October 19, 2006

Makati stand-off: The bigger picture

I stood on the steps of the entrance to the Makati City Hall, taking in the sights and sounds of the latest political stand-off in the heart of the country’s premier business center, where an embattled mayor fights off what is widely perceived to be political persecution by his sworn enemy, no less than the de facto president, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Mayor Jejomar Binay’s fortitude and will to stand his ground is most apparent. He appears calm and focused as he is approached by a throng of concerned followers, supporters and mass media people lured by an unfolding real-life drama that could have some unusual twists and quite unexpected outcomes.

Mr. Binay’s preparation for this moment is clearly more than psychological: there is a sense of order and direction despite the tense atmosphere, the constant stream of people and the bellowing of the loud speaker conveying the ongoing program where speakers take turns lambasting the government and calling on the crowd to chant Binay’s name in a demonstration of their loyal support.

The threat that the police and even army troops will storm Mr. Binay’s bastion, a twenty-two story, modern high rise rivaling those in the central business district, is real. It can also happen earlier than expected should Malacanang take the option of trying to nip in the bud what Mr. Binay’s supporters hope will become, at least, a mini “people power” phenomenon. On the other hand, a bloody assault could be politically costly and provoke even more widespread outrage and set into motion events that could spin out of control.

There is an unmistakable feel of traditional, patronage politics in the air. After all, Mr. Binay is not just a well-entrenched local politician in one of the wealthiest cities of Metro Manila, he is also the head of UNO or the United Opposition, a loose alliance of opposition parties and personalities that he is most instrumental in cobbling together, to do battle with an unpopular but wily and ruthless Malacanang occupant. Moreover, most of several hundreds of people gathered in front of the city hall are Mr. Binay’s poor constituents in Makati, beneficiaries of years of the city government’s largesse in the form of fairly generous social services and benefits.

Yet the presence of the broad array of groups and forces that have been working for more than a year in trying to force Mrs. Arroyo to step down from power -- in the wake of irrefutable evidence of massive cheating during the last presidential elections, of plunder of the national treasury and wanton abuse of authority by Mrs. Arroyo and her subalterns, and of grievous human rights violations including unabated extrajudicial killings of activists and suspected dissidents -- is the best proof that the political crisis in Makati is not really about its mayor much less his alleged crimes in office.

First things first, is the preventive suspension order issued by Malacanang valid? Mr. Binay contends that it is not. He is accused of placing “ghost employees”, i.e. employees who do not exist, on the payroll of the city but there is no clear proof of such. There is not even a listing of who the alleged “ghost employees” are and in what departments they are said to have been spuriously employed. Neither is there evidence Mr. Binay is responsible for hiring such alleged non-existent city hall employees nor that he tolerated their alleged anomalous drawing of salaries from the government.

With not even the flimsiest of grounds for a Malacanang-ordered preventive suspension, other circumstances contribute to the suspicion that the move to force Mr. Binay from the mayorship of Makati is a brazen abuse of presidential power meant to systematically eliminate the strongholds of the Opposition and substantially weaken if not destroy their ability to challenge Mrs. Arroyo’s illegitimate rule.

For one, the preventive suspension has been leveled against not only the mayor but the vice-mayor and all of the members of the city council. All the better to demolish Mr. Binay’s residual political control or influence in the city government?

Secondly, the complainant against Mr. Binay is a perennial loser for the mayoralty who has made it his lifetime ambition to cut Mr. Binay down to size. When asked by reporters if he would accept an offer to take over in the event that the incumbent is successfully removed from office, he is said to have immodestly announced his willingness to serve the remainder of Mr. Binay’s term. Why was Malacanang only too eager to entertain this complaint at this time?

Why didn’t Mrs. Arroyo’s bright boys undertake due diligence to investigate the matter fully before unceremoniously trying to kick Mr. Binay out? Indeed, the tentacles of the Chief Executive, from the Executive Secretary to the Department of Interior and Local Governments to the Philippine National Police, have all acted with indecent haste, if not uncharacteristic efficiency, in issuing the preventive suspension and then plotting the mayor’s bodily removal from his office.

The larger picture must be shown for all to see. This is not just another mayor’s desperate fight to remain in office in the wake of charges of graft and corruption.

