BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Common Ground Yet to Be Established on EJKS between Human Rights Groups and Noynoy's Administration

My latest project for Target EJK:

Common ground: Military and executive officials under the new administration say things are getting better in addressing EJKs, but families of victims and activists want to see more perpetrators brought to justice. JES AZNAR

Common ground: Military and executive officials under the new administration say things are getting better in addressing EJKs, but families of victims and activists want to see more perpetrators brought to justice. JES AZNAR
"Today the dream starts to become a reality,” President Benigno Aquino III said on June 30, 2010.
The inaugural speech of Aquino gave Filipinos hope that there would be genuine social change under his administration, according to the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA).
The group said the people had high hopes that there would be an improvement including an end to human rights violations, particularly EJK.
However, one year on, the CPA claims the Aquino administration has only extended what they describe as the state “fascism” of President Arroyo.
“A year after Aquino’s presidency, the people’s rights continue to be violated by, ironically, the ones using the term “human rights” – no[ne] other than the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police (PNP),” alleges the group.
It claims that from July 2010 to June 2011, there have been 45 victims of EJK and four victims of enforced disappearances.
For the Aquino administration, however, change has been implemented and that the change has been significant.
In an interview with Target EJK, Col. Domingo Tutaan, the relatively new chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Human Rights Office (HRO) said the Aquino administration’s efforts to uphold human rights can be seen in the drastic change in the policies of the military.
“We now have human rights officers and desk people at the unified command levels. They do immediate advocacy and action on human rights violations,” Tutaan says.
He adds that the appointment of human rights officers and the overall change in policy in all its major services down to the battalion level aim to ensure the compliance of all soldiers with the international humanitarian law.
Change in mind sets
More than compliance, Tutaan says that the AFP is also pushing for a change in mind sets among every member of the military from the officers down to foot soldiers.
“We do not want the soldier just to comply. We want them to clearly understand and we want to inculcate in them why they have to comply,” Tutaan says.
This, he says, is necessary for members of the military to appreciate the value of upholding human rights. This proves that there are efforts to change the way the military conducts its activities, he adds.
As such, he said that the AFP has been partnering with all organizations and reaching out to militant groups to prevent human rights violations.
He also believes that there has been a significant decline in human rights violations but is unable to provide exact figures.
To this end, Tutaan says that his office has been partnering with other organizations including human rights and so-called “militant groups” to set up mechanisms that would effectively monitor human rights violations.
For instance, he says, that for a more “accurate” picture of the human rights situation, the AFP HRO is setting up mechanisms agreeable to all stakeholders to define what constitutes a human rights violation.
Tutaan says that if an individual felt harassed but was not actually harassed, this should not be counted as a violation of his human rights. “There should be mechanisms,” he says.
As such, he adds, it was too early to provide specific figures on how much human rights and EJK cases have declined but he stresses that generally there has been a significant drop now that the military has been putting emphasis on upholding human rights.
“There is a significant decline compared to the previous administration because of the AFP’s zero tolerance for human rights violations,” Tutaan told Target EJK.
Significant improvements
In a separate interview with Target EJK, Justice Secretary and former Commission on Human Rights Chairman Leila de Lima agrees that there have been significant improvements in the treatment of human rights and EJK cases under the current administration.
“There have been improvements. It’s still a long way to go but there have been improvements compared to the situation from 2001 to 2009,”De Lima says.
De Lima says that the administration of then President Arroyo was in denial that EJKs were happening.
In contrast, the Aquino administration has acknowledged the problem, she says.
“In some cases, there are preliminary investigations conducted immediately. This is unlike before when the (former) administration was in denial of the situation including the culture of impunity,” she says.
The AFP’s Tutaan claims that the Aquino administration is attending to even the incidents in the past. “We are not turning our backs on the incidents in the past. We are collaborating with other agencies,” he says.
Erring soldiers have been recommended for dismissal from service, he adds.
“We use military and justice system to show zero tolerance on human rights violations. This is just a clear manifestation that we are dead serious in our efforts,” Tutaan says.
As such, he stresses the policies of the Aquino administration as far as upholding human rights is concerned: “We will not run away from any responsibility and that there is no institutional policy to commit human rights violations,” Tutaan says.
Still happening
However, the umbrella organization of human rights groups Karapatan says that grave abuses are still happening under the current administration.
“Despite the promise of change, state terror and violence continue to be used against those who fight or criticize the current policies and programs of the government that are essentially a continuation of the Arroyo’s globalization framework. President Aquino likewise continued to implement Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya during his first six months,” says Karapatan in a statement released last week on the first year of the Aquino administration.
It says that since January 2011 when Aquino implemented his own version of the counter-insurgency program called Oplan Bayanihan, there has also been no significant improvement.
“Oplan Bayanihan is patterned after the US Counter-insurgency Guide of 2009. It claims to be different from the previous counterinsurgency programs especially on the respect for human rights. But Karapatan believes that it is an oxymoron to say that a counter-insurgency program is respectful of human rights,” Karapatan says.
In a separate interview with Target EJK, Karapatan Secretary General Marie Hilao Enriquez says that what is needed is a counter-insurgency program that is respectful of human rights and within the bounds of law.
Yet this is what the AFP says exists already.
The military commits more than one human rights violation or EJK per week, Enriquez says.
“There has been no change.”
She maintains that what is needed is a change in the mind set of the military in conducting its counter-insurgency program. “They should not arrest people if they do not have warrants of arrest,” she says.
To show its sincerity, Enriquez adds, the Aquino administration has to bring to justice the perpetrators of those behind EJK cases in the past.
Citing Karapatan data, Enriquez says that from July 2010 to June 18, 2011, there have been a total of 48 EJK cases.
In a separate statement, Amnesty International said Aquino should establish a Presidential Accountability Commission on political killings which should address the prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations and EJKs.
“Aquino has shown that human rights are still not a priority for his administration. For the past year Aquino has been saying that he inherited these human rights problems from his predecessor. But after a full year in charge, it is time for him to take responsibility for protecting the human rights of Filipinos,” said Aurora Parong, Director of Amnesty International Philippines.
The group said that government has failed to establish accountability over the state security forces including paramilitary groups.
Until the government does so, its new policy on human rights will indeed remain big words and mere rhetoric for human rights groups. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Education dilemma: two bookshelves for 200 pupils

