Author: Rigoberto Tiglao

Was Aquino’s P3.5B purchase of the dengue vaccine the worst case of corruption ever?

WAS there corruption on a massive scale, with former President Aquino 3rd earning hundreds of millions of pesos in dirty money from his administration’s purchase of Sanofi’s dengue vaccine Dengvaxia?

If indeed it was a case of corruption, it would be among the biggest ever for a single corrupt deal, as just 10 percent of the P3-billion cost of the one million dosages of the vaccine purchased—without any bidding and through secret negotiations—is P350 million. It could have been likely more, considering that Sanofi’s $70 million sale to the Aquino administration gave it the much needed financial and advertising boost for a vaccine it had developed at a cost of $1.8 billion, yet which it could sell only $20 million worth in two years of aggressive marketing.

But more than the magnitude of dirty money involved, this case of graft, if proven as such, would be the most abominable: The health and lives of 730,000 Filipino children were put at risk, just to rush the vaccine’s purchase before a new government would come to power.

Aquino with his health secretary Garin: Will she throw him under the bus to save her own skin?

President Duterte must leave no stone unturned to determine the answer to this question, if he is to be true to his promise to rid the country of corruption, and to get justice for 730,000 children.

 

He will be met by stiff resistance by the Yellow Cult, Already the most expensive campaign ever has been contracted and launched to use media for a massive cover-up of this ignominy. Just check the articles and opinion columns of the newspaper still in the Yellow Cult’s control.

I don’t think arriving at the truth will be so difficult: Aquino’s health secretary Janette Garin, who is from one of the most powerful political clans in Iloilo, would likely throw her former boss under the bus to save her own skin.

You, dear Reader, decide for yourself if Aquino got graft money or not from his dengue vaccination program. I will just narrate the facts.

Intense interest

First, it was Aquino himself who demonstrated intense interest in the Dengvaxia mass vaccination program, when he had hardly any interest in health issues in the past. He gave direct orders to Garin to undertake the program and buy the vaccines from Sanofi, despite appeals by the medical community to wait for the World Health Organization’s recommendation.

Aquino also had to order Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to find ways to fund the P3.5-billion cost of the vaccines, as this wasn’t covered in the 2015 or 2016 budgets set by Congress. I wrote this in my column last Wednesday, and neither Aquino nor Garin have denied this claim.

Second, Aquino was in an inexplicable extraordinary rush to purchase Sanofi’s Dengvaxia, quite obviously so the vaccination program could be undertaken before he stepped down from office on June 30.

Those familiar with the anatomy of corruption in any country would recognize such rush as a red flag pointing to graft. The rush is so totally inexplicable unless it was a graft project.

December 2, 2015: Aquino met with Sanofi officials in Paris—the second time he did so—and as the meeting adjourned, ordered Garin to rush the order to purchase the vaccines.

December 22: The Food and Drug Administration, headed by Garin approved the use of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia. It normally takes two years for the FDA to give its approval for new drugs, longer for risky vaccines since these are essentially weakened forms of the virus introduced to the body in the hope it will develop its own immunity.

December 29:The budget department’s authorization (SARO) for the purchase of the P3.5 billion vaccines was issued.

January 2016: Garin—who had replaced Enrique Ona as health secretary in January 2015—announces that the mass vaccination program would be undertaken starting in February.

March: The education department and the interior and local government department issued their memoranda on their personnel’s participation in the program.

April: The mass injection of 733,000 fourth-grade students with the Dengvaxia starts.

Never ever has such a major government program been undertaken in the span of just a few months.

So despicable

Aquino’s sprint for his administration to buy the Dengvaxia vaccine is so despicable considering that the UN’s World Health Organization in July 2015 had withheld recommendation on its use. It told the world that its Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization was still evaluating the evidence and would only “likely” submit its findings on the use of the vaccine to the body in April 2016.

But for Aquino that obviously would be too late to purchase the vaccine, and the WHO had not really committed to the April date. Indeed, it was only in July 2016, that the WHO issued its recommendations based on the studies of the SAGE.

The WHO said Dengvaxia must be used only in areas where at least 50 percent of the population were infected with the dengue virus. It emphasized that it should not be injected into those who have not had the disease. If this was done, dengue would be more severe than it normally is, even leading to death, when the vaccinated person gets the disease.

Because of the dangers of Dengvaxia, only the Philippines in the entire world has undertaken a government-sponsored mass vaccination program using the drug.

There was no plague-like outbreak of dengue at the time (or ever), with the disease ranked as the ninth most prevalent disease in the country. The only urgency was perhaps the facct program would be undertaken in the campaign period towards the national elections in May, when everyone, especially media, would be distracted by the heat of the political contest.

But still, why couldn’t Aquino just wait for the WHO recommendations? For hundreds of millions of reasons?

Laws violated

Third, Aquino violated government laws and regulations when the health department purchased the P3.5 billion Sanofi vaccine, thereby risking being charged and imprisoned.

There wasn’t any public call to suppliers to submit their bids for the vaccine. It was a non-Sanofi firm Zuellig that was licensed to sell Dengvaxia in the country, although it isn’t clear if the French firm coursed the vaccine it sold to the government through this company.

The purchase of the vaccine wasn’t in the health department’s budget for 2015 nor in 2016, and was therefore unauthorized by Congress, the body which determines how taxpayers’ money may be used.

The funds were hijacked from the 2016 budget for “miscellaneous personnel benefit funds,” created for the compensation of newly hired government employees. But this is illegal, as the Supreme Court categorically ruled such fund-juggling unconstitutional in the case involving the Disbursement Acceleration Plan controversy.

Do you think Aquino would risk going to prison in order to protect Filipino children from dengue, using a vaccine which the WHO had not approved?

Shrouded in secrecy

Fourth, the P3.5 billion purchase was shrouded in secrecy, with the talks between government and Sanofi on the price for the vaccine never made public. This is another red flag for a purchase involving pay-offs to government officials.

The only report I have been able to find on this was a January 4, 2016  article in GMA News online that quoted Garin as saying that Aquino got a 34 percent discount when he met with an unidentified Sanofi executive in Paris.
Really? Or was Garin confused, that the 34 percent figure was actually the commission?

Sanofi reports in its website that it does not make public the Dengvaxia’s price, claiming that this is subject to negotiations with buyers. That of course gives so much flexibility for under-the-table pay-offs.

There are indications that the  Dengvaxia vaccine bought was probably overpriced.  The purchase order  for Dengvaxia was for 1,000,000 dosages at a cost of  P3 billion, which means P3,000 per dosage. The Brazilian government reported  that it bought its Dengvaxia at $37 per dosage, or P1,871.  An Indian company though has put out an advertisement that prices its Dengvaxia at the equivalent of P9 per dose.

Corruption

Fifth, Sanofi hasn’t been above corruption. A German court in 2013 convicted two former Sanofi staff of bribery and slapped the French drug-maker with a $39 million fine for making pay-offs to get more buyers for its drugs. The company’s officials were also alleged to have given pay-offs to doctors in China, Kenya and East African countries between 2007 to 2012.

Indeed, “big pharma” has had a reputation for corrupting local governments for its requirements that the renowned spy-thriller novelist John le Carré wrote a novel (The Constant Gardener, which was made into a 2005 movie) in which a drug company bribed Kenyan officials to test secretly its tuberculosis drug, called “Dypraxa,” on a village that got many of its residents killed. The Aquino health department agreed in 2011 to have 3,500 children become guinea pigs for Dengvaxia.

Was Aquino so desperate to make big money in the “last two minutes” of his regime that he risked the health and lives of 730,000 Filipino children? The only other explanation is that he was just utterly stupid, and that he was played by Sanofi.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

WHO never endorsed Aquino’s dengue vaccination program

It even violated guidelines
CONTRARY to the claims of former Health Secretary Janette Garin, the mass vaccination program ordered by former President Aquino was neither approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) nor did it comply with its guidelines.

