The Year 2009

January 7, 2010

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, I am not referring to the Charles Dickens masterpiece but to 2009 and the country. If this were a kind of travel, this was one hell of a trip for us. Who would have thought that events that happened in the past 12 months would include those that straddled two extremes?

Interestingly, 2009 is in the end part of the first decade of the Third Millennium. I remember us a decade ago welcoming the entry of the new century with all the hoopla and hope attached to major milestones. By the time we reached 2009, however, it became increasingly apparent that we are into more of the same, especially in a country living in a continuing past.

So we may have to accept the reality that the past year and the coming one is not really about the old and the new but is merely, for our country, a continuation of the process of being. But I may have waxed philosophical for several sentences already, so back to the “best of times, worst of times” thing.

Two points stand out in 2009, and I am not talking about the constant, which is the unfortunate way President Arroyo has been handling this country’s affairs and the allegations of corruption hounding her administration. The first point that I may have to start off with is about the worst events of 2009, or should we say events that are worse than the usual “worsts” of past years.

Here, the Maguindanao massacre stands out. The murder of 57 people by members of the powerful Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao is considered the worst election-related violence in the country in decades for several reasons, among them being the brutality of its execution and the number and the kind of personalities executed.

The suspects also included high-ranking officials of local government units, policemen and members of civilian volunteer organizations. The weapons used in the killing and the equipment used in the attempt to hide the crime included government procured firearms and a Maguindanao government-owned back hoe. The victims were women members of a rival clan, two lawyers and 30 journalists.

The worst climate-brought tragedy in decades was the the flooding in Metro Manila and other parts of Luzon in 2009 brought about by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng. Ondoy brought six-feet floods in Metro Manila in only thirty minutes while Pepeng brought about killer landslides in Northern Luzon. Scenes of families huddled in rooftops surrounded by brownish water will remain for long.

Lest I be accused of mentioning only the “worse worsts,” 2009 also provided us with the “better bests.” There was Manny Pacquiao with his masterful performance in defeating some of the world’s renowned boxers in Ricky Hatton of Britain and Miguel Cotto of Puerto Rico. In the process he won an unprecedented seven world titles in seven divisions and became the toast of the boxing world.

And we did produce other heroes that caught international attention, like Efren Peñaflorida, awarded by the international media giant CNN as its Hero of the Year for 2009. Construction worker Muelmar Magallanes, who died while saving 30 people at the height of typhoon Ondoy, was among Time Magazine’s Top 10 Heroes of the year.

We don’t know what 2010 and the new decade will bring us. Elections will be held in May of that year and the hope is that governance will change for the better with the Arroyo administration finally out. The economy? Peace and order? Climate? Let’s just hope for the best.

(I wrote this for my January 1, 2010 “Candid Thoughts” column for Sun.Star Cebu)


Not About Mindanao’s Gun Culture

December 11, 2009

As if the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao was not shocking enough, in come the seizures of hoarded armaments in mind-boggling number in this Ampatuan clan enclave. So what kind of monster has the Arroyo administration created in Maguindanao? As days pass, I am getting convinced government has to be put to task for this chaos.

The latest find in the Ampatuan warehouse in Shariff Aquak could meet the needs of a battalion of soldiers, Lt. Col. Michael Samson, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Maguindanao told the Inquirer. Another large cache was dug up days ago in a vacant lot in Ampatuan town. The number of seized guns just continues to grow.

If that doesn’t amaze you, here’s a rundown of the warehouse items seized: 6,500 rounds of ammo for M14 assault rifles, 134 propeller missiles for 81 mm mortar, 131 propeller missiles for 60 mm mortar, six rockets for 90 mm recoilless rifles, three rocket warheads for an MG 520 attack helicopter and 92 rockets for 57 mm recoilless rifles.

A simplistic military description of the listed missiles and ammunition found in the warehouse: sufficient to obliterate a small town. No wonder they were “stunned.” Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the AFP’s Eastern Mindanao Command said that the Ampatuan private army could dwarf the other similar groups in the country.

How were they able to amass such a large cache of military hardware, most of them “Department of National Defense” issues, thus allowing then to arm a private force with an estimated 2,000 fighters? Why the obsession for sophisticated firearms? And will recent actions be enough to disable the monster the Arroyo government created?

