BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Like the candle left flickering…

‘Nowadays, when it rains here, the waters rise fast and it becomes flooded,’ the driver tells me as we speed through the national road between the cities of Puerto Princesa and Aborlan in the province of Palawan in the central Philippines. 

This, says Patricia Ortega, widow of a Filipino journalist and a staunch anti-mining advocate, is largely because of the extensive mining operations that had been ongoing in the province for decades now. 
‘That is why Gerry was opposed to mining, especially new mining deals,’ Patricia tells me.
Palawan, the Philippines. Photo by Roberto Verzo under a CC licence.
It is a scorching summer afternoon and we are driving to the burial ground of her late husband, Dr Gerry Ortega, a journalist and staunch anti-mining advocate in the province. 
In broad daylight, in the morning of 24 January, a hired gunman put a bullet on Gerry’s nape and walked away. Gerry was busy checking out bargains in a second-hand shop not far from the pet store that he owns. He came from a nearby radio station where he has a morning programme. For hours, the gunman had been waiting for Gerry under the shade of a tree on the other side of the road.
Patricia and the rest of Gerry’s family and friends believe that his staunch opposition to mining activities in the province and corruption in the local government caused him his life. Up to the time of his death, Gerry’s voice boomed on the city’s airwaves, criticizing mining operators and the politicians who take bribes from them. 
His death shocked the people of Palawan and sowed fear among local journalists critical of corrupt politicians. But for Patricia, who vowed to continue the advocacies that her husband died for, says she will not be cowed.  She lights a candle on Gerry’s grave and tells us it is time to leave.
After our visit to the cemetery, Patricia and her children attend an exhibit opening of artists who believe in protecting the environment. Through painting and poetry, the artists pay tribute to Gerry and his anti-mining crusade. ‘No to mining in Palawan,’ reads a petition being circulated by the artists. They are gathering 10 million signatures. 
‘Have you put your signature?’ Patricia asks me. 
I read and I sign. 
‘We ask the Philippine and Palawan governments to say no to mining in Palawan so we can protect one of our last remaining treasures,’ the petition reads. 
The petition also said that an existing law states that in the province, all types of natural forest, areas above 1,000 meters elevation, peaks of mountains or other areas with very steep gradients, endangered habitats of rare species should be fully and strictly protected and maintained, free of human disruption.
‘Yet mining has been taking place in Palawan. Both the granting of mining permits and new applications are increasing even in identified core protection zones. Old-growth forests are being cut down, water sources are being polluted, ancestral lands are being taken over and communities’ wishes are being ignored,’ says the petition.
With the signatures, the anti-mining advocates hope that their campaign would be able to save the forests of the province. 
It is already dark. Patricia bades the people goodbye. She has another meeting, she says.  It’s been a busy time since Gerry’s death. A room in her house, in fact, had been turned into a ‘war room’ where she meets with lawyers and concerned individuals who help her in the case. 
Indeed, like the candle that Patricia left flickering on Gerry’s crypt, Gerry’s fight is definitely not over. (The New Internationalist)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Want safe sex? Get a prescription -- New Internationalist

(Ordinance has been put on hold; public hearings are still ongoing)

Want safe sex? Get a prescription -- New Internationalist

Want safe sex? Get a prescription

Posted by Iris C. Gonzales | 0
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In this posh village, a single house can be as huge as a shantytown elsewhere. The number of cars in one house can go as high as the number of days in a calendar or even more. Domestic helpers abound too, wearing their creaseless uniforms.
Welcome to the Ayala Alabang Village, the country’s classiest and most exclusive subdivision and home to billionaires, politicians, celebrities, and yeah, even their mistresses.
But the wealth that characterizes the village is apparently inversely proportional to the common sense and logic that runs in the minds of the village officials.
Recently, the village has issued an ordinance requiring residents to get a prescription before they can buy a condom.
Photo by Paul Keller under a CC licence.
Opus Dei members are behind the ordinance. There is a high number of Opus Dei members living in this posh subdivision and they are the same people vehemently opposed to the pending Reproductive Health bill. This legislative measure promotes birth control methods that are medically safe and encourages couples to adopt the family planning method they want.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines, this predominantly Catholic country, is opposed to the measure.
As if the condom prescription wasn’t enough, the ordinance also prohibits teachers and health workers from conducting activities in the village that aim to educate children on sexual reproduction.
Authors of the ordinance say they are regulating the sale of condoms to discourage pre-marital sex.
To say that this thinking is primitive is an understatement, especially in this day and age when government statistics show that the number of persons with HIV has increased tenfold in the last four years.
There were only 44 Filipinos with AIDS in 2006, but last year, the number of infected persons grew to 489.
Fr Joaquin Bernas, an influential Filipino priest, constitutionalist and dean emeritus of one of the country’s law schools, said the ordinance comes from a ‘sector of the Catholic Church to instrumentalize the power of the state to impose Catholic belief on all others.’ This is something that gives the Catholic religion a bad name.
In an article posted here, Bernas says that the authors ‘will say that they are not prohibiting the use but merely regulating the sale. But they insult the intelligence of villagers by thinking that the Alabang residents are village idiots who do not have enough brains to see the truth behind the pretense. One does not have to be a genius to understand that the curtailment of sale is intended to prevent the use of what is sold. And therein lies the gross offense.’
First time violators of the ordinance will be penalized with a P1,000 to P5,000 fine while second time offenders will be slapped P5,000 plus jail time.
This also drew the ire of Bernas.‘Only a real court and not a village kangaroo court or vigilante may impose criminal penalty, and only after trial,’ he said.
I agree. At the end of the day, women are the ones who have the right to their own wombs and not anybody else. And especially not some rich people imposing their religious beliefs on others.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On the Road to Puka

“Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone.” – The Dhammapada.
On the Road to Puka is a collection of collaborative reportage stories, assignments and travelogues of documentary photographer Jes Aznar and journalist Iris Gonzales.
The assignments, which started with the story of  an enigmatic young boy diagnosed with Down syndrome, have brought Aznar and Gonzales to refugee camps in the Philippines, to uncovered trails in Indochina, to posh restaurants in Malaysia, to dark underground tunnels used during World War II, to shantytowns, to the ends of the earth, to hell and back and to a paradise of a beach called Puka.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Radiation can reach the Philippines -- New Internationalist

Radiation can reach the Philippines -- New Internationalist

Radiation can reach the Philippines

Posted by Iris C. Gonzales | 0
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Radiation from Japan may reach the Philippines and the threat is serious, a Filipino scientist told Philippine media on Friday.

The devastation in Japan brought about by the earthquake that struck on 11 March and the possibility that radiation waves would ripple to other countries shed new light to the age-old debate on the use of nuclear energy and weapons.

Japan Nuclear Explosions. Artwork by Surian Soosay under a CC licence.

A Filipino scientist from the University of the Philippines, the state-owned university, said the threat is serious.

Dr Romeo Quijano, a professor at UP-Manila’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, said there is probability that radiation pollution in Japan will worsen and will reach the Philippines.

‘There is already a significant breach in the reactor core containment facilities, both immediate and secondary. There is no doubt that significant amounts of radioactivity had already been released into the open environment, exposing thousands of people within several kilometers radius. It is highly probable that this radiation pollution will worsen in the next few days and will most likely reach the Philippines,’ says Quijano in a statement sent to the press.

He said authorities must deal with the situation with proper precaution and by educating the public properly.

Quijano, president of the Pesticide Action Network Philippines, voiced his expert opinion as Philippine government officials and scientists claim that radiation from Japan will not reach Manila.

The Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), the state-owned agency tasked to undertake research and development activities in the ‘peaceful uses of nuclear energy’, said in a briefing on 18 March that the Philippines is still safe from radiation from Japan because the direction of the winds is away from the country.

‘The public is advised not to be unduly alarmed of being exposed to radiation,’ PNRIDirector Alumanda dela Rosa said.

However, Quijano said that the direction of the winds may change and may actually reach the Philippines. He added that the nuclear crisis in Japan should serve as a lesson to government officials on the utilization of nuclear plants in the country.

Lawmakers have proposed the revival of a mothballed nuclear plant in Bataan, which was put up in the 1970s.

‘The probability of a similar catastrophe occurring if the Bataan plant is revived should not be taken for granted. The reopening of the plant would not benefit the Filipino people but instead would expose us to unnecessary risks and potentially horrendous consequences,’ Quijano said. The government should also have a disaster-preparedness plan for disasters such as the one in Japan.

‘There is a real risk that over time, additional cases of cancer, birth defects, immune disorders, and other illnesses would occur among the population exposed to this low level radiation, especially the more susceptible population groups such as women and children,’ Quijano said.

Whether or not governments see the serious dangers that nuclear weapons pose to their citizens is still anybody’s guess, but Quijano hopes that the government will learn its lessons from the crisis that Japan is currently facing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Order of Battle

The Order of Battle

The Order of BattlePDFPrintE-mail
By Iris Cecilia Gonzales
Thursday, 17 March 2011

'Mythic' order: Some groups who have not even actually seen it say the Order of Battle is akin to a death list, but the Armed Forces of the Philippines it merely helps them assess the enemies of the state. JES AZNAR'Mythic' order: Some groups who have not even actually seen it say the Order of Battle is akin to a death list, but the Armed Forces of the Philippines it merely helps them assess the enemies of the state. JES AZNARRightly or wrongly, the families, friends and colleagues of many activist victims of summary or extrajudicial killings (EJK) that clouded the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have sought to pin the blame on the military’s so-called Order of Battle.