This of course raises the question: Why did Aquino, with a few months left as President in early 2016, rush the P3.5 billion purchase of Sanofi’s imperfect anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia?

Garin in a message to her friend broadcast journalist Melo Acuña wrote: “We implemented the dengue vaccination program in accordance with WHO guidance and recommendations. Even before the official release of the SAGE report on Dengvaxia, there were ongoing meetings and consultations among experts, WHO and Department of Health (DoH) officials. We fully cooperated and consulted with WHO prior to the implementation of this program.”

Garin is lying through her teeth, sources in the DoH said. The sources claimed that there were only two or three meetings with WHO officials. The vaccination program threw into the dustbin practically all of the WHO’s guidelines on the use of Dengvaxia.

In the first place, the WHO in July 2015 had withheld its recommendations on Dengvaxia, pointing out that the “WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization is currently reviewing the evidence and will advise WHO (likely in April 2016) on recommended use of the dengue vaccine.”

Aquino order
Still though, Aquino ordered the DoH in December 2015 to procure 1 million units of the Dengvaxia vaccine, and got the budget department to issue the authorization for its P3.5 billion cost as it wasn’t in the department’s budget (and therefore hadn’t been approved by Congress).

In July 2016, the WHO, based on the SAGE’s reports, issued a position paper, which said that “countries should consider introduction of Dengvaxia only in geographic areas where epidemiological data indicate a high burden of disease.” By high burden, it meant infection by the dengue virus of 50 percent to 70 percent of the population.

WHO pointed out that the use of the Dengvaxia in persons not infected with the dengue virus “is not recommended because of low efficacy and potential longer-term risks of severe dengue.”

Photo opp of his P3.5 billion vaccination program. Oops, the vaccine is revealed as having a frightening downside.

It would only be more than a year later, last November 29, that Sanofi itself announced this downside of its own drug: “For those not previously infected by dengue virus, however, more cases of severe disease could occur following (Dengvaxia) vaccination upon a subsequent dengue infection.” In layman’s terms, if a person had not contracted dengue before and is vaccinated with Dengvaxia, he will likely suffer a severe form of dengue, which could even be fatal.

This view wasn’t even an exclusive finding of the WHO. A physician Jacqueline Jobonero-Espina emailed me:

“The first question we asked when there was word around that a vaccine against dengue was being developed was, ‘Will it protect against all 4 serotypes of the virus?” A clear answer was not given. We doctors are all aware that a reinfection of dengue would be a more severe one. An infection can be caused by any of the 4 serotypes of the dengue virus and an infection produces lifetime immunity against that particular serotype. Reinfection with other serotype causes a more severe condition, dengue hemorrhagic fever, as the initial infection only confers partial immunity to the other serotypes. So, when the vaccine was launched most of us did not include it in our routine immunization schedule.”

Compulsory
Aquino’s DoH though made it a practically compulsory immunization program, with the parents of the public-school children left in the dark as to what it was.

Instead of complying with the WHO guidelines, the health department undertook the vaccination of 730,000 mostly nine-year-olds in the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, and Region IV-A (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and Quezon), and targeted a total of 1 million. Dengue incidence in these areas though are far from the WHO’s classification of areas in which dengue infection is 50 to 70 percent of the population.

Nationally, in fact, dengue ranks only ninth among diseases most prevalent among Filipinos, making one wonder why the Aquino government chose to spend a huge P3.5 billion to address that disease when only a fraction of that amount has been devoted to counter more widespread diseases like respiratory infections and influenza.

While Central Luzon and Region IV-A have had high rates of dengue incidence, other regions have had much higher rates, notably the Davao provinces. Did the Aquino government think it could also use the vaccination program as an election tool for 2016?

A much worse crime of omission of the health department is that it did not move a finger to follow the WHO’s recommendation that Dengvaxia should be administered only to those who had already contracted dengue before.

The DoH’s guidelines for the vaccination program (still posted in its website) make no mention of this crucial requirement for vaccination, and lists only four kinds of people who may not receive the vaccine: those less than 9 years old and above 45; those who are allergic to the vaccine; immune-compromised individuals such as those with HIV; and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

4 serotypes
In its FAQ section, it had the question: “If the pupil had past dengue infection, can he still avail of the vaccine?” The DoH’s reply: “Yes. Dengue disease is caused by 4 serotypes. Natural infection caused by one of the 4 serotypes confers lifelong immunity from that specific serotype but not from the other serotypes. Dengue vaccination can still provide protection against dengue disease from the other serotypes.” There was not a word on the WHO’s warnings that the vaccine should be administered in fact only to those who have had the dengue disease before.

How many of the 730,000 children were administered the Dengvaxia vaccine even if they had not contracted the disease, and therefore at high risk of getting a severe, even fatal bout of dengue if ever they catch the disease?

Using DoH statistics that dengue incidence in the country is 54 per 100,000 population, only 395 of them had the dengue fever before. That means 729,605 children were administered the Aquino-ordered vaccine for whom the WHO had advised against, and which puts them at risk of contracting severe dengue in the future.

If the P3.5 billion purchase of this problematic Dengvaxia is proven to be tainted with corruption, it would be the worst case of graft in our history, in which every concern for the health of the country’s children was thrown into the dustbin.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Aquino ordered health secretary to buy the P3.5-B defective dengue vaccine

It was former President Benigno Aquino 3rd who ordered his Health Secretary then, Jannete Garin, to purchase P3.5 billion worth of the French firm Sanofi Pasteur’s controversial anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, sources in the government disclosed. He also ordered his Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to look for, and release, the P3.5 billion funding for it, as the health department didn’t have such allocation in its 2016 budget.

Garin herself had hesitated to order the vaccines in 2015 because it still didn’t have clearances from reputable medical bodies, including the World Health Organization. Even her officials very strongly advised her against it.

The Philippines is the only country to undertake a mass immunization program using the Dengvaxia vaccine – involving 700,000 grade-four students during the last three months of the Aquino regime, with a total of 1 million planned. Although Mexican and Brazilian authorities have licensed the sale of the vaccine, they haven’t launched such mass, effectively compulsory, vaccination using the Dengvaxia vaccine.

President Duterte’s then Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial put the Dengvaxia program on hold in July, on grounds that it had not been proven safe yet.

The company itself, though, issued a warning on its own vaccine Nov. 29, reporting that it found out that if Dengvaxia “is given to individuals who haven’t been exposed to dengue, they could get more serious infections when they encounter the virus naturally.”

That means that if a child had never been exposed to, or sick with, dengue but he was inoculated with the Dengvaxia, and he then contracts the mosquito-borne illness, he would be worse off, and could even face death. Most of the 700,000 children inoculated with Dengvaxia had never had dengue. Some 700,000 Filipino children, therefore, now have the potentially deadly serum in their blood. Already, four children who had been inoculated with Dengvaxia and who caught dengue had reportedly died.

The former President meets twice with drug company officials that sold the P3.5 billion of potentially deadly antidengue vaccine.

Even before it’s alarming findings, Sanofi had recommended the vaccine to be used only in populations among whom at least 50 percent have contracted the dengue disease. Dengue has been prevalent only in a few areas in the country, with total incidence of only 0.01 percent of the total Philippine population.

WHO report
The World Health Organization, the UN authority on the safety of drugs, had not approved the vaccine. It finally reported in July 2016 that countries should consider the introduction of the dengue vaccine “only in geographic settings (national or subnational) where epidemiological data indicate a high burden of the disease.”

