Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blame games

Here in the city of Toronto, the mayor appears unbreakable. In other cities, notably Montreal, allegations of misbehaviour in office, whether corruption-related or simply fundamental flaws of character are enough to induce a sitting public official to resign. But Toronto Mayor Rob Ford seems impervious to criticism and public clamour for him to step down because of acts unbecoming of a mayor of the largest Canadian city. There is always the media which he holds responsible for portraying him as Canada’s poster boy for politicians misbehaving in public.

In Manila, 8,206 miles away from Toronto, the media also happens to be the bane of existence for the sitting president. President Noynoy Aquino continues to suffer from an almost innate aversion to bad news, especially from newspaper columnists who disapprove of the way he handles one crisis after another, whether it is political or caused by natural disasters.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Philippine President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
When President Noynoy Aquino ordered the Sultan of Sulu to surrender his troops to the Malaysian military during a failed bloody incursion in Sabah last February 2013, he was criticized for his failure to weigh in the loss of Filipino lives. Instead of acting like a true statesman who would first consider the option of peacefully negotiating with a foreign country, President Aquino reacted in a way as if he was serving a foreign government instead of his own.

Then an earthquake shattered most of Bohol in October, and two weeks later, Super Typhoon Category 5 Haiyan almost erased Leyte and Samar from the country’s map. Every time the country faces a crisis, President Aquino has always displayed a ghostlike sense of hopelessness and lack of preparation and decisiveness as a leader. When Typhoon Haiyan struck, Aquino didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do and simply criticized the foreign press who parachuted to the country for continuously harping on the absence of government on the ground to help, rescue and provide aid to the typhoon victims. He blamed the local governments who were to his little mind the first line of defence, regardless that they too have been swept away by the typhoon. Even the estimates of the number of deaths were doubted as unnaturally too high. President Aquino expected the death toll not to go higher than 2,500, which he confidently told the world during a CNN interview. To date, the death toll stands over 7,000.

Amidst coping with natural disasters, President Aquino has also been losing his political battles. The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the much-maligned pork barrel which the President uses as a carrot and stick to keep members of Congress follow his line, had been struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Next will be his own Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) fund which the Supreme Court is also expected to declare as without legal basis and a violation of the constitutional separation of powers.

When there’s no one to blame, attribute it to the media. Most people today are skeptical of the media, especially the major newspapers whose columnists are perceived to be the ones manufacturing the news, not the actual events or issues that give rise to stories. Newspapers are full of opinions that their readers are not sure where they stand on the issues, or at best, whether to believe the opinions expressed by the pundits as the news on the ground.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford relies on his loyal following called the Ford Nation, voters who are mostly from the suburbs, working class, and recent immigrants. In the case of President Aquino, he has the yellow media, journalists loyal to his mother, former President Cory Aquino, and is perceived to be supported by business oligarchs. Both bailiwicks, whether the Ford Nation or Aquino’s yellow media, suffer from a malady of deniability. To them, everything in the press that disparages their hero has no semblance of the truth, even if the argument is overwhelmingly against them.

On the strength of his Ford Nation, Mayor Rob Ford, although reduced to a mere titular head by his own council, intends to run for re-election so he could get back his old powers as city mayor. President Aquino, on the other hand, while damaged by his own inept leadership during the country’s several crises, continues to ride on the weight of the legacy of his more popular parents that he still is the best qualified to rid the country of all forms of corruption despite allegations of dishonesty within his own government.

It is easy to blame the media if there is a bit of perception left in the public mind that your leaders are still popular and could be trusted with their leadership. With a rambunctious Ford Nation and a well-oiled and positioned yellow media, it is not surprising that both Ford and Aquino are still in power despite gasping for political oxygen.

Understanding the roots of this conundrum, whether in Toronto or Manila must start with a correct analysis, instead of simply focusing on the personalities of the characters involved. Mayor Ford misbehaving publicly is easily explainable. Admittedly, Ford has committed horrific and shameful acts unbecoming of a mayor, but the city council is powerless to depose him, or even ask him to resign as the most honourable thing to do under the circumstances. Unless he commits a crime and is sentenced to spend time in jail, or be absent for a continuous period of time in council, there’s nothing council can do to impeach him. In retrospect, the Ontario provincial parliament that enacted the city’s charter, perhaps, failed to consider that someone in the mould of Rob Ford could be elected as city mayor.

President Noynoy Aquino’s situation is much more complicated. A president who lacked the wherewithal of a capable and effective leader to run a nation was elected merely on the coattails of the legacy of his parents. This is not forgivable by any means. It is not only his lack of presidential chutzpah that is bothersome but his audacity to pretend he has the moral ascendancy to lead, even to ignore the Constitution that he is supposed to uphold and protect if he wants to have his way. But of course, more than half of the blame falls on the shoulders of his key people in the cabinet, those who obviously are running the government for him.

The Philippines occupies the typhoon belt of the Pacific. It is visited with typhoons every year from the onset of the rainy season until the end of the year. In addition, it is also prone to earthquakes which occur with almost the same regularity as typhoons visit the country. Any sitting President, who is able to understand the natural cycle of typhoons and earthquakes and the calamities they bring upon the country, especially to the poor who are more vulnerable to be victims of natural disasters, will see to it that the government is always prepared and ready to deal with these natural phenomena. By now, after numerous typhoons and earthquakes and with the experience learned from government responses, one would have thought that an effective national emergency and preparedness program is already in place. But Typhoon Haiyan has exposed that the country’s leadership is not up to this task.

A well-coordinated emergency response by the national government would at least prepare the population for the wrath of storms and typhoons and enable the responders and the victims to cope with the humanitarian disaster in the aftermath. But the answer or the challenge to natural disasters does not stop there. The government must start embracing the position that climate change has the most to do with the increasing frequency and intensity of typhoons that visit the Philippines every year.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls the evidence of climate change “unequivocal.” The effects of climate change are manifest in the irreversible rise in sea levels, mass species extinction, ocean acidification, more extreme weather events—the list goes on.
An Angry Red Hot Planet. Photo courtesy of the Green Party.
The Philippine government arguably is not solely responsible for causing this climate madness. Like other island-states, the Philippines has contributed the least to climate change compared to the more advanced and industrialized countries which are the world’s major greenhouse gas polluters. Yet, the Philippines and the poorer countries of the Third World are the main victims of climate change.

