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 Bulatlat

1. Rallies are violent, street rallies are illegal, and they cause destabilization. A rally is neither a picnic nor a carnival but it is also not a riot and a mortal combat activity. A rally will end and disperse peacefully if the police is not ordered to attack the protesters. Many people erroneously assume that rallies are chaotic mainly because news reports often highlight the clash between the police and protesters. What these reports neglect to mention is that the tension lasted for only a few minutes during the whole day rally.

As a public spectacle, a rally is no different from a festival parade or a church procession which all require a permit from authorities. But unlike rallies, the latter and other seemingly non-political street events are not outrightly dismissed as illegal whether or not they have official approval from the bureaucracy. By the way, a permit to hold a rally is not necessary if the venue is a freedom park (Liwasang Bonifacio, Plaza Miranda), especially during weekends.

Destabilization is a manifestation of a severe political crisis. But it can also be caused by rallies and it might be the political impact intended by activists. Nevertheless, it is not wrong. Only the despotic, corrupt, and illegitimate leaders like Marcos and Arroyo are threatened by the specter of destabilization.

2. Rali na lang nang rali ang mga aktibista. Wrong. We have too many meetings and only few rallies. I wish the reverse were true but the reality is that our time, energy, and attention are spent on attending and holding meetings. Meeting of community leaders and members, meeting with policymakers, meeting of mass organizations. Meetings during breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including weekends. What do we do everyday? Education sessions, lobbying, networking, community integration, forum organizing. A rally is actually the culmination of a particular campaign. It is counterproductive to hold rallies every now and then without first investigating and studying the issue, launching an awareness and information drive, and recruiting new members.

3. Rallies create public disturbance like heavy traffic and loss of livelihood. The country’s most popular protest venue is Mendiola near Malacanang Palace which is located in a busy intersection in Manila. Why do activists hold rally here? Because the government has outlawed protest actions in front of the palace. Aside from erecting an electric fence, the government has declared the Malacanang Freedom Park as a ‘no-rally’ zone. Why do protesters congregate in Commonwealth Avenue during the annual state of the nation address? Because the police and the local government are always preventing activists from staging a counter-Sona inside the SB Freedom Park in front of the Batasan.

We want to protest in front of a government building but the police are always blocking our march. Rallies are commonly held in Manila because it is the country’s political center. Streets become protest venues because they are almost the only public space available where the people can freely express their beliefs and briefly reclaim power.

Who benefits from the myopic thinking that rallies create monstrous traffic jams? The inept politicians in power and their benefactors who want to redirect public attention away from serious policy questions. It is a disservice to the public if the main debate is shifted to peripheral issues like the inconvenience caused by rallies rather than focusing on the central political issue at hand.

Also, to reprimand the poor for rallying instead of working is to echo the point of view of those in power. Can’t the poor immerse themselves in politics to assert their rights?

4. Rallies are communist activities. Tell that to the Catholic Bishops who organized pro-life rallies. Perhaps journalists are communists too for marching in the streets against the culture of impunity with regard to media killings. All presidents must be communists too because they joined and even organized rallies in the past. Cory was a street parliamentarian during the Marcos years, Ramos was part of the People Power rally, Erap marched in the streets against the US bases, Gloria rallied against Erap, and Noynoy was also sometimes present during the anti-Gloria rallies. But when these politicians became presidents, they suddenly turned averse against those who are joining rallies.

Participating in a collective political action is a democratic right and it does not become irrelevant even if it is continually dismissed by politicians in power and their apologists.

5. Protesters are paid to join hakot rallies. Pork barrel funds of Leftist legislators are used to organize rallies. Many politicians are guilty of organizing hakot rallies especially during election campaigns. But instead of simply condemning the people for ‘selling’ their political convictions, we must organize them and encourage them to fight the political system which caused their marginalization.

Cynicism is hard to overcome but we must allow ourselves to be open to the idea that there are groups like the militant Left which are sincerely struggling for political reforms. Many people join rallies not because of money but because they believe in the cause. Acquiring material wealth is not a motivation for those who choose to become a National Democrat or Natdem activist.

The Left has been organizing rallies for many decades already and it entered Congress only in 2001. It has always relied on the mass movement, and not the pork barrel system, to raise the resources needed for its activities. Further, not a single proof has been presented that Leftist legislators have abused the pork barrel system to commit anomalous deeds.

6. Activists are rah-rah, grim and determined simpletons who are always opposing the government. Criticism is important in a democracy. Opposing the government is not a choice but a duty when the government has become a brutal tool of repression used by the elite to dominate the poor.

Activists and even citizens are not obliged to worship government officials; they are also not required to express public support to government programs just to prove that they are patriotic and responsible citizens. But they need to be critical and vigilant to make public officials accountable. Rallies provide concrete opportunities for the people to exert pressure on the government.

It is inaccurate to argue that activists are always opposing the government. No rally has been organized to oppose the Department of Tourism’s #itsmorefun slogan. No protest was reported when the government approved a law expanding the discounts given to senior citizens. Leftist legislators voted in favor of Aquino’s priority bills like the Reproductive Health and Kindergarten Law. There are hundreds of national agencies and thousands of local departments but activists are choosing to hold rallies against only the few superbads of bureaucracy.

Some are turned off by the angry chants and seemingly simplistic slogans of activists in rallies. But it’s difficult not to be angry when the government evicts public hospitals. Meanwhile, the slogans have to be short and direct to the point for easier recall. Are you expecting a thesis statement in the placards?

If the sound bites in rallies are too simple for your intellect, please bear in mind that the target audience is not just you but the general public. Activists have already authored various publications from half-page leaflets to encyclopedia-size books which you are free to read so that you won’t fall into the trap of naively dismissing the intellectual capacity of progressives.

7. Rallies achieve nothing and hence they are just a waste of time. In contrast to rallies, holding dialogue with the government brings immediate and concrete results. But if rallies are really obsolete, why did many people organize the ‘Million People March’ in response to the pork barrel expose? There are supposedly numerous alternatives to effect change in society, but why did they insist in organizing a public gathering? Some civil society groups who have become experts at lobbying and dismissing the power of rallies in recent years were there too in Luneta.

The truth is that the rally has become an unmentionable precious legacy of democracy. Then and now, it is the potent weapon of the weak and oppressed. It is the visible collective in action; it is democracy at its purest. Tyrants are ousted by people power, reforms are enacted when people mobilize, and the demands of the grassroots are recognized when they are active and united. This is the reason why those who are pampered by the status quo are fanatic in demonizing the role of rallies in society.

True, many rallies do not bring concrete and instant results. But sometimes they do like the walk out of college cadets in 2001 which led to the abolition of the ROTC. Political reforms, on the other hand, are more difficult to achieve. They require time, patience, and stubborn determination on the part of the people to push these demands. But all is not lost because in the interregnum, the struggle provides political education to the masses.

Many of the public goods we enjoy today are victories achieved through the aggressive action of the masses in the past. Labor benefits, right to suffrage, free speech, public education – these are neither gifts nor entitlements given by the state but obligations which were institutionalized through the struggle of the people.

