Friday, March 28, 2008

Anatomy of the rice crisis (2): Still, no admission

I am amused that despite the very real possibility of a crisis in the supply and price of rice, government agriculture and trade officials still do not admit that the country is really in for a big, nasty problem. I am not surprised, however, for even President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself, remains unperturbed.

This week, the iron lady of Malacanang could only manage an acknowledgment that the Philippines is a “price-sensitive nation”. This meant all of anything but an admission of a crisis—the worst in decades—in the country’s staple food.

GMA’s palakpak boys can hurl at me the usual accusation of highlighting the negative and not accentuating the positive, of seeing the cup half-empty instead of seeing it half-full, but come on guys, we are talking here about rice, the commodity the lack of which is the most potent argument against the preposterous claim that the economy is well. Well, it is sick if there’s no rice on the table of Filipino families.

In Japan where rice sufficiency is treated as a symbol of national harmony and where the rice-producing sector serves as the barometer of economic stability, there could have been already a change in government if anything akin or similar to have hit the Philippines has happened. Thus, the Japanese rice agriculture is a highly-protected sector. Rice farmers there form one of the strongest and most influential lobby groups in Japan, for they could make or unmake their government.

But here in our benighted country, rice farmers occupy the bottom rung in the government’s list of favorites and are treated with contempt by those who sponsor industry-led national development. Don’t look far for proof. Just look at the agreement signed Thursday between agriculture secretary Arthur Yap and Xu Xuan Truong, Vietnam’s ambassador to the Philippines, which formalizes the purchase by Manila of 1.5 million metric tons of rice from Hanoi.

The import agreement was a repudiation—a slap on the face—of our rice farmers. It showed our inability to feed ourselves; it demonstrated our lack of capability to be self-reliant in food; and it exposed the illusion that the economy is strong. Talagang ramdam na ramdam na. Ramdam na ramdam na ang kagutuman at kahirapan sa bansa natin.

It is a shame that we are feeding our people with food produced by other countries. Well, it is alright if we import oil. We do not have enough of that resource. But rice? We can’t argue in the same breath that we do not have farms. We have plenty of rice lands. We could open up some more if we want to. But we don’t and we won’t. We don’t produce enough rice for ourselves simply because it is easier to buy than to produce. Rice production is the least of our priorities. And the truth is that, there is just no incentive for farmers to plant more rice.

The flak that the government has received because of the crisis has sent its officials to wax philosophical—not realistic or even practical about the matter. It has led them to play the blame game. Still, there was no admission.

“Rice importations were resorted to meet our consumption requirement, but this didn’t mean that our rice production was decreasing,” said Dr. Leocadio Sebastian, executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute.

“There’s scarcity of rice because of global warming and increased world demand but there is no shortage of the commodity for consumers in the country,” Macapagal Arroyo said.

“The country had enough rice but the population boom, unabated conversion of arable lands to other uses, and climate change were putting pressure on supply,” said Rex Estoperez, spokesperson of the National Food Authority.

OK. OK. You are all correct. Paqrtially. We can debate endlessly the cause or causes of this national malady, even blame detained Senator Antonio Trillanes for it (as Malacanang idiotically did last year when there was a spike in the price of cooking fuel), but that’s not the point. The point is that we are running short of rice to eat, so what do we do?

Eat camote. That’s what a talking senator who goes around introducing himself as Richard Gordon talked about last week. He is right. He should go ahead and start with himself. Eat camote, Mr. Gordon, so you will at least minimize the air you spew through your mouth because as we all know, camote increases the volume of air excreted elsewhere.

Import more rice. Anyway, that’s what we have been doing these past several decades. From 1999 to 2003, we imported an average of 800,000 metric tons per year. From 2004 to 2007, our imports went up to an average of 1.8 million metric tons annually. And this year alone, we will be importing about 2.1 million metric tons. That means a lot of money, of course, but we can’t help it. That’s the path of least resistance, something which the government is fond of walking through.

Or we can sit down and sort our priorities right. Say, we can jail a few economic saboteurs—some top officials of the NFA who are selling government stocks to commercial rice traders, as well as execute by drowning a few members of the rice cartel who hoard rice and create artificial rice shortages. We can also stop the DAR (abolish it outright!) from granting conversion permits to land speculators who are transforming viable rice and corn farms into golf courses and commercial real estate.

