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 Manila Today

We are told to prepare for the next big one, the great disaster that will destroy the metropolis. After Fukushima and Nepal, we paid greater attention to the unusual inactivity of the West Valley Fault. Rather than wait helplessly, we are rightly reviewing our capacities and vulnerabilities to increase our chances of survival when the catastrophic earthquake finally arrives. In the past month, we have been bombarded with news reports, government notices and detailed maps showing the danger zones in Metro Manila, especially those located near the fault line. The maps confirm what everybody already knows: Metro Manila is disaster-prone. Bawal tumira, nakamamatay.

The widespread distribution of the maps probably aims to inform the public about the real and serious dangers posed by the fault. Only the most irresponsible city planners and local community leaders would ignore the value of these maps to improve the disaster preparation programs of their localities.

Meanwhile, a troubling consequence of the decision to disclose the geographically hazardous locations in the nation’s capital is the rise of panic among residents. Whether intended or not, this weakens the ability of the public to question or challenge the extralegal activities of the state. When everybody is desperate to survive, the violence of the state is often overlooked.

Beware, the maps that are supposed to empower us can be used to violate our fundamental rights. Soon, demolition of urban poor communities will be done and justified by invoking disaster preparation. There are already reports about the possible removal of some schools in Bulacan because of their location near the West Valley fault. Interestingly but not surprisingly, there are no proposals to demolish the high-risk subdivisions of Blue Ridge, White Plains, Green Meadows, and Valle Verde despite their proximity to the fault line. High-rise SMDC condominium Blue in Katipunan Avenue was allowed to be constructed and was recently completed.

Unlike some bureaucrats who are quick to order the displacement of the poor from their dwellings, we are not inclined to advocate the same thing for the rich and powerful living in disaster-prone areas. It is not really due to empathy but more of a scientific analysis that casualties during natural calamities are mainly related to political economy. It is not enough to know where the rocks will collide but more crucial is the mapping of the state of development of our communities. We cannot change the terrain but we can alter how we distribute resources and organize our society.

We should not restrict the threat of the West Valley Fault into those areas situated along the earthquake zone. At the same time, we should broaden our concept of what it means to live in a habitable and sustainable community. This is the right time to pinpoint the various threats facing Metro Manila and its 12 million inhabitants. The West Valley Fault may be the biggest threat but there are other “faults”, not seismic but systemic, that make life in Metro Manila extremely difficult and dangerous.

The West Valley Fault should not intimidate us; rather, it should motivate us to explore the other threats that undermine our disaster readiness. The next big one represented by the West Valley Fault is still a threat but there are numerous ‘big ones’ that are already killing people and making the poor suffer. If we are serious in our commitment to protect the lives of many, we should then explore these non-geographical evils to end unnecessary deaths and miseries.

For example, after the Kentex fire tragedy, we demand to know the safety of workplaces. We should map out the factories that pose a danger to workers. Where are the companies that hire contractuals? What cities are most notorious for violating the minimum wage law? Where are the sweatshops? Are there child laborers in the export enclaves?

What is the cost of living in Metro Manila? Are wages keeping up with the rising prices of goods?

Where are the poorest villages in Metro Manila? Are they located too along the West Valley Fault? Where are the maps that show us chronic hunger rates, child malnutrition trends, school drop-out statistics, and waterless communities? How many are dying from preventable diseases?

How was the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program distributed in Metro Manila?

Where are the homeless staying? Compare the housing situation with the number of condominium constructions. Identify the relocation sites in the past three decades. It seems many of these resettlements are located along the West Valley Fault.

How many are the ongoing large-scale infrastructure projects in the region? When politicians discuss the Public-Private-Partnership program, they salivate over profits but neglect to mention the displacement of the poor. How many are the victims of these development aggression projects and where are they living now?

Where is drug abuse prevalent? Which city registered the highest number of criminal cases? Which has the most number of gated communities? Are public markets being demolished to make way for the construction of super malls and air-conditioned grocery stores? Where is the fan base of KathNiel?

If Metro Manila’s situation is precarious, then why the rush to reclaim some parts of Manila Bay and Laguna Lake? Where are the polluted waterways? Which city produces the largest volume of trash?

The maps of the West Valley Fault, which we enthusiastically shared on the Internet, will be more meaningful and useful if we place them side by side with the maps that expose the extent of corruption, poverty, and environmental degradation in Metro Manila.

Mapping and re-mapping procedures are not enough to survive an earthquake. Knowledge of geography should be enhanced by a rudimentary awareness of progressive political economy. Why do we feel powerless every time earthquakes are mentioned in news reports? It is because we were taught to believe that nature’s wrath is something we should surrender to fate or chance instead of recognizing that it is foremost a political issue which we can decisively confront as a collective body.

If we fear the West Valley fault, it must be because we are familiar with the epic incompetence of the government when Pablo, Sendong, and Yolanda wrought havoc in Mindanao and the Visayas. Panic is a natural reaction but it should not distract us from our permanent duty of building a society where real development exists in a democratic setting. What should the residents living near the West Valley Fault ask themselves today? It should not be limited to this, “What is my escape route?” or “How far I am from the fault”; this should be asked too, “Are we organized as a community to survive this catastrophe?” The West Valley Fault issue is not a reason to abandon politics in order to focus solely on disaster preparation. On the contrary, it is a compelling reason to think and act politically so that disaster preparation will be more effective. Only politicians and big business opportunists (together with their overpaid publicists) want depoliticized disaster preparation activities so that they can boost their influence and profits without encountering critical opposition from the public.

It is because of haphazard development across the country, bad governance, and chaotic urban planning that forced our people to establish their homes in an unstable lump of Earth which we came to know as the West Valley Fault. The people running this system are the same people telling us to be afraid today and instructing us to obey their instructions if we want to live. But why should we give them more power to remake our society? Do we want more of the same?

The West Valley Fault issue invites us to rethink the present and to build a new political order where communities are resilient and the grassroots are truly empowered despite the turbulent existence of unfriendly elements below the surface of the Earth. To accomplish this, what we need is a radical reframing of how we view our situation today. We will only have greater tragedies if we continue to adhere to the old and discredited way of doing things. Wouldn’t this be the real disaster? The coming catastrophe is a crisis in search of a political alternative.

Written for The Diplomat

If protests and minor election setbacks hounded the ruling parties across Southeast Asia in the past two years, their situation this year has already improved somewhat as opposition leaders in the region run into varying difficulties.

In Myanmar, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi still cannot run for the presidency because of a constitutional provision which disqualifies candidates who have a foreign spouse or child. Her party, National League for Democracy, is calling for a constitutional referendum, an idea that has widespread support, but the military-backed government has the final say. But this legal issue is not the only problem for Suu Kyi. Recently, her credentials as a democracy icon were tarnished when the international community questioned her silence over the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group that is not recognized by the government. Some believe Suu Kyi is unwilling to speak in favor of the Rohingya so as not to displease some Buddhist nationalists and other influential electoral forces.

In Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is serving a five-year prison term for sodomy. Anwar insists the charge is politically motivated and he is most likely correct; but if he fails to get a royal pardon, his continued incarceration could leave the fragile opposition coalition in disarray. Yesterday, Anwar appealed for unity after an Islamic party passed a resolution to cut ties with one of the opposition parties. How long can Anwar remain an effective leader and voice of the opposition while he is behind bars? Fortunately for him, the prime minister is also embroiled in a political and leadership crisis after being linked to an investment fund mess.

In the Philippines, opposition leader and the country’s incumbent Vice President Jejomar Binay has been accused of corruption, which could derail his bid to become president in 2016. Binay has consistently topped pre-election surveys but his ratings have tumbled after his rivals have stepped up a campaign to expose his alleged involvement in some dodgy government projects. As election season nears, more and more people are voicing their apprehension over the dangers of a Binay presidency. If the administration succeeds in disqualifying Binay in the next several months, the opposition doesn’t have a viable alternative who can match the popularity of the vice president.

In Thailand, the junta remains in power more than a year after the army launched a coup and declared martial law to end the country’s political crisis. It vowed to restore civilian rule and free elections but it delayed the holding of a constitutional referendum until next year. Politicians are regularly summoned by the army and those who are suspected of undermining the government are ordered to undergo ‘attitude-adjustment’ sessions. Protest actions are still banned. Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing trial over a rice subsidy scheme while her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is being investigated anew for a lèse-majesté violation.

Singapore’s People’s Action Party, which has been in power for five decades already, remains the dominant party in the country. It has lost some seats in several elections in the past and a growing number of young people are challenging the PAP brand and way of doing politics, but it still represents the supreme power in Singapore. The recent death of Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew inspired many to review the successful transformation of the island state into a prosperous global city under the leadership of PAP. Singapore’s 50th anniversary this year is another opportunity for PAP to boost its image and consolidate its political base.

