Saturday, March 23, 2013

No sympathy for the poor

In the Philippines, a country so full of promise but has not really taken off to the next stage, most Filipino families consider their children’s college education as a viable option out of poverty. The paradox is you have to be well-off to get a college education today in the Philippines.
Despite the economic downturn, people continue to remain optimistic that a college degree is the key to a good job. It is the contemporary belief that we educate ourselves to get a job; that education could determine one’s economic destiny.
In an interview after his daughter Kristel Tejada, a first year Behavioural Sciences student at the University of the Philippines (Manila), committed suicide for failing to pay her school tuition, Christopher Tejada repeatedly stressed that it was his daughter’s hope and dream to finish college so she could lift the family out of the claws of poverty. The Tejadas, most particularly Kristel, saw education as a means to a better life, a tool to rewrite their story. Poor families share with the better-off and the rich this aspiration for upward mobility through education. This is true anywhere in the world, whether in rich or poor societies.
In an outpouring of support, students from the University of the Philippines join
a vigil for Kristel Tejada. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Star. Click image to
view, Kristel Tejada laid to rest.
Education is a right proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, it shall be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages, and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
But here comes an uninformed and somewhat skewed opinion from Jose Montelibano who writes a column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer where he challenges the basis for subsidizing public education (See Subsidized scholarship, he says, is “an extension of an old tradition when benefactors choose to support the most deserving who cannot afford a college education. This has less to do with education and more about rewarding talent, or an act of charity.”
Obviously, Montelibano doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Education has never been, in our colonial past or present, a charitable act. When the state provides funding to a public higher institution of learning like the University of the Philippines (UP), it is not doling charity to its students, but it is performing a fundamental obligation to make education accessible to its citizens. There is a big difference between charity and obligation which Montelibano apparently doesn’t seem to understand.
While the state recognizes education as a right, it must also be aware that higher education cannot be for everyone. The self-evident truth is that higher education also discriminates. Education will help everyone to improve their lot, this is almost a universal truth. But not everyone can enter university or college because there are standards that must be met. There are other ways the rest of society who are not accepted to institutions of higher learning can have real opportunities for improving their lives. Not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an accountant or a nurse. In the same way as not everyone can have the skills and aptitude of a mechanic, an electrician, a carpenter, or a plumber.
Montelibano writes: “Government scholars, though, must have a different criteria [sic], a standard that demands service to the people ahead of service to the self or family. The state must help those who are determined to help the common good, who are committed to become models of good citizens.”
However, this is not the purpose for the establishment of the University of the Philippines.
The expectation is noble and dignified that when they graduate, Iskolars ng Bayan will reciprocate the government for its assistance. But imposing it as a student’s contractual obligation is not a fair quid pro quo when it is the government’s fundamental responsibility to make education accessible. Service to the people is a loose concept that could include students joining protest rallies against the government for its anti-poor policies, for its incompetence in governance, or against a do-nothing Congress, or demanding minimum wage increases and improving working conditions.
It is the emphasis on contractual thinking based on commercial or private agreements that is rotting the core of the subsidized or socialized tuition policy of public universities such as UP.
Because the institution has adopted a policy to subsidize or socialize tuition, there is an implied authority that it can restructure and readjust tuition anytime on permissible grounds like the effect of inflation on the cost of running the university. The idea of restructuring tuition rates on the basis of inflation is essentially a commercial argument, a justification that comports with concerns for the bottom line. But it is not that simple since it is the obligation of the state to make education accessible that it must consider all other revenue options rather than conveniently impose on the students and their families the burden of equalizing cost with revenue.
The declaration of policy for the establishment of the University of the Philippines is very clear that “the State shall promote, foster, nurture and protect the right of all citizens to accessible quality education.”
Under Section 9 of its Charter, UP has a mandate to take affirmative steps to enhance the admission of disadvantaged, poor and deserving students. This should be what we must be concerned about, not Montelibano’s suggestion that state-sponsored scholars should not use their education for themselves but for the people, an arrogant idea that comes from the smugness of a privileged life.
A World Bank study has pointed to inequality in access to higher education in the Philippines as a continuing problem, together with the glaring gap between the labour requirements in the market and the quality of graduates produced by local colleges. The study also found out that although more and more students are entering college and universities over the years, the growth is concentrated on people belonging to higher-income households. To address this inequality, the Work Bank proposed that there should be more grants of scholarships and loans to deserving students.
But more access to student loans does not guarantee completion of a college degree, and finding a good paying job after graduation.
In the United States, steep hikes in student tuition and fees have increased the debt levels of both students and universities. The cost of university per student in the U.S. has risen by almost five times the rate of inflation, making it less affordable and increasing the amount of debt a student must take on. Even though student loans are often available, the idea of repaying student loan debt, with high interest rates and low job prospects, is a significant roadblock for many.
So, if availability of student loans is not a guaranteed formula in equalizing access to higher education, what can be?
Click link below to view  College Tuition: 1k to 75k per semester with graphic
showing the wide range of tuition at private and state universities in the
Philippines, courtesy of GMA News Online.
The University of the Philippines has in place what it calls a Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program, or STFAP for short. Under this policy, every UP student regardless of capacity to pay and financial need is subsidized since tuition and other fees are much less than the direct cost of their education. Furthermore, it socializes tuition through grants and subsidies for tuition, miscellaneous and laboratory fees based on ability to pay and financial need of the student.
