Thursday, August 19, 2010

Between a landlord and a farmer

More than fifty days to his presidency, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III appears to have stumbled on his path towards defining his presidency. Even his “no more wang-wang” directive (no blazing sirens and motorized cops to escort public officials) whenever he takes the road is looking more and more like a mere sound bite.

After all, if he really wants to navigate Manila’s heavy traffic like the ordinary or average Filipino, then he should take the jeepney or public bus or the rail transit, which is the mode of transport for ordinary working citizens. Working Filipinos don’t travel in a chauffeured car, much more with the blasting din of sirens. His “no more wang-wang” policy is an empty and meaningless gesture for a president who wants to appear he’s one of the ordinary people.

It seems that President Aquino’s handlers are trying too much to cultivate a populist image for the new leader. More like Ramon Magsaysay, endeared in the hearts of the Filipino people as their champion or president of the masses. Regarded as the most popular president of the Philippines ever, Magsaysay was the first president to open the doors of Malacanang to everyone. Compared to his disliked predecessor, Elpidio Quirino, who was a better chief executive and more effective leader in managing the country’s economy. Or to his successor, Carlos P. Garcia, the nationalist president who left us with his legacy, the Filipino First policy.

Perhaps, Noynoy Aquino’s advisers want to cast the president in the mould of “Erap para sa mahirap” (Erap for the poor) before Joseph Estrada was convicted of plunder by the Sandigangbayan.

What has President Aquino III done so far?

The President’s adversarial team of lawyers backed up by the Commissioner of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Kim Henares, appeared overeager to push their chief’s agenda by bringing up four highly contentious matters to the Supreme Court to decide. These four cases involve the first three executive orders issued by President Aquino and his plan to impose a tax on road toll.

The executive orders, all challenged or subject of a temporary restraining order, include: No. 1 – creating the Philippine Truth Commission to investigate corruption in the Arroyo administration; No. 2 – firing all “midnight” appointees of former President Gloria Arroyo; and No. 3 – voiding the previous administration’s order granting state lawyers with automatic Career Executive Service Officer (CESO) Rank III without taking CESO examinations.

A 12 per cent value-added tax (VAT) on road toll was scheduled for implementation by the Aquino government early last week, but was stopped by a temporary restraining order by the Supreme Court. Refusing the advice of VAT law authors and tax experts, BIR Commissioner Henares claims that the VAT on road tolls is allowed by the Comprehensive Tax Reform Act of 1997 and the Expanded VAT Law.

“This is not a good beginning,” lamented Senator Joker Arroyo, the first executive secretary to Noynoy’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino. Arroyo, no relation to the former president, deplored the new president’s inability to grasp the difference between the law and state policy.

By now, President Aquino would probably be best remembered for doing nothing in his young days in office, especially when opportunities presented upon him to reverse dramatically the course of Philippine history early in his term.

Two missed opportunities stand out.

First is Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL), a military counterinsurgency plan of President Gloria Arroyo which expired when her term ended last June 30, 2010. Assailed by many quarters for encouraging extrajudicial killings and the forced disappearances of hundreds of activists suspected to have links with the local insurgency movement, OBL was singled out by Philip Alston, a United Nations Special Rapporteur, as a major reason for human rights abuses by the Philippine military. OBL fails to distinguish between combatants and civilians and legal and underground organizations, thus, engendering human rights violations.

Instead of keeping his election campaign promise to respect human rights, President Aquino simply caved in to the decision of his generals to extend Oplan Bantay Laya up to January 2011, and who knows until when. The Philippine military has consistently denied responsibility for the summary killings and disappearances of suspected activists, which President Aquino has no problem accepting at face value instead of launching a serious investigation akin to the Truth Commission he established to probe into the corruption during the Arroyo administration.

President Noynoy Aquino had the chance to dismantle OBL, a relic from the martial law regime his mother helped to topple through the People Power Revolution. Ignoring all the documented extrajudicial killings and disappearances, Aquino chose to appease the military establishment and did nothing to protect human rights.

Fifty-one days in power, five activists and one journalist have already been killed, adding to the more than a thousand still unsolved cases of extrajudicially killed and forcibly disappeared. Last February 6, 2010, the military arrested and detained 43 health workers conducting a health training program in Morong, Rizal, including two pregnant women. Until now, all 43 are still in detention for suspicion of links with the communist insurgency. Doing nothing to protect human rights seems almost natural and good enough for this President.

Perhaps, it is the second opportunity that is the easiest for President Aquino to seize. The transfer of Hacienda Luisita to its rightful owners, the farmers who had been given land distribution rights under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). It would have enabled the newly-elected president to define a major thrust of his government and solidify his own mother’s legacy of comprehensive land reform, but for his family’s continuing saga of stubbornly holding on. President Aquino’s cousins have petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the 2005 decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) to scratch the stock distribution option (SDO) reached under CARP in 1989.

With the Supreme Court yet to decide, a compromise agreement was struck by the management of Hacienda Luisita with the farm workers, retaining the SDO in lieu of a piece of the 1,400 hectares, or a third of the plantation that was up for distribution. The settlement was condemned by the more vocal farm workers in the plantation as dubious and suspicious, alleging that the farm workers were bribed and tricked to sign the agreement.

The Cojuangcos bought Hacienda Luisita in the late-fifties using a GSIS loan and a guarantee from the Central Bank with the stipulation that the land was to be redistributed to its tenants after the loan has matured ten years later (or in 1967), something that has yet to happen.

With a single stroke of the pen or some persuasive small talk to his family, President Aquino could have changed the course of land reform in the Philippines. Hacienda Luisita is a microcosm of the land reform problem in the country. Imagine its huge impact if Noynoy Aquino would be able to return the land that rightfully belongs to its small tillers.

As in the case of Oplan Bantay Laya, President Aquino has washed his hands of the ongoing Hacienda Luisita conundrum. Instead, the President insists he is no longer a party of interest in the dispute since he has divested his shares in the company owned by his Cojuangco relatives. That he would not interfere in the land dispute because he did not want to impose himself on the farmers and workers of the Hacienda.

President Aquino spoke of the straight and crooked paths during his first state of the nation address. Here was the opportunity for him to tell his relatives to take the straight path.

No president in this modern age could possibly achieve what Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, has accomplished in his early days in office. Morales, an Aymara Indian and coca farmer, became the first indigenous president in a country with an indigenous majority.

The election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia represented a radical shift in the country’s history. A few months after taking office. Morales put Bolivia’s natural gas fields and other key resources under state control, against the wishes of foreign investors and multinational companies. He has pushed for constitutional and land reforms, and set out the rights of the indigenous population, which have worried much of his middle-class opponents.

The difference between Evo Morales and Benigno Aquino III is striking. From where they came from, one is dirt poor; the other, to the manor born. Morales is an indigenous Aymara Indian, a coca farmer — the exact opposite of the landowning, schooled, and bred-in-comfort Noynoy Aquino who represents the upper crust in Philippine society.

Who do you think will speak for the poor and champion genuine land reform for small farmers? The farmer or the big landowner?

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