While the United Nations has established a Green Climate Fund, a targeted pool of $100 billion that will help developing countries adjust to climate change crises, contributions from the developed countries have been small and slow in coming. The UN still has to iron out when and how to deliver the fund.

But the Green Climate Fund is not the real solution to climate change. Unless the industrialized countries agree to radical emission cuts immediately, the climate madness that we are now experiencing is in danger of becoming a way of life to many of its victim-countries like the Philippines.

Naderev Saño, the Philippines chief climate negotiator, summed up this situation in his talk before the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) where he linked Typhoon Haiyan to climate change:

“What my country (the Philippines) is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness...We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life. Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.... Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action.”

The only problem is no one’s listening to Saño’s warning, starting with President Noynoy Aquino. The current President is more interested in hearing only the good news, which would boost his polling numbers and the public’s acceptance of his leadership. He would even prefer to wallow in denial, like dismissing reports of deaths from Typhoon Haiyan beyond what he has established as an acceptable number. Or he would blame local government officials for not doing their jobs as first responders to natural disasters. Or he would blame those in the opposition, including the Supreme Court, for diluting his preconceived powers that he could accelerate government spending to stimulate the economy without prior Congressional authorization even if it was for the purpose of buying off the opposition.

President Aquino’s natural tendency to blame others for his woes creates, on top of the climate fiasco, a climate of arrogance and smugness—that his government is invincible, that it cannot fail or make mistakes. When you have a leader with this frame of mind, anything he doesn’t like is negative, and that is a very dangerous shortcoming. More often than not, a leader with this character flaw lives in a world of fantasy: one more step, and it’s closer to madness.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ampatuan’s travesty

The Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009 will probably go down in history as the bloodiest of all political killings in the Philippines. Four years and counting since the hearing started on January 6, 2010, the pursuit of justice for the victims of the massacre remains as elusive as the prospect of a trial date. The completion of the trial has even become the running joke around legal circles that it might happen after 200 years.
Maguindanao massacre, November 23, 2009. Photo courtesy of AFP/Mark Navales.
The greatest travesty of the Ampatuan massacre is not in how slow the wheels of justice grind in the Philippines, but right on the get go when the prosecutors decided to indict all the accused as direct participants in the commission of the crime of murder. As the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) said during the laying of charges against the accused: “There is direct evidence that [the accused] agreed to commit the crime. Their acts and the attendant circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime unveil a common aim that would make all of them co-principals in the crime committed.”
The DOJ panel that investigated the crime concluded that the massacre was the result of a conspiracy, that included Andal Ampatuan Sr., head of a Muslim clan and former governor of Maguindanao, his two sons, Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Autonomous Muslim Region of Mindanao, and Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of the town that bears the family’s name, the clan’s private army and political supporters, and members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). All together, the number of accused totalled to 197, whom according to the DOJ, participated in the planning and massacre. The total number of victims is 57, which includes 32 journalists, the largest number of media workers killed in a single incident.
What seems wrong in this picture?
The notion of a conspiracy beguiles the mind. All the 197 accused, including the drivers, the Ampatuans’ lowly servants, and the backhoe operator who dug the ground where the victims were buried, knew what the plan was, that they had a unity of purpose, and they executed the plan to achieve their objective. It’s not therefore just the principals, the Ampatuan family, apparently the mastermind of this heinous crime who are criminally culpable, but each one of the 197 accused.
In a crime where there are principals, accomplices and accessories, the degree of punishment varies in accordance with the degree of their contribution in the accomplishment of the crime. However, when there is conspiracy, there will no longer be a distinction as to whether a person acted as a principal, accomplice or accessory, because when there is conspiracy, the criminal liability of all will be the same, because the act of one is the act of all.
The umbrella approach of the prosecutors to indict all accused as participants in a conspiracy to commit the massacre is a sure-fire formula that would either delay or frustrate the quest for justice. Delay will be achieved by lawyers for the defence as they can bring a deluge of motions after motions, manifestations, oppositions, including bail petitions, which to date have numbered to 750 in all. Filing an endless stream of such motions seems to be at the heart of the Ampatuans’ legal defense. This is more than enough to slow down and impede the trial. Legal stalling tactics by the lawyers of the accused, a fractured prosecution, and a slow-moving court have conspired against a speedy trial.
There are also numerous witnesses who have to be interviewed and examined, and just by the number alone would take the case to completion after 200 years, as one former Philippine senator conjectured. Some witnesses will be intimidated, threatened and frightened from testifying, and the fact is, some witnesses have already been killed or have died.
In retrospect, the Nuremberg Trial which presided over the worst case of genocide in the 20th century prosecuted only 14 of the highest-ranking Nazis. Prosecuting all the 197 accused in the Ampatuan massacre is by all means a blueprint for impunity. This will ensure that the prosecution will never end.
While the Ampatuan prosecutors are at it, i.e., establishing the conspiracy of 197 accused, why didn’t they include former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her Secretary of Defence Norberto Gonzales who were rumored as part of the over-all conspiracy? After all, the Ampatuan massacre benefited Mrs. Arroyo as it made it easier for her to rig the election results in the region and it also gave her the legal excuse to declare martial law in Maguindanao during that time. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago even remarked about an alleged sinister plan [unproven] to extend martial law beyond the province of Maguindanao to ensure that President Arroyo stay in power.
The current administration under President Noynoy Aquino has maintained that they cannot intervene directly to expedite the Ampatuan trial on the ground of constitutional separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Although President Aquino has repeatedly said that the Ampatuan case would be a litmus test of the Philippine judiciary's ability to dispense justice, the government has not shown a greater commitment of its resources and attention to ensure the success of the prosecution of those responsible for the massacre.
The lack of progress in the Ampatuan prosecution only confirms the consistent and disturbing pattern for the justice system’s treatment of media killings in the Philippines: a journalist is killed, local law enforcement officials are either lax or complicit, witnesses and complainants are intimidated, bribed or killed, and lawyers for the accused employ delaying tactics that would break the will and resources of the victims’ families. The end result is very disquieting – the case goes unresolved and the culture of impunity is thus reinforced. This shows why the Philippines has ranked third worst on the 2012 Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Impunity Index, which calculates unsolved media killings as a percentage of each country's population. Despite the Philippines' tradition of press freedom, the country's dysfunctional and corrupt criminal justice system has failed to bring justice in 55 journalist murders in the past decade.

