Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Adoniedo Fabreag Fameronag, 74

In-between his 74 years on this chaotic, polluted, disease-ravaged, politically-victimized, climate-altered, over-populated, drug-crazed, scheming, and over-burdened earth, the late Adoniedo ‘Doding’ Fabreag Fameronag planted trees and sired seven children—but never wrote a book—to complete his run of life’s amazing race.

Eldest son of Igmedio Fameronag and Maria Fabreag, two of the most industrious grandparents I have ever seen; son-in-law of the late Urbano Famarin and Josefina Fabella, one of the most cultured couples of Sibale; and brother to Teresita, Marchita, Seneca, Anselmo, Virginita, Luzvinia, Lourdes, Evelinda, and Ricardito, Doding in his youth was a feared warrior, a mean boxer who brooked no rule or tradition when it came to street fights. Stories of his exploits were told not by him, but by those he had fought and later became close friends in their mellowed years.

A cockfight aficionado who drank like a fish and smoked like a buhadan, Doding was a jovial man, a passionate and demonstrative lover, and a most responsible father.

He was also a cousin to several Fameronags now multiplying like mushrooms around this country (God knows how many they are because the clan in its heyday was in Tres Islas the most prolific!); a tiyo to nephews and nieces; a ninong to several dozens of godchildren; a pare to the parents of these several dozens of godchildren; and a mamay to grandchildren and the not so grand. Most important of all, he was, to his very last breath, a devoted husband to his late wife Aling.

In fact, I supremely believe Doding died of overly requited love. When Aling passed away ahead in 2009, Doding simply gave up life. He lost his will to live and suffered from a diminished appetite for the suffocating air of an afflicted universe already killing itself of consumptive materialism.

His and Aling’s singular accomplishment was no mean feat: they sent their seven children to school, six of them experiencing what poverty denied them in Sibale—a college education.

I didn’t know what Doding and Aling had for pillow talk when their children were young kids in the neighborhood of Masudsud, but I am sure it was not about more children. The brood they had was already contributing heavily to the country’s chronic rice shortages.

The seven, who, by the stroke of genes and what Aling said was the fruit of squash, manunggay, ginat-ang tawan o yangka, inaslom, and fresh fish, exhibited brains in school and were good finishers. They were always in the honor roll, prompting the diminutive Eugenio Fonte, then principal of the Concepcion Central Elementary School, to pull Doding aside one day and whispered to him: “Send your children to school whatever it takes. I can see they have a future.”

The future, as the eldest of the seven divined, was plotted in the four corners of a classroom. At a young age, he convinced Doding it is only through education that the family could move up in life. Without it, they would surely not only go down but sink deeper into poverty, perhaps, early death and, therefore, perdition.

And so, while for the children the university became a “Google” to search and acquire knowledge, a remedy to stanch the pangs of ignorance, for Doding the agricultural farms of Batangas to where the family moved in the 80s became the lifeline with which he and Aling teetered the children to school. Plain hard, industrious work, frugality, and an abiding faith in the Lord sustained the Fameronags in the crisis-stricken decade, until at last, one of the children, the eldest, obtained a degree.

In succession, the rest of the siblings obtained theirs, except for the second son who married early, but whose union was a blessing: the couple produced two daughters who were full-time scholars from high school to college and who later graduated summa cum laudes at the Adventist University of the Philippines.

Unabashedly proud but remaining the simplest of men, Doding basked in his glory as a father of the brainiest Fameronags who ever walked on earth. His simple luxury was a good haircut and shave and a weekly trek to the wet market where, later it was found out, he made friends with people who shared his passion for a leisurely bet on jueteng and cockfights, a vice that his conversion into the protestant church of the Seventh Day Adventists could not, and did not, expurgate. The Asi spirit in him remained an immovable, inconvertible force.

His other pleasure was playing the harmonica, so much so that when the eldest had gotten a job shortly after graduation, he bought him one and presented it to the dreamy-eyed Fameronag patriarch. When Doding misplaced it and decided it was lost, his trademark volcanic temper erupted with murderous fury prompting the eldest to buy him another one.

While admittedly Doding in his early married life was fond of women, he never kept one and remained fiercely devoted and loyal to Aling and strongly committed to preserving family harmony. When the family was still in Sibale, there were the usual late-night quarrels common to starting couples, but this remained subdued shouting matches, kept in the confines of the home and away from the hearing distance of the children.

The causes—never women—varied, from unpaid gambling debts to drunkenness to street fights and, it couldn’t be believed, even misplaced personal effects, such as the balisong which Doding kept immaculately sharp and handy. He never left home without it tucked inside his waist.

After his conversion, Doding miraculously abandoned his vices—cockfights, night out drinking sprees, card playing, and cigarettes—in exchange for the Bible. Because of his reputation as a disputatious, quarrelsome lad, no one believed him at first, but when the years passed seeing him even abstaining from pork and going to church on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays with his family in tow, the entire Sibalenhon community, happily relieved of one citizen who made troubles in every baylehan, said he was, indeed, a changed man.

Indeed, a changed man he was, for at that time the education of his children became a Doding executive agenda and top priority. Everyounce of sweat from his brow and every sinewy of muscle he devoted to his children's education.

I had the faintest suspicion that had Doding been to school, he would have become a soldier or a police officer and would have been a thorn on the side of thugs, scalawags, thieves, and other lawless denizens.

Proof of this was his glorification of men in uniform. When he was alive, he said he dreamed of donning a cowboy hat on top of crisp khaki attire and shiny leather boots, and of wielding a pistol. He thought men in uniform are powerful heroes and, therefore, he feared and respected Tiyo Amboy Fanoga, then Sibale's chief of police who was the only one who can pacify him when he was drunk. Tiyo Amboy used to confine Doding in the town's one-room concrete cell when he chanced upon him inebriated and making raucous noises during a baylehan, only to free him in the morning.

Doding, though afraid of death as all of us must be, was prepared to meet his Maker when he breathed his last on 08 November 2011. In fact, I think he relished it for it was the time mandated by the Great Watchkeeper for him to be re-united with his wife Aling, and Erel, one of their seven children.

Doding, who was, is, and will be my father is gone, yet he is alive and that is how I feel, believe, and perceive it to this very day, for the simple reason that without him, it would not have been possible to write a proper goodbye:

that the living go on to die then live
while the dead rest waiting in the cold earth bed;
but poets, alive, breath, search the darkest cave
for epitaphs the dead will no more read.

Monday, October 24, 2011

An excess of access

Melbourne—What a first-time traveller to Melbourne can immediately notice is how Australia, a continent of 22 million people scattered over a territory of 10,000 square kilometers, could easily be “accessed”.

Let’s begin by air. There is a direct flight via Philippine Airlines from Manila to Melbourne, but because of Lucio Tan’s troubles with the unions, a PAL flight to the land down under did not materialize.

From Changi in Singapore, the Singapore Airlines runs a daily seven-hour flight to Melbourne. Several other airlines, including Virgin Air and Airjet, fly out of Changi to disgorge an endless stream of tourists and business people to the City of the Southern Cross.

From the air, Melbourne is a large quadrangle divided into proportionate grids, which tells us how its planners envisioned a city accessible from all directions, with parallel boulevards, streets, byways, places, and causeways. You wouldn’t be lost in Melbourne, but you could lose yourself intentionally—if you are an on-foot explorer (I was!)—in sights and interests, like shopping which is an Eve’s apple to any traveller to Melbourne.

From the airport, access to the city is by train, tram, bus, or taxi. Melbourne has an extensive network of public transport that rivals the efficiency of any Europe metropolis. Like in Tokyo and other efficient cities, there are plenty of taxis, but if you are on a budget, the train and the tram is the way to go.

For Melbourne residents, the tram is the easiest means to go about their city. One can easily hop onto a tram and be in one’s destination in a couple of minutes with very minimal traffic. Signs in intersections are aplenty asking pedestrians to give way to the tram!

One can also go around by bicycle or by motorbike. Everywhere, there are plenty of bike hire stations and bicycle travelers can use the sidewalks, which are as wide as the streets, to reach a destination or a place of interest.

The City Circle Tram is a must for any first-time Melbourne visitor. It takes about three hours to “encircle” the Melbourne central business district via this public transport operated by Yarra Trams, one of several tram companies in the city. It is free and it has a piped-in sound system that provides visitor information to passengers.

I became a City Circle Tram fanatic on my last day in Melbourne. From the Hotel Victoria, the 125-year old hotel that is part repository of Melbourne’s colonial history—a Filipino manager who served as Hotel Victoria’s general manager for eight years tells the tale of Tina Turner sitting endless hours alone in the hotel’s second floor coffee shop sipping latte—was Flinders Train Station, housed in a Victorian-era building opposite Federation Square. Flinders is by the banks of the Yarra River, which one can cruise to see the southern edge of Melbourne by the sea all the way to the Victoria harbor.

It is on Flinders that I boarded the City Circle Tram, counterclockwise first, all the way to the Docklands and back. While on the moderately-lumbering tram, I saw the Australian Cinema and Moving Images building of steel and glass with an architecture that needs a hard look for one to understand. Every city it seems has an architecture that calls attention to itself and Melbourne’s ACMI is its entry to this phenomenon.

Along the way I saw (it was a sight-seeing ride; no dawdling) the Old Treasury Museum; then the Parliament House; State Library of Victoria; Flagstaff Gardens; Etihad Stadium; Victoria Police Museum; Melbourne Aquarium; and the Immigration Museum. The latter is a major place of interest, considering that Melbourne, in fact, all of Australia, was built on the toil and sweat of migrants.

Just to ensure I would remember for a long time the feel of Melbourne, I took another City Circle Tram tour, this time clockwise, using the same route and with the same places of interest in sight. This time I did not complete the cycle for I alighted on Queen Street, up north, and walked all the way to a suburb mecca of tourists: the Queen Victoria Market located by the Tram Route 55 going to the Melbourne Zoo.

The QVM—which I have repeatedly referred to as Victoria Court to the delight of my companions—is a cavernous haven for inexpensive buys of anything on sale in Australia, some of which are Italian leather goods manufactured in China. I spent something like AUS$80 on coming-home gifts at the QVM to show proof I had been there; then retired to Hotel Victoria in the late afternoon to prep myself up for the next day’s grueling 12-hour trip back to Manila.

