on the other hand, have seen relentless rain, even flooding in the summer months.

 

“We’re seeing this mix of conditions across North America and Europe, but they’re all connected,” said Jennifer Francis, a professor at Rutgers University who studies atmospheric circulation.

 

We can blame it all on global warming. Scientists point out that the greenhouse gases emitted from cars, power plants and factories, which trap sunlight and warm the atmosphere, have created conditions that are conducive to wildfire. They also noted that these have resulted in increasing water loss from soil and plants and decreasing snowmelt and river flows.

 

Researchers have concluded that human-caused warming was drying out forests so much that peak fire seasons across the West have expanded every year by an average of nine days since 2000.

 

Wildfires have not been exclusive to California and other Western states. In recent years, European countries have also been devastated by deadly wildfires, all because of global warming.

 

In Europe, where temperatures have reached record or near record highs, drought and wildfires have hit countries from Greece to Sweden. In Greece, 91 persons were killed in wildfires. Portugal, where 114 were killed in two massive forest fires, is still fighting wildfires that have already injured 44 persons and forced evacuation of thousands. Three men have died of heat stroke in Spain, which is also battling two wildfires.

 

The longest drought in decades have dried out rivers in The Netherlands and Germany, and wheat fields across Europe have been devastated. All these wildfires and drought are happening even as temperatures soar to record highs all over the European continent.

 

Amid all these frightening developments, Trump has chosen to ignore the warnings of global warming, all because he would rather protect big businesses and industries than the future of the world.

 

At about this time last year, Trump pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which aims to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future.

 

The Paris Agreement has been signed by 195 countries, and ironically, the United States, which accounts for about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions next only to China’s 30 percent, has become only the third nation, after Nicaragua and Syria, to refuse to cooperate with the entire world to save the planet and make it more livable for future generations.

 

In rejecting the agreement, Trump said it disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” But economists and political analysts said that leaving the accord will neither bring back jobs nor help the taxpayer, but will instead hurt the United States and the world.

 

Even during the presidential campaign, Trump had shown antagonism towards environmental protections. He vowed to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency tasked with tackling climate change. Upon election, he named as EPA head a former Oklahoma attorney general who worked with the oil industry to oppose Obama era regulations.

 

Trump then proposed drastic EPA budget cuts and employee buyouts, imposed a social media gag order on the staff, and actually moved to abolish the agency.

 

Last month, Trump announced plans to revoke the authority granted by the Clean Air Act to California to apply stricter car emission standards and to cut short a plan set by the Obama administration to raise fleet fuel efficiency averages to 50 miles per gallon (MPG) by 2025, apparently in support of the lobbying efforts by the US car industry.

 

In his latest tweet, Trump claims the California wildfires are being magnified, just as he is claiming that the global warming was exaggerated and was just “a Chinese hoax,” a claim echoed by many industries who are the main contributors to global warming in the first place.

 

Trump’s tweet on the California wildfires is just another proof that this “stable genius” billionaire is not really serious about making America great again, but to make American industries lord it over again at the expense of the American people.

 

Where really does Trump’s loyalty lie? To the people or to himself and his fellow billionaires?

 

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The issuance of arrest orders against four former progressive lawmakers last week showed that there would be no let-up in the crackdown against critics of the Duterte administration. After basically suppressing the political opposition with the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima, the ouster of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and the continuous threats to Vice President Leni Robredo and other members of the Liberal Party, the administration has now turned its sights on the leaders of the country’s progressive bloc.

 

In a totally unexpected move, Nueve Ecija Judge Evelyn Turla of the Regional Trial Court Branch 40 of Palayan, Nueva Ecija issued warrants of arrest against four former members of the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives -- former representatives Satur Ocampo and Teddy Casiño (Bayan Muna), Liza Maza (Gabriela), and Rafael Mariano (Anakpawis) for the alleged murder of two Bayan Muna critics in Palayan, Nueva Ecija in, take note, December 2003 and May 2004, respectively.

 

The case was filed in April 2006, or more than 12 years ago based on a complaint filed by the widows of the alleged victims – Jimmy Peralta and Carlito Baduyang. The charge sheet claimed that the four accused met at a Bayan Muna meeting in 1998 to plot the killings. A lawyer of Bayan Muna pointed out, however, that the claim of the witness could not be true because Bayan Muna was only organized two years after the alleged meeting.