My latest blog on The New Internationalist:

It was still dark when we started a six-hour drive to a public school somewhere in a province north of Manila. At about the same time, the little boys and girls of Longos Elementary School were probably on their way to school already.
A narrow unpaved road from one of the major highways in the province led to the school. Muddy rice fields lined both sides of the road. The air was fresh and crisp in this part of the country.
But there was nothing refreshing with what we saw.
As with most public schools in the Philippines, Longos Elementary School is in dire need of government attention, state funds and political will. While the condition of the buildings is relatively better than in other public schools in far-flung areas around the country, there is still a lot of improvement needed.
There were only two bookshelves in the library, with only a handful of books shared by almost 200 students. A tropical storm battered the province in 2009, leaving most of the books in the makeshift library drenched and damaged.
And there we were, four journalists representing the country’s organization of economic reporters and editors. Our daily grind of covering the economy consisted of interpreting financial statements, reading between the government’s fiscal data, understanding the budget, monitoring monetary policies and reporting the latest inflation figures, among other stuff.
But what we saw in front of us needed no interpretation or mathematical computation.
The situation was stark and telling. It was a vivid portrait of the economy.
The school building needed renovation. Some classrooms were dilapidated. And only two toilets were to be used in a school of 190 students.
School officials lamented the situation but were helpless about it. Politicians only visited them during campaign season but never returned to fulfill a single pledge when the elections were over, they said.
We brought three small boxes of second-hand books and a few bags containing school supplies. It was part of the organization’s regular outreach activities. Even if we wanted to bring more stuff, we had very limited resources. The supplies were probably all used up by the following week or so.
And even if there were a thousand more organizations such as ours, we still wouldn’t be able to fill the gap in the country’s public educational system.
What is needed is the government’s strongest political will to prioritize education. This means that every centavo earned from the taxes of the people would go to the necessary social services such as education and public health, and not pocketed by some corrupt politician, lawmaker or government official.
Until this happens, the country’s public education system remains as tattered and worn out as the blue and red Philippine flag that waived with the wind that Friday afternoon when we bid goodbye to the students of Longos Elementary School.

