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Progressive groups hold protest on Rodrigo Duterte 4th year anniversary as president

Human rights advocates and activists held a protest activity on the 4th anniversary of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency last June 30 at the Commission on Human Rights compound in Quezon City.

Health advocates file petition for mass testing

By Joseph Cuevas

Health professionals, workers and women filed a petition before the Supreme Court last Friday, July 3, asking the executive branch to implement mass testing and provide accurate and reliable data to the people on the coronavirus 19 or Covid-19.

Citing the people’s right to health under the Philippine Constitution,  the petition for a writ of mandamus shall compel the Department of Health and other agencies to conduct pro-active mass testing, aggressive contract tracing and effective isolation, and treatment of Covid-19 positive cases to contain the spread of the virus.

The 74-page petition was filed by Citizens’ Urgent Response to End Covid-19 (CURE COVID) spokesperson Judy Taguiwalo; Coalition for the People’s Right to Health convenor Dr. Joshua San Pedro; Bahaghari bational spokesperson Rey Valmores-Salinas; Migrante International chairperson Joanna Celeste Concepcion; GABRIELA Network of Professionals secretary general Lovely Ramos; Drug, Food and Allied Workers Federation-Kilusang Mayo Uno secretary general Debie Faigmani; BPO Industry Employees Network president Mylene Cabalona; Alliance of Concerned Teachers-National Capital Region Union president Vladimer Queta; UP-Pantranco Driver’s Association vice-president Ernesto Lizada; homemaker Marites Arboleda; and K-12 student Via Leigh Hernandez.

The petition is seeks “accurate, timely and complete information with regards to Covid-19 situation including onset of symptoms, history of exposure, co-morbidities, whether the subject is a medical frontliner, data when specimen is collected and actual case validation backlog from the government.”

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, counsel of the petitioners, said that the omission of proactive and efficient mass testing amid the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a systemic and normalized violation of the right to health engenders the impairment of other human rights and liberties, such as the rights to travel, livelihood or work, education, and access to justice

In a statement, CURE COVID pointed out that many health experts said that mass testing is very important in the country’s response to the pandemic.

Mass testing enables countries to identify the extent of the virus’ transmissions among the populace, the group said.

It added that with honest and prompt information, governments can systematically and scientifically trace, isolate and treat the infected and contain the transmission.

“Unfortunately, the [Rodrigo] Duterte administration has fallen very short of doing this. Last April 3, retired general Carlito Galvez, chief implementor of the National Task Force on Covid-19 (NTF Covid), announced that the government will implement mass testing by April 15. This obviously did not happen, as the number of testing needed to ascertain the extent of Covid-19 transmissions has consistently fallen short of the NTF’s very own targets,” CURE COVID added.

The group also said instead of mass testing, tracing, isolation and treatment, the government heavily relied on a militarist response to the pandemic, putting the country under the world’s longest lockdown that resulted to abuses, unnecessary restrictions and undue curtailment of civil liberties.

According to the health department, 38,805 have been infected that resulted in 1,274 recorded deaths as of Friday. #

Groups cynical of gov’t promises to UN rights body

Human rights groups said they are “reasonably cynical” of the statements made by the Rodrigo Duterte government in response to the damning report on the state of human rights in the Philippines submitted to the United National (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) last Tuesday, June 30.

Reacting to justice secretary Menardo Guevarra’s reply to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle’s Bachelet’s submission, the Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) said the Duterte administration appears to be on damage control and pre-empting further accountability on the thousands of anti-illegal drugs deaths.

“Saccharine statements at appeasing widespread condemnation and creating yet another government body to address unabated impunity and support self-serving claims that domestic remedies are adequate, prompt and credible become soporific in the face of previous experience and present realities,” EcuVoice said in a statement.

RELATED STORIES: UN submits Duterte’s rights record

UN official slams rights violations in PH

The group noted that the government’s reply was delivered in “more sober and studied tones,” a departure from the combative manner it contested various reports by UN experts in Geneva, Switzerland during the HRC’s 43rd general session last March.

EcuVoice however said Bachelet’s findings of massive human rights violations and the near-impunity by which it happens in the country warrant an in-country independent investigation as well as “options for international accountability measures” should the government refuse to cooperate.

‘Transparency mechanisms’

In his speech delivered online at the opening of the UNHRC’s 44th general session, Guevarra denied impunity exists under the Duterte government, adding Duterte has discharged his campaign promises “faithfully.”

“Our President ran and won on a campaign promise of a drug-free Philippines where our people are safe and their rights protected,” Guevarra said.

Guevarra said the government’s monitoring mechanism called RealNumbersPH ensures public transparency and full accountability” on drug-related killings.

“We have also established an inter-agency panel, chaired by my office, that is quietly conducting a judicious review of the 5,655 anti-illegal drugs operations where deaths occurred. The Philippine National Police is obliged by its internal mechanisms to conduct motu propio investigations — whether or not there are complainants — on all law enforcement operations that result in deaths, and take action on this basis,” he said.

Guevarra added that the government system in the country provides “every avenue to examine, establish and pursue of wrongdoing by State actors.

The justice secretary did not reply to Bachelet’s recommendation that UN investigators be allowed into the Philippines.

Earlier, President Duterte has threatened to deport, imprison or slap UN experts who dare come into the Philippines to conduct human rights investigations.

‘Empty promises’

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) said Guevarra’s statements are empty promises in light of the government’s “relentless attacks against freedom and democracy.”

“[U]ntil the government of President Rodrigo Duterte takes seriously the facts-based findings of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) Report and cooperates with the UN office for an independent, international probe these promises are nothing but empty,” the group said in a statement.

“It is hard to believe that President Rodrigo Duterte’s government is sincere in its claims of promoting and uplifting the dignity of Filipinos as Mr. Guevarra claims. Harassments, arrests, and killings of civilians are still happening on the ground with impunity,” the group added. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

UN official slams rights violations in the Philippines, urges ‘options for int’l accountability’

A United Nations (UN) high commissioner urged the international body’s Human Rights Council (HRC) to mandate her office to continue monitoring and reporting on thousands of human rights violations in the Philippines.

In her remarks at the start of the UN HRC’s 44th general session in Geneva, Switzerland Tuesday, June 30, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said violations are “very serious” that requires the Council’s consideration of “options for international accountability measures.”

“I urge the Council to remain active and vigilant on the situation in the Philippines, by mandating my Office to continue monitoring and reporting, as well as through support for technical cooperation to implement the report’s recommendations,” Bachelet said.

Bachelet was introducing her 26-page report mandated by the Council’s Resolution 41/2 of July 2019 on the human rights situation in the Philippines.

The high commissioner said Philippine laws and policies to counter national security threats and illegal drugs have been crafted and implemented in ways that severely impact human rights.

“They have resulted in thousands of killings, arbitrary detentions and the vilification of those who challenge these severe human rights violations,” Bachelet said.