8. Street rallies are uncreative and unimaginative. They are the opposite of virtual or Internet activism. The opposite of street activism is not Internet activism but no-activism. Activists are actually among the most consistent and effective proponents of combining online and offline activism. They recognize the political value of the Internet without disregarding the continuing validity of street rallies.

Creativity is essential when conducting a campaign. Drafting a political message that will succinctly explain the issue to all segments of the population while agitating the public requires imagination. Designing the campaign materials – the choice of icon, protest graphics, effigy, even the size and structure of the placards or streamers in rallies – is not for the barren mind. Activists spend a lot of time discussing and debating what issues to highlight in a campaign. Then, they identify a particular set of information that will be condensed and packaged for propaganda purposes. They prepare separate materials for the media, government officials, academe, and the global civil society. They carefully deliberate the launch of a campaign and the appropriate time in implementing the rest of the campaign design while measuring the reach of the advocacy and sustaining the fight.

Every rally is thoroughly planned including the songs, poems and other cultural performances that will entertain and arouse the crowd. Protest art starts in the real and dirty world before being transplanted, codified, documented, and disseminated in the virtual world.

9. Activists are great lovers. This is not a misconception. This is true. We love humanity, planet Earth, and we want world peace. It is love, not hate, which inspires activists to raise their fists in a rally. Love for others and not just love for the self. Selfless love, not love of the selfie androids. When we protest, it does not mean that we have a negative and gloomy view of the world. More than anything else, it reflects our undying optimism that yes, another world, a better world is possible. Love ignites the struggle for a new future. So spread the love, the hope, and become an activist

Published by The Diplomat

Thailand’s coup regime is handing out freebies to prove its sincerity in bringing happiness back to the country.

First, it arranged live broadcasts of all 64 World Cup matches on Thailand’s free TV. Then it lifted the night curfew in more than 20 provinces, allowing football fans and tourists to watch the games after midnight.

Earlier, the army set up numerous reconciliation centers across the country in a bid to end the conflict between warring political forces. Believing that reconciliation will only work if people are relaxed, Army General Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered recreational and entertainment activities to be held at the centers.

“Happiness” festivals were meanwhile organized at popular protest venues like the Victory Monument in Bangkok, where soldiers offered free haircuts, food, massages, and medical checkups. Army officers also entertained the crowd by putting on concerts. To promote patriotism, the junta also announced the free screening of The Legend of King Naresuan, a film about a revered leader who defended and expanded the reach of the Thai kingdom.

A proposed train fare hike in the nation’s capital was also delayed to ease the financial burden of the people.

Prior to the free airing of the World Cup games, the junta ordered TV stations to play a song written by Prayuth and called “Return Happiness to the People.” The lyrics of the song, allegedly penned in just one hour, echoed the army’s commitment to restoring order and happiness in the country. An unofficial translation of some of the verses:

“Let us be the ones who step in, before it is too late

To bring back love, how long will it take?

Please, will you wait? We will move beyond disputes

We will do what we promised. We are asking for a little more time.

“All we ask of you is to trust and have faith in us

The land will be good soon

Let us return happiness to you, the people.”

In a speech highlighting the current political situation, General Prayuth defended the coup as an antidote to “parliamentary dictatorship,” which he claims has “caused conflict and unhappiness among Thai people.”

“We need to solve many issues; from administration to budget system, corruption, and even the starting point of democracy itself – the election. What we are doing today is to try and bring everything back to normal. We intend to return happiness to everyone living in Thailand, both Thais and foreigners,” he added.

Since day one of the coup, the army has banned protests and public gatherings of five or more people. Despite this prohibition, however, many Thais continued to organize creative forms of protest actions like the “Hunger Games” three-finger salute to represent the people’s aspirations for genuine liberty, equality, and fraternity. The salute has since been outlawed.

Instead of copying from foreign films, Prayuth urged Thais to raise five fingers instead. “How about if we all raise five fingers instead – two for the country, and the other three to signify religion, monarchy and the people. Raising three fingers is copying foreign films, but we should be proud of own identity.”

Meanwhile, the junta continued to summon hundreds of Thais suspected of being critical of the army. But army officials insisted that those being ordered to report to the army are not being detained, since they are provided with amenities like “air conditioning” and “good food.” In other words, the dissenters may have been stripped of their civil liberties, but they are able to enjoy the amenities offered by the army.

This depiction of Thailand’s “happy detainees” says a lot about the country’s coup in general A military dictatorship has taken over the country and the generals want the people to be happy about it.

Religious Extremists Target Myanmar Film Festival

Published by The Diplomat

Religious extremists have succeeded in forcing the organizers of Myanmar’s Human Rights Film Festival to withdraw the screening of a documentary about a friendship between a Buddhist and a Muslim.

The second Human Rights, Human Dignity film festival presented 67 films, including 32 local films, but minus the 20-minute documentary The Open Sky, which was singled out by extremists as part of a Muslim conspiracy to dominate Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The controversial film made by young film students depicted the unlikely friendship of a Buddhist woman and a Muslim woman amid the communal violence which gripped the town of Meikhtila last year.

The riots in Meikhtila killed 40 people and the clashes soon spread to nearby towns. The government deployed troops to stop the killings but that failed to end the tension between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority.

Min Htin Ko Ko Kyi, one of the organizers of the film festival, explained that The Open Sky was withdrawn from the event to avoid further conflict and hatred among the Burmese. He added that the country’s situation is critical and the organizers did not wish to offend anybody or cause further divisions in society.

An article criticizing the film went viral on the Internet when the film festival opened on June 15. It accused global Muslim groups of funding the film to promote Islam. It also accused human rights groups of being biased against Buddhists.

The organizers then received threats via social media, warning that angry Burmese would destroy the movie theater and kill the director if the documentary was shown to the public. The anonymous commenters also warned that they would start another riot in protest to the event.

The human rights film festival was supposed to be evidence of Myanmar’s democratic transition. It was dedicated to Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the late U Win Tin, Myanmar’s longest-held political prisoner and prominent icon of the democracy movement. It was designed to promote dialogue in society by “using the power of film to create a space for encouraging human rights.”

For David Scott Mathieson of the Human Rights Watch, the controversy over The Open Sky revealed the deep racial and religious divisions in Myanmar. “The reaction of some Burmese also shows that the struggle for respect for rights in Burma has a long way to go.”

United States Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell, one of the sponsors of the event, condemned the online threats made against the festival organizers. “This narrow, fearful mindset runs contrary to everything this festival is about. Everyone who values the meaning of this event must oppose the use of threat and intimidation to suppress speech and censor artists.”

It is disturbing that while Myanmar is slowly opening the space for free speech, some irresponsible citizens and netizens are using it to foment hatred and racial abuse. It is a challenge for both the government, which must not desist in further reforming the media sector; and human rights advocates who must step up their campaign to promote democracy, peace, and especially tolerance.

