An Apology to the Anawim

When i gave the little vagrant girl the second burger of my Buy-One-Take-One, she seemed so happy.

I was thinking how she deserves more than that. In the world we wanted to build more than ten years ago, she wouldn’t have to ask someone for something to eat. She wouldn’t be out on the dangerous streets of Manila at 12 midnight. She wouldn’t have to wear dirty clothes or have a torn-up doll for a toy.

I saw her again from across the road as I left the convenience store. She seemed so happy.

But I know, deep inside, she deserved more.

Sorry, little lady, for failing you so badly.

I know we can say we tried. I wish we tried harder. I know we can blame the hubris, greed and ambition of our elders. I wish we… did something. I sacrificed my future and risked my life for those lofty goals anyway. Maybe I should have given more.

I wanted so badly to take away that look in the eyes of the anawim. To give them back their humanity, their dignity. That was it was all about.

Now, all I could do is give a little urchin girl half of my food.

And she seemed so happy with it.

Oh, child. If only you knew how much more I owe you.

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On Filipino Catholics and the bullying of Philippine Bishops

Filipino Catholics are a long-suffering lot. Partly due to the legendary resiliency of our culture and the early catechism in these Islands, Filipino Catholics can take a lot, mentally, psychologically, physically and spiritually. Filipino Catholics are like the giant, age-old Narra trees of these Islands: big and strong, able to weather the passage of storm and time.

I think many Filipino Catholics truly cherish their faith. Attendance to Masses in other areas of the world are falling, but here each one is almost always overflowing. Some chapels and churches even get so much donations in a single Sunday that they have enough left over to help hundreds of other parishes nationwide.

That being said, I also believe many Filipino Catholics are not dumb, blind and simply take what is being said from the pulpit. We may sit silent as a priest or bishop or cardinal spews something we feel (and for us with a knowledge of Theology, KNOW) could be wrong, or at least disagree with, but it is there. We sit through a tirade, disappointed that we are not going to hear The Good News, but Christ’s Body and Blood await so you bear with it.

But how long will we bear with it?

This is not the Middle Ages, CBCP and you are not even a hair to Innocent III. You may not like it, but this is also the era of Vatican II, no matter how much JP2 and Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) tried to undo many of the provisions in that awesome Council.

Don’t wait to find out, dear Bishops, how far you’ve truly gone in your little witch hunts.

Remember: at the end of the day we worship and serve Christ. Not you.

People who felt the same have found ways to worship God without their bullying, insensitive, even condescending – Teodoro Bacani, I’m looking at you – clerics before.

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The Philippines almost a year after Ondoy: Not. Ready.

Ever since that first storm that hit the Philippines in the middle of May 2011, I’ve been meaning to write about this. I suppose I can’t help it, since I’m actually suffering from a form of PTSD from Ondoy. I find it hard to sleep when there’s a downpour, especially if it happens on a Friday evening onwards to an early Saturday morning.

See, the last time I pooh-poohed such an occurrence as I went to sleep on the couch at around 2 or 3 in the morning, in that unforgettable September in 2009, I woke up at around 10 a.m. with water lapping my feet when I sat up.

And now, my fears have been realized: Metro Manila is nowhere near ready for a major storm.

Currently, Tropical Storm Meari, with the local name of Falcon, is battering the Philippines. The local weather bureau, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) did not put the National Capital Region (NCR), which composes Metro Manila and its suburbs, under a Storm Signal because, as the model will show, it won’t make landfall. In fact, the highest Storm Signal up for the Philippines’ western side is at 1.

But as the satellite picture of Meari will imply, even to one without any scientific knowhow about weather systems whatsoever, that thing is huge. And for those like me who have some background in these things, those colors, and where they’ll pass over, is a very distressing development.

“Falcon” would make it the fifth or sixth storm to hit the Philippines this year, of an expected average of twenty. So far, none of them have made a “direct hit” on the National Capital Region. But then, this is just the actual start of the Storm Season for us in these 7,100 islands. It gets worse once we enter the “Ber” months, with September usually the month for some of the worst weather systems. Ondoy, after all, struck us in the middle of September. Milenyo, an earlier typhoon that caused very little flooding but did horrible wind damage, said hi to the Philippines around later October and early November.

