All posts by Christopher Chanco

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Reviving mandatory ROTC

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The Association of General and Flag Officers Inc. (AGFO), an organization of active and retired generals and flag officers, seeks to bring back the mandatory military training or the Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) Program to all colleges and universities in the country.

ROTC is good for our country for it provides students service-orientation and furthermore, inculcate a sense patriotism for our country, and service as well,” says Retired Gen. Carlos Holganza, former major general of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and a member of  AGFO. “Martial atmosphere will give more discipline,” he adds.

The ROTC of the Philippines is a program intended for college students, to prepare them for national defense, and to train them with leadership skills, and the basics of military services in order to produce capable Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reservists.

        

History of ROTC

The concept of the program originated from the United States of America in 1862 where it first established ROTC as an elective for college students. Some years after, several allies of the USA, including the Philippines, adopted and implemented the same exact program to their respective countries.

The first ROTC unit in the Philippines was established in the year 1922 at the University of the Philippines. Subsequently, the National University, Ateneo de Manila, Liceo de Manila, and Colegio de San Juan de Letran formed their respective ROTC units.

To provide legal basis for the conduct of ROTC instruction, the Commonwealth Act No. 1 or commonly known as the National Defense Act was formulated and issued as an executive order (EO). The EO states that “at such colleges and universities as the President may designate, there shall be established and maintained Reserve Officers Training Corps units of such arm and service as he shall specify, where every physically fit student shall be required to pursue a course of military instruction . . .”

Due to the aforementioned EO, the ROTC program was made mandatory to all universities and colleges, wherein the estimated 100 students were to fill the insufficient required number of reserved officers in the Philippine Army.

Meanwhile, in accordance to the EO, De La Salle University-Manila ROTC Unit was also established in 1936, but it was formally organized and re-designated only in 1952.

 

DLSU’s ROTC in World War II

The ROTC cadets from the 33 colleges and universities who have active units took part and were first seen in action during the Second World War. Cadets from different Metro Manila units took part in the defense of Bataan, while in the Visayas, 45 percent of the 75th Infantry Regiment of the US Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) were ROTC cadets of Silliman University.

In DLSU, the first graduates of the ROTC program formed a part of the reservist forces too and during the Japanese invasion, many were massacred, including civilian families and 16 Christian Brothers in 1945.

After the war, several other EO’s by the succeeding presidents were implemented to strengthen the said program.

 

Abolition of mandatory ROTC

Several years after, several students, teachers and politicians questioned the significance of having a mandatory ROTC program, even the issue on competence of its training staff and the corruption that often plagued the units also aroused. Bills, resolutions and press statements expressing the intention of the lawmakers and people to abolish the mandatory program started to stimulate in the country.

Not long after, the death of a member of the ROTC unit’s intelligence monitoring team of the University of Santo Tomas in 2001 triggered the proposal to abolish the program. His death is widely believed to be linked to the exposé of alleged corruption and irregularities in the ROTC unit of the UST.

The congress responded immediately after the incident, and in 2002, Republic Act 9163, or the National Service Training Program (NSTP), was signed as an answer to the clamor for changes in the program. It removed the program as a compulsory prerequisite for graduation for all male college students, and substituted it with NSTP. Furthermore, females were no longer exempted from national service; accomplishment of the NSTP was now mandatory for both genders.

In NSTP, college students are required to choose and complete at least one of its three components in order to graduate. Three options were given: the ROTC program, which provides military training; Literacy Training Service, which provides training on teaching basic reading and math; and Civic Welfare Training Service (CWTS), which involves students in activities contributing to community welfare, such as caring for the environment, public safety, health, sports, and entrepreneurship.

The implementation of the program started last 2002 and is still being followed today. But in several universities like DLSU, there are only two options given, the ROTC program and CWTS, which are taken for two terms.

 

Sufficiency of duration

 The ROTC program of DLSU as it is today lasts from the 2nd term to the 3rd term every academic year, spanning roughly six months– a period shorter compared to other universities such as the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of Santo Tomas who conduct theirs for the entirety of an academic year. This is in accordance to Section 5 of Republic Act 9163 which stipulates that any NSTP program to be taken would be only for the duration of two semesters.

Jaimie Lou Sarmiento (V, AB-ISJ), former Corps Commander of the 247th DLSU ROTC Unit, says that the shorter training scheme is initially attractive to students, but adds that they would prefer to have it longer when nearing the end. She admits that there are cons to the insufficient time, especially since it could be enjoyed and appreciated further.

She sees this arrangement as an advantage, on the other hand, since it makes students learn to appreciate the “military training” in a shorter amount of time. Due to this, students would opt to become a cadet officer in order to lengthen their ROTC experience. “Should they feel that the experience is still inadequate, they could join the unit as “cadet officers” which makes the cadet officership training more attractive to students who want to experience more and stay longer as part of the ROTC unit,” she elaborates.

Jemela Joyce Solon (V, BSBA-EM), former cadet officer in the ROTC, believes that two terms is sufficient, and sees it as an advantage since it makes the students and facilitators feel pressed for time when discussing, giving them a greater sense of urgency to prioritize lectures. She does, however, acknowledge the drawbacks such as missing certain topics to focus on more important ones.

Alexander Mikhail Pama (V, PSM-MMG), another former cadet officer, acknowledges that having only two terms of ROTC is a disadvantage for DLSU students since other universities and colleges have a whole school year to prepare for the competition held March every year, but stresses that it is not a major problem. He also recalls how back in his freshman year, their ROTC lasted for the whole year. “Upon enrolling for school on our first year, we are already given the choice to join ROTC or CWTS. Now there is a lecture that first year [students] must take before choosing an NSTP… such [a] lecture is non-existent in other schools,” he says.

 

On possible conscription

Sarmiento agrees on having mandatory ROTC in schools again, but adds that the government should first look into the curriculum to be used.  “Just like our ROTC curriculum, other ROTC units should implement changes that will make the students’ training holistic, values-oriented and appropriate for social awareness and character growth especially that of the youth,” she explains.

Solon also believes that a well thought of curriculum should be made before conscription is made. Since mandatory ROTC before was replaced by the NSTP Law, she elucidates that it may indicate that there are flaws in the previous system, stressing that further changes be first made.

Pama, meanwhile, welcomes the idea that of having mandatory ROTC. He recounts his experiences as a cadet, initially considering ROTC as nothing more than a graduation requirement, but eventually realizing its importance. “During my years as a cadet and the succeeding 3 years as an officer, I have been taught numerous and valuable skills that can help survive in the outside world. Among them is discipline… I [had] also learned something that is very valuable for a Filipino – Nationalism,” he shares. He stresses that having these core values is important nowadays, especially with the nation’s tensions with China.

 

Clearing things out

Philippine Star reported that the proposal came upon after the recent developments showing AFP has limited capability to protect the Philippines’ sovereignty. Ret. Gen. Holganza believes this to be a mistake and exaggeration.

“AFP should not be taken into that context, the proposal is about what it can do to students, inculcating pride, patriotism and others,” he explains. “It’s not about what AFP can get out of the students,” he adds.

He also mentions that the mandatory ROTC is trying to say that the AFP could have help from reservists who can provide a lot of assistance like humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, he discussed that the oppositionists of the proposal should not focus on the traditional enemies, but more on the future enemies like the effects of global warming.

Meanwhile, Ret. Gen. Holganza emphasized that for mandatory ROTC be able to function well, the AFP must be able to provide a professional standard in carrying out the program in order to eliminate incidents of corruption.

“If puro ungas at bobong AFP ang hahawak sa ROTC like before, there would be no good products, for no one will learn from bad experiences,” [If incompetent AFP officers will handle ROTC, which actually happened before, there would be no good products for no one will learn from bad experiences.] says Ret. Gen. Holganza. “The program is good and beneficial, but still we need good men. For it wouldn’t be that good without good people manning it,” he ends.

Photo by Renielle Rebadomia

Commentary: Of Coral Reefs, Donald Trump, Jr. and US Empire

In a pre-dawn crash early this year, the American minesweeper USS Guardian smashed into 1,000 square metres of Tubbataha reef, ravaging one of the last remaining marine biodiversity hotspots in the world on Philippine sovereign territory.  Recent estimates of the damage pull up the figure to up to four times that (a).

The reef is a Unesco World heritage site, part of the ecologically-sensitive Pacific Coral Triangle, and is off-limits to all poachers and military vessels.

The US Navy, Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard have begun to salvage what remains of the ship, though full dismantlement should have begun by the first week of February.

Sheer logistics and rough weather have made this impossible. To date, the ship, in its same hull-wrecked and stranded state, remains where it first ran aground. Some have floated (pun unintended) the idea of allowing nature to take its course (pun also unintended), with the ship sinking to the seabed to lay  the foundations  of a new coral reef, perhaps in time becoming the latest tourist attraction for  prostitute-seeking, scuba-diving American tourists – and then, perhaps, the damage would pay for itself.

US authorities are obviously dead-set on salvaging the hundred-million-dollar-plus vessel whatever the cost, and Donald Trump, Jr. is in complete agreement (more on him later).

Damage to the reef, according to the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, ought to incur a fine of about Php 24,000 ($600) per square metre for both legal sanctions and restoration efforts.

The US government has so far been fined Php 38 million – though that figure, if the Law is to be obeyed to the letter – which in this country is rarely the case wherever America, her allies among the local elite, and all associated interests are concerned – should jump to around Php 100 million, with the latest estimates of reef damage pegged at 4,000 square metres or more.

Yet this amount fails even on its own terms, excluding as it does further sanctions on the USS Guardian’s unauthorised entry into an internationally recognised marine sanctuary,  its failure to pay mandatory conservation fees, and its destruction of natural resources and obstruction of law enforcement. Tubbataha park officials seeking to investigate damage to the reef were initially barred entry from the ship by American navy officers in the wake of the ‘accident’.

