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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Strength & weakness of P-Noy: his trust in just a few people

There is something about the way President Aquino utilizes the services of his Cabinet members that doubtless doesn’t sit well with some of them, if only they could come out openly about it. Much has been said about how P-Noy can only trust those closest to him, but it’s said to be wreaking havoc on the morale of these officials.

Damper on morale

Recall that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, easily the star of the Cabinet because of her high-profile role in several cases, said a few weeks back that the thought of resigning had crossed her mind after much of the recommendations of her Incident-Investigative Result Committee (IIRC) was sidelined by a two-member review panel in the Palace and P-Noy upheld its findings. P-Noy later absolved Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno in a much-criticized move to protect his longtime buddy and former PNP Chief Jesus Verzosa, even as he approved the filing of administrative charges against another loyalist, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim that led to the latter’s emotional outburst on TV.

In a Senate hearing some weeks back, some senators complained to Civil Service Chair Francisco Duque about the demoralization hitting the civil service because of EO No. 2, which had authorized the mass  lay-off of what this administration terms the “midnight appointments” of former President Macapagal Arroyo. A senator asked Duque if he was aware of this demoralization and whether he was doing something about it. Duque, in a fit of admirable candor, admitted that indeed he made his recommendations but they were just not followed.

Changes in the VFA

Now comes the reconstitution of the old Visiting Forces Agreement Commission (VFA-Com) into the Presidential Commission on the VFA. Since its inception in February 1998 and Senate ratification in May 1999, the incumbent Secretary of Foreign Affairs has always chaired this Commission and under him is the Executive Director. Thus, aside from Secretary Domingo Siazon who negotiated the VFA with US Ambassador Thomas Hubbard, among those who had served as chair were Former Vice President Tito Guingona, the late Blas Ople, Delia Domingo Albert and for some time now, Secretary Alberto Romulo. Very recently, however, in a reorganization move, P-Noy appointed Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa as chair, and Romulo was relegated to vice-chair together with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

Involvement of Romulo

Like a good soldier, Romulo has kept quiet about the new arrangement;  in fact, there’s talk that he himself had asked P-Noy to be allowed to serve VFA-COM in a lesser capacity, and this is the reason the DFA is not getting involved in preparations for the new round of talks. But what bothers me is that the task of chairing the VFA Com can be very demanding, and Ochoa, whose previous experience before his appointment as Cabinet primus inter pares was as administrator of Quezon City Hall, might not only not have the time, given his taxing Palace post;  he may also lack the background for the extremely sensitive nuances of RP-US relations.

An observer pointed out, however, that one reason for Ochoa’s appointment could be to facilitate greater cooperation and coordination within the various offices of the government during the renegations. Moreover, Ochoa has direct access to P-Noy like no other official has, save perhaps for Rico Puno.

This seems to be both the strength and the weakness of President Aquino, a personality trait which also stems from his lack of executive experience: the fact that he can’t seem to trust anyone except two or three people.

Factions in the Palace

Talking of P-Noy’s close allies, former ABS-CBN News Director Maria Ressa, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that, rumors have it, led to her estrangement from the giant network, talked of several big groupings within P-Noy’s camp, the Balay Group led by his former runningmate, Mar Roxas and the LP stalwarts, which used to meet in Mar’s Araneta Center home, and the Samar Group which count ES Ochoa and Secretary Puno. But actually insiders speak of at least six or seven groupings that have emerged as the power fulcrum shifted from Lubao to Concepcion, Tarlac.

The original Tarlac group

There’s the original Tarlac group that ushered Noynoy to the House of Representatives in 1998; at times they’re referred to as the “Times St.” group, to distinguish them from the later LP group of Mar Roxas, Serge Osmena, etc. Then there’s the group of his four influential sisters, led by Ballsy, whose approval, reports say, is sought on all but all presidential appointments, which also includes power wielder Maria Montelibano. Then there’s Noynoy’s Classmates at the Ateneo who have all emerged from the woodwork, reminiscent of Erap’s classmates, and Friends such as Puno and Sen. Francis Escudero. To this group too, belongs an exclusive sub-group called “CESO,” short for “Classmates of Executive Secretary Ochoa.” There’s also the Hyatt 10 whose members were returned either to the Cabinet or to GOCCs, as well as the group of Presidential Uncle Peping Cojuangco and his wife Tingting, with their own satellites.

But apart from all these groupings, there’s the Yellow Forces led by Vice President Jejomar Binay, who, sources note, has always been yellow even when he was supposed to be running with candidate Erap.

The inevitable friction among all these satellite groups revolving within P-Noy’s universe makes fascinating copy but it’s also nightmarish for governance.

JDV travels around the world

Former Speaker Joe de Venecia seems to have more speaking engagements around the world now than when he was the longest-ruling House Chief in local history. In recent weeks he was in Central America, delivering speeches in San Salvador and Panama City before flying to Indonesia and Malaysia. I had always known about JDV’s fantastic sphere of influence among world leaders, but even he got the surprise of his life while being toured by former Panama President Martin Torrijos in the Panama Canal, the long (80 kms.) narrow man-made canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the two American continents.

JDV and wife Gina, now the representative of Pangasinan’s 4th District, were sitting in the viewing platform with their hosts, watching the parade of ships from all corners of the globe through the Panama Canal, when suddenly, the De Venecia couple heard screams of “JDV, JDV” and at times “Di Binisya, Di Binisya,” from the passing ships. Apparently some Pinoys on a ship’s bow recognized him and word spread quickly among the ships, so that all the Pinoys stood on the side of the ships, to wave and shout his name; the De Venecias were thrilled and they waved back frantically. Naturally, their hosts were terribly impressed with this sideshow!

JDVwas still bubbling about that episode when I ran into him at the Indian Ambassador’s reception. I quipped that it indicates how, like the proverbial prophet, JDV is better appreciated away from his homeland, and unarguably, Filipino seafarers dominate the world maritime industry.

Mellor-Bolipata Exhibit

My artist-niece, Ivee Olivares-Mellor, daughter of my brother Luis Olivares Jr., and his late wife Rosario Barretto Olivares, launched last Saturday, together with her artist-cousin, Plet Bolipata, of the famed Bolipata family of writers, musicians and artists, an exhibit of their most recent paintings at the Boston Gallery, 72 Boston St., Cubao, Q.C. Their two-man show will run until Nov. 11, 2010. Ivee was educated in fine arts in the UK and has her home in Chichester, two hours by train from London. Plet, daughter of the late lawyer Ric Bolipata and Dits Corpus-Bolipata of Zambales, is the sister of famed violinist-professor Coke Bolipata and the Bolipata family runs a successful center for the arts in their hometown in that province. Ivee and Plet, who have been holding periodic shows in various art forms and media here over the years, have also done illustrations for famed authors' works either singly or in collaboration with each other here and abroad. One of Ivee's better known illustrations was on "The King and the Royal Trees" by Paul Aird. Boston Gallery’s no.is 722-9205.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Justice Del Castillo, Judge Pimentel & State Prosecutor Navera

Two decisions involving the judiciary will be closely watched not just by the legal community but the country as a whole in the next two weeks.

