Mong Palatino

activist, two-term member of philippine congress, southeast asian blogger


@mongster is an activist and former legislator who represented Kabataan (Youth) Partylist in the 14th and 15th Congress of the Philippines

Written for The Diplomat

Two months ago, the world was shocked to discover the persecution endured by the Rohingya ethnic group, which drove many of them to seek asylum in several Southeast Asian countries. The majority of the boat refugees came from Myanmar.

But the refugee problem could be worse. Consider these statistics provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Myanmar’s stateless people are estimated to number 810,000, most of them Rohingya, who are not recognized by the government. In 2012, violence in Rakhine State forced around 140,000 people, including the Rohingya, to flee their homes. Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced persons across the country has already reached 374,000. Refugees who are originally from Myanmar are pegged at 479,706, while those seeking asylum number 48,053. Temporary camps along the Thai border have been established for some 120,000 refugees from Myanmar.

The rising number of IDPs is alarming, especially in Kachin State and northern Shan State, with more than 100,000 IDPs already displaced and in need of continued humanitarian assistance.

The Kachin IDPs have been living in makeshift camps near the Chinese border ever since the resumption of hostilities between government soldiers and Kachin rebels four years ago. The Kachin struggle for independence sparked one of the longest civil wars in the world between 1961 and 1994. A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, lasted 17 years and was nullified only when clashes resumed in 2011.

Last week marked the fourth year of the civil war. It became an occasion for civil society groups and international aid organizations to highlight the plight of the IDPs and to call for a renewal of the peace talks.

Lahpai Seng Raw, co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation, which delivers assistance to many IDPs in Kachin, narrated the suffering of the IDPs: “Some have gone through multiple displacements, fleeing from one camp to another. Some who stayed close by to be able to go back and check on their homes, livestock and farms are in particular peril, as they are often caught in the crossfire of two warring armies.”

She also warned that aid reduction is worsening the conditions in the camps. “As the war enters its fourth year, the fatigue factor is settling in with donors, social organizations and host communities who have been looking after them for so long. Currently, the threat of food shortage is very real in IDP camps,” she said.

Mary Tawm, a Kachin aid worker of Wunpawng Ninghtoi, added that desperation is already prevalent in the camps: “There are some victims who do not want to live anymore because they have lost their loved ones. Many elderly persons and some others are suffering from mental trauma, they feel hopeless. The number of students who no longer want to continue their education has increased.”

Responding to these reports, 56 solidarity groups from around the world signed a joint statement urging the government to end the military offensives in north Myanmar and allow the unhindered humanitarian assistance to the IDPs. They also accused the government of duplicity, claiming that it “continues to use its rhetoric of peace and reform to invite donors and investors to continue to fund the peace talks and development projects” but refuses to withdraw troops from the ethnic areas.

The Rohingya boat refugee crisis has alerted the world to the failure of the Myanmar government to embark on a democratic transition while guaranteeing the rights of various ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the continued displacement of Kachin residents underscores the importance of pursuing the peace talks that have been initiated in the past. An immediate ceasefire is needed to give relief to affected residents. It is no solution to end the war but it can save lives by ending the suffering of those living in the camps.

ASEAN’s Response to Rohingya Crisis Falls Short

Written for The Diplomat

On May 20, the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand met in Putrajaya to discuss the region’s refugee crisis. This was followed on May 29 by a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean was held in Bangkok, attended by 20 governments and international agencies.

Many expected that these emergency meetings would immediately translate into concrete resolutions to rescue the refugees, mostly from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who are still stranded at sea. The International Organization for Migration estimated that 4,000 refugees are still lost, while 3,200 have already landed in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Overall, the meetings yielded positive results. In Bangkok, the delegates identified urgent actions in response to the crisis. These included:

– Intensifying search and rescue operations to ensure safety of the irregular migrants at sea;

– Ensuring that UNHCR and IOM have access to the migrants;

– Identifying those with protection needs and paying particular attention to the protection of vulnerable groups, including women, children, and unaccompanied minors;

– Strengthening information and intelligence sharing mechanisms to provide accurate data on the whereabouts of migrants and vessels stranded at sea;

The meeting concluded with a statement that also recommended measures to comprehensively prevent irregular migration, such as the strengthening of national law enforcement to combat people smuggling and human trafficking and the creation of a special investigation taskforce among the key affected countries to combat transnational organized criminal syndicates.

In Putrajaya, the ministers expressed their governments’ determination to continue to take the necessary action to bring the transnational smuggling and trafficking syndicates to justice.

They agreed to provide temporary shelters to the refugees, but they called on the international community to provide the necessary support and financial assistance.

“The international community will take responsibility for the repatriation of the irregular migrants to their countries of origin or resettlement to third countries within a period of one year,” they added.

In both Putrajaya and Bangkok, the delegates underscored the importance of addressing the root causes of the problem. They proposed capacity building in local communities, especially in at-risk areas. They sought support for the granting of economic incentives that create more jobs, promoting trade and investment and development assistance to affected countries. Importantly, they mentioned the promotion of full respect for human rights and adequate access to basic rights and services such as housing, education, and healthcare.

But despite acknowledging the urgency of the refugee crisis, the meetings in Putrajaya and Bangkok failed to address some crucial issues. For example, the word “Rohingya” was not mentioned in the concluding statement disappointing several human rights groups. Many were hoping that Myanmar’s failure to recognize the Rohingya ethnic group would be specifically cited as a contributing factor to the refugee problem.

Charles Santiago, chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a Malaysian Member of Parliament, criticized the failure to reprimand Myanmar for the continuing persecution of the Rohingya.

“Lots of talk with little genuine substance or resolve to take any action whatsoever on the root causes of this crisis. The meeting’s failure to openly discuss the desperate conditions and systematic human rights violations suffered by the Rohingya population is tantamount to complicity in the crimes being committed against them,” he said.

He added that Malaysia should call an emergency summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to address the problem.

The refugee crisis and the delayed response of ASEAN member countries put to shame the regional group’s theme this year, which vows to build a “people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN.” The ministerial meetings must be succeeded by a decisive implementation of the action plans, monitoring, and aggressive coordination of all parties involved to end the suffering of the region’s refugees.

Written for Manila Today

Wildlife preservation is often done outside Metro Manila. And this is not surprising since there’s almost nothing to preserve in the country’s premier urban jungle. Well, almost. Thanks to environment activism, community engagement, and geographical remoteness, there are still patches of precious green habitats in Metro Manila that we can visit, enjoy, and preserve for the next generation. These wildlife sanctuaries give us a glimpse of the long lost green charm of Metro Manila. We are reminded too of the natural beauty and geographical treasures of the region which made it easy for our former rulers and leaders to declare it the nation’s capital. But these habitats are all under threat today. Urban pollution, development aggression, and bad governance are causing the destruction of these habitats. If we want to restore these green spaces, then we need to act now. Our first duty is to spread awareness about these last surviving environment treasures. We also need to promote volunteerism and activism among Metro Manila residents. For those who need more convincing because they are not impressed with the views of tree hugggers and animal lovers, we should highlight the link of a healthy ecosystem and disaster preparation. There is a growing interest in environmentalism today and young people are encouraged to contribute in the effort either by volunteering in the provinces or by changing their dirty lifestyles. We should add that Metro Manila continues to inhabit a space where wildlife areas still exist and where activism can still make a big difference in making our habitats clean, safe, and livable. In other words, there’s still hope for Metro Manila, even for Pasig River.

Navotas Mangrove

Navotas is famous for its fishport; but it can also boast that it hosts an important green habitat that is now seldom seen in the coastal areas of Manila Bay. The mangrove area in Sitio Pulo in Navotas is probably the oldest existing natural mangrove park in Metro Manila. Officially named as Barangay Tanza’s Marine Tree Park, the Navotas Mangrove cradles several bird and fish species aside from protecting the city from storm surges. The mangrove is also keeping a tiny secret that can make Manila envious: A Nilad mangrove specie is thriving there. Nilad mangroves were once common in Manila (hence the name Maynila) and these mangroves were the original ‘greenbelt’ that covered the coastal areas of the region. Today, a Nilad tree can be seen only at Manila Zoo, and now we know, inside the Navotas Mangrove area. While it is laudable that Barangay Tanza has declared Sitio Pulo as a marine park, it is tragic that a so-called sanitary landfill (read: dumpsite) is allowed to exist near the island. In fact, garbage is already flooding several areas of the mangrove park. Despite continuous coastal cleanups, these efforts would be rendered useless as long as the Camanava landfill is operating near the mangrove park.

