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 31, 2012

Would Sandy bring “October surprise” in US elections? Militant rival party-list groups doubtless view with tinge of envy Akbayan’s unparalleled political fortunes, but its list of who’s who in P-Noy administration---as well as the Aquino-allied donors to its 2010 war chest--- is truly staggering.

US President Barack Obama

No matter how much the build-up about ‘Franken-Storm' Sandy, when it finally hit the US East Coast its magnitude---a total of 13 states in its gigantic swath of destruction---was just awesome and horrifying. We in this Third World country are visited by some 20 typhoons a year in varying degrees of ferocity, so we're no strangers to disasters. But to see Sandy devastate this most powerful and developed country in the world and leave its people so seemingly helpless in the face of Nature’s triple wrath (hurricane, tropical storm and snow blizzards) was just unbelievable.

Human interest stories such as how 20 sick babies from a neo-natal intensive care unit of a New York City hospital had to be evacuated, attached only to battery-powered respirators as gusts of wind blew their blankets, and how people in darkened skyscrapers in Manhattan had to climb up and down to get food, were gripping.

Our prayers go to the American people at this most trying time.


Republican challenger Mitt Romney
Sandy devastates at a worst time---as the American people prepare to elect their President and Vice-President.  The floods, power outages affecting 6.2 million people, shut-down of mass transport, forced evacuations of many millions and other disasters covering huge areas across the eastern seaboard could severely impact the elections.

For one, it could lead to postponement in some areas of the elections scheduled next Monday. Then too, it could affect the outcome of a race already in dead heat for three weeks now, so that there could be what political pundits over time have termed the “October surprise.”  This time, could it be that the Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could stop President Obama’s dash for a second term?


I had a chat yesterday with my good friend Gene Ballesty, husband of script-writer and director Ma. Luisa Fatima Nebrida, and he noted that in disasters of such magnitude the incumbent leader tends to lose the elections because people would always blame him for what they’re going through---they would never be satisfied with preparations and relief efforts of the federal government. Gene reasoned that US President George W. Bush was severely blamed for what was considered government's the ill-preparedness during hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I agree. Obama, remembering the castigation of Bush too well, cut short his Florida stumping and rushed back to the capital, lest he suffers a similar fate. Already I heard over CNN Obama stressing that his administration had adequately prepared for the super-typhoon. But of course, it’s never enough for people.


Moreover, the impact on the US economy of Sandy, (including the unprecedented shut-down of Wall Street) is now estimated at  $20 billion, but it definitely would be more. Hence, it could well be that with the already ailing US economy taking enormous super-blows from the super-storm, the electorate would prefer to entrust the next four years to Gov. Mitt Romney, who built up a reputation as a successful business executive and later governor of Massachusetts, instead of Obama.

But we shall see---as right now the race between them is so tight that no one dares predict its outcome.  October surprise, indeed.


The party-list system has come under heavy scrutiny lately with the review Comelec has been undertaking in connection with which party-list groups qualify and which do not. It’s generally accepted that the party-list concept has departed from what the Constitution had in mind 25 years ago---i.e., representation of marginalized sectors which are authorized under Sec. 2, Art. VI on the Legislative Department, and the enabling act that fleshed it out (RA 7941, the "Party-List System Act), to fill up 20 percent of total seats in the House of Representatives. 

Today there are 44 party-list groups with 58 representatives in the 287-member House.

Part of the problem is that Comelec's perceived as going easy on groups affiliated with the administration, and hard on those that are not.

In the past two weeks the Comelec has disqualified over two dozen groups claiming party-list representation, from some 295 applications for the 2013 elections. Political observers note that party-list applications mushroomed since the Supreme Court eased up on the constitutional requirement of garnering at least 2 percent of votes nationwide to qualify. Now, it's noted, winning 100,000 votes already qualifies a group to have one House seat that entitles the occupant to the P70million pork barrel enjoyed by district reps.  


But one group defies categorization.  The 14-year old Akbayan is deemed by rival militant groups as no longer a party-list group as its leaders have been appointed to numerous government posts, including juicy Cabinet positions, and it enjoys government support and funding. Rival militant groups led by Bayan, Anakbayan and the National Union of Students of the Philippines have filed petitions before the Comelec to disqualify Akbayan, on the ground that it no longer represents the marginalized sectors of Philippine society.


Actually controversy over Akbayan’s classification as a party-list group blew out in the open when it was revealed that the three Aquino sisters and Katrina A. Yap alone contributed some P17 million---which constitute 15% of the over P112 million campaign kitty of Akbayan for the 2010 elections. Moreover, as columnist Bobi Tiglao pointed out, the rest of the donors were businessmen closely allied to the Aquino camp, and in fact many of them were subsequently appointed to various posts in P-Noy's administration.

