Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Saving democracy without elections

Under American colonial rule, the Philippines had its first taste of what elections were really about on July 30, 1907. This was made possible by the Philippine Bill of 1902, also known as the Cooper Act, which allowed Filipinos to elect delegates to the Philippine Assembly two years after peace and order had been established in the country. The Americans had already defeated the Philippine insurrection, and in 1906, US President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed that the country was now ripe to hold its first elections.
It was an issue-driven election unlike any other. One of the major parties, the Nacionalista Party, wanted immediate independence from the United States while the other party, the Progresista Party, campaigned for eventual independence. The Nacionalista Party won overwhelmingly, taking fifty-nine out of the total 80 seats of the National Assembly. Thus, the people, by voting for the candidates of the Nacionalista Party, chose to have independence now, and not later. Of course, it would take several years more before this aspiration of independence could be realized: the first Commonwealth was inaugurated in 1935 as a transition government preparatory to independence, then the three-year Japanese war interrupted the Philippine democratic experience under American tutelage, and on July 4, 1946, independence was finally granted by the United States.

50th Commemorative Stamp celebration of the Anniversary of the 1907 Philippine
 Assembly featuring a vignette of Sergio Osmena, the first speaker (right) and
members of the Assembly. Click link to view The History of Elections in the
Philippines, Part 1,, by the
Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
We were a small country then, with 7.5 million people based on the first-ever conducted 1903 census under Governor William Howard Taft. Today, the Philippines has a population of more than 100 million. Imagine how crude and rudimentary our electoral process was in 1907 compared to the automated elections we have now.
Before, our people voted to resolve political issues such as national independence. Today, people march to the polls under duress, threats or the influence of bribe and corruption. Now, voting seems to be just a meaningless ceremonial rite of suffrage. People today don’t vote on issues, or don’t care about issues. Similarly, the candidates don’t run on a comprehensible political party platform; there are no ideologically distinct political parties, but only coalitions around fleeting and non-perennial causes. Name recognition, association with prominent families, and entertainment or movie credentials, these are the things that matter now.
In this coming May 2013 elections, more than 33 senatorial aspirants and 133 party-list candidates are on the official ballot. Only 12 senators and 58 or 60 party-list representatives will be elected, along with provincial, city and municipal officials throughout the country. Amid all the displeasure and criticism of the election technology chosen by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), it appears that the aforesaid technology is inadequate to allay fears of massive cheating and a potential unfair election outcome.
The Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines that will be used in the coming May 2013 synchronized national and local elections are under fire from the Automated Election System (AES) Watch which has questioned the readiness of the automated polls system.
Based on the experience with the same technology adopted by Comelec during the last 2010 elections, AES pointed out that many problems and issues remain unresolved such as ballot rejections, transmission failures, inaccuracy of the vote count, election returns and certificates of canvass not digitally signed as required by law, among others. Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr., however, is undeterred and confident that the automated system will work. Boasting that the PCOS machines cannot be manipulated, Brillantes is even offering a reward to anyone who can hack into the PCOS machines that will be used in the May elections.
As established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the will of the people expressed through periodic and genuine elections shall be the basis of government authority. Elections are at the heart of the democratic process. But to realize the democratic potential of elections, they must be honest and fair, genuinely transparent, and on a level playing field. The irony, however, is that most election events are conceived and held outside their broader political context. Instead of being the democratic solution, oftentimes, elections are as much a part of the political problem.
Philippine elections are a case in point. After the campaign for independence from American colonial rule, elections were simply occasions to change political leaders through some revolving door, as in the case of the presidency. Ferdinand Marcos was the first president to be re-elected, breaking convention and tradition, although by all accounts, his re-election only happened because he manipulated the election results. When he declared martial law, elections became a farce, and like any other despot, Marcos used elections as a veneer of democratic legitimacy. With the downfall of Marcos in 1986, Corazon Aquino restored the old convention of electing presidents for one single term, even if Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to circumvent the historical practice but failed.
The only genuine political issue that was presented upon the Filipino electorate was immediate independence from the United States as soon as the colonial rulers decided it was time to experiment with democracy in the Philippines. But after the establishment of the first Commonwealth, the only option left for Filipinos was to vote for their president based on persona, not the ideology or party platform. Manuel Quezon was elected first president because he was able to project himself as the one responsible for getting the independence the Filipinos wanted. Sergio Osmena succeeded to the presidency when Quezon died while Manuel Roxas was elected president in 1946 when independence was finally granted by the U.S. Congress because Osmena at that time was too old and sickly to hold on to the presidency. The rest of the next presidential successors were elected not on the strength of a political platform but merely on how well the candidate framed accusations of graft and corruption against the incumbent or his political opponents. Henceforth, every presidential candidate would be running on the mantra of eliminating graft and corruption, with President Noynoy Aquino’s “matuwid na daan” being the most recent version of this national fixation against government corruption.