Or we can use the billions of pesos in NFA annual subsidies wisely. Say, buying the produce of rice farmers directly from their farms at prices that the rice cartel cannot match without straining their pockets bulging with ill-gotten profits. The fact of the moment is that the NFA uses its billions of public sector money in paying for its huge import bill, rather than buying at competitive prices from local farmers. Isn’t that a distorted, wasteful and unpatriotic policy?

Or we can consider somberly our population management policy. Ever minute, more and more Filipinos are born to families that have no opportunities to a better life. We Filipinos multiply like rabbits, at an average of 2.3 percent annually, without the corresponding increase in food resources, or jobs, or incomes.

The strain of a high population growth to our national capacity to adequately feed, house, and educate more people is daunting and real. This must be addressed by a forceful and sensible population program by a government with a spine and a moral ascendancy to govern. In this score, the present administration is a dismal failure, so we have to wait for 2010, but we can begin now, among ourselves.

Or we can modernize our rice agriculture by investing more in infrastructure and technologies. Why can’t the government repair an irrigation canal, or construct a farm-to-market road, or buy drying equipment, without dirty commissions? Why can’t it offer hybrid seeds and fertilizers at subsidized prices? There is no immorality in subsidies, particularly if it would alleviate hunger. Subsidies become immoral only if it favors a few at the expense of the many.

But first things first. The government should heed the suggestion of Sen. Mar Roxas, which has become the clamor of the people during these calamitous times, to admit that we have a problem; that we have a rice crisis and that we should all work together to lick it.

“Be truthful. Admit the rice crisis!” Do you know who said it? The rice farmers themselves.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Advice to the graduates

So now you are graduating. Congratulations! At this juncture in your very young life, you are in a stage where you are about to make important decisions that will determine what you will become in the world we live in. You are, I think, in a hurry to make those decisions and quickly start. What, a career? A life? Or would you, like countless others in your status, bide time, take it easy, and let the feeling of being an initial, modest success—that’s what graduates are—sink in slowly into your consciousness, like melting a cold chocolate bar in your lips in the heat of summer?

Regardless of what you will do after graduation, listen: Are you ready?

I mean, are you prepared to go out of the campus which had been second home to you this past four years or so? Are you ready to say goodbye to your teachers and their lessons, to your classmates and friends whose very lives form part of your own life story, and to the daily rigorous drill of knowledge and skills that your mentors said you will need as you navigate the rivers and shoals of the outside world? Our world. Are you ready?

I ask these questions because I don’t think you have in your mind at this point a complete picture of the terrain of the universe beyond your classroom. You might have browsed it on the Internet or read it from your textbooks, or even experienced what it is when you had your field trips, but surely, you have seen nothing yet of what really life is at the outside. Your life now.

I don’t pretend I have either. But having passed through the stage you are passing just now, having experienced the excitement, the confusion, and the sense of wonder you are feeling right at this moment, I believe I can share with you my thoughts—yes, advice—that might help you sort out the mixed bag of emotions and ideas that is full to the brim and seems ready to burst out on graduation day.

Now, listen.

I know that having passed your course, you feel supremely confident that you have stockpiled your mental arsenal with knowledge and skills which you can use to move forward and conquer. I am sure you have even prepared emotionally for the harsh environment of adulthood. Good.

My first advice is draw from that arsenal the tools you will need to move ahead. Remember, we are now in the Knowledge Society and the battles of life will be fought on the knowledge and information front. Use your knowledge of the world to claim your first victory.

But wait. Before you even fight your first fight, say look for a job, think what you really want in life, from life; what you want to be and what you want to become. At this point, my second advice comes from the first advice of my mentor, the late Senator Blas F. Ople.

He said: “Alamin mo kung ano talaga ang gusto mo sa buhay. Ang daming tao ang ipinapanganak sa mundo, lumalaki, nag-aaral, nagkakatrabaho, nagkakaasawa, nagkakaanak, nagkaapo, nagkakasakit, at namamatay na hindi alam kung ano ang gusto sa buhay.”

