A Poverty Resource Hub of Focus on the Global South Philippines

Fighting for a New Philippines

Fighting for a New Philippines

Jan 14, 2012

Fighting for a New Philippines

by Walden Bello

Magandang umaga sa inyong lahat.  Nagpapasalamat kami sa Focus sa inyong pagdating sa forum na ito.  I would like to welcome you as a senior analyst of Focus on the Global South.  I would like to use another hat, however, while giving my speech, and this is that of Akbayan representative in the 15th Congress.
Unang una, ho, gusto kong ipahiwatig sa inyo na hindi ko naiisip na darating ang panahon na kasama ko sa Kongreso si Imelda Marcos.  Naauubos ang panahon ko sa katatakas sa kanya sa plenaryo kasi lagi niya akong sinsubukan sumama sa Komite niya.  She is the head of the House Committee on the Millennium Development Goals, a post to which the Speaker of the House, in what I can only interpret as an ironic mood, appointed her.  It is an experience to hear her speak.  She comes across, as my friends John Cavanagh and Robin Broad described it, as a “brilliant crackpot.”

The country was rid of the Marcos dictatorship in February 1986, but the next quarter of a century was not an easy one.   Electoral democracy was reestablished but the old oligarchic class structures reasserted themselves.   Structural adjustment and neoliberal trade policies pushed by Washington, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund resulted in the devastation of our agriculture and industry, driving a large part of our labor force—10 per cent according to some estimates—to search for work abroad.  Unbridled corruption, especially during the nine years of the Arroyo administration, left government coffers empty and people extremely distrustful of politicians.

Akbayan and Aquino
The coming to power of the administration of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III a year ago, after Mr. Aquino’s massive win at the polls, gave our people tremendous hope and expectations that a new era was at hand.

My party Akbayan, the Citizens’ Action Party, had aligned itself with Mr. Aquino’s candidacy, and Mr. Aquino’s asking Risa Hontiveros, who was with us till yesterday, to run as a guest candidate on the Liberal Party slate, was emblematic of the value he placed on this alliance.   We in Akbayan supported the coalition that brought “Pnoy” to power because this coalition had a strong reform agenda based on two pillars, ridding the country of corruption and tackling the country’s enormous poverty problem, who could serve as the basis of more comprehensive reform.  Our presence in government was a sea change for our party, for, ever since we participated for the first time in the electoral process in 1998, we had been, for most of the time, a party in opposition.  Indeed, we had been unrelenting in our efforts to expose the corruption of (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) and her effort to change the constitution to perpetuate herself in power.  Now we were confronted with the challenge of being part of a coalition in power, of having people in Congress and in the executive who were expected to deliver concrete reform.

Overcoming Obstacles
It has not been an easy first year.  On the anti-corruption front, a major instrument to bring GMA and her cronies to justice, the Truth Commission, was preventedfrom functioning by an obstructionist Supreme Court filled with appointees of the former president.  More important, the Ombudsman, Merceditas Gutierrez, stood like an immovable stone blocking all efforts to investigate and prosecute the former first family and her accomplices.   Until she was removed, the anti-corruption campaign would be stalled.  This is why we in the administration coalition in Congress devoted so much time and effort to impeaching her, which we finally succeeded in doing in March of this year in a historic, lopsided vote.  Rather than be prosecuted in the Senate, Gutierrez resigned.  This has paved the way for using the office of the Ombudsman to bring Mrs. Arroyo and her cronies to justice.  Meanwhile, prosecution of notorious NBN-ZTE broadband scandal is moving.  Cases have also been filed against GMA for the diversion of funds of the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration and the Department of Agriculture to her and her cronies’ personal coffers.  The Bureau of Internal Revenue is bringing former presidential son Mikey Arroyo to court for massive tax evasion.   We in Akbayan are, this very day, filing a plunder case against GMA in connection with the massive misuse of PCSO funds, and there will undoubtedly also cases filed for electoral fraud relating to the extensive cheating in Mindanao in the 2004 and 2007 elections.

In my first privilege speech during the 15th Congress, I said that Mrs. Arroyo, who had joined us as representative of the Second District of Pampanga, had no business being in Congress and that she belonged instead to the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa.  For this speech, I was accused by GMA’s allies of violating parliamentary courtesy and brought up before the House Ethics Committee.  But however the case against me fares in the House Ethics Committee, I am now so much more confident, after all these developments, that justice will be meted out and that we will see in the not too distant future former president Arroyo transported in an armored car on the 20 kilometers from the House of Representatives to the National Penitentiary.
I think that largely because his integrity is unimpeachable and owing to his perceived determination to clean up government, Mr. Aquino, after a year in office, continues to enjoy a trust and approval rating of 71 per cent of our people.

