Mong Palatino

activist, two-term member of philippine congress, southeast asian blogger


@mongster is an activist and former legislator who represented Kabataan (Youth) Partylist in the 14th and 15th Congress of the Philippines

Written for The Diplomat

U Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk from Myanmar, publicly insulted a United Nations human rights envoy who was visiting the country to assess the progress of reforms initiated by the government. The video of Wirathu insulting the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, has gone viral in Myanmar.

Wirathu called Lee a whore for allegedly meddling in the affairs of Myanmar. “Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn’t make you an honorable woman,” he said.

Wirathu is the leader of the 969 Buddhist national movement that has gained popularity in recent years. It believes that the Rohingya and other Muslims are plotting to dominate Myanmar, which has a predominantly Buddhist population. The Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, according to the U.N. They are mostly Muslims living in Myanmar and other parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, but the Myanmar government refuses to recognize them as citizens. Many are also denied of basic rights and access to welfare services. There are an estimated 1.3 million Rohingyas living in the country’s Rakhine State.

During her recent visit to the country, Lee said she saw no positive progress on either the conditions of the Rohingya or the tension between many radical Buddhist and Muslim groups. “The atmosphere between Buddhists and Muslims remains hostile. I saw internally displaced persons in Muslim camps living in abysmal conditions with limited access to food, health care and essential services,” she said.

She also warned against the passage of “race and religion” bills that “will legitimize discrimination, in particular against religious and ethnic minorities, and ingrain patriarchal attitudes towards women.” She was referring to bills relating to population control and healthcare, monogamy, religious conversion, and interfaith marriages involving Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.

Lee’s objection to the proposed legislation angered Wirathu, who denounced the U.N. envoy in a mass assembly for being allegedly biased in favor of the Rohingya.

But Wirathu was quickly criticized for his “sexist” and “insulting” language against Lee. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on the religious and political leaders of Myanmar to “unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack” against a U.N.-appointed envoy.

Lee herself reacted to the speech, writing in her official report that she was “personally subjected to the kind of sexist intimidation that female human rights defenders experience when advocating on controversial issues.”

Wirathu’s remarks also upset people in Myanmar. Presidential spokesperson and Minister of Information Ye Htut urged the Buddhist monk to focus on the topics of compassion, love, empathy, and good ethics. U Pandavunsa, a famous monk in the country, said that promoting hate speech is against the code of ethics of Buddhist monks. Meanwhile, U Thawbita, a monk who participated in the 2007 Saffron protest, said that Wirathu’s words “could hurt Buddhism very badly.” Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, expressed disappointment that “trouble is being fomented by extremists within the Buddhist clergy (but) the government is doing nothing about it.”

Wirathu, however, defended his decision to attack the U.N. envoy. “That was the harshest word (I could think of), so I used it. If I could find a harsher word, I would have used it. It is nothing compared to what she did to our country.” He added in an interview that he was simply “defending” Buddhism, and that he “should be glad that [he] succeeded in making this particular comment.”

“I am delightfully proud,” he added.

The Myanmar government announced that it will investigate the speech of Wirathu against the U.N. rapporteur. Perhaps after conducting a probe on this matter, the Ministry of Religious Affairs can also look into the past activities of nationalist monks that have inflamed communal hatred and violence in various parts of the country. Hopefully, and more importantly, this incident should embolden the country’s leaders to aggressively pursue meaningful and peaceful conversations and initiatives on religion, ethnicity, and civil rights.

Refugee Crisis on Myanmar-China Border

Written for The Diplomat

The renewed hostilities between Burmese troops and the Kokang armed rebel group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) have killed more than 130 people since February 9. According to the government, the fatalities included 61 military and police officers, and around 72 rebels. The casualties could be higher since the situation in other remote areas has yet to be determined and clashes are still ongoing after the government rejected calls for a ceasefire in the conflict areas.

The last time Kokang was besieged by armed attacks was in 2009 when the army successfully pushed the rebel force out of the region. Many believe that the February 9 offensive in the Laukkai regional capital was an attempt to reclaim the political influence which the rebels lost six years ago.

The government responded by deploying troops in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone; and later, declaring a state of emergency and martial law.

“Launching offensives against a self-administered zone to oust the mandated Kokang autonomous body is an offence to the sovereignty of the zone. We can’t let this happen. We have no plans to negotiate a ceasefire,” said U Zaw Htay, who is a director in the office of the president.

But in an interview with the independent media group Democratic Voices of Burma, rebel spokesman Tun Myat Linn denied that his group is responsible for the chaos and violence that suddenly engulfed the region. “We did not attack the government administration in Laogai. The director of the administration fled on his own initiative. Our troops are quite a distance from the town – we can’t even get close to there,” he said.

The army is also looking into the involvement of other ethnic rebel groups whom they suspect of providing assistance to the Kokang rebels. In particular, it accused the Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army-North of joining the combat operations against the army. Some former Chinese soldiers were also allegedly recruited as mercenaries to support the rebels in Kokang. Lieutenant-General Mya Tun Oo from the Office of the Commander-in-Chief urged these groups “to take responsibilities for themselves since the sovereignty of our country is being infringed upon.”

But pinpointing the culprits who instigated the violence in Kokang should take a backseat for now so that the government can focus its efforts on restoring normalcy in the area and addressing the refugee crisis which has already spilled over in the Myanmar-China border.

Estimates vary of the number of civilians forced to flee their homes when the fighting started two weeks ago. Some reports pegged the number of residents who escaped to China at 30,000. But according to a local Laukkai Township MP, more than 40,000 refugees from Kokang have set up temporary shelters in the Myanmar-China border. Meanwhile, The Myanmar Times was able to interview ethnic Han Chinese refugees who claimed that at least 100,000 people had fled Myanmar to escape the fighting.

Among those who were displaced by the clashes were teachers of Kokang. A middle-school teacher was able to share her ordeal with the Eleven media group: “We had to walk for 12 hours to the border region. We met Kokang rebels near Tharmannaw. They seized motorcycles and our mobile phones. We were transported to the border.”

The Irrawaddy also narrated the story of Naing Oo, a refugee worker from Pegu Division: “We had to sell some of our belongings to make some money. Some of us couldn’t even carry clothes or blankets, even though they are sick. We just want no war. Because of war, we lost our jobs, earning no money and instead having to run for our lives.”

Kyaw Myo Tun, also writing for The Irrawaddy, described the situation in the capital of the region: “Abandoned vehicles are riddled with bullet holes. Most apartment buildings and shops are shuttered and locked, with no signs of life inside. Except for the occasional muffled footsteps from one or two people furtively walking down the streets, the silence during the day is deep and lingering.”