In recent years, the term has attained some kind of near mythic reputation in the Philippines: Many media stories and people have referred to it and some even claim it is akin to a death list. Yet no civilian has actually seen it – or at least not anything the military admits to or acknowledges as being a legitimate Order of Battle.

A senior reporter covering the national defense beat for a major broadsheet told Target EJK that the Order of Battle is never talked about by military officials. He said it was “top secret and confidential” and admitted never having seen a copy himself.

Some in the army maintain it is not even a single document and that those who claim to have seen it and liken it to a hit-list are being duped by the army’s political opponents who seek to use the issue to attack the professionalism of the military and undermine its support. Others counter by saying they have been leaked just such a document by sympathizers in the army and that it does indeed name and list individuals.

So who is telling the truth? Who and what is right?

The term Order of Battle is in fact a standard military terminology that refers to the organizational strength, structure and deployment of an army. It has been in use for hundreds of years and originates from medieval times in Europe.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta, in an interview with Target EJK said that in this country, the Order of Battle is a military document that contains an assessment of the “enemies of the state based on information gathered by intelligence personnel.”

Senator Gregorio Honasan, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy and former chief of security at the Department of National Defense, told Target EJK that the Order of Battle is a good tool in helping the AFP identify and deal with the “enemies of the state”.

However, he adds that it is only as good as the quality of the information behind it.

“It's a good tool but it is information-driven,” he said. “It may be true but if not, there is no real defense against an irresponsible intelligence report.”

Honasan claims that he was himself imprisoned because of an irresponsible intelligence report. He was jailed briefly in 2006 after nine months of being on the run following his perceived involvement in a failed coup plot against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Honasan, a charismatic military man, served as the aide-de-camp to the then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in the 1970s. In 1986, he and Enrile led military officers against the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a move that helped spark the historic people power revolt that topped the dictator and installed opposition leader Corazon Aquino.

Based on his experience, Honasan said that an Order of Battle could hamper civil liberties. “It can work to the detriment of civil liberties at the extreme,” Honasan said. Given that, he said, when the AFP comes up with an Order, it must be “accurate”.

Policy interest and safeguards

Honasan said that to address the problem, Congress should strictly implement its oversight functions: While an Order of Battle should be confidential, it cannot be kept from Congress.

“They can keep it from everybody except Congress because we have an oversight mechanism,” he said. He conceded that while the security of the state is important, it should not be at the expense of civil liberties and human life.

"This is the reason why we should activate the intelligence [check] mechanism system. There is a congressional oversight committee and we're going to activate this because precisely for this potential for abuse," Honasan explained.

Honasan admitted that sometimes the information obtained is not accurate because it is fed by individuals or parties with vested interests or may be politically-motivated. The military, he said can also be very abusive because intelligence funds are confidential and do not go through full auditing procedures. This is something that the Senator and others now want to look into given the recent furor over possible misuse of AFP funds.

For his part, Budget secretary Florencio Abad said that as a policy response to the problem of corruption in the military, his department would be putting in place reforms in handling the budget for national defense.

Away from financial concerns, Brig. Gen. Mabanta maintained human rights adherence within the AFP had been problematic in the past but that things will steadily be improving under the Aquino administration.

“The main plan is to change the term from ‘defeating the enemy’ to ‘winning the peace,” he told Target EJK. “That means that when you win the peace it needs everyone’s involvement.”

He added that the AFP is now drafting a new “campaign” plan and in the process in crafting the plan would include representatives from different sectors such as human rights groups and civil society sectors. “Its implementation will be in July 2011.”

Mabanta added that there is also a very strong emphasis on “human rights,” and admitted this had been the military’s “dark spot” from the time of the Marcos years.

He nonetheless believes there are also non-state actors responsible for the military’s image as human rights violator.

This, he said, is part of the “black propaganda” of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army. Still, Mabanta said this is not an excuse for the military not to change its ways. “We are not stopping at that. We would like to show everyone that we mean business. We are serious in our advocacy to human rights and to international humanitarian laws,” he said.

On the list?

Carlos Conde, former secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and a freelance reporter who writes mainly for The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, found himself on an alleged Order of Battle list of the military in 2009.

