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.