I live in the City of Manila itself, in Pandacan, around ten or so minutes away from the Pasig River. When Ondoy hit, the water was up to my waist at its deepest inside our house (I’m 5 feet and an inch). Since then, I’ve noticed that any heavy downpour for an appreciable amount of time makes the waters rise. There were two instances around September and November last year that it rained so hard the water entered our other house. That’s not good, because that house is higher than the one where I was submerged to my waist during Ondoy.

Since then, I’ve been wondering: is Manila ready for the storm season? The causes of climate change can be debated, sure (since I’m still a bit skeptical that even most of it can be blamed on anthropogenic sources; I’ve worked with the World Bank’s Carbon Fund, you see. I’ve seen how Climate Change can be used politically and economically. But that’s a story for another time), but it can’t be denied that the storms we’re getting are bigger, wetter and more powerful than anything in living memory.

And TS Meari has shown that just a couple of hours of moderately heavy rainfall, with some really heavy moments, for something like half a day is enough to submerge parts of Metro Manila in chest-deep water. There were at least two rescue operations happening all over the Metro and the Tumana River in Marikina has been sounding its sirens since the late afternoon. For those who don’t know, Marikina was the hardest hit location of Metro Manila during Ondoy.

So, I’m wondering: what has the various levels of government done? It doesn’t take a weather scientist to tell you storms hit the Philippines once June – and this time, the first one appeared in the middle of May – comes, and doesn’t stop until as late as February, or even March. If you live here, nevermind growing up here, you know the storms are going to hit.

So what are our wonderful civil servants doing to prepare for the apparently vastly-enhanced storm systems that are now hitting the Philippines since Ondoy? If today’s chest-deep floods and stranded commuters are any indication, not much, if any.

I know running a country, or even a city or municipality is hard work, but I bet the Japanese also have the same problems Filipino local and national officials have in running their respective levels of government, but you see that they’re prepared, right? No, that earthquake and tsunami that hit them was an “Act of God,” so that doesn’t really count but at least their preparations limited the casualty figures.

It’s so frustrating. This is a country that is in the path of storms. But it seems our local and national officials prefer to engage in other activities except those that actually they’re supposed to be doing. Like, oh, making sure at least that drainage systems aren’t clogged, perhaps?

Are we going to wait until another Ondoy, or much worse, hits us? Hell, Ondoy happened and look what’s been done. Has anything been done? Noynoy Aquino can castigate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo all he wants but he’s been at the helm for almost a year now. Surely, since they’ve done nothing but castigate the former President since backstabbing her in 2005, they can do a better job, right? I mean, how much effort or planning does it take to ask the relevant government agencies to look into making Metro Manila, the financial and political capital of the Philippines, a little bit more capable of dealing with floods? Will Noynoy fire another PAGASA employee over this botched weather prediction, the way he did the other guy before, early in his term? What will that accomplish?

Seriously, the Philippine government, local and national, should get its act together. How can we take on China over the Spratlys if we can’t even keep our capital from getting flooded by a non-storm?

A few days ago, PAGASA said, that, yes, TS Meari won’t make landfall. As the models from Weather Underground showed, that was true. But they never told the public, at least from the announcements and presscon coverage I’ve read, the fact that Meari is so big and so energetic – its core is an angry pink – that it’s bound to affect the Philippines, regardless. Or if they did, it was just the usual, “this thing will bring rain.”

Even more irritating for the residents of a now-flooding Metro Manila, PAGASA Tweeted that what was hitting us with some of the heaviest rainfall since Ondoy is not the storm, but the Southwest Monsoon (“Hanging Habagat”, in Filipino), enhanced by Meari.

So this wasn’t a storm doing chest-deep flooding in some parts. You just have to love officials of the gooberment of the Republic of the Philippines. And the Tweet even contained so much indignation at the public’s accusation that, yet again, PAGASA failed us.