Cambodia’s ruling party lost a significant number of seats in 2013, but Hun Sen remains prime minister, allowing him to retain his unofficial title as Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leader. The opposition, led by Sam Rainsy, has boycotted parliament and accused the government of electoral fraud. After months of protests, the opposition finally agreed to attend parliament. Some analysts believe the current “dialogue” between the ruling party and the opposition is a Machiavellian ploy by Hun Sen to strengthen his power by targeting the constituency that supported the opposition in the last election.

Only in Indonesia has the opposition been able to defeat the ruling party. Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo won despite lacking ties with the old order represented by the military and cronies of the late strongman Suharto. Jokowi’s victory offers valuable lessons for other rising leaders and opposition forces across the region. His rapid rise up the political ladder is attributed to his innovative leadership as mayor and governor, which endeared him to the youth and middle classes. He also won the support of ordinary Indonesians who were impressed with his modest background. But a year after in power, Jokowi is accused of being beholden to a powerful political patron. His detractors call his leadership weak. Will he survive the machinations of Indonesian politics?

All in all, 2015 is turning out to be a good year for ruling parties in Southeast Asia. Some are plotting to win back voters, others are succeeding in eroding the appeal of rival political forces, and others still are tightening their grip on power. The existence of a genuine opposition is part of any modern democracy. Can Southeast Asia’s opposition parties regain their momentum?

Southeast Asia’s Unlikely Young Dissidents

Written for The Diplomat

The 14 anti-junta protesters in Thailand. The teenager who criticized Singapore’s founding prime minister. The student who heckled the Philippine president during the country’s Independence Day celebration. They are young activists and critics who were penalized for speaking out against their respective governments. This week they walked to freedom. But their struggles are far from over.

Amos Yee is a 16-year-old video blogger from Singapore who posted a video which offended the admirers of the late Lee Kuan Yew. For causing ‘distress’ to many Singaporeans he was charged, arrested, and placed under police custody for 55 days. He was released on July 7.

On the same day, a local court dismissed all cases against student leader Pio Emmanuel Mijares, who was charged for direct assault, tumult and public disturbance after he unfurled a banner denouncing the lack of reforms under the government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III when the latter was delivering a speech more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, 14 protesters who are mostly university students were allowed to go home on July 8, 12 days after they were arrested for organizing a protest action against the military-backed government of Prayut Chan-o-cha. Protests and the public gathering of five or more people are prohibited in the country where the army grabbed power last year.

Perhaps ‘dissident’ is an inaccurate term to describe these critics. After all, they are neither opposition politicians nor veteran revolutionaries. Yee is clearly just an articulate teenager who is not connected to any political party. But their peaceful protests and the subsequent legal persecution they suffered highlighted the sorry state of political freedom in their own countries. They became icons of free speech even if many of their fellow citizens disagreed with their views and bold actions. By challenging the propaganda of the state, despite the existence of restrictive media laws, they somewhat earned the recognition as dissidents who could inspire others to defy authorities.

Their cases attracted national and even international attention. Yee’s ordeal reminded us once more that Singapore continues to practice media censorship. Mijares’ arrest on Independence Day confirmed the allegation that human rights violations persist in the Philippines. And the recent detention of the 14 Thai protesters embarrassed many institutions which kept quiet when the Thai army refused to restore civilian rule in the country.

These beleaguered activists got a respite this week after winning on some legal issues, but they continue to face several challenges. Yee was forced to take down his ‘offensive’ posts from the Internet and he reportedly made a commitment to refrain from making commentaries with sensitive content. The 14 Thai activists are now free but they will still have to face a military tribunal.

Except for Yee, who didn’t talk to reporters, these young activists vowed to continue with their struggles. Mijares hailed the court decision as a victory for truth and free speech. After attending his hearing, he challenged the Philippine president to focus more on improving the welfare of the youth and poor Filipinos.

Jatupat Boonpatararaksa, one of the 14 Thai protesters, assured his fellow Thais that their group will still fight for the restoration of democracy. “We will not negotiate. We will not compromise. Twelve days in prison has made us stronger. If they want to send us back there, we are ready for it.”

These young activists join other celebrated democracy advocates in the Asia-Pacific like Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong and Alex Chow who represent a new generation of change seekers. They are all brave, idealistic, media savvy, and combative. Despite their teenage status, states treat them as dangerous individuals. Yee was thrown in a facility with adult prisoners. Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong was barred from entering Malaysia.

When the elders are silent or cowed into submission, perhaps it is a good thing that the young take more responsibility in society. Governments should encourage this activist attitude, instead of suppressing the inherent idealism and curiosity of the youth. Indeed, while young people can be swayed by irrational emotions, it is more disturbing if they surrender to apathy and cynicism. Let these young activists have their chance in history to revive the spirit of democracy in their respective countries.

Written for Manila Today

Beware of communists, they will confiscate your properties after forcing your family to live in a labor camp. Is this true? Perhaps yes, but only if you belong to the .01 percent of the 1 percent of the ruling elite, and only if your family’s political record is scandalously brutal. Otherwise, your middle class status does not automatically make you an enemy of the working class.

But communists are still feared and hated as if they are always plotting the destruction of our happy lives. It is the filthy fascist rich who are and should be afraid of the specter of revolution yet they are able to conjure the source of their fear as a real social evil which the chattering classes are told to exorcise. Even the poor are sometimes cajoled to express an irrational fear of radicalism, or any other politics which could emancipate them from the cycle of intergenerational oppression.

It is a reminder not to underestimate the blitzkrieg dominance of bourgeois ideology in contemporary society. The tragic truth is that decadent bourgeois values are still considered sacrosanct by many. Therefore, a communist critique of this philosophy would be seen as a disgusting aberration, a nuisance. It is one reason why anti-communist hysteria has persisted in the 21st century.

The non-stop propaganda against communism has also made it easier to ridicule revolutionaries for their supposed failure to offer a better alternative to the moribund system which they wish to destroy. In the Philippines, Leftists are accused of fanatically clamoring for the terroristic overthrow of the state without proposing a blueprint for reform.

These arguments are easy to refute. First, dissent is essential in any democracy, and it remains legitimate even if an alternative is not immediately articulated. Second, dissent is already an alternative to apathy. And third, it is wrong to insist that Filipino Leftists have been remiss in advancing the agenda of new politics. There is a plethora of documents that elucidate the Left’s political vision. These include, among others, the legislative papers of progressive party list groups (for specific reforms addressed to the bureaucracy), primers of people’s organizations (for societal reforms in the context of the national democratic struggle), and the 12-point program of the National Democratic Front.

Those who incessantly rant about the unimaginative and unproductive politics of the Left are probably misinformed, or they could be deliberately obfuscating the radicalness, the newness, the noble politics of the Left. Activists do not become revolutionaries simply by coaxing them to destroy the political order; they learn to be more committed when they are immersed in the mass movement whose vision is to build a new world.

All things considered, it is the NDF program which represents the most comprehensive and substantial agenda for social transformation. Activists remain activists principally because they genuinely believe in the Cause, and the viability of realizing this Cause through the NDF. When activists speak of system change, it’s either they are thinking about the theory of revolution in general terms or they could be referring to the NDF alternative.

The NDF program was drafted in 1973 and it rallied the anti-dictatorship movement to pursue the path of revolution. It is an essential document to understand the enduring credibility of the Philippine revolution. Reading the text in its entirety would help in smashing the stereotype of the Left as a political movement incapable of providing a meaningful contribution to modern political discourse.

Below are the 12 points of the NDF program:

1. Unite the people for the overthrow of the semi-colonial and semi-feudal system through a people’s war and for the completion of the national democratic revolution;
2. Establish a people’s democratic republic and a democratic coalition government;
3. Build the people’s revolutionary army and the people’s defense system;
4. Uphold and promote the people’s democratic rights;
5. Terminate all unequal relations with the United States and other foreign entities;
6. Implement genuine agrarian reform, promote agricultural cooperation, raise rural production and employment through the modernization of agriculture and rural industrialization and ensure agricultural sustainability;
7. Break the combined dominance of the U.S. and other imperialists, big compradors and landlords over the economy. Carry out national industrialization and build an independent and self-reliant economy;
8. Adopt a comprehensive and progressive social policy;
9. Promote a national, scientific and pro-people culture;
10. Uphold the rights to self-determination and democracy of the Moro people, Cordillera peoples and other national minorities or indigenous peoples;
11. Advance the revolutionary emancipation of women in all spheres; and
12. Adopt an active, independent and peaceful foreign policy.

United Front

As an alliance of revolutionary groups, the NDF seeks the unity of the Filipino people in establishing a new government. Workers and peasants will form the core of this new leadership and this is understandable because they represent the majority, the general will of the population. But propertied classes are not excluded from the revolution. The rich are important allies of the national liberation movement. The NDF sees the urban petty bourgeoisie (professionals, intellectuals) as a basic force which must be won over. It considers the national bourgeoisie (patriotic big business, capitalist entrepreneurs) as a positive force of the revolution.