These violations amount to major criminal offences and appropriate punishments should, according to law, range from imprisonment of navy officials to confiscation of all equipment and vessels involved in the incident.

The fine is also miniscule compared to damages paid after a similar incident involving the American guided missile cruiser USS Port Royal which wrecked 890 square metres of coral reef off the coast of Honolulu in 2009.   The US Navy at the time paid $15 million – or about Php 610 million – to the state of Hawaii to settle claims and pay for reef restoration.

At any rate, no amount of money can ever compensate for damage to a coral reef ecosystem that took centuries to grow or, for that matter, the US Navy’s clear breach of both national and international law.

In the face of an incident symbolic of decades of US militarism and the ravaging of the country’s sovereign territory and its resources – the government’s response has been, at best, mellow.

Referring to America’s response to the accident, President Aquino noted in a press conference before his elite peers and his media sycophants at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:  “I think they are showing that they respect us as a sovereign state, and we’d like to thank them that they are respecting our sovereignty and are very careful about our sensitivities’’.

While recognizing the need for the US Navy to “comply with our laws’’ and acknowledging that a mere apology was inadequate, Aquino accepted the same apology and dismissed calls for further sanctions against the American government beyond token fines.

The USS Guardian was hardly mentioned at all at a meeting between an American delegation of lawmakers and Philippine officials on Tuesday, and the Department of Foreign Affairs was silent on why the issue was never brought up.  On the agenda was a further tightening of military and economic ties between the two countries to counter China’s growing ‘threat’ – real or perceived – in the region.

Central also to the discussions, with considerable irony, were environmental issues and the future impacts of climate change, a dilemma for which both China and the United States share equal responsibility as the world’s top carbon emitters.

This is a clear case of double standards and is in stark contrast to the government’s hard-line position on Chinese vessels and small fishermen who traverse the country’s seas for a living and are regularly hunted down by security officials and subject to extortion or harassment.

In response to the incident, activists, environmentalists and left-leaning groups have so far issued the following demands:

– immediate payment of all mandatory fines as well as additional compensation in the form of Tubbataha reef restoration, investments in marine conservation, and additional fines at least matching those paid after the USS Port Royal-Honolulu incident;

– criminal charges to be launched against everyone involved in the incident,  including US Navy officials;

– the incident to be brought to international attention as subject to international law and the United Nations;

– and more broadly, for an urgent and critical reassessment of American military policy in the region as a whole and the country’s role in furthering its aims. Alongside this, an urgent halt to all military ties with the US, including the suspension of all military exercises and the  RP-USA Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

 

Trumping the Planet, Jr. Edition

As if to sprinkle salt on this latest blunder of US imperialism, Donald Trump, Jr., son of billionaire real estate magnate and casino tycoon Donald Trump, delivered the following salvo on Twitter late January:

 trump

 

Centuries of marine life reduced to an insignificant cross section of an insignificant reef on an insignificant former colony’s territory. Indeed, perhaps the damage was insignificant.  Yet more weighty than the ‘paltry’ damage wrought on one of the last surviving reefs of its kind in the world is the symbolic significance of Trump’s comments.

For in the sociopathic worlds of the benevolent elite who lord over us all, Coral Reefs – and the millions of years of evolution, ecological majesty, and sacred life that they represent – are, of course, worth far less than military warships designed for no other purpose than to kill, maim, and destroy.

Capitalism endures no sacred cows.

To understand the psyches of the likes of Trump, who constitute a transnational capitalist class without precedent in human history, we must first understand the broader structures of power  at work which reward barefaced greed and allow such individuals to enrich themselves at the expense of the vast majority; a class whose nomadic elite set up tents in every country in search of the most profits at the least cost, whose interests are defended by all agents of imperialism – the state, the military, the judiciary of nearly every country in the world- as they float, guiltlessly, above the rest of impoverished humanity.

When you’re as rich and powerful as Trump, in other words, you get to trump the rest of the universe into doing your bidding. Ethics are a non-issue for those at the top. The System is rigged in their favour and they have no need for the rest of us, against whose protests they proclaim: let them eat cake.

In the words of George Monbiot, describing the comfortable lives of the detached elite in England, where inequality has reached levels unseen since the Victorian era:

“Secession from the concerns and norms of the rest of society characterises any well-established elite. Our own ruling caste, schooled separately, brought up to believe in justifying fairytales, lives in a world of its own, from which it can project power without understanding or even noticing the consequences. A removal from the life of the rest of the nation is no barrier to the desire to dominate it. In fact it appears to be associated with a powerful sense of entitlement” (b).

Entitlement, in this case, amounts to the possession of the planet itself. Should the son of a billionaire real estate magnate expect anything less? Should his class ilk and the country he represents – whose fortunes are tied to a system bent on possessing, valuing and devaluing the resources of this good Earth for the few – expect anything less?

This is hardly the first time American foreign policy has gotten its way at the expense of 99% of humanity – and it certainly won’t be the last.

 

US Empire and the ‘Pivot to Asia’

The US Navy, perhaps by far the most technologically advanced oceangoing fleet the world, has blamed the incident on faulty navigational equipment. Allegedly en route to Indonesia from Japan, and having first stopped by Subic bay to refuel, the Navy has yet to give a clear answer as to why a military ship was patrolling the region in the first place.

The incident is an indication of America’s imperialist ambitions in Asia that underpin rising tensions with China. It also highlights the Philippine government’s own submission to the whims of its former colonial master in the region, and its willingness to serve as one of America’s ‘buffer’ states – a cordon of nations that includes Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, among others –  against China’s growing political and economic clout.

The ruling elites of a former colonial overlord and its pet colony have once again converged against an imaginary foe, a scapegoat and release valve for a global economic crisis of their own making.

An unquestioned commitment to the neoliberal creed (c) that has wreaked havoc on the working class has survived administrative shifts from Bush and Arroyo to Obama and Aquino. The latter having both run on platforms of ‘change’, their socio-economic and military policies  have changed little in concrete terms from those of their predecessors. While cutting social spending, privatising crucial public services, bailing out the banks, and embracing austerity on the grounds ‘that there is no money’, they have diverted billions toward building up their military might in a mutant Keynesian attempt to stimulate the global economy.

America consistently outspends all other top military-spending nations combined:

“The United States is unique today among major states in the degree of its reliance on military spending, and its determination to stand astride the world, militarily as well as economically. No other country in the post–Second World War world has been so globally destructive or inflicted so many war fatalities. Since 2001, acknowledged U.S. national defense spending has increased by almost 60 percent in real dollar terms to a level in 2007 of $553 billion. This is higher than at any point since the Second World War (though lower than previous decades as a percentage of GDP). Based on such official figures, the United States is reported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as accounting for 45 percent of world military expenditures. Yet, so gargantuan and labyrinthine are U.S. military expenditures that the above grossly understates their true magnitude, which, as we shall see below, reached $1 trillion in 2007.

Externally, these are necessary expenditures of world empire. Internally, they represent, as Michal Kalecki was the first to suggest, an imperial triangle of state-financed military production, media propaganda, and real/imagined economic-employment effects that has become a deeply entrenched, and self-perpetuating feature of the U.S. social order. (d)”

Obama, in his commitment to follow closely on the heels of Bush amid masterful political doublespeak, has presided  over a renewed bout of global war-mongering  and unprecedented violations of the civil, political and economic rights of US citizens even as he seeks to cloak himself with a veil of progressive rhetoric (e).  The evidence against his lies is overwhelming: from US-backed conflicts in the Middle-East, to America’s leading role in the renewed scramble for Africa, to his promotion of his Bush-era torture-supporting  chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to CIA director , to unmanned drone strikes that have killed thousands of women, children, alleged insurgents and American citizens in Pakistan, Mali, Yemen and elsewhere.

With ceaseless assaults on those least able to cope with the current socio-economic crises, elite interests tussling over increasingly scarce resources, and militaristic responses to an economic downturn akin to the 1930s, conditions are ripe for another global conflict– this time to erupt in Asia.

Footnotes

(a)        Dinglasan, Rouchelle. GMA News. “US warship’s damage to Tubbataha Reef worsens to over 4,000 sqm” <http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/293155/news/nation/us-warship-s-damage-to-tubbataha-reef-worsens-to-over-4-000-sqm>

(b) Monbiot, George. “Another Country” <http://www.monbiot.com/2013/01/28/another-country/&gt;

(c) Hart-Landsberg, Martin.  “Neoliberalism: Myths and Reality” <http://monthlyreview.org/2006/04/01/neoliberalism-myths-and-reality>

Neoliberal Myths: A Critical Look at the Mexican Experience” < http://monthlyreview.org/2002/12/01/neoliberal-myths&gt;

(d) Foster, John B., Hannah Holleman and Robert McChesney. “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending”<http://monthlyreview.org/2008/10/01/the-u-s-imperial-triangle-and-military-spending>

See also: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Military Expenditure Database <http://www.sipri.org/databases/milex>

(e) Eagleton, Oliver. “Obama: the Unreported Truth” <http://www.redpepper.org.uk/obama-the-unreported-truth/>

The Washington Post. “Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists”. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/plan-for-hunting-terrorists-signals-us-intends-to-keep-adding-names-to-kill-lists/2012/10/23/4789b2ae-18b3-11e2-a55c-39408fbe6a4b_story.html>

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political dynasties

The Dynasty Equation

 

In the revolving doors between Big Politics and Big Business, families rule. ‘Didn’t win this year’s elections, my darling? No matter, there’s always next year, and if you lose then, we’ll have room for you at the board of directors at daddy’s company!’