There is difficulty in distributing aid to refugees especially after a Red Cross convoy was attacked a few days ago. This prompted Renata Dessallien, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, to ask both the government and rebel forces to prioritize the welfare of innocent civilians: “I appeal to all parties to the conflict to ensure that civilians are protected, and to allow civilians who remain in the conflict zone safe passage out of the Kokang area.”

Perhaps the government should reconsider its earlier position and declare a temporary ceasefire in order to reach the civilians caught in the crossfire and deliver humanitarian relief to thousands of refugees in the border. Peace advocates should also persuade the government to continue to follow the roadmap for peace, especially the signing of political agreements with other ethnic groups in the country.

Written for Bulatlat

1. You grew up fantasizing about life in the United States, the land of milk and honey. You were bombarded with seductive images of first world living courtesy of Hollywood. You and your childhood friends wanted a glimpse and taste of real America. Then you learned that you and your family will go to America someday as immigrants. But the date of your departure is uncertain since the petition can drag for years and years. You were told to live your life in Manila as a long preparation for a new and better life in America.

The waiting period was almost two decades. During the interval, you made several life choices: you finished school, you found a partner, you became a parent, and you discovered what you really wanted to do in this world. But the option to migrate remained since your college degree was seen as an advantage, you were assured that you can marry your girlfriend and petition your child once you received the precious green card, and you can still do in America whatever you wanted to do in this world.
And so you patiently waited, but this time there’s no more naive pining for greener pastures. You have already ceased to marvel about the so-called greatness of Uncle Sam. You have seen beyond the illusions peddled by Hollywood pop culture.

Suddenly, the agonizing long wait was over. The embassy has scheduled an interview. You have waited for this moment since grade school yet at the same time you were overwhelmed with the idea that you’re already finished waiting for the arrival of the new life. What happened next? Part of you did the paper works, intent on moving forward and embracing the promise of the new world; part of you was enveloped with a new kind of fear, confusion, and sadness; and part of you wrestled with guilt: guilt of moving away, guilt of staying behind.

But the visa arrived and you left for the Golden Gate after a few days. You made your decision, a decision made through “inception” since your childhood days, a decision you fatalistically affirmed as an educated family man.

You were lovingly welcomed by your relatives, some of whom you have not seen in almost three decades. You spent the first few weeks rekindling family ties and exploring your new home. You were a tourist resident, a resident acting like a tourist. The newness of everything was simply too much that it almost cancelled out any other emotion that threatened to disrupt your newfound joy.

You had mixed thoughts about the US. You were impressed with the infrastructure, the city planning, the efficiency of the transport system, the welfare it provides to citizens, the promotion of knowledge economy, the seemingly limitless opportunities available in a meritocratic society. (You have not yet visited Europe that time).

But there was another side of America you saw: the pauperization of the middle class, the stagnating wages of workers, the rise of homelessness, the lingering impact of racism, the eerie supremacy of neoliberal values in society.

You made interesting and depressing observations about how some people interact like the incessant inquiries about your residential status, your hourly wage rate, your house rent, and even your insurance plan. You felt like everything was being measured in monetary terms; you felt as if your worth as a person was dependent on the petty material things you accumulate. You were comforted by the niceties of modern civilization and the visible little acts of kindness performed by everyone; yet there’s a coldness somewhere that bothered you. Maybe it’s the sting of paranoia or it could be the gloomy sentiment of an outsider wanting instant acceptance.

But you stayed and made many friends, you were also prepared to do what you wanted to do in this world, and you were ready to settle as a permanent resident.

Nevertheless, you desired more from life and you needed deeper connections, and in your heart you knew they could never be fulfilled by living in America, your home away from home. And when the chance came to return, you took the trip back home.

Back in the Philippines, you learned that there were important life-changing decisions to be made again: Marriage, a new baby, an exciting new political task. But one decision will undo a process that took two decades to complete. You considered making some mental calculations but you felt too distracted all the time and you were swamped with intense feelings of euphoria and guilt. What is rational, irrational? What is moving forward, backward?

It was summertime in Manila and you suddenly missed the cool weather of California. But you can overcome this longing, you told yourself. The same applies to restaurants with their big servings, museums and their free days, buses that ran on time, public libraries and their one dollar book sales, the super fast Internet, the walkable city, the changing landscapes – everything must go, including the American Dream. Everything save the essentials such as family bond, camaraderie, hamburger, and the value of learning from the progressive culture of America.

And then you remembered your two aging parents. Suddenly, you were a child again. A child separated from his overseas parents and whose only Christmas wish every year was to be reunited with his family. And now that the wish was granted, the kid has decided to leave.

You forgot that they waited too for you. They worked and waited for you. You wanted to apologize but you never said it anyway. You were very grateful that they supported your decision. They let go of their prodigal son, their rebel son, so that you can find a better meaning in this world by staying in the homeland. It’s parental love that brought you to America; the same love that gave you the blessing to leave America, and the freedom to pursue your dreams.

2. Download I-407: Abandonment of Lawful Permanent Resident Status (Note: The website of the US embassy in Manila does not have a copy of the form), fill out the document, submit it to embassy. There’s no need for an appointment, simply walk in and present your green card.

3. Embassy officials will stamp out the form, they will provide a photocopy of the document including a scanned copy of your green card. Step out of the embassy premises and never look back.

Written for Bulatlat

What did the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan had in common in the 1950s? They all allowed the United States to build military bases in their territories. But in 1991, the Philippines kicked out the bases even if it remained an unabashed admirer of American culture. The expulsion of American troops from Subic and Clark was a legacy of the anti-imperialist movement which emerged in the 1960s until it gained nationwide influence in the next two decades. The Left was a prominent part of this movement that consistently exposed the treacherous puppetry of Filipino politicians and the meddling of the U.S. in our domestic affairs. More importantly, the Left successfully invoked the libertarian tradition espoused by the Propaganda Movement and the Katipunan to mobilize the people against the continued stay of colonial military bases in the country.

As it waged battle against US imperialism, the Left also attacked the bankrupt state of Philippine politics evidenced by an electoral process dominated by dynasties and warlords, a corrupt bureaucracy that mutated into the pork barrel system which we detest today, and a repressive government that brutally protects the filthy interest of the ruling elite. Or in other words, a system of bad governance more accurately termed as bureaucratic capitalism – a state of affairs wherein public officials systematically use their position to accumulate wealth and other privilege.