It was quickly pointed out in the media that Akbayan's campaign funds were larger than even the P80 million the Nacionalista Party raised from donations in those elections.

Moreover, published reports about where these funds went to, especially in the run-up to the May 2010 elections and the week immediately after (e.g., radio ads with Manila Broadcasting Company  P1.1million;  ABS-CBN ads P7.3 million, P8.323 million and P2.297 million, GMA Network ads P2.3 million and P7.7 million) showed that Akbayan has moved into the big league already. In fact, its P1.1 million radio ad with MBC alone was equivalent to the entire campaign budget of other left-wing party-list groups.


Presidential Political Adviser Ronald Llamas
Among those petitioning to disqualify Akbayan, aside from poll watchdog Kontra Daya and UP student leader Cleve Kevin Robert Arguelles, are  Anakbayan (which sought to disrupt a press con of Akbayan recently ), Bayan, Hacienda Luisita’s Ugnayan ng Manggagawa sa Agricultura, and Pamalakaya-southern Tagalog.

Doubtless there’s the element of envy at Akbayan's political fortunes, but the oppositors’ main argument is that it has ceased to represent the marginalized because many of its members have been appointed by President Aquino to various posts. Moreover, it has undue advantage over other party-list groups because of the government aid it has been receiving.

At a recent TV forum Akbayan spokesperson Ibarra “Barry” Gutierrez III flatly denied that his group receives government aid.  Okay, so perhaps not in the way other marginalized groups are receiving aid, but if we consider all its members who are receiving salaries in high government positions, then there’s truth to the claim of rival groups.


The number of Akbayan officials serving in this administration is staggering. In the executive branch are Presidential Political Adviser Ronaldo Llamas (said to be the most powerful Cabinet member, next to Budget Secretary Butch Abad), and his deputy, Undersecretary Barry Gutierrez himself,  Commission on Human Rights Chair Loretta Ann Rosales (former three-term representative, now Akbayan Chair Emeritus), National Anti-Poverty chair Joel Rocamora, NAPC spokesperson Risa Hontiveros, GSIS Board member Mario Agujo, SSS Commissioner Daniel Edralin, National Youth Commission Commissioner Percival Cendana and Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor Commissioner Angelina Ludovice-Katoh.

Apart from these top-notch officials in the executive branch, there's also a second and third rung of officials appointed to lesser posts there. 

In the House, on the other hand, are two Akbayan representatives, Prof. Walden Bello and lawyer Kaka Bag-Ao. 


The complaint seeking to disqualify Akbayan cited a previous statement of then ex-Rep. Loretta Rosales that criticized then President GMA’s alleged moves to create a “sizable camp” of (GMA) allies in Congress by “populating the party-list elections” of 2010 with her “administration lapdogs.”

Now the shoe is in the other foot and Akbayan fulfills Etta's prophecy for this administration.

Akbayan member Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel is running under the LP coalition for the Senate in 2013 and she vows not to touch a single centavo from the administration for her campaign. But then, she gets maximum exposure such as when she rode aboard the relief truck with P-Noy in Muntinlupa after a recent calamity and appears as frequent guest at Kris’ TV show. 

To paraphrase Senate President Ponce Enrile talking long ago about another Aquino, if you have the President for a friend, you don’t need any other friend. That's very true of Risa.

Next: positive side of party-list representation

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Our IT experts assert: In the financial war between Smartmatic and technology-provider Dominion being fought in a Delaware court, the Philippines is hemmed in. But in the end, our electoral process in 2013 will be put in jeopardy. Congress and the Court should act now.

Cesar Flores of Smartmatic 
The various political parties, including a good number of leftist organizations that are fighting for domination of party-list  representation in the House, are all gearing up for the 2013 midterm elections just over six months away. But there’s a huge problem that unfortunately, Congress has refused to acknowledge.

This is the danger that the election technology that Smartmatic-TIM, the company that sold those 2010 PCOS machines to Comelec for use again in the 2013 elections, would employ this time a “pirated’ technology that’s totally unreliable and even legally unviable.  

This quandary could put the 2013 elections in limbo---or worse, in hell. Citizens should make enough loud noise so that the senators would act on this frightening prospect and conduct an urgent open inquiry.


Why the prospect of “pirated technology?”  In a recent excellent story by Marc Jayson Cayabyab for GMA News, it was reported that in the 2010 elections Smartmatic used the technology software owned by US-based Dominion Voting Systems. This was made possible by a 2009 license agreement that enabled Smartmatic to be Dominion’s legitimate representative in the Philippines (for some strange reason Smartmatic refused to acknowledge this relationship at that time).

