Monday, March 26, 2007

Being in Egypt

No, I didn’t travel to Egypt the past week. No such luck. It’s just that when I think of Egypt, I think of the Nile. When I think of the Philippines, I think of denial. The government, the politicos, and the people are all in denial. And so when I think of being in denial, I think of being in Egypt.

I was reminded of this state of being by a column written by Randy David on the confluence of four recent attacks on the Philippine nation’s image, all occurring within weeks of each other, like a perfect storm.

The first was the decision of the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) to deny VisaScreen certification to Philippine nursing graduates who failed to retake and pass the leaked portions of the June 2006 licensure exams. This decision would adversely affect thousands of Philippine nurses applying to work in the US.

Then came the visits to the Philippines by the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur on human rights, Philip Alston, and the European Commission’s director general for external relations, Eneko Landaburu, who both expressed their deep concerns over the unsolved murders of hundreds of Filipino activists and journalists in the last five years.

The third storm was a hearing in the US Congress by the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs chaired by California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who criticized the Arroyo administration for failing to take “sufficient action to address unsolved killings and bring those responsible to justice.”

The fourth was the release by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) of their findings on perceptions of corruption in the Asian region, which found the Philippines to be the “most corrupt” in a list of 13 countries in Asia.

The response of the Philippine government was to go to Egypt and visit the Nile. A government delegation went to the CGFNS to deny that there was a problem with the cheating in the nursing exams and to assert that the Philippine government was doing everything to deal with the problem. The CGFNS debunked the government's position stating that "It's not what the Philippine authorities did not do, it's what the US authorities would have done in a similar situation."

On the issue of foreign governments’ criticisms of the Philippines human rights record, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, speaking for the administration, declared that foreigners should butt out and not lecture Filipinos on human rights if they have no experience in fighting insurgencies in their own countries.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, for his part, called the US Senate hearing an insult to Philippine sovereignty. With regard to the PERC corruption report, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo denied that there was widespread government corruption, insisting that PERC was basing its analysis on old data, when Erap Estrada was president. Another spokesman said that the report was about the perception of corruption, not the reality of it.

According to psychologists, denial is a defense mechanism in which a person, faced with a painful fact, rejects the reality of that fact, insisting that the fact is false, despite what may be overwhelming and irrefutable evidence.

According to Sigmund Freud, there are three forms of denial: simple, “minimisational,” and transference. Simple is when the painful fact is denied totally. Minimisational is when the painful fact is admitted but the seriousness minimized. Transference is when the painful fact and its seriousness are admitted, but the person's moral responsibility is downplayed or denied altogether.

The government used all three forms of denial in responding to these attacks. But the Philippine government is not alone in tripping out to Egypt. The so-called Genuine Opposition (GO) has been paddling its oars in the Nile as well. It can hardly criticize the government’s human rights record when included in its slate is Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, who was second in command of the Military Intelligence Security Group (MISG) which was responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of activists during the Marcos dictatorship. Lacson was also implicated in the Kuratong Baleleng massacre and in the kidnap, torture and murder of Bubby Dacer and Emmanuel Corbito.

The GO can hardly criticize the Philippine government on corruption charges when it is led by the notoriously corrupt former president Erap Estrada, who personally handpicked the members of the GO senate slate and is reportedly funding the slate with his own personal wealth (which he didn’t earn from acting).

Both the government (Team Unity) and the opposition (GO) senate slates are filled with rank opportunists, professional politicos who crave power and influence in the worst way, and who owe their loyalties only to themselves. Why can’t there be senate candidates who can propose that the Philippine school year begin in September and end in June so that there aren’t any classes during the monsoon or rainy season (June to August).

It has always been a source of wonder why the Philippine school year begins just when torrential rains pour down on the country, drenching its students on their way to school. It is "summer classes" now for Philippine school kids and it is incredibly hot, forcing students to either go to the beach or stay home or in the shade. It would be a good time for them to still be studying if the school year began in Sepatember.

But that would mean that these politicos really care about the people, about the youth, about education. That’s not really why they're running for senator. To them, being senator is about receiving pork from the government and money from influence peddlers. It’s about running for president in order to receive more pork from the government and more money from influence peddlers.

