December 24, 2004

Malacañang's paranoia

One thing that stands out in the mammoth funeral march for Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) is the fact that nothing untoward happened except for the inevitable delays and difficulty in moving the horse-drawn hearse forward due to the sheer concentration of large numbers of people in the narrow streets leading into to the North cemetery.

The police cannot be credited for this. They were only a few thousand and were reportedly not allowed by the family to undertake any role in securing the funeral cortege. In fact, they were warned publicly to stay away so as not to provoke the predominantly pro-FPJ/anti-GMA crowd.

Certainly the volunteer marshals mobilized by the organizations that supported FPJ’s presidential candidacy were critical in lending some degree of order and keeping the crush of people at bay so that the remains of the People’s Artist could be buried as his family wished, before noon, at his parents’ gravesite.

But to someone who is no stranger to huge rallies and demonstrations including the phenomenal ones that toppled a dictator and an erstwhile popular sitting president, it is clear that the way the massive outpouring of grief, love and sympathy began and ended as such, was due primarily to the collective wish of the legions of the masa present. No more, no less.

The hundreds of thousands of ordinary people came to bury FPJ, not to riot in uncontrolled anger over his being cheated of the presidency by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, much less storm Malacañang Palace to force the perceived pretender to step down.

At least not the day of their hero’s burial. Not yet, anyway.

What then do we make of the way Malacañang was barricaded with barbed wire and container vans, surrounded by truckloads of fully armed soldiers and by tanks with enough firepower to blow people to kingdom come? Reports had it that the grounds were virtually deserted with few vehicles parked and remaining employees forced to go in and out by crossing the Pasig River.

Was that merely an “overreaction” as Susan Poe’s spokesperson kindly put it? Or was it the paranoia of a regime acutely aware of the depths of unpopularity it had descended? Were those telltale signs of a siege mentality by a President put on the defensive about her claim of a clean electoral mandate in the face of indisputable proof of her chief rival’s overwhelming mass following?

Someone asked me a naughty, hypothetical question: If Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) was to die suddenly from natural causes, would the poor and the downtrodden attend her funeral?

Of course the high and the mighty would be there including the US Ambassador (who these days is acting more and more like the US Governor General of colonial times) and the rest of the diplomatic corps and foreign chambers of commerce, the representatives of the Makati Business Club and other elite organizations of big business as well as the political top guns of the current administration and its allies and even some members of the Opposition. The AFP and PNP of course would be amply represented; even the foot soldiers and neighborhood police who would be mobilized to secure the event. And yes, the perfumed social elite who think nothing of flaunting their ritzy lifestyles in the midst of mass poverty and degradation.

Maybe DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman, with the help of her “social democrat” friends in that most privileged of non-government organizations, CODE NGO, (it earned millions brokering a bonds deal with the Arroyo administration) would be able to bus in some of the lucky few, urban poor beneficiaries of government largesse.

But we doubt whether the masa would go. They would be far too busy trying to make ends meet, yearning for some reprieve from their misery, some sign of hope and would most likely be inured to the promises and the antics of their so-called leaders.

They definitely would not come from far and wide, on their own steam, with no enticement or prodding, the way they did for FPJ.

Having said that, was there ever any danger that the largely spontaneous, unorganized masses who kept vigil at Sto Domingo church and braved the ordeal of marching to the cemetery would swiftly transform itself to an angry, avenging crowd ready to head for Malacañang to unseat Mrs. Arroyo?

We think not, no matter the machinations of the factions of the elite who are out of power, the fondest wishes of those who consider Mrs. Arroyo the devil incarnate and the putschist inclinations of young military officers. The gargantuan show of love and support for FPJ, phenomenal as it was, could not be turned at a moment’s notice into a people’s uprising even against such a detested regime as that of GMA.

Indeed, the lessons of EDSA I and II are lost on many of us. Those who insist that these monumental mass undertakings were the result merely of a conspiracy by the elite, of a sophisticated and devious propaganda campaign, skillful agitation and cynical manipulation of the witless hordes of people in the streets and the coup de grace of civilian bureaucratic and AFP/PNP withdrawal of support to the existing regime – they’ve got it all wrong.

