Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a filipino activist, former legislator, and blogger/analyst of southeast asian affairs. he lives in manila

Published on Bulatlat

*Talumpating binigkas sa Mindanao Human Rights Summit na ginanap sa Philippine Normal University, Taft, Manila noong Nobyembre 12, 2015

Sa susunod na linggo, ipapalabas na ang inaabangang huling installment ng pelikulang Hunger Games. Sa pelikula, lumusob sa Capitol ang mga nakatira sa District 12 at iba pang inaaping distrito ng Panem. Sa isang banda, hindi ba’t ang mga Lumad na andito ngayon sa Maynila, ang kapitolyo ng Pilipinas, ay tulad din nina Katniss at mga kasamahan niya na ang pinaglalaban ay katarungan at kapayapaan? Hindi ba’t ang Panem ay tulad din ng Pilipinas na may malaking agwat ang mayaman at mahirap? Sa Panem, sinisipsip ng Capitol ang yaman ng lahat ng distrito; sa Panem, ang mga komunidad na pumipiglas ay tinatapatan ng dahas ng estado. Ganito rin ang relasyon ng Metro Manila at Mindanao, ang imperial Manila at ang mayamang lupain ng Mindanao. Ang yaman ng bansa ay nakakonsentra sa iilang pamilya at korporasyon habang ang mayorya ay nasasadlak sa kahirapan.

Binabati ko ang lahat ng isang mapagpalayang hapon subalit nais kong ibigay ang aking pinakamatikas na saludo sa mga Lumad na naglakbay pa mula Mindanao, binagtas ang silangang Visayas, tumawid ng dagat, binaybay ang Bikol, dumako sa Timog Katagulagan, at nagmartsa mula timog Metro Manila papuntang UP DIliman, at nandito ngayon sa Maynila. Araw-araw nagrereklamo tayo sa trapik, siksikan sa MRT, at byaheng nakakahilo; subalit ang mga kapatid nating Lumad, pambihirang paglalakbay ang kanilang ginawa upang ipaabot lamang ang kanilang mensahe sa pamahalaan at sa ating lahat.

Pinaunawa sa atin ng mga Lumad na ang problema ng Pilipinas ay hindi lamang ang mabagal na Internet, tanim bala at trapik sa kalsada kundi mas malala pa: kahirapan sa lahat ng panig ng bansa – at ito ay ramdam na ramdam ng mga magsasaka at mangingisda sa kanayunan. Sinu-sino sila? Sila lang naman ang mga taong nagpapakain sa atin araw-araw.

Dagdag pa sa kahirapan ay ang karahasan sa kanayunan. Mahirap na nga ang buhay, pinapalayas pa sa kanilang lupang tinubuan. At kapag lumaban, pinaparatangang kriminal o kalaban ng gobyerno.

Sa pelikulang Avatar, nais patalsikin ng isang korporasyon ang tribong Na’vi sa kanilang tinitirhan dahil gusto nitong minahin ang kagubatan. Pamilyar ito sa mga Lumad dahil nasa Mindanao ang mining capital ng bansa. At tulad ng mga Na’vi, pinapaalis din ang mga Lumad sa kanilang lupa ng mga gahamang transnational corporation kasabwat ang armadong pwersa ng estado. Sino ang tunay na kriminal: ang mersenaryong korporasyon o ang katutubong nagtatanggol ng kanilang buhay at pamumuhay?

Ang karanasan ng Lumad kaugnay ng pagmimina ay di naiiba sa kuwento ng maraming komunidad na sinasalanta ng tinatawag nating development aggression. Mga aktibidad na mabuti raw ang epekto sa ating ekonomiya subalit kapalit naman ay habambuhay na pagdurusa ng mamamayan. Halimbawa: mining, logging, expansion ng mga plantasyon, agribusiness ng malalaking korporasyon, at land conversion para sa biofuel na pang-eksport.

Sa nakaraang dekada, lumobo ang industriya ng pagmimina. Gaano ba kalawak ang kasalukuyan at mungkahing mining operation sa bansa? Mga dabarkads, natataandaan ninyo pa ba ang Philippine Arena? Ayon sa grupong Kalikasan, kasinglaki ng 62,000 na Philippine Arena ang proposed mining areas sa bansa.

Hindi tayo tutol sa pag-unlad; tutol tayo sa pangangamkam ng lupa at pagkasira ng kalikasan habang ang yumayaman ay iilang indibidwal lamang. Ito ang karanasan ng Pilipinas sa nakalipas na siglo. Inubos na nila ang mga kagubatan, yumaman ba ang ating bansa? Noon, ang sabi nila huwag tumutol sa pagputol ng puno dahil kapalit nito ay dagdag kita ng mga komunidad. Magkakaroon daw ng mga kalye, paaralan, health center, negosyo at iba pang biyaya mula sa mga kumpanya ng troso. Ano ang nangyari? Kalbo na ang mga bundok subalit nanatiling atrasado ang ating ekonomiya. Sino ang yumaman? Silang mga nasa poder. Samantala, sino ang nagdusa? Tayong lahat.

Ngayon ang target naman nila ay ang ilalim ng bundok. Sa Mindanao, agresibo ang pamahalaan at mga dayuhang korporasyon sa pagbili ng lupa upang ito’y mabilis na pagkakitaan. Subalit ang kanilang modelo ng pag-unlad ay walang espasyo para sa ordinaryong mamamayan. Hindi rin holistiko ang idudulot na kaunlaran sa komunidad at sa bansa. Kung matutuloy ang kanilang disenyo, hindi magagamit ang yamang likas ng Mindanao upang madebelop ang mga industriya sa bansa. Magpapatuloy lang ang kalakaran kung saan sadyang nililimita lang ang ekonomiya ng Pilipinas sa pagsuplay ng hilaw na materyales na kailangan ng ibang bansa.

Kung bakit binabansot ang kakayahan ng ating lokal na ekonomiya ay may kinalaman sa mga preskripsyon ng mga kasunduang ating nilagdaan at mga pormasyong ating nilalahukan tulad ng Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation o APEC. Dahil sa APEC, lalong pinagtibay ang papel ng Pilipinas na maging supplier lamang ng murang lakas paggawa at hilaw na materyal. Inalis ang proteksiyon para sa mga produktong agrikultural at hinayaan ang pagbaha ng murang imported goods sa mga pamilihan. Nagresulta ito sa pagbagsak ng kabuhayan ng mga magsasaka na hindi kinaya ang kumpetisyon mula sa mas murang produktong galing sa ibang bansa. Ito rin ang dahilan kung bakit lumawak ang mga plantasyon, dumami ang mining application, at sinakop ang ancestral domain ng mga katutubo.

Unang naging host ng APEC ang bansa noong 1996 at kasunod nito’y ratsadang imposisyon ng mga patakarang liberalisayson, deregulasyon, at pribatisasyon. Kung ang pamantayan ay pagbukas ng mga oportunidad para sa malaking negosyo at dayuhang kapital, masasabing nagtagumpay ang APEC. Kung susuriin ang buhay ng ordinaryong mamamayan lalo na ng manggagawang kontraktuwal, malinaw na higit pa sa delubyo ang idinulot ng APEC. Subalit kahit masaklap ang karanasan ng bansa sa pagsunod sa dikta ng APEC, nakatakdang gawin ang APEC summit sa Maynila sa susunod na linggo.

Sa pelikulang Jurassic World, nalaman natin na binuksan muli ang lumang Jurassic Park kahit na napatunayang nakamamatay ang ganitong klase ng theme park. Hindi ba’t ganito rin ang aktitud ng pamahalaan sa mga patakarang neoliberalisasyon na pinagtibay natin noong unang APEC? Lalong lumubha ang kalagayan ng ekonomiya subalit eto ulit ngayon ang pamahalaan, tagasuporta pa rin ng APEC. Kontraktuwalisasyon pa more. Mababang sahod pa more. Taas singil sa kuryente, tubig, at pamasahe para sa mga kumpanyang pag-aari dati ng estado na ngayo’y kontrolado na ng pribadong interes. Sa pelikulang Pacific Rim, ang tawag sa mga halimaw ay Kaiju; para sa akin yan ang APEC: halimaw na pumapatay at mapaminsala sa Asya-Pasipiko.