“There’s no way for Garin to get Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to release government funds to P3.5 billion in a month’s time to buy a single type of vaccine, one that was not approved by reputable local and international bodies, and bought from one company,” a government source said. The health departments’total budget annually for all vaccines it buys is about P3 billion, he pointed out. The source quipped: “How much is 10 percent of P3.5 billion?”

Aquino’s P3.5 billion ($70 million) purchase of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia – P3,000 for the three-doses required for each recipient – was a life-saver of sorts for the French firm. It spent $1.5 billion in 20 years to develop the vaccine, but had sold only $21 million, with the Philippines’ $70 million purchase giving it a financial boost, as well as the worldwide advertisement for it. Sanofi was racing against time, given that at least four other anti-dengue vaccines are being developed by competitors.

Aquino’s order to buy the Dengvaxia vaccines was given right after his December 1, 2015 meeting with top Sanofi officials, who included its CEO Olivier Charmeil in Paris, during a three-day visit there to attend the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference.

“I want this fast-tracked please,” Aquino reportedly told Garin as he stared intently at her, in hearing distance of Cabinet members who accompanied him and of the Sanofi officials, referring to the French firm’s lobbying for the purchase of the Dengvaxia vaccines. With Aquino in that meeting, aside from Garin, were finance secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade and Industry Gregory Domingo, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya, and officials of the Philippine embassy in Paris.

A press release by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) on that meeting reported: “Aquino had a business meeting on Tuesday with officials of Sanofi Pasteur for the introduction of a dengue vaccine in the Philippines as the French pharmaceutical company moves toward completing the clinical trials for the vaccine….”

Malacañang for Sanofi
The Malacañang statement was practically a press release for Sanofi’s product, gushing: “The vaccine had completed phase 3 (advanced, pre-product launch) clinical studies in 2014” and that it passed research phases in the Philippines, reflecting high levels of research competence and capability.” As it turned out, though, the World Health Organization had not cleared the vaccine, and clinical trials were still ongoing at that time.

Strangely, when Congress started investigating the controversy, Garin in effect claimed that Aquino’s information officials were lying: “It was not a meeting between Sanofi and President Aquino (but) the usual time where [sic]the president will allow himself to face the business community. The dengue vaccine issue was not discussed.”

Aquino had demonstrated extraordinary interest in the health department’s purchase of the Dengvaxia vaccine: It was the second time he met with the Sanofi officials.

He found time during the hectic APEC meeting in Beijing, China to meet with Sanofi officials, headed by the firm’s senior vice president for Asia Jean-luc Lowinski on Nov 9, 2014. The Sanofi officials were the only businessmen Aquino met with in Beijing. A press release by the Presidential Broadcast Staff reported at that time that Aquino discussed “Sanofi’s progress in developing a dengue vaccine for affected towns in the Philippines.”

Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee, when he was investigating the controversy last year pointed out the suspicious Dengvaxia purchase: “December 2, there was a meeting in Paris (between Aquino and the Sanofi executives); by December 22, the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine; by December 29, the Special Allotment Release Order for P3.5 billion was issued.” Talk of a midnight deal.

Gordon added: “The vaccine purchase was never budgeted by the health department in 2014, 2015, 2016 and also in 2017. They only requested it in November of 2015. The budget department found the money by declaring ‘savings’ from personnel salaries.”

This dengue vaccine corruption is of that sickening Yellow template: A noble cause is used to conceal graft of mammoth proportions. This case, though, could be the worst, as it has put the lives of our 700,000 mostly poor children on the line.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Sereno has been Aquino’s and the Yellows’ abomination

LOURDES Sereno as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has been former President Aquino 3rd and his Cojuangco clan’s abomination, their worst insult to, and the most injurious damage they inflicted on, the Republic, the judiciary, and the legal profession.

She should be removed from the Supreme Court swiftly and decisively in order to restore the dignity of the Supreme Court and the integrity of the Republic’s institutions.

Her appointment as head of the high tribunal has been a glaring, shameful anomaly in our Republic that has been crying out to be corrected. After Sereno, people just shrugged off Aquino’s appointment of two other justices with as little qualifications as she.

Our republican system stands on the pillars of the principle of the rule of law and the Constitution. It is the Supreme Court that has the main task among the three branches of government for defending and strengthening these foundations.

 

Sereno’s fans, then and now.

Yet Aquino appointed in 2012 to head the Supreme Court a mediocre legal academic who had never even seen the insides of a Philippine courtroom. By any standard or stretch of imagination, she doesn’t have the qualifications to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or even associate justice – or even judge of a municipal trial court.

25 allegations

Even worse, according to the twenty-five* allegations filed in Congress for which she is allegedly liable for impeachment, she has had a penchant for trampling to the ground the rules and procedures of the high court, for acting as a despot and refusing to consult with her colleagues, and lying through her teeth to them.

Sereno quarreled with her colleagues. She ignored them in the administration of the justice system. She ordered for her personal use, without court approval, a bullet-proof Toyota Land Cruiser worth P8 million; she falsified court documents to cover up orders she alone made; and she traveled first-class and stayed in five-star hotels, charged to the court, against government rules. She also shamelessly asked Muntinlupa judges not to issue arrest warrants against former justice secretary and suspected drug-coddler Sen. Leila de Lima.

Such behavior isn’t really surprising. Her sole claim to being a successful lawyer was when her mentor, the 77-year-old retired Justice Florentino Feliciano took her in as his legal researcher in the NAIA Terminal 3 case brought against the Republic by the German contractor Fraport before the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes.

For that, she earned a whopping P37 million in fees, an astronomical amount, which constituted the biggest earnings of her entire career that she admitted allowed her to buy her house and several cars. Those fees, paid by us taxpayers, were ruled to have been “excessive and illegal” by the Mandaluyong regional trial court.

But one would probably call subsequent events a case of poetic justice, or karma. Among the allegations in the impeachment complaint against her is that she didn’t declare that P37 million income in her statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN). That allegation has been bolstered by the report of the University of the Philippines to which she should have submitted her SALNs that it anomalously doesn’t have these documents which should have contained her declarations of her P37 million earnings

Stupid thing

Why did Aquino do such a stupid thing to foist such an abomination that is Sereno on our nation?

Aquino placed Sereno in the high court a month after he assumed office. Her assigned role was to convince the members of the Supreme Court to agree to at least P5 billion compensation for Hacienda Luisita’s Cojuangco owners. A majority of the justices ignored Sereno’s kilometric arguments that made her seem like the Cojuangcos’ lawyer. The court in its November 2011 decision ruled that the Cojuangcos should be paid only P196 million.

The next month, impeachment charges were filed on the most flimsy charges against the then Chief Justice Renato Corona who championed the government’s position, apparently to browbeat him and the court into complying with the Cojuangco clan’s wishes.

After Corona was removed, Aquino appointed Sereno as Chief Justice in 2012 in the stupid hope that with that post she could reverse the court’s November 2011decision. The majority of the justices stood their ground though, affirming the court’s Hacienda Luisita decision with finality.

It was Aquino and the Yellow Cult’s in-your-face insult to the nation and to the country’s legal profession, its supreme demonstration that it could do whatever it wanted. A principled person, or one with the nation’s interest foremost, or one who doesn’t have delusions of her worth, would have declined Aquino’s appointment, content that she had defied all odds to be in the Supreme Court already.

If this case had happened elsewhere – and it hasn’t – there would have been a revolution.

That there is no outrage against Sereno is another illustration of the power of media in this country. The Yellow-controlled media of that period which helped lynch Chief Justice Corona, were so servile to Aquino that it raised his appointee Sereno’s image to a pedestal that bordered on the absurd.

Excellent choice

For instance, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Aquino’s main propaganda arm at the time, had her appointment as its banner headline: “Excellent Choice.” It gushed over Sereno as “The Chosen One” and that Aquino’s appointment of her was a “bold tradition-breaking choice.” Her utter deficit in qualifications was buried by hosannas that she was the first female Chief Justice of the country, and the second youngest.

