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

Published by Manila Today

Cartoons do not merely entertain, they also instruct and influence the emotion and thinking of children and adults alike. Even governments sometimes ban cartoons for transmitting messages they deem harmful, subversive, and inappropriate for public viewing. For Filipino kids who grew up in the 1970s, they learned the meaning of Martial Law when President Ferdinand Marcos ordered the removal of Voltes V from primetime TV for containing references to the dictatorship. But what Marcos did was wrong because it was censorship and censorship has no place in a democracy. What we would like to emphasize is that cartoons always convey a particular political point of view. They may be imaginative representations of our world or an alternate universe but they are hardly innocent and value-free. That the good often triumphs over evil in cartoon narratives is not enough reason to bombard our children with cartoon themes. We should be aware of conservative, feudal, and disempowering values that children may absorb from repeated viewing of some cartoons. We should name and repel these meanings, we should challenge the discourse that sustains the unjust status quo, and we should replace them with a more progressive vision of society. Below are some popular cartoons and my attempt to decipher their underreported meanings:

Ratatouille and the Slumrat Millionaire

Either it is a film about a rat that really cooks (anyone can cook, right?) or it is a depiction of migrant life in Europe. The plot mirrors the life story of many migrants: A large happy family living in a distant region is forced by dire circumstances to flee and seek refuge in a rich metropole. But the “undocumented” migrants are unwanted and chased like vermin in the rich city. Fortunately, one of them possessed excellent skills as a cook aside from seriously aiming to assimilate in modern society by suppressing his heritage. After demonstrating that he can cook better than the great chefs of the city, the migrant is rewarded by a sympathetic benefactor. Lesson: Migrants are seen as a burden and they must struggle hard to contribute and give something back to their host community. The complex issues linked to migration are easily resolved in the film not by addressing the great divide in society but by emphasizing that individual talent or merit trumps other concerns. In the end, the family of the great little chef partly succeeds while other rat colonies continue to live in the sewers.

Toy Story 3 and Disposable Workers

Think of toys as workers and the film becomes a bit creepy. Like Buzz Lightyear, the toy workers initially had high hopes and dreams but they lose their idealism when they learn about the dull reality of their life: Their use value is measured by counting the time they spend with their owners. After this, they could not conceptualize any other goal other than to satisfy their kid master. Thus, they become depressed when they are dumped after years of faithfully performing their duties. The film series is all about satisfying the desperate desire of the toys to be exploited again. They feel nostalgic for the good old days when happy slavery was their everyday routine. The contradiction in the film was solved by finding a new playmate for the relic toys.

The character of the bear rebel and the cause he fought deserve special mention: His righteous rage drew support from other discarded toys and they found a new meaning in life by establishing a mini-commune. However, it’s a utopian playland which degenerated into a toy garrison. How could they think that liberation is possible when the exploitative toy relations remain unchanged? Think again of the rebel toys as utopian socialist workers. How could socialism thrive in a single liberated production unit when the rest of society is still in the throes of capitalist oppression?

Wall-E and the 21st Century Man

Neo-luddites will appreciate the themes explored in this film. Technology is evil, robots seek domination, and man is threatened by the machines he has created. It is a futuristic film that parodies the present. People have become obese, dependent and addicted to their gadgets, and divorced from productive aspects of life. The spectacle society hypnotizes everyone and prevents us from interacting with each other. We think we have free will but our choices are machine-generated. We have become too enamored with our virtual world that we failed to notice the pollution and rapid environmental degradation in the real world. The mass production of so-called wireless technologies has generated an unsustainable amount of e-waste. They have become digital weapons of mass destruction that led to the extinction of many species in the planet. The film ends by offering hope: Man has decided to take back power from the machine and more importantly for the cause of humanity, the post-apocalyptic world is starting to become livable again.

Spongebob and Happy Alienation in Capitalist Society

Mr Krabs is the typical greedy capitalist, Plankton is an innovator but unsuccessful entrepreneur, Squidward is an aspiring artist who became a cynical cashier, and Spongebob is the naive and loyal wage earner. Both Plankton and Mr Krabs employ dirty business tricks against each other. Mr Krabs regularly exploits his workers which is resented by Squidward who cannot effectively resist because his co-worker, Spongebob, supports the management. Squidward turns to art to compensate for the alienation he feels at the workplace. Spongebob appears to be satisfied with his life but he is a pitiful and sad character in the story; he is not even a real sea creature. He thinks he got his dream job as a fry cook, he genuinely believes that making krabby patty everyday is the high point of his life, and he is willing to work like a slave with very little pay. Perhaps he gives more value to friends and the time he spends chasing and playing with jellyfishes. Spongebob goes to work hoping that a new day will bring him more happiness even though he will merely repeat what he did the previous day; while Squidward’s detached attitude is perhaps his defensive posture to hide his failures. Their behavior does not change anything: Krabs will continue to amass more wealth while they on the other hand will remain minimum wage workers. It seems there is no alternative to the present other than to endure or enjoy a la Spongebob the fleeting and eternal burden of life.

Bees and the Paradox of Modern Economy

The film is a modern retelling of a poem written by Doctor Bernard Mandeville in 1714 entitled “Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits.” Mandeville argued that vices and selfish motives propel the economy forward. Society benefits if individual vices are tolerated. Isn’t Mandeville’s “private vices” similar to Adam Smith’s concept of self-interest? That if each individual is allowed to pursue his self-interest, it will create more wealth in society. But if the vices, corruption, vanity and evil actions in the community are removed, it will lead to economic disaster. Mandeville seemed to have unlocked the philosophical basis of capitalism.

In the film, humans were found guilty of stealing the honey collected by bees. All honey products were then returned to their rightful owners, the bees. The result was chaos. Bees stopped working, honey collectors lost their jobs, and flowers died because bees have stopped pollinating. It seems the only way the system can function is to continue the stealing and exploitation committed by humans. Russian economist A.V. Anikin comments on the irrational logic of modern economy: “What a society in which parasites, warmongers, spendthrifts and rogues bring prosperity, and such unqualified virtues as love of peace, honesty, thrift, and moderation lead to economic disaster!”

Happy viewing! And remember that watching cartoons is always an “adventure time”. Hopefully, it can provide more enlightenment and not just shallow entertainment to our children.

Written for The Diplomat

The Korean embassy has issued a statement expressing alarm over the reported spike in crimes victimizing Korean tourists and businessmen residing in the Philippines.

It cited the killing of a Korean businessman last July and the abduction and killing of a Korean college student in Manila last March as examples of “brutal and senseless crimes that rattled” the Korean community in the Philippines.

The embassy said there are already nine cases of crime-related deaths of Korean citizens in the country this year. Last year, 12 Koreans were reportedly shot or stabbed to death in the country, but a local Korean newspaper reported that no suspects have been taken into custody.

This is not the first time the Korean government has raised the issue of rising crime in the Philippines. Last May, First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong asked for the Philippine government’s cooperation in protecting the security of Koreans during a policy consultation held in Manila. This message was reiterated by Korean Ambassador Hyuk Lee last July. “The escalation in the number of killings is very disturbing… I just hope that the peace and order situation will improve, especially for the benefit of Koreans who visit the Philippines.”

There were 1.17 million Koreans who visited the Philippines last year. Korean tourists accounted for about 25 percent of all foreign visitors to the country. About 88,000 are already residing in various parts of the Philippines.

The embassy said it has already reached out to various national agencies such as the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Philippine National Police, as well as the Office of the President “in the hopes that an intensified effort on the part of the Philippine government to curb criminality will lead to a safer environment for Korean nationals.”

It proposed various improvements in security measures, like preventing motor vehicles, particularly taxi cabs, from being used as a means to commit crimes, or protection from being targeted for kidnapping or “car-napping” by organized criminal syndicates.

In response, the police downplayed the concern that Koreans are being targeted by criminal syndicates and insisted that the country is still a safe destination for Koreans. Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Herminio B. Coloma Jr. assured the Korean community that the problem is already being addressed.