Conde’s name was found alongside activists and some lawyers in a document titled “JCICC ‘AGILA’ 3rd QTR 2007 OB VALIDATION RESULT” that was purportedly prepared by the intelligence staff of the Armed Forces’ 10th Infantry Division in Southern Mindanao.

The military has steadily denied it was their document and has called it an elaborate hoax.

Around 2007, Conde was very visible in rallies and forums against the killings of journalists. He was also seen in protest actions against extrajudicial killings in Davao City and elsewhere in Mindanao.

Conde who has also written for Target EJK admitted that he became a bit paranoid and remains so even to this day.

“I had to watch my back, quite literally. I would often make sure that I was not being followed. I became a bit paranoid, even at times to this day. I'm wary about men on motorcycles,” Conde said in a recent interview with Target EJK.

As a precautionary measure Conde said he and his editors in the United States wrote to the Philippine Army, whose officials replied to say that there was nothing to worry about.

However, he points out that at least one other individual mentioned in the list of 110 “has been assassinated and several others have either been attacked or subjected to harassment and intimidation by agents of the armed forces.”

Celso Pojas was a peasant leader in Davao City when he was shot dead by suspected military agents in May 2008.

“I understand that it is an internal document within the AFP, used to assess threat or enemy levels. I find it reprehensible only because many personalities listed in Orders of Battle have ended up dead or assassinated,” Conde said.

The new internal peace and security plan

The new internal peace and security plan just recently released by the AFP provides the framework for the AFP’s new approach to peace and security.

“This is a shift from a predominantly militaristic solution to a people-centered security strategy that is founded on broad-based consultations,” it says.

It also said that instead of only diminishing the armed capability of threat groups, the AFP chooses to also focus on the long-term and more important effects of its military operations on the people and communities, their way of life and well being.

“In other words, peace is to be won for the people. In this context, military operations shall be conducted within the larger framework of the government’s peace strategy.”

This means that, according to the plan, military operations are tools to achieve peace and security.

Under the Aquino administration, the AFP said military operations shall not be limited to purely combat operations and that it shall use non-combat operations such as civil-military operations (CMO) and development-oriented activities.

The plan also stated that all operations and activities of the AFP from the General Headquarters down to the lowest squad or team "shall strictly adhere to the principles, concepts, provisions and spirit of human rights and international humanitarian laws.

“The AFP Chain of Command is responsible in ensuring that these principles are not only followed but internalized by all military,” it says.

Will the killings stop?

There has been reportedly a reduction in killings with the change in presidency and security emphasis focusing less on delivering numerical targets. And yet Conde does not believe that the new administration will be able to get rid of the Order of Battle.

“What I would want to happen is a change in the way the military views government critics, not to immediately lump them with groups that seek to overthrow the government. If the military's instinct is to treat every critic as an enemy of the state, then the Order of Battle will always be there and will always be abused. And the killings will never stop,” Conde said.

The AFP responds by saying that this is indeed changing, but that changes take time to filter through.

Robert De Castro, campaign advocacy officer of human rights alliance Karapatan says that human rights violations and extrajudicial killings continue to happen because of the continued use and abuse by the military of the Order of Battle.

“It’s not a figment of the imagination of the human rights community. It’s happening. It’s a real thing,” he said.

Human rights lawyer Romel Bagares said that the use of an Order of Battle is always “reprehensible and pernicious.”

“The use of an Order of Battle, as it is practiced in the Philippines by both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police – and especially in the context of the continuing culture of impunity in the country –is reprehensible and pernicious from the point of view of human rights,” he said.

“In both human rights and international humanitarian law, this is a violation of the right to life. In armed conflicts, civilians are protected, unless they take up arms themselves. But it appears that the military does not make that distinction, on the claim that anyway, these civil society leaders really are using the ‘legal fronts’ as cover for their work on behalf of the communist movement. This is unacceptable. In a country that is supposedly under the rule of law, the practice should have no place,” Bagares said.

The Aquino administration, he said, should immediately direct all military officers to cease making public statements linking political or other civil society groups to those engaged in armed insurgencies.

Furthermore, Bagares said that any such characterizations belong solely within the power of the civilian authorities. They must be based on transparent criteria, and conform to the human rights provisions of the Constitution and relevant treaties. To correct the system, Bagares said transparency must be introduced as recommended by Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, who wrote in his final report following his 2007 investigative mission to the Philippines:

“Transparency must be introduced to the “orders of battle”, “watch lists”, and similar list of individuals and organizations maintained by the AFP, PNP, and other elements of the national security system. While their contents might justifiably be considered secret, which lists exist, their purposes, the criteria for inclusion, and the number of names on each should be made public.” Project Target EJK/ED

(The author is a reporter for the Philippine Star and a blogger, writing mostly human rights and development issues.)