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The taste of freedom

“Freedom of speech, the right to own land, and a good education are among the things this man is fighting for. He believes democracy is the solution.”

Arab unrest: 5 eyewitnesses to history, CNN

This leapt out to me as I read this latest article from CNN on the wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa since Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest against his cruel and uncaring rulers last 17 Dec. 2010.

I guess it hit me in a way only someone who came of age in that period between a dictatorship and a democracy can feel. I was born in 1977, five years after Ferdinand Marcos put the Philippines under Martial Law. I was in high school during the time of the first two governments following that strongman’s fall.

And, today, in my early thirties, I enjoy the fruits of that return to democracy, nominal as it seems to the seemingly-insatiable (unless it is their hands on the till?) members of the Left, Right and, yes, even the Center.

I could stay out until there was only an hour left until dawn comes. I’ve never done that while totally inebriated, but I have friends who have and all they have to tell us the next day is about the massive headache their hangover is giving them.

I could say the President of my country is a bastard who has less sense than an addled monkey, who is surrounded by people who can make an alligator blush with the level of their greed, and not only can I get away with it, but I’ll even get descriptions more graphic and base than the one I just said from friends and colleagues.

I spent six months jobless, yet I never really wanted for anything except perhaps my own money to spend. I had Internet. I had cable TV. I could eat as much as I wanted. And my family is not one of the wealthiest in this country by far.

It drives home a lot of things, when someone in a situation similar to, or better, than mine, gets confronted with someone who has had far less. Not only are these people who cry for change on the streets and sands of some of the most ancient lands of mankind deprived of a good future, they can’t even scream their sorrow without the fear of being hauled off to jail.

Imagine that: a society where expressing your dismay at your lot in life puts you behind bars. At the very least.

How can we know, we who were born to freedom and democracy, how it feels for a man, woman or child who has never known that word except as something on a movie poster or book (if they even have access to those!) to find themselves one day saying… I’m free?

I’m free.

Can you even imagine that? You who can buy and say anything you want, who can freely go to any point of your country for vacation, who can party all night and come home the next morning drunker than the alcohol you drank… can you even begin to fathom how it feels for a person to just have that right to say what he or she has been keeping in their hearts, without fear of reprisal from the State?

Just to be able to say that phrase – two words and a letter, really – in full, for real… to say even to themselves that the fear is gone and that their lives are finally theirs, that their country is theirs… do you have any idea how that can possibly feel? You whose only concern every Friday is where the next party will be held in?

But maybe this post isn’t for you. Maybe it really is for those who have the power to give the people of North Africa and the Middle East more than just the taste of freedom.

Maybe this is for those men and women who lead countries that enjoy democracy and freedom but deny it to millions of other people just so their people can enjoy the right to stuff themselves silly until they need a small car to move around, or to get so drunk they can’t remember a thing that happened the evening before.

I know how complex international politics can be. But for once in the history of mankind, can we who declared our guardianship of the ideals and aspirations of a free society set aside realpolitik and operate based on the real principles of our creed?

All they want is to be free. Do you think people like that will want what Bin Laden is selling, after all they’ve been through?

Only if we let them believe freedom and democracy is a sham, lies perpetrated by the Great Satan that is Western, Christian Civilization so it can take away the patrimony of the sons and daughters of Allah.

They just want to be free. To say what they wish. To take their lives and the future of their country into their own hands.

Why can’t we take their hands in ours and tell them, for real and not just as empty phrases in a press release or briefing, that we in the Free World will be there to help them up and out from the darkness of tyranny and enjoy the things we do as a free people?

Of course, if it makes you appreciate your freedom more, well… that’s good, too.

Might make you think twice about whose name you put in that ballot the next time elections come about.

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Thoughts on Egypt and (the rebirth of) Freedom

First, the obligatory “Where were you when it happened” part:

“Where” was here, at the house in Manila. It was one of those days – not a bad one, but not really a good one, either – and I just finished doing some major flood control at the other house after a major downpour turned the dining area into a small pool. Tiring work, and it was rather humid despite the heavy rain, and doing an hour or so of that after a late night at work is quite distressing.