The election of senators and members of Congress is largely a popularity contest. People really don’t care except who ends up number one in the senatorial contest. Since senators are elected nationally, name recognition and fame are important. An offspring or descendant of a prominent family, particularly from a political dynasty, virtually has clinched a spot in the elections. Fame from acting in movies or in sports makes the candidates appear bigger than life, so the lack of political experience is not a liability for as long as one is a marquee candidate or married to a famous movie celebrity.
Thus, all this talk about Comelec’s election technology being inadequate to count the people’s votes is nothing but a convenient diversion from the genuine issues that really matter. An honest public discussion of the real political issues is sorely lacking, such as widespread poverty despite the government’s claim of growing economic prosperity, dependency on export of cheap labour, continuing violations of human rights, disappearances and extra-judicial executions, or the entrenchment of political dynasties in power.
Yet, the Comelec and its critics keep on missing the point: does modern technology in counting the votes make us a better nation than in 1907? Or are we really that fully independent from the United States considering that their powerful navy and special military forces can go in and out of our territories as if our waters and lands still belong to them? Or why would Filipino expatriates in the US easily jump into the South China Sea dispute to rally behind the current government’s claim over Spratlys, but remain silent on the Sultan of Sulu’s historical claim for ownership of Sabah? Aren’t these also relevant issues the people would like to hear from the candidates?
We often blame our political system for the personalities that run it. But this is both unfair and misleading since politicians are morally little different from anyone else. Perhaps, we should not lay too much blame on the individuals, but on the system in which they operate.
The self-evident truth is that our political salvation lies not in more elections or in modernizing the technology of counting the votes. Elections are necessary to establish democratic governance and the legitimacy of government, but we don’t need sham elections as frequent as we do just to elect clowns in government and in Congress. If elections have limitations, then what is the alternative?
There must be some viable alternatives for the people to assure that we have a flourishing participatory democracy. As a matter of fact, the present Constitution of the Philippines allows actual rule of the people, instead of simply relying on elected representatives. The 1987 Constitution allows the holding of a people’s initiative to enact legislative reforms by referendum or plebiscite. In 1989, Congress has passed Republic Act No. 6735, “The Initiative and Referendum Act,” which empowers the people to directly propose amendments to the Constitution, and to enact laws, ordinances or resolutions, through a system of initiative and referendum.
The system of initiative and referendum has been a popular tool in advanced democracies in enabling the people to directly enact legislation, especially on issues that are quite urgent but unpopular and controversial, or issues some may find radical in nature. Several states in the United States, for example, have passed, through their respective referenda, laws allowing same-sex marriage and the use of marijuana. Plebiscites are another form of alternative political method of expressing the voters’ will on matters that are vital to them and to the nation. So far, the Comelec has held plebiscites only for the purpose of ratifying the creation of new barangays and conversion of municipalities into cities.
Voter turnout during national elections in the Philippines from 1946 onwards.
Photo by wikipedia. Click link to view The History of Elections in the
 Philippines, Part 2,
by the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
The democratic provisions of the Philippine Constitution will remain nominal and aspirational at best if the Filipino people do not dare challenge Congress and the Comelec to enforce them. This is the only way we can save our democracy without resorting to unnecessary elections, to allow the people to exercise their constitutional right to directly enact legislative reforms rather than wait for their elected representatives to act.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sequencing the Filipino genome

An article published recently in Philippine-based newspapers caught my attention, and it has something to do with the search for the Filipino genome. Mankind’s fascination with the complete human genome has become more intense as our genetic code starts to unravel the mysteries of the origin of life.
Dr. Michael Purugganan, a genome expert and dean of science at New York University (NYU), in a January interview said that “a systematic analysis of the genome of Filipinos will allow us to see what genetic diseases we might have, which might help doctors.” This is a statement compatible to what scientists and other enthusiastic proponents of the Human Genome Project (HGP) have generally claimed the study has achieved.
HGP was started in 1989, a complex multidisciplinary scientific enterprise directed at mapping and sequencing all of the human DNA, and determining aspects of its function After the rough draft of the study was presented in 2000, former US President Bill Clinton announced that “mapping the human genome would lead to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.” Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), who led the HGP and now director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), echoed the same promise after HGP was completed in 2003, when he said the project would lead to a “complete transformation in therapeutic medicine.”
Brave new world of genomics. Photo courtesy of WestJMed 2001.
Click link to
view The Human Genome Project, 3D Animation.
But to go beyond what human genome sequencing can accomplish is a bit disturbing to say the least, not to mention various bioethical concerns that it raises to the surface. Take for example Dr. Purugganan’s statement that “just as important is that it (human genome) allows us to see who we are, to tell the story of who we are. That’s a very powerful idea, that we as Filipinos can go to our DNA and see who we are and what makes us different.”
In addition to foretelling disease and its cure, it is almost akin to saying that our genome can give us insights on why we behave in a particular way, or why we took upon certain cultural habits like the predisposition to sing or dance. Or that it could explain to us certain philosophical conundrums like free will, for instance.
