Jeepney drivers fight for their last breath; Marcos OKs spotty spending plan

CenPEG / 06 January 2024

Rocky road to peace negotiations

Despite a standing strong opposition from the cabinet security cluster, President Marcos made a surprise twist by saying he would seek the resumption of peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the umbrella organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed component, New People’s Army (NPA).

Indeed on Nov. 17, 2023, the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the NDFP signed a joint statement in Oslo, Norway to resume the peace process and “agree to a principled and peaceful resolution of the armed conflict”.  This agreement surprised many since President Marcos had not signaled any initial interest in reopening the peace talks and his security cabinet cluster has been known to oppose it.

The long history of peace talks between the GRP and the NDFP since 1987, including the joint signing of important documents, has also been nuanced by a history of deep mistrust of each other.  For the peace talks to push through, both parties must seek to re-establish an atmosphere of minimum trust through a variety of confidence-building mechanisms and actions.

Both parties must consider these initial trust and confidence-building actions not as subterfuges for short-term, tactical gains but as necessary steps to a “principled and peaceful resolution of the armed conflict” as affirmed in the latest joint agreement.

For instance, the provision of ironclad guarantees for the safety of the NDFP peace panel negotiators will go a long way in jumpstarting the talks. In past failed negotiations, the NDFP negotiators and top-ranking leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) were typically red-tagged, arrested, and even assassinated once the negotiations were terminated.
Long-time peace panel consultant attorney Edre Olalia recently clarified that the possible talks should be a “negotiation for peace, not a negotiation for surrender.” The government has historically preferred to think of the process as the latter.

Olalia showcases the differences in approaches that the two parties have. One seeks the resolution of the conditions that led to the fighting, the other seeks subjugation and assimilation.

A telling indicator of any possible resumption of talks is this year’s holiday ceasefire. Marcos has followed Duterte’s cue of opting out of a ceasefire to observe traditions. This year the guerillas have however unilaterally declared a ceasefire as a sign of goodwill. However, just hours after the declaration on Christmas day, the military launched an aerial raid on the NPA in Bukidnon, killing 10 guerillas as they were preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the CPP. (The Party was founded on Dec. 26, 1968.)

Marcos Valbuena, CPP Information officer, condemned the attack calling it a “brazen violation of international humanitarian law and the civilized conduct of war as it involves the disproportionate use of force relative to its target.”  The armed forces have sustained their anti-insurgency operations in Mindanao and elsewhere in the country. These operations have been considered an unnecessary roadblock to the government’s “peace efforts”.

Thus, military operations have ramped up subsequently, driven by the knowledge that the guerillas traditionally hold assemblies to commemorate the occasion.
While negotiations haven’t been called off, the government has yet to display any signs of reciprocal goodwill toward achieving peace.

The NDFP has been more consistent in its willingness to address peace issues. And the holiday gesture shows this has not wavered. The ball is then in the regime’s court.

Jeepney drivers and operators fight for last breath

Despite the holiday season, jeepney drivers and operators, led by transport group Pagkakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (PISTON), launched a series of strikes in protest to the government’s December 31 deadline for the full implementation of the Public Utility Vehicle (PUV) Modernization plan.

The plan signals the end of many traditional jeepneys and the livelihood of their drivers and operators. Modernization has been on the table since 2017, perennially pushed back by wave after wave of outrage from the transport sector.

However, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and officials at the Department of Transportation (DOTr) insisted on the latest deadline. Considered a proud symbol of Filipino culture and ingenuity, jeepneys dubbed “kings of the road” are set to be replaced in the New Year by newer, more “environment-friendly” units.

Jeepney drivers and operators’ main concern is the obligation to shoulder modernization costs, pegged at P2.8 million for each new vehicle. It is what the DOTr calls “franchise consolidation.”  PISTON estimates that 33,224 vehicles will be de-commissioned, displacing the livelihoods of 64,000 drivers and 25,000 operators.

Meanwhile, a study by the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies (CIDS) predicts that transport fares for modern jeepneys will soon rise by 300% to cover modernization expenses, which in turn will adversely affect 28.5 million commuters. The same study points out that operators and jeepney drivers through their mandated cooperatives will be forced to incur huge loans from government banks (Land Bank and the Development Bank of the Philippines) at high-interest rates of six percent annually and a short repayment period of seven years. 