You see them everywhere. In candidates –  of identical surnames – running for mayor, vice-mayor, vice-chancellor, assistant barangay chairman, vice assistant barangay captain, captain of the guard  and every other political position imaginable, greeting you Merry Christmas and a prosperous new year in media both old and new: in tabloids, billboards, broadsheets, broadcasts, faded flyers on electric posts,  posters next to tricycle stops, and ads on pay-per-view porn.

Family portraits bear their slogans in all populist shades, from ‘’end poverty!’’ to ‘’serbisyo lamang’’ (service alone)  painted on arches over impoverished slums, pre-demolition. You see their names on front page headlines praising their efforts at promoting land reform or good governance – and, about half a dozen pages later, the same names on classified ads for prime real estate, next to names of their counsin’s cousins spelled out in a series of investigative reports on the latest damning corruption scandal.

A phenomenon common among postcolonial states in South Asia, South-east Asia and the Pacific islands, political dynasties of the 21st century are families who have managed to retain their grip on power  through generations. With their members and relations consistently guaranteed influential positions in government or business, the oldest  and most enduring of these clans stretch back to the Spanish  era.

For better or worse, these same families control, by hereditary descent or intermarriage, the country’s executive branch; its courts, its legislature,  as well as many of its industries, including basic utilities.

To those unfamiliar to this staple of  Philippine politics,  it may be inconceivable that blood relatives and  in-laws could or should have anything to do with the daily affairs of any modern democratic state. Certainly political dynasties are exceedingly rare in well-established democracies, like, say,  Norway’s – with the exception of the royal family.

Banish all thoughts  of Asiatic aristocrats in blue silk gowns and gongs. Their benevolent Filipino counterparts enjoy not a trace of royal blood.  To its many critics, the dictates of the Political Dynasty amount to no more than oligarchy, pinoy-style.

Up to 75% of all lawmakers in the 14th Congress  of the Philippines hailed from the old political clans, according to one estimate by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center (AIMPC).

Seven out of every fifteen legislators have surnames that are a permanent feature on every ballot paper in every major election in the country: Cojuangco-Aquino, Magsaysay, Lopez, Osmeña, Roxas, Macapagal-Arroyo, Marcos, among the 169 most powerful political clans listed by political scientist Dante Simbulan  from the years 1946 to 1963. These have given birth (literally and figuratively) to 584 public officials, including seven Presidents, two Vice Presidents, 42 Senators, and 147 Representatives. By 2007, the Citizens Anti-Dynasty Movement  reported a drop in the number of those clans to 119, reflecting  not a break in tradition, but an ever greater concentration of power by fewer families.

These 119 account for far less than 1% of all families in a country of more than a hundred million constituents.

Political dynasties dominate the country’s major political parties.   76 percent of the former ruling party Lakas-Kampi are members of dynasties. 57 percent of the dominant Liberal Party belong to dynasties. Dynasty-born and bred legislators,  regardless of age group, occupy 74 percent of seats of the Nationalist People’s Coalition and 81 percent of the Nacionalista Party.

Such figures have changed little over the years.  Between 1987 and 2001, the proportion of politicians with relatives in other government posts ranged from  62% to 66% of Congress.  Dynasty -linked politicians still make up the majority of the present 15th Congress , and though their numbers have dropped from an all-time high of 83% of all legislators in the 13th  , that has only meant more power consolidated in fewer hands, notes the Center for People Empowerment in Governance [1].

Roster of the Elite, Rule by a Few

Dynasties are defined by geographic location and the size of their landholdings, with rival clans jealously protecting their respective turfs.  Some of the oldest include the Ortegas of La Union, the Dys of Isabela, the Marcoses and Singsons of Ilocos, the Josons of Nueva Ecija, the Garcias and Romans of Bataan, Magsaysays of Zambales, Cojuangco-Aquinos of Tarlac, Fuentebellas of Camarines Norte, Dimaporos of Lanao del Sur, Osmeñas of Cebu, Espinosas of Masbate, Rectos of Batangas, Gordons of Zambales, Plazas of Agusan, Duranos of  Danao City, Antoninos of General Santos, Lobregats of Zamboanga City and the Cerilles of Zamboanga del Sur.

New dynasties have grown in recent years –  some from scratch, others from prior political connections – with families building up new spheres of influence in business, showbiz and politics (often the three are indistinguishable).     The latest entrants? The Arroyos of Pampanga and Negros Occidental, the Angaras of Aurora, Defensors of Iloilo and Quezon City, Suarezes of Quezon, Villafuertes of Camarines Sur, Villarosas of Mindoro Occidental, Espinas of Biliran, Ampatuans of Mindanao, and Akbars of Basilan.

Metro Manila, for its part, is dominated by the Belmontes in Quezon City, the Villars in Las Piñas, Cayetanos in Taguig, Eusebios in  Pasig, Estradas in San Juan, among others. This is a partial list.

Yet perhaps no better contemporary example of Dynasty exists than the President himself, Benigno Aquino III,  the son of  a former president and an assassinated senator whose own father,  Jose Sr., was a representative of the 10thPhilippine Assembly; and whose father before him, Melecio, was a representative of the First Philippine Assembly.Benigno Aquino, Sr.’s marriage to Corazon, of the equally influential Cojuangco clan , consolidated the political hegemony of the Cojuangco-Aquino twin dynasty, the product of a once bitter rivalry.   The Cojuangcos alone have business interests  ranging from food manufacturing to the sugar industry, own vast tracts of land and sugarcane plantations, including Hacienda Luisita, and maintain close ties to the nation’s business elite: the  Pangilinans,  Ayalas, Lopezes, Aboitizes and Consunjis, who collectively run some of the largest industries in the country, in infrastructure, manufacturing, telecommunications,  largescale mining, water and power generation.

Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Jr., the President’s uncle, is chairman of San Miguel Corporation, as well as an intimate ally –  among the infamous Rolex 12 in fact – of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

For all the ‘New Society’ rhetoric, Marcos was equally a product of traditional politics. His grandfather Fabian was Mayor of Batac, Ilocos Norte during the American Occupation. His father Mariano was a local politican and lawyer, and Ferdinand himself became member of the house of representatives and went on to claim for himself  a presidency that would last more than two decades. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, post-dictatorship and post-People Power I, the Marcoses appear to have re-established themselves in mainstream politics.  Ferdinand’s widowed wife Imelda, former beauty queen and shoe enthusiast, and former governor of Metro Manila and Minister of Human Settlements, currently sits as Congresswoman of Ilocos Norte. Their son Ferdinand, Jr. is now a senator, after having left his post as governor of Ilocos Norte – a position now claimed by his sister, former congresswoman Imee.

 Having robbed Bonifacio and the Katipuneros of their revolutionary slogan (they  must be rolling in their graves), the KKK – kamag-anakskabarkadas, and kabarilans –now infest, or should we say bless,  the corridors of power from Malacańang palace  to the smallest barrio to the southern hinterlands of Mindanao, where warlords live by the unalterable tenets of guns, goons, and gold.

The excesses of this system go against the grain of representative democracy, Dynasty’s detractors like to point out.  Indeed, shunning all electoral rivals through sheer strength  of accumulated family power while amassing special political privileges at the expense of voting citizens is both unfair  and unconstitutional. Or so says Article II, Section 26 of the 1986 Constitution: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

But no such laws have been defined since these lines were penned, in 1986, by Dynasty’s very descendants. In a lower and upper house dominated by the latter, the prospects for a  fledgling anti-dynasty bill ever to see the light of day by 2014, as proposed by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, is unlikely. Unless, that is, all Angaras, Arroyos, Aquinos, Cayetanos, Cojuangcos, Marcoses, Osmeñas, Lims – and the latest entrants into the game of family-power, the Binays and Pacquiaos – and the rest of the progeny of the more than a hundred political families who rule this country one day decide to shoot themselves in the foot.

Providing ‘equal access  to opportunities for public service’  is, of course, a nonstarter in a society  where electoral victory is  determined largely by the amount of money candidates manage to squeeze into their campaigns pre-(or post) ballot box. A political position is a commodity and dividends go to the highest bidder. AIMPC estimates suggest politicians connected to dynasties  are wealthier on average than those who are not, by tens of millions of pesos in net worth, even while dynasty-linked legislators tend to govern over impoverished districts more prone to local graft and corruption.

The wealthy thus out-compete poorer candidates who represent the majority of the country’s population for choice positions in government. The end result is more than an oligarchy, more than a failure of bourgeois representative democracy,   but  the culmination of a long and benighted tradition of family rule by the nation’s plutocratic elite.

The coalition slate  for next year’s midterm election is revealing. Where candidates tend  to run not on the basis of any meaningful platform but on the basis of popularity and clan ties, relatives and close relations campaign right across rival political parties. The President’s Liberal Party Coalition (LPC) includes his tito Danding’s political party and the Nationalista Party (NP) – with Senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos [3].

The irony of all this is difficult to ignore. The NP had been led by Noynoy’s erstwhile presidential contender Manny Villar in 2010 (who, upon reaching his term limits as senator,  has urged his wife Cynthia to run instead).

Danding Cojuangco, on the other hand, has long been a rival of the Aquinos. As current President Aquino’s father languished in prison in the events leading up to EDSA I, in fact, Danding had leveraged his political weight to gain ground  in the Cojuangco-Aquino family feud, enriching himself in the process. Upon Aquino Sr.’s  assassination and after the revolution, Cory later put things in order, though tensions between the two clans allegedly remained.

Despite this dire history, the Aquinos, Cojuangcos, Villars, and Marcoses are now allies.

The sentorial slate of the LPC’s ‘rival’ United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), headed by deposed president Joseph Estrada, senate president Juan Ponce Enrile (himself a defence minister and justice secretary under the Marcos regime) and  current vice president Binay, includes the President’s cousin Bam Aquino and his tita Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco. Also included in the coalition are Enrile’s son Jack, Estrada’s son JV Ejercito, and Binay’s daughter Nancy.