It is here where an almost blind adherence to the power and potential of genome studies becomes problematic, to the extent that their conclusions or inferences could be seen as culturally insensitive, and perhaps, even racist. Not to mention that some researchers are now impeaching the much-ballyhooed achievements of the human genome project, that the project amounts to a sell-out and a financial and scientific debacle encouraging genetic discrimination and eugenics. HGP critics are similarly saying that any cures resulting from the project are still years away from realization if they can be realized at all.
My knowledge of science is very rudimentary so I will not second-guess the claims of scientists on what the human genome can accomplish in terms of its usefulness in diagnosing diseases and finding therapeutic cure. Besides, for more than ten years of research and continuing studies, without doubt HGP has trail blazed a brave new world of medicine.
However, it is in the area outside of the medical field that genomic studies or the use of genetic findings might expose the limits of the human genome. Being able to answer the question, which Dr. Purugganan has also struggled with by himself, what being a Filipino means genetically appears to have only a heuristic significance. So, in answer to the question, Dr. Purugganan is probably right to suggest that “genetically we’re mixtures of Taiwanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Arab, Spanish, probably some American and British. It’s just different degrees.” Beyond that, any further extrapolation could be purely speculative and does not conform to the original purpose of studying the human genome.
There are inherent risks in juxtaposing conclusions from one field of study, no matter the scientific rigour and exactitude employed, on other issues that are self-evidently unrelated save that they concern the humanity in all of us. A foremost example is the presupposed connection between genetics and individual intelligence which the Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould so ably deconstructed in his 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man.
The human genome. Photo courtesy of WestJMed.According to its critics, there
is no certainty that genetic knowledge will give rise to genetic therapies. Click
link to view Human Genome
Project - Ethical, Legal & Social Implications
Another example is the claim made by some economists that a right amount of genetic diversity is necessary in order to buoy up a country’s economy, a good example of which is the United States. In other words, at the heart of this new claim is that a country’s genetic diversity can predict the success of its economy. Such claim suggests that inversely a country’s poverty could be the result of its citizen’s genetic make-up, which borders on genetic determinism, and even racism. This debate is throwing cautionary wind to a new field that blends genetics with economics, sometimes called genoeconomics. But isn’t this not unlike the old debate about eugenics that caught fire in the early decades of the 20th century? At that time, many countries practised eugenics by promoting genetic screening, marriage restrictions, racial segregation and segregation of the mentally ill, compulsory sterilization, forced abortions, and genocide.
The concept of an ideal level of genetic variation, especially one that is engineered to foster economic growth, is as frightening as the indefensible practices of ethnic cleansing, eugenics or genocide. This is a clear example of misuse of data, according to some concerned geneticists who have debunked genetic diversity as being independent from human migration and shared history. “Such haphazard methods and erroneous assumptions of statistical independence could equally find a genetic cause for the use of chopsticks,” these geneticists wrote.
In response to their critics, the genoeconomists argued that they are simply using genetic diversity as a proxy for immeasurable cultural, historical and biological factors that influence economies. If that is the case, then, it is perhaps not really genetic diversity itself that is responsible for its correlation with economic development, but a lot of it could be attributed to culture.
Another much-criticized undertaking is the ambitious Human Genome Diversity Project proposed by Stanford professor Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. This project attempts to gather further genetic data from populations around the world but Dr. Sforza was accused of "cultural insensitivity, neocolonialism, and biopiracy."
Biopiracy, which is a form of bioprospecting, occurs where indigenous knowledge of nature is used by others for profit without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the indigenous people who originated them. For example, drawing on indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants which is later patented by medical companies without recognizing that the knowledge is not new or invented by the patenter, and thus deprives the indigenous community to their rights to commercial exploitation that they themselves had developed.
In 2000, the US corporation RiceTec attempted to patent certain hybrids of basmati rice and semi-dwarf long-grain rice until the Indian government intervened and several claims of the patent were invalidated. The European Commission has also agreed to protect basmati rice under its regulations pertaining to geographical indications.
This raises a relevant question about Dr. Purugganan’s work on rice genome studies with the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). IRRI has been instrumental in developing new rice varieties through the use of rice genetic diversity. Yet, why does the Philippines, where IRRI’s research and development work takes place, continue to suffer chronic rice shortage year after year that we have to import rice from other countries? Who has the patent for our miracle rice and benefitting from it?
We could only hope that Dr. Purugganan, who heads NYU laboratories in New York and Abu Dhabi primarily studying the evolution of plant genomes, could focus more on improving affordable rice varieties for local consumption instead of asking what it means to be a native Filipino. At least, this will put his talent to practical use and engender agricultural production for Filipino consumption, instead of merely allowing private corporations to rake their profits up for food production derived from genetically-modified crops.
