Mong Palatino

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

About

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

Published by The Diplomat

The good: Five million people in Myanmar signed a petition asking Parliament to remove the undemocratic provisions in the 2008 Constitution. The bad: Thai military authorities enacted an interim constitution that gives sweeping powers to the army. The half-serious: Philippine President Benigno Aquino III hinted that he is open to the idea of amending the Constitution amid declining popularity ratings.

Myanmar’s opposition party the National League for Democracy and activist network 88 Generation Peace and Open Society were able to gather 4,953,093 signatures in more than 300 townships across the country in support of the petition to amend certain provisions of the Constitution that perpetuate the military dictatorship.

They focused on Article 436 of the Constitution, which stipulates that any constitutional amendment requires the approval of 75 percent of Parliament. This means that any amendment would need the army’s concurrence, since 25 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. Perhaps the opposition is particularly interested in deleting Article 436 because the provision makes it difficult to scrap Article 59(F), which bars Myanmar citizens with foreign spouses and foreign-born children from running for president or vice president. It is Article 59(F) that is stopping opposition leader and global democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in 2015, since she was married to a British national.

Constitutional reform is seen by the opposition as essential to Myanmar’s transition to democracy. Even the Parliament has formed a Joint Committee to Review the Constitution, and this body recently recommended the amendment of more than 450 of the 457 articles in the Constitution, including article 436. For Khin Zaw Win, director of the policy advocacy group Tampadipa Institute, the charter needs to be revised to allow for more decentralization and a devolution of power.

Myanmar’s government is lukewarm about the proposal to amend the Constitution, but it cannot simply ignore the voice of five million voters. Indeed, the proposed constitutional reform could reduce the ability of the military to influence Parliament, but it would certainly encourage the greater participation of opposition forces in the governance of the country.

Alongside five million people in Myanmar signing a petition to draft a new constitution, the Thai military government (known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)) has enacted an interim constitution without popular approval.

The drafting of a new constitution was supposed to signal the country’s transition to civilian rule after the army launched a coup last May. But based on the 48 articles of the Constitution issued by the NCPO, it seems the military will retain considerable power in the new government.

The constitution mandates the creation of several bodies that would govern the country, namely the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council, the Constitutional Drafting Committee, and the NCPO. It is the NCPO, or military leadership, which will choose the members of these bodies.

Moreover, the constitution has placed several restrictions on selecting members of the legislative assembly. For example, a person who was a member of a political party in the last three years cannot join the body. Since politicians belonging to the major political parties are barred by the Constitution from serving in the government, military officials and their allies will dominate the interim government.

The Thai Citizens Against Dictatorship described the Constitution as Thailand’s “most anti-democratic constitution in half a century.” They zeroed in on Article 44, which empowers the NCPO to intervene in almost all aspects of governance. Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also questioned this provision. “Article 44 clearly states that the power has binding effect in legislative and judiciary aspects, without a process to challenge or scrutinize them. That means it’s the ability to issue a law or reverse a court verdict.”

The army earlier vowed to implement political and electoral reforms before handing power back to the civilian government. But the enactment of the interim constitution has doused hopes that the military is ready to give up power and allow Thailand to successfully reclaim its democracy.

As for democracy, it became a trending topic in the Philippines last week after President Benigno Aquino III revealed in an exclusive media interview that he is now amenable to a proposed amendment to the 1987 Constitution so that he can run for a second term, by removing term-limits for elected officials. Some of his former supporters reminded him that his mother fought hard to prevent the return of a dictatorship by including a term-limit provision for politicians in the 1987 Constitution.

There were proposals to amend the Constitution as early as 2010, but Aquino remained indifferent to these initiatives. So why suddenly change position now.

The president’s allies argued that Aquino should be allowed to run for a second term in 2016 so that he can continue to implement his reform agenda. For his part, Aquino said charter change should be implemented to limit the vast powers of the Supreme Court, which recently declared that Aquino’s budget reform program was unconstitutional.

However, there are those who think Aquino declared support for charter change in order not to become a lame duck president, whose term will expire in less than two years. His critics also described Aquino’s statement as a ploy to distract public attention from the corruption and impeachment cases that Aquino is currently facing. His ratings are down amid allegations that he continued to distribute pork barrel funds to legislators and political allies, despite the Supreme Court order declaring this funding mechanism to be a violation of the Constitution.

Whatever his intentions, Aquino seems unwilling to stop his public supporters and allies in Congress from pushing the charter change.

If 2013 was the year of elections and protest upheavals in Southeast Asia, it seems 2014 will be known as the year of constitutional reforms. Charter reforms usually happen because there is a strong public desire, and the goal is often to strengthen democratic rule. However, these initiatives can also be manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling clique. In the end, it is the citizens who must decide whether or not charter amendments are genuinely needed.

Published by Bulatlat

1. President Noynoy Aquino is sincere in abolishing the pork barrel system. PDAF (legislative pork) was abolished but the funds were embedded in the national budget. DAP (presidential pork) was discontinued but the unconstitutional principles that sustained it were maliciously inserted in the 2015 General Appropriations Bill. Aquino adopted and expanded the crooked practices of his predecessors like bloating the budget with lump sums and other non-itemized unprogrammed funds. The People’s Initiative (PI) would have been unnecessary if Aquino had completely dismantled the foundations of corruption in the budget system.

2. It is only the Left which continues to insist that pork is still intact in the budget. There are eight major groups which launched the PI – each has specific proposals on how to eradicate corruption in the country. But they all arrived at the same conclusion that Aquino and his allies have continued to distribute pork through various insidious means. They have conflicting political views, some of them are even against the move to impeach or oust Aquino, but what bonded them together was their collective outrage over pork politics. It’s either the Left is incredibly good at brainwashing the other PI proponents or there is a genuine disgust against pork and its current permutations.

3. Anti-pork groups have no clear alternatives. But the demands of activist groups have been very well articulated already since last year: Scrap pork, prosecute the thieves, and rechannel funds to social services. Then they filed two cases in the Supreme Court to invalidate the PDAF and DAP which should have been enough to prove that they are really determined to win the fight against pork. But after winning in the Supreme Court (not once, but twice), they wanted a guarantee that the pork monster will not be revived in the future. Thus, the PI – a proposed bill that criminalizes and penalizes the introduction of all types of pork in the national budget. The bill also restores the dignified meaning of ‘savings’ as against Abad’s distorted interpretation of the term. In addition, it provides the procedure for accessing the special funds and it enumerates the illegal acts in implementing or amending the appropriations law.

4. The intolerant Left is incapable of working with other groups. The PI is a collaboration of various political and civic groups, including the Left. The Left participated in drafting the PI petition and it helped in organizing the People’s Congress, launching the sign-up drive, and building the campaign machinery across the country. The PI proved that activists are ready to join hands, link arms, and sign their names together with religious groups, academics, lawyers, netizens, and all those involved and interested in the struggle for change in society. We are different in so many ways but our shared humanity including our noble vision of the world is enough reason to march forward; united and eager to claim a brighter future.

