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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]

(PREVIOUS: UN submits PH rights record on Duterte’s 4th anniversary as president)

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)

Balik-pasada at ayuda, hiling ng mga tsuper

Ginanap ngayong araw, Hunyo 27, ang Araw ng Pakikiisa para sa mga Jeepney Driver. Nagkaroon ng magkakahiwalay na pagbibigay ng ayuda sa iba’t ibang pondohan ng mga tsuper sa Metro Manila.

Pangunahing tinulungan ng Bayang Matulungin, isang proyekto ng Bayan Muna at PagAsa, ang mga tsuper sa Project 3, Quezon City, Samson Road, Caloocan City, at Rizal Ave., Manila. Nasa mahigit isang daan ang kanilang natulungan.

Panawagan ng mga tsuper na ibalik na sila sa pamamasada at bigyan ng ayuda ang bawat isa. Lampas 100 araw na ang lockdown, ganun din ang kanilang tigil-pasada. Kasama ang kanilang pamilya sa mga apektado ng kanilang kawalang-trabaho. (Bidyo nila Jo Maline Mamangun, Jola Mamangun, at Reggie Mamangun)

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.

Explore beauty and heritage in the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand while staying at home

Virtual packages give would-be tourists a taste of better times ahead.

By Mong Palatino

Movement restrictions in place across the world as a result of the COVID-19 have canceled travel plans and left entire industries devoted to tourism in tatters.

In Southeast Asia, where tourism plays an important role in generating jobs and revenues, the pandemic has already weakened the economies of many countries. Tourism numbers are minuscule at a time when they should be booming.

The Philippines’ Department of Tourism reported that foreign arrivals went down by over 54 percent to 1.32 million from January to April this year. The tourism sector accounted for 12.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018.

According to the General Statistics Office, Vietnam welcomed 3.7 million international tourists from January to March, which was 18.1 percent lower compared to the same period in 2019.

Thai authorities said that from January to March, foreign tourist arrivals decreased by 38 percent to 6.69 million. Spending by foreign tourists accounted for 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2019.

In response, governments in these countries have established virtual tours for those who want to explore famous travel locations in Southeast Asia without leaving their homes, and to encourage tourists to visit these places in the future.

Below are some of the free online travel packages on offer.

Philippines

The Intramuros Administration (IA), a Philippine government agency, has partnered with Google Arts and Culture to create a platform that allows users to virtually visit the ‘walled city’ of Intramuros in Manila.

Intramuros was the site of the old capital during Spain’s 300-year rule over the Philippines. Visitors can explore famous landmarks like Fort Santiago and Plaza Roma.

The website also showcases the IA’s art collection. The online exhibit ‘Christ in Filipino Consciousness’ features religious images of Child Jesus that reflect how Christianity was deployed to colonize the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the Department of Tourism is also offering virtual backgrounds featuring famous tourism destinations in the Philippines which users can display in video conferences.

Screenshot of the Ha Long Bay 360 degree tour. Source: Website of ‘Stay at Home with Vietnam’

The Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board and the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism have launched the ‘Stay at Home with Vietnam’ kit that allows visitors to explore the country from a distance.

The website offers 360-degree tours of its eight UNESCO World Heritage sites which include Halong Bay and the Phong Nha caves.

Visitors can also download homemade recipes of popular Vietnamese dishes such as banh mi sandwich and bun cha (rice noodle served with grilled pork meatballs).

Several short videos feature local citizens providing tips and unique perspectives on some Vietnamese destinations.

coloring-in pamphlet that features Vietnamese icons is available for download.

Lastly, visitors can download photos of famous tourism sites that can be used as virtual background during video calls.

Thailand

Thailand has recently eased lockdown restrictions but it will take some time before international tourists are welcomed back again.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) tried to sustain interest through its #BooknowTravelsoon campaign and Amazing Thainess social media promotion.

It has launched 3D virtual tours for 13 attractions in nine provinces.

One of the virtual museums offering a glimpse of the country’s riches is the Arts of the Kingdom Museum, which features art collections created by the craftspeople of the Queen Sirikit Institute.

Jewels of the collection uploaded on social media include the ‘Model of the Mongkol Suban Royal Barge’ and ‘Egg-shaped Urn with Khankorbua Print Golden top etched’

The model of the royal barge, including the hull and the keel, are made of gilded silver. The bow is made of carved gold and colour enamel in the shape of a Garuda clutching a Naga in each claw.