She added that their investigations found more than 248 human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and trade unionists were killed between 2015 and 2019.

“This includes a large number of environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders. Human rights defenders are routinely smeared as terrorists, enemies of the State and even viruses akin to COVID-19,” she said.

‘Worrisome anti-terror bill’

Although not a part of her report, Bachelet also mentioned concerns related to the anti-terrorism measure slated to become law this month.

“The recent passage of the new Anti-Terrorism Act heightens our concerns about the blurring of important distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism,” Bachelet said.

The high commissioner said the measure, once it becomes law and implement, could also have a further chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work, hindering support to vulnerable and marginalized communities.

“So I would urge the President to refrain from signing the law and to initiate a broad-based consultation process to draft legislation that can effectively prevent and counter violent extremism – but which contains some safeguards to prevent its misuse against people engaged in peaceful criticism and advocacy. My Office is ready to assist in such a review,” she said.

‘Failed anti-drug war’

Bachelet’s report said it found serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, resulting from key official policies driving the so-called “war on drugs.”

It said such policies incite violence from the highest levels of the Duterte government.

“The campaign against illegal drugs is being carried out without due regard for the rule of law, due process and the human rights of people who may be using or selling drugs. The report finds that the killings have been widespread and systematic – and they are ongoing,” Bachelet said.

The high commissioner said they found near-total impunity, indicating unwillingness by the State to hold to account perpetrators of extrajudicial killings.

“Families of the victims, understandably, feel powerless, with the odds firmly stacked against justice,” she said.

Moreover, by senior government officials’ own admission, the draconian campaign has been ineffective in reducing the supply of illicit drugs, Bachelet added.

The Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice), an alliance that submitted a total of 16 reports in support of Resolution 42/1 expressed appreciation for Bachelet’s report.

“We subscribe to her findings and wholeheartedly support the recommendations, EcuVoice said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

[NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Government’s reply and civil society’s reactions]

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UN submits PH rights record on Duterte’s 4th anniversary as president

United Nations (UN) human rights high commissioner Michelle Bachelet is about to formally submit her report on the state of human rights in the Philippines today, June 30, the fourth anniversary of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency.

As the 44th general session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) starts in Geneva, Switzerland, Bachelet’s submission will be followed by discussions on the document by its member-states.

Philippine representatives are expected to deliver the government’s response to the 26-page report, first released to the public last June 4.

The session starts at 4:30 pm, Philippine time.

(Watch it here: http://webtv.un.org/live-now/watch/44th-regular-session-of-human-rights-council-/5708657554001)

The report said the Duterte government’s heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs has resulted in serious human rights violations, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent.

Read Kodao’s article on the report here:

Dozens of civil society organizations submitted complaints to the UN earlier this year as part of UN’s data-gathering following the passage of Iceland-sponsored Resolution 41/2 to conduct investigations on the human rights situation in the Philippines.

At least sixteen organizations under the Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) also urged the UNHRC to pass a resolution to investigate further the killings and threats of activists, churchpeople, teachers, indigenous peoples, lawyers, the political opposition, journalists, environment defenders and other sectors.

Ecuvoice sent representatives to the UNHRC’s 43rd general session in Geneva last February and March, urging the body to pass a resolution for a more thorough investigation of the human rights situation in the Philippines.

The Philippine Mission to the UN in Geneva has consistently denied the killings and rights violations are official policy and acts of the Duterte government.

Palace photo

‘Sactions vs rights violators’

Meanwhile, UN human rights experts (see list below) renewed calls for an on-the-ground independent and impartial probe despite Duterte’s threat to expel investigators upon arrival in the Philippines.

In a statement last Friday, June 26, the UN experts said Bachelet’s report confirmed their findings and warnings issued over the last four years: widespread and systematic killings and arbitrary detention in the context of the war on drugs, killings and abuses targeting farmers and indigenous peoples, the silencing of independent media, critics and the opposition.

“The reports also finds, as we had, stark and persistent impunity,” UN special rapporteurs said. 

The experts highlighted “the staggering cost of the relentless and systematic assault on the most basic rights of Filipinos at the hands of the Government”:

  • Based on the most conservative assessment, since July 2016, 8,663 people have been killed in the war on drugs and 223,780 “drug personalities” arrested, with estimates of triple that number.
  • At least 73 children were killed during that period in the context of a campaign against illegal drugs. Concerns have also been raised about grave violations against children committed by State and non-State actors in the context of military operations, including the recruitment and use of children in combat or support.
  • The lasting economic harm and increased poverty among the children and other family members of those killed is likely to lead to further human rights violations.
  • At least 208 human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists, including 30 women, plus at least 40 legal professionals had been killed since 2015, many of whom were working on politically sensitive cases or advocating for land and environmental rights of farmers and indigenous peoples and housing rights of the urban poor.
  • The Securities and Exchanges Commission in 2018 revoked the license of a prominent news website Rappler and its CEO, Maria Ressa, has been arrested multiple times on various charges and found guilty of cyber libel.
  • On 5 May 2020, President Duterte’s government ordered the shut-down of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV and radio network, after years of explicit threats from the President in part because of its critical reporting on the “war on drugs”.
  • There has been no accountability whatsoever for the multiple human rights and humanitarian law violations, limited follow-up on transitional justice and reconciliation in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao; independent investigations by local institutions have been thwarted; many in the opposition silenced, including Senator Leila Norma Eulalia de Lima imprisoned since 24 February 2017.
  • President Duterte ordered the country’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court after the tribunal launched a preliminary examination of crimes against humanity committed in the context of the “war on drugs” in 2018.

The experts said the coronavirus pandemic has further accelerated the downward spiral of the human rights situation in the Philippines.

“Police and the military have used violence and lethal force to enforce a quarantine imposed without due consideration for the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable communities,” the experts said.

The group quoted Duterte saying, “Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

The experts also warned against the Philippine Government’s attempt to fast track a new Anti-Terrorism Bill they sau will further dilute human rights safeguards, by justifying the arrests of human rights defenders and government’s critics, authorising lengthy detention based on warrantless arrests, wiretapping and other surveillance for extended periods of time.

“Thousands in the Philippines have been killed as the direct result of the government policies. Domestic mechanisms responsible for ensuring accountability and protecting the rule of law have failed to do so,” the UN experts said.

The group urged the OHCHR report should not be the end of international commitment but a milestone marking the beginning of real accountability, redress for the victims and a definite end to the very serious violations committed.

The experts said the human rights situation in the Philippines has now reached a level of gravity requiring a robust intervention by the UN.

“The Human Rights Council must do everything in its power to prevent the continuation of widespread and systematic human rights abuses against the Philippines people,” the group said.