 

In early 2007, the widows of Peralta and Baduyang, joined by the widow of an alleged third murder victim, filed a disqualification suit against the party list Bayan Muna, Gabriela and Anak Pawis before the Commission on Elections, alleging that Ocampo, Maza and Mariano were involved in the murder of their husbands with the help of “intelligence groups” and a “liquidation squad.”

 

The Comelec dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.

 

Judge Turla, who noted that the complaint was not sworn to before a public prosecutor, ruled in July 2008 that there was no probable cause for the filing charges. The judge said: “From the gathering of evidence until the termination of the preliminary investigation, it appears that the state prosecutors were overly eager to file the case and to secure a warrant of arrest of [petitioners] without bail and their consequent detention.”

 

The judge remanded the case to the prosecutors.

 

In February last year, the Supreme Court ordered the Nueva Ecija judge to act “with due haste and deliberate dispatch” on the murder case against the four former lawmakers. This was 11 years after the case was filed. More than 17 months after the order by the high tribunal, no action was done.

 

Suddenly, just a few days after the proclamation of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as the new Speaker of the House, Judge Turla turned around from her 2008 ruling, without announcing new evidence, and issued arrest warrants against the four militant leaders.

 

Although militant leaders admitted that they could not prove that Arroyo, under whose administration the charges were filed, had a hand in the issuance of the arrest warrants, they said the timing was highly suspicious. The progressive bloc led massive protests against Arroyo in 2004 that nearly toppled her if not for the intervention of former President Fidel Ramos after the “Garci” tape scandal, wherein she was heard instructing then Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to make sure she won by at least one million votes over the late actor Fernando Poe Jr.

 

The Makabayan coalition, in a statement, warned that “darker times are ahead” as attacks against groups critical of the Duterte government are increasing. “These attacks are highly condemnable and we will continue to oppose the anti-people and anti-poor policies of the Duterte administration,” the Makabayan Bloc said.

 

After flirting with the Left in the first year of his presidency, Duterte, who claims to be a socialist, distanced himself from his leftist allies in successive actions. He threatened to scuttle the peace talks with the communists and ordered an all-out war against the New People’s Army. He abandoned the three leftists in his Cabinet, including Mariano. He declared that after defeating the ISIS-backed Maute Group in Marawi, his next goal was to wipe out the communists in Mindanao. He revoked the security clearances of NDF consultants and threatened to arrest them and bring them back to jail.

 

In October, he heightened his crusade against the Left and the political opposition by alleging that the Liberal Party and the communists were plotting to destabilize his administration. He lumped into one the so-called Yellows and Reds as plotting to oust him, which the Communist Party, the legitimate Left and the Liberal Party all denied.

 

“It appears that such claims aim to set the stage to clamp down on the political opposition and all other forces standing up against moves to establishing Duterte’s authoritarian rule,” the CPP said. The CPP added “what Duterte claims to be a ‘conspiracy’ is, in fact, the broad community of various political and social groups which have been roused to make a stand and act against relentless killings by police, soldiers and vigilantes, aerial bombardment against communities, militarization and threats to bomb Lumad schools, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and martial law in Mindanao, heightened campus repression and other acts of fascist tyranny of the Duterte regime.” 

 

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, LP president, described Duterte’s allegations as a “fake ouster plot.” He added: “They’re (administration) just looking for something to divert attention of media and the public from the controversies of corruption, drug smuggling of the Davao group, and the ineffective war on drugs that only resulted in killings every day.”

 

With Arroyo joining Duterte at the helm of the government and the imminent return of the Marcoses in the corridors of power, it is almost certain the harassment of both the political opposition and the militant Left will go to a crescendo.

 

The photo showing Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos and former President now Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo smiling broadly last Monday during the thank you party on the election of Arroyo as House Speaker speaks volumes on what lies ahead for our country.

 

Indeed, darker times are ahead.

 

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There are two things that when discussed almost instantly divide a group of people – politics and religion. President Duterte has effectively used the first to divide the Filipino, knowing that with most of the political base that gave him an overwhelming victory in 2016 following him blindly despite his outrageous actions and remarks, the divide would tilt in his favor.

 

Families and friends have fought over Duterte’s policies over Facebook and other social media, and in reunions and meetings in the last two years. And for all those years, the cunning former Davao mayor has mostly maintained his political base. But when he recklessly and outrageously dwelt into religion, he may have overstepped his bounds and now face the possibility of losing his advantage in the national schism that he has created.