Published by Bulatlat

I’m an ex-con or ex-congressman. I was a two-termer (not two-timer) who represented the country’s first elected youth party. I was the third poorest solon and believe it or not I left the institution without getting rich. I have no relatives in government, I didn’t call Garci, and I certainly didn’t have any dealings with Napoles and other pork operators. But like many others who worked in Congress, I am also affected by the Napolist scam involving hundreds of legislators, Cabinet officials, and top-level bureaucrats.

As a citizen, I am appalled by the brazenness and remorselessness of these public servant thieves. As a former legislator, I am embarrassed that I exchanged pleasantries with some of them while they were secretly hoarding taxpayers’ money. As an activist, I am sometimes haunted by guilt over my failure to inflict deadly blows inside the belly of the beast.

The truth is that no one enters and leaves the Congress without being tainted by its dirty image. It is not for the squeamish who must endure all the wheeling and dealing, the unprincipled horse trading, the shameful glorification of the unethical, the pathetic inflating of egos, the spoiling of supersize vanities, and the arrogant self-declaration of warlords and dynasts as agents of democracy and change. After some time, activist parliamentarians must leave the squalor of the parliament or else they become numb with all the evilness lurking and ricocheting taround them.

But once they leave this underworld and return to our reality, they are not seen by society as survivors or victims but warriors who failed to hack the machine. They failed to slay the dragon. Worse, they are vulnerable to the accusation that they compromised their principles by appearing to be cozy with some of their sleazy colleagues. They become like the cursed ‘walking wounded’ who are reeling from trauma, hiding their shame, and recovering their activist integrity.

I was already out of Congress when the Napoles pork mafia was outed. Every now and then I am often asked if I have inside knowledge of the case. Frankly, I don’t have a clue. And this infuriates me so much because I should have tried harder to study and expose the modus operandi of the criminal corruption gang when I was still a member of the Lower House.

Perhaps it can’t be helped if people would suspect if I got involved with pork operators. After all, I was part of an institution whose prominent members are accused of receiving pork payoffs. Some would innocently ask me about commissions or kickbacks in public works or whether I tolerated this standard practice in the bureaucracy. Some would joke about my hidden wealth and (thanks to Corona) my dollar accounts. I always reply by reminding them that I’m an activist and that I abhor corruption. Denial is not enough (it’s also not a river) but my Spartan lifestyle seems to convince them about the truthfulness of my statement.

Some friends and relatives who believe in my clean record would half-innocently reprimand me for failing to accumulate some tangible possessions like a car or condo unit. ‘Bakit di ka nagpayaman habang andun ka?’

Indeed, there are numerous quick cash schemes in government but ALL of them are anomalous. As a matter of principle, I refuse to indulge in these petty pursuits. Besides, a public servant is not required to get rich in order to effectively fulfill his duties. Further, the law mandates civil servants to remain modest. Why should we look down on a government official who didn’t get wealthy? And in contrast, why should we get interested with subordinates who did the filthy work for their powerful patrons? There is no honor in being a bagman, a crooked middleman, and a payola beneficiary.

Unfortunately, the Napoles scam reinforced the stereotype of corrupt politicians using their position to acquire more illegal wealth. The rich, not satisfied with their worldly treasures, conspired to steal millions of pesos with icy brutal efficiency. The tentacles of corruption have mutated for the worse and afflicted all branches of government. Millionaires wanting to be billionaires, and billionaires wanting more. Oh what horror, the horror, the violence, the madness of their greed.

No wonder many people have little affection and even appreciation of the work done by politicians. Also, we can’t blame young people who have already rejected the idea of joining electoral politics. Hope is fading, cynicism is rising. But why surrender the fun of remaking this society to professional thieves and so-called honorable hoodlums?

My surreal descent into the bowels of the reactionary Congress has allowed me to see more clearly the superior alternative to pork politics. The antidote is not the Yellow pill which merely hides the symptoms of the disease. There should be no more giving of second chances for a solution that only yielded token reforms. Take the Red pill instead.

Published by The Diplomat

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is popularly known, is on track to be the next president of Indonesia. And if he continues his impressive performance as a public servant, he may soon emerge as the most credible leader in Southeast Asia.

Win or lose in the coming presidential polls, Jokowi has already changed Indonesian politics. He has demonstrated that Indonesian democracy, for all its flaws, could still allow a former furniture entrepreneur to succeed in electoral politics and emerge as a major contender for the country’s presidency.

Jokowi’s rise has seen him become mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo, governor of the nation’s capital in Jakarta, and now a presidential candidate, despite lacking either significant political ties or the wealth to bankroll his political career. He is not related to an influential family and he has no service in the military – both normally de rigueur for anyone hoping to flourish in Indonesian politics – yet he has won every election he has contested since 2005.

How to explain Jokowi’s enduring political appeal? Aside from his humble background, he delivered some high impact reforms in Solo and later in Jakarta that proved very popular with the masses. He issued health insurance cards and scholarship grants, and raised the minimum wage. Jokowi acquired the reputation of being an unconventional leader by making surprise visits to government offices urging improved delivery of vital social services.

Jokowi became popular at a time of rising public dissatisfaction with the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Indonesia has enjoyed robust economic growth in recent years, but this has not been enough to attenuate the crippling poverty endured by many its citizens. Then there is the scourge of corruption, which has alienated many Indonesians and left many of the nation’s youth profoundly cynical about their political leaders. With his nonconformist credentials, Jokowi’s arrival on the political scene was seen as a refreshing change with the potential to rejuvenate Indonesian politics.

The popular upstart continued to surprise this year when he was chosen as a presidential candidate. Although his party underperformed expectations in the legislative elections, perhaps revealing the limitations of the “Jokowi effect,” but he is still the frontrunner in the July presidential race.

A Jokowi victory would be a significant boost to Indonesian democracy, potentially restoring confidence in government and inspiring a wave of reforms in the country’s elitist politics. However, his political value is not restricted to Indonesia. As president, Jokowi could embody the yearnings of ordinary citizens across Southeast Asia for greater political representation.

Certainly, Jokowi is not the first populist politician in the region – there are other opposition figures who are challenging the dominant parties in their countries. Unlike his counterparts, however, Jokowi has little political baggage. Moreover, he is not a scion of a powerful dynasty like Noynoy Aquino of the Philippines nor is he a wealthy businessman like Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. Both men aspire to be reformist icons concerned about the poor, but Jokowi has the credibility as an ordinary citizen who has made a difference.

Jokowi’s success could be replicated in other countries, and this makes him an ideal figure for reviving citizen movements in Southeast Asia. If that happens, the Jokowi phenomenon could be Indonesia’s most important export to its neighbors.

A First for Malaysia: Prime Minister Sues Website for Libel

Published by The Diplomat

Malaysia’s Najib Razak made history by becoming the country’s first Prime Minister to sue a media organization for libel. The case, however, is rather odd since Najib’s lawyers are claiming that he was defamed by the comments made by readers of the Malaysiakini news website. In other words, Najib is suing Malaysiakini editors not for publishing a libelous news story but for allowing libelous comments to be posted on their website.

Malaysiakini is an independent and award-winning news website. It applied for a license to publish a newspaper but was denied by the government in 2012.

