Thursday, April 26, 2012

Shameless subculture

Summer is almost around the corner and Filipino community organizations in the Greater Toronto Area are once again soaked in unabashed excitement over their so-called cultural offerings to more than 250,000 Filipino-Canadians in the area. This is usually the time of the year when these organizations wake up from their winter hibernation to prepare for the parade of Filipino beauties—young and old, Mr. and Miss or Mrs.—along with the retinue of roast pigs or lechons that vie with the frenzy and revelry of the entertainment festivals that go with the celebration of Philippine Independence Day on June 12.
Time again for Filipino beauty pageants in Metro Toronto, courtesy of the Philippine
Independence Day Council (PIDC). Click image to view "Money Issues Surface as
New  Officers Take Over  Toronto's PIDC,"
Two major organizations are currently embroiled in a simmering feud about transparency and accountability in financial reporting of the monies raised by their respective beauty pageants. The Philippine Independence Day Council (PIDC), the “mother” of all these so-called organizations, has raised some questions on the way its beauty pageants were run before by a former officer who now sits as a ranking official of the Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF), a rival and spin-off organization.

At the centre of the feud is the allegation made by former PIDC president Ms. Minda Neri that Ms. Rosemer Enverga, now an official of the PCCF, did not make a full financial disclosure with regard to the beauty pageants she managed when she was still with the PIDC. Ms. Enverga, during a press conference she called recently, denied any wrongdoing with her previous running of the PIDC beauty pageants.

This kind of bickering between organizations within the Filipino community is neither unusual nor unheard of. With hundreds of groups organized and motivated to cater to the entertainment of Filipino residents in the metropolitan area, it is almost natural to expect that rival groups would eventually clash and even hurl allegations of improprieties against each other. That has been the practice among Filipinos everywhere, whether at home or overseas. It is as if without the in-fighting everything becomes lifeless and dull, a habit that does not speak well of Filipinos, a baggage they have not done away with even in the Diaspora.

But it’s not the feuding among Filipinos in Toronto that is really depressing. Rather, it is the subculture that these so-called leaders have brought to this metropolis. It is their penchant for crowning Filipino women and girls as beauty queens that has become a shameless exercise, not to mention the appetite for showcasing “bakya” entertainment for the masses, as if this is the best of Filipino culture that one can offer.

During her press conference, Ms. Enverga said that with more than 250,000 Filipinos in the Greater Toronto Area, “we can have as much fiestas and festivals every year, yet we cannot be able to accommodate” all our Filipino kababayans. “This goes also true to beauty pageants; we can have as much beauty pageants. The more, the merrier. So much the better if we can have a lot of choices,” she added.
Not to be outdone, rival organization, Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF)
hosts it own Pinoy Fiesta & Trade Show at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Who are these beauty queens? Let us just mention the titles.

Miss PIDC-Philippines, Miss Philippines-Canada, Little Miss Philippines-Canada, Mrs. Philippines-Canada, Paraluman, Miss Carassauga, Miss Caregiver, Miss Manila, Miss Santacruzan, Reyna Elena, Miss Photogenic, Miss Congeniality, Miss (insert name of town or city in the Philippines), etcetera, etcetera.

Why do the likes of Ms. Enverga and other so-called Filipino leaders in the community keep on celebrating our culture in this brazen way? Beauty queens do not represent Filipino culture, and putting these women on the pedestal shows an utter misunderstanding of cultivated behaviour that underlies the fabric of one’s culture.

In holding these beauty contests every year, these so-called leaders are entrenching this tradition as a subculture, no matter how useless and insignificant to our lives and struggles in this foreign city. Sure enough, they offer us fleeting entertainment and diversion from the humdrum struggle of survival that most of us go through. But we are stooping so low in the estimation of other people who think that Filipinos are a beauty pageant-crazy nation. To say that we can hardly accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos living in the Greater Toronto Area only blows up our collective low self-esteem, that there’s really nothing we can be proud of except for our “Miss-whatever” contests.

A young Muslim woman replying to an opinion survey whether beauty contests are degrading wrote the following response:

“I agree that beauty contests are degrading. They degrade women to mere objects. The sponsors exploit women by requiring them to parade in swimsuits or even lingerie. They are judged mainly on their physical appearance rather than on any other qualities they may possess.

“When the women parade themselves on stage, the judges will look at a number of things, but the most important criteria will probably be poise. To achieve proper poise, a woman's body should be well proportioned—having a neck proportionate to her height, lanky legs, and so on. This process of evaluating poise can be compared to dog shows where golden retrievers of the wrong bodily proportions are kicked out of the competition. I feel judging women primarily on their looks degrade womanhood.”

