Monday, December 29, 2008

No relief for the little people

The Wall Street financial meltdown in the United States is far from over despite the $850-billion dollar stimulus passed by the U.S. Congress. Interest rates have been lowered by the central banks of the world biggest economies but according to most economists, this would not be enough to stave off the worst economic downturn since the 1930s that has now spread to Europe and Asia.

Joining the wailing ranks of the giant auto industry in the United States where General Motors and Chrysler have both threatened bankruptcy should the U.S. government renege on its to promise to help the ailing auto sector, Toyota of Japan recently slashed its earnings forecast, warning all and sundry of its first-ever operating loss.

With Japan sliding into deeper economic recession, China, the world’s fourth largest market, is the latest country to follow the U.S. Federal Reserve in trimming interest rates to fend off a worsening economic slowdown.

According to British central bankers, interest rate cuts alone will not stave off the growing global economic ills that were stoked by the U.S. housing market crisis, which also caused the downfall of major global financial institutions. A new policy tool beyond cutting interest rates would be needed and monetary policy will not be enough to bring Britain’s flagging economy back to life.

The consensus among economists is that the forecast, which is already dark, will even be darker if not enough stimulus is implemented.

As one writer said, “the linchpin of the global economy, the all-might U.S. dollar, is on a death march... this is going to be a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.”

Continuing on with his observation, he said: “To see this collapse of global finance as a problem would be short-sighted indeed. Of course in the West that seems to be the crime of which we are universally guilty, one and all. We must stop seeing the world in the false terms in which we have been schooled....Only then can we begin to appreciate that what is dying before us is only doing so because we didn't save it when it could still be saved. In its current form, the system is beyond redemption. Any effort to piece this global economy back together will amount to nothing more than the penultimate concentration of wealth in history. A concentration so great that talk of police states and new world orders would cease to be talk all together. If you believe that another loan will see you through this rough patch and into open seas on the other side, you have not understood what is happening.”

In the Philippines, where living poor is the norm among urban dwellers, what people see ahead is just the same as the past years. Neglected by their government and constantly pushed towards the miserable depths of poverty, where they are always confronted with the risk of losing their homes and livelihood, they demand, as year after year goes by, the abolition of the prevailing system.

With a population of almost 89 million people, the urban poor make up about 30 per cent. They suffer from extreme poverty caused by lack of gainful employment. To survive, they rely on very dismal wages and meagre earnings which always lag behind the soaring costs of living. Because most of them could not afford housing, they usually end up living in dumpsites, under bridges, along railroad tracks and river banks which are very dangerous areas and beyond the reach of social services. Many of them suffer from diseases like dengue, hepatitis and tuberculosis, if not extreme hunger and destitution.

Meanwhile in Gaza this Christmas, there was no more room in the morgue as hundreds of corpses and wounded were added on the list of daily dead after the Israeli army continued its relentless bombing of Hamas, reminding many of the “shock-and-awe” campaign the Allies launched over Baghdad in 2003. Reports from Gaza spoke of numbers of dead bodies lying on streets, the dead piling up on top of each other because hospital morgues were already full.

While most economists have declared that the market has failed, poverty and war on the other hand, continue to persist. In both situations, the victims are the little people. Those whose homes have been foreclosed and ordinary workers who have lost their jobs, because the economic stimulus offered by the government is not for them but for the big banks who got greedy. Among these harmless civilians are women and little children who have no means to fight off aggression and defend themselves against bombs and the superior firepower of a raging nation.

The best economic minds will continue to debate and shape the financial policies necessary to stem the current global financial crisis, to analyze to death the ideological underpinnings of free market fundamentalism versus government spending and regulation, but all this effort will be for naught if the ordinary worker who has just been laid off or the new homeless people because their homes were recently foreclosed will not be part of any recovery plan. Or if the lamentations of the hungry and the poor are not heard. Or the war machinery is kept running amuck against defenceless women and children as the West continues to turn a blind eye.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A tale of two cities

Other than both being old cities and capitals of their respective governments, Manila and Toronto are two very different cosmopolitan centres. The only added similarity we can think of is the dominant religion of their inhabitants being Roman Catholic, about 80 per cent for Manila and 31 per cent for Toronto.

Beyond that, nothing in Manila can be compared to Toronto, or vice versa. We cannot overstate the obvious.

More than twenty years ago, when my wife and I, together with our little children, decided to move to another country, we never thought of coming to Canada. There was very little we knew about Canada. Yes, we had heard of Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s flamboyant prime minister, had studied the “message is the medium” guru Marshall McLuhan, and knew about Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor whose exploits we had learned studying the Chinese communist revolution.

In any case, our future brought us to Toronto. We had travelled abroad before so the experience made our transition to our new life a little easier, except that the credentials we brought, i.e., our lifetime of education and work experience, did not weigh that much to the judgment of our prospective employers. My wife gobbled up her pride and took the entry job of a junior reporter for a small newspaper and worked her way up to become a magazine editor. In my case, I didn’t want to lick my chops so I decided to go to law school to become a lawyer at an older age, at forty years old to be exact.

This is not a story about our lives, though, or how we had overcome all obstacles and become who we are now. Nothing much has changed with us. We are the same people as we were before, content and happy with the little we have as long as we are rich in things we cherish and deem more valuable in life. Like reading books and expressing our ideas without fear of reprisal or censorship. Or appreciating the art collections of the museums we have visited, or watching movies or plays in the city, or just meandering through the grandeur and enormous beauty of nature around us.

In Toronto we came to better understand the great moral questions of the day, issues about human rights, war, poverty, the vast gap between rich and poor, or the fact that somewhere in the Third World a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or disease. We learned more about how global capitalism pushes the Third World to be mired in a debt trap, or about its destructive effect upon communities of people turning into commodities and social relations into market transactions. Or its damage to our environment.

In Manila, before and after we left, these issues remain the core problems that beset the people, yet they are not free to speak about them without fear of being misunderstood and mistaken as rabble-rousers or branded as sympathetic to the radical left whose members usually are easy prey to extra-judicial executions or forced disappearances.

For many of those who left Manila for Toronto, and those who have recently arrived, the singular reason for migrating is to find a better life, especially for their children. We were not on the same boat; we came for another reason. Hardened by poverty and hard work in Manila, these émigrés persevered in their struggle to find their dream in Toronto. Work hard they did, even working double or triple jobs sometimes. It’s easy to have a comfortable life in Toronto if one works hard, so over the long haul the ex-denizens of Manila eventually succeeded. Their sacrifices were rewarded. They have become consumers; but they only buy known brand names. They have even forgotten where they came from. The concept of poverty has become foreign to them, whether it is the poverty they left behind in Manila or the poverty of children, single mothers or the not-so successful immigrants in Toronto.

One prominent Filipino community leader has even dismissed the idea that somehow Filipinos can help in finding solutions for wiping out poverty in Toronto. “If the government, which has more money to spend for poor people, can’t solve poverty, how much more can we?” she argued.

I used to write to a Toronto e-mail group, composed of my fellow university alumni from the Philippines, about issues that affect our society today in the hope that I could kick-start an intelligent exchange of views. Because my opinions sounded like unorthodox or somehow left-leaning, some members of this group ganged up on me and quite successfully, complicit with the elders and self-proclaimed gatekeepers of the organization, pushed me to the level of a pariah, for they didn’t want to talk about politics or serious matters. They simply wanted to exchange mild banter and inane jokes. I was treated like an apostle of despair, the term Life magazine used to call Jean-Paul Sartre for bugging the bourgeoisie.

Ironically, if these people were still in Manila, they would be regarded as members of the intelligentsia, the intellectual elite, for having studied and earned their university diplomas from the country’s premier institution of learning as Iskolar ng Bayan (public scholars.) They would be expected to be natural leaders or opinion-makers, articulate and literate in discussing the current issues that affect the nation.

Life in Toronto must have changed them or the wintry weather could have caught their mindset in a freeze. These days, they talk about visiting Manila over the Christmas holidays, or shooting the breeze along the beautiful white sands of Boracay in southern Philippines or the beaches of Calatagan in Batangas, the fancy restaurants and elegant coffee shops of Manila, if they are not exchanging tips about the features of their new cell phones or latest techie-toys or their recent weekends in Mexico or Cuba. No discussion of issues allowed here, i.e., nothing about politics, which is their catchpraise whenever they write to the e-mail group or when they hold their monthly coffee meetings.

In Manila before we left, it was not easy to publicly air your ideas because of certain dire consequences. Here in Toronto, there is free speech and one can speak about one’s opinions without fear of censorship as long as you do not defame anyone. But free speech is not tolerated in my e-mail group, among my so-called open-minded and liberal fellow university alumni from the Philippines.

