Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)
02 May 2024

Marcos courts war by enabling US provocations;
El Niňo hits hard, amnesty for rebels rejected anew


Governor in ‘hot water’

In April, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) sealed the fate of Cagayan governor Manuel Mamba, by unseating him based, it said, on a disqualification case filed in 2022. The governor of Cagayan, a province in northern Philippines, has been a vocal opponent of American military presence in the country, criticizing the use of his northern province for US-Philippines war games.

Earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Comelec “gravely abused its discretion in dismissing the petition for disqualification.” It ordered the commission to issue a ruling on the matter which then led to the decision to disqualify based on alleged fraudulent practices in the May 2022 election.

The poll body clarified, however, that the ruling is not final and is awaiting Mamba’s appeal. "For now, Mamba will remain governor until such time that this will be resolved–if he would file a Motion for Reconsideration or not," Comelec spokesperson Atty. John Rex Laudiangco said.

Cagayan is one of the provinces slated for expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed between the Philippines and the US in 2014. (Note: The EDCA was signed between then Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and the US ambassador Philip Goldberg on April 28, 2014. It reiterated statements from the previous agreements (Mutual Defense Pact of 1951 and the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999), adding the construction of infrastructure and military storage facilities in select Philippine bases. The US, however, is not allowed to construct a permanent base in the country. Nuclear weapons are not allowed to be stored in the Philippines, under the agreement. The agreement had an initial validity of 10 years, and will automatically be in force until a one-year notice is given by either party to terminate the agreement. The 10-year validity period will end on June 25, 2024, or two months from now.)

Mamba has opposed EDCA and joint Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) war drills between the two countries. Was Comelec, an independent and non-partisan constitutional body, pressured by allies of the president – who is known to maintain close defense ties and an anti-China stance with the US?

In many past cases, the Comelec had been hounded by accusations of favoring some candidates, succumbing to bribery, and vulnerability – if not “cooperation” with –to election automation system provider, the Venezuelan company Smartmatic.

Mamba had also openly courted Chinese investments in his jurisdiction. The timing of his removal, due to alleged misuse of funds during the 2022 campaign period, coincides with the arrival of thousands of American forces for the latest joint military exercises with the Philippines.

Sara Duterte leads surveys while new poll provider tries to reassure clean polls

In the latest Pulse Asia surveys, Vice-President Sara Duterte alongside Senator Raffy Tulfo led the surveys for the 2028 presidential race, with both statistically tied at around 34%.

Despite recent tirades between the Marcos and Duterte political clans over a number of issues, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has supported the education-related programs of Vice President Sara Duterte saying likewise that he has no intention of replacing her as education secretary.

Although they ran together in the May 2022 presidential race, the two came from competing political parties with Inday Sara representing the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino (PDP) and Marcos the Partido Federal ng Pilipinas. With the mid-term elections a year away both groups are expected to field separate slates – a scenario that could widen the rift as the country gears for the 2028 presidential contest.

Election system provider

South Korea’s Miru Systems bagged the PhP17 billion contract to replace Smartmatic after it was banned following money laundering and conspiracy charges. Amid the absence of competing bidders Miru received the approval of the Comelec.

However, Miru has faced its own share of scandal, reportedly brokering dubious deals in El Salvador, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was also rejected by Argentina for its security vulnerabilities.

Despite this, around 20,000 Vote Count Machines (VCMs) are to be shipped to the Philippines this August. Miru officials expressed assurances that their devices can do better.

Miru Vice President Ken Cho said, “There will always be politically motivated people who would put out negative messages. So, that comes with the territory and I think we are more prone to that because we're an Asian company and also that we are a technically-oriented company and we don't do much PR.”

Miru, a neophyte poll provider in the Philippines, faces an acid test, not just in proving its transparency but prepping for the midterm polls happening in less than a year while navigating the competing rivalries and bust-ups that are bound to cause uproar as May 2025 draws near.

Amnesty rejected again

Leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) have rejected the latest amnesty offer by the Philippine government.
Earlier this month, President Ferdinand Marcos ordered another amnesty program for the armed revolutionaries. The last one came in November 2023, which was also summarily rejected.

Marco Valbuena, chief information officer for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) sees no reason for the government to extend this kind of proposal. Valbuena said “Why should the revolution seek absolution from the oppressors when it is the oppressors and exploiters who have done the people wrong?”