There is no doubt genetics will someday fully result in the decoding of the genome to solve humanity’s health problems by using genetic markers that will provide useful information for common diseases. But whether genetics or sequencing the Filipino human genome in particular can help us better appreciate our ancestry, history and culture as a people, is something that remains to be seen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Engage in politics, not frivolities

Four months from now, the Filipino community in Toronto will be abuzz again with festivals commemorating Philippine Independence Day. Filipinos will come out in droves to join the parades of beauties and beasts, the latter being roasted pigs or lechons. In addition to parades, there will also be singing and dancing contests, picnics in the parks, and trade shows. At least three major community organizations, just in the city of Toronto alone, will hold separate Independence Day celebrations, as if a common observance is inadequate to embody the collective aspiration of the Filipino people to be free from colonial rule.
Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) presents the winners of the Filipino Singing Idol contest
 during the Philippine Independence Day celebrations at Toronto City Hall. Click link
to view, "Pinoy Fiesta Toronto."

If only this huge annual coming-out event by Filipinos in the biggest Canadian city could be an accurate gauge of our participation in civic, community and political events, then we could say that Filipinos in Canada, or at least in the city of Toronto, constitute a powerful political force to reckon with. That’s why these Independence Day festivals are attended by Canadian politicians, federal, provincial and local, those in office, those running in the next election, and political wannabes. And one could also probably say that Filipinos, by their sheer number of close to 250,00o in the metropolitan area, are well represented in the city and provincial governments.
The sad truth, however, is either we are disinterested in politics or our divisive nature has failed us miserably to send at least one Filipino in Toronto’s city council or in Ontario’s provincial parliament. But this is not the case in the West where we have elected Filipinos in parliaments in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. Manitoba has also sent to the federal Parliament the first and only Filipino Member of the House of Commons.
But wait; let’s not be too quick to put down Filipinos in Toronto. We just have a Filipino senator in Canada’s Parliament, even if he wasn’t elected. Responding to an interview hours after his appointment was announced, the new senator said: “I was completely shocked when they told me about the appointment. I couldn’t believe that this was happening.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose Tobias “Jun” Enverga as one of the senators to represent the province of Ontario, albeit without a real and a natural constituency. Before this appointment, the newly-minted senator was elected a school trustee in his first attempt to run for office, though with no memorable record to speak of. Not even his political stand or opinion on the issues of the day is known to many, other than being an active supporter of the ruling Conservative Party.
Of course, Mr. Enverga’s charitable works speak volumes for him in the community. He was a former president of Philippine Independence Day Celebration (PIDC), the supposed umbrella organization for all festivals commemorating Philippine independence in Toronto, and founder and adviser to Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF), a rival organization that also holds similar Independence Day festivities. The new senator is on the record saying: “I always advocate for charity wherever I go. So for every organization I join, I make sure they have a cause to build on–not just social and cultural, they should also be a charity. It’s important because we’re so blessed here in Canada and we should share all the time–have fun and share.”

Senator Tobias "Jun" Enverga, only Filipino senator in Canada's Parliament.
Click link to view interview
of Mr. Enverga after his election as school trustee, "A Voice for Toronto's Visible
Minorities," by FilipinoWebChannel.
Now, who’s to question the motives of the Prime Minister if that singular devotion to charitable causes is not enough to qualify one to become a senator?
Canada’s Senate has been plagued with problems in the past and is currently under siege from the opposition parties and the public in general. Its relevance to Canada’s democratic process is once again under scrutiny with the most recent expulsion from the Conservative caucus of Senator Patrick Brazeau who was charged with domestic assault and for bringing to the Senate a string of negative news, from controversial expense claims to mental incompetence. Another senator from Prince Edward Island, former television journalist Mike Duffy, is also on the hot seat for reportedly claiming living allowances for senators from out-of-province, even though he apparently lives in the Ottawa-area where he also votes. Both senators were appointed by Mr. Harper.
The Canadian Senate is a house in great disarray. Poll surveys have indicated that majority of Canadians would rather want the Senate be abolished or senators be elected instead of allowing the Prime Minister to choose and appoint them, usually on the basis of political patronage.
Senator Patrick Brazeau was removed from caucus by the Conservative Party
after his arrest in Gatineau, QC. Photo by Chriss Wattie/Reuters.
It’s therefore disturbing to hear a group of Filipinos in Toronto who feel offended by those who criticize the appointment of Mr. Enverga to the Senate, as if being a senator in Canada is comparable to an elected senator in the United States or Philippines. They claim the appointment is a boost to the image of the Filipino in Canada. To put down Mr. Enverga, they said, “demeans and ridicules individual Filipino achievers and sets back community-building efforts and is not in the best interests of the Filipino community in Canada.”
In announcing the appointment of Senator Enverga, Prime Minister Harper highlighted Mr. Enverga’s “broad range of experience and dedication” to the Filipino community, which he said will further strengthen the Senate and benefit the entire country. Didn’t Mr. Enverga say he was an advocate of charitable work? Beyond raising funds for the benefit of a medical mission in his home province of Quezon in the Philippines, Mr. Enverga has not done anything significant, for example, in helping newly-landed Filipinos resettle and find employment opportunities, or reducing gang violence among Filipino youth or advocating for better working conditions for Filipino domestic caregivers or access to the professions by trained Filipino graduates. He is clueless on significant political and social issues, and has been conspicuously absent in efforts by some Filipino groups in a broad range of social advocacy issues in the province. His only foray in politics was his election as a school trustee two years ago, but even in this position, Mr. Enverga did not leave any lasting imprint of his contribution.