In 1905, Mark Twain spoke about free speech as the privilege of the grave. For the dead, according to Twain, “can speak their honest minds without offending.”

Mark Twain wrote: “There is justification for the reluctance to utter unpopular opinions: the cost of utterance is too heavy; it can ruin a man in his business, it can lose him his friends, it can subject him to public insult and abuse, it can ostracize his unoffending family, and make his house a despised and unvisited solitude. Unpopular opinion concerning politics or religion lies concealed in the breast of every man; in many cases not only one sample, but several. The more intelligent the man, the larger the freightage of this kind of opinions he carries, and keeps to himself. There is not one individual – the reader and myself – who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.”

So, following Mark Twain, I have ceased to take part in this Toronto e-mail group, because to continue and be subjected to shameful and infantile rejoinders is like inflicting self-punishment. It’s like being in Manila again, its déjà vu all over again.

In Toronto, we have found freedom, and we can cherish and enjoy it as long as it is used outside the reach of those who continue to behave like they were minions of repression from Manila. At least in Manila, when your options have run out, you can go underground and join those dissident sparrows hunting their hunters. Although fear of reprisal hasn’t gone unabated, there are still fervent souls who have kept to their ideals.

Sadly, here in this city of freedom and free speech, fear and apathy among Filipinos have been embedded so deeply that it has erased memory to the point of nullity. Anything or anyone that reminds one of the egregious past must be abhorred and banished. In place of memory, we have created new myths that will cater to our image of what we have become: fulfilled, affluent and successful.

Those poor Pinoys in Toronto? The forever-struggling poor in Manila? We’ve erased them from our collective memory. As in the movie credits, we have disavowed “any similarity in features, ethnic or otherwise” from our common heritage. We have abandoned any affinity to our kababayans for the safety of the tantalizing crowd on the other side of the fence.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The shoe could have been a WMD

Before stepping down from the U.S. presidency, George W. H. Bush finally got what he was looking for in Iraq prior to the American invasion in 2003. This WMD or weapon of mass destruction, however, came in the form of a shoe from a disgruntled Iraqi journalist. It was the last thing an unpopular president could have asked for, the ultimate shaming of his presidency’s legacy.

To many Arabs, throwing shoes at another person is a gesture of extreme disrespect. The shoe represents the lowest part of the body (the foot) and displaying or throwing a shoe at someone or something in Arab culture signifies that the person or thing is beneath them. After the giant statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down to the ground by U.S. forces, Iraqi detractors of Hussein’s harsh regime threw their shoes at the fallen statue. Iraqi citizens in Baghdad stamped their shoes on torn-down posters of Saddam Hussein to celebrate his downfall from power.

One should not be surprised at all when Iraqi reporter Muntadhar al- Zaidi threw his shoes at President George Bush while the latter was speaking at a press conference last December 14. It would have been just the second insult of the day because right there on the lobby of Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad is a depiction of George Bush on a mosaic tile on the floor, where visitors entering the hotel have to step on Bush’s face to enter the hotel.

The incident made al-Zaidi an instant hero to many Iraqis and to the Arab world. While al-Zaidi’s mode of attack against a visiting head of state reflected badly on Iraq, we cannot fault others in considering it an ideal parting gift for the president who was responsible for bringing the war on them.

“This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” al-Zaidi yelled in Arabic as he threw his first shoe towards Bush. “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq,” he shouted as he threw the other shoe.

Decorum, of course, demands that we fault al-Zaidi for failure to control his temper, and for behaviour inappropriate for a man of his profession. However, as one writer aptly put it, it is not fair for al-Zaidi to be condemned by those who have not walked in his shoes. He has, after all, seen how his country was destroyed by an unjust war. Al-Zaidi, a correspondent for al-Baghdadia TV, first gained international fame in 2007 when he was detained by unknown assailants and released three days later without ransom. He was also arrested twice by the U.S. armed forces in Iraq.

People may think that al-Zaidi’s behaviour made him sink to Bush’s level; however, this perception is unfortunate because while the enormous publicity the throwing incident generated may resonate for some time, al-Zaidi’s reputation in the long run will have been tarnished—and the Western press could already be exploiting his outburst to smear the Arabs as a whole.

Shoe-throwing as a form of disenchantment or protest is not peculiar to Arabs alone. In January 2007, a member of Taiwan’s legislature hurled a shoe at the House Speaker while others pushed and shoved, throwing the legislative session in total chaos. Such brawls in the Taiwanese legislature were not uncommon in the past, since they represented the island nation’s sometimes stormy transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Another form of unruly public outburst of dissatisfaction and anger at public leaders or personalities is pieing, or smacking a victim with cream pie on the face. Popular in the West, these attacks have taken place throughout the world and have claimed such illustrious victims as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, former European Commission President Jacques Delors and Dutch Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm.

Dr. Rodney Barker, Reader in Government at the London School of Economics, calls these cream-pie attacks as “a form of democratic anarcho-populist politics.” According to Dr. Barker, “what it’s doing is saying that those who are taken incredibly seriously both by themselves and the media deserve to be knocked down a peg or two. It’s about pointing out to the general public that the emperor doesn’t have as many clothes as he thinks he does.”

In the past, as early as the 1st century AD, Roman historians described how Emperor Nero was pelted with onions in the Colosseum. Some had also resorted to throwing eggs, vegetables or rotten cats. The use of cream pie as a means of political protest is relatively a recent phenomenon, and because it is derived from slapstick comedies, is accepted with some humour because it allows you to make your point without actually hurting anybody.

Among the most active of the cream-pie throwers are the Biotic Baking Brigade and Mad Anarchist Bakers’ League in the United States. The Meringue Marauders in Canada. T.A.A.R.T. in Holland, and People Everywhere (PIE) in the United Kingdom.

In Belgium, Noel Godin, the Godfather of the Cream Pie, started in 1969 what he described as a “cream crusade” against the “great and the wicked.” During that time his International Patisserie Brigade has “entarted” everyone from New Wave film director Jean-Luc Goddard to Bill Gates.

“We only use the finest patisserie,” Godin told Britain’s Observer newspaper, “ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything.”

An increasing number of people, however, are seeing cream pie as a useful tool for venting one’s frustration and making a political point.

I have read a blog about a high-profile insulting incident in the central African nation of Chad where hitting someone with a pair of pants is the highest form of insult. According to Chadian culture, this means that the target is lower than the pants, i.e., the hem, which is often near the ground and therefore unclean. The only problem with this form of insult is that the thrower then must retrieve the pants, else he or she be caught with his or her pants down!

My point is we’re taking the recent shoe-throwing incident in Iraq too seriously. The Iraqi reporter has been beaten in jail and may even face imprisonment for his few seconds of fame. Al-Zaidi’s offence is so minor compared to the devastation of Iraq under Bush’s command.

President Bush deftly ducked twice and avoided being hit. Some Iraqi reporters present at the scene offered their apologies to him. “Thanks for apologizing on behalf of the Iraqi people. It doesn’t bother me,” Bush joked. “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw.”

There’s the cue, from the American president himself. End of story.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Finding our true Christmas

Bad economy or not, Christmas must go on.

We hear every Christmastime from pure believers decrying the contamination of Christmas by commercialism. They bewail the loss of the true spirit of Christmas. Today’s consumer society, according to them, has eroded the spirituality and sacredness of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and that crass materialism is leading us to an immoral lifestyle.

But to retailers and shopping malls, Christmas is the largest economic stimulus the economy terribly needs during this financial crisis. Nothing can stop the Christmas shopping season. Oblivious of the big meltdown of financial giants on Wall Street, the ominous threat of bankruptcy by the auto industry, the massive loss of jobs, and the seeming inability of our government leaders and policymakers to stem the tides of recession or the possibility of depression, retail stores and shops will continue to introduce new products as people buy gifts, decorations, and festive items to celebrate Christmas the way they have known it since time immemorial.

When you and I were little kids, we looked forward to Christmas as that event when Dad and Mom would give us the gift we had always wanted. Price didn’t matter those days. But the modern age has changed everything, giving the consumers more choices. The best gift usually is the most expensive money can buy, and if one can afford it, what’s wrong with that? After all, it’s not the gift that really matters; it is the act of giving, the thought, the love, the joy—that’s what matters.

If only everyone can afford to buy a gift, then Christmas as a time of gift-giving could be a perfect event. But our society today is not configured perfectly, where everyone has equal means to satisfy their needs. The reality is that others are more equal; that only a few actually have the infinite resources to buy the best gifts they can give to their children while a majority of families take solace in making promises to their children of better days to come. I grew up savouring those promises and hoped the Big Day would bring something different.