But the best way to see, to savor, to smell, and to feel Melbourne is to walk.

I did. I traversed the city’s wide walkways and easily got myself drunk with the sights and sounds of a metropolitan hub just waking up on a lovely spring season. Block after block, I walked. I walked to have coffee along the cafes on busy Swanston, Bourke, Elizabeth, Exhibition, and Flinders streets. I gawked at bookshops; admired old colonial buildings; peeped though opal-selling houses; rummaged through stacks of Australian leather stores and souvenirs; and got a taste of Australian-Thai, Australian-Chinese, and Australian-Vietnamese food in an endless line of shops and bars competing for customers tired, hungry and thirsty after walking.

Now I know the secret of success of the food business in a city: make people walk to get them tired, hungry, and thirsty. And the way to do this is to maintain wide pedestrian walkways; keep them lighted, clean, and safe; then remove the physical distractions that send pedestrians nervous, such as vendors, muggers and hustlers, and mendicants.

Alas, in most of Manila’s streets, one walks at the mercy of the elements, of the known and of the unknown, because the authorities in charge of ensuring the cleanliness and safety of the city are mostly in hiding—themselves cowering in fear of being accosted, mugged, robbed, or infected with the city’s filth and pollution the moment they go out.

This is one reason why we are being laughed at by people around the world. Filipinos, I heard one say, is very meticulous and concerned about personal hygiene that they take a bath twice or thrice a day, while other peoples don’t. But in the aspect of ensuring their surroundings clean, Filipinos don’t give a hoot. Look at the city streets of Manila, Pasay, or any other urban town strewn with all kinds of refuse and you will know what I mean. But I digress.

Melbourne is a melting pot of peoples and cultures from across the universe. During my stay, I’ve met five taxi drivers of varied nationalities—an Italian, a Syrian, an Indian, a Turkish, and an Australian. I listened to a duo of Chinese and Australian pop singers performing along the sidewalk near the City Square. I met a Spanish waitress; became fast friend with a Kiwi attendant at the Pie Face cafĂ©; knew a Filipino service crew at the City Circle Tram; got introduced to a bright and obviously single female Atenean taking up her MBA at the Melbourne University; and spoke in the Bicol language with a long-time female employee at the Melbourne Human Resources Services.

The front officer at the Victoria Hotel with already an Australian accent but has no manners was a Chinese. At the QVM, I haggled with an Indonesian storekeeper; and got a lot of ribbing from a Slovenian trader. At the Australia Post along Little Collins, the employee who answered my inquiry was an Australian of Japanese descent.

Melbourne in October is a busy, festive city. The horse races, the concerts of foreign entertainers, the fashion festivals, and the arts exhibitions are all happening at this time of the year in Melbourne and making Melburnians’ cash registers ringing with tourist dollars.

I had been to Moscow, Paris, Geneva, London, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Beijing, New York, Ontario, and Dubai, and other cities in Asia, Middle East, and Africa, but Melbourne, to my view, is one of the world’s most live-able cities. It is very friendly to foreigners. It is safe. It is immaculately clean. But if you plan to reside here, you must have a stable job because the standard of living is expensive, with the GST—whatever that means, but it means tax—staring you in the face every turn of the way.

But why was I in Melbourne?

It’s because I was lucky to be part of a team of National Wages and Productivity Commission officials who went on a mission to study Australia’s wage-setting system. The NWPC, the country’s wage-setting and business productivity promotions agency, is in the thick of formulating policy to reform the system of fixing wages in the Philippines and had planned this trip to study the Australians’ way of, well, paying their workers.

The team’s visit was underwritten by the International Labour Organization. The ILO is a partner of the Department of Labor and Employment whose Secretary, Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz, my boss, conceptualized the reform. It was Baldoz, therefore, who sent me to Melbourne.

The team was composed of NWPC Executive Director Ciriaco Lagunzad, Jr., his deputy, Patricia Hornilla; his two directors, Jeanette Damo and Ahmma Charisma Satumba; the Secretaries of the National Wages and Productivity Boards of the National Capital Region, Region IV-A, and Region XI, Aida Andres, Rovelinda dela Rosa, and Ruby Badilles, respectively, and myself.

As delegation head, Executive Director Lagunzad made sure we were focused on the mission. But that’s another subject I need to write about after this impression on an extra-ordinary city, which impression I felt needed to be laid down first before I explain the serious part of the mission.

That, Virginia, is called context.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Is Ragipon making the Sibale fiesta in Sibale irrelevant?

Last week, I had an interesting exchange with Auntie Nel Yap, Sibale’s municipal agriculture officer, about—of all topics—the Sibale fiesta.

Sibale celebrates the feast of its patron saint, the Lady of the Immaculate Conception, every December 8. It used to be, many moons ago, that the Sibalenhons have only one fiesta celebration, and that takes place in Sibale. This fiesta is almost a week of festivities, with nightly dances and daytime pastime activities, usually basketball, buyang, baratilyo, parades, and left and right food feasts that could rival any in the archipelago.

When I was a child, one symbol of the fiesta is called ihaw. Ma-ihaw ka? This was a question often asked. At dawn on the week before the kapistahan, the quiet of the December air in the poblacion is rent by the cries of pigs being slaughtered. Having a sow or a boar to be slaughtered during the fiesta is a sign not only of a merry occasion. It symbolized the devotion of the citizen to the patron saint, and to the guests—relatives and non-relatives—coming to town for the annual get-together.

The Sibale fiesta, bordering on the bacchanalian, but reaching a religious crescendo with the biray on the morning of December 8, was one of the happiest experiences I ever had as a child. In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have of life in the island is the fiesta, which meant new clothes, no classes, and a lot of free time to play.

Comes now Auntie Nel pricking the conscience of the guilty on the matter of the fiesta. Home on the Sunday night after I came from Lipa City to oversee the conduct of the Ragipon 2011 Inter-Color Basketball Tournament (plug: Kusog Sibalenhon, Inc. is this year’s organizing host of the tourney) a prelude to the celebration of the Sibale fiesta in Lipa City, she texted me:

“Asi badaey kamo gi pista raha. Pisan kamo reli sa ato Sibale it pista. (Please don’t anymore     celebrate the fiesta there. Join us in our fiesta in Sibale.)

I was taken aback by the text message. Surely, this is just coincidental? But before I explain why was that, let me explain first what is that.

Nine years ago, the Sibalenhons in Lipa City and in adjoining areas, including Metro Manila, mounted a celebration of the Sibale fiesta by not going home to Sibale for the celebration. They celebrated the fiesta of Sibale in Lipa City. Anomalous? No, it was propitious.

The celebration was not without convincing reason. The organizers, who belong to the umbrella group called the Sibale Development Foundation, Inc., said their act was an act of faith. They would also like to pay honor and homage to the Lady of the Immaculate Conception, whose image is installed in the Sibale Parish Church, on her feast day.

And since it is impractical for them to go home on or before December 8 on account of the testy December weather and of the enormous expense entailed in coming home to Sibale for the annual pilgrimage, they celebrated the fiesta in Lipa City.

Reasonable, wasn’t it? In our times when people are already attending the Sunday mass on TV (there are even online burol!)—why not a fiesta away from the real McCoy?

And so, the celebration of the Sibale fiesta in Lipa City became a habit. An annual thing. It grew complete with Saturday novena; a basketaball tournament played every Sunday starting in September; benefit dances in between; and the main fiesta mass celebrated often by Sibale’s parish priest himself. There is even boodle-fight lunch on the day itself, which in Asi is called langkapi.

In time, the Sibale fiesta celebration in Lipa City acquired a life of its own, even a theme, called Ragipon. Ragipon has no direct equivalent word in English. It means en masse. Kumpol-kumpol is a near equivalent in Tagalog. And also over the years, more and more Sibalenhons in Lipa City and its environs have been coming to the Ragipon. Even some from Sibale come to Lipa to attend it.

And this was Auntie Nel’s beef. She reported that in one of the fiesta preparatory meetings in Sibale, mention was made about the alleged competition posed by the Ragipon, the Lipa City version of the Sibale fiesta, on the Sibale fiesta. She implied that the Ragipon, is taking the juice out of the fiesta in Sibale itself:

“Kag kami’y nag meeting, imaw it topic ka Ragipon. Asi kuno nak Disyembre ka inro pista, muyating waya ey it napauli. (When we had a meeting, the fiesta of Ragipon was the topic. They were asking why your fiesta is in December. Look, that’s the reason why no one goes home anymore for the Sibale fiesta.)”

She has a point, but she missed it big time. She also admitted in effect that the Ragipon is drawing the Sibalenhons’ attention away from the Sibale fiesta. But what I don’t understand was the complaint why the Ragipon should be in December, in short, why it should compete with the celebration in Sibale when, in fact, this twin, parallel celebration should complement each other.

"Pay naghihinanakit ara ka mga tawo. Asi kuno nak pinarungan pa. Dapat kuno ay sa ibang buyan. Lalo ey ngasing nak nagka-campaign kami sa lokal nak turismo. (The people are a little bit sore, wondering why it should be at the same time. They say your celebration should be in another month, now that we are campaigning for local tourism.)

Well, I don’t know about it, Auntie Nel, but the last time I looked, there was only one Lady of the Immaculate Conception and her feast day is December 8. To suggest another fiesta date for the island’s patron saint is heretic, unless you are changing the calendar of the saints?

Also, I was one of the very first to suggest when Mayor Boyet Cipriano assumed office that he should strengthen the local tourism council if it is local tourism that should be promoted as an economic growth strategy. The fiesta as a local tourism attraction strategy is valid, but worn-out.

The point is that if Sibale local officials would like to entice migrant Sibalenhons to go back to Sibale and return to their roots once in a while, as what a fiesta could—must—do, our local officials need to be a little more creative and innovative in thinking of ways on how to attract visitors, local or otherwise.

Thinking or even feeling that the Ragipon competes with the Sibale fiesta is rather a myopic view. The Ragipon has become popular because it is an amalgam of the religious and the social in a practical context. Migrant Sibalenhons troop to the Ragipon—support it—because they share the same religious fervor and piety to the Lady of the Immaculate Conception as their kin in Sibale.