To begin with, such democratic movements do not develop overnight. The offending regime in power has to be fully exposed and isolated as being anti-people, corrupt, beholden to foreign and elite vested interests and repressive to boot.

The people have to be mobilized for empowering themselves and removing the current rulers in power but not to replace them with just another set of discredited and reactionary leaders.

A broad array of forces against the regime in power needs to be built consciously and painstakingly. From their ranks will arise the new brand and set of leaders who will take the lead in carrying out the necessary political tasks and who will, in the process, earn the people’s trust and confidence.

Only then can it be possible for a “New Dawn,” in the words of FPJ, to really come – anchored on the bedrock of fundamental and wide-ranging reforms ensuring national independence, honest governance and all-round economic and social development for the Filipino people.

Dec. 24-25, 2004

December 17, 2004


Do not go gentle into that good night Rage, rage against the dying of the light -- Dylan Thomas

Coming out of Sto. Domingo church last night and seeing the growing lines of people patiently queuing to get a glimpse of the remains of Fernando Poe Jr., popular movie actor known as "Da King" and reluctant politician, the man who would be President of the Republic, we could not help asking, "Why?"

Why the outpouring of grief, the exaggerated sense of loss, and, for not a few, the suppressed anger and seething indignation at the death of a man who, albeit with a surfeit of endearing qualities, actually had the good fortune to die quietly, slipping from a coma to his eternal rest while in the company of his loving family, friends and admirers.

A cursory and superficial analysis would come up with the more obvious reasons. FPJ was one of the most popular movie actors; his bida characters on the silver screen captured the imagination of legions of moviegoers who became loyal and enduring fans. His real life persona matched the tinsel-town enigma with tales of his generosity to his extended family, friends, employees and just about any needy person who had the luck to be within the ambit of FPJ's charitable inclinations.

But it was his unsuccessful foray into the rough-and-tumble world of Philippine politics that made FPJ loom larger than he would have had, had he stayed in the relative comfort and ease of the make-believe world he indisputably dominated.

FPJ's being a popular film action star/hero made him an attractive alternative for millions of our people who felt this country needed no less than a superhero of sorts to lift us out of the deep rut of backwardness, corruption, and other social ills we had been mired into for the last six decades since independence.

His being a winnable nontraditional politician (trapo) made him the better choice for millions who were sick and tired of trapos, but still looked to the elections as the democratic way of resolving the issue of national leadership.

But his strengths also brought out his limitations. That the electoral contest was close enough (i.e., no one had an insurmountable lead) for fraud to make a difference showed the people were aware of his limitations even as they were desirous of a change in leadership.

Nonetheless, the failure of his bid for the presidency was seen by his followers not merely as a lost golden opportunity. The massive and systematic plunder of the treasury, the vote buying and the electoral fraud, put the legitimacy and integrity of the current administration in serious doubt. The retention of the incumbent President meant the continuation, some say the aggravation, of the faults and ills the people had so desperately sought to remedy.

Thus, FPJ's demise by no means extinguishes the desire, much less the need, for an overhaul of the present dispensation. As the street parliamentarians and activists would pithily say, "Tuloy ang laban." The dream lives on.

Perhaps, the tragedy in FPJ's candidacy is that whatever sincerity, good intentions, and even legendary incorruptibility he possessed and could have brought into the presidency had he been declared the winner, would not have been enough to lift the nation and the tens of millions of the masses who adored and supported him, from the morass of corruption, chronic debt and crisis, widespread poverty and abject subservience to foreign dictates and vested interests.

FPJ failed to carry the "swing votes" not so much because he was a high school dropout or an inexperienced public leader. It was because he had not convincingly displayed the will and clearly shown the way to overhauling the rotten system and building a new social order.