Infographic on the Ampatuan massacre trial overview, courtesy of cmfrphilippines.
Click link to view "Journalists to commemorate 4th anniversary of Ampatuan Massacre," 
The Aquino government can do something to ensure that those who perpetrated the Ampatuan massacre are brought to trial in a fashion that dispenses swift justice for the victims and their grieving families. To keep invoking the separation of powers between the main branches of government is a lame excuse, and only reinforces the prevailing culture of impunity. President Aquino’s continuing failure to state how he intends to finish the prosecution of the Ampatuan massacre means he lacks the political will to punish those who violate freedom of the press and the right to life.
For him to correct this charade of justice, President Aquino can, for starters, ask the Supreme Court to designate the Quezon City Regional Trial Court hearing the case a “special court” with no other duties beyond the Maguindanao massacre hearings. The special court then can start the prosecution and trial of the principals in the case (i.e., members of the Ampatuan clan), and do away with the notion of a conspiracy, even if it would mean dismissing the charges against those who were co-accused but apparently played a minor role in the massacre. All the 62 policemen and military personnel involved in the massacre should be dismissed from service immediately, the charges against them can be dropped or they can be indicted for charges appropriate for their role in the massacre.
One last but immediate measure President Aquino can do for the families of the victims of the massacre is to provide them with compensation for the death of the victims and failure of the government in its obligation to protect and promote the right of the victims to live. This is nothing new. Government compensation for crime victims dates back to the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which is considered the oldest known written body of criminal law.
Victims of crimes ought to be compensated by the government charged with the responsibility to protect them when it failed to do so. Many countries today have some form of compensation scheme that pays reparation to victims of crimes for the failure of government to protect them. This compensation becomes the means of repairing the harm left in the wake of crime.
In at least two cases before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Philippines was found guilty of breaching its obligation to protect and promote the right to life for its failure to reasonably investigate and prosecute the killings of Navy Ensign Philip Pestano and Eden Marcellana. The UN Committee declared that the Philippine government owes to pay compensation to these two victims of extrajudicial killings.
Upon hearing of a Hong Kong woman, who was shot in the face during the deadly 2010 hostage crisis in the Philippines, that she needed to have surgery on her left jaw, President Aquino has agreed to give an undisclosed amount to help her defray the cost of the operation. If Noynoy’s heart bleeds for a Hong Kong citizen, what then should prevent him from also feeling the pain and suffering of the families of the victims of the Ampatuan massacre, his very own compatriots?
There is ample time left in President Aquino’s term to reverse the travesty and shame that the Ampatuan trial has brought upon the justice system. But only if his heart also bleeds for his fellow Filipinos, if he can feel the anguish of the families of the victims, and if he will listen to their cry for justice.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Publicly misbehaving

