Luis V. Teodoro | Shortchanged

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld
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Since President Benigno Aquino III announced his government’s adoption of a supposedly new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, the Philippine military has been all over the media. Its spokespersons have issued, among others, statements that it respects human rights and would henceforth be involved in providing social services to “address the roots of the insurgency.”

With the recent capture of an allegedly high-ranking member of the New People’s Army (NPA) it has also provided the media photo opportunities meant to illustrate its revised counterinsurgency tack, including a gift-giving visit by a ranking military official at the hospital where the former was being treated for his wounds.

But military spokesmen and their press releases have also emphasized that the armed forces have since resumed military operations after the Christmas truce. They’ve also blamed the NPA for hampering development, and have made it clear that their claims of respecting human rights and involvement in what’s been known for decades as “civic action” are but components of what’s still the basic military approach to ending the 40-year old “insurgency.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone. Violence has always been the first resort of the Philippine military in dealing with social unrest, and it won’t be the last.

On the non-military front, the government has so far not gone beyond the “walang mahirap walang corrupt” approach, which virtually declares that corruption’s at the root of the poverty that has been driving rebellions, insurgencies, and armed social movements in this country, at least in recent times. It doesn’t explain why uprisings have characterized the history of the Philippines over the last two hundred years, whether during the Spanish and US colonial periods, or since 1946.

Corruption does cost billions that could otherwise be used for the construction of the schoolrooms and medical clinics the country doesn’t have enough of. But the poverty and the attendant ills of social injustice and mass misery that have characterized Philippine society prior to and after 1946 are the consequences of the inequities of the social and economic systems the men and women who claim to be this country’s leaders have been failing to address since 1946. Include the corruption that has spread in both the private and the public sectors among those consequences: corruption is a result, rather than the cause, of the poverty that elite monopoly over political power perpetrates.

The failure to reduce poverty is first of all rooted in a flawed, nominally democratic political system. Because only the very wealthy can contest elective posts, the vast inequality in the distribution of wealth has led to the monopoly by a handful of families over the political system that makes public policy. In addition to encouraging corruption, elite monopoly over political power has frustrated every effort at real reform. As a result, corruption has become synonymous with Philippine politics and governance, while the country is also among the last in Asia where real land reform — a key component in the development of the country’s neighbors — has yet to dismantle an antiquated tenancy system.

The result is continuing poverty and stagnation, and their consequences — social unrest, mass protests, and the persistence of armed challenges to the flawed Philippine state. “Addressing the roots of insurgency,” which has become the military’s mantra, will therefore require the making of a program that, by dismantling the structural causes of poverty, among them the land tenancy system that has doomed millions in the countryside to short, brutish lives of desperation, would be revolutionary.

Not that the central role the land tenancy system plays in the making of Philippine poverty is unknown. But even the most systematic post-1946 attempt to “address the roots of insurgency,” which was during the administration of Ramon Magsaysay, failed to dismantle or even reform the system. Instead, as part of its own COIN campaign the Philippine government purchased whatever land was still available, and distributed parcels to tillers, while it resettled former Huk guerillas in Mindanao. Apparently the hope was that landlessness would go away without touching its basic cause, since doing so would necessarily conflict with landlord interests.

Of course, the problem didn’t go away. The redistribution of land in the restive areas of Central Luzon could only go so far and had to be abandoned. The resettlement of former Huks in Mindanao created other problems, among them Muslim dispossession and the rise of separatist movements. Meanwhile, such other peripheral efforts as the construction of several thousand artesian wells were Band-Aid approaches to the cancer of landlessness and poverty that could only be used in a limited number of communities.

Fortunately for the political, social, and economic order, these efforts, and the errors of the government’s Huk antagonists did buy it time, and there was relative peace during much of the 1950s. With the “roots of insurgency” intact, however, it was also only a matter of time before the armed response to the political, social, and economic system’s resistance to change would be reborn.

The state would be courting further disaster today by repeating the same Band-Aid approach past experience has shown doesn’t work. But the indicators so far suggest that it is about to do exactly that.

The supposedly mint-new COIN, with its heavy borrowing from the US’ own COIN guide, is more coherent and more sophisticated, and seems more reasonable than the failed Oplan Bantay Laya, which itself borrowed heavily from the program of systematic assassination known as Operation Phoenix that the United States used without much success in Vietnam in the early 1970s.

Without structural reforms, the old-new COIN, which apparently includes — in addition to the holding of such events as the military’s bearing gifts for detainees during Christmas — the erection of tarpaulin streamers at the gates of military camps declaring that the military protects human rights, could buy it only momentary media coverage.

What the needed changes are have been known for decades. But the leaders this country has put in power have never had the political will to put them in place because they’re contrary to their interests. The result has been decades of shortchanging a people among whom, however, there has been no lack of men and women willing to pay the ruling system back in its own coin. (

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