So after finishing up with flood control I plop down in front of the laptop and fire up all the sites I frequent. Then, a few seconds into it, I remembered how I felt just this morning (Manila Time) about the developments in Egypt. I remember my worry; I even dropped by Greenbelt’s amazing chapel on the way to work to ask God to keep the people of Egypt safe, and one other thing.

So I wanted to know what was happening there, and admittedly there was that thought that you’d be shown scenes of chaos and sorrow, given how the situation was that morning when Mubarak, contrary to everything, still clung to power.

I have to admit: I wasn’t prepared to hear cries of jubilation instead.

But let me tell you that, after a decade or so of soul-crushing news both here and abroad (mostly here), hearing the voices of thousands, if not millions, of people crying out not in fear, not in anger or hate, not in sorrow, but in joy felt amazing.

It’s been such a darkening world, you’ve forgotten how what CNN’s Anderson Cooper called “the sound of pure joy” was like.


It came so fast, so sudden, so… unlooked for (as Tolkien would say it) that I was, like, “whoa” for a good amount of time after I turned on the television. CNN was showing the street party of a million or more strong on the streets of Cairo and all my brain could think of was, “whoa.”

And, oh, yes, another thought: “they did it. They actually did it!”

Because I remember the anger and frustration of the days past. Those eighteen days of the Uprising wasn’t exactly all about epic tales of heroism and courage. There were at least two times there when the thinking was dangerously leaning to “this is a lost cause,” and that palpable sense of impending violence just a night or two ago after Mubarak didn’t step down.

It was a good thing, then, that the people of Egypt are far more steadfast.

If I’m right, the discussion now has shifted to the “so, what (do we do) now?” questions. There are the hopes that, because of the way this Revolution began, spread, was nurtured, reinvigorated and ultimately triumphed, what we’re seeing right now is the birth of a new age. Tunisia was the catalyst, but it is here, it is hoped, on the streets of a land whose civilization is one of the oldest of humanity, and the largest Arab nation in the world, that the hope for a better world was reborn.

But, the old world refuses to die easily, it seems. Even the exuberant anchors of CNN, some of them, like Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani, themselves getting involved in the Uprising as victims of its violence, couldn’t help but voice out the concerns about where this could possibly lead. But who can blame them? Who can blame those of us who are familiar with the way politics and power works?

One of the strengths of the Revolution could be its own undoing: its lack of clear organization and leadership. Cynical as it may sound, but ideals and idealism, that fiery, world-changing fervor of the young, is good at tearing down oppressive systems but withers in the face of the demands and realities of politics, of the running of a country, of the relationships between those who do wield power.

I think one of the major worries right now is that, because of the lack of leadership among those who made it succeed – the young of Egypt – this Revolution will be hijacked.

And isn’t history replete with stories of such? How many successful uprisings with wonderful ideals were co-opted by those with lesser morals and have clear agendas? “Good men die easy,” to paraphrase a favorite quote of one king in Brandon Sanderson’s Well of Ascension. Good men like Google executive Wael Ghorim might not be in a position of leadership after because of what he is: a good man. He’s not a hero, he insists. When asked if he can be one of the leaders of a new Egypt, he said he’s done his part and will let other people handle it (or something like that).

Good men, after all, don’t crave power. Unfortunately, men with lesser virtues do.

But then, this nigh-endless scenario building is what drives analysts crazy. Especially for us who’ve been active in what Hannah Arendt calls the “Public Sphere” for so long, there is always a touch of cynicism in our analysis. We don’t dare hope, because you’ve been disappointed so many times. You’ve seen this before, and Hollywood couldn’t have made a less palatable sequel than the aftermaths of glorious revolutions like the one just finished in Egypt.

But it was so easy to think Mubarak would win in the end, yes? That the aspirations of the people of Egypt would be frustrated, in one way or another. Like I said, you’ve seen how this movie played out before, so many times.

Yet… what if we’re wrong?