“We’re taking the matter seriously and this is given priority attention by the police and law enforcement agencies. Part of the government’s duty is to ensure the safety of all nationals residing in the country, and we want to assure the Korean embassy that this is being given highest priority by the Philippine government,” he said in a statement sent to a local newspaper.

But there are also suggestions that some of the cases involved crimes instigated by Korean gang members. This was raised by Professor Kim Dong-yeob from the Busan University of Foreign Studies: “It is highly possible that there are Koreans behind these crimes. Many Koreans flying to the Philippines have a reason to flee Korea. Many are gang members escaping law enforcement. What they end up doing is paying people to swindle money from Korean businessmen, students and tourists.”

Whatever the cause of these crimes, the embassy was right to point out that Korean investors might “avoid the Philippines and seek safer places for doing business.”

And it looks like the fallout is already happening. Central Bank data showed decreasing foreign direct investment from South Korea since last year. Korean investments reached only $440,000 as of May this year, compared to $1.78 million in the same five months last year, representing a 75 percent drop.

This should hopefully compel the police and other concerned agencies to act faster and decisively to reduce crime in the country. A safer Philippines would benefit both tourists and especially local citizens, who need to feel secure in their own country.

Grisly Murders Stoke Political Controversies in Thailand and Philippines

Written for The Diplomat

The murder of two young British tourists in southern Thailand and the killing of a Filipina transgender person in the Philippines, allegedly by a American soldier, have created a political mess for both countries. The governments of Thailand and the Philippines are under pressure to quickly solve the cases, which could both affect their bilateral relations with the United Kingdom and United States.

The prime suspect in the killing of Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude, whose lifeless body was found in a motel near a former American military base in the Philippines, is U.S. Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton. Laude’s death, allegedly at the hands of an American soldier, has revived the clamor to review existing military agreements that allow U.S. troops to visit and build temporary facilities in the Philippines. Pemberton’s unit is briefly stationed in the country to participate in military war games.

The Philippines used to host two American bases in Clark and Olongapo, but these were removed after the Senate rejected the bases treaty in 1991. U.S. troops were able return to the Philippines through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was ratified in 1999. In April this year the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed during Obama’s visit to the Philippines. It legalizes the building of semi-permanent U.S. military facilities in various parts of the country.

Negotiations for the EDCA implementation were about to start when the Laude murder hit the news. Activist groups immediately called for the rejection of the EDCA, VFA, and other purportedly one-sided agreements that trump Philippine sovereignty. They argued that the inability of the Philippine government to gain full custody over Pemberton is a concrete example of the unfair provisions in the signed military agreements. Senator Miriam Santiago also renewed her demand for the scrapping of the VFA.

Another debate ignited by the Laude case is the discrimination or marginalization suffered by the LGBT community in the country. Laude has become a symbol for LGBT groups demanding gender equality, protection, and fair treatment.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, the deaths of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in Koh Tao island beach resort has greatly embarrassed the military-backed government. The police is accused of bungling the investigation after failing to apprehend suspects and file appropriate charges in the court.

They eventually presented some Burmese migrant workers who “confessed” to committing the crime. But the suspects have now recanted and claimed that they were tortured into producing a false confession.

It didn’t help that the prime minister advised foreign tourists not to wear bikinis in order to be safe, implying that victims of crimes are to be blamed for their ordeal. He has since apologized for making this remark on national TV and insisted that he was only thinking of the safety of visitors.

The murder case in a popular destination has badly affected the tourism sector, which has yet to bounce back from the setback it received when the Thai military grabbed power in a coup. The political instability created by the coup and the unsolved murder case involving British tourists will make it all the harder for Thailand to entice tourists to return.

In the Philippines, a foreigner is accused of committing murder; while in Thailand, two foreigners were allegedly murdered by migrant workers. In both cases, the crime of murder has produced political problems with national and international repercussions. The local population are shocked, enraged, and closely monitoring the two cases. The international community, meanwhile, is observing how the respective justice systems handle the cases. Ultimately, it is the governments of Thailand and the Philippines that are under trial.

Written for Bulatlat

1. Journeying to the countryside to live with peasant and IP communities. Nature tripping, mountaineering, and political field work plus more. Tourism is fun but an activist explores the rural not just to celebrate and document geography but to study the condition of the masses. He is not there to feitishize the farmer but to participate in agrarian reform. He climbs the mountain to fight corporate loggers, large-scale miners, and warlords. He searches the remote and exotic to expose and end various manifestations of feudal oppression and other political crimes across the vast areas of the archipelago. What could be more fun than communing with nature while creating history?

2. Conducting Social Investigation and Class Analysis in urban poor communities. An urban activist performs many roles: He is a social worker, pollster, and mapper many times better than the DSWD, SWS, and Google Map. He does not simply observe, he integrates with the masses; he does not just ask survey questions, he joins the respondents in the search for solutions; he does not make a map to invade or demolish the poor but to strategize the resistance of the marginalized. There are sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists who survey and insult the poor in behalf of surveillance specialists, real estate developers, and corrupt politicians. And then there are activists who are making a scientific survey of the poverty situation in order to mobilize and empower the poor.

3. Building mass organizations at the grassroots level. Politicians expand their support base by increasing their presence in vote-rich communities. However, they have distorted and corrupted the meaning of grassroots empowerment by using money politics to gain influence and by reducing the political participation of the people. Activist are countering this nefarious practice by establishing multiple mass organizations where ordinary citizens learn to practice and assert their political rights instead of merely requiring them to vote during elections. Genuine democracy requires an active citizenry and we can start by introducing the dynamics of people power at the grassroots level. Activists believe that participatory democracy can be truly liberating by raising the political capability and organized strength of the masses.

4. Organizing collective actions and mass campaigns. Activism is the crowdsourcing of politics. We make things possible by tapping the power of the collective. We succeed by launching campaigns initiated and sustained by people’s organizations. It is creative and pure democratic politics at work. It is reflected in rallies and protest actions and in almost all activities organized by activists. A mass campaign seeks to achieve a particular political goal by relying on the wisdom, unity, and fighting power of the masses. It involves systematic and deliberate planning, implementation, and monitoring of varied actions – which may or may not culminate in a rally – but what is essential is the active participation and leadership of the people. The reward of activism is to see the masses lead their own struggle.

5. Study groups on philosophy, political economy, revolutionary theory, history. Activism is a continuous process of unlearning and learning. We read the classics (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Stalin), we study all isms (capitalism, socialism, revisionism, postmodernism), we test and update these theories through practice, and we also teach. We study our society so that we can change it. Activism is a mass education movement and the popularization of political literacy. How very enlightening to study Marx’s treatise on “Value, Price, and Profit” and have your classmate, a factory worker, explain in concrete and precise terms the meaning of the text!

6. Remolding of the self through criticism and self-criticism sessions. We change the world by changing ourselves too. We aim to become better persons by renouncing our arrogant, conservative, and reactionary views. The goal is to acquire a progressive worldview. We make a pledge to improve our work habits and also our behavior and attitude in dealing with other people especially the masses. And since change is a long and arduous process, we make it less difficult by conducting a group therapy where we criticize/compliment fellow activists after making a self-criticism or self-assessment. We also invite and ask the masses to join these sessions. It is often a cathartic experience and it improves our relationships.

7. Promoting a nationalist and progressive culture, and preserving our heritage. 20th century socialism has taught us that it is not enough to overthrow the rulers of the old society, it must be followed by a cultural revolution to change the destructive values of the old order. Through art, we can influence the formation of a more progressive set of values. Today, activists are also using art as a weapon of the mass movement. Art inspires the people, art transmits the ideas of the struggle, art offers a glimpse of the bright future. Another task of activists is to defend our heritage (including the development of national language) against the onslaught of crass commercialism and poisonous homogenizing influence of neoliberal globalization.

8. Analyzing the political situation. This is almost a daily habit of activists. We read all major newspapers, we scrutinize government reports, and thanks to the Internet, we also monitor citizen media updates. We even identify the trending memes in popular culture. Many wrongly assume that we simply condemn the actions of government officials. The truth is that simultaneous debates take place first before we issue a political statement. It’s a non-stop process of updating and fine tuning our analysis. It’s a democratic and mass phenomenon where the political situation is comprehensively dissected from the grassroots units to the national political and sectoral centers.