This is the first order of the day after graduation. Know what you want to be, and when you discover what you want for yourself, start working for it. There is another name for knowing what you want in life. It’s called vision.

When you have a vision, a dream, everything that you do revolves around that vision or dream.

Take the initiative, that’s the third. Taking the initiative is becoming active, not passive, acting on, not being acted upon. There is an opportunity in every adversity. If you take the initiative, you are able to distinguish the door from the window. Open you doors and windows and let every opportunity come in. Seize them the moment they enter.

Don’t pretend everything is alright. It is not. The world outside your school is cruel and unjust. It does not distinguish innocents from the guilty. Only the law does that. This means that, all things being equal, the world will not wait on you, whether you are a newcomer or an old hand. It will continue to revolve on its axis. It does not play favorites. You have to work for everything that you want to have—material or otherwise. And when you get something because you worked for it, that’s when you deserve it.

My fifth advice is don’t be afraid to ask questions. Many travelers in this world—we are all travelers—get lost, are waylaid, or take eternity to get to their destinations in life simply because they were afraid to ask questions, pretending they knew everything. That is dangerous: pretending to know everything. One of the most admirable traits that a person could have is his or her readiness to ask questions. It tells you of two things: the humility of not knowing and the curiosity to learn something. Ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to say “No”. That’s the sixth advice. Many Filipinos have this trait of saying “Yes” even if it means “No”, fearing it is impolite or offensive to do so. No, it is not, and saying “No” could do wonders to your career. It could even save your life, such as in “No, I will not steal”, or “No, I will not do drugs.” Say “No” when you mean “No.”

Will you please show up on time? That’s my seventh advice. This is very important, particularly when you are called for your first job interview. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no such thing as “Filipino time.” The truth is, Filipinos generally come late. This is really offensive and reprehensible. I fret when I am late. When I am late, I call or serve notice I shall be late. Otherwise, I come on time. As a writer, I have disappointed many because I left a meeting or an appointment because the person I was supposed to meet came late, very late. Time is universal. It is a precious commodity.

Load up on a lot of patience. That's the eighth advice. You will need it because many of the world's inhabitants are so selfish they would like to see you fail. Be patient even if others are not.
I know you are in a hurry to get started to have a better life than where you started four years ago.

My ninth advice? Just be yourself.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Anatomy of the rice crisis (1)

While I don’t believe the observation of Reuters, the German news agency, that the looming rice crisis could affect the political future of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, I am of the opinion that a rice shortage could spawn a crisis that can derail the ambitions of many other politicians—ruling or opposition. It could, at the worst, end the unbelievably lucky run of GMA’s executive officials and allies who are casting a moist eye on politics.

My view is that the GMA show will not risk a re-run in 2010, if elections are held. Her pathetic performance is about to end. She is bruised. Her government is badly broken and needs to be fixed, while the current crop of pretenders to her throne—who belong to the traditional political elite that the people have been expressing resentment against survey after survey—do not realize the immediacy of the problem, and thus are not prescribing any viable solution to it.

Rice, the Filipinos’s basic food staple, is both an economic and a political issue, and a rice crisis—shortage and price hike—is a volatile problem. It presents few or no options at all to a growing number of citizens who are clutching their empty stomachs and gazing absently to an uncertain future. With their shirtless backs against the wall, our hungry millions might just recover their senses and fight back, not with arms which they don’t have, but with their votes, which they could use in 2010.

Sen. Mar Roxas, one of the few politicians whose feet remain firmly on the ground despite his presidential ambition, is right. We have a problem—a rice crisis—in our hands, but we refuse to admit it and act as if it doesn’t exist.

“There’s an adequate supply of rice,” the National Food Authority says. But look, President Arroyo went out of her way last February to request Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s Prime Minister, to sell the country 1.5 million metric tons of rice, only to be told that Hanoi could only sell Manila 1 million metric tons.

“There is no need for alarm. There is ample supply of basic goods, such as rice, meat, vegetables, canned goods, and other basic commodities,” said Department of Trade and Industry secretary Peter B. Favila.