Batasan River in Malabon

Near Navotas Mangrove is Batasan River, the cleanest river in Metro Manila (apologies to Marikina River). Malabon is notorious because of Tullahan River, one of the dirtiest waters in the world. But unknown to many, the clear waters of Batasan River is also flowing in Malabon. From the polluted waters of Tangos, made blacker by mini-shipyards, one can access a narrow channel that runs through the green waters of Batasan River. The scenery is made more beautiful and refreshing by the mangroves that line the river. The experience is like riding a boat along Loboc River in Bohol but in this case the river is in Malabon which is just 20 minutes away from Monumento in Caloocan. Some mangroves have been converted already into fish pens but this can be remedied by planting more trees along the river. Similar to Navotas Mangrove, the immediate threat to Batasan River is the landfill located near the mouth of the river. A brown patch of garbage hill is already visible from Batasan River and it is feared that leachate from the landfill is causing more pollution in the river. Eco-tourism livelihood has a lot of potential in the river that can uplift the living conditions of fisherfolk and village residents.

Freedom Island in Las Pinas and Paranaque

Included in the list of Ramsar wetlands of international importance is the Las Piňas – Paraňaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area or LPPCHEA. Where is it? If you are going to Cavite via the Coastal Road, it’s on the right side of the toll booth. It might look like an empty dump from the road but it is a critical habitat, bird sanctuary, and considered by many as the last coastal frontier in the Metropolis. The wetlands used to be bigger but the Tambo Mudflats is now Mall of Asia and Solaire. How important is LPPCHEA? More than 80 bird species can be spotted here, including migratory birds from north Asia and the endemic Philippine Duck. Have you ever seen a duck that can fly? LPPCHEA is also a mangrove park which minimizes the flooding in the southern areas of Metro Manila. The mangroves also serve as a fishing ground that benefits fisherfolk from Paranaque and Cavite. LPPCHEA is called Freedom Island because of the historic struggle of the residents to protect their homes against the threat of demolition. The name is apt since the struggle continues and this time the campaign is against the planned extension of the Manila Bay reclamation which can reach up to the coastal villages of Bacoor beside the Cavitex.

Marikina Watershed

The watershed is located in Rizal but it benefits Marikina and the low-lying areas of Metro Manila. After the destructive impact of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, we finally realized that tree planting activities should be aggressively pursued in watershed areas and not along urban highways and expressways. In the case of Metro Manila and some parts of Bulacan, flooding and mudslides can be prevented by reversing the deforestation in the Marikina Watershed. It means we need to mobilize green volunteers to plant native trees in the Rizal towns of Antipolo, Baras, Rodriguez, San Mateo, and Tanay. The good news is that Marikina watershed is now a protected landscape. The reported greening program of the government should thus be monitored to ensure that funds are efficiently utilized. Volunteers should also understand that tree planting is not a one-time event since it also involves community assistance, livelihood support, seed dispersal, and maintaining a forest nursery. In other words, planting of tree saplings is not enough; we also need to help local residents who will guard the reservation area and drive away loggers and stray animals. So if there’s a tree planting gimmick in your school, community or government agency, remind the organizers to make it more real by doing it in the Marikina Watershed.

Arboretum and La Mesa Ecopark in Quezon City

Commonwealth is not only wider and longer than Edsa, it also has green parks that make it more eco-friendly. As suburbanization spreads to north Manila, traffic along Commonwealth will continue to increase, especially when MRT-7 becomes operational. But we hope that green spaces near Commonwealth will be preserved. These areas could include the Quezon City Wildlife, Quezon Memorial Circle, the Arboretum urban forest in Diliman, the parks in UP-Ateneo-Balara, and La Mesa Dam and Ecopark in Fairview. After completing an inventory of the plant and animal species found in these areas, there should be a program on how to maintain the integrity of these habitats while encouraging the people to participate in the conservation efforts. A clean La Mesa is important to all since it’s our source of drinking water. It’s quite worrying that the dam is geographically close to Payatas dumpsite. Hopefully, local leaders can rebrand Commonwealth from being a ‘killer highway’ to a green highway. Or a road that brings Metro Manila residents to forest parks, bird sanctuaries, lagoons, and wildlife habitats. This, and not traffic, is the most important indicator of progress.

Written for Bulatlat

These are precarious times. We live in a world plagued by mass poverty, chronic hunger, wealth inequality, and racism but we seem to lack the will to overcome these preventable miseries. The world order is already ripe for an overhaul yet many are reluctant to admit it. Worse, some of us have refused to believe anymore that things can still change; or that a better future is possible through revolutionary struggle. When did we stop dreaming? Why did we succumb to self-defeating apathy and cynicism?

Even the headline of this essay reflects the kind of uninspiring mentality that prevails today. If our situation is already serious, it warrants nothing less than our urgent action and commitment. Activism then should be a moral duty instead of merely treating it as a choice that we can either adopt or ignore. To paraphrase the philosopher Kant, argue but we should obey our truths.

To speak of activism as necessity is considered taboo in our so-called postmodern world where ambiguity and indetermination are elevated as ethics that truly empower rational human beings. To be clear-cut about politics, instead of engaging in seductive language games, is ridiculed as dogmatic. Anyone who names the political is seen as an unthinking agitator.

Hence, the indirect clamoring for political action; the careful non-articulation of political imperatives that might offend the sensibilities of the post-political population. Furthermore, it should not appear that a person is being coerced to decide on political matters.

Activism? Make it an option, call it volunteerism so that it becomes chic radicalism, defang its subversive goals. Popular activism has to be reintroduced as a rational consumer choice in the free market of political alternatives.

The tragedy of our generation is the naive assumption that we are free to make our choices. Perhaps it is true like the free will of the voter who had to choose between a young dynast, an old porker, and a greedy capitalist. This freedom to choose is the pleasure principle of modern politics.

Our task is to expose the bankruptness of political freedom in the age of neoliberalism. Is it authentic choice when we are confronted with conservative evil on one hand and liberal evil on the other? Our next task is to prove that it is viable to choose the path of radicalism, or politics in perpetual search of the ultimate alternative.
Again, we turn back to activism because it is the familiar representation of what it means to engage in Leftist politics.

Admittedly, activism is not a popular choice in contemporary society. Schools teach children to be employable, the media bombard the public with corporate propaganda, and the government acts as if the present order of things cannot be replaced anymore.

It seems many teenagers today are too busy preparing for a high-paying career in the future that they have little or no time for other pursuits like dreaming a new world, or engaging in activism to change the world. But can we blame them if they are brainwashed to believe that hoarding material possessions makes a person successful and influential? Their enthusiasm for money-making endeavors is related to our unhealthy attitude of glorifying the lives of billionaires and their families. They simply wanted to conform what popular culture is demanding from them.

For many, activism is a one time activity while career-building is a long-term effort. The first may be a noble undertaking but the latter is more significant since it allows individuals to succeed in life which gives them the time, resources, and motivation to pursue feel-good activism through charity. Activism is bypassed in favor of other activities sanctioned by the mainstream order such as family building, career enhancement, and harmless civic participation.

Thus, the need for an early and decisive intervention to defend the idea of activism. Our appeal is to embed activism in our everyday lives. It should be more than a phase in life, an eccentric hobby of angry young people, or nostalgic behavior of retired citizens. We dare say it is a lifelong commitment that should surpass even our devotion to develop our careers.

Activism doesn’t compel us to switch or abandon our careers; we are simply encouraged to rethink our priorities. Why should we think and act like machines that require constant upgrading? This overzealous drive for self-improvement should be refocused to make it more socially relevant. We should not learn new things and improve our way of doing things in order to compete with others but to be more effective in serving the needs of the community.