9. Expressing international solidarity. An activist is an internationalist. He embraces the struggles of the oppressed in other countries as his own. He participates in global initiatives. He studies the international situation. At the same time, he articulates some of the local campaigns before the international community. Recently, we heard the local labor center expressing support to Cambodian garment workers who are demanding a monthly minimum wage increase. We are also encouraged by the support given by American activists to our campaign for human rights protection in Mindanao. We live in varying time zones but we disregard the geographical boundaries as we forge class-based unities.

10. Serving the people. If this seems too broad, read items 1-9 again. It is fun to change the world because it is in the service of the majority who are oppressed. Another reason to be happy is that activists have always proven their critics and ideological enemies wrong. The age of militant activism is supposed to be already over but the flags of the mass movement are still flying high. We are surviving because we are persevering despite the difficulties of the struggle. Campaigns may fail but we learn from past failures as we experiment with new and better tools to achieve our political objectives. We are moving forward because we are determined to win the future.

Written for The Diplomat

The government of Laos has signed an Internet law that claims to support the growth of the Internet but actually contains numerous contradictory provisions that undermine free speech and other citizen rights. When this was reported almost two months ago, the concern of many was the broad and vague cybercrimes enumerated in the law. At the time, though, a text of the law had yet to be made public. We now have an unofficial English translation of the law and after reading the document, we can confirm that there are grounds to worry about the negative impact of the new law in media freedom and democracy in Laos.

The law has placed strict if not excessive regulations on how Internet users can share or disseminate information online. For example, article 6 recognizes the right of individuals to exchange online data but obliges website administrators “to check content before disseminating it on their web page.” This sounds impractical. The same provision states that “information which is not (approved) from official media or media offices/organizations legally cannot be used officially.” Does this mean that Lao netizens can only share news reports approved by the State?

Article 7 prohibits the creation of anonymous or pseudonymous social media accounts, instead requiring individuals to register by giving their “name, surname and current address in (compliance with official documents).” This is a blow to citizens who seek to expose wrongdoings in the government through the Internet.

Article 9 explicitly bans the posting and sharing of content that feature the following:

– Disseminating false and misleading information against the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, undermining the peace, independence, sovereignty, unity, and prosperity of Lao PDR;

– Circulating information that encourages citizens to become involved in terrorism, murder, and social disorder;

– Supporting online campaigns that seek to divide solidarity among ethnic groups and countries;

– Spreading information that distorts the truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions or organizations;

– Sharing of comments whose content are in line with the above-mentioned prohibitions.

Based on these guidelines, it seems that legitimate criticism of government programs and policies could be interpreted as a criminal act if it creates division, confusion, or “disorder” among the public. It is not hard to see how authorities could use the law to prosecute journalists, activists, and other critics of the government.

Articles 11 and 13 require Internet service providers and website administrators to “terminate access” and “temporarily or permanently block users” who are found to be violating government decrees and other regulations. They are also expected to “cooperate and provide information” to agencies conducting investigations. Meanwhile, article 14 prohibits Internet service providers from providing assistance or opportunities to individuals, legal entities or organizations who seek to undermine the Party and government policies.

The law also identified several agencies that have been given the mandate to conduct widespread online surveillance. Article 18 empowers the Information, Culture and Tourism Sector to “monitor (follow and inspect), diagnose and analyze the Internet-based information content” of individuals, legal entities and organizations.

Article 19 gives the Public Security Sector the authority to “collect, check and analyze Internet-based information [disrupting] national stability and social security.” It can also “conduct an investigation” into individuals and organizations suspected of breaching the law.

The government believes that this kind of Internet regulation is needed. While acknowledging the positive contributions of the Internet to the local economy, Lao officials also warned that the medium can be used to cause panic in society. But the new law will obviously discourage netizens from using online forums to engage public officials and challenge public policies. It is hardly conducive to a free and open Internet. What Laos needs is a law that will encourage Internet commerce and online innovation; not something that will unfairly penalize critics, activists, and even ordinary Internet users.

Corporate Critics Say Vietnam’s New Tech Regulations Are Bad for Business

Written for Global Voices

When Vietnam passed Decree 72 last year, slapping new restrictions on how Internet users can share information online, the government promptly caught heat from human rights and media groups for undermining free speech. But instead of heeding these calls to review or repeal Decree 72, Vietnam has passed two more Internet-related decrees that imposed stricter regulations on tech companies, Internet users, and online transactions.

Several new requirements for general information websites and social networks were issued on Oct. 2, 2014, in Circular No. 09/2014/TT-BTTTT, a document that articulates how the government should implement provisions of Decree 72 pertaining to the regulation of “compiled information” or the sharing of online news information.

Meanwhile, a proposed Information Technology (IT) Services decree has already undergone several revisions and is expected to be signed by the prime minister before the end of the year. The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), whose members include top tech companies like Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo, has expressed concern over numerous “unnecessary and vague” provisions in the draft IT Services decree.

Circular 09: “Tightening management of social networks”

When the online newspaper of the Vietnamese government reported the implementation of Circular 09, it described the new measure as “tightening [the] management of social networks.” Indeed, it features new requirements for licensing or registration of websites and social networks. These companies are obligated to fulfill the following requirements:

– The person or deputy responsible for the website or enterprise should have a university or higher degree;
– The website should have a “regime for elimination of incorrect contents within three hours from its detection or the request of a competent authority in the form of email, text or phone.”
– “Social networks are required to have an agreement on provision and use of social network service with users, and ensure the users accept such agreement before using the social network”;
– “Users of social network services are required to confirm registration or changes of personal information by receiving messages on their phone or email”;
– “The character string of a domain name can’t be similar or identical to the name of a press agency if it is not such press agency.”

The Vietnam News Biz Hub also added that the decree requires news aggregation websites to develop “a process of public information management that defines its news sources, and must manage and check all kinds of information before and after they publish it.”

The Vietnamese government has consistently blamed social networks in the past for spreading false information that caused panic, tension, and disunity in the country. But through Decree 72 and now Circular 09, the government believes it has already enacted new regulations that will provide authorities easier access and mandate to block and remove “unwanted” online content with the help of website and social media administrators.

Proposed IT Services Decree: Necessary Regulation or Excessive Control?

Through a letter submitted to Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) last June 20, the AIC called for the repeal and reformulation of many provisions in the draft IT Services Decree. This suggests that the government conducted some form of consultation on the matter, as the AIC sent a new letter on Oct. 8, reiterating its position that some of the provisions in the edited draft are still “unclear and unnecessary.”

Ostensibly, the draft requires all IT companies to register with the government, and enumerates several obligations, standards, and commitments that registered companies must follow.

The AIC believes that many of the proposed rules would be burdensome and even redundant:

“Over-regulation will challenge the fundamental innovative and fast-moving nature of the technology sector. We do not think that a permission-based approach to regulation is the best structure. We would recommend industry self-regulation that is more consistent with international best practices. The current approach risks creating uncertainty within the industry… It would create a significant barrier to doing business in Vietnam.”

The network highlighted Article 14 which specifies that foreign tech companies:

shall have a legitimate representing organization or individual in Vietnam to resolve, on its behalf, relevant issues and to be responsible fulfilling obligations such as tax, fees, charges and other related duties.
AIC described this item as “unique” among ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, and noted that it has “created concern for companies due to the lack of detail on expectations of local legal representatives.” It added that it also violates Vietnam’s trade commitments. And it warned that registration and other licensing rules could create an “extra layer [that] could lead to delays and miscommunications.”

If passed, the AIC worries that the decree could discourage startups and tech companies from investing or increasing their presence in Vietnam. But the government insists it is only seeking to protect Internet users and consumers.

Vietnam should also rethink some of its Internet-related laws that restrict free speech and activities of Internet users within the context of global human rights norms to which it is party. At the very least, more consultations should be conducted before before the decree moves any further in the legislative process.

