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.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The war vs. drugs---candid snapshot after the recent horrifying San Jose del Monte slayings---so brutal that provincial governor and mayor felt constrained to put up sums to flush out the killers. What can be done with drug addicts within ambit of the law?

One of the more horrifying episodes in recent times in our drug-proliferated country involves the slaying of two women and three children in San Jose del Monte, Novaliches---a crime so dastardly that the governor of Bulacan and the mayor of the town felt constrained to put up reward money that would lead to the arrest of the killers. While the father of the family, a security guard, was away, apparently two drug-crazed men got into their shack in San Jose del Monte and raped the women: first the elder woman, the children's grandmother,  and then her daughter, the mother of the three children. Afterwards all five of them were slain and the killers fled.

After a few days the story emerged: the two assailants were high on drugs and committed the rapes and murders. “It seemed like fun at that time,” was all one assailant could say with a weird smile and glazed eyes. Of course no one in his right or station mind would commit such horrible crimes, but it demonstrates concretely what hideous drugs can do to transform people into beasts. Co-conspirators here are the widespread poverty and the lack of education and opportunities for advancement of the very poor in society. Drugs become an escape mechanism.

It’s also used by those in occupations that tax health but enable the users to stay awake---such as bus-drivers especially for long distances, security guards and apparently, judging from the huge catch in Marawi, rebels fearful of impending death but who have to soldier on.


Soon after reading about that episode, I had a conversation with an established psychologist trained abroad and who has worked abroad in dealing with such societal aberrations. He stressed several things. One is that the drug problem remains so prevalent and widespread in our country despite the Duterte administration's campaign against it, cutting across social strata---it is as bad at the very lowest rung of society, the balut-vendors, street-sweepers, jeepney drivers and security guards--- as it is in the rarefied atmosphere of the exclusive villages in Makati and Pasig. What’s sad about it, this psychologist stressed, is that many prominent parents of such delinquent children are not even aware of their involvement with drugs.

He narrated that in a visit to an affluent home where the father of the family had asked for help for his drug-involved children , he also interviewed the house staff about their wards, and the staff didn’t know if the kids had hidden forbidden stuff anywhere in the house. The psychologist took a look at a mirror on the wall and sure enough there was neatly taped at the back---a small package with whitish stuff, shabu. He stressed that parents have to befriend their children and know where they hang out and with whom, but that he has been to homes where a mixed crowd play mahjong all night in one level of the house, while the kids and friends smoke pot and eventually graduate to sterner stuff later.

This psychologist also noted that with the crackdown on drugs in the market, prices have gone up, and this means that supply is getting more critical as the anti-drug campaign continues. On the other hand, let us hope that the police campaign against drugs---now secretly sold in little sachets that look more like innocent salt or “Magic Sarap”--won’t proliferate.

Get involved with your children’s lives, this psychologist advises, and get to know their friends, where they go and what they like to do. Spending more time with your children has been a time-worn advice to parents since forever, but never has it become more needed and more sensible than in our present day and age.


The psychologist stressed how prevalent the drug menace has become in Philippine society. Recall that tens of kilos of drugs were seized by government soldiers in two successful captures of lairs of the Maute-led rebel group in Marawi recently. What it underlines is that the rebels have access to not only arms but drugs in our very porous Southern backdoor---and it's very likely that the drug trade funds the invasion in the South; thus a double whammy. 

The supply of both contraband goods has to be sealed if we are to lick our drug problem as well as the illegal firearms, or reduce them at least to the minimum. The drugs found in huge quantities in several places in Marawi indicate the ease with which prohibited stuff get to enter the country---the Southern backdoor is only one entry point---and this has to be sealed no matter how tough it is to do so. I had always wondered how come the drug supply in Luzon has seemed inexhaustible---now we have a good idea.

It’s easy enough to see how rebel soldiers have to take the prohibited drugs to overcome fatigue and fears of impending attacks by the Armed Forces, where they could die; thus; it would help tremendously if we could seal the Southern borders----despite the obvious difficulties such work would entail, given wide-open entry to Mindanao via the high seas. 