On paper, the STFAP sounds adequate and a decent program. In practice, however, it doesn’t work.
Since everyone is subsidized, students from economically privileged families enjoy this benefit even if they don’t need the subsidy. They pay tuition that is substantially way lower if they would enrol in a private university that offers the same quality of education. For example, the average cost per semester for a course in civil engineering or computer science at UP is P20,000. In Ateneo, the cost would be between P75,000 to P80,000. Only children from well-to-do families can go to Ateneo, so the high tuition is not a financial concern. In UP, even the poorest but bright students will not cut it for a year, a situation that befell Kristel Tejada.
UP’s STFAP assigns brackets for students based on family income and other family characteristics and socio-economic indicators. These brackets are good for one year, which is unrealistic because it does not take into account the changing economic conditions of families and society as a whole like the possibility of unemployment as a result of lay-offs or economic slowdowns. Kristel Tejada’s father was laid off from his job but Kristel remained slotted in her bracket although the family has lost its declared income.
What UP should be doing is to charge wealthy students the equivalent rates prescribed by comparable private universities and use the difference as additional amounts available for subsidies to economically disadvantaged students. This, to my mind, is the right way to socialize tuition, not to apply the subsidies across the board that also benefits the wealthy. But as tuition is steadily increasing at a record-breaking pace in the last two decades, it is even feared that children from wealthy families might consider enrolling in public universities, a fact that UP’s STFAP has not considered into account. This raises the spectre of student quotas in addition to economic brackets, which could possibly displace slots for needy students, thus making the socialized tuition program even more irrelevant.
To address the crisis in higher education in the Philippines, President Noynoy Aquino has developed its government’s response called Road Map for Higher Education Reform (RMHER), which identifies three fundamental problems: lack of overall vision, deteriorating quality, and limited access. But instead of eliminating barriers to entry to college education, Aquino’s RMHER simply continues the emphasis of his predecessors (Ramos and Macapagal-Arroyo) on the eventual commercialization of higher education, its subservience to the needs of the global market, and gradual abandonment of state-funding. RMHER intends to focus on five priority areas, which include agri-fisheries, mining, electronics, services and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO).
During the term of President Fidel Ramos, the government implemented a Long-term Higher Education Development Plan (LTHEDP) which stressed cost-efficiency and global competitiveness. Ramos also signed the Higher Education Modernization Act (HEMA) allowing state universities and colleges to embark on joint business ventures with the private sector, privatize management of non-academic services and determine their own tuition and other fees. As these institutions started generating higher internal income, government funding of higher education also begun to fall.
When President Gloria Arroyo assumed the presidency, she revised the LTHEDP to make public universities and colleges self-sustaining, with the ultimate goal of abandoning state funding for higher education. President Aquino’s higher education reforms are already in the LTHEDP, and nothing in the RMHER is new. It merely reiterates past proposals which have already been enacted but rejected by students.
Aquino’s RMHER intends to socialize tuition for all state universities and colleges following the UP’s STFAP model that emphasizes cost recovery without limiting access among the poor. As mentioned here earlier, the experience of UP in socialized tuition resulted in periodic restructuring of tuition fees. Instead of widening access, the STFAP has become instrumental in excluding many indigent but deserving students, of which Kristel Tejada is the latest victim. A study of the STFAP shows that in two decades it has decreased the percent of student population enjoying free tuition, from 20 percent in 1991, to less than a percent at present.
There is a much bigger picture than Kristel Tejada’s suicide, but the young student’s death symbolizes the fast accelerating exclusion of the poor from access to higher education such as the University of the Philippines. Kristel wasn’t alone in her financial predicament, but UP and the government don’t seem to care.
If Noynoy Aquino has extended his sympathy to the Tejada family for the loss of their daughter, that, Mr. Montelibano, is a charitable act. But the president seems to have no place for charity in his heart.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A university of the people

The recent suicide of Kristel Tejada, a freshman at the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, for her inability to pay her tuition is a clear indictment against a university that has, as a whole, failed itself badly.
To any reasonable person, UP is culpable on at least two significant counts. One, on the policy level, both in strategic and administrative/procedural terms. And second, on the matter of being a public university devoted to social causes such as education for the people.
UP Manila Chancellor Manuel Agulto told a press conference on Monday, March
18, they did everything they could  to help Kristel Tejada, the 16-year-old freshman
who committed suicide reportedly over failure to pay tuition on time. Click link to view University of the
Philippines press conference  on death of Kristel Tejada.
As an administrative/procedural issue, it is surprising that UP still adheres to the impractical and useless medieval practice of disallowing students to attend classes if they have not paid their tuition fees. As if it will compel students to pay or discourage non-paying students from attending classes for which they are not welcome. Here in Canada and in the United States, or even in U.P. during our troubled days in the late ’60s, practically anybody can attend classes, but only those who are enrolled and have matriculated will earn credits for attending. For as long as you do not disrupt classes or assassinate the professor or your seatmate, I have not heard of anyone being disbarred from a classroom. In other words, the operative word must not be the non-payment of tuition, but non-granting of credit to those not enrolled or have failed to pay tuition, which makes sense. Period.
Corollary to this impractical policy of not admitting students for failure to pay tuition is the even sillier procedure of requiring students to go on a leave of absence if unable to pay their tuition. Leave of absence is usually resorted to in extenuating circumstances in order not to lose student status; otherwise a student has to apply for re-admission if his or her status is lost. Financial difficulty is not generally an acceptable reason for going on a leave of absence. This type of leave is reserved for cases like medical and compassionate grounds, e.g., student illness which may include surgery or therapy, or a close family relative is ill and requires care by the student.