In May of this year, however, said the GMA News story, Dominion CANCELLED this license agreement. A legal battle then ensued in the US court.


Last Oct. 11, the Automated Elections System Watch (AES)--- a volunteer citizens organization of 40 groups and NGOs  led by Filipino IT experts such as Professors Pablo Manalastas, Bobby Tuazon, Edmundo Casiño and Ma. Corazon Akol, that monitored our automated elections of 2010 and raised questionable aspects before Congress---raised the alarm bells. AES said that last Sept. 11, Smartmatic brought a suit against Dominion before the Delaware (USA) court of chancery for allegedly unilaterally repudiating their license agreement (a breach of contract), and undermining Smartmatic's election projects in Mongolia and Puerto Rico.

Reports said Dominion was unhappy that Smartmatic allegedly refused to pay the higher fees it was charging this time.


AES asserted that the result of this termination of the technology license by Dominion---and Smartmatic’s subsequent legal complaint--- is that it “denies Smartmatic access to technical support and assistance.” Thus, the latter may not get Dominion’s proprietary source code and other “escrowed materials” that Comelec could use to ENHANCE (read: IMPROVE) the PCOS machines. Comelec has been under the gun from IT experts to make those controversial machines acceptable to the voting public for 2013.

Comelec has been assuring the public that it will not pay for the 82,000 PCOS machines if Smartmatic fails to make those “enhancements.”  But why is it that citizens do not have enough confidence in its assurance?


Recall that in April this year several petitioners questioned before the Supreme Court the validity of Comelec’s decision of last March 30 to purchase from Smartmatic for P1.8 billion those old 82,000 PCOS machines. The oppositors maintained that the lease contract between Comelec and Smartmatic for the 2010 elections had already expired by then, so that there was need for re-bidding. The oppositors, led by former Vice-President Tito Guingona, maintained the re-bidding process was short-circuited.   

On the other hand, some politicians whose entire line-up inexplicably lost in the 2010 elections attacked what they termed massive fraud committed by syndicates who manipulated some of those PCOS machines, in alleged collusion with some Comelec personnel.


Last week, the SC ruled that Comelec’s P1.8 billion PCOS purchase is valid---thus clearing the way for their use in 2013.

 But now the MORE SERIOUS issue is, what will Smartmatic put into those PCOS machines, given that Dominion has already CANCELLED its technology license? How will Smartmatic correct the errors of 2010 without the necessary source code from Dominion?

In reaction Smartmatic Asia President Cesar Flores was quoted as saying that his company would continue with the automation despite its business rift with Dominion.

“Smartmatic is fully capable of providing all support to Comelec and all customers, regardless of any rifts with any of its providers,” Flores’ statement read, adding that “For the Philippines, we draw on our extensive experience, and we will incorporate the modifications and enhancements to the election system purchased by Comelec that were requested and completed in 2011.”

In other words, says the company, “it’s all-systems go for the 2013 automated elections.” In fact, it asserts that  “As in 2010, Filipinos can depend on the PCOS machine for transparent elections next year and in the years to come. BUSINESS AS USUAL (emphasis BOC’s).” But is it?


Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes
Complicating the problem, as GMA News reports, is that Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes is confident that automation would push through next year---because he believes that Smartmatic and Dominion would be able to settle their quarrel.  In addition he opined that only “minor enhancements” on the PCOS would be affected by the business rift and that the poll body is doing something to help solve the problem. But what exactly he likes to keep secret. Where Brillantes is drawing confidence defies logic.


But if the 2010 elections would be the model, as Flores insists, then our 2013 elections could be really doomed to massive fraud and chicanery.  The Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CENPEG) was able to obtain a copy of Smartmatic’s complaint vs. Dominion in court of last September, where the Venezuelan company complained of immediate and “irreparable harm” especially to  its “standing in the marketplace” and incurring of huge financial losses.

But more importantly, according to an AES statement, Smartmatic admitted systems errors of its technology in the compact flash card fiasco during the May 3, 2010 final testing and sealing---which nearly stopped the elections of the week later (that was a most horrible run-up to the 2010 elections---BOC). Smartmatic also blamed Dominion’s software for failing to correctly read and record the paper ballots.

Smartmatic also revealed that Dominion breached the 2009 license agreement by failing to deliver “fully functional technology” for our 2010 elections and failing to place in escrow the required source code, hardware design and manufacturing data.


Dr. Pablo Manalastas
Dr. Pablo Manalastas of AES and CENPEG Fellow for IT, was quick to conclude---and rightly---that Smartmatic’s statement constitutes its explicit admission of the “FAILURE OF ITS SYSTEM TO FUNCTION FULLY (emphasis BOC's),"  resulting in glaring errors, most of which were documented by Philippine IT groups in 2010.