Well, Mr. Favila, I am alarmed, because the price of rice has gone up 30 percent in just over a year. If we have enough rice, just as you say and just as the NFA says, why are we importing 2.1 metric tons of the grain this year? And why suddenly the government is acting strange: suddenly frantic and confused? I am anxious to hear Mr. Palengke's take on Mr. Favila's assertion.

We have a rice crisis, but instead of rolling up our sleeves to find a sensible solution, our agriculture officials are lulling us into believing we have enough rice.

When Arthur Yap, the agriculture secretary, said last week that the government has an “all-encompassing” strategy to deal with what he described as “unprecedented” rice shortage and rising rice prices, I was looking at government encouraging farmers to hold on to their farms and discouraging them from selling their lands for conversion into golf courses and construction sites of warehouses for smuggled luxury goods.

I was hoping government would reverse its policy of favoring short-term gain over long-term good. That’s the government direction in agriculture. It wants farmers to plant cash crops for export, rather than increase agricultural production of staple food for domestic consumption, which is the key to national food security.

The “all-encompassing” strategy I was hoping for was a no non-sense drive to weed out corruption in the Bureau of Customs and the NFA, some of whose officials are captive of the grains mafia. I was also hoping GMA will order the police not to give the rice hoarders all over the country a breathing room by prosecuting them until they mend their ways—or until they stop their nefarious trade. Sikmura ng taong bayan ang nakataya rito.

My hopes were dashed. None of the above practical measures figure out in Yap’s “all-encompassing” strategy. It turns out that his strategy is more alarming than Favila’s assurances of adequate supply.

Yap warned the people to conserve rice, and hinted he would ask restaurant owners to serve only “half-rice” servings to their customers. By any measure, this is not a strategy. This is an idiotic admonition to us not to eat rice. But, pray tell, how can an already hungry population conserve rice when there is no rice at all to conserve?

To appreciate fully the gravity of the rice crisis, let’s take a look at some rice arithmetic.

  • The country’s rice production is merely 16.3 million metric tons in 2007. The target for 2008 is 17.3 million metric tons or just a 6 percent growth. This production—which is only 92 percent of the national sufficiency level—must increase by at least double to satisfy a population growing by at least 2.3 percent per year.
  • Our 90 million people consume 33 million kilos (32,500 metric tons) of rice per day. That’s about 12 million metric tons per year.
  • The price of the grain has gone up from US$500 per metric ton to about US$750 per metric ton this year. NFA sells its rice for about P18.25 per kilo; non-NFA commercial rice, P24 to P26 a kilo.
  • The NFA, which buys and sells rice at a subsidy, is in debt by at least US$1 billion. It is asking for more money, but its record thus far in stabilizing rice price and supply is wanting. It cannot even compete with the rice cartel and rice hoarders even if it spent P10 billion in tax expense subsidies in 2007. It plans to import 2.1 million metric tons this year to make up for the supply shortfall. At US$750, that’s a whopping US$1.6 billion.

The real causes of the rice crisis are not hard to pinpoint, one of which is the rampant graft and corruption in the NFA. Just last month, the NFA provincial manager in Misamis Oriental was ordered charged in court for allegedly selling NFA rice to commercial rice traders for P25 to P30 a kilo.

I am sure this is not the first or the last crime of economic sabotage committed in the agency. How many millions of tons of rice intended for GMA’s Tindahan Natin have been diverted and sold to the commercial market? We don’t know. (To be continued)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

To Marlowe: Write in Asi

Some time ago, I received a letter from one Marlowe Fabunan, a young man from Sibale who was appalled by the destruction of the marine environment in Sitio Masadya or Maisoting Baybay (which are interchangeable place names) brought about by the salvaging of the sunken vessel M/V Mactan. I kept his letter on file, hoping to write about it later, when an opportunity arises. That opportunity is now.

“Uncle Nicon,” wrote Marlowe, “Maadong bati sa imo ag sa imo pamilya! Si Lowe Fabunan kali, apo ako ni late Noring Fabunan. Inggwa ako it maisuting inghuman nak tula tungkol sa Mactan. Buligi ako nak ma-translate sa English, kasi Bisaya kali. Maramong salamat. Imaw kali kag ako tula.”

I am not used to Sibalenhons writing me. As a writer, I deal in a lonely craft—of setting images and ideas into paper, of fashioning words into some workable, coherent thoughts that would convey whatever it is I want to convey to readers, and I don’t expect others to join me in my solitude in the world of the written word.