In undertaking land reform, the policy of the NDF is to rely mainly on poor peasants, farm workers and poor fisherfolk. It aims to win over the middle peasants, neutralize the rich peasants, and isolate and destroy the power of the despotic landlord class. Again, owning a prawn farm or a rice field does not mean you are already lumped with the Cojuangcos of Tarlac.

Landlords will be directly involved in the economic reconstruction efforts:

“Rich peasants shall be allowed to retain their land. They will, however, have to rely on their own labor power rather than on hired labor. Landlords who do not oppose land reform and cooperate with the people’s democratic government shall be given adequate means of livelihood so their families can have a decent life. Capitalist farm-owners who have supported the revolution shall be allowed to work with the state to raise agricultural production and modernize agriculture.”

As for government employees, they will not lose employment under the new system. The NDF clarifies that “civil service personnel of the overthrown government—except those accused of serious crimes—will be urged to continue manning their posts and serving the public.”

Private schools “will be allowed under a policy of gradual assimilation into the public education sector.” Churches will continue to provide spiritual services in accordance to the doctrine of the separation of the church and state.

Autonomy will be assured for the Bangsa Moro, Cordillera peoples, Lumads and other indigenous peoples. The NDF recognizes that the right to self-determination includes the right to secede. After the victory of the revolution, the Bangsa Moro will be encouraged to “take the valid and viable option of a genuinely autonomous political rule.”

Economic Base

Entrepreneurship and business innovation will not be curtailed. In fact, “there shall be concessions given to national capitalists and other smaller private owners of the means of production. The NDF acknowledges that a “mixed economy” will exist as long as it does not negate the socialist transformation of the economy.

The rural-urban link will be strengthened so that “agricultural growth will provide the food and raw material requirements of industry, increase the purchasing power of the rural population and thus expand the domestic market for consumer and producer goods.” The NDF believes that urban renewal through urban decongestion is realizable by developing the rural economy and “uplifting the social and cultural life of the population in the countryside.”

A few months ago, a presidential spokesman rejected the NDF proposal to include the program of national industrialization in the peace talks. He said it is already passe and ideological. Maybe he is pretending to be ignorant because the world’s richest nations developed their economies by pursuing the path of industrialization; and they became more protective of their industries after the spread of the global financial crisis in 2008.

So rather than continue the exporting of our precious mineral resources, these materials can be harnessed to build a strong domestic manufacturing base. The proposal of the NDF is to “make heavy industry as the leading factor, agriculture as the base of the economy and light industry as the bridging factor which produces basic consumer goods for the entire people and the producer goods needed by agriculture.”

Will the new government utilize foreign investments and foreign loans to modernize the economy? Yes, especially if these will “provide the country with the least costly access to needed technology, products and markets.”

Dismantling Foreign Control

Existing foreign investments and assets owned by foreign capitalists will be nationalized. Compensations and exemptions will be negotiated as long as these conform to the national interest. Onerous foreign loans that “overburden and sabotage” the local economy shall be canceled or renegotiated. Foreigners can sleep peacefully because the new government shall respect their rights whether they are temporarily or permanently residing in the Philippines. Naturally, the state will reclaim ownership of foreign military bases and facilities. Foreign troops will be expelled from the country. But who will defend the Philippines in case of an external aggression? The NDF asserts that the people “will play the key role in defending the gains of the revolution.” There will be no more need to maintain a huge army because the people’s “revolutionary consciousness and militance” will guarantee the security of the state.

People’s Rights

The people will ratify a new Constitution and they will elect the country’s leaders. Local assemblies from the grassroots level, to municipalities, towns, cities, provinces, and regions shall be conducted regularly. The people’s right “to revolt against an oppressive and tyrannical regime shall be recognized.” A bill of rights will be affirmed. For those who are concerned about the fate of universities, the right to intellectual property and academic freedom shall be guaranteed.

The liberation of women will be prioritized and one way to achieve this is by combating patriarchy even within the revolutionary movement.

Delivery of basic services such as health and education will be a total and continuous effort. Health personnel shall be deployed in the provinces to correct the imbalance between health services in the cities and countryside.

Build the Future Now

It is promising to note that in the remote areas of the archipelago where red organs of political power exist, some components of the NDF program are being implemented already. If some of the demands are familiar, it is proof of the success of the NDF, however limited, in broadcasting its proposed alternatives. Some will probably argue that most of the issues included in the program can be asserted through peaceful parliamentary engagement. This is actually the continuing challenge of NDF forces to the forces of conservatism and compromise: Render the revolution irrelevant by building a new society where there is genuine independence, democracy, peace, justice, and development that empowers the workers and farmers. If providing social welfare is already common, then why do millions continue to live in abject poverty? Why do an increasing number of Filipinos leave their families in search of better opportunities in other lands? Why is progress equated with the billions amassed by a few tycoons? Why are we still hostaged by elite democracy? The NDF offers a new way of doing things, a new perspective of practicing politics, a new system of organizing our society. Why celebrate piecemeal reforms that will merely prettify the malodorous present when the absolute truths of the comprehensive new are within our fighting grasp? End the history of oppression so that we can hasten the arrival of the future.

Written for Manila Today. Check out the cool graphics

North Avenue. The housing district and former resettlement area was rezoned into a commercial center which displaced urban poor villages in San Roque and Agham Road. The local community is resisting the demolition.

Quezon Avenue. The Philippine Children Medical Center (PCMC) successfully opposed the planned modernization (read: eviction) of the hospital when the government refused to give it a land title. The health sector and children advocates joined forces to save the hospital by raising public awareness. PCMC finally acquired its land title last month.

GMA-Kamuning. Media workers exposed the contractualization scheme of big media networks. They also raised several labor issues like receiving low salaries and benefits while performing heavy work load. The case related to unfair labor practices is being investigated by the government.

Cubao. The former Hacienda Araneta turned commercial center is also a major transport hub of jeepneys, PUVs, AUVs, buses – public vehicles yet privately owned. Metro Manila’s transportation system is dominated by the private sector (yes, the lowly padyaks and pedicabs are operated by enterprising individuals) because the state refuses to invest more on mass transport solutions.

Santolan. People converged outside the gates of Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame in 1986 which forced the ouster of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Recently, public sympathy poured in over the deaths of 44 SAF members in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The people continue to demand truth, accountability, and justice over the incident.

Ortigas. The site of the historic Edsa Dos (and Tres) in 2001. During the Gloria Arroyo years, Catholic Church leaders like Soc Villegas banned protests in Edsa Shrine which they describe as acts of desecration. The station is also near the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, the government agency that facilitates the country’s labor export program.

Shaw. SM Megamall, one of the largest shopping malls in the world, is owned by the country’s richest man, who is also an expert on labor contractualization laws. In nearby Mandaluyong, the National Center for Mental Health and adjacent communities are threatened with demolition.

Boni. The area around the station was a former mini-industrial center but now converted into BPO offices, malls, and high-rise condominiums. They are false indicators of progress as they conceal the glaring housing shortage and income inequality in Metro Manila.

Guadalupe. The filth of Pasig River and billboard ads can be seen from the station. The river symbolizes pollution and waste in the city while the billboard ads of clothing brands are often criticized by moralists who frown upon the seductive images of models, and by activists who accuse capitalists of luring the masses to buy things they don’t need in life.

Buendia. It’s near Forbes Park, a swamp turned ghetto of the rich, inhabited by the country’s 0.1% and tax avoidance practitioners. It’s also a gateway to BPO enclaves in Makati and Taguig, glorified modern sweatshops that made night work or rat racing during the graveyard shift the new normal among the youth.

Ayala. Hacienda Ayala transformed into Makati’s central business district. The command center of the local bourgeoisie, domestic finance capital, and multinational corporations. Wealth is artificially created, hoarded, and traded in the stock exchange and banks in Ayala or Bonifacio Global City.

Magallanes. The entry point to the former south industrial belt and South Luzon Expressway. The so-called industrial peace was achieved by criminalizing the right to strike and legalizing contractualization. The old and new Skyway uprooted the poor from their homes in favor of a toll-operated highway owned by favored cronies.

Edsa-Taft. MRT mismanagement was reflected in the derailed train coach. The Edsa-Taft corner recorded the worst air pollution level in Metro Manila.

Baclaran. The proposed LRT extension to Bacoor will be financed by the riding public through the recent MRT-LRT fare hike, instead of being shouldered by private developers who bagged the contract. Proof that PPP is designed to benefit big business. In the next few years, Baclaran church will be surrounded by casino centers, luxury hotels, and retail outlets. What will happen to the small traders near the train station and shrine?