Two repeat-military coup leaders and erstwhile critics of the system are also running in both parties: Sonny Trillanes (LPC) and Gringo Honasan  (UNA), a man who once  once threatened Cory Aquino’s presidency.

Where bloodlines meet

“We have come to the conclusion that political clans, and not political parties, have been the building blocks of Philippine electoral politics”, remarked  De La Salle University professor Dr. Julio Teehankee in an introduction to a Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism seminar on the 2013 elections.

So what exactly has led to this state of affairs, a system where the lines of political partisanship are divided  not according to their respective positions on concrete issues which affect the nation, but by blood ties, popularity contests and the questionable concerns of the quintissential trapo?

Some blame it on the family-centric nature of Pinoy culture, otherwise known by that  mainstay of Philippine public life, the myth of descent, where honesty, compassion, integrity –  even the ability to rule a country – are somehow mystically passed on to future generations. But are the virtues of  good character and  political integrity genetically inheritable traits?  A decent politician is a chip off the old block, they say. And so completely untrue.

For whatever the merits of ‘’first generation’’ civil servants, there is the damning  reality of second and third generation-politicos reared in privileged detachment from the plight of their people, who receive their Masters degrees and Phds in governance or business administration at Berkely or Cambridge, who spend most of their lives in cloistered subdivisions or abroad, and for whom the psychological effect of being born with the figurative silver-spoon-in-the-mouth overpowers all inclinations toward selfless civic service.  For every Macapagal or Osmeńa, Sr. there lurks a future disappointment.

Some have argued, rather optimistically, that the younger generations of Dynasty have developed a more critical sense of their position in the status quo,  entertaining even a kind of self-loathing that may compel them one day to end their family’s reigns on their own accord. Maybe. For now though, dynasty-linked members of Congress cut across all age groups and progress on the anti-dynasty bill has stalled.

Others, like Renato Constantino and others on the left-ish press, trace Dynasty’s origins to the legacy of centuries of colonial rule which  favoured an elite clique of the Filipino ruling class.

Two consecutive regimes – first Spanish, then American – took strategic advantage of traditional  social structures organised around blood clans throughout the archipelago. With the arrival of the first conquistadors, Spanish-Filipino half-breed mestizos and illustrados (and their relatives) soon found themselves favoured and enriched by colonial authorities who entrusted in them vast landholdings and key positions in the new government. The Americans, in turn, froze such relations in time  by incorporating members of powerful clans into a burgeoning bureaucracy.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) points out how the introduction of US-style electoral politics was dominated by the upper crust of  the Philippine elite, with votes limited to the wealthy and the propertied in the early 20th century. This secured for the clans monopoly control of public office, as well as influence over much of the local populace in a pattern of patronage politics that would live on through the 21st.

Today, term limits  meant to even out the electoral playing field have had the opposite effect:  potential political patriarchs have all the more reason to pass on the pillars of power to their descendants, like  a game of musical chairs, from children to grandchildren to great-grand-children.

The implications of family life, when brought to the corridors of power,  are apparent: in the private sector, relatives offer easy access to land, capital,  foreign investment contracts  and financial opportunities for  favoured cousins or in-laws,  even as the real economy stagnates and their constiuents starve. In Congress and Senate, they offer a permanent and trusted lobby for legislation favourable  to family and business interests. In the courts,  guaranteed legal protection and immunity from prosecution. In the economy at large, they consolidate  clan control over lucrative business deals, corporate profit flows, even private armies, as the Maguindanao massacre – the dire aftermath of a decades-long rivalry of two politically entrenched clans – makes all too clear.

But wait. Perhaps we’re being a little unfair. Perhaps, for all its flaws, Dynasty does have its advantages. After all, weren’t the nation’s best leaders the products of blood lines that go back to the days of Aquinaldo?

So says senator Alan Peter Cayetano, son of former senator Rene Cayetano and brother of senator Pia Cayetano, who commented in an article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer last November [2]: “If you have relatives in government and all of you are clean, isn’t that better than being the only one in government from your family but you’re quite corrupt?”

Touché. Cayetano’s comment touches on an important point. An ‘’innocent’’ grandson of a former dictator is surely a lesser evil than a kleptocratic bureaucrat with no other relatives in power.  A few of the largest and oldest dynasties have also, in a twisted sense, tended to give  at least some attention to longer-term economic development among their constituencies – given the need to compete with other well-established political clans for votes, and to allow for their descendants a smoother transition to power.

But all this overlooks another crucial point: the debt of families whose special priveleges have been  amassed through both legal and less savoury means in a Philippine political arena historically rigged in their favour.

In addition, members of these clans and their allies remain manifestly unrepresentative, by virtue of class and status, of the interests of the broader Filipino masses. An electoral system saturated by dynasty’s affluent descendants also bars new blood from coming in with fresh ideas for answers to problems  mainstream parties have clearly been unable to address.

So what is to be done ? An obvious answer is to steer clear of candidates with even the remotest ties to entrenched political clans,  and to support instead candidates truly representative of the majority of our people, suggests organisations such as the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM) and Krusada Kontra-Dinastiya (Crusade Against Political Dynasties), who are launching an all-out campaign  in time for this year’s midterm elections.  But citizens remain hobbled in that attempt,  partly out of fear of  veering away from the tried and tested… partly out of a lack of decent alternatives.

The solution, then,  is to create those alternatives to  fit a new equation. Opposition to the reign of political dynasties have waned somewhat since the fall of Marcos.  Perhaps it’s time to try again.

END NOTES

[1] Tuazon, Bobby. CENPEG. Quoted in 75% sa bagong Kongreso mula sa political dynasty. 29 June 2007.<http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/48929/pinoyabroad/balitangpinoy/75-sa-bagong-kongreso-mula-sa-political-dynasty&gt;

[2] Bordadora, Norman. There’s nothing wrong with political dynasties, says Alan Cayetano. 3 November 2012.  Philippine Daily Inquirer. <http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/300474/theres-nothing-wrong-with-political-dynasties-says-alan-cayetano>

[3] Santolan, Joseph.  Philippine politicians declare candidacy for the 2013 election.  13 October 2012..<http://wsws.org/en/articles/2012/10/phil-o13.html>

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Casiguran natives’ 370-kilometer march against APECO

Ibalik, ibalik! 12,923 ektaryang APECO, ibalik, ibalik!” cried 125 native Casiguran fisherfolk and farmers, who marched from Aurora to Manila, demanding back their ancestral lands and indigenous rights.

Overcoming heat and exhaustion, marchers against the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO) took a 20-day, 370-kilometer journey flagged as “Lakad Katarungan, Lakad Matuwid na Daan (Walk for Justice, Walk the Straight Path)”.

Representatives from Task Force Anti-APECO (TFAA) accompanied 125 indigenous Agta from Casiguran City to protest against several years of struggle for equitable resource access, sustainable development, and sovereignty rights.

 

In the last couple of years, opposition to APECO has mounted in the form of the TFAA, an umbrella of organizations including the Roman Catholic Church’s National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (NASSA), the Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance, PAMALAKAYA national federation of small fisherfolk and PAKISAMA peasant federation.

 

President Benigno Aquino III met with the marchers at Ateneo De Manila University last Tuesday, where he listened to the locals’ allegations of APECO’s “land-grabbing” and TFAA’s demands for the government to cut APECO funding. Moreover, the group wants compensation for several displaced families.

 

Gateway to the Pacific?

 

APECO, as described by Republic Act 9490, is a “self-sustaining industrial, commercial/trading, agro-industrial, tourist, banking, financial and investment [center] with suitable residential areas.

 

The project covers 12,923 hectares of Casiguran, Aurora, and has been a project of the Angaras, namely Senator Edgardo Angara, Congressman Juan Edgardo Angara and Aurora Governor Bellaflor Angara-Castillo.

 

Since the amendment of Republic Act 9490, 500 hectares of Casiguran, Aurora was designated as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 2007.

 

Three years later, Republic Act 10083 expanded the zone’s reach to 12,427 hectares, covering a sizeable chunk of the municipality, including Barangays Dibet, Esteves and Dibacong.

 

With its Php353.5 million approved annual budget, APECO promises future investment, eco-friendly industrialization and infrastructure to the impoverished region. In addition the government will providefiscal incentives in the form ofincome tax-free holidays, discounts on land acquisition, duty-free trade imports, and more.

 

The government also argues that APECO will generate jobs for locals, and according to Sen. Angara, the project will help create 500 jobs by January 2013. The project also includes the development of a Php 220-million solar power facility, which is already in the works and future plans for a hydroelectric power plant.

 

A track record of violations

 

Last September 2011, urban and environmental planner Felino Palafox publicly spoke against the Angaras for continuing APECO despite serious hazards in the area.

 

According to Palafox, independent engineering surveys suggest that some of APECO’s land claims are flood-prone and susceptible to soil liquefaction. Its corporate campus is projected to be completely underwater in 25 years.

 

To date, no comprehensive investigations have focused on APECO’s claims to alleviate poverty in the area. In addition, allegations have been made that the project did not undergo proper environmental impact assessments, processing for environmental compliance certificates, geological surveys, or even the acquisition of building and LGU permits secured for many of its subprojects prior to construction.

 

It was only in 2011 that the government made a proper feasibility study with funding from the South Korean government.

 

In addition, the marchers claim that even the APECO law (R.A. 10083) itself was passed without prior consultation, and continues to operate with neither their direct consent nor approval of the local government unit of Casiguran, defying the Local Government Code (R.A. 7160) andAPECO’s own legal provisions.

 

TFAA spokesperson Rev. Fr. Jose FransiscoTalaba testifies that APECO has been seizing agricultural lands and risks intruding upon 11,900 hectares of the Agta’s ancestral domainwithout the locals’ prior consent.