So, the letter was a surprise as it was poignant. It was also—I will say it now—symptomatic of the condition in which many Sibalenhons find themselves—ourselves—in, and that is the confusion as to what language they should communicate with the world.

Many Sibalenhons, particularly those who have left Sibale for places near and far, as exemplified by Lowe, are unsure—in doubt—whether to write or speak in Asi, English, or Tagalog. The cause of the confusion is the human environment, the technology they grew up with, and the influence of culture that besieges them in places where they live and work.

Why do I write about the Sibalenhon’s confusion in language? Am I not—a Sibalenhon writing in English—also confused myself?

I write about it because there is a real danger that Asi, our native language, may soon disappear from our tongues—and from our memory. And when such thing happens, ours would be a devastating loss. We only have ourselves to blame. The loss of our language would mean the loss of our soul from which there is no possible recovery. Lose our language and we become strangers to each other, in our own island.

I notice that many Sibalenhons rarely speak in complete, articulate Asi once they leave Sibale. Instead of using it frequently, we delight in diluting our language with borrowed words and phrases from the culture that happens to dominate us, a minority, at the time.

This is understandable. Over time, living outside Sibale exposes the Sibalenhon to a foreign language. He or she begins to acculturate himself or herself to that language, say Tagalog or Bicol, and he or she begins to forget Asi because there are only a few Sibalenhon, or there is no one at all, to whom he or she can communicate in our precious tongue. Marlowe’s terse letter is reflective of this condition. He wrote in morsels of Asi, English and Tagalog, thereby showing his difficulty in composing his message in straight Sibalenhon.

This is remediable. He should set his mind writing in Asi for his audience is Asi. Asi is a lively, lovely language, the most colorful medium that is our tribal music, the cultural sinew that binds our souls and the badge of our identity. It is the language of our ancestors and as such captures their longings and dreams which has rightfully become ours, here, now, in our time. Think about Asi, then, as our bridge to the past. You stop speaking Asi, you fumble and lose your way to your roots.

Critics may point out that no language is by itself complete, including Asi; that a language ought to borrow—as languages do borrow and become dynamic and fluid—over time, to live and become alive; and that a language is enriched through adaptation and borrowing of the idioms and phrases of other languages.

I agree. There is no pure English or French or Czech or Arabic, as there is no pure Tagalog or Cebuano. Each of these languages borrows freely—absorbs like a sponge—from one another and from all over everyday, over time. Asi, it is a fact, has borrowed copiously from Tagalog, Bicol, Hiligaynon, Karay-a. Yet, the evolution of a language is infinitely slow and as it occurs, it behooves the speaker of the language to endeavor, to exert, utmost effort to do with and live by its limitations and shortcomings—warts and all. There lies another way by which a language can be enriched: usage.

A language dies because of non-usage. Asi, even if it borrows and incorporates half of Webster’s dictionary, will still die if Sibalenhons cease to use it, either in writing or speaking. There is no excuse at all for a Sibalenhon not to learn and use Asi, and I have only a very low regard for Sibalenhons who, when they meet fellow Sibalenhons on the street and in informal occasions, greet each other purely in a foreign language. Such Sibalenhons are the murderers of Asi and I try to avoid them as much as possible.

This is not to say that we should not learn and use other languages. In fact, we should and must, considering how the world has shrunk because of advances in technology and the onslaught of liberalization. We Sibalenhons have become as global as any other citizens. But we must learn how to speak and write in our own language first before we venture into a borrowed tongue.

I write in Asi, Tagalog and English, in that order. I knew a few Japanese as well as Arabic phrases, and I endeavor to speak Bicol when I am talking to a Bicolano. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But whenever I chance upon a Sibalenhon, I quickly revert to Asi and try to sustain a conversation in our own language. At home, my two daughters, Lara and Lilac, alternately converse in English and Batangan, but they sing Sibalenhon songs and we try, as much as possible, to speak to each other in Asi. Sometimes, the shift in language is taxing, but we get by.

Non-usage is the culprit in the retreat, decay and demise of a language. It is a cause of our confusion as islanders and as a tribal family. It is, I am afraid, one of the causes of our division.