Yet even with Aquino no longer in power, Sereno has been getting sympathetic coverage from the mainstream press.

Retired Justice Arturo Brion in his Manila Bulletin column pointed this out: “The chief justice has been all over the media in an apparent multi-media blitz. I saw her twice on TV last week and the news media are writing about her. (That an active campaign is under way is obvious from the similarly written articles in several newspapers.) ‘Legal experts’ openly theorize in their columns that the impeachment complaint should be dismissed.”

I would think that such media support is due to the that fact she is the Yellows’ sole hope of having a believer in one of the four highest posts in the Republic for another 13 years. Aged 57 now, Sereno, if she doesn’t resign or isn’t kicked out, will be required to step down only in 2030.

With that kind of potential advantage, I would think the Yellows with the billions of pesos they amassed in corruption in the past regime, could throw hundreds of millions for her legal defense and for media.

*For the reader to better understand the impeachment, I have posted in this column’s website version the impeachment complaint and a matrix of the allegations.

Impeachment complaint

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

The Plaza Miranda bombing, how Ninoy escaped it, and other secrets of the Communist Party

(I wrote the following piece published December 10, 2010 when I was still with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. With President Duterte’s declaration that he has ended peace talks with, and will wipe out, the communist insurgents, this column published seven years ago, seems to be more relevant today. The book described here is reportedly on its third printing, and is available at local book stores and as an e-book at Amazon.com.)

DR. MARIO Miclat’s “Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions: A Novel” (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2010) reveals in rich detail many of the covert factors that contributed to the growth of one of our country’s biggest problems—the Communist Party of the Philippines.

The “18 mansions” of the title refer to the buildings in a secret compound in Beijing where the Chinese Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s housed delegations of communist parties all over the world to facilitate its clandestine aid to their insurgencies.

Mansion No. 7 housed the living quarters and offices in Beijing of the delegation from the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founded and led by Jose Ma. Sison, aka Amado Guerrero.

 

Miclat was a member of the CPP delegation who, with his family, lived and worked in that mansion starting in 1971. He returned to the Philippines in 1986, totally disillusioned with the party, which he says was a monster he “helped create, yet which devoured” him. He has since become an academic with a PhD and is at present dean of the Asian Center at the University of the Philippines.

Miclat’s is not a fictional novel, but a personal and political memoir of his nearly two decades as one of Sison’s earliest recruits, even living for two years in the leader’s “underground” house as his editor and translator, and then as a cadre in the party cell in Beijing. Many of the persons in the book are identified by their real names, others are thinly veiled, while a few are named only by their aliases, probably in order for Miclat to write more freely or to spare these persons from embarrassment.

Cover of book written by an insider; inset, communist leader Sison, its main topic.

For instance, “Herz” was one of Sison’s key operatives, who supervised the party’s youth organizations in the crucial years of the early 1970s, the era of student power that led thousands of idealistic teenagers to communism, wrecked lives and, for many, death in some lopsided firefight.

Herz now lives a very comfortable bourgeois life in Canada, even as his Filipino community newspaper continues to rant against the Philippine government and paint the country black.

Herz’s superior, “Goldie,” who recruited Miclat to the party and who, he claims, ordered the killing of a suspected, but unlikely, military agent was Monico Atienza, head of the party’s organization department during that period. After being comatose for months, Atienza died in 2007 after many years of living alone, despondent and destitute, on a meager UP assistant instructor’s salary.

Sison, a womanizer
Secrets’ secrets range from the personal to the political. For instance, the book claims that despite the rigors of running a revolution, Sison had the time to womanize, go on dates to nightclubs, and bear an illegitimate daughter.

In a scene straight out of a soap opera, Miclat and New People’s Army chief “Kumander Dante” (Bernabe Buscayno) were shocked to see Sison’s wife pound “at the leader’s back with her fists even as she cried about her husband’s indiscretion.”

This might seem trivial today—after all, we had a President who boasted of his womanizing. But womanizing has been a capital offense in the “revolution” for dogmatic and practical reasons, punishable by death, or assignment to hazardous guerrilla frontlines. After witnessing that conjugal spat, Dante “cried like a little boy,” and between sobs asked Sison rhetorically: “How many good comrades have we condemned to die because of sexual opportunism?” I hope Dante will e-mail me to confirm or deny if this really happened.

What is not secret at all to those who have studied the insurgency, but which Miclat provides more details of, is that the Chinese government provided funds and arms to the CPP at its crucial embryonic stage. (A similar account was published in this newspaper on March 25, 2005 by Ricardo Malay, who headed the CPP cell later.) A courier was even arrested in 1974 by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for carrying undeclared $75,000 intended for the CPP as she was exiting from Canada where she got the funds from the Chinese Embassy there.

As regards arms shipments, Deng Xiaoping himself was so incensed over his Filipino comrades’ incompetence. The first shipment on the MV Karagatan in 1971 was easily intercepted by the military and most of the 1,200 smuggled M14 rifles were thrown overboard. In 1974, the MV Andrea, also financed by the Chinese, didn’t even reach the Philippines as it ran aground on a sandbar, which was not unexpected as it was captained by a seasick-prone student activist who just got a crash course on seafaring.

Plaza Miranda bombing
The most earth-shaking secret in this book involves the bombing of the Liberal Party rally at Plaza Miranda on August 21, 1971, the most crucial man-made event that formed the contours of our history since it happened.

Miclat asserts with total certitude that it was Sison’s plot, and that he learned of this days after the bombing. He quotes Sison as saying before the attack: “We will force Marcos to declare martial law… People will rise up in arms when he finally shows his fascist face.” Two ranking comrades in Beijing knew of the attack beforehand. Miclat quotes “Peter,” one of Sison’s closest operatives, as telling him in October 1971: “Ninoy Aquino did not go to Plaza Miranda on the night of the bombing. Kumander Pusa phoned him.”

That it was Sison’s project has already been claimed by credible figures, such as the late Sen. Jovito Salonga and journalist Gregg Jones in his book Red Revolution. For Miclat, however, the attack seems to have left a deep wound in his heart. Before leaving for China two weeks before the bombing, he says he was asked to keep two grenades, which he was later convinced were the ones used in the carnage.

He could have dedicated his book to so many other people close to him. Instead he dedicates it “To an unidentified boy whose life was cut short by a terrorist bomb in Plaza Miranda, August 21, 1971.”

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Sison and delusional communists are demanding what the Republic can never give

PRESIDENT Duterte’s decision to end all peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its New People’s Army and its dummy organization, the National Democratic Front, dismantles the illusion, propagated not just by the communists but also by the president’s negotiators, that the peace talks are proceeding well, that peace is at hand.

Finally, it has taken a tough, no-nonsense president to call for an end to this now criminal organization, deluded that it can establish a one-party dictatorship in our country by killing our soldiers and police to submission. The communists’ armed attacks against the Republic have been one of the biggest factors blocking our nation’s prosperity.

Its ideologue and chief propagandist Jose Ma. Sison, now 78, has been in the Netherlands since 1987, or for 30 years, more than three times the nine years he spent in actual revolutionary practice in the Philippines. No wonder this demagogue and his followers are so totally out of touch with the situation in our country and the world, so as to preposterously demand a “coalition government,” a 1940s Maoist idea during the Chinese revolution, that is, joint sharing of power with the Republic.

Ever since peace talks were undertaken 30 years ago, the communists have been making impossible demands on government for them to lay down their arms.

If Duterte—or any other President—agrees to the communists’ demand, he will be impeached, since by doing so he is committing to the communists what isn’t his to commit: For the independent Congress to repeal or pass certain laws, according to the communists’ wishes.