A more effective way to compel students to pay on time is to penalize them with fines for late payment of fees or to withhold their final grades. This will encourage students to budget their financial resources more responsibly. Private universities adopt this common practice of imposing fines for late payments, a practice banks also impose when loan or mortgage payments are late.
But the abject failure of the university to address the strategic policy of subsidizing education for bright and intelligent but financially indigent students is as tragic and unjustifiable as Kristel’s suicide. In some schools in the United States, this concern is dealt through an affirmative action program. Here in Canada, the government heavily subsidizes tertiary education and many universities offer bursaries, scholarships and other forms of assistance, while both federal and provincial governments also offer generous loans which students pay after finding work when they graduate.
In Quebec, students are serious about the idea of free tuition as it has deep roots written in the most fundamental text of the Quebec educational system that there should be free education. The underlying narrative is about making university a fee-less service like health care. The student strikes in Montreal which started last autumn and continue until now are dubbed as the Maple Spring comparing them to the Arab Spring that toppled dictatorships in the Middle East. Quebecers are known to be more aspirational when it comes to social rights and, to them, any hike in tuition signals a weakening of government commitment.
At present, UP has what is called the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program or STFAP. In December 2006, the UP Board of Regents restructured the STFAP by increasing tuition and miscellaneous fees due to inflation and for the purpose of serving the needs of students who are most deserving of financial assistance. Obviously, this did not mitigate the financial difficulties of Kristel Tejada that she saw taking her own life as the only option for failing to pay tuition for the second semester.
Under the STFAP, UP students are assigned brackets based on their family income and other family characteristics and socio-economic indicators. According to reports, Kristel was classified under bracket D with an annual family income between P135,001 to P250,000 and was required to pay P300 per unit, or a total of P4,500 for 15 units per semester, the normal student load.
There is only one wage-earner in Kristel’s family: her father who works as a taxi driver. Her mother is a homemaker, in other words, she looks after housekeeping and caregiving for her family while her husband works. We don’t know the size of Kristel’s family but it is highly unlikely for a taxi driver to earn as much as P250,000 annually. Realistically, Kristel should have been assigned a lower bracket, say P80,000 to P135,000, which would give her the benefit of free tuition, miscellaneous and laboratory fees, plus a standard stipend of P12,000 per semester.

Click link
to watch interview of Kristel Tejada's father who said that his
daughter really aspired to finish her education at UP and how
much she was devastated in filing a leave of absence.
Kristel’s father found out the availability of a student loan only later, so when the family applied, the student loan office even reprimanded them for applying late. Because of bureaucratic red tape, Kristel never got a student loan. Not letting students know of the existence of student loans or other forms of assistance like available scholarships is a common shortcoming among public universities. Colleges in the United States, for instance, currently give little or no advantage in the admission process to low-income students, compared with more affluent students of the same race. A recent American study concluded that better colleges in the U.S. are failing to lure talented poor students despite a stated desire to recruit an economically diverse group of students.
Even with the STFAP in place, UP still fails miserably to inform financially indigent students that this program and other forms of assistance are available. Perhaps this shortcoming is not unintended because the UP Strategic Plan for 2011 to 2017 fails to address the growing problem of financial capability of some of the best and brightest students across the country who come from economically underprivileged families.
Assigning students to certain brackets is not necessarily an effective way of subsidizing education. As it is, it has become an instrument for periodic restructuring of school fees on the pretext of inflationary costs. Inversely, it also has the effect of favouring students from well-off families because even if they are slotted in the higher income brackets and thus required to pay full tuition, this has no effect on their admission at all. Their privileged economic status already guarantees their admission and a stress-free college life without the financial woes that weighed down on Kristel. As a result of economic bracketing, the tuition these well-off students pay is also subsidized since their fees are still way lower than those prescribed by private universities offering the same quality of education.
According to the UP Office of Scholarships and Student Services, a study of the STFAP in 2009 showed that only 1 in 100 students enjoys free tuition, which is very disturbing for a public university that is supposed to be accessible to the people. Under section 9 of the UP Charter, the university has the mandate to democratize access to this premier institution:
The national university shall take affirmative steps which may take the form of an alternative and equitable admissions process to enhance the access of disadvantaged students, such as indigenous peoples, poor and deserving students, including but not limited to valedictorians and salutatorians of public high schools, and students from depressed areas, to its programs and services.
“No student shall be denied admission to the national university by reason solely of age, gender, nationality, religious belief, economic status, ethnicity, physical disability, or political opinion or affiliation.”
Those who presently run the university and are responsible in designing its strategic plan must review thoroughly the UP Charter so they will not lose sight of the original mandate given to them. It is not enough for the university to seize the leadership (a fact not lost that other private universities have apparently overtaken UP’s great tradition of excellence) in the making of a globally competitive Philippines. This type of aspiration speaks of the goals of a large public corporation. But UP is not simply a large corporation. While it must be managed and run with the most progressive and advanced business practices, the university is still mandated to provide a haven for those who cannot afford the high quality of college education it offers.