It isn’t enough to castigate the obviously immoral behavior of some recidivist plunderers and criminals in government. If it were a mere morality issue, the simple solution would be to launch a moral crusade which some well-meaning groups are already doing. But from the start, the Left has been asserting that the issue of corruption should be tackled comprehensively. The problem is not simply caused by mayors extorting money from the business sector, senators making deals with quick cash schemers, and presidents addicted to illegal gambling. The problem is the system that allowed these honorable thieves to assume public office. The root of the crisis is the political infrastructure which confers legitimacy to institutionalized robbery.

But where did traditional politicians get their wealth? Young thieves can eventually become old porkers which give them plenty of opportunities to hoard a fortune. But political power across the country is still retained by a few old rich families. What is the source of their economic power? To answer this, we shall repeat the question at the beginning of this article: What did the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan had in common in the 1950s?

Land reform.

But South Korea and Japan implemented it in just five years. They quickly smashed the feudal means of ownership that broke the economic and political privilege of their landowning classes. After land reform, both Japan and South Korea pursued the path of industrialization.

In the Philippines, land reform was and is still a half-serious initiative. The world’s longest land reform program has failed to redistribute the family-owned farming estates of big landlords and foreign-owned corporate plantations. Rural wealth is still concentrated in the hands of despotic hacienderos which they use to win elections, harass or kill their enemies, and stifle dissent. The Hacienda Luisita massacre was not a case of peasant agitation but landlord hysteria from a family which does not want to give up their class privilege.

This refusal to alter the status quo is a very violent kind of behavior. But the state sanctions this violence which is responsible for the human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, and other horrible crimes inflicted against the poor, the activists, and other truth seekers. The government then seeks to monopolize the use of violence in society by suppressing the idea, the yearning, and the actual organizing for change, while branding critical discourse and engagement as transgressions that harm public order.

Then there are political forces, mostly allied with the party in power, which prefers to spread the illusory message of reconciliation by offering a so-called space for dialogue to end conflict in society. They misread the situation as a simple case of misunderstanding between individuals. It may be partly true but essentially wrong. What is raging in the islands is class struggle. Marx once eloquently wrote that the “history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.”

The mainstream education apparatus has indoctrinated the youth with the poisonous thinking that history is made only by prominent individuals such as kings, presidents, and their glorified subordinates. Because of this biased framework, it rendered invisible the resistance of the weak which is the primemover of history. Fortunately, the Left provided an alternative narrative to view our past and present. Through this perspective, we could gain a better understanding of how our society evolved such as the impact of our colonial experience, the worsening pauperization in the provinces, the glaring inequality between the rich and poor, the feminization of migration, the attack on labor, the rapid destruction of the environment, and the erosion of our cultural heritage. Furthermore, the Leftist philosophy of history also emphasizes the value of the revolutionary struggle of the people in combating the many ills and evils in society.

But the appeal to wage and resolve class struggle in the ballots is still persuasive. There are public intellectuals who acknowledge the problems identified by the Left but insist that elections, and only elections, will give us leaders who are destined to lead the nation to the road of prosperity and lasting peace. Any other solution than electoral parliamentary democracy is deemed irrational, misguided, and impractical. The result is the perpetuation of a discredited system with semi-democratic trappings. Everybody resents this system; and everybody is aghast that we continue to be ruled by the same powerful and pampered clique of caciques or their dummies; but almost everybody among the chattering and twittering classes is willing to endure this suffering as they continue to hope that incremental reforms within the bureaucracy would spur a great transformation in the future.

Everybody except the Left. The Left with its radical dreams and a progressive vision for a new future. The Left and its people power, welgang bayan, lakbayan, the boycott movement, the metro noise barrage, the collective actions in the urban and rural. Another people power? An emphatic yes, but this time, let us embrace its revolutionary promise to the fullest.

Written for The Diplomat

If 2014 was the year when the Philippines struggled to recover from the devastating impact of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), what might await Philippine politics in 2015?

1. The state visit and apostolic journey of Pope Francis was a much needed spiritual boost for many people in the Philippines, the largest Catholic-dominated nation in Asia. He visited Typhoon Haiyan victims, interacted with the youth and street children, and spoke about “scandalous” poverty and corruption in front of the country’s top leaders. Will politicians heed the pope’s reminder to “reject every form of corruption that diverts resources from the poor”? The pope spent only five days in the Philippines but he has already made a huge impact on local politics.

2. Once Pope Francis leaves the Philippines, it will signal the unofficial start of campaigning for the 2016 presidential election. There will be intense bickering among politicians in the next few months. The ruling coalition is expected to consolidate its ranks and election machinery while aggressively marginalizing the political opposition. But while President Benigno Aquino III continues to be popular, he is constitutionally barred from running again and his allies are trailing behind opposition leader and Vice President Jejomar Binay in pre-election surveys.

3. The dispute with China over the conflicting territorial and maritime claims in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is still the main agenda that the Philippines will continue to raise in the Asia-Pacific region. The Philippines has filed a case in the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal against the ownership claims of China. This will further inspire Filipinos to mobilize against what they see as China’s bully behavior in the region.

4. The next six months is crucial to implement the roadmap for peace which the government has drafted in cooperation with the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The initial challenge is to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress without it being diluted; and to convince legal scholars and critics that it does not violate the 1987 Constitution. If Aquino succeeds in establishing the Bangsamoro transition authority before the end of his term next year, it will be a major legacy of his administration.

Another initiative that Aquino can pursue is the resumption of the stalled peace talks with communist rebels.

5. The economic experience of the Philippines will be under global scrutiny as it prepares to host the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Aquino earlier announced that the theme of this year’s APEC gathering is “Building Inclusive Economies, Building a Better World”.

“As the clamor for progress that leaves no one behind resounds the world over, the Philippines has the opportunity to set a global example of inclusivity this year,” Aquino said. But while he is proud of the country’s strong economic fundamentals, critics will probably remind APEC participants about the failure of the economy under Aquino to solve poverty and deep inequality in society.

The last time Manila hosted the APEC summit was in 1996.

The planned economic integration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN 2015) will be another major event, but whether or not it will figure prominently in the country’s politics remains to be seen.

6. Disaster recovery will be a priority for both the national and local governments. Aquino cannot allow the slow pace of rehabilitation in the Haiyan-affected towns to continue if he wants to get a better assessment of his administration. His leadership will be defined by the success or failure of his disaster recovery program in Samar and Leyte. As for local politicians in other disaster-hit towns, they risk losing public support if they appear ineffective in distributing relief and making aid money useful in reviving the local economy.

These 12 months are a period of preparation for the Philippines’ big year in 2016, when the country is due to vote in a new president. It is a year in which the current government will seek to take bold steps to leave a positive and lasting legacy while the opposition tries to present itself as a credible alternative. Because of this, 2015 promises to be an exciting year for Philippine politics.