The leader making revolution in the Netherlands, his home for 30 years already.

If by some miracle the government repeals the laws the communists want repealed, the result would be economic Armageddon for the country. This might even be what the communists want, since the country would be in such chaos as a result that it could grab power and establish its one-party dictatorship.

Delusional demands
Peruse some of the communists’ delusional demands in its negotiations with government, and you will be shocked, and even angry over why Duterte’s negotiators haven’t been revealing these to the public:

• The creation of a “new political authority”—a euphemism for the communists’ joint control of government—which will be empowered to implement the agreed-upon economic and social reforms;

• The recognition of and participation of the New People’s Army and its front organizations in the rural areas in the implementation of land reform;

• The total banning of all imports of agricultural and fish products;

• The repeal of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), Investors Lease Act, Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA), Fisheries Code, Mining Act, Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA);

• The termination of all bilateral investment treaties and agreements, bilateral and regional free trade agreements (FTAs), and agreements under the multilateral World Trade Organization (WTO);

• The “dismantling of import-dependent and export-oriented” companies—which now assemble computer chips and other information-technology products that make up 40 percent of our exports;

• The repeal of the law on the automatic appropriation for the public portion of the foreign debt service;

• Prohibition on the ejectment of squatters until after they are provided “with housing and utilities, employment or livelihood, and social services in the area of resettlement”;

• Scrapping of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira);

• A ban on “advertisements and the airtime” that spread “colonial mentality, foreign worship, consumerism, and other similarly objectionable values”;

• The abolition of value-added taxes and excise taxes on basic goods and services;

• The institution of capital controls “to promote financial stability” and stabilize the peso’s international value; and

• The cancellation of foreign debts that are “onerous or fraudulent”.

Capital flight
In short, the communists are mainly demanding that government reverse nearly all of its economic reforms in the past several decades, as embodied in laws passed by more than a dozen Congresses.

It is astonishing that these communists like Sison and CPP chairman Benito Tiamzon, isolated from the country in Holland or in our godforsaken jungles for decades, see themselves as expert economists who know how an economy should be developed.

If the Duterte government agrees to undertake just one of these demands, the result would be a deadly blow to the country’s image of economic stability, which in turn would trigger such a total loss of confidence in our economy, resulting in massive capital flight.

These demands are contained in the so-called Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (Caser) that it had submitted to government negotiators, and which Sison and his negotiators keep babbling about as if Duterte could just very easily okay it.

Our negotiators and the communists, even as they have been blabbering continuously about the “Caser,” have refused to release it to the public. I managed to get my copy only through my sources.

Our panel have fallen into the communists’ plot to portray the Caser as the embodiment of their noble agenda to undertake reforms that would uplift the country’s poor.

Secretary Jesus Dureza, the presidential adviser on the peace process, has even been trying to get government agencies to support the Caser, saying that “it will address the problems that lead to armed conflict—landlessness, poverty and inequality.”

Haven’t our negotiators been consulting with Duterte’s economic managers to find out what they think of such provisions in the Caser as the imposition of capital controls, and the scrapping of economic bilateral agreements? Or have they been spending too much time wining and dining with the communists, exchanging jokes with them in Norway and the Netherlands?

What is so shocking in the Caser is its Section 6 of Part VI: “This Agreement shall be binding upon the GRP and the NDFP and their respective successors. Any change in the form of the political structure, government and authority within the GRP shall not affect the validity and binding nature of this Agreement.”

Future Presidents
How can the communists demand that an agreement which Duterte would sign should be honored and implemented by all future presidents and by prime ministers, in case the country shifts to a parliamentary form of government?

What the communists are asking for is not what Duterte can give, nor even promise to give: For the Congress, which is an independent branch of government, to pass laws that would repeal what the communists don’t like and enact laws they think would further the revolution.

Read the Caser (email me if you want a copy) and if you’ve been a student of the communist movement (or a member, as I had been), you will see that it is entirely based on the view that Communist Party founder Jose Sison presented in 1968—plagiarized from the writings of Mao Zedong and Indonesian communist chief Aidit—that the Philippines is a “semi-colonial and semi-feudal” country.

In fact, the Caser openly claims that in entering into the agreement, the NDF is guided by the “Guide for Establishing the People’s Democratic Government and the Program for a People’s Democratic Revolution of the Communist Party of the Philippines.” Both documents were made in 1968 – or 40 years ago. For the communists, nothing at all has changed in the country’s economy, and Sison’s (or more accurately, Mao’s) godlike vision is still applicable to our country in this day and age.

And here’s what’s also shocking. Sison, who wrote the Caser, demands that it be signed first before the communists agree to a ceasefire. This is in the Caser’s Section 3, Article VI: “The Parties agree that, irrespective of the course and outcome of the peace negotiations, the provisions of this Agreement that uphold the economic, social and cultural rights of the people shall remain in force and in effect.”

Idiocy
What idiocy is this? The communists are demanding that Caser be signed as one of the conditions for them to agree to a peace pact. Yet, they are saying that even if the peace talks fall through—say, if the NPA decides to launch a full-scale attack on government forces— the Caser will remain in force?

Yet still another shocking provision in the Caser, in its very last section: Section 7. “To enhance and strengthen the legal and moral force and effect of this Agreement, the representatives of the governments hosting the formal negotiations as well as those of the UN Secretary General, the UN Economic and Social Council and the UN Commission on Human Rights shall sign this Agreement as witnesses upon the signing of the same by the negotiating panels of both Parties.”

What lunacy is this? The communists in effect are demanding that the government treats the Caser as an agreement between two states, as witnessed by the UN!

For making such impossible and even absurd demands, I suspect Sison and these septuagenarian communists in Utrecht are getting senile, and enjoying themselves with the fantasy that they have won the revolution, and are now outlining what their “coalition government” would be doing.

Or, they are so wily that the peace talks give their NPA the opportunity to strengthen itself, with the publicity making it more frightening that it will be easier for them to extort more money—reputedly P1.5 billion annually—from helpless businesses and landlords in our rural hinterlands,

Meanwhile, thousands of Filipinos in the country are getting killed yearly in their now irrelevant attempt at revolution.

Our nation really has no choice but to crush this terrorist organization, which has been pulling the country down as much as the drug lords.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Thailand has had a revolutionary government since 2014: No problem

IF the idea of a “revolutionary government” seems too abstract, or its imposition by President Duterte seems so improbable, or if the Yellows and the Reds try to scare us with their Marcos martial-rule bogeyman that it will be the end of liberty as we know it, it really isn’t—if we look at our neighbor Thailand’s recent experience.

Thailand, whose GDP per capita is three times that of ours, has been essentially under a revolutionary government since May 2014, although few people use the term to describe the current rule of Thai generals.

Calling themselves the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), these generals ousted through a coup d’état the duly elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra (exiled former prime minister Thaksin’s sister) and threw that country’s Constitution to the garbage bin, except the part that affirmed its monarchy. The Parliament was dissolved, and all media, including those in the Internet, have been tightly controlled by the junta. (That complies with former Supreme Court Justice Artemio Panganiban’s simple description of what a revolutionary government does, which is to “scrap the existing constitution, and oust all the officials owing allegiance thereto.”)

THE ASEAN GALLERY: Guess who declared a revolutionary government in 2014, and who is feared to be planning to declare one?

The NCPO issued an interim constitution that gave it sweeping legislative and executive powers. The “national legislature” it set up and dominated by military men elected the junta’s leader Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, commander of the Thai armed forces, as the country’s prime minister. Since it was directed against Thailand’s most powerful oligarch, Thaksin Shinawatra, the revolutionary government has been implicitly an anti-oligarchic one.

 

The junta has to this day not given a schedule for the restoration of electoral democracy for Thais to elect their leaders.

Has it worked?