5. Representative democracy is true democracy. Agree, assuming that elections in the country are truly free and political dynasties do not lord it over Philippine politics. But because generally, Philippine elections and politics could not be characterised as genuinely free and representative, it is imperative on the people to continue exerting political pressure on all branches of government – executive, legislative, judicial – to push for the people’s rights, interests and welfare. If government officials refuse to heed the call of the people then there is the option of direct democracy. The people themselves would have to wield its power to propose legislation through PI. From the point of view of those who enjoy the spoils of power, this is mob democracy. For those who are allied with the ruling clique, this is a mere anti-Aquino plot. But for ordinary citizens, this is pure democracy at work. Hopefully, history will judge it as a brilliant experiment to deepen the roots of democracy in the polis.

6. The Left is using the pork issue to advance a sinister agenda. Ever since the Left mobilized its ranks to push for the total scrapping of pork, it has been unfairly accused by yellow pundits and reactionary intellectuals of exploiting the issue to carry out an evil plan. But they are silent about the specifics of this supposedly devious ploy. They are satisfied in echoing the propaganda of Malacanang that the Left is out to destroy democracy, bring down the government, and spread mayhem in the country. The Left does not hide its disdain for the rotten political system and it is not alone in clamoring for the overhaul of the country’s political economy. But to argue that it exists to destroy democracy is a misguided judgment. What could be more democratic than asking people to express their sentiments in the streets? Petitioning the Supreme Court will undermine democracy? How is constitutional democracy threatened by the PI?

The irony of our situation today is that it is the president, the protector of the constitution, who has been found guilty of implementing an unconstitutional budget program; while the Left, the subversive of society, is affiliated with a campaign that seeks to strengthen the principles of the country’s fundamental law. It is the president who is the real threat to our democratic way of life.

7. Aquino is a good leader who listens to his bosses. The PI exposed this as an empty boast. He vowed to abolish pork but corruption has persisted. He stubbornly defended DAP which was used as a tool for political patronage. And instead of accounting the DAP funds, he refused to be express remorse. He even claimed that the bosses wanted him to run for a second term. The bosses are demanding accountability but Aquino responded by offering the second term proposal. For many groups, this was the convincing proof that Aquino cannot be trusted anymore to continue the crusade for a clean government. The PI was a response of the frustrated constituency after Aquino showed his unwillingness to heed the call of the bosses for a thorough sweep of the corrupt bureaucracy.

8. The Left is rigidly focused on its outmoded beliefs and practices. The PI is not part of the Left’s founding programs. It is not a core demand of its mass organizations. Ten years ago, would you expect the Left to be leading a PI campaign? The radical Left is part of a movement seeking direct and substantive reforms using the framework provided by the constitution? Perhaps it is time to revise the textbook stereotype about the Left being a static movement.

9. The anti-pork movement is mainly a political noise in Metro Manila. The PI was launched in Cebu. There were more than a thousand delegates in the People’s Congress representing all regions in the country. Sign-up events were simultaneously done in various provinces last August 25. Support for the PI came from broad segments of the population, including institutions such as universities, churches, and some local government units.

10. Only Aquino can unite the people. And his preferred indicator of unity is the wearing of yellow ribbons. But to be fair, it is because of his intransigence that inspired our groups to coalesce and launch the PI. So yes, he is effective in uniting the people, including those who are not supposed to work with each other and embark on a common political platform.

Popularity is not enough to sustain a leader’s political capital. He must always strive to be credible. In the case of Aquino, his insincerity to fight corruption has forced his erstwhile supporters to find an alternative to continue the struggle for reforms. Today, it is the PI which has the most promising potential in unleashing a wave of democratic reforms in the governance of the country. To think that it is the people (six million to be exact), and not just one person, who will determine the success of this movement is a already a precious albeit risky idea, All things considered, the PI is a struggle worth signing and fighting for.

1. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) was reestablished on December 26, 1968 in Alaminos, Pangasinan. Its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), was formed on March 29, 1969 in Capas, Tarlac. The revolutionary alliance, National Democratic Front (NDF), was founded on April 24, 1973. The CPP-NPA-NDF view armed revolution as the effective and ultimate solution to replace the existing system which they believe is already beyond redemption.

Since its inception, the CPP has been inspired by the teachings of communist leaders Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Lenin and most especially Mao Zedong, because of the country’s similarities to the conditions in China before the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949. The early leaders of the NPA came from veteran members of the Huk army, which led the Filipino resistance against the invading Japanese force during World War II, peasants and the youth. The NDF laid out its 10-point program (later expanded into a 12-point program) as basis of unity in establishing a people’s democratic republic.

2. The Maoist military strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside was adopted by the CPP which was unprecedented because no archipelagic nation has ever done this. The NPA preserved its strength and thrived even under the harsh conditions during Martial Law. It waged a nationwide guerrilla war without the geographical advantage of Vietnam whose neighboring states were either communist or anti-American.

3. In the 1980s, most of the communist parties in Southeast Asia have been already defeated or disbanded but the CPP achieved remarkable military strength and political influence during this period. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has even claimed that the NPA reached its peak in 1986 when the number of its fighters was estimated to be about 25,000 across the country. The NPA has denied that it reached this size although a few years ago it made a declaration that it already surpassed its armed strength in the 1980s in terms of number of fighters with high powered rifles.

4. The reestablishment of the CPP was a legacy of the rectification movement initiated by young activists who summed up the bitter experience of the old Communist Party (Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, 1930) which suffered significant political losses in the 1950s. Three decades later, the CPP would launch another rectification campaign to reaffirm its founding principles.

When the Soviet bloc disintegrated, the CPP was among the few communist parties in the world which continued to defend Marxism. It argued that revisionism, not socialism, which was discredited when Soviet Russia collapsed in the 1990s.

The CPP became the first Philippine political party to admit that it committed serious political errors in the 1980s. According to the CPP, these grave mistakes led to the substantial reduction of its mass base and mass support most especially in the provinces. It also apologized for the excesses and human rights violations perpetrated by some NPA units.

The rectification campaign lasted throughout the 1990s which the CPP credited for the resurgence of the local mass movement. The Philippine government will be the first to dispute this but what is certain is that the CPP has remained a major political force in the country; and after 45 years, it continues to lead the world’s longest Maoist revolution.

5. The CPP benefited from the revival of progressive activism in the 1960s which came to be known as the national democratic movement. The ND movement was partly inspired by the “Second Propaganda Movement” advocated by Filipino statesman and nationalist intellectual Claro M Recto.

6. The revolutionary political program of the CPP is its major advantage over the dull, elitist and anti-people agenda of mainstream trapo parties. Land reform continues to be its centerpiece program in the countryside, thus the continuing support of poor farmers for the armed revolution. Then and now, its commitment to end inequality and oppression has attracted the support of many sectors and intellectuals. Women’s rights, gender equality, IP empowerment, environment protection, workers rights, socialized housing, free education, free healthcare – and many other advocacies we hear today have been articulated already by the cadres of the CPP-NPA-NDF in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

7. Through its nationwide network that can reach the remotest parts of the archipelago, the CPP has immensely contributed to the spread and development of the Filipino language. From the start, the CPP has consciously and creatively used the language of the masses in its publications, organizational documents, and community activities. It has also pushed for the preservation, enrichment and popularization of our cultural heritage, especially the protection of IP practices.