One is the “show-cause” order by the Supreme Court to 37 faculty members or lecturers of the UP College of Law, led by Dean Marvic Leonen and Prof. Harry Roque, one of the two lawyers who brought the petition of the comfort women to the High Court earlier. The SC’s decision to deny the comfort women’s petition, penned by Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, was subsequently protested last July by Roque and co-lawyer Rommel Bagares, for allegedly having lifted parts from the works of three international legal experts without proper acknowledgment.

The SC, upon receipt of the charge of “plagiarism,” referred it to the Committee on Ethics & Ethical Standards that the Court had set up last May as a self-correcting mechanism. The Committee subsequently established the “inadvertent” lifting of the passages. A law clerk-researcher of the ponente, who was recruited from a prominent Makati law firm and onced ranked within the top five in the bar exams, later owned up to failing to make the proper attribution of sources in the final draft of that decision. The Committee concluded that Del Castillo was bereft of “malicious intent,” and last Oct. 15, the SC in a per curiam decision (so-called to show it’s the entire court and therefore with no specific author), voted 10-2 to exonerate him.

Two votes against exoneration

The two who voted against Del Castillo's exoneration were Justices Conchita Carpio-Morales and the first justice appointed by President Noynoy, Ma. Lourdes Sereno (Senior Justice Antonio Carpio and Justice Diosdado Peralta were on leave at that time. Del Castillo naturally abstained from voting). Sereno’s dissenting opinion proved longer than the 30-page per curiam decision, so much so that Carpio Morales chose to merely attach her signature to it, rather than write a separate dissent.

Sereno, who at age 50 could become the first woman SC Chief in the future because of her possible length of service, dwelt on the adverse effects of the exoneration on the academe, where plagiarism is a common sin; but she also devoted a large portion to detailed analysis of what she considers the impossibility of innocent deletion in today’s highly efficient computer technology. It amazes that she could be so techie-analytical.

The controversy thickens

But instead of fading quietly away after the SC issued that per curiam decision, the controversy even thickened when in the two months that the ethics committee was investigating the plagiarism charge, a manifesto was circulated in the media demanding no less than the justice’s resignation---to save the Court’s reputation, the signatories said. The manifesto grabbed a lot of media attention because the signatories were all from the UP College of Law faculty, including former law deans. The media pitted the SC and the UP Law against each other in their usual sensationalist slant.

But the Court decided to turn the tables on the critics with a “show-cause” decision of 10-3, penned by Justice Martin Villarama (who also recently headed Court investigation into the De La Salle bar exams bombing). Not surprisingly, the three justices who voted against the decision were the three UP Law graduates: Carpio, Carpio-Morales and Sereno. The show-cause decision ordered disgruntled UP law signatories to individually explain within ten days why they ought not to be cited for indirect contempt, for allegedly having violated several canons of the Code of Professional Responsibility of Lawyers, including the fact of subjudice which lawyers normally respect. SC spokesman Midas Marquez also denounced the “dummy” manifesto and alleged “plagiarized” signatures, including that of retired Justice Vicente Mendoza.

Split within the legal community

Presumably the signatories are preparing their responses to the SC show-cause, for as all lawyers know, something like this would sow fear in the heart of every lawyer. In the eyes of the Court a misdemeanor could merit punishment in varying degrees----from being slapped a fine, or a suspension from practice, or outright disbarment. Or the Court could really just want an explanation---and then write finis to the whole taxing controversy.

Media are playing up the split of support among the legal community and the earlier factional rifts in the Court. Various bar associations have come out for one side or the other. The Ateneo Law School, alma mater of Chief Justice Renato Corona and Justice del Castillo, hasn’t come out with a stand, but San Beda Law School, led by former Sen. Rene Saguisag, has supported its embattled undergraduate alumnus Del Castillo (Saguisag has openly reduced the plagiarism accusation to a “shortcoming” in the absence of malice).

UE Law Dean Amado Valdez, in a recent TV interview, defended the UP law faculty’s right to scrutinize the SC’s ruling on Vinuya as part of the democratic process. “It’s within the right of anybody, not just from UP or Ateneo, to take a separate position on the issue of plagiarism,” said Valdez. The show-cause order could indeed define new limits of expression for that most verbose and voluble species among God’s two legged creatures---the lawyers.

Integrity of Justice Del Castillo

Where do I stand in all this? I can understand the valid anxiety of Harry Roque and other law professors about the tarnishing of the Court’s image in the eyes of the people and the world forum, and the threat to lawyers’ freedom of expression. Meilou Sereno’s concern about the impact of the plagiarism accusation on the academic community is valid. But I also know Justice Del Castillo, a respected former member of the Court of Appeals, and I strongly believe he is a good and honest man who has been purified in the smithy of a number of sufferings in his life, and that he would never KNOWINGLY steal words and ideas from others, or deliberately allow it to happen in the Court.

The SC has in decades past been accused of improprieties, such as the commandeering of a submitted opinion of a private party in a case as its own decsion, and the interference by a justice for a relative in a bar exam (regarding this latter issue, the SC was absolved in the recent exams, for two sons of current justices passed the exams while another son of a justice colleague failed and will try again next time). Hopefully this current painful episode of plagiarism would teach the Court to be more circumspect about its decisions. More intense work, deeper scholarship and fervent contemplation---and yes, prayers to the Holy Spirit will help.

One word about CJ Renato Corona: he upheld Del Castillo even when it was not the most popular thing to do, because he apparently believed in the honesty of his colleague; it speaks volumes about this Batangueno Chief Magistrate’s inner strength and conviction.

Decision by Judge Oscar Pimentel

The other judicial case being closely monitored and due this Thursday, is the promulgation of the decision by Judge Oscar Pimentel of the Makati Regional Trial Court on the case of military rebels led by Sen. Antonio Trillanes. The decision on the question of whether Trillanes and company are guilty of treason or not comes after seven long years in court.

What makes Pimentel’s impending  decision so interesting and crucial is that the President of this country weeks back had proclaimed amnesty for Trillanes and some 300 other rebels, which would clear them of any political crime against the state; all that’s needed now is the concurrence of both chambers of Congress, which is expected first thing upon its return from the All Saints Day recess on Nov. 8.

Pressure to postpone judgement

Because of the President’s amnesty proclamation, there have been tremendous pressures on Pimentel from politicians eager to please President Aquino, for the judge to desist from making a decision on the Trillanes case---or at the very least, to postpone it until after the amnesty process is completed. But Pimentel has declared that nothing would stop him from making his decision this Thursday. He doubtless realizes that his ruling AFTER amnesty becomes a fait accompli would be totally inutile..

But if there's a lot of pressure on Pimentel to postpone his judgment, a lot of voices were also raised from various quarters, including the media, asking the President and Congress to allow him to do what he has to do first, so that the judicial process would be finished, before the amnesty grant. Aside from Sen. Joker Arroyo, the lone dissenter on amnesty in the Senate, the most significant plea to delay amnesty came from the State Prosecutors. They decried the seven years of hard judicial work they had done that would be laid to waste with amnesty now. 

The most outspoken in this group was Senior Prosecutor Juan Pedro Navera, who now also worries about what amnesty would do to all those who came forward as state witnesses against the military rebels. In fact he wonders now if they will still remain in the witness protection program. Citizens salute Mr.Navera and the other prosecutors for their bravery and outspokenness.