We citizens also hope that the huge quantities of drugs seized from rebel forces in Marawi would be destroyed totally and not smuggled back into the market.


Secondly, the psychologist emphasized how ill-equipped our country is in combating the drug menace---especially in facilities needed to house and reform the addicts, with staff trained for the urgent but very delicate work badly needed. He narrated how some police officers have admitted candidly to him that while they did try to turn the drug addicts over to the responsible suitable agencies, in some cases the cops seem to have no choice but to shoot them down because they did not know of places equipped enough to handle drug rehabilitation. Wrongly handled, these addicts could only worsen and infect other people with their affliction. 

With the lack of properly trained personnel and rehab centers, thus was born the ugly phenomenon of the EJK denounced all over the world, and giving the Duterte administration an unnecessary black-eye internationally.


The brutal truth is that the drug menace had become so pervasive and prevalent, stresses this psychologist, that society and the law-enforcement agencies were caught totally unprepared to handle this problem of the drug-crazed people. It was ignored by the Noynoy Aquino administration and it took Rodrigo Duterte to dramatize the campaign---unfortunately  in many cases, with EJK.

The psychologist admitted that to in order give the government and society---hand in hand---a fighting chance to win the battle against drugs, it would entail more effort than what is being exerted now. I think of the successful battle being waged by Argentine-born Fr. Luciano Felloni, now a Filipino citizen, of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Caloocan, with the cooperation of the city government. I can think of what the Brazilian sisters are doing to help drug addicts in Masbate in the Azenda di Esperanza---a rehab place without fences where youngsters are being successfully helped on to recovery. 

But those are very few examples. More has to be done to win the ugly war vs. drugs.

Monday, June 26, 2017

We mourn the destruction of Marawi City, but at least it’s young and history still to be written---unlike in ancient Iraq and Syria, with wrecked cities like Palmyra, the “Venice of the Sands,” whose precious relics of civilization are being destroyed wantonly. As a prominent cultural anthropologist put it: "Heritage, like human life, is irreplaceable."

The historic and symbolic grand al-anuri Mosque in Iraq's second largest city of Mosul, together with the Pisa-like Minaret at left.
After ISIS burned down the Mosque last Wednesday night, the 840-year old Minaret stands by its lonesome.

Colonnade ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria's second largest, which was savagely destroyed by war between ISIS and government forces. 
The Roman Theater in Palmyra where government forces celebrated re-capture of the city, destroyed by ISIS forces..After its recapture, the Russian forces brought in the Mariinsky Philharmonic Orchestra from St. Petersburg to play at this theater, even though it is very badly damaged, as photo shows.

Five weeks into the fighting in Marawi between government forces and IS-allied Maute rebels, our most beautiful Muslim city that lies on the banks of Lake Lanao is in total ruins---just like in epic war movies.  Its destruction is the kind one cannot adequately put a price tag on, nor fashion a timetable on how long it would take to restore and rehabilitate---or to heal the trauma its people have undergone in these five horrifying weeks.  

Destroyed were the Catholic Cathedral and its statuary, beautiful mosques, the Protestant-run Dansalan Colleges, parts of the city hospital and countless homes and buildings that were bombed for suspected hidden terrorists.  
But what should comfort us at least is that Marawi is a young country in terms of history and cultural artifacts, compared to the Middle and Near East---ancient countries like Iraq and Syria that have been  bombarded and ransacked heavily in recent times, their populations scattered  with terrible trauma, AND PRICELESS ANTIQUITIES, SOME DATING BACK TO THE DAWN OF RECORDED HISTORY, NOW DAMAGED BEYOND REPAIR. 


Take the recent blowing up by Islamic State rebels of the historic mosque in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which government forces are trying to wrest back from the IS. The symbolic Grand al-Nuri Mosque in that town was blown up by IS forces as government troops were advancing---ironically. on the holiest night of the year for Muslims, the Laylat al-Qadr, which commemorates the revelation of the Koran to Prophet Muhammad.. Luckily, the al-Hadba leaning minaret right next to the Mosque, which is 840 years old and often compared to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, was spared and now standing by its lonesome.