The political practices of the CPP also had a profound impact in the academe. Marxism and its related subject matters became proper academic disciplines after the CPP gained strength and influence in the 1970s. It also encouraged the mainstreaming of nationalist historiography and radical scholarship by challenging academics to merge theory and practice, revise the colonial orientation of Philippine education and make university researches relevant and responsive to the concrete needs of the Filipino people.

8. The peace talks between the NDF and successive Philippine governments started in 1986. Both parties signed several agreements including the landmark agreement known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law or CARHRIHL in 1998.

9. The CPP was outlawed which prevented it from participating in the elections or revealing the identities of its leading cadres and members. But even if membership in the CPP is no longer a crime today, it is still dangerous to express support for the CPP because of the continuing irrational red scare in the mainstream bureaucracy, especially in the armed forces.

The CPP has rejected the current reactionary electoral politics since it views the exercise as futile and a sham democratic ritual manipulated by the moneyed and warlord elite parties. It said that it respected the decision of some progressive and patriotic forces to join the reactionary elections but it remained firm in asserting that the principal form of struggle to achieve genuine change is still the protracted people’s war.

10. Joma Sison is the founding chairman of the CPP. In 1986, he was listed by the Bibliographical Dictionary of Marxism (London) as among the most important 200 Marxists since the 1848 Communist Manifesto. Sison sought asylum in the Netherlands after Cory Aquino cancelled his passport while he was in a lecture tour in Europe in 1988.

Last March, the Philippine army claimed that it arrested the top cadres of the CPP: Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria.

The people’s war is currently not yet strong enough to topple the ruling system but as long as the dominant system continues to be in tatters, the revolutionary upheaval promised by the CPP-NPA-NDF will remain a formidable alternative that gives hope to the masses, including this author.

Written for The Diplomat

The Malaysian government revealed that it is studying a proposal to ban Facebook, in response to the rising number of abuses reported on the popular social network.

Communication and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek made the announcement after a Facebook user posted a doctored photo of a road accident which insulted Malaysian King Tuanku Abdul Halim.

“If the people are of the opinion that Facebook should be closed, we are prepared to look into the matter,” said Shabery. But the minister also admitted that blocking Facebook is “radical and quite impossible” considering there are more than 15 million Facebook users in Malaysia.

Netizens and activists quickly lambasted the ministry for contemplating the social network’s closure. For free speech advocate Masjaliza Hamzah, the proposal to ban Facebook is another proof of the government’s distorted view of the Internet. Woon King Chai of the Centre for a Better Tomorrow wrote that it is unnecessary to censor Facebook since the majority of users are responsible. “Is the minister also suggesting that cars should be banned in Malaysia too because they cause road accidents and fatalities?”

Shabery acknowledged that there are only 2,000 cases of abuse reported by Facebook users.

Many also reminded the government of the overall positive impact of Facebook in society. Aside from providing a platform for youth interaction, Facebook has also boosted business opportunities in Malaysia.

As an alternative to closing down Facebook, some have suggested the registration of Facebook accounts with the government and the amendment of the Sedition Act to cover those who use social media to spread religious hate speech. But the problem with these proposals is that even if they do not advocate the absolute censorship of Facebook, they also pose a threat to free speech.

Meanwhile, the national police force reported that it has already formed a task force to monitor and take action against those who abuse social media to spread racist remarks and hate speech.

Shabery’s idea of a Facebook ban is not entirely new. Two weeks ago, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for the censorship of the Internet to protect public morality.

Mahathir has already been advocating a stricter regulation of the Internet for several months, but he reiterated his demand after claiming that his article about the Jews and the conflict in Palestine has been “prevented from being linked to Facebook without any explanation.

“The internet is not the free alternative to the state-controlled print and electronic media it is touted to be. It is subject to even more censorship than Governments could exercise. The people who host these platforms and servers can censor,” wrote Mahathir in his widely read blog.

His post was likely blocked because it was reported for abuse after he described the Jews as behaving worse than the Nazis.

Mahathir argued that Internet censorship is needed to protect children and the public from being exposed to dangerous topics.

“Incest, child sex, sex with animals, sexual parties, sex in public and many other practices which we still feel are wrong will soon be a part of the expression of freedom and equality. All these will [be] promoted on the internet. I don’t care how sacred is freedom but I think the time has come for Governments, at least the Malaysian Government to censor the internet,” he wrote.

Mahathir’s contention that his post was blocked by Facebook is indeed a cause for concern, but his proposed remedy – the absolute censorship of the web – is alarmist, and an extreme approach to advocating a safer Internet. He should recall the bill he signed in 1999, which laid down the framework as to why the Internet must remain open and free for the benefit of society.

Internet freedom in Malaysia is essential since mainstream media is already heavily regulated by the state. No less than Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has repeatedly assured the public that online free speech will never be curtailed. But Najib should advise the government’s ministers, retired politicians, and other influential authorities to refrain from making direct and indirect threats about undermining that freedom.

Malaysian Leaders Unite for Justice in MH17 Downing

Written for The Diplomat

After the historic victory of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo in the Indonesian presidential election, the most significant news story of the week in Southeast Asia is the coming together of Malaysian politicians to condemn the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 that killed 298 passengers and crew members.

Malaysia’s parliament held an emergency session on July 23 and unanimously approved a motion condemning those responsible for firing a missile that led to the crash of MH17 in eastern Ukraine during its flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The motion also called for a “comprehensive investigation to be carried out to bring those responsible to justice.” In a rare moment in Malaysian politics, leaders of the ruling and opposition parties set aside partisan differences to pass the resolution.

The opposition even praised Prime Minister Najib Razak for his success in clinching a deal with eastern Ukrainian rebels to allow Malaysia to secure the MH17 black box and the remains of the victims. The agreement would also make it possible for a Malaysia-led team to investigate the crash site, although this has yet to happen as of this writing.

The deal that Najib secretly negotiated with the rebels was hailed by many analysts as a diplomatic coup for Malaysia. On his Facebook page, Najib explained why he chose a quiet approach in dealing with the rebels.

“These were extraordinary circumstances which called for extraordinary measures. There were risks involved in pursuing this agreement. But we felt an obligation to explore all avenues to break the impasse, and secure the return of the remains and the black boxes. After meeting the families, I felt that we owed it to them to act,” he wrote.

Najib also assured the public that the deal was finalized without giving any concessions to the rebels.

No party has claimed responsibility for the MH17 crash, although Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of being guilty of the fatal missile launch. Malaysia has not made any accusations yet, and its position since last week has been to ask for an independent probe into the disaster.