There is perhaps something Mr. Enverga can do for the Filipino community at this crucial time of discord among Filipinos in Toronto. Admittedly, he and his wife were partly responsible for the issues that currently divide the community. He cannot deny this because he founded PCCF, a rival organization to PIDC, and his wife, also an officer of this new organization, is so enamoured with managing beauty contests that also raise funds and have been relentlessly questioned by the local media for lack of financial transparency. Mr. Enverga could be greatly instrumental in bringing our folks together with his stature alone as a Canadian senator and a distinguished leader in the community. At the same time, this could be a litmus test of his leadership ability which will assist him well in the Senate where he would be serving until he reaches 75.
But Filipinos in the Metropolitan Toronto area cannot be smug and content that we have Mr. Enverga in the Canadian Senate. We need to elect Filipinos to our local councils and to the provincial or federal Parliament if we must politically empower our community as a whole. Empowerment is not a dangerous word that should scare some of our so-called geriatric community leaders. I heard one community leader say that she doesn’t want “activists” because they are rabble-rousers, perhaps harkening to those days in her youth when student activists in the Philippines had to battle armed riot police.
To achieve political empowerment, our community organizations and their leaders must refocus their objectives and priorities, and redefine their political engagement by helping identify and encourage those that have talents for leadership who can be tapped for potential political runs. They won’t find these talents through the usual singing idol contests which the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) sponsors every year or the beauty pageants that PIDC or PCCF organizes to select beauty queens from among our young women so they can parade and showcase them during Independence Day celebrations. Above all, our older so-called leaders perhaps need to step down and let the younger crop of leaders lead us to the future.
A recent survey of Canadians’ satisfaction with our democratic process yielded an all-time low of 55%. Only 27% of Canadians think Ottawa deals with the issues they care about satisfactorily. Overall, statistics show that Canadians are getting disengaged from politics, in ways similar to the trend in the United States.
We usually blame politicians for how we feel towards our government. But we can’t keep on complaining and making it a national pastime. If we‘re not happy with the way our government works and responds to our problems, then let’s not elect those representatives and leaders we believe are responsible for the sad state of our democracy.
The same can be said of our community. Most of the time we blame our division, our lack of unity, for not being able to elect one Filipino in city council or in parliament. It’s about time to change this attitude. We cannot continue to disparage our community or our government if we are not engaged and doing our part. The engagement of citizens in public affairs is an indispensable condition of our democratic process.
We should encourage our young people to join the public life. Their political engagement, more than anything else, will advance our image as a community here in Canada and even back home. Let’s not simply be content with basking in the glory of those who are given the plum job or appointment for loyalty to one’s political party. A sign of political maturity among our people is when we start to encourage our young to skip the frivolous in favour of substance. Beauty and the beast pageants will bind us to petty squabbles and distract us from aiming for a deeper involvement in the political arena and the issues that matter: jobs, better work conditions, zero discrimination in the workplace, access to higher education, and work opportunities for our youth.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A community struggles for civility

The Filipino community in Toronto is being torn apart by a nasty spat between a long-standing and established community newspaper, on one hand, and a group of so-called concerned members of the community, on the other. It is sharply dividing the community and the growing rift does not reflect well on the Filipino’s unwarlike image.
It all begun when Ms. Rosemer Enverga was grilled by Ms. Tess Cusipag, editor of Balita during an open forum on why there were no audited financial statements of Ms. Enverga’s running of beauty pageants when she was still an officer with the Philippine Independence Day Celebration (PIDC). Ms. Cusipag, who also runs a similar beauty pageant called Miss Manila but not as big as the ones ran by Ms. Enverga, has claimed that her pageant earns money every year it’s held. Ms. Enverga is the wife of recently appointed Filipino senator in Canada’s Parliament, Mr. Tobias “Jun” Enverga, who was at one-time the president of PIDC.
Filipino-Canadian Senator Tobias "Jun" Enverga and his wife, Rosemer, meet
with Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim when they visited the Philippines. Click link to view "Senator Enverga's
Message to the Filipino community."
But the squabble could really have started even much earlier when Mr. Enverga, not yet a senator at that time, his wife and their group organized the Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF) that rivalled and duplicated the activities of PIDC. Whereas before, PIDC was the umbrella Filipino organization in Toronto responsible for holding all festivals related to the commemoration of Philippine Independence Day, PCCF has replicated the same activities and been fighting for the same advertisers and sponsors that supported PIDC.
Here are some relevant questions to ponder, though. Would Mr. Enverga encourage the formation of PCCF if he had foreseen his appointment to the Senate by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper? Or, have these so-called community leaders realized early on that their fascination with senseless beauty pageants would somehow become the spark-plug of this present crisis in the community? So, should blame be assigned on the Filipino’s obsession with the trivial?