To be cynical of today’s Christmas celebration as being tainted with too much commercialism is understandable, but to ignore the psychological value of giving and blaming Christmas for being commercialized is just hypocritical. It’s not the fault of Christmas that some of us can buy gifts while others can’t even provide a decent meal on the table. Christmas only highlights that disparity, which only tells us that as a society of caring people, we need to do more to spread the joy and cheer that Christmas is supposed to bring.

For instance, we can open up our homes this Christmas to the less fortunate. Adopting a homeless person is also giving, enabling another human being the warmth and comfort of a home, even if only for a night. Donating to the Daily Bread Food Bank or to the Salvation Army so they can share our goodwill to others is another way to give of ourselves this season.

As Christians, we don’t have to celebrate Christmas by surrounding ourselves with a sea of gifts just to remind us of God’s greatest gift to us. It is our faith in God’s selfless love and giving that we must affirm and live by daily. We don’t need the mass marketing of retailers and shops to prick our conscience so we can purchase their goods and give them away all in the name of Christmas. Christmastime has become to many people only a symbolic event, just as it is the biggest sales event for shoppers and retailers. But to Christian believers, the true meaning and spirit of Christmas is within us, every day, 24/7.

This means that if we subscribe to peace as one of the messages Christmas brings, then we must oppose all unjust wars such as the ongoing war in Iraq, the continuing hostilities between Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine, and the animosity against Islam under the guise of a war against terror. We can make a commitment to do so starting this Christmas and for all the days of the coming year.

This also means that we if believe in love that Christmas conveys, then we must embrace everyone as our brother and sister, that we are one in humanity with each other. In more practical terms, this means that we care if the people of Darfur must have to go through hunger and disease, or the people of Africa dying from AIDS, or the rest of the Third World continue to suffer from unfair trade agreements and exploitation of their cheap labour for the benefit of Western capitalism. Because we care, we will oppose the exploitation of the resources and economies of underdeveloped nations by the industrialized capitalist societies under the rubric of globalization. What better day to begin but this Christmas.

Finally, if glad tidings of joy are what Christmas ought to bring, then we must spread peace and love as the true message of Christmas to all, that in our heart of hearts, there is a place for everyone to be treated with respect and human dignity, regardless of who they are, rich or poor, believer or non-believer.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The brutality of pugilism

Oscar de la Hoya, the once-Golden Boy of boxing, and Manny Pacquiao, the leading pound-for-pound boxer in the world today, met last Saturday night (December 6/08) in Las Vegas in what was dubbed as the “Dream Match.”

The younger and much-faster Pacquiao battered the aging Golden Boy into submission when de la Hoya refused to come out to fight in the ninth round. It was a brutally dominant performance by the popular Filipino boxer who defied a huge disadvantage in size by capitalizing on his dizzying hand-and-foot speed together with his awesome punching power in landing stinging shots to de la Hoya’s head, shutting off the ex-champion’s left eye by the end of the eighth round.

Each boxer has been guaranteed millions of dollars, win or lose, more than enough for de la Hoya to ease the healing from all the heavy blows to his head and body, including the welts, bruises and cuts he suffered from the quick hands of his young conqueror.

For the two pugilists, boxing is a combat sport, it was a battle for the ages although no championship belt was at stake. In the end, the better boxer emerged as the true champion and only the future will tell how many more millions of dollars Pacquiao will bring home next time against another marquee opponent.

Who would have thought that pugilism, a.k.a. boxing, introduced by the Greeks as an Olympic sport in 688 B.C., would be a million-dollar raker? For poor, uneducated but muscle-steeled and rumble-tested young boys from rough neighbourhoods in the inner cities of America, or in the slums of Mexico, Panama and the Philippines, boxing is the only way to make a living, and if you’re lucky, to be one of the greats in the pantheon of boxing history. It will bring big cash to a great fighter and the adulation of fans and celebrities who patronize fights in Las Vegas or at Trump casinos.

Boxing, also known as the sweet science, however, is a brutal sport. Professional boxing is a million-dollar brutality. Its brutality is unique because it is the only one in which a contestant achieves victory by knocking out an opponent into a state of unconsciousness. It encourages actions that, if they had occurred on the street, would warrant assault charges. More than a thousand fistfighters have been killed in boxing matches worldwide, and many professional boxers who survive the brutality of the boxing ring must cope with some degree of brain damage.

Boxers who are often hit hard on their heads may end up with long-term mental impairment known as dementia pugilistica. This is often characterized by permanent deterioration of the mental faculties, psychosis, personality change, and tremors. Just observe the once nimble-and-quick heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, who also suffers from Parkinson’s disease, as he struggles to talk and walk, and one can’t stop thinking about the toll of a career’s worth of head trauma.

It is no wonder that as early as 500 A.D., Theodoric the Great banned boxing because it was an insult to God for disfiguring the face, the image of God. Bare-knuckle boxing, the predecessor of prizefighting in 18th century England, was declared in an English case, R. v. Coney in 1882, as an assault with actual bodily harm, despite the consent of the participants, thus marking the end of bare-knuckle contests in England.

Boxing crossed a milestone of shame in 2003. A Florida mother of two became the first casualty of the world of women’s professional boxing. Her family would later sue the promoters by claiming she was goaded into a “vicious, unregulated, bloody slugfest.”

It seems ironic that in a place like America where it is illegal to drive a car without wearing a seatbelt, it would be legal for an industry to profit from two people knocking each other unconscious.

The underlying premise of boxing is barbaric. “Iron” Mike Tyson was once quoted describing his boxing technique: “I try to catch my opponent on the tip of his nose because I try to punch the bone into his brain.” Tyson was so brutal and relentless that nobody viewed him as a regular human being. Everyone thought of him as an animal.

Those who defend boxing argue that many other sports are more dangerous and the rate of a life-threatening injury in boxing is lower than in car-racing, skydiving or mountaineering. But this argument misses the point completely. There is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent down on the canvas in a comatose state. Hockey or football has its share of fisticuffs among its tough-and-rugged players but it was never their aim to knock each other unconscious. It is an anachronism in modern sport that one athlete attacks another on the head until he is knocked senseless, and then consider it a normal part of the game’s strategy.

There is so much violence around us today, of vivid reminders of man’s inhumanity to man, yet we still continue to tolerate an activity that venerates violence primarily for fun and entertainment. With glitzy celebrities occupying boxing ringside seats only, our society revels in this vulgarity that reflects back the dark images of gladiators who preyed and fought like beasts in Rome of yore.

A New York writer, after getting it right about boxing, wrote:

“For too long a time, I loved the brutal sport of prize fighting. But I’ve arrived at last at that cold morning. You cannot love anything that lives in a sewer.

“Looking at the casualties, I’ve come to believe that boxing is one of those leftovers from a more primitive past that should be finished off and killed. I don’t love it any more ... No more kids should be reduced to zombies for the entertainment of people who lead safe, well-defended lives. People who still hear the roar of Ah-lee, Ah-lee. People like me. People like us.”

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Impeaching a president

History is never kind to any impeachment of a sitting president.

There were only two U.S. presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and William Jefferson Clinton in 1998, who were impeached by the U.S. Congress but later acquitted by the Senate. Almost everyone thought Richard Nixon was impeached because of his role in the Watergate scandal but he resigned from the presidency, thus avoiding the near certainty of impeachment which had already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, and the apparent likelihood of conviction by the Senate.

Joseph Estrada was the only Philippine president impeached by the House of Representatives but a people power revolution, EDSA III, pre-empted his conviction and he was forced to resign.

While an invention by the British, impeachment has not been used for over two hundred years in the United Kingdom since the impeachment trial of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville in 1806. The Pakistani parliament tried to impeach President Pervez Musharraf in August 2008, and the Russian Duma made several attempts to impeach Boris Yeltsin but, in both instances, the initiative did not come into fruition.

Impeachment of the president entails two stages. The first stage is formally called impeachment, where the charges are presented, usually to the Lower House of Congress who then must vote to impeach or to dismiss the charges by a majority or by two-thirds vote of its membership. Impeachment during the first stage is comparable to an indictment by the regular courts. After the president is impeached, the process goes to the next stage where he is tried by the Senate who then must convict or acquit the president.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo recently has just weathered the fourth impeachment complaint made against her since 2005. The majority of the House of Representatives voted along party lines and ignored the merits of the case in dismissing the complaint against Arroyo. In the Philippines, two-thirds vote of the membership of the Lower House is needed to impeach the president while the U.S. Congress requires only a majority vote.