Isa sa malagim na pamana ng APEC ay ang mabilis na pagkasira ng kalikasan. Kinamkam at sinira ng maraming dayuhang korporasyon ang ating yamang likas, kabilang ang lupang ninuno ng mga katutubo. Sa mga mining areas, nilason ang tubig at hangin. Nilamon ang mga kagubatan, ang luntian ay naging putik.

Kaya mahalagang basahin muli ang Laudato Si ni Pope Francis. Napapanahon ang kanyang paalala na ang pag-unlad ay dapat nag-aambag sa maaliwalas na buhay at pagkalinga sa kapaligiran.

Marami sa mga kalamidad na humagupit sa bansa nitong mga nakalipas na taon ay naganap sa Mindanao tulad ng bagyong Sendong at Pablo. Sa kasaysayan nito, bihirang daanan ng malalakas na bagyo ang Mindanao. Subalit dahil sa climate change, mukhang nagiging madalas na ang pagdating ng mga kalamidad sa isla. Gayunpaman, ang pinsala sa kalikasan ay nagdudulot ng mas malaking trahedya sa buhay ng tao. Dahil sa expansion ng mga plantasyon sa Bukidnon, ang dating kagubatan ay ginawang taniman ng pinya, saging, at iba pang export crops. Ganito rin ang nangyari sa timog Mindanao. At nang rumagasa ang bagyo, lumikha ito ng flashflood at mudslide na pumatay ng marami.

Hindi natin kailangan ng ‘guardians of the galaxy’; sapat na ang ‘guardians of the gubat’ upang maibalik ang sigla ng kabundukan. Sa mahabang panahon, ginampanan ito ng mga Lumad subalit nanghimasok ang estado at tinaboy ang mga katutubo. Hinati ang hanay ng Lumad at sinilaw ang ilan ng alok ng kapangyarihan at salapi. Minaliit ang sinasabing makalumang kultura ng Lumad at pilit na pinalit ang pangako ng modernisasyon.

Agad nagdulot ito ng kaguluhan at pagwasak sa lupang ninuno ng mga Lumad. Ito ang dahilan kung bakit marami sa mga Lumad ay lumikas papuntang sentrong bayan o kaya’y mariing tumutol sa mga proyektong sumisira sa kalikasan.

Kung uunawain natin ang buod ng kahilingan ng mga Lumad, simple at makatwiran lang naman ang kanilang mensahe: hayaan silang mabuhay nang mapayapa sa kanilang komunindad.

Hindi ito mahirap ipatupad lalo na kung ang pamahalaan ay nakikinig sa boses ng mamamayan. Ang problema, ang tunay na ’boss’ ng pamahalaang Noynoy Aquino ay hindi ang karaniwang tao kundi mga campaign donor, malaking negosyo, at dayuhang interes. Kaya ang bilis ng aksiyon kapag may dinadaing ang mga kaibigang oligarkiya. Mining permit, approved. Tax exemption, approved. Private armies, approved. Military escort, approved. Pero nang Lumad na ang may hinahapag na usapin, sinisi pa ang Lumad kung bakit nagpapagamit daw sa NPA.

Totoo, marami sa mga problema ng Lumad ay deka-dekada na ang tagal. Totoo, minana ito ni Pnoy. Subalit, ang daming pananagutan ni Pnoy: Bakit pinagpatuloy niya ang mapaminsalang pagmimina? Bakit pinayagan niya ang militarisasyon sa mga mining areas? Bakit hindi inatras ang mga patakarang nagpatindi sa paghihirap ng magsasaka at katutubo? At bakit sa halip na kapayapaan ay pinili niya na maghasik ng dahas sa kanayunan?

Kung pinagpatuloy lang sana ni Pnoy ang usapang pangkapayapaan kasama ang National Democratic Front, isa sana itong pagkakataon upang resolbahin ang ilan sa mga isyung bitbit ng Lumad. Nasa adyenda dapat ng peace talks ang mga sosyo-ekonomikong isyu na mahalaga sa Lumad tulad ng repormang agraryo, pag-unlad sa kanayunan, pagplano ng ekonomiya, at pagrespeto sa ancestral domain.

Tinalikuran ni Pnoy ang peace talks at sa halip ay hinarap sa katutubo ang brutal na mukha ng pasismo. Nagdeploy ng bata-batalyong sundalo at pinalawak ang counterinsurgency gamit ang iba’t ibang ahensiya ng pamahalaan. Marami sa mga serbsiyong pinamimigay ay nakaangkla sa misyon na magkondukta ng surveillance at pahinain ang tinatayang support base ng mga rebelde sa mga komunidad.

Kinakailangan pa bang maging conflict area ang isang lugar para lang mabigyan ito ng mga kaukulang serbisyo mula sa pamahalaan? Hindi ba’t responsibilidad ng estado na magtayo ng paaralan o pagamutan sa bawat barangay, ito man ay may malaki o maliit na bilang ng botante o iniimpluwensiyahan man o hindi ng mga rebelde?

Subalit walang interes ang pamahalaan ni Pnoy na ugatin ang sigalot sa kanayunan kung kaya’t ang stratehiya nito ay talunin ang mga rebelde sa pamamagitan ng militarisasyon sa mga komunidad. At nang hindi ito umubra upang talunin ang rebolusyon, inakusahan ang mga sibilyan bilang protektor ng NPA o kasabwat ng mga rebelde. Kabilang sa mga sinasangkot sa rebelyon ay ang mga Lumad.

Nagtayo ng paaralan ang mga Lumad, subalit sa mata ng estado, paaralan daw ng NPA. Tumutol ang mga Lumad sa pagmimina, subalit para sa militar at malaking negosyo, pakana daw ng NPA.

Tanggapin natin ang argumento na nasa likod ng mga Lumad ang NPA, ang solusyon ba ay gibain ang mga eskuwelahan? Patayin ang mga guro? Magsunog ng mga bahay, nakawin ang mga pananim, at sirain ang kabuhayan ng mga katutubo?

Kung tinuloy lang sana ni Pnoy ang peace talks, pwede niyang singilin nang harapan ang NPA at NDF kung ano ang katotohanan sa bintang na pumapatay ng Lumad ang mga rebelde. Sa pamamagitan ng peace talks, pwedeng pagkasunduan ng magkabilang panig ang mga kongkretong hakbang na makakatulong sa panunumbalik ng normalidad sa buhay ng Lumad.

Ngunit sadyang utak-pulbura ang nasa pamunuan o kaya nama’y tila mas nanaisin pa ng pamahalaan na lumikas ang mga Lumad upang tumigil na rin ang oposisyon sa pagmimina at iba pang operasyon ng mga oligarikya sa Mindanao.

Tama si Cardinal Tagle sa kanyang pahayag na itigil ang militarisasyon sa mga komunidad ng Lumad. May mga mungkahi siyang hakbang na pwedeng pag-usapan ng NPA-NDF at pamahalaan ni Aquino.

Samantala, habang hindi umuusad ang usapang pangkapayapaan, igalang natin ang karapatan ng Lumad na ipabatid sa lahat ang kanilang sitwasyon. Nandito sila dahil ang kagyat na sagot sa kanilang problema ay nakasalalay sa mabilisang aksiyon ng pamahalaan ni Aquino. Idagdag natin ang ating boses sa mamamayang nakikiisa sa laban ng Lumad. Iparating natin hanggang Malakanyang ang ating suporta para sa pinaglalaban ng Lumad. Medyo lakasan natin ang ating mga sigaw kasi si Pnoy baka abala sa mga kasalan at hindi niya tayo mapansin.