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s decision to slash fuel subsidies has led to an increase in the price of petrol products, which in turn angered many consumers but was applauded by economists and credit rating agencies.

Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the government action by citing the need to balance the budget. He said the subsidies for petrol, diesel and liquefied petroleum gas had already reached 24 billion ringgit ($7.4 billion) in 2012. He argued that a substantial amount of these funds could have been used to finance education, health, and other needs of the vulnerable segments of the population.

Najib echoed the assertion of economists, who insist that general fuel subsidies provide more incentive to the rich than the poor. “Currently, our subsidy system benefits everyone, including the higher income group and foreigners. Thus, we need to move to a more targeted subsidy system that caters to vulnerable groups,” Najib said.

The International Monetary Fund has published a paper which dismissed the fuel subsidy as a funding program that “aggravates fiscal imbalances” while “depressing private investments and reinforcing inequality” by benefiting higher-income households instead of protecting the low-income consumers.

But some experts and opposition leaders have voiced concern over the sudden fuel price hike. They noted that this is the first time the government has reduced subsidies without consulting the public first. They fear that it will trigger inflation in other commodities, to the detriment of the poor.

Chong Zhemin, the economic development bureau chief of the Democratic Action Party in Perak, described the price hike as a “betrayal to the people’s trust” and a “huge burden” on them.

Star Sabah (State Reform Party) Chief Jeffrey Kitingan is puzzled why Malaysia is raising petrol prices when the international oil price has fallen to its lowest in nearly three years. “When other countries are reducing petrol prices, the petrol hike shows that the Prime Minister and his fiscal team must have run out of ideas how to address the economic problems and fails to consider the inflationary and drastic burdens that will be imposed on the ordinary rakyat (people) particularly the lower income groups.”

Yin Shao Loong of the Institut Rakyat accused the government of failing to provide options for citizens. “Before cutting fuel subsidies the government should have ensured that public transportation was adequate and Malaysian wages were healthy enough to withstand a jump in prices.”

Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng shared that sentiment when he wrote that “any unilateral action to simply reduce subsidies without looking at other interventions e.g. improving public transport systems is not going to work either.” He agreed that the government has to implement some drastic measures to optimize the use of public funds, but he disagreed about the timing of the subsidy reduction.

In response, Najib assured critics that the higher fuel price would not disrupt the local economy. He also pledged to provide cash transfers known as 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) to the affected segments of the population.

While economists lauded Malaysia’s decision, consumers, especially car owners, were displeased to learn about the higher petrol prices. However those opposing the subsidy withdrawal today are fewer than those who protested higher petrol prices last year. Perhaps Malaysian authorities should take this cue to quickly fulfill their promise to the public, by re-channeling the fuel subsidy to basic social services intended for the poor. Otherwise, the higher petrol prices could further alienate the government from struggling middle-class and working-class citizens.

Malaysian Lawyers March Against ‘Sedition Blitz’

Written for The Diplomat

More than a thousand Malaysian lawyers, dressed in black, conducted a “Walk for Peace and Freedom” Thursday morning to call for the repeal of the Sedition Act, a colonial era law passed in 1948. The historic march to the Parliament building was led by the Malaysian Bar Council, which rarely organizes political rallies.

The group is worried over the rising number of sedition cases filed by the government this year. In the first nine months of 2014, they recorded 12 cases of prosecution under the Sedition Act. Ten arrests were made in a span of 26 days since August 19. Those accused of making seditious remarks included lawyers, journalists, preachers, and even academics.

The Sedition Act contains broad provisions that could easily criminalize legitimate dissent. For example, it is a crime to cause “discontent or disaffection” and “feelings of ill will” among the inhabitants of Malaysia. Since its enactment in 1948, the act has regularly been used by authorities to suppress the political opposition. In recent years, a broad constituency has grown in opposition to the law, forcing Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to make an election promise that his government would repeal the measure in 2012. But two years later, the law is still in effect and the ruling party continues to use it against government critics.

Malaysian Bar Council president Christopher Leong summarized the view of many legal scholars about the “archaic” law: “The Sedition Act 1948 has no place in our nation, which aspires to be a modern, moderate and progressive democratic society that seeks to respect the rule of law and to engender lasting harmony and unity. The continued existence and use of this legislation only serves to prolong an addiction to a reliance on its draconian provisions as a knee-jerk reaction to expressions of purportedly sensitive issues and dissenting views.”

Meanwhile, Susan Loone made history by becoming the first journalist to be charged under the law. She insisted that her only crime was to report the truth. “If writing the truth, asking questions, taking a minister to task or making a powerful figure accountable are seditious, then let us all be seditious!”

Lawyers were also joined by several journalists during the march. One of them was Alyaa Alhadjri: “The fact that I walked along as a journalist should be seen as a sign that something is indeed very, very wrong with the system because we would normally be reporting on such protests from the sidelines.”

The lawyers’ march has received worldwide attention and support from human rights groups, media networks, and law associations. The Law Council of Australia was one group to express solidarity with the protesting Malaysian lawyers: “The Law Council is deeply concerned by reports that the Sedition Act is being used in such a way that those who are viewed as critical of the Government are subject to investigation and prosecution under its powers.”

There are those who suspect that the sudden rise in sedition cases is related to the coming assembly of the ruling coalition. They think that Najib is hoping to appease the hardliners within his party who are against the decision to abolish the Sedition Act. The ruling Barisan Nasional has held power since the 1960s.

As an alternative to the Sedition Act, some government scholars are proposing the enactment of a National Harmony Bill, National Unity Bill, and National Unity and Integration Commission Bill. The government vowed to conduct further consultations about these proposals but human rights groups are concerned that some of these measures would merely revive the “draconian” provisions of the Sedition Act.

Bar council president Leong is proposing that this alternative law should create a space and dialogue where “nobody will be intimidated or threatened, (and) nobody would be put in fear for merely having a thought and expressing a thought.”

Malaysia’s recent election to the UN Security Council would probably embolden many to review the government’s domestic and foreign policies. The growing opposition to the Sedition Act is certainly one issue that the country will need to address in the international arena.

Written for Bulatlat

According to some intellectuals and their disciples, it is foolish to join the Left or become a Leftist in the 21st century. They sarcastically remind activists that the Berlin Wall already fell in 1989 and it was followed by the disintegration of Soviet Russia in 1991. In response, we should assert that the real foolish act is to be an anti-Left or to spread anti-Left hysteria in the 21st century.

After the breakdown of the Soviet model (we prefer to call it modern revisionism, not socialism), Leftist movements have thrived across the globe in the past two decades. This is also the period when the Left’s critique of capitalism gained greater relevance especially during and after the 2008 financial and housing crisis. Even Karl Marx’s Capital, which was first published in 1867, has been a consistent bestseller during recession years.

Nevertheless, we cannot deny that there remains a constituency that despises and rejects the Left and everything it represents. Even if we dismiss the ranting of reactionary ideologues and political nobodies who earn their living by attacking the Left, there are intelligent people, including friends, who distrust and even mock activists.

Perhaps this is expected in a country where successive governments have successfully integrated Red Scare propaganda in the mainstream opinion-making institutions such as schools, media, and the church. There are anti-Left individuals who think they are being witty and original in ridiculing the national democratic movement when in fact their arguments are merely a rehash and echo of the Red Scare dogma. Some are also misinformed about the Left, which caused them to fear and hate all radicals, either living or dead, even if the latter have done nothing against them. The anti-Left bias is so persuasive that it could even lead a person to think that only Leftists are guilty of espousing an ideology, while misrecognizing his own anti-Left sentiment as devoid of any ideology.

Below are common accusations hurled against the Left; most are irrational but quite popular in convincing many to believe in the supposed irrelevance and wickedness of the Left as a political movement. But even assuming that some points are half valid, we assert that these are not enough to condemn the Left as the supreme embodiment of political evil in society.

