January 25, 2008

A call for moral leadership

One of the key elements of the People Power I and II uprisings that toppled the Marcos dictatorship and then the Estrada presidency was the timely intervention of Jaime Cardinal Sin -- the jovial and incomparably politically astute head of the wealthy Archdiocese of Manila -- to tip the balance against the ruling regimes in favor of Opposition leaders "Cory" Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

It is quite understandable that in these politically volatile times when another sitting President is again accused of corruption, electoral fraud, violations of human rights as well as maneuvering to stay in power long after her term ends, many quarters pine for the emergence of another Cardinal Sin.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) gathers for its biennial plenary session this January. There have been a flurry of meetings in the run-up to the CBCP meeting as both Malacanang and the stalwarts of anti-Arroyo groups attempt to get the ear of the bishops and convince to them to lend moral authority to their respective positions.

Executive Secretary Ermita has admitted to inviting a group of bishops to the Palace for briefings by Cabinet secretaries as well as to hear out the church leaders’ concerns. In the past Mrs. Arroyo's operatives have been caught red-handed distributing envelops stuffed with cash right where their Eminences were holding their closed-door meetings; in the process both the giver and the recipients of such presidential largesse have become tainted.

The GMA regime's defenders have also taken advantage of the built-in conservatism of individual bishops, i.e. their tendency to concern themselves exclusively with their diocesan affairs and not be bothered with national issues.

Malacanang is notorious for channeling government funds into the social amelioration programs of government-friendly if not pro-GMA bishops and priests. This is viewed by many as a thinly-disguised move to further coopt the princes of the church and sustain their outspoken or tacit support for the government.

In contrast, the anti-Arroyo forces have had neither the clout nor the resources to get the bishops to pay attention to their appeals, much less to convince them to use their moral suasion to intervene in the political arena. Last year's CBCP stand against moves to amend the Constitution in order to allow Mrs. Arroyo to extend her term of office beyond 2010 was a rare exception.

It would seem that only the gravity and the unabated deterioration of the socio-economic and political situation has kept the bishops from completely retreating into the safety of political ambiguity or passivity.

The legacy of the late Cardinal Sin has dimmed and diminished over time especially since signals emanating from the Vatican itself have discouraged such kind of clerical activism. Certainly the Pope's partitioning of the once mighty archdiocese of Manila into four distinct dioceses, each with its own head, has served to undercut the power -- both spiritual and temporal -- of any would-be Sin successor.

In any case, it is clear that the bishops continue to exercise considerable influence over the laity who constitutes a sizeable majority of the population. This influence is first of all spiritual and moral, and by extension political, as the moral dimension of political problems and issues assumes prominence and urgency.

Whatever be the final judgment on Cardinal Sin's controversial intervention in the political arena, the fact is the bishops cannot isolate themselves from what is going on and cannot continue to remain silent, wittingly or unwittingly serving as props to a regime widely perceived to be illegitimate, morally bankrupt and the cause of intolerable hardships and brutality inflicted upon the people.

In fact the bishops need not do a Cardinal Sin -- by way of taking the political lead and directly calling for either the resignation or the ouster of GMA -- in order to fulfill their mandates as shepherds of their flock. All that the faithful asks of the church leadership is to provide the moral compass, the parameters and guidelines of what constitutes right and wrong, good and evil.

For example, is it all right for Mrs. Arroyo to admit to improperly calling Comelec Commissioner Garcillano in 2004 to discuss how her votes as a presidential candidate can be assured and then obstruct all attempts to investigate such impropriety including Congressional moves to determine whether she had engaged in wholesale electoral fraud to win a new six-year term?

Is it all right for Mrs. Arroyo to invoke executive privilege and prevent a thoroughgoing investigation into allegations of multi-billion peso corrupt deals involving members of her Cabinet, her husband and political supporters cum business cronies?

Is it morally correct that all the people, many of whom are barely surviving, are paying indirect taxes in the form of a 12 per cent value-added tax on goods and services, while the Arroyo administration uses the money for debt servicing, gargantuan military and police budgets and for bribing congressmen and local government officials into tolerating the regime’s wrongdoings and partaking of the orgy of graft and corruption?

Is it acceptable for Mrs. Arroyo to praise a notorious human rights violator, Gen. Jovito Palparan, as a champion of democracy and protect him from prosecution long after innumerable international bodies and even her own Melo Commission had identified his culpability for ordering extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture as well as the displacement of entire civilian communities? Is it all right to turn a blind eye to such gross human rights violations in the name of counter-insurgency?

The crisis of political legitimacy of the Arroyo regime has become a crisis of a morally bankrupt leadership as proven by its own sins of commission and omission. In survey after survey, it is seen by a majority to be consistent in lying to the people, in protecting plunderers, murderers and torturers and in aggravating the economic plight of the people despite glowing economic reports and empty promises of ending hunger, poverty and inequality.

The bishops and the CBCP are not being asked to do the impossible. It is their duty and responsibility as spiritual and moral leaders to denounce evil whenever and wherever they see it and to accompany and guide the faithful as they battle such evil – in whatever arena, including the political.