Manny Pacquiao: Boxer, Legislator, Basketball Playing Coach

Written for The Diplomat

World eight-division boxing champion Manny Pacquiao stunned many when he joined Philippine politics in 2007. But after two terms in Congress, his fans have already accepted that their boxing icon can still manage to fight and win in the ring while occasionally serving in government as legislator. This month, Pacquiao decided to once again reinvent his public image when he agreed to be drafted as playing coach in one of the teams competing in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), Asia’s first professional basketball league.

There were those who thought it was a mere publicity stunt but Pacquiao actually appeared on his first game as playing coach for the Kia Sorento team last October 19. Wearing jersey No. 17, Pacquiao played a total of six minutes and 46 seconds in the first quarter, he didn’t score a single point, and he committed two turnovers. But his team won the game. At 35 years old, Pacquiao became the oldest rookie to play in the league.

Pacquiao claimed that playing basketball is his cross-training activity which helps his footwork and balancing. He is currently preparing for his next boxing fight against the undefeated American boxer Chris Algieri, which is scheduled next month in Macau.

Pacquiao’s fans are divided over whether the boxing champ made the right decision to join the basketball league in the middle of his training for the fight. His promoter certainly wanted him to refrain from playing basketball, fearing possible injury.

Basketball is the most popular sports in the Philippines but some writers advised Pacquiao that if he wanted to express support for Philippine basketball he should play an exhibition game rather than join the PBA. Jude Roque, for one, is not convinced that the idea of Pacquiao serving as basketball playing coach will benefit the boxing icon: “After pursuing careers as politician, TV host, recording artist and pastor among others, this new ambition of his is just absolutely ridiculous. For him to play in the PBA is surely preposterous. For him to coach in the PBA is just as ludicrous. And for him to do both? Outrageous!”

Roque warned that Pacquiao will not get VIP treatment on the basketball floor: “In an actual PBA game, he won’t be treated like an icon or legend. He will be treated like a PBA player. Our national hero deserves better than being the subject of ridicule and lampoon by the entire sporting world.”

Bob Guerrero is another sports analyst who is not happy that Pacquiao was able to enter the country’s premier basketball league ahead of other deserving players and coaches. “What Pacquiao has done is basically using his fame, wealth, connections, and star value to jump the line and get ahead of all of these players and coaches who have dedicated their lives to the game. I wonder what all those players undrafted by the PBA feel about him making it while they miss out.”

Then there’s the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s leading newspaper, which published an editorial urging Pacquiao to acknowledge his limitations. After pointing out that Pacquiao’s performance as legislator is “hardly stellar,” the editorial also took the boxing champ to task for his controversial political choices. “Pacquiao’s rise to prominence has been largely marked by the worst in traditional politics. In the company of patrons, warlords and hangers-on, he took the trail blazed by those who invoke popularity as the sole qualification for public office.”

Indeed, Pacquiao should review his priorities. He is still a living hero to millions of Filipinos and fans around the world but he should question the wisdom of carrying too many identities and responsibilities. Pacquiao is not obliged to do everything his advisers and business consultants wanted him to accomplish. Right now, Pacquiao should concentrate on his coming bout with Algieri. And while he deals with his tax evasion case, his constituents also expect him to fulfill his duties as public servant.

Written for The Diplomat

Thailand is coming to the end of very difficult year, which brought violent street protests, an election boycott, martial law, a coup, media censorship, the appointment of a new military-backed government, and a royal divorce. Here, we look back at what has transpired over the past 12 months.

January: Tens of thousands of protesters flood the major intersections of Bangkok as opposition groups intensify their bid to topple the government of then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The protest, led by former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, aims to “shut down“ Bangkok for several days or until Yingluck is removed from power. Despite the planned shutdown, Bangkok is not entirely paralyzed. But the protest loudly echoes the demands of the opposition to call of the February election and instead create a so-called People’s Council to replace the government.

February: Despite the anti-government rallies and the boycott campaign of the opposition, Thailand is able to hold a “peaceful” election. But many Thais are unable to vote or are prevented from approaching polling centers because of the protests. The number of disenfranchised voters is estimated at 12 million.

March: Thailand’s Constitutional Court annuls the February elections by declaring it unconstitutional because voting failed to take place on the same day around the country. Subsequently, the Election Commission announces that the next poll would be scheduled for July.

April: Street protests continue to call for the removal of the caretaker government headed by Yingluck. She will be eventually be forced to step down after the Court rules the following month that she abused her power in 2011 when she replaced the national security chief with one of her relatives.

May: Two days after declaring martial law and failing to mediate between rival political forces, the Royal Thai Army launches a coup on May 22, suspends the 2007 Constitution (except for the provisions on the monarchy), seizes control of major media stations, and imposes a nighttime curfew. This was Thailand’s 12th successful coup in the past century, although the number rises to more than 20 if unsuccessful coup attempts are counted.

June: One of the early directives of the coup regime is a ban on public gatherings of five or more people. Although this doesn’t stop anti-coup protesters from converging on various places, the army becomes increasingly intolerant of the protests by arresting those who defy this law. But protesters find creative ways to express their opposition – like adopting the three-finger salute from the Hollywood film “Hunger Games” to signify their yearning for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

July: The Junta issues a new order banning media from reporting news that is critical of the government. Media groups immediately express concern about the broad and vague provisions of the order. They also highlight the severe punishment – legal prosecution, censorship, and shutdown – for violating any part of the order.

August: The National Council for Peace and Order, the name of the junta government, enacts an interim constitution as part of the purported roadmap for democratic reforms in the country. But critics point out that the new charter is designed to perpetuate a military dictatorship. Using this constitution, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is selected by the National Legislative Assembly as Thailand’s 29th prime minister.

September: The murder of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in Koh Tao island beach resort embarrasses the military-backed government. The police are accused of bungling the investigation.

October: For months, students have been ordered to memorize Prayuth’s “12 Core Values,” which focus on discipline and respect for authority. Some students protest this and other curriculum changes which they argue were made without consulting the public. Another reform dubbed as teaching “correct democracy” constitutes a revision to history books, which have apparently already expunged the name of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

November: Additional troubling signs of censorship: The media is asked by Prayuth not to report the activities of Thaksin and Yingluck, a TV host is replaced because the junta doesn’t like her critical comments about the government, and the Hunger Games film was banned in some theaters and protesters are detained for performing the three-finger salute.

December: Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkron divorces his third wife, Princess Srirasmi, sparking speculation about the royal succession and its impact on local politics.

When will Thailand’s military hand over power to a civilian government? Will it succeed in promoting reconciliation? Will there be an election soon? For how long will the government continue to impose strict media regulations? Will it finally allow protests to resume in the streets? And the most important question: Will democracy triumph in 2015?