The experts urged the Human Rights Council to:

  1. Establish an on-the-ground international investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines
  2. Strengthen the OHCHR mandate to continue its monitoring and reporting on the human rights violations in the Philippines
  3. Call on the ICC to expedite and prioritize the completion of its preliminary examination of the situation in the Philippines   

The special rapporteurs also called on the UNHRC member-states “to initiate governmental sanctions and criminal prosecution against individual Philippine officials who have committed, incited or failed to prevent human rights abuses.” # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

* The experts: Ms. Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers; Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; Ms. Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequencesMr. Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitationMr. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Mr. Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; Mr. Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes; Mr. Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order; Ms. Mama Fatima Singhateh, Special Rapporteur on sale and sexual exploitation of children; Mr. Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule,Special Rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and associationMs. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defendersMr. Michael FakhriSpecial Rapporteur on the right to foodMr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this contextWorking Group on Arbitrary Detention: Ms. Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Mr. José Guevara Bermúdez, Mr. Seong-Phil Hong, Mr. Sètondji Adjovi; Ms. Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; Mr. José Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoplesMr. Fabian Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrenceMr. Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to developmentWorking Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprisesSurya Deva, Elżbieta Karska, Githu Muigai (Chair), Dante Pesce, Anita Ramasastry (Vice-chair).

[NEXT IN THIS SERIES: UN official slams rights violations in the Philippines, urges options for international accountability]

[DISCLOSURE: The reporter was a member of the EcuVoice delegation to the 43rd General Session of the UNHRC as a freedom of expression/press freedom violation victim.)

Philippines media faces ‘eternal threat of punishment’ after cyber libel convictions

The Duterte administration’s war on media has entered a new phase

By Karlo Mongaya

A Manila court convicted one of the Philippines’ leading journalists on charges of cyber libel in a case widely seen as the latest attack on dissenting voices and press freedoms in the country.

Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa sentenced news website Rappler’s chief executive editor Maria Ressa and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. to 6 months and 1 day up to 6 years in jail and ordered them each to pay P400,000 (about US$8,000) for moral and exemplary damages on June 15.

Ressa and Santos are the first journalists in the Philippines to be found guilty of cyber libel since the law was passed in 2012. They were allowed to post bail pending appeal under the bond they paid in 2019, which cost 100,000 pesos (2,000 US dollars) each.

Rappler, an independent website of international renown has been targeted by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. The court, however, found Rappler itself to have no liability in the cyber libel case.

Targeting Rappler

Press freedom advocates in the Philippines and across the world swiftly decried Ressa’s conviction as part of the Duterte administration’s campaign to terrorize and intimidate journalists.

The case against Ressa and Rappler was filed in 2017 by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a 2012 Rappler story covering his alleged links to Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was being impeached on corruption charges at the time.

Keng’s case was initially dismissed in 2017 because it was beyond the statute of limitations. Moreover, the article itself was published four months before the cybercrime law was enacted.

But the case was subsequently readmitted by the Philippine justice department, which extended the period of liability for cyber libel claims from one year to 12 years and argued the article was covered by the law because it was ‘republished’ in February 2014, when Rappler updated it.

While Duterte and his spokesmen deny any links to the cyber libel case, Rappler has been on the receiving end of regular ire from the president and his allies for actively investigating and exposing the administration’s bloody war on drugs, social media manipulation and corruption.

Rappler reporters were banned from covering presidential press briefings in 2018, for what Duterte characterized as “twisted reporting” during a presidential address.

Pro-Duterte trolls deride Rappler as a peddler of “fake news” and hurl invective at its reporters.

The cyber libel case is but the first in a total of 8 active legal cases against Ressa and Rappler which include another libel case and tax violation allegations. All were filed after Duterte came to power in 2016.

The Duterte government moved to shut down Rappler in January 2018, claiming that it violated laws on non-foreign ownership of media outlets — a claim that is demonstrably false.

A protester calls for ‘mass testing, not mass silencing’ at a rally held on June 4, 2020, the day the Philippine Congress passed the anti-terror bill. Photo by Kodao Productions, a content partner of Global Voices

Curtailing dissent

The College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines (UP), the country’s premier state university, condemned the decision as a dangerous precedent that gives authorities the power to prosecute anyone for online content published within the past decade:

The State can prosecute even after ten, twelve or more years after publication or posting. It is a concept of eternal threat of punishment without any limit in time and cyberspace.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the charges that Rappler faces is only the latest in “a chain of media repression that has seen the forced shutdown of broadcast network ABS-CBN and a spike in threats and harassment of journalists, all because the most powerful man in the land abhors criticism and dissent.’’

The government forced the country’s largest television network, privately-owned ABS-CBN, off air last May after the pro-Duterte congress refused to renew the station’s broadcasting license.

Growing persecution of media comes against the backdrop of an anti-terror bill passed by the legislature that allows the president to create an anti-terrorism council vested with powers to designate individuals and groups as “terrorists.”

That designation in turn allows warrantless arrests and 24 days of detention without court charges, among other draconian provisions.

Authorities have brazenly denied the bill threatens freedom in the country.

AERIAL SHOT: 5,000 human rights advocates and activists observe physical distancing as they commemorate Philippine Independence Day and hold a ‘Grand Mañanita’ against the Duterte government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill today, June 12, on University Avenue, University of the Philippines- Diliman, Quezon City. Photo and caption by Kodao Productions, a content partner of Global Voices

Holding the line

At a press conference after her court hearing, Ressa vowed to hold the line:

Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.

A few days before Ressa’s conviction, thousands defied the lockdown to join anti-terror bill protests in Manilla despite threats of violence from the police.

Protesters ironically described their demonstration as a “mañanita” — the word that Police General Debold Sinas, a Duterte ally, used to justify his birthday party celebration, which took place amidst severe restrictions on gatherings.

Double standards for Duterte allies and the weaponization of laws against critics were a constant theme in tweets that used the #DefendPressFreedom hashtag in response to the Ressa case.

(Kodao is a content partner of Global Voices)

The anomaly of transport modernization (Part I)

by Rosario Guzman

The transport chaos on the first day of the less restrictive general community quarantine (GCQ) was painful to watch. With limited public transport, thousands of Metro Manila commuters eager to recover lost jobs and incomes were practically left on their own to figure out how to get to work.

Department of Transportation (DOTr) secretary Arthur Tugade said that the government has “concrete plans” for GCQ. He also had to say that the government is not “sacrificing the people” just to revive the economy, because that was what it seemed.

The recommendation by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to transition to GCQ was apparently based more on the compulsion to reopen business than on categorical facts of virus containment. The Duterte government was also reportedly already “out of funds” for socioeconomic relief.

The government once again resorted to the military. The military and police deployed trucks and cars to ferry the stranded passengers, breaking distancing protocol and betraying government’s lack of preparedness. Then, the usual victim blaming – the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and Malacañang blamed commuters for the mayhem. Then, the DOTr made a U-turn from its initial pronouncement and said that it never promised to meet the transport needs of the public under GCQ.

For the majority of poor commuters, what is more painful to see now is how the Duterte government, not backed by science, is on the verge of banning the traditional jeepney from the road forever and insisting that modernization is the cure.

