Monthly Archives: September 2007

Neri and Karina

“A Filipino-Chinese businessman once told me that every man has a price. I replied: Thank God I’m a woman.” – Liwayway Vinzons Chato

If I’m not mistaken, there was a Charlie Chaplin movie which featured a capitalist who was contemplating on how to exploit workers while playing golf. I was reminded of this movie while watching the senate hearing on the controversial national broadband network project (NBN) between the government and ZTE Corporation of China. Former economic planning secretary Romulo Neri testified that Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos offered a P200 million commission in connection with the ZTE deal while they were playing golf.

Abalos may not be concocting a devious plan to oppress workers but his involvement in the overpriced, anomalous and unnecessary NBN project will definitely aggravate poverty in the country. Golf is a legitimate and popular game in the world but it seems shady government transactions are settled by top public officials in golf clubs.

Neri’s testimony reminded me of another bribe tale shared by former housing czar and now civil service head Karina Constantino-David. During the anti-Estrada rallies in 2000, Karina (pardon my use of first name) was always talking about Estrada’s midnight cabinet, mansions and work habits. My favorite story was Estrada’s interpretation of corruption. According to Karina, she told Estrada that a foreign company offered her a Rolex watch. She refused the gift since she believed it was a form of bribery. Estrada reprimanded her for not accepting the gift. She then suggested that she will accept the watch but she will give it to Estrada then he will give it back to Karina. In this way, Karina will not be committing a crime since she only accepted a gift from her boss. Estrada dismissed the ploy saying that if Karina will give him the watch, Estrada will give it to one of her mistresses.

Estrada believed he was not violating the law even if he was receiving cash gifts from friends and friendly businessmen. For Estrada, this was not corruption since no public money was involved. Of course, he was wrong. Receiving jueteng money is a form of plunder. This is precisely the reason why he remains under vacation house arrest.

Like Karina, Neri told his boss about the bribe attempt. Unlike former president Estrada, President Gloria Arroyo instructed Neri to reject it. But the story is not complete. Estrada would have accepted the Rolex watch; Arroyo would reject the P200 million but the NBN deal was signed anyway. Did Arroyo order the approval of the bribe-infested contract despite the initial warning of her subordinate? We do not know. We can only speculate since Neri refused to divulge the rest of the details.

Neri’s appearance at the senate was a non-event. He confirmed text and internet rumors about the P200 million bribe offer and gave credence to the earlier testimony of Joey De Venecia III. But he has not provided the necessary information about the president’s involvement in the NBN project. The civil society was wrong in placing high hopes on Neri. They have forgotten that Neri has chosen to remain in Malacañang despite the “Hello Garci” scandal.

Neri is a unique moralist. He cannot accept a P200 million bribe but he was willing to ignore the 2004 electoral fraud, fertilizer scam, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses committed and abetted by the policies of his boss. Neri can sleep peacefully since he refused an offer which couldn’t be refused and more importantly, he has not violated the vow of omerta, oops, executive privilege. Neri is no Chavit Singson, Clarissa Ocampo or Karina Constanito David. Neri is, well, Neri. The witness who told the convenient truth but left out the inconvenient truth.

Neri has to be accountable for the economic programs he approved in behalf of the government. Neri used to head the think-tank of the House of Representatives during the Ramos period. Neri, then and now, is a disciple of the fundamentalist free market ideology. It is the neoliberal economic doctrine which favors the dominance of private enterprises in all spheres of economic and social life. Neri should do more reflective thinking on the hardships he imposed on millions of Filipinos who are grappling with high electricity, water and food prices which are the consequences of years of privatization, deregulation and liberalization of basic industries in the country. He can forget the P200 million but what about the starvation and penury in Philippine society caused by the economic policies he approved?

**************

Let me end this article with a few words for Abalos. He will grow old like Enrile and Imelda without being punished for the alleged sins he committed against the Filipino people. He will be known as an incompetent election chairman and dirty broker of disadvantageous deals. But there is something the public should not forget about Abalos: he was a good grandfather. He and his wife took good care of their apo who died just a few years ago. Like Darth Vader, there is some good inside Abalos.

Corruption scandal reaches the presidential palace, my article for Global Voices.

Related entries:

Impunity
Corruption in high places
Numbers and politics

Advertisements

Is the Philippines overpopulated?

Join the discussion in the Yehey! message boards: Pardon for Estrada? ZTE scandal.

The Philippines is the 14th most populous country in the world and third in the Southeast Asian region. Young dependents comprise 34 percent of the population, 62 percent belong to the working-age group and 4 percent are categorized as elderly dependents. Scholars have estimated that the large youth population will continue until the year 2040, but the working-age population and the number of senior citizens will increase much faster.

The Philippines has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world. During the 1980s, the Philippines and Thailand had the same population level of around 55 million. Today, Thailand has 60 million while the Philippines has 88 million. A European diplomat recently noted that 200 years ago there were more Scots (1.7 million) than there were Filipinos (1.6 million). Today, Scotland has a population of only 5 million.

Many economists insist that a high population growth results in lower per capita income and higher poverty incidence. High fertility rates result in poor education access and quality, malnutrition, environmental degradation, resource depletion, a decrease in household resources, limited economic opportunities for women, an increase in maternal and child mortality and abortion rates. In short, as family size increases, there is reduction in investment in human capital.

But there are groups led by the Catholic Church which maintain that a high population growth is not a problem. There is even a respected politician who once asserted that 88 million Filipinos could live in the small island of Bohol. There are scholars who view the young population of the Philippines as the most valuable resource of the country. They remind the public how many governments of developed countries are encouraging their citizens to bear many children to offset the negative consequences of an aging population.

They assert that poverty is not caused by overpopulation. They blame corruption in society, especially in government, which deprives the poor of vital social services. That the income share of the richest 10 percent of the population is more than 20 times the income of the poorest 10 percent proves that inequality, not overpopulation, is the principal problem of the country.