Containing Poverty
The anti-corruption campaign is moving ahead.  So is the anti-poverty program.  The main mechanism to deal to contain poverty that the administration has chosen is the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT).  The CCT gives families as much as P1400 a month ($32) in exchange for keeping their children in school and subjecting them to health checkups.  Patterned after successful programs in Brazil and Mexico, the extra cash provided by the CCT is often the only resource that poor families have to devote to health and education, which is critical to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.  In the last 12 months, some two million families have been enrolled in this program.

The results of the CCT and other poverty-containment initiatives of the administration have made a difference in the lives of Filipinos.  According to the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey, between the first and second quarters of 2011, there has been a 5.4 per cent drop in the number of hungry households.  In other words, there are fully a million fewer hungry households in just three months.  The total hunger rate has fallen to 15.1 per cent of households from the 21 percent during the last semester of the Arroyo administration, and the 2.0 per cent rate of families experiencing severe hunger is the lowest since 2003.

Of course, the administration has had its share of embarrassments and self-generated problems.  The tragic Luneta Grandstand hostage-taking fiasco that resulted in the deaths of tourists from Canada and Hong Kong comes to mind.  Another is the factional rivalry so well reported in the press.  And, of course, one cannot justify the president’s buying a Porsche (even it if was third hand) or his not serving as a good model for public health by his continued smoking.   I am really disturbed by Malacanang’s continuing reluctance to push for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, of which I am one of the co-authors.  I am gladdened by his directing the Solicitor General to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision on Hacienda Luisita, but I am bothered by his not taking a personal stand on the issue, which we in Akbayan have strongly urged him to.And while his total ban on logging is a major step forward in reversing deforestation, he must be told he must stop going around the country inaugurating coal-fired electricity generating plants since every schoolchild knows that coal is a worse emitter of greenhouse gases than oil.  Yes, we have an energy crisis in the Philippines, but we cannot afford short cuts like establishing coal plants and take advantage of the crisis instead to really adopt renewable energy options.  These contradictions underline a more fundamental problem: the lack of a comprehensive environmental policy.

Challenges Ahead
We in Akbayan never had any illusions that there were diverse forces in the administration coalition and that some of these forces are averse to the structural reforms that we, as the principal progressive force in the Philippines, feel are necessary to bring about dynamic economic growth, greater equality for our people, and a sustainable society.

The challenges are many, and in the next five years of this administration, we will fight to bring urgent structural reforms, among which are the following:

–    First, a new deal for the Philippine working class that banishes the plague of contractualization and casualization;
–    Second, the reversal of the policies of trade liberalization and globalization that have destroyed so much of our agriculture and industry;
–    Third, a moratorium on the repayment of debts we have paid many times over, which now takes up some 20-25 per cent of the government budget;
–    Foruth, full implementation of the agrarian reform extension law (CARPER) and the consolidation of land reform;
–    Fifth an end to demolitions and evictions and the provision of innovative socialized housing services to millions of urban poor families;
–    Sixth, a halt to deforestation and environmental degradation and the foriging of a comprehensive policy on the environment.
–    Seventh, a new macroeconomic paradigm to bring about Philippine development that takes advantage of the country’s natural endowments in agriculture.

We cannot promise we will win all of these battles, but we can promise that we will give the struggle our all.

The Battle over Reproductive Health and Population Management
In the next few months, the key political battle will be the fight over the Reproductive Health, Family Planning, and Population Management Bill.  The key aim of this measure, which has been brought before the House floor after seven years of struggle, is state provision of free contraceptives to poor families, free counseling in family planning, and sex education for young people.

400,000 abortions now take place yearly because of the lack of access to contraceptives and family planning services.  According to United Nations figures, some 230 women die for every 100,000 live births, compared with 110 in Thailand, 62 in Malaysia and 14 in Singapore.  .Infections from HIV-Aids are rising because of lack of protection.   Moreover, the Philippines’ failure to control its population growth, is one of the principal forces preventing sustained and sustainable development and keeping so many of our people poor.  The rest of the big countries of Southeast Asia—Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia—have successfully managed their population growth and gone a long way to substantially eliminating poverty.

Just to give an example, Thailand had a smaller GDP than the Philippines in 1975, but it had roughly the same population size, the same high population growth rate, and the same percentage of people living in poverty.  In the period 1975 to 2005, Thailand was able to reduce its population growth rate to 1.3 per cent while the Philippines’ declined to only 2.3 per cent.   During that period, Thailand’s GDP grew by 4.9 per cent, while the Philippines’ grew by a minuscule 0.4 per cent.  By 2005, Thailand’s GDP was $176.6 billion while the Philippines’ was $99 billion.  By 2005, there were 84.6 million Filipinos, or over 20 million more than the 63 million Thais.  By 2005, owing to its successful population management, Thailand’s GDP was $2,750, or nearly triple that of the Philippines, which stood at $1,192.  As of today, only 13 per cent of Thais live under the poverty line, while some 30 per cent of Filipinos do.