Members of parliament like Wee Choo Keong commended Najib’s decision to shun a combative attitude while coordinating with the other countries involved in the disaster. “Under normal circumstances, the ‘popular’ or easiest way out for any PM was to go along with the power[s] that be by condemning another nation on the shooting down of MH17, but our PM did not embark on such irresponsible act,” the parliamentarian noted on his website.

Malaysian leaders were joined by ordinary citizens who have been actively demanding the prosecution of those who ordered the shooting down of the passenger plane. Writer V Shuman noted how the MH17 tragedy has almost miraculously united Malaysian society.

“This tragedy has united Malaysians in grieving, across racial and religious divide[s] as well as political leanings. We see, after a long time, a rare occasion where politicians and their supporters, and even racial and religious bigots, have stopped spouting nonsense and bickering among themselves,” he wrote.

But bigger challenges lie ahead, since there are fears that the evidence of the crash has been tampered with already. Malaysia may have to decisively confront the superpower countries involved in the crash and the wider Ukrainian conflict, once the independent probe has done its work. In the meantime, Malaysia should continue to prioritize the return of the victims’ remains to their respective home countries.

Written for Bulatlat

The annual state of the nation address is a must read for all citizens who are eager to know the president’s self-rated accomplishment report and priority programs. It is also relevant for what it fails to mention or what the president refuses to acknowledge. It is both a historical document and a propaganda material that can serve or undermine the political interest of the ruling party. It is useful to monitor the country’s development, the reforms instituted by every government, and the varied excuses of past leaders as to why they failed to uplift the living conditions of our people.

Admittedly, the Sona is packed with beautifully-written lies and inspiring rhetoric. But there are few times when it can provide a glimpse of truth and this is usually the first Sona of the new president who is intent on highlighting the woes he inherited from his predecessor. Read for instance the inaugural Sona speeches of Presidents Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos.

But what is deeply troubling and tragic in the Sona speeches of Macapagal and Marcos in the 1960s is the surreal similarities of the country’s conditions during that time and the present. It is as if the social problems mentioned by both presidents have simply mutated into more sinister forms. Many of the quotes I selected from these Sona speeches are familiar because they echo today’s headlines such as corruption and immorality in high places, poverty in the rural areas, and bureaucratic failure to address the country’s problems.

Some of the Sona excerpts are interesting because they refer to issues which are no longer reported like cattle theft and pirate attacks around Manila Bay; or the vision of the government during that time (science community in Taguig). There were proposals and bold reforms that remain a dream to this day like eradicating smuggling, completing the land reform, and extending the railways to the North.

Finally, these Sona speeches validate the continuing struggle of Filipinos for genuine change. How come succeeding presidents have failed to solve the country’s decades-old problems? It is because the solutions offered by the status quo have never changed all this time. Onward with the revolution.

January 22, 1962 Diosdado Macapagal

“It is a wasted effort to steep the young in virtue and morality only to let them realize as they grow up that their elders are neither moral nor virtuous.”

“This is indeed a nation of contrasts where very few regions and communities enjoy affluence in contrast to widespread poverty in others.”

“(I propose) the creation of an Anti-Smuggling Office to eradicate smuggling activities that seriously deprive the National Treasury of due customs and internal revenue receipts.”

January 28, 1963

“The government was bankrupt…Graft and corruption had seeped into every nook and crevice of the government, both national and local. The people had assumed an attitude of cynicism, an attitude that made them shrug off corruption as inevitable.”

“As long as the President of the Republic abides by the decisions of the Supreme Court, there can be and there will be no dictatorships in this country.”

“We issued an executive order prohibiting government officials from having official transactions with any of the President’s immediate relatives.”

“Among the nationals, we took action on the following persons: 1) those who utilized organized political power to build business empires, and vice-versa; 2) those who misused public trust to amass wealth; 3) those who evaded the payment of taxes; 4) those who perpetrated smuggling; 5) those who committed copra overpricing.”

“The law can be justly merciless too, in its retribution on those who believe that they are above the law.”

“The ‘tong’ system in which businessmen made regular payments to government officials has ended…The commission of graft at the higher echelons has been virtually terminated.”

“Our pledge during the campaign was not to lower the prices but to stop rising prices…This is evidenced by our posters and radio jingles all over the country which cried: ‘Stop corruption! Stop rising prices!”

“The time has come to abolish tenancy in our farms…we must now do away with tenancy which has become the centuries-old tattoo of economic slavery and social degradation for the man who tills the farm.”

January 27, 1964

“We must increase the minimum wage while assuring a reasonable margin of profit for employers.”

January 25, 1965

“The Filipino way of life consists of three minimum elements, namely, the system of freedom, the love for peace and the sustenance of the rule of law.”

“The expansion projects of the Philippine National Railways would extend its lines by 310 kilometers from Nueva Ecija to Cagayan in the North.”

“An area comprising about one hectare of Manila Bay in Navotas, Rizal was reserved as a fisheries development center…Pier 14 was declared for the exclusive use of fishing vessels.”

“The ‘Operation Barrio Titulo’ was designed to deliver land titles otherwise lying idle in the Offices of the Registers of Deeds.”

“Considerable headway has also been made in combating cattle theft. 696 rustlers have been arrested and 1,554 animals recovered, some 81 percent of the total stolen.”

“Our (Sabah) claim has been bolstered by the written support of Indonesia and the formal commitment of Malaysia to settle it by peaceful means, particularly through the World Court.”

“(I proposed a bill) to reduce Congressional allowances to a level that would be satisfactory to the people.”

January 24, 1966 Ferdinand Marcos

“Congress is the ‘seat of reason’ and the Executive is the ‘seat of will.’ Reason without the power of will is impotent, and will unaided by reason degenerates into brute and force.”

“Election – the noble process of manifesting the mandate of the majority’s will – has been degraded into a contest of the rich and the unscrupulous. Apparently, only by a miracle, so the observers say, has the deserving but penurious candidate won in an election.”
“Our industries are suffering from being too thin in capital base, too fat in accounts receivables, too starved for credit and too drained of profits.”

“There is a very disturbing upsurge in the incidence of criminality in our country. The crime clock indicates murder and homicide every hour, theft every 30 minutes, robbery every hour, sexual offenses, estafa and falsification every two hours.”

January 23, 1967

“The crisis consisted in a bankrupt government with a raided treasury, debt-ridden government corporation, inefficient agricultural, smuggling, lawlessness, rising prices, declining terms of trade.”

“The whole year of 1966 no releases for what is commonly referred to as the ‘pork barrel’ were made notwithstanding political importunings.”

“My countrymen, we are in Vietnam because we want to survive in freedom.”
“We have a gap in agriculture to bridge. This may well be called the ‘dry gap.’

“We have proposed the establishment of an International Research Institute for Coconut similar to the IRRI.”

“It is needless to remind you of the evil effects of forest vandalism…We are destroying resources with wanton indifference.”

“Our allocation for public education is 30 percent of the total annual budget of the National Government.”

“We are no longer what we always believed we were – a nation of incompetents and failures. We have become a nation of achievers.”