We build careers but for whom? We enhance our skills but for what purpose? The dominant perspective orders us to think only of ourselves and our families. We are told that individual interest trumps the collective good. Through activism, we learn to broaden our life goals by advancing the politics of social change. We strive to become better individuals and committed activists at the same time. We have activists who are also doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, artists, and engineers. We can pursue that dream job without losing sight of the bigger dream of building a better world for the next generation.

But a lifetime of struggle is often contrasted with an ordinary life buoyed by instant pleasures and illusory luxuries. The latter even entices the socially committed to partake in the fun while allowing them to uphold activism from time to time. Political engagement becomes a part-time affair. Activism is relegated as the reserve ultimate solution in the coming great breakdown of political order. In the meantime, we can enjoy our lives without renouncing the Cause.

The enduring success of capitalism is to make everyone think that the system continues to work. We are too distracted enjoying our virtual fantasies that we failed to notice that we are living in a permanent state of crisis. Apocalypse has already arrived yet our open eyes are blind about it. We see suffering individuals but the structures of exploitation are invisible to us. No wonder the popular brand of activism today is the one that extends momentary relief to victims instead of enjoining them in a mass movement that will destroy the old system of abuse and injustice.

We see ourselves as productive citizens of society who readily contribute our talents and energies to fix what is broken and improve the state of things. This is a fair assessment. Indeed, the system cannot function without tapping the idealism and labor power of the working people. But imagine if all our mental abilities are redirected to introduce the alternative. Activism is a reminder to choose a side in the raging battle between the forces of old and new. The old promises a life of material comfort while the new offers nothing but a chance to remake the world. The old asks us to preserve what humanity has achieved while the new dares us to question what humanity has done.

These are precarious times. It is up to us if we want to celebrate it or end it now.

Written for The Diplomat

One of the major projects of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to integrate Southeast Asia’s diverse economies, a region with 600 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $2.4 trillion. But several civil society organizations are moving to postpone the AEC and calling for a rethinking of its framework, which they claim is biased in favor of corporate interests and the traditional elite.

The AEC is defined by four pillars: Creating a single market and production base, increasing competitiveness, promoting equitable economic development, and further integrating ASEAN into the global economy. To synergize the region’s markets and production hubs, this would entail the free flow of goods, services, investments, capital, and skilled labor. Proponents argue that if the integration succeeds, the region could become the fourth largest economy in the next few years.

But for Philippines-based think-tank Ibon Foundation, the current model of the AEC could further impoverish the poor while facilitating the “aggressive foreign corporate takeovers of the region’s resources.” It added that overall, the AEC is detrimental to ordinary people because it will lead to an erosion of sovereignty, diminishing access to social services because of a stronger push for liberalization and privatization, greater inequalities between and within ASEAN countries, skewed labor mobility, job insecurity, increased land and other resource grabs, and the undermining of local small-scale farmers.

Ibon Foundation cited the investor-state dispute settlement provision of the AEC as an example of a one-sided protection measure in favor of corporate power, since it gives investors the right to sue government when their profits are in danger.

The research center warned that AEC could worsen the “uneven and inequitable economic growth” in Asia because it continues “old logic of the neoliberal model of development” characterized by “a race to the bottom in lowering labor, environmental and other regulatory standards and taxes, and in changing national laws to create a business-friendly environment.”

During the ASEAN People’s Forum recently held in Malaysia, various civil society organizations signed a statement echoing the concerns raised by Ibon Foundation. “The liberalization of the labour market has increased the number of precarious jobs and will continue to adversely impact the rights of workers,” an excerpt from the statement.

The groups rejected ASEAN’s development model for regional integration because it promotes “unequal trade and investment agreements negotiated and agreed to by member states (that) fail to guarantee redistributive, economic, gender, social and environmental justice, or accountability.”

As an alternative framework to the AEC, Ibon Foundation proposes that the integration must transform the ASEAN into a region that is “truly people-centered by abandoning the market-led growth strategy and focusing more on people’s concerns such as food sovereignty, climate change, and respect for human and collective rights.”

“Solidarity, cooperation and complementarity among states should be pursued instead of economic competition,” the group asserted.

And since the AEC is not yet fully implemented, civil society groups are urging for a more comprehensive and democratic consultation with all stakeholders so that negotiations about the proposed regional integration will not be restricted to government parties.

It is only by building a strong regional bloc with popular public support that ASEAN can successfully advance its agenda in the ongoing talks for greater economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific such as the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The AEC concept is an important one, and is needed to boost the region’s economic potential. But to repeat the recommendations made by Ibon Foundation and other civil society groups, this AEC must be reconceptualized to genuinely empower the people.

ASEAN Urged to Review Non-Interference Policy

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s former foreign minister thinks it’s time to review the policy of non-interference which has guided the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since its founding in 1967.

Dr Syed Hamid Albar, who was foreign minister from 1999 to 2008, made this recommendation during a civil society conference in Kuala Lumpur held a few days before the 26th summit of the ASEAN. Malaysia is the current chair of the ASEAN secretariat.

“We need to seriously think about reviewing and redefining ASEAN’s non-interference policy. We need to recognize that even in international diplomacy, there are limits on non-interference, especially when the serious impacts of a problem goes beyond national boundaries, or when it involves serious international crimes,” Syed Hamid said.

He also added that “ASEAN needs to change in order to be more responsive and resilient to the myriad and fast-growing challenges” that the region faces today.

The former minister didn’t mention specific controversies that could have been resolved through direct action by ASEAN member nations but other speakers in the conference hinted that some of the pressing issues in the region like the continuing persecution of the stateless Rohingya people already require an intervention.

“Over years, ASEAN has been ridiculed as the toothless tiger. If Kuala Lumpur winds up the annual meeting, glossing over the Rohingya issue, then ASEAN will certainly have to bear the shameful stigma of ridicule for many more years to come,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

For Yab Mohamed Azmin Ali, chief minister of Selangor in Malaysia, the “conspiracy of silence” with respect to the human rights violations committed by member states should end now.

“On this altar of neutrality we watch with folded arms the slaughter of innocent women and children. On this platform of non-interference, we turn a blind eye to the massacre of ethnic minorities or abandon them as state-less peoples,” he said during the conference which was attended by more than 1,000 activists and leaders from various civil society organizations across the region.

Aside from the Rohingya issue, there are other pressing concerns that ASEAN can and should address as a united body. These could include the worsening problem of human trafficking, the need to protect migrant workers, the increasing number of laws that restrict media freedom, and economic inequality amid the ongoing initiative to integrate the region’s diverse economies. All of these issues were tackled during the ASEAN People’s Forum. Another major topic is the urgency for ASEAN to react to China’s land reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea.

Interestingly, one of the workshops in the conference called for a “Junta-Free ASEAN” and an ASEAN free of political prisoners “so that the voices and choices of the people can displace all forms of dictatorship and strengthen solidarity for democracy and social justice across the Region.” This is obviously in reference to Thailand’s military-backed government. But the issue of human rights abuses is applicable not only to Thailand and Myanmar but to other ASEAN members as well. Even the host nation Malaysia is accused of using archaic laws to harass and detain opposition leaders and critics of the government.

What should be done when everybody within ASEAN is unwilling or reluctant to act on sensitive issues? Again, we turn to Malaysia’s Syed Hamid who proposed to transform the regional grouping “from being a state-driven institution to an integrated people-centered community.” He advocated a greater role for civil society in ASEAN since he is confident that these groups “can come up with innovative, sustainable and cheaper solutions than just the governments working by themselves.”

But with regard to proposed reforms involving the ASEAN, AKP Mochtan of the ASEAN Community and Corporate Affairs advised civil society that “expectations should be realistic” since “change in ASEAN can only be achieved through agreement by the 10 Member States.”

However, the ASEAN leader is confident that regional integration efforts will succeed in the end including the ambitious goal of creating a single economic bloc. “Community building is like a marathon without a finishing line: we simply must continue.”