The libel suit was filed after Malaysiakini refused to apologize and remove two “offending” Yoursay articles posted on its website last month. Yoursay is a section in Malaysiakini where comments on a particular news article are compiled into one news story.

Najib’s lawyers highlighted numerous inflammatory comments in the articles published by Malaysiakini. One of the comments, written by Anonymous #06188481, criticized the moral competency of Najib, suggesting the prime minister “has many skeletons in his closet.”

In response to the defamation suit, Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan said the online portal will “fight the suit vigorously.” He added that Najib and his party could have availed of the right of reply law to answer the “unfair” comments made by readers without resorting to legal action.

Writer Nathaniel Tan underscored the uniqueness of Malaysiakini’s Yoursay section, where ordinary Malaysians are given the chance to freely express their thoughts. “It has for many years been a place like few others for Malaysians to vent and publish views which may otherwise never see publication – especially in any mainstream press.”

Then he reviewed the controversial comments that allegedly defamed Najib and concluded that they were probably popular views shared by many people. “They merely gave a space for readers to say what hundreds of thousands of Malaysians are probably saying in coffee shops all across the country.”

Malaysiakini has received a lot of support from media freedom advocates. Aliran, a human rights group, views the libel suit as “tantamount to instilling fear in other alternative media and their concerned readers.”

Benjamin Ismaïl of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk said the legal action has further undermined the state of free speech in the country.

“This libel action is disastrous for freedom of information in Malaysia because it means that any news outlet can be sued whenever it allow its readers to express their views. We urge the prime minister to reverse course and let people criticize him,” he said.

Amnesty International condemned the suit as another attack on the right to freedom of expression in Malaysia. It asked Najib to drop the libel case.

But Alyaa Alhadjri thinks Najib was also forced to file the suit to appease the hardliners in his party who have been clamoring for stronger measures against the harsh critics of the government. Najib is head of a political coalition which has been in power since the 1950s, but which has been receiving fewer votes and seats in recent elections.

The first hearing of the case is set for June 18. Regardless of the outcome, Najib’s decision to pursue legal action against an online news portal has done much to undermine Malaysia’s commitment to expanding and enhancing democracy.

Update:

The Prime Minister’s Department of the Malaysian government contests The Diplomat’s characterization of the material that is the subject of the legal action as “comments.” (The material in question can be found here and here.)

In a statement released on June 11, the government said:

“On 14 May 2014, Malaysiakini published two defamatory news articles entitled: ‘A case of the PM reaping what he sows’ and ‘How much will Najib spend to keep Terengganu?’.

“These articles – which were based on reader comments selected and then republished by Malaysiakini – made a slew of false and defamatory allegations against the Prime Minister; including insinuating his involvement in serious crime.

“After the articles were published, the Prime Minister’s legal team wrote to Malaysiakini and requested that the articles be removed and an apology issued. Malaysiakini refused, and instead published the private legal letter and further articles.

“The Prime Minister’s legal team therefore decided to take legal action against Malaysiakini for defamation.

“Malaysia has a free and open online media. A cursory glance at the online media shows its independence – news portals frequently criticise both the Prime Minister and the Government, and engage in robust political debate.

“The Prime Minister has frequently stated his commitment to protect the freedom of Malaysia’s online media. The defamation case does not undermine this commitment.”

Published by The Diplomat

One undeniable and distressing sign that Southeast Asian democracy is regressing is the rising incidence of media freedom violations in the region. If political reforms are slow or are being reversed, the state of free speech is faring even more badly.

The muzzling of the press under Thailand’s coup regime reflects the exceedingly difficult conditions facing journalists today, not just there but in other Southeast Asian states as well.

However, Thailand’s situation needs particular attention because of the sudden reversal of people’s hard-won civil liberties, as the army continues to tighten its grip on Thai society. When martial law was declared, the army quickly seized control of media facilities, such as the newsrooms of television, radio stations and newspapers. TV was only allowed to broadcast army announcements and patriotic songs from the Second World War era. Critical editors and journalists were summoned and silenced by the junta. “Inappropriate” websites were blocked, and dissenting netizens were warned that they could face prosecution for undermining authorities.

Proof of the army’s distrust of news agencies is a government report warning citizens that they could suffer from mental stress if they consume too much news. To remain healthy, the public was advised to read only news stories from state-run sources. Indeed, free speech was an early casualty under Thailand’s military dictatorship.

Elsewhere in the region, media is also being restricted through more intense regulation. Policymaking, which has targeted both the mainstream and new media, avoided direct censorship in favor of vague and broad measures that diminished opportunities for free expression, while expanding the regulatory powers of the state.

For example, East Timor’s parliament has recently passed a media law which was immediately condemned by human rights advocates and journalists as a threat to media freedom. They specifically questioned the mandate of a proposed Press Council that will oversee and approve media licenses.

In Cambodia, a draft cybercrime law criminalizes web content that generates “political cohesiveness” – whatever that might mean. In the Philippines, the Supreme Court affirmed the legality of cyber libel. In Singapore, there is concern that the anti-harassment law could be used to prevent journalists and researchers from pursuing critical or investigative topics involving the government. Indonesia said it needed to protect the public from porn when it banned video-streaming website Vimeo, but this action infuriated many people who responsibly using the site to access information.

While media laws can provide protection to media producers, they are also often used to intimidate or even punish government critics. There is a recent trend of public officials pursuing or threatening to use legal actions against critics.

In Singapore, the prime minister has sued an unknown blogger for defamation, even though the latter has apologized. In Malaysia, the prime minister has threatened to take legal action against an independent website for allowing “seditious” comments on their portal. In Myanmar, some journalists were detained for reporting about corruption, or for interviewing government officials during office hours.

Vietnam’s mainstream media remains under strict state surveillance, while social media networks are regularly blocked. Dissident bloggers are arrested and given harsh prison sentences. When Brunei announced its plan to implement Sharia Law in the whole country, the Sultan warned netizens not to criticize the policy. The Philippine press is one of the freest in the region since it does not have a board of censors, yet the Philippines is listed among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists because of the high number of unsolved media killings.

It seems that the vision of a single ASEAN community uniting on a common platform has been realized already. But rather than economic integration or joint military exercises, this shared platform is the undermining of free speech and the heavy regulation of the media.

Publishied by Bulatlat

Outsourcing may be a popular business innovation but when applied to politics it becomes an atrocious aberration. Political participation is reduced into voting since we expect mainstream parties to oversee and dominate the bureaucratic political processes. Meanwhile, more and more people are shunning political association as they opt for the convenience provided by social media ranting. But Internet conversations, including the overtly political, can never replace practical and offline political work.

The perils of political outsourcing is best exemplified by the anti-China outbursts in the country today. Understandably, many are voicing out their opposition to Chinese incursions in Philippine territorial waters. Indeed, China’s bullying behavior is intensifying as it continues to deploy oversized quasi-fishing boats inside our maritime borders, it builds semi-permanent facilities in disputed shoals, and it refuses to punish and stop the illegal poaching activities of its citizens. Clearly, China has wantonly violated our sovereignty and precious marine resources. For many environmentalists, China’s complicity in damaging the great Tubbataha Reef is unforgivable.

