Analysis

The forbidden country

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THE AQUINO administration has exploded with jubilation over the 7.1-percent economic growth for the third quarter that exceeded expectations. It prompted Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan to be exuberant when he briefed reporters: “We are well on our way to surpassing our growth target of 5 to 6 percent this year.”

The unaccustomed GDP under the Aquino administration is expected to translate to more jobs and better incomes for Filipinos, Balisacan said. The third-quarter results are “way above” the market’s media forecast of 5.4 percent. The Inquirer report quoted him as saying that the growth momentum is expected to continue next year as government works to ease the cost of doing  business and as more infrastructure projects under the private-public program get underway.

Balisacan did not explain how the elements driving growth would be sustainable. Very little was said by officials how this third-quarter growth would translate to job creation and poverty reduction, or even the reduction of the wide gap in wealth between the numerous poor and the rich, especially owners of estates like Hacieda Luisita. This is why this growth performance does not touch a chord with the poor and is relevant only to economic planners.

The government was quick to introduce noneconomic explanations for the high growth rate. Malacañang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda glibly attributed it to “sustained confidence in the leadership of President Aquino and his administration, which has consistently equated good governance with good economics.”

The growth figures conjure a part of Philippine society which the government likes to picture as a sector where development is taking place. The growth figures are posters of development behind which is another country, where most of the citizens are poor and many are victims of violence and suppression of human rights. This hidden sector of a blighted society is not the administration’s showcase of its performance.

This picture of the other Philippines, which the government would rather not recognize, is portrayed by another international organization monitoring human rights violations, the New York-based Human Rights Watch. As the government gloated over its economic performance, it was reported (Inquirer, 11/28/12) that Human Rights Watch would monitor the new “superbody” that President Aquino had created to investigate and monitor high-profile rights abuse cases “to see whether it results in prompt and serious action against abusers or is just more government smoke and mirrors.”

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said government action against human rights violators “has long suffered from lack of political will and little cooperation among government agencies.”

“The creation of the interagency committee could be aimed at addressing both those concerns, or it could be a  public relations effort,”  Adams said in a statement. According to the Inquirer report, Mr. Aquino signed an executive order last week establishing an interagency committee on extralegal  killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave violations. It will be led by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and include the defense and interior secretaries, as well as the military and national police chiefs.

The President created the superbody amid criticism that rights violations had continued under his administration. Rights groups have accused the administration of failing to stop “the culture of impunity,”  prosecute the perpetrators of these abuses, and bring them to justice since taking office in June 2010.

The most important unresolved case is the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre of 58 civilians and journalists allegedly by the Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao. On Nov. 24, three foreign governments—those of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom—joined the commemoration of the third anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre and reminded the Philippine government of the necessity of bringing the perpetrators to justice. Nearly 200 people are facing charges for the massacre. But only 103 have been accounted for, and the trial of those who have been charged has dragged on at a snail’s pace.

A group of protesters marched to Mendiola Bridge near Malacañang Palace on Nov. 23 carrying mock coffins representing the massacre victims

On the third anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre on Nov. 23, President Aquino said nothing about the violence in his keynote speech at the national media summit in Tagaytay City. He instead dwelt on the theme of “media corruption” and media standards of presenting news. On the issue of media killings, he merely said the government was “demanding the apprehension of the suspects and the filing of charges that stick, resulting in justice for all involved.”

Lacierda said the absence of live broadcast of the trial would give the impression that the administration was “doing nothing” for the massacre victims. He said: “We want the case to move faster, but there are technicalities involved which the judge has to resolve.” He blamed the defense for flooding the court with so many motions. How TV coverage can produce political will for the prosecution and make the case move faster are an inexplicable mystery.

Harry Roque, counsel for the families of most of the massacre victims, said he was skeptical of the Palace claims that there had been no letup in its efforts to pursue justice. “All we hear is the mantra that it’s in the court’s hands. The reality is that the delay is a joint responsibility of the judiciary and the executive branches since prosecution is an executive function,” said Roque.

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