If there is anything that COVID-19 has emphasized, it is the fact that the Philippine transport sector is in its worst crisis – a reality that the Duterte administration had repeatedly denied before the pandemic. If the economy has to transition to a genuinely better shape, the government has to address the basic woes of the transport sector. Vice versa, if the mass transport system has to be more efficient, the economy has to be transitioned to a genuinely better one.

But we seem to be stuck in our old problems.

Havoc in the new normal

The DOTr resumed public transport operations in two phases. During the first phase, trains and bus augmentation (which means bus loading and unloading at designated stations of MRT3), taxis, transport network vehicle services (TNVS), and point-to-point (P2P) buses were allowed with limits on the number of passengers. Tricycles were also allowed, subject to the approval of the concerned local government units (LGUs). Bicycles have also been encouraged.

During the second phase, public utility buses (PUB) and modern public utility vehicles or jeepneys (PUV/PUJ) were allowed with a limited number of passengers in rationalized routes. There are currently 30 routes from previously 96 routes for PUB and 34 new routes for the modern jeepneys. The DOTr will open more routes for the modern PUV in the coming days. Meanwhile, the traditional jeepneys remain prohibited from plying their routes unless seen as “roadworthy”. They are also the least priority and will only be used to fill in transportation gaps that arise.

Utility vans (UV) express will be allowed to operate with limited passengers as soon as more modern PUV routes are added. Provincial buses remain prohibited from entering Metro Manila.

The DOTr has also given some “new normal” guidelines, such as wearing of face masks at all times, cashless payments to avoid physical contact, use of thermal scanners, provision of alcohol and sanitizers, use of disinfection and establishment of disinfection facilities, and contact tracing. Costs for all of these are of course to be shouldered by the private transport operators and the passengers.

Apart from the added inconvenience these adjustments bring to the already unreliable mass transport system, there has also been lots of confusion on other relevant guidelines. The Philippine National Police (PNP) for instance prohibits backrides on motorcycles even for couples, yet some members of the police themselves are seen violating the rule. Interior and local government secretary Eduardo Año attempted to get around the prohibition by suggesting the use of sidecars but these are not allowed on the metro’s major highways.

Promoting the use of bicycles has not been accompanied by government policies to designate bike lanes and road-sharing with cyclists for a safe and efficient bike commute. Ironically, even the initiative by bikers’ groups and advocates to marshal the bike traffic along the “killer highway” Commonwealth Avenue was fined by the MMDA for “traffic obstruction”. Some LGUs are also reviving their old bike registration ordinances to collect fees even if they have not yet provided the needed support to bikers.

But the most glaring havoc is in the future of the traditional jeepneys – the ones that do not pass the DOTr’s standard of “modern” – which now hangs in the balance. Jeepneys were prohibited during the lockdown and are now under threat of being banned permanently from the roads in the name of the “new normal”.

The pandemic has obviously given the DOTr the opportunity to push for its “old normal” fixation on a modernization program that it has been proposing even before COVID-19. The modernization program revolves around: the digitization of fare and toll collection systems, vehicle registration, franchising, licensing, and navigation and positioning systems; routes rationalization; the transformation of EDSA; and jeepney phaseout.

It is premised on easing Metro Manila’s notorious traffic and pollution. But it is clearly a business-minded proposal that promotes the sales of private cars, modern PUVs and modern PUBs, and the privatization of transportation infrastructure. It is private transport-centric, while our obvious problem is the lack of an efficient and reliable public mass transport system. Now that the perennial road congestion is aggravated by physical distancing, the solution still seems to disfavor the mass of working class commuters.

Principles of E-R-A-S-E

The country badly needs an efficient, reliable, affordable, safe and environment-friendly public mass transport system. With or without the pandemic and physical distancing, these features of a public mass transport system should be ever-present for real and sustainable development. A strong government role is crucial in this.

Efficiency means that we are transported by vehicles through the shortest distance and in the shortest time possible. This also means less fuel use, less vehicle emissions, less costs, and less traffic.

Reliability means getting the mass of commuters to their destinations on time, with the least difference between the anticipated amount of travel time and the actual one. The crucial fact in reliability is that a large number of people rely on public transportation for their mobility.

Affordability and accessibility mean that the majority of the population who are wage workers and informal earners can afford public transportation and can easily avail of it from their dwelling and work places. This also includes facilities for persons with disability and senior citizens.

Safety includes measures that prevent harm to the riding public and create pedestrian-friendly conditions and infrastructure to reduce accidents and traffic deaths and to improve public health.

Finally, environment-friendly means public mass transport promotes healthier cities and living spaces. This includes the need to use clean and energy-efficient technologies and fuel for motorized transport on one hand, and the promotion of non-motorized modes such as walking and cycling on the other.

The crisis is real

The country’s public mass transport system is far from having these positive features. This reflects how the government has defaulted on its responsibility to ensure people’s mobility, and shows the general lack of national economic planning for sustainable development.

Our problem may be summarized as follows: 1) Mass transportation is left in the hands of private providers, including private rail corporations, bus franchises and single proprietors; 2) Deregulation is an operative principle in the entire sector, with the government’s role reduced to licensing, franchising and the like; 3) There is a lack of urban planning based on rural development and national industrialization that genuinely decongests the cities; and 4) Our mass transport system is corporate-driven, promoting the interests of infrastructure, transport, automobile and rail corporations as well as the profitability of real estate corporations, shopping malls, fare collecting banks, and the rest of the service-oriented and trading economy.

These problems manifest in many ways. The various modes of transportation are not fully linked, and there is heavy reliance on the ‘last-mile’ modes such as jeepneys, tricycles and even pedicabs. There is more road than rail transport, which is an indication of quite an unsustainable and expensive transport system. On the other hand, rail is privatized instead of being government-owned, controlled and operated, thus it is profit-driven and maintained by user-fees.

Fares are high as a consequence of privatized transport. According to the latest available data from the Family Income and Expenditure Survey in 2015, passenger transport for land travel eat up 7% of total non-food expenses of families in the National Capital Region (NCR). This covers fares for railway, jeepney, bus, taxi, tricycle and pedicab rides.

Transport is unreliable, with roads saturated and the quality of rail service poor. This is not to mention that roads are unsafe and rail accidents and breakdowns are frequent. Air pollution in the metropolis is one of the worst in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Lastly, there is a high volume of vehicles on the road. Navigation app Waze identified the Philippines as having “the worst traffic on earth”.

The anatomy of the transport mess

Metro Manila or the National Capital Region (NCR) has a total land area of 63,600 hectares and population of 12.9 million that swells to about 15 million by daytime. It accounts for one-third of the national economy and is home to about one-fourth of the urban population.

Metro Manila has six conferential roads and 10 radial roads. The radial roads do not intersect one another and intersect the conferential roads not more than twice. There are interchanges that separate these roads, but there are still missing sections in these interchanges. There are fully grade separated expressways in the north (NLEX), south (SLEX), and on the southwestern part (Cavitex) that connect Metro Manila to neighboring provinces.