If there is a strong anti-China sentiment today in the Philippines and in several Southeast Asian countries, China has no one to blame but itself. How can its so-called ‘peaceful rise’ as a superpower become credible if it is continually contradicted by its arrogant behavior towards its neighbors?

But curiously, the loud saber-rattling against China today has not been translated into massive street protests. Thousands have already marched in Japan and South Korea, and anti-China riots involving hundreds of thousands of workers have recently erupted in Vietnam; but in the Philippines the protests have not yet reached these levels.

Worse, instead of focusing on the greater challenge of mobilizing the largest number of Filipinos to march against China, some have preferred instead to blame and accuse the militant Left of treasonously acting in favor of China.

The frustration with the political situation and the country’s weak military position is understandable but the vicious accusations against the Left are lamentable, absurd, and unfair.

Today many are professing hatred against China but it seems not enough to compel them to join rallies in front of the Chinese embassy. There is a noticeable disconnect between the verbal rants against China and the visible protesting warm bodies in the streets. Strangely, many are unwilling to act out their political sentiment. But even more strangely, they want and demand other people to carry out a political action in their behalf. Unable to effectively vent out their anger against the Chinese communist leadership, they targeted local communists instead. Paralyzed by impotent anger, they also forgot that as citizens and members of a particular political group, they are free to organize their own rallies against China with or without the Left.

What is more incredible is that those who had been mockingly opposed to the holding of street rallies are suddenly clamoring for provocative rallies. Those who are squeamish with the Left’s ‘dictatorial’ tendencies are now condescendingly commanding the Left to uncritically follow their specific instructions about the China dispute.

But to set the record straight, the Left has always criticized China’s illegal maritime activities. As a patriotic force, the Left has consistently stood for the defense of our national dignity and sovereignty. And contrary to the lies peddled by its enemies, the Left has repeatedly issued statements and organized rallies to protest China’s bullying antics. Further, Leftist legislators have filed resolutions and delivered privilege speeches denouncing the Chinese government.

So why do some intellectuals continue to insist that the Philippine Left is pro-China?

Perhaps the misapprehension can be partly explained by the Left’s earlier affinity with Chinese communists during the Maoist era. It is no secret that the founding principles of the national democratic revolution are inspired by Maoist teachings. The Philippine Left is also one of the few remaining national movements that continue to affirm and defend the validity of Maoism. For those who are unaware that the core legacies of Mao have been repudiated already by the Chinese Communist Party since 1978, they would be easily susceptible to the propaganda that the Mao-loving Philippine Left is unabashedly pro-China.

Again, it is no secret that the Left became a divided movement in the late 1980s and 1990s. The militant Left that we know today took the position that it was modern revisionism, and not Marxism, which was discredited when the Soviet empire collapsed. In addition, it accused Deng Xiaoping and other senior Chinese communist leaders of being capitalist roaders and revisionists. In other words, the Left was already criticizing the Chinese Communist Party as a traitor to the Marxist cause when many of those who are anti-China today were still praising China’s modernization thrust and integration to the world capitalist system. China’s friend is not the Philippine Left but US imperialism and its junior partner in the country represented by the ruling Liberal Party.

Then there are those who are promoting the military agenda of the U.S. by using the current tension with China to justify the return of US bases in the country. Fortunately, Obama arrived in Manila and reminded Filipinos that his government does not aim to control or counter China. But this categorical declaration by no less than the Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces was not enough to convince his Filipino loyalists to rethink their position; and they continued to disparage the Left for its refusal to accept the so-called necessity of accepting American support in combating Chinese expansionism.

While the Left will oppose foreign aggression, whether instigated by the Chinese or Americans, it cannot accept the facile thinking that both China and the U.S. represent the same and equal threat to our way of life. China’s transgressions are getting nastier but only the naïve would describe them as equal to or worse than the crimes committed by the U.S.

Which has the biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons? Which has waged numerous wars of aggression in the past century? Which has used its political, military, and economic clout to meddle in our affairs? Which has imposed its fiscal policies to restructure our domestic economy for its own benefit? Which has invaded the country and massacred our people right after we won our freedom from Spanish colonialists? Which used the country’s facilities to attack and poison the lands of Indochina? US Imperialism is clearly the biggest threat not just in the Philippines but in the whole world as well.

This viewpoint, it must be emphasized, it not shared by the Left alone. It is comforting to know that there are still commentators, writers, and academicians who reject the thinking that the Philippines must remain a neocolony of the U.S. in order to assert our rights as a free nation. But lucky for them, they will not be demonized by the state and its ardent supporters who are desperately trying to reduce the nationalist framework into a mere communist agitprop.

So how do we fight the foreign aggressors sans the superior American military hardware? We should invoke the legacy of Claro M Recto, the great Filipino statesman and eminent nationalist intellectual. His was a lone dissenting voice during the early years of the Cold War era in the 1950s. He pushed for an independent foreign policy and warned against the blind acceptance of American altruism. For espousing nationalism, he was vilified as an anti-Filipino and communist sympathizer. Anyway, history has already vindicated him and succeeding governments eventually implemented some of his unpopular demands like restoring bilateral ties with Red China.

More than five decades after his death, Recto and his ideas remain relevant. Tragic that then and now, the government’s foreign policy is still tied to the geopolitical interests of the U.S.

To counteract this nefarious betrayal, as Recto would have reminded us, what we need is a greater dose of nationalism. Nationalism plus an upsurge of radicalism.

Who will fight the Chinese invaders? We, Filipinos.
Who will resist American hegemony? We, Filipinos.

To say that we ought to surrender our complete trust and future to American Benevolence is the supreme example of an unFilipino frame of mind. If our local army continues to act like a puppet as it pathetically begs for US assistance to defend our lands, then perhaps it is time to support another army.

Hate China? Then join the people’s army, strengthen the people’s movement, and be prepared to fight for the motherland.

First published by The Diplomat

General Prayuth Chan-ocha may have received a royal endorsement for launching a coup in Thailand, but the junta could face serious opposition from a nascent citizen democracy movement.

In the past several days, hundreds of Thais have joined anti-coup protests across the country, defying an army directive against the gathering of more than five persons in public places. Compared to the anti-coup protests in 2006, the rallies last weekend were bigger and more ambitious. Street protests are not new in Thailand, but the growing anti-coup opposition has the potential to develop into a broad and popular democracy campaign that could challenge not just the military dictatorship, but also the credibility of mainstream parties.

For six months, Thailand experienced large and provocative anti-government rallies. Government buildings were occupied, a “Bangkok Shutdown” campaign paralyzed the commercial district for several days, and major highways were barricaded. The protests were similar to a 2008 airport blockade that also destabilized the government.

Looking back, the protests succeeded in consolidating opposition to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. However it is curious that, for a supposedly pro-democracy movement, the protests led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee didn’t get the support of global human rights groups and activist networks.