Libertad. Manila Bay reclamation worsened the flooding in Pasay and other inland towns of Metro Manila. However, SM Mall of Asia is determined to extend its property by proposing to reclaim more coastal areas of the bay. But we need mangroves and the restoration of sea grass in Manila Bay and not another reclamation.

Gil Puyat. Another transport hub in the south side of Metro Manila, mostly provincial buses that connect the city to southern Luzon. Bus drivers and conductors are among the exploited sectors in society. The area is also covered by Tripa de Gallina creek, a waterway inhabited by urban poor villages. Demolition of these communities is ongoing.

Vito Cruz. Time to rehabilitate and modernize Rizal Sports Complex. We need more sports clubs, community parks, youth centers, and open spaces. Unfortunately, green parks are used as parking lots or converted into malls or condos for the rich.

Quirino. Close to Ermita, the infamous red light district of Manila many years ago. Crowds gathered here last January to see Pope Francis. Viva El Papa, halina makibaka!

Pedro Gil. Located near Philippine General Hospital, the country’s premier public tertiary hospital. The health budget is programmed to justify the privatization or commercialization of public hospitals. Health workers are underpaid forcing many to leave the country.

UN. The new superbad is Torre de Manila, the photobomber of Rizal Monument in Luneta. But the original superbad in the vicinity is the U.S. embassy in Roxas Boulevard. Rallies are held here to oppose the nonstop meddling of the U.S. government in our domestic affairs. Another issue in Luneta is the eviction of small vendors in the park.

Central. Manila City Hall imposed higher local taxes, hospital fees, and public transport permits. FACT: The incumbent mayor of the country’s premier city is a convicted plunderer.

Carriedo. There was a brief time during the Arroyo years when Avenida-Carriedo was closed to traffic. Insanity! Then and now, the center of informal economy. A flourishing market community, religious center, Chinatown, Escolta (the original commercial center), Quiapo, Plaza Miranda, herbal factory, street food lane, and DVD wholesale supplier.

Doroteo Jose. The road to Divisoria, port area, and smuggling haven. Palengke economy, dirty motels, sleazy cinema houses, and old downtown Manila. Historic Tutuban, calle Azcarraga, the port workers, Divisoria traders, and the source of all sari-sari store goods in Metro Manila.

Bambang. The office of the Department of Health located near communities with poor healthcare services. Also a mini-hub of non-airconditioned buses that transport people to the northern suburbs. The Dangwa flower lane is also nearby.

Tayuman. Part of Tondo, the working-class district of Manila. The San Lazaro racetrack is now a mall. Medical equipment stores are still in business.

Blumentritt. Another palengke economy. Directly connected to a PNR station. After the MRT-LRT fare hikes, PNR will soon raise ticket prices which will bear down heavily on the working classes who ride this old and dilapidated yet reliable and vital train network.

Abad Santos. Still part of Tondo. Several urban poor villages will be affected by the clearing operation along the Estero de Magdalena.

R. Papa and Fifth Avenue. Trucks from the Manila port area and Navotas fishport pass this road. Also located near Grace Park, the country’s first industrial park. The proposed Harbor Center link will displace several urban poor communities in Manila and Caloocan.

Monumento. What could be the public reaction if someone will propose the relocation of the Rizal monument in Luneta? Perhaps there will be popular outrage. Curiously, someone proposed to move the Bonifacio monument in Caloocan to ease traffic but it didn’t anger a lot of people. Monumento is an important commercial center in the Camanava area; it also links old Manila to McArthur Highway, the old road to the north. When Estrada ran for president in 1998, he asked voters to ride the Jeep ni Erap; his rival, de Venecia, countered by reminding the public that riding the LRT (the acronym of his election platform) is better since its faster to reach Monumento from Baclaran through the trains. Can you ever imagine a candidate in 2016 who will use the MRT, LRT, or PNR as election slogans?

Balintawak. Bagsakan of farm products, exit road to the North Luzon Expressway, and Katipunan bailiwick. Beware of double dead meat products. But the greater evil is the lack of protection/subsidy to small farmers who have to compete with cheaper agricultural products from other countries. The agricultural sector declined after the government opened the local markets to global competition without providing support to farmers.

Munoz. Near Bahay Toro, the purported location of the Katipunan’s Cry of Pugadlawin. Sadly, poverty continues to be a reality in this community. The ill-equipped public hospital there is a showcase of what is wrong with the implementation of the devolution program in the health sector.

Recto. Did Bongbong Marcos get his Oxford diploma somewhere in Recto? What about the fake medals of his father? The typewritten thesis capital of the famed university belt. Second hand textbooks, Tagalog romance novels, student meals, cheap dormitories, the surviving art deco buildings in Morayta, Internet gaming shops, and schools offering non-accredited programs.

Legarda. Student center and cluster of profit-oriented universities. Expensive and top earning private schools. But quality education is not guaranteed; hence the need to enroll in review centers after graduation. Identified as high-risk community because of proximity to Malacanang presidential palace. Campuses are guarded like prison fortresses where student rights are often undermined. Near Mendiola, the country’s de facto freedom park. The so-called Mendiola Peace Arch serves as an anti-rally barrier.

Pureza. State universities are underfunded and government wants to commercialize their assets. Basic education is a right but higher education is regarded by the state as a privilege. State schools must raise their own income, impose higher tuition, and scrap non-priority programs. No wonder students are protesting in public colleges. The station is also near Nagtahan, Paco, and the oil depot. This is Manila-style urban planning.

V. Mapa and J. Ruiz. San Juan – Little Baguio, Greenhills, Xavier, Polk Street, Pinaglabanan Shrine, and don’t forget, Corazon de Jesus: an urban poor community which was demolished to make way for a new local government building.

Gilmore and Betty Go Belmonte. Notorious in the past because of the Balete Drive ‘white lady’ urban legend. New Manila is the first subdivision in Metro Manila, home of the old rich. But rapidly changing in recent years. Gilmore is now the place where people buy computer supplies, Broadway hosts Eat Bulaga, and the Magnolia ice cream plant is now a mall.

Araneta Center Cubao. Both MRT and LRT stations are connected to Araneta-owned malls: Farmers Plaza and Gateway. There is supposedly only one Cubao station but because of money lobby, train passengers have to walk a distance in order to switch to another terminal.

Anonas. Quezon City entrepreneurs are complaining against high local taxes, restrictive business registration procedures, and worsening city services. Politicians often talk about modern democracy but in Quezon City, old and new dynasties are slowly consolidating political power. Creepy!

Katipunan. Are they still digging for the Yamashita treasure in PSBA? Former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo once claimed that Ateneo-Miriam-UP Diliman was part of their former estate, Hacienda Tuason. The once sleepy district of Libis is now a business center. The station is near Marikina, a well-managed town but disaster-prone. Typhoon Ondoy alerted us that tree planting activities should prioritize the Marikina watershed.

Santolan. Pasig-Marikina border. An SM mall in a flood-risk area? Marikina Valley used to be famous because of its vibrant shoe industry. In the 1940s, Quezon City planners proposed to preserve the Marikina –San Mateo highlands as an agricultural belt of the new capital city.

This is the eastern corridor of Metro Manila; Marikina, Montalban, San Mateo, the Rizal mountain range. In Tagalog folklore, Haring Bernardo Carpio, who is trapped somewhere in the mountains, will arrive one day in the city to release his people from bondage. In modern politics, rebels belonging to the New People’s Army, who are building strength in the hinterlands, will join the masses in occupying the cities controlled by corrupt politicians and monopoly capitalists.

Metro Manila is besieged by powerful greedy interests; its people oppressed; its leaders ignorant, pork-dependent, and callous; its past neglected; its future uncertain. The poor are crying for justice. The youth are clamoring for change. What do we do? We stand our ground. We fight. Look to the east for hope. Look up to the mountains for reinforcement. The people’s resistance train is coming to town.

Written for The Diplomat

Two months ago, the world was shocked to discover the persecution endured by the Rohingya ethnic group, which drove many of them to seek asylum in several Southeast Asian countries. The majority of the boat refugees came from Myanmar.

But the refugee problem could be worse. Consider these statistics provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Myanmar’s stateless people are estimated to number 810,000, most of them Rohingya, who are not recognized by the government. In 2012, violence in Rakhine State forced around 140,000 people, including the Rohingya, to flee their homes. Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced persons across the country has already reached 374,000. Refugees who are originally from Myanmar are pegged at 479,706, while those seeking asylum number 48,053. Temporary camps along the Thai border have been established for some 120,000 refugees from Myanmar.

The rising number of IDPs is alarming, especially in Kachin State and northern Shan State, with more than 100,000 IDPs already displaced and in need of continued humanitarian assistance.

The Kachin IDPs have been living in makeshift camps near the Chinese border ever since the resumption of hostilities between government soldiers and Kachin rebels four years ago. The Kachin struggle for independence sparked one of the longest civil wars in the world between 1961 and 1994. A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, lasted 17 years and was nullified only when clashes resumed in 2011.