Photos by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Living (and lying) for the American Dream

One of my recent blogs on The New Internationalist:

Jose Antonio Vargas was 12 years old when his mother packed him off to the United States.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wrote in a gripping confession for The New York Timesabout the day his mother woke him up and put him in a cab to the airport. She handed him a jacket to protect him from the cold weather, and sent him out of the Phillippines to get the chance of a better life.
It was the start of his journey as an undocumented immigrant, marked by anxiety and backed by an intricate web of lies.
Vargas outed himself as ‘illegal’ last week. There is no news yet as to how US authorities will treat his case. The possibilities are countless – he may be put in jail, deported or given a rare amnesty by the Obama administration. 
Reading his story reminded me how bad the situation has become. 
Back here at home, at the Philippines’ main airport, throngs of Filipinos continue to send off their loved ones to different corners of the world every day. Some use fake passports while others bribe immigration officials to get past the control gates. Most still do it legally, but the number of people who resort to illegal means to work overseas still runs into the millions. 
Some stories are worse than Vargas’. But their lives are as difficult and painful. I remember one incident back in my high school years, many moons ago. A classmate’s sister had died in a car accident.
Her morbid death was made more tragic by the fact that her mother could not make it to the funeral because she was toiling on American shores as an illegal immigrant. There was no way she could come home because she did not have the right papers. So she couldn’t pay her last respects to her eldest child, or send her daughter to her final resting place. 
Another story is that of a close friend who went to the United States in search of a better life for himself and his daughter. A famous actor over here, he opted instead to live an illegal immigrant’s life, going from one job to another. He worked as a carer, a truck driver and a domestic help. 
At night, he would drink gin to drown out the pain of his reduced circumstances. 
This is the reality of Filipinos seeking better opportunities to feed their families. At home, they’re called heroes by the same government whose inefficiency has forced them to leave their loved ones in the first place.
They are heroes indeed for a government whose actions are far from heroic. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Awash in Cash: Making Liquidity Work for the Economy

The Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines is having its yearly economic forum on July 13, 2011 at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati.  Learn from our guest speakers how excess liquidity can work for the economy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Critics Divided On Administration's Fiscal Policies One Year On

My latest project for the Philippine Public Transparency Reporting Project (PPTRP):

Fragile but improving: Critics say the government needs to move faster so the economy will move forward and the people, especially the poor, would feel that things are getting better. JES AZNAR (
Fragile but improving: Critics say the government needs to move faster so the economy will move forward and the people, especially the poor, would feel that things are getting better. JES AZNAR (
When Secretary Cesar Purisima took over the helm of the Department of Finance (DOF) in July last year, he conceded right away that it would not be an easy task.

It was like stepping on a treadmill, he said during his first days in office.

Now, one year on, the country’s fiscal health remains fragile –but improving.

Yet Purisima believes that the positive rating actions received by the Aquino administration are strong testament to the government’s accomplishments.

Over the past 11 months, global debt watchers have given the Philippines' credit rating – a measure of the country’s credit worthiness – an upgrade. This typically translates to lower borrowing costs for governments since it means less risk for investors.

The latest upgrade for the Philippines came from London-based Fitch Ratings which upgraded the country’s sovereign rating by one level to "BB+" from "BB."

By contrast, some governments –including the United States– are being threatened by suggested moves to downgrade their credit worthiness.

“The actions of the major rating agencies mean that we are [moving] in the right direction,” Purisima says.

Similarly, the head of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), the government’s main revenue agency, believes it has accomplished a good deal over the past 12 months.

“The biggest accomplishment is making clear to everyone that we are serious in implementing the law because we know what the law is,” BIR Commissioner Kim Henares told the Philippine Public Transparency Reporting Project (PPTRP).

Henares said the task is not easy given that the BIR is a big agency that is more than 100 years old.

“It's hard to change 106 years of bad habits: The biggest challenge is making people understand we are serious,” Henares said.

According to the latest DOF data, the national government has registered a fiscal surplus of PhP 61 million (USD 1.4 million) from January to April this year.

This is because revenue collections reached PhP 461.413 billion (USD 10.73 billion) from January to April, of which the BIR accounted for PhP 302.942 billion (USD 7.04 billion) during the period. The Bureau of Customs (BOC) meanwhile has collected PhP 85.058 billion (USD 1.98 billion).

These BIR collections show an increase of 14.29 percent over a year ago. The BOC’s collections meantime show an improvement of 2.04 percent.

‘No projects, no corruption’

Some experts say however that the Aquino administration needs to do even more.

University of the Philippines Economics Professor Benjamin Diokno believes the fiscal improvement is actually “illusory” and is more a result of an underspending more than any improvement in economic generation.

He told PPTRP that the government’s “no new tax” policy until 2013 will not work.

“[The President’s] ability to fulfill his election promises and achieve a balanced budget by 2016 is not possible with the present tax system,” Diokno argues.

And while Diokno says it is clear President Noynoy Aquino “is clean and incorruptible,” – he says it is too early to say whether he can keep “his other men and women's hands clean”.

