Friday, November 16, 2007

Ragipon and Sibalenhon migration

At any given time, there could be only about 5,000 people in Sibale, my island hometown in Romblon. This number has remained fixed, more or less, over the years and may even decline—in fact, has been declining—since the phenomenon of globalization had reached Sibale’s shores. My former math and music teacher in the elementary grades, Lorna Fesalbon, attest to this. Mrs. Fesalbon, who has since retired and now lives in Cavite, told me last week that enrolment in the lower grades in the island is treading on the single-digit level.

Sibale, which is the northernmost municipality of the island province of Romblon, is a politico-geographic anomaly. It is nearer to Mindoro than to the provincial capital, which is six hours away by motorized boat. Pinamalayan, one of Oriental Mindoro’s largest towns, is only one-and-a-half-hours away. Sibale does more trade with Pinamalayan than with Romblon, or even with Banton, Sibale’s mother town, or Corcuera, another island neighbor. Banton, Sibale, and Corcuera speak the same Asi language, and they form a triumvirate called the Maghali Islands, which literally means “brothers”. Most family surnames in the Maghali starts with the letter F.

Sibale’s small population came about not by design or what social scientists call family planning. It happened because of economic necessity and the desire of its people to survive and overcome the harshness and difficulties of island life. These force many Sibalenhon families to leave for places where the jobs are; where they could forage for better incomes and eke out a life of small comfort. Many Sibalenhons, as soon as they are able, leave, in pursuit of the Sibalenhon dream.

The Sibalenhon are migrants. They are everywhere: in the wadis of Al-Khobar, in the prairies of Minnesota, in the cold lands of Saskatchewan. He is in Chicago as he is in California. He serves on a ship calling on ports as faraway as Durban in South Africa. There is a Sibalenhon working in a kibutz in Israel, as well as a wife working as a hospital nurse in the boundary of Kuwait and Iraq. Counting the migrants and their families, Sibalenhons could number over ten thousand souls.

Like millions of Filipinos, Sibalenhons converge in foreign communities, seek each other out, and together share their stories and yearning to go back home once they are in each other’s company. In Batangas where my family and I have settled, we being migrants ourselves, the Sibalenhons are ragipon.

The English language, or even Tagalog, has no equivalent for ragipon. The nearest that Shakespeare can come out with for the adjective are the words “numerous” and “innumerable” which do not at all capture the color and essence of the native ragipon. Balagtas himself could use “napakarami” or “sanlaksa” but still these words are cold, flat and dead and do not convey the strength and vibrancy that ragipon does.

Ragipon is a gathering of numerous people or things of the same breed and kind. It means getting together really close to project warmth and camaraderie and unity. It is a communion without the convulsion of differences and the clash of varied political views; a purposeful coming together with deliberate intent to tighten the ties that bind, and to share. It is the habit of the porcupines inching toward each other until the seabed blackens with their sheer number. It means an association of an identified race.

“Ragipon ka Sibalenhon sa Disyembre 8 sa Lipa” thus means “Sibalenhons from all walks of life will come together in Lipa City on December 8.” This is a big event of Sibalenhon migrants from all over Luzon. Since September, my Sundays meant for the children have been devoted to my participation in the activities leading to the big day on December 8. On that date, Sibalenhons in Batangas, Cavite, Bulacan, and Metro Manila will converge for a celebration of the feast of the Immaculate Concepcion because they themselves, for one reason or another, could not go home to Sibale where the main celebration will be. You are invited. Please come and experience our warmth and camaraderie as itinerant islanders. This is an opportunity to experience ragipon.

Sibalenhons, and for that matter, the Asi tribe, are so unlike the Westerners who, once they have left hearth and home, prefer not to be disturbed in their new abode; who prefer to be left alone, isolated and lonely in the wilderness of their minds and of their environment.

The Sibalenhons are migrants, yes, but they bring with them wherever they go their love for company, not to assuage their loneliness but to assure them of their identity—their being islanders—which remains uniquely intact despite the distance from the mother lode of that identity. They welcome intrusion but of their kind. They find solace sa pagragipon, knowing that whatever globalization may bring and regardless of what globalists may think, Sibale, their home, will remain a standing citadel to protect them from the winds of modernity that seek to erode their centuries-old cultural moorings.