Indeed, beauty contests project an unrealistic image of the ideal woman in the eyes of the public. We are already inundated with silly standards of beauty by the mass media; we don’t need beauty pageants to further aggravate such situation.

Just consider this as a thought. The first modern beauty pageant was held in 1854 by P.T. Barnum of the renowned circus called the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, but his beauty contest was closed down by public protest. Barnum also held dog, baby and bird beauty contests, quite an unpleasant category in which we can lump our present-day beauty contests.

Including young children in beauty competitions further degrades this tradition. Like the American reality show, “Toddlers and Tiaras,” a search for Miss Little Philippines is totally disgusting, an excuse for physical and emotional abuse of the child.

Most psychologists are unanimous in finding that children's beauty pageants are not in the best interests of healthy child development. There is enough undue, exaggerated focus on superficial beauty in our culture without children being pitted against each other in a contest of looks. Our so-called leaders in the community like Ms. Enverga and company pay no apparent regard to considerable body of research that demonstrates why beauty contests are harmful to kids.

This Filipino passion for beauty queens is a mere extension of our collective appetite for shallow entertainment as a panacea for our shortcomings as a people. We tend to hide under the veneer of popular songs, dances and other forms of amusement in order to distract others from seeing our borrowed and western-oriented culture. Because we are good entertainers, we keep others amused and somehow forget our insecurities.

As a people, we tend to be easily distracted by the more mundane and ordinary pursuits in life. Take the case of the Gawad Kalinga (GK) Global Summit which is going to be held in Toronto this coming June 8 and 9. This GK summit is about GK’s role in eradicating poverty and their thrust on learning social enterprises as a platform for liberating the poor from the vicious cycle of poverty. Yet, the Toronto organizers have focused on promoting a gala concert by Philippine musician Ryan Cayabyab and his ensemble of singers on the eve of the summit, instead of giving play to GK founder Tony Meloto who is scheduled to give the keynote speech the following day.

This much shows our priorities and scale of values: singing and hobnobbing with the community’s rich and famous trump the substance of the GK Summit. Just like the celebration of our national independence, the significance of the day is lost and buried in the various festivals and beauty pageants which people would rather see in droves. But the shameless part of all this preoccupation with the commonplace and banal is obviously the role played by our so-called community leaders in promoting this heritage of trumpeting our biggest shame: our penchant for celebrating the inane, our propensity for embracing shallow pursuits over substantive issues that truly affect us as a community.

Monday, April 23, 2012

No gain, no respect


Never been tested since it was signed in 1951, the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States is a relic of the Cold War. In the language of the treaty, both countries are bound to support each other if either was to be attacked by another country.
The closest the treaty has been invoked was during the 1960s when Malaysian troops threatened to attack the Philippines for its claim over Sabah in the island of Borneo. Declining to assist the Philippines under the MDT, U.S. officials claimed that Malaysia was also an ally and that the American government would not interfere.
Just like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the MDT was designed to stave off the spread of communism, particularly from the Soviet Union. With the dismantling of the Soviet Union and effectively reining Germany’s appetite for military aggression, NATO now is an alliance in search of a common enemy and a clear purpose. NATO cannot survive simply by aligning itself with Washington’s security policies and its seemingly endless war against the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, so many of its member nations are now veering towards less dependency on American military protection.

MANILA (Nov. 16, 2011) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Cmdr. Brian Mutty, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald. Secretary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario, and Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin signed the Manila Declaration, commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, aboard the ship in Manila Bay. (U.S. Navy photo) Click link to view BAYAN'S statement "60 Years is Enough."
The threat of an armed attacked in the Pacific, which the Philippines and the United States had in their minds when they signed the MDT, never materialized. While North Korea remains belligerent to its southern neighbour, its military ambition has been effectively checked beyond the 38th parallel. Vietnam has been unified after its costly war with the United States and is not a threat to attack any of its neighbours or countries in the Pacific. Other wars in the regions have been localized and there is no danger of them spreading to other countries, much less to the Philippines. Japan has been effectively neutralized and we’re not going to see the re-emergence of an imperial Japanese power in the near or distant future. China is now the second largest economy in the world after the United States but is not likely seen as an imperialist power.

Thus, many Filipino nationalists have demanded the termination of the MDT because it has become a moribund instrument. For the Philippines in particular, the MDT is a useless treaty because it is the U.S. Congress which has the power to commit the United States to an armed conflict and therefore is never an assurance that the U.S. will come to the aid of the Philippines during a foreign attack on its territory.