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Kodao publishes Global Voices articles as part of the content-sharing agreement.

These officials flouted lockdown rules in Myanmar, Malaysia, and the Philippines

Arrest a community volunteer, then throw yourself a party

By Mong Palatino/Global Voices

Lockdown restrictions were enforced by many countries across the world to contain the spread of COVID-19, and Southeast Asia has hosted some of the harshest.

Most quarantine protocols require residents to stay at home, while mass gatherings are typically prohibited.

In Malaysia and the Philippines a particularly strict enforcement of these measures saw thousands of arrests and heavy penalties for violations from March onwards.

But a number of government officials were caught violating the very quarantine protocols they were supposed to oversee.

Global Voices looked into some of these cases, and their outcomes, which highlight how rules apply to ordinary citizens more than to powerful politicians.

We also considered a case in Myanmar that showed how religious discrimination can have a bearing on the application of the law.

Malaysia: ‘Disparity in sentencing’

Malaysia has arrested almost 30,000 people for violating its Movement Control Order (MCO). Harsh implementation was cited by authorities as necessary to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases.

But the public noticed that several politicians flouted the guidelines. The Centre For Independent Journalism compiled documented many of these instances. In one case, Deputy Health Minister Noor Azmi Ghazali posted a now-deleted Facebook photograph of him and another elected representative sharing a meal with about 30 students. Deputy Rural Development Minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Mohamad meanwhile enjoyed an impromptu birthday party. Datuk Abdul Rahman Mohamad claimed that the party was a surprise sprung on him by friends and said he was unable to send them away for reasons of courtesy.

In many cases politicians and their families who got charged for failing to practice social distancing measures were slapped with light fines. Ordinary citizens, in contrast got maximum penalty fines and even jail time.

This prompted the Malaysian Bar to issue a statement about the ‘disparity in sentencing’:

The Malaysian Bar is disturbed by accounts of excessive sentences and cases of disparity in sentencing between ordinary people and those with influence, in relation to persons who have violated the MCO.

We acknowledge that the range of sentences handed down may well be within the ambit of the law, but the power of the Court to hand down sentences must be exercised judiciously in order to avoid any travesty of justice.

Philippines: ‘Mañanita’, not a birthday party’

The Philippines is cited by the U.N. Human Rights Office as another country that relied on a “highly militarized response” to deal with the pandemic. More than 120,000 people have been arrested for curfew and quarantine transgressions. Checkpoint security measures have led to numerous human rights violations.

But the government’s credibility in enforcing the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) guidelines suffered a tremendous blow after it was reported that Major General Debold Sinas, the director of the National Capital Region Police Office, benefited from a birthday bash organized by subordinates.

Sinas insisted that there was no birthday party but only a ‘Mañanita’ — a police tradition that features an early morning serenade for the chief. But the public backlash forced him to issue an apology.

Critics pointed out that Sinas and his team have enthusiastically arrested activists and community workers organizing relief activities during the lockdown. They blasted the general for holding festivities at a time when millions have lost jobs and income due to anti-pandemic measures.

Sinas was later charged for violating ECQ rules but has so far managed to retain his position. His case is still pending in the court.

A retired military officer, Ramon Farolan, advised Sinas to step down:

Your apology would take on greater meaning if you step down from your position. Accept that you made a poor judgment call, showing insensitivity to the plight of our less fortunate. Don’t wait for higher authorities to decide your case.

Myanmar: Religious event or pagoda renovation?

In Myanmar, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein and Naing Ngan Lin, chairman of the COVID-19 Control and Emergency Response Committee, are both accused of breaking the law by attending a Botataung Pagoda festival while the country is observing a ban on religious gatherings.

Photos uploaded on the chief minister’s Facebook page showed dozens of individuals congregating at a riverside site to observe a Buddhist rite.

Social media reactions focused on the clear breach of government guidelines, which include a prohibition on gatherings of four or more people.

Phyo Min Thein denied that the activity was a ceremony, insisting instead that it was a pagoda renovation and that the other people in the photographs were mere onlookers.

Many commented that while the government has been consistent in jailing Muslims and Christians for holding religious activities during lockdown restrictions, it has been less decisive in probing activities connected to Buddhism — the country’s most widely observed religion.

Kyaw Phyo Tha, news editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy, criticized the chief minister’s actions:

Whatever the case, the chief minister’s actions were unacceptable. They have put the Union government in an awkward position, as its orders have been undermined by a senior official. Due to U Phyo Min Thein’s shortsightedness, Myanmar will have to pay the price internationally by being accused of religious discrimination.