These roads and highways were constructed to lead traffic in and out of the NCR. But lack of national economic planning has weakened job creation, increased rural poverty and displacement, and concentrated economic activities in the NCR. The region is the most congested city out of 278 cities in developing Asia, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The region is brimming with urban blight and poverty.

There are the more recently built Metro Manila Skyway and Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Expressway to decongest SLEX and speed up travel to NAIA, the country’s major international gateway. These are also obviously to cope with the high traffic brought on by government’s labor export policy. The country’s international airports process the some 6,000 Filipino migrant workers who leave the country every day, which is more than twice as many as new jobs created locally.

There are more than three million registered motor vehicles in the NCR as of 2019, which accounts for almost one-fourth of the country’s total. This is a 9.7% increase from 2018 and a 28% increase from 2016, yet the urban space is finite and unchanging.

The latest data for vehicles disaggregated by type is as of 2016. It shows that motorcycles or tricycles comprised almost 40% of registered vehicles in NCR. Utility vehicles follow at 36% and cars and sports utility vehicles are at almost 30 percent.

On the other hand, the latest statistics on units for land transportation services is as of 2012, which shows that PUJs accounted for most of the franchises and units. There were 49,305 PUJ franchises and 50,153 PUJ units, which only shows that jeepney operators are small-scale and own only a little more than one unit. There were no registered PUBs in the NCR at that time, but there are 14,500 registered buses by 2016. If we try to extrapolate the 2012 data, considering that the number of PUJs almost remains the same over time, it means that PUJs and PUBs accounted for only 7.8% of registered utility vehicles in 2016.

The MMDA recorded an average daily volume of 405,882 vehicles plying the main thoroughfare EDSA in 2019, an increase of 22,054 vehicles from the previous year. About 63% of this volume are cars (255,732 units). PUBs make up only about 3% of total EDSA traffic, while PUJs are not allowed along EDSA. There is therefore no statistical basis to blame mainly the PUBs and PUJs for the traffic and transport anarchy in Metro Manila.

Traffic demand is at 12.8 million trips in Metro Manila, based on a study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Public transport accounts for 69% of total trips. The lesser share (31%) is done by private mode, and yet it is this mode that takes up 78% of road space. The traffic volume within the metropolis already exceeds the capacities of existing roads.

In terms of rail, Metro Manila has one commuter line (the Philippine National Railway or PNR) and three rapid rail lines (LRT1, LRT2 and MRT3). It has the least number of rail lines and the shortest urban rail system (51 kilometers) among 11 major Asian cities. The rail lines are not fully linked, only compounding the problem of an intermodal transport system where Metro Manila commuters use a variety of modes of transport and take an average of two to three transfers to reach their destinations.

MRT3 is privately owned like the PUBs, PUJs, taxis, TNVS, P2P, and UV express. The PNR, LRT1 and LRT2 are the only government transportation assets, although the operations and maintenance of LRT1 are privatized. The government does not subsidize fares, and in fact increases fares to attract private contractors.

The rapid rail system is the epitome of the inefficient, unreliable, unsafe and unsustainable public mass transport system in NCR. It is bogged down by frequent breakdowns, diminishing numbers of operational trains, accidents, inappropriate trains, and even non-working elevators and escalators. It is also in the center of corruption controversies.

Where does the commuter figure in all of this mess? The government through all its numerous transport agencies cannot even give a complete picture. An oft-cited study by JICA estimates that 39% of passengers’ trips in Metro Manila and nearby provinces are by jeepney and 38% are by tricycle. This indicates over-reliance on what has only been a coping mechanism for lack of system. Buses account for 13.6% and trains for only 8.6% of the number of trips by public mode.

Per day, LRT1 and MRT3 carry about half a million passengers each, while LRT2 ferries more than 200,000 passengers. Taking into account the number of registered buses and the estimated vehicle capacity by the JICA study, it may be surmised that buses also carry half a million passengers. Using the same extrapolation, jeepneys have the same passenger load.

Privatizing the rapid rail lines and phasing out the ever-reliable traditional jeepneys are therefore not solutions to the transport crisis. #

The last part of this series will discuss how government uses the pandemic to justify pre-COVID programs like the jeepney phaseout and Build, Build, Build that will further aggravate the socioeconomic crisis, and what steps government should take to genuinely address the country’s mass transport troubles.

Duterte lies on razor blade killing, NPA in Negros says

The New People’s Army (NPA) in Negros Island denied President Rodrigo Duterte’s accusation it killed a soldier using a disposable razor blade, in turn accusing government troops as “consistent violators” of the rules of war.

“It is not true. The four police officers were fired upon by the NPA and were never tortured,” Juanito Magbanua, spokesperson of the Apolinario Gatmaitan Command of the NPA, told Kodao.

Magbanua was referring to the March 3 ambush of four police officers by the NPA at the boundary of Guihulngan City in Negros Oriental and Isabela town in Negros Occidental that injured four soldiers of the 94th Infantry Battalion (94IB) of the Philippine Army.

But Duterte may have been referring to the killing of a paramilitary trooper and two “military informants” last June 13 in Himamaylan City by a partisan unit of the NPA as punishment for their alleged participation in the implementation of the government’s brutal Oplan Sauron counter-insurgency campaign in the island.

The families of those killed said they were killed with guns.

“That razor incident at hostage-taking never happened,” Magbanua added.

Duterte in his recent report on the government’s coronavirus response Monday night again spent a substantial part of his recorded address verbally attacking the NPA and the Communist Party of the Philippines, accusing them of being the country’s biggest terrorist threat.

The president said the NPA had been attacking police officers escorting relief operations by the government.

“Pati nga ‘yung pulis na kasama ng gubyerno na tutulong sa mga tao, pinatay niyo lahat. Tapos, using a Gillette blade (hand moving across throat). Kaya ako galit sa inyo,” Duterte said.

He added that he had no history of maltreating captured NPA fighters in Mindanao.

“There was never a time that we handled an NPA prisoner sa Mindanao na sinaktan namin. We don’t even allow the mosquitoes to bite them. May warning kami sa mga alimatok pati sa mga…ano ba ng alimatok sa Tagalog? Linta. Leech. Na huwag galawin ang mga NPA na bihag dahil baka tayo ang pagbintangan,” he said.

Magbanua however said it is the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) that consistently violates International Humanitarian Law through strafing of civilian homes, red-tagging of activists, and physical and mental abuse of detainees.

Marco Valbuena, information officer of the Communist Party of the Philippines, also said that Duterte is, in fact, the country’s biggest terrorist, using the AFP and the entire State machinery to unleash “wanton terror” in his government’s drug war, massacres, extrajudicial killings, the bombardment of communities in his nearly four years in power. # (Raymund B. Villanueva) 

On the question of fascism in relation to the Duterte regime

Interview by Prof. Regletto Aldrich D. Imbong
Department of Philosophy, University of the Philippines-Cebu

Prof. Imbong: Not so many intellectuals in the Philippines develop a strong theoretical argument on Duterte’s fascistic tendencies. Many assume rather than argue that Duterte is a fascist. What conditions should be met for one to be considered a fascist?