Marami akong pelikulang nabanggit ngayong hapon tulad ng Hunger Games at Avatar. Sa dalawang pelikulang ito, tampok ang matapang na pag-aklas ng mamamayan. Kabigha-bighani, di ba? Madali tayong napahanga kahit ito ay mga likhang sining lamang. Kaya bakit magkakasya lamang sa pantasya kung nariyan at pinatunayan ng mga Lumad na nagpapatuloy ang pakikibaka. Dun tayo sa totoo.

Ngayong taon, sumikat sa bansa ang pangalang Duterte bilang lider na pwedeng mamuno. Binigyan niya ng pag-asa ang marami. Isa ako sa may respeto kay Duterte pero sa totoo lang, hindi siya ang maningning na liwanag na natatanaw natin sa Mindanao. Ang liwanag na ito ay buhat sa sulo na hawak ng mga Lumad habang magiting nilang tinataguyod ang paglaban para sa tunay na kalayaan, katarungan at panlipunang pagbabago.

Written for The Diplomat

A look back at some of the top stories from Southeast Asia in 2015:

1. Landslide victory for Myanmar’s National League for Democracy. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be constitutionally barred from becoming president of Myanmar but her party secured an historic victory in the general election. A tenth of the new members of the parliament were former political prisoners, including Suu Kyi herself. NLD’s victory was less surprising than the decision of the military and the incumbent military-backed civilian government to recognize the poll results. Will this lead to sweeping reforms in Myanmar next year?

2. Corruption scandal in Malaysia. First, there were allegations that state-run investment firm 1Malaysia Development Bhd lost a large amount of money due to anomalous transactions. Subsequently, Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of pocketing more than $600 million from 1MDB. Najib denied the charge and insisted that the money was a donation for his political party from a supporter in the Middle East. Some of his influential allies were not convinced and they tried to persuade him to resign. Najib gets to keep his post (for now) but the scandal is expected to undermine his leadership until the end of his term.

3. Indonesian haze. The recurring haze from Indonesia affected residents of Singapore, Malaysia, and some parts of southern Philippines. Caused by forest fires, the haze reflected the inability of Indonesian leaders to stop plantation owners and farmers from clearing the land for palm oil. But responsibility for resolving the problem is not restricted to Indonesia alone, since several plantations in the ‘ground zero’ of the forest fires are owned by Singaporean and Malaysian companies.

4. Lese majeste cases in Thailand. Since grabbing power in 2014, the Thai junta has used the anti-Royal Insult law to silence and harass opposition leaders, activists, and even ordinary citizens. Some lese majeste cases led to convictions with harsh prison terms. The law is meant to protect the monarchy but the junta is using it to justify repression. Diplomats and foreign scholars are urging Thailand to review its strict implementation of the law but the junta responded by threatening to arrest critics — and recently, even began investigating the U.S. ambassador for insulting the king by questioning the application of the lese majeste law.

5. Corruption scandal in Indonesia. House Speaker Setya Novanto resigned his post after he was accused of asking for a 20 percent stake in the mining giant Freeport in exchange for the extension of the company’s contract to operate in Indonesia. The House leader found it difficult to deny the charges, since his conversation with a Freeport executive was secretly recorded but still insisted that he was only joking. He was being probed for ethics violation when he resigned as House speaker. He is still a member of Congress and leader of the powerful Golkar Party.

6. Rohingya refugees. Thousands of Rohingya boat refugees were pushed back into the seas by the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia early this year. The Rohingya are mostly Muslim but they are treated as illegal residents in Myanmar. The marginalized Rohingya are living in makeshift camps in western Myanmar, forcing many of them to seek refuge in neighboring countries.

7. Trade agreements and economic integration. Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei are included in the United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Meanwhile, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines are also seeking to join the club. Negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a regional free trade area including the ten ASEAN countries and those nations with existing free trade agreements (FTAs) with ASEAN – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea – continued but did not conclude by the end of the year as had been hoped. Aside from TPP and RCEP, the plan to create a single economic community in the Southeast Asian region known as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) also took off this year.

8. Cambodia’s opposition lawmakers boycott parliament. Last year, Cambodian politicians vowed to pursue a so-called “culture of dialogue,” which ended the decision of the opposition to boycott the parliament. This year, the opposition boycotted the parliament again for two months after some of their members were beaten by a pro-government group. A defamation case against the opposition leader was also revived. The opposition is now back in the parliament but it doesn’t mean the ruling party, which has been in power for more than three decades already, will stop its attacks against its political rivals.

9. Laos assumes leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Laos announced that the theme of ASEAN in 2016 is “Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic ASEAN Community.” Its great task is to help build the foundations for establishing the ambitious ASEAN Economic Community.

10. Philippines vs China maritime case. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled that it has jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippines against China over the maritime disputes in the South China Sea (known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea). The case proceeded to oral arguments. The decision, expected around the middle of 2016, could also affect the similar claims of several countries in the region and China’s behavior with respect to its neighbors.

11. Death of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew passed away this year, an event that saw an entire country mourning his death and paying tribute to Southeast Asia’s most famous statesman. Global leaders also recalled the visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew and his success in leading the transformation of a small island state into a prosperous economy in less than three decades. Lee Kuan Yew’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by his son Lee Hsien Loong, maintained its leadership by clinching a landslide victory in September.

12. Human trafficking in Thailand. International scrutiny over human trafficking in Thailand continued in 2015, as a shocking expose led to several arrests and rescue missions related to slavery in Thailand’s seafood industry. The discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims in the country and the case of a senior police officer seeking asylum in Australia only heightened concerns about the issue in the country.

13. Vietnam passes transgender law. The new law in Vietnam now recognizes the right of transgenders to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the country. In addition, those who have undergone sex surgery can legally change their gender status. The LGBT community inside and outside of Vietnam welcomed the passage of the law but urged the government to improve it by recognizing the right of all transgenders, including those who are unable to undergo a sex surgery.

Corruption Scandals Hound ASEAN Leaders in 2015

Written for The Diplomat

The year 2015 in Southeast Asia will be remembered for two things: the historic election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the corruption scandals involving leaders of the ruling parties in the region.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is accused of pocketing more than $600 million (2.6 billion Ringgit) from state-run investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib admitted that this large amount of money was transferred to his personal bank accounts but denied that the funds came from 1MDB. He claimed that a supporter from the Middle East donated the money for the election campaign of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization.

The issue has affected Najib’s credibility as a leader and some of his influential allies even called for his resignation. But Najib is undeterred and insists he did not steal from public funds. While he is likely to remain prime minister until the end of his term, the mysterious $600 million donation and the anomalous financial transactions of the 1MDB will continue to undermine his leadership.

In Thailand, the junta is embroiled in a corruption mess after reports surfaced that a park it built in 2014 is grossly overpriced. The Rajabhakti Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province featured seven giant statues of popular kings which the junta commissioned to honor the monarchy, the country’s most beloved political institution. But there were allegations that large kickbacks were demanded for the construction of the park.

Last month, a former army chief and deputy defense minister confirmed that an “amulet-hawking middleman” took a 10 percent commission from the project. The army immediately announced that it would investigate the issue. This week, the junta ordered the closure of Rajabhakti Park for “maintenance” after activists and opposition groups tried to visit the park in order to conduct a protest against military corruption. When it seized power last year, the junta vowed to stop corruption in government. But the controversy surrounding the Rajabhakti Park today has raised questions about its credibility to follow through on that commitment.

In Indonesia, House Speaker Setya Novanto is under investigation after mining giant PT Freeport Indonesia accused the influential politician of asking for a 20 percent stake in the company which is estimated to be worth $4 billion. The head of Freeport Indonesia released an 80-minute audio recording of a meeting where Novanto allegedly made the demand in exchange for an extension of the company’s permit to operate in the country. Freeport’s mining site in Papua province has the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine. And though Freeport is also the largest taxpayer in Indonesia, activists and nationalist groups believe that the company should remit a bigger share of its revenues and profits to the country’s treasury.

Novanto, a member of the Golkar Party which fielded a losing presidential candidate last year, allegedly claimed in the recorded conversation that the 20 percent stake is made in behalf of the country’s president and vice president. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has vehemently denied this. According to some analysts, this is already the biggest political scandal to hit Indonesia in recent years.