 

In addition to purchasing land from natives at an unfair price, APECO allegedly paid indigenous farmers Php 45,000 per hectare for their farmlands,as opposed to paying P650,000 per hectare for “developed lands,” chiefly consisting of industrial lots and real estate.

 

These actions disregard provisions in the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (R.A. 3019), Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPer or R.A. 9700), as well as the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA or R.A. 8371), especially the stipulation that no indigenous peoples will be relocated “without their free and prior informed consent (FPIC)“.

 

Reports attest that APECO is building a 1.5-kilometer airstrip, which will displace 28 fisher families without relocation or livelihood alternatives, contrary to the Fisheries Code (RA 8550). Moreover, operations have also cleared at least 10 hectares of mangrove swamps, breaching environmental protection policies within Presidential Decree 705 and DENR DMC 2008-03.

 

Claims and counterclaims

 

According to a report from GMA News last December 4, barangay officials and tribal leaders in a press conference denied that APECO forcibly acquired land from locals. The Casiguran chieftains furthered that lands were bought at a fair price, and no incidences of oppression have been reported.

 

Official statements from APECO, via Angara’s privilege speech last November 27, also argue that ‘only’ 1.3 thousand households are registered within APECO, and that protesters were informal settlers.

 

TFAA, however, has remarked to the contrary, alleging that APECO’s report ignores the possibility of one or more families living per household and that tenant farmers and fisherfolk who live beyond the bounds of Casiguran may still depend on lands claimed by APECO for their livelihoods.

 

The group further explains that the people APECO called as “informal settlers” include indigenous groups who have lived on these lands for generations prior to the existence of the Philippine State, technically granting them property rights to the region by default, notwithstanding the absence of formal papers. In addition, the APECO report allegedly failed to mention the thousands of families and indigenous communities that would be displaced if the project goes on to completion.

 

Resistance to APECO has been met with impunity and intimidation. CBCP-Nassa in February alleged that June 2010 rifle attacks against TFAA Representative Rev. Fr. Jose Francisco Talaban were linked to ‘’his open criticism [of] the project.’’

 

In an interview with The LaSallian, a marcher explained that the government has used some of their people against them. He explains that the government had offered many of their people financial rewards to encourage the Anti-APECO group to stop the protests. He furthers that APECO has caused the death of many tribe members in the past years.

 

Aquino: “Be more open-minded”

 

Economic development in this form, according to the anti-APECO coalition, is questionable and contrary to the precepts of sustainable, self-reliant and community-driven development.

 

For these reasons, thousands of Casiguran residents, farmers and fisherfolk have voiced complaints, insisting that APECO, despite promising to bring a future of prosperity to Aurora, is merely a “legalized land grab” and a path to poverty.

 

TFAA and Casiguran natives recently called for an independent evaluation of APECO towards the repeal and/or modification of the APECO laws, as well as a 2013 zero budget allocation of APECO while deliberation is underway.

 

Furthermore, TFAA  also wants the government to distribute 105 hectares of prime agricultural land back to 56 landless farmers.

 

According to reports from Rappler and Manila Bulletin last Tuesday, President Aquino stated that he was “not a dictator” and was required to uphold APECO as a law until it is modified.

 

As of press time, 28 displaced fisherfolk from the airstrip construction will be compensated Php50,000 – Php60,000. The displaced families would also receive housing from the project.

 

President Aquino called on the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA)’s feasibility study of APECO and urged Casiguran natives to be more “open-minded” about the future benefits of APECO. Unsatisfied with President Aquino’s response, the protest marchers spoke about their predicament in a mass held at DLSU’s Yuchengco Lobby last December 13.

 

Representatives of the TFAA, along with Casiguran natives, began trekking a 370-kilometer journey back to Casiguran City, after deciding to not push through with the visit to Malacañang.

Party list.

When ‘Human Rights’ is Leftist Propaganda

 

Last month, President Aquino found himself on the line in an interview for Radio New Zealand, in which a reporter questioned his administration’s spotty human rights record. Aquino promptly dismissed such allegations as having come from the ‘’leftist community’’ who are ‘’good at propaganda’’ and then went on – with subsequent help from his spokesman  Edwin Lacierda – to point to the low poll ratings of Teddy Casińo, a senatorial candidate and a staunch critic of the president, as evidence of the lies of the Left.

For a while local media appeared to agree,  preferring to direct public attention instead to new business deals sealed with New Zealand  investors.   Any indication of opposition to Aquino’s comments were hushed up, apart from a few articles and letters openly criticizing the president from human rights groups here and abroad.

That the foreign press seems to care more about human rights violations in our own country is telling of the level of impunity Filipino society and its leaders are now willing to tolerate.

A few days before the interview, soldiers had shot and killed the pregnant wife of B’laan tribal warrior Daguil Capion, and shot and killed his sons 13-year-old Jordan and eight-year-old John, before dragging their bodies out into the open (a cultural taboo) until Daguil’s surrender, presumably as punishment for his family’s vocal opposition to mining companies ripping apart their ancestral lands in Tampakan, South Cotobato.

That a massacre in the hands of the military under Aquino’s own watch occurred a few days before he was busy denying the reality of such events is telling of the President’s ignorance of the difference between propaganda and the hard truth.

Indeed, when an untold number of church workers, indigenous leaders, environmentalists, students, union leaders, and civil society activists including Karen Empeño, Sherlyn Cadapan, Jose Burgos, Jr, Isidro Olan, Gerry Ortega, Fr. Fausto Tentorio, Wilhelm Geertman,  Anthony Licyayo, Joey Javier,  Rudy Dejos and countless others through the decades have been slain or rendered missing as a direct result of their fight for human rights … does that count as propaganda?

Apparently.

Following the President and his speaker’s logic, then, independent observers like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the European Union, the Catholic Church – and the U.S. State Department – are now Communist fronts. All agencies detail numerous human rights abuses committed under his presidency, as well those under his predecessor whose perpetrators have evaded conviction. They, like the voices on the Left they are so eager to malign, hold the AFP, not the NPA, largely responsible for many unlawful killings.

But what Lacierda and President Aquino fail to understand is this: there is no better barometer of an administration’s commitment to rid itself of a legacy of corruption and impunity than to crack down on the murders of Filipino citizens committed by the military troops sworn to defend them under its watch.

The failure of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to at least condemn such atrocities speaks volumes of the callousness with which he treats his Office. Even if it were not directly involved, the State as a signatory to international human rights conventions and the citizens’ mandate is nevertheless imbued with the responsibility to act to prevent such abuses from ever happening again.

Yet after almost ten years of Arroyo, the President and his cohorts seem to have convinced themselves that a mere change of power at the top can transform a culture of impunity now so firmly entrenched within the national psyche. Perhaps they have convinced themselves that they can do no wrong and that they alone hold the monopoly to the truth.

Perhaps Aquino needs a reminder. Here is a run-down of the latest “leftist propaganda’’:

As the third anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre looms, it is best to start with this closing highlight of his much-loathed predecessor’s sordid human rights record.  Three years after the worst ever single mass killing of journalists in world history, justice has been slow – with legal proceedings stalled and witnesses slaughtered.  While 96 of those accused of the killings have been arrested (pending trial), as of August, 101 remain at large and the principle suspects walk free. If speedy justice and accountability on this issue are concerned, Aquino’s own record is little different.

The Maguindanao trials are in stark contrast to the amount of time it took the justice system, or at least the executive branch of government, barely a year to get rid of former Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona.  But if a ‘reformed’ Supreme Court offers hope for future cases to be dispatched with better efficiency – think again.

Notes Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): ”The fight for justice has simultaneously intensified in rhetoric and bogged down in the technicalities. Legal stalling tactics, a fractured prosecution, and slow-moving courts have conspired against a speedy trial. Despite the case’s high international profile and pronouncements by President Benigno Aquino that justice would be swiftly served, the Maguindanao prosecution has conformed to a disturbingly familiar pattern for media killings in the Philippines: A journalist is killed; local law enforcement officials are lax or complicit; witnesses and complainants are intimidated, bribed, or attacked; the defense employs stalling tactics to break the will and resources of victims’ families; the case goes unsolved and the culture of impunity is reinforced.”

Our obscurantist courts attribute the slow pace of legal proceedings to the lack of witnesses and lost evidence. But every day that passes without justice is another opportunity for ”lost” evidence; another opportunity to add to the growing backlog in our nation’s courts going back to the desaparecidos of the ’70s. With the proof we already have at our disposal (even discounting the now ”missing” witnesses), one wonders what’s taking them so long.

Meanwhile, the country still ranks third in the world in the CPJ’s 2012 Impunity index, above Colombia, Afghanistan, Russia and Pakistan; and is one of the ‘’four worst countries in combating journalist murders’’ –  a dubious distinction a country-not-at-war shares with Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka, which have also made little progress in prosecuting extrajudicial killings.

For of the 305 known cases of extrajudicial killings recorded over the past decade, only 161 have been filed in court as of 2011. Successful convictions? Four.

Human rights organisation KARAPATAN places that tally at over a thousand over  the same period, with 64 cases (and 24 frustrated attempts) last year alone, alongside other breaches of civil and political rights: 9 enforced disappearances, 51 victims of torture, 343 cases of illegal arrest with or without detention, at least 6,108 left homeless by  violent demolitions, and 4,376 affected by forced evacuations of low-income communities from lands marked for  mining, commercial development or real estate. A total of 356 political prisoners remain unaccounted for, with 78 arrested under the current administration.

While Human Rights Watch and other observers hold the Philippine army and national police responsible for many of the abuses, para-military groups, death squads and private armies still roam what should be civilian territory, from rural backwaters to the streets of Davao, despite official promises to abolish them.