Ragipon is thus an emblem, a badge, a mark on the forehead that demonstrates the Sibalenhons desire to see the sunlight like a fern growing out of a mossy trunk.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The politics of pardon

You have been hiding from the law for 18 years, because you have been convicted by the Sandiganbayan on 14 counts of graft which called for a punishment of 112 years of imprisonment. At some point during this period, the Sandiganbayan also convicted you on 13 additional counts of graft, punishing you with seven years of imprisonment for each count or 91 years, bringing the total jail term you were supposed to suffer to 203 years.

Question: With this imminent prospect of becoming a lifer, will you suddenly surrender—without any reason—and tell the court you are now willing to serve two centuries and three years of incarceration?

This may be difficult to answer, but one Filipino, a Jaime Ponce de Leon, did not find so—and did just that—cocky sure as he was of what he did.

Found guilty by the Sandiganbayan on charges of conspiracy with officials of the then Ministry of Public Highways in committing massive graft in ghost road projects in Bais City in Negros Oriental, de Leon, who has been a fugitive since his conviction on July 7, 1989, filed a motion submitting himself to serve his sentence on March 5, 2007.

On April 12, he was escorted to the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City, but he did enter the jail; he did not even serve a minute of his two-century-and-three-year-jail term, for waiting for him there was a conditional pardon signed by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her executive secretary Eduardo Ermita. The conditional pardon document was issued that same day.

This incredible account of de Leon’s pardon was reported by Peter Tabingo of the newspaper Malaya, but prior to the report, I already got a hint of this story through an e-mail from a Filipino who now resides in London. The whistleblower was encouraging Sen. Antonio F. Trillanes IV to initiate an investigation into the matter, because according to the tip, this will lead the public in finding out Gloria’s abuse of her presidential power to grant pardons to prisoners. I referred the tip to one of Trillanes’s lawyers, who did a quiet investigative work and confirmed the account.

Tabingo alleged in his report that his sources said Gloria’s pardon of de Leon was secured by a former member of the House of Representatives who has a relative in the Arroyo cabinet. The cabinet member was not named.

A few months after this unbelievable story came out, Gloria Arroyo wrote another unbelievable chapter in the history of presidential pardons: he pardoned Joseph Ejercito Estrada. This was, to many, the bigger, more controversial news.

It was not to me, because I knew of de Leon’s story. When Erap walked home free last week, I said to myself, “This is old hat. The lady in Malacanang is used to signing away forgiveness orders to common criminals, so she didn’t at all have any compunction in pardoning Erap.”

The anomaly, I said to myself, was not the pardon. The anomaly was that Erap didn’t require—deserve—a pardon because he did not deserve to be imprisoned at all.

On Tuesday, I had lunch with writer-activist Herman Tiu Laurel and civil society leader Linggoy Alcuaz and I told them of this view.

If we consider Gloria to be a bogus president, then all her activities as such are bogus, including her incarceration of and subsequent issuance of a pardon to Estrada.

This logic is hard to follow, and in fact, all these years that Gloria has been president, we Filipinos assume that the Arroyo regime foisted upon us is genuinely constituted.

It is not, regardless of what the justices of the Supreme Court has said in its decision on the Arroyo presidency; no, on the Erap ouster.

That’s why politicians on both sides of the fence have been calling for a so-called closure. That’s why administration officials and GMA apologists are calling on us, the people, to be united, and to “move on”.

Closure of what? Move on to where?

The issues dividing us will continue to divide us until the public’s perception of GMA’s lying, cheating, and stealing to get to and stay in power is quickly erased from our collective memory through an apology and restitution. We have been offended as a nation by GMA’s usurpation of governmental power.

The issues, which have grown to entangle the nation in a Gordian knot, will not be settled with Erap’s pardon. We cannot move on unless other pardons, such as that granted to de Leon—truly a convicted criminal because the Supreme Court of the pre-GMA period said so—are satisfactorily explained.

Pardon me for expressing such a strong view, but I cannot help it. History nags and tells us that the reason why GMA and her officials can still look at us straight in the eye despite of Oakwood, Garci, Hyatt 10, bogus impeachments, NBN-ZTE, Neri, Abalos, Maguindanao, Ador Mawanay, Zoce, Macapagal Boulevard, German bank accounts, IMPSA, Centennial terminal, billion-peso vote-counting-now-rusting machines, JPEPA, jueteng, bribery in the backyard of Malacanang, cyber education project, smuggled SUVs, deaths of the Marines in Basilan, extra-judicial killings of militant leaders, peasants, and journalists; the toilet explosion in Glorietta, and—the pardons of Erap and de Leon—is because we ourselves as a people pardon her in our own little, modest way.

She knew we are a pardoning people. She reciprocates. She pardons convicted criminals simply for political reasons.