Phyo Min Thein may yet pay for his lockdown scandal — a growing number of Yangon regional legislators are seeking to file an impeachment case against him for breaking the rules. #

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Kodao publishes Global Voices reports as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Defiance greets passage of Duterte’s Anti-Terror Bill

Progressive groups, activists, and human rights advocates held an indignation rally at the University of the Philippines and House of Representatives last Wednesday, June 4, as the Philippine Congress passed President Rodrigo Duterte-certified anti-terrorism bill.

After the government imposed a lockdown over much of the country, the protesters defiantly held one of the first rallies to denounce the bill they fear would violate the people’s civil and political rights instead of going after real terrorists.

Among the provisions of the proposed law the protesters oppose is the allowance of warrantless arrests, extended imprisonment without charges and a vague definition of terrorism that may lead to arrests of government critics. (Video by Jek Alcaraz, Sanafe Marcelo, & Joseph Cuevas/Kodao, Music by Levy Abad)

KODAO ASKS: Kung walang mass testing, mapipigilan kaya ang COVID-19 sa Pilipinas?

Sa mahigit dalawang buwan na pagpapatupad ng lockdown sa buong bansa dahil sa Covid 19, wala pa ring malawakang testing upang malaman talaga kung gaano kalala ang paglawak ng sakit sa mamamayan. Maraming grupo ang nanawagan na ipatupad ang mass testing na anila’y siyang tunay lulutas sa nasabing pandemya.

Sa kabilang banda, mabibigyang-solusyon ba ang pandemya na ito kung walang mass testing? (Bidyo ni Joseph Cuevas Background Music: Bumper Tag by John Deley)

Financial strength, development weakness

By Sonny Africa

The Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), presided by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte, addressed the country on Tuesday. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III was a moment of lucidity especially compared to his principal’s rambling incoherence. Unfortunately, being lucid doesn’t necessarily mean being correct.

Resilient and the best?

Sec. Dominguez opened by rejoicing about the Philippines being ranked number six out of 66 countries in the world for “economic resiliency” and supposedly “the best in Southeast Asia for financial strength”. The compulsion to welcome any sort of accolade is understandable especially coming from The Economist, a well-regarded business newspaper. We’re so starved of good news that ranking highly on any international scale – like in boxing or beauty pageants – always gives an endorphin rush.

But then again, it’s probably useful to be a little more circumspect about the metrics used to say that the country is supposedly doing well. The four measures of ‘financial strength’ in the magazine’s report are of course fine as they are and include the most important usual measures of financial strength – public debt, foreign debt, cost of borrowing, and foreign exchange reserves. Hence Sec. Dominguez’s elation over our so-called financial strength and the country’s credit ratings.

But we should presumably see things from a real development perspective and beyond the shallow endorphin rush. In which case, the main problem is the confusion between means and ends. This is actually a recurring problem with our neoliberal economic managers in particular, and free market-biased economists, policy folks, and business minds in general.

The four metrics and credit ratings aren’t valuable in themselves but for how useful they are for the presumably real development ends of policymaking – enough jobs and livelihoods so that there are no poor Filipinos, and an equitable, stable, self-reliant and sustainable economy. It’s always been odd that whenever policymakers see a conflict between financial strength and social development, the latter always loses.

Which is also to highlight that while those measures are of course better favorable than unfavorable, supposedly favorable performance can actually be undesirable depending on the price paid to get them.

Financially strong for whom?

So, some thoughts on Sec. Dominguez’s self-congratulatory echoing of an assessment that the Philippines “continues to enjoy the confidence of the international community” – meaning all the foreign creditors and investors whose main interest in the country is that we keep borrowing and stay profitable for them, to put it bluntly.

First, “financial strength” is a misnomer if this is in any way taken to refer to the level of development of the Philippine economy or even of the government. The only underlying so-called strength these metrics refer to is the country’s perceived ability to pay its foreign debt obligations. There’s no direct correlation between such so-called financial strength and a country’s level of development – a quick scan of the ranking with countries like Botswana, the Philippines, Nigeria, Indonesia and India ranking high should make that easily clear.

Finance secretaries, central bankers, and other economic managers around the world are regularly feted as the World’s Best this or that by global finance magazines and organizations. Their countries, economies and governments correspondingly benefit from the halo effect and are projected as developing – even if, as is often the case, they’re not.