Whether the United States through Congress or the U.S. President as commander-in-chief would deploy its troops to support the territorial claims of the Philippines over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea remains more illusory than real. The United States cannot afford another big war. It has decided to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to help in the Arab Spring revolt in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya through leading by following, a much more indirect way of involvement.

Although it has publicly stated its new foreign policy pivot in Asia and the Pacific, the U.S. is not likely to be directly involved in any military conflict in the South China Sea. The most the United States would do, if the current impasse in the South China Sea escalates in a limited military confrontation, is to use the Philippines as its proxy in its emerging Cold War with China. In fact, President Benigno Aquino III is already on record, not as a do-nothing President, but as a willing and able spokesman and “fanboy” for the United States.

Out of the South China Sea conflict between the countries claiming territorial sovereignty over its islands and the waters around them, a new Cold War is coming into view.  These competing nations know in their hearts that military confrontation with China is an invitation to destruction. Show of force to reinforce their claims will plainly be a show, and nothing more.

The United States has seized their opportunity in the South China Sea to engage in a proxy war with China by using the Philippines as its fugleman. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already committed to President Aquino to help the Philippines in its territorial sovereignty claim to the Spratly Islands.

Using the MDT as its cover, the United States is sending decommissioned military equipment to the Armed Forces of the Philippines such as old ambulances, old Huey helicopters, fighter and cargo planes, which the U.S. had used extensively during the Vietnam War. Lately, the U.S. has sent to the Philippines a decommissioned battleship for reconnaissance and patrol use in the South China Sea.

The U.S. military is also using the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries for conducting joint Balikatan training exercises to prepare Philippine troops for armed confrontation in the South China Sea, in addition to helping the Philippines combat the local communist insurgency and the Moslem separatists in Mindanao.
Philippine and U.S. soldiers conduct raid during 2012 Balikatan Exercise
 under the Visiting Forces Agreement at Fort Magsaysay. Photo by DVIDSHUB.
 Click  link
 to view "Spratlys Emerging Cold War."
So, the MDT has found a useful purpose for the United States to continue its involvement with the Philippine military, although not in accordance with the treaty’s original objective of helping each other during a foreign attack.  There is no foreign attack yet, which is unlikely to happen, but the U.S. government is directly involved in running the Armed Forces of the Philippines just the way it was before.

If this is how the MDT should be enforced, then the United States is virtually meddling with the Philippines in protecting itself from future external armed attack. For a sovereign country to allow a foreign power to dictate how it should prepare in case of foreign aggression, the Philippines is showing its true colours not only as a dependent state but as a middling puppet as well.  But then again, this is nothing really new.

The MDT has been the basis for several agreements between the U.S. and the Philippines such as the US-RP Military Assistance Agreement, later renamed as US-RP Military Advisory Group, the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Logistics Servicing Agreement. Even the U.S. military bases agreement which was finally abrogated in 1991 also traced its roots from the MDT. Thus, the MDT is known to many Filipino nationalists as the “mother of all unequal military treaties and agreements” the Philippines agreed to accept since achieving independence in 1946.

More than 60 years have passed since the MDT was signed, yet the Philippine military still remains dependent on the advice of the U.S. military for sourcing of materials, logistics and equipment, and training. The treaty never helped the AFP modernize. It only enhanced the false dependence of the Philippines on American military protection.

With the current impasse in the South China Sea, the United States is exploiting the MDT as an instrument for meddling in the conflict by using the Philippines as its proxy in the emerging Cold War with China. The U.S. State Department has officially stated that the Mutual Defence Treaty between the United States and the Philippines continues to serve as “cornerstone of our relationship and a source of stability in the region.”

The increasing threat of Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea has worried the United States—that its navy may not have full use of the sea lanes necessary for its strategic presence in the area—and its effect, too, on commercial ships that navigate from south to north of the China Sea. The U.S. does not expect, however, to be directly engaged in any military confrontation with the Chinese, which the latter can ill-afford given the state of their national economy. The American military has already been overstretched to the limits with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another big overseas war would wreak more havoc to U.S. economic recovery.

A Cold War between the United States and China would be the best scenario for the U.S. to remain a powerful presence in Asia and the Pacific. With support from allies like Japan, Australia and the ASEAN nations, a Cold War will help the United States in the containment of China’s rise as a Pacific power.