Political pressure to hurry

It’s easy to see that the President’s action of hurrying up the amnesty before Pimentel arrives at a judgment is designed to please the military rebels, who understandably don’t want a conviction in their record, even if they would enjoy amnesty later. Many people are praying that the judge does not cave in to political pressure; considering that he is retiring from the bench this coming January, they pray that he'd leave as his legacy to succeeding generations of judges the fact that he followed the dictates of his mind and heart, and not that of cheap politicians.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

GMA and Dinky

Congress adjourned for the All Saints Day break, but House members are still talking about how Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo broke her four-month silence last Tuesday night, Oct. 12. At 9 pm., as the marathon budget hearings rolled on, GMA appeared and proceeded to question the P21billion conditional cash transfer (CCT) program sought by Social Welfare & Development Secretary Corazon "Dinky" Soliman. The CCT in the 2011 budget is more than double the P10 billion CCT last year, and GMA apparently was shocked to learn this. She stormed into the session hall to grill the DSWD budget sponsor, Guimaras Rep. J. C. Nava, who was being coached by Soliman. 


Rep. Nava justified the over 100 percent increase in the CCT budget by saying that it would benefit some 2.3 million families in 2011--or 1.3 million more than the beneficiaries in GMA’s last year in office. The CCT is a concept GMA picked up from Brazil's President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva's Bolsa Familia and setting it up here two years ago, she knows it like the palm of her hand; moreover, the DSWD is one office she admits to really love, having headed it during President Estrada’s term. When she assumed the presidency, Soliman served as her first DSWD Secretary.
Last Tuesday House gallery spectators were amused that the shoe was in the other foot: GMA was tormenting her former subordinate. Some House members began singing "If we hold on together" in the plenary hall, as though to remind Dinky and her ilk about how they serendaded GMA just days before they turned traitor to her on July 8, 2005.

GMA began asking how the DSWD arrived at the additional 1.2 million beneficiaries in so short a time, when during her term it took that office three years to cover a million households, even with the help of the education and health departments. Noting the P1.6 billion from the P21 billion budget would go for training of additional personnel to handle the CCT, she wanted to know how they were picked and trained, and where they would be deployed. She argued that ince the CCT was meant as an anti-poverty measure for the poorest of the poor as well as an incentive for parents to make their children attend school, and for pregnant mothers to receive pre-natal care, it would be far more sensible if  the additional P1.3 million CCT funds for 2011 would be used to first build more classrooms and birthing facilities for mothers. GMA's eyes also popped at learning that P320 million of the CCT budget will be allocated for the printing of informational materials on the CCT. 

 DSWD officials could offer no clear answers to GMA's various questions, so much so that at some point a recess had to be called to give the DSWD time to gather its data---and its wits. The House majority wanted to take up another budget item while waiting, but the opposition refused to allow it under the rules. In the end it was clear that Soliman and Co. had the round figures but not the nitty gritty---or as they say, “details to follow.”


Last Tuesday gallery folks saw the famous flash of temper of GMA from time to time as the DSWD people failed to produce satisfactory answers about the gargantuan budget they were asking for. One thing about GMA: she may have been perhaps the most unpopular president next to Marcos (her harshest critics say she is THE most unpopular), but she certainly was a hands-on Chief Executive and easily the most computer-savvy. She had data at her fingertips so that as President she would cause officials to tremble when she started grilling them during provincial sorties. Moreover, she knew the state of each and every project and program in the country.  Last Tuesday night it was clear that the DSWD people didn't do their homework.


But despite GMA’s incisive questionings and the anti-budget manifesto signed by about 50 representatives, including militants who had once bitterly fought her, the House majority rammed the 2011 budget through. The best that Minority Leader Edcel Lagman could do was to get a commitment from the small committee that would be formed when the House resumes session on Nov. 8, to look into budget amendment proposals. Lagman wants an oversight committee to look into how the P21 billion CCT would be used. The plenary hasn't heard the last from GMA on this subject.


Last March a bunch of emails was  exchanged among several leaders of civil society, among them Ging Deles, Mely Nicolas, Remy Rikken and Sally Bulatao. The emails saw them congratulating one another and they gloated about they were able to derail the grant of hundreds of millions of US dollars from the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to RP.

Frankly I think their claim of derailing the MMC grant to RP was again another manifestation of their exaggerated sense of self-importance, which in the P-Noy administration seems to exceed the bounds of credibility. But even assuming it’s true that some of them were able to help stop the huge funds from getting to the Filipino people by lobbying in Washington, it would show how they think only of their own vainglory and not how the US funds could have helped the poorest Filipinos and the development of the country. It's the Hyatt 10's brand of arrogance that turns even Congress off, as in the case of  Lanao del Sur Rep. Aliah Dimaporo whom Peace Adviser Ging Deles had offended with her condescending"Just read my book" remark. 


The MCC was founded through the bipartisan effort of the US Congress in January 2004, at the start of the second of the two George W. Bush terms, as the US government's principal vehicle to make available some $7.4 Billion to developing countries. The MCC, which is chaired by the US Secretary of State, provides anti-poverty assistance and sustainable development to various countries around the globe, though its heaviest concentration of aid understandably is in Africa. The MCC maintains two kinds of aid programs. One is the “Threshold” program, which represents smaller grants to countries that come close to passing the three criteria: good governance, economic freedom and investments in their citizens. The second is the “Compact” program which involves bigger fund assistance, but also stiffer criteria to meet.


In November 2006 the Philippines was declared eligible for the MCC Threshold program amounting to $21 million, which ended last year. Since then, the Arroyo government had sought to apply for a Compact grant of $433.4 million for 2010-2014, but the MCC Board decided last March to defer its decision on this grant. The reason was that MCC preferred to wait and see if the administration succeeding Arroyo would remain committed to the development principles that the US foreign aid agency espouses.

This deferment was what triggered that flurry of congratulatory emails among the Hyatt 10 leaders and their allies; in the media they argued that it was the corruption in the GMA administration that caused the MCC to ignore its petition for the Compact grant. But to my mind, the grant deferment was just natural, since RP last March was in the middle of a frenetic campaign for the May 10 national elections, and everything, including business investments, was on a wait-and-see mode. The MCC was said to be particularly concerned that the presidential winner would not discontinue or terminate the Contract application simply because the Arroyo administration had worked for it.


Last month, the MCC held a signing ceremony in New York City, with President Aquino as witness, for a  Compact grant for RP of $434 million. This will go to three big projects: the strengthening of revenue reform, the Kalahi-CIDSS project for rural poverty alleviation, and two secondary national road development projects in Samar and Eastern Samar. I’m happy for our country about this development, but I’d like to put things in the proper perspective by quoting a passage from the March 27 email of civil society leader Mario Taguiwalo.


In answer to the congratulatory emails his fellow civil society leaders were furiously sending to one another over the deferment of RP’s selection for the MCC Compact program, Taguiwalo confessed he felt ”sad that we regard as good news the report that needed assistance is being withheld from our country.” Acknowledging that a favorable MCC decision would be seen as “an affirmation of the poor corruption record of the (Arroyo) administration,” Taguiwalo stressed that on the other hand, "we in civil society have not yet come forward with a consensus program to improve the institutional anti-corruption ratings of our country… we have not translated public abhorrence to corruption into public support for specific actions. I suggest that we come up with 10 things that our country must do to improve its international ratings on corruption and get the support of as wide a coalition as possible.”