However petty the nature of this bickering, the parties involved have raised the conflict to a point that is now breaking up the community. Balita, the community newspaper formerly edited by Filipino journalist Ruben Cusipag, husband of the present editor, maintains that the genuine issue in the ongoing schism in the community is the question of transparency and accountability which the Envergas’ failed to adequately respond to. Romeo Marquez, Balita’s associate editor, further alleges that the rest of the disagreement between the two groups such as the petition started by Mr. Oswald Magno is only a smokescreen to divert the attention from the Envergas’ fixation with power.
For its part, the other group argues that Balita has abused its newspaper’s stature by harassing and ridiculing certain personalities in the community, not just the Envergas but also Mr. Magno, Miss Lilac Cana, and now, Ms. Livvy Camacho. The group has asked the Philippine Press Club of Ontario (PPCO) to intervene by way of sanctioning Balita’s behaviour as a contravention of its Code of Ethics. The choice of the PPCO as an arbiter is rather unfortunate since it was never intended to make determinations contrary to the exercise of free press, besides the fact that it is a mere social club.
Short of litigating in court the defamatory damages that both sides have unknowingly or apparently hurled at each other, one way to resolve the conflict is to bring both groups together in a community town hall meeting where they can discuss their differences in a friendly and civil manner. But obviously this appears not a viable option anymore, because so much hurt and pain have already be been cast by both sides. Or perhaps, egos have been so bruised that the concerned parties have obliterated from their cultural background the natural inclination of Filipinos to sit down and settle family disagreements. Maybe, too much obsession with the adversarial process has shaken our Filipino cultural trait of promoting amity and harmony among ourselves.
One thing I personally know is this. In my more than 25 years in Toronto, long before Romeo Marquez descended upon the city to peddle his journalistic skills, Balita under Ruben Cusipag has never been at the centre of a community controversy, much less as one of the parties involved. Ruben understood what investigative journalism is. That it is not enough to expose the bad apples in the community, but a newspaper has the obligation to present news stories to help shape perceptions of the future of our community. So to Ruben, it is equally just as important to write stories that uncover the roots of injustice and unfairness in our society as a whole.
Former Balita Editor Ruben Cusipag and his wife, Tess, who now runs and edits
the iconic Filipino community newspaper in Toronto. Click link to view "The
Rouge, the Bad & the Wiggly in the Filipino Community" by Romeo Marquez,
If Balita today were still in the able hands of Ruben Cusipag, this ongoing row will never have escalated into a senseless shouting match that uses so much inflammatory and hateful language. Ruben had given up the day-to-day running of Balita to his wife Tess after a serious car accident almost took his life. We became close friends after he covered many of my court hearings that involved Filipino children who were taken away from the custody of their parents. As I knew him then and now, he would have continued to expose shenanigans in the community or issues that were inimical to the best interests of the Filipino community, but in a fashion that would never sow discord or break up our people. He knew when to be doggedly critical and pursue an exposé to its rightful conclusion, but at the same time to be keenly aware when to mediate disputes before they spread like wildfire.
Early in my law practice, Tess Cusipag had invited me to sit as a judge in her Miss Manila beauty pageant. When you’re a lawyer or a doctor, you get invited to these fancy occasions. Normally, I would not accept any such invitation but as a courtesy to her husband Ruben I agreed. Ruben told me it was all right as the contestants would not be allowed to parade themselves in swim suits and even told Tess he would never support beauty pageants because that would objectify the contestants. In fairness to Tess, she kept her promise to Ruben and her Miss Manila beauty pageant has been a successful activity every year although I still can’t find its relevance to our cultural empowerment.
This current community spat started with Tess Cusipag’s zealousness to compel Ms. Enverga to be accountable and transparent with her own beauty pageants, consistent with Balita’s objective to report any irregular activity in the community so the people may know. It is far-fetched to suggest that Tess and Balita wanted to reverse the appointment of Mr. Jun Enverga to the Senate. Mr. Enverga was not a senator yet at that time and no one knew—including himself—which he admitted in a press interview, that he would be appointed.
But the arrival of Romeo Marquez, Tess Balita’s Associate Editor and a former San Diego journalist, has added fuel in the already-raging controversy, particularly with the kind of incendiary language he employs in his articles. It is the same modus operandi that Marquez followed in his newspapering stint in the US that he is now replicating here in Toronto. The trail of controversies he has left behind—his quarrels with various Filipinos, community leaders or otherwise, and videos on YouTube—speaks for the kind of journalism that Balita is currently espousing.
In its latest issue, Balita published an article written by Carlos Padilla, a board member of the Kalayaan Cultural Community Center (KCCC) in Mississauga, who claimed he has asked Mr. Enverga way back in 2000 to report on fundraising events he held at KCCC. According to the article, to date, Mr. Enverga has not complied with Mr. Padilla’s request but he made a pledge he would clear up everything eventually. During a chance meeting with Mr. Enverga last April 2012, and as if he could already read the ominous handwriting on the wall, Mr. Padilla warned Mr. Enverga that his continuing failure to honour his pledge could spell trouble for him in the future.