This is one of the reasons why Marlowe wanted my help in translating into English his poem, selected stanzas of which are reproduced below, for he believed—I knew it—that he will only find a more discerning audience if his poem is written in English; that no one will read him if he writes
in the vernacular. His belief is unfounded.

Anyo 1973, Mactan ay yumugrang,
buyan it Hulyo, sigulanon it mga maguyang
sa banwa it Sibale, Concepcion kung tuk-an
sa mapa'y parte it Romblon,
Maestre de Campo kung ayabahon
Naglipas ka mga adlaw,
buyan ag tuig ay nagligar ra
trenta y kwatro kung sumahon ninra
Sa irayom it ragat kag Mactan ay masisil-ip pa
Usang adlaw sa buyan it Agosto,
tawoy naalarma
sa bapor nak nakapunro mayungot sa Isla
kag mga magog pangisra ay nagkabayaka
naghagar it sakuro sa mga taga banwa.
Mabuyong ni isipon nak kag Mactan ay rahagtoy
ka usang nagpaparagat ay napa-papanaghoy,
dahil sinra ay nag-aasa yang sa israng mababaoy
nak pag-abot it hapon ay ituwang sa balinghoy.
Pagkaado ig masiran ka ato honasan
Makakapanihi ka it salinrab, kasoy-on ag buk-an,
ugaling sa ngasing ay naka-kabuyong
kung imo matutuk-an
mga lanang halin sa barko,
sa pampang ay nagrarapyasan.
Nupay paralihadoy ag nalilik kiy kag Mactan
nak nakaguwan sa irayom it ato karagatan,
sa usang yupok it dinamita,
nahabas ka tanang yaman
nak ing tatago ay
sa sigulanon yangiy matatanraan.

I can see he has the gift and his poem, which speaks of his melancholy over the loss of a sunken vessel to junk robbers, is the medium by which he lets us know of his feelings. Not a single non-Sibalenhon can empathize with him and understand his poem if it is written in a language other than Asi. He should cultivate this gift in the language he is most happy and comfortable with—and that is, in Asi.

I should add, too, that as a budding poet, he should take to heart the advice of the Bulgarian poet Blaga Dmitrova:
Ars Poetica

Write each of your poems
as if it were your last.
In this century, saturated with strontium,
charged with terrorism,
flying with supersonic speed,
death comes with terrifying suddenness.
Send each of your words
like a last letter before execution,
a call carved on a prison wall.
You have no right to lie,
no right to play pretty little games.
You simply won’t have time
to correct your mistakes.
Write each of your poems,
tersely, mercilessly,
with blood—as if it were your last.
Write in Asi, Marlowe, and you would have served Sibale more than all Sibalenhon politicians combined have.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A nation of smugglers?

The most horrible threat to the country, apart from Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is smuggling.

It eats away at our economic sinews. It bastardizes our industry. It enriches unduly and unjustly the corrupt, and makes us the dumping ground of low-cost, mostly low-quality goods that otherwise are not saleable to consumers in countries that produce them.

We are a nation of smugglers and we ought to be ashamed of this undeserved reputation. But are we?

No. On the other hand, we seem to take pride in our ability to sneak-in undetected goods into our national territory. We seem to be proud even of our possessions—of imported goods that were not paid for with the lawful customs duties and taxes.

Everyday, the newspapers are littered with news about a smuggling try, about a smuggler getting caught, about a smuggled cache of cars, motorcycles, VCRs, clothes, toys, utensils, frozen food, grains, onions. We smuggle anything. We even smuggled whistleblower Jun Lozada by not requiring him to pass though immigration.

In fact, one needs not read a newspaper to know about this. He or she has only to go to Divisoria, or Clark and Subic, or Cebu and Zamboanga, to find out that at the rate the smugglers are dumping about almost anything imported from other countries, we might never have enough warehouses soon to accommodate smuggled goods.

Or we might not have any manufacturing industry to speak of in the near future. We smuggle fertilizers, pens, carpentry tools, shavers, cigarette lighters, batteries, flour, cement, etc. whose prices are pitifully lower than local goods. Name it and we smuggle it.

