Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interview With A Revolutionary Filipino Filmmaker (Part Three)

In part two of his interview, Philippine revolutionary and filmmaker Mauro Gia Samonte described his fascinating struggles of the 1970s and 80s in some detail. In today's instalment, he offers his perspective on the Philippine situation of today, and how it fits into the imperialist great power game between the United States and China.

What is your analysis of the current socio-political situation in the Philippines?
Mauro on the campaign trail in 1985
I see the Philippines much in the vortex of the American Pacific Century, a strategy for US economic and military conduct worldwide over the next 100 years. In this strategy, which has already been in place with the pullout of American forces from the Middle East, the United States increasingly strengthens its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly the South China Sea over which China has been likewise increasing its assertiveness.

In the East Asian Summit in Indonesia at the close of 2011, US President Obama and China’s Wen Jiabao engaged in not so polite verbal tussle over the issue. To Jiabao’s insistence that the dispute over the Spratly Islands (claimed by China and Asian countries Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines, together with Taiwan) be settled unilaterally between individual claimants, Obama expressed his own intransigence, stating that although the United States is not a claimant to the Spratlys, it is, in his words, “a resident Pacific power, a maritime nation, a trading nation and… a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region.” The US Pacific Fleet Commander declared soon after that the situation in the region was “escalatory”; in this context, I see the beginnings of muscle-flexing by China in the launching in South China Sea of its first aircraft carrier middle of last year.

The US has been shoring up its defenses in Asia Pacific since then, strengthening ties with erstwhile adversary Vietnam, gaining docking rights for US navy ships in Singapore and basing rights for some 2,500 marines in Australia. On the minus side, the US had to bow to popular demand for the removal of some 5,000 US forces from Japan, some of which had to be deployed to Guam. Now if you study the map of the Asia Pacific region, you would realize that the Philippines lies in quite a strategic position. It is at the centre of a circular formation consisting of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar [Burma] to the Northwest, Malaysia, Singapore to the West, Brunei and Indonesia to the Southwest, South and Southeast, Japan and Korea to the Northeast, Taiwan, Macau. Hong Kong and the rest of China to the North. To the East of the Philippines is the Philippine Sea and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Economically, the South China Sea is home to rich deposits of oil that could rival that in the Middle East. Add to this the fact that the South China Sea is venue for some three trillion dollars worth of commerce yearly, being the sea lane traversed by commercial vessels from all points in the world. No wonder that US attention has begun shifting to Asia Pacific, with the Syrian bloodbath serving the imperatives of diversionary tactics; Syria is the remaining Soviet missile launching site. One big problem for the US in its Pacific Century strategy is its inability at the moment to maximize use of the Philippines. Although the RP-US Mutual Defense Pact, concluded way back in the 50s, remains in force up to this day, US military bases - by a vote of the Philippine senate - were dismantled in 1991.

The US direly needs to re-establish those bases, which prior to their dismantlement were the largest US military installation outside of America – just the kind of set-up by which to contend with China in an ever-heightening tension in the Asia Pacific region. But given the restrictions in the Philippine Constitution, there appears no way for the US to put up those bases again – unless something is done in order to bring it about. The main stumbling blocks to this end are, first, the Philippine Senate, and, second, the Philippine Supreme Court. The Senate, because it is empowered to disapprove a treaty to that effect. And the Supreme Court, because it can reverse a Senate approval just in case. How do you do away with the Senate and the Supreme Court?

One-man rule. It had been done before, it can be done again. Surely you don’t just impose one-man rule. You need upheavals the likes of the events that precipitated martial law in 1972. Exacerbating internal conflicts can do the trick. One such conflict [is] the do-or-die battle between Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona. The Chief Executive does not hide his utter contempt of the SC Chief Justice. Toward the close of last year, he went on a binge of publicly castigating the chief magistrate, particularly in the Criminal Justice Summit when in full view of the nation on television, he lambasted Corona for what he called the latter’s partiality to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom Aquino obstinately wishes imprisoned for various charges of graft and corruption.

Many opine that Aquino’s hatred of Corona stems from the latter having (in the President’s view) awarded to the farmer-tenants the 6,000-hectare-plus Hacienda Luisita, Asia’s largest sugar land, owned by the President’s family; actually the award was a collegial decision of the Supreme Court. And then right after that came the Supreme Court temporary restraining order effectively lifting the travel ban on former President Arroyo, who within hours of the issuance of the TRO made an attempt to leave the country.