Second, it matters how “good performance” along these indicators was achieved. Put another way, what may be good for financial strength may be bad for development. As is often the case.

For instance, the Philippines has had comfortable foreign exchange reserves since the 1990s mainly because of remittances from the unprecedented export of cheap labor and overseas Filipino workers. We’re so used to it, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this enormous reliance on overseas work is at huge social costs for families and exposes the inability of the domestic economy to create enough jobs for its population. It also actually distorts the economy with a huge imbalance between domestic production and incomes and final household demand. Mammoth overseas remittances – not brilliant economic managers – are arguably the biggest factor in the country avoiding foreign debt payments crisis such as in the 1980s.

Public debt, including public foreign debt, has moderated and credit ratings also improved. However, this was done on the back of an increasingly regressive tax system that relies more and more on consumption taxes rather than on direct taxes. The regressive trajectory of the country’s tax system started in earnest with the introduction of value-added tax (VAT) in the 1980s then worsened with VAT expansion in the 2000s and 2010s, and with cuts in personal income, estate and donor taxes particularly through the regressive Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) reforms since 2018.

All this increases so-called financial strength by unduly burdening poor and low-income groups who make up the majority of the population, while making it easier for the narrow sliver of the richest in the country. Sec. Dominguez is unrepentant and noticeably still pushing for the Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act (CITIRA) bill which, among others, lowers corporate income taxes – most of all to gain further favor from the international community.

Lastly, what is prevented by insisting on these measures as if they were ends in themselves also matters. The onset of COVID-19 and the national and global measures to control the pandemic have a tremendous impact on the economy. The Philippines and the world are in recession, and some are saying that the world is in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression almost a hundred years ago.

Our current pandemic panic will eventually settle in the coming months, but the economy will still be stumbling. Worse, poverty and unemployment will be soaring. In such circumstances, it doesn’t make sense to be so insistent on narrow indicators of so-called financial strength to the point that urgent development measures are prevented.

Today, it’s incredibly important to put more money in people’s pockets both to help them maintain their welfare as well as to boost effective demand. It’s also important to support rural producers and small enterprises to ensure that the goods and services needed are still available. It’s also important to rapidly expand the public health system to deal with the pandemic and to meet the country’s vast COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 health problems.

Attending to all this means the government having to spend more as well as building up its capacity to intervene. Giving unwarranted emphasis on measures of ‘financial strength’ unfortunately sets artificial limits to the government meeting its human rights obligations to intervene on a massive scale.

To force an analogy, it’s like being in the hinterlands of the Philippines with an emergency case in the back of the car and the nearest hospital hours away. In this kind of situation, you don’t obsess about fuel-efficient driving or not red-lining the tachometer or limiting the car’s mileage – you step on the gas. Glorifying ‘financial strength’ is stepping on the brakes. #

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

The fate of BBB in the time of COVID-19

by Jose Lorenzo Lim

The COVID-19 lockdown and further containment measures are drastically slowing down economic activity in the Philippines and elsewhere. The government sees the Build, Build, Build (BBB) program as jumpstarting the Philippine economy in the time of the pandemic. But with its current neoliberal framework, will BBB be enough?

Even before COVID-19, multilateral funding institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) have been pushing for an infrastructure offensive especially in developing countries. Moreover, as early as the late 1980s the World Bank proposed using the private sector to fund and undertake these projects in lieu of the Keynesian idea of giving the State a bigger role in the economy especially in terms of large public spending.

The Golden Age of Infrastructure

Infrastructure is a tool for reducing poverty and driving economic growth. But the current framework of infrastructure development in the Philippines and other developing countries is profit-driven and hence overly focused on economic infrastructure. Contrarily, development in so-called advanced and high-income countries such as the US, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan also included substantial public investment in social infrastructure such as education and health.

The Duterte government’s focus on a narrow set of economic infrastructure is aimed at attracting foreign capital. This is driven by the belief that having better infrastructure attracts more foreign investments, which enables countries to attain economic development. The World Bank claimed that, in Asia, around US$8.6 trillion worth of infrastructure investments are required in 2010-2020 to achieve economic development. It cited a huge infrastructure investment gap in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, which are mostly composed of developing countries.

One of the promises of the Duterte government is to usher in a “Golden Age of Infrastructure” through its grandiose BBB program. The project includes high-impact projects under the Department of Transportation (DOTr), Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), and the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) to build more railways, urban mass transport, airports and seaports, more bridges and roads, and new and better cities.