Ahead of the holiday strikes by PISTON, the Marcos government said that the mass actions were pointless, claiming that 70% of PUVs had consolidated anyhow. Looking at the DOTr data, however, only 26% of Metro Manila’s jeepneys have consolidated their franchises.

Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) chairman Teofilo Guadiz III clarified that older jeepneys will “technically not be allowed to ply their routes, but to prevent a vacuum in certain areas we will temporarily allow this until consolidation is finished.” He added that they just needed assurances or “substantial compliance” with the state’s directives.  

PISTON leaders reacted by saying “We are fighting for the survival of jeepneys. They’re not just trying to phase out the vehicles, they’re exterminating our livelihood and condemning us and the commuting public to greater hardship and hunger.”

Despite mounting pressures, the administration is intent on pushing through with the modernization plan. Doing so could leave it potentially isolated ahead of the May 2025 mid-term elections as the cost of living as shown by high inflation rates has become an urgent public concern. 

PISTON leaders say that modernization puts jeepney franchises in the comfortable hands of foreign car manufacturers like Hino-Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Foton, but has also marginalized local manufacturers such as Francisco and Sarao Motors.

Days before Christmas, PISTON with the help of human rights lawyer and former congressman Neri Colmenares filed a petition with the Supreme Court for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the modernization plan. The SC has yet to rule on the petition asking the involved transportation agencies to submit their rebuttals.

The government’s ill-studied and planned abrupt phase-out of jeepneys is another example of an unjust policy transition that is doing more harm than good to both immediate stakeholders (jeepney drivers and operators) and the public commuters.

Marcos blames “foreign terrorists” in Marawi bombing

On December 3, a bomb exploded during a Catholic mass inside the gymnasium of Marawi City’s Mindanao State University (MSU) leaving four people dead and injuring 50.
Marawi, officially the Islamic City of Marawi, is a 4th class component city and capital of the province of Lanao del Sur, in southern Philippines. The 2020 census shows it has a population of 207,010. 

The city was the site of the infamous “Siege of Marawi” in May 2017 when state forces descended to wrestle control from the Maute group and other jihadist organizations whom they claimed were terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State movement.

The siege also prompted then-President Rodrigo Duterte to declare a localized Martial Law in the region. The resulting fighting tore Marawi apart, turning it into piles of rubble. At present, both the city and its people remain far from recovery.

On the day of the MSU bombing, President Marcos immediately pointed fingers at outside forces for the crime. “I condemn in the strongest possible terms the senseless and most heinous acts perpetrated by foreign terrorists,” he said. Marcos has yet to name which “foreign” entity is behind the attack.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) identified two suspects in the bombing and linked them to the same Islamic forces during the 2017 siege. They also arrested one accomplice.

Meanwhile, progressives like Renato Reyes, Jr. of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Nationalist Alliance or Bayan) were quick to remind the president of the lessons of the siege. He cited the rampant Islamophobia it incurred including the terrorist-tagging of civilians.
“As we condemn the attack, let us be wary of ‘anti-terror’ rhetoric that is used to justify repressive policies or the whole condemnation of a people based on their faith,” said Reyes.
Marawi’s recovery has experienced numerous hiccups. The implementing rules and regulations for compensation to those displaced by the fighting was only signed this year. Meanwhile, the mandate for Task Force Bangon (rise) Marawi expired at the end of December with President Marcos ordering greater streamlining of services to expedite the city’s recovery.

Filipino-Palestinians flee Gaza, left abandoned in Manila

In mid-November, a little over a hundred refugees, Filipino-Palestinian families, began arriving in Manila from Gaza. Many of them had not been home in decades, with their extended families stepping foot on the archipelago for the first time after being bombed for over a month.

The Gaza Strip, or simply Gaza, is a polity and the smaller of the two Palestinian territories. On the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza is bordered by Egypt on the southwest and Israel on the east and north. 

At Manila’s airport, government officials greeted the repatriated compatriots, smiling in front of TV cameras and commandingly handing out financial aid worth P20,000 plus a two day stay in a hotel.

