Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

In justifiable anger and desperation, President mulls putting Customs under military/police control, to halt drug smuggling. Constitution, however, specifies conditions for military involvement. Besides, long years of military/police camaraderie in their respective academies could worsen collusions in Customs.

The Bureau of Customs has never been an easy place to work in, as two previous appointees of President Duterte in his three years in office---both of them former military officers-- have found out. Let's hope his third military appointee, former AFP Chief of Staff  Leonardo "Jagger" Guerrero, PMA Class '84,  would have better luck as Customs Chief.

The first military to head Customs under Duterte was former Marine colonel Nicanor Faeldon, who ran into controversy soon enough over a drug shipment worth P6.4 billion last May 2017.  Faeldon was replaced by former PNP Chief Isidro Lapeña who just lost his job two weeks ago---amid swirling controversy over the brazen smuggling of an estimated 1.6 tons of shabu from the Port of Manila last July, but which was discovered only last August 8.

The huge drug haul, valued at a whopping P11 billion, had arrived in July and scooted out of Customs to an unknown destination, by Chinese individuals riding in two Mercedes Benz limousines. The haul was estimated to have taken four days' work to siphon off from the four magnetic lifters, and in August the lifters were found abandoned in Cavite, totally empty of their contents.

Lucky for Lapeña that he was merely kicked into the Cabinet, to head TESDA---a most controversial move by the President.


Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang, deputy collector of customs and the celebrated whistle-blower of the 1.6  ton-shabu smuggling, estimated at the dzRH Sunday program that Cecile Alvarez and I recently conducted, that this staggering amount of shabu could produce 1,600,000 sachets. It boggles the mind just how many of our youth would be damaged by this incredible amount of shabu smuggled out of the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT)!

At the height of the killings of so-called drug pushers and users last year and earlier this year, many alarmed citizens had wondered why the resort to outright slayings under "Operation Tokhang"---WHEN OBVIOUSLY THE MORE IMPERATIVE MOVE WAS TO SHUT THE INTERMINABLE FAUCET OF DRUGS.

Where are the drugs coming from and who's smuggling them into the country? Why are they so accessible even to small-time peddlers, seemingly as easy as peddling cigarettes? Who's distributing them?  Questions swirled about but remained unanswered---until the brazen smuggling of the 1.6 tons of shabu at the MICT last August.  That was the height!


Earlier answers came in May last year, when information came from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) about a large smuggling being awaited. Two magnetic lifters (used to lift cars and other metal cargo at the pier) which went missing at the MICT were found a month later---already emptied of the 355 kilos of shabu they had contained, worth around P6.4 billion!

With this initial success the smugglers were emboldened!  Last May 2018 PDEA received information about drugs coming from Malaysia, Vietnam and Hongkong. Bingo! This time 1,600 kilos worth  P11 billion were spirited out of Customs in four magnetic lifters similar to the two missing at the MICT last year. The high-valued cargo, stashed neatly in asbestos heat and fire-resistant bags inside the four magnetic lifters and consigned to a certain company, were moved out of the terminal on a Saturday last June, when only one X-ray inspector was around.  It only involved four hours of work by four Chinese nationals who then scooted away in two Mercedes Benzes.

The four magnetic lifters were later found abandoned in Cavite, with their high-priced cargo already siphoned off.  Lourdes Mangoaong's trained dog-sniffers were right on target.


With the huge uproar kicked up by this brazen smuggling of the 1,600 kilos of shabu, the President recently announced his decision to place the entire Bureau of Customs---the second largest finance-generating agency of government next to the BIR itself---under military control. Predictably it reaped a storm of controversy.

In his memo earlier this week Mr. Duterte ordered all BOC employees to report to Malacanang as he simultaneously ordered various military branches, such as the Coast Guard, Navy and Army to gather together technical groups and prepare them to take over the operations of the BOC. But as Sen. Francis Escudero rightly pointed out, there could be a problem in calling out the Armed Forces to handle the smuggling in Customs.


This is because the Constitution, under Sec. 18 of Art. VII, "The Executive Department," specifically provided that the President, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the Philippines and whenever it becomes necessary, "may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion." And even then, there is a proscribed period not exceeding 60 days during which "he may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law."

I imagine that if the smuggling of deadly drugs at Customs cannot be abated---and the smugglers become so brazen, Mr. Duterte might just invoke some special powers to handle this problem. Let's hope it doesn't have to invoke situations that could just complicate the situation even more.  Just to play safe, the President also altered the rules for cargo release: THREE SIGNATURES of military officials who are taking over the Customs are now required for the release of any goods from the port.


