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 interview with EngageMedia:

1. Could you describe the work of your organisation?

Global Voices is a citizen media platform that highlights the perspectives and stories of ordinary people, especially those that are not often reported in mainstream media. Our volunteers translate, curate, and explain local narratives as we seek a better understanding of our world. We champion freedom of expression by highlighting the threats to online freedom as well as campaigning to defend free, open, and safe Internet.

2. Why do human rights on the Internet matter to you?

The Internet can empower lives and communities. That is why it must remain open and accessible. Individuals should be free to share their thoughts, develop online tools, and interact with other Internet users. A human rights framework should guide Internet governance to protect individuals and to unleash the democratic potential of the cyberspace.

3. What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?

There are two challenges in the region: improving Internet access, and fighting all forms of censorship and excessive Internet regulation. Related to these issues, we strive to protect the safety of individuals and institutions which are in the forefront of the campaign to promote Internet rights in their respective countries.

4. How do you interact with individuals and organisations in different sectors, civil society, corporate, tech, govt etc., to forward your goals?

As a former legislator, I am aware of the value of reaching out to policymakers and engaging them on issues that affect the Internet and the media. They should be part of the dialogue on how to protect the Internet and we strive as much as possible to promote this approach.

5. How do you see the Internet rights space evolving in the future?

Unfortunately, the trend in Southeast Asia is quite worrying since governments are inclined to prioritize legislations that would further restrict the media and the Internet. But the business side of expanding the telecommunications sector continues to grow. I think activists, the media sector, the academe, and other stakeholders should team up with telcos and IT firms to influence the Internet policies in the region. They can build a formidable lobby team to discuss human rights and prospects in the Internet sector with government officials and other leaders in the bureaucracy.

6. What do you hope to see achieved at RightsCon Southeast Asia? And why would you encourage people to attend?

RightsCon Southeast Asia is significant because it can come up with concrete proposals, alternative policies, and innovative programs that can be submitted to the ASEAN. The papers can be tabled for discussion in the ASEAN secretariat as the region prepares for the ASEAN 2015 integration. RightsCon is unique opportunity for Southeast Asia experts, leaders, investors and activists to sit down and discuss the crucial issues in the IT sector. It’s also a timely occasion to draft a plan on how to improve, maximize, and protect the positive legacy and potential of the Internet.

Published by Manila Today

I have a cell phone which I use for calling, texting, and taking photos. Sometimes it’s also my alarm clock. That’s all. I never use my phone to download apps or interact with my virtual networks because I don’t have an Internet subscription. Even if there’s a WiFi connection, I rarely go online using my phone. When Smart offered free Internet to its prepaid subscribers (yes, I’m a former congressman who uses prepaid), I accessed it only twice or thrice to check my Twitter feed or read news updates.

Yet I’m all over the cyberspace. I am a blogger and social media enthusiast. I am stalkable via Plurk, Tumblr, Shelfari, and recently I joined Ello. I am an avid Twitterer and Facebooker (Have you liked my fan page yet?). But I do not have an Instagram. I wanted to join it but it requires mobile Internet access.

What then are my reasons for my refusal to apply for mobile data subscription? To be candid, I wanted to save money. I thought that hard-earned cash, even if it involves a few hundred pesos, is better spent on other essential goods. Besides, it’s not as if I will be cut-off from the online world. I have Internet access at home and that is enough, for the moment.

Some friends tease me that I risk being left behind on news and other realtime updates. That’s true but it doesn’t matter. My life will not end if I fail to read about a breaking news incident minutes after it happened. There’s always the late night news; and didn’t I mention that I have Internet access at home?

I always waste 12 hours of my life wandering in the streets of the real world while online news, gossip, and chatter are buzzing; but I can quickly digest all the fun tidbits I missed in a matter of minutes when I get home in the evening. Or I can catch up with the news in the morning through TV, radio, or the ever reliable laptop.