Has such a “rev-gov” worked for Thailand? So far, no problem for the Thai economy, it seems. The latest World Bank update (August) on Thailand didn’t even mention that military rule exists:

“Economic growth in Thailand is gaining momentum, with global growth and a recovery from severe drought buoying an expansion of GDP and exceeding market expectations. Economic growth for the full year 2017 is now projected around 3.5 percent”. (If that looks small compared to our 6.9 percent growth at the third quarter of this year, remember that the growth rate is computed on the basis of Thailand’s bigger base, since its GDP grew 8 percent from 1980 to 1995, compared to our 2 percent in the same period.)

Walden Bello, a noisy leftist who calls President Duterte a despot, and after so wrongly predicting in 2014 that a bloody civil war would to break out in Thailand in the wake of the coup, has been totally silent on the junta’s rule. Bello is married to a Thai and lives part of the year in Bangkok, consulting with the NGO he helped found that is based there.

Perhaps he’s just being smart: more than 200 civilians have been arrested by the junta, mostly just for opposing the imposition of martial rule, many sentenced by a military court to more than 10 years in prison, interpreting broadly the country’s harsh lèse-majesté laws.

Before 2014, Bangkok was disrupted by massive demonstrations of pro- and anti-Thaksin activists, with even its international airport occupied for several days by demonstrators.

There are no more demonstrations. Thailand’s Public Assembly Act passed in 2015 imposes harsh penalties of up to 10-year jail terms for demonstrations that turn out to be riotous, or undertaken without police permits, which can be arbitrarily refused on the mere say-so of police officials. The country’s tourism industry, which accounts for at least 9 percent of its GDP, has naturally rebounded.

Strictest military regime

With the caveat that most Western media normally have huge biases against nations when they don’t conduct elections, the Internet magazine The Diplomat reported Thailand’s situation in early 2016:

“Thailand is currently under the strictest military regime the country has seen since the early 1970s, Civil liberties have been sharply curbed, political opponents have been threatened and harassed, the press intimidated and censored, and the general population given strict marching orders to think only happy thoughts.”

The US and the European Union have hardly criticized military rule, nor the human rights violations, in Thailand, with the US State Department’s official profile on that country innocuously describing the situation as one in which “an interim military government has ruled Thailand, a constitutional monarchy.”

It is the junta’s promises that it will crack down on corruption, improve the educational system, and undertake economic reforms that appear to have built for itself enough political support as to maintain itself in power unchallenged for the past three years.

A World Bank article noted: “Thailand has undertaken key reforms aimed at simplifying starting a business and paying taxes. In 2016, Thailand introduced reforms that made business registration simpler by creating a single window for registering payments and started to provide credit scores to banks and financial institutions. It has made importing and exporting easier by introducing electronic submission of customs declarations.“

Thailand of course has features that analysts claim allowed such a military dictatorship to emerge and be in power in this day and age.

Unifying factor

The most important of this is the fact that its King – currently Vajiralongkorn – has remained a unifying factor.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with the monarch viewed, as in Europe’s Middle Ages, the Deity’s representative on earth. The junta became legitimate and unchallenged when the late much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed General Prayuth as Prime Minister, a few days after the military-dominated national assembly elected him as such.

Some analysts also claim that Thailand has had so many coups (13 before the 2014 one) which were successful—in contrast to the Philippines which only had one victorious coup called the EDSA Revolution—that Thais have become used to such a means of transfering political power.

Thailand’s biggest and obvious lesson is that only a respected and disciplined military—or one that is extremely loyal to a civilian leader—can establish a revolutionary government.

In our case, it wasn’t just Marcos who planned and executed martial law. It was the top brass of the military and police, including Fidel Ramos who commanded the Philippine Constabulary, the much-respected Armed Forces Chief of Staff Romeo Espino, and all the commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. They were cleverly demonized by the Yellow Cult as the “Rolex 12” that Marcos himself had disclosed checked off the imposition of martial law in 1972.

I have been a democrat since my Marxist days ended in the 1980s. Yet I cannot but worry that our electoral democracy and republican system of government have only strengthened oligarchic rule in our country, resulting in poverty for the many, and with the gap between the rich and the poor growing wider each year.

My book Colossal Deception How Foreigners Control Our Telecom Sector is as detailed a case study as can be researched on how the oligarchy has very easily used to advance its interests not only the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of a republican state but also its ideological infrastructure, i.e., media and the academe.

In fact, The Philippines’ system of competitive electoral democracy is, together with Indonesia’s and recently Myanmar’s, the exception to the dominant one-party (overtly or covertly) or monarchic rule among Asean countries.

There has to be a way out of our quagmire that will continue to trap in poverty future generations of Filipinos.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Foreign firms generating super-profits from PH telecom duopoly

IN my column of October 30, I showed that one major reason why we have such poor telecoms in this country is because PLDT and Globe Telecom – the two firms making up the duopoly here – have been so greedy.

PLDT and Globe have been distributing almost all of their profits to their shareholders, leaving little left to use for infrastructure to improve their services, much less offer to lower the price of their services to consumers, which would reduce their margins. This is in stark contrast to what other Philippine conglomerates do, such as Henry Sy’s SM, San Miguel, and John Gokongwei’s JG Summit.

From 2005 to 2006, PLDT’s dividends have totaled $6.4 billion, while that of Globe Telecom $2.4 billion. That dwarfs the SM mall conglomerate’s $1.5 billion, San Miguel’s $1.2 billion, and JG Summit’s $215 million.

This is based on the corporate reports of these companies.

Could there be anything worse than that?

Yes. The bulk of these super-profits—defined in economics as income way beyond normal more often due to monopolies—are brought to Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and to other rich countries of the world.

The Indonesian Salim and the Singaporean Prime Minister, ultimately, have command of our telecoms sector.

This is because the biggest owners of our two telcos are foreign, defying the Constitution’s 40 percent limit on such ownership in public utilities.

Indonesian Salim
First Pacific Co. Ltd., controlled by the Indonesian tycoon Anthoni Salim, owns 25.6 percent of PLDT while the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.’s (NTT) two affiliates own 20.3 percent. NTT has been for decades a state corporation, with the government of Japan still its biggest stockholder. Another 13.4 percent are owned by foreigners—the richest in the world—either through the local or New York stock exchanges.

Foreign ownership therefore of PLDT, the biggest telco in the country totals—based on its latest end-2016 report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission—59.3percent, way past the 40 percent limit prescribed by the Constitution.

Source: Company reports. Distribution based on ownership shares.

Globe Telecom on the other hand is owned 47 percent by the Singtel Group, for many decades the monopoly in Singapore’s telecoms. It is owned mainly by the Singapore government’s investment firm Temasek. It is therefore in the last instance the Singapore government that is the biggest stockholder of Globe, and its ultimate boss is none other than the head of that island state, who is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of that country’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Another 15 percent of Globe Telecom is held by foreign investors in the stock market.

Ayala Corp., owned by the crème de la crème of our elite—for reasons I really can’t fathom—is content to be playing second fiddle in a telecom firm in its own country. It holds only 30 percent of Globe’s common shares.

Foreign firms therefore own 62 percent of Globe, also way past the constitutional 40 percent limit. (To be more accurate though, Ayala itself is 36.5 percent owned by foreigners, which means that foreigners have an additional, indirect holdings in Globe of 11 percent, which would bring its foreign ownership to 73 percent.)

That First Pacific and Singtel are bringing out of the country their super-profits in the two telcos is confirmed in their annual reports.

First Pacific’s reports show that its income from PLDT from 2005 to 2016 totaled $2.1 billion. This is even bigger than its $1.6 billion income, if computed on the basis of its officially reported 25.6 percent ownership of the telco.