They patronize it because in the place where they are now—and that is away from Sibale—they find in the Ragipon an anchor, a sense of identity and belongingness that make their migrant lives a little bit bearable.

But the most compelling argument why the Sibalenhons in Sibale should leave the Sibalenhons in Lipa City alone in their own devices, particularly in their observance of the religious fiesta, is the practicality of it all: they don’t want to go home in the first week of December because of financial constraint; because they don’t want to be off work even by a few days; and because they don’t want to go through the hassle of travel at a time of the year when the sea weather becomes unpredictable.

Or, one can also say that the Sibalenhons are just plain unsentimental about going home to Sibale every December. Take your pick.

It’s the same reason why many professed Catholics prefer just watching Sunday mass on TV instead of actually going to church. They don’t want to encounter the traffic; want to save transportation money; and choose to be safe in the confines of their living rooms.

Or, maybe they are just plain lazy in taking their being Catholics seriously.

Take your pick.

The PESO: Eleven at 11

Alice Fetalvero and I had only a brief chat during breakfast at the cavernous covered patio of the Davao Waterfront Insular Hotel, where the 11th National PESO Congress, an annual pilgrimage of PESO managers, was ongoing. The conversation topic was, of course, the PESO.
Manang Alice, as I call the former vice governor of Romblon, was ecstatic. She is newly-installed as provincial PESO manager and—credit the wise choice of Manang Alice to Governor Lolong—was already planning long-range on how to make the PESO—a most unusual and unique bureaucratic set-up—benefit the Romblomanons.

The Public Employment Service Office, you see, is an “orphan”. Abandoned by the lawmakers who sired it by not assigning a single peso for its operationalization and upkeep—until now, what a pity!—the PESO, for 11 years, has struggled to be alive, reeling on the ropes sometimes, gasping for air most often, as a result of legislative infantilism.

For where can you see a law creating an office but not providing for its roof, personnel, and resources? Only in the PESO law! The PESO law is an “unfunded” law, that’s what the bureaucrats call it, in chorus with the 250 plus and 23 senators who midwifed its birth. To me, however, it’s euphemism for Congressional castration.

So, the Department of Labor and Employment had to adopt the PESO by virtue of sacred and noble duty. The DOLE was at its philanthropic best by, singly and most energetically, pushing the PESO out of its incubator and nudging it to life. By giving the PESO skills, technical know-how, money, and most important of all, reason to live, which are people, the PESO has survived its infancy. It has grown up, exhibiting tentative steps at first, but steadily showing signs of strength and stability as it struggled to be relevant. Were it a grade schooler, at 11, the PESO would have been in Grade 5 by now: a budding adolescent.

Making it easy for jobseekers to meet their match in employers is the main responsibility of the PESO. Over the years, this principal work has evolved—increased, actually—to include the delivery of labor market information—an array of knowledge on where the jobs are; what occupations are in-demand; what the employers look for in workers; how much a particular skill pays, etc.) and services such as counseling, career coaching, training needs assessment, and ultimately, finding a job.

The PESO as a job finder? Yes, of course, given that the country has a working-age population habitually addicted to asking the government to do for them even the simplest of tasks. Like writing a resume? Or correctly filling-up an application form? Or making a referral just like what a politician does in his waking moment?

“Yes, all of those,” I told Manang Alice, “and more. The PESO should be able to cut the downtime that stands between the “job-ready” or “teachable-fit” worker and the discriminating, but exacting, employer. The moment the PESO does this—very professionally, effectively, and quickly—then the perennial problem of workers not finding the right job at the time of his own choosing and of employers not finding the right worker exactly at their time of need, will be eased. The moment the PESO does this—then Congress can be abolished for its fatalistic view of what a law is and should be.

To understand the PESO and appreciate its work, one has to listen to Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda D. Baldoz, who says that beyond the structure, the PESO should see itself as a whole and complete set of processes and systems that serves the people’s employment facilitation needs. It must be relevant to be useful. It must deliver correct labor market information. It should even be able to address a gamut of employment and unemployment issues jobseekers and employers face in a globalized world. From a mere intermediary, the PESO will have to transform itself into a frontline service hub capable of responding to changes, trends, and signals of the labor market in a moment’s notice.

I didn’t know if the participants in the Congress, hosted by Region 11, also struggled with the above questions like Manang Alice did. But I noted that one of the most anticipated and applauded Congress highlights was the announcement of Secretary Baldoz that PESO managers nationwide shall have a seat in one of the DOLE’s most important policy instruments, the tripartite Industrial Peace Council which is a dialogue partner of the DOLE.

This should happen soon. I have asked the Secretary how her plan could be realized and she said the government’s representation in the ITCs will be expanded to include PESO managers.

If Manang Alice gets a seat in the ITC as provincial PESO manager, say, for example, in the marble industry ITC, which by the way I don’t know if it exists, then she would be able to participate in the debates and policy discussion on matters relating to Romblon’s marble industry, the province’s only major industry with yet unrealized potential.

And while waiting for that, I suggest that Manang Alice make use of her new position—and the opportunity—to work for the institutionalization of the provincial and municipal PESOs; advocate for PESO best practices; conduct workshops on how to start a business and hold seminars on career development and social entrepreneurship.

This is big work, but knowing her as one who does not to back-off from a great challenge, I guess she can accomplish the task. I this field of employment facilitation, it is my opinion she could be of greater help to Romblon than when she is an elected official.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A most unusual gift

I listened to a very uplifting sermon last Sunday, courtesy of the Rev. Pastor Teofilito A. Rufon of the Odiongan Baptist Church.

My presence at Pastor Rufon’s congregation was not an accident. It was fate—and a recipe called Christian Faith—that carried my feet inside the OBC’s imposing cathedral, the newest in Odiongan’s rising skyline.

I was invited to the service by John, Pastor Rufon’s eldest son who, I kidded Ismael Fabicon, is fast becoming a soloist than a college professor. You see, John had a great time a day earlier when he belted out with gusto songs of the 1622: Unang Usbor, the Asi people’s only ethno-linguistic musical group. John has become a convert—to the strong brew of the Asi language—which was the reason for this latest Odiongan visit. But I am taking a detour. I will write about it later. The temporal can wait. The spiritual can’t.

First, the gospel music. Perched high up above the Pastor’s podium when I entered the Church was a group of men and women garbed in their bright red and green uniforms. They were singing. Ask me what melts my heart most and I will say to you: it’s singing.

The choir’s rendition of gospel music tore the air at the cavernous hall, cementing the solemnity of the service. I knew some of the Church’s hymns and I found myself singing, first under my breath, and later, briskly, as if I was a congregation member. I don’t know if somebody noticed.

Christ in the home—the Christian home—was Pastor Rufon’s sermon that Sunday. I winched the moment he forcefully described a home without Christ as the center. Well, a writer’s sanity is best restored not by writing alone, but by admitting self-guilt: I haven’t listened to a sermon for quite some time. I think the last service I attended was when a priest excoriated the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office for selectively publishing the names of bishops who received cars from the agency and that strengthened my resolve to take a time out from being seen inside a church.

Here is a pastor of a flock who remains within the confines of the spiritual, unlike some who bully others from the pulpit on matters sometimes of least concern to the faithful. Like politics. It was a welcome air, don’t you think? I loved it. I am a strong believer in the separation of the State and the Church, as the Constitution dictates, but alas, this in the Philippines is honored more in the breach and so I rest my case.

Being in the labor and employment department, I appreciated Pastor Rufon’s admonition to parents to “teach their children to work”, the letter “T” in his ABCs for a Christian home. He was right on target. So many parents today, many of them OFWs, “feed” their children and are not teaching them the value of physical labor. “Do not feed them,” said the good Pastor, “if they don’t work.” We need many more Pastor Rufons in our midst to help the government whittle down the number of the unemployed.

“Sig-ab ako sa kabusgan sa sermon it imo Papa,” I told John after the service. It’s true. I think it was de-stressing to nourish your soul from time to time. Thank you, Pastor Rufon for the Vitamin “S”—Spirit’s Supplement.

I thought that was the last for that day, but life, really, is full of surprises. After the service, John introduced me to Andrew, his brother in law.

Andrew’s heavenly occupation is as deacon and chairman of the OBC’s Board of Christian Education. On earth, he works for PhilHealth. Well, education for heaven and health for earthlings are compatible professions, but the good part of the introduction was that Andrew and his wife Melody were to host me for lunch, at their house surrounded by farms in Poctoy.

I remained there the whole afternoon of Sunday. I forgot the world after Domingo “Jun” Fetalsana, with his guitar; Vic Musa of the Land Bank with his violin; and John with his vocals and I sang Asi songs, with Tony Fadero of the Department of Agrarian Reform providing the applause. I left three of my most recent compositions for them to arrange and to blend. When I return, I’ll join the three for us to form a quartet—initially, we will call ourselves Ap-at nak Sungay—and we will mount a concert. Ready your ticket money. The concert will not be free.

From Andrew, I received a most unusual gift. No, it was not the lunch consisting of ginat-ang yangka nak de bago and fried tilapia, but another dose of spiritual food. He handed me “The Double-Edged Sword”, an outline of sharp sermons that he had compiled.

I browsed some of the sermons on my trip to Batangas that evening and, just as Pastor Rufon’s sermon earlier, I experienced a high. You ask why? The first sermon in the outline is titled “Emergency Tips”.

“Disaster and emergency come at unexpected times. Therefore, we must prepare to meet our God. Jesus teaches us that preparation is needed,” said the outline.

When you are on a ship; when you know the record of ships in the Philippines; when you know what shipwreck is; and you read these lines, I think it gives you an idea what to expect. And the sermon is ready with a prescription. Here, in a poetic form, it is:

2 Samuel 22:2 Get on the Rock
Isaiah 40:11 Stay in the Flock
Hebrews 10:25 Put the kids on Dry Dock
1 Peter 5: 8-9 Build a Roadblock

Thank you, Andrew, for putting me to sound sleep during my trip with your “Double-edged Sword”.