I don’t need to hear or read the news as it happens. For the longest time, man survived even if they didn’t learn the truth of their existence at the proper time. In the 20th century, we went to school or work in the morning and watch the news in the evening. Revolutions succeeded even if instant information was not yet available.

They say mobile Internet makes us more productive and efficient. I agree but it doesn’t mean we become less productive and efficient if we don’t have a smartphone connected to the Internet.

In the context of Metro Manila, what’s the use of a traffic app when all the streets are semi-parking lots? Just travel one hour earlier to reach your destination. Weather? We only have wet and dry season and the sun is always up. If there’s a storm coming, trust me, everybody will tell you about it.

E-books? Fine, smart choice. But I prefer reading printed books; it’s safer and it saves the battery life of my phone. Plus you are allowed to open and read a book inside banks, bayad centers, airplanes, embassies, and other high-security places. They won’t mind even if your book is about terrorism.

I admit I almost got lost in the streets of San Francisco and London in the past month because I didn’t have a mobile map app. But I survived through old school tactic: talking to people and asking for directions. Indeed, there are lunatics out there who might give the wrong advice or geographical idiots who pretend to know more. But I have greater faith in the good of humanity. And even if I got lost, I can always turn around or ask another human being. That’s life. And isn’t it more fun?

After Snowden, we now know that there are worse lunatics listening and monitoring our virtual footprints. To disconnect from the Internet, even for a few hours, is a symbolic and sometimes practical method to protect our privacy and security. This is a non-issue to many people but crucial to activists and dissidents. Actually it should be everyone’s concern because privacy and even anonymity is a precious democratic right. Our schools and institutions should not simply teach our kids how to use their gadgets, but also when to stop and why they should stop using these tech tools from time to time. Unlimited Internet is costly, dangerous, and inhuman.

Perhaps I’m a sentimentalist. There are only few hours in a day when it’s lawful and acceptable to mingle with other people and so why use this opportunity to finger your phone? Can’t you do it later?
If you are a shy person (I would caution the use of the word introvert, which is different from shyness), you can derive pleasure in the company of other living things without socializing. Simply observe their traits, their oddities, feel the presence of the moment, nod, smile, speak a few words, then retreat to a safe distance where you can see everybody – but stop the incessant tapping of your phone since a) it’s impolite; b) you will never improve your people skills; and c) you will fail to validate your secret theory that everyone in the universe is petty and vain.

I’m always online, responding to emails, reading blogs, writing news; and while inside the office I’m still sitting in front of a computer. I want a few hours of space away from the cyberspace. I want time that is not realtime. Sometimes I want to be a lurker not on Facebook but in trains, buses, corridors, theaters, malls, and absorb all the combined wisdom and inanities of the communities I visit.

I want to appreciate a street scene or a countryside vista and respect its uniqueness by simply storing it in my memory. I want to look back at my life not by browsing digital files but by harnessing the power of remembering. I want to make friends who will spend time with me and value my companionship even if our activities are not documented on Facebook. No photo, no video, no status update can faithfully record and describe the ultimate joy of holding your firstborn in your arms.

I’m an advocate of slow blogging. Applied to social media, I prefer to share my thoughts after a brief time has passed. I admire sensible ranters and livebloggers; we need them and they improve online discourse. People like them make mobile Internet a valuable tool. But there are also netizens like me who interact with friends and enemies in the morning and write about these friends and enemies in the evening. I like to make news in the morning and read the news (plus the vitriolic comments) in the evening. I like to be part of an initiative that creates hashtags rather than simply joining a hashtag bandwagon. I like to create history rather than reading or tweeting about it. Or if I were a hippie, I’d say spread love in the morning and make love in the evening.

But the age of mobile Internet has already arrived. It is now the new normal. I was almost tempted to partake in the fun when my high school classmates told me that all of them are now on Viber. As free communication apps continue to proliferate, there will be fewer reasons to reject the allure of Internet-on-the-go, especially for people like me with overseas relatives. Like all popular technologies that preceded it such as TV, computer desktop and texting, the use of mobile Internet will be ubiquitous in society.

