December 23, 2006

Missing the moment

It took some effort to sustain enthusiasm for the “prayer rally” originally called by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) last Sunday to protest the brazenly illegal and undemocratic maneuvers of the Arroyo-de Venecia-led House Majority to convene a constituent assembly (con-ass) in order to revise the Philippine Constitution for their dubious political ends. Something had gone terribly awry after the beacon call was first issued and before the actual rally took place. The proof lay in the disappointing turn-out after organizers themselves had projected half a million Metro Manilans would take part in the protest.

What had gone wrong? It is not difficult to come up with the most plausible reasons.

One, days before the rally, the de facto president, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, finally backed off from the con-ass scheme she and Speaker de Venecia had plotted to carry out using the dominance of her allies in the Lower House. Malacanang clearly meant to douse cold water on the widespread anger. Thus the sense of urgency to stop the convening of the constituent assembly was undercut. This was unremarkably followed by Mr. de Venecia’s own abject about face after attempting to shift the blame on the immoveable senators with a challenge for the Senate to call for a Constitutional convention within 72 hours.

Two, the psychological warfare launched by the military and police, exemplified by the Armed Forces Chief General Esperon’s dire warnings of “terrorist” mayhem -- completely baseless, malicious and part and parcel of the authorities’ standard bag of tricks to dissuade people from joining mass protests -- served to scare off a number of parishioners, students and the more conservative faithful from joining the rally, despite their pastors’ exhortations.

The first two reasons would be enough to dampen the enthusiasm of most of the unorganized or the spontaneous throng from going out of their way, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, to the Rizal Park to join the rally. But a third reason was ironically provided by the organizers themselves, the bishops and most especially, the high-profile lay leaders, who acted as the bishops mouthpieces with regard to the event.

The apparent softening of the stand of Their Eminences, with the declaration that the theme of protest would be supplanted with “thanksgiving”, turned off many people, particularly those who were itching to deliver a categorical message of rejection of all the hare-brained schemes by Malacanang to push Charter change (Cha-cha), the con-ass only being the latest of these, but including as well any further rehashing of the so-called “people’s initiative” and the hasty election of a Constitutional Convention.

For what was there to be thankful for except that the fear of another people power uprising had stopped the much ballyhooed Arroyo-de Venecia Charter change Express in its tracks. There was still much that was wrong with the current political leadership that had to be exposed, denounced and fought against by an awakened and aroused people.

The political forces that have been consistently active in the Oust Arroyo Movement, from Left to Right, and much of the middle class who watched the live coverage of the House deliberations on con-ass and were pissed off by the pro-administration congressmen’s shenanigans, were also very much turned off by the organizers’ penchant for putting up obstacles to the unencumbered participation of people from all walks of life, religious beliefs or politics in the CBCP-initiated rally.

The prohibition against protest paraphernalia such as placards, banners and streamers, against organizations’ identifying insignias, against supposed “politicians” and “show business” personalities mounting the stage, etc. was uncalled for and counter-productive. The tendency to counterpoise “prayer” and “protest” served the ends of Malacanang to diffuse, diminish and blunt the political impact of the broadly-supported action against con-ass, Cha-cha and, verily, against the Arroyo regime itself.

At the mammoth rally called by Cardinal Sin in 1996 against then President Fidel V. Ramos’ Cha-cha, activist and other organizations were merely asked that banners and streamers be lowered when the prayers started. There were no loud announcements about who was welcome and who was not although it was par for the course that those politically attuned to Cardinal Sin and former President Corazon Aquino would be given prominence.

With regard to government red-baiting, including supposed plots by the New People’s Army to disrupt the protest, Cardinal Sin merely pooh-poohed these and said that he and “Joma” (Professor Jose Ma. Sison, the founding chairperson of the reestablished Communist Party of the Philippines) had already written to one another and he had the latter’s assurance that the communists were not planning anything that would spoil the objectives of the gathering.

Not a few non-Catholics or the more ecumenical and broad-minded among them were embarrassed by the ill-disguised preeminence given to the Catholic religion, for example, by having the stage prominently reserved for the bishops, priests and their lay assistants. Many wondered about the declared “inter-faith” nature of the event.

Unfortunately, last Sunday’s prayer rally failed to write finis to Malacanang-led schemes to overhaul the 1987 Constitution for its diabolical ends. Sadly, it appears to have even emboldened Mrs. Arroyo and her equally power-hungry cohorts to try again, once the furor dies down and the institutional and socio-political forces ranged against Cha-cha appear to be faltering.

Mrs. Arroyo did not waste time in serving notice that she is still bent on pushing Cha-cha, although she is coy about when and how, in light of overwhelming rejection of the Congressional con men’s attempt to foist the constituent assembly on the nation. This is certainly reminiscent of her infamous "I will not run" declaration before the 2004 presidential elections. (Hmm, didn't the good bishops say something about the quest for truth?) Meantime Mrs. Arroyo’s allies have given the CBCP a veritable “up yours” to show what they think of the bishops’ limp-wristed attempt to rally the faithful against con-ass and other unresolved issues.