There are many proposals and counter-proposals put forward today in relation to ASEAN. It is hoped that the lively discussions inside and outside the ASEAN Summit venues will continue to focus more on empowering the marginalized and ordinary residents of Southeast Asia.

Laos’ Economic Agenda

June 10th, 2015

Written for The Diplomat

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (formerly known as Lao People’s Party), which was founded together with the Indochina Communist Party to expel foreign invaders from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The struggle for independence finally succeeded in 1975, which led to the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

To celebrate the party’s achievements in the past 60 years, a large gathering of senior party leaders and high-ranking party officials was held at which party secretary-general and president of the Lao PDR Choummaly Sayasone delivered the keynote address.

Choummaly praised the “people’s fighting movement” in leading the Lao multiethnic people during the two-decade campaign for national liberation. He also defined the major victories of the party after 1975: “We were able to heal the wounds of war, restore production, promote culture, and normalize the living conditions” in the country.

He asserted that the party has remained relevant because it adopted the policy of “self-construction and self-improvement to enhance its strength with endless flexibility.” He cited the so-called renovation policy of 1986 which “replaced the bureaucratically centralized economic mechanism and subsidy-based administration with a state-managed market-orientated economy.”

A “state-managed market-orientated economy” sounds like an oxymoron but Choummaly repeated it several times in his speech to emphasize that the party has “liberalized old ways of thinking towards a realistic analysis of the [global] situation” while pursuing socialist directives.

But despite Choummaly’s claim that Lao socialism has led to the empowerment of the people, his speech provided several confirmations about the high poverty rate in the country. For example, he pushed for higher productivity to end poverty in all sectors. “We have to concentrate on alleviating the poverty of local people and graduating from least developed country status and creating a fundamental foundation for our country to move towards socialism,” he said.

He added: “We have to continue to reduce the number of impoverished families to a minimum level and create the necessary infrastructure and facilities for economic development.”

Choummaly rallied his party mates to work for the continued growth of the domestic economy, calling for an average rate of at least 7-8 percent annually until 2020. And the focus of this ambitious economic plan? Choummaly enumerated the country’s expanding sectors with high growth potential such as agriculture and forestry, processing, electricity (hydropower), and transnational tourism. He also mentioned the use of new technology in agriculture and rural development to realize the twin objectives of industrialization and modernization.

Interestingly, Choummaly also spoke of integrating political ideology with the new economic initiatives. “We must view poverty alleviation in association with strengthening political ideology at the grassroots level and comprehensive rural development.”

Perhaps this statement sums up the unique “development destination” that Laos officials are envisioning in the next few years: “The move aims to realize the objective of building up large villages to become small towns in rural areas.”

Choummaly linked the ongoing integration of the diverse economies of Southeast Asian nations with the forces of change that influence the nation’s development. He warned of “new disputes,” which he said should be decisively addressed by the new generation of party leaders.

This is probably why he diligently discussed organizational concepts such as “centrally based democratic principle” and “team-based leadership principle” after advocating for greater competitiveness and market reforms in the economy.

It may not have been the intention, but Choummaly’s speech offered a succinct overview of socialism, Laos style.

Cambodia’s ‘Cyber War’ Legislation Targets Online Critics

Written for The Diplomat

Media freedom is guaranteed in the Cambodian constitution but it is undermined since the mainstream media is largely controlled by families close to the ruling party. This is not the case for online media where censorship is almost non-existent. The government, however, is already targeting regulation of the Internet, which could further restrict free speech in the country.

In 2010, only 300,000 Cambodians had access to the Internet. By 2013, however, that number had surged to almost four million, or about a quarter of the country’s population. There are now 1.7 million registered Facebook users. Suddenly, ordinary Cambodians, including those living in rural areas, have the opportunity to receive news and information provided by the political opposition and other critical voices.

The political impact of the Internet was felt in the 2013 general elections, when the opposition attributed its victory in many areas to aggressive online campaigning. In addition, community activists and dissident monks were able to maximize the online space to highlight social issues that expose government abuse, such as landgrabbing, police brutality, corruption, and deforestation.

Perhaps feeling threatened by the social media phenomenon, the government proposed two laws in 2014 that would create several layers in the bureaucracy to directly supervise the growth and management of the Internet infrastructure. The draft laws have been assailed by some critics as serious threats to media freedom, but the government insisted that the passage of these measures is necessary to protect national security and the dignity of individuals.

The draft anti-cybercrime law intends to penalize Internet content that “generates insecurity, instability, and political cohesiveness.”

Meanwhile, the draft law on telecommunications would give the government a broader mandate as industry regulator. There are fears that authorities will use this law to install surveillance equipment that would monitor the Internet activities of Cambodian citizens.

Aside from introducing these draft laws, the government has already implemented some measures designed to discourage online dissent. In October 2014, the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers established the so-called “Cyber War Team” to monitor and collect information from Facebook and other websites in order to “protect the government’s stance and prestige.” Some officials also visited telecoms firms to inspect the data logs and billing records of some subscribers.

In a report published last week, the Cambodian human rights group Licadho warned against the “capricious controls” that the government is enforcing to weaken Internet freedom.

“Freedom of expression is a right that many Cambodians have never truly experienced. It comes as no surprise that as soon as Cambodians found a way to have their voices heard, the government has begun a comprehensive effort to once again silence them,” said Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for Licadho.

But the government is undeterred by criticisms. A few days ago, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan proposed “to take legal action against the ill-intentioned and unethical persons for using social media to attack, insult and defame civil servants and government leaders.”

“Insults and defamation are not part of freedom of expression, but instead violate the rights and dignity of individuals,” he added.

Cambodia has the right to pass laws that would enhance the rights and civil liberties of its citizens. Cybercrime legislation is necessary for the overall protection of the Internet sector and its subscribers. But human rights activists are right to argue about the inclusion of provisions in the draft laws that would erode the freedom that Cambodians enjoy while using the Internet. At a minimum, the government should genuinely consult civil society and other stakeholders before developing Internet-related laws.

Mahathir Versus Najib

June 4th, 2015

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s fiercest critic today is not found in the ranks of the opposition. Rather, it is a former ally: Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir is Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, and served as mentor to Najib. Despite his retirement from government service, Mahathir has remained an influential political figure. At 89, Mahathir continues to be a newsmaker, especially when he candidly shares his views on domestic and even global affairs through his widely read blog.

Since last year, Mahathir has been criticizing the administration of Najib. But it was early this month when he launched a more comprehensive tirade against what he thinks were the fundamental blunders committed by Najib.

Writing on his blog, Mahathir pressed for clarifications on the following issues: 1) the 2006 murder of a Mongolian translator who purportedly had personal knowledge of a corruption scandal involving the defense department; 2) the reported mismanagement of the country’s investment fund (1MDB); and the 3) implementation of a cash distribution scheme to marginalized groups (BR1M).

Najib is linked to these issues through some of his former subordinates and relatives. Mahathir called on Najib to come clean on his role in investigating these issues.

Najib eventually made public a recorded video interview in response to some of Mahathir’s allegations. But Mahathir was disappointed with what he heard. Writing again on his blog, he admonished Najib for being evasive, especially on the issue of the investment fund mess.

“I asked Najib simple questions but instead of answering the questions he asked people to support him. I would like to ask the supporters whether their support means the disappearance of 42 billion Ringgit is okay, that there is no necessity to at least explain where the money is,” Mahathir wrote.

Najib hinted that his relationship with Mahathir soured when the government was not able to build a new bridge between Malaysia and Singapore. Mahathir denied this, and insisted that his real concern is the unexplained loss of taxpayers’ money in the 1MDB.

“I don’t advocate the removal of a prime minister because he is too afraid of Singapore to build a crooked bridge. But when you lose money and cannot explain where the money is, I think you are not competent to become prime minister,” Mahathir said in a press conference.

Mahathir warned the ruling coalition that it will lose in the next general election if Najib does not step down immediately.

For his part, Najib claimed he still respected Mahathir but he also emphasized that his duty is not just to listen to an individual opinion.

