Mong Palatino

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


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

Written for Bulatlat

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 It is both a historical document and a propaganda material that can serve or undermine the political interest of the ruling party.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

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

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

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

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

January 22, 1962 Diosdado Macapagal

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

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

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

January 28, 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 27, 1964

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

January 25, 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 24, 1966 Ferdinand Marcos

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

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

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

January 23, 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 22, 1968

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

January 27, 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aquino: The First Filipino Nobel Laureate?

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for Bulatlat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore Library Bans Books That Feature LGBT Families

Written for The Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.”