Amen to that. Improving on corruption should begin with things like spelling out the nitty-gritty behind the huge sums our public officials ask for, such as the P21 billion CCT of the DSWD. Sen. Edgardo Angara has also asked the Truth Commission headed by former CJ Hilario Davide to also look into the fat commissions that Dinky and Co. reportedly enjoyed from the controversial PEACE Bonds, an issue the Hyatt 10 group has simply ignored.  But to be nebulous about these issues is to invite corruption all over again.  If these were to be ignored, what would happen to P-Noy's promised reforms?

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Truth Commission a toothless tiger

I caught former Sen. Rene Saguisag the other day on Channel 5 commenting on the Truth Commission chaired by former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. I’m glad to note that Rene, who served as President Cory Aquino’s chief legal counsel in the early months of her presidency before he ran for his one and only term in the Senate in 1987, has not lost his acerbic wit. He opined that the Commission, which was set up by EO No. 1 by President Aquino to investigate the alleged wrongdoings of the previous Arroyo administration, would be a “toothless tiger as it does not have enough powers. Proof, said Rene, is that it cannot even subpoena witnesses. He opined that given this reality, the Commission would just be an added layer to existing government prosecutorial agencies, such as Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman.

True purpose of Truth Commission

I quite agree with Saguisag. Of what use will the Truth Commission be, other than to try to propagandize alleged excesses of the previous administration, in fulfillment of Noynoy Aquino’s campaign promise to put GMA behind bars, or to distract the citizens from the shortcomings of the current dispensation?

I recall that the first EO signed by P-Noy’s mother, Cory Aquino, set up the PCGG to run after the hidden wealth of the Marcoses and their cronies. But while the PCGG was endowed with so much power by the new government, it succeeded in recovering only P85.7 billion in cash since Feb. 26, 1986 up to the present, and many more billions in bank deposits and assets remain under litigation mostly abroad. Many more Marcos assets perhaps remain unknown to the PCGG until now.   These problems may be attributed to the brilliant lawyers of the Marcoses and their cronies, who employed all manner of delaying tactics in court, as well as to the PCGG's own saga of foibles and corruption. The question is, would the Truth Commission do any better in its target investigation of 23 corruption cases in the Arroyo administration within its two year-timetable (until December 2012)? Given the lack of subpoena or contempt powers (GMA has invoked the right to remain silent) and the advanced age of the three justices at its core, how effective can the Commission be?

Issue of jurisdiction of the Truth Commission

At a recent press conference the Truth Commission’s chief, former CJ Hilario Davide, emphasized that his group is just a “fact-finding body and not a prosecutorial one.” Listening to him, one could read what was going on in the minds of the media interviewing him and his colleagues. A media guy, for instance, queried what would happen if the President were to reject the findings of this Truth Commission, similar to his discarding major recommendations of the fact-finding Incident Investigative Report Committee (IIRC) that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima headed to investigate the Luneta hostage-taking fiasco, to the dismay of even P-Noy followers. Davide replied that his committee would submit its findings to the Office of the President but he acknowledged that the OP also has no prosecutorial powers, unless the official under investigation has to be dealt with administratively, in which case it can fall under OP’s jurisdiction.

Beyond this, jurisdiction of the Truth Commission is not clear. But of course, its first hurdle is whether the Supreme Court would declare as constitutional the presidential decree creating the Commission, as it has been challenged by leading House allies of GMA. Given the SC’s current sour mood against the P-Noy administration, judging from a series of decisions lately (such as the status quo ante order on Omera Dianalan-Lucman’s appointment as chief of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos by GMA), I wouldn’t be surprised if the court axes the Davide panel.

Full circle for Aquino supporters

I had earlier noted that some of the leading critics of President Noynoy had once served his mother, among them Rene Saguisag, Winnie Monsod and former Constitutional Commission member and later Comelec Chair Christian Monsod. Sen. Joker Arroyo seems squarely in this group, judging from recent pronouncements. Recently Joker criticized the presidential grant of amnesty to former military mutineers and was quoted as saying that he wasn’t overly eager to welcome his fellow senator Antonio Trillanes to their chamber. He opined that the amnesty grant, which under Sec. 19 of Art. VII of the Constitution needs the concurrence of majority of both chambers of Congress to have the force of law, “has trivialized the justice system.”

Arroyo was referring to the fact that Judge Oscar Pimentel of the Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 148 has set the promulgation of his decision on the Oakwood coup attempt of July 2003 by Trillanes and his fellow Magdalo mutineers for Oct. 28. Now comes P-Noy’s sudden decision to grant amnesty to them. This now opens the question of what would happen if Judge Pimentel were to rule that the mutineers are guilty and imposes a sentence. Suppose Congress rushes the resolution of concurrence, but Pimentel rules the mutineers guilty? I wouldn’t be surprised if this judge won’t be cowed: he has a reputation for being a maverick.

Problems of amnesty

Webster’s dictionary defined amnesty as “official pardon for people who have been convicted of political offenses,” and the word comes from the Greek “amnestia,” which means “forgetfulness.” In amnesty, the political liabilities are “forgotten” and the pardoned is restored to full civil (and in the case of the military soldiers, not the officers, liberties).

To avoid this conflict between the expected executive/legislative action and Pimentel’s forthcoming judicial action, some officials currying favor with P-Noy have asked the judge to defer his ruling, “out of respect for the executive branch” daw. But isn’t it wiser for the executive to wait for the judge to rule first on this case as after all, it has been pending in his sala for years now, instead of the other way around.

If Pimentel adjudges the mutineers guilty, then the President and Congress could push amnesty without a problem. But if he exonerates them, there’s also no problem as P-Noy’s intention was already telegraphed for good will. But if the Palace and Congress sideline Pimentel's forthcoming judgment and rush amnesty NOW, it becomes problematic for both sides. 

Talk circulating in coffee shops is that amnesty was rushed because of reports of military unrest; amnesty was meant as preemptive. This early? Frankly, I don’t give credence to that rumor, as the military seems more inclined toward giving P-Noy the benefit of the doubt than the civilians, a good number of whom he has lost. I think that amnesty was again one of those examples referred to by Joker Arroyo when he shook his head and pointed to his temple, meaning, it was again a no-brainer from P-Noy’s advisers.

JDV as RP's UN Representative?

Standard columnist Emil Jurado recently wrote that former Speaker Joe de Venecia’s nomination as Philippine permanent representative to the UN is on the desk of P-Noy. Emil opined that JDV would be excellent for that post as he has such an extensive international network of connections which could be harnessed for our country. I second the motion.