One day, and that day may come soon, I will probably apply for mobile Internet. But in the meantime, I am holding my ground. The pressure is mounting but I can always rebuff my friends in Manila by arguing that it’s illogical to pay more when the web service of our local telcos is super slow and erratic. Another reason to delay the inevitable.

Written for The Diplomat

East Timor’s new prime minister, Dr Rui Maria de Araújo, appealed for unity as a way to build a more inclusive and tolerant society. Araújo became the head of the Sixth Constitutional Government after former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão resigned last month.

While taking his oath on February 16, Araújo presented some of his plans for East Timor. First, he vowed to uphold “the essence of democratic values in Timor-Leste: peace, reconciliation, solidarity, pluralism, tolerance and dialogue.” He also spoke about boosting the country’s security. “We will give more attention to the patrol and vigilance of our maritime coast to protect our coral reefs and fish resources from illegal incursions in our sea.”

He praised the leadership of Gusmão, whom he appointed minister for Planning and Strategic Investment. He reminded the public that it was during the term of Gusmão when East Timor became “the first country in the Asia-Pacific region and the third in the entire world to be granted compliance status with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.” Araújo said he will continue to implement the Strategic Plan drafted by his predecessor and that the new government will focus “on better service delivery and on the quality of works, in a manner that is efficient, effective and accountable.”

But Araújo also indirectly mentioned some of the problems left behind by the previous government.

“One of our current difficulties is the lack of data and reliable indicators on the situation of the country. The last official data we have on poverty dates back to 2009 and told us that almost half the population lived below the national poverty line,” he said. He added that “the benefits of economic growth have not reached everyone.”

He also acknowledged the prevalence of corruption and inefficiency in the government. “Our priority is to fight the culture of bureaucratization in public administration, which has become a giant with feet of clay.”

According to Araújo, one of the first tasks of the new government will be to submit declarations of assets with the court and the Anti-Corruption Commission.

“I intend to personally deliver these on behalf of all members of government. When I leave this office, I will lodge another declaration of assets that I promise will show I have not profited from my position. And when I leave this office, I want Timor-Leste to be recognized as a world leader in open, transparent, accountable and ethical government,” he said in a speech delivered before the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Araújo is also expected to implement programs that will empower women. When he was adviser to the Ministry of Finance, he worked to identify women as potential managers and top leaders in the agency. Today, according to Araújo, women represent 32 percent of the leadership team in the office.

But can Araújo deliver on his commitments? Gusmão is confident that his younger successor can lead the country’s transition. Araújo is an opposition member; nevertheless, he was still endorsed by Gusmão because of his proven capabilities.

“His deep knowledge of the financial system, a wide experience which can not be underestimated, on the model applied to capacitate technical staff, implemented during his years in the ministry [Finance] as an adviser, and his integrity, as a person, these are the three relevant elements which are the fundamental reason behind the proposal of his name,” Gusmão wrote in his nomination for Araújo.

Araújo has much reforming to do if he wants to achieve his goals for East Timor. He is right to call for unity but it should not mean being less critical of the policies and programs of the previous government.

Thailand Scores Low on Political Rights

Written for The Diplomat

As expected, Thailand’s political rights rating changed from “partly free” in 2014 to “not free” in the Freedom in the World 2015 report released by democracy watchdog Freedom House. Thailand’s army launched a coup last year that led to the imposition of martial law in the country. The army also suspended the constitution, detained political leaders, controlled the media, and banned public protests.

The report is another troubling reminder of the worsening political situation in Thailand.

The army claimed the coup was necessary to restore stability by ending the intense clashes of various political forces. Indeed, the army dispersed the street protests but the political crisis is far from resolved. The junta merely hid the symptoms of the crisis by punishing anyone who dared to speak out against the government. Order was enforced by eroding the political rights of ordinary citizens.