 

By asking the rhetoric question that nobody in his right mind would ask in Roman Catholic Philippines, “Who is this stupid God?”, Duterte divided his throng of followers into three: those that would stick with him for better or for worse, and rightly or wrongly; those who would now ask themselves, “Should I continue trusting this man?”; and those who would abide by their faith and their belief and abandon him outright.

 

Looking at this plain and simple equation, it is easy to see that with just one thoughtless, stupid remark, Duterte is beginning to lose his grip on his supporters, and apparently his grip on his own self. This is a man so overwhelmed by power and misplaced ego, he is hastening his journey to infamy and notoriety with every action and word that he makes.

 

This man who enjoys playing God in deciding who has sinned and who deserves to be thrown into the Pasig River and into the Manila Bay to be eaten by sharks, now thinks he is smarter than God and dares question the Church’s teachings.

 

“Who is this stupid God?” Duterte said in a televised speech in Davao last week. “You created something perfect and then you think of an event that would destroy the quality of your work? How can you rationalize that God? How can you believe him?”

 

The public reaction, including those of Philippine Catholic Church leaders, ranged from “forgiving” to “fighting.”

 

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), asked Filipino Catholics to “choose to love” Duterte and “pray for him with compassion.” “We pray for his healing and for God’s forgiveness, but we must rebuke his errors about our Christian faith,” he added.

 

Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle called on the faithful to “be at peace” and “read the situation with the eyes of faith.”

 

Other Catholic and Christian leaders, however, were less forgiving.

 

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo urged Catholics to wake up and stand up against evil: “I am happy that many people are now speaking out. Duterte crossed the red line when he insults our God. People have come out of their stupor. I say to all, wake up and stand up. Evil should not be tolerated,” Pabillo said, adding that a person “who has no respect for others and even for God is himself not respectable.”

 

Activist priest Robert Reyes urged Catholic bishops to adopt a stronger stance on attacks against the Church: “He (Mr. Duterte) has proven himself to be a murderer. There is no more time. He is a murderer. He is a blasphemer. He has declared war against the Catholic Church.”

 

Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes called President Duterte a “madman” and urged the faithful to pray for an end to his “blasphemous utterances and dictatorial tendencies.”

 

Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said that while Duterte is free to have his own thoughts on religion, “disagreement is not a license to insult,” especially since many of his supporters are Catholic. Philippine Council for Evangelical Churches National Director Noel Pantoja said Duterte’s remark was “completely inappropriate,” since its target was worshipped “not only by a majority of Filipinos but also by a vast number of people all over the world.”

 

The Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals (BCBP) issued a pastoral letter expressing concern about Mr. Duterte’s rants: “These should not be allowed to pass without our community taking a stand for our Lord Jesus Christ and for the Catholic Church to which we belong.”

 

Brother Eddie Villanueva, leader of the Jesus Is Lord movement and whose son, Sen. Joel Villanueva, is a known Duterte ally, said: “When you are a leader, especially the highest leader of the nation, and you mock, wittingly or unwittingly, the God being acknowledged by your Constitution, you are actually violating the soul of the nation.”

 

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, another Duterte ally, agreed that Duterte crossed the line when he insulted God. “I believe that he crossed the line. So he should make amends. After all, he is the leader of our country,” he said.

 

As usual, the President and his apologists in Malacanang are not ready to apologize. Amid the outrage, Duterte insisted: “Your God is not my God because your God is stupid. Mine has a lot of common sense. If I choose not to believe in any God, what’s the fucking thing about it. It’s a freedom to choose one.”

 

And instead of trying to defuse the bomb that the President has created, presidential ally Pastor “Boy” Saycon chose to throw fuel into the fire. Saycon, who has been named one of three members of a panel tasked to dialogue with Church leaders, said just before the meeting that he was not discounting the possibility that the Catholic Church could be used to destabilize the Duterte administration.

 

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque, who is also a member of the group tasked to dialogue with the Church, for a while distanced himself from Saycon’s remarks, but the next day turned around, saying that some church officials could be conniving with the communist rebels to oust Duterte. He said the criticisms of the Church against Duterte started in 2016 after their preferred presidential candidate did not win. Haaay, Harry, what’s happened to you?

 

And then on Sunday, Duterte offered another excuse. He said he just wanted “to test the limits of everything” and he would keep his silence for now because he first wanted to see “how the nation reacts.” He added: “We are not precluded from sometimes being vicious,” he said. “There’s a time to be proper and a time to be a s**t.”