National Security Adviser Secretary Eduardo Año claimed that initially around 1,500 insurgents had already expressed a willingness to submit to the state’s authority. Meanwhile, he also announced the creation of around 17 local amnesty boards for the processing of applications by rebel returnees.

Julie de Lima, chairperson of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the negotiating arm of the CPP and its armed component, New People’s Army (NPA) based in The Netherlands, blasted the government. “Año’s claims are ridiculous. The mere fact that their figures are inconsistent and their deadlines keep on shifting is an indication of their failure to defeat the revolutionary forces.”

During the first half of last year, the Armed Forces of the Philippines announced that they facilitated the surrender of 2,447 rebels.

Valbuena accused the government of fabricating the number of surrendering rebels to portray itself as the winning side in the public eye.

Valbuena’s statement brings to mind the ordeal of Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro, the two abducted student activists who exposed to the media how they were forcibly made to surrender and pose as armed insurgents.

University of the Philippines Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, former chair of the government peace panel in talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), explained that while some individuals could be lured by the government’s offer, it won’t work without organizational acceptance.

She addressed the weaknesses in the government’s strategy which seemed to only seek unconditional surrender through a quick-fix offer. Ferrer urged the government to come up with a more comprehensive approach, not one born out of short-sighted tactics.

“Amnesty should be part of a package,” and that it requires the correct presumption of how the conflict is going. But right now she says “There is no signal that the CPP-NPA is ready to give up its armed struggle.”

Ferrer said that pardons like these could be sending mixed signals as to whether the government is using this as a platform for future negotiations or as “another way to divide and rule.” A misguided amnesty offer amid unease could do more harm than good because it “can be taken in bad faith.”

Meanwhile, De Lima dismissed the government’s bid saying such offers to be a “confidence-building measure, must be discussed within the framework of peace negotiations. It should be the result of a negotiated peace that is based on justice and addresses the roots of the civil war.”

There are 800 political prisoners, many of whom are NDF Peace Consultants whose conditions have been repeatedly overlooked by the government.

Past negotiations have been underscored by gestures of mutual respect such as the unconditional release of political prisoners and consultants to join the talks.

The government of the Philippines (GPH) and the NDFP have wrestled in tough peace talks for 37 years (1987-2024) giving birth to some comprehensive agreements. Both parties were to sign a comprehensive agreement on social-economic rights in 2017 in Oslo, Norway when it was unilaterally aborted by President Duterte.


El Niňo burning through the economy

Domestically, the scorching El Niňo weather is costing the Philippines around US$18 million as it decimates crop cycles and farmer’s livelihoods. Globally, the estimated cost is around US$4 trillion.

Based on National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council data, more than 408,135 individuals or 82,994 families from 323 barangays in the country are affected by El Niňo.

Organized farmers have slammed the National Food Authority this month after it was discovered that the agency illegally sold 75,000 bags of rice worth P93 million (US$1.64 million) to traders in Bulacan, north of Manila, exacerbating the plight of those affected.

"The government cannot even offer any compensation or urgent relief to thousands of farmers whose crops were totally and partially damaged due to the drought and dry spells," says Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP or Peasant Movement in the Philippines) chairperson Danilo Ramos, adding that the Department of Agriculture (DA) only offers loans and insurance claims.

In a dialogue with farmers in Negros Occidental, the local DA said it can only replace the seeds and fertilizer used by farmers, after El Niňo.

Robert Dan Roces, chief economist at Security Bank, expects that “Shifting weather episodes could disrupt agricultural production and lead to higher food prices.”

The statement is from a traditionally conservative banking office. With El Niňo showing no signs of abating in the immediate future and its effects causing ripples in production and economic cycles, food prices are likely to skyrocket. This leaves farmers consumers in disarray. Yet, as KMP points out, the government is reluctant, or even acting unprompted to consider sustained financial assistance and aid for food producers.

“When will the government give aid, when the El Niño is over? If the La Niña comes and there are floods, it can lead to a year-long loss of income for farmers,” said Ramos. He reiterated demands for Php15,000 production subsidy for farmers.