Malaysia’s Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) earned the sympathy of election reform advocates, Cambodia’s labor unrest inspired solidarity action for striking garment workers, and the Million People March in the Philippines exposed the continuing corruption in that country. They were clearly political protests, but they were never dismissed as anti-democratic or elitist. They were also clearly linked to citizen campaigns for good governance, economic reform, and election modernization.

In Thailand, the protests articulated legitimate populist issues like corruption, but many people were concerned about the protesters decision to reject the electoral process. Many couldn’t understand why the protesters demanded the appointment of an unelected body to govern the country. Perhaps anti-government protesters could have pushed for greater voting reforms, but instead they allowed their spokespersons to make inflammatory statements, for instance claiming that Thailand is not ready for Western-style democracy, or that voters can’t be trusted because the majority are incapable of making intelligent decisions.

The protesters had a valid point about the influence of money politics in elections, but instead of focusing exclusively on the Shinawatra family, they could also have held other elitist parties accountable, including members of the opposition.

For these reasons, Thailand’s anti-government protest campaign was never really recognized by the international community as an Arab Spring-inspired movement.

However, the coup and the opposition it has sparked could now revive world interest in a Thai democracy movement.

Everyone can now get together behind the idea of restoring democracy by calling for an end to the military rule. Thais from various political backgrounds can agree on the need to protect free speech. They can demand the release of detained leaders, academics, journalists, and protestors. They can take their cue from the international community, which has expressed disappointment over the declaration of martial law and the subsequent coup itself.

After months of protesting against a government perceived as corrupt, perhaps Thais can reclaim the streets once more – this time to fight for democracy. If they do, then maybe this time around their voices will be amplified by people around the world.

Thailand’s Coup Will Worsen Political Crisis

First published by The Diplomat

Two days after declaring martial law, the Royal Thai Army has launched a coup in a bid to end the violent conflict between government supporters and opposition forces.

Historians may debate whether to consider the imposition of martial law as the start of the real coup, although some have already called it a soft or disguised coup. For now, the essential question is whether it will succeed in solving the country’s political crisis.

Based on Thailand’s history of coups over the past century, there is little reason to suggest the current military intervention will restore political stability. It is possible that Thailand’s deep political divisions can partially be attributed to the 2006 coup, which led to the ouster of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

When the army announced the suspension of the 2007 Constitution (excluding provisions concerning the monarchy), several Thai analysts noted it was the army that drafted the document. Perhaps it will initiate the drafting of a new constitution to again this time reform the country’s political system. But what if the envisioned reforms don’t materialize?

Understandably, there are many Thais who have already grown weary of the incessant political fighting in recent years. Many have also become cynical toward the electoral process, which has been discredited because of the money involved. Perhaps for these reasons, among others, some frustrated Thais favor intervention by the military to restore the country’s confidence in its political system.

But Thailand’s political impasse can partially be laid at the army’s feet. Through the 12 successful coups it has staged since 1932, the army has had several opportunities to prove that it can be the key to stabilizing Thai politics. This has yet to happen, so why repeat the process over and over?

Some Bangkok residents may have felt relieved to see their streets clear of anti-government protesters, or government supporters threatening to launch political action. The police were unable to disperse the protesters over the past six months, yet the army did so within the last two days.

As a result, the army imposed a nighttime curfew, banned public gathering of five or more people, and closed down TV and radio stations. When martial law was declared, free speech was threatened. The army deployed soldiers to control the newsrooms and offices of media stations, and attempted to censor social media.

The protesters have gone home, but the army is now in control of the government. Before the coup, there were reports that elections would be conducted after substantial reforms were undertaken over the next two years. After the coup, election chatter was replaced by news of the army chief becoming the country’s de facto prime minister.

Even as Thailand’s neighbor Myanmar formally shuns direct military rule in favor of a shift toward a parliamentary democracy, Thailand seems to be regressing.

Many Thais claimed they were not afraid to see soldiers patrolling key intersections in Bangkok, the country’s capital. Some of them even snapped photos of themselves with these soldiers. Take away these happy snaps, however, and what is left is the image of an old guard seeking to silence dissent and take power.

Thailand’s democracy is imperfect, but it is not beyond redemption. With its coup, the military has made it more difficult to fix the problems that challenge Thai society.

The 3-in-1 revolution

June 3rd, 2014

Written for Bulatlat

At the risk of oversimplifying the definition of revolution, I dare say it involves three dynamics: critique and destruction of the existing social order, building a new world, and the continuous reinvention of the self.

Of the three, the most familiar is the first – activists denouncing the bankrupt society and revolutionaries aggressively pushing for the rapid disintegration of the present. Everyone is capable of ranting but this often needs to be systematized and individual hardships must be linked with other pestering social evils until we grasp their structural bases. The primary task of a revolutionary, therefore, is to master the art and science of critiquing everything.

In the Philippine context, at least in the case of the national democratic revolution, this means exposing and resisting the triple plagues known as imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and feudalism. Thanks largely to more than a half century of unceasing propaganda work, these terms are no longer esoteric or alien sounding to many Filipinos. But for those who still need convincing about the relevance of these isms, my advice for them is to read a newspaper. Edca, Napolist pork scam, Hacienda Luisita – are these not current manifestations of a supposedly outmoded analysis of the Left?

If activists are still mouthing the hipster slogans of the 1960s, it is because the horrid conditions of the country during that time have fundamentally remained the same. We are all trapped in the twilight zone.
Of course the three isms cannot possibly cover every problem in our country but so far they are the most comprehensive and useful in understanding and changing the political situation.

Beyond the isms, however, activists are duty bound to lead the masses by campaigning for their democratic rights. Whether it is the insane traffic in the metro or mining pollution in the countryside, activists can be seen and heard tackling these issues not just because they are linked to the three isms (of course they are) but also because they violate the rights of our people.

There are other popular analytical tools used mainly in the academe and by the so-called New Left but many of these concepts are either empirical, inapplicable to Philippine realities, and even subservient to the status quo. The hardcore adherents of these ideologies are obsessed with too much theorizing while disdaining practical political work. On the other hand, the natdem framework provides us with a holistic approach to confront the problems besetting the country. It is a scientific school of thought and a veritable guide to revolutionary political action.

Indeed, the other enduring appeal of the revolution is the opportunity to crowdsource the building of an alternative. While it is easy to persuade many people to oppose something, especially those experiencing oppression, their commitment to the cause becomes stronger if they are actively involved in the drafting of a new blueprint to remake the old society. One does not become a revolutionary by simply joining like-minded people in attacking the citadels of power but also by participating in an innovative and radical social experiment that would substantially alter our lives and how we interact with others.

Again, in the Philippine context, this is best achieved by immersing oneself in the national liberation movement. It means fighting multiple social evils until the beastly machine is defeated. And while working to realize the collapse of the system, activists are also building the foundations of a new social order (not to be confused with the nightmarish New Society of Marcos).

A new type of government or power dynamics, a new economy or wealth distribution, the popularization of a democratic culture, the transition towards a socialist construction. We are given a glimpse of this Red future through the fantastic work of various collectives across the country. Protest actions are not simply aimed at opposing something; they are also an articulation of a political vision. The role of mass organizations is not to recruit voters but to assert political empowerment at the grassroots level. The strength of community organizing sustains the success of small and big land reforms in the provinces.