“Whatever the individual opinion, in the end, I will be responsible to the people and the party. It is quite healthy if there is a difference of opinion but, regardless, in the end I have to be responsible to the people and party. And most of these matters, I bring to the Cabinet and the Cabinet decides,” he said in a TV interview.

Najib added that criticisms are welcome, especially those made with “prudence and responsibility.”

“The criticisms this time are more than usual, more intense than usual. But I have to accept the political ups and downs which, under all circumstances, will not be peaceful and comfortable all the time. I take the criticisms, no matter how painful. As long as the people and the party give me the mandate, the trust, I will continue to lead the country and party,” he said during the interview.

Najib also defended the programs of his government like the BR1M and reminded the public that there were also economic problems during the term of Mahathir.

“We should not allow certain issues to be highlighted as though our economy is collapsing, or that we are having problems to the point that they cannot be resolved. This is not true at all. Tun Dr Mahathir’s era was not perfect either, nor is my era. But we must know that we are open, we improve the situation, so that tomorrow will be better than today,” Najib said.

Finally, Najib urged the public not to believe everything that is published online. “A lot of information is blown out of proportion and twisted until it is misunderstood. The majority of accusations and ‘spins’ do not reflect the reality of the situation of a particular issue or the statements made by leaders, be it the opposition or government.”

We should expect Mahathir to issue a more biting rejoinder. But Najib’s allies are also starting to hit back at Mahathir. Whatever the case, Malaysian politics has become more interesting. Will the opposition benefit from the bickering within the ruling coalition?

Najib Blogs His Response to Mahathir and Critics

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s former leader Mahathir Mohamad has often criticized the incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak through his popular blog. This time it is Najib who has used a blog to hit back at his former mentor and other critics of his administration.

Najib blogged his detailed response to 13 frequent allegations of his critics, which included some of the issues raised earlier by Mahathir such as the 2006 murder of a Mongolian translator, corruption in the bureaucracy, rising criminality, and mismanagement of the country’s finances.

Najib didn’t name Mahathir but he was clearly alluding to Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister. For example, he questioned the irony of a critic of the West using a Western media report which cited Malaysia as among the most corrupt nations in the world. “I find it troubling that someone who used to continually criticise the international media as being biased now suddenly believes and takes their arguments as the truth,” he wrote in obvious reference to Mahathir.

Responding to his alleged involvement in the murder of a Mongolian translator, Najib said this is an old issue that has been resurrected by “veteran leaders.” He described his accusers as “influential individuals (with) many resources.” He added that his accusers could have presented more evidence against him in the past: “When the issue erupted, I believe they would still have been able to verify the validity of the allegations. If they believed this to be true, why did they not raise it when the issue erupted 8 years ago? Why now?”

Najib reiterated his innocence and reminded the public that he swore an oath on the Quran in a Mosque to prove his claim. He also emphasized that the court has already determined the guilty person in the murder case.

Addressing the charge that his government has squandered the taxpayers’ money in an investment fund mess (1MDB), Najib lashed back at some politicians for sowing intrigue. “It is unfair for certain politicians to convict the government in the court of public opinion way before the actual facts are laid down by lawful authorities.”

Again, there’s no mention of Mahathir’s name but Najib cautioned the public about unreliable online sources like blogs with malicious motives. “If we are sincere in finding out the truth behind those allegations, we need to get the information from legitimate sources and not third-party news portals or online blogs that might have hidden agendas.” Reporters should ask him if Mahathir’s blog is among those with a “hidden agenda.”

In defending the cash subsidy for the poor (BR1M), Najib hit back at politicians who refuse to appreciate the economic soundness of the program: “Some politicians say that in spite of BR1M, the people are ‘not grateful.’ This is exactly why they believe it is bribery and are not on the same page as the fiscal committee. We see it as an economic measure, but these politicians see it purely in the context of politics.”

And finally, Najib confidently asserted that the ruling coalition will continue to prevail in the next elections despite Mahathir’s warning that the blunders of the incumbent leader will bring the party down.

“If we are united, and stop the infighting, we will succeed. If we focus on constructive rather than destructive politics, we will succeed. If we focus on work instead of believing and spreading rumours, spins and half-truths, we will succeed,” Najib wrote.

Many are now eagerly awaiting Mahathir’s rejoinder in his blog. Or he could pursue his challenge of conducting a public debate with Najib. Who will emerge victorious in this showdown between two heavyweights of Malaysian politics?

Written for Bulatlat

I keep silent every time I am tagged a communist. It’s not embarrassment but more of disbelief that in this day and age, a red baiter still thinks that this kind of witch hunt is politically legitimate or even persuasive. How dangerous it is to live in a society where people are condemned simply for thinking and acting differently. It seems not enough to criticize a radical cause, one must also learn to hate the advocates of the cause. Calling an activist a commie in the Philippines is meant to be an insult. It is intended to harm the reputation of a progressive thinker. It is a demonization technique in the propaganda playbook of the anti-Left.

But the communist tag could easily lead to fatal consequences. Hundreds of activists have been disappeared or killed already after being branded by state forces as communist members or sympathizers. Despite their legal credentials, these activists were listed in the notorious Order of Battle of the Armed Forces of the Philippines for their alleged involvement with “communist-terrorist” activities. This is the principal reason why some activists refuse to be called communists.

Let us agree, however, that the term communist has more than one connotation. A communist can be a member of a Communist Party, she can be an activist passionately upholding the teachings of Marx and Lenin, or she can be a Marxist intellectual involved in some radical initiatives; and finally, she can be a dedicated and selfless revolutionary in an underground cell.

Today it is no longer a crime to profess membership in a Communist Party but only a fool or an apostate will do that in the Philippines. Because in the eyes of the state, a communist is a psychotic subversive who fanatically targets the overthrow of the established order. A communist is an NPA combatant.

A government blindly protecting the interests of the cacique class becomes a paranoid state which sees communists lurking everywhere. The specter of communism is exaggerated as a threat that must be vanquished; an abnormal presence that has no right to exist in our civilized society. Mainstream Philippine politics suffers from this pathological refusal to integrate communist philosophy in everyday discourse.

The political field has built-in mechanisms that ruthlessly expel communists or communist-leaning politicians. It welcomes politicians who steal, cheat, and lie with impunity or dynasts who equate their family history with the national interest; but it abhors politicians who articulate Leftist issues. More so, a Leftist is forced to explain first to everybody as to why it is necessary to express a political standpoint. In other words, politicians are judged approvingly not because of their commitment to defend their principles but their willingness to compromise.

Rightists or Centrists are labels which do not figure prominently in the local political vocabulary. Traditional politicians are not called for who or what they really are. As for Leftists, they are presented to the public as malicious rabble-rousers who should act more sincerely, speak more convincingly, and provide more goodwill gestures as if they are criminals who should be grateful for being allowed to exercise their rights in the political arena.

In other countries, citizens are informed about their leaders who belong to the Right, Center, and Left. In the Philippines, it is only the Leftists who are branded for espousing an ideological version of politics. This politics is no other than communist politics. Contrast this to the purportedly dogma-free politics offered by bourgeois parties. No wonder even the so-called freethinkers and mavericks of Philippine politics are hesitant to be known as ideological allies of the Left.

The tragedy is not the failure of the Left to reinvent itself but our adherence to a narrow definition of what it means to be a communist. The greater tragedy is our uncritical rejection of everything that communism stands for. Because even if we adopt the distorted perspective of the state, the idea of communism continues to be a powerful ideological weapon of the working classes. The vicious tirades against communism didn’t erode its spectral power. Then and now, a communist shows class bias in favor of the weak and downtrodden. He is a destroyer of the old world, an enemy of oppressors, a builder of a new world order, someone who has demonstrated “fidelity to the Event.” A communist intervenes in the “history of Eternity” to realize the early arrival of the future.

In the Philippines, the communists were among those who fought foreign aggressors during World War II. They were the most formidable opposition during the Martial Law regime. They have consistently advocated and fought for the upliftment of the lives of workers and farmers. Some of their demands were initially unpopular (because these were new) but they persevered until their agenda for social transformation became the most comprehensive blueprint in completing the unfinished revolution of the Katipunan.