But now in his death, what matters is that he tried. With all his limitations -- and they were not piddling -- he took the leap of faith. He staked his reputation, exposed his vulnerabilities, and risked even his own health and the well-being of his loved ones.

And for what? More riches and power? Unlikely. A stab at greatness in the real world? Perhaps. Or a sincere, if naive, response to the call of the times -- the desperate cry of a forlorn yet hopeful people for change? Believable.

If only for that, FPJ deserves our respect and our admiration. And because of that, his passing must be made to count for something more than the usual orgy of grieving over an idol who has passed on.

Let us not dignify the safe, sanitized image of a celluloid hero that the Arroyo administration and its mass media allies would want to reduce FPJ into. For that robs his choice, his sacrifices, of their meaning.

Let us not be content with the philanthropic, "big-hearted" image of a good and decent man that his political enemies seem to be so generous in according him. For while true, to do so would be to fall prey to the hidden agenda; that is, to demean the fact of his accepting the challenge to lead his people out of Egypt into the Promised Land, no matter how illusory.

Let us not be led either into the pitfall of raising him to the pantheon of dead heroes -- larger than life, noble but out of reach, an icon transfigured into myth -- his death to serve no more subversive a purpose in the schemes of the defenders of the unjust status quo than to provide the people with an empty symbol of their aspirations. That is what the offers of Malacañang to have FPJ buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani or be declared a "National Artist" is really all about.

As his gracious life partner, Susan Roces, astutely pointed out, Gloria Arroyo and her minions robbed the people who believed in FPJ and voted for him, not just of their choice but of their dreams.

That is stuff not just for the script of a tear-jerker movie nor for the blaring headline of a tabloid or a talk show's catchy sound bite.

That, essentially, is what GMA, in her worst nightmares, fears the masa will soon enough realize and act upon.

Dec. 17-18, 2004

December 10, 2004

Travesty of human rights

Today is human rights day. Two nights ago, Marcelino “Ka Marcing” Beltran, president of Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Tarlac, a survivor of the Hacienda Luisita massacre last November 16, was gunned down outside his house in barangay San Sotero, Sta. Ignacia, Tarlac. Today is his birthday; the peasant leader would have turned 52.

Just three days earlier, Ka Marcing gave a team of lawyers his eyewitness account of that infamous day when striking farm and sugar mill workers, their families and supporters, were mowed down at the picket line by automatic gunfire, resulting in the confirmed deaths of seven and the wounding of more than a hundreds others.

He was articulate, fearless, agitated, his words tumbling from his mouth as he narrated how he miraculously escaped the hail of bullets even as he helped carry the dying and the wounded to safety, away from the bloodthirsty police, military and private security forces who relentlessly pursued the fleeing strikers and rallyists with their guns, truncheons and boots.

Ka Marcing had no enemies save those he wittingly or unwittingly created by his unswerving leadership of the militant peasant organization in Tarlac as well as the larger alliance of peasants and farm workers called Alyansa ng Mag-uuma sa Gitnang Luson (AMGL). Given this background and the circumstances of his death, it is reasonable to assume that his killing is intimately related to the latest labor disputes and festering land problem at Hacienda Luisita.

To date all that the Arroyo government has done about the massacre is to wash its hands of any responsibility. The undisputed fact however is that it was DOLE Secretary Pat Sto. Tomas’ assumption of jurisdiction over the labor disputes in a so-called “strategic industry” such as the Cojuangco-owned sugar plantation and mill, her return to work order and her deputization of both the police and the military to break up the picket line provided both the legal cover and the overwhelming firepower that triggered the massacre.

The latest statement of Mrs. Arroyo on the matter is revealing in its emptiness: “The labor department is doing its best to obtain a fair and peaceful settlement of the Hacienda Luisita dispute. Labor problems must be solved at the negotiating table. All parties must act responsibly so that tragedies can be averted.”

Completely oblivious is she, the President, to whom all Cabinet secretaries are directly accountable, and the Commander-in-Chief, the sole authority with the power to call out the troops in case of an outbreak of so-called “lawless violence,” to the facts of the matter.