“An increasing number of piratical raids in Manila Bay and the Visayas-Mindanao area has also been noted.”

“On my instructions, the Social Security Commission and the Department of Labor have undertaken a study toward the institution of an unemployment insurance scheme for the first time in the Philippines.”

“It is unfortunate that many valid liberal causes have been denounced as communistic by those among us of an authoritarian bent; and equally unfortunate that the essentially conspiratorial character of Philippines Communism has been taken too lightly by others.”

“To those who seek to overthrow the Government, we shall respond in the only language they know – the language of firmness. But to those who are merely misguided and are sincerely working to uplift the common man, we offer the loving embrace of our people in a common effort to build a just and affording society.”

“We used to pride ourselves in being a generation of fighters. Today, we are called upon to become a generation of builders.”

“Today, the great epic of national development is working itself out in terms of a thousand acts of courage and faith day after day among our countrymen, and the whole society is the theater of action.”

January 22, 1968

“All major services of the Armed Forces have been utilized in the peace and order drive, resulting in the immediate breakup of pirate gangs in the Visayas and Mindanao. The government today is coping more effectively with the menace from roving Huk bands, smuggling syndicates, carnapping groups, kidnapping, rape and robbery, hoodlums and teenage gangs.”

January 27, 1969

“The year 1968 saw the end of frustration, resignation, cynicism and indolence, of complacency, and of indifference, the chief obstacles to Philippine progress. On the other hand, the past year marked the beginning of purposive, concerted action for national progress, the beginning of our national metamorphosis.”

“In 1968, the New Filipino and the New Filipinism came into being.”

“The political structure that was erected during the first half of the century, save for a few insignificant alterations, has remained unchanged to the present day. The inefficiency and the immorality in government are partly due to this defective political system.”

“A breakthrough in rice production enabled us to export the staple for the first time in our history.”

“At the end of 1969, we expect all of Central Luzon to be a land reform area.”
“A survey in Mindanao in 1966 showed that 60 percent of our people die without ever seeing a doctor or a nurse.”

“Until 1965, the Philippines was one of the three countries in Asia with the poorest telecommunications system”

“Already in existence are 21 telegraph stations, 25 radio-telegraph stations, two radio stations, and eight telegraph-telephone stations.”

“A Department of Labor study on the ‘brain drain’ problem has brought to light the exploitation of our doctors and nurses abroad under the exchange visitors program, and the unrestricted migration of technicians and skilled workers of developed countries.”

“To help hard-pressed parents, we scrapped textbook rentals in public intermediate schools.”

“During my state visit to three neighboring countries, I also proposed a University of Asia.”

“I am gratified that despite upheavals on campuses all over the world, our students have been more responsible. They demonstrate, but peaceably; they engage in the national dialogue over important issues and they are responsive to the challenges of nation-building. And it is precisely for this reason that I have initiated the move to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 years.”

“On April 6, 1968, we proclaimed 35 hectares located at Bicutan, Taguig, Rizal, as the site of the Philippine Science Community.”

“We welcome the new, purposeful militancy and dynamism of our youth and students. We must enlist their energies, their talents and their idealism to the cause of orderly progress and change, to the cause of expanding freedom and welfare for all our people.”

“I am creating a national youth commission which shall advise the President on youth and student affairs…I propose passage of a Magna Carta for students.”

“I propose a complete and immediate embargo on all luxury and non-essential goods. The continuous and unrestricted importation of such goods strains our foreign reserves, corrupts the tastes of our people, and diminishes our capital resources for the development of agriculture and industry.”

“We shall initiate immediately a program to remove our major military camps from the metropolitan area to new sites farther from the centers of population.”

“Political and social institutions that merely perpetuate entrenched privileges based on the accident of birth must be remolded or replaced with new ones that promote genuine democracy.”

“The democratic dialogue must be preserved. The clash of ideas is the glory and the safeguard of democracy.”

May breaking news kaninang umaga at binulabog nito ang buong mundo. Apektado rin ako ng balitang ito. Biruin ninyo, naglabas ng pahayag ang Sanrio na si Hello Kitty raw ay hindi pusa. Tama po ang inyong narinig, hindi pusa si Hello Kitty. Siya pala ay isang batang babae. Kaya kung noong bata kayo ay inisip ninyo na pusa si Hello Kitty, mali ang inyong inisip o mali ang tinuro sa inyo.

Binabanggit ko ito ngayon dahil marami tayong natutunan noon; at nababasa, napapanood, at naririnig ngayon na akala natin ay tama subalit wala palang katotohanan. Halimbawa, isa sa mga lumason sa isip ng mga kabataan at maging sa iba nating mga kababayan ay ang pagturing sa mga dolphin show at paglalagay ng mga marine mammal sa marine park bilang positibong ambag sa edukasyon at pagtatanggol ng kalikasan. Oo, nakakaaliw; Oo, pambihira ang singkronisadong galaw ng mga dolphin; Oo, walang kaparis na karanasan para sa bata ang makakita ng buhay na marine mammal. Subalit, ang ating aliw ay katumbas ng malupit na pagmamaltrato sa mga hayop. At ano ang iniiwang aral sa mga bata? Na ang marine mammal ay pwedeng ikulong? Na ang mainam na pagkalinga sa mga marine mammal ay iaasa sa pagtatayo ng mga komersyalisadong marine park?

Sana makatulong ang documentary na ating panonoorin upang makita natin ang tago at tinatagong malubhang kalagayan ng mga marine mammal sa mga marine park. Sana ay magbunsod ito ng pagbabago sa ating pananaw at makaimpluwensiya ng marami pang paaralan upang maunawaan ng ating mga kabataan na kung totoong mahal natin ang mga dolphin at balyena, dapat tiyakin natin na malinis at ligtas ang kanilang tirahan; at ang kanilang tirahan ay hindi sa marine park kundi ang malawak na karagatan. Mapalad tayo sa Pilipinas at napapaligiran tayo ng mga katubigan. Doon sa katubigan ay samahan natin ang ating mga kaibigan at kamag-anak at sabay-sabay nating pagmasdan at humanga sa kagandahan at magiliw na paggalaw ng mga dolhin sa kanilang likas na tirahan.

Mayroon tayong kongkretong magagawa dito sa Metro Manila. Tumulong tayo na linisin ang Manila Bay, bawasan ang basura sa baybay, at huwag tangkilikin ang mga dolphin show. (May coastal clean up sa Setyembre 13 sa Freedom Island). Mahalaga din na itulak natin ang pagpapatupad ng mga batas at programa para sa komprehensibong pagtatanggol ng kalikasan sa kabuuuan. Hindi lamang dapat daang matuwid, dapat daang malinis din. Totoo, masaya sa mga dolphin show. Pero ayon nga sa isang sikat na slogan ngayon, #itsmorefun – #itsmorefun kung ang mga dolphin at balyena ay malalayang nabubuhay sa malawak na katubigan.

blackfish

Written for The Diplomat

The peace deal signed by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could soon collapse, as the draft law that would give autonomy to Muslims in the southern part of the country has yet to be submitted to Congress.