It’s about practicing transference denial, blaming others, to absolve themselves of any moral imperative whatsoever. It’s about being in Egypt.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Four Years of Shock and Awe

This week’s fourth anniversary of America’s “shock-and-awe” invasion of Iraq brought back memories of a family discussion four years ago on whether to join an anti-war rally to protest the impending war. Our three young sons told us that they had already been discussing the war in school all week and everyone was opposed to it. “Of course we’ll all go,” they said.

So off we went the next morning to join the massive February 16, 2003 anti-war rally at the Civic Center in San Francisco. Police officials estimated that 200,000 people marched and participated in the rally to denounce President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq. Whole families just like us were there to show their opposition to the war, with babies in strollers and old folks leaning on their canes.

When my father-in-law, Romulo Austria, learned that we had attended the rally, he was upset. “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have joined you,” he said. This proud man, who was a young guerilla during the war against the Japanese, who enrolled in the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) after the war (class of ’51), who obtained a PhD in Engineering at the University of Rome in 1958, who worked for Bechtel as a nuclear engineer, and who had been a Republican, was dead set against the war early on.

“Bush is crazy,” he would tell his tennis buddies. “It’s a lie. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush is just using this excuse to fool the people,” he said with firm conviction. “Papa,” as I call him, turns 80 this week still firm in his conviction as he was back then that the war in Iraq was and is a tragic mistake.

If Bush had listened to my father-in-law back then, more than 3,200 American soldiers and more than 150,000 Iraqis would likely still be alive today. We would not have close to 30,000 American soldiers in veteran’s hospitals like Walter Reed, struggling to survive their war injuries. And we would have more than $600 billion to spend on education, health care and decent housing for the American people. There would be money to fully fund the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill.

But why should Bush have listened to my father-in-law when he wouldn’t even listen to his own father? In his book, "A World Transformed," published in 1998 and coauthored with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, former President George H. Bush wrote that if he had pursued the retreating Iraqi Army back to Baghdad in 1991, the United States "would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq."
That would have caused the collapse of the international coalition and alienated the Arab members to desert it.

“There was no viable 'exit strategy'... violating another of our principles," GH Bush and Scowcroft wrote. "Furthermore, (had) we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different - and perhaps barren - outcome."

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on August 15, 2002 (7 months before the invasion), Scowcroft expounded on this point by asserting that an invasion of Iraq "was certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism. Worse, there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack."

Invasion of Iraq would require the United States "to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making any military operations correspondingly more difficult and expensive ... (and) very likely would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military occupation." Such actions would result in a "degradation" of international cooperation, and an "explosion of outrage against us" especially in the Muslim world. Such a policy "could even swell the ranks of terrorists."

These points seem so obvious now in 20-20 hindsight; they were obvious to my kids and to father-in-law even back then. When asked why he didn’t listen to the advice of his father and his father’s national security adviser, Bush told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that it’s because he listens to a “higher Father.” That was his reason, he claimed – “God told him” to invade Iraq, just as Allah told Osama bin Laden to destroy the World Trade Center.

Both Bush and bin Laden are basically religious fundamentalists who believe God is on their side, that they’re doing God’s will, even if God had commanded, “Thou shalt not kill.” For Christian or Muslim fundamentalists, God’s commandments do not apply to non-believers or infidels.

Religious zealots are basically all Bush has left in the US to support his failed Iraq policy. (Imagine there's no religion, as John Lennon mused.) The latest polls show his popularity rating at 29%, one of the lowest ever for any US president. Even Donald Trump has come out publicly to declare that Bush is the worst US president ever.

At the anti-war rally we attended in Feb.16, 2003, there were many other Filipinos, a fact the San Francisco Chronicle noted in its front-page coverage of the rally. “In the 400,000-strong (Bay Area) Filipino community,” the Chronicle reported, “many have friends or family members working in the Middle East as maids and construction workers,” said Rhonda Ramiro, a San Francisco resident. An estimated 1.5 million Filipinos are employed in such jobs there.

Several of those marching with her and the 150 members of Filipinos for Global Justice Not War were airport screeners laid off last fall in the wake of a new federal act requiring screeners to be U.S. citizens. "The younger people here know that their schools are bad already and will get worse if there's more money going for the military," Ramiro said.

In that rally, one of my sons bought a colorful “No Blood for Oil” t-shirt which he proudly wore in school the following week, prompting discussions on the real reason for the Iraq war may be.