The junta’s brutal policies are highlighted in an infographic published by independent news portal Prachatai. The image features some of the normal activities that have been suppressed by the government over the past nine months. Those who conducted these peaceful actions were arrested for allegedly undermining national security. The list below, culled from the infographic, reflects the paranoia of the junta leaders on one hand, and the suffering experienced by ordinary Thais on the other:

1. Holding a blank A4 paper or A4 paper with anti-coup messages

2. Covering one’s face, eyes, and mouth

3. Helping arrested protesters

4. Holding “Peace Please” T-shirt

5. Imitating the Hunger Games three-fingered salute

6. Gathering at McDonald’s

7. Reading George Orwell’s 1984 novel

8. Eating sandwiches in public

9. Playing the French national anthem

10. Wearing a Red Shirt while selling crispy fried squid

11. Issuing a statement denouncing the coup

12. Wearing “people” mask

13. Wearing “respect my vote” t-shirt

14. Approaching or being approached by journalists

15. Running for democracy

16. Holding placards that read “holding placards is not a crime”

17. Posting a photo with anti-junta and “No Martial Law” messages on Facebook

18. Holding academic seminars on the political situation

19. Gathering people to watch the premiere of Hunger Games 3

20. Distributing leaflets featuring a poem about democracy

21. Giving three-fingered salutes to Prayuth, the leader of the junta

22. Selling fruit products with (former Prime Minister) Thaksin Shinawatra’s square face logo

The list confirms the accuracy of the report by Freedom House. If simple activities like reading books and watching movies are considered a threat to the national security, how can Thais effectively exercise and assert their political rights?

But the junta seems impervious to international criticism. In recent weeks, the army has been aggressive in silencing dissent. A land rights activist was detained, an opposition leader was visited at his home by an army officer to undergo an “attitude adjustment” session, and a civil society seminar on Internet legislation was interrupted by the presence and surprise participation of soldiers at the meeting.

The junta is also readying the passage of 10 digital economy bills which some activists say could violate the rights of Internet users and mobile phone subscribers in the country. These bills, if passed into law, could further gag the new media and the few remaining critical voices in Thai cyberspace.

These are challenging times for Thailand’s democracy and press freedom advocates. It is up to the international community to push for democratic political reforms in the country.

Written for Bulatlat

Was Edsa Dos a coup, power grab, or an uprising? Was it a farce? It may be all of the above but it’s a political event worth celebrating. Why should we allow the Arroyos, Estradas, Aquinos, and the Catholic bishops to dominate the discussion about what Edsa Dos meant to our country’s history and politics? Let us remember and honor it for what it represented and aspired to achieve. It may not the revolution we wanted it to be but it deserves to be recognized as among the milestones of the people’s movement for genuine democracy and justice. So how should we defend the idea of Edsa Dos? Let me count the ways:

1. The common and understandable critique against Edsa Dos in recent years was that it allowed Gloria Arroyo to assume the presidency. Indeed, Arroyo was a beneficiary of Edsa Dos but only because she was the constitutional successor of Estrada. The people marched in the streets to fight corruption and not because we wanted Arroyo to lead the country. Edsa Dos taught us that there should have been other extralegal options to replace the leadership like creating a transition council or a revolutionary government.

2. It’s convenient to reduce Edsa Dos as a four-day political action that led to the downfall of Estrada. But for many who opposed Estrada, Edsa Dos was a campaign for good governance that saw thousands of people converging in the streets of Mendiola and Ayala, ‘Jericho Marches’ in front of the Senate, and citizen assemblies in the last quarter of 2000. We went to Edsa on January 16, 2001 but we have been protesting in the streets for many months already before that day.

3. Estrada was already unpopular when Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson made his Juetengate expose against Estrada. The first massive street gathering against Estrada took place in 1999, or more than a year before Chavit’s expose, in reaction to the president’s harassment actions and other attacks against the press and people’s civil liberties. Estrada was relentless because a few months after the Makati protest, he unleashed a total war campaign against Muslim rebels that displaced civilian communities in Mindanao.