I was able to join JDV over the years in various international conferences, including those of organizations that he founded even while he was out of power, such as the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) that he established in May 2000. I have witnessed the enormous respect and admiration he commands among world leaders in various continents. It would be a pity if these assets JDV has cultivated over the years wouldn’t be harnessed for whatever RP needs: a voice in human rights, international finance (e.g., debt-for-equity swaps in climate change projects), inter-faith dialogue, name it, he will be listened to. P-Noy should appoint De Venecia right away to the UN.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mision cumplida

This column has been writing about the 33 miners who had been trapped in a collapsed mine shaft in Chile since last Aug. 5. I had followed their incredible claustrophobic ordeal for weeks and weeks on end and earlier today, when the first eight of them were successfully hauled up in the specially designed “Phoenix” rescue capsule, I found myself crying each time a man would come up, sharing the indescribable joy and relief of their families, as though I were a relative. But I wasn’t the only one transfixed by the rescue when it finally came after weeks of preparations that began last Sept. 17:  the whole world was enthralled as the miners’ story---and hitherto untested rescue mechanisms being put in place---reeled before the international TV networks each day, and toward the countdown, by the hour.

Chile's true grit and determination

Mision cumplida---Chile. The signboard that went up before the world’s TV screens later today, after the rescue of the 33rd miner, Luis Urzua, the shift foreman on that fateful day of Aug. 5, delivered the message of this nation’s true grit and determination to resolve the world’s longest underground captivity. But what the signboard---and the 2000 journalists from 40 different countries covering the rescue could not fully convey--- was the story of human emotion and pathos at “Camp Hope,” such as when the 63-year old Mario Gomez, the oldest and a legend in keeping the group going, sank to his knees upon touching surface, to thank God for his deliverance. But despite the festive atmosphere at Camp Hope as one miner after another surfaced, it continued to be gripped by enormous tension---for any moment, the clockwork precision of the tiny wheel pulling up the long capsule could go awry and some men could remain buried perhaps forever.

A global effort for a dramatic rescue

The dramatic rescue was also a beautiful global effort that will rate with the best annals of humankind. After the Aug. 5 tragedy unfolded, Chile quickly united behind the 33 momentarily orphaned families; then, as a nation and a people the Chileans, who had just pulled back from last February's devastating earthquake, rallied behind President Sebastian Pinera’s pledge to rescue every one of the trapped miners. The steadying presence of the handsome Chilean mining minister, Laurence Golborne, the captain of the gargantuan rescue effort, who could well be Chile’s next president given his 86 percent acceptance rating, reassured the world that the Chileans understood the value of teamwork. Pinera is correct: from now on, the world won’t just remember Chile for its excellent wines and its metals, its No. 2 revenue source. Added on is the respect and sanctity it showed for human life—no matter what the cost. We Pinoys could learn a lot from the Chileans.

From around the world

Chile’s determination to rescue its 33 miners touched sympathetic chords around the world. There was the stocky American driller from Denver surnamed Hart, who was pulled out of Afghanistan where he was drilling for water, because he was the most qualified in the world to undertake the extremely delicate drilling through solid rock to make room for the capsule; there were Pope Benedict and other religious leaders praying for all the miners; there were the scientists and doctors from NASA advising the miners on how to cope with their condition, beginning with their rigid diet; there was the California skiing company donating the special “Oakley” sunglasses for the men who endured darkness for 69 days, and so many details big and small of global unity. Later there were the $10,000 bank account for each miner and holidays offered on a Greek island.

For all the divisions in our fragmented world, such as the massive strikes in France, terror threats in Europe and suicide bombings in Afghanistan, once in a while there comes a world-unifying story like the rescue of the 33 miners to stun the most cynical among us all about prospects for world peace and stability.

A lesson in indefatigable hope

From AP

But more than anyone, homage should go to the 33 miners themselves---how they never gave up hope and the determination to go on living and coping with impossible conditions in the belly of the earth, without sunlight, with very little air and strict food and water rationing especially in the first 17 days before they made contact with the outside world. When they finally surfaced today, most of them were bubbling with life, halth and energy---just unbreakable! And of course, we have to pay tribute to their families who never gave up on their men with their prayers and their letters. Their own true grit doubtless moved President Pinera to sustain the rescue efforts without counting the costs and against all odds.

The 69-days captivity and ultimate rescue of the miners is an incredible testimony to the unbreakable human spirit. The Chilean group does humanity proud.

A discarded IIRC report

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was quoted the other day as saying that resignation has crossed her mind after the Palace discarded the recommendations of the final report of the Incident Investigative Report Committee (IIRC) and absolved high-ranking officials whom it had recommended for prosecution. Well, many citizens feel that more than just the thought of resignation crossing her mind, she should, in fact, cross over to the Palace and submit her irrevocable resignation to President Aquino because she seems to have been reduced to being a doormat for Malacanang.

Waste of weeks of effort

First, De Lima’s committee’s painstaking work of many weeks was virtually thrown away by the President who preferred to uphold his long ties of friendship to Undersecretary Rico E. Puno when the more prudent presidential action would have been to just endorse to the state prosecutors and the courts the IIRC’s recommended course of action in the Luneta fiasco. P-Noy took weeks to act on that report and when he did, his main preoccupation seemed to be to take his friend off the hook. Puno even bragged to the media why P-Noy cannot just let him go, and much has been said about his central role in the Aquino campaign. 

But in totally absolving him, P-Noy was also forced to absolve DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo of any administrative offense. Recall that he removed police supervision from Robredo at the outset and transferred it to Puno. Analysts are one in stressing, however, that it would have been more politic for P-Noy to have kept a hands-off policy on the IIRC report. Now pundits opine that for all his reformist stance, he seems to be really just a common politico.

Predictably, the Hongkong authorities are upset over his eventual course of action. Now even the media that helped make him president, such as my former newspaper, are calling it a “whitewash.”

DOJ left out of rebels' amnesty grant

Next, Secretary de Lima admitted that on the issue of Proclamation 50, the President’s grant of amnesty to over 300 military rebels who had been involved in three failed uprisings, her department was not consulted at all. This is quite strange, considering that some of those military officials have pending cases before civilian courts. In fact it has been noted that the amnesty proclamation, which has to be concurred in by both chambers of Congress to have the force of law, came about two weeks before the scheduled promulgation of the mutiny case against Antonio Trillanes at the Makati Regional Trial Court. De Lima admitted that she was nowhere in the decision-process regarding the amnesty grant. What is she waiting for?

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

IT experts’ analysis: May 10 automated elections vulnerable to E-fraud

Earlier this week the Galeon Andalucia, an exact replica of the ships that used to ply the fabled, highly lucrative 250-year old Galleon Trade between Mexico and the Philippines steamed into Pier 13 after several months of voyage in the Pacific Ocean. The Andalucia, fashioned by Spanish artisans over months from Norwegian pinewood, is indeed a shining beauty. Filipinos who were welcomed to visit it were able to imagine what life inside those galleons was like for the mariners of yore, who braved rough seas with very little navigational equipment.
The Andalucia’s arrival highlighted the first global commemoration of Dia del Galleon, an international festival sponsored by the Unesco in cooperation with the National Commission on Culture and the Arts under Chair Vilma Labrador, and the International Theater Institute (ITI), under the Philippine chapter’s president, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez. The Dia del Galeon Festival was commemorated with the Philippines as lead organizer, and managed and directed by Cecile, who also served as its director-general. Orchids to her and her team’s efforts for its success.