Toronto’s chattering classes are up in arms against Mayor Rob Ford’s public display of his personal shortcomings. These are glaring faults in the mayor’s behaviour in public that are perceived below the standard of moral conduct expected of public leaders. Inasmuch as the mayor has not been charged of any criminal behaviour, the city council’s hands are tied for lack of authority to suspend or even impeach the mayor from his duties as the top honcho of North America’s fourth largest city.
When the mayor is caught in a state of drunken stupor in a video released in major newspapers, broadcast in mainstream TV shows in Canada and the United States, or online in social media, there is a strong argument that while the mayor has the right to drink or to be drunk, doing so in public’s plain view diminishes the mayor’s position and runs afoul with the ordinary person’s idea of an elected public servant. Being photographed or videotaped in the company of shadowy characters also makes the mayor’s case even more damning to the public eye.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford listens during a city council meeting which strips his
powers as mayor of North America's fourth largest city. AFP Photo/Geoff Robins.
Click link to view "Rob Ford promises 'outright war' as powers further restricted,"
Or when the mayor admits to smoking crack cocaine and blaming it on being inebriated and later proclaiming to everyone with all contrition that he feels sorry about it—such indiscretions on the part of the city’s top executive do not comport well with public expectations.
Worse, when the mayor uses foul and offensive language on television that demeans women, he has inexcusably crossed the line that separates decency from inappropriate behaviour, a conduct unbecoming of a public figure such as the city’s mayor.
Probably in other jurisdictions, such displays of tasteless and unacceptable behaviour in public are enough to bear considerable weight on a politician’s mind to think of resigning. The political careers of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Congressman Anthony Weiner had been cut short by their sexual improprieties that had nothing to do with their ability to perform in their elected positions. It is almost a public expectation that when a public official is caught red-handed like Mayor Ford, the only and perhaps most responsible thing to do is quit. But not the Toronto mayor who believes he has the impunity to misbehave in public, and that his diehard constituents would not mind as long as he delivers on his election promises.
Should there be a link between immorality and qualification for high office, or is this something like passé or downright impossible in light of today’s modern values?
The expectation that an elected public official must resign in view of his inappropriate conduct and abuse of public expectations still makes a lot of sense. A society with high moral standards is one that knows the difference between right and wrong. It’s true that what politicians do in their bedrooms or on their private time is their own business. But when their behaviour crosses the boundaries of decency and respectability, it also tarnishes their office and their image to the public that have put them in office.
Mayor Rob Ford’s personal shortcomings denote not only a breakdown in his private compass, but have also ramifications to public morality in general. To borrow from and paraphrase Robert Reich, there seems to be a moral rot in Toronto but it is not to be found in the private behaviours of its citizens. It is located in the public behaviour of elected people like Mayor Ford and his brother Councillor Doug Ford who control the city council and are turning the city of Toronto into the laughing stock of the world. Such displays of public misbehaviour on the part of the city mayor cannot be allowed: it downgrades public morality and puts its elected officials whom it has entrusted to govern to shame and ridicule by foreign media and the world at large.
The citizens of Toronto expect more from those they assign with public trust. We cannot give Mayor Rob Ford a free pass for his public misconduct. To give the city mayor the impunity to do what he wishes is synonymous with allowing him to run roughshod against values that people expect in a civil society. This is the greater danger that the mayor’s shortcomings may have on our society.
If Mayor Rob Ford should resign now and seek counsel to mend his ways, he still has the opportunity to seek office again. A re-election would naturally mean his redemption. But of course the people of Toronto, not wanting a return to the current state of affairs, should soundly and vigorously trash him when that opportunity comes. The mayor’s personal deficiencies have become a matter of public record. To rebuke his re-election if he ever decides to run again does not mean punishing him; rather, it is a declaration that the public will not entertain anymore shenanigans from leaders they elect to office.
The idea that there is no connection between loose morals and public integrity is a theory that politicians like Rob Ford and others like him adhere to. While integrity is something like a fungible commodity for most politicians, public outrage against elected politicians like Rob Ford is a clear and strong reminder to our leaders that they don’t have the impunity to misbehave, and that their personal egos have no place in public service.
What could be true in Toronto could also be true to the federal government as well. Before the controversy that Mayor Rob Ford helped stir in the public eye, three Conservative Party senators were suspended from the Canadian Senate for claiming travel and housing expenses for which they were not eligible. In the wake of the Senate scandal, more and more Canadians are now clamouring to reform the Senate by abolishing it or getting the senators chosen through an election rather than the current practice of appointing them. Reform or abolition of the Senate would require a constitutional amendment and the support of at least seven of ten provinces.
With the suspensions of Senators Mike Duffy, Pam Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hoping that the scandal is now over. But the controversy hasn’t ended, and the scandal continues to persist, because at the heart of this affair is the Prime Minister himself. When the controversy about the senators’ allowances exploded, Harper’s aides and some senior members of his Conservative Party tried to cover up the scandal. Harper denied he knew anything about it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada takes questions in the House of Commons
over dispute regarding Canadian senators' expenses as it balloons into a larger political
scandal for the Conservative Party government.
It was Harper who appointed these senators and, in turn, he benefited from their presence in the Senate. Brazeau, who was then an influential leader in the off-reserve Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, was one of the few native leaders who sided with Harper’s decision to mothball the so-called Kelowna Accord. Both Duffy and Wallin were high-profile TV journalists who were appointed to the Senate by Harper to promote the Conservative Party cause.
Since members of the Senate are personally appointed by the incumbent Prime Minister for their particular skills or benefits to the party, Filipinos in Toronto should perhaps begin to wonder why one of their so-called leaders was plucked and selected by the Conservative Party to sit in the Senate. What exactly will he bring to the Conservative Party and its agenda in government? Is it just a coincidence that the processing for permanent residence of many live-in caregivers, mostly from the Philippines, has hit a snail’s pace? Why has the Filipino community become peculiarly silent regarding immigration issues such as family reunification, hiring of temporary workers, and reforms in the live-in caregiver program? These are some relevant questions which the Filipino community press should investigate and give deeper coverage to rather than one newspaper’s obsession about bringing down or shaming personalities in the community.
Like the country or city we inhabit, the Filipino community in Toronto is also faced with problems caused by some form of social pathology. After all these years, we are still a fractured community. We are only mobilized to unite based on causes or issues close to each of our particular sector’s interest. There are broken windows in our community, for sure; however, the prevailing proclivity for some of us, especially those in the leadership and control of local media, is to throw more stones at more windows, which ultimately will undermine the integrity of our entire community.
Windows in our community have started breaking a few years ago. Scandals have plagued some of our organizations, putting the uprightness of some of our community leaders in question. One local newspaper continues in its pre-ordained mission to bash other journalists in the community and some leaders on questionable transactions. The telling of unfounded allegations or half-truths in published statements tarnishes not only certain individuals, but also our community as a whole. Until our so-called leaders and their critics deal with these allegations in an open and constructive way, however, they will continue to fester, and our integrity as a community is in great danger of disintegrating.
It’s high time for us, as citizens of Toronto and Canada, and as members of our Filipino community, to stake out the moral high ground. The public misbehaviour of some of our leaders we have elected or selected is not a matter of private morality. They are, like the city mayor’s list of infractions, violations of public morality and common sense. They undermine the integrity of our community, and the city and country we have chosen to live in.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Nature of giving


A survivor carries water in typhoon-ravaged Tacloban, Leyte. AP Photo/Vincent Yu.
Natural disasters, like earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons (or hurricanes in this part of the world) awaken the better angels in people almost everywhere. For whatever loss of life and property and other dire sufferings these disasters may have brought upon their victims, people opening their hearts and wallets in order to give will always share equal time and space in the retelling of the story and of how people helped others in the aftermath.
Super typhoon Yolanda (or Haiyan) which hit the Philippines last Friday is a great example. This is not to forget or belittle the efforts of those who’ve helped victims of typhoons in years past. News and images on TV, print media and the Internet are enough to arouse people to understand and empathize with the victims.

Police line up bodies for processing in Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines. CNN photo.
Click link to view
"Typhoon Haiyan: Scenes of devastation, calls for help."
Giving and helping tell us that we all want to make the world a better place, despite of all the deaths, the losses and the destruction. People will rebuild from the ashes, if they need to. That’s the clear message we’re getting, no doubt about it.
Reading through social media, including Facebook, can make one sad, however. Despite all good intentions, there will still be those among us who would capitalize on the Yolanda wreckage to promote their personal agenda.
For some, this has become a prized opportunity for self-promotion, to put themselves back in the limelight and corner every chance to appear on TV to announce the laudable efforts they have launched to help the typhoon victims.