Prof. Jose Maria Sison (JMS): Any individual, group or movement can be fascist or have fascist tendencies in mentality, advocacy and behavior and is usually motivated by rabid anti-communism, a key factor that is ingratiating to the big bourgeoisie, especially the imperialists. But for an entire government or regime like that of Duterte to be described as categorically fascist and not merely having fascistic tendencies entails certain considerations and requirements.

To be fascist, the government or regime must be rabidly anti-communist and rule by open terror in the service of the big bourgeoisie (be it the comprador big bourgeoisie in the Philippines or the industrial monopoly class as in Hitlerite Germany) even as it uses demagogically nationalist, racist or even pseudo-socialist slogans to deceive the people. Most importantly, it has promulgated fascist laws to carry out the violent suppression of any opposition and prevent it from any recourse to the democratic rights guaranteed by a liberal democratic or socialist constitution.

The Duterte regime commits acts of state terrorism on behalf of the worst part of the Philippine big bourgeoisie but it has not yet reached the point of getting rid of the Bill of Rights and other relatively democratic provisions of the 1987 Constitution. However, Duterte is now on the verge of making his regime categorically fascist by enacting the so-called Anti-Terrorism Bill which practically gets rid of the Bill of Rights and is worse than the Marcos martial law proclamation in1972. He can also make charter change to formalize and entrench fascist dictatorship as Marcos did in fixing the 1973 Constitution and faking the referendum to ratify it.

Prof. Imbong: In several interventions, Walden Bello argued why Duterte is a fascist. His claim is that Duterte is a fascist original. By this I understand that right from the start Duterte is a fascist and that the (extreme) Left, being an initial ally of Duterte helped in Duterte’s ascension into the heights of fascist power. Classical fascism, however, is essentially an anti-communist movement (as pointed out by Enzo Traverso), a reaction or mobilization of the middle class and nationalist bourgeoisie against the internationalist working class. In this case, Duterte’s early presidency would not count yet as being fascistic. Could you give a comment on this claim of Bello and the role of the Philippine Left, in general, concerning Duterte’s fascism?

JMS: You are correct in saying that Duterte could not have been described as fascist or fascistic within the first six months of his presidency, especially if you evaluate him or his regime according to Enzo Traverso’s definition of classical fascism as being essentially an anti-communist movement that is a reaction or mobilization of the middle class and nationalist bourgeoisie against the internationalist working class. Duterte had to unfold himself first as a fascist or fascistoid in contradiction with his avowals of being “Left” and “socialist”.

You are correct in saying that Walden Bello is wrong for claiming that he knew Duterte as a fascist even before any manifestation of his being a fascist by word or deed. Before becoming president, Duterte never manifested himself as an adherent of fascism and was never the leader or member of a self-proclaimed fascist group or movement. As mayor of Davao City, he never declared himself a fascist. He had become vice mayor at first by being appointed by Cory Aquino. At the same time, he maintained close relations with the Marcos crony Floirendo of Tadeco and used him to become mayor.

In the course of his mayorship, Duterte used Dirty Harry tactics to impress the electorate that he was a law-and-order leader and also used violence to kill or silence his political opponents in the course of conflicts among the various political agents of the comprador big bourgeoisie and the landlord class. Among the competing reactionary leaders, he sought to ingratiate himself with the revolutionary movement. In response, the revolutionary movement considered him at the most as an unreliable and unstable ally against those reactionary leaders deemed worse than him on a certain scale of of political and tactical reckoning.

Even though Duterte claimed to be a close friend of the late Comrade Parago and helped in public events to honor him after his martyrdom, there have been questions within the revolutionary movement about Duterte’s close relations with top intelligence officers in the AFP and whether the report from inside the ISAFP that it was he who gave the A-1 information about the whereabouts of Comrade Parago to General Ano. The rapid promotions given by Duterte to Ano when he became president have aroused further the suspicion and investigation of his betrayal of Comrade Parago.

Prof. Imbong: Since the Philippine Left initially started as an ally of the Duterte regime, I believe it initially did not recognize the latter to be fascistic. At what particular point did the Philippine Left begin recognizing and labelling Duterte as a fascist? What were the triggers behind the redefinition of a former ally?

JMS: There was never any alliance between the Duterte regime and the revolutionary movement. In fact, the people’s war along the line of the new democratic revolution has proceeded, despite limited ceasefires to promote the peace negotiations. Warring parties can never be construed as allies until they can conclude at least a long-term truce for the purpose of alliance and other purposes beneficial to the people. The rabid anti-communist Walden Bello makes conclusions that are not based on the facts.

At the beginning of his presidency in 2016, Duterte presented himself as the first “Left” or “socialist” president of the Philippines, wishing to have peace negotiations and a just peace with the NDFP and the Filipino people and promising to amnesty and release all political prisoners. But within a few weeks after assuming his presidential office, he was in effect declaring himself a rabid anti-communist, he was reneging on his promise to amnesty and release the political prisoners and was carrying out the massacre of the poor as suspected drug users and peddlers.

Ka Oris as spokesperson of the CPP promptly criticized and condemned the aforesaid massacre of the poor within June 2016 and I also called Duterte a “butangero” on June 29, 2016 to his face when he was talking tough and reneging on his promise to amnesty and release the political prisoners. He wanted to trick the CPP into recommending certain personalities for four cabinet posts but he appointed them anyway on the basis of their individual merits.

He revealed himself categorically as an incorrigible enemy of the revolutionary movement when he included the CPP and NPA as targets of his martial law proclamation for Mindanao in May 2017. So, since early on, the revolutionary movement has considered Duterte as a rabid enemy and a rabid puppet of US imperialism by surrounding himself with generals who are notorious assets of the CIA and DIA of the US, carrying out immediately an all-out war policy under the cover of continuing Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan until he launched his own Oplan Kapayapaan in early 2017.

Eventually, the NDFP came to know that when he met Trump in November 2017 Duterte promised to wipe out the revolutionary movement and give US corporations the right to own to the extent of 100 percent any enterprise owning land, exploiting natural resources and operating public utilities and other businesses. He was proving to Trump that he was a loyal puppet to the US despite his posturing as a close friend of China.

Prof. Imbong: Enzo Traverso claims that some of the current populist and rightist movements the world over are irreducible to the classic definition of fascism. These have developed features that do not anymore fit into the classic definition of fascism. He rather called these movements as postfascism. In Brazil also, Jeffery Webber acknowledges the current Jair Bolsonaro regime as a neofascism. Do the current political and economic manifestations of the Duterte regime still fit into the classic definition of fascism? Or is his regime more of what is called as postfascism or neofascism?