As this IT programmer guru put it, “Does Dominion’s failure automatically imply Smartmatic’s failure to do the escrow required by the election law (RA 9369)? Do these actions by Smartmatic constitute a criminal intent to cheat, a criminal intent to avoid its contractual obligations with Comelec and the Filipino people?”


The problem is that as early as June 2010, the IT organizations have been asking the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee to look into the problems with Smartmatic in the 2010 elections---beginning with the latter’s erratic counting of votes with 97% accuracy rating, contrary to its claim of 100% perfect count (with this “slight” error, millions of votes are missed out from counting in an actual election).

As AES’ Bobby Tuazon put it, “What other truths is Smartmatic hiding from Filipino voters?” He stressed that the Philippines is hemmed in by a financial war between Smartmatic and Dominion, BUT IN THE END, OUR ELECTORAL PROCESS IN 2013 WILL BE PUT IN JEOPARDY (emphasis by BOC). 

Our IT experts assert that an alternative option for 2013 is STILL VIABLE.  When will Congress and the SC act?  It’s a matter of utter urgency.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vatican’s appointment of Cardinal Tagle seeks to address need to provide role-model for Filipino youth, whose grip on their baptismal faith appears to be loosening. New Rome appointee sings Tagalog songs and plays the guitar.

Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle
Filipinos woke up today to the exciting news that 55-year old Archbishop Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle of the Archdiocese of Manila was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as our newest Cardinal. Reports said the second consistory this year came as a total surprise from the Pope, and speculation is that he may be pushing the completion of membership in the College of Cardinals due to his worsening health.

Actually I was not surprised at Tagle's appointment; in fact I suspected that he would not return from the month-long synod of bishops in Rome without the cardinal’s red hat.

Tagle is one of the youngest ever to be appointed to that most exclusive club in the Church, which is tasked with electing a new pope upon the demise of the reigning one. Tagle is second youngest in this current batch of Cardinals and focus now is on him as the “rising star in Asia,” and that he would be a strong contender for the first Asian Pope in the Church's 2,000-year history.


There’s speculation, of course, that conservative elements in the Vatican, led mainly by the powerful Italian bloc of 30 cardinals, could conceivably sidetrack Cardinal Tagle, who’s said to be identified as a liberal within the Church.

In fact, right in our local church there are a number of far more senior prelates, also thought of as quite spiritual and learned and who are held in some circles as more deserving of the red hat (e.g., the names of Archbishops Ramon Arguelles of Lipa, Angel Lagdameo of Iloilo and Jose Palma of Cebu are being mentioned).

But it seems that the world is turning: who would have thought 50 years ago that a former Polish actor-playwright would ascend to the Throne of St. Peter, followed immediately by an aging German theologian?


 I recall that in the later years of Pope John Paul II’s long reign, as his Parkinson's disease began to worsen, there were speculations that his successor would come from the growing church in Africa, to help focus on the black continent's evangelization. Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, then prefect emeritus of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was very much a “papabile,” but the 2005 papal conclave ultimately elected Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI.

Now Tagle’s appointment as our only current active cardinal (we have three retired ones---Gaudencio Rosales, Ricardo Vidal and Jose Sanchez) is said to put the Philippine Church within striking distance of the possible---producing the first Pope from Asia---for a number of reasons.  


One is that ours is regarded as the Asian century, with our region the key propeller of the world economy.  The Asian Church reflects that dynamic, significantly, as film scriptwriter-producer Ma. Fatima “Baby” Nebrida put it, in this Year of the Faith and the Church's thrust toward the "New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith."

The term "New Evangelization" is particularly significant for the Philippines as it prepares to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the arrival of Christianity here in 1521. As the larger of only two Catholic nations in Asia (the other is Timor L'Este), Ph is at the vanguard of the re-evangelization of the Old World through the 12 million Filipinos now working abroad. It's they who people increasingly deserted churches of Europe and America.


Secondly, Tagle is regarded as a protégé of Pope Benedict, having worked with him as a young priest in the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican that then Cardinal Ratzinger headed. Could it be that Benedict is this early grooming Tagle, who has been Primate of the Philippines’ lead archdiocese for only a year, as his successor? 

Tagle was schooled in three distinguished Jesuit institutions---the Ateneo University, San Jose Seminary and the Loyola School of Theology---before obtaining his doctorate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of America, graduating from all the three latter institutions summa cum laude.