A survivor walks past a cargo ship washed ashored  by Typhoon Haiyan in
Tacloban, Leyte. AP Photo/Vincent Yu.
Still others would take advantage of this opportunity to further divide the community, such as the case in Toronto, for example, where the Filipino Canadian community is currently beset by a pestering internal strife among the local community press, with some reporting on the reporters and the personalities instead of on the issues and events that the community should be aware of. Rather than restoring civility in the community, this type of community journalism practised by some only makes us the butt of jokes and the laughing stock among Toronto’s visible minority.
What could be worse is when some people tell you to donate to them or to their organizations, instead of using the more tested and reliable international relief agencies such as the Red Cross, primarily due to their ideological distaste of these organizations, and because of issues of transparency, honesty, and whether the help really goes to the people who are in need.
The magnitude of Yolanda’s wrath and damage clearly shows the need for logistics, an effective organization, and available equipment to clean up the debris that currently block the path of relief agencies and workers. These agencies need to reach the victims first and foremost. Even the national government, with its entire military at its command, cannot handle Yolanda’s aftermath to the satisfaction of their critics and the people they intend to help.

A man sits crying on a packed aircraft in Tacloban. CNN photo.
So when some groups tell you not to give to the Red Cross, for example, because the organization is headed by a career politician, that kind of message not only dampens the enthusiasm of potential givers but also leaves a bitter taste to the act of helping itself. Instead of joining others in helping our poor and suffering compatriots, these individuals and the type of talk they spread dampen the collective relief efforts. They only politicize the act of helping others, and communicate a self-serving message that only through them, and no one else, can you help the victims of Yolanda.
This is the time to set aside political differences, whether you are from the right or left of the spectrum. The victims need help, and they don’t care where this is coming from.
This goes too for groups who are taking Yolanda’s destructive aftermath as a soap box to promote arguments that global warming or climate change is the main culprit and we should take immediate steps to restore earth to its original nature. While the argument may be valid, it loses its great appeal because it’s not the kind of talk that the people really need to know now. There is a time, and we should give ourselves that time, to debate on man’s profligate nature and habits for we cannot afford any longer to wreak havoc on the earth around us and bask in the knowledge that nature will continue to be benevolent to us.
The power of the people to give and to lend an extra hand to those in great need cannot be underestimated. It is during these times of disasters that we are tested. To care for others is part of our culture and nurture. But to ply our own agenda on how to give better, or where to give, and how we can achieve the greatest impact, we need not resort to negative messages but instead allow everyone the free will to go to what’s deepest in their hearts.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Burden of remembrance

Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese national newspaper, reported recently that the Japanese government deliberately avoided the “comfort women” issue in Southeast Asia because of the negative public attention it might generate. The report was based on diplomatic documents the newspaper obtained through Japan’s information disclosure law.
When the comfort women issue became hot news in 1992 and 1993, Japan decided to interview alleged victims in South Korea and issued a pledge to launch similar probes in other countries. But according to diplomatic documents dated July 30, 1993, which Asahi Shimbun was able to obtain, the Japanese government’s official policy was not to conduct interviews with former comfort women in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Lola Fidencia David was forced to be a sex slave for Japanese soldiers who
invaded the Philippines during World War II. Now 86, she is still campaigning
for an apology from Japan. Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star. Click link to view "Forgotten Slaves: The
Comfort Women of the Philippines."
A telegram from the Japanese government to its embassies in the said three countries stated that “we want to avoid (interviews) as much as possible also from the viewpoint that we should ward off a situation in that we only end up fanning public interest unnecessarily.”
Last October 23 in Manila, the Japanese ambassador to the Philippines Toshinao Urabe said that Japan had already settled the demands of Filipino wartime sex slaves for an official apology and just compensation. The ambassador was apparently referring to a 2001 letter of apology issued by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the Asian Women‘s Fund, a charitable organization established in 1995 with Japanese government financial assistance for the purpose of collecting donations from the public as “atonement money” and carrying out programs to help the victims.
Most of the former comfort women in South Korea refused the 2 million yen ($20,618) in atonement money, demanding Japanese government compensation instead. The group of comfort women in the Philippines dismissed the apologies of Japanese government officials for not being the government's official apology, and the assistance from the Asian Women's Fund which was donated from the Japanese people, and not from the government. The said fund was eventually dissolved in 2007.
Only about 130 Filipino comfort women are believed to be still alive today. One of them, Lola Fidencia David, now 86 years old, continues to campaign for an official apology from the Japanese government. Lola Fidencia visited Toronto recently to speak about the harrowing details of sexual abuse she suffered from the hands of Japanese soldiers when she was only 14.
After the war was over, Lola Fidencia married young but it wasn’t a successful union. She scavenged from garbage dumps to provide for her children. The children never became aware of the abuse she suffered during the war although they noticed sometimes that she would be uncommunicative when she had flashbacks of her traumatic experience.
When a group of Korean comfort women came out in 1990, Lola Fidencia found the courage to tell her children about her sexual abuse. She also joined a group of survivors called Lolas Kampanyera Survivors Organization, which has persevered in demanding an official apology and just compensation from the Japanese government.
It would be easier today to condemn and indict any government for war crimes under existing international law which now recognizes war rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity as a crime against humanity if the action is part of a widespread or systematic practice. The comfort women forced to become sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II unfortunately did not have the same kind of protection. Although the sexual abuses they suffered are appalling and inexcusable, the most they have demanded the Japanese government is an official admission that they were forced to become purveyors of sexual comfort to their soldiers and a genuine apology for this shameful wrong.
According to Lola Fidencia’s testimony before a crowd of students at the University of Toronto last week, she was abducted from her home and lured with the promise of work in a factory, just like the other comfort women she knew. This story would be repeated by similar testimonies from other comfort women from South Korea, China, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Once the women were recruited, they were then interned by the Japanese in “comfort stations” where soldiers took turns raping and abusing them day and night. The testimonies from these women bore the fact that the practice was both systematic and organized with the singular aim to treat them as slaves for the sexual gratification of Japanese soldiers. 
Korean comfort women who were rescued and were protected in Lameng, Yunan,
September 3, 1945. Photo courtesy of  the US National Archives.
Prostitution was open and well-organized in Japan before the war so it was considered logical that there should be organized prostitution to serve the Japanese Armed Forces to provide comfort to soldiers and prevent discontent among them. This was clearly the argument used by the Japanese government in justifying the existence of military brothels and hiring of prostitutes for the army.
The Japanese even referred to military brothels the Nazis established in concentration camps for the sexual gratification of German soldiers and officers. Ironically, military brothels that provided sexual services to soldiers also existed during and after the Korean War where separate “comfort stations” were maintained for U.N./U.S. and South Korean soldiers.
This is the undeniable truth: comfort women kept by the Japanese army during the war were not prostitutes. They were lured and forced to provide sexual services to soldiers against their will. But the Japanese government maintains that there was no evidence that these women were forced and kept as sex slaves. They insist that these comfort women lived in military brothels attached to the army and were treated well because their food was not rationed and they had plenty of money to buy articles they wanted such as clothes, shoes, cigarettes and cosmetics.
In other words, these women were prostitutes to the eyes of the Japanese government. Hence, why they are called “comfort women,” a translation of the Japanese ianfu which is a euphemism for shōfu, whose meaning is prostitute. In the words of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, "The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion.”
Except for admitting that military brothels existed, the continuing denial by the Japanese government that comfort women were forced to provide sexual services to soldiers is a clear attempt to diminish the crimes they committed during the war. In fact, this is part of a greater scheme among contemporary Japanese revisionists to spread the big lie that Japan’s invasion of China and Southeast Asia were justified responses to Western imperialism at that time.
Historical revisionism is the most convenient last resort of those who wish to deny and avoid the enormous burden placed on them by the truth and the wrongs they committed. We see this in those who deny the holocaust. Omission by the Japanese of their military aggression and atrocities during World War II in history classes taught in schools is a clear minimization of their war crimes. Conspiracies are born every minute catastrophic events happen, like presidential assassinations, the 9/11 attack, or the Boston marathon bombing, which are all designed to blur the truth in the collective consciousness.
That comfort women were not forced as sex slaves during the war amounts to defiance by the Japanese government of the existential cruelty of the Japanese military. That only military brothels existed where prostitutes were allowed to escape the war’s hardships in exchange for their sexual services only obfuscates reality, an illegitimate distortion of an actual historical record. This is revisionist Japan understanding Plato’s dictum that “those who tell the stories also hold the power."
There are limits to remembrance, especially when the victims are powerless like these comfort women. When a mighty country like Japan re-interprets history to make it more palatable and less culpable and inhuman, the pain, anguish and indignity that comfort women suffered are diminished. Japan’s intransigence to be pious to the facts and events of the war they aggressively pushed and their deliberate attempts to revise the interpretation of those events make history the antithesis of remembrance.
There is neither a physical monument nor space in the collective consciousness to memorialize the suffering of all comfort women. In the long run when the last survivors of the comfort women have died, nothing else will be remembered, and this is an unpleasant truth.
The campaign for an official apology from the Japanese government is weakened by the lack of support from the national governments of these comfort women, with the exception of South Korea. Politics play a major role for this muted response from these governments, not to mention access to foreign loans and assistance from Japan.
In the end, all the comfort women can hope for is to dwell on George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But to those of us who wish to learn from history, there is always the assumption that remembrance has the ethical superiority over forgetting. For to remember is to be responsible while to forget is not only irresponsible but the precursor to a descent into an abyss of moral cowardice and into believing that nothing is ever worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Depoliticizing Malampaya