This past week, The Washington Post reported that President Bush had asked the Iraqi Parliament for a “benchmark” for measuring Iraqi progress – to pass the Iraqi Oil Law that would allow US multinational oil companies to take over their country’s oil. It turns out my son’s t-shirt was right on the mark.

“They hate us because we value freedom” Bush has said time and again. Just exactly what freedoms are valued by Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney? One of them is surely Halliburton -Cheney’s old company, the US corporation that has profited the most from the Iraq War through its no-bid contracts, enjoying the freedom to move its operations from Houston, Texas to Dhubai.

More than 3200 American soldiers gave up their lives for this freedom. Happy 80th birthday, Papa, may you yet outlive this terrible war.

Monday, March 12, 2007

My Life as a Travel Writer

In my next life, I think I would like to return as a travel writer, gallivanting all over the globe, checking out and reporting on exotic locales for various publications. I didn't have to wait that long, it turned out, because my fantasy became a reality.

It all began in January when I unexpectedly received an invitation from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau to cover that country's Lantern Festival to be held on March 4. Out of curiosity, I accepted the invitation as I had never been to Taiwan and, besides, the offer was for all expenses to be covered by the Taiwan government, a price I could live with.

So before I knew it, there I was on a 14-hour EVA Air flight toTaipei, arriving on March 3, meeting with our tourism hosts at the Grand Hyatt Hotel where I was billeted along with nine other travel writers from Europe, Canada and the United States. A Chinese-Canadian editor from Toronto and I were the only non-Caucasians in the select group.

After our welcome lunch, we were brought to Shihlin, north of Taipei, to the fabled Palace Museum which boasts 6,000 works of art culled from 5,000 years of Chinese history. My personal favorite was the incredibly intricate Jade Cabbage - carved during the Qing Dynasty. The art and artifacts on display were only a fraction of the 700,000 pieces of precious art objects stored in 4,000 crates in tunnels behind the museum, smuggled from China to Taiwan in 1948 just before Mao's Communists defeated the fleeing Kuomintang army of Chiang Kai-Shek.

The next day, Sunday, was easily our longest day. We boarded a bullet train on the Taiwan High Speed Rail early in the morning it zipped us to Chayi, 250 kilometers in just 50 minutes, in an impressively smooth ride.

After visiting a cultural park at Chayi, we had lunch at the provincial magistrate's home where I met a Filipina housemaid who worked there. According to her, in Taiwan, a Filipina housemaid is a redundancy as almost all Pinays there are domestic helpers. In The Taiwan News, an English language daily, I saw a full page of photos and articles about Filipinos in Taiwan.

Later in the afternoon, we were bussed to Taibao City for the big event, the Taiwan Lantern Festival which was attended by over 100,000 people, with Taiwan's president as the main speaker. The prime minister and other officials spoke before the president and although I couldn't understand a word the politicians said, I could imagine their content because they had the same cadence and bombast as their Philippine counterparts.

That was not the only similarity. Taiwan's martial law ended in 1987, just a year after it ended in the Philippines. But Taiwan's version of People Power occurred earlier in 1979 in Kaohsiung when over 150,000 democracy activists rallied to demand an end to martial law. Eight of the rally's organizers, including Annette Lu, were arrested and charged with sedition. They were defended by a panel of distinguished lawyers led by Chen Shui-bian.

Although the organizers were found guilty and sentenced to long jail terms, the rally galvanized public opinion against martial law which led to its end and to the eventual pardon of the Kaohsiung 8. The democracy activists later formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to challenge the one-party hegemony of the Kuomintang. In 2000, the DPP slate of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu won the presidency and vice-presidency of Taiwan, "the first democratic change of power in 3400 years of recorded Chinese history". Both were re-elected to second terms in 2004.

After the lantern festival extravaganza that evening, we went by bus to Yanshuei for the Beehive Rockets Festival. This is an audience participation event unlike any other in the world where thousands of firecrackers are fired directly into and around the tens of thousands of people attending the festival. Like the bulls at Pamplona, there are casualties. In 2006, we were told, 19 participants required serious medical attention although hundreds more were singed or burned, a badge of distinction to many.

Our brave group was equipped by our hosts with motorcycle helmets, gloves and yellow raincoats as we waded into the crowds to get as close to the fireworks stage as we could. Unfortunately, try as we might, not one of us was able to write a first-hand account of what it's like to be struck by fireworks. Maybe next time.