His brilliant mind and deep grasp of theology apparently impressed Ratzinger; but the old "German Shepherd"---himself regarded in Vatican circles as a brilliant intellectual--- found more impressive his young Asian assistant's ability to impart theology in simplistic terms readily understandable by lay people.

Pope John Paul II, however, was not as impressed with Tagle in the beginning. He pointedly inquired from Ratzinger whether the youthful Chinese-looking priest from Manila was old enough to join that high office!  Ratzinger humorously replied to JPII, “I assure Your Holiness that he has received the Sacrament of Confirmation.”


In his recent remarks before the synod of bishops, Archbishop Tagle emphasized the need for churchmen to be humble---in the footsteps of the Lord.  Apparently he lives this virtue. The story is told that when the Papal Nuncio informed him in 2001 that the Vatican planned to appoint him bishop of Imus, Cavite, Fr. Tagle, ordained in 1982, strongly objected to it---to the point of shedding tears. He said he just wanted to remain a simple priest ministering to the people. But the Vatican was insistent.

Ten years later the Bishop of Imus became Archbishop of Manila and a year later Cardinal.  What else lies ahead?


I earlier wrote that the Vatican’s elevation to the altar last Sunday of St. Pedro Calungsod was its response to the need for a fresh role-model for the Filipino youth---as many of them seem to have loosen their grip on their baptismal faith. Rome’s move to anoint Archbishop Tagle Cardinal is doubtless in this same light: young people can easily relate to him. Comfortably “Chito” to his friends, he has the knack for speaking directly to the masses, cracking 'kenkoy' jokes that can convulse varied audiences with laughter. He also sings Tagalong songs well and plays the guitar.  

I remember his talk at the “Ignatian Festival” at the Ateneo Church of the Gesu last July 21, when  he recalled with a laugh how his spiritual mentor at San Jose Seminary made a big issue of his having taken an air-conditioned bus from Baguio years back, to attend the funeral of a relative in Manila. As he narrated, his mentor drove hard the scholastic's need for discernment in making that decision---even though it only meant a P20 difference from the non-aircon bus. Complete with all the grimaces, Tagle thundered, "Pati ba naman iyong P20 difference, kailangan pa daw ng discernment!" 

But the scholastic got conscience-stricken just the same and took the non-aircon on the way back.  The crowd roared with laughter.


Part of the reason, I suspect, why Tagle was elevated to the Cardinalate  was his ability to steer clear of the deeply-embedded politics in this country. After Jaime Cardinal Sin’s political activism in the dying Marcos years, it’s said that the Vatican has admonished against a similar advocacy.

 It’s not well known that on the night of July 7, 2005, former President Cory Aquino, in the company of ranking Church prelates and some civil officials, went to Malacanang, where she informed President Macapagal Arroyo of her decision (together with the Hyatt 10) to demand  GMA’s resignation the following day. The prelates who joined Cory in the Palace reportedly included Cardinals Gaudencio Rosales and Ricardo Vidal, Bishops Socrates Villegas and Luis Antonio Tagle, and Msgr. Dean Coronel.  

Reports said, however, that except for Bishop Soc Villegas, the other prelates had no idea what Cory was going to demand (they reportedly thought it was to discuss the state of the nation, rocked at that time by the controversy over the tape). In fact, Vidal reportedly said he had nothing to do with Cory’s  demand and proceeded to the door. 

Sources say that Bishop Soc, a protégé of Cardinal Sin, could have had an inside track on Cory’s plan due to his closeness with the Aquino family.  This, however, appears to have been shattered when as Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Villegas denounced President Noynoy’s espousal of the RH bill in his strongly-worded pastoral letter, which was read at the big anti-RH rally last Aug. 4 at the Edsa Shrine.


It remains to be seen in ensuing months just how Cardinal Tagle would comport himself in the political realm, given the controversies P-Noy is wont to kick up with various sectors, including the Church. But the Manila Primate does not seem afraid to make a strong stand on issues. For instance, he spoke out unequivocally against the RH bill and the Church’s pro-poor bias at that EDSA rally, and he’s expected to sustain this.

Given the size of the Filipino faithful and the task of evangelization that the Philippine Church is undertaking throughout the world, it could be easily ready for two or three more Cardinals. And judging from the scope and importance of their jurisdiction, Archbishop Soc Villegas, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, the current president of the CBCP, and Archbishop Arguelles of Lipa easily are top candidates.

With the appointment of Cardinal Tagle, the local church should receive a much-needed shot in the arm, particularly in its mission as Church of the Poor.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Renewed push for RH in House despite defective procedure and worse provisions. St. Pedro Calungsod model for Pinoy youth. Recalling Bro. Richie Fernando’s heroic martyrdom 16 years ago.