Aside from the delay, the MILF is accusing the government of reneging on its commitment to uphold the agreement that the two parties signed last March. The Muslim rebel group, which has been waging a war for independence since the 1970s in Mindanao, revealed that 70 percent of the proposed “Bangsamoro” law was deleted or substantially revised by government lawyers.

Mohagher Iqbal, the chief negotiator of the MILF, told Reuters in an interview that their group will reject the draft law, which needs to be approved by Congress. “We will lose face if we agree to this. Their version clearly departed from the letter and spirit of the peace agreement, which was the basis in crafting the proposed law.”

The MILF also noted that the government panel spent two months reviewing the signed peace deal, which caused the delay in submitting the document to Congress.

In an earlier statement, the MILF expressed frustration that the government is adopting “a very conservative interpretation of the Constitution,” which prevents it from fully supporting and implementing the signed peace agreements.

“The current government proposals will not restore dignity to a people who suffered tyranny and will not secure a peaceful and prosperous future,” the group said. It also asserted that “all those issues that are settled in the (past) will not be subject for renegotiation.”

Decades of conflict between the government and MILF’s forces have exacerbated poverty and economic hardships in Muslim Mindanao. There were previous peace and economic deals initiated by the government, but all of them had failed to improve the conditions of the Moro people. President Benigno Simeon Aquino III is hoping that the MILF peace pact that his government signed last March will be among his enduring legacies after his term ends in 2016.

If passed by Congress, the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law has to be approved in a referendum. Under the original plan, a transition authority would be created to oversee the election of officials in the new autonomous region. However, there are some experts who warn that the law could be declared unconstitutional, because it will give greater autonomy and taxation powers to the MILF. Some also believe the country’s constitution must be amended if the government is serious about securing a final peace deal.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda admitted that there will be a delay in the passage of the Bangsamoro Law, but denied that the peace process is in danger of collapse. “The panels are aware of the timeline. But the panels are also equally aware that the substance should be discussed mutually and agreed mutually.”

The two panels are meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this week to finalize the proposed law. But since Congressional sessions have already underway, it will be difficult to approve the bill this year.

That the MILF panel publicly accused its government counterpart is a distressing sign that there is a serious rift between the two sides. With greater legal and political challenges to overcome in the next few months, this issue requires urgent attention.

Aquino: The First Filipino Nobel Laureate?

Written for The Diplomat

There are reports that Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his leadership in pursuing and finalizing a peace agreement with Muslim separatist rebels. But Aquino’s detractors are alleging that the president’s subordinates actively lobbied for the nomination in Europe. They also described Aquino as unworthy of the prestigious award.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda admitted that the president’s peace adviser was in Norway last week to attend an international conference, but he denied that there was a lobby effort to nominate Aquino for the Nobel.

Still, he did add that “it is possible that there are groups who do wish to nominate” Aquino for signing the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) early this year. He noted that CAB is already the most significant peace accord in the Asia-Pacific region after the end of hostilities in Aceh in Indonesia in 2005. “It is, in the eyes of the international community, a big milestone for the promotion and propagation of peace.”

He went on to note that “It would be an honor for the Philippines to have President Aquino nominated.”

If he succeeds in receiving the Nobel, Aquino will be the first Filipino Nobel Laureate. His mother was nominated in 1986 after the peaceful uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship but did not win.

However, Philippine opposition groups were quick to reject the idea of Aquino receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Leftist group Bayan called Aquino as “highly unqualified for such an award.” It cited the poor human rights record of the administration in the past four years reflected in the 192 cases of extrajudicial killings and 21 cases of enforced disappearances. It also highlighted a recent European Union report about the alarming cases of torture in the country and the continuing “culture of impunity” under Aquino’s watch.

The Manila Standard Today, a newspaper that has been critical of Aquino, questioned the president’s credentials as a man of peace: “The notion that President Benigno Aquino III could win a Nobel Peace Prize is laughable, but it is a cruel joke at best, given how insulting it is to the millions of Filipinos who must live with the dire consequences of his misguided policies and to the scores of other world leaders who actually deserve the accolade.”

The Moro National Liberation Front, which has been complaining that it was excluded in the peace process, ridiculed Aquino’s nomination as “self-nomination” and a “desecration of the spirit” of the Nobel award.

But Aquino found an ally in Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former Defense Minister and National Security Adviser, who praised Aquino’s “courage and tenacity” in ending the Muslim rebellion in southern Philippines. “For the people of Mindanao, this is a life-changing development. In the few short months since the peace deal was reached, Filipino and foreign investment has been flowing into the island.”

The Japanese parliamentarian also believes that Aquino deserves the Nobel for his role in “reining in China’s regional ambitions.”

“Mr. Aquino’s bold and calculated leadership can succeed in knocking China down a few pegs, thereby bolstering stability and security throughout Asia,” she wrote.

Whether or not he deserves the Nobel, Aquino’s bigger challenge today is how to successfully implement the peace deal he signed with the Muslim rebels. The agreement could face stiff opposition in Congress and its constitutionality might be questioned in the Supreme Court. Last week, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation urged the Philippine government not to set aside previously signed peace agreements. Aquino must also deal with the communist forces that are still waging a guerrilla war in the countryside.

The Nobel nomination must not distract Aquino from his avowed goal of establishing a true and lasting peace in the country.

Written for Bulatlat

Have you ever wondered why there are rallies calling for land reform but none that advocate for women’s right to suffrage? The answer is obvious: The first is a demand by landless farmers which is being virulently opposed by the powerful landed class while the latter is already a political victory achieved by the women sector many decades ago. We often notice the first, and some are even complaining against it, but the political significance of the latter is always overlooked. We fail to recognize that for every social issue that motivates people to join rallies, there are dozens of political topics that no longer provoke a massive public outcry. For every expose made by activists, there are dozens of social issues which are not getting proper attention. The problem is not the existence of rallies but the fact that there are few rallies addressing the country’s myriad social problems.

Let us learn from the successful campaign to recognize the right of women to participate and vote in the elections. Today, women’s electoral participation is not only widely accepted, it is also a mainstream indicator of a functioning modern democracy. But this is a recent phenomenon. A hundred years ago, the idea of women joining electoral politics was rejected by many as a laughable and unnecessary reform. Fortunately, women groups persisted and they challenged the prevailing opinion by aggressively asserting their political demand. They rallied millions of people to their cause until it became a popular concept. If women are protective of this right, it is because they fought hard and sacrificed a lot before this campaign gained widespread support.

There was no assurance of victory when women activists demanded the right of all citizens to vote. Yet it failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the mass movement. This is the precious legacy and lesson of activism. We dream the impossible, we talk of the unmentionable, we fight the invincible, we journey towards the unknown.