Mauro on set with Isko Moreno, now vice mayor of Manila
In a display of brinkmanship, the President himself, through his Department of Justice Secretary, ordered defiance of the TRO, and then causing the filing of criminal charges against GMA, got a warrant of arrest issued against her, forestalling what threatened to break out into a constitutional crisis; the warrant of arrest rendered the TRO academic. But then the momentum of the Aquino blitzkrieg against Corona had taken off, and precisely in such blitzkrieg fashion got his cohorts in Congress, all 128 of them, preparing in a matter of just 3 hours eight articles of impeachment against Corona and then submitting them to the Senate the next day. Whereupon the Senate constituted itself, according to constitutional provision, into an Impeachment Court, setting the start of the impeachment trial on January 16. Perceptions were rife that Corona, just to save face, would resign. But he swore to stand by the independence of the Judiciary and fight it out to the finish in the impeachment trial.

This posture was strange for a Chief Justice who normally does not enjoy much political clout and so in a skirmish with the President who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Philippine Armed Forces is not expected to put up. But in a show of force in the period of the commemoration of the February 1986 EDSA People Power revolt, Aquino succeeded only in mobilizing hundreds, mainly consisting of government employees, while Corona mobilized, as estimated by thecountry’s leading broadsheet, the Manila Bulletin, two million. Of course, those two million were followers of Iglesia ni Cristo [Church of Christ], one of two of the country’s most powerful religious groups, there for what was billed as Malaking Pamamahayag (Big Declaration), an exposition of Biblical words. But the timing is suspect.

One thing is sure, Corona’s chief counsel in the impeachment trial is former Supreme Court Justice and Secretary of Justice, Serapin Cuevas, a stalwart in the Iglesia ni Cristo, where it is often preached that the words of God are, quote-unquote, made secret in mystery. The impeachment trial has had a break for the whole of April. Hence on the impeachment front there has been calm. But as Bush would always caution, make no mistake. The fight had only just begun. As in the impeachment of Former President Joseph Estrada, the Corona impeachment trial will not be decided in the impeachment court but for the mob to rule on. That’s just the kind of scenario the US needs in getting its design for re-establishing military bases in the country pushed through.

Note these coincidences. November 15, the day the Supreme Court issued the TRO on the GMA travel ban, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives for a two-day working visit. That same day President Barack Obama arrives in Australia for talks on the basing of 2, 500 American soldiers in the continent. The two just came from the APEC meeting in Hawaii, to join each other in the East Asian Summit in Indonesia. November 16, Clinton leads in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the RP-US Mutual Defense Agreement, the lifetime of which, incidentally, is indefinite. Observers say the holding of the event on the deck of the American missile carrier USS Fitzgerald docked in Manila Bay is symbolic of the maritime conflict of the United States with China. On the occasion, Clinton warned: “We are strongly of the opinion that disputes that exist primarily in the West Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China should be resolved peacefully. Any nation with a claim has a right to exert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion.” Note, Clinton does not call it South China Sea; she calls it West Philippine Sea.

Updating of RP-US military relations were up for discussion between Clinton and the Philippine Foreign Secretary. This was to be followed by another round of talks between representatives from the Foreign Affairs and Defense departments of both countries in Washington come March, with the final talks between the Foreign Affairs and Defense secretaries of both countries to take place again in Washington in May. By the time the Corona impeachment resumes, the renewed Philippine and US military defense relations shall have been embodied in a treaty for approval by the Philippine President. Granting the President approves it, will the Senate ratify? It won’t - to do so would tarnish the heritage of courage and nationalism of the Magnificent 12, the dozen senators who voted to dismantle them in 1991. So a turmoil must be in place such as to render Senate a non-entity. The enmity between Aquino and Corona comes in very handy. Now, that’s as far as getting it approved by the Philippine government is concerned.

As for sites to build new US military bases on, it is another problem. The ones dismantled in 1991 will no longer do, like the Subic Naval Base in Olongapo and the Clark Airbase in Angeles, both in Luzon. Both have been converted into either golf courses, resorts and leisure spots, export and economic zones. Besides, American moves in the country over the years have increasingly betrayed a fascination with Mindanao, the so-called Land of Promise, which aside from its undeniable wealth in natural resources is also reputedly home to the world’s richest deposit of deuterium, that rare material for non-toxic energy, the fuel of the future. It is said that deuterium is in fantastic abundance in the Mindanao Deep. If true, what else is there need for Middle East oil for? 

USAID has poured in a volume of assistance to Mindanao unmatched by any given to other parts of the country. And during the tour of duty of Ambassador Kristie Kinney in 2008, she had become so fond of Mindanao that she had visited it countless times, eventually getting adopted as daughter of Zamboanga City. Before her term ended, she made sure to meet up with Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, head of the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), right in the leader’s mountain lair. As a result of that meeting, the MILF agreed to pursue peace talks with the government. Those talks resulted in the adoption of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), providing for the establishment of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) for Muslim Mindanao, virtually a state of its own, with its own government, own Legislature, own Judiciary, own armed forces, with the Philippine government limited to just 25% share in its territory’s natural resources. August 2008, the MOA-AD was ready for signing, but vigilant local executives of the affected areas petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the signing, prompting then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to order a stop to such signing. And the peace process for Muslim Mindanao stopped at that.