The university is being sidetracked by a singular focus on promoting academic excellence, strong research and creative capability, and building modernized physical facilities and technological infrastructure for teaching, research and administration. Undoubtedly, these are all legitimate concerns of a modern university. But achieving these goals should not be at the expense of paying lip service to the university’s mandate to democratize access by disadvantaged people or those without financial means.
There are many like me, pejoratively called Iskolar ng Bayan, who have benefited from a UP education despite my economic circumstances. Without access to scholarship opportunities, I would not have possibly obtained the best education at home that enabled me to pursue further studies abroad. After completing high school, I was faced with the most serious crisis in my young life. I had always wanted to pursue higher education but my family was so destitute they could not send me to university. It was a feeling of life and death similar to what Kristel must have felt. After missing the first semester at university, I had to weigh the benefit and hardship of accepting a missionary scholarship in a foreign country versus entering the workplace at a very young age. Fortunately, I was able to find a UP scholarship opportunity, but only after a rigorous search and connecting with the right office.
Kristel Tejada wasn’t alone in her financial struggle. Poverty did not deter her from enrolling at University of the Philippines, where, she thought (as I did), she could get the best education in the country. In the spirit of being a humane institution, UP must reignite its commitment as a public university, to be open and accessible to a diversity of students that includes bright but disadvantaged and financially destitute youth. A truly socialized tuition and financial assistance program is one that fully recognizes the primordial obligation to nurture the education of those who are economically disadvantaged and underprivileged.
Whereas Kristel Tejada’s tragedy may justify blaming those who might have been responsible for her death, one way to recover from this tragedy is, in fact, to learn to stop the blaming. No one gets absolved from this tragedy. When we cease to blame, we either take responsibility for our actions or become free to recognize that blaming is futile and paralyzing. As one philosopher puts it: “for such things happen as part of the whirligig of life, and laying blame is a waste of energy which could be better directed at repairing damage or starting afresh.”
How do we start afresh?
First, let’s re-examine our university’s mission, find out how the university can become again the university of the people, where the young can aspire to be the best they can be under a system that nurtures its brightest, particularly the disadvantaged and the less privileged, not because it ought to but because it recognizes that in a democratic society the right to education is a fundamental right that provides equal opportunities for everyone, not only for those who can pay the fees.
Second, let’s offer opportunities for bright but poor students to avail of bursaries, grants, loans and even work placements so students can work and study at the same time.
Third, let’s inspire our youth to exert their best efforts through volunteer and cooperative work opportunities that engage them not only to excel in the academe but also to give of their talents to their communities and future workplaces.
Though we need to probe the circumstances that brought about this tragedy, the time is ripe to get our ideas for change off the ground now.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Southern discomfort

Last October 15, 2012, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak were all smiles as they posed for posterity with members of the peace panels for the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who had just signed their framework agreement for peace. Hopes were high that finally peace would be within reach after so many years of fighting with the adoption of an historic agreement laying the framework for a new Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro.
President Benigno Aquino III does his "noynoying" on the recent Sabah
standoff. Photo courtesy of The Tribune Editorial cartoon. Click link to view President
Aquino's Press Conference  on the Sabah Issue.
President Aquino was relying on the Bangsamoro framework agreement as the lasting legacy of his presidency, a grand peace initiative that has eluded his predecessors. A major achievement, more significant probably than anything else like his symbolic campaign against corruption. Likewise, Malaysian PM Razak was optimistic that his high-profile role as broker for peace would clinch his re-election in the coming Malaysian elections. It was friendship and cooperation, both symbolic and statesman-like, between the two leaders that would have cast them as rising leaders of the Southeast Asian nations.
Everything was going according to plan until the Sabah standoff. Who would have thought the old claim of the Sultan of Sulu over Sabah was like a posterior itch that wouldn’t go away? What about the Malaysian PM’s brokering for peace, was he really sincere in bringing the warring parties to an agreement or simply taking advantage of the opportunity to score points for his re-election? And how about the unmasking of President Aquino’s lack of leadership during the crisis and his inability to protect his own people?
Even if the Malaysian military is able to comb out all the supporters of the Sultan of Sulu in Sabah, all dead rather than alive by their preference, this will still be a great debacle for the Malaysian PM that could cost him his re-election. President Aquino, for his initial subservient position to Malaysia’s stand and rebuke of the Sultan’s armed incursion into our neighbour’s backyard, would always be painted by many as the one president who gave up his own people to the wolves. No matter how one looks at this crisis, both leaders would find it very difficult to escape the wrath of their respective citizens.
Malaysia is reported to be deporting close to 800,000 Filipinos from Sabah, all Muslims and former residents of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi who have originally escaped from the internecine war between the Philippine military and Muslim insurgents in Mindanao. Most of these Filipinos now possess citizenship cards which were granted by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir in an alleged effort to secure political domination of the state by using immigrant votes.
A royal commission was established by the Malaysian federal government to investigate illegal immigration in Sabah which could have accounted for the surge in its population. The recent military confrontation between Malaysia and the Sultan of Sulu’s army may hamper this investigation or facilitate the deportation of Filipino Muslims from Sabah as they now appear to be returning to Sulu and Tawi-Tawi by the hundreds daily. This could also seriously spoil the re-election of the current Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak as he faces strong criticism for his government’s handling of the Sabah stand-off and the manner of exodus of Muslim Filipinos.
