Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stop pontificating on the Mindanao problem

By Victor Avecilla 
Former President Fidel V. Ramos gave President Benigno Aquino III a public scolding in the weeks following the January 2015 Mamasapano massacre in Maguindanao, where 44 elite police commandos were killed by armed guerillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and their relatives from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
While Aquino may deserve the dressing-down, Ramos is not exactly the right person to scold the President.  Ramos was a general and a defense secretary before he became president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).  Under his administration, the MILF expanded its forces and its sphere of influence in Mindanao.  This happened because Ramos was either unaware of it, or he paid no attention to it. 
The existence of a fortified MILF made possible by Ramos’ inaction or complacency was confirmed early on in the short-lived administration of his successor, President Joseph “Erap” Estrada.  Despite all the perceived shortcomings attributed to him, Estrada saw the uselessness of negotiating with a fortified MILF and ordered an all-out war against the separatist group.  As a result, the AFP was able to take over all of the known MILF camps in Mindanao.  If Estrada had not been removed from office by that untenable ruling of the Supreme Court anchored on his alleged “constructive resignation” from the presidency, the MILF would not have become the troublesome entity it is today.  After all, Estrada’s successor, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, did nothing to stop the MILF in its tracks.      
In a television interview last February, President Ramos scored the Aquino administration for its failure to protect the rights and interests of the Filipino soldier.  That failure is clearly manifested by the way Aquino handled himself in the aftermath of the Mamasapano massacre, and by his stubborn insistence on the congressional approval of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), days before the 44 murdered policemen were buried.
During that interview, Ramos appears to have forgotten that Fort Bonifacio, the military reservation where soldiers were given affordable housing and other service-related benefits, was largely privatized during his term as president.   A former soldier, Ramos allowed the bulk of the valuable real estate which made up Fort Bonifacio to be sold to developers supposedly to finance the acquisition of military hardware for the AFP.  Today, more than a decade after the sale, the AFP remains woefully lacking in military hardware, and soldiers have to commute from far flung areas outside Metropolitan Manila.  Who made money from the sale is not known.  What must be emphasized is that when Ferdinand Marcos was president under a Constitution which gave him absolute power, Marcos did not sell off his soldiers’ homes in Fort Bonifacio to real estate developers in the guise of raising money to improve military hardware.  Sadly, it was a retired soldier, Ramos, who sold away the soldiers’ homes.
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Film actor Robin Padilla should stop giving lectures about the peace process in Mindanao to Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, a fierce critic of the BBL.  Although Padilla, a Muslim convert, has the constitutional right to criticize public officials on public issues, his recent tirades have only underscored his lack of sufficient understanding of the legal issues relating to the BBL.  At the heart of the debate is the unconstitutionality of the BBL, a matter that involves very intricate issues of law, best left to legal minds, or at least to people with a background in Constitutional Law.  A lawyer and a legislator, Cayetano knows from where he is coming from in his crusade against the BBL.  Unless Padilla can demonstrate some working knowledge about the Constitution, he should not score Cayetano for the latter’s legal arguments against the passage of the BBL.  As a senator, Cayetano has good reason to oppose the BBL.  From the way Cayetano has comported himself in the Senate and in the news media, it appears that he did his homework – something which cannot be said of other senators, and of Padilla.
Padilla’s reliance on populist slogans like “give peace a chance in Mindanao” is hollow in the face of an obviously unconstitutional BBL.  In addition, the actuations of the MILF in the aftermath of the Mamasapano massacre have only served to highlight the duplicity of the MILF in the bargaining table.  The idea of giving peace a chance always sounds nice, but then, not everything that sounds nice is good. 
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House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. should explain why he is urging the House to rush the BBL – a law that is unprecedented in its disregard for the Constitution, and which has drawn extensive public disapproval.  At the very least, an extensive legislative debate on the proposed law is necessary.  The fact that President Aquino wants the BBL enacted into a law before the end of this term is not a valid reason for the House to railroad its approval.  The behavior of the House of Belmonte only shows that the House, under its current composition, is and remains subservient to Malacañang.    
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In the Senate at least, there are vocal exponents against the BBL.  Senators Cayetano and Miriam Defensor-Santiago have made mincemeat of this controversial bill.  Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the head of the committee which was supposed to hear the bill, judiciously suspended further proceedings in the aftermath of the Mamasapano massacre.  Despite the overmastering influence of Senate President Franklin Drilon (another die hard ally of the president), it appears that some senators are independent-minded after all. 
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 Instead of enacting the BBL, Congress should approve a pending bill which prohibits naming public buildings and similar facilities after relatives of incumbent government officials.  The importance of this bill is magnified whenever one traverses the road to the Batasang Pambansa complex in Quezon City.  The school buildings there have been named after a relative of a very powerful incumbent city official back then.

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