Of course there is no more socialist bloc in the world. Red China is now capitalist and Soviet Russia has abandoned socialism. But there are existing leftwing movements and countries with socialist aspirations that remain truly inspiring. Besides, the future of any revolution should not be tied to the debacles suffered by other countries. The Philippine Revolution has the distinct advantage of learning from the positive legacies of Marxist and even non-Marxist movements.

The Bolshevik Doctrine is not a prescription but merely one of the alternatives that Filipino revolutionaries can use to overhaul the Philippine society. For one thing, there are no soviets in the Philippine archipelago. Meanwhile, the Chinese commune model could very well energize our rural sector. Also, the philosophy behind the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is really interesting from a pedagogic point of view.

So perhaps we can borrow from varied sources such as Russia’s centralized economic planning, the Maoist teachings on art and social contradictions, Vietnamese guerilla tactics, the Cuban health system, the Finnish education set-up, American innovation, and including the English tea as inspirations to move forward the revolution. Recall too the original vision of our 1896 revolutionaries. I think Mabini has a proposal that university presidents should compose the senate.

Learning from history is enlightening; creating history is more exciting. But this revolution should be more democratic than the previous ones which means ordinary people – the peasants, workers, and urban poor – should play an active part in planning the future. It will be a genuine people’s movement which will require the mobilization of the entire population.

To put it simply, the revolution invites us to do the following: Oppose and then propose. Propose while oppose.

But there is a third important but rarely mentioned dynamic: change of self.

The revolution is not simply about changing the world. Because in the process of performing our political tasks, we become changed persons as well. You can’t fight the old world and build a new one and all the time remain the same person. Remoulding of the self is also an equally important ethic of an activist. Criticism and self-criticism sessions are habits that activists must regularly practice. That’s why the accusation that activists and revolutionaries are dull automatons is totally unfair.

Activists are often chided by conservative ideologues for supposedly being a fanatic in wanting to change society but hypocritically uninterested in changing oneself. It is an echo of what elitist rulers often remind their constituents to preserve power: “Reforming the individual is the key to change society. Focus on improving yourself and the whole community will improve as well. Before changing the world, start with yourself.”

This is a popular but often a dangerous idea. It reinforces individualism and prevents social engagement by teaching people that the best way to help others is to be selfish and inward looking. It brainwashes young people into believing that a change in values and attitudes or a so-called revolution of the hearts is the necessary first step to change what is wrong in society. But while the last point is partially correct, it should be pursued while being guided by the goals of social and political revolution.

Authentic and long lasting individual freedom is possible but only after society has removed the fetters that impede the full flowering of human potential. In other words, the success of the political revolution is the first condition to achieve individual freedom. A revolutionary is also a humanist.

The revolution, all things considered, is an irresistible option we can’t refuse because it offers an alternative way of life. Yes, it is not a cure-all but it provides a complete (in fact the most complete) life improvement package through the 3-in-1 formula of interpreting the world, changing the world, and reinventing the self.

Indeed, new age philosophies and Eastern mantras are growing in popularity but they are focused too much on the self while being divorced from the realities of the world. They promise a distorted version of nirvana that allows a person to feel good about himself even if the world around him is already crumbling. Healing the world takes a backseat as one becomes lost and addicted in the metaphysical labyrinth of finding inner peace.

What is to be done? Choose a philosophy that inspires both social change and self-awareness. Choose a political program that frees all people from their material, intellectual, and spiritual bondage. Choose life that rewards self-help and collective action. Choose no less than a revolution. And if you’re in the Philippines, choose the national democratic revolution with a socialist perspective.

Written for Bulatlat

Next to tree planting, the most popular green initiative of politicians today is the adoption of ‘ban plastic’ ordinances. The new normal is the total dislike for anything plastic and the coming together of various stakeholders in the community to save the future generation from the scourge of garbage, and plastic in particular.

But the idea of ‘ban plastic’ was not always popular. Just a few years ago, there was a strong lobby against it and the public (including mass media) accepted the reasoning that it is simply impossible and irrational to ban plastic in the whole city or municipality.

There was widespread support for the waste segregation movement, and the state even incorporated the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra in the education apparatus. But ban plastic? Authorities said it won’t work because it can’t be done. Besides, consumers allegedly preferred plastic because it is durable and non-replaceable even though it is non-biodegradable.

So how did ‘ban plastic’ become mainstream? Most likely the alarming impact of worsening pollution convinced many people about the need to enact drastic measures to reverse the rapid deterioration of the environment. But there was one more important factor: Some groups or networks of environmental activists stubbornly pushed the ‘ban plastic’ proposal and they persevered until it gained popular backing.

The public didn’t wake up one day and magically acquired an aversion against plastic. The idea came from somewhere, and it was processed through painstaking struggle in various ideological sites like schools, media, government agencies, and public spaces.

The clamor for ‘ban plastic’ was created by embarking on an aggressive education and information drive, network building, and intense lobbying. It became a material force because somebody and even anonymous nobodies fought hard to make the public understand and accept the necessity of the supposedly utopian idea.

Today, ‘ban plastic’ is no longer a quixotic dream. In fact, it has become a safe advocacy. Politicians are happy to sponsor it, the media finally understood it, and the public are ready to embrace it. A strong constituency has emerged that is capable of defeating the opposition lobby (mostly from the industrial sector).

Government records will reveal how the ‘ban plastic’ ordinance was passed – when was it filed, when did the committee hearing take place, who served as resource persons, who co-authored the measure, how many votes it got during the deliberation – but they do not provide us the whole and accurate story.

The more interesting but understated history was how green activists never gave up to achieve their goal. Because before ‘ban plastic’ became a common idea, so simple that it could be reduced already into a government ordinance, it was first a radical and incomprehensible proposal. It took several years of researching, pamphlet and leaflet making, forum organizing, school hopping, media writing, government lobbying, and rallying in the streets before ‘ban plastic’ became a popular public opinion of our time.

It is now easy to map the number of local governments which have already adopted ‘ban plastic’ laws. But nobody is counting the number of primers, community assemblies, school meetings, and rallies that made ‘ban plastic’ legislation possible.

The ‘ban plastic’ ordinance, though the most familiar and effective document in the advocacy, is actually the least creative form compared to the numerous icons, brochures, research papers, information materials, and placards made by activists.

Nevertheless, why complain over trivial matters when the goal has been achieved.

Still, it is interesting that nobody is claiming ownership of the ‘ban plastic’ movement. No group has dared to come forward to impose a patent or copyright on it. Perhaps it is a good thing because it is a useful reminder about the value of activism. When in doubt about the relevance of activism, always remember the ‘ban plastic’ phenomenon.

Many of the public goods we enjoy today are actually legacies of the brave campaigns of activists of previous generations. Labor benefits, voting rights, gender equality, free speech, basic education – the list goes on. But unlike capitalists who wanted to gain super profits from the goods they are producing, activists are not motivated to impose a price on what they have accomplished.