President Benigno Aquino III might be the biggest loser from this Sabah bloodbath. His hands have been tied by his friendship with the Malaysian PM for helping the Philippine government broker a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Aquino’s initial pronouncements on the Sabah conflict were all carefully crafted to support the actions of the Malaysian government against the Sultan of Sulu’s army. Even as the sultan’s soldiers were getting annihilated, all Aquino could muster to do was berate the sultan like a child and order him to withdraw his troops. Aquino even threatened to extradite the sultan to Malaysia with whom the Philippines does not have an extradition treaty. Instead of resorting to diplomacy in order to negotiate a ceasefire and possibly a face-saving pull-out of the sultan’s army, Aquino opted to let Malaysia handle the situation unilaterally even if it meant killing all the sultan’s soldiers.
Allowing your own people to get massacred, is this the kind of statesmanship expected of a president? Especially, when your people are up in arms in order to redress an arguably legitimate grievance.
Nobody expected President Aquino to embrace the sultan’s war, but when the situation has deteriorated to a crisis of humanitarian proportions, the better angels of our human nature dictate that we summon everything possible to save lives. We rally to the side of humanity, for saving lives is more important than any military victory at the expense of loss of human lives. We don’t keep denigrating the sultan’s decision to send his army however senseless it was when our Muslim brothers are getting killed. Or we don’t write opinion columns like Conrado de Quiros who keeps on describing the sultan’s military misadventure as idiotic, foolish and an utter waste. De Quiros continues to call the sultan’s incursion in Sabah as tragic and farcical in order to absolve President Aquino of any culpability for not doing anything during the crisis.
The Sultan of Sulu had always been victimized by a history of deception and trickery by colonial powers. In July 1878, Spain entered into a Treaty of Peace with the sultan which allowed them to set up a small garrison in the town of Jolo. Under the said treaty, the sultan would retain his rule outside the walls of the Spanish garrison. But that kind of protectorate relationship would be exploited by Spain in ceding the Philippine Islands to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, which included the Sulu islands and territories in Mindanao which had never been in full Spanish control. The sultan thought that the agreement with the Spaniards was similar to the one he signed six months earlier with the British North Borneo Chartered Company, which paid him $5,000 annually for the use of his North Borneo territories (now Sabah). This is now the same lease agreement being invoked by the present Sultan of Sulu in reviving its claim over Sabah.
Students from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City rally
for peace in Sabah, Borneo. Photo Aaron Favila/AP.
After their defeat by the U.S., the Spaniards turned over a garrison on the island of Siasi, southwest of Jolo, to the sultan. It was not until May 1899 that the U.S. troops took over the Spanish fort in Jolo. The Americans had not been able to get troops to Jolo sooner because they could not afford to send any troops outside of Luzon where they had been locked in a fierce battle with Filipino insurgents.
When the Americans arrived in Jolo, they told Jamalul Kiram II, the sultan of Sulu, that the U.S. had taken over the islands from Spain. They asked the sultan to recognize the U.S. and honour the 1878 provisions of the treaty which the sultan had signed with Spain. But the sultan refused, stating that the U.S. was a different entity and that the U.S. should enter into a new treaty with the Sultanate.
So the Americans negotiated the Bates Treaty of 1899 with the Sultan of Sulu, which turned out to be a classic example of American deception and how to use treaties in disingenuous ways. The Bates Treaty granted some degree of autonomy and protection to the Sulu Sultanate, effectively keeping them out of the Philippine-American War which was peaking in Luzon at that time. But once that war had ended, the terms of the Bates Treaty were broken which the United States considered an impediment to their colonial administration. American troops moved to bring the Moro territories under American military control, leading to the Moro War which would last for thirteen years, making it the longest war in U.S. history.
It was the wording relating to American sovereignty in the Bates Treaty and a critical error in its translation that the U.S. capitalized on in incorporating the Sulu archipelago into the new Philippine republic in 1946 when it granted independence to the Philippines. Thus, the Bates Treaty was in effect the first step towards the dissolution of Muslim sovereignty and the dismantling of the Sulu Sultanate.
History seems to repeat itself with the present Philippine government under President Aquino doing a Bates Treaty déjà vu. In entering into a peace agreement with the MILF for a new Bangsamoro nation, the government is effectively bringing the Sulu Sultanate to a final closure. The proposed Bangsamoro substate will be the new Muslim domain, all the lands to be incorporated in this new territory will all be subject to the Bangsamoro government; the Sulu Sultanate and all the lands under its former realm will be part of this new substate, thus reducing the southern Muslim kingdom to a mere historical footnote.
Maybe this is the primary reason behind the sultan’s military foray in Sabah, to let President Aquino and the rest of the Muslim world in the South know that the Sulu Sultanate will not allow any new government such as the proposed Bangsamoro to simply ignore them as if they never existed. History is on the side of the Sultanate of Sulu which has antedated even the Republic of the Philippines, or its colonial governments under Spain and the United States. If this is the case, then President Aquino has dug a very deep hole. The government’s peace accord with the MILF is in serious trouble, and the peace-building initiative in Mindanao that has proved so elusive in the past will have suffered yet another major setback.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Betraying Sabah

In possibly his last redemptive hour, the beleaguered dictator Ferdinand Marcos ordered the military to disperse without shooting the millions of people that gathered on EDSA in those two fateful days of the People Power Revolution. With his raspy voice almost inaudible, the dictator’s order was captured on television while giving his instructions to General Fabian Ver, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
The Malaysian military conducts house-to-house search in Sabah for the Sultan of
Sulu's men as the sultan (Sultan  of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III, foreground) declared
unilateral ceasefire. Click link to
view "Malaysia raids Sabah village to end stand-off."
