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.