In the Philippines, Vice President Jejomar Binay is facing several plunder charges in connection to alleged anomalous contracts he signed when he was still mayor of Makati City, the country’s financial center. Binay, one of the frontrunners in the 2016 presidential election, described the corruption cases as politically-motivated. He questioned the string of cases filed against him, which he said was made to disqualify him as a candidate in the election.

But public perception is not in favor of the vice president as evidenced by his declining popularity ratings. It does not help that Binay’s alleged lavish lifestyle and properties have been exposed by the media. To be fair Binay could hit back by pointing out that the ruling party has not yet adequately addressed the issue of the presidential pork barrel program which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In any case, the fight against corruption is expected to be one of the major election issues next year.

This year was supposed to be a glorious year for Southeast Asia as the region was set to establish a single and united community. Instead, it will be remembered as the year when the region’s elected leaders and army generals were implicated in embarrassing and unprecedented corruption scandals.

Written for The Diplomat

This year, we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of Vietnam War, a two-decade conflict that pitted a poor and divided Asian nation against the rich and powerful United States. Understandably, it was a politically significant moment in world history.

But there were other equally memorable events that took place in Southeast Asia in 1975. Aside from the end of war in Vietnam, elsewhere in the region, the year also marked the start of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the escalation of Muslim rebellion in the southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines.

When the army from the communist North Vietnam arrived in Saigon on April 30, 1975, the war had already been raging on for two decades. The war killed at least three million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 Americans. While Vietnam may have ‘won’ the war, it was a devastated country in 1975. Its rural and urban centers were in ruins and its economy was devastated.

If Vietnam succeeded in expelling American troops, it failed to remove the bombs left behind by the invading army. Over the past 40 years, more than 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by these bombs and land mines. Another grim legacy of the war is the poisonous impact of Agent Orange, which the Americans used against the Vietnamese Army. The chemical warfare not only destroyed Vietnam’s agriculture but also affected residents who were exposed to it. About three million people, including 150,000 children, suffered from defects caused by Agent Orange.

Though the Americans may have left in 1975, for millions of Vietnamese their suffering did not end that year.

Another country which was ravaged by the war was Vietnam’s neighbor, Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos to cut off the supplies of communist guerrillas operating along the borders of Vietnam and Laos. Because of this, Laos became the most heavily bombed country on Earth. At least 30 percent of these bombs failed to detonate. Forty years after the end of Vietnam War, these unexploded bombs continue to kill and injure farmers and other rural residents of Laos.

Another country which saw a communist party take power in 1975 was Cambodia. The communist Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979. During this brief period, the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot was accused of killing more than one million people. Some claim the casualties reached two million, or about a quarter of Cambodia’s population at that time. Those who resisted the government were sent to labor camps. Almost 800,000 suffered from torture, slave labor, and starvation.

Like Vietnam, East Timor ended colonial occupation in 1975 when the Portuguese government left the country and a Democratic Republic of East Timor was proclaimed. But it was a short-lived independence because East Timor’s neighbor, Indonesia, sent troops in December to occupy the country. More than 200,000 East Timorese, or about one-third of the local population, died during the invasion. Indonesia argued that it had only responded to the appeal of some East Timor leaders for military assistance. But many scholars believe Indonesia’s invasion was tacitly approved by the United States and Australia to prevent communists from taking control of East Timor. Indonesia occupied East Timor from 1975 to 1999.

The year 1975 also saw the rise of tension in the Muslim-dominated areas of Thailand and the Philippines.

In southern Thailand, the army was accused of killing several young Muslims, which worsened the political situation in that part of the country.

Meanwhile, intense clashes between government soldiers and Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines displaced thousands of residents. The conflict generated greater international attention to the demand of Muslims in the Philippines for independence or autonomy.

So while the end of Vietnam War in 1975 shaped the modern history of Indochina, other events during the same year also clearly had a profound impact in the Southeast Asian region, such as the Timor occupation by Indonesia, the ‘killing fields’ in Cambodia courtesy of the Khmer Rouge, and the Muslim insurgencies in Thailand and the Philippines.

Many things have changed after 1975: Vietnam and the United States have reestablished diplomatic and military ties. East Timor became an independent republic in 2002. And some of Pol Pot’s subordinates are on trial today for committing grave crimes against humanity.

But many things have also remained the same. Muslim separatist movements in both the southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines continue to linger. And for millions of Vietnamese and Laotians, the war that ended in 1975 is still a reality today; many of them continue to get hurt or killed because their lands are still littered with deadly bombs.

The year 1975, therefore, is crucial not just to remembering the past but also to understanding the present.

Written for The Diplomat

The theme of ‘lost generations’ is relevant across Southeast Asia, a region besieged by decades of civil war, foreign invasion, military dictatorship, and economic underdevelopment over the past half century.

In Myanmar, the ‘missing’ generation refers to young people who were deprived by the military regime of the right to political participation in the 1990s. The junta shut down many universities after the 1988 student uprising which forced students either to quit school or seek refuge abroad. Political science programs were removed from the curriculum which the military blamed for the rise of activism in the country. After a decade, there was already a shortage of skilled labor. Furthermore, a new generation emerged with little or no exposure to democratic politics. The youth and first time voters in this year’s historic general election belong to this generation.

Myanmar’s ‘lost’ generation also includes the children who were displaced by ethnic wars. Some of these local conflicts have been ravaging the countryside over the past 60 years. Thousands have crossed borders in Thailand to seek shelter and work. However, many end up as illegal migrants or undocumented workers. International groups have been consistently pointing out that stateless children in Thailand continue to be denied of their basic rights.

The Vietnam War affected several generations in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the United States. We remember the young soldiers who perished during the war, the innocent villagers caught in the crossfire, and the wounded survivors who thought that their suffering was already over. Even after the war ended, thousands in Vietnam and neighboring countries continue to be wounded or killed by unexploded bombs. Meanwhile, an estimated 100,000 Vietnamese Amerasian children left behind by U.S. soldiers endured years of neglect and discrimination.

The victory of the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975 was followed by three years of terror that killed more than 1.5 million people or about one-fifth of the country’s total population. This explains why a majority of Cambodians today are below 30 years old. But some are worried that Cambodian children have already forgotten the country’s traumatic experience under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Another group of casualties of war are the ‘lost’ Timorese during the two-decade Indonesian invasion of East Timor which started in 1975. At least 100,000 were killed or one-third of East Timor’s population. In addition to this, an estimated 4,000 children were taken from East Timor by the Indonesian military and civilian organizations, and they were delivered for adoption in Indonesia.

Indonesia lost at least half a million people in a military-led anti-communist purge in 1965. This led to the victory of Suharto who reigned as a strongman until 1998. But a new ‘lost’ generation emerged after Indonesia was hit hard by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The economic crisis, exacerbated by political unrest, severely affected working-class families, and their children. The number of Indonesia’s street children and child laborers swelled during this period.

When the economy is down, many seek better opportunities in other countries. This temporarily addresses a country’s unemployment problem but it also leaves behind children growing up without their parents. They could be said to be the new ‘lost’ generation. This is most evident in Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand – countries with a high number of migrant workers.

In the case of the Philippines, 12 million out of a population of 100 million are working overseas. The emergency program to send workers abroad in the 1970s became a permanent policy that fundamentally altered various social institutions in the country, most especially the traditional concept of family. Today, the new normal is to have a family member, usually a parent, working in another country.

The ‘lost’ generation may also mean the young Filipinos who died fighting the martial law regime in the 1970s. Some of them were bright students who could have become the country’s next leaders.

As Southeast Asia faces the new century, one reason to pursue peace and prosperity is to remember that embracing war and meaningless growth would only lead to death and desolation. The proof is most poignantly provided by Southeast Asia’s ‘lost’ generations.

Written for Bulatlat

The accusation that the Left is exploiting the Lumad for political propaganda is easily refuted by the Lumad themselves through their compelling articulation of various abuses inflicted by state forces in their communities. The Lumad do not need the Left or activists to voice out their demands; they can speak for themselves.