In selecting the original 75 flagship projects, the government applied the following criteria, among others: 1) consistency with regional and national development plans; 2) implementability (i.e. must be accomplished within the Duterte administration); 3) high economic impact with 10% minimum social discount rate; and 4) “big-ticket” (above Php500 million or US$10 million).

Issues, from 75 to 100

Despite the supposedly meticulous criteria for identifying the most important projects to undertake, many issues surround the infrastructure flagship projects (IFPs). Its neoliberal fixation with pleasing investors and big business puts to question whether or not it will benefit the people and lead to genuine development.

First, the identification of IFPs was problematic from the start. In November of 2019, the government announced that it revised the list of IFPs from 75 to 100. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board chaired by the President approves each project before it is even considered as a flagship infrastructure project. However, the BCDA said that the Duterte administration put the wrong projects on the list. Moreover, some projects turned out to be unfeasible, which is strange because this was presumably a basic criterion for selecting the 75 flagship projects in the first place.

The Duterte administration had been boasting of the 75 IFPs since assuming office in June 2016. Former Budget and Management Secretary Benjamin Diokno was even optimistic that the Duterte administration would complete 74 of the 75 projects before its term ends in 2022. Now, the BCDA expects only 38 of the 100 IFPs to be completed by the time Duterte steps down.

The Metro Manila Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Line 1 and Line 2 and Cebu BRT project, for example, were taken out of the 75 IFPs due to narrow roads and right-of-way issues. The DOTr even wrote a letter to the NEDA Investment Coordination Committee (ICC) to cancel the projects. Yet the projects were eventually re-included after a technical inspection by the World Bank and NEDA on Quezon Avenue (one of the main stations of Metro Manila BRT) and in Cebu.

The Metro Manila and Cebu BRT projects are targeted to be funded by France and the World Bank, but they have faced problems with financing. It also did not augur well that Pres. Duterte suspended all talks on loans and grants from the 18 countries that supported a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution to probe his controversial drug war, which included France. Ultimately, the fate of the Metro Manila BRT is in limbo since it is no longer among the 100 IFPs. The Cebu BRT meanwhile is still included and is targeted for completion by 2021.

Second, the priorities of the infrastructure projects are questionable. The majority of the projects are for transport when the country badly needs social infrastructure. For instance, there is a need especially for more hospitals and health facilities as bared by the country’s glaring incapacity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country also badly needs infrastructure for agriculture production, and to support local industries.

The 100 IFPs are now composed of projects for transport and mobility (73), water resources (10), urban development (9), information and communication technology or ICT (6), and power and energy (2). The overwhelming majority are for transport and mobility. In the absence of a basic strategy for developing agriculture and domestic industry, these will mainly end up supporting the overly import-oriented and export-oriented enterprises constituting our economic backwardness.

Third, BBB will be hugely funded by loans from other countries and financial institutions and will further bloat Philippine debt. The 100 IFPs are worth around Php4.3 trillion and official development assistance (ODA) is the biggest funding source of projects. There will be Php2.4 trillion funded with ODA, followed by Php1.2 trillion through public-private-partnership (PPP) funding, and Php172 billion funded solely from the General Appropriations Act (GAA).

Leading the ODA funders is Japan with a total of around Php1.3 trillion, China with Php700 billion, and ADB with Php273 billion. Data from NEDA as of June 2019 show that the Philippines has US$8.1 billion worth of ODA loans from Japan, US$2.8 billion from ADB, and US$273 million from China.

Fourth, contrary to the goal of infrastructure pushing development, most of the 100 IFPs are still centered in Luzon, where poverty incidence is relatively lower compared to other parts of the country.

Of 26 projects worth Php1.6 trillion in Luzon, the biggest concentration of 22 projects worth Php916.5 billion will be built in the National Capital Region. Meanwhile, there are 17 projects worth Php474.6 billion in Visayas, and 25 projects worth Php474.4 billion in Mindanao. Additionally, there are projects worth Php913.5 billion that will be implemented nationwide, the bulk of which is taken up by the New Manila International Airport located in Bulacan.

Fifth, vested interests appear to be benefiting from the BBB infrastructure offensive. Bong Go’s family has been accused of being the largest contractor in BBB projects. Go’s father, Desiderio Go, owns the Davao-based construction company CLTG builders. Through CLTG builders, the Go family secured 20 contracts in 2017 for road networks in Davao. These were worth around Php3 billion in solo projects and joint ventures. In 2018, CLTG Builders also bagged Php116 million worth of projects in Davao.