The beauty of the Andalucia

The Andalucia came and went and as the Festival closes, the beauty of this maritime craft remains in our memory. Its greater significance, however, is that it not only revived interest in the Galleon Trade among  Filipinos who at best only studied its significance in history class. As Cecile put it, it also highlighted many realities for our contemporary times.

For one, it reinforced the Philippines’ maritime skills that as early as two and a half centuries ago made Manila a thriving global port that saw exotic goods, technical skills, artistic talents and entrepreneurship exchanged across the oceans, between Manila and Acapulco and beyond, the entire South American continent as well as Mother Spain. Today RP is the world’s second largest supplier of marine skills and Filipino sailors help man virtually every ship plying the seas.

The Festival also celebrated the Unesco’s aim of cultural rapprochement, so badly needed in an increasingly fragmented world, as well as the wealth of biodiversity of three continents that have enriched many countries’ culture, economy and food supply. For aside from the prized silks and spices, so many agricultural crops from the East found their way into the New World, and vice versa, various food crops well as silver and other precious metals flowed into this part of the world from the West. So early on, the Galleon Trade has made our world truly a global village.
Indeed, Cultural exchanges such as Dia del Galeon can only enrich our badly divided and tortured world.

Distubing news on the EU-CenPEG Project 3030

But while I found the Galleon Festival so enriching, I found the “Synopsis EU-CenPEG Project 3030report on the May 10, automated elections so disturbing. CenPEG stands for Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a UP-based policy research institution composed of leading and respected IT professionals. It has conducted months of exhaustive research (monitoring, observation, documentation, and field case studies) in various parts of the country during the election-preparatory period, the election proper and the post-election period.

Last Oct. 5, CenPEG presented its report at the October Post-Election Summit that was convened in cooperation with the Automated Election System (AES) Watch, a broad spectrum of citizens’ watchdogs and advocates that also did parallel studies and monitoring of the elections. CenPEG said that the full and final report, including the legal study, will be released within weeks from the Oct. 5 summit, but its synopsis report is already disturbing enough that it ought to be taken very seriously by all Filipinos who desire clean and honest elections.

Credibility of the CenPEG synopsis report

What’s significant is that the newly-released CenPEG synopsis report on the May 10 elections is already the sixth of a series of studies conducted by this institution since the August 2008 ARRM automated election. Thus, it has a two-year track record in this subject, so it’s not coming in as cramming NEOPHYTES. Moreover, its members are all volunteers, spending their own time and resources, and driven by professional concerns and above all, love of country and concern for its future. CenPEG’s declared aim is “to deepen the understanding of the automated election system’s 30 IDENTIFIED VULNERABILITIES and to propose CORRESPONDING 30 SAFEGUARDS AND SAFETY MEASURES (emphasis mine) as a mechanism for protecting the integrity of the vote and transparency in the 2010 elections, in accordance with its policy research and advocacy program.”

Correction of glaring deficiencies

Definitely, as CenPeg stressed, serious steps ought to be taken to correct the many glaring major deficiencies in our recently concluded AES; for unless these are corrected, any future electoral exercise would only open itself to a repeat of the electronic cheating that attended the May 2010 elections. It should be noted that within the first three months from the elections, over a hundred protest cases have already been filed with the Comelec from around the country. It should also be stressed that former Makati Rep. TeddyBoy Locsin’s House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms also made a similar warning in its final report about the AES’ vulnerability to electronic frauds, after weeks of hearings last May and June. In fact it's startling to note that Locsin himself did not recommend automation of future elections unless something is done to correct the deficiencies.

I’m glad that the barangay elections this week won’t be employing the AES. The difficult thing, however, is that since its July 2010 en banc decision not to release the source code (the guide to the use of the PCOS machines) and 21 other vital documents that CenPEG has long wanted to look into, the Comelec has stubbornly resisted full disclosure, despite a Supreme Court order to release them. With this attitude of Comelec, the serious defects of automated elections cannot be rectified. Citizen pressure ought to be applied on the SC and on Congress to do something about its obstinacy.

Vital points of CenPEG report

I shall be featuring vital points in the CenPEG report in subsequent columns, but for the moment I just wish to highlight a few important points stressed in it, to begin discussions:

· Mismatched time and date stamps on all PCOS machines;
· Transmission failures;
· Erroneous COCs in at least 57 provinces and cities;
· Ballots and CF cards delivered manually for canvassing;
· Discovery of the console port in all machines, making the PCOS vulnerable to tampering;
· Erroneous entries of total number of voters and votes cast in the national canvassing center and Congress;
· Near anarchy at the clustered precincts;
· Not to forget the pre-election incidence of defective CF cards

All of these glitches are serious and found nationwide, stressed CenPEG, and they “have tainted the integrity, credibility and accuracy of the PCOS machines and the election system.”

(To be continued).

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

P-Noy’s first 100 days

 This Friday, Oct. 8, Hope rides high in the form of a grand ball. It’s the Gawad Kalinga Hope Ball at the Peninsula Hotel Ballroom. Members of Manila’s 400 are expected to come together that night in this most glittering affair of the season that, Hope-fully, would be the first of the annual GK Hope Ball---all in support of GK’s “Holistic Development Program in Mindanao.” The GK Hope Ball will feature various events this Friday, such as an exciting arts and crafts auction, top-billed singers, a great dinner and fun---all geared toward raising funds to build holistic communities in Sulu.
But the organizers, led by GK founder Tony Meloto, social worker (and wife of the Peninsula GM) Beliz Balkir-Crook and my daughter Christine Cunanan, publisher and editor-in-chief of Travelife Magazine, are careful to emphasize that the GK Hope Ball is not just another fund-raising activity. As Beliz stressed, it aims to bring together the elite of society on a journey toward nation-building. She sees it as “part of a very big healing process for the country,” reinforcing the “new culture of caring and sharing that will further build relationships and long-lasting peace” in that part of the Philippines. 

As a proud mother, I’d like to point out that Christine had the audacity three years ago, when the economy was not too good, to put up a beautiful glossy travel magazine that’s all-Filipino but very much up to international standards. Now the leading publication in the travel and lifestyle categories, Travelife, as she put it, “is happy to merge GK philosophies with the magazine’s core principle, which is, to help enrich one’s quality of life through travel and involvement in communities near and far.”
Cheers to GK, Travelife, the Peninsula Hotel, Rustan’s and all other groups and individuals who have worked so hard to make this Friday’s GK Hope Ball a success. 

P-Noy's First 100 Days

This Friday is also President Noynoy’s big day as he celebrates his 100th day in office. Everyone and his uncle is grading his performance---kung pasado, or bagsak or pasang-awa lang---and offering all kinds of commentary and advice. The SWS came out with a high acceptance and trust rating from the citizenry of 60 percent---which, to P-Noy’s critics, is rather surprising. But the more popular rating is a passing grade with the tendency to give him allowance for learning the ropes---despite the series of blunders and fiascos that attended his first 100 days. To be sure, the public and the media gave him no honeymoon, but space has been given to him to better his performance. History offers us an explanation for this phenomenon.