Arroyo was accused of betrayal of public trust, culpable violation of the Constitution, bribery, graft and corruption, and other high crimes. On paper, these charges appear sufficient to establish Arroyo as an enemy of the people, yet members of Congress who belong to her party or who are sympathetic to her and may have benefited either financially or in kind from their blind obedience and allegiance to the president, easily defeated the motion to impeach. A simple victory for Arroyo because she has the numbers in Congress to support her. In other words, the tyranny of majority rules.

It was not as if the impeachment complaint has no legs to stand on. The grounds cited against Arroyo are:

  • the overpriced NorthRail Project involving a $400 million loan from China's Export-Import Bank

  • the National Broadband Network (NBN) deal between the Philippine government and China’s ZTE Corporation

  • the ZTE-Mt. Diwalwal mining contract

  • bribery of members of Congress when she authorized cash gifts amounting to half a million pesos each to members of Congress in exchange for the dismissal of the genuine impeachment complaints in favour of the Pulido sham complaint

  • the so-called “Hello Garci” scandal wherein the President was caught on tape while tampering with the results of the 2004 elections

  • the fertilizer funds scandal which personally benefited Arroyo and some key officials of her government

  • human rights violations, particularly Arroyo’s culpability and responsibility for extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture of individuals opposed to her administration.

Not a bit surprised with the dismissal of the impeachment complaint against Arroyo, Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Cruz of Lingayen-Dagupan called the present impeachment process “a tyranny of numbers game...a flawed socio-political principle whereby the majority and minority are eventually the oppressor and oppressed, respectively.”

Archbishop Cruz further wrote in his blog: “Thinking that the validity of the impeachment complaint depends on a numerical count of those who vote on the veracity or falsity of the said content and spirit, merely on the ground of political alliances, simply in view of beneficial considerations is the avid shaping of perversion and the downright making of perverts.”

Harsh words from a man of the cloth.

When the purpose of government is debased by corruption, and when the law of the land is openly defiled, what then should we call those we elect as our leaders but depraved individuals who do not care about the havoc they inflict on the lives of the Filipino people? When the institutions of government are broken, and when you have a president who cares only about staying in power by whatever means necessary, what can we expect an impeachment complaint to bring about? Nothing.

The charges against Arroyo pale in comparison to the charges made against Clinton during his impeachment by the U.S. Congress. Clinton was charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power, arguably untenable to be categorized as other high crimes and misdemeanours, which in addition to treason and bribery are the only grounds for impeachment of a U.S. president. The charges against Clinton arose from two sex scandals in which he was the protagonist, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Paula Jones suit.

Arroyo’s sin is betraying the people’s trust, a crime closer to treason.

For the following crimes and misdemeanours against the Filipino people, Arroyo stands out as the most corrupt, most oppressive, and most dictatorial of all Philippine presidents:

  • for pillaging the nation’s coffers through an aggressive implementation of policies of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization, by corrupting the country’s institutions and processes

  • by allowing the scandalous plunder of resources by foreign investors and contractors in exchange for millions of dollars as grease money for her family and friends

  • for bribing officials to cover up irregularities committed under her nose

  • for tampering with the results of a democratic election

  • for ordering the military to engage in a campaign of extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and torture of those who oppose her

  • for censuring the media and threatening journalists with charges of sedition and libel

Move over Ferdinand Marcos.

So, what’s next after the fourth impeachment complaint against Arroyo? Another impeachment complaint, what else? What can the people expect?

Nothing really. A congressman from Cebu even compared Arroyo to Jesus Christ. How much more depraved can it be?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The two faces of terrorism

Terrorism in the modern era has two faces.

One face portrays the violence inflicted by organizations identified with the Islamic resistance against the influence of Western secularization epitomized for the most part by the United States. The other face represents the response of the U.S. and its Western allies in the form of counter-terrorism or counter violence.

Both sides harbour deep animosity against each other. Each one responds to the other through violent means that can aptly be described as terroristic. From their perspectives, their actions are justified and necessary. Because the U.S. and the West have more influence and greater political power and economic clout, world public opinion tilts in their favour and so their response to the other side’s terrorism is widely accepted as righteous and just, but not enough to deter zealous Muslim organizations in expanding the reach of Islam which already covers roughly 25 per cent of the world’s population.

The recent assault on Mumbai has been dubbed by observers in the West as India’s 9/11. But unlike the United States, India has never been immune from violent attacks from its minority Muslim population. Equally blameworthy is its Hindu population which has also perpetrated similar violent assaults against Muslims, especially those radical Hindus who see the minorities in India like the Muslims and Christians as a threat to India’s dominant Hindu heritage.

This is not the first time Mumbai has been the target of terroristic attacks. In 1993, Bombay (now Mumbai) was rocked by a series of thirteen bomb explosions resulting in up to 250 civilian fatalities and 700 injuries. The attacks were believed to be carried out in retaliation for widespread massacre of Muslims in Mumbai that happened two months previous and the demolition of Babri Masjid.

Also in 2006, the Suburban Railway in Mumbai was bombed over a period of 11 minutes. More than 209 people were killed and over 700 were injured. According to the Mumbai police, the bombings were carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Students Islamic Movement of India.

Every time the majority of a country’s population is threatened by its minority group, particularly by Muslims, the world readily condemns threats or assaults against the democratic ideals and the rule of law. But if the situation is reversed, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, where close to two million people have died, or Israel’s air raids in Lebanon or Palestinian strongholds, such military incursions have been justified under the rubric of self-defence or considered necessary to combat terrorism.

This double standard mentality is also true in the Philippines which has a Muslim minority in the south. Heavy offensives by the Philippine military and visiting American forces embedded in the local army have not only resulted in deaths of innocent civilian Muslims that included children, but also in a massive exodus of refugees. No blame attaches to these military attacks, and they are seen as justified and necessary in the war against terror.

Whenever terrorism strikes back against civilian targets such as bombings in Metro Manila and other densely populated cities in the south, easily any one of the following groups is the usual suspect: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayaff Group (ASG), the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the New People’s Army (NPA). For example, the bombing that resulted in the sinking of SuperFerry 14 on February 27, 2000, killing 116 people on board, was considered the world’s deadliest terroristic attack at sea.

In December 2000, a wave of blasts in five separate locations in the city of Manila left a total of twenty-two people dead and about 100 injured. The attacks were known as the Rizal Day Bombings because they took place on December 30, the death anniversary of the country’s national hero. Immediately, the MILF was blamed, but it denied involvement, so police investigators turned their finger on the Abu Sayyaf for the attacks. Yet the police came up with another theory that members of the police and the Philippine Senate could be responsible for the attacks.

Later, in May 2003, a terrorist group called Saifulla Unos, involved with the MILF and with links to Al Qaeda, admitted to leading the Rizal Day bombings. During the fourth blast in that attack in Manila in 2000, two men were arrested and found to have ties to the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group.

Like the recent attacks in Mumbai, the Philippines has also had its share of terroristic violence, now almost a daily occurrence at the rate the government’s army and U.S. forces continue to bombard and raid Muslim strongholds in the south. The government of India has suggested that Muslim organizations such as the militant Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al Qaeda based in neighbouring Pakistan could be responsible for the Mumbai assault, although a group called Deccan Mujahedeen has claimed responsibility.

Another group which cannot be discounted is the home-grown Indian Mujahedeen which has been blamed for attacks in the recent past. It is widely known in India that there has been much anger within the poorest sections of the Muslim community against the systematic discrimination and acts of violence carried out against them. A blatant example of this was the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.

All these Muslim organizations, both in the Philippines and India, are alleged to have known ties to Al Qaeda, which implies that the breadth of the Jihadist movement is no longer confined to the Arabs in the Middle East.

Observers and security analysts in the West, however, may have exaggerated the strength and influence of Al Qaeda. The dreaded Osama Bin Laden terror group has not been active in recent terroristic attacks against U.S. installations or institutions, indicating it is on a decline which the CIA has confirmed.

Home-grown separatist movements, or terroristic organizations to the eyes of the West, have mushroomed and blossomed in countries where minority rights have been in jeopardy for a long time. These movements could be Islamic-inspired or simply motivated to achieve their own free and independent state based on a distinct culture or language. Apparently, they are now capable of launching effective and more organized strikes against their majority governments.

Every once in a while, the United States has also experienced this kind of onslaught by extremist groups, such as the bombing of a federal government building in Colorado or even the Columbine school massacre some years ago. In the past, Canada too has suffered from terroristic violence in the hands of Quebec separatists.

Mumbai or Manila cannot compare terroristic assaults on their institutions to the September 11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon building. Terrorism in their own realms is too close to their heart. It is a problem that lies at the root of their minority population’s struggle to be free and to be recognized as equal with the majority population, a fact their present governments, the United States and its Western allies, cannot forever ignore.