Aside from Go’s family, other businessmen may also be gaining from the BBB program. For instance, DPWH secretary Mark Villar’s father, Manuel Villar, through Prime Asset Ventures Inc. (PAVI) is eyeing two unsolicited proposals worth Php213.3 billion. These include the LRT 6 Cavite Line A project worth Php56.3 billion and the Cavite LRT Line 6c and Sucat Line 6b projects worth Php157 billion.

The COVID-19 pandemic does call for a “new normal”. This should include a change in the way the government spurs economic growth where the current infrastructure push is becoming irrelevant.

Jumpstarting the economy

The BBB program is seen by the government as essential in jumpstarting the economy. While economic managers have already insisted that they will hardly touch funding for infrastructure projects to augment the budget for COVID-19 response, they took a step back and realigned some of the infrastructure budget.

The DOTr in April realigned funding for infrastructure projects worth Php16.9 billion that is from 35 projects. The MRT-3 rehabilitation and the PNR Clark Phase 1 are some of the projects that had their budget realigned for the government’s COVID-19 response, which are transportation related.

Data from NEDA show that there are 34 projects from the 100 IFPs that are already being implemented. Of the 34 projects, 26 are transport and mobility related, 2 are ICT projects, 3 are urban development, and 3 are water resources.

Meanwhile, there are 43 pending projects in the 100 IFPs to be implemented within 6-8 months. Majority is still composed of transport and mobility projects with over 30 projects, 4 water resource projects, 4 ICT projects, and 5 urban development and redevelopment projects.

These roads and airports under the 100 IFPs would have been useful to aid economic activity in the long run, particularly tourism and trade. But will these be useful in the “new normal”? For instance, the Department of Tourism has already acknowledged that the number of foreign visitors will drastically fall until at least next year. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that foreign travel will fall by 20-30% and tourism receipts by one-third in 2020. Meaning, the tourism industry in the time of COVID-19 is practically suspended indefinitely.

The 2020 Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing shows that the government has allotted Php989.2 billion for infrastructure outlays. Of this, the highest share or Php349.9 billion is allotted for road networks. Government should review the budget for road network projects which could be additionally used for the country’s COVID-19 response. Another source could be the outlay for airport systems worth Php2.4 billion.

The composition of BBB projects being mostly road networks and airports is attributed to its business and trade inclined framework. Basically, the aim of the government’s infrastructure program is to push for high-impact projects to stimulate the economy and arrest its further slowdown and possible decline. But while the Philippines does need these types of infrastructure, the factor of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a long-overdue change in this framework.

The future of infrastructure

Looking at IBON’s economic blueprint dubbed People Economics, developing the countryside, building Filipino industries and protecting the environment could be used as the new framework for the government’s infrastructure development.

One way to reframe the government’s infrastructure program in the time of COVID-19 is to focus on social infrastructure such as government hospitals and health centers in the provinces, sanitation facilities on barangay level, and housing projects for the poor. This should be coupled with a plan for countryside development and building rural and national industries. This puts substance in a ‘Balik-Probinsya’ program if it genuinely aims inclusive development.

With a plan of building Filipino industries and making them competitive, the Philippines won’t have to be dependent on importing a wide range of commodities. The countryside could also benefit from a much-needed infrastructure push with irrigation, post-harvest facilities, farm-to-market roads, and ICT projects such as marketing, prices and production support. This does not end with a basic social services and infrastructure push but ensuring that people have decent jobs and living wages to support domestic consumption and demand. Decongesting Metro Manila then won’t be a problem.

The Philippines has to improve the current state of infrastructure especially in the context of COVID-19: one that supports a strong public health system and the stable production of the nation’s needs in order to withstand and battle a pandemic. The problem with the BBB program is how this massive infrastructure program is not only disconnected from correcting but even reinforces the fundamental problem. BBB ignores the need for reliable, strong and public-controlled social services and public utilities infrastructure, for agricultural development and national industrialization, and healthy environment.

What infrastructure to build should figure in a larger strategic plan that supports sustainable consumption and production and social well-being. The current infrastructure framework needs to be transformed. #

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The author is a researcher at IBON Foundation. His research topics include Build, Build, Build, the oil industry, and social services. Prior to IBON, he served as Editor-in-Chief of the UPLB Perspective for the academic year 2016-2017. When not in the office, Jose Lorenzo enjoys writing with his fountain pens and trying out new ink.

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