With or without the Left, the Lumad have the right to assert the protection of their ancestral domains. They have the right to resist the entry of corporate interests in their lands and other forms of development aggression.

Solidarity is essential to effectively advance the cause of the Lumad and other marginalized communities. But expressing solidarity through advocacy is not necessarily a Leftist act. In fact, Malacanang NGOs are aggressively pursuing “peace activities” in Mindanao, even if the real intent is to broaden the constituency in favor of the Bangsamoro Law.

What is scandalous in the eyes of yellow apologists is not the idea of a marginalized community learning to defend its heritage, but the active presence of the Left among these ethnic tribes. They cannot accept that the Left is wielding influence in the grassroots.

What they refuse to recognize is that it is mainly the Left which has chosen to embrace the struggle of the Lumad compared to other political forces which sided with foreign capital and big business in the exploitation of our precious resources.

Hence, the malicious and desperate tirade against the Left, in order to tarnish the credibility of the local resistance movement.

But perhaps the red baiting tactic is intended to achieve more. Aside from muddling the issue and diverting the attention of the public, the other motive could be to render the Left ineffective in pursuing similar campaigns in the future.

Ridicule the Left, demonize its image, and spread nasty lies about its political record. As the Lumad continue to gain broader public support, government apologists responded by hyping the so-called Left menace. Pathetic and unprincipled, but this propaganda operation works all the time. Ask Duterte who recently accused the administration party of engaging in black propaganda.

Consider these examples: The Lumad held a caravan from Mindanao to Manila, but they were mocked as mere hakot (paid crowd) of the Left. They have reasonable political demands, but reactionary pundits quickly dismissed them as part of a Leftist “agit-prop.” It is disappointing to encounter echoes of these anti-Left and anti-Lumad rantings on mainstream and social media.

If the Left joins the Lumad in calling for land, justice, and human rights in Mindanao, does it invalidate the message? If some of the Lumad become activists, does it mean the Left is committing political opportunism?

It is not unlawful and unethical if the Left pursues a stronger political bond with the Lumad. But for the anti-Left and many liberals, the link between the two is repulsive. The anti-Left have their own misguided reasons for reacting this way, but how do we explain the sentiment of many middle-class liberals?

Perhaps they have been frustrated already by the behavior of traditional politicians which led them to misperceive the militant pro-Lumad campaign of the Left as another insincere publicity stunt. They fail to appreciate that the Left is doing something concrete on the ground precisely because politicians, as always, didn’t deliver on their promise to make things better for everybody.

For many who have been victimized by the doctrine of political-correctness, they probably misinterpreted the unity between the Left and the Lumad as a violation of privacy and autonomy of the latter. For them, political advocacy is carried out with minimal interaction with the grassroots. Solidarity is practiced through volunteerism, and the victims are empowered through charity. Applied to the Lumad situation, they probably couldn’t understand why activists are espousing ‘hard’ political demands, instead of working with the government to address the basic needs of the Lumad communities.

A brief integration, or even discussion with the Lumad would have sufficed to provide context to the situation. How can the Lumad welcome state-sponsored reforms when state-sponsored activities (agribusiness, logging, mining, militarization) displaced them from their communities? But alas, many are probably comfortable already in echoing the opinion of Manila-based commentators that the Lumad are stubborn as they continue to protest against the government.

The stereotype of the ideal victim is shattered by the fighting Lumad who are now encamped in Metro Manila through the Manilakbayan campaign. Many expected the Lumad to be helpless, meek, and exotic but the Lumad who arrived with the Left are assertive, combative, and political. Some are probably asking: Did the Left corrupt the Lumad?

This thinking is reflected in a government report which rebukes both the military and the NPA for recruiting the Lumad. What exactly is the government expecting? That the Lumad will continue with their weaving and dancing, even if mining operations are already destroying their homes? That the Lumad will sing praises to the government, even if soldiers are attacking their schools and communities? That Lumad warriors will quietly ignore the desecration of their culture?

Then there are those who question the appropriateness of adopting the Leftist agenda to address the Lumad issue. Spare the Lumad from Marxist slogans, they insist. Perhaps some of these scholars are thinking that the Left is hijacking the Lumad cause.

But if the Leftist agenda is the most comprehensive in achieving social transformation, then the Lumad will also benefit in the broader national political struggle. To be fair to my fellow activists, no Marxist technical terms are mechanically imposed in the Lumad campaign. The slogans, demands, and action programs of the campaign reflect popular themes. No communist utopia is required to realize the wishes of the Lumad. End military abuse, stop destructive mining, respect ancestral domain, land reform, human rights – these are not just Leftist assertions; these are democratic programs guaranteed by the laws of the republic!

Finally, the Left’s active participation in the Lumad campaign is another reminder of how the Philippine Left has managed to survive and thrive despite the non-stop attacks of its ideological enemies. It has organic ties with the grassroots, it mobilizes the marginalized, and it links and unites various sectors to establish a strong and dynamic people’s mass movement from the rural to the urban. Compare the Left to bourgeois parties which are scandalously corrupt, inept, and insensitive to the plight of the poor.

Despite the repression it continues to endure, the Left remains immersed in the everyday struggle of the masa. And this is clearly demonstrated in the Left’s resolute commitment to fight alongside the Lumad in defending our land from plunderers, oppressors, and modern day fascists.

Written for Bulatlat

Since Internet connectivity is equated with modernity and innovation, it is no surprise to see politicians providing free Wi-Fi to their constituents.

National agencies and local government units are scrambling to provide free online services while prospective election candidates are already promising to expand free Wi-Fi connections in their territories.

In Manila and several cities in the nation’s premier urban region, road works are presented as part of a program to build a ‘Wi-Fi City’. Some leaders who claim to be tech-savvy are pushing for a better Internet penetration to address inequality, inadequate services, corruption, and other social ills.

That Internet access improves communication and interaction with government leaders is obvious to all. That it can help empower individuals and small businesses is also easy to understand.

But to name it as the ultimate solution to the problems besetting the Philippines reflects a simplistic mindset. To assert that our daily suffering is caused by a slow and unreliable Internet distracts the public from confronting the other fundamental evils that plague our nation.

Free Wi-Fi is cool but it is no game changer. We can help poor families survive by making sure they have food on the table rather than simply giving them Wi-Fi access.

A developing country like the Philippines has to address basic problems such as intergenerational poverty, widening income gap between the rural and urban, jobless economic growth, and rapid deterioration of its natural habitats. All of these require offline interventions. These issues should be the priority of elected leaders and the private sector.

In the case of poverty, a troubling indicator is rising incidence of hunger. The Philippines is endowed with fertile lands but many of its people are food-poor. As the El Nino phenomenon leads to prolonged drought, even farmers in rural Philippines cannot produce enough to feed their own families. The sad and heartbreaking reality is that the people who produce our food – farmers and fishers – are the poorest sectors in the country.

The main challenge, therefore, is not how to develop apps for these troubled sectors but to resolve the causes of their deprivation. Historic inequities cannot be reversed by merely establishing cyber connections and making impressive data sets. Political empowerment, especially in the grassroots, is the key factor to substantially alter the unjust structures that oppress our people.

But is it right to frame the issue this way? Does it have to be an extreme binary between food and free Wi-Fi? Why can’t we assert that both are equally necessary?

Because there is real danger that if we draft a development program that highlights both food security and Internet access, the latter will be given prominent attention by influential urban-based opinion-making institutions such as the media and academe. Similarly, young urban voters who earn higher incomes than their rural counterparts will be more interested in discussing the same topic. Political parties which are targeting this large demographic might focus on issues raised by the digital generation at the expense of other equally valid concerns of rural voters and the rest of the digitally-excluded segments of society.

Also, more and more politicians are learning to recognize the potential of the Internet as a “weapon of mass distraction” which they can exploit to hide either their failures or the vulnerabilities of the political economy.