Will the anti-Left ranting stop if we emphasize that the most abominable acts of inhumanity that caused wanton suffering in the country were not done by communists? Who steals the people’s money? Who profits from logging and mining concessions? Who refuses to distribute hacienda lands to small farmers? Who perpetuates impunity in killings, enforced disappearances and human rights violations? Who begs for American patronage? The Left, the bad communists, didn’t commit these horrible crimes of the century.

Yet we treat the Left as if it is a diabolical force that must be stopped before it wreaks havoc on our lives. At the same time, we poke fun at its inability to overthrow the repressive state. We ridicule the protracted character of the revolution.

But communists, they say, are stubborn as they continue to block the so-called ‘progress’ in the country. Who are they to stop the entry of mining companies in our watersheds? Why are they campaigning against foreign-funded development aggression projects in the ancestral domains of indigenous peoples? What is their motive in resisting the government’s corporate privatization schemes?

Communists are not always right, but when it comes to upholding human rights, they are our most reliable allies. Rightists uphold property rights while communists are more interested in equitable distribution and social justice. The bourgeois class prefers peace of the graveyard while communists are fighting for peace based on justice and real democracy.

There is another reason why I keep silent every time I am called a communist. I am quietly rejoicing because despite my petty bourgeois background and my decision to remain in the urban while the people’s war is raging the countryside, I am still seen by an adversary as a political subject worthy to be called a communist. The silence hides a proud smile and a longing to proclaim that yes, I am a communist, I am not alone, we are many and we have a world to win.

Written for Bulatlat

How do you explain the presence of communist rebels in the country’s forest frontiers? Interestingly, the last remaining green spaces in the boondocks are strongholds of the New People’s Army. So who really should rejoice every time a province is declared NPA-free? The masses or the extractive industry? To preserve the richness of the country’s biodiversity, it seems we need to deploy more green warriors like the NPA. The reds are probably the greens’ most reliable, albeit unmentionable ally. It is the people and their resistance which keep the hills alive, and their collaborator is the NPA.

But the narrative of the struggle is incomplete without mentioning the reason why the NPA troops are basing in the countryside. Aren’t they supposed to be grabbing power in the city center? Perhaps they will in the future, but in the meantime they are building organs of political power in the countryside. This is the Maoist legacy in the Philippines.

Since the 1960s, Maoism has become a ‘material force’ in Philippine society. Politics became more fun after a Maoist-inspired Communist Party was re-established in 1968, a Maoist guerrilla army was founded in 1969, and Maoist student activists celebrated the coming revolution in 1970. Soon after, Maoist categories became popular such as semi-feudalism, mass line, serve the people, and protracted people’s war. These terms gained nationwide relevance during the anti-dictatorship struggle in the 1970s.

However, Mao and Maoism are often lampooned in the mainstream press today. There are Marxist academics, but Maoists? There are Leftists who will proudly identify themselves as anti-Stalin and anti-Mao. It doesn’t help that the Chinese government today is behaving like a superbad of the globe. Will it help if we clarify that China’s politburo has already renounced the core teachings of Mao when Deng Xiaoping gained power in 1978?

Succeeding generations grew up without properly understanding Mao’s colossal impact on the modern history of the world when he led the Chinese people in the struggle against foreign domination during the Second World War; and subsequently, during the national liberation in 1949. One fourth of humanity “have stood up” to end feudal oppression and imperialist plunder. Even if we use today’s cynical standards, Mao deserves to be called a true patriot and hero for leading the Chinese revolution.

But alas, thanks to Cold War propaganda, Mao is quickly dismissed by many as a fat dictator obsessed only with power, ideology, and opium.

This is really unfortunate since Mao had many useful teachings that can benefit the global 99 percent. Let the well-funded researchers bombard the cyberspace with real or manufactured proofs of Mao’s personal demons; but for students of history like us and those who wanted to learn from the victorious Chinese revolution, our task is to read beyond the anti-communist rhetoric and systematically study the meaning of Mao and Maoism even if it will neither lead to academic promotion nor profitable writing career.

So what can Mao and Maoism offer us? What endeared him to young activists and revolutionaries in the 1950s and 1960s? How did he inspire the anti-colonial struggle during the early years of the Cold War era? Did Maoism distort or enrich Marxism?

Cultural Revolution

Maoism, according to its detractors, entails a defense of Stalinism. Indeed, Mao upheld the legacy of Stalin; but he was also critical of Stalin’s viewpoints. For example, he rejected Stalin’s statement that there were no more classes and class struggle in the Soviet Union. Mao warned that the remnants of the old elite and the poisonous ideology of the old order are still influential even if a proletarian party is in power. Mao added that the contradictions between the old and new ideas exist within the leadership of the Communist Party.

Studying the experience of the Soviet Union, Mao concluded in the 1950s that it isn’t enough to confiscate and develop the mode of production, there must be a corresponding change too in the superstructure. In other words, the revolution is only half-complete if ownership of the economy is socialized. This must be sustained by radicalizing the beliefs, institutions, and attitudes of the people. Stalin, according to Mao, focused too much on the economic base and ignored the other equally-important aspect of the revolution, which meant struggle in the realm of ideas and culture. Hence, the need for a ‘cultural revolution.’

Mao acknowledged Stalin’s errors but he castigated the new leaders of the Soviet Union for dismissing the positive legacies of Stalin. This sparked a schism in the Communist bloc which we came to know as the ‘great debate’. The ideological struggle became more serious when Mao warned that modern revisionists have grabbed the leadership of the Soviet Union. He said that capitalist restoration is a real possibility if the initial victory of the revolution is not consolidated. He proved he was serious when he mobilized the Chinese masses to support the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ in 1966.

Here was a leader who wanted his constituents to seize control of the bureaucracy. Naturally, Mao would be seen by the Western world as a madman attempting a self-coup.

But Mao proved to be correct when capitalism was eventually restored in Russia and China courtesy of the ‘modern revisionists’ in the politburo of the two countries.

Mao provided us with the essential Marxist lesson of the last half of the 20th century: The dictatorship of the proletariat can always relapse into the former rule of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, in order to decisively defeat modern revisionism, the masses must continuously mobilize and defend the revolution.

People’s War

But Mao’s strategy to win the revolution is more interesting and applicable for the Philippines. His analysis that Russia’s Bolshevik model is unsuited to the prevailing conditions of semi-feudal and semi-colonial China was adopted too by Filipino revolutionaries in the 1960s. Instead of an urban insurrection led by workers, Mao theorized that the Chinese revolution can first succeed via a people’s war. The forces of reaction are strong and seemingly invincible in the cities but they are weak in the countryside. Mao argued that a people’s army can build strength in these remote regions, establish and consolidate the political rural base of the Party, and capture the cities when the mass movement is able to accumulate enough strength. Mao emphasized that the people’s army will enjoy mass support if it fights feudalism in the provinces. To win over the peasant masses, the people’s army must therefore make land reform its principal agenda. This revolution will fight for genuine independence and democracy but it will be sustained by the socialist construction of society. This is the essence of the national democratic revolution with a socialist perspective.

If this is familiar, it is because the NPA subscribes to this model. The NPA was patterned after China’s liberation army. The major difference is that the NPA is waging war in an archipelago. But the end goal is the same: Surround the cities from the countryside where red political power can exist.

Teacher Mao

Mao’s legacy in the Philippines is not limited to the NPA. Activists translated several articles of Mao which enriched the country’s political discourse. When we say ‘learn from the masses’, it reflects the enduring power of Maoist quotations. China’s Red Book summarized Mao’s teachings but its essential contents were amplified through the Struggle for National Democracy and Philippine Society and Revolution, the country’s most popular textbooks on Communism.

Mao’s ‘Talks at the Yenan Forum’ which discussed proletarian art and literature, proved highly significant in radicalizing numerous artists and writers in the 1970s. It also set the framework on how to merge aesthetics and politics which challenged the dominant conservative perspectives in the academe.