Indonesia: Police Chief Scandal Jokowi’s First Real Test

Written for The Diplomat

Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s only nominee for the country’s top police post has been named by an anti-corruption agency as a suspect in a money laundering scandal. But the nomination was not withdrawn and Congress proceeded to endorse the candidate despite the corruption case. Because of this, Jokowi has faced accusations that he succumbed to political pressure instead of aggressively pursuing reforms and fighting corruption in the bureaucracy.

Immediately after his nomination, police Commissioner General Budi Gunawan was listed by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) as a suspect in a bribery and money laundering case. The agency cited a report from the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (PPATK), which traced suspicious bank transactions involving the three-star general between 2005 and 2008. Budi reportedly made several deposits and withdrawals amounting to $5.9 million in several banks while he was stationed at the national police headquarters.

If found guilty of violating the anti-corruption provisions of the criminal code, Budi could face four to 20 years in jail plus a hefty fine.

Many suspected that Budi was appointed despite his tainted record because of his close ties to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is also the leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) that supported Jokowi’s candidacy. Budi’s nomination is seen by some as a clear example of the former president’s strong influence in the Jokowi administration.

The Jakarta Globe published an editorial urging Jokowi to quit Megawati’s party and break out from the former president’s shadow: “He is the president of Indonesia who is voted in by the people. PDI-P and Megawati will continue to be his nightmare – forcing bad policies and appointments for their own interests. He will not be able to control the party as he is not in Sukarno’s bloodline.”

Jokowi’s refusal to cancel Budi’s nomination disappointed supporters who expected the new president to be aggressive in reforming the bureaucracy. After all, Jokowi became nationally prominent as mayor of Solo City and later as Jakarta governor because of his innovative leadership and popular image as a crusading hero of the common people. After his election victory, Jokowi announced the “Nawa Cita” (Nine Priority Agenda) of his presidency, which included the rejection of a weak state “by reforming the system through corruption-free dignified, and reliable law enforcement.” When news of the Budi nomination scandal broke out, many asked if Jokowi was already abandoning his commitment to the electorate.

An online petition was launched urging Jokowi to drop Budi and appoint a new national police chief with a clean record. The Twitter hashtag #ShameOnYouJokowi trended globally reflecting the anger of many people, among them those who believed that Jokowi would usher in an era of reform in the country.

Perhaps hurting from the criticism, Jokowi decided to postpone Budi’s inauguration. But this created a new complication when some party leaders felt insulted that the president had ignored the parliament’s endorsement. The threat of impeachment has even been made.

Jokowi will likely survive this political crisis, the first serious one under his administration. But his reputation as a reformist has taken a serious hit.

Written for The Diplomat

For several Southeast Asian countries, 2014 ended disastrously: the Air Asia QZ8501 crash, intense flooding in eastern Malaysia and south Thailand, and the destruction caused by Typhoon Jangmi (known locally as Seniang) in the Philippines. The devastating consequences of these tragedies are still being felt today in the region as governments scramble to recover and provide relief to their affected constituents.

The tragic crash of Air Asia QZ8501 was just one of a series of disasters that struck the region in the past month. The flight was carrying 162 passengers, mostly from Indonesia. An international search party has located the crash site near the waters of the south side of Sumatra Island. As of this writing, 48 bodies had been retrieved from the waters, of which 27 have been identified.

While global attention was understandably focused on Air Asia QZ8501, there were other disasters that hit the region but received less attention. For instance, heavy rainfall in Malaysia caused flood waters to rise in the northeastern coastal towns, forcing the evacuation of more than 120,000 residents. It was reported to be the worst flooding in the eastern states in the past two decades.

The floods caught everybody by surprise, including the government which was accused of being slow to distribute relief to stranded refugees. The prime minister was forced to cut short his vacation in the United States after he was criticized for playing golf with U.S. President Barack Obama while many of his people were drowning in flood.

The opposition wanted an audit of how the disaster fund was spent following reports that many victims were unable to receive proper assistance from the government. There are also calls for an investigation to determine if the unusual flooding has been caused by the logging operations approved by local states.

The rains that unleashed the floods in Malaysia also affected the southern provinces of Thailand while the country was commemorating the tenth anniversary of the deadly 2004 tsunami. Eight provinces have been declared disaster zones due to floods. Nearly 8,000 residents have been displaced. In Narathiwat’s Tak Bai district, more than 4,000 households in 52 villages suffered from the floods.

During the same week, typhoon Jangmi battered several islands in the Visayas and Mindanao regions of the Philippines. According to authorities, Jangmi caused 66 deaths and 43 injuries. It also damaged almost 4,000 houses. As of this writing, 27 roads and 20 bridges are still not passable after they were destroyed by strong rains. The high number of casualties was attributed to complacency. Some officials claimed that many residents refused to spend the holidays in evacuation centers. But the government was also blamed for allegedly failing to give accurate information about the threat posed by Jangmi. It didn’t help that the country’s president was seen attending the wedding of two local celebrities instead of monitoring the typhoon situation in the south part of the country. Palace officials responded by assuring the public that the president was briefed about the destruction left behind by Jangmi and he has ordered the release of aid intended for storm survivors.

Some critics cited the lackluster disaster response as evidence that the government has not yet learned its lesson after the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan tragedy.

So 2014 ended badly for Southeast Asia and the situation appears even more depressing at the start of 2015. Will poor governance hamper the ability of the region to recover? At this point, one can only hope for the best.

Uber Faces More Regulation in Southeast Asia

Written for The Diplomat

Since last year, Uber has been quietly expanding its transport business across Southeast Asia; and while this has been welcomed by many commuters, the company has failed to get the approval of various regulatory agencies.

The common complaint against Uber is that it lacks a franchise to operate as a transport service. Unlike taxi owners, which have to apply and pay for government permits, Uber initially operated without being subjected to these regulations.

Bong Suntay of the Philippine National Taxi Operators Association explained the position of the group with regard to the issue of whether or not to accredit Uber: “What we are asking government is to level the playing field. Taxi and rent-a-car operators own our vehicles and employ so many people like mechanics, cashier and dispatchers, apart from drivers. Our operation is also limited to the number of authorized units and the routes stipulated in our franchise. Our fare is also regulated.”

Authorities have also raised several concerns about Uber. The Jakarta Transportation Agency doubts if Uber is paying the right taxes because it did not apply for a permit. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Road Transport Department has warned the public that they are not covered by insurance if they become involved in an accident while riding an Uber car. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have threatened to detain Uber drivers if their company didn’t secure the correct license.

