Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Obama skips Philippines–again
By Amando Doronila
Philippine Daily Inquirer
12:29 am | Monday, November 12th, 2012

Fresh on the heels of the reelection of US President Barack Obama, the White House announced that he would visit Burma (Myanmar) as his first foreign policy initiative at the start of a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia that covers Thailand and Cambodia on Nov. 17-20.

The itinerary excluded the Philippines, a longtime strategic security ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.

The exclusion ruffled sensitive nationalist feelings in Manila, as officials anxiously waited for signals from the second Obama administration on what is in store for the Philippines in the reordering of US foreign policy priorities following the election.

The question that immediately emerged was: Why Burma, Thailand and Cambodia? These countries in Southeast Asia are the least threatened by the aggressive pursuit by China of its hegemonic claim of disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

The Philippines, Vietnam and Japan (in East Asia) had been in the center of rising tensions from these contending claims before the elections.

Filipinos were quick to recall that during Obama’s first Southeast Asian tour early in his first term, his itinerary bypassed the Philippines.

As if to rub salt in the wound, White House officials revealed that Obama returned the calls of a long list of global leaders, including those of Israel and Egypt, who contacted him to congratulate him on his reelection.

The US president spoke to the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada, India, Turkey, Brazil, Colombia and Nato’s secretary general.

No call from Obama

Malacañang said it had not received calls from the Obama White House, but it emphasized that President Aquino did not call President Obama and instead sent a congratulatory message by mail through the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Aquino on Wednesday wrote that he “looked forward to a deeper cooperation” with the United States in Obama’s second term.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters that Mr. Aquino did not call Obama because the latter “was probably getting too many phone calls.” Lacierda added, “I think the letter is sufficient.”

According to BBC news, Obama’s Burma stop is part of the trip built around the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia, which leaders from China, Japan and Russia will also attend.

Obama will meet Burma’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

White House spokesperson Jay Carney said President Obama intended to “speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition.”

Normalizing ties

The government of Burma has been implementing economic, political and other reforms, a process that the Obama administration has sought to encourage, according to BBC.

The trip “reflects the importance that the US has placed in normalizing relations with Burma. The process has moved forward relatively swiftly … and it represents an opportunity for the United States to have a greater stake in the region and so at least counter the dominant influence of China,” BBC said.

A Burmese government spokesperson said the “support and encouragement of the US president … will strengthen the commitment of President Thein Sein’s reform process to move forward without backtracking.”

Reforms have been taking place in Burma since elections in November 2010 saw military rule replaced with a military-backed nominally civilian government, BBC said. Since then, many political prisoners have been freed and censorship relaxed.

The opposition party led by Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest after the elections, has rejoined the political process after boycotting the 2010 elections. It now has a small presence in parliament after the April by-elections.

Shedding light on the shifting foreign policy priorities of the second Obama administration, The New York Times, in an analysis, wrote that “for reasons of history and political reality, a reelected Mr. Obama is likely to devote more time to foreign affairs. From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, presidents have tended to make their bid for statesman status in their second terms. The prospect of continuing gridlock—with the Republicans still controlling the House—gives Mr. Obama all the more reason to favor diplomacy over domestic legislation.”

New maritime power

Along the same vein, the Asian Wall Street Journal (AWSJ) wrote that Obama’s reelection would provide him with little time to celebrate in the face of an array of global problems that include challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program and widening political instability in the Middle East.

Behind these front-burner problems, AWSJ said, Obama in his second term, “likely will have to redefine US policies toward China, in light of its growing economic might and military power.

The president is expected to face renewed challenge from Beijing over continued arms sales to Taiwan … And many Asian officials fear that the dispute between Japan and China over an atoll in the East China Sea could escalate further, forcing Washington—Tokyo’s treaty ally—to a larger role.”

The AWSJ said: “The Obama administration over the past year has been touting its intention to tilt Washington’s strategic focus from the Middle East and toward Asia, due to the region’s economic growth and China’s increasing power.”

The Philippines’ anxieties over China’s policies on the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea rose as the Chinese Communist Party began its leadership change at its party congress that followed the US elections.

Agence France-Presse reported from Beijing that the speech of outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao at the party congress referring to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea has raised concerns among Asian countries that have supported the Obama administration’s policy to “pivot” to the region as it disentangles from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Addressing the opening of the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, Hu indicated that China would continue its disputed claims to maritime territories.

He said, “We should enhance our capacity for exploiting maritime resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests and build China into a maritime power.” 

Dismantling agrarian reform
By Amando Doronila
Philippine Daily Inquirer
1:41 am | Monday, November 5th, 2012

The issue that President Aquino would rather forget reared its head during the long holidays devoted to remembering the dead—the slow processing of the redistribution of land in Hacienda Luisita, owned by the President’s family, to its farmworkers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), the flagship social reform legislation handed down by his mother, the late President Cory Aquino. 