Militarisation is rife, with mines, large landholdings, small villages, even schools seeing occupations of armed men in peace time, their presence justified in the interest of the “protection of investments’’ and the government’s counter-insurgency program Oplan Bayanihan. This is especially true in Luzon’s Bondoc Peninsula and in northern Mindanao, where armed conflict has repeatedly displaced indigenous communities since the early 2000s, according to reports by the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and then-UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen.

Human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists of all stripes have also been assaulted on the legal front.  Journalists who refuse to toe the accepted line are sued for libel, while members of legitimate civil society organisations are criminalized and their leaders arrested on fraudulent charges, likely for their leading roles in lobbying for their rights. Prominent Cagayan anti-mining activist Esperlita Garcia was arrested recently on charges of libel, for a Facebook post she wrote last year –   after the Supreme Court’s Temporary Restraining Order on the Cybercrime law.

The International Peace Observers Network and the Department of Justice record an increasing number of criminal charges, from petty theft to trespassing, filed by landowners against farmers pressing for their share of land in accordance with the government’s own agrarian reform programme (CARPER). CARPER has since moved at a Jurassic pace and is due for another extension by 2014, having met less than half of its land distribution targets last year, and with over a million hectares still to go.

All of this and more Pnoy denies, backed by a chorus of his allies in the commercial media who have met such reports with damning silence.  They urge us instead to look favourably upon a bullish market, rising credit ratings, the acclaims of Wall Street bankers, and an era of unprecedented but mostly jobless growth as signs of national progress. More sober eyes can only weep for governments and well-meaning ”experts” that, rather than on meeting the concrete needs of their people, ground their legitimacy on popularity surveys and the opinions of those responsible for the global financial crisis.

Any mention of national development is incomplete without acknowledging the full spectrum of civil, political, social and economic rights that should be guaranteed to all citizens regardless of class, status, religion, ethnicity or political inclination. Yet Human Rights in the government’s development plans are noted only in passing, and while the administration pays lip service to ‘’inclusive growth’’, the facts on the ground speak of a different reality.

The ranks of the unemployed have risen from 10.9 million in 2010 to 11.7 million.  Of those jobs generated, only about 60 per cent amount to regular employment with decent wages and reasonable tenure.  The manufacturing and agriculture sectors are on the decline, while the country has continued to open itself up to extractive industries and export-dependent growth.  Deregulation and liberalisation have further squeezed out attempts to enact measures to ensure better environmental and social protections.

With key drivers of economic growth and productivity still absent, the stability of the economy remains tied to overseas workers’ remittances. Appeals by labour groups to raise minimum wage rates across-the-board or to ensure security of tenure have gone unheeded. Cuts to social spending, including an almost 800-million peso cut on the welfare budget for OFWs, have led to the increasing privatisation of health care and other public services, including education, leading to recent hikes on state university tuition fees.

All of this has been driven in part by the global economic crisis, but also by the administration’s own unwavering commitment to a neoliberal agenda and the development policies of the past.

The results? Self-rated poverty has increased from 9.1 million  in 2011 households to 11.1 million this year, while the combined wealth of the 40 richest Filipino individuals has more than doubled,  from $ 24.6 billion to $ 47.7 billion – or 21 per cent of national GDP.

Maternal mortality rates have also spiked while progress on reproductive health measures has slowed. Progressive legislation including the Freedom of Information bill – among other bills promised since the beginning of Aquino’s term –  have since stalled,  in stark contrast to the urgency with which the Cybercrime bill was passed.

Patchwork policies enacted against a backdrop of a growing population, rising inequality and limited systematic reform, have done little to curb hunger and malnutrition, with rates of self-rated hunger – among households who have lived through days with nothing to eat in the past three months –  rising from 18.4% in May to 21%,  or 4.3 million families. The sharpest increase was in Metro Manila, where the hunger rate rose to 26%, or 738,000 families.

The Global Hunger Index now ranks us among the worst performers in terms of boosting food security in Asia, alongside Pakistan, Nepal and North Korea. At this rate, the Philippines looks unlikely to meet its Millennium Development Goal target of halving hunger by 2015.

Of course, considering how all of this propaganda, none of it matters right?

We cannot expect real change from a government of a nominally democratic state that fails to secure for its own citizens something so fundamental as the right to life: both the right to live a life of freedom, dignity and opportunity… and the right not to be gunned down for fighting to ensure that such rights are not denied to the majority.

Between the status quo’s denial of reality, the sycophantic press, and the war-mongering tactics of the isolated Left, there is little room for rational debate over these issues. But to dismiss all allegations of human rights abuses as little more than a smear campaign by political opponents or the radical Left flies in the face of the facts. That the Truth comes from more radical circles makes it no less credible, and to deny it is naïve at best and at worst, evasive.

Perhaps the words of this column should best be rephrased: when Leftist Propaganda turns out to be true.

 

university

Of freak monsoons and floating barangays, Blocked esteros and blasting fish out of water

Heaven’s gates are on hiatus. With the tempest turned loose, the rain keeps pouring.  The water keeps rising. Thunder keeps booming. By ten in the morning, Liza Hilario is ready to leave. All around her, more keen ears keep constant vigil of radio reports that warn of a high tide – but she and her family are nowhere near the sea.

Come noon, a surge of noxious sludge from the nearby creek would sweep over their humble abode. They would have to move out, fast.

It was Tuesday, August 7, at the height of an unusually strong Southwest monsoon, known locally as Hanging Habagat, a yearly weather cycle made worse by Typhoons Saola and Haikui that drifted past the country to invade Taiwan and China later that week.

Two typhoons and a monsoon. A stormy triad that turned what would have been a seasonal thus thoroughly expected event,  into a thoroughly unexpected, nearly nonstop deluge, bringing vast swathes of Southern Luzon to a standstill after five days and leaving the streets of Manila looking more like Venice’s – in under two.

Only here, at the heart of the Philippine capital, the gondolas were either makeshift rafts, lashed together from Styrofoam and cardboard, or inflatable boats from emergency response teams scrambling to ferry people to and fro schools turned into evacuation centres.

Paddling past, the rescuers would see chaos: old men stranded on rooftops; little girls trapped on traffic posts. Cabs washed up by the rampaging waters to land, one on top of the other, on a crushed sidewalk stall. Drowned dogs. Swimming cats. A woman, pregnant, on a wooden boat launched by a nearby barangay to find the rest of the woman’s family.

Liza lives, with her own family and hundreds of other families, along a row of dilapidated huts, shaggy shacks, and miniature apartments of cardboard, rusty yero, flimsy plywood and ‘jumper’ electricity – all leaning precariously against a stagnant creek that winds through Manila Chinatown. Such is its nature that this unwieldy neighbourhood is referred to as the ‘floating barangay’, an island all its own, though that’s technically inaccurate.

While some of Liza’s neighbours do reach as far as the creek itself, their shanties propped up on stilts, this sixty-year-old’s home is on solid ground, well within the shoreline.

For it is in this roughly two-by-four metre, double-storey shack that Liza squeezes in with her sizeable kin – her son who earns his keep as a pedicab cycler, her daughter, her daughter’s husband, her daughter’s five children, her adopted daughter, her four children, her husband, and Liza herself – a grand total of fifteen.

When the flood warnings came, all fifteen, caught amid a throng of a thousand or so other people, filed out of their dense den. Some would leave for evacuation centres, others would go straight to the homes of relatives or friends on higher ground.  A few of Liza’s neighbours sought refuge in a shelter prepared for the followers of Dating Daan. It was like the apocalypse… all over again.

Their floating barangay wasn’t alone. By Wednesday, 60% of Manila would be inundated, with the rains affecting more than two million people across Luzon and northern Visayas.

The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)  in its second situation report on the monsoon floods, said  more than two hundred thousand people were in 661 evacuation centres by August 17, with at least another 772,300 more seeking refuge in homes of relatives or friends.

The floods resulted in about a hundred deaths, with some low-lying and coastal areas predicted to stay swamped for up to three months.

Still, Liza insists, Ondoy ( int’l Typhoon Ketsana) was far worse. What took this month’s Habagat at least two days for floodwaters to flow up to their second floor took Ondoy mere hours.   It was like the apocalypse…not quite.

That Tuesday morning, they made their way out to safety, forced to leave behind their most prized possessions: an electric fan and a rice cooker, left atop a monobloc table in hopes of keeping them out of reach of the rising tide.

By this point, the water was up to their waists. They waded through the narrow corridors of their narrower outcrop by the creek to Ongpin street, where Liza and her neighbours sell cigarettes and Chinese newspapers, then on to her son’s place in Recto.

With every shack at least-half-way underwater, the barangay had descended beneath the waves.

After three days, the barangay would rise again, and Liza would return, moving on to the dire task of mopping up the muck from waves of canal water that had saturated every nook and cranny of the now soggy plywood walls, floor, and ceiling of her home. Electric fan and rice cooker both accounted for.

Liza talks about all this – what otherwise would have been a harrowing ordeal – with an easy grin and a dash of sarcasm, as though this were the normal course of events, and life goes on. Besides, they’ve had a lot of help.

 

Decent disaster response

In most areas, evacuation was swift and relief came quick, with emergency response teams dispatched almost instantly by aid agencies as well as local communities and civil society.    The Philippine National Red Cross deployed close to two thousand staff and volunteers to aid in search and rescue efforts, evacuation of communities, and distribution of food, medicines and safe drinking water.

“First aid, psychosocial support and emergency assistance have been provided to flood-affected communities. More than 97,000 people have been served with emergency food packages while another 73,000 have been provided with hot meals in relief centres. More than 55,500 litres of fresh drinking water has been delivered to help prevent the spread of disease”, it wrote in an online report.

The Red Cross wasn’t alone.  Government agencies, with assistance from international agencies, have begun drafting cash-for-work schemes and seed distribution programmes to assist both city dwellers and rural farmers with early recovery, while non-government organisations (NGOs) and local volunteers have pitched in wherever and however they can.

