Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

The first surprise came when the U.S.-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation (ACF) decided to give Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (aka SBY) the World Statesman Award for promoting religious freedom in his country. The second surprise was when SBY accepted it two weeks ago.

For a group guided by the belief that “a crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion,” it is quite a surprise that ACF chose to honor the leader of a country where cases of religious intolerance have risen dramatically over the years. SBY even acknowledged the issue in his acceptance speech.

“Pockets of intolerance persist,” he said. “Communal conflicts occasionally flare up. Religious sensitivities sometimes give rise to disputes, with groups taking matters into their own hands.”

Critics of the award can be classified into two groups. The first are those who think that it’s premature to recognize the efforts of SBY and his government to promote religious harmony in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The second are those who accuse SBY of deliberately doing nothing to stop the attacks against religious minorities.

Last month, an Ahmadi mosque was attacked in East Java. Further, some Shiites are still living in refugee camps nine months after being driven from their homes in Sampang, also in East Java. Shiite’s and Ahmadiyah are minority Islamic communities in predominantly Sunni Muslim Indonesia.

Meanwhile, in West Java, Protestant congregations of GKI Taman Yasmin and HKBP Filadelfia have been prevented by authorities from holding services in their own churches.

Critics of SBY highlighted a 2006 regulation that made it difficult for minority church groups to build places of worship. SBY also signed a law that recognized only six major religions in the country, thereby discriminating against more than 350 religions with small numbers of followers. In 2008, SBY issued the controversial anti-Ahmadiyah decree, which imposed a jail term of up to five years on anyone who spreads the group’s teachings. In West Java, Governor Ahmad Heryawan passed an order in 2011 that banned Ahmadiyah activities altogether.

In addition, Indonesia continues to implement the 1965 Blasphemy Law to suppress minority religions.

One of the most outspoken critics of the award is Jesuit priest Franz Magnis-Suseno, an Indonesian of German descent, who reminded ACF in an open letter that SBY has reneged on his pledge to protect minority religions in Indonesia. In the letter, he asks: “Do you not know about the growing difficulties of Christians to get permits for opening places of prayer, about the growing number of forced closures of churches, about the growth of regulations that make worshipping for minorities more difficult?”

Perhaps anticipating the protests, in his acceptance speech SBY spoke about the freedom of minority religions to build their worship centers. He reported that Indonesia has 255,000 mosques, 13,000 Hindu temples, 2,000 Buddhist temples, 1,300 Confucian temples, and 61,000 Christian churches – all of which he cited as proof that his government respects religious freedom.

In the speech, he also vowed that his government “will not tolerate any act of senseless violence committed by any group in the name of religion.”

He added: “We will not allow any desecration of places of worship of any religion for whatever reason. We will always protect our minorities and ensure that no one suffers from discrimination. We will make sure that those who violate the rights of others will face the arms of justice.”

But SBY has to do more if he wants to prove the sincerity of his pledges. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has voiced her concern about the growing religious intolerance in Indonesia.

Ultimately, the protest is not exactly about SBY receiving a global award. Nobody complained when he received an honorary doctorate from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath award from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. These awards, however, were not based on his policies on religion.

By contrast, the ACF statesman award has become a lightning rod for criticism. While Indonesia’s economy may be doing quite nicely under SBY, the promotion of religious freedom is not exactly one of his major achievements.

SBY could prove his critics wrong by decisively ending religious persecution in Indonesia in the last remaining months of his term.

Joseph Estrada’s Political Comeback

Written for The Diplomat

After his unceremonial ouster as Philippine president in 2001, Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada has once again been elected to public office, this time as mayor of Manila, the country’s capital.

Estrada was a popular actor who played Robin Hood-type characters before he entered the world of politics in 1969 when he first served as mayor of his hometown in San Juan, an eastern suburb of Manila. After almost two decades as local chief executive, he gained national prominence when he was elected senator in 1987, vice president in 1992, and then finally president in 1998.

In October 2000, a friend of Estrada revealed that the president was receiving money from illegal gambling operations. Estrada was subsequently impeached by the House of Representatives. While the senate was proceeding with the impeachment trial, numerous tales of Estrada’s luxurious living surfaced in the media, undermining his magnanimous image. Rallies snowballed throughout the country, forcing Estrada to leave the presidential palace on January 19, 2001. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, replaced him as president of the republic.

Estrada has maintained his innocence and has accused the influential Catholic Church, business groups and the elite of conspiring to unseat him.

After his ouster, he was charged with plunder, a non-bailable offence. He was placed under hospital arrest and then house arrest pending the completion of his trial. He was found guilty in 2007 but Arroyo immediately pardoned him.

Despite his travails, Estrada remained a powerful figure in Philippine politics. When incumbent President Benigno Aquino III first ran as senator in 2007, he sought Estrada’s endorsement. Estrada felt vindicated when his wife and son won senate seats in 2001 and 2004.

Estrada’s credibility and popularity as opposition leader increased when his successor was accused of committing the high crimes of corruption, electoral fraud and human rights violations. Even the late president and democracy leader Cory Aquino publicly apologized to Estrada for supporting his ouster in 2001 because it led to the ascendancy of Arroyo.

In 2010, Estrada garnered more than 9 million votes and placed second in the presidential race, confirming his continuing national popularity. In fact, Estrada won in many urban and rural poor districts. His running mate, Jojo Binay, was elected vice president, while friend and long-time ally Juan Ponce Enrile was elected senate president.

This year Estrada completed his successful comeback by winning the Manila mayoral race. Another son was also elected senator.

During his inaugural speech as mayor, Estrada vowed to restore the glory of old Manila and uplift the conditions of the poor. But he also stirred controversy when he compared himself to other world leaders who had served a prison term.

“For the first time, Manila will have an ex-convict as your city mayor. And I feel I am in good company with Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and our own Senator Ninoy Aquino who was convicted by a military court. We were all convicted. That is why we are now all men of conviction,” he said.

Naturally, many people disagreed and reminded him that he was jailed for plunder and not for fighting apartheid or military rule. Nonetheless, the comparisons reflect Estrada’s stubborn insistence that he was a victim of persecution by the elite. He appears to be hoping to influence the verdict of history by denying that his ouster represented the will of the majority.

Whether it is appropriate or not for Estrada to align himself with global icons like Mandela and Suu Kyi, nobody will deny that the 76-year-old ex-convict has reemerged as a major political figure in the Philippines.

The Philippines’ other living former presidents, Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo, have already lost whatever political clout they had. Arroyo is in fact facing a plunder case and is currently under hospital arrest. Estrada, on the other hand, continues to be a king and kingmaker in Philippine politics. He has yet to reveal his plans for the 2016 presidential race.

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