But we are falling behind not only Thailand but Indonesia, once the basket case of Southeast Asia, which has only 7.5 per cent of its people living in poverty, and even Vietnam, where the poverty rate is 14.5 per cent.

I give these shocking comparisons to underline the stakes in the battle for reproductive health and population management in the Philippines.   And, in this connection, I wish to thank for president for the political courage he has shown in supporting the Reproductive Health Bill.   It takes courage to go against the Catholic Church hierarchy, which has threatened political retribution to members of Congress and other elected officials who will vote for Reproductive Health Bill.   My partymate Risa Hontiveros, by the way, is one of the country’s staunchest champions of reproductive rights, and, not surprisingly, she is also one of the figures most demonized by the Church hierarchy.  But the long and the short of it is, we have no choice but to win this battle.

The Crisis of the Labor Export Paradigm
As Chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs, I have gained a deeper understanding of the travails of our countrymen and countrywomen, who are forced to go abroad to seek work any kind of work because of the way wrong policies or lack of good policies on such issues as reproductive health and population management have prevented Philippine development.  Every crisis in almost every part of the world becomes an internal crisis for the Philippines because there are almost invariably many Filipino workers whose livelihoods are threatened by natural disasters and political events, such as developments in the Middle East.  We try to do the best we can to protect our workers.  For instance, after an investigative mission to Saudi Arabia last January, we came out with a report recommending the non-deployment of domestic workers to the country owing to the grave dangers of rape, sexual abuse, and maltreatment they faced there.  And just last May, after an investigation of the case of 11 trafficked workers in Mississippi, we came out with another report urgently calling attention to the expansion of labor trafficking to the United States and recommending steps that both Philippine and US authorities could take, such as prosecution of the US transnational services firm Aramark and investigation of the possible collusion of people within the US Embassy and labor traffickers.  Yet these measures are like the proverbial Dutch boy’s finger in the dike.  Unless we forge a new macroeconomic paradigm that provides the jobs and opportunities at home for our people, abuse and exploitation of our most vulnerable workers will continue to proliferate.

Good Intentions, Wrong Move
The president understands this.  Indeed, he has stated that one of his objectives is to create the conditions under which our workers are no longer forced to go abroad to find decent work.  But while one cannot dispute the president’s concern for our OFWs, sometimes it leads to policy fumbles.  For me the most troubling of these was his not going to Oslo last December to attend the Noble Peace Prize ceremonies for the Chinese dissenter Liu Xiaobo so as not to offend the Chinese government and prompt it to execute three Filipino OFWs condemned to death for allegedly smuggling drugs.    He was criticized heavily for this in human rights circles, and the Chinese went on to execute the OFWs anyway.  Good intentions sometimes lead to bad policies, but the president is learning.

China and the West Philippine Sea
This is evident in the way he has behaved on the South China Sea issue.  China is currently presenting the Philippines with its gravest foreign problem.  Displaying hegemonic ambitions, China has claimed the whole South China Sea, disregarding the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam and intimidating our research ships and fisherfolk, sometimes even firing at them, according to some accounts.  Having apparently learned that China does not respect weakness, the president has refused to give into intimidation by Beijing, refusing to give any credence to China’s claims.

For our part, Akbayan filed a bill in the House of Representatives proposing changing the name of the South China Sea to the West Philippine Sea.  The Department of Foreign Affairs and Malacanang accepted our suggestion, and our government’s new official name for the South China Sea is the West Philippine Sea.  I would appeal to all of you to join us in calling that body of water by its new name.

We do not seek a military confrontation with China.  HIndo tayo humahanap ng away.  In fact, we disagree with the administration’s invoking the assistance of the US government in the conflict because this has the danger of converting a territorial dispute into a superpower confrontation.    We must rely on our partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and we call on China to settle the issue via peaceful multilateral negotiations.  And we appeal for national unity in to in opposing China’s aggressive expansionism in the West Philippine Sea.  We may be weak in conventional military terms but let this message be clear in Beijing (and in Washington as well):  we Filipinos won’t allow ourselves to be pushed around any longer.  Hindi na tayo magpapatulak kung saan saan.

I cannot join you for the rest of today since I have to go to a press conference to announce the Peace and Sovereignty Mission that will be going to the Kalayaan or Spratly Islands on Wednesday, July 20.   Five of us members of the House are leading this mission to forcefully assert Philippine sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea and support peaceful multilateral negotiations to resolve conflicting territorial claims.

Salamat sa inyong pakikinig.

(Published on Focus on the Philippines July 2011: http://focusweb.org/philippines/fop-articles/articles/543-fighting-for-a-new-philippines-)

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