Why don't we just abolish the Bureau of Customs and make importing a deregulated enterprise?

Since 2006, 400 cars are smuggled each week in Cebu, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported in February. Also last month, the Philippine Association of Flour Millers said lower-cost flour from China is being smuggled into our shores, contributing to a three-month accumulated revenue loss of about P8 million in duties and taxes. Last week, 10 container vans believed to be containing cars and motorcycles have been smuggled in the port of Cebu, which has replaced Subic as the smuggling capital of the Philippines.

How much in import duties and taxes does the government lose to smugglers yearly? I don’t have the estimates, but it could be huge. Look at the number of millionaires in the Bureau of Customs, easily the most corrupt and most corruptible agency of the government.

Actually, just like marriage where it takes two to make a union, it takes two to smuggle goods. One is the smuggler himself and his cohorts and the other is the Bureau of Customs, whose offices are inhabited by coddlers of smugglers.

OK, OK, not all officials and employees of the bureau are corrupt and in cahoots with smugglers--in fact, there might be more decent people there than inside Malacanang itself--but why do you think smuggling continues unabated—and gotten worse under the administration of the crook in Malacanang? Isn’t it because smugglers operate under the very noses of some Customs inspectors, or even some Customs security guards?

Don’t tell me smugglers have the technology to make their goods invisible, hence, undetectable. Remember, we have an X-Ray Inspection unit in the BOC, headed by lawyer Ma. Lourdes V. Mangaoang but, I am sorry to say this, the X-ray machines of the BOC might not be working properly when smuggled goods come under their scrutiny. What do you think?

There is also an agency, the Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group headed by a former mayor and a Malacanang underling, which is supposed to go after all kinds of smugglers. Has it gone after the influence peddlers identified to be reporting directly to Malacanang officials?

The PASG, last month, confirmed that documents used in smuggling activities are circulating in the BOC. O, di ba ang galing ng Bureau of Customs? Pa-X-ray X-ray pa kayo!

And just last week, foreign chambers of commerce and industry, during a dialogue with Customs and Land Transportation Office officials, have urged the government to do something to stop smuggling. Manigas kayo!

Who told you the government can stop smuggling when it is Macapagal-Arroyo’s government itself that coddles smugglers—and therefore, profits from it? The princely sum of smuggled cars in the country is estimated to be P10 billion annually, that’s over 50 percent more than the alleged commission of former COMELEC chairman Benjamin Abalos from the NBN-ZTE contract.

“If 20,000 cars have been smuggled in Cebu, why wasn’t anyone prosecuted?” asked Hubert D’Aboville, president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines.

Good question. But that’s like asking GMA why he left Mike Arroyo in a hospital just so she could fly to China to sign the NBN-ZTE contract.

Any more questions?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The statement: “Do your worst . . .”

I got the copy of the statement at about seven in the evening yesterday, and the moment I read it, I felt a different kind of foreboding.

Suddenly I was very afraid. No, I was not afraid for myself, but for the future of the country, because the statement, in its entirety, spoke volumes about the mind and feelings of a man who has irrevocably lost—renounced—his faith in the system of justice to which he had submitted himself five years ago.

“What if millions of other Filipinos felt the same way as the man did?” said I to myself.
The man is Senator Antonio F. Trillanes IV and the statement is his six-page soliloquy on his exit from the court, his denouement of a politico-revolutionary drama in which he was a principal player: the Oakwood incident of 2003.

For those who have not kept track, Trillanes was supposed to testify yesterday as a witness for the defense—for himself and his band of revolutionists who are undergoing trial for the so-called Oakwood mutiny.

For reasons that can be gleaned from his statement reproduced below, the senator, who garnered 11 million votes in the May 2007 election but continues to languish in prison, declined, refused, to take the witness stand.


“I am supposed to testify as a defense witness today in connection with my coup d’etat case at the Makati RTC. However, after much reflection, I decided to forego my testimony and write this letter instead.

“There are a few undisputed facts in this case: 1) That on 27 July 2003, I, together with 300 other officers and men, spoke the TRUTH; 2) No person was harmed; 3) No property was damaged; and 4) Not a single shot was fired. Yet, after almost five years in detention, we still stand accused of committing a crime that could have us incarcerated for life. Is this just? No. Did I ever regret my actions? No.