Maybe it’s time for us to stop being so cynical about this, so… realistic, so… Machiavellian. We who say we stand for the ideals of liberalism, truth, justice and freedom have been working under their rules, thinking that the only we can save freedom and democracy is to be just as harsh, just as… pragmatic as the forces we do battle against. To maintain a world we think is stable and relatively peaceful, we sacrifice our ideals and millions of people. We make Faustian bargains with the dictators of this world so, we think, we can keep the barbarians at the frontiers.

The Revolution in Egypt might be telling us that it’s time for us who have long lived under skies that are free, to the point that we take our liberties and freedom for granted, to practice what we preach. Maybe it’s time to tell the dictators of the world that we’d rather have their people free than purchase our stability with the crushed hopes and dreams and the blood of their country’s citizens.

For isn’t that what we, the West and its longtime democratic allies like the Philippines, have been doing since the end of World War II? Our relatively stable world, paid for in the blood and dreams of repressed people everywhere.

I know politics and power are complex worlds; for more than ten years I operated in that world, leaving it in disgust after my heroes and champions proved to be as demonic as the creatures we fought against.

But maybe that’s why we are more familiar with sorrow and frustration in the public sphere: we’ve compromised for so long that what’s right and proper is their rules, their values, not ours.

Maybe it’s time to draw a line on the concrete with our own blood. Maybe it’s time to throw away Machiavelli, to ditch pragmatism, and embrace our ideals in full. Maybe it’s time to tell people all over the world who want to be free that, yes, we who are free will stand with you.

Do what you must, know no fear and break your chains, for the Free World, for the first time in truth since the victory against the Axis in 1946, stand with you.

Maybe it’s time to not look at the problems such an unplanned and unorganized revolution might bring to the world order, but at the possibilities that can and will arise when men, women and children who only wish for a return to decency and justice in their lives, who aspire to freedom, take back their country and their destiny.

After all, remember that, in the middle of the Uprising, Christian Egyptians protected their Muslim brothers and sisters as they prayed, and the Muslims protected the Christians as they held a Mass on Tahrir Square. Think hard about the significance of this event, especially after all the religious violence and intolerance since 9/11.

Or, how the anti-Mubarak protesters have not only kept their actions as non-violent as possible, but organized responses to the crisis they faced, like neighborhood watches to keep thugs and looters at bay, or those field clinics to care for the wounded, or even those people cleaning after the demonstrations. As one amazing young Egyptian woman said when asked why she was cleaning and for no compensation at all, “it’s my country; I want to help.”

So what are we afraid of?

We’ve worked under pragmatic and realistic rules for more than six decades, anyway, and look where it’s got us. Maybe it’s time to do it differently, yes?

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Military Musings: Courting a Cannae

The thought occurred to me while reading Harry Turtledove’s Settling Accounts: Return Engagement: what if you actually allowed yourself to be caught in a Cannae?

Modern warfare is about movement, at least the “stand up” ones between national armies. I won’t put into the equation asymmetrical warfare elements because that kind of fighting is about throwing a couple of books outside the window. No: what I want to know is, given a contest between two armies, or forces, is it possible to turn a Cannae into the means of destroying the one doing it?

Of course I’m thinking about it with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in mind, or at least any armed force where you (the defender) are as outmatched in terms of technology and training by an invading force as the Russians were against the Germans during Operation Barbarossa.  If I recall my readings of the last few major “stand up” battles were, they were still about movement and schwerpunkts, of massed armor and mechanized infantry punching holes through defensive lines and going straight for strategic objectives. Blitzkrieg is still very much alive and breathing well when armies clash.

I’m thinking that if our little army has to fight, we’d be in a load of trouble. We have tanks that a Bradley can open with a single salvo (and, oh: we have these?). Our air force will be obliterated by a salvo from a single modern fighter regiment’s missile payload and cannon ammo, if first-strike bombers and sub-fired cruise missiles don’t do the PAF on the ground. Our navy can be sunk by Marines on hovercraft using manpack rocket launchers. Hell, but have you seen the kind of artillery modern armies use today?

And I don’t know what kind of plans the AFP brass have, but I have a sinking feeling either they or – *shudder* – Congress will force them to do a stand-up fight with a vastly superior enemy. There is that large plain between the northern part of Luzon and the NCR.