Estrada alienated his support base when he ignored the workers’ demand for a legislated wage increase; he disappointed his former allies in the anti-bases campaign when he signed the Visiting Forces Agreement; and his slogan “Erap para sa mahirap” was ridiculed because he expanded the globalization policies of his predecessor instead of reversing them.

4. Estrada was forced to leave the presidential palace when the people started the march from Edsa to Mendiola on January 20. Arroyo took her oath in Edsa but the more forceful symbol that week was the long march of the people from Ortigas to Manila in order to surround and reclaim Malacanang. Edsa Dos was not simply a happy gathering of anti-Estrada forces but a political movement that really targeted the storming of the country’s seat of power.

5. It’s misleading to state that Edsa Dos was a people’s uprising that only became successful because of military support. The more accurate formulation is that the military supported Edsa Dos when it became clear that the people have spoken and united against the country’s commander-in-chief. The first point became popular during the Arroyo years that led many to believe that only a military mutiny is required to solve a political impasse. But Edsa was a popular uprising which united diverse groups and the army. A political upsurge with military backing is a potent combination but a military action without organized support from the civilian population will only give us hotel takeovers and young officers running for the senate.

6. Edsa Dos was more than a mini-reunion of some anti-Marcos personalities; it was a broad anti-corruption movement. It was not a noisy political event in imperial Manila; it was a national campaign directed against Estrada. We are flooded with political images that focus on the Edsa Shrine but it doesn’t mean that Edsa Dos activities were restricted within Metro Manila. It was a nationwide upheaval that also paralyzed urban centers and eroded Estrada’s mass appeal. He was certainly detested in Muslim Mindanao. Edsa in Edsa Dos was more than a geographical reference; it became the symbolic name of a national political campaign.

7. Edsa Dos is often described as a remarkable example of middle-class revolt. Then there are those who dismissed it as a mere rambunctious power play of the elite. We do not deny the lively and heroic participation of the middle classes and even some sections of the ruling elite in Edsa Dos. They were there and they mingled with the greater number of people who came from the working classes. Edsa Dos was a true social phenomenon that briefly removed class barriers and allowed the people to fight a common enemy. But to insist that it was a middle class action is to deny (again) the role of the poor and inarticulate in shaping the country’s history.

8. Edsa Dos started the global trend of using mobile phones in protest actions. Through cell phone texting, young people were able to join Edsa Dos with parental consent. Texting facilitated the movement of the crowds and the rapid distribution of anti-Estrada messages and Erap jokes. Anti-Left bashers often use this as an example to assert the alleged superior creativity of virtual activism over traditional street protests. But more than anything else, Edsa was a testament to the enduring power of the mob. Edsa Dos participants didn’t just text their sentiments against Estrada; they marched and texted against corruption. Edsa Dos didn’t invalidate street activism; on the contrary, it reaffirmed the power of collective actions and the value of maximizing new technologies to advance political causes.

Does Edsa Dos deserve to be known as “People Power”? It mobilized the people, it animated the country’s political forces, it aimed to uplift the conditions of the poor, it echoed the narratives of revolution, it led to the ouster of a popular politician. In the eyes of hacienderos, corrupt bureaucrats, and apologists of imperialism, the idea of Edsa Dos is so powerful, radical, and subversive that it needed to be discredited. Therefore, our task is not simply to defend it but also to continue what it aimed to achieve in politics. If Edsa Dos was a failure, it was a failure worth repeating until we could get it right.

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am delightfully proud,” he added.

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

Refugee Crisis on Myanmar-China Border

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for Bulatlat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for Bulatlat

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

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

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

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

Land reform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manny Pacquiao: Boxer, Legislator, Basketball Playing Coach

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indonesia: Police Chief Scandal Jokowi’s First Real Test

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uber Faces More Regulation in Southeast Asia

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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