Wages languish ahead of Labor Day

Ahead of Labor Day, a national wage coalition composed of Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP or Alliance of Filipino Workers), Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement), Nagkaisa (United), Trade Union Congress of the Philippines and other trade union groups convened to press for a legislated wage hike of at least P150 across the board.

The groups called it an initial step toward economic recovery from inflationary pressures.

Wages have been languishing this year with an earlier announcement by the administration that wage hikes are unlikely for the entire 2024.

Independent economic think tank IBON Foundation tallied the state of minimum wage in the country. Across all regions, the average minimum wage is only Php440 or just a little over one-third of the average Family Living Wage for a family of five of Php1,207, as of March 2024

Meanwhile, IBON noted that the profits of the country’s richest individuals have been rapidly rising.

IBON also said that the combined net worth of the 10 richest Filipinos grew by 20% from Php1.9 trillion to Php2.3 trillion in 2024. Additionally, the wealth of the 3 richest billionaires grew almost four times more than others in the top 10.

The notion of a family living wage continues to be neglected however as the government persists on its model of divvying up responsibilities per region when costs, labor and industry are interwoven. This means that regional wage boards are not necessarily accounting for differing costs of living, but providing better avenues for companies to save money on labor expenses.


Bigger, More Aggressive Balikatan

On April 22, the 39th annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) Joint Military Exercises commenced drawing over 11,000 American soldiers plus 6,000 from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) marking the biggest ever for the yearly war games.

Six years after the US bases’ closure owing to a robust anti-bases movement led by patriotic organizations, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was surreptitiously signed by on February 10, 1998 by then US ambassador Thomas Hubbard on behalf of the US and then foreign affairs secretary Domingo Siazon Jr. on behalf of the Philippines.

Former president Joseph Estrada ratified the VFA on October 5, 1998.

The VFA contained guidelines for the conduct and protection of American troops visiting the Philippines, and stipulated the terms and conditions for the American military to enter Philippine territory. The agreement led to the establishment of the Balikatan exercises, as well as a variety of other cooperative measures.

The Balikatan exercises are designed to maintain and develop the security relationship between the two countries' armed forces through crisis-action planning, enhanced training to conduct counterterrorism operations, and promoting interoperability of the forces. Over the years the exercises have expanded to include surrounding other countries in Southeast Asia. The training has had a shifting focus. During the U.S.-led "War on Terror" the annual Balikatan Exercises focused on training for counterterrorism missions.

According to Balikatan Executive Agent Colonel Michael Logico, the April drill sites are situated along the northernmost and westernmost areas of the Philippines. While these are the tips of the country closely facing Taiwan and the South China Sea, Logico denied that their activities are directed against one particular country.

However when broached on the subject of China, he said, “With or without China, we would still be doing these exercises, because these are things that nations do. The purpose of an armed forces is to prepare for war, there’s no sugar coating it.”

Zhang Youxia, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, reacted: “Reality has shown that those who make deliberate provocations, stoke tensions, or support one side against another for selfish gains will ultimately only hurt themselves.”

While hopeful for a peaceful resolution, Zhang commented that China will not allow itself to be "abused."

Aside from Australia, the Philippines also hosts military delegations from 14 observer countries including: Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Apart from US forces, several hundred Australian and French naval forces will be joining in the group sail in particular. With this, it will be the first time Balikatan ever breaches the 12 nautical mile limit inside the Philippines’ territorial waters which Logico believes is necessary in preparations for external defense.

The Americans are also bringing in state-of-the-art artillery in the form of an SM-6 Missile Launcher, which will not be fired but used in logistical exercises. It has a range of 300 nautical miles; the Second Thomas Shoal is 108 nautical miles off the country’s main islands.

Balikatan will conclude on May 9th and like last year, it will culminate with the sinking of a decommissioned naval vessel, this time off the coast of Laoag, Ilocos Norte, near Luzon’s tip. Although Logico says it is purely coincidental, the ship in question is the BRP Caliraya and is interestingly the only Chinese-made naval asset in the AFP’s possession.

Filipino progressive groups have slammed the actions of the US as direct war provocations and for dragging the archipelago into its desire for a direct standoff with China. And while sections of the public may reluctantly accept American presence as a shield of sorts against Chinese aggression, the progressives forward an alternative.

“You can oppose China's illegal and aggressive actions and oppose US warmongering and intervention at the same time. Opposing the US war machine doesn't mean you necessarily support China. That's flawed logic right there,” said Renato Reyes Jr. secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance).