And there is another thing: We secretly desire that struggling for our rights will be rendered irrelevant. We wish to create a world where our vision is no longer seen as strange or our views as deviant. We want the natural ‘withering away’ of activists in society because it means there is no more need for a group of people who will passionately articulate and defend the sentiments of the marginalized. We are rallying today so that rallies will become redundant in the future.

But this is different from the crazed yearning of the oppressors and their hired underlings who are openly advocating the end of rallies and militant activism. What they truly fantasize is the preservation of the unequal world minus the dissent of the oppressed. They seem to have forgotten a crucial lesson in history: As long as preventable miseries exist, activism will never become obsolete.

A rally will always look anomalous and unfashionable because it shatters the comforting veneer of normalcy that prop up the existing order. Nevertheless, a rally accelerates the arrival of the future. It is an intervention in eternity. Activists are thinking the future through their demands that seem out of place in the present. Free college education? Free health care? Socialized housing for the poor? Viewed from the perspective of the present, they appear to be irrational demands (unless you are living in a European welfare state). But they are being proposed in behalf of the future. It is an attempt to create a different future. It is crowdsourcing the worldview of the future in realtime. Today’s abstract or confusing idea can be tomorrow’s kindergarten knowledge. What activists are seeking to accomplish is to conform the present with the future. And once this is done, society can finally retire the words activism and rally because they have already served their purpose.

This is the reason why activists are among the most optimistic people in the world. They fervently believe in the fighting capacity of the masses. Their faith in humanity is limitless. And they are determined to pursue their goals despite the reactionary backlash that seek to discredit and defeat the forward march of the revolution.

The pathetic tactic of the ruling class is to ridicule activism as irrelevant and a nuisance in politics. They need to be reminded that radicalism as an idea and a political threat cannot be eliminated simply because politicians and their apologists have declared it to be passe. End inequality, injustice, and imperialism before making a claim about the supposed antiquated value of activism.

Activism is neither a problem nor a specter that requires a solution. It is a solution disguised as a problem and a specter. It is a cure to the social ills that plague society. Democracy will quickly degenerate into a monstrous regime without the potent presence of activism. Claim the future by embracing the promise of activism.

Written for The Diplomat

I was a congressman for four years (2009-2013) which equaled the number of my undergraduate years at UP Diliman (1996-2000). When asked about my two-term stint in Congress, I often claim that it’s like college but not quite like college. Of course it’s a joke since my college life was many times more memorable than the years I spent in Congress.

But there are other reasons for comparing Congress to college. For example, both are important albeit imperfect institutions in society. Both are asserting to be indicators of modern democracy even if their default function is to reproduce the existing social order. And both are habitually prone to all kinds of scandals and rumors such as plagiarized speeches, sex tapes, and other perversions.

Looking back, college was more rigorous in enforcing discipline. A student who missed classes for six times was automatically dropped from the rolls. If he was late for three times already, it will be counted as an absence. In contrast, have you ever heard of a legislator who was expelled or even suspended for being a notorious no-show in the plenary sessions and committee hearings? A congressman, and especially a senator, can be scandalously late in a meeting without being reprimanded by his peers. He can be detained in a hospital or special cell, he can extend his overseas vacation, and he can choose not to leave his hacienda or resort island without being removed from his job.

During our time, a student with a regular 15-unit load had to attend classes for at least four times a week, or five if he was an ROTC cadet. He must spend (or waste) at least four hours of his life everyday listening to lectures which were often enlightening and interesting but also sometimes frustratingly boring and nonsensical. However, it was always fun because you’re in the company of fellow dreamers and curious learners – all of whom are possessed with raging hormones. In Congress, your ‘classmates’ already have aging hormones and diabolical dreams.

Kidding aside, in college you interact with geeks, conos, promdis, fratmen, the religious, activists, the crazies, and other young people from different class and social backgrounds. In Congress, you will still meet these people but many of them have already mutated into warlords, despotic landlords, and other dark lords. In college you willingly lose your innocence; in Congress you must struggle hard to preserve your innocence.

Compared to the daily lectures in college, Congress is averse to the idea of a five-day work week. Congress holds official sessions from Mondays to Wednesdays only and they start at 4pm, although formal deliberations happen around 5pm. Listening to plenary debates is an option since the presiding officer usually does not mind if House members are busy texting, surfing the net, or playing bejeweled on the plenary floor.

Sessions last for two to three hours. Before adjournment, more than half of your colleagues have already left the Batasan complex.

It’s odd too that members of Congress are not required to attend the Monday morning flag ceremony which is a mandatory activity for millions of civil service workers across the country.

Congress cannot complain of overwork because it has numerous session breaks in a year (unlike most city councils which only take a break during the Holy Week and the Christmas season). The Congress calendar actually reminds me of the college school calendar. In college we have the first semester, semestral break, second semester, and the summer classes. Similarly, Congress has a first semester (last week of July – October), three-week sembreak, second semester (November – March), and a summer session (May – first week of June). But Congress seems more serious in celebrating the Christmas spirit by holding a month-long vacation after the second week of December.

As a life experience, college trumps Congress in almost everything. Well, except in food tripping since Congress has an exclusive south lounge where a buffet-like service is available to all House members. It’s not Viking’s but it’s also not a typical college canteen. Here’s the menu on February 2, 2010: cream of mushroom soup, pasta with bolognese pinoy style or roast vegetable and tuna, southern fried chicken, steamed buttered corn in cob, tacos with cheese tomato salsa, sour cream, beef, roast beef panini sandwich, cheese puff, banana coffee cake, sweetened banana.

No wonder the lounge is sometimes referred to as the ‘other plenary’ where members prefer to socialize and discuss politics while indulging in an afternoon gastronomic delight.

After a toxic day, a college student can relax by watching movies. The campus film center screens award-winning Hollywood movies, indie flicks, and notable foreign films. A congressman can relax too by watching movies…for free. He can use his MTRCB card as a free pass in any movie theater, including 3D and Imax theaters, and it’s good for two people.

It is almost impossible for a student to earn a college diploma without submitting several research papers. Many courses, in fact, require students to write and finish a thesis. These papers have to be original or at least they must appear to be properly written. In Congress, it is possible for legislators to end their full term without introducing new pieces of legislation. All they have to do is to refile archived bills and resolutions or they can simply co-author the popular and even trivial measures of their colleagues.

Unlike a student who must conduct some library work to produce a term paper, a congressman has the luxury of doing almost nothing to fill up his legislative record. He can tap the House secretariat to draft his legislative measures or he can link up with lobby groups which are always ready with one-size-fits-all proposals. Despite these options, some are still unabashedly non-productive and non-performing. They are too focused on the parochial. But beware of these politicians who shun national advocacies because they are susceptible to pork politics.

Meanwhile, if there are academic whores in college, the same kind of creatures also proliferate in Congress. They needlessly and incessantly worship the leadership skills of the Speaker and other designated leaders of the House. They are ready to become the pathetic mercenaries of the ruling party in order to tweak the opposition. They feel they are part of the First Family who feel slighted every time the president is criticized. Their canine devotion to the president is disgustingly freaky.