We don't exactly remember where we slept that night as we were all zonked out in the bus when we got there. But wherever it was, we were off and running early the next morning for a long bus ride to the Haomeiliao Nature Preserve. There we boarded a raft that took us to oyster beds in the lake and shown how they're grown, a relatively simple process. Fascinating. Later during lunch, we observed two horseshoe crabs actively having sex in a fish tank. We asked the owner how long the pair had been at it and he said he doesn't remember when they started but he thought they would be finished sometime in April. Now that's a crab mentality to root for.

After lunch, we visited a salt drying field where two colorfully-dressed workers were busy plowing salt back and forth as we took photos of their labor. There used to be hundreds of such salt fields in that area, we were told, but now there is just that one, along with a salt history museum to show students and tourists what used to be. The labor and administrative costs were too prohibitive, it was explained. It's cheaper to import salt from Australia than to grow them here, our guide candidly disclosed.

After checking out the endangered Black-Faced Spoonbill bird at a nature preserve, we then drove up the steep mountain to the Guanzihling Hot Springs. We checked into our hotel and rushed to get to the hot springs known, according to the brochure, for its mud quality, which was therapeutic for skin allergy and "tiredness elimination".

As we soaked ourselves in mud like carabaos, we started to share past experiences with each other. One talked of his nightmare in Zambia, another of finding her eden in Marrakech, while yet another recalled being awakened by monkeys in his hotel room in the Amazon jungles of Brazil. The oldest member of our group, Dominic, told me that he has been to the Philippines on at least six occasions since the Marcos era.

"The Philippine islands are among the most beautiful that I have ever seen and I have traveled all over the globe," he assured me. "But it's just too dangerous over there," he said. "The conditions of poverty there are appalling," he said. "It's just not safe in many areas, especially at night."

While we were chatting in the mud bath, a photographer took dirty photos of us. Yup, he got the dirt on us. The photographer was Mark Edward Harris, whose fantastic photos from over 60 countries are featured in the photo books (Wanderlust, The Way of the Japanese Bath, Inside North Korea) he shared with us in the bus.

I didn't have much to share with the other journalists ("I remember when I was shopping at Walgreens in San Francisco one night" is somehow not as exotic as the Zambian escapade) so I mostly listened. After all, they were professional travel writers who did this work full time, all year round. I was just an accidental one, along for the ride.

The next morning, we were off to Kaohsiung for tours of more temples, more museums and more parks. What stood out was a men's room in a Confucious park which featured a breathtaking view of a lake which you could only see if you were disposing of a pressing bladder problem.

As we wound our way through the streets of the city, we noticed the presence everywhere of scooters, the predominant mode of transportation in Taiwan. They are everywhere, filling every intersection and every sidewalk, driven by old and young alike, a practical solution to traffic congestion and rising gas prices.

Later in the day, I flew back to Taipei from Kaohsiung and later that night, I flew 14 hours back to San Francisco, back to my everyday reality. But at least for a few days, my next life came early.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

A Toast to EDSA

Edsa People Power turned 21 this past week. If it were a man, he'd now be old enough to drink in California. But virtually no one drank a toast to Edsa in the Philippines this year, a sign of popular disenchantment with what was hailed at the time as the most epochal event in Philippine history.
In terms of historic significance, there are probably only two other dates in Philippine history that parallel February 26, 1986 - July 4, 1946 and June 12, 1898. These three events represent historic ends to dark periods of prolonged suffering by the Filipino people.

June 12, 1898 marked the declaration of Philippine independence from 333 years of Spanish colonial rule. July 4, 1946, while celebrated as the day of Philippine independence from American neo-colonial rule, actually marked the day
of liberation from more than four years of Japanese imperial aggression.

February 26, 1986 is and should always be celebrated as the day of liberation from 14 years of the brutal corrupt dictatorship of homegrown despot Ferdinand Marcos.
Why then is February 26, 1986 not held in the same high regard as the other two other historic events?

Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Rina Jimenez-David suggests a reason: “It is difficult, from this remove, to recall exactly those days and nights of February 1986. Not so much the events themselves, as there are enough written records, photos and videos to bring those days back to life. But can we summon again the memories -- the feelings, thoughts, fears, hopes and moods -- that we who lived through those days experienced and wallowed in? It might seem futile, even foolish, to revive the ghosts of EDSA I when its very spirit has these days been mocked and trashed.”