Maybe the office of Prime Minister Harper did not fully vet Mr. Enverga’s record as a leader in the Filipino community. Perhaps, Mr. Enverga’s high profile in the community was not enough to qualify him as senator, save for his unabashed support of the Conservative Party. There are many skeletons just coming out of the closet. Mr. Enverga needs to address them if he must win and earn the respect and support of the Filipino community which he’s been proud to tell everyone is his natural constituency.
As many a statesman is apt to do, maybe Mr. Enverga could bring the folks in our community together again. There is no better and more opportune time for him than now to show his gravitas in helping heal the wounds inflicted by this raging unfortunate squabble in the community. Just because he wasn’t elected doesn’t mean he could simply watch idly and ignore his community’s disintegration right before his eyes.
As to the controversy in the community, both Balita and the group allegedly led by Oswald Magno should take a break and let cooler heads prevail. As a newspaper, Balita should understand that it is the freedom of the press that makes it a powerful and significant pillar in the community. It should not take this freedom and power lightly— that it can outrightly censure, silence or even bully its critics anytime it’s not happy with complaints from groups in the community about their news reporting.
By the same token, disgruntled or unhappy groups in the community, just because they also have the right to free speech, cannot dictate how newspapers should write their stories. It is the free market of ideas that makes our society vibrant, but how these ideas can be expressed should not be subject to the whims and caprices of overzealous newspapers or the short fuses of some groups unwilling to take criticism if their favourite idol in the nation’s Senate is subjected to the probing eye of the community.
As Goethe once said, “there is a courtesy of the heart,” and out of it arises the purest courtesy in outward behaviour. While conflict is natural to the human condition, it behooves us to bear in mind the pleas for civility as a means of at least managing it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Misguided Filipino patriotism and the new American thrust in the Pacific

Last week, I happened by chance to read two articles on the Internet written by two Filipinos about the Tubbataha Reef incident involving a wayward US navy ship and the claim of the Philippine government for ownership of certain islands and rocks in the South China Sea, namely the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal.
What prompted me to read the said articles was the faint hope that I would be reading something interesting, intelligent and informative, perhaps, a new insight on the ongoing South China Sea dispute between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. This nearly-half-a-century dispute had caught my interest way back when I was enrolled in a course in international law in Toronto.

On January 17, 2013, the USS Guardian ran aground on Tubataha Reefs in the
Sulu Sea, causing significant damage to the marine environment.
One article was written by Perry Diaz, a Filipino-American based in the US while the other by Ducky Paredes, a Filipino columnist of Malaya, a Manila-based newspaper, and both articles appeared in the former’s Global BALITA website. To my dismay, I found both writers without any clue about the legal arguments in the dispute, both being non-lawyers and who were simply expressing their opinions out of raw emotions of love of country and headstrong notion of nationalism. Not that there’s anything wrong in expressing their individual points of view, but the aforementioned articles smack of pretence of knowing what the complex legal issues are.
What is being disputed in the South China Sea is not necessarily law of the sea issues as many have been led to believe, thus, the public misconception that all that matters here is where a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) lies, or what essentially covers the length and breadth of the continental shelf. Or which country is closest in distance to the disputed territories, the nearest having the most logical putative claim.
The South China Sea. Map courtesy of wikipedia. Click link to view "Standoff at
Scarborough Shoal" by AlJazeera,
The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is by itself a very complicated legal document that codifies maritime jurisdictional principles which member countries must adhere to. But international legal experts are in unanimous agreement that UNCLOS does not confer a legal title of sovereignty over territories in the oceans. The issue of sovereignty is to be determined by international case law, past decisions, and precedents.
I am not going to regurgitate my personal views on the South China Sea dispute for I have already expressed them in previous blogs. My only concern is the impudent tendency for others like Messrs. Diaz and Paredes to lose objectivity in their arguments and let their emotions rule instead of reason, and for them to invent a version of the facts that is farthest from the truth.
In the first article, “A Tale of Two Reefs,” Perry Diaz peddles the falsehood that the Philippine government decided to bring the dispute to UN arbitration because it is unable to defend its territories and recover those already lost to China’s aggressive de facto occupation. If you believe Mr. Diaz, you would imagine Chinese troops having landed on Philippine soil, raised the Chinese flag, and occupied and exercised control over some of its territories. Everyone knows this is not true, yet if you tell Mr. Diaz that what he’s saying is inaccurate, he will call you a traitor (a Makapili, to use his words) and pro-Chinese. Exactly what he told me when I sent my comments to his article, even suggesting that I look foolish because of my arguments, which perhaps was only the first time he has ever heard of contrary opinions to his writings on the web. Mr. Diaz has the temerity to even suggest that perhaps I didn’t know where the Spratly archipelago is, in addition to belittling my knowledge of the facts and the law about the ongoing dispute.