Unlike a businessman philanthropist who never forgets to remind us about what he is doing for the community, an activist always reminds the community about what they have done successfully together and what they should continue to be doing for the sake of the greater good.

But where are the ‘ban plastic’ activists? Probably some are actively immersed in a new radical advocacy while others could be quietly conspiring to create new truths and popular opinions. They have willingly allowed others to continue and build on what they have started since they are now focused on other challenges. Because for many activists, it is more important (and more fun too) to be engaged in radical causes rather than simply working for advocacies that are already deemed safe by the state.

Written for The Diplomat

The Philippines and the United States have signed a new defense agreement that would boost the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines. But President Barack Obama, who arrived in Manila yesterday on a state visit, claims that the new accord is not meant to contain China.

After eight rounds of negotiations that took almost two years to complete, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was finally signed. It will would cover “capacity building towards (Philippine military) modernization, strengthening (the Philippine military) for external defense, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

The text of the agreement has not yet been released to the public but the Philippines government has published a primer on it.

The holding of joint military exercises is already permitted under previous agreements signed by the two countries, but the EDCA would allow the “construction of facilities and infrastructure upgrades” and “storage and prepositioning of defense equipment.”

Critics contend that this is tantamount to permanent basing, which is prohibited by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Government negotiators retort that the EDCA is guided by the framework of “full Philippine control over facilities to be used, non-exclusivity of use of the designated areas for U.S. armed forces, and prohibition of nuclear weapons.” In other words, there would be no building of a permanent U.S. military base or a reclaiming of the former U.S. military bases in Clark and Subic.

U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg reiterated this point when he said, “I will tell you what it will not do. It will not reopen U.S. bases.”

The Philippine government added that the Philippines will have full ownership of the facilities to be constructed by the U.S. military. Further, there will be “preference for Philippine suppliers of goods, products and service in U.S. military procurement.” According to the government primer, the U.S. will not be obliged to pay rent for the use and access of Philippine bases.

Aside from allowing the U.S. to construct military facilities in the Philippines, the EDCA would also increase the number of visiting U.S. personnel in the country. The primer stated that the number “will depend on the scale and the frequency of the activities to be approved by both Parties.”

Supporters of the agreement believe it will strengthen the military capabilities of the Philippines, which is currently embroiled in various maritime disputes with China. They see the EDCA as a concrete commitment of the U.S. to protect and defend the Philippines if tensions escalate in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The Philippines and the U.S. are defense treaty partners since 1951.

But Obama doused the high expectations of many Filipinos when he failed to give a clear commitment to help the Philippines in its maritime conflict with China.

“Our goal is not to counter China; our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of maritime disputes,” he said in a press conference at the Malacanang presidential palace.

“And we don’t even take a specific position on the disputes between nations,” he added. Nevertheless, he said he is supportive of the decision of the Philippines to seek international arbitration to resolve the problem peacefully.

Filipino journalists contrasted this position with the unequivocal statement of Obama a few days ago affirming the readiness of the U.S. to defend Japan’s ownership of the Senkaku Islands, which are also being claimed by China.

Another problem is the legal and political hurdles that could prevent the government from implementing the EDCA.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations and a member of the majority coalition, said the signing of the EDCA was an “unfair surprise” to the Senate, which was not given a copy of the agreement. She also expected activists to question the constitutionality of the pact before the Supreme Court.

Earlier, a former vice president and two other senators led a group of petitioners who questioned the haste in signing the EDCA.

“Just as we decry the lack of transparency in the crafting of the (EDCA), so do we oppose the rush to have the deal signed in time for the Obama visit. We insist that such an agreement should undergo thorough and extensive deliberations by the Senate as well as wide-ranging public discussion,” they said in a statement.

The EDCA will expire after 10 years but it can be renewed by both parties.

Xenophobia and Public Discontent in Singapore

Written for The Diplomat

The online ruckus over the planned Philippine Independence Day celebration on Orchard Road in Singapore is the latest ominous sign of rising xenophobia in the prosperous city state. But racism aside, it also revealed that Singaporeans are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their government.

A group of Filipinos in Singapore has organized a Philippine Independence Day assembly on June 8, but this was loudly opposed by some Singaporeans who described the event as inappropriate and disrespectful. Filipinos were surprised by this reaction given that they have been celebrating the occasion in Singapore for several years already. There are 180,000 Filipino workers in Singapore.

Angry Singaporeans flooded the social media with comments denouncing the event. They warned that holding the event in the iconic Orchard Road would “seriously provoke” the national pride of Singaporeans. They questioned the “insensitive intention” to fly the Philippine flag in Singapore, which they interpreted as an “invasion” of their country.

Gilbert Goh of transitioning.org, which assists unemployed workers, is worried that this event would set a bad precedent. “If we allow Filipinos to celebrate their national day at Orchard Road, who will be next? The Indians, PRC Chinese or Malaysians? Will Orchard Road be turned into a playground for foreigners only to wave their own national flags?”

Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin was quick to disown the Internet “trolls” who used foul language against the Filipino organizers of the event.

“These actions by those who peddle hate are not acceptable, repulsive even. We should make a stand to say no to such bigotry. They do not reflect who we are as a people and as a nation,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who celebrated Singapore Day in London last March, called the protesters a “disgrace to Singapore.”

“We must show that we are generous of spirit and welcome visitors into our midst, even as we manage the foreign population here,” he posted on Facebook.

Perhaps Lee is already aware that much of the anger that exploded in the Internet has something to do with the government’s program to hire more foreign workers, something that is resented by many locals. Foreign residents account for about 40 percent of Singapore’s total population.

Right or wrong, many Singaporeans attribute deteriorating conditions, including such as stagnating wages, inflation, and even overcrowding on buses and trains, to the influx of foreign workers. Since last year, several huge rallies were held by locals criticizing the government’s policy of further increasing the number of foreign workers in the country.

Blogger Ravi Philemon asks whether the protest is more an indictment of the government: “To a certain extent, this anger by these protesters is understandable. I am not sure if their anger, even if it seems directed at the people of Philippines, is directed instead at the Government of Singapore.”

Activist Kirsten Han believes there are numerous factors in this complex issue but she does not support the outburst against Filipinos: “This is not about pushing for more democracy in Singapore. It’s not about empowering Singaporeans. It’s not even about problematic immigration policies.”

It’s about time for Singapore to review its social policies that have contributed to the rise of anti-foreigner sentiment among the local population. If this trend continues, Singapore might have to deal with more serious racial conflict in the future.

And as for the Philippines, it must seriously review its labor export policy, which was initially conceived in the 1970s as a temporary measure to fill the gaps in the employment sector. After four decades, the country continues to drive away the best of its skilled workers, creating a terrible shortage of manpower in several critical domestic industries. The greater challenge for the Philippines is not to help its citizens celebrate the country’s Independence Day in a foreign land but to entice them to return home.

In other words, Singapore and the Philippines, both proud independent states, must act aggressively to improve the living conditions of their respective citizens.