So much of the controversy about the Malampaya Fund focuses on whether the President has the authority to use the Fund for purposes other than to finance energy resource development and exploitation programs as originally intended.
While the Malampaya gas field off the shores of Palawan would be discovered 18 years later, this is the intent of the Special Fund established by Presidential Decree 910 issued by Ferdinand Marcos during the second year of martial law in 1973. The aforementioned Fund shall be collected from fees, revenues, fines and penalties under the old Petroleum Act of 1949, as well as the government’s share representing royalties from service contracts and similar payments on the exploration, development and exploitation of the country’s energy resources.
The Malampaya Natural Gas Platform on the Palawan shore
The controversy surrounding the Malampaya Fund, however, is not just about the shifting of government funds, which came about only after the Commission on Audit reported that P900-million from the Fund were allegedly diverted to bogus NGOs by the pork barrel queen, Janet Napoles. This was on top of the enormous P10-billion congressional pork barrel that was also attributed to the plundering Napoles.
At the outset, the Malampaya Deep Water Gas-to-Power project—inaugurated in 2001 and now the biggest single source of the President’s Special Fund—is a Pandora’s Box filled with schemes of fraud, abuse of political power, usurpation of legislative authority, violation of the Constitution, and a host of possible irregularities by the current and previous administrations.
One of the largest and most significant industrial endeavors in Philippine history, the Malampaya natural gas project was considered a milestone for a country that has been hitherto been solely dependent on imported fuel. Malampaya changes this dependency as it now provides 40 to 45 percent of Luzon’s power generation requirements, thus enabling the Philippines to import less fuel for power generation.
Led by the Philippine Department of Energy (DOE), the Malampaya project was developed and operated by Shell Philippines Exploration B.V. (SPEX) on behalf of joint venture partners Chevron Malampaya LLC and the PNOC Exploration Corporation. At first blush, the project appears to be a perfect model for public and private cooperation, until one understands the investment structure and profit sharing arrangement of the Malampaya project.
When inaugurated in 2001, the $4.5-billion Malampaya natural gas project is and remains the largest single foreign investment in the history of the Philippines. The project is 45% owned by Shell Philippines Exploration, 45% by Chevron-Texaco and only 10 percent by Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC). What seems wrong with this picture?
Shell and Chevron-Texaco thus control virtually all of the country's proven natural gas reserves, and at the same time, ensnare the largest share of benefits from its exploitation. In return for their investment, Shell and Chevron-Texaco expect to get $14 billion back over 20 years, or P574 billion at current exchange rates.
What does the Philippine Constitution say about foreign exploration, development and utilization of our natural resources?
Article 12 of the 1987 Constitution allows ventures or production-sharing agreements with foreign companies up to 40 percent capitalization. This means that at least sixty percent of the capitalization of such joint ventures or projects must be owned by Filipino citizens.
The Malampaya natural gas project was an exception, if not an anomaly. It clearly violates the Constitutional limit on foreign capitalization to 40% on exploration, development and utilization of natural resources. The Philippine government has therefore allowed Shell and Chevron-Texaco to disproportionately benefit from our natural gas resources against the interests of the country.
In addition to their return on investment, Shell and Chevron-Texaco would also benefit from significant incentives under Presidential Decree No. 87 of 1972, the precursor to PD 910, and other related decrees leading to the creation of the Department of Energy. Among these incentives are tax credits that are exempted from income taxation, duty-free importation and unrestricted entry of foreign personnel. There could be more but without Freedom of Information legislation, the average Filipino would never know the exact details of Service Contract No. 38 that granted Shell and Chevron-Texaco free rein to exploit our natural gas reserves. The government also failed to negotiate any kind of meaningful technology transfer, which is important if we wish to end our perpetual reliance on foreign firms for exploitation of our energy resources.
Is it too late to correct this situation?
The current Constitution of the Philippines, which was adopted after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, provides that existing laws, decrees, executive orders, proclamations, letters of instructions, and other executive issuances not inconsistent with this Constitution shall remain operative until amended, repealed, or revoked. Quite clearly, all presidential decrees made by Ferdinand Marcos are inconsistent with who has legislative authority under the Constitution. Besides, how can one morally justify perpetuating the vestigial decrees of a much-hated dictatorship? It amounts to continuing the dictatorship and its oppressive laws.
The Malampaya natural gas project is clearly unconstitutional because it violates the provisions of the Constitution on national economy and patrimony. The Special Fund created by PD 910 could likewise be inconsistent with the present Constitution because it was a law not passed by Congress but issued by a hold-over president under a dictatorship. If we can borrow an analogy from criminal law, the provisions of any presidential decree issued by Marcos during his dictatorship are tainted and are fruits from the same poisonous tree. We should junk all presidential decrees issued by the Marcos dictatorship if we are serious in enforcing the constitutional delineation of the power to legislate.
In the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, “PD 910 is functus officio [no force or authority].”
In view of the huge royalties from the Malampaya gas project, it appears ludicrous that allies of President Aquino in Congress would now like to amend PD 910 insofar as limiting the Special Fund to the financing of energy–related projects. President Noynoy Aquino apparently wants his authority to use the Special Fund for other purposes be clearly defined so that it would give him the discretion to use the Fund as he pleases. Of course, Congress can pass a law to this effect which makes it more legally palatable under the Constitution instead of relying on the provisions of a Marcos-issued presidential decree.
Even if Congress amends PD 910 or enacts a new law that would define and expand the authority of the President in using the Malampaya Fund, this is not a foolproof escape route from the onerous provisions of a martial law presidential decree and it will certainly not prevent misappropriation and misuse of the Fund and future pork barrel scams. By and large, it only enhances the probability of more abuses and opportunities for economic plunder by this administration and succeeding governments since the pie would be significantly enlarged, not to mention the broad discretion to use it.
It was estimated that the Malampaya project would yield over P12 billion annually in royalty shares for the national government. In 2012 and 2013, the royalty shares reached $1 billion or P40 billion annually.
During the Arroyo Administration, about P25 billion was spent while P15 billion has been used under President Noynoy Aquino. The Malampaya royalty will get larger and the opportunities for its misappropriation and abuse will increase exponentially. In fact, the Malampaya Fund has become a huge political pork barrel.
There is also an ongoing dispute before the Supreme Court regarding the legal framework on natural wealth sharing. Under the Local Government Code, the local government unit where a natural gas field, in this case the Malampaya gas project, is located gets 40 percent of the royalties while the national government, 60 percent. But Palawan has been denied by the national government of its share and it’s taking the Supreme Court an inordinate time to rule on the territorial jurisdiction issue.
The interim sharing between the national government and Palawan has not been subjected to public scrutiny and transparency. Although an initial release of P3.9 billion to Palawan has been made in 2008, the disposition of the fund did not follow the general provisions of PD 910 which prescribed that 80% must be spent in energy-related projects benefitting the local population.
As it was the case for the congressional pork barrel, local political leaders determined the projects and manipulated bidding rules to favour certain public works contractors. Like the Napoles pork barrel scam, there were ghost and overpriced projects.
To reverse the current situation, Congress must regain its power to legislate under the Constitution by revoking all presidential decrees issued by the Marcos dictatorship. It must exercise congressional oversight of the Malampaya royalty fund, with the end in view of depoliticizing the fund as a pork barrel.
In addition, the Supreme Court should now decide on the sharing arrangement between the national government and Palawan: the Malampaya royalty should be used where the law intends it to and the local population gets the benefits from the exploitation of their natural resource.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Three years to its six-year presidency, diehard and uncompromising supporters of the current Aquino government are still asking critics to be soft with President Noynoy, to give him the benefit of the doubt and the credit for innovation in governance and interpretation of the law. The latter is the most appalling because it is like allowing the President to continue on even if his interpretation of the law runs counter to the Constitution.
President Noynoy Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that gave senators loyal to the administration an extra P50-million on top of their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) has opened a large can of worms. First, it was given as an incentive to senators who voted for the impeachment of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. Not as a bribe because it was given after the impeachment, Malacañang rationalized as if the timing of the gift really mattered. Then the President’s loyal defenders switched gears arguing that the DAP was a stimulus program designed to bump up government expenditures in light of an economic slowdown. Finally, they argued that the DAP was constitutional and allowed under the provisions of the Administrative Code despite contrary but more weighted opinions.