When it comes to the USS Guardian, an errant minesweeper that ran aground and damaged the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, Mr. Diaz did not hesitate to laud the efforts of the US Navy to repair the damage and its willingness to pay the fine for unauthorized entry. The Tubbataha Reef is a protected marine habitat and considered a World Heritage Park by UNESCO since 1993. It is home to more than 1,000 endangered coral and fish species and marine vessels are prohibited from entering the area.
Explore the beauty of one of the world's natural wonders by visiting the Tubbataha
Reefs Natural at, "The Spell of Tubbataha."
Mr. Diaz even thumbed down President Noynoy Aquino’s initial reaction to the incident while attending a conference in Davos, Switzerland, which was obviously made for its sound bite that the United States government should comply with Philippine laws. That the wayward US warship violated the country’s ecological laws, so the US government must pay for damages.
Mr. Diaz also chastised some progressive groups in the Philippines, which he brands as “leftist,” for quickly condemning the United States for the incident as a violation of Philippine sovereignty and demanding a review of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the US and the Philippines. Yet these groups, Diaz said, have been astonishingly quiet about China’s aggression against the Philippines. On his part, President Aquino had toned down his earlier pronouncement and clarified that the US warship was in Philippine waters not as part of military exercises between the two countries under the VFA. Of course, this was contrary to reports that the USS Guardian had just come from Subic and was on its way to conduct patrol operations near Palawan where US warships often sail within Philippine territory.
Interestingly, Mr. Diaz would ask “What would they [the leftist groups] do if one day they wake up to see an armada of Chinese warships in the Sulu Sea on their way to Puerto Princesa?” I thought Mr. Diaz already admitted earlier that the Philippines was helpless in defending its territory and recovering those it already lost to China, that it had to ask the United Nations to intervene.
In his article “The enemy within,” Ducky Paredes would repeat the errors of Mr. Diaz in concocting lies in order to stir up anger and rage against those who happen to disagree with their opinions. Mr. Paredes would call these Filipinos as the fifth column of the Chinese Army.
Mr. Paredes wrote: “I really do not mind any Pinoy demonstrating against the Americans. If that makes them feel good about themselves, they should just go ahead, But we are in a dangerous situation today. China looks very much like it is preparing for war and, if it is, we must be wary of our local Communists who would probably prefer their comrades taking over this country from the Filipinos….China has disputes with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and us. Without the US, the People’s Republic could take us all over—in the Philippines, with the help of its local band of gangsters—the New People’s Army. Wake up, Philippines!”
This is pure and simple anti-communist hysteria, the kind of dirty propaganda waged by the government after the Japanese occupation of the Philippines up to the time of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. It didn’t work then; it will never work now. When truth can be manufactured, it is not difficult to discern the real truth from falsehood.
According to some reports, the USS Guardian ignored the warnings over the radio of the Tubbataha Park Rangers. When the ship ran aground, American soldiers trained their high-powered weapons at the rangers who approached the US warship and barred them from coming near the ship or boarding it.
The Tubbataha Reef incident is not the first time US warships have violated Philippine waters. In fact, today US warships roam freely all over the country under the VFA to conduct military exercises and patrol operations. To Messrs. Diaz and Paredes, this is perfectly all right because the US ships are on Philippine waters to protect us from Chinese aggression.
Military confrontations have already flared up between China and Vietnam, and between the Philippines and China, because of the South China Sea dispute. If such provoked skirmishes continue, they could possibly trigger a regional war, or even a war on a global scale. While ASEAN countries have been trying to achieve a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute, the United States, however, has declared a foreign policy pivot which it called the “American Pacific Century,” boosting American military presence in the Philippines, Australia and the South China Sea region.
To most observers, the growing military presence of the US in the South China Sea is part of America’s policy of containment to encircle China which would set limits on China’s growth as an economic, political and military power. China has been reacting to the US military build-up by becoming more aggressive in its claims over the disputed areas in the South China Sea, thus increasing the possibility of future hostilities between the countries in the region.
The Philippine government, however, is being duplicitous in making its sovereignty claims over territories in the South China Sea and denouncing China’s aggressive tactics while allowing US military intervention and giving the United States Navy carte blanche to use the Philippines as the base for its anti-China operations. Under the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, President Noynoy Aquino has allowed the US to regularly dock its warships, station and operate its surveillance drones, set up its communications infrastructure, carry out intelligence and combat operations, support and participate in counter-guerrilla warfare—all in outright violation and contempt of Philippine sovereignty.
For their part, Messrs. Diaz and Paredes have both shown their willingness to fully embrace American intervention in the South China Sea as if only the United States has the wherewithal to make peace in the region. Aren’t we hearing from the US declaration of the “American Pacific Century” the echoes of the not-too-distant past of America’s Manifest Destiny that made us the first colony of the United States? Are we sliding backwards to assimilate another attempt by America to re-colonize us?
What the Philippines should do is to continue building solidarity with ASEAN countries to advance a regime of neutrality and demilitarization in the whole region and the pullout of all US troops from the Philippines, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and in the entire Asia-Pacific. Not to kowtow with the most powerful country in the world in an effort to contain the rise of another superpower, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but one that could rival its hegemony in the world today.