But the question which for long I had only allowed to nag me in silence now outs strongly. Circumstances of the current Mindanao peace process clearly show that it came about as a result of US initiative, through Kenney, and it was a splintering of the Philippines which would have been effected had the MOA-AD not been stopped from being signed. Hence, the question: why would the US want to splinter the Philippines? With the assumption of power by President Aquino, the Mindanao peace process has become, by explicit admission of the Secretary for the Peace Process, the centerpiece program of the Aquino government. In this connection, here is another glaring coincidence: right as soon as the Corona impeachment trial began, the Mindanao peace talks hosted by Malaysia entered another round of talks, like well knit segments of a brilliant script. Now that the US and Philippine governments are about to conclude a new military treaty, the Mindanao peace talks are coming to a conclusion. The latest news is that the MILF has budged from its demand for an independent sub-state and has agreed to the concept of a new Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. No announcement has been made as to the final text of the agreement, but bet your bottom penny it will include a piece on accommodating whatever is finally taken up in the Washington new military arrangement talks between the Philippines and the US this May.

Right now, the Philippines and China are on a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal, reefs regarded as rich in oil deposits, well within Philippine territory based on the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (140 nautical miles off Luzon) but claimed by China, invoking prior historical mapping. Utter quiet from the US side on the physical confrontation (two China vessels against one small coastguard patrol boat by the Philippines) is odd, considering Obama’s and Clinton’s pronouncements at year’s end. If these pronouncements were no bluff and now China is assailing Philippine territory, why isn’t the US doing anything? But let’s not speak too soon. Events are unfolding.

How does this relate to what is happening around the world (economic collapse, intensification of imperialist rivalries, etc.)?
First off, I’d like to caution that don’t know economics as probably you and your peers out there in the UK are quite knowledgeable about. Let me just say I am a keen reader of current events and I endeavour to understand what I read to the best of my capacity. Nonetheless, in answering this particular question, what I lay down is not an expert’s opinion but are my layman’s thoughts.

Over the years, China has made big strides in its economy to such an extent that it now threatens to dislodge the US as No. 1 world economic power. US decline in this regard became most pronounced with the Lehman Brothers debacle in 2008, aggravated now by the worsening financial crisis in Europe. In contrast, China has remained relatively stable by keeping the value of the yuan low, effectively making its exports dominate those of the US and other countries in the world market.

Obama has almost to the point of peskiness been pressing China to bring the yuan up and make for a fairer business competition. China won’t, of course, listen. In the past, the US saw wisdom in pursuing a policy of economic democratization toward China on the global scale, seeing it as the more effective way of subverting that country’s political system held by Mao Tse Tung within the strictures of puritan socialism. In other words, encourage China to go capitalist. After Mao Tse Tung’s death, Deng Shiao Peng took over the top leadership of China and seized on precisely that US-sponsored policy of economic democratization. Now that economic democratization had succeeded in creating a behemoth, how else can US check China’s pushing its own drive for world hegemony than through a stab at the heart of Chinese political power? 

America’s Pacific Century is, for all intents and purposes, that stab. And here is where the imminent danger of world conflagration can come in. Steeped in dialectics of warfare that is almost endemic in Chinese culture, the People’s Liberation Army is almost certain to view this US strategy as a desperate attempt to stay its decline as a world power, hence betraying inherent weakness. In the estimate of expert war analysts, such view can make for an occasion for miscalculation – in all cases in history, the ultimate cause of failure in war. So now, after a heated word war with the US, China tests the waters in South China Sea, the West Philippine Sea, by confronting with a display of naval might and thereby preventing Philippine navy authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen who had encroached on the Scarborough reef within Philippine territorial waters. 

A stand off on the issue continues. The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines declared in no uncertain terms that those waters are Chinese territory. The Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary appeared pathetic as he appealed to world leaders for sympathy in upholding Philippine sovereignty. This happens at a time when the US must be prompted by the bloodbath in Syria into resuming active engagement in the Arab world. But the US could not bite at the prompting. The real war up for fighting now is in the Asia Pacific region. That the US is completely quiet is no strange thing. The lull before the storm.

Mauro was writing at the end of April. In the time since then, the Scarborough reef clash intensified, before China appeared to back away from a confrontation with the US.

Mauro blogs at KAMAO Punch, and tweets @mauro_gia.

The interview concludes here.
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