Philosophy students can enhance their knowledge on Hegelian dialectics by reading Mao’s ‘On Practice, On Contradiction.’ Another essay by Mao, ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People’, is an impressive example of using his philosophy to study the political situation.

Mao had consistently fought to bridge the gap between the rural and urban. He sought to erase the division between manual and mental labor. He ridiculed abstract knowledge divorced from practice. He discouraged excessive theorizing. He called on young people and the intellectuals to live with peasants and workers.

China’s spectacular economic growth is often credited to the market reforms initiated by Deng after 1978. But the fundamentals of the strong Chinese economy were established during the phase of socialist construction under the leadership of Mao.

Mao in the 21st Century

How long will China’s leadership keep up the false claim that it continues to honor the radical legacy of Mao? Will the Chinese people rise up again to fight a new revolution?

Mao is dead but Maoism has survived in the 21st century. What kept it alive all these years despite the betrayal at the China front? A new generation of activists is rediscovering the original and daring ideas of Mao. Revolutionaries all over the world are embracing and affirming the validity of Maoism. The remote corners of the so-called Third World are alive with the people’s struggles. And here in the Philippines, Mao’s teachings on the united front, his leadership during the long march, his theories on guerrilla warfare, his polemics against pseudo-revolutionaries, and even his foreign policies are enthusiastically being discussed in various study sessions from the countryside to the cities.

Written for The Diplomat

Cambodia presented its human rights report before the United Nations Office in Geneva amid growing allegations that abuses are being systematically committed by state forces. The UN committee acknowledged that Cambodia has introduced some reforms in recent years, in particular land reform and registration of indigenous communal lands. But it also expressed dissatisfaction with the answers given by the Cambodian representatives, especially over the issue of impunity and extrajudicial killings.

The Cambodian government was represented by Ney Samol, Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the UN Office at Geneva, and Mak Sambath, president of the National Human Rights Committee of Cambodia.

The committee tackled several issues that seek to probe the role of the Cambodian government in addressing the rising number of human rights violations across the country in the past two decades.

One panel member asked why the police seemed hesitant to aggressively pursue investigations involving trafficking cases. Related to women’s issues, another panel expert expressed concern about the plight of women workers in the garment sector. The panel also cited a report published by Cambodia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs in 2012 and 2013 which mentioned that 35 percent of men had used some form of physical violence against women. It confirmed news reports of increasing incidences of domestic violence, rape, and acid attacks.

Cambodia was praised for abolishing death penalty but an expert observed that “there was still a gap between law and practice with regard to the right to life.” Proof of this is the unsolved murder cases of 12 journalists.

Cambodia was pressed to improve its policies concerning civil and political rights. The committee enumerated several laws and programs that limit free speech and assembly on the grounds of defamation, disinformation and incitement. Journalists were in fact threatened with detention and prosecution for purportedly spreading disinformation. Two other draft laws, cybercrime and civil society regulation, could also undermine citizen rights. An expert urged Cambodia to involve the public in finalizing these measures.

The committee also demanded more information about Cambodia’s prison system. Finally, it encouraged the government to respect the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

Cambodia firmly denied that activists are persecuted in the country. According to the government side, everyone in Cambodia is free to conduct political work as exemplified by the more than 1,000 NGOs that focus on human rights. Overall, there are more than 4,000 NGOs allowed to operate in the country, and these groups are not forbidden to criticize government policies.

The government also informed the committee that prison visits are regularly made to prevent torture. It claimed that it has been “working tirelessly” to solve the cases of disappeared and murdered journalists. It insisted that there’s no impunity in Cambodia.

It reminded the committee that Cambodia has been cooperating with international bodies to monitor the country’s compliance with human rights agreements. So far, Cambodia has already welcomed five special rapporteurs.

At one point of the proceedings, the Cambodian panel was combative. Asked about the gender imbalance in the government delegation, the Cambodian representative retorted that all five special rapporteurs to Cambodia had also been male, just like all secretary-generals of the UN.

The representative went on to defend the country’s record in upholding women’s rights by mentioning that some 20 percent of women were in leading positions in Cambodia’s public institutions.

Finally, the Cambodian government stressed that protests or public gatherings that threaten “security and stability” are temporarily prohibited.

Cambodia’s report to the UN was criticized by Licadho, a local human rights group. It noted that the report “lacks any connection to the present situation on the ground and reflects the authorities’ unwillingness to seriously acknowledge and address serious and systematic human rights violations.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog, submitted several recommendations to the UN pertaining to the human rights situation in Cambodia. Some of these included the establishment of an independent commission to investigate irregularities in the 2013 elections, the opening of the media sector to independent and opposition voices, and a lifting of all arbitrary bans on freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Thailand’s New Law Could Be Worse than Martial Law

Written for The Diplomat

The decision of the Thailand government to lift martial law on April 1 has failed to appease critics after General Prayuth Chan-ocha signed a new law that imposed harsher security measures across the country.

Martial law was declared on May 20, 2014 to restore order in the nation’s capital, which was besieged at the time by street clashes between pro-government and opposition forces. Two days later, a coup was launched by Prayuth, who established a government called the National Council of Peace and Order. The NCPO drafted an interim Constitution that was used to appoint government bodies including the legislature. Prayuth’s appointees subsequently named him as the country’s prime minister. But despite the existence of civilian agencies, martial law was retained.

The government was probably hoping to deflect international criticism when it revoked martial law this week. Yet it is hoping to restore confidence by replacing martial law with Order Number 3/2558 (3/2015), which invoked article 44 of the interim constitution to justify the enactment of extraordinary security-related measures. For some critics, the new order is akin to the draconian provisions of Thailand’s 1959 charter, which gave the military leader vast powers to persecute and prosecute the opposition.

The new order provides the appointment of “peace and order maintenance officers” from the ranks of the military who are given broad powers to defend the security of the state. These army personnel can search homes, summon and arrest troublemakers, confiscate property, and detain suspected individuals in special premises for up to seven days even without judicial authority.

Article 5 of the order could further undermine free speech in the country. The provision reads: “Peacekeeping Officers are empowered to issue orders prohibiting the propagation of any item of news or the sale or distribution of any book or publication or material likely to cause public alarm or which contains false information likely to cause public misunderstanding to the detriment of national security or public order.” (Unofficial translation by iLaw, the Freedom of Expression Documentation Center)

Thailand media groups described the article as a “greater threat to press freedom and freedom of expression than the lifted Martial Law.”

“Civilians are also at risk, as people who communicates and discusses topics through online social media that contain information viewed by the authorities as threat to national security, cause of public alarm, spreading of false information or public misunderstanding will be punished on the same condition,” the media groups warned in a joint statement signed by the Thai Journalists Association, National Press Council of Thailand, Thai Broadcasting Journalists Association, and News Broadcasting Council of Thailand.

They urged the NCPO to clarify the intent of the article and provide a more specific definition of “national security threat” and “dissemination of false information.”

Freedom of assembly is still curtailed, as stated in article 12 of the order which bans “political gatherings of five or more persons.” Referring to this provision, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance asked: “If the aim of the order is to lift martial law, why are such activities still banned and what are the criteria for giving permissions to such gatherings?”

Meanwhile, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reminded the public that the order didn’t remove martial law in the southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and the four districts in Songkhla. A Muslim separatist movement is currently active in the southern region.

Anusorn Iamsa-ard, spokesperson for the former ruling Pheu Thai Party, likened the lifting of martial law and the enactment of the new order as “running away from a tiger into a crocodile.” Sathit Pitutecha, deputy chairman of the Democrat Party, warned NCPO that the order “will destroy the confidence of both domestic and foreign communities, especially the international communities, who will only see Thailand as more of a dictatorship.”

Even the National Human Rights Commission, which rarely criticizes the NCPO, issued a statement about the detrimental impact of the measure. “The PM has to be cautious about falling into the trap of having so much authority, which could lead to criticism later on. During a time that the country is trying to promote national reform and solve inequality issues, I doubt that it’s suitable to use Article 44 or martial law,” said NHRC Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara.