Imagine if the soldiers had instead fired at the huge throng of demonstrators. Or the tanks deployed by the army unleashed their artillery toward the unarmed mass of protesters. Or the helicopters hovering above fired their guns on the people assembled in front of Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo. No doubt, that could have been the mother of all carnage.
If that tragic ending happened, would Conrado de Quiros of the Philippine Daily Inquirer be writing there was “fringe” painted all over those “revolucionarios” just like the way he described the Lapiang Malaya Massacre of 1967 and the current Sabah shootout between the Sultan of Sulu’s army and the Malaysian military?

Unarmed, some with their families and children in tow, the demonstrators in EDSA were virtually exposed to harm’s way. It would have been so easy for De Quiros to call the EDSA uprising a tragic farce if it ended tragically. But as history unfolded, the EDSA revolt had the sweetest ending one would have ever imagined, a victorious unarmed people’s uprising against a heavily geared-up Armed Forces of the Philippines. No bloodshed, no casualty, no accounts of anyone wounded, except for sunburn, hundreds of thousands of hoarse throats, and swollen toes from pounding the EDSA concrete.
In 1967, Valentin delos Santos and his 380 Lapiang Malaya followers, armed with bolos and wearing amulets which they believed would protect them from harm, charged at the Malacanang gates to overthrow the government of Ferdinand Marcos. A phalanx of policemen and members of the Philippine Constabulary stopped them with gunfire from their M-16s. The carnage ended with 33 dead and 47 wounded, all members of Lapiang Malaya. Their leader Valentin delos Santos was sent to the National Center for Mental Health instead of prison.
De Quiros wrote that the recent foray of the Sultan’s army in Sabah was no different from the Lapiang Malaya assault of Malacanang in 1967. Both tragic and farcical, he said in his column. For good measure, De Quiros should have added the Katipunan’s launching of the Philippine Revolution against Spain in Pugad Lawin in 1896. Similarly armed only with bolos and their brave hearts, the Katipuneros must also be out of their wits that they could defeat the Spanish military with what they had.
Or perhaps, the adventurous Argentine forces that invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, which prompted the British government to dispatch their navy to engage the Argentines and retake the islands. The Falkland Wars lasted 74 days and ended with the surrender of the Argentine forces, which returned the islands to British control. Did the Argentines act in desperation, madly thinking they could match the naval superiority of the British?
Why does Hamas keep on firing missiles from the Gaza Strip to Israel knowing that would only raise the ire of the powerful Israeli army which is always prepared to launch a counteroffensive and invasion of Hamas territory? Or why on earth do Palestinians and Israelis continue to engage in an internecine war without victory for either of them or lasting peace in sight for the region?
Writing about the Prussian campaigns of 1793 and 1794, Carl von Clausewitz had recognized war as a political phenomenon, fought for a purpose that was political, or at least always had political consequences. The recent Sabah incursion, the 60’s Lapiang Malaya assault, the invasion of the Falkland Islands and the continuing Hamas incursions on Israeli territory are not motivated by sheer madness or led by people who were simply on the fringe as De Quiros would conveniently suggest. No matter how commentators conclude their observations after the fact, the one thing that always stands out is the political nature or consequences of these military adventures, successful or not.
The Lapiang Malaya massacre, for instance, brought out the brutality of disproportionate response to an attack that was doomed to fail in the first instance. Why use the heavy arsenal of lethal weapons against knife-wielding attackers when they could have been dispersed by water cannons?
Lapiang Malaya consisted mainly of poor peasants who were disillusioned with their perceived oppression by the government and the continuing evil influence of Western powers. When their demand that Ferdinand Marcos step down was rejected, they took the matter into their hands and launched a frenzied siege of Malacanang. Nuts, yes, but the government’s response was beyond insane and inhumane.
Now that the Sultan of Sulu has declared a ceasefire, although unilaterally while the United Nations has also called for peace talks instead of continued violence, the arduous task begins in deconstructing the Sultan’s frame of mind and why he went bonkers, as many would like to suggest, such as De Quiros for example. Surely the Sultan knew that his supposed invasion of Sabah will not succeed, at least in the strict military sense. But why would he sacrifice the lives of his few good men? This is what De Quiros cannot fathom, thus he dismissed the military incursion as a farcical and insane adventure. De Quiros even suggested that the Sultan’s unwise decision to dispatch his army would have the lingering effect of jeopardizing the government’s initiative to forge peace with our Muslim brothers in the South. Perhaps, even rob President Benigno Aquino III of the glitter and international admiration of a possible Nobel Peace Prize, according to De Quiros.
The Sultan’s military misadventure obviously has a political purpose, if not at least the political consequence of disrupting the government’s implementation of the last piece of the peace plan with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Political, in two ways. One, the revival of a moribund claim to an ancestral land that had been relegated to the backburner by every Filipino president after Diosdado Macapagal, the only president who supported the Philippines’ claim over Sabah. There is both historical argument and documentary evidence that support this claim, except that the government has not pursued it either through negotiations with Malaysia or the formal filing of a claim with the international court. Consider too that the Malaysian government continues to make lease payments to the Sultan of Sulu, which my old friend and university classmate, Al Tillah, governor of Tawi-tawi, has confirmed. Although the amount paid to the Sultan every year is very minimal by today’s standards, what this means as a contractual obligation says a lot.