That management had engaged in unfair labor practices by illegally dismissing nine of the officials of the United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU) and replacing the union president with a man they had handpicked. That management then refused to negotiate with the legitimate leadership of the farm workers union and was deadlocked on the demands of both the farm and azucarera workers. That the PNP had earlier attempted three violent dispersals using truncheons, water cannons and tear gas but were turned back by the sheer number and assertiveness of the strikers and their supporters.

Witnesses’ testimonies and video footages of the Hacienda Luisita carnage point to premeditation and intent to kill on the part of the government security forces, private security guards and a number of eskirol. But all these are apparently mean nothing to Mrs. Arroyo and her cordon sanitaire who knows what it is that she wants to hear.

It appears that Mrs. Arroyo wants only to hear excuses and to find scapegoats for her government’s disastrous policies and overall criminal complicity with the greedy, heartless and ruinous ruling elite in this country and their rapacious foreign partners.

She is especially fond of using the New People’s Army (NPA) and other revolutionary forces as whipping boy for everything that is wrong with her government and the ruling system. In her speech on the occasion of human rights week she couldn’t resist taking a snipe at the so-called human rights abuses of “insurgents and terrorists” rather than taking a critical look at her government’s own human rights record.

She takes the lead and provides the cue to her Cabinet who think nothing of pointing to the communist rebels as the masterminds and provocateurs whether it be cases of labor and peasant unrest, violent dispersals of protest mass actions, indiscriminate bombings and other alleged terrorist acts up to and including opposition to new, onerous taxes and unconscionable debt servicing in the face of unprecedented financial crisis, protest over massive use of government funds for Mrs. Arroyo’s reelection bid and assorted “destabilization plots” such as the ones hyped by her own generals to cover up rampant corruption in the AFP.

The President’s latest charge that the NPA are “illegal loggers” and, ergo, are mainly responsible for forest denudation and the wasteland that has become of several provinces in Luzon in the aftermath of the typhoons that hit the country is ludicrous except to the most rabid anti-communists like her who will believe anything evil of the revolutionary movement.

The President’s propensity to blame the NPA for anything and everything that bedevils her regime ironically shows up the inutility of her brand of governance: it takes a major catastrophe for her clueless DENR Secretary to finally raid a handful of sawmills with illegally cut logs; for her to set up a new anti-illegal logging task force with an initial P100 million budget to determine who have been scalping the already bald mountains; and for Malacañang to declare a suspension in all logging activities minus the ones exempted by the DENR secretary.

The bad habit of passing the blame to an entity, the NPA, that the government cannot run after except through vilification and psywar campaigns and failed counter-insurgency programs, results objectively in a situation where the real culprits get away with their high crimes.

Those who are really culpable can only include the Arroyo government, one that has not exhibited the moral courage to admit its failures nor the political will to institute the barest of genuine reforms. Worse, it is a government that looks the other way when the perpetration by state forces of gross human rights violations is fast becoming a hallmark of its insecure rule.

As President and Commander-in-Chief, Mrs. Arroyo’s hands are bloodied by the murders of the Hacienda Luisita protesters, the assassination of Ka Marcing Beltran and all other leaders of the exploited and oppressed masses, and the unabated killings of human rights workers. Similarly, she must also be held accountable for the devastation and massacre of entire communities by her government’s criminal negligence in allowing destructive commercial logging to go on unabated until the mind boggling man-made catastrophe that followed the fury of nature’s typhoons.

Dec. 10, 2004

December 03, 2004


(Published in the Dec. 3-4, 2004 issue of BusinessWorld.)

Millions of viewers watching news reports about the wide swathe of destruction and death Typhoon Winnie caused must have wept, if not openly then deep in their hearts, about the utterly desperate situation of many, if not most, of our people today.

Hungry, sick, landless and jobless, the average Filipino today is also at his most vulnerable to all sorts of natural and man-made catastrophes from which there seems to be no escape or deliverance.