It is the latest in the wave of illegal, criminal assaults by a politically isolated regime against those who have the will and the capacity to bring about the broad united front of political forces necessary in order to rid the country of Mrs. Arroyo’s dastardly leadership.###

*Published in Business World
20-21 October 2006

October 13, 2006

A cry for justice

Once again, another victim of extrajudicial killings has fallen but this time the assassins have done the unthinkable. They have murdered not just a man of the cloth, but a bishop no less; one who had served as the Obispo Maximo, or pope, of the Iglesia Filipina Independencia (IFI). And they did it right inside his parish church as he lay sleeping, utterly defenseless.

Why is it that Bishop Ramento’s family, his fellow priests and most of his flock, as well as his admirers and friends are one in saying that they suspect his murder to be politically motivated? Why, on the other hand, is the Philippine National Police (PNP) insistent that this is an open and shut case of robbery with homicide?

We look for motive. Who would want Bishop Ramento dead?

It is clear from all the testimonials we have heard about him that the good bishop was admired and highly respected as a church leader, not just in the country but internationally.

He lived a modest life ministering to his flock that included impoverished “street children” whom he fed and gave pocket money to so that they could keep studying. He was assiduous in providing inspiration and support to his beleaguered priests in Tarlac and nearby provinces; many of them had been tagged “communists” or “communist sympathizers” as they persevered working in highly militarized areas. He had no personal enemies.

But he went beyond works of charity and church ritual. The causes he espoused and fought for ranged from human, civil and political rights, social justice, freedom from neocolonial impositions, good and upright governance to a just and lasting peace that addresses the root causes of armed conflict.

Concretely, Bishop Ramento vigorously opposed government socio-economic policies that spell poverty and misery for the majority of the people and their continued exploitation by the elite. He took up the cudgels for oppressed workers and peasants especially those who fought for their rights and were under attack such as the striking farm and sugar mill workers of Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac.

He denounced the systematic fraud that attended the 2004 presidential elections and called for Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to resign or be ousted. He took an uncompromising but principled position rejecting Mrs. Arroyo’s push for Charter change. He courageously stood up against military incursions into and abuse of civilian communities, political killings of progressives and activists and other forms of state terrorism.

In short, he fit the Arroyo regime’s description of “destabilizer” and “enemy” to a tee. It did not surprise him therefore that he had been included in the military’s “order of battle,” that he was on the receiving end of numerous anonymous death threats and that he would be surveilled and harassed in various ways obvious and subtle.

But like many other victims of summary executions, Bishop Ramento took no extraordinary measures to protect himself. He remained vulnerable because he did not have the means nor did he wish to hire bodyguards; he did not have a well-secured office nor residence; and many times he commuted through public transportation as he went about his pastoral duties. He believed that his protection lay in fearlessly exposing and denouncing political persecution and state terrorism wherever and whenever it took place.

We in Bayan were hoping against hope that the local and international uproar against the spate of political killings and other grievous human rights violations under the Arroyo regime would stay the hand of the fascists and the rabid anti-communists in Malacanang. Then the news came about the brutal murder of the well-loved Bishop Ramento. This latest outrage brings the political killings as well as their official cover-up to a new and higher level.

What does the PNP posit as motive for his murder? According to the investigators and even Task Force Usig, the case is simple and straightforward: “robbery with homicide”. They have the suspects and the stolen goods to show for it. Case closed.

But why would petty criminals choose to rob Bishop Ramento when his parish church is so obviously a poor man’s church. The bishop’s simple, even frugal, lifestyle is well known in the community and is entirely consistent with a cursory inspection of the church premises.

True, petty thieves had struck two previous times, on September 11 and 23 of this year. They got a dvd player and some cash; later, another dvd player (a replacement for the one they stole) and a low-end cell phone but not much else. The first time, the bishop was not around; the second time, he was asleep and they left him unharmed.

In fact, one of the suspects that the police now accuse of robbing and killing the bishop, was identified by witnesses to the theft that had earlier taken place. Why would these thieves come back so soon, so brazenly, a little more than a week later, knowing as they did, if indeed they were the same felons, that there was nothing more of value that they could get? And why did they attack the bishop, stabbing him seven times, with obvious intent to kill?

The police want the public to believe that the purported thieves killed Bishop Ramento in the unlikely scenario that he fought them off to protect his earthly possessions, of which he had very little. Quite conveniently, his body was found in the sala of his quarters and not in the bedroom. But there were blood stains in the bedroom so the attack must have started there. Curiously, the autopsy report didn’t show that there had been a struggle. Why don’t the police have any theories about how he was killed?