The Odiongan Baptist Church, I learned from Andrew’s gift, is doing well in terms of being a good corporate Christian citizen of Romblon, busying itself with activities most, if not all, of which are into winning souls for heaven. I like the Church’s Tricycle Ministry. I encourage Odionganons to attend the OBC’s Survival Summer Camp, given that survival in today’s frenetic world is on everyone’s radar, depending, however, on what was it that a person wants to survive from. I also encourage parents to send their children to the OBC’s vacation bible school. I had attended one when I was a child in Sibale and I certainly knew what it is all about. It’ll keep your children along P-Noy’s “Daang Matuwid”.

Pastor Rufon, I was surprised, has a radio program, “Mabuting Balita”, that has been going on uninterrupted for 13 long years. In Romblon, no one can top that. Of course, the good pastor’s record on radio cannot top Rep Budoy Madrona’s staying power in politics, but it’s like comparing apples and balimbing, with Pastor Rufon representing the good fruit, and Rep. Madrona the embodiment of the . . . forget about it.

God bless you, Pastor Rufon and your Church. Please don’t return the compliment. I was already blessed by a unique Sunday as the last I was with you and your faithful.

You may visit http://www.christiancounselingdegree.org/ and, as a Christian, benefit from this very special website.

Romblon mining financiers have names

The Romblon Sun, in its May 30-June 6 edition, bannered a story expressing the desire of Sibuyan local government officials and anti-mining advocates for the revocation of a contract that allows mineral exploration on Sibuyan Island.

The newspaper did not name the officials, saying only that it has interviewed the mayor of San Fernando, but that is obvious. Mayor Dindo Rios, a good friend, allegedly said that the mineral exploration contract involved the 25-year mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA) the national government entered into in 2009 with Altai Philippines Mining.

I have taken a cursory investigation of this in 2009 when the mining controversy erupted after the murder of San Fernando Sangguniang Bayan member Armin Marin. What I had found out is already unspoken public knowledge: elected and non-elected public officials, one way or another, from Rep. Budoy Madrona to the late governor and former congressman Perpetuo Ylagan to Sam Romero and some of his former colleagues in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to former governor Natalio Beltran III, his local mayors, police and environment officials, and even some self-confessed anti-mining advocates in the island, have all interest—and therefore, a hand—in the entry of mining in Sibuyan.

So let us not kid ourselves. Mining—and all the attendant noise and fury spawned by Marin’s murder—would have not registered in the radar of the province if officials of government and some citizens (even some anti-mining advocates!) did not take a glance, and thus, were not blinded, by the shining rays of the nuggets of silver and gold that the mining companies directed to their very eyes.

Here now comes Mayor Rios saying that the MPSA on Sibuyan was a ‘midnight’ deal and the Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for the Environment/Sibuyanons Against Mining (Sibuyan ISLE/SAM) lamenting it as not having passed through “formal and transparent processes at the barangay level.”

Of course, it did not, that’s why it was a ‘midnight’ deal, ano ba kayo?

That was in 2009. Today is 2011 and we are living in a different neighborhood, as Secretary Butch Abad say. Today, P-Noy’s matuwid na daan is the mantra, and part of the reforms the matuwid na daan policy is carrying out is ‘daylight’ transparency on all government transactions.

Corrupt officials in Romblon—and they are plenty and still thriving, if Vice Governor Mel Madrid is to be believed—don’t like ‘daylight’ transparency. They don’t want to be watched. They don’t want to be gossiped about. They are all over—at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, at the capitol, at the munisipyo and the barangays. They are present even at the Provincial Police Office, that’s why they don’t enforce the executive order that Gov. Lolong Firmalo has issued halting mining in the province.

Halting mining. I like this phrase because, first of all, Firmalo cannot enforce his order alone. He has to get the cooperation of the police and the local executives, cooperation which obviously not forthcoming. Ask the task force that he ordered created last year. This task force, which looks very good on paper, has yet to be constituted and has yet to meet.

Halting mining rings a bell because the PPO—led by Police Sr. Supt. Leo Tumolva—is apparently in cahoots with the miners, as evidenced by this text message from a Romblon Sun reader:

"Wla na tlagang pagasa na mhinto pa ang mina d2 sa magdiwang. Panu kc, mlaki ang share na nattangap mg myor mula sa mga financier ng mina. My aakyat nga n mga pulis dun sa bundok kaso pgdating dun wla na clang aabutan panu naitxtna kya sayang lang ang effort ni gov Firmalo na ipahinto ang mina ditto sa Magdiwang. Sna d lng s slita aksyunan n tlaga pagpahinto ng pgmina d2. Crang cra na talaga ang bundok ng Magdiwang dahil s mga illegal mining—0948706****

There you go.

Well, I have it on good authority that PSSupt. Tumolva is getting a handsome gasoline allowance from the governor as well as free board and lodging, but is the police director enforcing the law as he should? That’s my quiz for the week. Is he also receiving bribes from the miners? Ask him, Awe Eranes.

I have it also on good authority that Gov. Firmalo, when confronted by the dilly-dallying behavior of his provincial police director, responds that he has already recommended for his relief, or a replacement, but this is incorrect as my informant confessed. No less than DILG Secretary Jess Robredo, said the informant, denied this. Sus Maria Santisima.

In the meantime, let us grant the good governor the benefit of the doubt, in the same manner that we should grant Rep. Budoy the same benefit, that he is serious in his anti-mining stance.

But let us not doubt the Romblon Sun reader who texted the above message. Let us assume he/she was telling the truth about local officials and the police getting bribes from the mining financiers. And who are these financiers?

Last week, someone forwarded to me a text message (I will not mention the mobile phone number) naming names. Here goes the text message:

"Sir gud afternoon e2 ung mga lstahan ng mga fnancier noli patino. Boni patino. Gene patino. chito robea. perla rabino. pociano rabino. Erwin mesajon. buban. elmer rivas. antonio menese. Nag call s akn c dr bgay lhat pngaln nla. Ipalu up u rn s knya.

On this note, how I wish Rep. Madrona is not grandstanding when he filed House Bill No. 4415, “An Act Declaring the Province of Romblon a Mining Free Zone and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof.”

But he is, sad to say, if I know the legislative process.

It will take some time to pass that bill into law. Budoy knows this. His bill must undergo the scrutiny of public hearings under the auspices of the appropriate committee to which his bill has been referred. That committee has to write a committee report, which has to be approved before it can be reported to the floor for debates. At the floor, the bill will undergo amendments before it can be approved in its third and final reading.

If the House approves of Budoy’s bill, it will be sent to the Senate where a counterpart bill has also to be filed and to undergo the same process. If the Senate approves its own version of the bill, it will be sent to the bicameral conference committee—the so-called “Third Chamber” of Congress—where both bills will be reconciled on its conflicting provisions, if there’s any.

If approved in the bicameral conference committee, it will be reported back to the House and the Senate for ratification after which it will be enrolled and sent to the President’s desk for his signature.

I reckon this process will take three years, unless our good congressman lobbies hard for its enactment. But is he? Nah. So, he is grandstanding. He knows it will take a long time to have his bill approved. He knows that his bill is only good for press release, to fool gullible Romblomanons that he is serious.

In filing his bill, he knew the fat cats of the mining lobby will troop to his office. The lobbyists, I am sure, will invoke the Supreme Court’s approval of the Philippines’s Mining Act, which Madrona knew to exist, and therefore, he has to recognize. But the fact that he filed the bill despite this knowledge tells us that in effect, Budoy made the move not exactly with the end in view of halting mining—that phrase again!—but to attract the miners to deal with him, in his own terms, in his own sweet time.

Having said this, let us rally all Romblomanons to re-elect Madrona for another term, so that he will have his cake and eat it, too.

In the meantime, let the financiers and the illegal miners empty the bowels of Magdiwang of its gold.

The Romblon Sun columnists: eagle-eyed

I will write this week in praise and comment of the columnists of Romblon Sun.

I have been raring to do this because if the news are the soul and spine of a newspaper, the columnists—call them opinion writers—are its conscience. I have long wanted to highlight the conscience of the Romblon Sun, the only newspaper which has one.

Columnists are a noisy lot. They have opinion about everything and anything, and Romblon Sun’s opinion writers are not exempted. Indeed, they are noisier than the politicians themselves, one of the subjects they often write about. They also have eagle eyes. They see the relevant issues and write about these fearlessly.

To inform is one of the functions of a columnist. A columnist who fails in this function has no business writing opinion pieces. Columnists write opinion so that readers, informed of events around them, could make informed decisions. In this manner, columnists also teach.

If you will ask me if I read the other columnists of Romblon Sun, my answer would be yes. I read them because I want to learn from them, and so I could also be informed about what’s happening in the province. This is why I always make it a point to request Tony Macalisang and Awe Eranes to send me copies of my favorite provincial newspaper.

A few issues ago, Jun Fiedacan, the man behind Agrikultura at Teknolohiya wrote a full piece about the non-implementation of Romblon’s ten-year master development program.

He posited that because of frequent elections, we have not really gone far as a province because the comprehensive master plan has remained just that, a plan.

Jun says that frequent leadership changes are the culprit why no one bothers to carry out the plan. I say it is our divisive politics that hinder the implementation of such a plan.

“Sa kabila ng magagandang plano ng ating ibang kababayan na sumusuporta sa mga proyekto ng mamamayan, kapag hindi kapartido, hindi na sinusunod ang mga plano,” Jun wrote.

“Sana, kapag nagawa na ang master development plan, sino man ang nakaupo sa iba’t-ibang lokal na pamahalaan, dapat sundan ang plano dahil serbisyo ang ipinangako natin sa bayan,” he added.

I agree with Jun. Indeed, our leaders do not have the political will to implement a plan which they themselves crafted. I am even surprised that Romblon has such as plan. Where is it? Why isn’t it uploaded in the Internet for every Romblomanon to see?
The View From Here columnist Mario Fradejas, in his previous piece, took a dig at illegal gambling in Romblon, Romblon during the capital town’s feast day in early January.

“With information . . . from other reliable sources coming to our attention persistently, we are now inclined to give credence that indeed, there was illegal gambling during the week-long fiesta celebration of the capital town and that evidently, it was tolerated by the authorities,” Mario wrote.

One of the authorities he referred to was Romblon mayor Gerard Montojo, a lawyer and, according to Mario, was a former seminarian. Saying that Montojo’s being a lawyer and a former seminarian, as well as his being a believer in the patron saint of the town are compelling restraints against tolerating “a vicious and immoral activity as illegal gambling”, Mario expressed disbelief that illegal gambling could occur in Romblon, Romblon.

