Delivering the Contra-SONA of the authentic opposition is not only fulfilling a continuing tradition. It is an enduring commitment to articulate differing views and assessments of the true state of the nation, devoid of pomp, propaganda, theatrics and hyperbole.
It is demystifying the aura of presidential pronouncements.
It is an incisive reaction to what the President said and failed to say in his SONA.
It is making democracy work by giving the public an alternative perspective and genuine choice.
It is telling the people the truth even if it hurts.
President’s Salutary Commitments
Let me start by agreeing with the following laudable commitments and recommendations made by the President in his SONA:
- He said: “x x x it is now time for Congress to approve a new version of the Salary Standardization Law. x x x This is intended to increase the salaries of national government workers, including teachers and nurses.”
- The President scored the scandal in PhilHealth where “[h]uge amounts of medical funds were released to cover padded medical claims and imaginary treatment of ghost patients… The government is conned of millions of pesos which could be used to treat illnesses and possibly save the lives of many.” He has ordered the arrest, prosecution and conviction of those liable.
- The President also called on the Congress “to pass a law mandating a Fire Protection Modernization Program.” This will save the government the billions of pesos worth of properties gutted by fire, not to mention loss of lives.
- The President has directed DILG Secretary Año to require all mayors to issue at most within three days all clearances and permits required to be approved by their respective offices. This will tremendously ease the conduct of businesses at the local level.
- The President urged the Land Bank of the Philippines to comply with its mandate to serve as the farmers’ bank rather than financing big businesses. This will vastly improve the credit facilities for farmers and accelerate agricultural development.
President’s candid admissions
On the other hand, the President has candidly admitted the failure to successfully address the following major problems as he embarks on the second half of his Presidency:
- “The illegal drug problem persists” according to the President. Indeed, the drug menace terrifyingly stalks the land.
- Corruption continues to be pervasive. He aptly said that “[c]orruption exacerbates” and “frustrates”. He added that “[f]or every transaction, a commission; for every action, extortion…”
- The traffic gridlock has not been solved, and even escalates. The President said that “one estimate pegs economic losses at P3.5 billion a day due to traffic congestion in Metro Manila.” According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), this amount of losses could balloon to P5.4 billion daily by 2035 if interventions are not made.
Speedy solutions to the drug, corruption, and traffic problems were promised by the President during his campaign and renewed when he assumed the Presidency. The promised solutions are nowhere in sight.
Now, on the core of this Contra-SONA:
Skewed Justice System
Recent malevolent charges against VP Robredo, et al
The President failed to mention the current state of the justice system.
The pervasive injustice afflicting the Duterte administration was again highlighted by the recent baseless and malevolent charges for sedition, inciting to sedition, cyber libel, and other crimes against Vice President Leni Robredo, critical bishops and vocal opposition leaders in relation to Bikoy’s “Ang Totoong Narco List” videos.
When these videos first appeared implicating President Duterte, some members of his family and close allies to the illicit drug trade, diehard Duterte apologists called Bikoy (Peter Joemel Advincula) a purveyor of black propaganda and lies who has no credibility.
After Bikoy recanted and claimed that the production of the videos was induced and bankrolled by the political opposition and critics of the administration, principally Vice President Robredo, et al., the same Duterte defenders instantly sainted Bikoy with credibility and probity.
Although Malacañang disclaimed knowledge of the complaint filed by the Criminal Investigation and Detention Group (CIDG-NCR) through Police Lt. Col. Arnold Ibay, this disclaimer is not believable considering that nothing as serious as the charges against the personalities involved would escape the prior knowledge and possible imprimatur of the President.
More than the presence or absence of complicity or culpability of the respondents, what is overriding is to determine the authenticity or lack of veracity of the documents presented in the videos.
It is for this reason that instead of forming a panel of prosecutors accountable to the Secretary of Justice who is the alter ego of the President, an independent Commission composed of former justices who retired before the start of the tenure of President Duterte should be constituted to impartially investigate the allegations.
Sen. Leila De Lima’s continuing incarceration
Less than one year after the start of the Duterte administration, a signal injustice was perpetrated with the summary incarceration of Sen. Leila de Lima on February 24, 2017 or two years, four months and 31 days ago today.
The only sin of Sen. De Lima is her courage to talk back against the President and criticize the ferocity of his war on drugs.
The trumped-up drug charges against De Lima are lamely supported by the affidavits of felons serving long sentences in the New Bilibid Prison who continue to conduct their drug trade behind bars with the complicity of prison officials.
Even foreign legislators and bodies have urged the Philippine Government to immediately release De Lima who they consider a “prisoner of conscience”.
Five US Senators have called for her release in a Resolution dated April 4, 2019 even as they condemned “state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings by police and other armed individuals as part of ‘War on Drugs’.”