The Cold War would simply be carried through military alliances, strategic conventional and force deployments, appeals to neutral nations and extensive aid to the countries in the region, but never direct military action. The United States and the Soviet Union have fought proxy wars before in Latin America and the Southeast Asia. It will be China’s first foray in a Cold War and the United States will take advantage of the Chinese lack of experience.

Right now, the U.S. is using as its proxies countries like the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Australia to stem the rise of Chinese hegemony in the region. The Philippines, in particular, plays a significant role because it has the MDT and other military agreements with the United States that enable the U.S. military to deploy its troops and warships in the guise of helping the Philippines. There are already American special forces stationed on Philippine soil and they are conducting war games with the Philippine military in waters close to the disputed area of the South China Sea.

The Philippines is drawing out the Chinese superpower to a cat-and-mouse game in the South China Sea by deploying its newest warship, courtesy of the United States, while China has responded by sending their powerful boats. This is a scenario that would be repeated many times over in the future and unless China and the other competing nations agree to a negotiated settlement of their territorial claims, the United States would only be too happy to stay in the background contented that China’s rise is at least contained at the moment.

It’s not going to be a win-win situation for the Philippines. It has already derogated its sovereignty to the United States with the MDT and other unequal military treaties, to the detriment of its own capacity to develop a self-sufficient military and to an inevitable erosion of respect from its ASEAN neighbours for its inability to stand alone.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

National hubris


The standoff in the South China Sea is exposing the true colours of Filipinos, at least those who still shamelessly cling to America for help in times of threat to our country’s sovereignty. I’ve read an opinion posted in my alumni e-group which says that as much as we want to break the American influence upon us, there is no one who can really help us but America.

Here I am referring to the Philippines’ territorial claim over the Spratly Islands which is also contested by five other nations that straddle the South China Sea. In fact, the Philippines has stopped calling it the South China Sea and would rather have it called the West Philippine Sea. I’m not very sure we can rename a sea without the agreement of other countries which have referred to that sea by its name on the map for a number of centuries.

Ownership of the Spratly Islands is highly debateable and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) according to many legal scholars has no meaningful provision that could settle the sovereignty claim between the disputing countries. The effective alternative to establish territorial sovereignty is occupation and permanent settlement, which is exactly being done in small efforts by China, the Philippines and Vietnam, and of course, by oil explorations to the extent possible without military harassment. Presently, these countries have military reinforcements in the South China Sea to protect their territorial claims while all the rival countries are attempting to solve the impasse by diplomatic means.
U.S. decommissioned BRP Gregorio del Pilar ship enroute to the Philippines from
 Alameda, California to help the Philippine Navy patrol the South China Sea. Photo
 courtesy of  Bytemarks. Click link to view "The South China Sea: Troubled Waters,"
The Philippine government has been the most vociferous in seeking American military support. To date, it has received a decommissioned naval vessel from the United States to help in reconnaissance and maritime patrol. In a meeting with the South Korean president recently, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has also asked his counterpart for aircraft, boats and other military hardware to help the Philippine military in its territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands. Obviously, the other countries which also have territorial claims to the Spratly Islands are relying on their respective military resources.

Compared with the other countries, the Philippines does not really have an effectively functioning navy or the significant equivalent of an ample military force that could protect its territorial claim. Hence, why it has been unabashedly making overtures to the United States government for help.

China has fleets of submarines, frigates, and destroyers and, much recently, an aircraft carrier. Vietnam also has a number of submarines, like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. In addition, Thailand has a small aircraft carrier.

The Philippines has one of the longest, and perhaps, the deepest harbours in the world where a strong navy can thrive. Subic Bay used to be the refuelling and repair station of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. But the American government was only interested in establishing military bases on Philippine soil for use of its military rather than in helping the Philippine government develop a self-sufficient military infrastructure for defence purposes. Even the moribund mutual defence treaty between the United States and the Philippines provided no concrete assurance that the U.S. would come to the defence of the Philippines when threatened by foreign invasion.

When the military bases were closed after the termination of the agreements between the U.S. and the Philippines, the U.S. government found an alternative to keep its presence in the Philippines as part of its military campaign against terrorism. Now the U.S. government has deployed its special forces to help the Philippine military combat the local communist insurgency and Moslem separatists in Southern Mindanao, both considered terrorists by the United States. Through a Visiting Forces Agreement, both the U.S. and Philippine military have conducted joint exercises in waters close to the South China Sea, in a way reinforcing the territorial claims of the Philippine government to the Spratly Islands.
Philippine Navy Special Forces on training exercises with U.S. Special Forces in
South China Sea. Photo courtesy of LightAj.
The barefaced idea, however, that only the U.S. government can help the Philippines in its territorial claim to the Spratly Islands is only promoting dependency on a foreign power and entrenching the historical subservience of the Philippines to its former colonial master. This Philippine mendicancy shows we’re willing to fight foreign aggression tooth and nail to preserve our sovereignty but we’ll allow American intrusion anytime. It’s not that there’s no other country which can help us, it is that it is only the United States which can help us.