JMS: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1991, US imperialism has increasingly used the term “terrorism” as the bete noire (black beast) for targetting by the most extreme forms of reaction, including fascist movements, official repressive measures, state terrorism, full blown fascist regimes and wars of aggression. The term “terrorism” is so broad as to encompass not only Islamic jihadists that the US intelligence agencies create but also the communists and other anti-imperialist and democratic forces that are supposed to be the target of “classical fascism”.

The imperialists, the ultra-reactionaries and the fascist movements still vilify their enemy as “communist”, “terrorist” or “communist terrorist” wherever the communist parties and working class movements are relatively strong in the legal struggle and/or the armed struggle and are regarded by the big bourgeoisie as imminent threat to the ruling system. Anti-communism is still a major element in the ideological and political line of fascism, fascist regimes and movements, notwithstanding the imperialist propaganda that communism died in the years of 1989 to 1991.
Duterte points to the CPP as the main enemy of his regime and the main target of his state terrorism. In this regard, he is no different from Mussolini and Hitler and the fascist dictators of China, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam after World War II.

In looking at social and political phenomena, I am guided by the laws of contradiction and uneven development. There are generally similar phenomena that at the same time have distinctive dissimilarities or differences. Even at the time of Mussolini the original fascist, Hitler, Franco, Tojo and others, the fascist regimes had generally similar characteristics but also had distinctive dissimilarities.I do not like to play with prefixes like post and neo as some academic pedants do to claim any kind of new and unique discovery.

In my study of fascist movements and fascist regimes that arose before and after World War II, I have observed the following elements in their character and conduct:

1. The fascist groups and movements are ideologically and politically anti-communist and seek and get support from the big bourgeoisie (be it the industrial and financial big bourgeoisie in imperialist countries or the comprador big bourgeoisie in underdeveloped countries).

2. They use xenophobic, chauvinist and racist slogans and target certain racial and ethnolinguistic minorities as the enemy to blame for the suffering and grievances of the people and deflect attention from the exploiting classes.

3. They use the biases of the politically backward section of the masses in order to create the base for their “mass movement”. From this base, they try to influence and win over the middle section of the masses; and try to counter and ferret out communists and other revolutionary forces from the advanced section of the masses.

4. They collaborate with the big bourgeoisie and with the armed apparatuses of the reactionary state in breaking up demonstrations of democratic forces, assaulting workers’ strikes and attacking the persons and properties of people who are communist or progressive in their stand or who belong to any minority deemed as enemy and target of hatred.

5. They ascend to absolute power through elections by taking up the grievances of the people and at the same time enjoying the support of the big bourgeoisie. They can also take power through a military coup against a discredited and weak civilian government. When in power by any degree, they can stage a series of false flag operations to scapegoat the communists and to justify the adoption and implementation of fascist laws.

6. They use the open rule of terror (fascist laws and actions) to suppress any criticism of or opposition to the fascist regime through the adoption and enforcement of laws that comprehensively and profoundly dissolve and violate the basic democratic rights and fundamental freedoms of the people which have been defined and guaranteed by the liberal democratic or socialist constitution.

All the above elements in varying forms and degrees of gravity have characterized the fascist movement and regimes that are employed and supported by the big bourgeoisie upon the failure of conservative and reformist parties, institutions and movement to contain and appease the exploited classes and counter the rise of the revolutionary party of the proletariat and the mass movement that it leads. #

PH Debt: All’s well that swells

by Rosario Guzman

Lenders have offered to defer debt payments for those severely affected by the lockdown. The World Bank has encouraged the Group of 20 nations to postpone repayment of official bilateral credit, although has not yet considered suspending debt payments owed it. The International Monetary Fund has approved debt relief to its 25 poorest member countries. Commercial banks have offered a 60-day grace period for loans, including for household debts borrowed through credit cards. Even informal moneylenders in the Philippines’ urban poor communities have reportedly stopped collecting loan installments for a while.

These are not necessarily all done out of sheer goodwill. In many cases they seek to stop debtors from succumbing to severe debt-driven crisis due to the pandemic which would stop them from paying anything at all in the future. In short, they are also favorable to the creditors.

The Duterte government, with its much-brandished good credit standing, could have moved for debt relief too but instead, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it started borrowing more. The finance department underscores the need for government to borrow from foreign sources to fund its economic recovery plan. Multilateral and country creditors have unsurprisingly exploited the situation and recycled funds to lend.

Do we really need to borrow for COVID response? People have asked. How are we going to pay for all of these debts?

Accumulating debt

The Duterte administration’s Philippine Program for Recovery with Equity and Solidarity (PH-PROGRESO) is worth Php1.7 trillion, Php561 billion (US$11 billion) of which is targeted by the Department of Finance (DOF) to come from bilateral and multilateral loans and global bonds. There is another Php404 million (US$8 million) in foreign grants.

From March 14 to June 4 this year, based on IBON monitoring, the Duterte government has already obtained foreign commitments of US$3.95 billion in loans, US$17.3 million in grants, and US$5 million in technical assistance (TA) – all for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippine-headquartered Asian Development Bank (ADB) accounts for US$2.1 billion of the loans plus all of the TA and much of the grants. The World Bank accounts for US$1.1 billion, and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for US$750 million. There are US$9.3 million in grants from USAID. In sum, there are 7 project loans, 2 grants, and 1 regional TA so far.

Loans amounting to US$3.95 billion are, at the current exchange rate of Php50.05 to a US dollar, equivalent to Php197.7 billion. This increased the outstanding national government debt which has already risen from Php7.7 trillion by the end of 2019 to an astounding Php8.6 trillion by April 2020. The Php869-billion increment in the last four months far surpasses the full-year increments of the last three years.

Government securities increased by Php436 billion, while the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas used its repurchase facility to lend Php300 billion to the national government for COVID response. Meanwhile, external debt increased by Php133.1 billion from December 2019 to April 2020. In April 2020, the Duterte government’s foreign debt grew 16.5% year-to-date and 16.4% year-on-year, or the biggest increase in the last four years.

The Duterte government has already reached 66% (or Php919.5 billion) of its Php1.4 trillion projected gross borrowings for the year. If the planned foreign financing for PH-PROGRESO alone is realized, the government would already go over its borrowing projection. This does not yet include the uncontrollable increase in domestic debt due to the continuous issuance of government securities. Domestic debt comprises 68% of the outstanding national government debt.

For whose sake, really?

The loan commitments are specified for strengthening healthcare, augmenting funds for socioeconomic relief, and providing economic stimulus for agriculture and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). There are also wage subsidies for small enterprises and support for repatriated overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

These are urgent things to attend to during the pandemic that the Duterte government has not competently addressed. Instead, we have only witnessed how government’s policy of health privatization, neglect of essential economic sectors, and myopic understanding of the poor have made it ill-prepared for an emergency such as COVID.