So overwhelming was this erstwhile ‘spirit of solidarity’ (if only in the face of crisis), perhaps, and so unexpected its resolute determination to reach communities in need, possibly the worst hit- with water up to their roofs even up to a week after the rains – that when a fresh flood of donations from a bunch of college students from Tulong Kabataan or TK came on Friday (August 17), they came by surprise.

TK had partnered with Sta. Cruz Church and Brigada Kalikasan, a relief drive by Kalikasan Partylist, to bring relief goods and educate Liza’s community on disaster prevention and environmental awareness.

Liza was grateful, but thought they would have been of better use elsewhere. Her family had received more than their share of donations, she insisted. They’re glad enough to have survived.

Kaya kung may relief man na manggagaling, ang gusto namin sa iba na, mas nangangailangan.  Kasi dito survive na kami  … Basta makaraos lang” (If relief goods do come, we’d rather they give it to other communities more in need. Here, we’ve at least survived… with enough to live on for another day), Liza said.

Indeed barely a day before the volunteers arrived, a neighbour who knew someone who knew someone who had a friend from Ateneo had offered their barangay more relief supplies –  an offer they declined. Others needed it more than they did, she said, maybe those who suffered the  worst of the deluge in Bataan, say, or Bulacan.

Still, every little bit helps.“Ang importante may bigas. (What matters is that we have rice)”

TK has since expanded its operations beyond Manila. Forged in the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, Tulong Kabataan volunteer network is an alliance of youth and civil society organisations including Kabataan Partylist, the National Union of Students of the Philippines, the Student Christian Movement, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and Anakbayan, working alongside university student governments.

While TK and other organisations like theirs face frequent shortages of food, water, clothes and drugs to give out, they rarely seem short on volunteers, especially on occasions like these.

Between medical missions, psychosocial programmes, and educational discussions, Tulong Kabatan also campaigns for better disaster preparedness nationwide and improvements to the state’s Calamity Fund.

 

Good job, but tackle true causes

Observers like the UK-based charity Oxfam note that such prompt action from both grassroots initiatives and the government has significantly eased the impact of natural disasters.

The Philippine Red Cross and UN-OCHA reported casualty figures far less compared to what followed Ondoy, which left more than seven hundred casualties.  Largely thanks to better warning systems and emergency response teams, including the National Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRMMC), formed in 2010, and its Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Offices (DRRMO).

In its blog, Oxfam praised DRRMOs in Cainta, Angono, and Sta. Cruz in Laguna  as examples of a shift away from patchy, ad hoc relief operations to a more comprehensive, proactive framework to prevent  disasters from happening in the first place: “The floods have made clear that a rigorous disaster readiness framework embodied in the DRRMO, one single office – and the passion for service of many volunteers, the cooperation of residents, and the support of the government – is sometimes what makes all the difference.”

It also noted, however, that “the monsoon floods still damaged properties and cut many lives short, sounding the clarion call once again for massive relocation of poor people living at the mouths of water systems or in the heart of catch basins.”

This followed a threat made by Rogelio Singson secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to “blast” informal settlers away from the creeks, or estero’s, that weave through the streets of Manila. Officials have long claimed that these waterways, still clogged by slums, are the principle cause of the floods that so often plague the city.

The comments were swiftly condemned by the likes of Denis Murphy, from advocacy group Urban Poor Associates, Congressman Mong Palatino of Kabataan Partylist, and Christian Aid’s Ted Bonpin, country manager for the Philippines

“Women, men and children living in informal settlements have a right to housing and appropriate relocation. Simply destroying existing structures will not address the problem and instead will leave communities even more vulnerable”, said Bonpin, in a report for Reuters Alertnet.

Their concerns were just as swiftly dismissed by Singson. Belying all rumours of Marcos-style demolitions: he was really (or so he insisted) referring to blasting not people’s homes, but fish pens in Pampanga.

Vice President Jejomar Binay followed this up, promising informal settlers would be moved to permanent resettlement sites in Metro Manila instead, ensuring communities access to their livelihoods in the capital city. More importantly, these ‘medium-rise buildings’ (MRBs) would be far less flood-prone.

Earlier, floods had forced close to a thousand families at a relocation site in Rodriguez, Rizal to move to higher ground.

But for now Binay, also chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, said at least 5,363 families from Quezon City, San Juan, Mandaluyong and elsewhere would have to seek temporary shelter in available resettlement buildings in Bulacan and Rizal while the MRBs are still under construction.

Speaking to a group of flood relief volunteers that Friday, Gladys Regalado of Kalikasan Partylist said  blaming the urban poor for causing the floods skirts the real issues, like poor city planning or dysfunctional dams that discharge water in sudden droves when they overflow. Then there’s climate change, set to deliver more “freak weather’’  in the future, like last year’s tropical storm Washi (Sendong) that wreaked havoc in Cagayan de Oro.

Deforestation and mining, too, denude the countryside and mountains surrounding major cities. Chopping down trees weakens natural defences against flash floods and landslides, as their roots hold soil together, preventing erosion.  Both Ondoy and Sendong brought down tonnes of logs felled from neighbouring forests that crushed rural villages and killed hundreds when water washed over them.  These were no slums, nor were there any “waterways clogged by slum dweller’s trash” made prone to flooding.

Liza, though, sets aside such concerns in her haste to recover from the floods and restore some semblance of normal life for her extended brood of fifteen.

She’s heard plans to relocate them before – by force, if necessary. It won’t be. If push comes to shove, they will move again without complaint – to who knows where.

After all, her family has only been here since 2000, having moved in from Cavite in search of work.  Others have been here for generations, as far back as the ‘70s, on an island barangay that now stretches, like a run-down makeshift pirate ship straight out of the Caribbean, from Binondo to Recto.

 

menagerie

A Not-So-Silent Shepherd

Along a stretch of road between a marketplace and the dumpsite is a two-storey concrete building. An unassuming red gate with a sign is all that spells the difference between a run-down apartment block and a house church straight out of the New Testament.

Mang Erning pauses before entering. Its huge impact on the lives of hundreds of families like his belies its small stature. His daughter died when she was three, of high fever and a cough that would not go away. Maybe, just maybe, had he rushed her for a check-up at one of the regular medical missions offered by the people beyond that gate, she’d have been spared. Or at least, he would have had his faith in divine and human goodness restored much sooner after her death.

The people beyond that gate themselves never grasped, until much later on, the full measure of the consequences of their actions – or the scale of the challenge.   What began by giving bible studies  in squatter homes soon blossommed into full-scale feeding and teaching programmes.  They taught English, Science, Arts and Crafts  to children they picked off the streets ; they organized livelihood programmes for their parents as well. They hosted two temporary medical  clinics that distributed low cost medicine and treatment to patients with skin problems, heart problems, spiritual problems, pneumonia, tuberculosis and leprosy- a biblical disease for deeds of biblical proportions.

The man behind it all is Jack Wilson, but he’d be first to deny the credit. You see, he is no more than an instrument.  Payatas Baptist Church and Mission Outreach, as he says, is one of God’s mysterious ways of working out the salvation of his people. Other charities have been here and gone, packing up to leave with their temporary relief efforts when the next Sudan calls.   The church has been here since 2006. Why?

“There are plenty of fatherless children around.”

The Pastor has also seen father and son duos sniffing glue or shabu. And limbless children helping their parents sift through the dump for a bit of cash, and waste recyclers working around the clock for less than a dollar a day, with every centavo made spent on cheap beer or a handful of food to stave off the cries of empty bellies for another day.

Here a garbage man begets a garbage man. Or something else.

“Everybody has pain in their life, and to tell you the truth, life is stronger in the dump than it is in Makati,” says the Pastor. “These people work twelve to thirteen hours a day so their families can have something to eat. That’s not lazy.”

For roughly the same amount of time, Mang Erning cleans bottles at a junkshop for a living.  The church has since started him off on a few informal language courses in his spare time.  But he’s been doing some advanced reading of his own.  He has two Bibles – one in Filipino, the other in KJV-style old English – hoping to compare them side by side, and get his English up to speed. He’ll need it to help his son with his homework.

 

 “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness…”

The Pastor is no silent shepherd. Here is a one man army against the powers that be, a fiery Jeremiah railing against everyone from local government officials (for obvious reasons) to Maynilad Water (which he claims is overcharging them, billing them as a religious building even if, technically, the ‘church’ is a residential house)  to  the Department of Education. The Pastor’s sentiments toward the latter are summed up thus: “Corrupt, corrupt, corrupt”.

And lousy. When a brand new school opened in 2011, it featured a makeshift toilet, a broken wooden chair over a clogged porcelain bowl.  Like countless others in the country, the school has barely a handful of teachers, few chairs, few school supplies, even fewer books, and no fans to keep the sweltering heat at bay. There are fees too, fees for everything – library fees, identity card fees, fees for lost school books – all of them unofficial, charged by the underpaid teachers of an understaffed institution.

But Payatas families whose lives are the very definition of a hand-to-mouth existence have neither the money nor time to waste on ‘fees’ and daily transport, and would rather have their children work in the dumps, so the students stay out of school. Despite the dropouts, the classrooms stay overcrowded.

The pastor stays annoyed. His own daughters, Laura and Linda, are homeschooled, perhaps partly out of religious conviction – but mostly, he’s just annoyed.

Adding to his growing list of grievances against the System is election season, when bribery is rife and campaigners come to saturate whole walls with tacky posters and slogans that scream, “We’re here for you!”

Garbage, he says.  If meritocracy were the rule of the ballot, service were a measure of their worth as leaders, and politicians were elected by virtue of what they did for the people, they’d vote him for mayor. Only he isn’t Filipino.