“Now, the prosecutors have allowed themselves to be used as instruments to further this injustice and the presiding judge may yet be pressured into convicting us, but everyone in this courtroom knows—deep in their hearts—that we are not criminals and definitely not a menace to society. On the contrary, we, the accused, have rendered faithful service to our Motherland; we have lived by the ideals thst our alma mater, the Philippine Military Academy, has taught us—COURAGE, INTEGRITY and LOYALTY. The physical and moral courage to stand up against what is wrong and to fight for what is right; the integrity to resist the lure and trappings of power and wealth; and the unbending loyalty to God, Country and People.

“The question now is, “Why are we in prison?” Indeed, why are we in prison when the TRUTH we spoke of on that fateful day has been validated time and again through the despicable revelations of crime and corruption committed by GMA and her cohorts? Why are we in prison when, through the recent elections, the Filipino people have affirmed the justness of our cause?

“In my search for the answers to these questions, I came across Henry David Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience, and I quote: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

“Today, I refuse to participate any further in this travesty of justice, just as the GMA administration has lost all moral authority to render any judgment over me and my companions.
Do your worst, for we have already been acquitted by the people.

(Signed) Sen. Antonio F. Trillanes IV”

No matter how you look at it, no matter where you sit, this statement is an indictment of the tyrant in Malacanang, and, if you ask me, the clearest call yet for the people to rise up and shake off the chain that keeps them in bondage, yes, hostage, of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and his coterie of liars and thieves. This is an exhortation from a persecuted, albeit, elected official whom we might see as a prisoner still, until when, we don’t know.

Do your worst.

But is there anything worse that Macapagal Arroyo and his band of cheaters could do to Sen. Trillanes other than continue sneering at him, jeering at him, that he is in prison while they, the authors and perpetrators of a monumental injustice, remain scot-free; free to roam around the country; free to loot; and free to spin a web of lies to keep truth out?

Last year, I saw it coming. I saw infinite patience—personified by Trillanes—ending its clash with infinite greed and lust for revenge—embodied in Gloria Arroyo—when Trillanes and Gen. Lim walked out of that courtroom on that dark Thursday of November to proclaim yet again their Filipinoness. I said to myself then: “Watch out.”

So here it goes. Trillanes has stepped out, out into the yard; away from the clutches of a court that plays the tango music of the powers-that-be. Ninoy Aquino did the same bold step many years ago, when he denounced Marcos’s military tribunal as a “kangaroo court” and refused to be bound by its inane orders, restrictions, and verdict that led him to his heroic death.

Do your worst.

In a way, by ending his participation in a Malacanang-produced and GMA-directed moro-moro, Trillanes issued a challenge that none of us who are free, but who are not as courageous as he, can verbalize and stand up for.

In a way, his decision not to participate any longer in the continuing travesty of justice will free him more than it will free us. In a way, this alsa-balutan, which he should have done long ago bud did not because he is one of us, like us, patient and forgiving, will unclip his wings and immensely expand the boundaries of his patriotic imagination.

Maybe, his true place really as a just man is the prison, as he said it himself in quoting Thoreau. But come to think of it. Isn’t he the freer man than all of us? Are we not—who claims to be free—living in a bigger prison under the watchful gaze of a jailer gone berserk who “imprisons any unjustly”? If yes, where do we seek refuge? What do we do?

We do our worst. We rise up, for that is just.

Senator Mar Roxas said, three days before Trillanes walked out of the court hearing on November 29 last year, that “today, one cannot be a true Liberal and not be angry.”

“Where the people are thirsty for the truth, facts are withheld.

“That where the people are keen to engage their government, power is not shared.

“And where the people express themselves through the ballot, their votes are miscounted.

“And because people believe that their leaders are more preoccupied with self-interest rather than with a genuine public interest, we see and feel the helplessness, the cynicism, the despair, and now even the estrangement of the people from their government.”

It might be that Roxas was speaking of what Trillanes—and millions of other Filipinos—finally felt.

“Oras na!” as Roxas said last November.

The last straw snapped yesterday. Trillanes had the will and courage to break it.

Now, do your worst.