Map showing Sabah and the Philippines. The Sultan of Sulu's army landed in
Lahad Datu, an hour away by boat from the Sulu Archipelago.
President Aquino was caught flatfooted by the Sultan’s decision to resuscitate his family’s claim over Sabah, overreacting and even condemning the Sultan for sending his army to launch an alleged invasion. But anybody in the Sultan’s shoes would understandably be enraged with the government’s inaction, which implied the acceptance of the forgone conclusion that the Sabah claim is all dead and moot. If the Sultan was driven to commit lunacy, he could be forgiven because the present government is also largely at fault for doing nothing: for abandoning the Sabah claim which arguably could have been legitimate, until reversed by an international court, and for leaving the Sultan’s people in harm’s way and feeding them to the wolves instead of seeking a diplomatic solution. What else is new anyway with a president known for doing nothing?
Take a simple hostage-taking as a comparable scenario. What would the police or government do as its first response? Send in a negotiator to calm down the situation. Instead, President Aquino berated the Sultan like a child and let the Sultan’s army be annihilated by Malaysia’s military. President Aquino forgot that he was also endangering the lives of about 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah—Muslim Filipinos all of whom have escaped the on and off war between the Philippine army and Muslim secessionists which he now wanted to end through peaceful negotiations with the MILF. Forget about the Sultan’s claim over Sabah in the meantime. There is a peaceful mechanism to resolve this issue. But the situation in Sabah has deteriorated into a humanitarian crisis, a foolish war (as De Quiros is wont to call) between a heavily armed Malaysian army against a ragtag group of foot soldiers from Sulu. President Aquino should have been advised by sober minds on how to defuse the conflict.
The second political purpose or consequence of the Sultan’s foray in Sabah has to do with the present government’s cavalier attitude in forging a lasting solution to the Mindanao crisis. To the government, the only side that matters on the table is the MILF and the rest of the world is just a bunch of kibitzers. President Aquino’s peace panel ignored the Sultan and his historical grievance against Malaysia, the much-weakened but still alive Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the splinter group of rebel Muslims under the banner of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), or even members of Congress and other civil society organizations who may have a stake in the peace process. There was no transparency in the government’s initiative to agree with one Muslim faction to the exclusion of others for a new Bangsamoro nation, a distinct geographical area carved out of the country’s territory and subsumed in a relationship of sovereignty association with the central government. And why has the government-friendly MILF been so quiet when their brother Muslims were being slaughtered in Sabah?
This latest Sabah episode only reveals the delicate cracks in the peace process that the present Philippine government has tried to sell to Muslim Filipinos in the South. By snubbing some Muslim groups which also have a huge stake in the peace negotiations, the Philippine government is resorting to the same deceptive schemes previously imposed by the Spanish, the American and British colonial powers on the Sultan of Sulu and his heirs to trick them in betraying their ancestral domain.
Since time immemorial, no foreign government, including our own Philippine government, has been fully honest in its dealing with the Sultan of Sulu, or for that matter with the whole Muslim population in the South. Is it any wonder then why the Muslims of Mindanao have always pined for their own free Bangsamoro, a nation separate and apart from the central government in Manila?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mad against dynasties

We have been unbelievably seduced by democracy’s self-fulfilling prophecy that it will always prevail in the end. That during times of crisis, the electoral process will measure up to our expectations and deliver the kind of men and women who will lead us to democracy’s promised land. This has always been the public perception manufactured by government and those in power every election year. For so long we have counted on democracy to check the excesses of our political process, and it seems the long years of exposure have made us numb, almost like zombies who would do and think(?) whatever is told them.
Why vote when it counts for nothing? Or to the seasoned cynic, why vote when your vote will not be counted? Maybe it will, but not for your chosen candidate but added to the votes in favour of another. This is the Filipino state-of-the-art counting of votes: “dagdag-bawas” or add-substract. Whatever new election technology the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has, there’s always a counter technology to subvert it, a product of Filipino ingenuity.
Article 2, Section 26 of the Philippine Constitution provides: The State shall guarantee
equal access to public service and prohibit political dynasty as may be defined by law.
Click link to view Dynasties in
Democracies: The Political Side of Inequality.
We have been for so long focused on the wrong problem. It’s not counting the votes that matters but the kind of people to choose from. But in the final analysis, the deficiency could also be our fault for why after all do we keep voting for the same families and their relatives? Or why are we easily persuaded by the glamour and fame from acting or boxing in the ring that it can translate to serious political responsibility? Or why do we thumb down our noses on people who honestly care for the poor, those whose sterling record in serving the people is an exemplar for the kind we must elect in office?
Wealth and power determine the outcome of the electoral process. Political dynasties have accumulated wealth and power over a long period of time. Elections are important, not so much for the masses, but mostly for these families to keep their stranglehold on political power. As a result, our democracy is flawed, not a truly representative democracy.
If the government is really serious in reforming the electoral process so that democracy works and becomes more truly representative, the solution is not in simply automating election results but in retrofitting our mindset with radical ideas of reform and change. We can be experts in counting beans or even the stars in the sky, but we need to see the beans as being nutritious supplements or the stars lighting the darkness above us. Even before we can ensure that counting votes is quick and accurate, the people must be ensured that the candidates are not only qualified but will serve the public with integrity and honesty. No election apparatus can give this assurance; thus, any improvements in the electoral process must come from the people’s elected representatives to enact the necessary and relevant legislation.