Those armaments took years to accumulate and were either bought or supplied by the government. Consider the linkage between warlordism and control of local political power. The Ampatuan army is composed of civilian volunteer organization members under the police and military that are in turn subservient to the Ampatuans in office.

A big chunk of the cache could also have been bought, which brings us to the evil that is graft and corruption. No doubt about the wealth of the Ampatuans, as shown by those palatial homes that are anomalies in a poor province like Maguindanao. The clan’s riches are still being audited and I`m sure government coffers are among their sources.

Corruption is also obviously what made possible the transfer of the ownership of the DND armaments to private hands. If so, the Ampatuans must have spent a fortune on them and those in the military must have earned a tidy sum. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think about collusion from military higher-ups, judging from the hardware involved.

Gun culture has often been mentioned as the reason for the propensity of Muslim area residents to procure firearms for personal use. I have heard stories of how farmers in some Mindanao towns till their fields with M-16s slung across their backs. But that culture is abetted by government tolerance, which makes our laws on guns laughable.

What the military and police are currently doing against the Ampatuans shows that firearms, at least in Maguindanao, can be seized and warlords can be put to heel if government just puts its mind to it. It’s not about gun culture, then, or even about clan wars and ridos. It’s about government enforcing our laws no matter who gets hurt.

(I wrote this for my December 11, 2009 “Candid Thoughts” column in Sun.Star Cebu)

Gift of Screws

October 3, 2009

My Sunday was spent attending to my young son whose vomiting episodes forced us to bring him to the facility nearest our place, South General Hospital. I therefore didn’t have time to monitor the rage of typhoon Ondoy, which brought floods to Metro Manila, killing more than 200 people, displacing thousands of others and destroying properties..

President Arroyo called Ondoy a “once-in-a-lifetime typhoon” not because it carried strong winds but for the amount of rain that it poured on Metro Manila (a month’s worth of rain fell on the area in only 12 hours). Devastating storms like Ondoy tend to end up in some people’s minds as myth-like, remaining on their lips for even a lifetime.

I used to hear my old folks talk about typhoon Amy. I did some research and found out why my late father Tiyong, who was from Tudela, and my mother Juling, who is from neighboring Poro, all in the Camotes group of islands, referred to Amy with awe. It struck Camotes and other Visayas islands, bringing havoc that took years to forget.

Retired Department of Education division superintendent Elsa Suralta was a young girl when Amy struck Tudela, and she remembered the “diaspora” that happened after that. The storm destroyed coconuts and other agricultural produce of the town. The hardships people suffered forced my uncles Inok and Desing to relocate to Mindanao.

For the next generation, Ruping was it. Cebu is not often hit directly by typhoons, thus the damage brought about by Ruping scarred many Cebuano’s memory. I was in the residence of my brother in Danao when the storm struck. The compound, which was also used as a warehouse of a soft drink firm, was not as exposed to the wind as the others..

Still, the experience led me to write an essay published in Sun.Star Weekend on Dec. 2, 1990. “I can still recall what I felt at the height of Ruping’s fury,” I wrote.” I felt fear. In the dark, I listened as the howling winds lashed mercilessly. I was helpless, unmoving in the midst of the sweeping force I would never have the capacity to control.”

“For me,” I continued, “the most important period is after the storm. For there the lessons stand out clearly. We discover our positive and negative attitudes during stress, and are able to assess the damage and build a stronger foundation in preparation for the next test…The poet Emily Dickinson phrased it beautifully:

“Essential oils are wrung:/ The attar from the rose/ Is not expressed by suns alone,/ It is the gift of screws.”

(I wrote this for my October 1, 2009 Candid Thoughts column in Sun.Star Cebu)

Aquino-Galman, Dacer-Corbito Murders

March 9, 2009

Ghosts of the past often find a way to haunt us, taunt us in our latter years. Two recent news items reminded me that could be true, too, for a nation or its leaders.

I am referring to, one, the release of the convicted killers of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and Rolando Galman and, two, the new development in the investigation into the November 2000 killing of Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and his driver Emmanuel Corbito. The first is an older issue, the latter a newer one. But both sensational cases happened in the waning years of the reigns of two presidents ousted by people power.