Although, if I was, say, the United States, Russia or the Chinese, I’d just send in two Airborne regiments into Manila, support them with shipborne artillery and maybe a couple of Marines. Light tanks and manpack anti-tank weapons can deal with what we have for armor, anyway. Meanwhile, you land forces somewhere north and at Cavite, drive them in a pincer to Manila. With a troops already storming the capital, even if Airborne, and two massive columns driving from the north and south of Manila, what could the 100,000-man AFP do?

Me? I’d have the PSG drag the President upriver to Laguna Lake and lose her or him in the Sierra Madre where I would have made a Plan Orange kind of base or operational area. Meanwhile, I’d extricate as much of the AFP as I can to fallback areas and make sure these are well-stocked. Don’t stand and deliver versus a foe with a hundred times the capabilities of the Wehrmacht at its height. You go asymmetrical.

But what if, due to the rapid pace of modern warfare, a large chunk of the AFP gets stuck in a pocket? What if a substantial number of Filipino troops are brought into a Cannae?

But what if you have a plan to turn a pocket into a… porcupine?

Hm. This will require some thinking.

And why does Stalingrad come to mind?

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A eulogy for Sec. Emilia Boncodin

I don’t know former Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin personally. My interactions with her were all from that period when the Liberal Party of the Philippines was beginning to be a “serious” political party, holding policy caucuses to come up with effective approaches to pressing issues of the day. She was our resource person for those caucuses involving, of course, the national budget, a field of specialty some friends who had the honor of working closely with her, even to being taught by her on that field, attest to her being extremely learned in.

Working for the country’s second-oldest political party since I graduated from college in 2000, one could say I’ve been around power, or more like the powerful. I’ve seen how they are, both when they’re in the public view or behind closed doors with only staff members under an unofficial variant of the rule of omerta to bear witness to what they do or say or think when the cameras are gone.

Sec. Boncodin was… How does one put it, exactly? “Unassuming” is the closest word I can think of right now. There she was, this small woman in relatively unimpressive (I mean, compared to the ones in those caucuses, right?), if smart and businesslike, dress, almost shy, not asking or demanding anything from the hurried and harried staff that went by her. She was like that schoolteacher who was waiting for her turn to speak to the Powers-that-be.

But, when she entered, and after the clapping and some banter exchanged with her fellow Cabinet members and people she personally knew, this small, unassuming woman began talking. She spoke about the budget of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines, its intricacies and complexities. And she spoke of them as if they were so easy to understand, and not numerals and terms that looked like so much esoterica. Somehow, when she explained this item, or that entry, it all made sense.

And those powerful men and women, many of which could make even Presidents quake in their boots or heed their call… they listened.  She had their undivided attention. Some of them even went to her after the talk to personally clarify something.

Back before the Garci Tapes shattered my illusions of the Philippines’ public sphere, I counted her as one of the elite few whose honor as a public servant was inviolate. This was someone who deserved your respect in more ways than one. Not only was she at the top of her field, she did her work tirelessly, effectively (as effective as one can be given what country that budget is for) and without any hint of corruption or disgrace.

After the 8 July 2005  incident, so many of those paragons, heroes to me, were taken down from their pedestals. But not Sec. Boncodin. I never met her anymore after, but those who had the honor to work with her, or be taught by her, gave a consistent picture of a person and public servant who remained decent and honest.

Most refreshing, I think, was her view on how the issue of Gloria and the ills of the government could be viewed, if not redressed. “”You don’t know what it is to be in the bureaucracy. Unless you actually been in the bureaucracy, you don’t have the right to say those things.” (from Bong’s blog)

I think, in the end, all I wanted to say was that it feels so sad to have lost such a dedicated and wonderful person such as Sec. Boncodin. This country, if not this world, already feels so dark. And now another pyre is snuffed out, and we are made all the lesser because of it.

I raise my sword in salute to you, Sec. Boncodin. I won’t wish you eternal rest, because I know you don’t need that well-wishing. You of all people have earned that right.

The news item at PDI. She was only 55.

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