Monday, December 18, 2006

Hope for the Philippines

All the hoopla about changing the Philippine Constitution made little sense to me when I was in Manila even as I sat through four hours of Batasan (lower house) deliberations over whether convening a Constituent Assembly ("ConAss") was the best means of pursuing Charter Change ("ChaCha"). After the House move was denounced by the Philippine Catholic hierarchy as "scandalously immoral," attention shifted to a Constitutional Convention ("ConCon") as the means to ChaCha. It would be composed of some 450 elected delegates (2 from each congressional district) and funded at a staggering cost of approximately P10-B pesos ($200-M).

And for what? So that the Constitution can be changed to truly benefit the people? Let's recall the 1987 Constitution, which was considered revolutionary at the time for containing the following provision: "The State shall guarantee equal access to public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law." (Section 26, Article II).

After leaving the Batasan Hall at 3AM on December 6 while deliberations were still on-going, I found myself in the Batasan lobby scanning through the names and faces of House members displayed in two giant billboards there. I noted that the political dynasties were well-represented: the Dys by Connie and Jun, the Aquinos by Butz and Noynoy, the Cojuangcos by Charlie and Mark, the Arroyos by Iggy and Mikey, the Marcoses by Imee, the Barbers and the Duranos by representatives named Ace, the Biazons by Rozzano, the Cayetanos by Alan Peter, etc. etc.

During their deliberations, I heard many of the young House members speak English with an impeccable American accent reflecting their American education (from elementary school to college). After obtaining their US college degrees, many of them returned to the Philippines to run for their fathers' termed-out congressional seats with only the family name, wealth and influence as modest qualifications. What do they really know of the miserable lives of the people of their provinces?

In the 10 billion peso ConCon, the delegates elected to frame the new constitution will come from the same dynasties that populate the Congress now, so no provision challenging their rule can ever be expected to come from them. Even if it did, as the 1987 anti-dynasty provision showed, it can be ignored. After all, who can con the cons?

The day after my Batasan visit, I had lunch with my high school classmate, Hermo Esperon. I had kept in touch with him through years as he rose through the ranks of the Philippine military. Hermo grew up in a small farm in Asingan, Pangasinan with a father who was a public school teacher. He told me once that he did not see running water inside a home until he moved into a dorm after receiving a high school government scholarship. Hermo raised his five children by himself after his wife died in a car accident in her hometown.

Hermo was now the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). More importantly, after nine years as a single parent, Hermo had met and married Dr. Lorna Valenzuela, and they now have two young kids to go with his five grown ones.

Another Philippine Science High School classmate, Rogie Calunsag from Bohol, had also gone to the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) and, like Hermo, had a father who was a poor farmer. Rogie hooked up with the Philippine Navy after the PMA because he lived in the home of a retired admiral while in high school. As classmate Vince Ragay also notes, an anagram of his name spells out "our egg can sail".

I learned that Rogie had married Melly Benavides, the younger sister of my friend, Richie, whom I corresponded with even after I left for the US in 1971. I learned over the years that she had married, had four kids, and had separated. Tragically, Richie died in 1987 in a helicopter crash in Camarines Sur. Without hesitation, Melly and Rogie took care of all of Richie's kids, raising them as their own.

A few months ago, Rogie's modest navy quarters accidentally burned down, causing the family to lose all their clothes and other valuable possessions. Our high school batch passed the hat around to raise money to help Rogie's family. Even though he was Inspector General of the Philippine Navy, Rogie provided for his large family only within his means.

On the day I met them, Rogie was under consideration for promotion to Navy Chief as the incumbent was set to mandatorily retire the next day, when he turned 56. If Rogie was chosen, Melly did not know what to wear as all her clothes had gone up in smoke. She had some money but she did not want to buy a dress that afternoon just yet as "it would be such a waste naman if Rogie wasn't chosen, she said. And it seemed iffy, as Rogie's competitors for the top navy post were formidable, with powerful political connections.

When I woke up the next day, I received a text message on my cell phone informing me that Rogie had been selected by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as "Flag Officer In Command" of the Philippine Navy and that I was invited to attend his swearing-in that afternoon.

When I got to the Navy HQ ("Hukbong Dagat ng Pilipinas") on Roxas Blvd, I spotted Melly in the modest red dress she had purchased earlier in the day with the money she had saved for such an occasion. As Rogie assumed command of the Philippine Navy, Melly and her children stood there with tears welling in their eyes.

Somehow, I also sensed my friend Richie was there too, proud of the man who took care of her kids after she died and who raised them as his own.

My visit to the Batasan showed me an institution filled with people who had enriched themselves in office and who were the dynastic products of privilege. On the other hand, my experience with the Philippine military officers I met during my visit filled me with hope.

Merry Christmas.

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