My take:

–I used to admire the aggressiveness of Public Attorney’s Office Chief Persida Rueda-Acosta, but her spirited reinterpretation of the Aquino-Galman murder case and his effort to evoke pity for the convicts has become grating to the ears. If former military men Rogelio Moreno, Ruben Aquino, Arnulfo Artates, Romeo Bautista, Jesus Castro, Arnulfo de Mesa, Rodolfo Desolong, Claro Lat, Ernesto Mateo and Filomeno Miranda were eligible for parole and President Arroyo granted them executive clemency, so be it.

But let us not overdo the publicity to the point of forgetting one important point: after almost three decades, these ten (out of the 16 convicted for the 1983 airport tarmac killing) seemed determined, like the others who have died before them, to bring whatever they knew of that dastardly act to their graves. That, for me, dampens whatever pity we may have for them now.

Closure in the Aquino-Galman murder case can only be had if truth is fully acquired. For starters, the claim of the convicts that Ninoy was killed by Galman, who was in turn shot by the military men present in the airport that now bears Aquino’s name, is punched with many holes. And who was the mastermind?

The convicts were insiders when the killing, which sparked the protest actions that eventually toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and yet they either continue to lie or refuse to talk. They might have been released from jail, but their refusal to tell us the truth has not fully set them free.

–We don’t know yet what former police superintendent Cesar Mancao II will tell us once he is extradited by the United States and sent back to the Philippines. So far, what we have is the claim of the lawyers of Bubby Dacer’s daughter Karina that Mancao has signed a sworn statement stating what he knew about the Dacer-Corbito killings.

The Dacer-Corbito case is part of the most under-discussed aspect of the administration of Joseph Estrada, who had at that time Panfilo Lacson as Philippine National Police chief. I am talking about the violent acts that apparently was part of the effort to hide the truth about the allegations against Erap and prop up his rule. It was during this period, for example, that the attempt on the life of Luis “Chavit” Singson was reported, which was followed by his turnaround and his testifying in the Estrada impeachment trial.

The best defense is offense and this early Lacson has insinuated that whatever Mancao will say, minions of the Arroyo administration had a hand in it. Maybe, but in the meantime we wait and hope that the truth in the Dacer-Corbito double murder case will come out. This even if time and politics (which rehabilitated both Erap and Lacson) have muddled our view of the Estrada administration.

(I wrote this for my March 6, 2009 Candid Thoughts column in Sun.Star Cebu)

US-RP’s Unequal Ties

February 18, 2009

How successfully the United States shaped our collective mindset during the American colonial period is best illustrated in three recent developments: the case of Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, the Senate probe on the rigging of World Bank-funded projects and the US compensation package for Filipino World War II veterans.

The Supreme Court’s order to return Smith, an American marine convicted of rape, to Philippine custody was not complicated; what made it so is the “Little Brown American” or “Big Brother” mentality. The hesitance to assert Philippine custody over Smith is obvious. We’re like a kid pleading to a bully to return a toy seized from him.

That all, or okay most, government projects in this country are tainted with corruption is common knowledge. Or call that open secret: we all know about it but cannot prosecute the culprits or do not want (do not bother) to. That’s why concerned sectors welcomed that World Bank report about attempts to rig the bidding of some of its projects in the country—until it became apparent its officials won’t divulge its contents.

I agree Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago went overboard when she lambasted World Bank execs that refused to share with the Senate the complete details of the report. But I don’t buy those warnings from our own officials about not pressuring World Bank execs to cooperate with the probe. Their objectionable line: that bank officials might get angry at us and cut off the loan pipeline to the country. That’s hogwash.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama may have been wise enough to insert in his economic stimulus package the long overdue compensation for Filipino World War II veterans. But consider this Department of Foreign Affairs data: of the 250,000 Filipino veterans originally listed as qualified to receive benefits from the US government, only an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 are still alive.

That’s why what we are hearing after the US Congress approved the economic stimulus package was not euphoria but a sigh of relief, or even grudging acceptance, from the supposed beneficiaries. Those veterans fought under the US flag in a US war, and even during that time were already paid minuscule wages compared with those of American GIs. Salt on the wound was the refusal of the US government to recognize for decades the sacrifices of these Filipino soldiers, thousands of whom died bringing with them to their grave the American insult.

Often, there’s not much equality in US-RP relations.