Well, Mario, I get your point. However, I can’t agree with your observation. Our very own Rep. Budoy Madrona is also a lawyer and a former seminarian and just take a look where we are now. On the balance, I think I will lay my fortunes with writers such as the late Manong Julius Fortuna.

Elmina F. Fallar’s take on the “Ills of our Educational System” is an excellent piece and a relevant examination of the Philippine educational system. I recommend this to all Romblomanon teachers if only to remind them that Manang Elmina is one of their own. She is a former teacher.

“We boast of a nation built around a foreign language, but we are indulging in pretense and hypocrisy. An independent nation that educate(s) its citizenry through the use of an alien tongue thrives on false pride and exaggerated self-esteem,” she wrote.

“In Asia, perhaps, the Philippines alone uses a foreign language as the principal medium of instruction in educational institutions; she alone uses an alien tongue to inculcate love of country, nationalism, and patriotism,” she said.

Not true, Manang Elmina. The Philippine Constitution of 1987 has done away with English alone as a medium of instruction in our schools. It has now a twin, the national language we call Filipino.

However, you are correct that English as a foreign language holds sway in many aspects of our life. It is the language of business and government, of many newspapers and books and literature, so much so that Filipinos are “forced” to learn and think in the language of the Anglo-Saxons and the Americans.

There are many issues that you have raised in your column, but I will comment about only one of those, and that is, language.

I am for developing and embracing a national language called Filipino, or whatever it will be called. But I don’t believe a national language should be imposed. It should be developed over time, according to use and the flow—the rise and ebb—of cultural and socio-economic development.

I am for our people to learn how to speak and write in English, the modern-day lingua franca of business and commerce and technology. We cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world without learning how to communicate with them in some universally-accepted medium. English is this language.

But over and above the national language and English, I am for my native Asi. I believe our educational institutions, at least from kindergarten to Grade One to Six, should be taught how to speak, write, and think in their native languages. Culture and history—and love of country, honesty, integrity, and patriotism—could better be imbibed by our children if they learn them first in their original native tongue.

Studies after studies have shown that secondary languages are easier to learn—easier to teach—if the learner is already very familiar and fluent in his or her native language.

My two daughters are good examples. I have taught them—and they have learned—how to speak my native Asi, which we use at home to communicate. They speak and write Tagalog, too, and English, and now, a scatter of Japanese, but it was easier to teach them something new because they understand the nuances and primary tools of the language I originally think in.

“The Philippine educational system, the system that never was, is not beyond redemption. This system that subscribes to the costly trappings of education, yet neglects its true essence and significance, is not the kind you and I would like to bequeath to future generations. What we need is an educational system that meets the demands of Philippine culture and society, regardless of foreign infiltration,” Manang Elmina concluded.

Those are strong words, Manang, and I agree. Perhaps, one of these days, I can write my observations on what constitute those demands and also about the ills of the educational system as I observe it from the other side of the fence.

The munisipyo as grocery store

If I were Gov. Lolong Firmalo, I would immediately conduct an investigation involving the mayor of Ferrol to find out why the municipal hall has become a grocery store instead of a public service office. The Romblon Sun photos of the munisipyo being used as a veritable marketplace don’t lie.

In the April 18-24 issue of the newspaper, Awe Eranes and Tony Macalisang reported that 200 beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, or 4Ps, the flagship program of President Benigno S. Aquino III for the poorest of the Filipino poor, was apparently being prostituted in Ferrol to benefit a few—and make the poor in Ferrol poorer still.

Who this few are, we don’t yet know, but if the Romblon Sun is to be believed, there is a corruption happening in the implementation of the program. Apparently, some wise guys from the munisipyo are profiting from the 4Ps by inducing, if not forcing, the beneficiaries into spending their cash benefits in groceries—noodles, sardines, rice, milk, laundry soap, sugar, and biscuits—which the munisipyo itself sells.

Clap your hands for the evil creativity of the 4Ps program implementors in Ferrol! Salute them for their ingenuity. They should be given awards ala-Go Negosyo!

Rowena Aguirre, one of the beneficiaries interviewed by the Romblon Sun about the anomalous business, had said that they would be delisted from the beneficiaries’ list of the 4Ps if they would not spend their money on grocery items peddled by the munisipyo. She quoted a certain Leonora Compas, the alleged grocery dealer, who had allegedly issued the threat.

“Tatanggalin daw nila kami bilang recipient ng 4Ps kung hindi sa kanila kami bibili ng aming mga kailangan,” said Edna Asuncion, another beneficiary. Asuncion also said the grocery items being offered by the munisipyo are over-priced, even if, as the Romblon Sun reported, student-youths under the Special Program for the Employment of Students, or SPES, were made to pack the grocery items. Ayaw ni DOLE Secretary Rosalinda-Baldoz nang ganiyan, di ba Bernie?

Well, I have good news for Mrs. Aguirre and Asuncion. Be not afraid of Ms. Compas. She cannot remove you from the beneficiaries’ list. It is only the DSWD which has right to remove or add a name to the list. Please text this anomaly to the DSWD-Mimaropa regional office at 0918-912-2813. That’s the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program hotline.

Now, we have names—and a question for Mayor Jason Fabila. Is Leonora Compas an employee of the munisipyo? If yes, what is her work and why is she engaged in the grocery business?

The Romblon Sun reported that there is a cooperative in the munisipyo running the grocery sting, but the coop, still according to the newspaper, is moribund and does not issue official receipts. If this is true, then Mayor Fabila has a lot of questions to answer.

The same is true with the municipal and provincial officials of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Foremost of these questions is whether they knew of this unofficial business operation happening in an official place involving the 4Ps.

It is a pity that these local officials don’t care a whit about the fate of the poor. They are heartless. But perhaps, they don’t understand the program, that’s why they don’t share the P-Noy’s administration’s vision in implementing this rights-based social protection program that aims to cut the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

For the information of Mayor Fabila and all local officials of Ferrol who may be involved in siphoning off the beneficiaries’ 4Ps benefits, the P500 per household and the P300 per child per month that the poor are receiving aims to ensure that 3-14 years old children go to day care centers and schools with 85 percent minimum attendance and that pregnant women and 0-14 years old children get basic health services.

President P-Noy hopes that by investing in the human capital of the poor, they are assured of a better future and will be equipped with necessary skills to contribute to their community and to the growth of the country as a whole. Because some local officials were mulcting the 200 4Ps beneficiaries in Ferrol, they are, in effect, defeating the purpose of the program.

Well, Ms. Vilma Foz of the DSWD regional office has promised an investigation of this glaring anomalous and corrupt act. She very well should, because even if this business involving an expired cooperative has already been made public by the Romblon Sun, provincial officials have not moved a bit to do the investigating themselves. It seems the 4Ps beneficiaries in Ferrol are being fried in their own lard.

In the meantime, the Romblon Sun could do either of two things. It could follow-up the investigation promised by Ms. Foz, or expose the corruption some more. I encourage Awe Eranes and Tony Macalisang to interview the provincial DSWD officer—is she Ms. June Recon?—to find out if she knew about this anomaly.

Also in the meantime, I shall furnish the Senate Committee on Finance and Public Expenditures a copy of this opinion piece, as well as the issue of the Romblon Sun where the report was published, so that Senator Frank Drilon, who chairs the committee, could initiate proper action.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Taking notice, Firmalo asks Fabicon to mind culture

The report was sketchy, but it was a report worth writing about.

Last week, Ismael Fabicon, Asi poet and Banton’s cultural warrior who divides his time between Chicago where his family lives and Banton where his roots belong, called me with the happy news that Gov. Lolong Firmalo has asked him to be provincial consultant on cultural affairs.

I was delighted and promised to write about it, not only because Fabicon fits the job description perfectly, but also because culture at last has registered in the radar of the provincial government.

This is not to say that the provincial government is not culturally-minded, but I have been around long enough to observe that past provincial administrations have displayed total indifference, if not deliberate ignorance, when it comes to cultural matters. This is a pity because the richness and color of Romblon culture, had we only taken the initiative to polish and highlight them, would have been a strong unifying element that could push faster our development efforts. Cultural unity is always a development imperative.

As I said, the news about Fabicon’s ‘appointment’ as ‘cultural consultant’ was yet unclear, in terms of what his functions will be. Will he, for example, just dispense advice, or will he lead in implementing programs and projects aimed to revive Romblon culture? Will Gov. Firmalo provide him an office with a budget to make plans related to culture?

I would be very interested to know the answers to these questions. Thus, I proposed, without being asked because I support 101 percent this initiative of the governor, to participate in a future meeting precisely to hammer out the mechanisms and processes of Fabicon’s consultancy. I said I could join the meeting on-line, if that could be arranged.

My interest in this development stems from the fact that in Romblon, only the Asi has a non-government body dedicated to propagating, preserving, and promoting our cultural heritage. I refer to the Asi Studies Center for Culture and Arts, or ASCCA, based in Banton.

ASCCA is very culturally active, but unfortunately, its work is confined to Asi. In recent years, the ASCCA has done a lot of research, publication, and coordinative work to highlight the Asi cultural tradition in the arts and literature.

And Fabicon has played a major role in the ASCCA’s prominence. Using his own time and personal resources, he had nurtured the Unang Usbor, a musical group, and shepherded the conduct of an annual writing workshop on the three Romblomanon languages, a project sponsored by the Romblomanon online network, Sanrokan.

In Romblon, I would suppose that the mere mention of culture will always spark lively discussion and debate. Given the vast differences—political viewpoint, level of economic development, religious orientation, and educational achievement—between the Romblon ‘tribes’, the Asi, Unhan, and Ini, there is bound to be loud disagreement in the proper ‘treatment’ of culture in our lives as Romblomanons.

This is what, I am afraid, awaits Fabicon as Firmalo’s cultural guru. He will be in an official position to recommend cultural policy, but at the same time, he will have his hands full in refereeing expected debates on, say, how the provincial government should proceed in moving culture from the bottom of provincial priorities to a prominent place in Firmalo’s development agenda.

But that is of little moment as of now. What is of big—and surprising—consequence is the fact that Firmalo had taken notice of the importance of culture in his governance agenda. That he has recognized the need, perhaps, for a vibrant ‘cultural’ Romblon is a necessary first step. Let us join him in a journey that will finally transform us to a culturally united Romblon.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Badly wanted: A Firmalo information officer to respond to Madrona and inform the people

A doctor by profession, Gov. Firmalo, before he became a full-time provincial chief executive, was a full-time physician. His clinic at the Delos Santos Hospital in Manila was one of, if not the most, frequented clinics in town.

To many Romblomanons, especially the poor, he dispensed his services for free, so much so that when he ran for political office, he had already built an horde of believers voters who swore to high heavens they will vote for him even if he ran for barangay kagawad.

Health is Dr. Firmalo’s turf. Romblomanons with health problems and those who dream of remaining healthy form his political base. When he won as governor, Romblomanons hoped that health services in the province will change for the better. He has three years to turn this hope into reality.

But Romblon is a cauldron with a multitude of problems. Trina, Firmalo's brilliant and energetic daughter, knows this. She has studied abroad and had put her education to practice in non-government work in Africa and in the Philippines, so she understands the immensity of the problems her dad had inherited from the unlamented, incompetent, and happy-go-lucky Natalio Beltran III, Rep. Madrona’s very 'own governor'.

Firmalo knows this, too. Early on, Madrona had painted for him a dire scenario for the province and what awaits him as governor.

In a speech during the first provincial development council meeting in the capitol in August last year, Madrona told Firmalo in no uncertain terms: “Wala kang pera, Governor”, or something to that effect.

I quote Madrona: “And again, I have to repeat and emphasize that if I have the chance, ayoko nang mag-gobernador. Gov, believe it or not, the budget that is allotted to you as governor, isang cash advance ko lang ‘yan as Vice-Chairman of the Accounts doon sa House of Representatives.”

My reading of this statement is that Madrona was telling Firmalo he was bound to fail; that Firmalo needs to level with him if the governor is to succeed in his HEART agenda. Sa sigulanong Asi: “Ako it de ganga; ako it amo. Sunor yang sa ako.”

With these threatening words, who needs a congressman?

We do. But we need a congressman to represent us in Congress, not to bully us, especially the governor and his allies, and to put us on notice that, because he controls the purse strings, his wish is his command. That’s not the essence of democracy. That's trapo.

And so, because Firmalo is alien to the evil ways of Madrona’s traditional politics, he is “estopped”.

He is in some kind of a bind. His hands are tied. He is hindered because of the threat of the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, this sword being the fact that Madrona can—and will—withdraw any financial help for the province’s development projects if and when Firmalo and his allies misbehave.

Why did I say this? Because Madrona’s own mouth spewed this venom. Read:

“This is the very first time in my political life in Congress that I’ll be working with a governor from another party. For my first three terms as congressman, I had the benefit of working with my own governor. When I was governor, I had the benefit of working with my own congressman. And again, when I came back, I had the benefit of working with my own governor.

“Umaabot sa punto na, sa totoo lang po, Gob, ang problema ng governor ko, ako ang pinuputukan dahil ang mga tao hindi alam ang distinction kung ano ang responsibilidad ng gobernador at responsibilidad ng congressman.

“Noong ako’y congressman, pag malubak ang mga provincial roads, ang congressman po ang pinupukpok. May pagkakataon na kinukulang ang mga gamot ng ating hospitals, ang congressman po ang binubugbog. I cannot say: “Oops, hindi ko yata ‘yan trabaho. Trabaho ng governor ‘yan.” Why? Because the governor is one with me, so I have to support the governor. Pag bumagsak ang governor ko ay ikababagsak ko rin. Sometimes, I have to sacrifice because I have to shoulder all the responsibilities of all my municipal and provincial officials.”

The above words were pregnant with insinuations, but they simply means: “You are on your own, Gov. Firmalo, since you are not my own governor. I cannot support you because you are not with me.”

Right after the speech, Firmalo should have reacted to this poisonous political baiting. But because he was civil, he did not. Not even his allies who, like chimpanzees, jumped up and down applauding Madrona for his supposed reconciliatory tone.

By the way, the Romblon Sun got a share of Madrona’s goat in his speech. He said:

“Pero ang Romblon Sun, hanggang ngayon wala nang ginawa kundi tirahin ako. Pag nagpatuloy ang Romblon Sun, ang kawawa ang ating gobernador dahil siya ang nasa puwesto. Eh, ‘yong kanyang mga kasamahang talunan ay nasa tabi-tabi lang at walang responsibilidad sa ating mga mamamayan.”

Well, well. Romblon Sun is now famous because no less than the congressman of Romblon reads it.

But may I ask: “Why has Romblon Sun suddenly cropped up in the equation when what it was doing was merely to convey the news?” Why should Firmalo suffer if it is Madrona who’s the subject of the Romblon Sun’s supposed “tira”? I don’t get it.

Madrona should know that the antidote to a bad press is good deeds, and a forceful elucidation of those deeds. Is he, or are his people, doing the latter? I most sincerely doubt. Ask Tony Macalisang and Awe Eranes if Madrona and his allies, or even Firmalo and his group, have sent the Romblon Sun a single press release.

The antidote to Madrona’s harangue, if one were to ask me, should have been an equal dose of his own words.

And that’s the point I am on to. The work of responding to, or pointing out that Madrona was threatening the governor, or informing the public about what the provincial government is doing for the people, properly belonged to an information officer which the capitol do not have and, therefore, it sorely needs.

Well, again, the governor may protest to high heavens that he has one, but where is he or she? Scratching papers on a table in a lonely nook at the kapitolyo, waiting for the five-o’clock-in-the-afternoon chime so he could go home?

Is he informing the people about what’s happening in the capitol and about Firmalo’s many accomplishments as provincial chief executive? Does he know anything at all about communicating to the public? Does he know that President Benigno S. Aquino III’s transparency policy includes informing the grassroots about the “good news”?

He doesn’t. You need proof? Browse the official provincial government website and you will see that it is Natalio Beltran III who is still the governor there.

What’s happening, Governor? Don't you know that in our times when online social networks and the Internet have become the most potent tools of public communication, the province of Romblon has not even updated its own website?

I have suggested, privately, to Awe Eranes to find out what the provincial information officer is doing and how much pay he receives from the taxpayers, all because I would like to suggest to Gov. Firmalo—and to Trina who is doing a yeoman’s job of managing the traffic at the Office of the Governor—that the position of public information officer, if it exists, be abolished and the budget allocation for the position be donated to the Romblon Sun which, even with its rag tag team of writers and reporters, manages to come out regularly, issue after issue, rain or shine, and with death threats and malicious insinuations hanging over their heads, to inform the people of Romblon on matters that affect them.

Outsource the work, Governor, and declare your information officer redundant.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Food first

When President Benigno S. Aquino III asked Agriculture secretary Proceso Alcala three times a few weeks ago whether the country will have sufficient rice supply in the next two years, Alcala was said to have unequivocally, without winching, assured the President that yes, we will be sufficient in the commodity.
According to my source, Alcala told the President that by 2013, we will be even exporting rice.

Aquino’s persistence on the issue of rice indicates the administration’s priority: a Philippines whose citizens’ stomachs are full.

The previous unlamented administration also has food as an item on its agenda, but Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s officials interpreted it in a complex manner. They thought Gloria’s “food on every table” campaign pitch should begin with the planting cycle, thus they conceived of millions of hectares of lands planted to rice and drowned in fertilizer, so they diverted money, loads and tons of it, into their pockets and bought cheap liquid fertilizer and dumped these into farmers’ backyards.

Stumped, because the farmers knew nothing about liquid fertilizer, they used it to water coconut trees. That’s what happened in Romblon, a non-rice producing province.

The result was a nation getting a headache, not a full stomach, from the infamous fertilizer scam which to this day remains unresolved, the culprits unprosecuted.

Food first. That’s what Aquino III must be saying. In 2010, he went around the country, peddling this:

“From a government that merely conjures economic growth statistics that our people know to be unreal to a government that prioritizes jobs that empower the people and provide them with opportunities to rise above poverty.”

And this: “From treating the rural economy as just a source of problems to recognizing farms and rural enterprises as vital to achieving food security and more equitable economic growth, worthy of re-investment for sustained productivity.”

The voters agreed. I agree then as I agree now. Without food, we are weak and disoriented and become susceptible to diseases.

A hungry man hallucinates and entertains morbid thoughts, like marching on the streets and denouncing government. Foodlessness breeds social unrest and we can’t afford to have it now that we are embarking on gigantic socio-economic reforms.

Food production, of course, is complex and subject to competing policy interests. Do we, for example, allow more land to become commercial or let it remain a forest or a farm?

Do we, for instance, plant more crops, like cassava, for fuel and animal food or invest more in staple crops, like corn and rice, so we attain for Aquino his dream—our dream?

These are thoughts that bothered me after reading that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization had reported that its index of food prices in 2010 has registered the highest in the last 20 years.

The UNFAO said food prices soared 15 percent from October 2010 to January 2011 alone, thus “throwing an additional 44 million people in low- and middle-income countries into poverty.”

Are we seeing food riots in Manila’s streets soon?

No, if Secretary Alcala is to be believed. “We have plenty of rice. Our farms are bursting with harvest,” he said over radio station DZMM when interviewed by Noli de Castro, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s partner in leading the Filipinos believe from 2001 to 2010 that “food on every table” is at hand.

The former vice president, in his program, was fretting over an unverified report of the not-so-intelligent National Intelligence Coordinating Council, or NICA, that the administration of P-Noy is facing national security troubles because of foreseen rising rice prices and, possibly, rice shortages.

That Malacanang had quickly belied the report and that Sec. Alacala had debunked it should have signalled de Castro to stop dignifying the story. Better, it should have compelled the NICA head, whoever he is, or the author of the supposed report, to resign, out of delicadeza, or commit suicide.

But the NICA is dense, even if its function is only to “coordinate” (the worst word in the lingua franca of bureaucracy), intelligence gathering, not to gather it. It didn’t know that Alcala was doing his homework.

So was de Castro, who for two days in his program continued to make the trivial major or significant. Only when Alcala, and another ally of the previous regime, the mayor of Candaba, Pampanga, came out to present de Castro with facts, i.e., that the country is awash in rice and therefore, there is no need to import—or worst, die now of hunger—that the former No. 2 politician backtracked, his dirigible-sized ego punctured by a pin.