He called for an independent foreign policy and the strength to build a united front with other ASEAN nations with claims on the SCS against Chinese incursions and to settle the matter peacefully.

He explained that if Vietnam could oppose Chinese incursions diplomatically, the Philippines could do so as well and both countries would benefit by working together along the same position.

Even former President Rodrigo Duterte, who has had shifting opinions on American military presence warned that the “US will not die for us.”

Meanwhile, LGBT rights group Bahaghari criticized the Marcos government for allowing more US troops to prey on the vulnerabilities of women and low-income communities. The group drew attention to the murder of Filipino transwoman Jennifer Laude by Lance Corporal Scott Pemberton in 2014 and the Subic rape case in 2005. That year, “Nicole” was raped by US Lance Corporal Daniel Smith. The incident sparked outrage but Smith also escaped justice.

Pemberton was pardoned by then-President Rodrigo Duterte in 2020, in what is seen as a demonstration of subservience to American dominion. No member of the US military has ever been punished for criminal activity in the Philippines.

In 2005, “Nicole” was raped by US Lance Corporal Daniel Smith. The incident sparked outrage but Smith also escaped justice.

LGBT rights group Bahaghari raised concerns that more crimes against Filipino civilians are in store.

"We do not forget the tragedy that happened to Jennifer Laude, to ‘Nicole’, and all the Filipino women who suffered at the hands of US soldiers,” said Arri Samisco, the group’s Secretary General.

Samisco added that so long as unfair military agreements benefitting the powerful are in place, justice will remain elusive.

Under Marcos Jr., the war drills have gained headway and until he remains the president more and more war games will be organized as a deterrent to China.

Summit Takeaways

President Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kisihida joined US President Joe Biden in the White House last April 11 for a trilateral summit on security and trade. And while the usual rhetoric of mutual defense and coming to each other’s aid should tensions escalate peppered the entire occasion, there were a few key takeaways that caught the eye of Filipinos.

Among them was the announcement of the Luzon Economic Corridor, reactivating old US military facilities like Clark and Subic as well as Manila and Batangas for grand commercial designs with heaps of foreign investment commitments.

Japan and the US pledged “high-impact infrastructure projects” for it as well. In a joint statement, the leaders announced that this entails “rail; ports modernization; clean energy and semiconductor supply chains and deployments; agribusiness; and civilian port upgrades at Subic Bay.”

The leaders added that “The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation also intends to open a regional office in the Philippines to facilitate further investments across the Philippines. The Luzon Corridor is a demonstration of our enhanced economic cooperation, focused on delivering tangible investments across multiple sectors.”

The announcement comes at a time of increased diplomatic tensions with China as the US continues to fire off economic provocations. Under Biden, the US has renewed threats to impose sanctions on Chinese banks, companies, and individuals that facilitate support for Russia. Meanwhile, American lawmakers continue to persecute Tiktok for its connections to Chinese companies. The economic witch-hunt is meant to weaken their rival’s global economic leverage.

In late April, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken travelled to Beijing to meet his counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Blinken emphasized the need to "communicate clearly about our differences." While Wang warned Washington to stop stepping on “red lines.”

The meeting did not pose any significant changes to diplomatic positions. Blinken made sure to mention the “ironclad” support for the Philippines in the SCS row, but did not comment on any peaceful routes to resolution over it.

Bayan sounded alarm over the Washington summit and seeing a Luzon Corridor to be the precursor to greater military build-up on the island. Alongside the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), it looks to be in service of greater military operability in strategic areas.

Reyes said it “practically turns the country’s biggest island into an EDCA site servicing thousands of foreign troops at any given time. It is purported to be an economic zone but it is linked to the installation of EDCA sites and the repurposing of Subic and Clark into military hubs for joint exercises with foreign troops.”

Filipino activists in the US protested the summit in Washington. They pointed out that the Philippines is being used as a proxy for American imperial interests in the Pacific. Like so many times in the last century, the Southeast Asian front of the US is drawn into the frontlines of American aggression.