Last week marked the fourth year of the civil war. It became an occasion for civil society groups and international aid organizations to highlight the plight of the IDPs and to call for a renewal of the peace talks.

Lahpai Seng Raw, co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation, which delivers assistance to many IDPs in Kachin, narrated the suffering of the IDPs: “Some have gone through multiple displacements, fleeing from one camp to another. Some who stayed close by to be able to go back and check on their homes, livestock and farms are in particular peril, as they are often caught in the crossfire of two warring armies.”

She also warned that aid reduction is worsening the conditions in the camps. “As the war enters its fourth year, the fatigue factor is settling in with donors, social organizations and host communities who have been looking after them for so long. Currently, the threat of food shortage is very real in IDP camps,” she said.

Mary Tawm, a Kachin aid worker of Wunpawng Ninghtoi, added that desperation is already prevalent in the camps: “There are some victims who do not want to live anymore because they have lost their loved ones. Many elderly persons and some others are suffering from mental trauma, they feel hopeless. The number of students who no longer want to continue their education has increased.”

Responding to these reports, 56 solidarity groups from around the world signed a joint statement urging the government to end the military offensives in north Myanmar and allow the unhindered humanitarian assistance to the IDPs. They also accused the government of duplicity, claiming that it “continues to use its rhetoric of peace and reform to invite donors and investors to continue to fund the peace talks and development projects” but refuses to withdraw troops from the ethnic areas.

The Rohingya boat refugee crisis has alerted the world to the failure of the Myanmar government to embark on a democratic transition while guaranteeing the rights of various ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the continued displacement of Kachin residents underscores the importance of pursuing the peace talks that have been initiated in the past. An immediate ceasefire is needed to give relief to affected residents. It is no solution to end the war but it can save lives by ending the suffering of those living in the camps.

ASEAN’s Response to Rohingya Crisis Falls Short

Written for The Diplomat

On May 20, the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand met in Putrajaya to discuss the region’s refugee crisis. This was followed on May 29 by a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean was held in Bangkok, attended by 20 governments and international agencies.

Many expected that these emergency meetings would immediately translate into concrete resolutions to rescue the refugees, mostly from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who are still stranded at sea. The International Organization for Migration estimated that 4,000 refugees are still lost, while 3,200 have already landed in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Overall, the meetings yielded positive results. In Bangkok, the delegates identified urgent actions in response to the crisis. These included:

– Intensifying search and rescue operations to ensure safety of the irregular migrants at sea;

– Ensuring that UNHCR and IOM have access to the migrants;

– Identifying those with protection needs and paying particular attention to the protection of vulnerable groups, including women, children, and unaccompanied minors;

– Strengthening information and intelligence sharing mechanisms to provide accurate data on the whereabouts of migrants and vessels stranded at sea;

The meeting concluded with a statement that also recommended measures to comprehensively prevent irregular migration, such as the strengthening of national law enforcement to combat people smuggling and human trafficking and the creation of a special investigation taskforce among the key affected countries to combat transnational organized criminal syndicates.

In Putrajaya, the ministers expressed their governments’ determination to continue to take the necessary action to bring the transnational smuggling and trafficking syndicates to justice.

They agreed to provide temporary shelters to the refugees, but they called on the international community to provide the necessary support and financial assistance.

“The international community will take responsibility for the repatriation of the irregular migrants to their countries of origin or resettlement to third countries within a period of one year,” they added.

In both Putrajaya and Bangkok, the delegates underscored the importance of addressing the root causes of the problem. They proposed capacity building in local communities, especially in at-risk areas. They sought support for the granting of economic incentives that create more jobs, promoting trade and investment and development assistance to affected countries. Importantly, they mentioned the promotion of full respect for human rights and adequate access to basic rights and services such as housing, education, and healthcare.

But despite acknowledging the urgency of the refugee crisis, the meetings in Putrajaya and Bangkok failed to address some crucial issues. For example, the word “Rohingya” was not mentioned in the concluding statement disappointing several human rights groups. Many were hoping that Myanmar’s failure to recognize the Rohingya ethnic group would be specifically cited as a contributing factor to the refugee problem.

Charles Santiago, chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a Malaysian Member of Parliament, criticized the failure to reprimand Myanmar for the continuing persecution of the Rohingya.

“Lots of talk with little genuine substance or resolve to take any action whatsoever on the root causes of this crisis. The meeting’s failure to openly discuss the desperate conditions and systematic human rights violations suffered by the Rohingya population is tantamount to complicity in the crimes being committed against them,” he said.

He added that Malaysia should call an emergency summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to address the problem.

The refugee crisis and the delayed response of ASEAN member countries put to shame the regional group’s theme this year, which vows to build a “people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN.” The ministerial meetings must be succeeded by a decisive implementation of the action plans, monitoring, and aggressive coordination of all parties involved to end the suffering of the region’s refugees.

Written for Manila Today

Wildlife preservation is often done outside Metro Manila. And this is not surprising since there’s almost nothing to preserve in the country’s premier urban jungle. Well, almost. Thanks to environment activism, community engagement, and geographical remoteness, there are still patches of precious green habitats in Metro Manila that we can visit, enjoy, and preserve for the next generation. These wildlife sanctuaries give us a glimpse of the long lost green charm of Metro Manila. We are reminded too of the natural beauty and geographical treasures of the region which made it easy for our former rulers and leaders to declare it the nation’s capital. But these habitats are all under threat today. Urban pollution, development aggression, and bad governance are causing the destruction of these habitats. If we want to restore these green spaces, then we need to act now. Our first duty is to spread awareness about these last surviving environment treasures. We also need to promote volunteerism and activism among Metro Manila residents. For those who need more convincing because they are not impressed with the views of tree hugggers and animal lovers, we should highlight the link of a healthy ecosystem and disaster preparation. There is a growing interest in environmentalism today and young people are encouraged to contribute in the effort either by volunteering in the provinces or by changing their dirty lifestyles. We should add that Metro Manila continues to inhabit a space where wildlife areas still exist and where activism can still make a big difference in making our habitats clean, safe, and livable. In other words, there’s still hope for Metro Manila, even for Pasig River.

Navotas Mangrove

Navotas is famous for its fishport; but it can also boast that it hosts an important green habitat that is now seldom seen in the coastal areas of Manila Bay. The mangrove area in Sitio Pulo in Navotas is probably the oldest existing natural mangrove park in Metro Manila. Officially named as Barangay Tanza’s Marine Tree Park, the Navotas Mangrove cradles several bird and fish species aside from protecting the city from storm surges. The mangrove is also keeping a tiny secret that can make Manila envious: A Nilad mangrove specie is thriving there. Nilad mangroves were once common in Manila (hence the name Maynila) and these mangroves were the original ‘greenbelt’ that covered the coastal areas of the region. Today, a Nilad tree can be seen only at Manila Zoo, and now we know, inside the Navotas Mangrove area. While it is laudable that Barangay Tanza has declared Sitio Pulo as a marine park, it is tragic that a so-called sanitary landfill (read: dumpsite) is allowed to exist near the island. In fact, garbage is already flooding several areas of the mangrove park. Despite continuous coastal cleanups, these efforts would be rendered useless as long as the Camanava landfill is operating near the mangrove park.

Batasan River in Malabon

Near Navotas Mangrove is Batasan River, the cleanest river in Metro Manila (apologies to Marikina River). Malabon is notorious because of Tullahan River, one of the dirtiest waters in the world. But unknown to many, the clear waters of Batasan River is also flowing in Malabon. From the polluted waters of Tangos, made blacker by mini-shipyards, one can access a narrow channel that runs through the green waters of Batasan River. The scenery is made more beautiful and refreshing by the mangroves that line the river. The experience is like riding a boat along Loboc River in Bohol but in this case the river is in Malabon which is just 20 minutes away from Monumento in Caloocan. Some mangroves have been converted already into fish pens but this can be remedied by planting more trees along the river. Similar to Navotas Mangrove, the immediate threat to Batasan River is the landfill located near the mouth of the river. A brown patch of garbage hill is already visible from Batasan River and it is feared that leachate from the landfill is causing more pollution in the river. Eco-tourism livelihood has a lot of potential in the river that can uplift the living conditions of fisherfolk and village residents.