This ancient Mosque just blown up was where, in the summer of 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “ascended a pulpit and declared a caliphate after his fighters took control of Mosul and swept through other parts of northern Iraq and Syria.” This edifice and its leaning minaret have  dominated the Mosul skyline for centuries and in fact this landscape is even featured in Iraq’s currency (the 10,000 dinar).

So many other ancient cities in this part of the world were destroyed and plundered by the IS, among them Simla Havoc and Nimrud in Iraq as well as Samarra and Hatra. The  Syrian city of Tadmir was likewise plundered.   


But perhaps the most heartbreaking of all was the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria’s second largest city---which probably has few rivals in its tragic cultural fate amid the seesawing battle between government forces and the IS over the past two years.

Palmyra, declared by UNESCO since 1980 as a World Heritage Site, was an ancient oasis city with lavish gardens, 20 varieties of date palms and monumental white limestone buildings---one of the best-maintained complexes of antiquity. Known popularly as the “Venice of the Sands,” Palmyra also came to be recognized as the “historic city,” as it was the former capital of the legendary rebel warrior queen Zenobia (240-275 A.D.).


Prior to the destruction of Palmyra starting in 2011, historic accounts sang paeans of praise for this city because of  its oasis setting and well-preserved architectural mix of ancient Semitic, Roman, Greek and Persian motifs. Experts pointed out that this ancient city was a favorite watering-hole of traveling caravans since the beginning of time. Thus, "it stood at the crossroads of several civilizations (and) married Graeco-Roman techniques with local tradition and Persian influences.” Palmyra would lure more than 150,0000 tourists a year.

Unfortunately, its reputation as one of the Middle East’s best-preserved remnants of the ancient world didn't last long, for as an account put it, "Syria’s civil war made it a battleground and the IS decided to blow it up.” 


To us Christians, Syria is particularly significant---and second only to Jerusalem in importance. Recall that the Lord had ordered the pagan Paul, whom He blinded for a while, to journey to Damascus and look for Ananias who was to restore his sight.  Moreover, the Sermon on the Mount was delivered by Jesus Christ in Mt. Hermon, said at that time to be in Syria, while the Transfiguration occurred there too.

Antioch, the ancient Roman capital in the Middle East, was where the disciples of Jesus were first termed “Christians.” It was also said to be the starting point for the ministry of Apostle Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Mark and others, who were all to suffer persecution and martyrdom. Thus, it is said that the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church, and much of it sprouted out of Syria.  

World pressure on the IS led to its oath that while “IS will break the idols that the infidels used for worship,” it would not touch the historic buildings erected between the first and third centuries, nor the antiquities. But destroy Palmyra the IS did, beginning with three tower tombs dating from the 1st to the 3rd centuries---in what had seemed like a systematic on-going eradication of pre-Islamic structures undertaken by IS since mid-August of last year. Early last September, the rebels blew up the Mesopotamian Tempel of Bel, described by Ross Burns, an ancient history professor of Australia’s McQuarie University as “the most significant building in Syria from the Roman period" (roughly 63B.C. to 500 A.D.).

This was followed by the destruction of the Phoenician Temple of  Baal Shanim, Palmyra’s second most important religious shrine---a terrible feat  termed by experts as analogous to the “Stone Age Communism” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975-1979.

In 2001, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda destroyed famous Buddhas of Amiyan in Afghanistan. Then significantly, what IS did not destroy, it looted and sold through a “highly methodical, highly efficient excavation operation to finance its twisted ambitions,” as US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken put it.


So what can be done about all the horrible destruction of irreplaceable antiquities? It had been pointed out that the Mali, Africa-born citizen Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi, a member of a militant Islamic group and deported from Niger, was to stand trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, for the “war crime of the intentional destruction of historic monuments and buildings in Timbuktu (Africa) in 2012". The suit against this Mali citizen was to be the first of its kind to be brought to the ICC.  The world should keenly watch how far this "war crime" of destruction of antiquities before the ICC would go.