High trust ratings

Sen. Joker Arroyo, who served as one of Ninoy Aquino’s lawyers and President Cory’s first Executive Secretary, lauded P-Noy’s high trust rating, even as he noted how the President has survived the “shortcomings” of his “”underperforming” and “unimpressive” advisers and their interminable and well-publicized squabbles. But Joker also warned that the first 100 days were “not designed as a dry-run or on-the-job training period for the President.” We can read Joker’s advice to mean that P-Noy has to show more performance in the job or suffer the consequence in subsequent dismal ratings.

An OJT President

My own take on Arroyo’s observation is that the citizens who voted for him all knew that candidate Noynoy was going to be an OJT-president, as he had very little experience in the legislature to show. Sure he spent nine years in the House and four years in the Senate, but media covering those two chambers know that we barely heard Noynoy’s voice on issues. He won not on his own merits, but on the strength of the beloved memory of his parents.

A sizable chunk of the population chose him last May 10 in the belief that he was going to be different from his predecessor, the way his mother gave the impression that she was going to be a sharp contrast to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Last May 10 many voters were not looking for experience---they were looking for hope, for contrast.  Thus, if they reject P-Noy now despite the squabbles in the Cabinet, the Black Monday fiasco, the tangles with the Supreme Court, and controversies such as Hacienda Luisita and unabated jueteng, then they have to accept that they made a mistake. And they are not ready to do that---not yet. They are still willing to give him allowance for learning the ropes of governance.

Plucked by destiny

In this regard P-Noy is lucky, like his mother. Cory Aquino was plucked by destiny from her housewife’s nook and thrust into the political arena, to lead the Filipinos in the fight to regain their democracy. It was sheer euphoria at EDSA and in the years immediately after, but in later years her administration wrestled with corruption, 12-hour brownouts and seemingly endless coup attempts that destroyed hopes of full-scale economic recovery. At the end of six years, the people were relieved to return her to the pedestal and welcome Fidel Ramos and his team, who were perceived as competent technocrats. But the people never stopped loving Cory Aquino despite her fumblings, because to them she was and will forever be the symbol of EDSA.

On the strength of that memory, stirred anew by her illness and death last year, her son rode to the crest of power and still does, with 60 percent acceptance rating. But I doubt if they will give him that much more allowance for fumblings. Recall that he had a 77 percent trust rating in July. He has to pull his Cabinet into shape and perhaps fire one or two controversial officials. And no more fiascos like Black Monday, or else the consequence would be obvious.

Vital issues for P-Noy 

Two issues could cloud P-Noy’s horizon in the coming months. One is the RH bill where a head-on confrontation with the Church would be most impolitic, especially since his mother was so close to the Church and so much of her support---to the end---came from it. Continuing dialogue would be the most sensible recourse for him and he cannot lose in this way. The Church is upset that he seems to have given in to the US after his visit there last month, where he received $434 million from the US-funded Millenium Challenge Corporation. Some anti-RH sectors are beginning to liken that grant to the biblical 30 pieces of silver for which Christ was sold.

Deadlock at Hacienda Luisita

The second issue will be Hacienda Luisita, the country’s biggest feudal estate, which is caught in a deadlock between management and several farmers groups. The farmers are ardently petitioning the Supreme Court to break it and emancipate them. It’s good for P-Noy to remember that the SC may not be on his side in this issue. He also cannot be perceived as siding with his relatives, as he cannot afford to have a repeat of the deadly massacres at its gates in November 2004, which left 14 farmers dead and scores wounded.

What aggravates the Luisita issue for P-Noy is that certain farmers’ advocates were close to his mother, and now they are against him. Lawyer Christian Monsod served as Cory’s Comelec chair in the late ‘80s, while his wife Winnie was her NEDA director-general, but today the Monsods remain the staunchest and most credible defenders of the farmers.
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Monday, October 4, 2010

‘Over-population’ as the politicos’ favorite bete-noire

A thoughtful article that appeared in the Cebu Daily News today and circulated in the Internet articulated what this blog column wants to say on the raging issue of overpopulation in our country. Writer Ricky Poca opined that the question is not really over-population in the Philippines, but the over-population in our urban areas. This reality, in turn, boils down to the inequitable distribution of our country’s resources and the uncontrolled migration from the rural areas to the cities, because of the lack of opportunities for employment and livelihood in the rural areas.

Poca cites his native Cebu to buttress his argument. He stresses that in Cebu City and Mandaue City, the two biggest cities of Cebu province and the hub of tourism and industrial development, there is such overpopulation; but in the countryside of Cebu there are vast tracts of land that are even uninhabited. Poca emphasized the need to disperse economic development to the countryside by providing adequate employment and livelihood there, so that the folks stay there. He cited the longtime advocacy of Cebu’s former governor, Lito Osmena, of “devolution of initiatives to the countryside.”

Vastness of uninhabited areas in the Philippines

I totally agree. My husband and I have been traveling all over the Philippines over the years, especially in Mindanao where he retired from military service as the big island’s Armed Forces commander in the mid-90s. Since he joined the PNOC and later the SSS in his civilian status, we have traveled around the country whenever the opportunity arose, in order to see whether things are progressing or not outsite Manila. Our travels convinced us not only how beautiful our country is, but also how vast and uninhabited many areas are, particularly in the huge island down south.

To be fair, over the years, especially during the nine years of President Macapagal Arroyo, transportation infrastructure poured into the countryside. Among them are the “nautical highways” whereby fast inter-island boats have linked the various provinces of the Visayas and northern Mindanao, as well as numerous concrete highways, ports and airports that opened up remote areas of Mindanao, the Pacific side of Luzon over the Sierra Madre mountains, and the Visayan countryside. These sea lanes and highways came to the rescue of Luzon during last year’s calamities of Ondoy and Pepeng, when without the vegetable and poultry shipments from Northern Mindanao and Central Visayas our food supply in Luzon would have been seriously threatened.

The need for more infrastructure

But despite these developments, there remains sorely the lack of infrastructures such as power plants and communication facilities that could attract industrial sites in remote provinces and develop them; there’s also not enough agricultural support to enable many of our farmers to support their families decently. There’s also the continuing problem of peace and order in certain areas, where NPAs or renegade MILF periodically attack industrial or business sites and extract “progressive” taxes from them.

Because of the lack of such infrastructures in the countryside to generate gainful employment, and the continuing peace and order problem, rural families continue to pour into the developed cities so that they’re now bursting at the seams. These cities are where there truly is OVERPOPULATION. Sadly, the local and foreign media and grandstanding politicians like to focus on the slum areas where millions of poor Filipinos live in appallingly sub-human conditions and there’s a lot of idle economic unproductivity.

The need to control rural migration

As Ricky Poca correctly argues, local governments have to control rural migration to the cities; but this cannot be done without developing the necessary infrastructure in the provinces, as only with these can industries be attracted that will give the rural folk gainful employment. Who wants to live in the filthy city slums and ghettoes, if there’s adequate work, health and educational facilities in the clean and unpolluted rural areas? The late President Ramon Magsaysay already saw the need to control rural migration as early as the late ‘50s, as he sought to open up vast tracts of lands in Mindanao and convert them into new government housing settlements. But unfortunately RM didn’t even get to finish one term.