There's a renewed push in the House to pass the RH bill, now couched in what its proponents seek to pass off as the "compromise bill." They claim to have amended those provisions that pro-life groups have vigorously objected to. Because it was introduced on the floor last Oct. 15, this new version is now known also as the “Oct. 15 version,” or the “Belmonte bill,” as it’s also being passed off supposedly with Speaker Feliciano Belmonte himself as the main proponent.  

I surmise the reference to the Speaker as main proponent is being done because the new bill failed to go through the committee and thus is procedurally infirm under the rules of the House. Staunch anti-RH leaders are said to be preparing to question first and foremost the procedure of introduction.


Actually the House would be racing against time if it pushes this new version, for having adjourned last Wednesday, Oct. 17, it will resume session on Nov. 5 up to Dec. 17, the start of the Christmas break. But even before last Wednesday’s adjournment there has been no quorum and this would get worse when it resumes in two weeks. For the fact is that the most of the House legislators are already in a campaign mode and many of them cannot be expected to show up in Manila any longer.

Besides, in this election year many of them are also trying to keep the peace with their respective bishops.


 A friend who’s a staunch pro-lifer has studied the new RH “compromise” version line by line and opines that it’s actually “worse” than the earlier bill—which is why he thinks the pro-life groups would be persuaded to accept it. The interesting question is, why do our pro-RH solons keep pushing for this bill?

The attractiveness of the Philippines as one of the purported top investment destinations in investors’ radar screens these days lies  mainly in our having a young, trainable labor force---compared to the graying populations of the developed economies. Why don't we learn from the sorry lesson of Singapore which is now in danger of becoming extinct, as its former PM Lee Kuan Yew laments aloud. Pagsisisi nasa huli for Lee.

Under his leadership two decades ago the progressive island state deemed it best to artificially reduce---and drastically---its population in order not to hamper its growth? Now, despite all the enhancement offers Singapore couples are not taking the bait and, said Lee, it might be forced to be extinct.


St. Pedro Calungsod
Tomorrow 3 pm. Manila time, the bells of the Vatican will peal as the portrait of the second Filipino saint, Pedro Calungsod of Cebu (or Bohol or Iloilo as he’s being claimed now) hanging from the majestic façade of St. Peter’s Basilica is unveiled---after the proper intonation by Pope Benedict XVI. There will be great jubilation in our country as this young man raised to the altar of the saints is offered as a model of selfless heroism for the faith---especially for the Filipino youth beset today by so many problems.

It’s significant that both Pinoy Saints Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod were heroic martyrs for the faith in the same period (1637 in Nagasaki, Japan, for San Lorenzo and 1672 in the Marianas, now present-day Guam, for San Pedro).  But their proclamation becomes doubly significant as our country looks forward to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity here in 1521, and in the current Year of the Faith recently opened by Benedict. 

As famed Jesuit theologian Fr. Catalino G. Arevalo, who wrote a fascinating fact-laden booklet titled "Pedro Calungsod---Young Visayan Proto-Martyr,"  points out, our brand new Filipino saint, together with Blessed-in-waiting Mother Ignacia of Binondo, founder of the RVM Order, represent "two embodiments of Gospel holiness...both of them truly Filipinos" who are "genuinely reflective of the Asian face of Christ."


Through the mists of over three centuries, not much expectedly is known about San Pedro C., especially since he lived and worked in Asia and the Pacific where recording was not advanced as in the Old World. But yeoman’s work in piecing together the puzzles of his mystique was undertaken painstakingly by Fr.Arevalo and this canonization blog as well as the whole nation are deeply indebted to him.

By way of stirring some kind of 'intrigue' among the religious orders, it’s being said in some quarters that it’s the Jesuits’ turn now to produce a saint, even if San Pedro was not a full-blown Jesuit but their catechist-helper in the Philippines and in the Marianas. On the other hand, our first saint, Lorenzo Ruiz, a Chinese-mestizo parish hand in Binondo, was trained by the Dominicans.


Calungsod was only 14 years old when he left in 1668 as part of a group of Jesuit priests led by the Spanish Fr. Diego Luis de San Vitores to christianize the Ladrones, in the tradition of that great Spanish missionary, St. Francis Xavier. Fr. Arevalo’s account said that some 30 Filipinos---all laymen, some of them aged about 14-15, formed part of the mission team.

From accounts there appears to be other young assistants who lost their lives in the mission work there; but San Vitores and Calungsod were raised to the altar of the Blessed earlier in the papacy of John Paul II because they suffered martyrdom together in a most brutal way. On April 2, 1672, they were accosted by a beach by natives who felt threatened by their proselytizing---they were mercilessly speared in the chest and then their heads were split open with a cutlass.