Hashtags about Internet trends are hip while chatting about the new fisheries code is interesting only for experts and affected sectors.

A politician can simply promote Internet access by clinching a deal with a local telco. But how about food security? This cannot be easily achieved by implementing cash transfers and other dole out programs. Politicians must offer a comprehensive plan which should involve several reforms such as enacting better trade policies, greater incentives to boost rural productivity, linking the countryside with the urban market, promoting sustainable production, and creating decent jobs for marginalized populations. In the case of Manila, the government has to explain why it plans to demolish all public markets or why it barred small fishers from catching fish in the municipal waters.

Between negotiating a free Wi-Fi service with favored telcos on one hand and implementing a thorough land reform to develop a vibrant domestic economy on the other, which do you think politicians will choose? The former delivers instant results and quantifiable public feedback while the latter involves complex inter-agency negotiation, legislation, and decisive political intervention.

Food or free Wi-Fi? The popular response is to choose both. Politicians will prefer the program that can garner more votes and higher public rating. But why subscribe to the mentality of politicians when we can forcefully assert that free Wi-Fi is welcome but we also have primary needs and rights that the state should first provide. Internet connectivity is quite meaningless to a starving farmer and a worker displaced by a development project in the city. In other words, free Wi-Fi in a poor community is like giving a cocktail dress to a homeless person.

To compete in the knowledge economy, the essential resource is our people who need to be healthy, happy, and highly-skilled. Free Wi-Fi can enhance their abilities and provide them with broader opportunities but the assumption is that they already have access to basic education, food, clean water, and decent shelter. Food or free Wi-Fi? Choose life over virtual life.

kabcon5*Mensaheng binigkas sa pambansang kumbensiyon ng Kabataan Partylist noong Setyembre 28, 2015

Natutuwa po ako at mukhang maraming bagong mukha sa araw na ito; ibig sabihin, bukod sa tumanda at gumradweyt na ang aming batch, ay patuloy ang pagdami ng kasapian ng Kabataan Partylist (KPL).

Natutuwa din po ako na makita ngayong araw ang mga pamilyar na mukha at pangalan; mga baguhan noon sa KPL na nanatili at piniling maging aktibo sa sektor ng kabataan. Ilan sa kanila sa Facebook ko na lang nakikita pero marami din sa kanila ay nakakasama natin sa iba’t ibang laban dito sa Kamaynilaan at iba pang rehiyon ng bansa.

Nagsimula po tayo noon na iilan lang ang tsapter, ang mga coordinator natin ay nangangapa sa pagpapagana ng isang partylist, wala tayong rekurso, at medyo mahirap ikampanya ang isang partylist na hindi kilala at wala pang rekord sa Kongreso.

Minsan nagpatawag tayo ng Kabataan Party meeting sa Negros, ang dumating ay mga bata, kasi ang ibig sabihin ng kabataan dun ay bata, kaya akala nila ang Kabataan Party ay ‘children’s party’. Minsan isang oras nagpapaliwanag kung bakit kailangang iboto ang KPL, pagkatapos sa open forum, itatanong ang apelyido ng ating nominee para ilalagay daw sa balota. May mga balotang nasayang kasi ang nakashade ay hindi lang Kabataan kundi pati Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, at Gabriela.

Ibang-iba talaga ang ating partylist: Saan ka nakakita na ang watcher ay walang bayad? Ang mga kampanyador ay teenager at karamihan ng coordinator sa siyudad, probinsiya at rehiyon ay hindi lalagpas sa edad na 23. Yung partylist ng mayayaman, nagbabayad ng boto, namimigay ng pagkain at regalo. Tayo, tayo minsan ang binabayaran ng botante kasi naaawa sa atin, pinapakain tayo ng mga masa sa komunidad, nililibre tayo ng mga estudyanteng nirerekrut natin, at tanging polyeto/leaflet/brochure ang ating pinamamahagi.

Bakit ba tayo nananalo? Siyempre masisipag ang mga KPL members and volunteers. Buong araw kung mangampanya tapos pag-uwi tuloy ang social media campaigning. Gigising ng madaling araw para magdikit ng poster.

Wala naman tayong secret formula. Yung iba kasi, nangangampanya para magkaposisyon lang, magkapera, rumaket, maging bahagi ng elitistang kongreso. Pero tayo, lumalahok tayo sa halalan kasi may pinaglalaban tayong adyenda. Adyenda ng kabataan adyenda ng mamamayan, adyenda para sa pagbabago. At manalo man o matalo, tuloy ang laban. Parang student council lang di ba, pero ibang level na ito, kasi sa Kongreso na ang labanan at ang sakop ay buong bansa.

Binabati ko ang lahat ng bumubuo ngayon sa KPL mula sa pamunuan hanggang sa mga bagong miyembro. Sa ngalan ng KPL alumni, salamat at patuloy ninyong tinataguyod ang simulain ng ating partylist. Salamat at patuloy ang paglawak ng ating naaabot at paglago ng ating prestihiyo.

Siyempre hindi kayo pwedeng tumanda sa KPL, kaya nga kabataan di ba, pero sana, at ito ang iniiwan kong munting hamon sa inyo, tumanda kayo habang pinaglilingkuran ang sambayanan; magkaedad kayo habang patuloy na kumikilos para sa pagbabago.

Mga apo ni Bonifacio, mga apo ni Heneral Luna, mga anak at katuwang ng Kabataang Makabayan, mabuhay kayo! Sulong sa mas marami pang tagumpay!

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s parliament swiftly approved the proposed National Security Council Bill despite the appeal of the opposition to conduct more debates and consultations about the measure.

The bill, which was just introduced on December 1, was immediately tabled for deliberation despite the admission of the ruling party that there was no internal threat or terror alert in the country.

Even if there is a need to establish the legal framework for the safeguarding of the country’s security, opponents contend that Malaysia already has several existing laws that can be used by authorities such as the Internal Security Act, Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act of 2012 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act which was passed early this year.

The 33-page NSC bill itself proposes the establishment of a National Security Council headed by the prime minister. This body, composed of eight high ranking Cabinet members and military officers, will be given the power to “formulate policies and strategic measures on national security, including sovereignty, territorial integrity, defense, sociopolitical stability, economic stability, strategic resources, national unity and other interests relating to national security.”

There is no clear definition of what constitutes national security, which has significant implications for how the bill is enforced. For instance, since the document mentions ‘socio-political stability’, does it mean the massive anti-government Bersih rally can be considered a threat to national security?

The bill allows the prime minister to declare any area in the country as part of a so-called ‘security area’. A director of operations in the security area will be appointed who can issue a curfew order. In addition, the director of operations has “the power to do all things necessary or expedient for or in connection with the performance of his duties in the security area.”

Some of the specified powers of the director include the authority to order warrant-less arrests, block any vehicle and persons in the security area from accessing roads and waterways, and seize property or destroy assets believed to be in the interest of national security. The National Security Council can also appoint an unlimited number of officers to implement the law in the security area.

Yet the bill raises issues of accountability since those implementing the law are immune from prosecution.

“No prosecution for an offence under this Act shall be instituted except by, or with the written consent, of the public prosecutor,” the bill states.

Steven Thiru, president of the Malaysian Bar, called the bill “an insidious piece of legislation that confers and concentrates vast executive powers in a newly created statutory body called the National Security Council.” He added that the bill grants the prime minister with emergency powers which were already repealed by the parliament in 2011.

According to the Lawyers for Liberty group, the bill is “extremely vague, arbitrary and wide and further obliges secrecy – a surefire recipe for abuse of power and human rights. Far from establishing matters concerning national security, the bill is more akin to establishing a dictatorship rule.”

Human rights group Suara Rakyat asserted that “the only reason why the Government of Malaysia wish to implement this legislation is to provide its leaders with unparalleled power to control the country and silence all form of dissent with violence and threat of violence.”

Veteran lawmaker Lim Kit Siang questioned the rush to approve the measure.

“It is an insult to the intelligence of Pakatan Harapan Members of Parliament and discerning members of the public to expect them to behave like unthinking and obedient robots or digits to give blank cheque support to whatever is decided by the Cabinet,” he wrote on his blog.