All these moves, however, are making the senators and representatives as well as the public nervous---as any effort that seem to "militarize" government would always provoke nervousness and challenge certain constitutional provisions.  Already, Sen. Richard Gordon has vowed to scrutinize this decision of the President in a Senate hearing next week.

 I, for one, would think that there could be basis to be nervous about "militarizing" control of Customs.  For instance, military men in general would tend to act as one---doubtless out of long years of training and camaraderie together at the Philippine Military Academy as well as in the various service academies such as those of the coast guard and police.

There is justified apprehension, I would think, that when the coast would appear to be "clear" or other elements of society would relax their vigilance, there could be some military elements more adventurous than others, who could be tempted to throw scrupulosity to the winds and make unlawful moves for the fund of it.

The check-and-balance system could cease to operate when camaraderie of long years is extra-thick and the emboldened smuggling of P11 billion worth of shabu at the Port of Manila becomes just a distant memory.


What happened at Customs recently was a series of fearless moves by unscrupulous elements who obviously have maintained a strong hold over the port. The President---by now VERY VEXED at how the smugglers have run rings around him---has felt that the best solution at the moment is to entrust Customs operations to the military. TO MILITARIZE CUSTOMS.

I suppose that at this point, there is little the citizenry could do except to warn the President about possible collusion (again!) ---when alarms are down---among some military who have shared long years of camaraderie in various military academies. This new set of military/police may again succumb to the temptation of huge bucks from unrelenting drug lords and their cohorts,

But what else could be done at the moment?   Let's give some space to the military units that will man Customs in place of corrupted or mindless civilian bureaucrats---in the hope that some idealism bred in PMA or other military schools are still left in their hearts. We citizens, however, should also get involved in policing the military's activities---and those guilty ought to be punished post-haste.   

Monday, October 15, 2018

Scanning face of PH poverty at our dzRH program, Fr. Nebres S.J. cited studies opining that English-speaking upper-crust Pinoys can relate more to CNN stories about US hurricanes than to Ompong's fury. A palpable disconnect among our people.

Mother-child health in ARMM
Poverty Alleviation Program

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 14, RM Awardee for Theater Cecile Guidote Alvarez and I interviewed Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., a Ph.D in Mathematics from Stanford University, former Jesuit Superior in the Philippines (1983-1989) and President of the Ateneo de Manila University (1993-2011), on the deepening poverty in our country.

Initial discussion of this topic came a week earlier, during the observance of the first death anniversary of  former Jesuit Superior Romeo J. Intengan at the Jesuits' Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches. Over lunch, Fr. Nebres observed that poverty is most prevalent in class D with its whopping 60% of Filipinos and class E at 30% , whereas wealthier classes A, B and C constitute only 10%.

News headlines back up these statistics, with Inquirer asserting that "Majority of Pinoys say they are poor."  PDI columnist Mahar Mangahas also cited that the SWS survey showed that from a low 42 % declared poor in March 2018, the percentage of Self-Rated Poverty rose in the third quarter 2018 to 52%, or 12.2 MILLION FAMILIES FEELING POOR (emphasis BOC's)."  As Mahar points out,  that's 12.2 million families feeling poor out of a projected base of 23.3 million families in the Philippines---a heck of a lot of poor families.

On the other hand, the impact of inflation, aggravated by the sharp rise in fuel costs, is now affecting even middle-class Filipinos, forcing government to recently suspend the excise tax on fuel.


I invited Fr. Nebres to continue our discussion on poverty in yesterday's episode of our weekly Sunday 6 pm. "Radyo Balintataw" program over nationwide dzRH---in order to help raise our people's consciousness about it. At the Jesuit Residence in the Ateneo  Fr. Nebres showed  us a short video film by Kara David about the family of a fisherman in Mercedes, a poor fishing town in Camarines Norte.  It showed a mother feeding her three children with bits of fish and shellfish distributed over three meals per day, as they awaited the father who had gone fishing for a few days. He had left his wife 40 pesos for the family's subsistence over the next days.

It was a heart-wrenching film showing children crying for more food amid the helplessness of the mother. As Fr. Nebres pointed out, that's a typical situation in that small fishing village, as poverty is most severe among fishing communities throughout our archipelago. Climate change as well as the destruction of coral reefs have severely affected fish catch, forcing fishermen to venture  farther and farther from the shores---and leaving their families in near-starvation. .