 

And that’s the problem with the Filipinos remaining passive despite all these “s**t” coming from their leader. This demagogue from Davao will interpret it as a license to continue becoming vicious and churning out “s**t.” (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

 

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“God bless our beloved country.”

 

Thus said Senate President Koko Pimentel, the head of the ruling party and son of the illustrious democratic icon former Senate President Nene Pimentel, as he called on the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to oust Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno based on a quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida.

 

Pimentel, a staunch ally of President Duterte, stressed that the Chief Justice is an impeachable official who can be removed only after impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate.

 

With the Supreme Court gone berserk and ignoring the constitution it is tasked and sworn to uphold and protect, the country is now one giant step closer to authoritarian rule with the balance of power tilted heavily in favor of the Chief Executive. The SC decision confirmed fears that the high tribunal has become subservient to President Duterte, and with Congress firmly under the control of the Chief Executive, the balance of power inherent in a strong democracy no longer exists in the country.

 

The Supreme Court has upheld many questionable actions of this administration, among them the decision to give President Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial, the decision to allow the case against Sen Leila de Lima to proceed despite the fact that the testimonies were from convicted drug felons, and the decision to uphold martial law in Mindanao.

 

These decisions have tainted the independence of the Supreme Court, and the shady decision to oust Sereno has put into serious question the integrity and stability of the high tribunal.

 

In their dissenting opinions, four of the six justices who voted against the quo warranto petition said the tribunal should have dismissed outright the petition filed by Calida against Sereno.

 

 “This petition should have been dismissed outright and not given due course. It does not deserve space in judicial deliberation within our constitutional democratic space,” said Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, who also wrote a scathing dissenting opinion against the martial law ruling. He said the decision was a “legal abomination” and created a bad precedent that put at risk those who dissent against the “privileged and the powerful.”

 

Associate Justice Alfred Benjamin Caguioa, on the other hand, said that granting the quo warranto petition was at the expense and to the “extreme prejudice of the independence of the entire judiciary,” the independence of the justices and the freedom of discourse in the High Court.

 

Caguioa, who also wrote dissenting opinions in the Marcos burial and Mindanao martial law cases, said that with its decision to oust one of its members, the Supreme Court “committed suicide without honor.”

 

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who should have been the most hurt when President Noynoy Aquino appointed the most junior justice being the most senior among those nominated by the Judicial and Bar Council, said Sereno is “liable for culpable violations of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust” but agreed with Sereno that the Chief Justice can only be removed by Congress through impeachment.

 

Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, calling the move to oust Sereno via a quo warranto petition “constitutional adventurism,” wrote in his dissenting opinion, “With the SolGen wielding a quo warranto sword of Damocles over the heads of these officers (the justices of the Supreme Court), the Filipino people cannot be assured that they will discharge their constitutional mandate and functions without fear or favor.”

 

The vote was eight in favor of the quo warranto petition and six against. Among those who voted for the ouster of Sereno were the six justices who testified angrily against Sereno during the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, and were therefore clearly prejudiced against Sereno and should have recused themselves as demanded by Sereno.

 

By ignoring the constitutional mandate that the Chief Justice can only be removed by impeachment to unseat a Chief Justice they did not like, the Supreme Court has eroded its credibility as an impartial and independent body.  It is easy to believe that the eight justices voted to grant the quo warranto petition because of personal reasons and loyalties instead of their sense of justice.

 

Will they be able to set aside their personal prejudices and loyalties in their future decisions? How can the people now trust them as a court of last resort to obtain justice when it has become apparent that they turned a blind eye to the constitution and the rule of law to oust Sereno because they didn’t like the way they were bypassed and the way Sereno ran the tribunal?

 

For example, just recently, the justices, sitting as members of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, decided to allow only ballots with at least 50% shading to be counted despite the Commission on Elections’ ruling during the 2016 presidential elections that the machines would count ballots that were shaded at least 25%. This PET ruling, according to the supporters of Vice President Leni Robredo, could favor former Senator Bongbong Marcos in his electoral protest against Robredo.

 

Some people are now asking: Is this part of a trade-off with the Duterte administration with the justices getting a shot at becoming Chief Justice (most of them will never become Chief Justice for as long as Sereno is there because most of them shall have retired before Sereno becomes retireable) and for other favors (like being named as Ombudsman) in exchange for ousting two of the harshest critics of the present regime?