Freedom Island in Las Pinas and Paranaque

Included in the list of Ramsar wetlands of international importance is the Las Piňas – Paraňaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area or LPPCHEA. Where is it? If you are going to Cavite via the Coastal Road, it’s on the right side of the toll booth. It might look like an empty dump from the road but it is a critical habitat, bird sanctuary, and considered by many as the last coastal frontier in the Metropolis. The wetlands used to be bigger but the Tambo Mudflats is now Mall of Asia and Solaire. How important is LPPCHEA? More than 80 bird species can be spotted here, including migratory birds from north Asia and the endemic Philippine Duck. Have you ever seen a duck that can fly? LPPCHEA is also a mangrove park which minimizes the flooding in the southern areas of Metro Manila. The mangroves also serve as a fishing ground that benefits fisherfolk from Paranaque and Cavite. LPPCHEA is called Freedom Island because of the historic struggle of the residents to protect their homes against the threat of demolition. The name is apt since the struggle continues and this time the campaign is against the planned extension of the Manila Bay reclamation which can reach up to the coastal villages of Bacoor beside the Cavitex.

Marikina Watershed

The watershed is located in Rizal but it benefits Marikina and the low-lying areas of Metro Manila. After the destructive impact of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, we finally realized that tree planting activities should be aggressively pursued in watershed areas and not along urban highways and expressways. In the case of Metro Manila and some parts of Bulacan, flooding and mudslides can be prevented by reversing the deforestation in the Marikina Watershed. It means we need to mobilize green volunteers to plant native trees in the Rizal towns of Antipolo, Baras, Rodriguez, San Mateo, and Tanay. The good news is that Marikina watershed is now a protected landscape. The reported greening program of the government should thus be monitored to ensure that funds are efficiently utilized. Volunteers should also understand that tree planting is not a one-time event since it also involves community assistance, livelihood support, seed dispersal, and maintaining a forest nursery. In other words, planting of tree saplings is not enough; we also need to help local residents who will guard the reservation area and drive away loggers and stray animals. So if there’s a tree planting gimmick in your school, community or government agency, remind the organizers to make it more real by doing it in the Marikina Watershed.

Arboretum and La Mesa Ecopark in Quezon City

Commonwealth is not only wider and longer than Edsa, it also has green parks that make it more eco-friendly. As suburbanization spreads to north Manila, traffic along Commonwealth will continue to increase, especially when MRT-7 becomes operational. But we hope that green spaces near Commonwealth will be preserved. These areas could include the Quezon City Wildlife, Quezon Memorial Circle, the Arboretum urban forest in Diliman, the parks in UP-Ateneo-Balara, and La Mesa Dam and Ecopark in Fairview. After completing an inventory of the plant and animal species found in these areas, there should be a program on how to maintain the integrity of these habitats while encouraging the people to participate in the conservation efforts. A clean La Mesa is important to all since it’s our source of drinking water. It’s quite worrying that the dam is geographically close to Payatas dumpsite. Hopefully, local leaders can rebrand Commonwealth from being a ‘killer highway’ to a green highway. Or a road that brings Metro Manila residents to forest parks, bird sanctuaries, lagoons, and wildlife habitats. This, and not traffic, is the most important indicator of progress.

Written for Bulatlat

These are precarious times. We live in a world plagued by mass poverty, chronic hunger, wealth inequality, and racism but we seem to lack the will to overcome these preventable miseries. The world order is already ripe for an overhaul yet many are reluctant to admit it. Worse, some of us have refused to believe anymore that things can still change; or that a better future is possible through revolutionary struggle. When did we stop dreaming? Why did we succumb to self-defeating apathy and cynicism?

Even the headline of this essay reflects the kind of uninspiring mentality that prevails today. If our situation is already serious, it warrants nothing less than our urgent action and commitment. Activism then should be a moral duty instead of merely treating it as a choice that we can either adopt or ignore. To paraphrase the philosopher Kant, argue but we should obey our truths.

To speak of activism as necessity is considered taboo in our so-called postmodern world where ambiguity and indetermination are elevated as ethics that truly empower rational human beings. To be clear-cut about politics, instead of engaging in seductive language games, is ridiculed as dogmatic. Anyone who names the political is seen as an unthinking agitator.

Hence, the indirect clamoring for political action; the careful non-articulation of political imperatives that might offend the sensibilities of the post-political population. Furthermore, it should not appear that a person is being coerced to decide on political matters.

Activism? Make it an option, call it volunteerism so that it becomes chic radicalism, defang its subversive goals. Popular activism has to be reintroduced as a rational consumer choice in the free market of political alternatives.

The tragedy of our generation is the naive assumption that we are free to make our choices. Perhaps it is true like the free will of the voter who had to choose between a young dynast, an old porker, and a greedy capitalist. This freedom to choose is the pleasure principle of modern politics.

Our task is to expose the bankruptness of political freedom in the age of neoliberalism. Is it authentic choice when we are confronted with conservative evil on one hand and liberal evil on the other? Our next task is to prove that it is viable to choose the path of radicalism, or politics in perpetual search of the ultimate alternative.
Again, we turn back to activism because it is the familiar representation of what it means to engage in Leftist politics.

Admittedly, activism is not a popular choice in contemporary society. Schools teach children to be employable, the media bombard the public with corporate propaganda, and the government acts as if the present order of things cannot be replaced anymore.

It seems many teenagers today are too busy preparing for a high-paying career in the future that they have little or no time for other pursuits like dreaming a new world, or engaging in activism to change the world. But can we blame them if they are brainwashed to believe that hoarding material possessions makes a person successful and influential? Their enthusiasm for money-making endeavors is related to our unhealthy attitude of glorifying the lives of billionaires and their families. They simply wanted to conform what popular culture is demanding from them.

For many, activism is a one time activity while career-building is a long-term effort. The first may be a noble undertaking but the latter is more significant since it allows individuals to succeed in life which gives them the time, resources, and motivation to pursue feel-good activism through charity. Activism is bypassed in favor of other activities sanctioned by the mainstream order such as family building, career enhancement, and harmless civic participation.

Thus, the need for an early and decisive intervention to defend the idea of activism. Our appeal is to embed activism in our everyday lives. It should be more than a phase in life, an eccentric hobby of angry young people, or nostalgic behavior of retired citizens. We dare say it is a lifelong commitment that should surpass even our devotion to develop our careers.

Activism doesn’t compel us to switch or abandon our careers; we are simply encouraged to rethink our priorities. Why should we think and act like machines that require constant upgrading? This overzealous drive for self-improvement should be refocused to make it more socially relevant. We should not learn new things and improve our way of doing things in order to compete with others but to be more effective in serving the needs of the community.

We build careers but for whom? We enhance our skills but for what purpose? The dominant perspective orders us to think only of ourselves and our families. We are told that individual interest trumps the collective good. Through activism, we learn to broaden our life goals by advancing the politics of social change. We strive to become better individuals and committed activists at the same time. We have activists who are also doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, artists, and engineers. We can pursue that dream job without losing sight of the bigger dream of building a better world for the next generation.

But a lifetime of struggle is often contrasted with an ordinary life buoyed by instant pleasures and illusory luxuries. The latter even entices the socially committed to partake in the fun while allowing them to uphold activism from time to time. Political engagement becomes a part-time affair. Activism is relegated as the reserve ultimate solution in the coming great breakdown of political order. In the meantime, we can enjoy our lives without renouncing the Cause.

The enduring success of capitalism is to make everyone think that the system continues to work. We are too distracted enjoying our virtual fantasies that we failed to notice that we are living in a permanent state of crisis. Apocalypse has already arrived yet our open eyes are blind about it. We see suffering individuals but the structures of exploitation are invisible to us. No wonder the popular brand of activism today is the one that extends momentary relief to victims instead of enjoining them in a mass movement that will destroy the old system of abuse and injustice.

We see ourselves as productive citizens of society who readily contribute our talents and energies to fix what is broken and improve the state of things. This is a fair assessment. Indeed, the system cannot function without tapping the idealism and labor power of the working people. But imagine if all our mental abilities are redirected to introduce the alternative. Activism is a reminder to choose a side in the raging battle between the forces of old and new. The old promises a life of material comfort while the new offers nothing but a chance to remake the world. The old asks us to preserve what humanity has achieved while the new dares us to question what humanity has done.

These are precarious times. It is up to us if we want to celebrate it or end it now.

Written for The Diplomat

One of the major projects of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to integrate Southeast Asia’s diverse economies, a region with 600 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $2.4 trillion. But several civil society organizations are moving to postpone the AEC and calling for a rethinking of its framework, which they claim is biased in favor of corporate interests and the traditional elite.

The AEC is defined by four pillars: Creating a single market and production base, increasing competitiveness, promoting equitable economic development, and further integrating ASEAN into the global economy. To synergize the region’s markets and production hubs, this would entail the free flow of goods, services, investments, capital, and skilled labor. Proponents argue that if the integration succeeds, the region could become the fourth largest economy in the next few years.

But for Philippines-based think-tank Ibon Foundation, the current model of the AEC could further impoverish the poor while facilitating the “aggressive foreign corporate takeovers of the region’s resources.” It added that overall, the AEC is detrimental to ordinary people because it will lead to an erosion of sovereignty, diminishing access to social services because of a stronger push for liberalization and privatization, greater inequalities between and within ASEAN countries, skewed labor mobility, job insecurity, increased land and other resource grabs, and the undermining of local small-scale farmers.