Notably, criticisms of the law do not question the right of the Malaysian government to implement measures for the protection of its citizens. Rather, the issue is why it needs the new bill at all: critics contend that the country has more than enough ‘draconian’ laws to deter criminal or terrorist acts.

If it is indeed true that the National Security Council Bill is unnecessary, then what is its purpose other than to give vast and broad powers to law enforcers and the prime minister? Irrespective of how one answers that question, the government also clearly missed the opportunity to explain its position when it quickly moved to approve the measure instead of consulting stakeholders about the proposed law.

International Court Revisits Indonesia’s 1965 Mass Killings

Written for The Diplomat

An international people’s tribunal gathered testimonies and other evidence linking the Indonesian government to the anti-communist mass killings in 1965. The tribunal was held from November 10 to 13 in The Hague.

The mass killings targeted suspected members and sympathizers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The purge killed at least half a million people but some human rights groups believe the number of victims could be more than a million. The wave of violence lasted for several months between 1965 and 1966 but state forces continued to arrest, harass, and persecute hundreds of thousands of suspected communists into the early 1970s.

In September 1965, the PKI was accused of brutally killing high-ranking army generals in a failed coup. This prompted the military to retaliate. An army officer, Suharto, became president during this period and remained in power until 1998. Suharto banned all attempts to probe the 1965 killings. He has consistently blamed the communists for starting the conflict in 1965.

It was only after the resignation of Suharto that witnesses and survivors started to speak out about the events of 1965 and beyond. For many years, it was alleged that majority who suffered during the anti-communist witch hunt were innocent civilians. Many were tortured and detained without trial because of mere suspicion that they were friends or relatives of PKI members. More than 10,000 individuals were banished to the remote island of Buru and Plantungan in Central Java. Women and children endured sexual violence and discrimination for many years. Some detainees were subjected to forced labor.

The military has denied committing these crimes over the past 50 years. It has refused to acknowledge that atrocities were done against ordinary citizens. Its official version of history is to depict the PKI as a monstrous and anti-democratic political force which has to be outlawed and decisively defeated in order to save the Indonesian republic. Some army commanders were even declared heroes for leading the anti-communist campaign in the 1960s.

The strong influence of Suharto and the military in the post-1998 era has prevented a full investigation of what really happened in 1965.

Some expected President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to heal the wounds of the past by apologizing to the victims of military abuse and other forms of human rights violations. After all, he has no direct ties to Suharto and one of his election programs centered around promoting national reconciliation.

But Jokowi backtracked on this commitment and ignored appeals to finally end the half-century of impunity with regard to the anti-communist hysteria in 1965.

The international people’s tribunal, therefore, is a political action aimed at making the Indonesian government accountable for the alleged mass crimes it committed in 1965. It also seeks to “break down the vicious cycle of denial, distortion, taboo and secrecy” about the 1965 killings.

The tribunal involved 16 witnesses, six international prosecutors and seven judges. The Indonesian government faced a nine-count indictment of crimes including mass murder, torture, sexual abuse, enslavement, enforced evictions, persecution, and enforced disappearances.

Since it is not a criminal court, it has no power to provide justice and compensation to victims. Nonetheless, it is a significant political process to find out the truth about a dark episode in Indonesia’s modern history.

As Chief Prosecutor Todung Mulya Lubis said in his opening statement, the tribunal is an “absolute necessity” so that the “truth is told in its entirety, honestly and sincerely.”

“The wounds and pain will never be healed without truth telling,” he added.

And even if the tribunal has no legal standing in Indonesia, the prosecutors are confident that it can lead to political victories in the future.

“We truly believe that it will open the door for sincere apologies; for reparations and for rehabilitation of those who are discriminated until today,” they asserted in their closing statement.

After hearing the stories of survivors and studying the documents submitted by the prosecution team, the judges found the Indonesian government “responsible in the commission of such crimes against humanity as the chain of command was organized from top to bottom of the institutional bodies.”

The tribunal also tackled the “complicity” of the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia in the commission of the mass crimes in 1965. A witness alleged that these governments “provided radio-communication equipment in order to facilitate communication between the troops and delivered small arms and money. They also provided lists of alleged PKI members to the Indonesian authorities.”

As expected, the Indonesian government dismissed the international tribunal as a farce. It reminded the participants that Indonesia is a sovereign nation with a functioning legal system. It also insisted that President Jokowi will not apologize for the actions of the army in 1965. Some hardliners even branded the Indonesian participants as traitors and communists.

But if the government is looking for more solid evidence about the systematic and massive abuses of the army in 1965, it can read the 2012 report of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia which spent four years interviewing 349 witnesses and victims of the 1965 purge. The commission, a government agency, recommended the prosecution of army officials involved in the killings. More importantly, it found “adequate initial evidence” that state forces committed various crimes against humanity.

Sadly but not surprisingly, the recommendations of the commission were not acted upon by the government.

President Jokowi should remember his election pledge to promote national reconciliation. His government should reconsider its decision to ignore the findings of the human rights commission and the international people’s tribunal.

The survivors of the 1965 killings cannot wait for another 50 years to receive justice from the government.

Written for The Diplomat

The year 1965 is politically significant in several Southeast Asian countries: Singapore became an independent nation, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president of the Philippines, and an anti-communist purge killed at least half a million people in Indonesia.

Singapore separated from the Malaysian Federation and subsequently, an independent government was established led by Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew became one of the most vibrant economies in the world. Its transformation from a small Third World city state into a prosperous nation with high living standards is one of the memorable development stories of the past century.

While Singapore was learning the ways of nationhood, Indonesia in 1965 was suddenly besieged by violent forces which led to the rise of Suharto. According to the army, it was only forced to retaliate when communists attacked government officials. But it was a massive retaliation that led unlawful killings of innocent civilians and suspected communist sympathizers. Hundreds of thousands were arrested, tortured, and condemned to forced labor even if their only crime was that they were relatives of communists.

The events in 1965 and their tragic aftermath were kept hidden from the public and the international community by Suharto and the military. It was only after Suharto fell from power in 1998 that witnesses and survivors came forward to share their stories. In 2012, Indonesia’s human rights commission finally declared that the army is guilty of committing human rights abuses in 1965.

While the power struggle in Indonesia led to a bloody confrontation between competing forces in 1965, the Philippines held a peaceful election during the same year. The incumbent president was defeated by Marcos who remained in power until 1986. Marcos declared martial law in 1972 to quell a rising communist insurgency but many believe this was only a ruse to extend his term. The Philippines under martial law was a dark period in the country’s history. The political opposition and other critics of Marcos were detained while soldiers were accused of committing gross human rights violations. Similar to Indonesia’s wave of killings between 1965 and 1966, many victims of martial law were suspected communists or sympathizers of the underground movement.

Fifty years later, the events of 1965 continue to influence contemporary politics in Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Singapore held a massive and festive celebration to mark its 50th founding year. Singaporeans became nostalgic and proud of the achievements they made in the past half century. Millions paid their last respects to Lee Kuan Yew who passed away last March. There was an evident surge of patriotism in the country which could be a factor why the ruling party got a landslide victory in the election held a few days after Singapore’s 50th Foundation Day. Perhaps many voters were euphoric over Singapore’s rise as a global city and this sentiment benefited the party which has ruled the country from the very beginning despite the growing clamor for political reforms.

If Singapore is keen on remembering its humble origins, Indonesia is hesitant to find out what really happened during the reign of terror in 1965. There were expectations that President Jokowi would initiate steps to address the unresolved issues surrounding the 1965 tragedy. Last August, he proposed the formation of a reconciliation commission. But the country’s major political parties and the military rejected the idea and warned that it could spark a new conflict. Early this month, a literary festival aimed at sharing stories of people who survived the 1965 massacre was shelved due to pressure from the government.

Suharto may be dead, but his subordinates are still influential. That explains why it is extremely difficult to persuade the government to establish the truth about the events surrounding 1965.