 

As Justice Caguioa said: “By ousting the Chief Justice through the expediency of holding that the Chief Justice failed this ‘test’ of integrity, it is actually the Court that fails.”

 

With the integrity of the court of last resort in doubt, where else can the people turn to for justice and redress of their grievances? And with the Executive branch apparently holding sway over its co-equal Legislative and Judicial branches, where is democracy headed in our country? What will now stop our country from sliding further down the slippery slope of tyranny?

 

Amid these recent developments, we must now all join Senate President Koko Pimentel in praying, “God bless our beloved country.” 

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The recent appointment of a former Customs official, who was accused by a self-confessed fixer as among those taking bribes, to deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Customs puts an anti-climactic conclusion to the P6.4-billion shabu smuggling scandal, which started as a scorching drama that threatened to expose the underbelly of the supposedly corruption-free family of President Rodrigo Duterte.

 

On April 3, the President signed the appointment papers of former Customs district collector Vincent Philip Maronilla, who was identified by Customs fixer Mark Taguba, the principal witness in the shabu smuggling case, as one of several senior Customs officials allegedly receiving bribes from him for the facilitation of huge shipments passing through the customs bureau.

 

Maronilla’s appointment completed the resurrection and promotion of ranking Customs officials implicated in the shabu smuggling scandal, who were placed on administrative leave or who resigned at the height of the congressional investigation into the case only to be reinstated or given higher posts a few months later.

 

Reinstated to their positions were Ariel Nepomuceno and Teddy Raval as customs deputy commissioners. Nepomuceno and Raval were among the BOC officials named by Sen. Panfilo Lacson as among those recipients of “tara” or payola (bribes) at the agency. Nepomuceno resigned again from his post last month, paving the way for Maronilla’s appointment.

 

In November, Duterte appointed two other senior Customs officials who resigned at the height of the shabu scandal to key positions in the Department of Transportation. Deputy Customs Commissioner Gerardo Gambala was named security director of the DOTr while Customs Director Milo Maestrecampo, who was one of those recommended charged by the Senate committee, was appointed assistant director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).

 

Former Customs Commissioner Nick Faeldon, who was one of several senior Customs officials charged in the shabu smuggling case, was appointed as head of the Office of Civil Defense.

 

All 12 key Customs officials charged in the P6.4-billion shabu smuggling case were cleared by the Department of Justice, then under the recently resigned Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III, along with six NBI officials who were tagged by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) as those responsible for the release of the illegal shipment, and six officers of the Hong Fei Logistics, which owns the warehouse where the 600 kilograms of shabu were seized.

 

Guess who remained charged in the case? Taguba -- who implicated all the Customs officials along with presidential son, erstwhile Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte and a Davao City councilor – was left holding the bag along with nine other private individuals who probably played very minor roles in the scandalous transaction.

 

It is a clear travesty of justice where the accuser ends up being accused, and the accused getting appointments or promotions.

 

The case brought into serious doubt President Duterte’s promise to rid the country of corruption, particularly in the customs bureau. The President had promised to fire government officials even at the slightest hint of corruption.

 

Indeed, Duterte has fired several ranking officials, some of them his closest friends and supporters, on mere rumors of corruption, and yet reappoints and even promotes officials of an agency he himself pinpointed as the most corrupt in the government despite having been actually indicted before the justice department, recommended to be charged by the Senate, and positively identified by a customs broker involved in the deal.

 

And the government prosecutors didn’t even look into the claim of Taguba that the younger Duterte was involved in the smuggling of the 600 kilos of shabu. Something definitely stinks in this turn of events, and the DOJ prosecutors wouldn’t even take a second look at it.

 

In the meantime, Duterte is going hammer and tong to prosecute Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for allegedly misdeclaring her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN). Had the government used the same determination to prosecute those involved in the P6.4-billion shabu smuggling and the prominent drug lords implicated in illegal drug activities, perhaps corrupt government officials and criminal lords would be more hesitant to conduct their nefarious activities.

 

Two years after Duterte promised to clean up the customs bureau, it remains one of the most, if not the most corrupt, agencies in the country. In fact, a recent report by the Office of the Unites States Trade Representative, identified the customs bureau as one of the government agencies that keep corruption as a “pervasive” and longstanding” problem in the Philippines.

 

“National and local government agencies, particularly Bureau of Customs (BOC), are beset with various corruption issues,” the USTR said.