Indeed. It has been a source of personal frustration for me to see that Gen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, one of the most vicious henchmen of Marcos, 2nd only to Col. Rolando Abadilla in the leadership of the dreaded Military Intelligence Support Group (MISG) responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of activists during the martial law era, was never prosecuted for his crimes against humanity. Incredibly, he was promoted to chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP), elected senator in 2001, ran for president in 2005, and is running for senator again this year.

Of the thousands who committed vicious crimes against the Filipino people during the Marcos years, was anyone prosecuted and punished? Did anyone go to jail for plundering the Philippine economy during the Marcos dictatorship? None. So what is so different from what happened after June 12, 1898 and after July 4, 1946?

When Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, he was surrounded by dozens of Filipino ilustrados he appointed to draft the Philippine Constitution in the Malolos Congress. The constitution they crafted was intended to show the Americans that Filipinos were fully capable of self-government.

But, as historian Teodoro Agoncillo noted, this group “deserted Aguinaldo even before hostilities broke out with the United States and enthusiastically indicated to the Schurman Commission their desire to collaborate with and serve in the autonomous government proposed by the Americans. The forces of “conciliation” led by Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, Cayetano Arellano, Felipe Buencamino, and Benito Legarda testified before the Schurman Commission that the Filipinos “were not capable of independent government.”

When the Japanese imperial forces occupied the Philippines in 1942, they installed a puppet government to help them rule the Philippines. These puppets included Jose B. Laurel, who was appointed president, Manuel Roxas (a cabinet member), and Gen. Jorge Vargas, chair of the Executive Commission. For their
collaboration, the Japanese showered them with the best food (see Hernando Abaya’s "Betrayal in the Philippines" for a sample of the regular menu in MalacaƱang served to the Laurels), luxuries and the finest accommodations, while the people suffered under harsh Japanese rule. Laurel’s sons were even sent to Japan to study.

Most of the members of the Philippine Congress collaborated with the Japanese as well and were also compensated for their efforts. When the Japanese were driven out of the Philippines by the Filipino guerillas and the American allied forces, these collaborators immediately switched allegiance to the Americans and proclaimed that they were only pretending to collaborate but were actually patriots.

The US government favored Roxas as its candidate in the 1946 presidential elections and he was dutifully elected. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commanding general of the allied forces, wanted the collaborationist Philippine Congress convened to pass laws that would benefit US businesses but the first act of the Congress was to reward its members with three years of back pay.

After Roxas was elected president, one of his first acts was to issue a general pardon to all those who collaborated with the Japanese, which just happened to include him.

Despite the disappointments following the American suppression of Philippine independence after Aguinaldo’s declaration, it cannot be denied that there was progress under American rule compared to the Spanish masters. The Americans offered universal public education which allowed for people to advance regardless of their previous caste. While anything was better than what the Filipino people endured during the Japanese occupation, there was substantial progress in the Philippines in the post-war years.

Despite the bitter letdown that people feel following the overthrow of Marcos, with President Cory Aquino’s disappointing restoration of the oligarchy to its prior status, it must be admitted that there was progress, too, during her tenure in terms of human rights and economic opportunity.
Whatever criticisms there may be of the present Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration, it cannot be denied either that the economy has improved so that much less of the people’s money is used to pay off the interest on the foreign debt.

Instead of paying 70 pesos to every dollar borrowed from the International Monetary Fund, the people now pay 49 pesos, so more can be used for infrastructure development.

But Filipinos want immediate glowing results, apparently unwilling to take the long view. Many want the country to be modeled after China, but let us consider that China has been around for more than 3,000 years while the Philippines is a relatively young republic.

To inspire his people in 1945, Chairman Mao told the story of the Foolish Old Man who lived in a house with a view blocked by two great peaks. He called his sons to join him to dig up the two mountains. While they were digging, a Wise Old Man saw them and told them they were silly because it was impossible to remove the two huge mountains.

Undeterred, the Foolish Old Man replied, "When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can't we clear them away?"

Mao's point was that change takes time but it will happen. Perhaps we all need to be foolish old men. Or perhaps we should just scale down our expectations and follow Oscar show host Ellen deGeneres' advice: "aim lower." With lower expectations, we just might appreciate February 26, 1986 more.