Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bad exemplars of good

History seems to repeat itself quite frequently. Such as a brain cramp I had recently, but unintentionally, which people in my present age would describe as a minor lapse in senior moments.
I’m talking about the Hyatt 10, and whether it left us with a noteworthy political legacy or that it was in the grand scheme of things simply an irrational, thoughtless and high-minded display of moral superiority, self-righteousness and arrogance. Perhaps, one might even call it an improbable shot or maybe a fart in the dark. 
Someone in an Internet forum I belong to reminded me of the courage of the members of the infamous Hyatt 10 in standing up to their boss, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, when they demanded her to step down or else they resign. This happened in 2005 at the height of the “Hello Garci” scandal involving massive cheating and fraud during the 2004 elections that gave President Arroyo a full six-year term. The scandal precipitated attempts to impeach the President in Congress, and a public demonstration led by former President Cory Aquino asking Arroyo to resign.
Some members of the infamous Hyatt 10, left to right: Guillermo
Parayno, Cesar  Purisima, Florencio Abad, Imelda Nicolas, Teresita
Deles, and Corazon Soliman.  Photo courtesy of the Manila Times.

This member raised the ghosts of Hyatt 10, not just to remind me but also to re-educate me on the conditions in the Philippines, which I have left many years ago. Understandably, conditions have changed and I might not be familiar with them as she pointed out. But the emergence of wireless technology took care of that.
The Hyatt 10 came from a group of Cabinet secretaries responsible for the then Arroyo administration’s economic management and planning as well as those in-charge of social welfare ad peace negotiations with the country’s insurgents. The Hyatt 10 resignation was this forum member’s rebuttal to my post in the forum about the resignation of two high-ranking cabinet members of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe’s government that such similar resignations are unlikely to happen in the Philippines.
Of course, the comparison was off-tangent, without likeness. Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet ministers were elected in Parliament and resigned because of allegations of financial improprieties. The resignation was triggered by shame and the potential scandal to the government, a sacrifice or moral choice Japanese politicians are only too willing to take for the sake of a higher purpose.
The Hyatt 10 accomplices, however, were unelected and appointed to serve under the pleasure of the President whom they wanted to resign because they believed she had lost the trust and confidence of the people. It was unimaginable, for example, that an entire office staff would threaten to resign simply on the ground that their manager or supervisor has lost credibility. This was highly unprecedented and the Hyatt 10 never had any legal or moral ground to demand the President’s resignation, except for their arrogance and preconceived notions of moral superiority.
Yuko Obuchi, Japan's economy, trade and industry minister bows
during a news conference as she announces her resignation from
cabinet. Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg.
Whether Hyatt 10 was a resignation en masse or mass firing is not historically significant, save for the infamy it has engendered. President Arroyo served her full term of the presidency and left office with an improved economy. However, the allegations of fraud and plunder hounded her, which became the bane of her existence after stepping down from the presidency. She is now detained indefinitely pending trial, which is taking the Sandiganbayan an inordinate amount of time to set down.
In the meantime, some members of the Hyatt 10 were rehired by the current Aquino government. Florencio Abad, who was also Aquino’s campaign manager during the elections, has been appointed secretary of the Department of Budget and Management. Together with Janet Napoles, Abad has also been alleged as the true mastermind of the multimillion-peso pork barrel scam. He is also the author of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) which has been struck down by the Supreme Court as illegal and unconstitutional.
According to stories circulated in the news media, the steep decline in the popularity of President Aquino in poll surveys persuaded his sisters to prevail upon him to let go of Abad. But here came the Hyatt 10 again to the rescue, threatening the President with their resignation if Abad would be axed. Rumors kept swirling around that the President and some members of the Hyatt 10 were worried about detention in Crame after their term was over. It was the group’s instinct for survival that kept them to stick together. An article by a well-respected journalist has alleged that Abad threatened to expose the President about his involvement in the pork barrel scam and the illegal DAP if he were to be sacked, which suggested that the Hyatt 10 might be hijacking the President by putting a noose around his neck.
Dinky Soliman denied all the rumours about the Hyatt 10 ganging up on the President. One of the most outspoken members of the Hyatt 10 during their mass resignation in 2005, Soliman was rehired by President Aquino to her original cabinet post as Secretary of Social Welfare and Development, an appointment which took 4 years before it was confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.
Soliman expanded the Arroyo’s conditional cash transfer program, otherwise known as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), but which was disparaged by many as a dole-out instead of assisting the poor to get out of their dire straits. She was also criticized for mishandling the relief efforts after Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the country in 2013, even admitting that her agency did not monitor funds given by private donors. Soliman’s detractors, however, were not successful in forcing her resignation as President Aquino stood by her as he did for Abad.