Quite significantly, this dwarfs First Pacific’s $1.4 billion income from its wholly owned, Jakarta-based company Indofood, the world’s biggest noodle maker, which is, as it were, the family jewel of the Salim conglomerate. Super-profits indeed.

Similarly, Singtel in its annual reports, claimed that its income from Globe Telecom totaled in the same period to US$1.6 billion, bigger than the US$1.1 billion it should be getting if its 47 percent shares were used in the computation.

Including the income of other smaller overseas investors in the stock market, the telco duopoly has been an unbelievably huge money-making machine for foreign companies, which remitted a total of $5.3 billion from 2005 to 2016.

Why could they make so much? Because the two make are a monopoly, and one that exploits a captive market and the limited natural resource that is the radio spectrum used for transmitting cellphone signals.

$500 million yearly
What does this $5.3 billion mean? It means in 12 years, foreign firms have been taking out of the country about $500 million every year, or half the average annual foreign direct investments into the country of $1 billion. These foreign companies have totally recovered the $1.5 billion they have invested in the telecom duopoly.

Imagine what our government could do if it were the main owner of our telcos, which is what most Asian countries have done.

Singtel for instance has been the main financier of the state investment company Temasek, which now has a portfolio of $200 billion and which jump-started many of that island state’s industries such as ship repair and shipbuilding, Singapore Airlines, steel mills, and even its bird parks.

These data I have shown, based on the companies’ own reports, should correct the naïve, even dumdum, view that foreign investments mean solely the inflow of capital into the country. These obviously aren’t grants or dole-outs, and involve an outflow.

As such, most Asian countries (except us) found it necessary, even crucial, for governments to determine whether such outflow is valid payment for the use of such capital from abroad—or for the technology they bring—and therefore should be allowed to operate in their territories.

Most foreign companies, like PLDT and Globe, also use for their investments the capital they raise from the local credit market, which readily extends to them the loans they ask for as these are guaranteed by their mother companies abroad. These have a crowding-out effect on local entrepreneurs. What bank, for instance, would not consider granting a loan to Globe if it is Singtel that is guaranteeing it?

For these reasons, practically all countries in the world have strong bureaucracies that determine if a particular foreign investment would be good for their countries or not. Without exception though, public utilities such as telecoms and power generation are reserved to their nationals, and not just because this kind of enterprises involve the immediate welfare of their citizens.

What has happened is that our leaders, most probably because of unbelievably huge financial gain, have allowed foreigners to exploit an extremely profitable public utility that leads to a monopoly.

We are practically the only country in Asia that allows foreigners to dominate such a strategic industry, whose telcos have provided us with the lousiest service in the region, and the most expensive.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Shameless bill defies Constitution: Exempts telecoms, power, broadcast media from foreign ownership limits

THE plot in the past regime by the once powerful Liberal Party—whose biggest supporters were in the telecoms and power industry—to remove the 40 percent limit on foreign ownership of public utilities as prescribed by the Constitution fell through, as the ending bell rang on the Aquino regime and ended that conspiracy.

But a more disgusting attempt, a “Plan B” so to speak, which will do exactly the same thing, which is to defy the Constitution was quietly passed in September by the House of Representatives: House Bill 5828, the consolidated version of four bills.

The bill excludes the telecommunications industry as well as power, and broadcast media from the constitutional provision that limits foreign capital in public utilities to 40 percent.

How the heck could it do this?

It exploits the preposterous technicality that the Constitution doesn’t list what public utilities are. Believe it or not, HB 5828 lists as a “public utility” only those engaged in power distribution, water pipeline distribution and sewerage.

So by changing the English language, telecoms, power generation, transport and even broadcast media—industries considered anywhere in the world as ‘public utilities’—are no longer public utilities in this sad country. So they’re not covered anymore by that constitutional provision. The authors of this bill, clever as they are to have concocted this scheme to skirt the Constitution, are taking us for fools.

If they can revise the meaning of “public utility,” they can more easily change the definition of the more technical term, “martial law”. This is defined for instance by Wikipedia as “the imposition of direct military control of normal civilian functions of government.” So, if a law is passed that adopts such a definition, and it is a civilian president who directs the military, it isn’t martial law, which therefore is not restricted by the Constitution’s provisions on “martial law,” whose features after all aren’t listed there? What else could be redefined? Human rights? Freedom of the Press?

So obvious
One of the versions of the bill, filed by filed by Rep. Arthur Yap, even reads: “Any existing law to the contrary notwithstanding, the following shall not be considered a public utility operation: 1) electric power generation and supply; 2) trade in crude oil and petroleum products; 3) transportation; 4) broadcasting and telecommunications.”

Obviously, the mastermind of this plot, after consulting his lawyers, thought that Yap had gone overboard—masyadong garapal, as the Filipino term would put it— and the conspiracy would be so obvious with his version of the bill. So The consolidated bill no longer lists those not deemed as “public utilities”, but just the same are so exempted from the Constitution.

Congress: In the service of whom?

It is so much designed for the interests of the Indonesian magnate Anthoni Salim and Singapore Telecoms, who are the controlling yet foreign stockholders of PLDT and Singtel, respectively, as well as of the Filipino oligarchs who are their minority partners.

The last 2016 Supreme Court decision merely said that the Securities and Exchange Commission “did not act with grave abuse” when it issued its ruling in memorandum in 2012 that allowed these foreign firms to skirt the Constitutional ban. But the SEC under new administrations can issue a new ruling.

Even PLDT in its report to the US SEC acknowledged this as a major risk to the company: “We believe that as of the date of this report, PLDT is in compliance with the requirements of the Constitution, and this position was recently supported by the Supreme Court; however, we cannot assure you that subsequent changes in law or additional litigation would not result in a different conclusion. “ Thus its need to have a law that specifically exempts telecoms from the Constitutional provisions.

So, as if by magic, and upturning the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution, when this bill becomes law, telecoms—now dominated foreigners—will no longer be considered a public utility. It is therefore exempt from the Constitution’s 40 percent limit on foreign capital in public utility firms.

I challenge the authors to show me any study, or definition by any dictionary, legal or business, that says telecoms and power generation aren’t public utilities.

The absurdity of HB 5828 is demonstrated by the fact that it lists power distribution as a public utility. But power generation is not. An analogy would be that milk sold in the supermarket is classified as a non-essential product. But the milk that are placed in cans by companies aren’t. Cellphone service is not only essential to ordinary people’s lives but to nearly all economic activity in this era . But it isn’t a public utility. The authors of this bill are taking us for fools.

Hilarious attempt
This would be simply a hilarious attempt at excluding telecoms and power from the Constitution’s provision if not for the fact that Congress has proven time and again to be so malleable to the wishes of the Philippine oligarchy. One doesn’t really know the meaning of “oligarchy” if he thinks its rule doesn’t span all administrations.

The bill’s authors didn’t even bother to explain why they think telecoms, power, and broadcast media aren’t public utilities.

Perhaps they cannot say that the bill changes the meaning of public utilities to accommodate the passive-income oligarchs who are the partners of the controlling foreign companies in these telcos?

Would you blame me if the thought comes to mind that the Indonesian tycoon Salim controls not only the biggest telco in the country PLDT, but is also engaged in “electric power generation and supply,” industries that the bill would exempt from the constitutional provision?

The bill’s authors are former president, now Pampangga Rep. Gloria Arroyo, Arthur Yap, Joey Sarte-Salceda, former speaker Feliciano Belmonte with his nephew Jose Christopher Belmonte, and Makati Rep. Manuel Monsour Del Rosario. They each filed their own bill that proposed the same redefinition of a “public utility,” which were consolidated into one bill.