Even before the Americans took the Philippines as its first colony on the eve of the twentieth century, the country’s national hero Jose Rizal had already predicted the coming of the Americans based on his reading of the observations by a German traveller named Feodor Jagor. Jagor was already prophesying the commercial growth and industrial development in America and it was just a matter of time for the nascent U.S. power to claim its share of colonies in the world.

Since the Americans established its foothold in the Philippines, it has always been based on its permanent economic and military interests in the region, never for altruistic reasons. The unequal treaties, between the two governments, whether economic or military, were always lopsided in favour of the U.S. government. Contingents of Filipino soldiers were sent by the Philippine government in Korea and Vietnam to fight along with American soldiers the creeping communist powers north of these two countries. The Philippines also sent troops to fight with Americans in Iraq. In return, the U.S. government has been providing foreign assistance, mostly money and decommissioned equipment to the Philippine military. Where the financial assistance actually went will not surprise anyone given the pervasive corruption in the country.

The Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States gives an excuse for American troops to be involved in the fight against the communist insurgents and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. There are even talks between the two governments for the re-establishment of U.S. bases in the Philippines, and with the South China Sea being part of America’s pivot foreign policy, military bases in the Philippines would again be on the front and centre of American presence in Asia and the Pacific.

There is today a growing consensus among European nations to end their dependency on American military protection. This is highly inconvenient to U.S. President Barack Obama who needs all the help he can get, even from small allies, if only for political reasons. With the fall of the Soviet Union and America’s decision to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has found itself without a clear goal and a common enemy. Postwar Europe has always tended to fall in line with Washington’s security policies, and this is what kept NATO going since 1949.

A military alliance like NATO without a clear common enemy is almost impossible to maintain. Europeans are now realizing that the only solution to their military problems is to reduce their dependence on the United States and take greater responsibility for their own defence. With the Americans being less and less able to be the world’s policemen, European governments are struggling to define their common interests which are unlikely to be best represented by a seemingly endless war with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

At the same time, the Americans have also realized the need to refocus their foreign policy and military strategy to confront the rising threat of Chinese hegemony in Asia and the Pacific, which explains why the U.S. considers the South China Sea as vital sea lanes to its navy and for commercial and trade routes. The military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippine military have also concentrated in protecting oil rigs in the South China Sea, obviously in anticipation of Chinese aggression.

While European nations and other countries for that matter are beginning to see the folly of dependence on American military protection, the Philippines is a rare exception. Military dependence on the United States is a very clear policy of preserving the historical subservience of the Philippines to its former colonial master. Already without a strong national culture because of too much American influence on the values and habits of Filipinos, losing one’s national pride in exchange for military consideration is not a hard bargain to make. It’s probably much easier for the American government to mobilise Filipinos to join the army to fight the Chinese in the event of a confrontation in the South China Sea than asking Americans to risk the blood of their soldiers without the solid backing of their citizens.

The subservient attitude of Filipinos to American interests is almost like a national hubris, a basic precondition of Filipino-American relationship. Where the American flag goes, so there goes the Philippine flag, too.
American sailors on Rest & Recreation with Filipino girls in Manila. Photo
courtesy of  Chris Koerner
Some militant members of the Philippine Congress, and they are just a miniscule few, have cautioned against bringing the mighty U.S. army to the South China Sea conflict. Theirs is the most honourable position every Filipino should take: to assert sovereignty and territorial integrity over Philippine territorial waters but not allow any foreign country, be it China or the United States, to exploit our waters and its resources for their economic, military or hegemonic interest.