Why were the police investigators led by Tarlac police director Senior Supt. Nicanor Bartolome so precipitate in their conclusions? They didn’t they even secure the crime scene properly and allowed it to be contaminated by the entry of so many people before and after their spot investigation.

Why won’t the PNP give any credence to the theory that Bishop Ramento’s slay could be another political killing. Mrs. Arroyo herself formed Task Force Usig (Task Force Probe), then the much ballyhooed Melo Commission, supposedly to look into accusations of political killings happening nationwide. Why didn’t they even make any sort of investigation along these lines?

Why for example, didn’t they follow up their lead about a motorcycle sighted by an IFI priest outside the bishop’s residence the day before the killing. In fact they didn’t even take any statements from the family and the local priests but were content with an initial affidavit of the victim’s companion that could be interpreted to favor the robbery angle.

Where is the material evidence that would irrefutably place the suspects on the scene of the crime? The PNP have nothing except “confessions” and the alleged stolen items that the relatives and the bishop’s staff have yet to identify but which the police are quick to say was indeed the bishop’s.

After the hue and cry about the GMA regime’s track record vis a vis the political killings – her regime’s complicity and the reigning impunity of perpetrators – it would appear that the known pattern of gun-wielding, motorcycle-riding assassins was avoided in this instance. The bishop is made to appear a victim of a random, common crime.

Now the police in this country are notorious for doing sloppy investigations, as a matter of habit or deliberately, and in coming up with fall guys who they beat into “confessing”. Worse, where state forces such as the military or their surrogate death squads are involved under the framework of the government’s current counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, (Oplan Freedom Watch), the police will have all the necessary “evidence” to undertake another horrendous cover-up.

The public is not new to this. Didn’t it take the PNP forever to find “Garci”, the elections official accused of engineering massive fraud to favor Mrs. Arroyo in the last presidential elections? Didn’t they cover up for the military’s intelligence arm, ISAFP, when the latter illegally raided the apartment of defeated (some say, cheated) vice presidential candidate Loren Legarda’s handwriting expert? Didn’t they arrest militant trade union leader and now Congressman Crispin Beltran and attempted to do the same to five other progressive parliamentarians on trumped-up charges through an illegal arrest without warrant? Aren’t they manufacturing witnesses and spurious documentation for their campaign to run after Mrs. Arroyo’s political opponents?

The activist organizations under attack have experienced the suspected military’s breaking and entering offices in order to undertake theft of documents and whatever “incriminating” material they can find, for intelligence purposes as well as to further case their targets before “neutralization”. The police have dutifully recorded these in their blotters as simple cases of “theft”.

But there was nothing worth stealing from the bishop except the life he had dedicated to the fight for truth, social justice, a better lot for the exploited and oppressed and genuine peace. Clearly the authorities are not at all interested in finding out who would have wanted and benefited from snuffing out such a life.

Let us rage until justice is served for Bishop Alberto Ramento and all victims of political killings under the Arroyo regime!###

*Published in Business World
13 – 14 October 2006

October 05, 2006

Unconventional father

On the tenth anniversary of his death, Dad was on my mind. But it was also the anniversary of martial law and it seemed inappropriate to write a column musing about him even if I thought I would write about how a parent raised his activist kid without really trying.

Well, readers deserve a break, so here goes a not-so-dutiful daughter’s tribute to a father long gone but still, ever so fondly, remembered.

Dad wasn’t a rollicking fun, teddy bear-huggable type of father when I was growing up, the youngest in a brood of five girls and one boy. (I was born after a serious but obviously failed attempt to produce another boy.)

He was the typical driven executive of a multinational company who was busy entertaining clients and socializing with the top company honchos way past office hours. At home he could be playful but for the most part he was preoccupied, aloof and a bit of a disciplinarian.

While I was hands down, Mom’s favorite, it had always been the eldest who was Papa’s girl. She was the campus beauty who took what was then considered a “man’s course” and was always top of her class; who acted like a boy with her self-assurance and devil-may-care attitude. So I was always self-conscious when I had conversations with Dad, wondering whether what I had to say would meet with his approval.

One of my defining experiences with my father as an eight-year-old was when I found myself excitedly blurting something out to him as he ate his Sunday breakfast. He replied curtly, “Speak clearly, enunciate your words and make yourself understood.” Thus did he give me my first lesson on how to talk to a person in authority; a lesson that would hold me in good stead in years to come when I have had to negotiate, mediate or otherwise hold my ground with all sorts of persons in authority.