Whoever planned this plot to skirt the Constitution was certainly a clever operator. Yap was an official of the Arroyo administration, while Salceda was a big noisy supporter of hers, with all of them belonging to the then ruling Lakas-CMD party. Belmonte was the chief political lieutenant of then President Aquino 3rd who threw Arroyo to prison on flimsy grounds. Former martial-arts instructor and actor del Rosario run under losing presidential candidate Jejomar Binay’s party, UNA. (I wonder how in the world did the actor del Rosario become interested in public utility regulation?)

Salim’s partner
Belmonte is a business partner of the Indonesian tycoon Salim who controls PLDT. His family in 2015 sold its controlling shares in the Philippine Star group of publications for a reported P4 billion—an unexpectedly extremely high price, industry sources claimed—to a PLDT unit that is ultimately controlled by Salim. The family still retains some shares, with his sons in top management positions in the Philippine Star newspaper.

Is it just mere coincidence that congressmen from opposing parties suddenly have the brilliant idea of changing the definition of “public utilities” so as to exempt telecoms, the most profitable business to be in in this country, from the constitutional ownership limits?

Is this strategy what is called “covering all parties,” also intended to portray that there is consensus for this bill that betrays our national interest. Was it a message to Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez that he would lose the support of four parties, even if small, if he doesn’t support the bill?

I had become convinced that the Senate is useless body, which slows and even impedes reforms, that we need desperately a unicameral parliament. This time though, with HB 5828 already passed by the House of Representatives, only the Senate—and the President of course—remain as the last guardian of our Constitution and of our nation’s control of public utilities, I have become a believer of our bicameral system.

But given the Senate’s track record, our only hope perhaps is that this scandalous bill that shames the nation and mocks the Constitution, will be vetoed by President Duterte.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

So unpatriotic of Filipino political partisans to badmouth their country in foreign papers

I FIND it so unpatriotic for Filipino partisan writers to write articles in foreign papers that are indisputably biased against President Duterte, and which badmouth the country as a land where the rule of law has collapsed. Such articles are not only in very bad taste, they reflect the fact that nationalism in this country has all but vanished.

The Yellows indeed seem to have put a lot of their propaganda focus on such foreign publications. This is because their propaganda venues during Benigno Aquino 3rd’s regime—thePhilippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN Broadcasting—have retracted their claws, naturally concerned about their own survival under a President they had moved heaven and earth to stop from getting into power.

It is the misleading and often even totally false reports by Filipinos writing for foreign publications and organizations that explain why many in the US and Europe believe that there have been terrible human rights violations in this country under Duterte.

How has the New York-based Human Rights Watch been getting its reports of allegedly widespread human rights violations here?

From one Carlos Conde, who has practically devoted his journalistic life in writing deceiving reports for foreign publications, at least one which was so very clearly patently false. Conde started his career as a journalist in the news website bulatlat.com, allegedly run by Communist Party propaganda cadres.

Ironically, Conde later joined the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility – NGOs that are funded by the American National Endowment for Democracy, which have been accused as conduits for CIA funding. I don’t think Conde has written anything positive about the Philippines working as stringer for US papers for two decades.

FEER

I know whereof I speak, when I talk about Filipinos writing for foreign publications. I worked as a correspondent and bureau chief for a decade at the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), which was owned by Dow Jones and for most of the years I was there, run by very competent British editors.

A Filipino writing an article in a foreign publication is taken—naturally—as an authority on the country, and foreign editors, many of whom wouldn’t even know where the Philippines is, would take his or her word as Bible truth. Western newspapers, even the Washington Post and the New York Times, cover the world and, believe you me, the Philippines is not among their priority places they monitor.

There has never been a Philippine expert in their editorial sections, and there are tight deadlines, so they never really fact-check whatever an article written by a Filipino.

Take the case of Manuel Quezon 3rd, who has fooled the Washington Post that he has been a journalist by profession, going by his description in the guest columns he has written for that paper’s “DemocracyPost”, its feature section on democratization and its problems in the developing world.

He is never identified by his main achievement in his life so far: as a top Aquino propagandist, an undersecretary of the Presidential Communications Development ad Strategic Planning Office and occasional Presidential spokesperson stand-in, for six years in the past administration. He is identified only as a “columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and the host of the political affairs show ‘The Explainer’ on the ABS-CBN TV news channel.”

With those “credentials,” and with no mention at all of his being a die-hard Yellow propagandist, and being a Filipino, editors and readers of the Washington Post are fooled into taking him for an objective and accurate writer. The Washington Post has no idea that he is a Yellow propagandist.

Falsehoods

That has allowed Quezon to get away with so many falsehoods, with the following being just a few samples:

“President Duterte’s honeymoon may be ending.” This is the title of Quezon’s column of February 29, 2016 when the President actually was still rising in terms of his political support, with 75 percent of Filipinos (according to the Social Weather Stations) in March this year satisfied with him, to rise to 78 percent in June.

“Few in Manila take the charges (against Sen. Leila de Lima) at face value,” he wrote. Few? I believe the charges, most people I know believe them. Why shouldn’t we believe the charges when there were a dozen witnesses, including a former justice department official, who testified that she was the protector of the illegal drug trade directed from the National Penitentiary. Quezon in his column makes the preposterous claim that Duterte is simply on a vendetta against de Lima, because she investigated human rights violations in Davao City when he was mayor there.

“Duterte’s alarming war on drugs has claimed 7,000 lives (and counting),” the Aquino propagandist wrote. That was the figure of alleged drug-war related killings as of September 2016, concocted by the anti-Duterte outfit Rappler, which I have indisputably proven wrong in several columns.

It is astonishing—or maybe not for a neoliberal publication—that the Washington Post has not wizened up to Quezon’s fabrications. His latest piece (November 12) was even titled “When two strongmen meet: Trump and Duterte in Manila.” Trump who may just be impeached by Congress in less than a year in office, is a dictator, the definition of a “strongman”? Duterte, who has a Yellow cultist as vice president and who is the target of the vilest criticisms by columnists even in this paper, a strongman?

Aquino propagandist

In that recent piece, the Aquino propagandist wrote: “Duterte’s illiberal political agenda is running out of steam. He has been meeting strong resistance in the form of criticism from human rights advocates at home and abroad, and growing alarm among civil society groups and the media, strong media. All this has been accompanied by a sharp drop in public support for the president and his methods. The business community has been expressing quiet but steady concern over the economy losing steam.”

Quezon is lying. The facts:

Some 77 percent of Filipinos, according to Social Weather Stations’ September survey, are satisfied with Duterte’s war on illegal drugs.

The third quarter Pulse Asia survey from September 24-30 showed Duterte’s overall approval at 80 percent and the only “civil society group” that has been rabidly critical of Duterte is the minuscule TindigPilipinas, a different name for Yellow stragglers of which Quezon is an official of;

According even to latest figures,  the “Philippine GDP grew faster than expected by 6.9 percent in the third quarter of 2017, even ahead of China. Is that “losing steam”?

Well, at least Quezon can claim that figure was based on a flawed computation by Rappler. But take the case of New York-based Sheila Coronel who wrote a piece in the magazine Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, an article so dramatically titled—yet reeking with hateful bias—“A Presidency Bathed in Blood.”

She wrote: “The drug war, which Duterte officially launched on his first day in office, has claimed the lives of as many as 9,000 suspected drug dealers and users who have been gunned down by the police or by masked men linked to them.”

Where did she get that figure? “Numerous news reports quote that figure,” she replied to my query. These “numerous reports” though were articles blatantly biased to paint Duterte as a killer, and patently concocted by extrapolating Rappler’s September 2016 false figure.

Would any editor of the Democracy journal dare fact-check that figure of the Filipina Coronel, who is described in that piece as “academic dean and the Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University’s Journalism School. She was co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism”.

What a sad, sad country. Even our brightest Filipinos, intellectually blighted by the Yellow Fever, are badmouthing their own country abroad.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns