Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Recalling in song

Recalling in song

Updated 11:52pm (Mla time) Dec 27, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the December 28, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

EVEN before tidal waves hit Asia, were bitter lessons from typhoon-ravaged Aurora and Quezon fading from the media's radar screens? The Inquirer's resident economist, former Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Cielito Habito, frets this is so.

Not quite. Striking stories come from a lady-lawyer. Now, a cloistered nun, her monastery, Karmelo, in Infanta, was turned into storm refuge overnight. Here are excerpts from Sister Lorenz Teresa Bautista's letter to other Carmelites:

"I'm writing this using a little kerosene lamp. 'Tringki' they call it here. Sunday before typhoon 'Yoyong' hit, Fr. Charlito Colendres delivered an Advent homily at Karmelo: 'Gumising ka.' His target? Illegal logging that ravaged Aurora province.

"Monday, the weather turned nasty. A tricycle brought Father Cha. He couldn't believe what he saw: 548,000 board feet of lumber needing approval for release! A sawmill here? But logging is banned. Father was deeply affected and restless in his homily.

"In the afternoon, the winds howled. 'Lorenz, this is a storm,' Sister May says as we washed our clothes. The lights go out later. At 11:30 p.m., the phone rings. Very odd. 'Jedalyn?... Flooded up to the waist?' I hear prioress Sister Carmela answer. 'But the rains have stopped. What? You're on the second floor? Paano yan? OK. Take care.'

"Silence ... shattered by the phone again. I join Sisters Lenie and Cora around the phone. 'Marianne? The waters are high? Lenie, she wants you to call Manila.' Soon, Sisters Lenie and Ester Marie report that the line is dead.

"Bad. How can the flood rise so fast? Karmelo is on the highest point in already elevated Barangay Tongohin. Five kilometers away, the town is already flooded. Water still rising. God save us.

"The prioress wakes the other sisters. Past midnight, we're all before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. Then, knocking at the parlor door. The first of 30 or so evacuees seek shelter. Sister Lenie opens the chapel.

"A truck comes later with more refugees. Others arrive on foot. Whole families, neighbors ... the grown-ups stunned, children crying ... clothes torn, wet, muddied, unshod ... clinging to each other, to few rescued possessions ... Karmelo Evacuation Center was born.

"We're enclosed nuns. We're not 'trained' to do this. But God worked in our ignorance.

"As evacuees poured in, each sister knew her role. Kitchen and endless cooking -- Sisters John Mary and Cora; medical aid-Sisters Kate and Lenie; chapel and guest house evacuation center -- Sisters May, Dulce and myself; and of course the command posts -- Sisters Carmel and Esther Marie.

"By flashlights and tringki, we cook, turn the monastery inside out for clothes, bedding, medicines, etc: everything we can give. Christmas giveaways disappear, program costumes -- finally our own clothes. Non-stop medical treatment; non-stop cooking, non-stop rummaging for clothes, slippers, etc.

"There are 'non stop-stories of grief.' With a fractured arm, Lucy tells of her daughter Therese, nine years old, torn from her by rampaging floods. A woman pokes the mud with a pointed stick hoping the blooded tip will reveal the body of her daughter. It turns up a known illegal logger's corpse.

"I was giving a three-year-old boy a T-shirt. Wet, he clung tightly to the chapel grille gate. No matter how I gently coaxed him, he wouldn't let go. Trauma. He'd probably been told not to let go, lest he drown.

"There was no time to run ... 'Drop a coin and as you bend down to pick it up, water is around you,' one evacuee explained. The town is submerged in 15 feet of water. Dead people, animals, bloated, decaying ... huge logs everywhere. One report stands out: while trying to save children, Father Cha was hit by a log and swept to his death.

"Karmelo sisters were anxious for their families. But no one verbalized it. It was a luxury compared to our evacuees. We smiled to give people hope. At recreation, we tried to make our laughter carry over the lashing cruel wind to strengthen them. But at Mass, we couldn't help but cry. Yet, never did Karmelo sacrifice prayer. We prayed the divine office faithfully, singing, chanting, pauses. No short cuts.

"But water and mud now laps the monastery driveway. A log bangs against our overflowing creek. At 7 p.m., we're told to expect Signal 4. On retiring, I say a final prayer of abandonment and gratitude. Will our eyes see tomorrow?

"The gift of a new day. Yoyong spared us. We check our refugees, sleepless but fine, thank God. They speak of 'good news': a baby was born at the evacuation center. These people are incredible.

"Seeing nuns cleaning up, the children help. Monday, they were at death's door. Eleven-year-old Wendy saved two sisters by clinging to them as floodwater rose higher than their house. Here she was sweeping, making no big deal.

"Help is now coming in. Choppers can be seen over our skies. The sisters have nothing left to give. The people need more than prayers this Christmas ... something to use, eat, wear...

"There are reasons to get mad ... really mad. [Unlike Asia's tidal waves] this calamity was man-made. We will all stand before God someday.

"But there are reasons for hope too: truly good people who helped. Perhaps, their stories will see light someday.

"Danny who kissed the body of his four-year-old daughter Casai, before burying her in a mass grave, composes songs. He might capture these events better in song. He said he'd try."

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Revisiting Christmases past

Revisiting Christmases past

Updated 01:11am (Mla time) Dec 23, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the December 23, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE GRIME-STREAKED beggar at the church door wouldn't budge. Misa de Gallo had just ended. If delayed, I'd miss that overbooked flight for Bangkok. As a "martial law refugee," I had Thailand as my United Nations duty station for 17 years. Kids were flying in from US schools to join us for Christmas.

Shifting his battered can, the beggar persisted. "Don't you remember me?" Seeing the blank look in my eyes, he murmured: "We were classmates in grade school. I am Candido..."

Memory scraped away the wrinkles, the dirt and in-between years. We had played “patintero” and other games of childhood. We built model airplanes and sailed toy boats. During vacations, we'd swim in nearby resorts.

Today? “Tiene cara de hambre” [You have the face of hunger], the orphan boy tells the Crucified in the film classic: "Marcelino, Pan Y Vino."

We barely managed snatches of conversation. Airline schedules are unyielding. Couldn't I have dropped, into his tin cup, more than what was hurriedly fished out of a shirt pocket? I asked as the immigration officer waved us on.

We were all invited to journey to Bethlehem, including those with numbered bank accounts, cigarette tax break bonanzas and illegal logging take. But like my beggared classmate, many wearily limp to "the City of David" with empty tin cans. Billionaires here lodge in "gated enclaves" while many lack frugal livelihoods. "There's no room in the inn."

Yet, "Christmas is the only time I know of when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely," Charles Dickens wrote in 1843. Like the reengineered Ebnezer Scrooge, they "think of people below them, not as another race of creatures bound on other journeys, but as fellow passengers to the grave."

I never saw my beggar-friend again. But he forms part of past Christmas images. As the years slip by, these mental snapshots remain. But revisiting them, one finds that a bittersweet tone now overlays the montage.

The images include the kindnesses of friends one now rarely sees. I rushed out to talk with a pediatrician, glimpsed midway through an Advent Mass. Dr. Mike Celdran lavished care on my now grown-up kids. I wanted him to meet my lawyer-daughter and her doctor husband, visiting for Christmas. But he had left.

"That season comes wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated / The bird of dawning singeth all night long," one reads in "Hamlet." The overseas Filipino workers too were singing carols like "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit" at the SVD Fathers' Verbiti conference room on Christmas Day. Did they sing the old Spanish carols like "Nacio Nacios Pastores"? I don't remember now.

Verbiti is tucked close to Hadrian's wall in Rome. It was festooned with star lanterns, “belen,” even “lechon.” But corrosive loneliness contorted the faces of many in that room, separated from kith and kin, in "this "hallowed and gracious time." One glimpsed in the tears slipping past tightly closed eyes, the economic diaspora's costs. Hidden behind those hefty foreign exchange remittances are: pain, separation, alienation, trauma even. Tiene cara de hambre.

Christmas, the Filipino SVD fathers told their expat flock, is "Emmanuel-God with us" in the dark night, even of despair. "There are no more unvisited places in our lives."

Illnesses in absent family are shattering for expats. We trudged to the Crib in Gereja Theresia (St. Therese's Church), behind Jakarta's giant mall Sarina. Half a world away, alone in a Los Angeles ICU room, an economic diaspora statistic -- my younger brother -- lay dying.

In January, Jesse phoned. Life is fragile, he said. We don't know when we will see each other again. Let's meet in Cebu with our then 86-year-old mother.

He flew in from LA. Our only sister from Toronto arrived. And we joined in from Bangkok. We had a laughter-filled week. July, our mother went. "Please. No heroic measures," our sister-in-law soberly cautioned the cardiac team that rushed in. And by December, Jesse was gone, too.

The Child of Bethlehem enables us to see beyond the grave. "Death is not the extinguishing of life," the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote. "It is putting out the lamp because dawn has come."

"The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light," Isaiah writes. "Kings shall (stream) to the brightness of thy rising." From our third floor flat in Bangkok, we'd watch this Thai lady slip into the deserted courtyard of the Holy Redeemer Church. Draped in the Advent dawn's soft darkness, she'd pray before the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help -- until Misa de Gallo, introduced by Filipino workers, would start. Her silhouette brought Isaiah's lines to mind:

That silhouette, like the image of a Muntinlupa prisoner, forms part of our Christmases past. Clad in sweat-stained detainee togs, the prisoner wouldn't budge. If delayed, I'd miss a dinner appointment. Seeing the blank look in my eyes, he murmured: "Don't you remember me? We were playmates in Cebu. My name is Policarpio..."

There is, we're told, a geography of the heart. Like the Magi, we travel its byways, not merely from place to place, but from grace to grace. It is a search for what endures amid the transient. Without fail, we find it in those with cara de hambre.

"And they found the Child with Mary his mother," the story goes. Venite adoremus [Come, let us adore him].

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Salami-style interdicts

Salami-style interdicts

Updated 00:09am (Mla time) Dec 21, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the December 21, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"CRUDE threats by local martinets and subtle encroachment are directed against media, even as it struggles to upgrade professional standards...Officials swear they're partisans for liberty--but threaten to padlock critical stations or ban independent reporters."

That's not drug-riddled Colombia or thug-ruled Zimbabwe. That's Cebu, say journalists, who know the place like the back of their hands, in a pooled editorial titled, "Dreams in a time of trouble." Cebu's newspapers and stations came up with this hard-nosed assessment during their September Press Freedom Week celebration.

Now, two metro mayors have ratcheted discriminatory pressure on press members who don't join their political parades. In so doing, they've confirmed that evaluation.

American and Filipino agents busted one of Southeast Asia's largest drug factories in Mayor Thadeo Ouano's Mandaue City. In "the Philippines' shabu capital," Ouano, his cops, barangay and building officials told a wishy-washy House committee they knew nothing, heard nothing and said nothing. Just like the proverbial three monkeys?

But even simians can get midnight adrenalin. Mandaue suddenly did to ABS-CBN's regional station what it spared their shabu factory: It issued a notice of illegal electrical connection.

That dyAB, the network's AM station, had raked over Ouano and Co. for the drug scandal was coincidental, Ouano said. "OBO's notice was not intended to harass ABS-CBN...The city issued similar notices to 20 companies."

"There is never a paucity of arguments in favor of limiting press freedom," US Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter once wryly observed.

Next door, Mayor Tomas Osmeña announced he'd ban the GMA network from covering the January Sinulog grand parade at the Cebu City Sports Center. This is a public event, in an official site with P8-million taxpayers' contribution. But GMA's dySS features the multi-awarded Bobby Nalzaro, a critic of the mayor.

But the ban is "very mild," Osmeña protested. Anyway, he claims "the power to close and cancel the franchise of GMA 7." He'd padlock the station for refusing to accept the paid ads of the city which has P1.7 million in unpaid IOUs. A settle-debts-first policy of the Kapisanan Ng Brodkasters, which GMA-7 implemented, is censorship, he claimed.

No kidding? Last I heard the authority that grants or cancel franchises rests exclusively with Congress. Any mayor who arrogates that power to himself faces the business end of a usurpation suit.

But habits die hard. In 1996, then private citizen Tomas Osmeña signed, on behalf of Metro Cebu Development project, official loan papers with the Japanese government. Sen. John Osmeña threatened to clobber him with a "usurpation of official functions" suit.

Access to news event is absolutely fundamental to journalists. Thus, in Subido v. Ozaeta, the Supreme Court ruled that constitutional protection covers access.

Jurisprudence in democratic countries echoes that principle. In Hawaii, the US district court struck down Mayor Frank Fasi's ban against reporters of the Honolulu Star Bulletin reporters attending his press conferences. "Only compelling government interests" can prop up such bans, it said.

But Osmeña claims he can bestow or withhold, at whim, access to news. This is constitutional nonsense. A basic human right cannot be held hostage to personal vendettas. The Charter's provision on the press is not hemmed in by qualifications.

"There are absolutes in our Bill of Rights," US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote. "They were put there on purpose by men who knew what words meant, and meant that the prohibitions were absolute."

Osmeña used the same argument to ban, in 2001, reporters of dyHP, Sun Star and Radyo Bombo from City Hall press conferences. He cribbed that from the often-soused Joseph Estrada who denied Inquirer reporters access to Malacañang press conferences. Pakistan's Nawar Sharif also banned the Jang newspaper. Sharif is in exile. And Estrada is in the clink.

These are discriminatory interdicts. They differ from Marcos' brass-knuckle padlocking of the press in its obviousness, and are cruder than arm-twisting behind the scenes. The mayor's late father, then Gov. Sergio Osmeña, muzzled the independent Southern Star by asking the daily's owners: "Somos o no somos" (Are you with me or against me?)

The governor pressured firms to yank out their ads from the Republic Daily, owned by the Cuencos. Decades later, Joseph Estrada prodded first his movie industry buddies, then businessmen to cut ads for the Inquirer. That flopped too.

Nonetheless, Osmeña and Ouano barrel into salami-slicing of press freedoms. "The greatest danger to liberty," US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, "lurks in the encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

Journalism "is not a comfortable profession for fat cats," Guardian editor Peter Preston told an International Press Institute meeting. "We write or broadcast to make sure the world knows what is happening in what would otherwise be dark recesses of people behaving at their worst."

Some do the task brilliantly. Others just get by. Some are incompetent and should be fired. A number sell out or, as the late publisher Eugenio Lopez once said, "serve as megaphones for the powerful."

But journalists are "prisoners of a necessary cause." Our craft is "a barricade where we encounter opposition, confusion, sometimes personal peril," Preston writes. "But you have to be on the side of [liberty of expression], because there is no other side to be on."

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Dying at the margins

Dying at the margins

Updated 02:01am (Mla time) Dec 16, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the December 16, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE DEATHS and damage inflicted by floods cascading from the Sierra Madres underscore how relentless resource extraction -- heedless of the future -- created communities of over 26.7 million "core poor" people, who now live and die at the margins of the country's troubled economy.

Ateneo de Manila University's "Communities At The Margins" documents how policy, crafted by an "aristocracy of the moneybags," creamed rich fish stocks, extensive mineral deposits and lush timber stands. In the process, it beggared a people and a nation.

This 316-page book presents nine studies on how the poor cope within degraded areas. They include Sierra Madres' "post-logging" groups, Cebu's migrant-fishermen and South Cotabato farmers.

The book's editors are Germelino Bautista, former director of the Philippine Institute of Culture, and Hiromitsu Umehara of Rikkyo University. Umehara has written extensively on Philippine landlord-tenant relationships.

Filipino elites manipulated policy, over the decades, to wring from forests, mines and fishing grounds windfall profits. But these were splurged on luxuries, not shared equitably with workers. That guaranteed disaster.

Degraded reefs in the Panay Gulf and Bohol Sea yield only four to five metric tons of fish per square kilometer -- compared to their original potential of 15 metric tons, scientists J. H. Primavera and E.D. Gomez note. Once the Philippines' largest marine export item, the almost extinct giant clams were banned for export in 1996.

The Sierra Madres, the Ateneo study notes, was "one of the last forest frontiers." Massive logging began in the early '70s. By then, Mindanao's forests, which once contained the world's best dipterocarp stands, had been chain-sawed to kindling.

In the late 1950s, about 802,000 hectares of forestlands were leased out. By mid-1970s, 10.2 million hectares of forestlands in the Sierra Madres were being logged over.

A skewed tax regime spurred exploitation. Laws offered little incentive for conservation or reinvestment, the Ateneo study notes. Except for low permit fees for commercial fishing and for the export of exotic aquarium species, fish fingerlings were not taxed. Low taxes on mining declined through time.

Loggers got "liberal annual allowable cuts, zero export taxes, declining forest charges that amounted to only 2 to 6 percent of log prices and high protective tariff," it adds.

"State functionaries also provided incentives indirectly by inaction, through the non-enforcement of penalties against logging damages ... and illegal logging," a book understatement reads. That's street lingo for “kotong.” No Quezon province cop, for example, would accompany Environment Secretary Michael Defensor's probe into logging firms.

Instead of reinvesting, extractors splurged on luxuries, real estate, bank accounts abroad or "consumer durables" -- forerunners for overseas workers' families who rarely invest. Most spend for cell phones, TV, video and motorcycles etc., an Asian Development study shows.

Continued economic viability hinged on "sustainable extraction." New Zealand or Australia invests in tree plantations and are assured of continuing harvests. That did not come to pass here.

"State policy had particular consequences for people." Logging camps, fishing ports and mining towns drew migrant workers. They, in turn, pushed indigenous communities deeper into the interior.

Along the coasts, commercial fishers dislodged small fisherfolk. They "were not literally driven out of their residences, but pushed into greater levels of poverty."

This model enriched those with economic means and political power. But little of the wealth creamed off by fishing magnates, loggers or mining families "trickled down." As Harvard economist John Kenneth Gailbraith wrote, trickle down "is the less than elegant theory that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through the road for the sparrows."

Massive poverty instead persisted. One out of three families remain impoverished. The "core poor" includes workers, displaced from sunset industries like wood or sugar. They find themselves in households within calamity- or drought-prone areas. These vulnerable areas are without adequate water, sanitation or functioning irrigation systems.

Landless workers drift into towns or cities. Most remain jobless. Rural poverty is swapped for urban slum penury. "Population pressure and ecological degradation have already set the limits of internal migration," the book points out.

Voiceless and disorganized, they "burst from obscurity into TV screens only when their communities slip over the ecological cliff," the late Asian forester Sudhakar Rao wrote after mudfloods hit Southern Thailand and Ormoc.

The current debate focuses on who's to blame for Quezon's floods. That's irrelevant to a Philippines already mired in a "post-logging" era. Loggers are merely wiping out the last timber remnants. One of yesterday's wood prima donnas, our country is among today's timber paupers.

In that poor house, policy must give priority to "those who have existed in the shadows of growth," Bautista and Umehara write. Needed are a strong national government and a local-level leadership that transcend politics to reconstitute community life. Otherwise, people will continue to live and die "at the margins of the Philippine political economy."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Blinders and tunnel vision

Blinders and tunnel vision

Updated 02:05am (Mla time) Dec 14, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the December 14, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

FLOOD detritus from logs and mud to smashed shacks blocked a 13-km Angat water tunnel for Metro Manila. "A mile of logs" clogged the entrance into typhoon-devastated Real's bay, delaying Philippine Navy rescue vessel DF 317.

These reflect failure, by government, to curb the ravaging of forests.

Even those who doubt whether illegal loggers are the culprit agree that despite logging bans, secondary forests are still dwindling at the rate of 480 hectares daily. The death toll and wreckage have stoked public fury.

Unfortunately, that anger will subside quickly. It often does. We are a people with short memories. Few memories of the flash floods in Ormoc, Caraga and Southern Leyte remain. And the media are always shuffling on to the next headline.

Denuded forests cannot be re-greened overnight. It takes a couple of hours to chainsaw a hectare. But even fast-growing species take years to grow. So, the next flash floods are inevitable. Postponed reforms make that a given. More people will die. That's a given too.

So what can be done? The answer perhaps is offered by the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, the 64-year-old environmentalist who received the award this week in Oslo. The award cited her for launching the "Green Belt Movement" that planted 30 million trees across a denuded Kenya.

Maathai is the 12th woman (and the first from Africa) to win the peace prize since the awards started in 1901. She bested 194 nominations, including former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

In the teeth of Philippine-like corruption, she organized thousands of groups, primarily of women, to plant trees. In the process, they've re-greened Kenya -- and empowered citizens in democratic governance.

"The environment is very important because when we destroy our resources that become scarce, we fight over that," she told BBC. Her bottom line is: Citizens, not government, will reverse degradation. All these stem from a vision that sees beyond today's multiple crises.

Time is not on our side. Writing laws into the books is not enough, Maathai told CNN. Soil or forest rehabilitation has cycles that do not bend to parliaments or armies. "My life is my message," she said.

Tunnel vision here blinds us to lethal problems beyond reckless logging. One is massive soil erosion, which will wreck future food supplies.

In China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa and Greece, states crumbled as erosion emptied granaries. Do our leaders heed historical lessons?

In Latin, erodere means to "gnaw away." When tree cover is stripped, the soil is "gnawed away" and becomes vulnerable to heavy downpours. In its uncultivated state, topsoil -- "a crustal fragile membrane that provides a foothold of life on earth" -- is only seven to 25 centimeters deep.

In some Philippine uplands, topsoil depth is less than 10 cm. "At a soil depletion rate of 0.75 cm/ha/yr, it will take only some 13 years for the topsoil to be depleted," a Food and Agriculture Organization study reveals. "If one assumes a topsoil depth of 15-25 cm, as some respected Filipino soil scientists believe, then it will take 20-33 years for this layer to be removed."

To form an inch of top soil from decayed leaves and other vegetation takes a century or more. "But a single climactic event can wash away this irreplaceable and fragile carpet which needed eons to weave."

Have pork-obsessed legislators asked how much of this invaluable asset is being "mined" or lost? They should. For Ormoc, Caraga or Real are only dress rehearsals for what is ahead for other provinces.

Nationwide, only 18 percent of forest cover is left, out of the original 92 percent in 1575. But our political leaders' time scales rarely go beyond the next elections. Few seem aware of post-flash flood danger.

Even before today's deluge, erosion already blighted "more than half of the land area in 13 provinces," sapping their capacity to feed growing populations, the Philippine Council for Agricultural Research and Development points out.

Provinces with land whose productivity is being "gnawed away" are: Batangas, Cebu, Ilocos Sur, La Union, Batanes, Bohol, Masbate, Abra, Iloilo, Cavite, Rizal, Marinduque, Capiz. These 13 provinces have 50 to 90 percent of their areas eroded, says the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The worst are: Cebu -- 386,717 ha; Bohol -- 271,739 ha; Masbate -- 269,147 ha; Batangas -- 262,762 ha; and Abra -- 258,410 ha.

"Overall, 75 percent of croplands is vulnerable to erosion of various degrees." In the Visayas, about half (1.12 million ha) has moderate to severe erosion. Of Mindanao's 3.44 million ha, about 3.36 million are "gnawed away." For the country as a whole, some 2.87 million ha have moderate to severe erosion.

"Erosion is not an invisible disease stalking the land in search of soil to destroy," says soil scientist T.F. Shaxson. "It is a foreseeable ecological response to inappropriate land use and management." It can be reversed.

An array of technology is on the shelf since wind erosion devastated parts of the US in the 1930s. Thailand's King Bhumibol campaigns to use vitiver grass to hold back the soil. In 1985, the Ramon Magsaysay Award cited Davao-based the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center for Sloping Agricultural Land Technology.

"You can read the skies," the Master from Galilee once said. "You hypocrites. Why can you not read the signs of the times?"

Friday, December 10, 2004

When generals go daft

When generals go daft

Updated 01:03am (Mla time) Dec 09, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the December 9, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"HE'S mad, is he? Then, I wish he'd bite some other of my generals," George II reportedly snapped when told that Gen. James Wolfe had gone daft.

That's also the reaction surging among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations toward Myanmar's junta for stalling, yet again, on restoring freedoms.

Myanmar's caudillos dance an "incorrigible one-step forward, two-steps backwards foxtrot," Malaysian Member of Parliament Lim Kit Siang told legislators from seven Asean countries in Kuala Lumpur. The shuffle blocks the release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, journalists and other detainees.

Some parliamentarians are now pressing their governments to object when Yangon assumes the rotating chairmanship of Asean in 2006. The generals' "seven-step road map" to democracy is fake.

Myanmar today is "the largest prison for journalists in Asia," the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders says in a new report documenting the plight of 18 detained journalists.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the 1990 general election. But the military never allowed parliament to convene, and unleashed waves of arrests. Yet, Suu Kyi continues to draw widespread support at home and abroad.

The stakes for the press are high. Offending the regime means prison. The 72-year-old journalist Win Tin has been detained for 14 years now.

"Torture is commonplace and some journalists suffer from serious mental disorders resulting from long isolation," Reporters Without Borders says. Newsmen have received long sentences for articles deemed "hostile to the state," talking with foreign journalists, even "owning undeclared video cameras"-an eerie clone of the Marcos regime's order to register mimeograph machines.

Yangon's daily newspapers are government-run outlets for turgid propaganda. The military and their families control most publications. As in our "New Society," censorship is clamped on. Censors blue-pencil words such as "democracy," "corruption" or "education."

To beat the censors, "the trick is in the presentation," Thint Bawa (Your Life) editor U Tin Maung Than told The New York Times' Seth Mydans. The 47-year-old doctor-turned-writer "played the game hard, bobbing and weaving, winking and nudging, honing his metaphors, comparisons and historical references until it all became too much and he fled from Myanmar for safety."

It's a game played by all independent-minded writers in dictatorships from the Philippines of Marcos to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran and today's Myanmar: writer versus censor, says Mydan's analytical feature titled, "Burmese Editor's Code: Winks And Little Hints."

In repressive states, writing under censorship is an art form. Many of their rules are universal. Write only upbeat articles or "sunshine news." Thus, many confine themselves to gossip, sports and lifestyle features. Praise the regime. That guarantees publication. It's also safer.

Direct criticism is taboo. Even factual reports on drought or poor crop yields are forbidden. These could arouse fears of price increases. You cannot knock those in power. Imelda and the First Family, for example, could be accorded only fulsome hosannas.

A few in Myanmar, as in martial law Philippines, push against the boundaries of what's acceptable. "You cannot blame," Tin said. "You have to give hints that you are being critical, that you are talking about the current system. The hints are in your choice of words, your tones, your composition. You use words with double meaning. The challenge is to get through to those keen readers without tipping off the censors."

He wrote about flag burning in the United States, ostensibly to criticize it but, between the lines, to give a glimpse of freedom.

Still the government remains paranoid about Suu Kyi's drawing power. Favorable references in the press to the opposition leader are "clearly forbidden." It's verboten to write about female heads of state. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Corazon Aquino, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher would be blacked out.

Given the muzzled press, the pressure for reform is coming from outside. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, for example, said that Suu Kyi and other political prisoners must be included in the current spate of releases involving more than 9,000 prisoners. Asean foreign ministers, meeting in Phnom Penh last July also pressed for the release.

President Arroyo and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were reported to have reminded Myanmar Prime Minister Soe Win at the Laos Asean summit of still unfulfilled pledges. Now, the parliamentarians are weighing in.

Whether these pressures will cause the hard-line generals, like Soe Win, to unbend, remains to be seen. Less than 40 political detainees, or one percent, were among those freed to impress Asean heads of state meeting in Vientiane.

Then-President Fidel V. Ramos argued for Myanmar's acceptance by Asean. He insisted that Asean credentials would restrain the junta from taking even more repressive measures. Both national and regional interests, he claimed, were served by having Myanmar in instead of "peeing from the outside." The track record says otherwise.

"As for being a general, well, at the age of four, with paper hats and wooden swords, we're all generals," the actor Peter Ustinov once said, adding: "Only, some of us never grow out of it."

As Yangon shows, generals who never mature can go daft. They can impoverish a once-rich nation and crucify a gentle people, as our own "Rolex 12" did.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A bittersweet carol

A bittersweet carol

Updated 11:33pm (Mla time) Dec 06, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the December 7, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

FEW noticed the songwriter's obituary, stashed below the fold of a newspaper's inside page a few days back. But this note on an obscure lyricist's passing, just when lilting lines of "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit" ring out again, evoked images of Christmas past. One was the Nativity Day Mass, then ending at the graceful Thai-style church on Bangkok's Ruamrudde Lane. Suddenly, the choir leader leapt to his feet. "Before you leave," he told the surprised congregation, "may we sing for you a Filipino carol?" With overseas Filipino workers as lead musicians, the choir then belted out one of our probably best known carols: "Ang Pasko ay sumapit/ Tayo na at mangagsiawit…." It's an exuberant carol. Listeners are drawn in with the singers.

Swedes, Thais, Australians, Germans, Nigerians, Samoans and others clapped along as the choir sang: "Nang si Kristo'y isilang / May tatlong hari nagsidalaw..."

Holy Redeemer parish serves an international flock. Built in the early 1950s by Redemptorist Fathers on what were Bangkok rice paddies, the church is now surrounded by skyscrapers. But that Christmas Day, few in the congregration knew -- or particularly cared-that they were singing the "hijacked" adaptation of a 1933 Cebuano “dayegon,” or carol: "Kasadya Ning Taknaa" ]How Joyful Is this Season].

Composer Vicente Rubi jotted down the music for a new dayegon to be presented at a Christmas festival. Then Panorama Magazine writer Alex Dacanay recalls that Rubi sought out Mariano Vestil to do the lyrics. Their "Kasadya" dayegon won hands down.

Today, wherever Cebuano is spoken- I- n Bohol, Negros Oriental, Southern Leyte, Northern Mindanao, Cebu and elsewhere -- carolers still sing the same infectious beat that Rubi and Vestil blended 71 years ago. "Bualahan ang tagbalay/nga gi awitan [Blessed are the homes where carols are sang]."

But singing this Cebuano dayegon in the overwhelming Buddhist city was bittersweet, at least for some Visayans in the pews. Italians call this joy-laced pain "chiaroscuro." Among others, injustice evokes that feeling.

"The books of antiquity of every people and culture are filled with that restless human search," the theologian Catalino Arevalo notes. "One thinks of the words from Aeschylus which Robert Kennedy loved: 'And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart.'"

Did that Christmas group include Filipino United Nations officers like the econometrician Edmundo Prantilla of Davao and Bohol's Ernesto Pernia, later Asian Development Bank economist? I don't recall now. But Dr. Jose Abueva, by then, had moved on to the United Nations University in Tokyo. He was later to become University of the Philippines president.

That Christmas, his international vessel docked at Klong Toey. So, Capt. Ariston Roxas was there together with his wife, Justin, principal of Bangkok's Mary Poppins kindergarten. So were engineer Noel Bersabe and his physician-wife, Jing.

"It's the supremest of ironies in a country that boasts of the longest celebration of Christmas," editor Jullie Yap Daza wrote in 1978. "But not a trace of effort has been made to attribute the beloved carol 'Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit' to its author Vicente D. Rubi."

When Daza wrote that, Rubi was an old impoverished widower. Until he was confined in a hospital ward, "Nong Inting" would shuffle to his door to teach startled carolers, sometimes kids banging tin-cup tambourines, how to sing his dayegon.

Rubi and Vestil's carol was hijacked for P150 by a record company. Nong Inting, who died in 1980, was "denied what was due him in royalties," Daza added. As Shakespeare's King Lear puts it, "I am a man/More sinned against than sinning."

Record companies conned the carol's authors over the years with legal dodges. That's par for the course in a country where court verdicts on dictators and their plunder are sapped by a never-ending spiral of motions. "I can delay this case for at least five years" boasted an abogado de campanilla after Edsa II.

Twenty-four years after Rubi's death, as his obituary notes, the lyricist Vestil went to his grave, also bereft of benefits and recognition-although their dayegon continues to resound, albeit in forms that Rubi and Vestil never sought. Does it ultimately matter? "I have written your name in the palm of my hand," an Advent reading from Isaiah says.

But those who crassly exploited the talented dayegon musician and lyricist have kindred spirits here: in the cartel that flogged an onerous levy on coconut farmers; in loggers who triggered those flash floods or generals who fiddled with soldiers' skimpy retirement benefits. These are the "Napoleons of crime," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle muses.

In Charles Dickens 1843 classic "A Christmas Carol," the miser Scrooge dismisses what Vestil and Rubi celebrated as "Humbug!" But Christmas is not tinsel, reindeers, shattered diets, etc. a Bangkok Post feature noted. It is "about a Child...who healed the sick, fed the hungry, showed compassion, taught that one should lay down life for friends-and did so. He also gave answers to basic questions, such as death that confront ordinary mortal like us." That's why it is a "feast of luminous images that hint at all manner of communication."

Christmas' unique grace is that both carol writer and carol thief can say with shepherds and kings: "Let us go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has made known to us.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Do our clocks strike 13?

Do our clocks strike 13?

Updated 11:48pm (Mla time) Dec 01, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the December 2, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IS the flawed textbooks scandal merely about quick-buck-publishers and slipshod research? Or is it about Orwellian flushing of truth down "memory holes" in a society where the "clocks strike 13"?

That question underpins Inquirer reporter Dona Pazzibugan's reports on error-studded textbooks. It took 22 historians and academics, working overtime, four weeks to blue-pencil one book. Another book blacked out historical upheavals, like People Power-now reverberating in Ukraine, after Georgia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Indonesia.

"The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory," Milan Hubl wrote. So were Ferdinand Marcos' brutal dictatorship and Joseph Estrada's boozy corrupt regimes shoved into "memory holes"?

In his novel "1984," the Observer's Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell, sketched a fictional dictatorship's ultimate weapon: "memory holes." These devices obliterated "even scraps of paper" not devoted to propaganda.

Orwell also coined "double think," "newspeak" and "Big Brother," the predecessor of North Korea's "Dear Leader." So thoroughly did he "describe methods of totalitarian thought control, that the adjective Orwellian now forms part of everyday language," a literary encyclopedia notes.

Memory disintegrated at the hands of Orwell's "thought-police." In "1984," lies become truth as words lose their meaning. "Slavery is freedom." Dissidents were tortured in "Room 101." In Orwell-land, clocks strike 13.

But Imelda insists that "martial law was the most democratic period in our history." Marcos' Military Intelligence Security Group was our "Room 101."

Democracy grows out the barrel of a gun, proclaim coup plotters, from Juan Ponce Enrile of "God-Save-The-Queen" schemes to the Magdalo mutineers. "Operation Ahos" and other communist pogroms safeguarded the "people's war," Filipino commissars claim. "A blanket of paranoia engulfed the movement," says former rebel Robert Francis Garcia in his book, "To Suffer Thy Comrades." And a levy is not a tax, the dictionary notwithstanding, the coconut cartel argue. The clock strikes 13.

A textbook ignores 12 other presidents and discusses only Transparency International's Marcos and Estrada. It presents Erap's background, platform of government and State of the Nation Address promises. Period. The aborted impeachment trial and Edsa II are nowhere.

Marcos founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a book asserts. It ignored President Diosdado Macapagal who, with Malaysia and Indonesia, forged Maphilindo, Asean's forerunner. It also endorses Proclamation 1081. To dampen threats to security, Marcos was compelled to use "absolute power, so he declared martial law."

What "memory holes" fail to delete, Orwellian "double think" twists. Public school textbooks distort the martial law record, University of Asia and the Pacific's Joel Sarmenta and Melvin Yabut told the 1999 Ateneo/Wisconsin Universities "Conference on Legacies of the Marcos Dictatorship."

In these taxpayer-paid-for books, dissent such as the "First Quarter Storm" is depicted as chaos. Militarization and the thousands of desaparecidos (salvage and torture victims) are ignored. There is nothing on mass arrests or padlocking of a free press, so similar to the junta-ruled Myanmar of today.

"The end result was that the generation born after Sept. 21, 1972--now comprising over 13 percent of the entire population-are the 8.3 million students using these [fatally flawed] textbooks," their study notes.

"Who controls the past, controls the future," Orwell noted. "Who controls the present controls the past."

Thus, Stalin's regime rewrote history as often as its purges. Glorified accounts of the secret police's Lavrenti Beria were erased after his assassination. Japan remains embroiled in textbooks that tiptoe around the "Rape of Nanking." Denials that the Holocaust occurred persist.

A youth scrubbed of memory will take it for granted that the clock strikes 13. Can a people, afflicted by tax-subsidized amnesia ever become a purposeful nation? "The struggle of man against power," Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote, "is the struggle against forgetting."

History is a "dangerous, often subversive subject--it opens minds," Inquirer columnist and historian Ambeth Ocampo writes. "But myths and distortions warp the present crop of history textbooks and presentation of martial law."

No action was ever taken--until Marian School supervisor Antonio Calipjo-Go blew the whistle in a June 6 letter to the Inquirer. For that he was first branded as a publicity seeker, ignored by the education department and threatened with libel charges.

"In this country, those who horsewhip money changers out of the temple, end up excoriated," I wrote here last Aug. 5. Acsa Ramirez, who exposed Land Bank tax scams, ended in a police lineup. For denouncing the purchase of sub-standard Kelvar helmets, flawed HK-MP5 assault rifles, Rear Adm. Guillermo Wong was shipped out. There are hundreds of such cases.

"Governments must create an environment that encourages, instead of penalizes, citizens who denounce venalities," 135 countries declared at the 9th Anti-Corruption Conference in Durham, South Africa.

For the first time since its creation in 1995, the National Book Development Board has ordered a textbook's pullout due to gross errors. Corrected teaching notes are being shipped to the 5,700 public high schools. These are slow and overdue measures to prevent the clock from striking 13.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Serial jackpots

Serial jackpots

Updated 11:23pm (Mla time) Nov 29, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the November 30, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

OVER the last two weeks, I have won the lottery thrice. And that excludes the seven times I hit the jackpot earlier. So, how come I still can't toss Eduardo Cojuangco a "name-your-price" offer for those coco-levy-mancled San Miguel Corp. shares?

My e-mail box is crammed with felicitation letters for striking a gold lode. "Your e-mail address won US$500,000," Luckday International wrote. At today's roller-coaster rates, that's P26.5 million. So, how did I squeeze into the ranks of the chosen few?

Over 300,000 e-mail addresses were churned through a computer ballot system, writes Josephine Van Daal, lottery coordinator. Or was it Norris Carret? I forget now.

But that's nothing compared to Summerset International Lottery. They process more addresses, insists Comfort Jose, and bingo! "You have therefore been approved (sic) for a lump sum pay out of one million euro."

"I don't like millionaires," Mark Twain once said. "But it'd be dangerous to offer me the position."

Me too. But from Belgium to Nigeria, Iraq and Spain, they're elbowing each other aside to offer me the job. They all slobber over this instant millionaire. Is it because they're psychic? How else could they figure that I secretly felt kinship with Teyve who, in Broadway's "Fiddler On The Roof," sang my own question: "Would it spoil some vast eternal plan / If I were a wealthy man?"

But you're a rich man, insists Sarah Hoofman of the Euro-Foundation. I am? From Geneva, she reveals that I won 1.5 million euros. And Leonteen Garrnett of Belgium's Lottery Software e-mails to announce: "You've been approved for a lump sum pay out of US$ 1000,000.00." I'm to collect the "dough" not later than Dec. 23, she adds.

Spain's biggest lottery is named "El Gordo" (The Fat One). It compares with the Irish Sweepstakes. Did Gary Smith of Amersfoortsestraagwet in Amsterdam swipe that Iberian trademark? "You are therefore (sic) been approve (sic) for the lump sum pay out of euros 1.25 million," he announces.

At this rate, I deserve a lifestyle check, I tell our neighbor-ombudsman. "Are you nuts?" he snaps.

Maybe. Blame those serial jackpot images dancing through my head. Why, I'd give Joseph Estrada's studentless Muslim Youth Foundation and Ferdinand Marcos' shell philanthropies in Lichtenstein a run for their money.

"No one would have remembered the Good Samaritan if all he had were good intentions," former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said. "He had money as well."

By the time Loteria de la Primitiva in Madrid and Holland's Paragon Promo tell of sums waiting for my go-signal, I'm wary. What's the catch? "A fool and his money are soon parted."

All the letters are phrased identically, down to the grammatical errors. Only the amounts vary. Keep it confidential, they ask. But contact a financial agent whose name is given. To dip into the till, first give the chap your private numbers.

"All that's required is provide your full names (sic), address, private phone, bank account and fax numbers," writes Dr. Omar Ali, who claims to be the Credit Bank of Iraq's auditor. Then, he'd transfer $14.2 million, which "no one will ever claim." When "transferred to your bank account," we'll share: "65% for me, 30% for you and 5% for any expenses incured (sic)."

That's better than Mauritius "Member of Parliament" Rajesh Anand Bhagwan's offer which is only 25 percent. Dennis Kingibe at the Security and Investment Bank in Lagos claims access to an idle $20.5 million. Give your bank account numbers, and he'll transfer the loot and split 50-50.

Dubai merchant Khalid Suleman has a sob story: he's dying of esophageal cancer. Before facing God's judgment for a dissolute life, could you help him distribute $28 million to the needy? "I want God to be merciful to me and accept my soul," he says. Does bribing the Almighty balance the books in the hereafter? "If you help dispatched (sic) it to charity organizations. I have set aside 20% for your time." And by the way, send your bank account numbers soonest.

Such letters titillate avarice. Their appeals are hitched to officials suspected of hoarding ill-gotten wealth. Letters claim access to the wealth of Muboto Seseke, Papa Doc Duvalier, Suharto -- even Jinggoy Estrada.

"Greed is a tree that grows on arid soil," an Ilocano proverb says.

How many have been conned? But if e-mail traffic is any indication, there are suckers out there willing to be fleeced. Who said there was one "born every minute"?

Fed up, a son trolled his own bait of "half a million dollar investments." Someone bit hard. Detailed exchanges resulted in an elaborate meeting timetable at a Bangkok hotel. On D-Day, my son didn't show up. In reply to long distance inquiries, he replied: "On the way to the airport, I had a flat tire."

Over coffee, this boy explained to me: Charles de Gaulle summed it well: "Revenge is a dish best eaten cold."