Ibon Foundation cited the investor-state dispute settlement provision of the AEC as an example of a one-sided protection measure in favor of corporate power, since it gives investors the right to sue government when their profits are in danger.

The research center warned that AEC could worsen the “uneven and inequitable economic growth” in Asia because it continues “old logic of the neoliberal model of development” characterized by “a race to the bottom in lowering labor, environmental and other regulatory standards and taxes, and in changing national laws to create a business-friendly environment.”

During the ASEAN People’s Forum recently held in Malaysia, various civil society organizations signed a statement echoing the concerns raised by Ibon Foundation. “The liberalization of the labour market has increased the number of precarious jobs and will continue to adversely impact the rights of workers,” an excerpt from the statement.

The groups rejected ASEAN’s development model for regional integration because it promotes “unequal trade and investment agreements negotiated and agreed to by member states (that) fail to guarantee redistributive, economic, gender, social and environmental justice, or accountability.”

As an alternative framework to the AEC, Ibon Foundation proposes that the integration must transform the ASEAN into a region that is “truly people-centered by abandoning the market-led growth strategy and focusing more on people’s concerns such as food sovereignty, climate change, and respect for human and collective rights.”

“Solidarity, cooperation and complementarity among states should be pursued instead of economic competition,” the group asserted.

And since the AEC is not yet fully implemented, civil society groups are urging for a more comprehensive and democratic consultation with all stakeholders so that negotiations about the proposed regional integration will not be restricted to government parties.

It is only by building a strong regional bloc with popular public support that ASEAN can successfully advance its agenda in the ongoing talks for greater economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific such as the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The AEC concept is an important one, and is needed to boost the region’s economic potential. But to repeat the recommendations made by Ibon Foundation and other civil society groups, this AEC must be reconceptualized to genuinely empower the people.

ASEAN Urged to Review Non-Interference Policy

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s former foreign minister thinks it’s time to review the policy of non-interference which has guided the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since its founding in 1967.

Dr Syed Hamid Albar, who was foreign minister from 1999 to 2008, made this recommendation during a civil society conference in Kuala Lumpur held a few days before the 26th summit of the ASEAN. Malaysia is the current chair of the ASEAN secretariat.

“We need to seriously think about reviewing and redefining ASEAN’s non-interference policy. We need to recognize that even in international diplomacy, there are limits on non-interference, especially when the serious impacts of a problem goes beyond national boundaries, or when it involves serious international crimes,” Syed Hamid said.

He also added that “ASEAN needs to change in order to be more responsive and resilient to the myriad and fast-growing challenges” that the region faces today.

The former minister didn’t mention specific controversies that could have been resolved through direct action by ASEAN member nations but other speakers in the conference hinted that some of the pressing issues in the region like the continuing persecution of the stateless Rohingya people already require an intervention.

“Over years, ASEAN has been ridiculed as the toothless tiger. If Kuala Lumpur winds up the annual meeting, glossing over the Rohingya issue, then ASEAN will certainly have to bear the shameful stigma of ridicule for many more years to come,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

For Yab Mohamed Azmin Ali, chief minister of Selangor in Malaysia, the “conspiracy of silence” with respect to the human rights violations committed by member states should end now.

“On this altar of neutrality we watch with folded arms the slaughter of innocent women and children. On this platform of non-interference, we turn a blind eye to the massacre of ethnic minorities or abandon them as state-less peoples,” he said during the conference which was attended by more than 1,000 activists and leaders from various civil society organizations across the region.

Aside from the Rohingya issue, there are other pressing concerns that ASEAN can and should address as a united body. These could include the worsening problem of human trafficking, the need to protect migrant workers, the increasing number of laws that restrict media freedom, and economic inequality amid the ongoing initiative to integrate the region’s diverse economies. All of these issues were tackled during the ASEAN People’s Forum. Another major topic is the urgency for ASEAN to react to China’s land reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea.

Interestingly, one of the workshops in the conference called for a “Junta-Free ASEAN” and an ASEAN free of political prisoners “so that the voices and choices of the people can displace all forms of dictatorship and strengthen solidarity for democracy and social justice across the Region.” This is obviously in reference to Thailand’s military-backed government. But the issue of human rights abuses is applicable not only to Thailand and Myanmar but to other ASEAN members as well. Even the host nation Malaysia is accused of using archaic laws to harass and detain opposition leaders and critics of the government.

What should be done when everybody within ASEAN is unwilling or reluctant to act on sensitive issues? Again, we turn to Malaysia’s Syed Hamid who proposed to transform the regional grouping “from being a state-driven institution to an integrated people-centered community.” He advocated a greater role for civil society in ASEAN since he is confident that these groups “can come up with innovative, sustainable and cheaper solutions than just the governments working by themselves.”

But with regard to proposed reforms involving the ASEAN, AKP Mochtan of the ASEAN Community and Corporate Affairs advised civil society that “expectations should be realistic” since “change in ASEAN can only be achieved through agreement by the 10 Member States.”

However, the ASEAN leader is confident that regional integration efforts will succeed in the end including the ambitious goal of creating a single economic bloc. “Community building is like a marathon without a finishing line: we simply must continue.”

There are many proposals and counter-proposals put forward today in relation to ASEAN. It is hoped that the lively discussions inside and outside the ASEAN Summit venues will continue to focus more on empowering the marginalized and ordinary residents of Southeast Asia.

Laos’ Economic Agenda

June 10th, 2015

Written for The Diplomat

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (formerly known as Lao People’s Party), which was founded together with the Indochina Communist Party to expel foreign invaders from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The struggle for independence finally succeeded in 1975, which led to the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

To celebrate the party’s achievements in the past 60 years, a large gathering of senior party leaders and high-ranking party officials was held at which party secretary-general and president of the Lao PDR Choummaly Sayasone delivered the keynote address.

Choummaly praised the “people’s fighting movement” in leading the Lao multiethnic people during the two-decade campaign for national liberation. He also defined the major victories of the party after 1975: “We were able to heal the wounds of war, restore production, promote culture, and normalize the living conditions” in the country.

He asserted that the party has remained relevant because it adopted the policy of “self-construction and self-improvement to enhance its strength with endless flexibility.” He cited the so-called renovation policy of 1986 which “replaced the bureaucratically centralized economic mechanism and subsidy-based administration with a state-managed market-orientated economy.”

A “state-managed market-orientated economy” sounds like an oxymoron but Choummaly repeated it several times in his speech to emphasize that the party has “liberalized old ways of thinking towards a realistic analysis of the [global] situation” while pursuing socialist directives.

But despite Choummaly’s claim that Lao socialism has led to the empowerment of the people, his speech provided several confirmations about the high poverty rate in the country. For example, he pushed for higher productivity to end poverty in all sectors. “We have to concentrate on alleviating the poverty of local people and graduating from least developed country status and creating a fundamental foundation for our country to move towards socialism,” he said.

He added: “We have to continue to reduce the number of impoverished families to a minimum level and create the necessary infrastructure and facilities for economic development.”

Choummaly rallied his party mates to work for the continued growth of the domestic economy, calling for an average rate of at least 7-8 percent annually until 2020. And the focus of this ambitious economic plan? Choummaly enumerated the country’s expanding sectors with high growth potential such as agriculture and forestry, processing, electricity (hydropower), and transnational tourism. He also mentioned the use of new technology in agriculture and rural development to realize the twin objectives of industrialization and modernization.

Interestingly, Choummaly also spoke of integrating political ideology with the new economic initiatives. “We must view poverty alleviation in association with strengthening political ideology at the grassroots level and comprehensive rural development.”

Perhaps this statement sums up the unique “development destination” that Laos officials are envisioning in the next few years: “The move aims to realize the objective of building up large villages to become small towns in rural areas.”

Choummaly linked the ongoing integration of the diverse economies of Southeast Asian nations with the forces of change that influence the nation’s development. He warned of “new disputes,” which he said should be decisively addressed by the new generation of party leaders.

This is probably why he diligently discussed organizational concepts such as “centrally based democratic principle” and “team-based leadership principle” after advocating for greater competitiveness and market reforms in the economy.

It may not have been the intention, but Choummaly’s speech offered a succinct overview of socialism, Laos style.

Cambodia’s ‘Cyber War’ Legislation Targets Online Critics

Written for The Diplomat

Media freedom is guaranteed in the Cambodian constitution but it is undermined since the mainstream media is largely controlled by families close to the ruling party. This is not the case for online media where censorship is almost non-existent. The government, however, is already targeting regulation of the Internet, which could further restrict free speech in the country.