Our record of mendicancy only proves that as a nation we are not capable of self-government. When foreign aggression confronts us, we always tend to cry on the shoulders of the U.S. government and ask for help. In foreign relations, we have never learned that there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The U.S. has waded its feet on the South China Sea conflict because it gives them the reason to re-establish their hegemony in the region, and we are aiding and abetting the Americans to achieve their goal against our patrimony and national interest.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Noynoy the new Amboy

All of a sudden President Noynoy Aquino has awakened from the stupor of “noynoying” to become the newest spokesperson for the U.S. State Department and the free world. Travelling to Phnom Penh for the ASEAN summit must have an invigorating effect on the sluggish president who seemed to have been sleepwalking in his job since day one.
Looking more presidential, Noynoy Aquino spoke before ASEAN leaders about
 North Korea missile threat. Photo courtesy of Asia News Network. Click link to
view "President Aquino Gets Kudos from U.S. President Barack Obama,"
First, he challenged North Korea to focus on feeding its people instead of developing nuclear weapons. President Aquino has urged North Korea to scrap its plans of launching a rocket to place a satellite in orbit. The U.S. and its allies in the region fear that the launch is a disguised ballistic missile test, which would amount to a breach of a United Nations ban on North Korean missile launches.

It’s no secret that North Korea has been trying to develop its nuclear capability to enhance its military capacity to strike at its enemies, which the United Sates’ government has claimed it would the most likely target. So, here is the Philippine President sharpening his rhetoric and attacking North Korea for endangering its neighbouring countries of falling debris from its planned rocket launch. Presumably, on behalf of the U.S. government, who in turn must be applauding Noynoy Aquino’s for standing up to its interests in the region.

According to President Noynoy Aquino, experts have told him that debris from the launch could fall in the waters off Aurora province north of Manila, thus posing a threat to populated areas in the main Philippine island of Luzon. Aquino has already ordered the Philippine civil defence agency to have all flights to and from Japan and South Korea rerouted during the expected rocket launch between April 12 to 16.
A rocket launches in Musudan-ri, North Korea, in 2009. Satellite pictures suggest
 fuelling has  been completed ahead of a 12- 16 April launch date. Photograph/AP.
What an ingenuous move from a president not known for thinking about the safety of the people first, as he told reporters that “we are preparing for any eventuality.” Of course, nothing serious will come of this North Korean gambit or even close to threatening the lives of millions of Filipinos. This is another of those feeble attempts by North Korea to exact favourable treatment from the West, whether to get the world attention it has been craving for or to get more assistance such as food aid, a staple that North Korean people direly need to quell the famine that has ravaged their peninsula.

Second, President Noynoy Aquino has called on his fellow summiteers in Phnom Penh to support the lifting of punitive international sanctions imposed on Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) following the election of pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi to a seat in parliament during the April 1 by-elections.

Aquino said that Myanmar needs to be rewarded for reforms. “We really have to show the people who are reforming in Myanmar that the road they chose is the right road,” President Aquino told reporters.

It resonated like the “straight path” (“tuwid na daan”) which was Noynoy Aquino’s prescription for a graft and corruption-free Philippines. And he sounded very much like Secretary Hillary Clinton who earlier praised the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her tireless efforts in fighting for democratic reforms in her country.

Aquino said he was thoroughly elated at the election of Suu Kyi who reminded him of his late mother, President Cory Aquino, who also led the restoration of democratic institutions in the Philippines after the Marcos repressive era of martial rule. He hoped that Suu Kyi’s election will “lead to more and more participation and vibrant democratic practices in Myanmar.” If only President Noynoy Aquino could be as optimistic with his presidency now that he has led the most serious assault on the constitutional foundations of the country an issue unheard of after his own mother helped restore democracy in 1986.

Third, President Aquino has also been bullish lately about the claim of the Philippines over the Spratlys in the South China Sea. In Phnom Penh, Aquino once again endorsed multilateral negotiations between China and members of the ASEAN regarding their simmering territorial claims to the mineral resource-rich Spratlys archipelago and its surrounding waters, instead of flexing military muscle that could flare up in violent hostilities in the region.
China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Many other
 governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea. Photo courtesy
 of University of Southern California.
Aquino has proposed a legally-binding Code of Conduct among the disputing states, a step-up to the existing declaration which was also signed by the ASEAN members in Phnom Penh 10 years ago.

A display of diplomatic leadership on Noynoy Aquino’s part on an issue that affects the whole region seems to be a far cry from his usual timid performance as Philippine president in times when the southern island of Mindanao is being enveloped by power outages and transit workers and students in Metro Manila are marching on the streets in protest of Aquino’s inaction over skyrocketing oil prices.

Apparently, President Aquino is voicing the concerns of the U.S. government and its Asian allies over the growing Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea, which is seen as a threat to American strategic military interests not only in that region but also in the whole of the Pacific as well. Aquino is being the obedient American boy who will take the podium and speak on behalf of the U.S. government on its military and economic interests in Asia and the Pacific.