I shall show this particular film in my FB page after I share our interview with Fr. Nebres. Prepare to be perturbed.


As Fr. Nebres explained, from 1995 to 2015 poverty was very much the center-point of the Millenium Development Goals, aiming to reduce extreme poverty and hunger in 1995 to only 26% by 2016. Data comparing us with our neighbors in SEA, however, show PH clearly lagging behind. Indonesia's poverty level is now below 10%,  Once war-torn Vietnam's level used to be at 50% in 1995; now it's below 15%, while Laos is on track, according to the UN.

Here at home Eastern Visayas is among the poorest, and while the whole Mindanao has lagged behind, it's the ARMM that's worst hit, undoubtedly also owing to the political instability in past years.


Zeroing in on the school population across the country, Fr. Nebres cited the verdict of teachers all over---many children are going hungry, some worse than others. In nearby Parañaque, students said they take turns eating in their families; in Valenzuela, Bulacan, there are students who felt satiated ("nabusog") for the first time in their lives when the feeding program began there.

After Yolanda struck Eastern Visayas, Gawad Kalinga's Tony Meloto wanted to put up housing units there, but folks argued that by the time those units are finished, "baka patay na kami." It's the hunger stalking innumerable places in the country that appears to be the primary problem---not just malnutrition but hunger itself.

Gawad Kalinga  (GK) responded with what it has, in the Yolanda-stricken areas as well as in Mindanao, such as Basilan and Tawi-Tawi where some 5,000 schoolchildren are fed everyday---just part of the  estimated 100,000 being fed by GK all over the country daily. Some tycoons are helping to address the severe malnutrition. Other countries have also come in to help GK: in Bgy. Holy Spirit in Metro Manila, a group from the United Kingdom is helping out.


The Ateneo set up its Center for Education and Development which delves not only in brain development but also in problems of hunger, health and extreme poverty, such as in Payatas.

 Fr. Nebres spoke about the importance of nutrition getting to the impoverished mothers during the FIRST 1000 DAYS OF PREGNANCY onward to about 2 years of the child---so as to prevent growth-stunting and brain damage. To him, the problem is multi-faceted and the components cannot be separated: malnutrition arising from poverty that affects the child in its first 1000 days will haunt it all through its life. WHO statistics bear out the stunted growth of Filipino children.


What heartens Nebres nowadays is the growing involvement of local and provincial officials with these very real problems of their constituents from the poorest sectors. He cites Valenzuela in Bulacan under Rex Gatchalian which is feeding 16,000-18,000 poor children, constituting 13-15% of the population.

There's Compostela Valley in Mindanao under Gov. Tyrone Uy, where feeding kitchens have been set up. In the ARMM area there's Gov. Mujahiv Hataman while in Nueva Ecija, Dep-Ed officials are in the forefront of combating hunger and malnutrition.

There's also the "Pagkaing Pinoy Para sa Pinoy," a program filed by Sen. Bam Aquino and supported by fellow senators Grace Poe, Gatchalian and Chiz Escudero, that has allotted P3B in funds for day-care centers. In the House, Rep. Raul del Mar of Cebu supports the counterpart program.


Appeals are being made to the private sector to join the campaign to eradicate hunger and malnutrition especially in poorer Pinoy children's first 1000 days of existence, as this has a direct bearing on their brain function and stunted growth. There is, however, some indifference among the private sector---social classes ABC--- toward recognizing and acting on this problem.

Fr. Nebres cites an interesting theory about this disconnect of the upper classes with the problems of the broad masses. As an educator from the UK pointed out, it may be because the Filipino upper classes, especially the younger generations, speak in English and not in the national language, Pilipino, and the local dialects.

In contrast, he notes that in Indonesia there is only one language, Bahasa, the medium of instruction as well as the language of various tools of communication and culture such as newspapers, TV and radio.


Thus, as a result of this linguistic disconnect, many upper-class Filipinos tune in more often to CNN than to local stations---so that they are more familiar with the terrible effects of the hurricanes in the US rather than the typhoons in Eastern Visayas and Northern Luzon.

There is indeed real basis to be troubled by this reality-disconnect, and I for one plead guilty. I raised my children in English as I thought this would facilitate their entry into the world of education, business and commerce,  and now they, in turn, raise their offsprings also in English. Thus is the great divide among our people.

Enormous food for thought.