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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.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Recent TV features by GMA-7 Network on schoolchildren having lessons with their feet fully immersed in flooded classrooms, and DSWD’s bodega filled with rotting rice intended for Pablo’s victims shock the nation. Need for thorough investigation of pork barrel scams in Congress---to clear those not guilty. I was off to Cambodia to visit the Queen Mother.


Yours truly with Queen Mother Norodom Monineath of Cambodia
Last night, a number of people called up to say how shocked they were by two featured reports by GMA-7 Network. One showed schoolchildren in a school in Samar studying inside classrooms with their feet submerged in flood-waters for as long as eight hours a day, as the public schoolhouse had not solved the problem of flooding during high tide. The teachers were a bit luckier as they wore boots inside the flooded classrooms.

The other feature showed huge bodegas full of sacks of rotting rice in Davao, supposedly meant for victims of typhoon Pablo.

The raw impact of these two TV feature especially to parent-viewers was just terrible. But they're all the more jolting now that media are soaked with stories about various scams involving channeling of pork barrel funds by legislators to bogus and non-existent projects, aided and abetted by various departments of the Executive Branch.

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From all indications the scams are very widespread and not just confined to Congress, but to numerous local governments as well, and facilitated not just by the firm of Janet Napoles but also by other companies. A few days ago, the former official in the Marcos regime, Daily Tribune columnist and now Abakada party-list Rep. Jonathan de la Cruz waved a sheaf of papers in the halls of the House of Representatives.

Rep. De la Cruz's documents purported to show the initial draft of a special audit report conducted by COA, baring some 244 projects funded from the PDAF of 98 legislators in the staggering amount of P2.193 billion, and released through four Executive-Branch agencies---but which appear to all be bogus projects. As I wrote two weeks back, the bulk of these projects was cornered by the National Livelihood Development Center (NLDC), said to involve 50 solons.

As I said earlier, we're staring at just the tip of the iceberg here. Some of the names bandied around don’t surprise citizens at all, as they have acquired a notorious reputation over time. But the inclusion of some names is shocking as it’s not expected. 

And herewith is the problem: many solons may truly be guilty, while some others’ names may have been inserted into the list for a number of reasons, e.g., to harass and intimidate, by mistake or with malicious intent, etc. Moreover, some scams appear to have happened in the GMA era, but others occurred apparently in the P-Noy administration. A notable irony is that the current chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee in the House, Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, is himself implicated.

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There’s need for a real and deep investigation of this issue and public airing of the results, in order to clear the names of all those who are not guilty in this season of widespread public denials. But who would have the guts to open hearings and suffer the ire of colleagues? Would Rep. Neri Colmenares really do it?

It’s a pity that Senate President Franklin Drilon and Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano were quoted earlier as wanting to just leave the investigation to the NBI, so as not to ruffle some feelings in the chamber daw. One is apt to question this stand, however, as a ruse--so as not to reveal hidden friendships? Janet Napoles seems to know EVERYONE in the two chambers of Congress and was photographed at the recent birthday party of Drilon at Club Filipino. He should be the first to want to clear the air. 

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The main purpose of my recent trip to Cambodia, at the invitation of former Speaker Jose de Venecia, was to assist in the monitoring by an international group of distinguished leaders of the recently-concluded parliamentary elections in Cambodia. As of now the results are supposedly finished, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) garnering a very slim margin (63 seats) over opposition bloc Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) with its 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly (the rest filled by independent or smaller coalitions).

But the repercussions of the elections there, just like here, are far from over, for opposition leader Sam Rainsy---who was not allowed by the counterpart of our Comelec to run as candidate in Parliament---has vowed to lead mass protests, similar to our people power in the dying days of the Marcos era, against what he claims are massive frauds in various parts of Cambodia.

PM Hun Sen, 74, who has ruled it with strongman tactics for 28 years, has vowed to open Parliament as soon as possible, even without a quorum in the event of a CNRP boycott. It bears watching what will happen in this still strife-torn country in coming days.

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Call on Cambodia's Queen Mother led by former Speaker Jose de Venecia and Rep. Gina de Venecia, with former Ambassador to Spain Lani Bernardo and Ms. Conchitina Sevilla Bernardo, CAPPDI Sec-Gen.Francis Manglapus and yours truly.
Even as political troubles seethed, however, I consider my being part of a very small group, led by former Speaker JDV and Pangasinan reelected Rep. Gina de Venecia, who called on Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, mother of the present King Sihamoni, definitely one of the highlights of my visit to that country. Still beautiful (she could pass for Ingrid Bergman's sister) and queenly at 78 years although I thought she lost quite a bit of weight from the last time I saw her 15 years ago, the Queen Mother is obviously still deeply grieving over the death of her longtime partner and soul-mate, King Norodom Sihanouk.

My husband had served as ambassador there during the Ramos era, reopening the embassy after it was closed for 25 years due to the occupation by the Khmer Rouge, and my family had shared many pleasant moments with the Royal Couple. During our call last week, I informed the Queen Mother about Ambassador Cunanan’s demise in January 2011 and she felt quite sad, held both my hands in hers and whispered softly, “Now we’re in the same boat.”  Yes, Your Majesty, I replied, we have to carry on somehow.

She spoke about the tremendous outpouring of love demonstrated by the Cambodian people for their King at his passing, and in fact, she said with a wan smile, it seems they love him now more than ever before and it’s such a comfort to her and her family.

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During our visit, former Speaker de Venecia recalled to the Queen Mother how as a young journalist and correspondent for Pan-Asia Newspaper Alliance, he had the chance to interview then Prince-Prime Minister Sihanouk, who staunchly led his people’s tortuous struggle for nationhood; still later, JDV made a call on by then King Sihanouk at his residence in Beijing. Upon the King’s passing last year JDV flew to Phnom Penh to attend his wake.

He reiterated to the Queen Mother his earlier informal suggestion to the late King about the possibility of someday establishing the King Norodom Sihanouk University in Phnom Penh that would help preserve the “many historic accomplishments and legacy of Sihanouk not only in Cambodia but in Asia.” It could be undertaken, JDV said, under the aegis of the King Norodom Sihanouk Foundation, to be chaired by the Queen Mother.

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Argued JDV: “After all, the King was one of Asia’s great nationalist leaders as well as one of the stalwarts of the Non-Aligned Movement—a truly global figure.” He noted that King Sihanouk was “well-skilled in international politics and creative diplomacy, steering a credible neutral course between the great powers that, to a great extent, shielded Cambodia from the devastation of the Indo-China War.” 

The Queen Mother was quite interested in JDV’s brainchild and endorsed it for further study to her step-son-in-law, Ambassador Keo Puth Reasmey, husband of Sihanouk’s daughter, Princess Arunreasmey, who had run and won as MP of the Royal Funcinpec Party in the recent elections.

I personally think it would be just fitting and proper that the Sihanouk University be the center for international relations in Southeast Asia, and that the University of the Philippines could play a big role in its formative years.


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