Look how these porksters recently banded together to assure the president of their support even if the latter has been consistently usurping the ‘power of the purse’ of Congress. Damn the independence of the institution. Damn the separation of powers. Damn accountability. Damn decency. The generous president who controls the national treasury must not be impeached.

And speaking of the president, he is the counterpart of the college bully. But if the school bully is ostracized, the president-bully is glorified. His political agenda is accepted without question, his priority concerns become the urgent matters in Congress, and his budget bill is passed without amendments.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare college to Congress (apologies to all higher education institutions and the hardworking Congress secretariat). But at a time when the dominant policy perspective is to reduce public subsidies for tertiary schools, we should also rethink the wisdom of allocating huge sums of taxpayers’ money to an institution which is incapable and even hostile to the idea of reviewing and reorienting its social and political function.

Abolish college and society will suffer. Meanwhile, Congress will remain a democratic trapping as long as it stubbornly clings to a moribund tradition. In the meantime, hope lies elsewhere. Outside the Batasan, the people’s congress is keeping democracy alive.

Written for The Diplomat

More rioting between Buddhist and Muslim groups erupted in Myanmar early this month, killing two people and injuring 14 others. The fatalities included a young Buddhist man who was riding a bike and a Muslim bicycle shop owner. The riots – which took place over four days in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city – were triggered by an unverified online story about an alleged raping of a Buddhist employee by her Muslim employers in a tea shop.

In contrast to their sluggish response in the past, the police were quick to act and restore order. About 362 rioters were arrested and a curfew imposed.

Speculation is rife that the riots were deliberately planned to sow panic and distract public attention. Just a few hours before the riots broke out, the Young Buddhists Association warned of a plot to provoke violence in the country. “We received news that the instigators who want to create religion or race-based violence are planning to inflame [the situation] on the Internet’s social networks and across the country.”

The London-based Burmese Muslim Association described the violent conflict as a “well-planned operation, carried out by a group of well-trained thugs.”

“Since 1 July 2014, a van and a group of about 30 motorbikes, carrying mobs armed with machetes and lethal weapons, were roaming around the city of Mandalay and targeting various Muslims, shops and businesses owned by Muslims, and a number of Islamic religious institutions and premises,” the group said in a statement.

Thein Win Aung, vice chairman of a peace group which was initiated by religious leaders and residents right after the clashes in Mandalay, suspected that the riot could be a “political trick” to stop people from supporting the 436 campaign which aims to amend the country’s military-backed constitution. “If we do not understand these political tricks, if we do not control each other, if we allow ourselves to fall into the trap, then not only Mandalay, but the entire country, will be consumed in the flames of chaos.”

Indeed, the riots have discouraged many people from actively discussing the campaign for constitutional reforms, which is a major political initiative of the opposition led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the riots could also mean that religious extremism continues to strengthen its grip on the country. Recent years have seen a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment among the Burmese, majority of whom are Buddhist. Some Buddhist leaders have been openly attacking the Muslim community for conspiring to dominate Myanmar.

Unfortunately, those who share these feelings have been effectively using the Internet, particularly the popular social networking site Facebook, to incite more hatred against the Muslims. This led Burmese American author Kenneth Wong to ask netizens to be more responsible when using the Internet. “In today’s tinderbox environment of Burma, it only takes one irresponsible news story and a few thousand mouse clicks on Facebook to set Mandalay or any other major city ablaze.”

The government quickly ordered the blocking of Facebook during the riots to prevent the dissemination of hate speech. Myanmar Chief Police Officer Win Kaung admitted in an interview with the Irrawaddy magazine that blocking Facebook was necessary to stop the violence. “Yes, we blocked it. We wanted to stop the instigation. When they are doing the instigation or spreading the unverified news, this could only provoke the underlying hatred between different groups or people; one’s own word or line could lead to a bigger conflict.”

There were mixed reactions to the blocking of Facebook. Some supported it while others were concerned about its impact on the country’s efforts to improve the state of free speech. Today, Facebook was blocked to stop rioting but will the police adopt the same measure to quell anti-government protests in the future?

Also troubling was the reported threats made by the mob against journalists and news agencies covering the riot. These threats appeared to dissuade journalists from documenting the full impact of the riots in Mandalay.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy cannot succeed without serious efforts to promote interfaith harmony. The Mandalay riots should serve as a timely reminder to all stakeholders, including the global community, that Myanmar is undergoing a turbulent transition and the country requires more than just political and constitutional reforms.

Singapore Library Bans Books That Feature LGBT Families

Written for The Diplomat

Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) has banned and destroyed copies of three children’s books that deal with same-sex couples and adoption after it received a complaint that the books are not “pro-family.”

NLB removed the books And Tango Makes Three, Who’s In Your Family, and The White Swan Express from the children’s section after a visitor questioned the appropriateness of including the three books in the library. The chief librarian at the NLB quickly responded by assuring the complainant that “NLB takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books.”

Dr. Justin Richardson, one of the authors of And Tango Makes Three, told The Online Citizen in an interview that NLB’s action has sent a “chilling message about the government’s attitude toward the freedom of expression in general and toward gay and lesbian people in particular.” The book is based on a true story of two male penguins who raised a baby penguin as their own at the New York Central Park Zoo. Meanwhile, the two other banned books also featured stories about non-traditional couples and families.

NLB’s decision to ban the books was met with fierce reactions from the reading public, especially mothers and academics. Many Singaporean authors have publicly criticized the NLB for allowing itself to be bullied by a “conservative minority.” Some of them have already boycotted recent literary events sponsored by the NLB. Last Sunday, more than 400 people gathered in front of the NLB to participate in a public reading event to protest. They also distributed copies of the banned books.

But NLB found support from Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s minister of Communications and Information, who reminded the critics that public libraries exist to give consideration to community norms.

“The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

The issue has highlighted the continuing confrontation between conservative forces and an emergent community that accepts the gay community and advocates for LGBT rights.

Before the NLB issue, the most recent clash was just a few weeks ago during Singapore’s annual Pink Dot celebration. This year’s event attracted more than 26,000 people, the largest Pink Dot since the first in 2009. But this year was also the first time that religious groups openly and actively opposed the Pink Dot by urging people to wear white on the same day.

While the LGBT community and their supporters assembled at Singapore’s freedom park to celebrate love, tolerance and diversity, about 6,000 Christians participated in a “family worship” in opposition to the principles espoused by Pink Dot. They were joined by prominent Islamic educators who initiated the #WearWhite campaign to rally Muslims against homosexuality and to reverse the “normalization of LGBT in Singapore.” Even Catholic Archbishop William Goh issued a pastoral letter criticizing the LGBT lifestyle as “detrimental to society.”

But more solid proof of the continuing marginalization of the LGBT is reflected in the country’s laws, like the notorious Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalizes male homosexual acts.

The LGBT community continues to grow in Singapore but there are still powerful conservative forces that are vehemently opposed to the mainstreaming and even existence of the LGBT sector. The NLB issue has clearly demonstrated the clout of this conservative bloc.