The newsreader-turned-vice-president-turned-newsreader should confine himself to reading the news, not to making a mountain out of molehill.

But I suppose he, like the rest of us, eats rice. Justified therefore was his worry about the rice shortage.

And I agree that we should worry.

I also agree that P-Noy should now step up his food sufficiency program and go round the country once again and use the Cory magic he inherited to inspire farmers to plant more. He can bring along his agriculture officials and be a Magsaysay: provide instant ground solutions to problems of access to technology, funds, and farm inputs.

He should think of food first, by electrocuting hoarders, breaking supply chain barriers by castrating cartels and poisoning middlemen impoverishing our farmers by their cut-throat prices and usurious rice planting financing schemes.

There is today in the United States a growing call from the Americans to slash the salary of the members of Congress to reduce the US budget deficit. We don’t have that kind of attitude here yet, but the President can take the cue. Put more money in agriculture so that the country can attain food self-sufficiency.

Food first. Thailand and our other neighbors have this policy and they now export rice and other food stuffs. In Thailand, for instance, the OTOP or one-town-one product strategy has worked wonders that there is today in Bangkok a mall which sells food produced by the kingdom’s rural towns. Thailand has even surpassed us in the export of patis, a Philippine original food ingredient.

Rising food prices can do us in, I assure myself. So while there is still time, let’s go back to the drawing board and consider food—and that means self-sufficiency in our staple stomach needs—an urgent priority.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In Sibale, the opposition has become obdurate

Rep. Eleandro Jesus Madrona must know this.

The 2013 election is still two years away, but the way his political wards in Sibale (pop. 4,500; voters, 2,200 plus) are acting seems they are already campaigning.

I can’t blame them. Dislodged from power over four years ago, what was once a formidable Budoy army has become a rag tag band of whiners and obstructionists, unable to accept the fact that nothing in politics is permanent; that there comes a time when the people may find it no longer fashionable to elect and re-elect non-performers; and that, therefore, new blood should be injected into the arthritic veins of local governance.

And this is what they did in 2007 and 2010. The people of Sibale—“poor, because” according to the famous Sam Romero, a mainlander politician grossly ignorant of Sibalenhon affairs, “Nicon has not helped”—elected and re-elected the energetic Lemuel Cipriano, thereby announcing to all and sundry the end of the Madrona era in the island.

Once in office, Cipriano did the unthinkable and unbelievable. He delivered. He made potable running water climb into the faucets of Sibalenhon households. He brought back the municipal coffers in the black; paid off the town’s debts; paved the roads; motivated the Sibalenhons to plant so they would have enough to eat; and returned ethical conduct in government service.

He also played Janus-faced politics to get re-elected, so he can continue his good governance program, to the chagrin and frustration of the opposition which fielded Adrian Feudo, a classmate and friend, only to be monstrously defeated because his campaign funds were siphoned off by the more experienced bit players and dishonest voters who hang around him like albatross during the campaign.

Well, Cipriano had also committed a misstep. In 2010, against his friends’ advice, he toyed with fire by dancing briefly with Madrona who he thought (he thought wrongly) would support him to the very end. As it turned out, Madrona, the ever green “balimbing” of Romblon politics, divided his largesse into two halves—one-half for Feudo and the half for a long-time ally, Merenciano Fabregas, and Cipriano was left holding the proverbial empty bag.

To be fair, Feudo did not totally lose. He managed to get his councilors elected, and they are now in control of the Sangguniang Bayan. In retrospect, this was a punishment for Cipriano. Today, he finds it irritatingly difficult to wiggle through the opposition-dominated local legislative chamber.

SB member Rey Feudo, a staunch Cipriano ally, has reported that the SB has been blocking every legislative proposal of the administration. “They do this without compunction, logic, or plausible reason,” he said.

A red-hot issue at the SB is Sibale’s Annual Investment Plan, or AIP, which enumerates the administration’s programs and projects to be funded out of the municipal development fund. As a spending measure, the AIP needs SB approval. SB member Feudo says the 2011 AIP is languishing in the SB because the majority is opposing its passage every step of the way.

“The opposition, led by SB member Monico Firmalan and Association of Barangay Captains president Medrito Fabreag, is questioning the validity of the public consultations held for the AIP, as well as the non-government representatives to the municipal development council that adopted it,” Feudo reported.

“They want to repeat the consultations. They even want to re-cast the membership of the MDC, but its structure and composition has been there since they were last in power and they didn’t question it the first time. So why only now?” he fumed.

Putting the AIP to a vote will surely mean its defeat and its return to the drawing board, which would mean further delay. So, it is being put on hold, with the administration biding for time while the SB is waiting for a Solomon to decree a messianic resolution.

In the meantime, Cipriano has no AIP. He cannot spend the 20 percent municipal development fund for his programs and projects, otherwise he would be courting a backlash, or worse, a legal challenge, from the SB.

What should Cipriano and his allies do?

If I were him, I will bring the case directly to the people by making public the obstructionist and obstinate ways of the opposition. If I were him, I will make the following small political speech:

“Fellow Sibalenhons: You know very well that as your mayor, I have been doing the best I can, despite so many natural and man-made constraints, to deliver to you government’s basic services to improve your lives.

“Lately, however, the political opposition, a minority among us but a majority in the SB, has been trying to prevent me—and that means you—from spending P4 million in taxpayers’ money to build more wells, pave more roads, and buy more medicines, for the simple reason that its members don’t want my administration—and that means you—to succeed.

“I am not complaining. I am only telling. I am only letting you know that if they insist on their own obstructionist, delaying, and nitpicking ways of engaging in the politics of vengeance simply because they are already bankrupt of ideas on how to improve the lot of every Sibalenhon, that’s their call. You can judge them later with your votes.

“On my part, and as your leader, I know so many ways to serve you and that’s what I will do, with or without the AIP. By not acting on the AIP, they are denying you—not me—with much-needed public funds.

“But lest I be accused later of not being candid about the situation, I would like you to know that the opposition, because of its intransigence, has declared war on good governance and I am engaging them, for I don’t back out from a good fight. I am fighting them as your elected leader because I don’t want you to become victims of their kind of politics which you already soundly rejected in 2010.

“So please write your SB members. Visit them and tell them that what they are doing are contrary to your wishes as voters who elected them; that you will not allow them to trample upon your rights as citizens by denying you what is rightfully yours; and that you will later hold them accountable for posing obstacles to Sibale’s development.

“Thank you and God bless Sibale and the Sibalenhons.”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The politics of food

If there is one thing that makes me think hard about going back to politics to influence public policy, it is food.

Food is scarce in Romblon. The Romblomanons are going hungry, the reason why they cling to politics to try their luck in getting food.

Let me qualify this. Romblon politics is about the currency of the peso. Most politicians are allured by power because in the Philippines, power is associated with money; and to acquire more money, for themselves and for their constituents who they buy with money, is one among our politicians’ many and varied interests. That’s simple logic. It doesn’t take one to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Voters, on the other hand are attracted to politicians who have the money. I said they are trying their luck, hoping that the galaxy of politicians around whose orbits they revolve come election time will result to a peso windfall. Well, they are also attracted to the halo of political power that would reflect upon them, like a moth to the lamp, if they get near or close to a winning politician, but this is seldom. Most of the time, after winning, the politician forgets them until the next election season.

Romblon’s poor is a mixture of the power-hungry and the money-hungry lot. I cannot blame them. For years, our politicians had soaked them in a culture of dependency. Rep. Budoy Madrona knows this. Gov. Lolong Firmalo knows this, too, that’s why as early as now, the two are already engaged in re-election activities. Forget the food. It will come in bounty in a handful of ways in the next election.

But good governance, if I read President Benigno S. Aquino III right, is more than instant gratification, and certainly, more than winning re-election. It’s about profound change and reform, which the Liberal Party espoused in winning the 2010 election. It’s about righteousness in running the affairs of state, as the party slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap”, exemplifies.

Nine years of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s and his henchmen’s (Madrona, Jojo Beltran, Dodoy Perez, and Bernie Fondevilla come to mind) looting have rendered the country bankrupt. So, it is only proper that President Noy nurses our country back to its health. If the President leading the example in good governance has not rubbed off on Madrona and Firmalo, then Romblon is really going to the dogs. But let’s not forget that both belong to the Liberal Party, with Firmalo joining first, and Madrona doing a butterfly somersault after the election. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they, in spirit, imbibe the “tuwid na daan ng pamamahala” of the President.

And what better example this analogy applies to than food? Romblon imports rice and vegetables, its main staple, either from Panay or Mindoro. We do not produce enough food so much so that a large chunk of our money resources, private and public, goes to pay for these commodities.

We have the land; we have the people; modern farming technology is available; the seasons favor our province with sufficient rainfall and sunshine; and we have agriculture experts, but we don’t plant and produce sufficient food. Instead, we choose the easy way out by engaging in too much politics and by asking outsiders to mine the intestines of our province for mineral resources.

If the people have enough food on their tables, they would not have grumbling stomachs. Surveys after surveys of the Filipinos’ spending habits point to the incontrovertible fact that the bulk of their expenses go to food.

If this is so, why don’t Madrona and Firmalo sit down and put food sufficiency in their agenda, instead of pledging love for each other that they will cease to raid each other camps? If food is the need of the province, why shouldn’t our leaders think of ways to increase crops and vegetable produce, rather than spend nights in barangay fiestas amusing the people with their peroration about their supposed impeccable credentials, fake Samaritan spirit, and shallow accomplishments?

We need food, desperately. I came to this conclusion when, at a recent trip to Bangkok, I almost cried in envy upon seeing Thai farmers planting vegetables in vacant city lots. In Bangkok, food is so inexpensive (because they are aplenty) that the Thais don’t grumble despite low wages. Here in the Philippines, workers demand for higher and higher salaries simply because their incomes are not sufficient to feed themselves and their families. In Thailand, like somewhere else in Southeast Asia, governments prioritize food sufficiency as a matter of national survival and as key to stability. In the Philippines, our priority is politics.