The 44-year old Blessed San Vitores, the first Apostle of the Marianas, still awaits sainthood, while Blessed Calungsod has raced ahead to the altar of proclaimed saints. One can surmise that it’s because the Vatican deemed his martyrdom more heroic. Fr. Arevalo wrote that since Calungsod was known to be strong and agile, he could have perhaps escaped his ill fate by fleeing to the nearby woods; but he instead chose to defend his superior “and if he cannot save the priest’s life, then he is ready to give his, to die together with the ‘Magas’ who has been to him teacher, father and friend.”

I can also surmise that Rome feels the acute need for a second Filipino saint, especially to inspire the youth of this land to greater love for God.


In his booklet Fr. Arevalo explores the psyche of martyrs and what makes them conquer their fear of death and give up their lives for love of God. He wrote that such martyrs pray for the gift of martyrdom, “not because they ‘dis-prize’ this world"---but because, "from a greater love and longing they put it within the perspective which the promises of God hold forth to our faith.” 

Arevalo also recalls the heroism of another Jesuit missionary, the scholastic Richie Fernando,S.J.,  who gave his life to save his students at  Banteay Prieb in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Oct. 16, 1996---12 years ago almost to the day.


Bro. Richie Fernando S.J. in Cambodia 
with a young ward
I actually came to know Richie as my husband served as ambassador to Cambodia at the time. The day he was killed I was in Manila and I received a long-distance call about it. Richie, who was serving part of his seminary days there as a teacher in a technical training school, attempted to protect his students from another one who had a gripe against the school authorities.

The angry student held a grenade and threatened amid loud screams to pull its pin. Richie tried to pacify him but he refused to listen; then he pulled the pin the Jesuit seminarian jumped on top of it and it ripped his body. When his students recovered from their shock they lovingly collected Richie’s blood in a vial and erected a monument to him in the school garden where they embedded the vial.  When I got to Phnom Penh some weeks later I visited the monument which was covered with flowers.

To this day Bro. Richie is a hero and a legend to the students of Banteay Prieb.  He is a perfect model for our Pinoy youth.  

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Memories of Sihanouk, Cambodia’s legendary monarch, from the perspective of an ambassador's lady.

Exchanging gifts at farewell call on the King and Queen at Siem Reap.
News of the death of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk last Monday in China, after over two decades of battle with cancer and other diseases, triggered a rush of memories of our stay in that country and of the legendary monarch who had ruled it in stormy eras.

In January 1995, President Fidel Ramos appointed my husband, then retired from the Armed Forces for almost a year, as Ambassador to Cambodia and tasked him to re-open the Philippine Embassy after 25 years of its having been closed down, due to the conflict wrought by the genocidal Khmer Rouge and subsequent internal turmoil.

The last ambassador there was famed actor-politician Rogelio de la Rosa.  President Ramos wanted an envoy with a military background in the critical post-Khmer Rouge period and after the first UN-supervised parliamentary elections of 1993.

Ambassador Cunanan was posted in Phnom Penh for three and a half years and was rotating president of the ASEAN ambassadors, just as Cambodia was preparing to join the regional bloc.

In those three and a half years I would fly in for six-week periods and then return to Manila for another six weeks, as I was then running columns six days a week in Manila.  Thus, I had a lot of chances to view up close the charismatic sovereign whom I had heard so much about even before I met him.

By the time we got to Phnom Penh on February 14, 1995, much of what we learned about King Sihanouk was already legend. The world press dutifully chronicled his various ideological somersaultings, but we heard that after backing up the Khmer Rouge guerillas in later years he was himself imprisoned by them right in the palace, and he and his family survived the war years by planting vegetables in its grounds.

Very much a part of that legend too was Sihanouk's reputation as an urbane international playboy, until a beautiful, stately European-reared lady known to the outside world as "Monique," who could have passed as Ingrid Bergman's sister, came along and subdued his heart. Monique, who assumed the native name of Monineath, remained so devoted to the end. 

Sihanouk had been part of a long-gone historic era that had once counted with giants of the Non-Aligned Movement such as Marshal Tito of what was formerly Yugoslavia and President Sukarno of Indonesia. And like the last character of a prolonged darkened play, Sihanouk was the very last to exit from the NAM stage.

In fact, in the years 1995-1998, the King was more of a figure-head whom his subjects knew was around in the beautiful gilded palace by the river, to help glue together the tortuous country wracked by unbelievable traumas. But the masses drew comfort from his mere presence and loved and revered him.

Sihanouk was very much a francophone and an artist, an avid film-maker and composer whose movies and songs were tributes to his turbulent land and his beloved Monineath. The Court reflected his sophisticated European taste and manners.