“To date, he's talking of corruption in GMA's (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) projects. There is no corruption in Aquino's projects because there are no projects yet implemented. I recall that during President Cory's early months in office, she had a very 'clean' and incorruptible Department of Public Works and Highways Secretary. But what happened? No projects were approved -- no projects, no corruption,” Diokno says.

He told PPTRP he believes the government needs to move faster in implementing projects so the economy will move forward.

“One year is too long to review projects done by the previous administration. I do not accept the proposition that projects are not moving because the administration is still reviewing projects. The projects that are in the 2011 budget are his projects,” Diokno says.

Political analyst Ramon Casiple adds there is widespread perception that President Aquino has not addressed job insecurity because the government does not have enough fiscal resources to tackle it.

Inflation, he notes, also remains high. Inflation rose to a 13-month high of 4.5 percent in May from 4.3 percent in April.

And yet inflation is substantially up in many countries around the world.

“From the high inflation rate, job insecurity and perils of the overseas Filipino workers, and local job creation to urgent political reforms, there is developing unease on how this administration tackles them,” he told PPTRP.

He believes the government has been too busy “vindictively” going after its political enemies.

Sonny Africa, executive director of the non-government think tank IBON Foundation meanwhile believes the government should go after high profile tax evaders to prove its fight against corruption.

And yet Henares points out the filing of a tax evasion case against former presidential son Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo before the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Last April, the BIR filed a tax evasion case against Arroyo who is now representative of Ang Galing Pinoy party-list.

Henares told PPTRP that the Arroyo couple failed to file income tax returns from 2004 to 2009.

“Based on our investigation there’s a deficiency income tax of PhP 73.8 million (USD 1.7 million). Mikey did not file his income tax returns for 2004, 2008 and 2009,” Henares said when she filed the case in April.

She claims Arroyo and his wife Angela failed to pay the commensurate taxes on the properties they declared in their Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) from 2004 to 2009.

This year, the BIR is tasked to collect PhP 940 billion (USD 22 billion): This is an increase over last year’s target of PhP 860 billion (USD 20 billion).

The Customs bureau, on the other hand, has been given a target to raise PhP 320 billion (USD 7.44 billion) this year above the PhP 280 billion (USD 6.51 billion) required last year.

Raising sin taxes

It should also consider raising taxes on tobacco and alcohol instead of succumbing to pressure. JES AZNAR (
It should also consider raising taxes on tobacco and alcohol instead of succumbing to pressure. JES AZNAR (
Another expert, Filomeno Sta. Ana, executive director of the non-government Action for Economic Reforms (AER) says that improving tax administration efforts can only go so far.

“We all know that President Aquino has resisted from having new taxes for the first year of his term. This is a serious handicap in raising revenues,” Sta. Ana told PPTRP.

He says that while efforts to improve tax collection are commendable, they are not enough.

“Part of addressing the leakage is reforming tax policy,” Sta. Ana says.

Sta. Ana noted for instance that the government should seriously consider raising taxes on alcohol and cigarettes instead of succumbing to the lobbying of tobacco industry players.

And he further believes that the Executive has not made known what it really wants to do in relation to tax reforms.

As a result, he said, representatives of vested interests are exploiting the situation to propose weak and compromised legislation.

“For example, the Ways and Means Committee of the Lower House is attempting to rush a consolidated bill on sin taxes that favors the tobacco industry,” Sta. Ana says.

According to government estimates, the sin tax measure, which remains pending in Congress, could raise as much as PhP 19 billion to PhP 20 billion (USD 442 million to 465 million) in the first year of implementation; PhP 30 billion to PhP 40 billion (USD 698 million to 930 million) in the second year; PhP 40 to P50 billion (USD 930 million to 1.16 billion) in the third year; and PhP 60 to PhP 70 billion (USD 1.40 billon to 1.63 billion) in the fourth year.

The Finance department says the current tax structure is inequitable because products having the same current net retail price can be taxed differently if one was introduced before January 1997 and other one after 1997.

Almost every administration has attempted to raise sin taxes but was unable to do so because of the strong lobbying of tobacco players such as Lucio Tan’s Fortune Tobacco and the American brand Philip Morris.

The two tobacco giants have merged and now control 90 percent of the tobacco market here.

Tan, one of the richest Filipinos, is known as a big campaign contributor during elections and a staunch lobbyist in Congress against measures that would raise sin taxes.

Against this backdrop, the Aquino administration needs to work in different areas to show it is serious and able to fix the government’s revenue stream. Philippine Public Transparency Reporting Project