Even Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA), which didn’t restrict the operations of Uber, has recently announced that it will be implementing new rules for third-party taxi booking apps next year. The regulations stipulate that operators like Uber should register with the LTA, company drivers must have a valid Taxi Driver’s Vocational License, booking apps should specify all information on fare rates and other fees, passengers have the choice not to provide destination information before they make bookings, and customer support services should be provided.

For Tomas Forgac, an entrepreneur, the new regulations would affect the way Uber conducts its business, and may also discourage innovation in the transport sector. He particularly noted that the requirement for drivers to hold a taxi license is counterproductive because the license is given only to Singapore citizens above 30 years old.

“Even if regulations are made with the best of intentions, they tend to introduce unintended consequences while trying to solve issues which free market competition takes care of much more efficiently,” he stressed.

For its part, Uber has expressed willingness to cooperate with authorities and it insists that it has been complying with existing rules. But it reacted strongly to the crackdown ordered by Malaysia’s Road Transport Department. “This is clearly an attempt to protect the taxi industry that has failed its customers in Kuala Lumpur. Preventing our driver partners from earning a living and getting people safely and reliably around town doesn’t just hurt the residents and visitors, it hurts the city,” Uber’s regional general manager Mike Brown told Malay Mail Online in an e-mail interview.

But if Uber thinks it is being unjustly treated, it can find consolation in its growing customer base across the region. Even some high-ranking officials have declared support for Uber.

Philippine Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya challenged taxi operators to upgrade its services instead of opposing Uber. “People prefer to use these tech-based transport services because they are more convenient. It’s that simple. So my advice to taxi operators: Modernize, innovate and improve your systems and services.”

Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Francis Tolentino added that to ban Uber is similar to curtailing the mobility rights of the people.

Uber is likely to survive the legal and bureaucratic woes it is facing today. But its expansion should be welcomed as an effort to improve the public transport systems. While authorities are correct to regulate services that affect public safety, they should not unduly penalize innovators and tech-based operators. The important stakeholders here are not taxi operators or Uber but a public that is becoming increasingly disenchanted and even desperate over a worsening traffic situation

Written for The Diplomat

As we welcome the new year, we look back and review the top news stories in the Southeast Asian region in the past 12 months. These news events were also widely reported and discussed in the international media:

1. Thailand coup. After months of intense street protests, the army of Thailand intervened on May 22 and declared martial law. An interim constitution was drafted which led to the establishment of a military-backed civilian government. General Prayuth Chan-ocha was declared the country’s 29th prime minister.

2. MH370, MH17, Air Asia QZ8501. There were 239 passengers and crew members onboard Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared in March and remains missing to this day. Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was hit by a missile in eastern Ukraine in July, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. Meanwhile, the crash site of Air Asia Flight QZ8501, which went missing on December 27 carrying 162 people, was located yesterday by a multi-country search party on the south Sumatra side of Indonesia.

3. Jokowi’s election victory. Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was elected president of Indonesia. As a politician, he became famous for his non-traditional approach to leadership, such as making unannounced visits to government offices to check if civil servants were working efficiently. Jokowi’s victory was instantly hailed as a major boost to Indonesia’s democracy, since it is the first time that the country’s president will have no ties to either the military or Suharto, who ruled as dictator for more than three decades.

4. Brunei implements Sharia Law. Sharia law took effect in Brunei last May, making it the first country in East Asia to implement the law at the national level. The first phase in implementing the law covered general offenses such as eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan, failing to perform Friday prayers, or becoming pregnant out of wedlock. The second phase includes amputation for theft, and flogging for violations such as abortion, alcohol consumption, and homosexuality. The death penalty will be applied during the third phase, which would involve stoning to death for adultery, and also capital punishment for rape and sodomy

5. Opposition to the Laos dam project. Laos has approved the construction of a mega dam along the Mekong River, despite the objections of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Laos’ neighbors and various environmental groups wanted more impact studies before the project is allowed to continue.

6. Maritime disputes in the South China Sea. China continues to wrangle with Vietnam and the Philippines over the ownership of several territories in the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea). It has been accused of violating the sovereignty of several ASEAN nations by building or placing several structures within the disputed waters. A decision by an international arbiter about the competing maritime claims next year will certainly make it a focal issue in the Asia-Pacific.

7. Cambodia’s garment strike. Thousands of garment workers joined a strike in Cambodia, demanding an increase in their monthly minimum wages. But the strike was violently dispersed by the police last January and public rallies were banned in the capital Phnom Penh. The campaign also urged global clothing brands to ensure that their suppliers in Cambodia are respecting labor rights.

8. Cambodia’s opposition party joins Parliament. After 10 months of boycotting the parliament in protest at the alleged widespread election fraud, Cambodia’s 55 opposition members agreed to take their oath as members of the Parliament last August. This allowed the opposition to articulate its agenda in the parliament, although observers noted that it also boosted the leadership of Hun Sen, the country’s prime minister for the past three decades.

9. Malaysia to strengthen Sedition Act. Prime Minister Najib Razak reneged on his election promise to scrap the Sedition Act and instead announced that his government would reform and strengthen the law, which was enacted by the British colonial government in 1948. Several lawyers, journalists, activists and even academics were charged with sedition this year, which pushed various groups to broaden the coalition opposing the law.

10. Myanmar assumes chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Domestic troubles have colored Myanmar’s role as rotating chairman of the ASEAN. However, its leadership in the ASEAN in 2014 is not only historic but crucial as the region takes key steps to prepare for the ASEAN 2015 integration.

11. Post-Haiyan recovery effort in the Philippines. Haiyan was the strongest typhoon in recorded history, striking several Visayas islands in the Philippines in November 2013. It rallied the international community to assist in the rehabilitation efforts while climate activists cited it as an example of the harsh impact of global warming. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, last week’s heavy rainfall caused the worst flooding in the eastern states in the past three decades.

Will 2015 bring change to the region? What is certain is that the coming year will be a historic one, with Southeast Asia already transitioning to an integrated ASEAN community in the next few months.

Written for The Diplomat

Singapore’s anti-gay sex law, Malaysia’s Sedition Act, Thailand’s anti-royal insult law (lèse majesté), Philippine libel law, Vietnam’s media regulation laws, Brunei’s Sharia law – all these notorious laws made news this year and they ought to be reviewed, if not outright repealed, in 2015.

Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code is an archaic regulation imposed by the British colonial government in 1938. It criminalizes male homosexual acts and those found guilty can be detained for up to two years. The constitutionality of Section 377A was challenged by several petitioners but the Court of Appeal upheld the law last October. However, all hope is not lost since the court reminded the petitioners that they can still ask the parliament to repeal the law: “Whilst we understand the deeply-held personal feelings of the appellants, there is nothing that this court can do to assist them. Their remedy lies, if at all, in the legislative sphere.”