The Left promotes a Godless ideology. This is partly true in so far as we consider the Left as a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment when secularism gained widespread following. But not all those who call themselves Atheist can be considered Communist. A person can readily renounce his faith without being a Leftist. Unknown to many, there is a progressive teaching that seeks to merge some ideas inspired by Marxism on one hand, and Christianity on the other; it is known as liberation theology. But doctrine aside, the Church and the Left have proven many times already that they can work together to end injustice, oppression, and inequality without compromising their beliefs. Unfortunately, some religious hardliners are intolerant of the Left. But would they rather work with political personalities who attend church service every Sunday yet violate the other nine commandments of the Lord for the rest of the week? And for the faithful, would they cast aside Leftists for their irreligious views yet tolerate the sinful activities of supposedly pious individuals? The evil is not the Leftist agitator who exhorts the people to resist the exploiters but the preacher who sides with “honorable” thieves and oppressors.

The Left always wants to bring down the government. Curiously, politicians often invoke this argument when they are being criticized by the Left. Perhaps their intent is to discredit their critics by warning the people about the ultimate and ulterior motive of the Left. It is particularly aimed at constituents who desire reforms but disdain radical changes. But isn’t system change the goal of all emergent political forces? Why single out the Left when everybody speaks or writes about the need to overhaul the system every time they feel frustrated with our leaders, or when they become disillusioned with the bureaucracy, or after they experienced a grave injustice? Maybe because it is the Left that is most likely to succeed in remaking the social order as it does not act on mere caprice or surge of emotions. While others are creatively dissing the craziness of the system, it is the Left that has a programmatic approach to change it. And therefore, to prevent the Left from achieving what everybody fantasizes, the pampered defenders of the status quo are aggressively trying to depict the revolution as an undesirable act.

The Left seeks to achieve its goals by fomenting chaos and violence. In the beginning there was peace and harmony in society. And then the Leftists came to disrupt our way of life. War and conflict ensued. – According to this myth, the Left is responsible for exacerbating the social ills that bedevil our everyday lives such as cyclical poverty and ghettoization of our communities. Politicians would add that the Left incites violence to provoke the poor who are subsequently recruited to fight the democratically-elected government. The fatal defect of this reasoning is that it refuses to name the system for what it really is: a violent behemoth that is rotten to the core. It has many names yet at the same time it cannot be named. It is colonialism, imperialism, feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism, neoliberalism, and yet it is more. Plus it is invisible. What is visible is the people resisting the system: Workers on strike, farmers occupying haciendas, students protesting against corruption, and indigenous peoples driving away loggers and miners. Unfortunately, the resistance of the people is denigrated as an act of violence. Every action of the Left is deemed violent, every little act of resistance is exaggerated and demonized, every uprising is equated with mob terrorism. Politicians in power and their apologists want us to discuss, debate and disown the so-called political violence perpetrated by Leftists while ignoring the violence of the system and the institutionalized violence of those who are rabidly defending this system.

The Left offers no alternatives as it is obsessed in merely criticizing the government. Anti-Leftists are uncritically repeating this tried and tired tirade without bothering to check some of these downloadable facts: If we talk about the extreme Left, the National Democratic Front has a 12-point revolutionary program in establishing a People’s Democratic Republic. As for the legal Left, all mass organizations have general and specific programs of action. For those who are not impressed with activist jargon, they can study the legislative agenda of Leftist partylist groups. Still, they claim to be disappointed with the simplistic slogans they see in rallies. But what do they expect to read in the placards during rallies; a Wikipedia article of what activists are fighting for? But even if the solutions offered by Leftists are not evident, it does not invalidate their criticism of government policies. Sometimes the right solutions can be found by asking the right questions. Prudens quaestio dimidium scientiae. (To ask the proper question is half of knowing). Democracy will decay without dissent; and dictatorship will flourish if we discourage the people to question what our politicians are saying and doing. History is not made by praising those in power; and change cannot be realized by simply being polite to those who hold public office. It is the reactionaries and their academics-for-hire who are obsessed with dismissing the Left while offering no alternative to the Leftist Cause other than to prettify the pathetic present with petty and pitiful reforms.

The Left is a lost cause. Young people are often reminded that supporting the Left will ruin their family, their career, and their bright future. They are warned that the protracted struggle will be a waste of time since the Left is already a dying if not a dead movement. Instead of pursuing a dead end dream, they are enticed to embrace pragmatic ideals. Living in a time of instant gratification and creepy individualism, the advice to shun the Left resonates among the youth. But is it true that the Left is already a defeated promise? It is no surprise that reactionaries would magnify every adverse situation encountered by the Left and they are desperately hoping for the eventual collapse of the Left as an idea and a movement. They seem to suffer from a case of anti-communist fetishism. But contrary to their expectations, the Left is stubbornly alive and even resurgent in many places. We should reject the facile thinking that a political movement is worthy of support only if it provides material gain, individual promotion, and popular recognition. One enduring appeal of the Left is that it seeks to uplift the conditions of the many through collective mobilization. The individual finds solace and fulfillment in the struggle for liberation. The activist perseveres not simply because he knows the struggle will succeed but also because he believes he is doing the right thing. He is creating history, he is inventing a new future, and he is joined by many others who will continue the quest. This makes the Left truly unbeatable. And in their heart of hearts, reactionaries are aware and afraid of this naked truth, which explains their ruthlessness in dealing with the Left.


The anti-Left will retort: But the revolution devours its own children. Indeed, the Left reflects the contradictions of society. It is an imperfect movement. But the Philippine Left did something that was unprecedented in the country’s political history. It apologized not only for the political blunders it made in the 1980s but also for the excesses, errors and other crimes committed by its members. Here is a movement that is open, transparent, and accountable. Here is a political force that enjoins and empowers the masses to fight for authentic liberation. Here is a personal and collective undertaking that destroys the old so that we can build a new and better world. But alas, the anti-Left claims he does not want his purity tainted by a flawed movement. What then is his alternative? Tragically, he reverts back to the reigning social order. He rejects the imperfect Left to support the moribund ruling system. It is already 2014 and he still believes the system of mass poverty, exploitation, and oppression can be reformed? What kind of black magic superstition is this!

Published by Manila Today

We grew up singing the Philippine national anthem; in fact we can only recite the beautiful prose of Lupang Hinirang if we quietly sing it. Today, when the use of LCD projectors is already common, we sing and watch the national anthem in schools, movie theaters, public halls, and government buildings. Aside from displaying the flag, a video must accompany the playing of the anthem to inspire the crowd. In many cases, the video also serves as the substitute flag.

The national anthem does not have an official music video. Whether we realize it or not, we are actually honoring the nation by watching a video interpretation of Lupang Hinirang. There is only one song but numerous video versions. However, it does not matter if the video is of poor or good quality, or whether it is made by a small or big production, or performed by amateurs or professionals. We always stand up to sing, listen, and watch the anthem. When we sing, we affirm our citizenship together with other Filipinos in the crowd; when we listen, we relive the founding moments of the Republic; and when we watch, we are bombarded with powerful images that condition our thinking about the nation’s past, the political situation today, and the challenges of nation-building.

But many do not recognize the propaganda value of the video since they assume that it is a simple rendition of a song about our glorious history. They will readily describe the video as patriotic and entertaining without being conscious of its ideological content. They often prefer to overlook the overt and covert meanings in the video; but it doesn’t mean the material has no impact on their thinking.

Thus, watching the video is always an act of politics. It’s either we accept and promote the narrative in the video, or reject and replace it through critical engagement.

There are several popular videos produced by mainstream media networks and government agencies which are available online. Their reach is significant since they are repeatedly shown in theaters, social activities, and free TV. Showbiz artists also played leading roles in these videos which make them extremely popular among the youth and the general public. Their influence will continue to grow since playing the national anthem has top billing in all public and private events across the country.

What is the message of these videos? Whose viewpoint is highlighted? How do they define the task of nation building?

History Lessons

Perhaps it’s inevitable that most of the videos will focus on our struggle for independence to represent the birth of the Philippine nation. After all, the national anthem was written during the revolution against Spanish colonialism. The young should be continually reminded that we became free because we fought hard for this right. The video produced by GMA-7 even included the 1986 Edsa uprising as a legacy of this radical tradition.