And fourth, during the visit of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Manila, Aquino has asked his counterpart for aircraft, boats and other military hardware to help the Philippine military in its territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands. This is in addition to the recent military equipment supplied by the U.S. government that would beef up the military capability of the Philippines in case the territorial dispute with China escalates into a violent confrontation.

Fresh from scathing criticisms that he was a do-nothing President, Noynoy Aquino is quickly transforming himself into a diplomat and a warrior at the same time when it comes to the affairs of the region. While he appeared to have embraced the road to peaceful negotiations over territorial disputes, he has also shown equal readiness to go to war if necessary. If only he could be as keen and more upbeat when it comes to matters closest to his heart; by this, we mean not his dating concerns, but the myriad problems that face the nation.

There is something unnatural about Noynoy Aquino’s sudden emergence as an ASEAN leader or spokesperson for the pressing issues that confront the region. Either this is simply the result of manipulating media coverage to make him look good or Aquino has assumed his role as an Amboy in earnest.

All the pronouncements President Aquino has made at Phnom Penh or during his talks with the other ASEAN heads of state seem to have come straight from the page book of a U.S. State Department manual. Whether it is about praising Myanmar’s democratization or solving the South China impasse through multilateral negotiations, the U.S. government has found no better spokesperson for its interests in the region. Of course, Aquino expects more military assistance from Uncle Sam in return and this could translate in more joint exercises between the Philippine military and the U.S. visiting forces and delivery of supplemental warships to augment the Philippine navy.

In exchange for more U.S. military and development aid, President Aquino would be more than willing to promote U.S. President Obama’s American pivot foreign policy, a publicly stated strategy of shifting the American military’s long-term focus toward the Pacific and an increasingly assertive China. Thus, the newest American boy in the Pacific has spoken and is starting to earn his stripes.

For a timid and apparently uninterested President who would rather play with his computer toys than govern, Noynoy Aquino has found a new role and he is relishing it. In the meantime, the country continues to suffer—from increasing oil prices, power blackouts, widespread poverty and unemployment, and a developing distrust of the people to a President they thought would deliver them to the Promise Land.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Heart of the matter

At the very heart of the articles of impeachment against Chief Justice Renato Corona is his alleged betrayal of trust under the Philippine Constitution. After reducing the articles of impeachment from 8 to 3, the prosecution is relying on Article 2 to convict Corona for his failure to disclose his statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (or SALN in short) as required under the Constitution. In other words, Corona as alleged, had not been truthful and even concealed certain assets from his annual wealth declarations.

The obligation of a public officer or employee to declare his or her assets, liabilities and net worth is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution under Section 17, Article XI. Republic Act No. 6713, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, provides for the enabling legislation that requires public officials and employees to declare their assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests, including those of their spouses and of unmarried children under 18 years of age living in their households.
 Corona's alleged U.S. property as  new evidence? Photo courtesy of Yahoo!Southeast
Asia Newsroom. Click link to view "Impeach Corona, Bawiin ang Hacienda, Sigaw ng
Yellow Mob,"
Under the Constitution, only the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office through impeachment for culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. All other public officers and employees may be removed from office as provided by law, but not by impeachment.

Note that in order to find a violation of the Constitution as an impeachable offence, the violation must be culpable, a term in criminal law that refers to the blameworthiness of the accused. Failure by a public officer named in the Constitution who can be impeached by not disclosing his or her SALN may not necessarily be culpable as it is more in the nature of a regulatory or administrative offence, but nevertheless prosecutable under the law. It must be proved, therefore, that Corona had a culpable state of mind if he were to be impeached for not declaring an accurate or honest SALN, i.e., that he intended to commit the offence which implies a very high standard of proof.

Let us review the impeachment trial so far.

There is no allegation in the articles of impeachment that the Chief Justice did not declare his wealth as required under the Constitution. What the prosecution impugns is Corona’s false declaration, under-declaration, and non-declaration of assets in his SALN. As the impeachment trial went on, the glaring problem with the prosecution’s allegation appears to be their lack of evidence to prove Corona violated the law. All that the prosecution managed was to embark on a fishing expedition for evidence that will prove their allegation. Corona’s defence lawyers, however, were able to rebut with contradicting evidence or proof that the properties allegedly owned by Corona were either not his or were obtained lawfully.

In the end, the prosecution was able to tarnish the image of the Chief Justice in the eyes of the public as being dishonest and not truthful about his assets by implying that some of Corona’s properties might have been irregularly obtained. But that will not stand in any court of law or before the Senator-judges who must consider the evidence or absence of culpability.