That was the extent of the state’s help, however. They had been abandoned. Left to their own devices in what now seemed like another foreign land, the refugees were sought out by NGOs like the Philippine-Palestine Friendship Association (PPFA).

Over 60 were housed temporarily at the University of the Philippines. Barring a short visit by doctors from the Department of Health, the government including the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has largely steered clear of the refugees.

There has been no clear pathway toward asylum or official recognition as refugees. The Foreign Affairs department presumes them as repatriates waiting to get on the next plane to Gaza once the situation clears. That does seem to be an overly optimistic view of the current conflict.

The treatment of fleeing Gaza residents greatly reflects the Marcos government’s approach towards the conflict, being the only Southeast Asian state to back Israel.

To make the double standard even more pronounced, OFWs from Israel were given handsome assistance and reintegration packages upon coming home to the Philippines.

In October President Marcos reiterated his support for Israel’s war against Hamas although he also called for an end to violence in the conflict. In a resolution, a great majority of United Nations members have condemned Israel’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people, called for a humanitarian ceasefire, and a diplomatic negotiation to implement the 1978 Camp David accord on a two-state solution. By end-December nearly 21,000 Palestinian civilians, nearly 70% of them women and children, have lost their lives. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to eliminate the Hamas organization killing their leaders one after the other. An investigation by the International Court of Justice or world court has started while a similar probe has also been initiated by International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors – a move which drew Netanyahu’s rebuke as “outrageous”.

2024’s sketchy budget

A few days before Christmas, Marcos signed the 2024 General Appropriations Act into law, certifying next year’s record public funds of P5.768 trillion pesos.

Worryingly, a report by the Congress Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) shows special purpose funds (SPFs) make up around 41 percent of the total budget. According to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), SPFs are classified generally by their purpose.

Admittedly the DBM also explains that SPFs are “lump sum in nature, as the recipient departments or agencies and/or the specific programs and projects have not yet been identified during budget preparation and legislation.”

ACT Teachers Representative France Castro questioned the SPFs for their corruption-prone nature. She added that it could be the newest iteration of presidential pork that “can be converted to the biggest confidential fund in our country.”

On the other hand, House Speaker Martin Romualdez spotlighted the positives of the budget. “For the first time, under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.,” he said, “we are allocating half a trillion pesos, or about nine percent of the national budget, as assistance to the poor and households with insufficient income.”

But this doesn’t erase the fact that nearly half of the country’s spending could be rife with corruption. With a supermajority still in Congress, next year’s spending will have to come under increased scrutiny at every turn.

Diplomatic turnaround?

The beginning of December saw what the government claimed as two major incursions that threatened to flare up territorial tensions once more over the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea waters.

In the first incident, more than 135 Chinese ships were spotted by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) off the Juan Felipe Reef. The PCG says the reef is considered part of the country’s sovereign territory, being just 175 nautical miles west of Palawan province.

The following day, on December 4, China accused U.S. naval ships of illegally entering their maritime territories. A spokesperson from Beijing said it “seriously undermined regional peace and stability.”

In response, the U.S. Navy said that it frequents the area and has done so for decades. “These operations demonstrate we are committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” it added.

Meanwhile, with the ratification of next year’s national budget, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri announced an additional P10.47 billion boost for maritime and territorial defense. The move adds weight to an entire year of increasingly assertive posturing by the Philippines in alignment with its American and other allies.

But just before Christmas, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke on the phone seeking greater dialogue between the two countries. This was a follow-through of the impromptu meeting between Marcos and Chinese President Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit in November, San Francisco.
Geopolitical analyst and Manila Times columnist Anna Malindog-Uy pointed out that this could lead to a turning point in the row, from confrontational to more open dialogue on a mutually beneficial settlement.

As both officials reiterated their long-publicized and unflinching positions, the one thing they did agree on was to speak on the matter in more detail in the future. Until now, there has yet to be something akin to formal negotiations on the subject between the involved parties.
No doubt other major powers will get involved, but the potential official dialogue could also allow for exploring yet unseen alternatives.

In their summit meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. counterpart Joe Biden agreed, among others, that both sides will resume a military dialogue. Undoubtedly, the maritime row in the South China Sea where the two countries are at loggerheads will be on board the agenda. #



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