They must show the example lest the Church, the laity in particular, construe that faith and religion are divorced from the real world, or worse, irrelevant to the life-and-death struggles and everyday concerns of ordinary people. ###

*Published in Business World
25-26 January 2008

January 17, 2008

Power to the people

Just before the seventh anniversary of People Power II, the popular uprising that toppled the Estrada government and allowed then Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to take over, government officials have been busy whipping up rumors of “destabilization” plots against her. Just like hyped-up “terrorist” threats, many believe that this is being done to justify more politically repressive measures against any and all mass protest and all forms of opposition to government policies and Mrs. Arroyo’s discredited leadership.

The objective is to preempt the resurgence of the Oust GMA movement while Charter change, i.e. amendments to the Philippine Constitution in order to remove term limits for Mrs. Arroyo, is pushed once more. The ultimate aim is to allow Mrs. Arroyo not only to complete her term of office in 2010 but also to remain in power long after and in effect evade any accountability for all her wrongdoings.

Certainly the GMA regime can see that deceptive measures, by and large, are no longer effective in covering up its trail of crimes from corruption to fraud to betrayal of the national interest to extrajudicial killings and other wholesale violations of human rights.

While trumpeting the claim that the government is winning its counter-insurgency war against the New People’s Army, both Armed Forces Chief General Esperon and Police Chief General Razon are asking for more and strengthened coercive powers such as a revived Anti-Subversion Law, a national I.D. system for population control, three thousand additional soldiers supported by thousands more paramilitary forces, as well as the saturation of urban areas with military troops, including the National Capital Region with its own euphemistically dubbed urban militarization program, Metroshield. Of course the proven GMA loyalist and guard dog, General Esperon, hopes to buttress Mrs. Arroyo’s moves to extend his term as AFP chief.

GMA subalterns are trying to smuggle into the public consciousness the insidious line that the rallies and demonstrations that accompanied the “people power” uprising seven years ago are today part and parcel of conspiratorial “destabilization” moves against the GMA regime. This just goes to show that Mrs. Arroyo never understood what those four days of massive protest and upheaval meant except that it gave her the opportunity to seize power.

From day one of Mrs. Arroyo’s presidency, she turned her back on “people power”, even laying legal claim to her position on the basis of the fictive resignation by former President Estrada. At some point Mrs. Arroyo even publicly admitted to conspiring with anti-Estrada military officials and other s in the anti-Estrada factions of the ruling elite to forcibly remove Mr. Estrada from power. She saw nothing wrong with her actions at the time but today her own government would straight away label similar acts by the Opposition as “destabilization”.

The truth is that People Power I and II, were no less than the direct and awesome assertion of the sovereign will of the people. While they constitute an extra-constitutional mode of removing an incumbent President and replacing him with another, they were not unconstitutional. They were justified beforehand by the extreme oppressiveness of the regimes that the people decided to overthrow, and justified after the fact by their success, which eventually earned the people’s stamp of approval and recognition by the international community.

Self-styled political analysts for their part repeatedly make pronouncements about the demise of “people power”, something that the GMA apologists silently applaud. They say that “people power” is passé; it has failed the test of ushering in meaningful reforms in government and thus people are skeptical about its validity as a means of bringing about change.

Again the truth is that while the ordinary citizen is sorely disappointed with the aftermath of People Power I and II – with no significant, much less fundamental, changes wrought in the political and social system and more so, life having become even more difficult and the future, more bleak – this doesn’t mean that the people have given up on their aspirations for real empowerment, for a better life, a better government. It also doesn’t mean that they are no longer willing to take action to make these aspirations come true.

What they have learned is that an uprising that only results in a change of faces is meaningless and a waste of time and effort. That what is needed is a qualitative change in leadership, in terms of a pro-Filipino, pro-people program of government and a step away from the previously elite composition of government to a much more democratic representation from the majority classes and sectors of society, who are poor, exploited and oppressed.

In order to convince the people to act to empower themselves, all the way up to the sovereign act of changing their leaders through extra-constitutional means, painstaking and persistent efforts at raising political awareness is an absolute necessity.

The phenomenon of “people power” cannot be reduced to a purely spontaneous event triggered by some outrage but the result of an accumulation of favorable developments, build-up in the strength of organized forces and in the momentum of the mass movement as well as a triggering event. No one can predict way in advance when, how and in what specific form “people power” will once again take place for it cannot be recreated mechanically using past experiences as a rigid model.

Indeed, it is of overriding importance to arouse, mobilize and organize the people to boot out the intolerably oppressive Arroyo regime and replace it with a democratic, reform-oriented and pro-people government. Short of actually achieving this within the next two years, the movement for genuine change and people empowerment can continually raise our people’s awareness of what ails Philippine society and where lie the solutions; which leaders and political forces will reliably and consistently stand with them; and how this people’s struggle can be carried out to a victorious conclusion.

In the process, short-term gains are achieved including thwarting or keeping at bay the more destructive and repressive policies of the Arroyo regime. And in the long-run, the favorable conditions for a more profound and sweeping overhaul of this moribund and crisis-ridden social order are being laid. ###

*Published in Business World
18-19 January 2008