Julie Jamora of Malaya Movement USA commented: “The US government talks about bringing economic growth, prosperity, clean energy and peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. But we know this is a guise for more war and militarism in the Asia Pacific region and also an opportunity to perpetuate unequal economic and military agreements.” In a tussle with China, the Philippines, backed by the US, lays claim to large sections of the South China Sea. The trillion dollar trade area has been a constant subject of territorial rows throughout contemporary history.

Today, there are also members of the academe who insist that Chinese claims are paramount. Moreover that any assertion by Beijing, is painted as an act threatening the geopolitical order.

However, a recent book of Irish international law professor Anthony Carty now working at Beijing Institute of Technology, The History and Sovereignty of South China Sea, about findings on the South China Sea collected from primary source materials in national archives mostly in the United Kingdom and France, and some in the United States amplified that China's position in the South China Sea is reasonable.

In a recent interview, Carty said that “China's insistence that these islands are Chinese is apparently then viewed by them as an act of what is called ‘assertiveness’ and even aggression. China is portrayed by the US and other western powers as a “revisionist power with hegemonic ambitions.”


Majority of Southeast Asians favor China over US, the Singapore-based Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute think tank revealed in early April. The survey found Beijing as ASEAN’s preferred choice over Washington for first time in Singapore with more than half of Southeast Asians or seven out of 10 preferring to align with China over the US if ASEAN were forced to choose between the rival superpowers reflecting Beijing’s growing influence in the region. The survey said, 50.5% of respondents opted for China and 49.5% preferred the US.

The think-tank’s flagship survey polls people from the private and public sectors, as well as academics and researchers in Southeast Asia to present prevailing attitudes among those in a position to inform or influence policy on regional issues. “It seems like this is the beginning of a trend “as. . . this is the first time China has actually (edged past the US),” said Danny Quah, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Among the 10 ASEAN countries, the possible alignment to China was most evident among respondents from Malaysia, at 75.1%, followed by Indonesia and Laos at 73.2% and 70.6%. They have all benefited significantly from China’s Belt and Road Infrastructure (BRI) initiative and robust trade relations. China has been Malaysia’s top trading partner for more than a decade and invested billions of dollars across several sectors.

Reflecting Indonesia’s strong economic ties, president-elect and defence minister Prabowo Subianto on April 1 met Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first overseas visit after winning the election. Last year south-east Asia’s largest economy opened the region’s first high-speed railway, which was jointly built with China.

Washington gained strong support from the Philippines and Vietnam at 83.3% and 79%, which in part reflects tensions the two have with China due to overlapping claims in the South China Sea. However, a separate question regarding Washington’s Southeast Asia policy revealed that 38.2% felt the level of US engagement with the region had decreased under President Joe Biden, topping the 25.2% who said it had increased.


Signed in 2014 between then President Benigno SA Aquino, Jr. and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation (EDCA) allowed the use of Philippines bases by rotating US forces and ammunition. Five EDCA sites were identified in 2016; four more were added in 2023 under President Marcos Jr. in northern Philippines just overlooking the Taiwan Straits – an arena of potential armed conflict between China and the US over the latter’s oft -repeated declaration of “iron-clad” support for Taiwan as a deterrent to Beijing’s territorial ownership claim over the latter. (Ironically, the US has adhered to the internationally-accepted One-China principle, i.e., there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it. Beijing has advocated for the peaceful reunification with Taiwan and no foreign power has the right to meddle in it.)

Stalled during the pandemic, the first five EDCA sites are being renovated to improve interoperability of US and Philippine troops, build capacity, strengthen the AFP for external defense, promote maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR), the Philippines’ defense department said. The EDCA sites’ maintenance, the department said, works in favor of future Balikatan operations. And that as early as now, they are working to get Japan on board officially for next year.

A day before the trilateral summit, the US Senate also unveiled the Philippines Enhanced Resilience Act of 2024 (PERA Act) which allocates US$2.5 billion worth of military aid to the Philippines from 2025 to 2029.

The already American-aligned and reliant AFP just got a huge boost to its operational capacities because of this on top of an already bloating domestic defense budget. It calls to mind White House intentions to turn the entire Pacific into an “American Lake” as Professor Michael Klare mentioned, with the Philippines primed as its main outpost and launching pad.

The Philippines joins Taiwan and Singapore among the top recipients of military aid in the region. Since 2015, the US has delivered more than PhP57 billion ($1.14 billion) worth of military equipment and training to the Philippines.


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