Natural catastrophes such as typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and the like are certainly unavoidable. However, the extent of damage to life and property, and the misery wreaked on the most likely victims, the poorer sections of the population, is aggravated many times over by decades of wanton exploitation of our natural resources by big business (with their invariable foreign multinational partners), government's cavalier attitude towards conservation and our people's generally lackadaisical view about environmental degradation in the face of the more urgent imperative to survive.

Hardly have relief and rescue operations gone under way when the official hand wringing, passing the buck and the usual pronouncements about running after illegal loggers began to issue forth from the Arroyo administration.

We saw Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Mike Defensor blaming illegal loggers -- not the filthy rich ones, mind you, but the kaingineros (slash-and-burn mountain farmers) -- for the forest destruction that led to the landslides and flashfloods that engulfed whole provinces of Central Luzon.

Moreover, Mr. Defensor expressed seemingly profound sadness that there was not much that government can do about illegal logging, since the practice is rampant and there is no money for forest rangers to catch the culprits while they're at it.

Seeing the photos of the massive pileup of cut logs on river banks and heaped against fallen bridges, we can't help wondering how impoverished farmers, even those engaged in "carabao logging" (that is, cutting one tree at a time, hauling the log with a carabao and selling it at the nearest sawmill) could manage to cut up those logs in such quantities with their primitive tools. And for what conceivable reason would they then stockpile these cut logs alongside their minuscule farm plots and thatched dwellings when they would have no means to transport these out and transform them to cash?

If ever these hand-to-mouth farmers eking out a living on the sides and at the foothills of mountains can be deemed responsible for destroying watersheds, it is only to the extent that their daily struggle to survive has forced them to make do with what is there. Yet, this can hardly be placed in the same category as the capacity for and the actual destruction brought about by big loggers, illegal and legal, that has been going on unabated despite debates in Congress about a log ban and despite periodic campaigns by the military and police to confiscate "hot" logs that inevitably end up in some profiteers' lumberyard.

What is wrong with environment protection and conservation in this country is that there isn't any. The DENR, the government agency tasked with this necessary and vital task, is busy hocking the country's patrimony to the highest bidder.

As a latest example, witness the Arroyo administration's all-out effort to reverse the Supreme Court ruling declaring portions of the Mining Act of 1995 unconstitutional. Take note of the hard sell by NEDA chief Romulo Neri of the need to open the door wide open to foreign exploitation of mineral resources amid the approving noises coming from the foreign chambers of commerce, the international mining industry and the multilateral agencies reciting the mantra of "free trade" and calling for the removal of all investment barriers.

It's all about plundering the only remaining, relatively still intact, natural resource we have left so that allegedly, the fiscal crisis, will be a thing of the past. Our thieving, traitorous and green card-holding public officials can just go on with the IMF-World Bank dictated policies that have thrown us into the depths of chronic financial and economic crisis and pretend that a solution has been found.

It is not as if government doesn't know what to do. Our officials are just so busy looking after their own interests -- normally, that includes making sure foreign investors, credit-rating agencies and the US government are convinced that their interests and concerns are government's top priority -- for them to take care of everything a government ought to be taking care of.

Like disaster preparedness. Like rescue operations. Like relief and rehabilitation. Much less utilizing the still sizeable government resources and awesome powers to address the people's most basic needs.

In the aftermath of Winnie's devastation, mass media dramatized the heroic deeds of ordinary Filipinos risking life and limb to help rescue families threatened by rampaging floodwaters.

A taxi driver who couldn't stand the thought of not doing anything, as he watched a man with four of his children holding on to each other in the middle of the swift currents of the swollen Marikina river, tied a rope around his waist and jumped in to help tow the victims to safety. The good Samaritan had four children of his own, one a newborn. Had he drowned in the rescue effort, his family would have been left to fend for themselves, facing an uncertain future.

This is what we have been reduced to -- a people left to fend for ourselves, to survive not just the cruelties of fate and the wrath of nature, but the greed, selfishness, incompetence and treasonous proclivities of government officials, our so-called public servants. ###