COVID-19 is unplanned thus the need to apply for a loan – that has been the official line. Are the loans meant to help us cope with the coronavirus, while government opts to keep spending for its neoliberal policies and to protect business?  Actually, these urgent loan-financed items are part of a larger package which includes even bigger support for businesses who get financial relief in the form of tax deferrals, low-interest loans, and credit guarantee schemes.

The country’s creditors are more straightforward. They will provide budgetary support so that the country’s economic managers can continue spending on the administration’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure projects, foreign investment attractions, tourism and other boosters of the otherwise slowing, and now contracting, economy.

The ADB has pledged US$1.5 billion from its COVID-19 Active Response and Expenditure Support (CARES) program for fiscal management, among others. The AIIB’s US$750 million loan is co-financed with CARES. The AIIB only has loan facilities for infrastructure investment and does not have a ‘development financing’ orientation. It recently launched a COVID recovery facility but even this is oriented towards addressing liquidity problems, providing fiscal and budgetary support in partnership with multilateral banks, and building health infrastructure – all so that governments can focus on COVID impacts and leave infrastructure funds alone.

The more recent Php400 million loan commitment of the ADB to strengthen domestic capital markets and investments is more explicit. This is to enable the Duterte government to fund infrastructure at lower costs and to enable the private sector to raise infrastructure funds from capital markets.

COVID-19 is unplanned, while the Duterte administration’s focus is unchanged. The government is still fixated on burnishing the economy’s image to attract foreign investors, and will only address the emergency by as much as it can borrow. This reinforces the country’s vicious spiral of debt and shallow economic growth. Creditors are complicit in this neoliberal COVID response.

Protecting profits

But what really demolishes the argument that government needs to take out a loan for COVID-19 is that there are viable sources of money that government chooses to forego in behalf of big business. Case in point is the DOF-backed Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill, the renamed second package of the unpopular Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law. The first package taxes consumption goods by the poor and relieves the rich of paying income taxes. CREATE in turn reduces corporate income tax from 30% to 25%  from July 2020 until 2022 and thereafter 1% yearly cut until 20% by 2027. This gives corporations up to Php667 billion worth of tax breaks over the next five years, which is the largest in the country’s history.

CREATE is at the core of the administration’s recovery plan, PH-PROGRESO. It also proposes Php133.7 billion in loans and guarantees, Php142.8 billion in other tax cuts and foregone revenue, and Php233.3 billion in additional liquidity. PH-PROGRESO declares prioritizing the resumption of BBB. To do so, it incentivizes big business with tax cuts and liquidity and equity infusion through government intervention and borrowing in the guise of helping them recover from the pandemic recession. The creation of jobs and recovery of incomes of the poor and vulnerable are an afterthought.

Indeed, government has to revive the economy from the unnecessary lockdown, but this has to start with what is truly essential. The COVID crisis is an extraordinary opportunity for government to strengthen national production in agriculture and industry – a surefire way to stimulate employment and consumption. But agriculture and the MSMEs that make up the majority of the country’s enterprises are extremely marginalized.

In the House-approved Php1.3 trillion Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy (ARISE) bill, agriculture gets a paltry Php66 billion and MSMEs are allocated only Php125 billion in loans and guarantees. The COVID crisis is also a golden chance to bridge the chasm between rich and poor, which has become stark especially during COVID. But quite to the contrary the Duterte government has relieved the rich and increased borrowing to sustain such economic order – an addition to the mounting burden of the poor.

Unpayable future

The DOF reiterates that the debt is payable and that the country is in no way headed to a debt crisis. It says that the debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is only around 39.6% at the end of 2019 and 43.3% as of March 2020. The ratio indicates manageable levels, says the government, and is much less than in 2000-2010 when the debt-to-GDP ratio hovered around an annual average of 60% until it started going down in 2011 at the start of the country’s high growth episode.

But those days are gone. Fast economic growth peaked in 2012-2016 then steadily declined since the start of the Duterte presidency. Before COVID, the administration tried to but could not cover up the slowing economy. The GDP growth slowed from 6.9% in 2016, 6.7% in 2017, 6.2% in 2018, and to just 6.0% in 2019, the slowest in eight years. The economy shrank in the first quarter of 2020 by 0.2%, and the economic managers are seeing a severe decline in full-year real GDP growth to -0.6% to 4.3 percent.

All the sources of economic growth that government has relied on – OFW remittances and foreign direct investment in BPOs and export manufacturing – have slowed down since the beginning of the Duterte administration. And these are definitely headed into a tailspin as the global economy sinks deeper into crisis.

The Duterte government has never considered the erosion of agriculture and manufacturing to arrest the economic slowdown. Instead, it has artificially boosted economic growth with pump-priming – increasing government spending to its highest level as percent of GDP. Infrastructure spending comprised 4.7% of the GDP in 2019 and is targeted to reach 7.0% of the GDP by 2022. It shall be the highest among all the administrations.

BBB projects are the Duterte administration’s preferred drug for resuscitating the ailing economy before it slips away. However, it has been borrowing heavily for this. Of the Php4.3 trillion needed for the 100 flagship infrastructure projects of the administration, 83% is expected to come from official development assistance (ODA), mostly in the form of loans. The Duterte government’s borrowing binge is unprecedented – on a monthly average, it is borrowing Php45.6 billion, almost three times as much as Aquino (Php19.0 billion) and over twice as much as Arroyo (Php21.2 billion).

The fiscal deficit is thus a growing problem, with the Php660.2 billion deficit in 2019 equivalent to 3.5% of GDP. The fiscal deficit is already at Php348 billion as of April 2020.

Here is why the debt is eventually unpayable and such a huge burden. First of all, ODA loans may be at concessional rates but are tied to the conditionality of using the technology, materials and expertise of the creditor country. In the case of China, this includes even the use of Chinese labor. Secondly, absorptive capacity in a program as grand as BBB is a major issue. The Philippine government lacks the bureaucratic and technical capacity to implement all the grand infrastructure projects. This capacity has been eroded by decades of privatization and deregulation. The private sector, on the other hand, is not that deep because of the economy’s backward fundamentals. Third, BBB’s main focus is mobility for the benefit of the service and trading oriented economy, and not in building Philippine agriculture and industry. Thus the infusion of infrastructure capital or even the construction of the facility will not be useful in the long run for national development.

Lastly and most ironically, we are being obliged to fully pay for this mounting debt. This early, the government is already thinking of taxing and raising government fees on the very coping mechanisms of the dislocated working people. For instance, the economic managers want to tax online selling even as people are losing their sources of livelihood, or want to collect bike registration fees as workers seek alternatives to the poor public mass transport, among others. The government already failed to meet its revenue target in 2019, short by Php12.2 billion, and is anticipating even bigger spending and bigger debt in 2020.

Our future is being mortgaged. It doesn’t help to cure apprehensions when government says that the debt is manageable. Government has to end its anti-people neoliberal economic policies, and only then shall we be well. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.