But here’s the catch. The real problem looms even bigger because our representatives in Congress will naturally refuse to make laws that run counter to their interests. After their election, victorious candidates tend to suffer from loss of memory, forgetting the people who elected them and the promises they made. Such is the nature of the human condition. That is why we need to be forever vigilant even if we have to launch a kind of fugitive democracy, or what is sometimes referred to as democracy without politics.
We can’t just sit still and do nothing. One obvious way to prompt our elected representatives is being irritating. Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, likens this to a lump of foreign matter that enters a complacent system and induces a kind of internal instability. Kingwell analogizes it to the abrasive grain of sand that slips inside an oyster’s shell and in attempting to stabilize itself, the oyster creates something new and beautiful.
In my previous blog I wrote about democracy without elections and this is possible if the people can just be irritating enough to compel their representatives to implement the democratic provisions of the Constitution that allow the people to directly enact laws by initiative and referendum. Rule of or by the people is ingrained in the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Section 1, Article II states that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” Under Section 2, Article XVII, amendments to the Constitution may be directly proposed by the people through initiative, and under Section 32, Article VI, the people can also directly propose and enact laws or approve or reject any act or law through a system of initiative and referendum. In 1989, Congress passed Republic Act No. 6735, “The Initiative and Referendum Act,” the enabling legislation to the aforementioned constitutional provisions.
Interestingly in 1997, the Philippine Supreme Court on three occasions examined and rejected RA 6735, but only insofar as the law was supposed to implement the system of initiative on amendments to the Constitution. In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress downgraded the importance or paramountcy of the system of initiative as envisioned in the Constitution and merely paid lip service to it. The original decision declared RA 6735 incomplete or inadequate in spelling out the essential terms and conditions for implementing the system of initiative on constitutional amendments.
The Supreme Court would revisit the same law in 2006 after the Comelec junked a proposed initiative by the Sigaw ng Bayan Movement to amend the Constitution which would change the government into a parliamentary system. Comelec dismissed the petition of Sigaw ng Bayan and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines to verify signatures they have gathered in support of their petition. Malacanang was rumored to have backed the petition and even government funds were allegedly used in procuring the supporting signatures.
Again, the Supreme Court voted to uphold its previous ruling in 1997, this time arguing that the proposed changes being sought by the petitioners would constitute a major constitutional overhaul. According to the Supreme Court, the “people’s initiative” as envisaged in the Philippine Constitution can only be used for lesser amendments. The high court also took notice of the alleged deceptive signatures gathered to support the petition and ruled that it cannot therefore allow such constitutionally infirm initiative to desecrate the Constitution.
Arguably, the Supreme Court’s decision was obviously politically motivated, but the onus should really rest on the proponents of the initiative to show they have satisfied the constitutional requirements and that the proposed parliamentary system was not motivated by selfish interests. The stakes were high in 1997 and 2006 because both the initiatives were intended to amend or revise the Constitution. Instead of stoking the divisions that were breaking the country apart as to whether to proceed with the revision of the Constitution, the Supreme Court decided to thread its grounds very lightly by preserving the status quo.
Apparently, the provisions of RA 6735 regarding the system of initiative and referendum for the people to directly enact legislative proposals were saved and not invalidated by the Supreme Court decision. This is now the new battleground, and it has already started with proposed initiatives by civil society organizations for the people to enact a law prohibiting political dynasties in accordance with the Philippine Constitution. Members of the multi-sectoral Movement Against Dynasties (MAD) have started gathering signatures for their campaign. The Kapatiran Party has filed a petition with the Comelec to hold an initiative for the people to enact a national legislation against political dynasties. AnDayaMo (Anti-Dynasty Movement) has also filed a petition with the Comelec to disqualify certain candidates who are members of known political clans. Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) threw its support to the growing anti-dynasty movement through a pastoral letter read in all their parishes entreating all Filipino Catholics to support the people's initiative to enact a law against political dynasties.
At present, two anti-political dynasty bills are sitting in Congress, one in the Senate authored by Miriam Defensor Santiago and another in the House of Representative authored by Teodoro “Teddy” Casiño. Both bills, which are identical and cover only locally elected officials, are in limbo and unlikely to see the light of day as members of Congress are not expected to pass legislation that endangers their own selfish interests.
Since more that 75 percent of its members are from political dynasties, Congress
passing a law to implement the constitutional prohibition against political dynasties
is next to impossible. Click link to view and sign petition, End Political Dynasties

More than half of the 33 senatorial candidates on the official ballot in the coming May 2013 elections are scions of notable families who have long dominated the landscape of Philippine politics. One Filipino senator, who is not linked to any political dynasty, has called the Philippines the “world capital of political dynasties,” with 178 active dynasties. They are the “equivalent of Mafia crime families,” she added, who have carved a monopoly of political power over a long period time, some for more than 30 years.
Enough. No more. Tama na! This must be the people’s rallying cry. The genuine rage against the entrenched elite and families dynasties is real. It’s like the Occupy movement that infuriated Wall Street financiers in the United States during the fall of 2012, but much better because here the people have a clear purpose of what they want to achieve. They have leadership and organization. This is the clear first step on the road to democratic recovery, and it is historically correct since it is the mass movements that are generally responsible for fundamental changes in society, not a small group of politicians elected because of their social class, wealth and power.