Fortunately, an International People’s Tribunal is being organized next month in The Hague to determine the accountability of the Indonesian government in relation to the mass killings in 1965.

In the Philippines, Marcos remains a divisive figure. Three decades after his ouster, the Philippines is still an underdeveloped nation. His critics blame him for the problems besetting the country while his supporters continue to assert that removing him from power proved more costly to the nation. Even Marcos’ heirs hold elected positions today: his wife is a representative in Congress, his eldest daughter is a provincial governor, and his only son and namesake is an incumbent senator who is running for vice president in next year’s election.

The junior Marcos claims that Filipinos have already moved on and that martial law is no longer an issue that can be invoked against his family.

Fifty years after Marcos became president, his family and supporters are aggressively seeking to defend his legacy. They wanted to revise history’s verdict on Marcos and his martial law regime to boost the electoral chances of Marcos’ son.

There are many uses of history: it can be celebrated to unite a country (Singapore), it can be repressed to hide the truth (Indonesia), or it can be amended to influence the future (Philippines). This is politics as usual. But it should not distract us from pursuing the essential goals of seeking out the truth and fighting for justice.

Written for The Diplomat

Though transboundary haze pollution and the El Niño phenomenon are often reported these days across Southeast Asia, these issues deserve greater attention from regional leaders.

These are no longer national problems that local politicians can easily address through rhetoric; the situation already demands a stronger action which can be effectively realized through regional cooperation.

The haze has become an annual problem involving Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. This year, the haze is darker and more hazardous than ever; but this time it has reached the skies of south Thailand and some parts of southern Mindanao in the Philippines.

The ‘ground zero’ of the disaster is in Indonesia where forest burning and land clearing operations have worsened the air pollution levels across the region. But equally to blame are Malaysian and Singaporean companies which are financing the expansion of rubber and palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

Some are also insisting that small farmers should be probed for causing the forest fires in western Indonesia. But while traditional farm practices should be reviewed, the more essential issue is the unsustainable production being pursued by large plantation companies. Besides, traditional farming has existed for decades if not hundreds of years without generating a massive haze pollution across borders.

The haze is a reminder for regional leaders to think of innovative solutions to address an old problem. Offers of financial and technical assistance must be welcomed, regional economic initiatives must be expanded, and cross-boundary interventions must be given a chance to work.

The haze should also alert the public about the direct link between human activities and environmental degradation. There’s nothing mysterious about the haze: stop the forest burning to bring back a clearer sky and cleaner air.

But this requires more than just enforcing of environment laws. Countries must be persuaded to review their economic models and growth targets, the business sector must be enticed to adopt a sustainable production output, and consumers must be informed to buy less and to choose only the products that do not harm the environment.

As Southeast Asian countries prepare to integrate their respective economies, they should also reconsider the impact of this undertaking on the region’s ecological integrity. Should traditional economic indicators such as high production levels, profitability, and expanding trade surplus trump other concerns such as environmental sustainability?

How Southeast Asia will address the haze issue could determine the future of the region in terms of its viability as a developing bloc of livable nations.

Another concern requiring regional discussion and action is the recurring El Niño or the prolonged drought affecting the lives of millions of farmers. El Niño is worse and deadlier than haze, but it is less visible and evokes a quieter indignation from urban residents.

Before Typhoon Koppu devastated northern Philippines last weekend, farmers there have been reeling from the harsh impact of El Niño in recent months. During his weekly speeches aired on national television, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha never forgets to remind his rural constituency to support state programs on irrigation and other measures in response to the El Niño which is unusually more intense this year.

Southeast Asia may be more famous because of its cosmopolitan cities such as Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur or its exotic beach destinations in Phuket, Bali, and Palawan; but this rising region is primarily an agglomeration of agricultural economies. El Niño affects not just the region’s food security and the export of food crops, but also the backbone of its economy. It is particularly ruinous to ordinary farmers. As El Niño stalks Southeast Asia, the region’s economic prospects also falters.

El Niño should lead us to rethink the relevance of several trade agreements that some Southeast Asian governments are negotiating with other bigger and more developed countries. Should Southeast Asia first address the impact of El Niño as a regional formation? Should this inspire the implementation of a bold climate action that will benefit all economies in the region?

In relation to the trade agreements concocted by richer countries, the more crucial issue to ask is whether these economic instruments will uplift the lives of farmers who are already suffering from El Niño, or whether the farmers will lose from unfair trade competition.

The haze and El Niño are more than just minor concerns affecting the environment. They are not just an inconvenience. They destroy lives, weaken economies. and constitute a national security threat.

Choking from the haze and coping with El Niño, is it the right time for Southeast Asian counties to sign new and bold but divisive trade commitments?

Typhoon Haiyan Two Years Later: The Philippines is Still Recovering

Written for The Diplomat

Recovery continues to be slow two years after super typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) devastated the central part of the Philippines.

To be sure, the failure to complete the rehabilitation process in Tacloban city and Leyte province, the ‘ground zero’ of the typhoon disaster, is seen by some as understandable considering the massive destruction left behind by Haiyan. To reiterate the extent of the damage, Haiyan affected 44 out of 80 provinces in the Philippines. It killed more than 6,000 people and cause more than $2 billion worth of property damage. It is reportedly the strongest typhoon in recorded history.

The government, for its part, has been defending its post-Haiyan relief efforts. A presidential spokesperson even bragged that the Philippines did better compared to the post-Hurricane Katrina performance of the United States government.

But critics have been citing official audit reports about the inefficient use of calamity funds and donations from other countries. They question the slow disbursement of funds intended for Haiyan survivors. They point out that thousands continue to live in temporary shelters or tent cities with inadequate services and livelihood opportunities. The government’s “Build Back Better” initiative is mocked as a program favoring big business at the expense of ordinary residents.

But the government has denied the accusation of underspending. It also countered the charge that it neglected the plight of Haiyan victims. Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan insisted that the government is now “transitioning into the medium-term phase of recovery and rehabilitation efforts.”

However, Balisacan acknowledged that “reconstruction efforts were stymied by a whole set of serious policy and implementation issues.” As examples, he identified contradictory policies on procurement and land acquisition as well as the red tape involved in completing certain projects.

“We learned that several national laws, policies, and practices have been getting in the way of resource mobilization and fund disbursement, and have been a major hindrance to project implementation,” he added.

Balisacan’s statement, released a few days before the two-year anniversary of Haiyan, reflected a more moderate assessment of the government’s post-Haiyan achievements. It highlighted the new infrastructure and other economic programs that benefited Haiyan-hit communities, but the statement also mentioned the cause of “implementation bottlenecks” that delayed the delivery of a comprehensive reform package for Haiyan victims.

What Balisacan did not say was that these bureaucratic weaknesses could have been easily addressed through decisive leadership by the national government.

The government of outgoing President Benigno Aquino III will be remembered for its success or failure to restore normalcy in the Eastern Visayas region. Naturally, it is going to be an election campaign issue that can be invoked by opposition candidates in the next few months.

Adding to the pressure is the global media attention that the Philippines faces as it prepares to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this month. If journalists decide to visit Tacloban and report the real situation of the city, it will not be difficult for them to pinpoint the unfulfilled promises and incomplete projects of the administration.

For its part, the government hopes to lead a discussion during the APEC summit about the need for building economies that strengthen the disaster resiliency of countries in the Pacific Rim.

Meanwhile, the deadly impact of Haiyan in a small underdeveloped archipelagic country like the Philippines is expected to be shared once more by climate justice advocates at the Paris Climate Conference next month. Many activists are hoping that the specter of Haiyan will convince world leaders to come up with a more effective climate pact.

Two years after Haiyan made history and traumatized an entire nation, many continue to debate its consequences and the inaction or slow action of concerned agencies. But as bureaucrats, politicians, economists, and climate experts exchange notes on the lessons to be learned from Haiyan, let us not forget that the essential task is still to bring fast relief, real recovery, and progress in the lives of ordinary residents in the communities which have remained calamity areas up to this day.