Nothing ever justifies terrorism. But it’s about time for the leaders of India and the Philippines to direct their attention to the prevailing conditions in their own country. Profound economic disparities persist in both countries. It is absurd to believe that the so-called trickle-down effects of global capitalism would solve these countries’ problems, considering that the real benefits from the new global economy accrue only to the already-affluent nations in the West, and reinforced by new forms of transborder capitalist exploitation.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Letters to an old comrade: Is there still hope for us?

More than half a century has passed, yet our country still limps under the throes of revolutionary change. Some of our old friends have died in the prime of their youth. Some have just given up and gone to embrace the comfort of the other side. Others have escaped in the peace and calm of foreign shores while the brave and more resilient ones continue on with the arduous work. We have yet to see the banner of genuine democracy waving from Batanes to Jolo.

Is it time to give up? Is it whimsical to keep on hoping?

Barack Obama, the president-elect of the United States, campaigned on a promise of change everyone can believe in. Defying the heavy odds against the first African-American to run as president of a country born from a revolutionary war and a civil war to end the slavery of blacks, Obama captured the imagination of the American electorate on the strength of his ideas and vision of change.

But it is a mere promise of change, a glowing but nearly empty rhetoric for a new America. Yet, Obama easily won America’s hearts and minds. By putting him in the Oval Office, America has given their trust that he will deliver the change he promised.

Are we such hard-headed people that we cannot believe in a similar promise of change? Maybe not. We fell for the Marcos slogan of making our country great again, or for his vision of a new society. In every presidential election I could remember, we have always elected a new leader after another hoping there would be change forthcoming. But after the euphoria of each election had subsided, our country has gone on to become more bankrupt, poorer, and less sensitive to the plight of the greater majority of our masses.

It seems to be not a question of a leadership vacuum at all. We have never run out of great minds, of people with the best intellect our country can use to map out a better future for our people. With the exception of a former movie action star and the wife of a political martyr, and perhaps the current sitting president, all the presidents our country had chosen possessed the necessary intellectual wherewithal to be the helmsmen of our nation. But why didn’t they live up to their promise?

What is the real problem with our society, Ka Topits?

The Spaniards colonized us for over four centuries, instilling in our minds a reverence for God, thus making the Philippines the only Christian nation in the Far East. When the Americans annexed us as their first colony after driving out the Spaniards, they thought we were savages that needed to be civilized. So, we were civilized. After being colonized by a former European power, then by the mighty Americans for another century, we should have been the beneficiary of the confluence of two great cultures. Yet, it was not meant to be. Our colonial masters turned us into a slave nation, a people without pride and dignity, a people who will always look up to foreigners as their masters.

So even after gaining our nominal independence from the Americans, we have to continue with our inner revolution, our own struggle for national identity. We have gone through a succession of presidents, yet our country remains the same. Status quo is change for us.

Change has always been the aim of our struggle for genuine independence as a people. We have tried to seek change peacefully, and through violent means quite sporadically. Both ways, we have been unsuccessful. But still, we continue on our quest for this holy grail of change. We’ve been trying charter change forever, and the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front persist in their own liberation struggle against the state’s military and its friendly American visiting forces. How far is the end of this tunnel so we can see a flicker of light, at least a ray of hope that will assure us that real change is on the way?

Many have said that we need to overhaul our entire social structure if want change to happen. Even the current pope, who has often been considered as veering to the religious right, says: “the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom.”

Even if we have the best structures, we still need a society that is capable of freely assenting to the social order that we would like to establish. But freedom does not exist on its own, freedom must be gained, and this is where our dilemma lies.

Filipinos fought for freedom during the revolution against Spain. We fought the Americans when they the stole the republic from us. When the Japanese invaded us, we resisted their armies. Up until now, our Muslim brothers in the South never yielded in their struggle for their own autonomy.

We can learn a little from the resiliency of our brother Muslims. Freedom is achieved if we are relentless in fighting for it. Only when we are able to hoist the flag of freedom without interference from others—foreign power or its lackeys—can we truly declare ourselves free to choose our own destiny, and build a society that represents the will of our people.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Letters to an old comrade: Third installment

Ka Topits,

Children were reported killed during the military offensive in Mindanao last September 8, 2008. To treat these dead children as “child soldiers,” which an officer of the Philippine military has claimed, is a gross and revolting understatement of the value of a child’s life.

We have known throughout the history of mankind that children, other than being casualties of wars, have also been used to serve the ends of war. From the age of antiquity, young boys had served as aides, charioteers and armour bearers to adult warriors. The Bible spoke of David as a young boy when he slew Goliath during the war between the Israelites and the Philistines. From early modern warfare to present-day struggles for liberation and internecine tribal wars, hundreds of thousands of children are involved in armed conflicts around the world. Young boys and girls below the age of eighteen, some as young as thirteen, are being used in a variety of ways, such as cooking or portering to active fighting, laying landmines or spying and girls are frequently used for sexual purposes.

According to Human Rights Watch, as of July 2007, children are direct participants in war in over twenty countries around the world. It is estimated that there are 200,000 to 300,000 children serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts. An estimated 13 per cent of the 10,000 soldiers in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in southern Philippines are children. The New People's Army (NPA) gave up the use of child soldiers, and instituted a minimum age of 16 for those acting as couriers, medical volunteers and members of education and propaganda units. It also set 18 as the more preferred age to become members of the force.

One can hardly disagree that the recruitment and use of children for purposes of war violates their rights and causes them physical, developmental, emotional, mental, and spiritual harm. Although the ancient Romans used children in their wars of conquest, they understood that it was unwise and cruel to use children in war. Thus, the Roman historian of Greek descent, Plutarch, wrote that there ought to be regulations requiring children to be at least sixteen years old if they were to be used in military service.

When does a person become a “child soldier”?

Under international law and the laws of most nations in the world, a child reaches the age of majority when he turns 18. This means that persons recruited and used in armed conflict below the age of 18 are considered “child soldiers.”

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child provides that all feasible measures must be taken by states “to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” Countries like Canada and the U.S. continue to recruit children below 18 in its army but they are deployed in actual hostilities only until they reach 18, which is consistent with the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict to the Convention that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and they are not compulsorily recruited into the army.

Furthermore, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court considers enlisting and use of children under the age of 15 in the army as a war crime.

The Paris Principles adopted in February 2007 which set the guidelines on the involvement of children with armed forces or armed groups reiterated that such children must be below 18 years of age and recruited or used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or sexual purposes. However, the Principles include all children whether taking or have a direct part in hostilities.

This is an overarching definition of a child soldier because any child found in communities where armed groups, like the NPA and MILF operate or have influence, is then deemed a child soldier. When such communities are attacked by government forces, children found in these areas could be considered child soldiers and associated with armed groups by virtue of being residents of these communities. Hence, the state armed forces have an excuse to escape prosecution by arguing that children killed or arrested during military engagements with rebel forces are associated with armed groups.

The Philippine Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) does not agree with this definition of a “child soldier” by the Paris Principles, which they argued was based on the experience and practices of African countries that used children in their tribal or inter-racial wars. Seen as a war of national liberation, armed conflict in the Philippines is different from the internecine wars in Africa; that it is a war waged against an oppressive state that violates people’s rights. In this context, the state becomes the number one violator of people’s rights, including the rights of children.

Children under 18 years of age who are taken prisoners during hostilities and are accused of crimes against national and international laws by the state should be considered primarily as the real victims, not the alleged perpetrators. Should there be persuasive evidence that these children were actually taking a direct part in the hostilities, they should be treated, which the Paris Principles uphold, with international standards for juvenile justice, such as in the framework of restorative justice and rehabilitation.

But to immediately brand them as “child soldiers” just because they were in the company of armed rebel groups or found in communities friendly to the insurgents is not only irresponsible but also ignores the best interests of these children.

The Philippines should not take the path taken by the United States which detained child soldiers and non-combatant minors captured during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Omar Khadr, a 15-year-old Canadian citizen, was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 and has been imprisoned at Guantanamo until now. The U.S. government incarcerated Khadr with adults, tortured him, failed to provide him any educational opportunities, and denied him any direct contact with his family.

While some children are forcibly recruited into armed groups, such as those children conscripted to join in the 1993-2002 armed hostilities in Sierra Leone, the vast majority of child soldiers are adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 who have volunteered to join up. Economic, social, community and family structures are frequently destroyed by armed conflict and joining the ranks of the insurgents is often the only means of survival for these children. This is commonly true in villages and communities in Mindanao that have been ravaged by government military offensives, thus making the wars waged by government forces as a major determinant in the enlistment of children in the rebel armies.