However, there are obvious gaps in presenting our history such as the lack of reference to the local struggles in many islands before 1872, or the defiance of our indigenous peoples. Viewers might also get the impression that history is made by great men instead of the great mass of people who are resisting and creating history at the same time.

But overall, the Lupang Hinirang videos are instructive in emphasizing the value of dissent in establishing our modern Republic.


The role played by prominent individuals in shaping our history in the past century is exaggerated and distorted in the video produced by the PCSO, Office of the Press Secretary and Philippine Information Agency. The legacy of every president is identified by using keywords which are simplistic and even misleading. For example, the achievement of Marcos is “Infrastructure”. For students who often watch this clip in schools and movie theaters, they will be conditioned to believe that “Infrastructure” is the great legacy of Marcos and not the brutal Martial Law regime. Estrada is described as a “Centennial President” which is factual but his more important credential which the future generation should remember was his plunder case and eventual ouster from office.


Another problematic theme is the depiction of overseas migration as a natural phenomenon. This is evident in the station ID of GMA-7 and partly endorsed by the video produced by ABS-CBN. Since these videos also provided a historical narrative of the Philippines, the migration of Filipinos in the late 20th century might be interpreted as an acceptable evolution or indicator of progress in society.

Perhaps the intent of ABS-CBN is to show the strength of the Filipino identity by filming our kababayans singing Lupang Hinirang in San Francisco, Dubai, and New York. Indeed, it is not wrong to promote pride and nationalism, and we salute this initiative. But migration is presented without problematizing the issue. We see migrants in the video but not the sad history of migration and its troubling impact on the social fabric of our nation.

The GMA-7 video is an indirect endorsement of labor export. It showed images of POEA, passport, and overseas workers such as health workers, maritime personnel, hotel receptionists, and Middle East engineers. It echoes the state doctrine by calling these workers our modern heroes.

After fighting foreign invaders in the past, the Filipino today is working for foreigners. We should commend the representation if it is a critique of social policies (Walang Natira by Gloc-9) but it is a naïve acceptance and celebration of the globalization ideology. And this is supposed to be a video of our national anthem?

Continuing Resistance

Symbols are important to make the past relevant and motivate Filipinos to continue the fight for a better future. Unfortunately, the videos hardly evoke a new vision which could boost the movement for change in society. They make reference to radical episodes of our history but they do not link these to the current struggles of our people. The present is divorced from the past (with the exception of religion). There is no dreaming of the future. We see only symbols of the present that supposedly constitute modern society such as exotic beaches, idyllic farming villages, happy couples, smiling children, and hardworking migrant workers. We can’t also ignore how some of the videos were concluded by showing the SM Mall of Asia globe icon.

The Lupang Hinirang is a marching song of the revolution. It exhorts the people to fight for the motherland and to make sacrifices for the benefit of the community. Every time we sing it, we feel more patriotic. And every time we see the videos, we become more grateful to our heroes. But there is a disconnect between the radical verse of Lupang Hinirang and the contradictory images in the unofficial music videos of the anthem.

There is a proliferation of videos that pay tribute to Lupang Hinirang but many of them are simply reinforcing the official ideology of the state. Some are creatively endorsing a progressive culture but unwilling to break free from the fetters of the ruling system.

But the activist in me makes me optimistic that one of these days, we will be able to return the subversive in Lupang Hinirang. That aside from bayang magiliw, our people will easily recall that if there is a mang-aapi – both foreign and especially local, we are ready to make the supreme sacrifice for the nation. Ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyo.

Written for Bulatlat

He had you at “power to the people!” and then he said he wanted to “occupy” your heart, and that you are his 99 percent. Yet you find his world quite exotic, his vocabulary sometimes confusing, although he seems sincere given his passionate determination to fight for his beliefs. Indeed, it is difficult to reject someone whose heart bleeds for the weak and inarticulate. But like all rational beings, you have lingering doubts not just with his integrity but also with the life he has chosen. Is he for keeps? Will you join his Cause? The final decision is of course up to you, recognizing that the act of falling in love is ruled by subjective emotions. But in the meantime, it might prove useful to gain a better knowledge about the activism of your “part time” or “full time” lover.

1. How and where did you meet each other?

a. At a coffee shop in Quezon City. His group was protesting the interventionist agenda of the United States and China.

b. Mendiola in Manila, near Gate 7 of Malacañang Palace. His group joined a multisectoral rally opposing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which would allow the return of US troops and facilities in the country.

c. Quezon Memorial Circle. His group conducted a flash mob urging rich countries like the US and Japan to reduce carbon emissions.

2. What is he reading today?

a. Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016. According to him, the progressive blueprint of the “reigning reform coalition.”

b. Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. He insists that the book, an international bestseller, offers a flawed alternative especially when compared to Marx’s Das Capital.

c. 12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do to Help Our Country by Alex Lacson. And he goes on preaching that change should start with the individual.

3. Who is his inspiration as a leader?

a. Noynoy Aquino. Allegedly sincere, honest, and reformist.

b. Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran. Working class hero. Incorruptible, principled, revolutionary.

c. Mahatma Gandhi. Nonviolence advocate.

4. What is he saying about the Disbursement Acceleration Program?

a. He praises the government for releasing the list of DAP-funded projects. He also urges Aquino, the implementer of DAP, to continue the budget reforms of his “daang matuwid” regime. He is convinced that Aquino never used the DAP worth 237 billion pesos as pork or as a tool for political patronage.

b. He wants the Aquino government to be made accountable for implementing an unconstitutional budget program. He supports the plunder case against Abad, the author and architect of DAP. He is campaigning for the People’s Initiative against pork since he believes that Aquino and Congress are unwilling to completely dismantle the pork barrel system.

c. After cursing all the corrupt politicians, he enjoins his friends to campaign for the lowering of taxes, bemoaning the fact that professionals and businesses are overtaxed by a corrupt bureaucracy.

5. Does he support a second term for Aquino?

a. First, he wanted Aquino to “clarify” his statement. Then he expressed “openness” to the proposed second term to sustain the momentum for reforms.

b. Hell no! He warned the people to guard against a creeping yellow dictatorship.

c. No. He reminded Aquino to preserve the legacy of his parents who both fought a dictator.

6. Did you go out last August 25, during the National Heroes Day?

a. Yes, he took you to Ateneo to participate in a forum about the need to continue the crusade for reforms (read: term extension)

b. Yes, you both went to Luneta to sign the PI against pork (read: anti-Aquino)

c. Yes, you both organized an activity with some friends in support of a charity (read: ice bucket challenge)

7. What was his reaction when the three impeachment complaints against Aquino were thrown out by Congress?

a. He cheered the decision of the 54 legislators, majority of whom had been rabid supporters of Gloria Arroyo, and hailed it as a vote of confidence for the clean and transparent government of Aquino.

b. He lambasted the DAP beneficiaries for disregarding the evidence and supporting documents presented by the complainants.

c. He was disappointed since a supposedly independent branch of government hurriedly dismissed the impeachment without requiring Aquino to answer the serious allegations raised by the complainants.

8. Does he like movies?

a. Yes, some of his simple-living friends are fond of buying DVDs in wholesale. Some are even ready to spend 2,000 pesos in just one transaction.

b. Yes, he was recently talking about “The Guerrilla is a Poet” and “Barber’s Tales”.

c. Yes, he tracks and supports various film festivals although he often rants against Filipino movies shown during the Christmas season.

9. What is his view about guns and politics?

a. Oh he abhors guns too much including the idea of mobilizing the people to take up arms against the government. He believes that the use of guns is not a legitimate option in the democratic struggle. Curiously, he rejects the people’s prerogative to use arms in the defense of their communities, but he sees nothing irregular with a Cabinet member and so-called nonviolence advocate carrying AK-47 and M-16 rifles in his SUV as protection against perceived threats to his life.

b. He recognizes the right of the people to arm themselves against the attacks of the reactionary state and various private armies of warlords and despotic landlords. He sees armed struggle as both a form of resistance and political solution in response to a situation where the ruling classes are brutally preventing the people from altering the repressive status quo.

c. He wants stricter gun control, he prefers to use guns for sporting events, and he is horrified by the rising crime rates across the country.