 

In June 2016, a few days before being sworn in as president, Duterte said: “Huwag na huwag talaga akong makarinig na (Let me not hear anything about) corruption, [not] even a whiff or whisper. I will fire you or place you somewhere.”

 

It was not just a whiff or whisper that he heard about the P6.4-billion shabu smuggling scandal. It was the sound of a gathering storm. And he failed – or refused – to hear it. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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One gets the feeling of déjà vu as students of the state-owned University of the Philippines prepare to hold massive protests against the country’s continued slide to dictatorship under the repressive regime of President Rodrigo Duterte.

 

The day after several UP students walked out of their classes to join the National Day of Walkout Against Tyranny and Dictatorship that was organized by progressive groups, Duterte threatened to kick out the protesting students and replace them with members of the lumad community from Mindanao.

 

Duterte lamented that UP students are frequently walking out of their classes although the government was subsidizing their studies.

 

It is important to note that the students were urging the people to fight the dictatorship under Duterte, carrying banners that said “No to Duterte’s Dictatorship,” “Defend Press Freedom,” “Fight Charter Change,” “Oust Duterte,” and “Uphold Civil and Political Liberties.”

 

The militant UP students under Stand-UP (Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP) barked back at the President and told him to give up his slot in Malacanang instead.

 

“His statement exposes the true nature of his ‘free education’ scam: not all will benefit; instead of guaranteeing the right of every child to education, he dangles it around every time there is opposition to his fanatical dictatorship,” Kabataan Rep. Sarah Elago said.

 

Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao also slammed Duterte’s threat as an “act of oppression” and said that the youth and students “do not answer to Duterte but to the oppressed Filipino people.”

 

Duterte’s using the lumads as possible replacement for the protesting UP students exposes the hypocrisy of his stand vis-à-vis the indigenous people of Mindanao. It may be recalled that during the Marawi siege, he threatened to bomb lumad schools because, he said, they were being used to teach students to rebel against the government.

 

The students of the state university, long the bastion of militant activism in the country, responded to Duterte’s threats with a call to arms for more massive rallies starting on Feb. 23 to, in the words of Elago, “fight Duterte’s dictatorship and his tyrannical attacks against the youth and the people.”

Last week’s walkout and protest rally mirror similar mass demonstrations held in the first three months of the year during the regime of President Marcos that eventually altered the course of the country’s history.

 

It all started with the UP General Strike in 1969 when various student organizations in the state university, later joined by the faculty members, walked out of their classes from January 31 to February 4 after then President Ferdinand Marcos failed to release the P9-million budget of UP. After negotiations, Malacanang and the UP management agreed to several of the students’ demands.

 

A year later, student activism, again led by UP students, reached a new high with the start of what is now known as the First Quarter Storm, a series of massive demonstrations that commenced on January 26, 1970 and ended with a violent dispersal of a major protest rally on Mendiola St. near Malacanang on March 17, 1970.

 

With the country falling into debt, the peso dropping incessantly, the prices soaring, and rumors circulating that Marcos, who had just been elected to an unprecedented second term, was setting the stage for a third term through constitutional change (sounds familiar?), militant students staged a mass protest outside Congress as Marcos was delivering his state of the Nation address (SONA) on January 26 that year.

 

Marcos was then apparently laying the groundwork for the declaration of martial law as his topic in that SONA was “National Discipline: The Key to Our Future” echoing what was to be the slogan of his martial law rule – “Sa Ikakaunlad ng Bayan, Disiplina ang Kailangan.”

 

As Marcos was getting outside of the building, somebody from the protesters’ ranks threw a cardboard coffin and papier mache of a crocodile to symbolize corruption in the government. After the demonstrators set an effigy on fire, policemen charged and dispersed them. But the protest continued elsewhere on P. Burgos Ave. until after 10 p.m.

 

Stung by the brutality of the dispersal, students marched again to Congress and later, chanting “Huwag Matakot, Makibaka!” marched on towards Malacanang, where they were again violently dispersed by policemen. Four students, including a classmate of mine in UP, were killed by police bullets and many others injured.  The protesters commandeered a fire truck nearby and smashed it against the Malacanang gate.

 

The UP demonstrators were joined by students from the Philippine College of Commerce (now Polytechnic University of the Philippines) and several other schools in Manila. As the protesters retreated towards Mendiola Bridge, students from nearby dormitories and schools joined them. They occupied the historic bridge until the military dispersed the protesters after 9 p.m.