At the end of the day, the Arroyo regime is still around, badly battered but seemingly able to undertake some more clever moves to avoid a knock-out punch from its opponents.

Lessons for all regarding leadership in the anti-Cha-cha struggle and indeed, in the movement for genuine and meaningful reforms, short of a sweeping social and political revolution, are there to be learned.

The good bishops, witting or unwitting heirs to the savvy religio-political leadership earlier displayed by the wily Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, were neither calling for a revolution or even just a revolt.

They didn’t have to, but clearly, they had squandered a moment of kairos*.

* The term "kairos" is used in theology to describe the “appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts. In rhetoric kairos is "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved." (E. C. White, Kaironomia)

**Published in Business World, 22-23 December 2006

December 18, 2006


Observers of the political scene in the Philippines wonder about the angry uproar across a wide cross-section of the population over the indecent haste with which Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s allies in the Lower House of Congress attempted to railroad the convening of a constituent assembly or “con-ass” that would bring about sweeping changes in the Constitution. The answer is captured so succinctly in a text message sent by a friend with a knack for puns: “con-ass”, he said, stands for a con job perpetrated by a bunch of assh---s.

Why a con job? In the guise of pushing for fundamental and wide-ranging reforms in the decrepit and rotten political system, in particular the shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system and from a bicameral to a unicameral parliament, Speaker de Venecia and his henchmen were caught red-handed in the heinous act of mangling the constitutional provision on amendments and throwing out the long-standing rules and procedures of the Lower House for their self-serving ends as well as that of their patroness, Mrs. Arroyo.

No one really believed the Arroyo-de Venecia noble-sounding rhetoric about political reform, anyway. It was clear that Mrs. Arroyo feared the outcome of the May 2007 elections that opinion surveys consistently predicted would see her candidates trounced and, thus, the serious threat of her being impeached later in the year, by an opposition-dominated House of Representatives. It was also clear that Speaker de Venecia lusted after the powerful position of prime minister in a parliamentary system given that his presidential ambitions under the current set-up were next to impossible. (He already tried once and lost, to the movie idol, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who in turn, was ousted in a subsequent popular uprising.)

Moreover, the shift to a parliamentary form of government would allow the incumbent legislators (including those whose terms were about to expire) to continue in power indefinitely. This would be accomplished first, by the simple means of postponing the May, and likely subsequent constitutionally-mandated elections. Second, by transforming the current Congress dominated by Mrs. Arroyo’s subalterns and bootlickers into the “new, improved” parliament with the combined powers of the executive and legislative branches of government led by the “transitional president”, Mrs. Arroyo, and the “transitional prime minister”, Mr. de Venecia.

No wonder, Mr. de Venecia and the Majority in the House of Representatives (an oxymoronic phrase, if ever there was one) did not bother with any parliamentary niceties, such as rules of procedure, and a modicum of democratic processes, such as allowing the members of the Minority to ventilate their opposing views, but instead resorted to the tyranny of their numbers to get want they wanted, in as short a time as possible.

Television viewers were treated to the spectacle of administration congressmen maneuvering while the opposition heroically attempted to thwart such maneuvers, till the wee hours of the morning, for two consecutive days, even as the nation was still reeling from the disastrous effects of a killer typhoon that had battered the southern part of Luzon and adjoining provinces.

To top it all, the Arroyo-de Venecia main co-conspirators such as Messrs. Salapuddin, Jaraula, Lagman, Villafuerte, Nograles, Pichay, del Mar and Cagas took turns contorting and breaking the House rules, insulting those opposed to “con-ass” with their convoluted and perverse arguments, and flaunting their capacity to run roughshod over all considerations of due process, fairness and decency because they were in the Majority.

In particular, a certain Congresswoman Susano, notorious for riding a white Cadillac limousine to office, crowed that she had nothing to apologize for in voting in favor of “con-ass” because she had just given the Catholic Church a 4-million-peso donation and that she wished to “congratulate Prime Minister JVC, este, JdV” in advance.

Such crass behavior confirmed for most, just how low the House had sunk, under the baton of the insecure yet power-hungry Arroyo-de Venecia leadership.

The Arroyo-de Venecia scheme was so blatantly foul and self-serving that leaders of the influential El Shaddai (a religio-political charismatic movement) and the Catholic Bishops Conference in the Philippines (CBCP), known for their circumspect, if not conservative, wait-and-see positions, instantly condemned the “con-ass” maneuver and announced massive protest actions against it.

Despite the hasty retreat of the proponents of “con-ass” in the face of the public outcry, the CBCP is correct in calling on one and all to join the prayer rally on Sunday at the Rizal Park. In part, it is to give a resounding finis to “con-ass” and other schemes of the Arroyo-de Venecia cabal to rewrite the Constitution for their own selfish ends. More than this, it is to send a clear message that the people are awakened and are ready to act with a vengeance should the current political leadership persist in its anti-people and anti-democratic course.