10. Does he agree with the statement that the Conditional Cash Transfer program is an effective anti-poverty program?

a. First, he says no. Then he will retract his statement. He will even praise the CCT as an innovative grassroots approach undertaken by the government.

b. No. He will point out that it does not address the roots of inter-generational poverty in the country. He will reject it as a band-aid solution which is being used by the government to buy the political support of the poor.

c. Most likely he will urge the government to rechannel the dole outs to strengthen social services and the foundations of the domestic economy.

11. Does he advocate gender rights?

a. Yes, he supports sexuality and gender rights. He actively campaigned for the passage of the Reproductive Health bill. However, he is hesitant to subsume gender to the political class struggle believing that identity issues have an independent dynamic.

b. Yes, he believes in RH, divorce, and the ending of discrimination based on gender. And he asserts that we must decisively destroy the political economic base that breeds a patriarchal culture. End feudal bondage by advancing the social revolution.

c. Yes, he believes in the equality of sexes and the proper recognition of feminist rights through legislation and other state-sponsored measures.

12. Does he join rallies?

a. Yes. Although he avoids political actions that would make him appear disrespectful to authorities such as lightning rallies, heckling, and burning of effigies.

b. Yes. He is an unrepentant advocate of People Power politics as he anchors the achievement of his political goals on the strength of the mass movement or the mass mobilization of the people.

c. Yes, as long as it is peaceful, lawful, colorful, environment-friendly, children-free, politician-free and will not cause traffic.


If most of his answers are letter A, it means he belongs to an activist group which has already identified itself as a “junior partner” of the government. He called it critical collaboration but it is dismissed by other political forces as a case of shameful sell-out. It is one thing to push for reforms within the bureaucracy but it is already opportunism when you compromise your principles just to give absolute support to a conservative landlord president in exchange for some petty spoils from the pork largesse. Armchair intellectuals suddenly became respectable when the pro-Aquino activists turned to coffee house activism during Obama’s visit last April. It’s activism which mutated into a tragedy and farce.

If most of his answers are letter C, it means he is affiliated with middle-class activism. His direct political engagement is not consistent since his advocacies are few and specific. He often makes intelligent political posturing but sometimes it is fueled by a naïve worldview. Still, it is an intervention worth celebrating. He distrusts politicians but willing to work with government agencies to advance some reforms. However, it is rare that his networks have deep connections with the basic sectors and marginalized forces in society.

If most of his answers are letter B, it means he is a radical activist, and most probably a member or supporter of the national democratic movement. Mainstream media often refers to it as the extreme Left. He is an activist with a comprehensive critique of society and a revolutionary vision as he demands the total disruption and remaking of the moribund social order.

So what type of activist is your friend? The choice is yours, but here’s one advice: If love is a commitment, then choose the activist whose fidelity to the Cause is beyond question. Why surrender yourself to some petty reformism when you can embrace the promise of an authentic radicalism?

Written for The Diplomat

Myanmar is changing and changing in the right direction.

These were the exact words used by Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly of world leaders in New York on September 29, 2014.

He declared that “positive changes” and “winds of change” have spread across Myanmar in the past three years, which have become the solid foundations of a democratic state.

The foreign minister mentioned three waves of reforms initiated by the government: The first was the “peaceful transformation from the military government to a multiparty democratic system.” The second involved economic, administrative and private-sector development reforms. And the third is supposed to deliver benefits to the people by fulfilling their socio-economic needs.

It was the first wave of reforms that impressed the international community when Myanmar granted amnesties, released political prisoners, conducted elections, abolished press censorship, and allowed private newspapers to publish again.

But many of these reforms were questioned in recent months when state forces were accused of violating the rights of citizens, especially those who were protesting against government policies. The new UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, reported last July that there is a shrinking of democratic space for civil society and the media. The censorship board has been abolished but media persecution continues as critical journalists are either charged in the courts or detained for doing their job. There is media space but as the independent newspaper The Irrawaddy clarifies, “the limits of that space are still decided by the state.”

Another issue that Myanmar confronted in the past year is the ethnic and religious violence that has displaced Rohingya Muslims. The intermittent clashes between radical Buddhist groups and some Muslims also reflected the deep divide and continuing tension between several ethnic communities.

Perhaps in response to the accusation that the government is conspiring with Buddhists in attacking Muslim villages, the foreign minister urged critics to acknowledge the efforts of the government to bring peace and harmony in the country. “The history, the diversity and the complexity of the issue must be fully understood before jumping to conclusion. The situation should not be looked at in a superficial manner. The international community should contribute pragmatically and objectively to find a durable solution.”

He then enumerated several measures implemented by the government to promote human rights, such as the enactment of a new media law, granting of presidential amnesties, endorsement of a zero tolerance policy on the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war, prevention of recruitment of underage children in the army, and the revamping of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to make it more independent.

Related to this, the foreign minister asserted that it is time to remove Myanmar in the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council. “All major concerns related to human rights have been addressed to a larger extent in the new Myanmar. We have now reached the middle tier of the human rights ladder.”

Reacting to this statement, various activist groups highlighted the continuing “systematic rights abuses” perpetrated by the army and police against the civilian population. They also pointed out that the local human rights body was replaced with individuals affiliated with high officials. They were allegedly not consulted about this reshuffle.

Perhaps anticipating the voices of opposition, the foreign minister appealed for understanding, since Myanmar “democracy is still in its infancy” and that “the government has a long to-do list with limited capacity.” He assured global leaders that the Myanmar government is not complacent and that it’s aware of the challenges in reforming and building a democratic state. He also asked for fairness. “The development in Myanmar should also be viewed in a more balanced and objective manner.”

Indeed, the international community should encourage the wave of reforms to continue in the “new Myanmar.” It should recognize the decision of the Union Parliament to approve Myanmar’s accession to the Biological Weapons Convention (1972), and take note that Myanmar is currently the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; a daunting task since this is a crucial period for the regional grouping as it moves towards full integration next year. The world can also hope that the 14 peace agreements signed by the government will lead to a genuine national reconciliation and end the world’s longest ongoing civil war. And we can all get on board with Myanmar’s plan to graduate from Least Developed Countries status.

But the contrary voices that dispute the glowing report on Myanmar at the UN meeting should not be dismissed. They are valid since they seek to present what ordinary Burmese are experiencing on the ground. Myanmar should sit down with these groups, listen to their perspectives, and work with them in pursuing the reforms which are essential to make democracy a genuine phenomenon in the country.

Singapore Bans Documentary on Political Exiles

Written for The Diplomat

A 70-minute documentary on aging exiles reminiscing about their youth and dreams for Singapore has been banned by the government as a threat to national security.

The documentary, To Singapore, With Love by independent filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, featured interviews with political exiles who have been living outside Singapore for the past 35 to 50 years. But Singaporean residents won’t be able to watch these interviews and hear the stories of some of the prominent members of the country’s pioneer generation.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) explained that it classified the film as “Not Allowed for All Ratings” because it distorted the truth about a period in Singapore history: “The individuals featured in the film gave the impression that they are being unfairly denied their right to return to Singapore. They were not forced to leave Singapore, nor are they being prevented from returning.”

It added that the activists, opposition leaders and communists who challenged the leadership of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in the 1960s and 1970s are free to return to Singapore as long as they are willing to account for the criminal offences they committed in the past.

PAP has been Singapore’s ruling party since the late 1950s. According to the official history propagated by PAP, Singapore’s meteoric rise as a prosperous independent state was made possible after it defeated a communist plot to overthrow the government in the 1960s.

Director Tan Pin Pin expressed disappointment that her film, which received favorable reviews in many countries, will not have a public screening in Singapore. She said the film was made with the intent of helping Singaporeans gain a better understanding of their society.