Meantime, it's good to remember the words of Dr. Clemens Reichel, a prominent cultural anthropologist, Said he: 

Heritage, like human life, is irreplaceable. If you blow up the Temple of Bel, it’s not going to grow back in 100 years, just as if you wipe out a human being, he or she is never going to grow back. This is not like the gold from the state bank that can be replaced over a number of years. It’s gone, it’s a unique piece that disappears, and more to the point, it’s part of the very cultural heritage of the humans living there.” 


Saturday, June 17, 2017

If Northern Ireland found a solution to its decades-long bloody conflict, we should also be able to find peace for Mindanao. It just needs determined leaders, the way ex-UK PM Tony Blair shepherded the NI peace process with passion and deep conviction. Do we have such leaders in our midst today?

PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair, Architect of Peace in Northern Ireland
So many conflict areas can be found in the world---one can think of Iraq and Syria, the Kashmir borderland between India and Pakistan, between the Singhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka, in Colombia, and to a milder degree, Barcelona in the Basque region of Spain which aspires to separate from the Spanish Peninsula.

 In recent weeks Marawi City has figured prominently as forces identified with the Islamic State battled government forces in an effort to ally Mindanao with the Caliphate. While other conflict areas have quieted down, such as in South Africa over apartheid, the battle in Marawi seems far from over.

Two Sundays ago, my radio partner Cecile Guidote Alvarez and I decided to help bring about a better understanding of the crisis there. We invited to our dzRH show, “Radyo Balintataw,” Imam  Akbar Wasad, who served in the AFP in various places in Mindanao, and Fr. John Leydon, an Irish-American priest of the Columban Fathers who has been here for the past 41 years, partly spent in Mindanao.


Fr. Leydon, whose  grandmother was Irish, feels that the conflict situation in Mindanao is not hopeless because  there have been conflicts far worse, that have found solution. He cited particularly Northern Ireland (NI) which was wracked by violence FOR DECADES, until the leadership of both Irish and English side decided they've had enough of the fighting, and agreed to seek a peaceful settlement despite obstacles.  

Fr. Leydon stressed, however, that in the search for solutions to conflicts, it’s so important that leaders want true and lasting peace and settlement. In the case of the once-festering NI dispute, he cited the singular VISION of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who made the peace agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland the SHINING LEGACY of his 13-year rule. 

Of course the case of Mindanao is different as the intention of the IS-influenced Maute jihadists is to set up a caliphate there--to be used as a springboard of radical Islam to various parts of our country and the region. But our advantage is that we are all Filipinos (except for the mercenaries from other countries now fighting with the Maute group)---unlike in the NI conflict, which was between British and Irish. But ultimately, when the smoke of battle clears it still would continue to be turmoil in the big island--- if the passion for peace fails to prevail among us Filipinos.

There’s a lot to be learned from how Britain and Ireland achieved peace in NI. 


The conflict over NI was far more complex than that in Mindanao, for it was a centuries-old dispute between UK and Ireland over who controls NI (conflict accounts date as far back as 1609 when NI became English territory). As in Mindanao, there was the element of religion in the "Irish Question"---between the UK Protestants represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the predominantly Catholic Sinn Fein of Ireland--- a.k.a. the loyalists vs. the nationalists. There was also the search for equitable treatment among all sections of the British realm and above all, the use of terrorist violence to achieve political ends.

The NI issue represented, as an account put it, “one of the most violent and intractable conflicts to threaten a democratic state in any part of the world.” Violence and deadly wars, carried on by the much-feared Irish Republican Army (IRA), was the rule for decades.  The NI question became one of the longest-running---and bloodiest---conflicts in Europe. 

It became a huge concern of the civilized world and pressure was applied on both the UK and Ireland to settle their bitter conflict; various world leaders helped for years to bring an end to NI’s troubles.


British PM John Major's role in the 1990s came to fore, as did efforts of Ireland’s PM  Bertie Ahern to find a solution. A power-sharing deal in NI was proposed between Ulster’s unionists (British), led by Ian Paisley, and the Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, under Gerry Adams---and both sides came under tremendous pressure to submit to DISARMAMENT--- the toughest bone in the throat of peace. When this happened, Irish PM Ahern was ecstatic, branding the move as “significant and hopefully signaling a further step toward ending all para-militarism in NI.”