The population policies of the government claim to promote responsible parenthood, respect for life, birth spacing and informed choice. But there is still no comprehensive and well-defined population management program in the country. Politicians are afraid to antagonize the Catholic Church which rejects all artificial methods of family planning. There are many local government officials who removed funding support for reproductive health services, which denied the people their right to choose the appropriate family planning method for their families.

Scholars are appealing to the Catholic Church hierarchy and other religious groups "to take a more tolerant and humane position on the need for a state-supported population policy backed by a responsive family planning program."

Dr. Ernesto M. Pernia, an economist, has a provocative comment on the link between religion and economic growth. He said that religion in terms of belief in afterlife and fear of hell is good for economic growth while mere church attendance has the opposite effect. He compares the Philippines and the Catholic-dominated Latin American societies with East Asian Buddhist countries. He noted that the wealth, economic performance, political instability, boom-and-bust cycles and lavish spending on fiestas in the Philippines and Latin American countries are strikingly similar. Pernia thinks the Philippines is more suited to belong to Latin America than East Asia.

The Philippines’ lower economic standing than Latin American countries seems to be the only notable difference. Pernia asks a daring question: Could it be that in the Philippines the Catholic Church hierarchy has been overly conservative and intolerant, while those in Latin American countries are more liberal and tolerant, with respect to population policy and family planning programs?

Politicians should listen to the sentiments of the people rather than blindly obeying the sermons of priests. Recent surveys reveal that more than 90 percent of the population thinks that ability to control fertility and plan a family is important while 89 percent thinks that government should provide budgetary support for modern methods of family planning including the pill, IUD, condoms, tubal ligation and vasectomy.

It is correct to emphasize that the economic problems of the Philippines are not rooted in rapid population growth alone. We can cite corruption, inequity and bad economic policies as major factors why the country has not progressed. But we cannot also deny the link between population and poverty. Slowing down population growth will enable the country to invest more in human capital.

Managing population should not be equated with abortion as some religious leaders claim. Promoting reproductive health rights is a social justice issue. Respecting the family size preference and family planning method of couples affirm the human rights of women.

Related entry: dating tinamaang daan

The rise and fall of Joseph Estrada

“I was sorry to read today that Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, the former president of the Phillippines, has been sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption. I have a soft spot for Erap. He is the only politician I have ever interviewed who actually fell asleep during the interview.” – Gideon Rachman

After a six-year trial, former Philippine president Joseph Estrada was found guilty of plunder by a special anti-graft court and sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment. It was a landmark decision since it was the first time a former head of state was convicted of such a crime in the Philippines. The most popular politician in modern Philippine history is now a convicted felon.

Estrada was a college drop-out who fist gained prominence as a movie actor. He played Robin Hood-type characters that battled the evil rich and defended the downtrodden. After making more than a hundred movies over three decades, Estrada was already a Hall of Fame award winner as a movie actor and producer. Through his movies and friendship with fellow actor Fernando Poe Jr., who was the most celebrated personality in the Philippine movie industry, Estrada endeared himself to the masses.

Estrada was among the first entertainment celebrities who ventured into politics. In 1969, he was elected mayor in his hometown of San Juan. The transformation of the sleepy suburban municipality into a bustling shopping and residential town was attributed to Estrada’s leadership.

In 1987, Estrada was elected senator of the republic. He sponsored the Philippine Carabao Act and more significantly, he voted against the continued stay of two military bases of the United States in the Philippines. Estrada was recognized as a nationalist lawmaker while retaining his image as "man of the masses."

In 1992, Estrada was elected vice president of the country. He was also designated by former President Fidel Ramos as chair of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission. Estrada used his position to make high-profile arrests of criminal warlords and kidnapping syndicates. Estrada further cemented his reputation as a tough leader and protector of ordinary people.

In 1998, Estrada was the landslide winner in the presidential elections. Estrada gathered the best technocrats and academicians to form his Cabinet. He even appointed former leftists in key government positions. Estrada’s Cabinet ministers continue to insist that life was better during the short-lived term of Estrada compared to the succeeding administration.

From the start, Estrada’s presidency was marred with controversy. Among his early pronouncements was his support for a hero’s burial for former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. This statement generated protests from veteran anti-Marcos personalities.

Estrada alienated the left when he supported the return of U.S. troops in the country. He also launched military offensives against Muslim rebel communities in the south, which angered Muslim groups and peace advocates.

Estrada’s relationship with the media after he became president was not pleasant. Estrada, who was sensitive to criticism, persuaded his friends in the movie industry to pull out advertisements in a major daily which was very critical of the president. In 1999, a mammoth gathering of protesters, civil libertarians and press freedom fighters denounced his authoritarian policies.

Estrada never denied that he had several mistresses. He was also known as a voracious drinker and gambler. A former government minister confessed that Estrada had a "midnight cabinet" where national policies were crafted while the president was drinking and gambling with close friends.

Estrada’s term coincided with the rise of texting and use of mobile phones in the Philippines. Filipinos used texting to send humorous messages about the president’s perceived incompetence, gambling, drinking and romantic adventures. This helped in undermining his credibility.

In October 2000, one of Estrada’s drinking buddies exposed that the president was receiving money from gambling operations. This confession was used as the basis to impeach Estrada in the House of Representatives. Numerous tales of his luxurious living surfaced in the media while the senate was proceeding with the impeachment trial. Protest rallies snowballed, which forced Estrada to leave the presidential palace. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, replaced him as president of the republic.

Estrada’s arrest in April 2001 was broadcast on national TV. This provoked thousands of Estrada supporters to storm the presidential palace and demand the ouster of Arroyo. This unprecedented display of devotion of the poor for Estrada was interpreted by the former president as proof that he still had the support of the people. Until today, Estrada has maintained his innocence of the charges of plunder and perjury. He accused the church, business groups and the elite of conspiring to unseat him in 2001.