Lately for instance, Raissa Robles, a professional blogger disclosed in her blog that the Chief Justice has properties in the United States which were not reported by Corona in his SALN. No due diligence was exercised by Ms. Robles, like conducting a simple title search, but she was able to poke the public mind that Corona might be hiding some U.S. properties from his assets. Corona, however, was quick to respond that those properties alleged by Ms. Robles are actually owned by his daughters who are residents and working in the United States. Besides, the SALN law (RA 6713) excludes reporting properties of unmarried children who are 18 years of age or over and who are not living in the household of a public official.

Again, this kind of gathering evidence and reporting it on the Internet and the media does not prove Corona’s culpability. It only excites public speculation that Corona cannot be trusted. It continues to paint Corona as guilty in the public mind even before the end of the trial, but not through the legal process where the Chief Justice just like anyone of us is also entitled to the equal protection of the law.

Let us consider an article written by one of the most rabid of supporters the Aquino government has in the media. Conrado de Quiros, in his regular column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, criticized the argument that the failure to submit a SALN is not an impeachable offence as idiotic. He wrote that this offence is “not only an impeachable offence” but also a “jail-able offence.”

Mr. de Quiros may be right from a common sense point of view. But the law as it is, is not merely about common sense. The law also considers the rights of the person accused and due process. One doesn’t simply rant in public about a public official’s alleged offence and ask the public to hang him. We need people of sober minds to weigh and judge the evidence against a person accused of a high crime, not the lunacy of those who are willing to sell their souls at any price in exchange for peddling to the public the government’s official line, no matter how incredulous.

So, where does the Chief Justice’s alleged false declaration of his SALN fall if it is not a culpable violation of the Constitution? Could it be graft and corruption? For how can a public official even as high as the Chief Justice afford to buy expensive properties from his meagre salary alone? Certainly, there is an implication of irregularity that could point to graft and corruption. Only corrupt government officials can buy those properties alleged owned by the Coronas, unless the Chief Justice himself was also corrupt.

But then the law cannot be based on speculations or innuendoes. An accusation of graft and corruption, which was never pleaded by the prosecution in the articles of impeachment, must be proved by incontrovertible evidence.

What are left as alternative impeachable crimes would be other high crimes or betrayal of public trust. But who determines whether a false SALN is a high crime or betrayal of public trust?

In associating “treason, bribery, graft and corruption” with “other high crimes or betrayal of public trust,” the framers of the 1987 Constitution must have in their minds the political nature of these offences, that these offences are against the state. To borrow from the conservative Harvard professor Raoul Berger, they are political crimes as distinguished from crimes against person, such as murder. They are also punishable by Congress, whereas courts punish crimes or lesser private wrongs.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution removed the word “misdemeanours” and substituted it with “betrayal of public trust.” We can surmise that the reason is to preserve “high crimes” to impeachment cases and leave misdemeanours to the ordinary courts.

Considering the political nature of these impeachable offences, perhaps there is no need for facts or evidence to impeach the Chief Justice. All that is needed is votes. Except that this would defy all requirements of due process, which must be accorded to the Chief Justice no less than the lowliest felon. It is also not necessarily true, therefore, that “other high crimes or betrayal of public trust” could be whatever the Senate acting as an impeachment court considers.

But the real problem with the impeachment of Chief Justice Corona lies in the haste the articles of impeachment were prepared. A verified complaint for impeachment was never filed in the first place in accordance with the Constitution. The articles of impeachment were literally shoved down the throats of 188 members of Congress and they were asked to sign under duress. If they didn’t sign, they would never get a share of government pork.

Under the American legal tradition where we borrowed the concept of impeachment of public officers, an impeachment may not necessarily start its inquiry under the impeachment rules. A preliminary or general inquiry may be the best way to start an impeachment until the facts as they are disclosed become developed or strong enough to proceed with the impeachment. At the same time, a public demand for stronger action is generated.

But the Senate struck down the request of Corona’s defence team for a preliminary inquiry and decided right away to proceed with the impeachment despite the glaring deficiencies in the articles of impeachment. The government led by President Noynoy Aquino then launched a media blitz to influence public opinion against the Chief Justice, similar to a trial by publicity. Everything that ensued once the impeachment trial started became a living nightmare, not only to the defence team but also to the prosecution and the government as well.

One thing for sure after the verdict is handed down, the Corona impeachment will make us respect the law even less than we did before. That is not very comforting to Congress and to the judiciary which we originally thought are the last bulwark of the people against onslaughts to the Constitution by a president who believes personal vendetta takes priority over others, including respect for the rule of law.