Diplomacy took over and  PM Major’s successor, Tony Blair, became unrelenting in his quest for peace for NI, making it the major priority of his government.  BLAIR CAME TO NI A TOTAL OF 37 TIMES AS PRIME MINISTER---three times more often than any of his predecessors. He hosted countless meetings at the PM’s official residence at No. 10 Downing St. in Central London, as well as international summits where the peace process was discussed. 

Journalist James Button, who covered the peace talks, pointed out that “Blair played a clever hand. He saw that the hardliners had to be involved.”


The British negotiators adopted the “bicycle theory” of peace: as an account put it, “they had to keep going forward, otherwise they would fall over.”  There were lessons learned such as:  in conflict resolutions, governments need to take risks AT EVERY STEP to keep the process alive…to prevent violence from filling the vacuum left by long political engagement. It was "a worked example of politics as the art of the possible” and Tony Blair firmly believed it.

An Irish political scientist put it thus, “Blair’s diplomacy wooed the previously immovable Ian Paisley of the Ulster’s Unionists (British), so that “the alliance with Paisley was Blair’s last great Romance.”  Verdict on Blair continued:  “Once again, when we thought the old maestro was fading, his capacity to seduce, politically speaking, is phenomenal.”

A power-sharing deal was struck between Ulster unionists led by Paisley, and Sinn Fein, IRA’s political arm, led by Gerry Adams. Adams had opined that “THE CONFLICT WAS PRIMARILY A LOCAL ONE THAT NEEDED TO BE SOLVED BY LOCAL PEOPLE. THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE TO BE THE BROKERS ARE THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN THE AREAS OF CONFLICT.” 

Gerry Adams' dictum is good to remember about our Mindanao conflict---the Mindanaoans have to seek the way to our problem there.


The ferocity of the NI situation pushed world leaders to pound the pavement to to bring about an agreement. PM Blair drew on the wise counsel of US President Bill Clinton, who visited NI twice, US Senator George Mitchell and other leaders. Finally, a historic agreement was launched on Good Friday of 1998---the first step in the long journey to peace. 

Sen. Mitchell, the midwife of the Good Friday peace agreement, later remarked that implementing it was going to be difficult. It proved prophetic. In subsequent years that peace would be broken still, but the peace advocates refused to give up. Finally, on May 8, 2007, in Stormont, the stately white Parliament in Belfast, NI. Ian Paisley, leader of the Ulster unionists, and Martin MacGuiness of Sinn Fein, launched a power-sharing agreement, whereby MacGuiness became First Minister and Ian Paisley Deputy First Minister, respectively. Fittingly, the background music at that launch was "You Raise Me Up," popularized by Josh Groban. 

The power-sharing agreement was one of those “never, never–ever happen” days, said MP Peter Hain, who had earlier been appointed Secretary of State for NI even as he remained in that position for Wales. Even Queen Elizabeth did her share by visiting Stormont and meeting with nationalist ministers.  MP Hain was quoted as asserting that in conflict resolution, governments need to take risks at every step to keep the peace process alive---to prevent violence from filling the vacuum left by political engagement.


On May 8, 2007, the people of NI decided to break free from history, to shape a new history. Thus, it was said, “governments need to be dogged, determined, imaginative, inclusive and flexible” to keep the peace process alive. One day, perhaps---when the foreign jihadist IS elements have been banished forever from Mindanao and we, the Filipino people, have once again taken full hold of this great island of promise--we should be able to learn from the tortured history of Northern Ireland. Then the realization should sink in among us Filipinos that lasting peace and prosperity for our people in the big island can only come from our determination to seek and enforce it. 

My 2015 visit to Stormont, scene of the historic peace agreement between the UK government and Ireland signed on May 8, 2007, to end the long bloody dispute over Northern Ireland.

That’s me in 2015, signing the Peace Wall in Belfast between the “Protestant” Ulster area and the Catholic “Sinn Fein” area in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The ultra-modernistic museum in Belfast depicting the story of Northern Ireland, with the sculpture showing a figure in flight in the foreground.