In any event, children should never be involved in adult wars only to become disabled or die in such conflicts. It is the primary objective of the state to provide the most protective environment for all its children. But whenever the state turns around its obligation to protect children and uses them instead as shield from prosecution for their crimes against humanity, it makes all laws, international or national, a big sham.

What’s happening to our society, Ka Topits? It seems like the world is turning upside down. Is there any hope left for us?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Letters to an old comrade: Second installment

Ka Topits,

I hope your illness does not bother you so much as to hinder your ability to read. Old age has the added misfortune of making us vulnerable to a host of health issues which most of us wish should have visited us earlier in our youth when we were stronger and more robust. My doctor has just told me that my blood sugar level is quite high and has prescribed a drug medication I have to take for life, or whatever is left of it, to be exact. Only three weeks ago, I had cataract surgery on my left eye and my vision is now much clearer.

I’ve read recently an article written by E. San Juan Jr., a Filipino academic based in the United States, which suggests that the Philippines could be a “third Vietnam” on account of the current military engagement between our country’s soldiers and U.S. forces against Muslim insurgents in Mindanao.

You probably clearly remember the Vietnam War and the war protest marches we joined in Manila in the late ’60s. I was a young university student in those days while you were already a community organizer for the movement for genuine democracy.

The Philipines was actually the “first Vietnam” when the U.S. decided to colonize us at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. As a point of historical fact, we are the United States’ first colony. Instead of allowing us to savour our new-found independence from Spain after the revolution, the U.S. descended with all its might upon the revolutionary Philippine republic and made it a colonial possession.

What the U.S. forces are trying to accomplish now under the auspices of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), signed by the Philippines and the U.S. as a replacement for the much-criticized military bases treaty between the two countries, is exactly the same job it did a century ago. During the U.S. military expeditions in Jolo right after annexing the Philippines as a colony, thousands of Muslim men, women and children were massacred in the 1906 siege of Mt. Dajo and the 1913 rout at Mt. Bagsak, all for the sole purpose of pacifying the islands.

The current U.S. military engagement in Mindanao is an attempt to recapture the towns and villages liberated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF); it is history repeating itself.

As the number of casualties rise from this government offensive, the magnitude of violence and civilian suffering is continuously being ignored by both the current sitting president in the White House and the newly minted president-elect. According to the BBC and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the full-scale war has resulted in massive evacuation of tens of thousands of refugees and residents, and the killing of civilians by indiscriminate AFP aerial and artillery bombardments. Already, the Red Cross is warning of a potential sectarian ethnic cleansing.

Philippine government officials have also confirmed that U.S. forces have installed their command post in Zamboanga City, inside Camp Navarro of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command. This post, off-limits to non-US military personnel, is said to be sealed by permanent walls, concertina wires and sandbags, with visible communication facilities such as satellite dishes, antennas, etc. From here, the U.S. forces would launch and direct operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the MILF, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), or the New People’s Army (NPA). If this is not a carbon copy of US military operations in Vietnam, what else could it be?

President Gloria Arroyo has justified embedding U.S. forces within the Philippine military as necessary in the war against terrorism. The U.S. government considers Jolo, together with Muslim-occupied territories won by the MILF and the MNLF, as the second battlefront in the war against terrorism after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan following 9/11. In exchange for appeasing Washington, Arroyo has obtained $356 million in security-related assistance, the largest military package since the closing of the U.S. bases in 1992.

But this American-led war on terrorists in Mindanao is a mere stratagem to an unjustified war on humanity, against innocent Muslim citizens of the Philippines. The wars waged by the MILF or the MNLF have never been for the purpose of sowing terror in the region. From the beginning of time, we have always known that our Muslim brothers in the south only wanted to be free and independent from the central government in Manila, hitherto the seat of the colonial powers or their subalterns. Their wars have been struggles for independence and liberation, not terroristic activities. This is the main reason why the Muslim-occupied regions of Mindanao have never been pacified or contained since the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century, and after our country was made a colony by the Americans in 1898.

What is wrong with our country, Ka Topits?

We rescinded the U.S. military bases agreement in 1992 which heralded a milestone in our struggle for independence against U.S. control. Our countrymen were elated that after 100 years of enjoying extraterritorial rights and inflicting abuses and indignities on Filipinos, the U.S. would no longer be around telling us what we can or cannot do. But when our government caved in to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1998, a larger monster descended on us. This VFA seems to be a much bigger sell-out of Philippine sovereignty.

In addition to having unrestricted freedom of movement, flexibility and manoeuvre, the U.S. forces under the VFA are also allowed in non-traditional threats, a much wider area of involvement covering terrorism, drug-trafficking, piracy, and disasters such as floods, typhoons, earthquakes and epidemics.

When Typhoon Frank hit the island of Panay early this year, the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan was dispatched by the U.S. government allegedly to assist in local relief and recovery efforts. The fleet hovered around the Sulu Sea where Moro insurgents operate and Panay Island where the NPA is active. Progressive-minded groups were angry at President Arroyo for welcoming the nuclear-powered vessels on Philippine waters because it violated our Constitution’s ban on the entry of nuclear weapons in Philippine territory and the secrecy of its movements.

The ancestral domain in Mindanao, long coveted by the MILF as the new Bangsa Moro nation, could be the new “killing fields.” There are reports of deep involvement of U.S. forces in combat operations against MILF detachments that have led to the dislocation of over 250,000 civilians, with several hundreds killed due to the mayhem.

What have our leaders done to denounce and stop this carnage and destruction affecting millions of our countrymen in the south? When will the U.S. meddling on behalf of the corrupt and bankrupt Arroyo regime end?

The more reason we need massive “people power” on the streets again in order to protest the criminality of the U.S.-Arroyo regime and to scrap the VFA and all other instruments of U.S. control. Otherwise, our country will quietly slip into the horror of another Vietnam.

Another thing, Ka Topits. What is this I heard that Filipino children killed in the crossfire between government soldiers and insurgents are being branded as “child soldiers?” It’s an issue I will tackle in my next letter. Meanwhile, Godspeed and hope everything is well.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Letters to an old comrade: First installment

Dear Ka Topits,

It has been more than twenty years since we left the Philippines. Our country at that time was reeling from one failed coup to another. Obviously, the feeble attempts by the military to destabilize and unseat the newly-installed Aquino government were just for show and nothing else. The struggle for genuine democracy had been momentarily stymied by the popular “people power revolution” that was supported and blessed by the Roman Catholic Church and its influential friends from the business elite. Ultimately, this led to the expulsion of the dictator Marcos from the Philippines.

Most of us in the struggle have looked up to you as a paragon of strength and resilience on account of the long years you have dedicated helping our people achieve their true democratic aspirations, from the time when, as a young lad, you joined the nascent peasant organization fight against the government that betrayed the peasants’ trust after helping defeat the Japanese army during the war, to that time when, in the cusp of your manhood, you linked again with the surging democratic movement comprising of peasants, workers and students. Remember that this was the time we caught up with one another in that sleepy town by the shores of Laguna de Bay. And from that time of brief revolutionary lull after the Marcos downfall to the continuing struggle to fulfill our people’s democratic dreams, I have always considered you as the most stubborn of all the revolutionaries I have come to meet in my lifetime.

We have lost contact since then, but news about you continue to reach us, some in mysterious ways, in this far away, safe and peaceful land we have come to call home. I have heard that your fragile condition brought on by a debilitating illness has slowed down your usual frenetic ways as you slowly inch towards the golden years of your life. This heartbreaking news has worried us deeply, but after having known you all these years, we know this would not be a reason for you to call it quits now, would it? Unlike me who ran away after spending only twenty years, you must have accumulated over fifty years of continuous and selfless service to the masses.

What has happened to our country, Ka Topits?

Labour migration has become the only remaining option for many Filipinos; the country has no viable domestic economy that can generate jobs for its people. Despite the government’s claim that it had implemented a successful land reform program, 70 per cent of agricultural land still remains in the hands of landlords, thus millions of farmers are unproductive and without a stable income.

Instead of building a manufacturing base, all the country can offer are assembly lines or repackaging plants that are integrated with the new global economy that exploits cheap labour and offers no job security because jobs are inextricably tied to government’s labour contracting policy.

We have seen an increasing deployment of caregivers and domestic workers, 90 per cent of them women, here in Canada. These are workers who have studied and trained to become teachers, nurses, medical workers or accountants who cannot find gainful employment in the Philippines. This labour migration from the Philippines has become a model for other developing countries mainly because of the remittances accruing from foreign employment.

Most contract workers pay exorbitant fees just to work overseas. The Philippine government has even installed an infrastructure that extorts these fees from every outgoing overseas worker, accredits recruitment agencies, and provides skills training and immigration lectures, and supposedly earmarks benefits for migrant workers and their families. Whether these workers and their families benefit from protections by the government is debatable. Oftentimes, these overseas workers are left to fend for themselves. Some Filipino nannies here in Canada, for example, have to beg for penny contributions from their fellow workers and friends just to send home the body of a deceased co-worker.