Another prominent member of the Hyatt 10, Cesar Purisima who was Arroyo’s Secretary of Finance and was appointed to the same position by President Aquino. Purisima was alleged to have played a significant role in the pork-barrel scandal and the illegal Disbursement Acceleration Program hatched by Budget Secretary Abad.
The recycling of the Hyatt 10 conspirators by the Aquino government shows the fungible nature of Philippine politics. Yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies. That is how easily exchangeable Filipino politicians are; there is no ideological basis for their loyalty and trust. If there is anything we can learn from the Hyatt 10 is the politics of opportunism.
To consider, therefore, that Filipino politicians, as suggested by my Internet friend, are capable of summoning the better angels of their nature like the Japanese is a huge overstatement. That they would give up their high positions in government to preserve integrity and honesty in government has never happened that frequently in the country’s history and political development. Former Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri resigned from the Senate when the election protest of Aquilino Pimentel Jr. was about to be upheld, thus proclaiming the latter as winner of the election. The same can be said about Senator Juan Ponce Enrile who stepped down as Senate President amid allegations of distributing cash gifts to senators when it was already clear at the time that he was going to be deposed.
There were only two significant incidents in Philippine history where the resignation of elected officials really mattered and were triggered by political convictions rather than by a false claim of moral ascendancy akin to the Hyatt 10 political motivation. The first happened during the Tejeros Convention in March 1897 where the first-ever Philippine presidential election was held. Emilio Aguinaldo was elected president over Andres Bonifacio who was acclaimed as leader of the Philippine revolution. Bonifacio humbly accepted his election as Director of the Interior but later withdrew when Daniel Tirona demanded that another person believed to be more qualified should be elected instead of Bonifacio who had no formal education and a lawyer’s diploma. Shamed and insulted, Bonifacio, in his capacity as Supremo of the Katipunan, declared the election null and void. He would later be executed by Aguinaldo’s men.
A similar incident happened in 1946 when Luis Taruc, leader of the Hukbalahap, and seven other colleagues from the Democratic Alliance were elected to the House of Representatives but the government of Manuel Roxas did not allow them to take their seats in Congress. The Taruc faction opposed the parity rights amendment to the Philippine Constitution that the United States required as a condition for payment of reparation for the Second World War. Consequently, Taruc and his men would return to the hills to take up arms against the government.
The Hyatt 10 resignation in 2005 and the 2014 revival of another of threat of resignation by the same group did not alter the political map nor engender the development of a higher sense of morality in politics among Filipinos. If there ever was a political statement that could be ascribed to the group, it would be that opportunism and arrogance are the necessary building blocks to a successful career in politics and government.
To embrace the idea that the Hyatt 10 or the members of President Aquino’s inner sanctum are beyond reproach and possessed with incorruptible qualities is almost analogous to a lowering of the standards of morality and integrity in government. If being fundamentally good is to have other people’s interests in mind, especially by people in authority or in government, then in order to be good, one must exhibit some genuinely selfless motivations.
This is not however the underlying motivation of the Hyatt 10, nor of the men or women in President Aquino’s cabinet, or perhaps of the whole body of the current Congress. Goodness and greatness are never the exceptional qualities of our elected leaders. In confronting our moral progress as a society, this cabal called the Hyatt 10 has failed us miserably, and by those who blindly follow their twisted path.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bridging the religious divide

Some critics of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) now undergoing congressional review and debate are quick to draw attention to what they perceive as an apparent bias or partiality toward one religion over the others. This understandable disapproval tends to gloss over the historical context of the struggle for self-determination of our brother- Muslims in Southern Mindanao.
Perhaps this religious-based criticism could also be traced to the emphasis placed by Muslims on religion as the basis of everything. To Muslims, all matters in life, whether governance, justice, culture, social relationships, family, etc., emanate from religion.

President Noynoy Aquino witnesses the turnover of the proposed draft Bangsamoro
Basic Law between Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace negotiator Mohagher
Iqbal and Senate President Franklin Drilon.
As the Al Qalam Institute on the Bangsamoro Basic Law of Ateneo de Davao explains: “What is religious is political and conversely, what is political is religious because the two are so intertwined in the life of the Muslims. Therefore, no religious test must be used to assail the autonomy being granted to the Bangsamoro.”
Therein lies the controversy. How do we bridge this contradiction between the secular world perspective we have been used to after gaining independence from Spain on one hand, and the Muslim’s belief in the transcendence of religion over all others, on the other?