Prior to this, US Representatives also filed a Resolution stating that De Lima, who is “… detained solely on account of her political views and the legitimate exercise of her freedom of expression”, should immediately be set free and the charges against her dropped.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2018 also adopted an Opinion that De Lima’s pre-trial detention was “arbitrary” and that the “appropriate remedy would be to release Ms. De Lima immediately.”
Draconic and inhuman proposals
Two legislative proposals of the administration will plague the justice system: the restoration of the death penalty and the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility. Empirical studies show that both initiatives will not deter the commission of crimes.
The right to life is supreme among all human rights. The death penalty has become a penal aberration.
No child of tender age must be considered a criminal or be treated as one. The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act must be fully implemented and adequately funded, instead of making children felons.
Plight of the 22 Filipino fishermen
The 22 Filipino fishermen whose fishing boat, anchored at the Philippines’ Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) was rammed unprovoked and submerged by a Chinese militia vessel, and were abandoned to die at sea (fortunately rescued by Vietnamese fishermen) cry for justice from the Duterte administration.
In the first place, why was a Chinese militia vessel purportedly built to ram fishing boats navigating around Philippine waters?
Instead of defending Filipinos who were left to die, the President, even without a formal investigation, trivialized the incident by declaring it a “little maritime accident”, or a “marine incident” as mentioned in his SONA.
The 22 fishermen are now at the receiving end of the country’s flawed policy of undue deference to China as the Duterte administration has consented, at the behest of China, to allow the culprits’ nation to jointly or separately investigate the tragic incident.
Where in the world is a culprit allowed to investigate his own crime and resolve his guilt?
Outrageously Dismal Human Rights Record
Continuing violation of human rights
Similarly, the President failed to defend his administration’s dismal human rights record.
Even when he was the Mayor of Davao City, President Duterte demeaned human rights to no small measure. He continued this aversion when he assumed the Presidency. He refuses to comprehend the universality of human rights as he maintains that criminals do not have human rights.
Because he denies suspected drug users and dealers of their human right to due process and the rule of law, his brutal war on drugs has intensified the extrajudicial killings.
It is of no moment that the total number of EJK victims varies between the government tally and the count of civil society and human rights groups. The fact is, thousands upon thousands of victims, particularly from the poor and marginalized sectors, have been summarily killed. President Duterte even threatened to escalate this number to approximate the six million victims of the Holocaust.
UNHCR Resolution and its rejection by the administration
The promotion and protection of human rights is a global concern that transcends sovereign territories. It is in this context that the Iceland-sponsored resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), of which the Philippines is a member, must be appreciated.
The straightforward resolution merely “[c]alls upon” the Philippines to “cooperate” with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “by facilitating country visits and preventing and refraining from all acts of intimidation or retaliation” and “[r]equests the High Commissioner to prepare a comprehensive written report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines.”
The rejection by the Duterte administration of the projected investigation is based purely on self-serving reasons masquerading as “upholding Philippine sovereignty”. In denouncing the resolution, President Duterte went to the extent of asserting that Iceland is virtually covered with ice and its people are ice-eaters, which is completely uncalled for and off tangent, even as it is farcical. Incidentally, this Nordic country ranks 6th in the latest UN Human Development Index compared to the Philippines’ 133rd.
In his ballistic reaction to the adoption of the Iceland-initiated resolution to review the Philippines’ human rights situation and report on the drug war-related killings, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. falsely claimed that the Philippines has “an unblemished human rights record”. This is unmitigated perfidy.
A trail of blood has left thousands of poor families grieving and crying for justice, due process, and the rule of law.
If according to the Dutere administration its war on drugs is legal and the killings are due to legitimate encounters, then the country has nothing to hide and nothing to fear in the conduct of the UNHRC investigation.
Plight of Human Rights Defenders
The human rights record of the Duterte administration is further stained by its unabated harassment and even liquidation of HRDs.
It is to the credit of this House that during the 17th Congress House Bill No. 9199 or the Human Rights Defenders Act was unanimously passed on third and final reading. The Senate failed to act on the measure because of lack of time.
I have re-filed this bill as House Bill No. 15 in the 18th Congress to underscore the urgency of protecting human rights defenders.
Flawed Foreign Policy
On July 12, 2016 the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration rendered an unequivocal verdict upholding the Philippines’ exclusive sovereign rights and ownership of the West Philippine Sea and rejecting China’s nine-dash line and spurious claims over the resource-rich area.
Three years after the arbitral award, the Duterte administration has failed and refuses to take the necessary action to enforce the award, or even discuss the arbitral award with China. On the contrary, it has virtually ceded Philippine sovereignty over the WPS to China by acquiescing to China’s expansionist aggression in the WPS with the installation of Chinese military facilities and missile build-up, including the arrogation of our marine resources.