Labour migration as a pillar of economic sustainability is a very dangerous policy. When government continues to fail to stimulate its economy, it will not be capable of creating jobs and will depend more and more on overseas labour deployment. Over the long run, this dependence on labour migration will erode much-needed policy reform and new governance, which may ultimately push our people into complacency and defeatism. Already, the government is using it to evade comprehensive policy reforms that would make the economy more responsive to the basic social and economic rights of our people.

Besides the long-run economic limitations of labour migration, the deployment of our workers overseas has also some inherent social drawbacks. There are many instances of marital or family breakdowns because of forced separations between spouses and their children. A number of women workers have also been easy prey for sexual abuse and exploitation. In many cases, the Philippine government, through its diplomatic consular offices, has been largely inadequate in providing assistance, or worse, support is pitiful or nonexistent.

A close friend has disclosed to me recently that she had been approached by a group of nannies who came to Toronto through the backdoor or under a made-up contract as live-in caregivers. They were recruited in Manila and Hongkong by a Toronto-based agency which was able to secure visas for them to work as caregivers. After filling up their application forms, they paid the agency a huge sum for processing, and signed a contract for additional payments in monthly installments as soon as they were deployed for work.

Upon arrival in Toronto, the contract workers found there was no work waiting for them. Without financial means nor relatives who could offer temporary accommodation in the city, these women were forced to live in cramped spaces in the house of the recruitment agency owner. Meantime, they were assigned to an assortment of temporary jobs without pay in exchange for accommodation and food.

When the consular office of the Philippine government was contacted and informed of the workers’ situation, they were told nothing could be done, that it was up to their agency to live up to their contractual agreement. The workers wanted to tell Canada Immigration about their plight, but the threat of deportation loomed, forcing them to backtrack and to accept their fate without protest.

A recent survey by the independent think tank IBON Foundation reported that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has received a failing mark for performance as leader of the country. More than 80 per cent said they were unsatisfied with her performance as president.

As president of a country which has relied on labour migration and the dollar remittances of overseas workers to prop up its economy, Arroyo has a moral obligation to help protect Filipino workers such as those kept like hostages in Toronto by unscrupulous labour recruiters. But given Arroyo’s unsatisfactory rating as president, a Toronto consular official’s quiet confirmation that nothing can really be done only bolsters the fear of many that our best expectation is not to expect anything at all.

There are other issues I wish to bring up in this letter, but I am afraid I have to write about them next time as I must leave for an appointment downtown.

Meantime, take good care of yourself and keep the home fires burning.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Why can’t we be serious?

As a people, Filipinos seem hopelessly enamoured with humour. We laugh at our shortcomings and failures, and we make fun of our inability to be serious when it’s time to be. What we fail to realize is that this is a very ambiguous trait that, as the world turns, could either make or undo us as a people.

When Joseph Estrada was elected president of the country, many scoffed at his rudimentary English, even chastising him from speaking English in his public appearances or meetings with foreign dignitaries, yet we all knew his shortcomings before electing him to the highest office in the land. Later, we even collected all the jokes about him as if these were his only legacy and memorialized them every time we had the opportunity to crack an Erap joke.

Some of us may justify this inclination for humour or taking things very lightly with a defeatist shrug and with the ever-so-popular lame excuse that life is just too short. So we may not care about the affairs of the state, especially if we are talking about the Philippines and the poverty in our country when we are thousands of miles away here in comfort in Canada. I even heard someone said that if you wish to talk about the problems that plague the Philippines, then you’d better go home and do the talking there. “Life is too short,” he said, and why would he bother?

People, such as this person I was talking about, would rather spend time kibitzing or horsing around, sending retread jokes on the Internet or drinking coffee while bantering with his cohort of happy-go-lucky-misery-proof friends. If you persist in discussing serious issues with them, they will brusquely dismiss you as opinionated, or even high-minded. To them, life is just too short to waste time on matters one doesn’t have any control of. One person whose views border on the edge of hedonism and crudeness even said that life is a joke.

It is no wonder that as a people we have not progressed well; at least, on the intellectual level. Our achievement index is flat. So long as we are able to satisfy our basic needs, nothing else matters. The bottomline for most of us is just to fill our pockets. We revel in the glitzy success of our entertainment stars like singers or dancers, yet we don’t encourage those with the genuine artistic talent to flourish. We’re awed by the palatial mansions a few among us have acquired, yet we ignore the conditions of many doomed to stay in public housing or low-rent apartments in the inner city. We recognize our well-off physicians and professionals who’ve made good in their careers, but we don’t commiserate with the plight of those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder who continue to struggle in making both ends meet.

Filipinos here in Canada are part of the phenomenon of larger-scale migration due to exploitation and hardship in our native land. Most of us were driven to leave our country to seek better opportunities abroad, but majority of the migrants among us were forced to leave their families to seek jobs abroad because of poverty, lack of employment and our economy’s persistent underdevelopment. There are also some of us who have to leave our homeland because of intolerable persecution and suppression of our political rights.

To the Philippine government, our migrant workers, like Filipino live-in caregivers in Canada, are no more than an object of further exploitation. They pay exorbitant fees just to come here without gaining any protection in return. Migrant workers have also become an abundant source of foreign exchange which, however, is not used by the government to stimulate the economy and create jobs, but to further aggravate poverty and our country’s underdevelopment.

Most of our migrant workers wish to return to our homeland, a yearning many of us share. Yet the conditions in our country have remained very unforgiving so they have decided to settle permanently in this foreign country. If we talk about this desire and longing to go home, surely many will laugh and call it a big joke. Get a life, they will tell you. You are out of the frying pan now, why should you go back to the fire?

This cavalier tendency to take things in stride is not without any downside. It may become an opiate that numbs our senses to the point that we may never be able to recognize the need to be serious, or have the ability to care. Not everything can be cured by laughter; the doctor that prescribed it must have forgotten to add. Especially when it is insensitive humour that attempts to treat life only as an illusion and to forget that reality can be harsh, cruel, and quite brutish.

Worse, this nonchalance could turn us into a hapless fool like Titania, queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who exclaimed, “My Oberon! What visions have I seen! Methought I was enamour'd of an ass.”

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The fine art of disagreeing

Disagreeing with another person seems to have lost its fine art. It is normal in politics today to throw back innuendoes at each other, which most oftentimes characterizes the negative campaigning we have seen and heard on TV. McCain calling Obama a “socialist” for suggesting to spread the wealth. Or Obama suggesting that McCain was erratic. But that is fair game, it is in the nature of politics to be destructive.

But to hear the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, complaining that her First Amendment rights may have been threatened by negative criticisms about her by reporters or columnists is way off-line. She might be voicing the standard right-wing grievance that it’s inherently unfair when they are criticized by the mainstream media. To complain that it has threatened her rights of free speech under the Constitution shows her profound ignorance of our basic liberties.

This reminds me of how ordinary people like you or me who is not into politics could also be at the receiving end of an unfair criticism. It could be a simple exchange of opposing opinions. You graciously accept the other side’s criticisms and quietly lick your chops. But when you counter with your own criticism, the other side balks and reacts quite angrily by throwing dirt at you, or digs something nasty about your past and brings it into open to denigrate you, which you know, or the other party is also probably aware, has no relevance to the subject in dispute. The purpose is simply to throw you off balance, perhaps to silence you by taking away your right to express yourself.

Sometimes this kind of uncalled-for criticism works—and not to enlighten the discussion, because it’s not even germane to the debate. But it can stop you dead on your track. When the other side puts a twist on what you said that you have never intended, it casts you in a negative light. It puts an end to any intelligent discussion. You have just been a victim of character assassination, so welcome to the world of bloodless murder.

What the other side may not know, or the others who were complicit by their silence, is that the consequences of attempts to assassinate a person’s reputation are like literally an assassination of human life. It can cause him to be rejected by the community, by his friends, and to some extent, by his family. There could be lasting consequences which may endure even beyond the person’s own life.

We have learned from religious teaching that we should not bear false witness against our neighbour. But that’s easier said than done.

When was the last time your character was defamed? You must have felt so powerless. You wanted to get even because you couldn’t control the anger that has welled up within you. You were afraid your friends believed every word said about you and they in turn had turned their backs on you.

Your character is your most prized possession, and when it has been destroyed, the person inside you cries for revenge. But when you are about to strike back, you realize that it’s not worth it. That is the moment when intelligence triumphs over passion, when reason rules over emotion.