In Japan, farmers produce a variety of food in surplus quantities for export. Rice is a national patrimony in Japan. Its market is closed to rice imports and Japanese farmers have so strong a lobby that Prime Ministers are elected on the strength of the support they get from rice farmers. Here in Romblon, our politicians are elected and re-elected on the strength of their money-raising abilities, fleecing investors who can’t publicly complain that they are being fleeced.

So, if we need food, food in sufficient quantities and varieties that would give our people peace of mind and happiness, and also, additional income, what do we do?

We plant, of course. But that is easier said than done. I suggest Gov. Firmalo sit down with Department of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and find out how the latter had succeeded in increasing the food production capacities of the farmers of his district in Quezon and also of farmers in many parts of the country.

The challenge for Firmalo as governor, I believe, is to nudge the Romblomanons along the lines of a practical program that would ensure food sufficiency in Romblon in the next two years. That’s the only time left for him.

For Madrona, the challenge is for him to support, through legislation and his pork barrel, a food production program by making available and increasing agricultural inputs and by helping open up markets for Romblon’s produce. The likes of Beto Muros and his wife, Ellen, who are producing quality peanut butter even if their peanuts come from Divisoria because Romblon does not produce enough peanuts, must get government support.

As to the lack of knowledge and understanding of agriculture policy and market behavior, including supply and demand, these can be supplied by the agriculture bureaucrats whose talents are under-utilized. The last time I visited the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics in Odiongan, for example, I only saw employees there scratching papers and looking at the clock. Ask them how many tons of copra Sibale produced in 2009 and they wouldn’t know. It’s a pity.

I also believe that Romblon State University has enough bright agriculture students and experts on food production. Their researches must be operationalized into practical action programs. Dr. Jeter Sespene must ensure this happens if he is to live up to the glowing write-up about himself on the RSU’s website as a “man with big dreams and of big actions” because the “big actions” I was only hearing are his being engaged in petty politics. And while I am at it, will somebody please clarify who is the real “father” of the RSU because I have heard that Budoy Madrona is also claiming the title? It’s in the RSU website, people.

Now, a sensible agriculture program must combine all of the above elements, but most importantly the farmers themselves. They need to be inspired and motivated into participating in the program because they will be its beneficiaries. Without them, the program will fail.

The Days

The revolution contagion in North Africa that started in Tunisia, and has crept to Egypt before crawling back to Libya, has infected the Middle East.

Now Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, are having their own sufferance of political turmoil fueled no less by widespread discontent with ruling cliques of various histories, lengths of rule, ideologies, and motivations. The ruling elites of these countries, lulled by long years of tranquility and strong and stubborn hold on political power, never have anticipated that open dissent and defiance will one day come to their doorsteps, so much so that when this arrived, each had different levels and degrees of responses to the revolutionary situation.

Syria, temporary home to over 17,000 overseas Filipino workers most of whom are household service workers, is the latest country in the region to be rocked by the upheaval. One of the most tightly-controlled societies in the Middle East, Syria, for over a week, now has been battling loud protests of tens of thousands of its citizens in the southern city of Deraa, close to the country’s border with Jordan. The protesters are demanding political reforms, jobs, and an end to oppression.

The protest began when security forces of President Bashar Al Assad arrested school children for writing political graffiti for the protestors. The arrest ignited the fuse of a clicking time bomb, bottled-up frustration over years of authoritarian rule, economic decay, and suppression of human freedoms. The Syrian government’s response was quick. Its security apparatus, backed up by plainclothes police, fired live bullets and teargas, killing scores and injuring hundreds.

Instead of backing down, the protesters became more emboldened, and spread their street revolution to Latakia, a Syrian coastal city to the east. Last time I watched Al Jazeera, even Damascus has become a battleground of the protest.

What’s happening in Syria is also happening in Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom ruled by King Abdallah and his beautiful and famous wife Queen Rania.

In Amman, Jordanians are demanding the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Marouf Al-Bakhit, who was just appointed in February as part of King Abdallah’s promise of reforms. The King has also raised the salaries of public servants and given subsidies for basic commodities, but still the Jordanians could not be placated. They want more.

Who will win as revolutionary fervor sweep the region and threw existing political structures into disarray? This is the question foremost in many observers’ minds.

Professor Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School Economics, posits that it will be the people themselves who will emerge victorious from the rubble of the revolutions.

“The people’s movements are not just calling for a tinkering of the system, but for the restructuring of entire authoritarian system along more pluralistic and socially just lines,” he wrote.

“The winners are the people of the Middle East who have been politically oppressed for decades. Millions of voiceless Arabs and Muslims have regained their voice(s),” he added.

Indeed, as I write this, the peoples of the various countries of the region where the revolutionary storm is swirling seemed to be coordinating their actions as if giving timelines for their experiments in political enterprise.

In Bahrain, the activists have declared every Friday, their day of worship, as “Day of Rage”.

In Yemen, where the protests are over a month old, Yemeni youth, who lead the peaceful people’s uprising against President Abdullah Saleh, have called last Friday as “Day of Departure” even as Mr. Saleh has not departed and remains defiant.

Activists in Syria are bracing for more protests that could unnerve Mr. Assad. They have called for “Day of Dignity” mass actions every Friday at mosques across the country and it seems the call has gained more traction.

Whatever “day” a day is called following the almost daily mass protests across the Middle East, one thing is sure. It seems the days of quiet and tranquility in the Middle East are over, replaced by days of uncertainty and state of nervous flux that no political pundit can predict, but only speculate. And until political stability returns to the region, there would certainly be more “Days of Death” for activists who are dying as a result of governments’ brutal crackdown against peaceful dissent.

Gone, indeed, are Taha Hussein’s “The Days”. The title of his three-part autobiography, “The Days” chronicles Hussein’s life, transformation, and achievements as a one of Egypt’s greatest thinkers and intellectuals. As one of modern Egypt’s most influential writers, Taha Hussein lived in the days when Egypt—and the rest of the Middle East—was re-awakening, hopeful, and optimistic about its future.

That future is now uncertain, yet bold in what shape Arabs and Muslims would like it to become.They want the days of the future to be “Days of Democracy” and it is in their hands and will if these will be realized.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

And now, Bahrain’s brutality

The video image says it all.

A man—alone, in the middle of a wide boulevard in the capital city of Manama, repeatedly shouting, “Alahu, Akbar!, Alahu Akbar!”—who suddenly fell on his back, blood profusely oozing from his stomach after a shot was heard on the background, was a graphic summation of state brutality, Bahrain’s excessive response to its citizens’ demand for political rights and freedom.

This was yesterday, a month after Bahrainis chose the streets as platform to air their gripes against a long-entrenched monarchy that does not recognize plurality of public opinion, much less the rights of citizens to exercise their rights to vote and chose their leaders, to speak against the evils of inequality, to fight against social and economic injustice—in short, to fashion their own destiny.

Yesterday, or a few days earlier, I can’t exactly remember now, those rights, which Barack Obama called ‘universal’, were curtailed some more when Bahraini police raided medical facilities—hospital-to-hospital, room-to-room—to exact recrimination against the protesters, in the process denying them the right to health and to life. This after Bahrain’s security forces attacked peaceful gatherings at the Pearl Square, the country’s Taharir Square, firing live ammunition and teargas canisters, and burning the tents where the protesters were holed up.

The ‘conflagration’ that Philippine ambassador to Bahrain Cora Bahjin-Yap warned in a confidential memo a few weeks earlier that might happen had happened. What she failed to read, though, from the political winds was the Bahraini government’s pent-up and boiling contempt for the protesters, and its subsequent demonstration of that contempt by a brute display of state firepower.

The toothpaste can’t be rolled back into the tube once it's out..

Bahrain can no longer tame its beastly instinct. It wanted calm and stability so badly that it also so badly miscalculated the protesters’ ability to deliver to a world community the message that they, the Bahrainis, are being massacred by their own government and responded viciously. Thanks to modern information technology: the image of the man felled by gunfire captured by a handheld phone made it to the CNN newsroom.

What emboldened the Bahraini government to crush by force its protesting citizens is now clear: guilt and fear.

Guilt that the protesters’ could be airing legitimate grievances and fear that, because the protesters could be right, Bahrain could go the same way of Tunisia and Egypt, whose leaders were unceremoniously thrown out of their gilded cages in favor of the people’s long-dreamed of self-determination and political rights.

Bahrain’s security forces may also have been emboldened by the presence of friends and allies. Its patron, neighboring Saudi Arabia, and a fraternal brother-country, the United Arab Emirates, had sent in troops to help.

To help in what? In crushing legitimate dissent? We don’t know, but 1,000 Saudi soldiers and 500 UAE police officers—all armed to the teeth—could only mean one thing. They did not plant their feet on Bahraini soil to plant flowers on the country’s wide boulevards. They were there to serve notice to the protesters that when push comes to shove, they are ready to ramble. In short, they are in Bahrain to intimidate, threaten, deter, whatever.

Then there is the U.S. with its navy's Fifth Fleet, anchored off the Bahraini coast. Well, the Fifth Fleet could serve a purpose as well. It can, when push comes to shove, provide the Bahraini ruler, King Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa and his coterie of princess-wives and princes, as well as cronies, a convenient escape, similar to what the U.S.’s Sikorsky helicopters did to the Marcoses when these hurriedly flew them to Hawaii to escape the Filipino people’s wrath in 1986.

The streets of Bahrain are already soaked in sweat, tears, and blood of its peaceful freedom fighters who are armed only with stones and I-phones. They continue to die in the hands of the security forces. They continue to endure Bahrain’s brutality from which they can’t even hide in hospitals. This are the images clearly streaming in to our living rooms.

What are we to do? Indeed, what should the international community do to avert further bloodshed?

Support the protesters? In what way, when the U.S. itself could only encourage the Bahraini government to exercise “restraint” and “start a conversation”; when the United Nations could only say the brute force which the state security forces had used, and continue to use, to stifle peaceful dissent was “unacceptable” and “illegal”?

Individually, we can do nothing, except to egg on the Bahraini people to have moral courage. But collectively, we can also express our voices and speak against the reprehensible action of the Bahraini government against its people. It has been shown that world opinion, when arrayed against the forces of repression, could sway autocrats and dictators even of the hardest hearts.

Let us hope this applies to King Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa, although, by sanctioning state brutality, he had already proved to the world what kind of Emir he is.