Notes from the Field

From Washington: Examining the Future of the Philippines, Part II

April 16, 2008

On April 7 and 8, an important conference on the Philippines was held in Washington, D.C., titled “Can the Philippines Break Out of its Affliction: Prospects for Democratic Governance, Economic Development, and Philippine-U.S. Relations,” organized by Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Southeast Asia Studies Program and The Asia Foundation, with generous support from Exxon-Mobil Corporation.
This program was a chance to focus attention in Washington on the Philippines, and it was occasioned by the Visiting Professorship at SAIS of Noel Morada, immediate past Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of the Philippines. This piece is a follow-up to last week’s, which discusses panels I-III.

Panel IV was Armed Challenges: How Can the Philippines Manage Internal Conflict? Topics included the communist insurgency, transnational terrorism, and Muslim secessionist movements in the Philippines. A speech from F. Augusto J. Mier, Assistant Director-General of the Office of Security Policy of the Philippine’s National Security Council, was read by a press officer from the Philippine Embassy. In it, he emphasized that the Philippines has been managing internal conflict for decades, and the current strategy combines the National Internal Security Plan (Executive Order 21 of June 2001), with local government development programs and local peace initiatives. Along with the Human Security Act, the strategy is to turn over anti-poverty efforts to economic managers, build capacity building for law enforcement, and have local level social integration programs for former rebels.

Susan Russell, Professor of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University, spoke on “Strengthening National Security through Peacebuilding Coalitions.” She directs programs at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, which bring Mindanaoans to NIU to help build capacity for peace-building coalitions, and then helps participants build networks after they return. The idea is to treat peacebuilding coalitions as “track two” conflict transformation and bring all conflicting parties into dialogue.

Eugene Martin, former Executive Director of the Philippine Facilitation Project of the United States Institute of Peace, concluded the panel. A common thread running through Martin’s conflict analysis was the problem of poor governance both as a contributing factor to conflict itself, and a constraining factor in overcoming the conflict. Of the three types of conflicts, his sentiment was that the NPA/NDF is the most serious form because it is nationwide; he also advocated negotiations without preconditions. When he spoke of the Moro conflict, he referenced the Facilitation Project’s final summary assessment and asserted that the MILF is ready to settle, but there are problems of historical prejudices, Filipino elites who are unready to settle, and Muslim politicians whose interests would also be adversely affected.

From the audience came questions about Sharia Law, to which Russell responded by describing the limited implementation of the Code of Muslim Personal Laws of the Philippines (PD 1083). Martin remarked that while people often say they want Sharia since they are Muslims, often they do not elaborate about the details of Sharia law. Another audience member quoted ARMM DTI Ishak Mastura, “the interfaith dialogue, peacebuilding, culture of peace, settling of rido, human security work that people are engaged in are only so much band-aids and placebo effect that do not address the root of the conflict in the South, which Catholic Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato once wrote in a paper is INJUSTICE.” Russell basically agreed that political will is needed to achieve this justice, but also that she believes that such peacebuilding work is valuable in its own right.

The last panel was Beyond the Security Alliance: Philippine-US Relations in the 21st Century. Scot Marciel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and recently confirmed U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, opened the panel by saying that the United States’ national interest is served by a prosperous, democratic, and successful Philippines. The United States tries to help the Philippines achieve this ” most recently by making the Philippines eligible for a Compact under the Millennium Challenge Corporation. He reiterated that there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens living in the Philippines, millions of Filipinos in the United States, and that the United States is the Philippines largest foreign investor. Carlos Sorreta, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Philippine Embassy, discussed how American brands are deep in Philippine culture (with Coke trucks delivering school textbooks to distant villages); how English, as a common language, has enabled call centers and business outsourcing to flourish; and how the Philippines seems to have inherited its rambunctious media and multitude of lawyers from the United States.

I began my presentation with data from Social Weather Stations, showing net trust in the United States, China, Australia, and Japan. The United States always tops the chart, with China always at the bottom (due mostly to high negative ratings). When a separate survey was done for the ARMM, the net was zero ” lower than the Philippines as a whole but higher than the negative ratings the U.S. generally receives in Muslim countries. On issues which are currently prominent, Extra Judicial Killings have declined since their 2006 peak though convictions are rare (Sorreta noted that there were 9 convictions), while corruption will continue to be a focus during the negotiation on the Compact with the MCC. I ended by noting that Philippine relations with China impinge on Philippine-U.S. relations as China increases investments, offers large loans for development projects, and has joint exploratory activities (with Vietnam and the Philippines) in the South China Sea. Noel Morada, SAIS Visiting Professor of Southeast Asian Studies (and immediate past Chair of the U.P. Political Science Department), talked of U.S. Philippine relations in the context of ASEAN. He related how ASEAN felt neglected and suggested that the U.S. could focus more on issues of social development (disaster management, environment, health) and help foster a more participatory Regionalism (involving civil society and academe). Marciel said in this context that relations with ASEAN countries are both bilateral and multilateral ” some issues are addressed by the U.S. directly with a particular country, while others are taken up with ASEAN as a whole.

Karl Jackson, Director of Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS, ended by saying he felt that the Philippines suffered from neglect in Washington, DC because of a tyranny of geography (it is separated from the rest of Asia) and because there is a dependability to the relationship with the U.S., meaning that the Philippines can be taken for granted. He expressed satisfaction that the conference had addressed this neglect somewhat, and looked forward to future events.

Throughout the conference, participants often said that the title, “Can the Philippines Break Out of its Affliction” provoked alternative bouts of optimism and pessimism. However, there was a general focus on problems ” natural, given the theme ” that led me to remark that the discussion often didn’t sound like the country I live in. There are many progressive localities throughout the archipelago, a wealth of human resources that other countries envy, and a fierce commitment to democracy that reassures anybody worried about dictatorships ” military or civilian.

The question is how to make these assets add up to a larger whole. Some participants sought relative small changes ” focusing on the Roll-On/Roll-Off Nautical Highway to break down topographical inequalities among the 7,107 islands; a printed ballot to lessen the need for individual name recognition and strengthen political parties; or an electronic logistics system to improve AFP capability. Many did hammer away at the larger questions of good governance and anti-corruption as key to faster economic growth, political stability and development, and even better relations with the outside world. Given that this was an academic conference it is natural that “action plans” were not formulated, but the issues taken up are important to those working for democratic development in the Philippines.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines.

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