In 2010, only 300,000 Cambodians had access to the Internet. By 2013, however, that number had surged to almost four million, or about a quarter of the country’s population. There are now 1.7 million registered Facebook users. Suddenly, ordinary Cambodians, including those living in rural areas, have the opportunity to receive news and information provided by the political opposition and other critical voices.

The political impact of the Internet was felt in the 2013 general elections, when the opposition attributed its victory in many areas to aggressive online campaigning. In addition, community activists and dissident monks were able to maximize the online space to highlight social issues that expose government abuse, such as landgrabbing, police brutality, corruption, and deforestation.

Perhaps feeling threatened by the social media phenomenon, the government proposed two laws in 2014 that would create several layers in the bureaucracy to directly supervise the growth and management of the Internet infrastructure. The draft laws have been assailed by some critics as serious threats to media freedom, but the government insisted that the passage of these measures is necessary to protect national security and the dignity of individuals.

The draft anti-cybercrime law intends to penalize Internet content that “generates insecurity, instability, and political cohesiveness.”

Meanwhile, the draft law on telecommunications would give the government a broader mandate as industry regulator. There are fears that authorities will use this law to install surveillance equipment that would monitor the Internet activities of Cambodian citizens.

Aside from introducing these draft laws, the government has already implemented some measures designed to discourage online dissent. In October 2014, the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers established the so-called “Cyber War Team” to monitor and collect information from Facebook and other websites in order to “protect the government’s stance and prestige.” Some officials also visited telecoms firms to inspect the data logs and billing records of some subscribers.

In a report published last week, the Cambodian human rights group Licadho warned against the “capricious controls” that the government is enforcing to weaken Internet freedom.

“Freedom of expression is a right that many Cambodians have never truly experienced. It comes as no surprise that as soon as Cambodians found a way to have their voices heard, the government has begun a comprehensive effort to once again silence them,” said Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for Licadho.

But the government is undeterred by criticisms. A few days ago, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan proposed “to take legal action against the ill-intentioned and unethical persons for using social media to attack, insult and defame civil servants and government leaders.”

“Insults and defamation are not part of freedom of expression, but instead violate the rights and dignity of individuals,” he added.

Cambodia has the right to pass laws that would enhance the rights and civil liberties of its citizens. Cybercrime legislation is necessary for the overall protection of the Internet sector and its subscribers. But human rights activists are right to argue about the inclusion of provisions in the draft laws that would erode the freedom that Cambodians enjoy while using the Internet. At a minimum, the government should genuinely consult civil society and other stakeholders before developing Internet-related laws.

Mahathir Versus Najib

June 4th, 2015

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s fiercest critic today is not found in the ranks of the opposition. Rather, it is a former ally: Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir is Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, and served as mentor to Najib. Despite his retirement from government service, Mahathir has remained an influential political figure. At 89, Mahathir continues to be a newsmaker, especially when he candidly shares his views on domestic and even global affairs through his widely read blog.

Since last year, Mahathir has been criticizing the administration of Najib. But it was early this month when he launched a more comprehensive tirade against what he thinks were the fundamental blunders committed by Najib.

Writing on his blog, Mahathir pressed for clarifications on the following issues: 1) the 2006 murder of a Mongolian translator who purportedly had personal knowledge of a corruption scandal involving the defense department; 2) the reported mismanagement of the country’s investment fund (1MDB); and the 3) implementation of a cash distribution scheme to marginalized groups (BR1M).

Najib is linked to these issues through some of his former subordinates and relatives. Mahathir called on Najib to come clean on his role in investigating these issues.

Najib eventually made public a recorded video interview in response to some of Mahathir’s allegations. But Mahathir was disappointed with what he heard. Writing again on his blog, he admonished Najib for being evasive, especially on the issue of the investment fund mess.

“I asked Najib simple questions but instead of answering the questions he asked people to support him. I would like to ask the supporters whether their support means the disappearance of 42 billion Ringgit is okay, that there is no necessity to at least explain where the money is,” Mahathir wrote.

Najib hinted that his relationship with Mahathir soured when the government was not able to build a new bridge between Malaysia and Singapore. Mahathir denied this, and insisted that his real concern is the unexplained loss of taxpayers’ money in the 1MDB.

“I don’t advocate the removal of a prime minister because he is too afraid of Singapore to build a crooked bridge. But when you lose money and cannot explain where the money is, I think you are not competent to become prime minister,” Mahathir said in a press conference.

Mahathir warned the ruling coalition that it will lose in the next general election if Najib does not step down immediately.

For his part, Najib claimed he still respected Mahathir but he also emphasized that his duty is not just to listen to an individual opinion.

“Whatever the individual opinion, in the end, I will be responsible to the people and the party. It is quite healthy if there is a difference of opinion but, regardless, in the end I have to be responsible to the people and party. And most of these matters, I bring to the Cabinet and the Cabinet decides,” he said in a TV interview.

Najib added that criticisms are welcome, especially those made with “prudence and responsibility.”

“The criticisms this time are more than usual, more intense than usual. But I have to accept the political ups and downs which, under all circumstances, will not be peaceful and comfortable all the time. I take the criticisms, no matter how painful. As long as the people and the party give me the mandate, the trust, I will continue to lead the country and party,” he said during the interview.

Najib also defended the programs of his government like the BR1M and reminded the public that there were also economic problems during the term of Mahathir.

“We should not allow certain issues to be highlighted as though our economy is collapsing, or that we are having problems to the point that they cannot be resolved. This is not true at all. Tun Dr Mahathir’s era was not perfect either, nor is my era. But we must know that we are open, we improve the situation, so that tomorrow will be better than today,” Najib said.

Finally, Najib urged the public not to believe everything that is published online. “A lot of information is blown out of proportion and twisted until it is misunderstood. The majority of accusations and ‘spins’ do not reflect the reality of the situation of a particular issue or the statements made by leaders, be it the opposition or government.”

We should expect Mahathir to issue a more biting rejoinder. But Najib’s allies are also starting to hit back at Mahathir. Whatever the case, Malaysian politics has become more interesting. Will the opposition benefit from the bickering within the ruling coalition?

Najib Blogs His Response to Mahathir and Critics

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s former leader Mahathir Mohamad has often criticized the incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak through his popular blog. This time it is Najib who has used a blog to hit back at his former mentor and other critics of his administration.

Najib blogged his detailed response to 13 frequent allegations of his critics, which included some of the issues raised earlier by Mahathir such as the 2006 murder of a Mongolian translator, corruption in the bureaucracy, rising criminality, and mismanagement of the country’s finances.

Najib didn’t name Mahathir but he was clearly alluding to Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister. For example, he questioned the irony of a critic of the West using a Western media report which cited Malaysia as among the most corrupt nations in the world. “I find it troubling that someone who used to continually criticise the international media as being biased now suddenly believes and takes their arguments as the truth,” he wrote in obvious reference to Mahathir.

Responding to his alleged involvement in the murder of a Mongolian translator, Najib said this is an old issue that has been resurrected by “veteran leaders.” He described his accusers as “influential individuals (with) many resources.” He added that his accusers could have presented more evidence against him in the past: “When the issue erupted, I believe they would still have been able to verify the validity of the allegations. If they believed this to be true, why did they not raise it when the issue erupted 8 years ago? Why now?”

Najib reiterated his innocence and reminded the public that he swore an oath on the Quran in a Mosque to prove his claim. He also emphasized that the court has already determined the guilty person in the murder case.

Addressing the charge that his government has squandered the taxpayers’ money in an investment fund mess (1MDB), Najib lashed back at some politicians for sowing intrigue. “It is unfair for certain politicians to convict the government in the court of public opinion way before the actual facts are laid down by lawful authorities.”

Again, there’s no mention of Mahathir’s name but Najib cautioned the public about unreliable online sources like blogs with malicious motives. “If we are sincere in finding out the truth behind those allegations, we need to get the information from legitimate sources and not third-party news portals or online blogs that might have hidden agendas.” Reporters should ask him if Mahathir’s blog is among those with a “hidden agenda.”

In defending the cash subsidy for the poor (BR1M), Najib hit back at politicians who refuse to appreciate the economic soundness of the program: “Some politicians say that in spite of BR1M, the people are ‘not grateful.’ This is exactly why they believe it is bribery and are not on the same page as the fiscal committee. We see it as an economic measure, but these politicians see it purely in the context of politics.”

And finally, Najib confidently asserted that the ruling coalition will continue to prevail in the next elections despite Mahathir’s warning that the blunders of the incumbent leader will bring the party down.

“If we are united, and stop the infighting, we will succeed. If we focus on constructive rather than destructive politics, we will succeed. If we focus on work instead of believing and spreading rumours, spins and half-truths, we will succeed,” Najib wrote.

Many are now eagerly awaiting Mahathir’s rejoinder in his blog. Or he could pursue his challenge of conducting a public debate with Najib. Who will emerge victorious in this showdown between two heavyweights of Malaysian politics?