The issue came to a head, after a long respite from the news pages, when the Inquirer published a story on Nov. 2, reporting a bill that had been introduced in the House of Representatives proposing to extend CARP by five years from its expiration in 2014 and that the measure would strengthen some of some of its provisions.

House Bill No. 6614, which was filed by Cagayan Rep. Rufus Rodriguez and his brother, Rep. Maximo Rodriguez of Abante Mindanao, casts doubt on the commitment of the Aquino administration to implement the social reforms of Republic Act No. 9700, or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (Carper).

Total madness

The effect of the extension would be to keep in the hands of the owners landed estates for a longer period and delay their distribution to farmworkers deemed as beneficiaries of the agrarian reform program.

Farmers’ groups, mainly the Kilusang Magbubukid Pilipinas (KMP), denounced the proposed extension as “total madness,” saying that the land reform program remained the “milking cow” of landlords.

They recalled that on June 14, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told a press briefing that between now and June 2014, “all agricultural lands shall be covered and distributed to qualified beneficiaries.”

Unrest over the slow pace of transferring ownership of landed estates to tillers mounted amid the continuing high approval and trust ratings of Mr. Aquino in public opinion polls.

The President is currently enjoying praises for his initiatives in concluding a framework agreement for peace in Mindanao with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on the Bangsamoro homeland.

But the reaction of Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes to the proposal stoked unrest in the agrarian sector, especially in Hacienda Luisita.

He said that extending the acquisition and distribution of agricultural land until 2019 (after the term of the President expires in 2016) would be “one of the options” he would present to the President before the start of the next regular session of Congress.

“If you have a law extending the program,” he said, “that’s not bad.”

De los Reyes added that between now and 2014, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) aims to cover more than 900,000 hectares of land. This includes 300,000 ha of landholdings below 10 ha and 600,000 above 10 ha.

The DAR hopes to issue notices of coverage for landholdings above 10 ha by December this year and for landholdings below 10 ha, by July 2013.

The slow pace of the distribution of land has opened the Aquino administration to criticism of its commitment and political will to implement social reform in the sector where rural poverty is widespread.

Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, made the muddle worse by telling reporters that Malacañang could not make a comment until it saw a copy of the bill filed by the Rodriguez brothers.

In filing the bill, its authors pointed out that the agrarian reform program had been behind schedule 25 years after it was launched by President Cory Aquino.

According to the bill, the DAR is far from meeting its 2012 target of of processing 180,000 ha of land. It has processed only about 32,000 ha. The DAR plans to acquire 17,524 ha of land under leasehold agreements this year but latest figures show it has processed only 7,724 ha.

This record prompted the peasant organization KMP to say the CARP was the “longest running and most expensive agrarian reform program in the world.”

The group cited government records showing that from 1972 to June 2005, the total approved Land Bank of the Philippines compensation to 83,203 landowners for 1.3 million hectares has reached P41.6 billion in cash and bonds, or an average of P500,463 per landlord.

On Nov. 2., Rappler reported online that the DAR said it would accomplish its target land distribution despite the bill seeking the extension of the agrarian reform program up to 2019.

Rappler said DAR would press on issuance of notices of coverage commencing “the compulsory acquisition of private agricultural lands coverable under the CARP.”

Nearly 1 million hectares of country’s agricultural estates remain to be partitioned to workers before the CARP ends in June 2014.

Litmus test

Last week, the DAR announced that it had hammered out a list of provisional beneficiaries of Hacienda Luisita, nearly a year after the Supreme Court unanimously decided to distribute the estate among its workers. The land distribution in the hacienda is considered the litmus test of the administration’s commitment to agrarian reform, which makes a mockery of his self-righteous slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.”

The agrarian reform program is caught in the trap of bureaucratic timidity and lack of budgetary support. For example, an Inquirer report of June 6, 2012, said that Malacañang had announced that the President would make his “best effort to implement fully the agrarian reform program before he steps down in 2016.”

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad issued the statement before a big rally of farmers at Malacañnang at the end of a 10-day march from various points of Mindanao and Negros Occidental to seek a firm commitment from the President that he would distribute the remaining 900,000 hectares of prime agricultural lands before the program’s end in 2014.

But the records do not show Mr. Aquino delivering on the pledge. The Carper law provides for a P150-billion outlay. Under the Aquino administration, the program remains underfunded.

This year, Abad cut down a proposed P30-billion budget to P18 billion and removed another P4.9 billion in technical support and credits.

According to an Inquirer report, quoting sources inside the DAR, the department itself was in the process of being dismantled, its functions to be farmed out to various department

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