Certainly, the declarations of the leaders of the El Shaddai, CBCP, Jesus is Lord and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines threaten to provide the spontaneous mass that was lacking in previous anti-government demonstrations. The “con-ass” job was just the kind of miscalculation, triggered by insatiable greed, that could finally provoke the outrage of an otherwise resilient populace, the massive outrage that many have observed to be the lacking ingredient in past protest rallies and other mass actions.

That the masterminds still have the wiliness to retreat temporarily does not mean they have lost their gluttonous appetite for more power, privilege and wealth. Power blinds and absolute power blinds absolutely. What this episode clearly shows is that those in power hardly learn the lessons from fallen regimes and are thus bound to repeat the errors of their predecessors.

*Published in Business World
15-16 December 2006

December 01, 2006

US interference

Now the cat is out of the bag. Resigned Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz recently revealed, in so many words, that the Arroyo administration contemplated declaring martial law last January in light of intelligence reports of a looming open rebellion in the military cum massive street protests calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s ouster. More telling is Mr. Cruz’ admission that the United States government, through then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and US Director for National Intelligence John Negroponte, explicitly nixed the plan and signaled that the Bush administration would not support such a move.

That Mrs. Arroyo eventually stopped short of declaring martial law but instead settled for the proclamation of a legally ambiguous “state of national emergency,” Presidential Proclamation 1017, last February 24, says a lot about whose word matters with her administration.

To the doubting Thomases out there who insist that we are a bona fide republic and that the US is not in the habit of interfering in the country’s domestic affairs, think again. But one may well ask, isn’t this kind of interference, a good-intentioned and benevolent one? Unfortunately, such is not the track record of the US government’s involvement in the volatile political situation in this country especially at its most critical junctures.

At the turn of the century, the McKinley government deceptively offered assistance to the first Philippine republic under General Emilio Aguinaldo, in the revolution against Spain, only to subjugate and colonize the Filipino nation for the next half century after a bloody war of aggression and occupation. In more recent history, the Nixon government backed then President Ferdinand Marcos when he declared martial law and thereby established a fascist dictatorship. In later years, then Vice President George H. W. Bush praised him for his “adherence to democratic principles” at a time when Mr. Marcos was being universally reviled for his regime’s gross violations of human rights and the wanton plunder of the economy by his favored foreign and domestic business partners. It didn’t take long for the Reagan administration, to drop Mr. Marcos like a hot potato when his authoritarian rule was rapidly coming apart and threatened to drag down as well vital US economic, political and most especially, military, interests.

The lesson is not lost on Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal of advisers. No matter whose administration is at the helm of the US government, it will not allow the strategic and medium-term geopolitical interests of the world’s sole Superpower to be compromised, much more, threatened by the political crises besetting any ruling regime in the Philippines.

The warnings from Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Negroponte were meant to drive home the point: declaring martial law in a desperate bid to shore up Mrs. Arroyo’s hold on power is a risky, messy business that the US considers a serious threat to its own interests. Corollary to this, if Mrs. Arroyo can’t hack it as the dependable and stable US ally, some say puppet, in the Philippines, while maintaining the trappings of a democratic regime, she is in deep trouble and cannot rely on the US to back up a bare-faced, iron-fist rule.

Thus, the Arroyo regime’s resort to PP 1017, not yet an open declaration of martial law but with enough legal verbiage to cloak the regime with “emergency” powers. She used these powers to ban mass demonstrations that she feared would mature into an actual people’s uprising ala “people power”; to preempt the plan of anti-Arroyo military/police officers and men to “withdraw support” and thus nip an outright military/police rebellion in the bud; to illegally arrest and detain her political enemies, especially those she claimed to be behind a so-called “left-right” conspiracy to overthrow her widely perceived illegitimate government; and to clamp down on outspokenly critical and increasingly adversarial mass media establishments that had the propensity to fuel mass discontent and could trigger an explosion of outrage at her unpopular regime.

Thus, Mrs. Arroyo’s renewed declaration of “all-out war against the Left”; that is, against both the armed revolutionary movement and the legal, unarmed democratic mass movement. This has resulted in the extrajudicial killings, attempted killings and enforced disappearances of at least 1,400 activists, their supporters and those who happened to be in the way of the regime’s urban death squads and military campaigns of suppression in the rebellious countryside.

Thus, the unprecedented filing of countless harassment suits against Mrs. Arroyo’s political opponents -- from leaders of militant mass organizations to local government officials to legislators to media practitioners to former government bureaucrats.

All these without having to resort to a martial law declaration, as Mrs. Arroyo’s principal foreign backer, the US government, had made clear its preferences, its inclinations and its not-so-benevolent intentions.###

*Published in Business World
1-2 December 2006