(I wrote this for my February 19, 2009 “Candid Thoughts” column in Sun.Star Cebu)

Neglected ‘Heritage of Cebu’ Monument

December 17, 2008

The last time I passed the Heritage of Cebu monument was the other week, when coincidentally I was about to attend a gathering of struggling historians at the Aboitiz building nearby. Like Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, I noted the telltale signs of decay and felt sad. Here’s another historical site left unattended and allowed to rot.

I don’t know where sculptor Eduardo Castrillo is now. I watched, in the mid-‘90s, this frail-looking artist bend metal in the yard of a house near Parian, and admired his commitment to his work and patience. Who would have imagined this masterpiece to rise in the place where once stood but a fence made of used and rusty corrugated iron sheets?

The cardinal mentioned something about calling back Castrillo from Poland to assess the situation—and he wanted to “reconstruct” the monument for P3 million. That’s peanuts when one considers the importance of the structure as a memorial but it’s a lot of money wasted if, after its rehabilitation, we go back to the old practice of neglecting it.

Visiting the monument and discussing the message of the tableau is an enriching experience, for tourists and students alike. The administration of then mayor Alvin Garcia used to promote a “Heritage Walk,” that included the Magellan’s Cross, Basilica del Sto. Niño, Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, Plaza Hamabar, Heritage of Cebu monument, etc.

Unlike Mactan Island, whose beaches are the major tourist come-ons, Cebu City should have concentrated on promoting its rich heritage and protecting and developing historical sites, something that is also a magnet for tourists. It’s just sad that some of our political leaders, especially in an old city like Cebu, just don’t have a sense of history.

The Heritage of Cebu monument, which was completed through donations of private individuals and groups, was identified with the Garcia administration, like the short-lived Heritage Walk. No wonder the monument has been left unattended and the guided tours no longer organized under the administration of Mayor Tomas Osmeña.

It is not mere coincidence, then, that the cardinal turned over the Heritage of Cebu monument to Cebu City when Vice Mayor Michael Rama is at the helm as acting mayor. Osmeña is in the US for medical treatment and that monument may be the least of his concerns now. But we know he hates anything that would remind him of the Garcia administration. Rama is less combative and more open-minded, which means the monument will be in good hands—at least for now.

(I wrote this for my December 18, 2008 column in Sun.Star Cebu)

Court of Appeals and Meralco

August 6, 2008

Many people still believe in the overall integrity of the Court of Appeals (CA) despite claims some of its rulings went on sale. But when the case involving the tug-of-war between the Lopezes and the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) for control of the board of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) went to the CA, I wondered.

That wonder turned into concern when the CA issued a controversial ruling favoring Meralco and CA Associate Justice Jose Sabio Jr. wrote a letter to his chief that mentioned, among others, a P10 million bribe offer allegedly by the Lopezes. If the bribe attempt is true, it must have been prompted by the belief CA justices can be bought.

I don’t consider as credible the subsequent attempt by businessman Francis Roa de Borja, the alleged emissary of the Lopezes, to turn the table on Sabio. No matter what he will say now, his effort to talk with Sabio gave away his intent. It was suspicious, to say the least, as the meeting was no chance encounter and the Meralco case is sensitive.

Whether the bribery issue will further bury the CA’s image or not will now depend on the investigation initiated by the Supreme Court. My hope is that this could spark the needed cleansing process, that is, if public perception about the CA has basis. If there was really an attempt to bribe Sabio, a deeper probe into CA corruption is in order.

The blow, however, would be harder on the Lopezes, whose control of Meralco has already been marred by accusations of profiting from the misery of electricity consumers. If there was really an attempt to influence the CA decision, then the Lopezes are desperate. It shows them grabbing at straws to be able to retain control of Meralco.

And even if the probe will eventually clear the Lopezes, the case should have already opened our eyes to the reality that corruption in this country is not only about politicians but more so about us in the private sector who have no qualms giving bribes to government people for selfish ends. The corrupter can be more guilty than the corrupted.

By the way, I find the silence of the usual critics in our midst over this issue rather surprising. The Makati Business Club, for example, ever quick to criticize government corruption, is clamming up, and so too vociferous Catholic Church bishops. Is this because the Lopezes, who owns TV giant ABS-CBN, has been dragged into the mess?

(I wrote this for my July 7, 2008 “Candid Thoughts” column in Sun.Star Cebu)