This unpatriotic surrender of our sovereignty violates the Constitution and the President’s solemn oath of office.
It should be underscored that according to the most recent survey of the SWS (22-24 June), 93% of respondents believe it is important for the country to regain control of islands in the West Philippine Sea occupied by China. Correlatively, Filipinos’ trust in China plummeted to an abysmal low of -24%, again according to the SWS.
Although President Duterte admits that there “is no ifs or buts. It (WPS) is ours”, he is unduly delaying to assert the country’s arbitral victory to the point of forfeiture.
While errantly asserting Philippine sovereignty against the UNHRC resolution, the Duterte administration subserviently surrenders Philippine sovereignty to China in the WPS.
The President merely glossed over the economic scenario. Let me be more detailed.
Sliding GDP Growth Rate
As conventionally measured by the growth rate of the Gross Domestic Product or GDP, overall Philippine economic performance under the Duterte administration has been by no means spectacular.
The initial quarters were impressive, highlighted by a 7.1% growth rate in the third quarter of 2016, the Duterte administration’s maiden quarter. It is inaccurate, however, to attribute the performance solely to the new administration. It takes time to formulate appropriate economic policies, implement them, and have their effects fully felt by the economy. What transpired in Duterte’s first quarter may have resulted chiefly from policy decisions already firmly in place. The previous administration in fact set the tone by registering admirable growth rates of 6.8% and 7.0% in the first and second quarters of 2016 respectively. A good part of the strong start by the Duterte administration might simply been impelled by the former administration.
It is worrisome that the strong initial performance was not sustained in subsequent quarters. From a high 6.6% growth rate in the last quarter of 2017, the economy slid to 6.5% in the first quarter of 2018, to 6.2% in the second quarter, and to 6.0% in the third quarter. The slide was briefly arrested in the fourth quarter which showed a 6.3% growth rate. It was indeed a brief pause as the economy relapsed to 5.6% in the first quarter of 2019.
Alarming inflation rates and dwindling purchasing power of the peso
The Philippine inflation story over the past three years almost runs parallel to the GDP story – initially encouraging but eventually discouraging.
The inflation rate in July 2016 was 1.3%. It steadily rose to 2.2% in December of that year, for an average monthly rate of 1.7%. Inflation continued to creep in 2017, averaging 2.9% for the year.
Creep turned to gallop as inflation, chiefly because of oil prices, the TRAIN law, and the administrative skirmishes in the NFA, soared in 2018, averaging 5.2% for the year and reaching 6.7% in September and October. The 4% upper limit target of the Bangko Sentral was clearly breached. Inflation in 2019 gradually eased from 4.4% in January to only 2.7% in June. But the purchasing power of the Peso has not strengthened and the prices of prime commodities remain high.
Unimpressive job generation and uninspiring poverty alleviation
In the area of job creation, the Arroyo administration created jobs at an annual average of 869,000. The Aquino administration did even more, annually averaging 937,000. The Duterte administration has not been as assiduous averaging only 662,000. It seems some catch-up work is called for in the second half of this administration.
Poverty alleviation is a major objective of a developing country. The administration proudly announces the reduction in poverty incidence from 27.6% in 2015 to only 21% in 2018.
There are, however, concerns about the measurement of poverty. The most common is that the P10,481 poverty threshold for a family of five is too low. What, it is asked, can a family of five buy with a measly P10,481 a month? How can this be enough for food, shelter, utilities, medicine, clothing, transportation, and other necessities? Clearly, the threshold should be higher. But this means that more Filipinos will be considered poor, much higher than 21% of Filipinos. The present low poverty threshold, however, liberated millions of Filipinos from poverty through “statistical perfidy”.
Given the disagreements on the level of the poverty threshold, below which families are considered poor, it may be simpler to ask Filipino families if they consider themselves poor.
This was done by the SWS in its latest June 22 to 26 survey. The survey shows that 45% of families, or roughly 11.1 million, consider themselves poor. Assuming that the average family has five members, this translates to 55.5 million individuals or more than 50% of the Philippine population who rated themselves poor. This is an increase by 7%, or almost two million families, from those who considered themselves poor in the first quarter of the year.
The survey also shows that the number of Filipinos who consider their families as food-poor – poor based on the food that they eat – increased from 27% to 35%, equivalent to an increase from 6.8 million to 8.5 million families. Interestingly, the respondents assess P15,000, not P10,481, a month as the real poverty threshold.
In the last three years of his tenure, the President aims to make “life comfortable for all Filipinos.” We join him in this aspiration. But before this could be achieved, there must be serious reforms in the justice system, extrajudicial killings must end, human rights promoted and protected, due process and the rule of law zealously observed, genuine sovereignty upheld and preserved, and the economy made robust for all, specially for the disadvantaged and marginalized.