Posing for posterity with the Cambodian Royals.
Late in 1995, President Ramos and First Lady Ming Ramos made a state visit to Phnom Penh at the last leg of a swing of Asean countries.  I was consulted by Sihanouk’s staff on the menu for the state dinner to be catered by the French restaurant, “L’Amboise,” of the Hotel Cambodiana, at that time the top hotel there.

The Cambodiana manager and I agreed on the dinner fare. Pretty soon, however, the Palace was calling. The King had checked out the menu I had selected and thought that it was too sparse---he wanted FVR’s party to have the best. He himself added one or two more items for the dinner fare and made sure the French wine was “impeccable,” as the French would say.

When the Ramos party landed in Phnom Penh, Foreign Secretary Domingo “Jun” Siazon whispered to me right away, “Alam ko na kung ano ang kakainin ko mamayang gabi sa palasyo.” He had read of our preparations for the state visit in my Manila column the day before; but of course, he didn’t know that King Sihanouk had personally supervised the menu.

It was a small hospitality gesture on the part of the King toward the Philippine President. But it also reflected his punctiliousness, which manifested itself in little things, e.g., photos the Palace would dutifully send to guests who called on him would each bear his neat signature in one corner that simply said "Norodom."

Palace dinners hosted by Sihanouk and Monineath were always scintillating; and even from the far end of the Palace dinner table one could hear him laughing at something---alternating from French to English in his conversations.

When we got to Cambodia it was very much still steeped in French tradition and ambience, having been part of what was once French Indochina, and I gladly soaked in it. During my visits to Phnom Penh, I would commission an elderly "Sihanoukiste" lady to come twice a week for conversations in French which she would lace with goings-on and high-society gossip around Phnom Penh. It was most interesting.

Thanks to Mme. Sanna's patience my French then (my UP elective language  which I tried to ameliorate later at Alliance Francaise in Manila) improved a bit and I would dare talk to some diplomats in their language. Sihanouk once overheard us at the dinner table and told everyone that “Madame ambassadrice speaks French very well.”  It was flattery at its most gracious. 

By the time we got to Cambodia in 1995 the King was already ailing with cancer, but it’s a tribute to Chinese expertise that he survived for over 20 years more.  Talk then was that the Chinese government, which he supported ardently, lent him a villa in Beijing where he sought medical attention from a cancer institute. In 2004 he stepped down from the monarchy, which was assumed by his son, now the reigning King Norodom Sihamoni, and he began to spend whole months in Beijing.

So happy was the royal family with the efficacy of the King’s long-running medical treatment that when my husband was himself stricken with cancer, Prince Norodom Ranarridh, Sihanouk’s son who heads Parliament, sent a message through our mutual friend, former Speaker Joe de Venecia, that my husband should perhaps seek treatment in that Beijing hospital too.

King Sihanouk’s last years as sovereign were not happy, as he saw more  turmoil envelop his country when one of the two “co-prime ministers” then, now PM Hun Sen, deposed Prince Ranarridh in a lightning coup in July 1997 and installed himself in one-man rule. That power-sharing Cambodian-style was a unique political experiment destined to fail.

That coup morning proved quite scary, however, as a mortar hit a big tree three houses away from our residence and cut it into two.  As we crouched beside the refrigerator that morning, my househelp Gina Duran, who had been with me in two coups staged in Camp Aguinaldo in August 1987 and December 1989, and I found time to laugh a bit about how coups seemed to follow us from there to Phnom Penh! 

Sihanouk receives Ph. donation of medicines for flood victims
 from Amb.Cunanan and embassy staff.

Two days later FVR sent a plane to evacuate all Pinoy dependents, led by the ambassador’s wife. I wanted to stay with my husband but Secretary Siazon ordered me out of there, and not to write anything provocative in the Manila media about the coup.

atanariddh went on exile to France and Asia but was able to return after two years, eventually taking his place in the parliamentary scheme of things. Peace has reigned in Cambodia under Hun Sen, and it’s now avidly pushing development even though, as in a few other countries in the region such as the Philippines, it continues to grapple with corruption.

But I suspect that the political turmoil of those post-coup years had wrought a lot of pain in the old king’s heart and he began to spend more time in his summer residence in Siem Reap, next door to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in the north. In 2004 he chose to step down.

It was in Siem Reap where my husband and I and our two sons, Buddy and Conrad, bade farewell to the King and Queen in September 1998. We thanked them for their hospitality to us during our stay and exchanged gifts and fond wishes for the future.

Indeed I shall treasure my memories of our stint in Cambodia and of the legendary Sihanouk and his beautiful Monineath.   

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