Dad played golf and practiced his swing at home. My job was to replace the golf balls on the tee as quickly as I could for which chore he paid me with coins to fill my piggy bank. I did learn the value of working for one’s keep early in life even though unlike today’s child worker, I “worked” not to survive but to add to my horde of coins.

For some reason, I took to regularly helping our old Ilocano cook wash the dishes. One day, Dad saw me perched on a stool in front of the kitchen sink. He remarked matter-of-factly, “Wash it again; there’s still oil on the plate.” He then ran his index finger down the just washed plate to show that it didn’t pass his standard of cleanliness no matter my exemplary behavior.

Frankly, washing dishes was not something that I expected anybody’s pat on the back for, least of all my Dad’s, but his casual remark has been written indelibly on my brain as a classic admonition to do one’s job well or not do it at all.

Dad and Mom were outstanding students in high school; they were in friendly competition with one another and if my memory serves me right, he graduated valedictorian while she finished salutatorian. But Dad didn’t actually get his college degree because he didn’t finish his Reserve Officers Training Course (ROTC), the mandatory military training at the collegiate level. I could empathize with him on this shortcoming since I had the impression ROTC consisted of endless marching drills, boring lectures on military science and having to kowtow to the not-so-bright but pushy officers.

He didn’t talk much about it (likely he didn’t want to encourage any of his children in the direction of being a college dropout) but that fact in his life impressed upon me that my father had a kind of rebellious streak deep inside of him. The enigma appealed to me despite the fact that I soon realized -- as I became more and more involved in student activism in the university – that my father was quite a successful, if conservative to liberal, capitalist.

When martial law was declared and I went “underground” to avoid arrest, my parents met me in an uncle’s house to appeal to me to stop my "foolishness" and come back home. I was going on nineteen, had just been elected University of the Philippines Student Council Vice-Chairperson and had decided, like many others, to join the resistance movement against the Marcos Dictatorship.

Dad told me that should I refuse their entreaties and instead join my comrades in a precarious life on the run, I would be on my own. Half suspecting that he didn’t mean it but was merely testing my resoluteness, I calmly said I couldn’t come home while others were fighting the fascists. I was completely taken aback when he broke down and sobbed; he knew I had made my decision and he could no longer invoke parental authority to make me change my mind. In that sense I was “on my own.”

A year and a half later, in the office of the Fifth Constabulary Unit (5th CSU), Camp Crame, where I was brought after being arrested without charges, Dad embraced me tightly and said in a steady voice loud enough to be heard by the military men guarding me, “I guess you know what you’re doing, right?” And I nodded my head slowly to reassure him, as much as to reassure myself.

But he and my Mom never really stopped doing everything they could to keep me from experiencing physical torture at the hands of the 5th CSU, a notorious Philippine Constabulary (the precursor of the Philippine National Police) unit and to get me out of detention. Years later I found out that they paid a hefty sum to a lady lawyer who had friends in high places in the military; likely, her services included bribing some officials to facilitate my early release from detention.

I went back to the university upon release from detention to finish my undergraduate course and then took up medicine. By that time, my parents, especially Dad, were happy enough that I was not in hiding and so did little to try to alter my political views. But in the 1978 Metro Manila-wide, hugely successful noise barrage against the dictatorship, Dad complained tongue-in-cheek about losing his new job at a firm owned by a Marcos crony if we didn’t stop making such a ruckus.

I guess Dad quietly rued the fact that I never really succeeded in the usual, mainstream way by having a fine house, a nice car, grand vacations and enough extra income to help aging parents cope with their dwindling income and the rising cost of living. But I knew he took pride in my standing up for, and living by my principles, no matter that he thought them quixotic.

In fact, in a last bid to try to put some pragmatism into a middle-aged, activist daughter’s head, Dad came to see me one day, after the Berlin Wall had collapsed and the Soviet Union had started to disintegrate. He earnestly posed this question, “Don’t you want to rethink your Marxist philosophy and your socialist perspective now that these ‘communist’ regimes have fallen?”

I smiled sheepishly and answered, “My nationalist and democratic viewpoint and hopes for a better world remain as valid today as they were when I was a young girl marching the streets and dodging bullets. You know how tenacious I can be, Dad, it’s in the genes.”

He never spoke about it again but in time, I really think he learned to appreciate, respect and be content with what his youngest daughter had become -- in no small measure due to his rather unconventional fathering. ###

* This column failed to reach Business World last week because of Typhoon Milenyo.