Malaysia’s Sedition Act, another legacy of the British colonial era imposed in 1948, has been used by authorities to suppress the political opposition. It contains broad provisions that could easily criminalize legitimate dissent. For example, it is a crime to cause “discontent or disaffection” and “feelings of ill will” among the inhabitants of Malaysia. In 2012, Prime Minister Najib Razak made an election pledge that his government would repeal the measure. Last month, however, Najib retracted and even vowed to strengthen the law: “This act will not only be maintained, but strengthened. There will be a special provision to protect the sanctity of Islam, while other religions also cannot be insulted. Secondly, we will insert a provision so that action is taken against anyone who calls for the secession of Sabah and Sarawak.”

As an alternative to the Sedition Act, some government scholars are proposing the enactment of a National Harmony Bill, National Unity Bill, or National Unity and Integration Commission Bill.

In Thailand, article 112 of the criminal code provides a minimum mandatory sentence of three years in prison and a maximum sentence of 15 years for those found guilty of defaming or insulting the King and members of the royal family. The king of Thailand is the country’s most revered public figure and is the world’s longest reigning monarch. The law, enacted in 1908, is often invoked to censor web content and shut down websites. Even ordinary citizens have been jailed for allegedly sending mobile phone text messages that insult the royal family or even monarchs of the past. Since the army took power last May, the new government has filed more than a dozen lèse majesté cases.

It may be difficult to repeal the law but it can be reformed, as advocated by some Thai academics and media freedom activists.

In the Philippines, libel is a criminal offense as stipulated in the 83-year old Revised Penal Code, which mandates a prison term of six months to six years and/or a fine of 200 to 6,000 pesos. But the fine could be much higher for arrested persons. For years, journalists have been petitioning for the decriminalization of libel, which they argue is contrary to the commitment of the Philippines to uphold media freedom. The campaign suffered a setback this year when the Supreme Court ruled that Internet libel is constitutional.

Vietnam’s dissident bloggers and other independent journalists are often detained for violating article 88 of the criminal code which bans anti-state propaganda. In addition, article 258 of the criminal code punishes misuse of “democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of collectives and individuals” and carries a sentence of seven years in prison. Several Internet-related regulations were also drafted that restrict free speech. Decree 72 has confusing provisions that seem to ban the sharing of news stories on various social networks. Last October, Circular 09 imposed new and stricter requirements for licensing or registration of websites and social networks. Broadly speaking, vague provisions in the law allow authorities to make arbitrary arrests with little structure for accountability.

Sharia law took effect in Brunei last May, making it the first country in East Asia to implement the law at the national level. The first phase in implementing the law covered general offenses such as eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan, failing to perform Friday prayers, and pregnancy out of wedlock. The second phase included amputation for theft, and flogging for violations such as abortion, alcohol consumption, and homosexuality. The death penalty will be applied during the third phase, which would involve stoning to death for adultery, and also capital punishment for rape and sodomy. The teaching of other religions is prohibited under the law, which already worries some Christian schools. Brunei has ignored the global outcry against some aspects of the law that would violate human rights.

All of these laws undermine human rights, which is the reason why so many citizens and cause oriented groups have actively lobbied for their reform or repeal. So far, the petitioners failed to sway their governments. Let’s hope they have better luck in 2015.

Written for Manila Today

In 2008, the world was mesmerized by the victory of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States. Everybody wanted to follow the example of the USA, a nation that overwhelmingly voted for change. In 2014 the world is horrified by what is happening in the USA: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, the CIA torture report, the regime of mass surveillance. Everybody is desperate to avoid what the USA is experiencing today.

Too bad that the really monstrous things inflicted by the repressive state on its citizens are obscured by bureaucratic legalese and media manipulation. Worse, the resistance of ordinary Americans is depicted as violent, unruly, and irrational. When people complain against police brutality, they are accused of promoting mayhem in society.

In the past few weeks, the riots in Ferguson and other American cities came to symbolize the burgeoning protest movement in the country. The international community responded by expressing solidarity on one hand and concern over the protests on the other. There were those who shared the rage against racism but some chose to castigate the alleged hysteric behavior of the mob.

So what is really the situation in the streets of America? Two things need to be highlighted: Activists are not occupying the streets in order to spread senseless violence. They are doing it because they were provoked by the ruthless attacks unleashed by the police in their communities. Second, the protests are indeed intense but they are generally peaceful.

New York recently grabbed global headlines because of the large rallies that took place there. On December 4, a gathering was organized in response to the decision of a grand jury to exonerate a white police officer accused in the chokehold death of Garner, a black man from Staten Island suspected of peddling loose cigarettes. The chokehold was documented on video.

A large crowd assembled near city hall around 6pm. After half an hour, the main body marched between the city hall and the police department building. Some groups proceeded towards Broadway, some in the direction of Brooklyn bridge, and some lingered in the sidewalks near the city hall park path.

What TV reports failed to highlight that night was that in between marches, the crowd often divided into smaller groups to check on the security of their contingent and to reiterate the themes of the protest. The speeches were fiery and agitating. The chanting slogans were creative and easy to remember:

“Freedom, freedom; all those racist cops, we don’t need them, need them; back up, back up….” “Hands up, don’t shoot. Fist up, fight back.” “The people united will never be defeated.” “NYPD KKK, how many kids did you kill today?”

Filipino groups joined a sidewalk march that passed the Chinatown. As the rally progressed, the crowd became bigger as bystanders and residents eagerly joined the mass assembly. The march already occupied the main street when it neared Union Square. After conducting a short program there, the group merged with other protesters who arrived from other parts of the city. The march resumed in the direction of Grand Central while some activists tried to shut down several New York bridges. The police dispersed a band of protesters by using a military grade sonic weapon, a sound blast that can make people dizzy.

Those who joined the December 4 protest represented diverse backgrounds. Young and old residents, students, workers, professionals, immigrant activists, LGBT – all are united in opposing racial discrimination and police brutality. The coming together of strangers to fight a common enemy already ensured the success of the event. The warmth produced by instant camaraderie among activists from all walks of life countered the cold air of December.

It was a particular protest against the resurgent white supremacy in the US but it also became an occasion to speak out against the various manifestations of injustice and oppression in the country. It attracted the support of all those who were victimized by the system that favors the super rich and old conglomerates of reactionary power and privilege. The night began in solidarity to family and friends of Garner and Brown but as the march grew and crisscrossed the streets of New York, it became something else more beautiful, special and powerful. It became a night to indict the beast known as US imperialism.