 

Daily protests were held in various campuses and streets culminating in another massive rally at Plaza Miranda. Six days later, on Feb. 18, protesters staged another mammoth rally in front of the US Embassy where they accused the US of imperialism and of supporting Marcos.

On Feb. 16, the students massed again at Plaza Miranda but the police and Metrocom blocked them, causing the students to proceed to the Sunken Gardens and to the US Embassy where they clashed with policemen. The students regrouped on Mendiola and to the PCC campus, which the police stormed and hit several students and professors.

 

On March 3, students organized a “people’s march” through Tondo, Plaza Lawton and the US Embassy where they clashed again with gun-toting policemen. On March 17, they marched again through poor communities and on to the US Embassy, where they were dispersed by policemen with tear gas, guns and batons.

 

Almost a year later, from Feb. 1 to 9 in 1971, the students and faculty of the University of the Philippines did the unthinkable when they barricaded the UP Campus in Diliman, Quezon City and occupied it for nine days to support the transport strike again the oil price hike and to protest military intrusion in the state university.

 

The violent dispersals didn’t dissuade the students from staging more demonstrations and instead, resulted in the number of militant students growing exponentially. With tens of thousands of students taking to the streets almost everyday, and hundreds joining the underground, Marcos found a reason to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and later, to declare martial law in 1972.

 

It is important to note that the First Quarter also played a major role in bringing down the dictatorship 14 years later. After a highly contested snap elections on Feb. 7, 1986, the people rose as one to shout “Tama na. Sobra Na” and staged the People Power Revolution that toppled Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino as the new president.

 

We are now witnessing a similar pattern of repression and increasing affront to democracy with the Duterte administration’s crackdown on dissent, highlighted by the jailing of fierce critic Sen Leila de Lima, the impeachment moves on Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, the suspension of the deputy Ombudsman who is investigating hidden wealth charges against the President, the repeated attempt to change the Constitution, the threats against the Commission on Human Rights, and now the threat poised on militant students of the University of the Philippines.

 

The similarities in the events leading to the declaration of martial law by Marcos and the pattern of repression and dictatorial actions of the current president are so eerily evident to ignore. UP students are rising to the occasion again to lead the fight against tyranny and Duterte’s repressive regime is revving up its machine to curtail the students’ right to express their and the people’s grievance.

 

The need for vigilance has become even more paramount and the need to remind the people of the promise made on EDSA – “Never Again to Martial Law!” never more pronounced.

 

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What happened to you, Harry?

 

University of the Philippines professor Danny Arao asked this question recently as he questioned presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s 180-degree turn on issues pertaining to press freedom and human rights. Arao reminded Roque, his friend and colleague, that he championed press freedom and human rights before he accepted the position defending President Duterte’s assault on press freedom, human rights and the rule of law.

 

Indeed, what happened to UP law professor Roque?

 

How could he turn his back on logical thinking and the rule of law with his recent pronouncement that when China loses its might and decides to return the disputed islands to the Philippines, Filipinos would even be thankful to China for building the islands on the South China reefs that a United Nations tribunal has ruled belong to the Philippines and which are within the country’s exclusive economic zone?

 

What made him believe that after spending billions of dollars to build islands over those reefs and putting up airstrips and other structures needed for a military base, China would suddenly decide to give back the islands to the Philippines? What made him think that after ignoring the UN ruling and risking alienation from the family of nations that China would have remorse and turn back the islands to the Philippines? What made him think that after gaining critical military stronghold in that strategically located and mineral-rich part of the South China Sea that it would later give up the islands?

 

“Wishful thinking,” said Sen. Grace Poe. “The West Philippine Sea will freeze over first before China will even begin toying with the idea of giving us back those islands,” Poe said.

 

“Outlandish,” said another UP professor, Dr. Jay Batongbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea (IMLOS), who added that Roque’s comments show that the Duterte administration and its ranking officials are indifferent to the possible risks that these artificially-built islands and facilities pose to the country’s maritime rights and resources.

 

In comments posted on Facebook on Wednesday, Roque said that “there will come a time, when China’s might had ceased, when we will have to thank them for the islands because it is only the Philippines that can legally build on those artificial islands.” Those artificial islands built by China, he said, “will be ours if we can ask China to leave.”