If the principal objective of the BBL is to construct a closed Islamic society or state for its constituents alone, and not for the entire people of Mindanao who are still subject to the secular central and local governments, then what is highly objectionable in this kind of arrangement? It is not Islamic hegemony that is being fostered by the BBL but a type of asymmetric relationship to the constitutionally-recognized national government, where some political powers are devolved upon the new Bangsamoro community, yet it is still subordinate to central governance.
Does the integration of the Islam religion with the political and social affairs of the Bangsamoro contradict the inviolability of the separation of Church and state under the Philippine Constitution?
A textual exegesis of the Philippine Constitution shows that many concepts enshrined in the document such as justice, peace, equality, freedom, protection of life and property, respect for human rights, the sanctity of family, among others, have their roots in Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. Arguably, such concepts are also accepted and practised by other religions, thus bringing us to the conclusion that Muslims are probably on the correct side of the argument in saying that all matters in life can be traced to one’s religion.
What the Constitution clearly proscribes is a situation where the government allows the Church and its leaders in controlling the affairs of the state, e.g., President Aquino asking the Archbishop of Manila to run the government for him. He may personally ask the Cardinal for his prayers but he cannot turn over the government to the clergy. Or inversely, President Aquino declaring the Roman Catholic Church as the country’s national and only church.
Similarly, the head of the Bangsamoro government may ask the Imam for spiritual guidance but not surrender the affairs of government to him. The Bangsamoro government is not a theocratic entity like Iran where the Supreme Leader or the Ayatollah controls the government in order to protect the Islamist ideology.
There seems nothing wrong in allowing religious traditions, customs and practices of one community to prosper. But it has always been difficult for many to understand and appreciate the impact of the Muslim religion because there is this tendency to attribute all forms of religious violence to Islam.
Did we ever question whether the terroristic acts committed by the Islamic State or ISIS are sanctioned by the Qur’an? Rather, we immediately resort to a knee-jerk reaction so typical of many who would equate religious violence with Islam. A case in point is the TV pundit Bill Maher who has argued that Islam is unlike other religions, because to his view, Islam has “too much in common with ISIS.”
ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. AP Photo/Militant Website File.
To most Muslims, and they are more than in the majority, those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are not really Muslim. They would distance themselves from extremists in their community, that too often, religious violence is not motivated by religion.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has waged and continued the Moro’s armed resistance against colonization and in redress of their grievances against the central government in Manila. But it was never in the name of religion, or against the dominant Christian religion. There are other factions among the Muslim insurgents who might have used Islam as their inspiration but it is doubtful if their resistance was actually religiously- motivated.
Naturally, there are critics of religion who lack the ability to understand religion beyond its absolute and literal interpretations. They would comb the scriptures for examples of savagery and point to extreme patterns of religious bigotry, and to which they can generally ascribe the causes of oppression throughout the world.
This religious narrow-mindedness is what is fuelling the general antagonism to Islamic jihad, whether by the few Muslim extremists or the more peace-loving followers of Islam. It is the more heinous, radical and barbaric practices of extremists that get the attention of the news media and this type of coverage tends to band together all Muslims in a one-size-fits-all category. The barbarism of ISIS must be condemned but not to the extent of demonizing all Muslims in general.
It would be an unfortunate setback to the MILF and its government partners if the current debate on the proposed BBL is somehow hijacked by the horrors of Islamic extremism exemplified by ISIS. Already we are hearing murmurs on the side that if Congress fails to enact the BBL, it would have catastrophic consequences to the quest for lasting peace and could possibly swell the ranks of dissatisfied Muslim extremists in the South. That would be a great tragedy if the BBL is scuttled due to religious malice, not because of constitutional or other reasonable legal objections to the proposed law.
But first it should be clear to Congress that the proposed BBL does not aim to favour and put one religion over another. There should be a religious debate but not necessarily to determine why Islam should be accommodated. The purpose should be to address any misconceptions about Muslims in the South, that they are not the ISIS-garden variety. This exchange should not divide Muslims, Christians and other faith communities.
When that religious divide has been bridged, then the debate on the constitutional and other legal issues about the BBL should resume and it is best that these legal issues are settled without amending the Constitution.
The news media and the whole of social media should be involved in a robust and public debate on the merits of the BBL. A free and democratic exchange of opinions is important, not a railroading of the proposed BBL in Congress without serious deliberation, for after all both houses of Congress are controlled by the President’s political party that it might give the President and his rabid supporters the idea that a free debate is no longer necessary.
Scouring the news media and the various fora on the Internet, it is quite disheartening to notice the lack of a vibrant discussion on the BBL. Stories of the Binays’ alleged illegitimate wealth build-up seem to preoccupy the newspapers and discussions in social media. As the principal proponent of the BBL, President Aquino should be at the forefront of promoting it, but it seems he is either uninterested or simply confident that his majority in Congress will approve the proposed law no matter what.