But worse than inaction, perhaps, is outright corruption.

When  the church planned a rice distribution program,  they found the coupons  needed for the project had already been ‘rationed’ out to favored members of the barangay hall.

The Pastor has bumped up against similar barriers time and again, but the most serious, if still unverified, charge he makes is against a 2008 charity drive ‘Christmas for Payatas,’ funded by companies Fusion Excel (maker of Quantum Pendant), Tote Daddy, and ABS-CBN, among others. Then-Quezon city mayor  Sonny Belmonte, Judge Veneracion, notable celebrities and sports figures gave their full support to a promised long-term feeding and literacy program by (the now defunct) Lighthouse Center For Children Foundation.

It raked in at least US $ 80,000, and all the kids got were shirts.   The Pastor has his own theories, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, the controversies continue.

So like the walls of Jericho, he breaks them down with the Word of God and thousands of words of his own, through letters or calls or emails he sends with religious fervor.  For those, he receives at best no reply – or denial.

“They do nothing for these people – they’re crooks”.

Now he sounds almost populist. Almost. This Baptist preacher, nearing sixty, is unmistakably right and right wing, with all the conservative force of the US Tea Party.

One look at the pastor’s blog or Facebook profile is evidence enough: a tribute to Christianity if ever there was one, verging on the fundamentalist and oozing with the evangelical zeal of those who swear allegiance to the King James Version of the Bible. When it isn’t hurling insults at Obama, it’s also a detailed diary of the church’s six years in the Philippines – of feeding programs, medical missions, baptisms and retreats.

His other website (he has at least two, plus a Multiply page for photos) contains  full accounting of their expenses for donors’ reference, updated constantly- the sort of transparency governments either dream of or fear.

“I wear my underwear because someone bought me underwear!”

He says that with conviction,  in radical recognition of the fact that everything he has since he came here, has come from someone else.  “I don’t make money here.”

The church stays afloat on generous donations, mostly from abroad. Indeed, a hefty sum from “a non-Christian from Dubai” got the Pastor and his family to this country in the first place.

He’s also nothing without Malou.

The Pastor’s wife leads a SWAT team of  women recyclers, weaving plastic bags into  bangles, boxes and bracelets for sale. She also leads the church services with Wilson and acts as lead translator between him and the congregation. Malou had herself lived in Payatas for years in her teens, until her parents got lucky, found work other than scavenging, and she met the Pastor.

 

“… for they shall be satisfied.”

Considering Wilson’s achievements and his church’s history, one can only look past the prophetic machismo and see the compassion within. While he pulls no punches in defense of faith, he uses those same arms to wrap his kids in warm embrace, or to give them a bath.

Outside, the baptismal font doubles as a laundry basin for washing clothes and a bath tub Wilson and Malou use to give the kids a good wash before they come into church. The first few months of their stay here saw intense scrub downs, before the kids  finally found some way to get extra clean in advance. Which is good for them: the Pastor still keeps a photo of himself knee deep in mud from the dump. It wasn’t a good memory.

The Pastor is undeterred.

“We have no money, we have no land, we have no building.” The owners of the home they now rent have plans of turning it back into a private residence. They’ll have to move out, quick.

In his office, there’s a knock on the door. One of his daughters,  Laura, comes in, asking him to choose between two songs the choir want to use for practice. They end up doing both.

A chorus of organs, flutes, guitars, ukuleles, harmonicas, recorders – even violins – drift up from below.  The seeds of the Pastor’s dreams of a world class orchestra. Someday, out of the moral chaos, beyond the struggles of Erning and the rest, above the muck and morass of   tonnes of toxic sludge dumped daily over the multitudes squirming in abject poverty, there will be beauty. Maybe another Mozart or two.

For now they have at least a dozen students making music, a rigorous form of mental and spiritual training the pastor has distilled into a formula for hope. Discipline. An Education. A Future.

With them are two faithful servants of God, Preacher Benedict and Ate Roselyn– from Ilocos Norte, of all places – who gave up cushy office jobs years ago so they could head down south and join a bunch of unlikely kids strumming ukuleles on a city on a hill.

The vision, however, is a ministry complex with a full scale medical clinic, a school, a retreat centre, missionary rooms, and wide open space for outreach services. With their current landlords banging on the doors, they’ve found the perfect spot to move to – about the size of a football field, not far from where the church is today. It will cost over four million dollars.

The pastor is undeterred.

Garland Trade

The Garland Trade

It’s present at every major life event imaginable, from baptisms to funerals to school graduations to your regular Sunday mass. It’s a national symbol. It’s the cradle-to-grave Filipino flower.

It’s also the stuff garlands are made of, strung together to create something of a cross between a pearl necklace, a rosary and the Hawaiian lei, flowery wreaths draped around the necks of tourists and sweethearts.

It’s a garland of fragrant sampaguita, whose role it is to adorn the necks of wooden saints with jewels that wilt in the summer heat.

The wreath itself begins life as an evergreen shrub tended by farmers from San Pablo, Laguna, or sometimes as far away as Pampanga and Quezon. It grows best in the summer and -ber months, minus the rain. In due season, hired hands – likely children – must pick the sampaguita buds before they bloom. The flowers are then packed into Styrofoam boxes chilled with ice to keep the petals fresh, and their buds closed, as they make their way to Manila.

Thirty kilometers later, suppliers and vendors on contract clamor for their share in the nation’s capital. Joining them are wreathe makers, fiber cleaners, and street side peddlers who string them together with abaca or Manila Hemp from Mindoro, Bicol and Davao.

With all this commerce, the sampaguita garland trade is a complex web of supply and demand in its own right.  It even has diversified merchandise, and its own brand names.   De Dos for garlands with two buds. De Cuatro for four. De Dies, ten.

That’s a lot of fuss for a string of petals. So why not make and sell your own?

Take Jemalyn Garcia, for example, who has long mastered the art of pagtuhog, stringing garlands and circlets of Sampaguita for much of her life. Let her show you how.

Watch as her fingers weave the small white flowers together into painstaking patterns. She moves her needle and thread up and down, dabbing water here and there to keep the petals pliable, while flicking away extra moisture to avoid turning them into mush. Jemalyn is a seamstress, paid to garnish someone’s favored household saint. She works silently and effortlessly at her garland, with her brother, Reyno, who just happens to make the best palaspas from sidewalk palm fronds come Holy Week. In a few quick flourishes, Reyno finishes his in barely a minute, betraying years of experience in between stints as a parking boy on the streets.

Both can do this for hours at a stretch. Any more than that can be bad for the neck, she says, even at her age. Jemalyn is in her early thirties. Reyno, 23.

Now it’s your turn.

With string, buds, and needle at the ready, take a few moments to mutter silent thanks for the abaca fiber cleaners of the world, the tagalinis, who hew rough abaca shoots, separate their stems into individual strands and turn them into your thread.  Now, dip the abaca fibres in a little water to get them nice and straight as you thread the bundle through your needle.

Taking utmost care not to break their fragile stems, push the sampaguita buds gently, gently down the cord, twisting, twirling, fitting them together like rosary beads.

Uno. Dos. Tres…. De Dies. Satisfied with your desired number of buds, tie both ends of the garland into a tight knot.

Add, for a decorative finish, white camia, green ylang-ylang, or golden orange champaca.

Those are just the Pinoy varieties, one of many cultivars of the Arabian jasmine. This humble shrub boasts regal names that belie the humbler hands that weave them into intricate wreathes – Maid of Orleans, Belle of India, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

You may prefer to work with the tried and tested petals of Jasminum sambac, or go for a whole slew of fancier alternatives: chrysanthemum, orchid, rose. But why stop at garlands? Cluster these versatile little buds into large round kumpols to decorate fiestas, or as centerpieces for weddings and school graduations.

Whatever you decide to form your creations out of, the same rules apply. It’s simply, really. So long as you don’t poke yourself or lose patience or tear the petals or allow them to either bloom or wilt before you can string them into wreathes. So long as you can manage to get those stubborn abaca threads through the eye of a needle and do at least fifty garlands in one sitting.

——————————–

With your very own garlands ready, it’s time to put them up for sale.

If you happen to live in Makati, Sacred Heart of Jesus Shrine is prime market territory.  When sales are brisk, stay where you are. Or better still, sleep there, as Jemalyn and her family does on cardboard boxes splayed out on the sidewalk under broken umbrellas (to snag the first customers come dawn and between church services, but also mostly because they have no other choice).  Otherwise, try your luck at nearby churches: Quiapo, St. Andrew’s, and Don Bosco are always chockfull of potential customers. Expect to rake in about a hundred pesos… a few days a week.

That’s the do-it-yourself approach. So if you’d like to turn sampaguita wreath-making from a mere hobby into a full-scale enterprise, expanding production en masse, be prepared to shell out roughly thirty pesos a bucket for the abaca, seventy for pretty ylang ylang  and another thirty for the sampaguita buds themselves.

Rising prices for raw materials needed to make the garlands from scratch, however, may push you to buy them ready-made from a contractor, at a peso a piece. Not a problem from Jemmalyn, who shifts between buying and making them herself, no matter the season.

But even that may soon change. In less than a decade, lands traditionally devoted to Sampaguita farming are set for conversion into commercial real estate in a rapidly urbanizing Laguna, threatening a whole chain of livelihoods that keeps thousands afloat in a turbulent economy – or at least affords them some measure of dignity.

For Sunday churchgoers, the Sampaguita represents no more than a cultural curio uniquely Filipino; something we have come to expect from sometimes pushy street kids after every mass.

For Jemalyn and countless others who benefit from the Garland Trade, the Sampaguita is so much more. In each unassuming bud is a way of life. So they will cherish these young, still-sealed flowers. Knit them into garlands as tight and white as the piety they’re made to symbolise.

Quickly, before they blossom.