 

If we can, that’s the key phrase. We lost the chance to keep those islands when the Duterte administration decided on a simplistic and defeatist path in dealing with the sea dispute even after the country had obtained a hard-earned legal victory when the UN Arbitral Tribunal decided on July 12, 2016 that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea) and that China’s “nine-dash line” is invalid. The tribunal also ruled that China had violated Philippine sovereign rights.

 

But Duterte, who has been suspiciously cuddly with the Chinese since during his presidential campaign, said there was no urgency to resolve the dispute despite the legal victory and said he would rather avoid confrontation and that he was in favor of sharing the rich resources and fishing grounds offered by the disputed islands.

 

"There’s no such thing as you can claim international waters as your own. The economic zones provided are good and are [of a] consensus, and concessions that are part of the respect for each other’s interest," Duterte said. Since then, Duterte has been engaging in direct talks with Beijing and has been bragging about obtaining pledges of billions of dollars in loans and grants and other concessions from the Chinese.

 

Over the weekend, Duterte said it’s not the time to fight China and that any move that the country would make in protest of China’s actions may be viewed negatively by our giant neighbor and lead to war that, he said, we are not ready to fight. So go ahead, bully, you can punch us in the nose whenever you like and we won’t raise even a whimper because we are not ready to hit back.

 

At the rate Duterte, Foreign Secretary Peter Cayetano, Roque and other government officials are defending China’s continued South China Sea reclamations and building of what are obviously military installations on these artificial islands, the Chinese don’t even need to have spokespersons to defend its aggressive actions.

 

For example, when the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies reported the continued installation of facilities on man-made islands reclaimed by China in previous years, including a high-frequency radar system, buried facilities likely for weapons storage, missile shelters and underground storage facilities for ammunition and other military materiel at the Kagitingan, Zamora and Panganiban Reefs in December last year, Cayetano downplayed the report.

 

“We’ve never said that they have stopped (building) or that there is nothing happening. What we are saying is, they are not occupying areas that are not habited, meaning, they are not occupying new areas,” he added.

 

Earlier in August, Cayetano said that those who would like to frame the South China Sea issue as one between the Philippines and China had political objectives and simply wanted to shame Beijing before the international community. 

 

President Duterte himself said after his soft handling of the sea row during the ASEAN Summit that he wasn’t “trying to please” Chinese President Xi Jin-ping, but admitted Manila has gained from its friendly relations with Beijing. “Xi Jin-ping has been good to me. And we’re trying to, not really please him but ah—you know, that China Sea will always be there.”

 

To Duterte and Cayetano, it did not matter that China is putting up facilities for war right in our yard for as long as we’re getting pledges of assistance and loans that until now remain just pledges, carrots dangled for the Philippines to toe China’s line. As I said in a previous column, this government would rather spread its legs and enjoy the rape of its sovereignty than put up a fight even just in the legal and diplomatic fronts.

 

Roque, who never ceases to disappoint me, on the other hand, when sought to comment on the reported expansion of China’s reclamation efforts, said: “We don’t know where these works are. We continue to rely on China’s good faith. Location is material since we do not have claims on all the islands and waters in the disputed area.”

 

Roque, echoing the administration’s penchant for blaming the Aquino government for the country’s problems, said: "If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what do they want us to do?"

 

File a protest and express outrage, for God’s sake! That’s what Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana wanted, after all, but wasn’t able to push through. Expressing outrage and filing a diplomatic protest do not necessarily mean we’re declaring war against China. Isn’t it outrageous that a neighborhood bully is making a mess in our backyard and we just shut our eyes and hope for the best?

 

Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, LP president, slammed Roque’s remarks, lamenting that instead of expressing outrage, Malacañang has displayed a nonchalant attitude in playing down China’s militarization of the entire South China Sea.”

 

“It disturbs every Filipino to hear the Malacañang spokesman relying on China’s mere words that it would not reclaim new islands, thus, we can sleep soundly at night. It’s like telling Filipinos not to worry because while China constructed a building, it would only stay on the ground floor,” he said, adding that the Duterte administration should protest the “blatant” violations of China, as well as beef up the country’s defenses in guarding what’s left of the Philippines’ territory.

 

It’s time Duterte stops squeezing juice from his misguided policy of conciliation towards China, and expect China to show good faith because based on recent history, China has shown it cannot be trusted when it seized isles from both the Philippines and Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea. The administration should at least make crystal clear its policy vis-à-vis the militarization of the South China Sea.

 

The country cannot remain nonchalant amid these clear violations against our sovereignty and amid rising tensions in the region.

 

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