Reason always tells us that the best way to deal with a character assassin is to convert him to be a character builder. There is wisdom in blessing those who persecute, instead of cursing them. This may be a religious approach, but the history of martyrdom is full of men and women who have turned their backs to their enemies, of loving them rather than prolonging the hatred and animosity. There is virtue in believing in the age-old concept of wisdom, of giving in to both the demands of the mind and the demands of the heart. It is what keeps us human, not to give in to our animal instincts of aggression and attack, but to be able to restore and aid fellow human beings.

When you can feel that no amount of vitriol can make you stoop to the other side’s malevolence, that means you have become master of yourself.

Friday, October 24, 2008

In pursuit of excellence

In the 2008 list of 500 ranked universities in the world by the Times Higher Education Supplement in association with Quacquarelli Symonds (THES – QS World University Rankings), the University of the Philippines (U.P.) has been outranked by Ateneo de Manila for the first time in years. U.P. placed 276th to Ateneo’s 254.

The THES-QS ranking has been criticized for the subjective nature of its assessment criteria, which are largely based on a peer review of over 3,000 scholars and academics in various fields of study.

According to high-ranking U.P. officials, the University did not participate in the 2008 THES-QS rankings, thus they have no information on how the data were obtained on which the ranking was based. When it participated in 2006, THES-QS ranked U.P. 299th as against Ateneo at 500.

In addition to THES-QS, there are also other world-wide rankings such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Top 100 Global Universities by Newsweek, the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, and the Professional Ranking of World Universities by the Ecole nationale superieure des mines de Paris.

These world rankings serve as a guide to universities around the world which truly excel. While they may be useful, their utility does not extend beyond making comparisons. They are not supposed to be the yardstick by which every university must measure its excellence, or whether a country’s education program serves the needs of its student population.

To some degree, however, university rankings, according to the Center for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University, may have “strong de-equalizing effects. They directly confront scientists, university board members, policy makers, politicians, journalists, and the interested man-in-the-street with inequality. Rankings strengthen the idea of an academic elite, and institutions use the outcomes of rankings, no matter how large the methodological problems are, in their rivalry with other institutions.”

Let’s take for example the kind of bragging rights the current THES-QS rankings may generate between U.P. and Ateneo. The University of the Philippines is considered the premier institution of higher learning in the Philippines, and has educated some of the country's most popular political and social leaders, economists, scientists, lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, creative artists, educators, and entrepreneurs.

On the issue of reputation alone, any U.P. graduate can make the argument that U.P. has the significant edge since it has produced more presidents of the Republic, more chief justices of the Supreme Court, more members of Congress, 36 out of the 57 National Artists, and 30 out of the 31 National Scientists. U.P.’s historical tradition of excellence is a strong asset in evaluating its current reputation.

But a university does not live on past reputation alone. One has to consider its current performance. Thus, when Antonio Meloto’s fame and reputation soared on account of Gawad Kalinga’s success, it also uplifted Ateneo’s status. When Filipino leaders are being measured based on Meloto’s selflessness, sincerity and compassion for the needy, no current leader has emerged from U.P. who can equal Meloto’s reputation. And if Ateneo keeps on producing more Melotos from its ranks of graduates, U.P.’s historical tradition of excellence is in jeopardy. This probably could explain the slip in U.P.’s ranking among the world’s best.

There is nothing wrong in pushing our universities to excel. We need to enhance the best in order to achieve the highest quality in science, engineering, law, public administration, medicine and the arts. But this should not be done at the expense of social equality, by creaming off only the outstanding minds and devoting the best intellectual training possible to the brightest of our children.

The educational system must have an obligation to those left behind, to children who do not qualify to go through the rigorous discipline of higher education. Excellence should not be the only goal of a meritocratic system of education.

In reality, merit is not enough; money and influence have become additional requirements to gain entry in the best schools, as money and influence are likewise the most common determinants of social advancement in our present-day society. Our current education system has become a tool for the rich and well connected, which U.P. and Ateneo, quite sadly, both produce in more numbers than ever.

While Ateneo has always been a school for the elite, those who have money and influence, U.P. today is almost like Ateneo, except that it is still publicly funded being a state university. The U.P. College Admissions Test (UPCAT), considered the most competitive college entrance examination in the country, also diminishes the chances of children educated in public schools to qualify.

Considering the state of funding for public schools in the Philippines today, with their meagre resources and very low salaries for teachers, it is not surprising that they are producing less and less students who can compete with those trained in private institutions. This discrepancy between public and private education is no more apparent than in the results of the entrance examinations of these universities. Those trained in private schools find it easier to gain entry to U.P. or Ateneo, while more than majority of the school population has to be satisfied with the alternative of mediocrity.

These findings make it more clear why the pursuit of excellence in education has to start early, from the time a child is ready to start reading, writing and solving problems. In China, children start learning at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. The French system of superior universities, hautes ecoles, subjects students to rigorous and competitive entrance examinations, thus children’s intellectual training also starts early.

Every society needs to pursue excellence in education not in terms of reducing its people and their achievements to a common measurement, but in raising them as close as possible to an ideal level. The goal of education must be to uplift the human potential of the general masses, prepare them for work and for a better life, and at the same time, raise the intellectual promise of the gifted to realize their full potential.

Before any of these goals could be addressed, however, both public and private sectors must first establish the groundwork for an education system that grants access to learning to everyone, not on a favoured few.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Road to redemption

Last June 16, 2008, I wrote in this blog about two Filipino women on the verge of deportation after coming to Canada to work as live-in caregivers. When they applied for permanent resident status after completing two years of their work contract, they were both refused.

The first woman, Juana, was denied her application for permanent residence when she was diagnosed with colon cancer that has already metastasized in her body. She was considered a burden on Canada’s social services and health programs. A couple who was deeply touched by Juana’s plight started a petition on the Internet requesting the government of Canada to open its heart and grant Juana’s dying wish to gain resident status. The petition caught fire with thousands signing up. Ultimately, the Canadian government gave in and allowed Juana and her husband to stay as permanent residents.

The other woman, Mylah, received an exclusion order, which in common parlance is a deportation order. An immigration officer found that she had contravened Canada’s immigration laws by continuing to remain in the country after her work permit expired and her application for permanent residence was refused. The immigration officer did not consider her special circumstances which were brought about by a simple mistake when she submitted a wrong application, a mistake that could have been corrected at the very first opportunity by the immigration officer who reviewed her applications.

I brought an application for judicial review before the Federal Court of Canada on behalf of Mylah, and the judge hearing the application last October 8, 2008, made an order in her favour, setting aside the exclusion order and remanding Mylah’s case to a new re-determination hearing so an immigration officer can consider if there were special circumstances that would justify not to issue a removal order.

Two recent cases I was personally involved in, both pro bono, as part of my efforts for redemption from the error of my ways. Back in 1998, and out of character, I committed an egregious blunder that wrought havoc to me professionally. Constantly troubled by that past incident, I decided not to continue with my law practice. My mind was not into it anymore. Instead, I have chosen to offer my time and services for free, helping people in need of legal assistance to the fullest extent possible and within the bounds of the law. I have since joined the Parish Social Ministry of Our Lady of Lourdes in Toronto where I volunteer every Friday afternoon helping and counselling people applying for refugee protection as well as new immigrants needing assistance in resettlement and reunification with their families.

Rising up again from a devastating fall from grace and restoring one’s spirit is not an easy task in a society that looks down on people who go astray. Oftentimes, one’s persecution seems like the yoke of a life sentence, with the road to redemption becoming longer and narrower each passing day. People seem unable to forgive easily. Your detractors do not tire in resurrecting your past, and your list of critics and enemies gets longer while your friends slowly distance themselves.

How I wish it were a mere religious sin. Perhaps through repentance and acceptance of my sins, God would have loved me back and that would have taken the burden of guilt off my back. Because we all believe in a loving God, it makes it less painful to own up to one’s sins. There is always the hope that God in His goodness will offer redemption and reconciliation.

In the real world, however, reconciliation does not come easy. If it were only up to God, then everything in this world would have been a piece of cake. Mortals as we are, we human beings are far less forgiving; we keep memories etched in permanence. Despite one’s efforts to repay the cost of the damage and rebuild one’s integrity, some people will always be tempted to continue casting stones. While some may be ready to forgive, there will always be others who would refuse to forget. This is a challenge I try to face each day as I go about my tasks humbly, knowing that the road to redemption is not planted with roses.

Therefore, in the black holes of my personal universe, I strive to shine, hoping my star will sparkle again as I reach out to others to find our common human ground, or at least the ability to work and live together. Every morning, I continue to rise up welcoming the new day with the fervent hope that even though the forgiveness I seek will never change the past, that it has enlarged the future.