“I wanted to understand how we became who we are by addressing what was banished and unspoken for. Perhaps what remains could be the essence of us today. I was also hoping that the film would open up a national conversation to allow us to understand ourselves as a nation better too,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

Indeed, the film could spark more interest about what really happened in Singapore in the 1960s. Aside from the PAP version of history, there is another viewpoint that accuses the PAP of brutally eliminating the political opposition in the 1960s. The PAP also allegedly labeled its critics as communists in order to consolidate political power.

Even if this is not true, many artists who signed an online petition believe that there are insufficient grounds to censor Tan Pin Pin’s film. “We would like to suggest that rather than banning the documentary, authorities release their version of the events in question, so that viewers can make up their own minds,” the petition declared.

For Tan Wah Piow, one of the exiles interviewed in the film, the ban has exposed PAP’s intolerance for other narratives of history. After watching the film, historian Pingtjin Thum disagreed with the censors that the film poses a threat to national security since what all the interviewees “have in common is a deep, abiding love for Singapore.”

Singapore will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary as a free nation and perhaps PAP should use this momentous occasion to promote reconciliation with its former enemies, especially those who were forced to go into exile many decades ago. Perhaps it’s time to recognize the role of banished leaders and marginalized groups in the making of modern Singapore.

Written for Manila Today

Two generations have dominated and are still dominating the early years of the 21st century. To borrow a few terms from American pop sociology, these are the baby boomers (our parents) and the millennials (our children). We stand in between these two generations which are separated by half a century. We act like a bridge that links the senior citizen baby boomers and the teenager millennials who continue to interact with each other despite their age gap in order to survive today.

Baby boomers

The baby boomers grew up in the turbulent years of the 1960s and early 1970s with many of them becoming anti-war activists and hippie rebels. Their radicalism pushed the civil rights movement into the mainstream and ushered the golden age of militant activism. But it also triggered a reactionary backlash in the 1980s that came to be known as neoliberalism. During this time, many of the baby boomers have become middle-aged professionals who replaced their limitless dreams of changing the world with the yuppie goals of owning a sports car, a house in the suburbs, a high-paying career, and a God-fearing family. But like economic bubbles, these middle class fantasies turned into nightmare when the proud baby boomers suddenly found themselves losing their homes, their jobs, and their life savings in the past two decades.

Today, they are already in their 60s yet they are forced to delay their retirement to pay for their health care and mortgage. They compete for jobs that give low wages without benefits; and they are desperately fighting to remain productive and relevant since there are no more unions that will fight for their welfare.


Meanwhile, as the aging baby boomers struggle for subsistence in the selfie world, the millennials are infecting society with their youthful exuberance and naïve outlook in life. Like all the young people before them, they are still imbued with a rebellious spirit which is reflected in dizzying creative outbursts. But they were born at a time when excessive individualism has become the norm and self-centeredness is no longer seen as a sinful virtue. The young baby boomers thrived as a crowd while the millennials are always seeking recognition as trendsetting individuals.

The youth today are clueless about the power and relevance of the many since they grew up during the methodical destruction of collectives in society while the power of the one was being elevated as the supreme philosophy of our time. Sadly, this crass individualism is reinforced by the ubiquitous use of information technologies. Digital natives are so enamored with their app-hungry gadgets which prevented them from experiencing a more meaningful interaction with other members of the community.

Everything and everyone ends up being digitized today, and the millennials think it is fun without being aware of its thrilling impact on life in this world.

Bridge generation

What, then, shall we call ourselves – we who are no longer young but not yet old? We who dread the passing of the old world, we who disdain the reckless rise of the young, and we who claim that the future is ours for the taking. Are we doomed to affirm the legacy of the baby boomers while confronting the raging cultural revolution that will ultimately benefit the millennials? Is this our curse? We seem to be in the interregnum between great upheavals. Perhaps our historical role is to connect the old and new worlds.
We bridge the generation that experienced the horrors of war and the generation today that plays virtual wars. We were told by our elders to revive the affluent past yet we experienced only the fading away of this world. Our young could only refer to it as the mythical gilded age. Nation-building was the task of citizens who belonged in a collective (family, union, cooperative, club) but today it is supposedly the combined achievement of anonymous citizens. The mysterious “invisible hand”, it seems, has prevailed over the clinched fist at the moment.

Digital Natives

Our formative years were influenced by the omnipresent electronic media, and we thought we were the prophets who will herald the explosive growth of the mediaverse. We were nourished by the language of the old media and quickly learned the codes of the new media. But the millennials showed greater hyperactivity and natural adeptness in using the social media. When we were young, we used the typewriter bequeathed by the baby boomers whereas the millennials are using smartphones to process information. Even the desktop (that wonderful, complex machine that made our college years very productive) is now considered by the very young as an ancient computer model. The baby boomers are trying to be lola techies but at least many of them are still asserting the superior way of enjoying life in the real world as opposed to finding pleasure through simulation and automation.

Marcos Babies

In the Philippine context, it seems inevitable that our bridging role would appear to be political. We didn’t directly experience and witness the brutalities of Martial Law but our parents did. And despite their best efforts to hide from us what was really happening during that time, we internalized the rules of dictatorship through the behavior of people around us. We entered school while society was recuperating from the deadly blows inflicted by the Marcos regime. We can never testify about the human rights violations perpetrated by the state in the 1970s but we can attest how the repressive regime affected the lives of ordinary people and how it unleashed an irreversible damage in society.

It is our duty, therefore, to preserve the stories of traumatized survivors and tortured victims of the violent Martial Law regime. And we must share this narrative to the youth who learned about the history of Martial Law only through badly-written textbooks and slanted news reports. Indeed, how can they believe the First Quarter Stormers that Marcos was a horrible leader when those who him were either incompetent, corrupt, and dictatorial? If we fail to make them understand what it means to live under military rule, they will be vulnerable to the neo-Marcosian propaganda that we need an authoritarian state in order to impose discipline, order, and progress in the country.

“Lost Generation”

It is our generation who must have the imagination and boldness to propose the scrapping of the labor export policy. It was during our childhood years when the Philippines started exporting labor in a massive scale. When it proved to be financially rewarding for the bankrupt state, it became a permanent economic policy. We were overwhelmed with inspiring anecdotes of poor families which became instantly rich when one family member migrated and worked in another country. This and the aggressive promotion by the government triggered an exodus of workers. It was only much later when we realized that our obsession with the income aspect of migration has prevented us from understanding the more deleterious consequences of sending our people away. But by that time, labor export has ceased to be an aberration as it already transformed into a mainstream phenomenon.

Today, nobody is shocked anymore that 5,000 Filipinos leave every day to become overseas contract workers. The millenials even perceive it as an ordinary fact of life. Public debate is focused on making migration policies less inhuman instead of addressing the root causes of poverty, low productivity and joblessness in the country.

But after four decades of promoting overseas migration, the Philippines has remained a poor and backward nation. Indeed, remittances have become lifeline subsidies for individual families and the national economy, but they were earned at what expense? The country lost its precious human resources, although these could be offset by providing skills training to the youth. But for the children and families of migrant workers, what they lost can never be recovered. Imagine children growing up without their parents and separated families fighting alienation through weekly telephone chats. We belonged to these families and we were part of the generation that survived remote parenting. We are the “walking wounded” and living witnesses of how migration can both uplift and dislocate the lives of millions. It is tragic that a new generation has emerged believing that they can fulfill their dreams by becoming second class citizens in a foreign country.

Our task, therefore, is to provoke the millennials by showing them the pitfalls of becoming a “lost generation.”

Clash of generations

We bridge because we aspire to be one. We learn from the battles waged by each generation instead of focusing on the so-called clash of generations. Solidarity is more precious than blaming the old and ridiculing the young. And so we borrow from the passionate activism of the baby boomers and the cyber innovation of the millennials remembering that it is only through struggle that we remain young. In many ways, we are all baby boomers and millennials now – daring, inventive, fighter. Let us join the baby boomers in their last great battle for immortality; and let us link arms and share hashtags with the digital natives. The 20th century has ended; let us make this new century a better world for the next generation.