Instead of assuring the international community about its commitment to democratic transition, Thailand further damaged its reputation by choosing to affirm its restrictive policies.

“Normally I would warmly welcome the lifting of martial law, but I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian, which bestows unlimited powers on the current Prime Minister without any judicial oversight at all,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

Sinulat para sa Manila Today

Dahil nagtitiwala siya sa masa; dahil kinakalinga siya ng masa

Kaibigan ng mga inaapi, kaaway ng mga ilustradong kontrabida sa lipunan. Hindi umaastang bayani, sa halip ay nakasandig sa lakas ng mamamayang pumipiglas. Mayroon siyang barkada na ang tawag niya ay kolektib, mayroon siyang ugnay mula siyudad hanggang probinsiya na tinukoy niyang mass base, at ang motto niya sa buhay ay sundin ang linyang masa. Sabi niya, hindi habag (at hashtag) ang kailangan ng mahirap kundi ang pagsulong ng kanilang pakikibaka. Tinanong siya minsan ng crush mo, pwede ba akong lumahok sa pakikibakang ito? At ang kanyang sagot, palayain mo muna ang puso kong binihag mo.

Dahil siya ay palaban; dahil siya ay lumalaban

Hindi naman siya basag-ulo at bodybuilder pero lagi siyang nang-aaway. Wala siyang pasensiya sa mga kurakot, sa mga pulitikong abusado sa kapangyarihan, sa mga nangangamkam ng lupa, sa mga nanghahamak sa karapatan ng manggagawa, sa mga sunud-sunuran sa dikta ng dayuhan. Tila hindi sapat para sa kanya ang magpahayag ng galit; sa tuwina ay may kasunod itong pagkilos, pag-oorganisa, pagbaklas. May nagliliyab na poot sa kanyang dibdib. At ang hangad niya ay pasiklabin ang apoy na ito at paramihin ang mga pusong umaalab hanggang magluwal ng bagong liwanag sa lipunan.

Dahil prinsipyo ang kanyang ginto

Halos walang bisyo at hindi sabit sa mga uso dahil kadalasan kulang o walang pambili ng luho. Dahil wala naman siyang romantikong pagtingin sa buhay mahirap; sadyang natutunan na lamang niyang huwag sambahin ang mga materyal na bagay. Kung gayon, ano ang kanyang pinagmamalaking yaman? Dunong-paaralan, diploma? Kahit trapong pulpol mayroon niyan. Pero ang prinsipyong di-nabibili, yan ang kanyang sinisikap isabuhay at higit na pinagyayaman. Natatangi dahil may paninindigang marupok at mapagkunwari. Pero ang kanyang pamantayan ay maging tunay na lingkod bayan at rebolusyonaryo. Lagi niyang sambit, simpleng pamumuhay at puspusang pakikibaka. Paano yan, romantiko na’y mandirigma pa.

Dahil marunong siyang umako ng kanyang kahinaan at pagkakamali

Kaugnay ng sinundang talata, maaaring isiping nagpapanggap na perpektong karakter ang aktibista. Subalit hindi. Tao rin na may kapintasan. At maraming masusumbat sa kanya: sa kanyang pakikitungo sa kapwa, sa kanyang aktitud sa mga praktikal na usapin, sa kanyang tila malagim na tanaw sa buhay. Pero may silbi ang husga dahil pinagmuni-munian niya ito at umakma sa mga punang natanggap. Ang tawag niya dun ay pagpapanibagong-hubog. Minsan may dinaluhan siyang group therapy na kung saan ang mga sumali ay nagpuna sa aktitud ng iba habang nagpuna rin sila sa kanilang sarili. At pagkatapos nito’y tila higit na tumibay ang motibasyong makibaka, lumaban, at umibig.

Dahil binabaka niya ang pyudal na kultura at pagsasamantala

Pwede bang maging “maginoo pero medyo bastos”? Magalang pero lihim na arogante sa relasyon? Bukas ang isip sa mga bagong ideya pero hindi sa kasarian? Inaangat sa pedestal ang kababaihan subalit ayaw silang pakawalan sa kulungan ng kusina’t kama? Ang palusot ng marami ay pamana diumano ng depektibong kultura; hindi pa daw tayo handa sa makabagong sensibilidad. Subalit umaalma ang aktibistang tutol sa diskriminasyon. Kung pyudal ang kaisipan, bakit hindi ito baguhin? Kung ang kultura ay mapang-api’t dekadente, bakit hindi ugatin ang sanhi nito at pangibabawan? 2015 na, kahit ang burgis na pananaw sa pakikipagrelasyon ay dapat ng ibasura.

Dahil habang pinaglilingkuran niya ang sambayanan, inaalay niya ang natitirang lahat-lahat sa kanyang iniirog

Hindi kaya siya napapahandsgod magmahal? Mahal niya ang manggagawa, ang magsasaka, ang masang lumalaban, at iba pang mga taong hindi niya kakilala subalit kakapit-bisig niya sa parlyamento ng kalye. Namamangha ka’t di makapinawala na pagkatapos magpamalas ng pag-ibig sa bayan, siya ay nakapaglalaan pa ng pambihirang pag-ibig sa isang indibidwal, sa kanyang sinisinta. May puwang sa kanyang puso na hindi pwedeng angkinin ninuman, kahit ni Inang Bayan. Ang puso ng tibak ay alay sa bayan subalit ang tibok nito ay para lamang sa kanyang pinakaiisang minamahal.

Dahil pangmatagalan ang kanyang perspektiba kaya’t handa siyang maghintay hanggang magtagumpay

Mahaba raw ang pakikibaka, matagalan daw ang digmang bayan, at siya ay buong loob na magpapakatatag. Handa raw niya ialay ang lahat-lahat sa kilusang masa habang bitbit ang pangako ng pag-ibig. Kung hindi pa ukol ngayon, bakit manlulumo samantalang hindi pa nasusulat ang kuwento ng hinaharap. At bakit hihintayin ang wakas samantalang pwedeng umusbong ang pagmamahalan sa panahon ng digma. Maraming sangandaan sa mahabang byahe, at ang daan ay tigib ng panganib, subalit sa kahuli-hulihan ang kanyang katapatan sa ideya ng rebolusyon at pag-ibig ang huhubog ng kanyang bukas.

Dahil dalisay at dakila ang kanyang pag-ibig

Paalala ni Bonifacio: “Aling pag-ibig pa ang hihigit kaya sa pagkadalisay at pagkadakila gaya ng pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa?” Wagas dahil bakit mo mamahalin ang isang daang milyong nilalang na hindi mo pa naman nakikita. Dagdag pa’y walang katiyakan na makakatanggap ka ng gantimpalang mangingibig. Subalit patuloy ang pag-alay ng buhay para sa bayan. Mga bayani at karaniwang tao – lahat sila, lahat tayo nagmamahal kahit pilit dinudungisan ng mga mapang-api ang pagsangkot sa pakikibaka ng masa. Ang gusto ng ilan, pag-ibig na mababaw, pakitang-tao na gumagampan diumano ng tungkulin para sa bayan. Subalit para sa aktibistang nagmamahal, hindi uubra ang mga ganitong simbolismo at posturang walang silbi. Dapat tapat sa panata. Dapat ramdam ng mamamayang bumubuo sa bayan. Dapat pag-ibig na marubdob, mabagsik subalit matamis.

Dahil ang pag-ibig niya ay mapagpalaya

Tulad sa telenobela, masayang pagtatapos ang pangarap niya. Pero ligaya na hindi pangdalawang tao lamang. Pag-ibig na mapagbigay, nagsasariling mundo subalit bumabago ng mundo. Aanhin ang saya ng dalawang puso kung mayroong dalawang bilyon na lugmok sa pagdurusang pwede namang maiwasan o tapusin. Kaya ang pag-ibig niya ay para sa isa at para rin sa lahat. Pag-ibig na bumibihag at nagpapalaya. Sa isang lipunang marahas, pag-ibig at pakikibaka ang tanging pag-asa na magpapalaya sa lahat.