 Dangers of over-pushing population control

Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan have cautioned against too aggressive pushing of population control, as they cited the experience in many countries in Europe and right here in Asia that have “graying populations” and sharply declining birth rates. In Asia we have the example of Japan and Singapore where zero birth rates even as years are lengthening for the population are causing problems. In Singapore the shortage of workers to run its economy is about two million people, so that a policy has been in place for years now to get senior students from other countries such as RP, to provide skilled labor for six-month periods, renewable for another six months. In fact, in some countries, the zero birth rate has become so alarming that efforts are being made to attract couples with all kinds of incentives, such as fancy all-expenses paid vacations, just to have more children, to no avail.

Debate over population explosion

Every opening of Congress, the debate over the so-called “population explosion” crops up, and politicians love to use it as the bete-noire, the whipping boy, for failed economic policies and gargantuan wastage of various resources. Over-population makes good sound byte, but I like to cite the reality of South Korea.

Some decades back, the Korean media also loved to bring up this excuse for SK’s backwardness, compared to its bitter-sweet rival, Japan---the seemingly uncontrolled population. But instead of wringing their hands, its economic managers developed the economy to such a spectacular degree that ultimately the issue of over-population disappeared. Households became engrossed in cottage industries that cut the birth rate without even a legislation.

In our country families are largest in slum areas and the reason is obvious: too many idle people, especially the youth, regard sex as an escape from life’s harsh realities. But our politicians are simply too paranoid about population control, when what they ought to do is to stop wasting precious countryside development funds on grossly over-priced projects like basketball courts and dubious “family foundations,” and marshal them into productive factories and infrastructure in their districts.

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Confusion about politics and morality

I know a number of people who have taken the guided tours conducted by professional Intramuros tour guide Carlos Celdran and they like the way he makes Spanish colonial history come alive in all its passions and pageantry. But yesterday he went overboard with his own “crime of passion,” as he put it in media interviews.

Celdran entered the Metropolitan Cathedral where Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales and other Catholic personages were holding, ironically, what a report termed “an ecumenical service” and disrupted it by shouting that the Church “should not involve itself in politics.” He then held up a placard bearing the name “Damaso,” a hated Spanish friar in Dr. Jose Rizal’s novel, “Noli Me Tangere.” Celdran explained later to media that he had just intended to hold his demo outside the cathedral, but since it was raining he decided to go inside; once he got close to the altar, he “was tempted” to deliver his message of non-inteference by the Church.

Freedom of speech but in the right venue

I’ve been asked about how I feel about this episode and the issue of the RH bill. First, on Celdran’s headline episode. Had he just gathered all his fellow advocates outside the cathedral for peaceful mass action, there would have been nothing wrong with it. It’s a free country and freedom of assembly is guaranteed by our Bill of Rights, so long as it's peaceful and does not bother other citisens. I’ve always held a tolerant attitude towards rallies and mass actions, be it in Mendiola Bridge or in front of Camp Aguinaldo or at the Batasan, and God knows how I myself have availed of this freedom in many years of being a street parliamentarian. 

 Strong opinions for and against Celdran's actions

But Celdran went inside the cathedral and disrupted an on-going service to air his protest. He was charged for succumbing to his temptation and “offending religious feelings” under the Revised Penal Code. He is on bail. Had he had done this sort of thing in a mosque he probably wouldn’t have come out alive. To like-minded people, Celdran has become some kind of hero, and in fact, my good friend Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, the House Minority Leader and principal author of the RH Bill, has decried the charge leveled against him as “of an archaic and colonial vestige.”

Edcel also lamented that priests opposed to the bill’s passage “had been using the pulpit to campaign against it despite the solemnity of a Mass.”  But that’s the way our democratic system works, each protest in its own venue: where else would priests campaign against the bill but from the pulpit, just as Celdran and like-minded folks are free to campaign for it in the media and in the halls of Congress, as RH advocates have been doing over the past years.  
In December 2008, my husband and I dropped by Munich on the way home from the climate change summit in Poland and we heard mass at the cathedral in that Bavarian capital. Midway through the service a half-naked man barged down the main aisle and began knocking down giant candelabras before heading for the altar where several priests were concelebrating mass; the security collared him out and later we learned that he was charged in court.
Is the Church meddling in politics?

On the issue of the Church’s “interference” in politics and government affairs,  I note from postings on “Facebook” that some people equate the Church’s stand against the RH bill with meddling in politics. In regard to politics, the Church has been very careful about appearing to interfere, and evidence has been its consistent refusal to be drawn into election campaigns and endorsing candidates outright. About the only exception I recall was in February 1986 when it quite obviously went for Cory Aquino against the dictator. It will be recalled that a turning point in the 1986 elections, which helped triggered the EDSA Revolution, was the collective statement of the bishops, led by Jaime Cardinal Sin, condemning the massive cheating resorted to by the Marcos regime. At that time it was not just politics that was at issue, but the morality of clean and honest elections, and the bishops did not equivocate.

Consistency of the church stand

But on the issue of the RH bill and the use of contraceptives the Church has been pretty consistent too, for as Tandag Bishop Nereo P. Odchimar, the current president of the CBCP, put it in a recent statement, “The Church intervenes in this issue because this is a moral question.” It concerns, among other things, he stressed, “the right to life particularly of the unborn child in the mother’s womb.”
Bishop Odchimar explained the Church position in his disclaimer to news reports that the Church has threatened President Aquino with excommunication over his reported support for the RH Bill pending in Congress.

The CBCP head pointed out that it has been the “traditional” position of the Church that human life starts at conception and not at implantation. He stressed that some contraceptive pills and devices are abortifacent in nature and that “Any completed act to expel or kill the fertilized ovum is considered to be an act of abortion.” Church advocates have also argued in other forums that certain aspects of the RH bill could encourage more teen-age promiscuity and that some contraceptive devices are confirmed to actually be quite harmful to women’s health.

Unwavering in its objections

On the issue of morality and the preciousness of human life, beginning with the unborn, I do not see the Church buckling down, for that’s the way it has been since the beginning of its existence (this is also the basis for its staunch  objection to capital punishment). Recall that it didn’t blink when King Henry VIII of England threatened to secede from the Church when it refused to recognize his divorce from Catherine and his marriage to Ann Boleyn (who subsequently also lost her head in the Tower, like Catherine); for a while the Church lost an entire country, but it did not surrender its stand. 

This bedrock obstinacy has been both its strength and its weakness, or as romantics would put it, its agony and its ecstasy over some truths that it holds to be immutable. The RH bill is no different. The Church may ultimately lose the vote in Congress on this issue, but I don’t see it ever buckling down in its opposition to contraceptives, especially those masquerading as abortifacents.

One Facebook fan has a thoughtful suggestion for the Church, which makes sense: “Why can’t (it) put (its) efforts into urging people to abstain through education, prayer and counsel? I quite agree with this idea. We practicing Catholics know that the Church will uphold the morality of its idea that contraception obstructs the transmission of life, as it proposes natural family planning instead. So why don’t Church prelates and the various organizations within the Church carry out a zealous campaign beyond the pulpit, and in the grassroots level, to inform and educate people, especially among the lower-income groups, about natural family planning. If it cares so much about the morality of the population issue, there’s no other way to go but the grassroots.

(Next: population issue as bete-noire for the real issues: the misuse of resources and the poor economy)

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