Estrada was allowed by the court to stay at his vacation estate while the trial was ongoing. He remained a powerful figure in Philippine politics despite being under house arrest. In fact, Estrada’s endorsement was sought by many candidates in the senatorial elections a few months ago. He believes he was vindicated by the people when his wife and son emerged victorious in the senate race while the person who exposed Estrada’s connection with gambling lords lost in the elections.

Estrada’s popularity increased when his successor was accused of committing corruption, electoral fraud and human rights violations. A witness testified that Arroyo’s family is also receiving money from gambling lords. Many were indifferent to the guilty verdict against Estrada since they believe the sitting president should be charged with plunder as well. Arroyo’s alleged sins far outweigh what Estrada committed against the Filipino people.

The guilty verdict brought against Estrada has shown that the most powerful leader of a country can be punished for violating the law. But this is only possible if the leader is ousted from power. In order to prosecute Arroyo, she must first either resign her position or be forced to relinquish her authority.

Related entries:

Erap and the Beauty Queen
Gloria and Cory
Bloggers and Erap guilty verdict

Corruption in high places

Want a glimpse of the new Iloilo airport? What am I doing with an old politician in Lyceum? Check the new pictures in my photoblog.

Near the end of former president Ramos’ term, numerous allegations of corruption involving Malacañang became headline news. Who could forget the Centennial Expo scam, PEA-AMARI land deal and the Smokey Mountain housing project? Reacting to reports linking the president to anomalous deals, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile said the infirm transactions were embarrassing but not surprising since Ramos was not a lawyer. If Ferdinand Marcos was the president, Enrile added, there would be no legal loopholes that would taint government projects. Of course Enrile was exaggerating. But he could be telling the truth. Politicians need good lawyers to hide their misdeeds.

President Ramos’ successor was no better. Former president and now a convicted plunderer Joseph Estrada had the best lawyers in his pocket. But even the brightest legal luminaries could not save a reckless criminal. What could be worse than a president acting like a small-time local mafia collecting dirty money from gambling operations? Jueteng is supposed to be the milking cow of the president’s subordinates or allies in the provinces. But it seems Estrada wanted everything. Or perhaps he had no choice but to dip his hands into jueteng. His predecessor has sold most of government assets and privatized many industries. There was little left to sell to the foreigners.

Estrada may be correct when he reminded the public to blame Ramos for the high electricity and water rates. It was during Ramos’ term that the government forged long-term agreements with private utility companies which proved to be disadvantageous to public welfare.

The People Power revolution was a crusade for democracy and good governance. But the beneficiaries of People Power turned out to be worse than what they replaced. The best example is the current administration.

There is no need to repeat the long list of scandalous cases involving the First Family. It is helpful to review the report which identified the Philippines as one of the most corrupt nations in Asia. Or reread the surveys which reveal the people’s low regard for politicians and public institutions.

The most controversial and damning issue today is the national broadband network project between the government and ZTE corporation of China. Finally, a corruption scandal worthy of 21st century standards. The past two governments have been squandering the people’s money through petty activities like jueteng, fertilizer distribution and garbage collection. Now, the high and mighty corrupt politicians are learning to be tech-savvy.

Kidding aside, there are “inconvenient truths” to be culled from the ZTE brouhaha. First, it affirms the rules haven’t changed over the years. A powerful broker is crucial to finalize fraudulent contracts. The First Family is the most reliable “partner in crime” to extract bountiful illegal profit from millions of starving Filipinos. Is corruption a favorite pastime of the First Family?

Second, winning the farcical bidding process of the government is just a preliminary victory. It is more important to make amends with the losing bidder or else the “sore loser” will squeal. Haven’t they learned this from Emilio Yap who lost the bidding but still managed to own the Manila Hotel?

An article by Michael Holman in 1993 published in the Financial Times discloses the bribe standards in third world countries:

“As a rule of thumb 5 percent of $200,000 will win the help of a senior official below top rank. The same percentage of $2 million and you are dealing with the permanent secretary. At $20 million enter the minister and senior staff, while a cut from $200 million ‘justifies the serious attention of the head of state’”.

Well, Filipino politicians are certainly more successful in demanding a higher “percentage” cut from big foreign-funded projects. In the case of the broadband deal with ZTE, the project is alleged to be overpriced by $130 million in the form of bribe money for friendly politicians.

Corruption is real and it pervades the whole Philippine society. Scholars and media may report how ordinary Filipinos are also guilty of giving and receiving bribes. But this should not distract us from highlighting big corruption cases involving high public officials since these are more devastating for the country.

Related entries:

Sons and politicians
Who is your daddy?
Marcos as scapegoat

Impunity

Former president convicted of plunder, my article for Global Voices. Join the Yehey! Message Boards: Joma Sison arrest, abolition of fraternities and Impeaching Abalos.

During the canvassing of the 2007 elections, discrepancies in voting results were excused by election officials as ‘clerical errors.’ But most ‘clerical errors’ in the canvassing were curiously in favor of administration candidates. No doubt, the term ‘clerical error’ will be recognized as one of the most memorable quotes of the year. It could also be the new name of dagdag-bawas (vote padding and shaving), a tried and tested formula for election fraud.

I have another proposal for the political word of the year which is also related to the widespread cheating in the last elections: impunity.

Like global warming, the word impunity was esoteric or unknown to most Filipinos a few years ago. But thanks to political groups which favor the use of the word impunity to describe the state of lawlessness, violence and government wrongdoings in the country, many Filipinos are now familiar with the term.

Grolier defines impunity as “immunity to or exemption from punishment.” But Filipinos have appropriated a broader meaning for the word. It is now associated with assassination of journalists, extrajudicial killings involving leftist activists, poll fraud and corruption. Impunity is a loaded political term in the Philippines.

Journalist groups were among the first to highlight the ‘growing culture of impunity’ linked to the unsolved murder cases of journalists. The Philippines holds the distinction of being recognized as the freest press in Asia and at the same time, one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. There may be little or no censorship of the press, but many journalists in the provinces are silenced forever.

More than 800 leftist activists have been gunned down by unknown assassins since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed power in 2001. The left blames the military and police for the rise of extrajudicial killings. The government points to the armed left as the real culprits behind these dastardly acts. A bishop rejects the term extrajudicial killing since this assumes judicial killing is tolerated. A columnist from Manila Times proposes a new name for the killings of activists and journalists: impunity killings.

More than a week ago, business groups coalesced and issued a joint statement in reaction to anomalous government transactions. Their manifesto was published in major newspapers as a paid advertisement. Below are excerpts from the statement:

“We are appalled that the culture of impunity among certain government officials appears to have spread to an extent exceeding that of all past administrations. This impunity seems also increasingly evident in many agencies of government…We join (the journalists) and encourage others in expressing public outrage at these questionable acts and the growing culture of political impunity.”

This was a strong indictment of the corruption that pervades the current administration. Some of the groups behind this initiative are influential groups like the Makati Business Club, Management Association of the Philippines and Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines.

Apparently, there is also impunity among politicians involved in dubious deals. The contract in question is the mysterious National Broadband Network project between the Philippine government and ZTE Corporation, a Chinese company.

Business groups are up in arms over the deal which scholars describe as unnecessary, overpriced and one-sided in favor of ZTE. They also question the lack of public bidding for the project. They are suspicious about the role of Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos who helped in endorsing the deal with the government. It seems Mr. Abalos is guilty of fomenting impunity in two fronts: electoral fraud and corruption.

The concern of business groups about the extent of impunity as “exceeding that of all past administrations” is a bold criticism of the Arroyo government. What scandals could they be referring? Maybe they haven’t forgotten the fertilizer scam, the Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard, Jose Pidal, Hello Garci, IMPSA, Jancom and Piatco. Maybe they want satisfactory answers from JocJoc Bolante, Nani Perez and Virgilio Garcillano. It’s normal for citizen groups to demand transparency and accountability from public officials.

Fortunately, the case of convicted plunderer and former president Joseph Estrada illustrates a legal avenue to seek redress from cases of impunity. Now is the right time to prepare a case that would end the “growing culture of political impunity” in the current government. Hopefully, business groups will also raise the issue of human rights violations in the country.

Related entries:

Militant
Killing fields
Mirror on the wall
Pagmumuni-muni ng kandidato

Southeast Asia’s longest insurgency

Many foreigners are stunned to know that a communist rebellion is still raging in the Philippines. In other countries of the region, either the communist threat has been quelled or there are no more armed guerrillas fighting the government.

Next year, the Communist Party of the Philippines will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding. Since 1968, the CPP has waged an armed struggle in the countryside with the aim of toppling the government and creating a Maoist society. The guerrilla warfare pursued by the CPP is now the longest running insurgency in Southeast Asia.

Based on official documents on its Web site, the CPP is not yet on the threshold of clinching victory in the country. It claims to be operating at the strategic defensive phase of the protracted people’s war. But the CPP continues to be the number one national security threat in the Philippines. Its armed forces, though much smaller than the military, are strategically scattered throughout the archipelago. In short, the armed rebellion led by the CPP is neither winning nor losing at the moment.

For the government, the CPP is the major stumbling block preventing the Philippines from achieving sustained economic growth like its more prosperous Asian neighbours. The CPP is blamed for the disunity and perpetual chaos in the country. The government insists that poverty will not be eradicated and foreign investors will shy away from the country as long as communist rebels are lurking in the provinces.

For the communists, the armed revolution is the antidote to widespread poverty. The CPP reminds the government that communists did not create corruption, landlessness, inequality and oppression. Rebels assert that hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people sympathize with the communist cause since the revolution aims to uplift the welfare and dignity of workers, peasants and the poor.

Despite its failure to capture state power the CPP wields a little, and sometimes significant, influence on Philippine politics. During the Marcos dictatorship from 1972 to 1986, the CPP played a key role in sustaining the pro-democracy movement. The CPP was the most consistent and formidable political force that opposed martial law during the Marcos years. It gained prestige and strength as it persevered in undermining the unjust Marcos rule.

After the downfall of Marcos, the CPP did not renounce its armed struggle. Peace talks were initiated between the government and the communist rebels, but they soon broke down after disagreements on the framework of the negotiations. An amnesty program was offered but it was ineffective in encouraging the rebels to surrender their arms.

A turning point in the history of the CPP was the rectification movement during the early 1990s. The CPP affirmed its adherence to the Maoist line of encircling the cities from the countryside. There were a number of cadres who disagreed with this theory and proposed urban insurrection as a model for advancing the Philippine revolution. There were members of the party who wanted to embrace a peaceful transition to socialism. The CPP also apologized for the brutal killing of some its own members wrongly accused of being double agents of the government. Those who disagreed with the basic principles of the movement broke away from the CPP.

According to the military, the rectification movement diminished the strength of the CPP and permanently affected the winning chances of the revolution. To entice disillusioned rebels into joining mainstream society, the government repealed the anti-subversion law. Congress also passed the party-list system to persuade the CPP to participate in the elections.

The CPP responded by pointing out that conditions in the Philippines were still conducive to waging an armed revolution. Poverty had worsened, land reform had not been implemented and the elite continued to rely on the military to protect their economic and political interests. The CPP also dismissed the token representation granted by the government to accommodate communists in Congress.

Another reason the CPP has refused to join mainstream politics is the dominance of militarist thinking in the government. While Marcos was removed from power, the generals continued to dictate the policies in dealing with the extreme left. It is wrong to assume that peace talks, amnesty programs and economic incentives were the tactics of the government to solve the insurgency. Since the Marcos era, the principal approach of the government in dealing with the CPP was to use violent and repressive tools against the armed and even the unarmed members of the left.

Accused sympathizers of the CPP are harassed and persecuted. Hundreds of peasant communities suspected of being influenced by communists are subjected to food blockades and hamletting. The rampant human rights violations in the Philippines are linked to the military strategy of liquidating the rebels and their alleged support base among the civilian population. The total war approach has resulted in the brutal assassination, massacre, torture and kidnapping of non-combatant leftists and even innocent individuals.

The CPP is criticized by political scientists for its refusal to join the elections. But admission to membership in the CPP is like signing a death warrant. The military will not allow communists to be part of the government. In the Philippines, "the only good communist is a dead communist."

The government has vowed to crush the rebel movement in three years. But the CPP seems resolute in continuing its armed struggle. Perhaps the CPP is inspired by the rebellion started by Francisco Dagohoy, who opposed Spanish colonialism for 85 years during the 1700s.

At a time when communism is supposed to be dead, a Maoist revolution is surviving in the Philippines. There is nothing surprising about this seemingly historical aberration since poverty, injustice, exploitation, repression and foreign intervention are equally astonishing in Philippine society. There are old-school Maoists, but the Philippines has plenty of old-school reactionaries as well.

Related entries:

Who’s afraid of the Left?
Seeing red
Total war
Losing the war

Red – One*

“There is not another man who for twenty-four hours of the day is taken up with the revolution; who has no other thoughts but thoughts of revolution, and who, even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution.” – Axelrod on Lenin.

Imelda Marcos was allowed to go to China to undergo some medical treatment; her son wants to reclaim sequestered Marcos properties in Ilocos; her daughter is claiming ownership of a major TV network. Yes, the Marcoses are back in the limelight. Meanwhile, Jose Maria Sison is in jail. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that the Marcoses will be glorified again in this part of the world while the most recalcitrant radical who opposed the dictatorship will be detained in a former Nazi prison cell?

Joma Sison is right to protest his illegal and wrongful detention. But he can also thank his enemies. For my generation, Sison is viewed as an anti-Marcos political prisoner and communist ideologue turned refugee in Europe. For the younger students, Sison is just a name they memorize in their history classes. Because of his arrest, Sison is headline news again. Students will google Sison’s biography, books, songs and videos. This is an opportunity to clarify Sison’s important role in post-war Philippine history.

Sison is actually the most effective youth leader of the country. He is always associated with the Communist Party but his activities during his younger years were more crucial in reviving the national democratic struggle (don’t forget the socialist perspective) in the country. No youth leader has accomplished what Sison started during his early twenties. The fact that the NatDem movement is still a strong political force today is a testament to Sison’s enduring legacy to the progressive history of the country.

In his book ‘Development Debacle’, Walden Bello recognized the ‘pioneering intellectual contributions’ of Sison in developing a framework for analyzing the economic underdevelopment of the Philippines. Sison made ‘imperialism’ a useful term in the academe and ordinary households. Sison inspired a generation who embraced the NatDem revolution as the viable solution to the ills that plague the Philippine society.

Sison’s activities as an intellectual and uncompromising revolutionary put to shame the career of other celebrated senior citizens. Sison’s unique radicalness teaches the youth that there is no need to be fashionable in order to become a genuine revolutionary. The idealist youth can grow old like Joma instead of regressing to the likes of Juan Ponce Enrile, Fidel Ramos, Raul Gonzales and Ben Abalos.

I think the Philippine Daily Inquirer erred when it once named Satur Ocampo as the human face of the Philippine revolution. With due respect to Ka Satur (whom I think should run for president in 2010, which by the way will be my topic next month), it is Joma Sison who is the real icon of the NatDem movement. No other Filipino has been so identified with the communist movement than Joma Sison. When Filipinos discuss the Philippine revolution, the name Joma Sison will always be the first to come out.

Some writers misinterpret this admiration for Joma Sison as fanatical devotion to a spiritual leader. This makes it easy for them to believe the government’s insistence that Sison is like a madman ordering his disciples to kill and spread mayhem in the Philippines. This presumes that NatDem activists are blind followers of Joma Sison and other elder members of the NatDem movement.

I have been reading Sison’s books and articles for almost a decade already. Sison’s lucid writings are helpful in understanding Philippine realities. But they are not accepted as gospel-truth. Sison is not a prophet; from time to time he issues wrong political projections. Every year, he predicts the downfall of the Arroyo government and the world capitalist system.

Sison is no different from the political analysts we watch on ANC. In fact, many of Sison’s viewpoints are similar and equally subversive to what I have been reading in the newspapers and internet everyday. For example, you have Conrad de Quiros telling his readers not to pay taxes. Ricky Carandang wants to abolish the Lower House and taunts his readers to call him a destabilizer. But these writers will never be arrested by this government. They will never be subjected to cruel demonization campaigns. What separates Sison from the mainstream political analysts of the country is that Sison commands the respect of a major political force. Behind Sison is a social movement with a particular analysis of the society offering an alternative to the status quo. For this reason alone, Sison should be regarded as the most important political writer of the country.

A few years ago, Sison said he wanted to retire from politics to lead a more contemplative life after being branded as a terrorist by the US government. His contemporary, Luis Teodoro, dismissed this quote as classic Joma Sison corny joke. Teodoro said Sison will always remain a political animal. Sison may be behind bars but his ideas will continue to terrorize the ruling exploitative class (naks, that’s classic Joma Sison writing style for you).

I am reminded by what David Harvey, my favorite geographer, wrote in one of his books: “If it looks like class struggle, and acts like class war, then we have to name it unashamedly for what it is.” This is what Sison has been doing for the past fifty years. Sison’s writings reveal that there are such things as imperialism, feudalism, oppression and don’t forget, revolution. Bang, bang, bang.

*Bioman fan ka ba? Red 1, green 2, blue 3, yellow 4, pink 5.

**********************************************

Readers want a backgrounder of the issue. Here it is….

The Joma Sison case

Last August 28, Jose Maria Sison was arrested by the Dutch police on charges of ordering the killing of former comrades Romulo Kintanar and Arturo Tabara from the Netherlands. The arrest became headline news in local media upstaging the revival of the ‘Hello Garci’ probe and the Estrada plunder case.

Who is Joma Sison? Why was his arrest an issue of national significance? What are the implications of his detention on Philippine politics?

He did it Mao’s way

Sison founded the Kabataang Makabayan in 1964 which led student and youth demonstrations during the late sixties and early seventies. Together with other young revolutionaries, Sison re-established the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in 1968 and the New People’s Army in 1969. He was arrested in 1977 and placed under solitary confinement for nine years.

Sison was the most prominent political prisoner during the Marcos dictatorship. After his release from jail in 1986, he was recognized as one of the most important Marxists of the world.

While giving a lecture in Europe in 1987, Sison’s passport was cancelled by the Aquino government. He was forced to seek refuge in Utrecht, Netherlands where he resided until his arrest two weeks ago.

During the Ramos administration, the peace talks were revived with the communist rebels. Sison acted as consultant to the National Democratic Front. However, the military accused Sison of being the remote chairman of the CPP.

In 2002, Sison was listed among the world’s leading terrorists by the United States government. The CPP was also included in the list of foreign terrorist organizations.

At present, Sison is the chairman of the International League of Peoples Struggle, a network of social movements around the world.

Dutch threat

The CPP has claimed responsibility for the killing of Tabara and Kintanar which accused the two former high ranking rebels of being active agents of the military. But the Philippine government identified Sison for ordering the murder. The widows of Tabara and Kintanar filed a case against Sison in the Netherlands. They believe Sison was vindictive and resentful against their husbands who wanted to deviate from Sison’s doctrines on guerilla warfare and protracted peoples’ war.

Responding to the case filed by the widows of Kintanar and Tabara, defenders of Sison issued the following statement:

“The charges were already included in a case that have been nullified and dismissed with finality by the Philippine Supreme Court in its decision last July 2, 2007. Together with fifty others, Sison has been exonerated and the case has been shown to be completely without basis and politically motivated.”

Sison’s lawyers have also asserted that if ever a case would be filed against their client, “it would have to be under the political offense of rebellion and not as a criminal offense which the Dutch authorities claim this to be.”

The Philippine government declared that Sison’s arrest was legally, politically and morally justifiable. It also admitted of supplying vital information and assistance to Dutch authorities who gathered evidences in the Philippines.

Sison is detained at the National Penitentiary in Scheveningen, a facility which was used by the Nazis during World War II to imprison and torture Dutch resistance fighters. Sison is now allowed to watch TV, read newspapers and consult his lawyers and doctors. According to news reports, Sison could remain in jail until December.

Defeating insurgency in three years

Sison’s arrest seems to be part of the government strategy to defeat the communist insurgency in three years. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has vowed to leave a legacy of lasting peace by crushing the rebellion before her term expires on 2010.

The government thinks that Sison’s arrest will weaken the morale and fighting capacity of the revolutionary forces. By detaining Sison who is accused of being the real chairman of the CPP, the government is confident it will trigger disunity and factionalism within the extreme left.

After Sison’s arrest, the President offered an amnesty program to rebels who want to lay down their arms and join the mainstream society. The government also endorsed a proposal to localize peace talks in the provinces which is perhaps a tactic to force the National Democratic Front to capitulate and compromise its revolutionary principles.

Sison’s arrest has permanently ended the peace talks between the communists and the Arroyo government. In fact, the CPP has ordered its troops to intensify attacks on military outposts.

Leftist groups insist that Sison’s arrest was orchestrated by the government to cleanse its image as a human rights violator by distracting the attention of the people and foreign governments. By lodging a case against Sison, the government wants the people to look into the possible complicity of communist groups in decimating its own members.

Another theory involves the all-out war in Basilan. The military cannot afford to fight two enemies at the same time. Its forces are stretched to the limit in fighting the communist rebels scattered throughout the archipelago and the Muslim rebel forces operating in southern Philippines. By detaining Sison, the government believes it is delivering a big blow to the communist movement.

Sison’s allies have also accused the Dutch and United States governments of colluding with the Philippine government in arresting Sison. The Dutch has economic interests to protect in the Philippines and the US wants to strengthen its assertion that Sison is a real threat to humanity.

For the widows of Tabara and Kintanar, this is a personal quest for justice concerning the deaths of their husbands.

What is certain is that Sison’s arrest will not end the rebellion in the country. Marcos once declared the end of insurgency when Sison was arrested in 1977. He was proven wrong. Sison’s arrest today will certainly fuel more uprisings in the country.

Related entries:

Who’s afraid of the Left?
Seeing red
Total war
Sino ang militante
Losing the war

******************************

Thank you to all those who supported the launching of the Bloggers Kapihan. Special thanks to our speakers: MLQ3, Abe and Bikoy – who is one of the BK crew as well. Big big thanks to Digital Filipino.com Club, GMA News. TV, God is Love-New Beginning, Google Pilipinas, Jaypee Online, Lady Gadfly, Phil-Hosting.net, Philippine Genre Stories, Pinoy Web Hosting Solutions and The AniTOKiD

Dont’ get high on drugs

Bloggers Kapihan: Blogging Beyond the Basics: September 8 Philippine Science High School, 2-5pm. If you want to attend, email me.

In the Philippines, medicines are 3.4 percent to 184 percent higher than the international reference index. For example, a 250 milligram Amoxycillin costs $9 in Indonesia, $8 in Nepal, $5 in Pakistan and $22 in the Philippines. Erythromycin costs $12 in India, $5 in Pakistan and $22 in the Philippines.

Health care expenditure may be low in the country but Filipinos are spending too much on medicines. Prescription drugs alone eat up 40 percent of health spending. Last year, Filipinos bought P47.9 billion of prescription drugs and P17.8 billion of non-prescription medicines.

Why are drug prices abnormally high in this country?

The government is not investing enough on public health. There is high out-of-pocket expenditure and low spending on cost-effective public health interventions. This means individuals are shouldering health expenditures instead of relying on national/local government subsidies or social health insurance. The Philippines is the only country in the region where public financing for medicines is less than 30 percent.

Physical accessibility of medicines outlets or health facilities remains a problem. Only 11.5 percent of low priced generics are available in the public sector outlets (Botika ng Bayan). The distribution on drug consumption is concentrated only in Metro Manila and in the more urbanized sectors of the country.

According to the World Health Organization, “competition is the single most powerful policy instrument for lowering medicine prices.” But there is no healthy competition in the Philippines. Multinational companies control 80 percent of the local drug industry. There is no drug manufacturing firm in the country, only distributors. Selling/retailing of medicines is monopolized by two drugstores cornering 90 percent of the market while the remaining 10 percent is supplied by 10, 000 small drugstores nationwide. Discount on senior citizens is not given tax credit which becomes a burden to small drugstores.

Policymakers should also address other issues which impinge on improving access to medicines. For example, rational use of medicines requires legislation on ethical promotions, education and enforcement of the National Medicines List. As a first step, the Department of Health should be encouraged to pursue its campaign against the unethical promotion of infant formula products.

Generics Law should also be reviewed. After two decades of implementation, generics law has not succeeded. There is poor compliance to Generics Law by health professionals themselves. There is low patronage to generic medicines due to lack of education among the general public. There is also inadequate monitoring and enforcement of quality of drugs. An oversight is needed to probe why the Philippines still has problems with pricing of medicines and why other countries are succeeding.

There are many policy options to achieve equity pricing aside from promoting generic drugs. Government can implement differential pricing and drug price monitoring, Intellectual Property Code flexibilities like parallel importation and compulsory licensing and improvement of local generic production.

The good news is that Congress has prioritized the passage of the Cheaper Medicines Bill. Even President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo highlighted the need to lower drug prices during her state of the nation address. The bad news is that big pharmaceutical companies are prepared to allot billions of lobby money to prevent the enactment of a drug pricing regulation measure. The two houses of Congress should also harmonize different versions of the bill and various approaches in lowering drug prices.

More than five bills were filed in the House of Representatives which will amend the the Intellectual Property Code and spur the local industry to undertake development of patented products and encourage the government to conduct parallel importation of cheaper generic drugs to give more affordable choices to consumers, especially the poor. Senator Mar Roxas was the first to propose this measure.

Congressman Ferjenel Biron is proposing the creation of a drug price regulatory board which he described as the “more revolutionary measure.” He believes lowering the price of medicines cannot be accomplished alone through amendment of the Intellectual Property Code since patented products represent only 5 percent of medicines consumed in the country. On the other hand, there is fear that a drug price regulatory board can be used by the dominant multinational drug companies to dictate drug prices.

There may be differences in views on what should be the best national approach to improve access to medicines, and hopefully Congress would resolve these differences quickly, but there is consensus that drug price regulation is a state obligation.

The country is losing its doctors and nurses, medicines are expensive, public health spending is low and Filipinos are dying without receiving medical attention. Could this be the government’s population control policy?

Related entries:

Breastfeeding
13 going 14
The doctor is out

Random pictures from my photoblog.

Hello Garci again

Check out my UPI-Asia author’s page.

The Senate is investigating a wiretapped conversation between two persons talking about rigging the 2004 presidential election results. Produced by a former intelligence agent, the audio recording allegedly contained a conversation between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.

This is already an old issue. The recording was originally released to the public two years ago, which astounded everyone who couldn’t believe that the president actually ordered an election officer to ensure her a 1 million lead over her closest rival in the presidential race.

The scandalous recording, which came to be known as the "Hello Garci" CD, triggered mass demonstrations, two impeachment complaints and military unrest. It undermined the credibility of the Arroyo administration and polarized Philippine institutions and society in general.

The president’s allies in Congress succeeded in blocking any attempt to dig deeper on the issue. Cabinet members and military personnel were barred from testifying in the Senate without the approval of the president. Police and soldiers were ordered to disperse peaceful rallies to prevent another "people power" scenario in the streets.

The president was able to marshal the support of a majority of local governments by dangling the charter change initiative, which would have extended the terms of office of incumbent politicians. Some scholars believe that because of the "Hello Garci" scandal, the military was able to assert more influence in the unpopular Arroyo government which was desperately looking for a solution to the political crisis unleashed by the controversial recording.

In short, Arroyo survived the "Hello Garci" controversy but the issue remained unresolved.

Then here comes the retired intelligence officer who expressed willingness to testify in the Senate to renew an investigation of the case. As a private citizen, he is no longer covered by the executive directive which requires public officials to seek the president’s permission before appearing in Congress.

The opposition-dominated Senate may have initiated the first blow against the administration but the president’s allies seem poised to strike another legal victory. Administration senators agreed to open the case but succeeded in leading the probe away from the issue of electoral cheating. Instead, the Senate will focus on the breach of national security pertaining to bugging the phone of the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

It is uncertain whether the whole content of the "Hello Garci" CD will be played, as some senators have questioned the legality of airing the illegally wiretapped conversation in the Supreme Court.

The president’s response to all this has been to boast of the robust performance of the economy. She appealed to the people to support her economic projects. As expected, administration politicians downplayed the revival of the probe. But surprisingly, there are no street rallies. Two years ago, the "Hello Garci" issue sparked nationwide protests calling for the president’s resignation. Today, protest rallies are missing. Even some members of the opposition seemed lukewarm to the testimony of the former intelligence officer.

Perhaps fresh evidence is needed. The perceived lack of credibility of the witness should be addressed. And the Senate should not allow the probe to be another circus dominated by politicians and lawyers which would definitely douse public interest.

The political conditions are also different today. Administration politicians accused opposition senators of reviving the "Hello Garci" case to bolster their chances in the 2010 presidential elections.

But the elections can also be the reason why some opposition politicians are not actively participating in the probe. Reviving the issue could potentially unseat the president. If that happens, the vice president will assume the presidency. He will then have the upper hand in the presidential race three years from now. Opposition politicians with big ambitions cannot allow that scenario to happen.

The left, which provided the warm bodies in the nationwide rallies two years ago, does not seem eager to join the "Hello Garci" investigation. Its attention is focused on tackling the summary killings, forced disappearances, harassment and other human rights violations perpetrated by state agents. (Not to mention the Joma Sison arrest in the Netherlands, which I will blog about this weekend).