US imperialism was named for what it really is: A killing machine that terrorizes neighborhoods, stifles dissent, and promotes militarism to protect the vested economic interest of the filthy few. It is a behemoth that draws sustenance from the blood of the toiling masses. It becomes more ferocious as global poverty and inequality continue to worsen. The fascist superpower resorts to brutal violence to maintain its hegemony inside and outside America.

December 4 was an evening of protest and numerous sub-protests that saw minimum wage workers, debt-ridden students, discriminated LGBT individuals, immigrants separated from their loved ones, and victims of state repression; linking arms and converging in the streets of New York to fight for real democracy, peace, and justice. They were there for Ferguson, Staten Island, and all other towns besieged by racism and police brutality. They were there too in solidarity to all victims of US imperialism whether it’s in Missouri or Olongapo.

Later that night, we learned that protests were held across America. In New York alone, thousands participated in protests all over the city. The following day, other cities in the world also organized solidarity actions. Public outrage has forced the government to announce that it will review the case of Garner. But the momentum of the protests continues to intensify. The protests seem non-stop. A few days ago, Berkeley activists paralyzed a freeway in north California. Staff members of Congress staged a walkout protest. Some local officials organized their own “I can’t breathe” events. Even basketball stars wore practice shirts displaying the protest theme.

Later that night, we learned that protests were held across America. In New York alone, thousands participated in protests all over the city. The following day, other cities in the world also organized solidarity actions.

Public outrage has forced the government to announce that it will review the case of Garner. But the momentum of the protests continue to intensify. The protests seem non-stop. A few days ago, Berkeley activists paralyzed a freeway in north California. Staff members of Congress staged a walkout protest. Some local officials organized their own “I can’t breathe” events. Even basketball stars wore practice shirts displaying the protest theme.

Judging from what I saw in New York where ordinary community members enthusiastically joined the indignation march, the protest movement has the potential to be broader than the ‘Occupy’. This winter dissent could be the spark of a bigger social upheaval.

America is burning. America is rising. Should the world weep for America? On the contrary, we should celebrate the uprising. And more importantly, we should continue and win the struggle for a better world; a world without racism, injustice, and repression.

Written for Bulatlat

Tatay Francis Morales. Arnold Borja ‘AJ’ Jaramillo. Recca Noelle Monte. Rendell Ryan ‘Perper’ Cagula.

AJ, Recca, and Perper were martyred NPA revolutionaries while Tatay Francis was an environmental activist who succumbed to leukemia. Their untimely deaths meant so many things to many people especially to loved ones who already shared moving tributes and testimonies about their heroism. They lived a full life, fought hard, and died with honor defending the alternative. They saw the promise of tomorrow and after this they gave their all to usher the arrival of the future. If there’s something to add, we should emphasize that their life stories gave further proof that the revolution is noble and it is a cause still worth fighting and dying for.

Through AJ, Recca, and Perper, we can surmise that the people’s army has strategic presence across the country. The NPA is supposed to be weak or nonexistent in the Cordilleras and Sarangani but what were AJ, Recca, and Perper doing there? Earlier this year, communist leaders Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria were captured in Cebu. Based on these reports, it seems the NPA has fighting units in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Undeniably, it is now an army capable of launching a nationwide offensive.

How can NPA lose if it continues to attract the support of the young and intelligent? Perper was 23, Recca was 33, and AJ was in his early 30s when he decided to join the rebel force. Perper, Recca, and AJ were all students of the University of the Philippines, the country’s premier university. To non-Filipino readers, it’s akin to Harvard or Oxford graduates joining an armed militia to seek the overthrow of the federal government in America or the constitutional monarchy in England.

What probably inspired them was the idea of changing the old world of oppression and injustice and replacing it with a new world of liberty and equality. It is the same radical vision which led Tatay Francis to embark on a four-decade journey of fighting dictators, warlords, polluters, corporate land grabbers, and corrupt officials.

Like AJ, Recca, and Perper, Tatay Francis became an activist at a young age. A former seminarian, he chose to fight Martial Law by being a community organizer in Zamboanga. He was detained in the 1980s. But he never wavered and despite his illness, he continued to perform an active role in the people’s resistance against foreign aggression, feudal exploitation, and climate injustice.

How can the national democratic struggle become obsolete if it’s nourished by the idealism of the young and wisdom of the old? Tatay Francis belonged to the First Quarter Storm generation, AJ the student activist fought the Marcos dictatorship, Recca the young artist was an Edsa Dos baby, and Perper became a full time guerrilla warrior after college last year.

Except for those living at the top of the social pyramid, everybody resents the system but not everybody is willing to fight the system. AJ, Recca, and Perper were among those who chose to move forward the struggle for national liberation by joining the NPA. For Tatay Francis, it meant a lifetime of activism. Their lives refute the malicious claim of some conservatives in power that the NPA exists to spread senseless violence and that activists are only creating troubles in society.

Did AJ, Recca, and Perper abandon the comforts of middle-class living so that they can simply pistol shoot anyone who disagrees with them in the provinces? Recca, a Bisaya, chose to live among the Ilocano peasants even if it meant being away from her child. AJ also endured the difficulty of living separately from his wife and two children. Perper could have been the next nominee and even congressman of Kabataan Partylist in 2016.

What made them sacrifice everything to embrace the NPA way of life? The question is also the answer. For them, the idea of joining the revolution is not a choice, but a duty. It is to NPA’s credit that many of our young continue to view its political program as the most comprehensive blueprint in overhauling Philippine society.

As for Tatay Francis, he is part of a unique batch of senior citizens who defied the norms of society by choosing to grow old without shunning or compromising their radical beliefs. Thanks to activist “troublemakers” like Tatay Francis, we have won some meaningful rights in the past decades that benefited the masses.

Through Tatay Francis, AJ, Recca, and Perper, we learned that the revolution is really a collective undertaking. They made a lot of sacrifices in their lives but they were more concerned about creating a new future. AJ and Recca fought landlordism in Abra, Perper was not a boxer like Pacquiao but he chose to remain in Sarangani to knockout the roots of poverty in the province, Tatay Francis was a veteran warrior who simply dreamed of making the world a safer and cleaner place to live in. All of them found fulfillment in life not by hoarding material possessions but through empowering the poor and marginalized. They fought for tangible reforms so that these will be fairly distributed to all.

After Tatay Francis, AJ, Recca, and Perper, laptop activism became more shameful than ever. After Tatay Francis, AJ, Recca, and Perper, we finally realized the futility of simply waiting for the arrival of the armed revolution in the cities. What then is to be done? City mouse, the rural beckons!