Photo courtesy of monalisa_5485_ d4i90kn
Then the news from Bloomberg that the country’s investment grade was moved one notch higher to placate all President Noynoy’s staunch critics. But this has nothing to do with real economic growth. All that the investment rating upgrade implies is the ability of the government to repay its medium-term debt, and as an immediate impact, it reduces the cost of borrowing. Credit worthiness doesn’t add up to growth if there are no actual economic activities being generated by the government and the private sector, such as real comprehensive agrarian reform and building local industries. A vibrant stock market doesn’t necessarily push the economy upward; most economists will tell you that. Well, the President’s loyalists say it is at least a positive beginning. For what?
Very recently, in his speech before business leaders during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, President Aquino boasted that the Philippine economy is on the track of inclusive growth due to sound economic policies and good governance. But inclusive growth should mean that it trickles down to the ordinary people. Any claim of inclusive growth should involve fast-paced distribution of land to farmers, especially in an agricultural country like the Philippines. Inclusive growth is illusory when unemployment is rising despite reported growth in GDP. Growth is not inclusive if this refers to profit generation for the benefit only of the interests of the elite.
There is something suspect and wrong with this type of criticism levelled against the Aquino government, so the President’s apologists would say, whether they are in Malacañang’s payroll or among those in the yellow print media and social media. The President’s loyalists will tell you that these criticisms are not fair and balanced because they are coming from the left and are tainted with Marxist or communist bias, like the Ibon Foundation, a research group accused of being cozy with Joma Sison or the National Democratic Front (NDF). This is the first of three reasons why the Aquino government is not open to criticisms, especially from the left – dissent from the left does not matter.
It is a very dangerous mindset that the Aquino government and its army of champions are trying to instill in the public consciousness. It reminds of Cold war-era politics and martial law when every criticism of the incumbent government was deemed leftist, subversive and communist-inspired. When criticisms from radical groups are branded as condescending and destructive, and therefore should not be given any credence simply because of where they are coming from, this type of response diminishes the importance of a democratic exchange of ideas and the need for more openness.
Those who are awed by the ability of the Aquino government to lead us to a prosperous and inclusive growth are obviously blinded by their faith that those in the right are always right under any circumstances. That those in the left who continuously and consistently advocate for the rights of workers for just wages and working conditions, for farmers to have the right to own the lands they till, for indigenous communities for their rights to self-determination, for women and children to have protection against all forms of oppression and exploitation, for equal access to jobs, housing and social services for all – are all subversive and communists, therefore they deserve our collective indignation.
Those who write for the yellow print media and in social media friendly to the Aquino government deserve all our admiration over leftist publications such as despite of its honest reportage of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, which have earned awards and citations from organizations such as the International Red Cross and Amnesty International.
There can be no decent dissent from the left as far as the Aquino government is concerned. To the Aquino apologists, it is impossible to sustain a decent, intelligent and morally nuanced political discussion with the left. They are in a state of denial of the concrete contributions of the left in raising public consciousness against tyranny, corruption and oppression even as the left was historically responsible, even partly if not wholly, for rousing the people to rebel against the Marcos martial law regime. They would rather give credit to the Catholic Church under Cardinal Sin and the business sector in leading the revolt against Ferdinand Marcos, not the radical groups because of their affinity with the communist movement.
The resentment of the left has not been only episodic during the martial law years but continues to be fueled by successive governments after Marcos. Thus, to the Aquino apologists, any criticism that has the lingering colour of Marxist thinking is irrelevant and irreverent even if it remains the only consistent contradictory view of the reactionary status quo.
After the red scare, the next reason why the Aquino administration and its faithful fanatics resent criticism of their own shortcomings is another red herring: that the alternative to President Noynoy Aquino is fraught with danger that brings greater opportunities for plunder and corruption. What if the President dies in office? Would the Aquino people allow a peaceful transition as envisaged in the Constitution or drive them to usurp political power to prevent the dreaded Vice President from assuming the presidency? Should Noynoy die prematurely without completing his term of office, his loyal followers would rather see our country engulfed by a constitutional crisis which they could exploit to preserve their political power.
The final reason why those steadfastly loyal to President Aquino don’t like his political sins to be exposed and criticized is their unwavering faith that it is very unlikely that he could be as errant as other politicians beneath him. That someone with the kind of political legacy from his famous parents would be incapable of being corrupted, a message Aquino’s inner circle has been peddling from the very start, despite contrary indications like his family’s intransigence to keep Hacienda Luisita, his KKK inner sanctum of friends who cannot be accused of corruption or abuse of power, or his personal involvement in bribing or stimulating senators to impeach the Chief Justice and abusing his presidential powers to justify the Disbursement Acceleration Program.
The leftists or radical groups have no power in the Philippine political system and most of us don’t expect them to exercise power, ever. Most left intellectuals in the Philippine live like internal aliens, the only power or privilege they have is to voice their opinions on the state of affairs of the country but that doesn’t matter to many. Their alienation is also quite radical.
There is pathology in society’s unwillingness to listen to opposite points of view. Like it or not, the Philippine left has an honourable history, too, despite sour memories of Stalin-like cleansing of the underground movement. But they have a reason to be proud to be called leftists. After all, all of us have rights, even leftists, if our country truly is a democracy.
We need more openness in our political discussions. When the government insists that things have changed but an opposite view expresses that things remain quite the same, let us simply allow the better angels in us to read and listen with openness, appreciating the substance rather than judging the criticism based on where it is coming from. In a free and democratic exchange of ideas, the truth should never be a casualty, no matter who is advocating it.