The left probably does not want the government to launch another crackdown on leftist leaders like it did more than a year ago. The military exposed the alleged rightist-leftist plot to destabilize the government last year but it was the left which bore the brunt of government attacks. Leftist leaders were jailed while opposition politicians were not arrested.

There are also speculations that the camp of former President Joseph Estrada is using the "Hello Garci" issue to pressure the government in connection to the plunder case of the former president.

The "Hello Garci" controversy will always be associated with Arroyo, Commissioner Garcillano and the massive cheating during the 2004 elections. But it is highly improbable that this embarrassing issue will again fuel social unrest as it did two years ago. The issue has been used and will continue to be invoked to undermine the legitimacy of the sitting president. But the administration can always fight back by implementing repressive and politically untenable measures like the charter change, a calibrated preemptive response or declaring a state of national emergency.

Related entries:

Hello Garci and Dovie Beams
Hello Edgar
Name game

A year ago in Mongster’s Nest: Two articles after attending a lecture in AIM: Global Competitiveness and Super Cities. Marcos as scapegoat. Numbers and Philippine politics. We need to remember 9/16. Bonifacio as invention of historians? Nursing scandal and commercialization of higher education. Who are my sports idols?

Random pictures from my photoblog.

Investing in human resources

All out war in southern Philippines, my blog entry for Global Voices. New pictures in my photoblog, click here and here.

Chairman Romulo Neri of the Commission on Higher Education has six months to fix the problems that bedevil the country’s higher education system. This is an impossible task. What will he accomplish in six months? The CHED chairman presides over the Board of Regents of all state universities. CHED provides the regulatory framework which guides more than one thousand higher education institutions.

Stakeholders should protest the absence of continuity in the leadership of education agencies. Malacanang should refrain from treating the education department as recycling machine for loyal politicians or dissident technocrats.

Sec. Neri, who has no doctorate degree, has vowed to consult his detractors. But he didn’t mention whether he will listen to the appeal of students to regulate runaway tuition increases or school owners who want less intervention from CHED.

On the other hand, Sec. Neri was unambiguous in articulating his mission: solve the mismatch between the academe and industry. In short, make college education more relevant and responsive to the needs of a globalizing economy. On many occasions, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has pinpointed the disparity between the quality of college graduates and the manpower requirements of big foreign firms operating in the country. Sec. Neri, a member of the president’s economic team, seems to be the perfect man for this difficult job.

Sec. Neri will be pleasantly surprised to learn that his predecessor has already laid the framework in increasing the competitiveness of the country’s young workforce. Last April, the National Human Resource Conference held at the Manila Hotel identified the constraints which affect productivity and competitiveness of the labor sector. CHED participated in the event and focused on enumerating the hard-to-fill jobs or the “highly demanded and emerging jobs where supply shortages occur”.

CHED identified the lack of competent graduates in the mining sector (geologists, mining engineers, metallurgical engineers), HRM (tour guides, officers for hotel and travel agencies), agribusiness, maritime (marine officers, seafarers), health and wellness (doctors, nurses, therapists and medical tourism), construction (architects and engineers) and cyberservices (animators, programmers, contact center agents, medical transcriptionists, editors). CHED also emphasized the need for scientists and engineers “to conduct research, technology/ knowledge transfer and technology adaptation/ application.

CHED specified the policy gaps which need to be resolved. It blamed the low enrolment in pertinent courses like geology, maritime training, medicine, architecture and engineering; inadequate number of higher education institutions offering programs; limited implementation or coverage of available programs; poor performance of graduates in licensure examinations; mismatch between skills and competency requirements of industry; lack of qualified faculty; outdated learning facilities; inadequate quality assurance system like standards, monitoring, evaluation and certification; and failure to meet international standards.

Mismatch between skills and industry needs was given attention. CHED identified the inadequate ICT skills of students, weak communication skills, lack of proficiency in English language and other foreign languages, eroded work ethics/values and absence of work experience especially in highly specialized jobs. CHED hopes to resolve these competitiveness issues by strengthening linkages between industry and education for continuous upgrading of curricula, improving in-house training on English language and other foreign languages, adding units in ICT and strengthening values formation in curricula.

CHED’s presentation is interesting and reflects the current thrusts of the government. Mining is obviously a top priority of the government. Eco-tourism is now a flagship program of the Department of Tourism. Medical tourism is being promoted yet the basic health needs of poor Filipinos are not addressed. If the country lacks doctors and nurses despite the proliferation of nursing schools, shouldn’t we blame the labor export policy of the government? Training of call center agents is now being offered in state universities. The English language is now the medium of instruction in schools.

If there is a shortage of skilled workers in key industries of the economy, there is need for institutions which will teach vital but unpopular subjects to students. Why then is the government reducing its subsidy for state universities which have the most comprehensive course offering on science and technology? If most private schools cater to the high demand for nurses, state universities, through government support, can continue to produce competent agricultural entrepreneurs, engineers and geologists.

Improving human resources should not focus on teaching students how to speak good English or producing obedient workers. It’s about harnessing the capabilities of the young workforce to serve the actual needs of society. We need doctors and nurses who will serve in the barrios. We need mining engineers whose labor can generate enough revenues for genuine national industrialization. Higher education reforms are necessary to cure the ills of society but Sec. Neri, CHED and the government should not equate compliance to the demands of big foreign firms and foreign nations with competitiveness. It promotes a narrow, twisted and irrational view of development, which by the way has been the dominant economic thinking since the late 1980s.

Related entries:

Global competitiveness
Super cities
Odd man out

Two years ago in Mongster’s Nest: Battle of the streets or why rallies are relevant in Philippine politics. Francis Ford Coppola, my favorite Hollywood director. The UP Student Council during the dark days of Martial Law. Rearing babies in the Philippines. Message after failed impeachment: Forget the elections and To the Streets. Axis of evil: Oil depot, Malacañang and Makati.