Thursday, December 25, 2008

And heaven and nature sing

Who would care to read the papers on Christmas Day? Still, write we must even while the un-Christmas noise out there threatens to drown out the silence in our souls. We hang on to the silent music deep down and refuse to be overwhelmed by the glitter and the excess.

Somewhere there, is Christmas. (I took some time for me to decide where to place that comma.) Those who wrote to say that my column on Christmas last week resonated with them, ay salamat. Here are some random thoughts that might fill those little spaces in your heart, in your memories, in your thoughts.

One of my favorite Christmas sounds is the sound of trumpets blaring to the tune of “and heaven and nature sing” from the carol “Joy to the World”. It just seems to fling heaven’s gates open and send me off to a cosmic Christmas that is inclusive, all-embracing, creation-centered.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas-crossing the poverty line

I know people who are trying to have an “alternative Christmas” by doing away with the excessive external trimmings and carousing that daunt those who can’t keep up, by making quiet efforts to really reach out to those who are in pain or are extremely needy, not just during the Christmas season but beyond it.

But why call it “alternative” when that is what Christmas is supposed to be--a giving season? Not a mindless exchange-gifts season but a giving season. Not just among family, friends, colleagues and pesky gift collectors at the gate but with families and individuals who need a real boost in order to cross the poverty line.

What better gift than an opportunity for one family or one person to step over and cross the poverty line? It may come in the form of a little capital, a scholarship (you need not be the one to pay for it, but you could search for it), a new skill, a new road, a new market. Those with some power and influence can easily make things happen. How about that?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Claimants 1081's prize: So near, so far

MANILA, Philippines—They have won but where’s the prize? It is a breath away. So near and yet so far.

Despite victory in the courts, some 10,000 victims of human rights violations during the Ferdinand E. Marcos dictatorship remain empty-handed.

Four administrations after Marcos have not helped in dispensing justice to the victims and have instead stood in the way. For the final hurdle, lawmakers have only to sign the Human Rights Compensation Bill, but why the long delay?

“The Republic of the Philippines has succeeded in blocking the Marcos victims from the partial enforcement of a judgment they had won in US courts,” said former party-list Rep. Loretta Ann Rosales.

Rosales is chair of Claimants 1081, an organization of victims of abuses under the dictatorship. The figure referred to Marcos’ martial law proclamation.

Herself a victim-claimant, she was detained twice during the martial law years, tortured and sexually molested.

Tortured and waiting

Dead, dying, aging, sickly, poor. Many had waited for so long until time overcame them. Many of them are now senior citizens.

Hilda Narciso, 63, was mistakenly arrested and detained, tortured and raped repeatedly by soldiers in Davao City in 1983. Her case was nationally and internationally known.

Inday Olayer, 60, was detained in 1981 along with her husband Joseph Olayer. Soldiers put bullets between her fingers and pressed them hard in order to exact information from her. “For two years I could not use my hands and sign my name in front of authorities,” she recalls. “I was so traumatized.”

Her husband also took the blows. His head was dunked in a toilet bowl, he was made to lie on blocks of ice, electrocuted and was hit in the balls.

Peter VillaseƱor, 50, a peasant organizer, was arrested in Bataan in 1982. He remembers: “I was tortured for nine days and nine nights. I was stripped naked and given the water torture. I was made to lie down and a wet cloth was placed over my face. They hung a bucket of water above my face and let the water drip on my face whenever I refused to answer. I would gasp for air, like I was drowning.”

Daisy Valerio, 58, and two sons, are among the families under Claimants 1081. Her husband, former priest Nilo Valerio, was killed by the military in Benguet in 1985. His body was never recovered.

‘Droits de l'homme’: World’s best kept secret

Yesterday was Human Rights Day, also the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The fervor for HR should not last for only one day. In the coming days, let us act, commemorate, celebrate. The Inquirer is starting a series today.

If, as an Amnesty International official once said, the UDHR is one of the world's best kept secrets, then human rights defenders are indeed an endangered species. “Best kept secret” because despite the 60-year-old declaration, rights are continuously being violated all over the world by those who either are not in on the “secret” or choose to pretend they know nothing about it.

I was at the 50th anniversary celebration in Paris 10 years ago in 1998. Allow me to wax nostalgic.

There we were, at the grand Palais de Chaillot, together with some 500 people from all over the world, attending the Human Rights Defenders Summit. It was there that the UDHR was unanimously adopted on a chilly December day in 1948.

There we were, at the same historic place, near the banks of the River Seine, across from the Eiffel Tower. Same time, same place, same near-zero degrees weather as it was in 1948. But the mood was far from somber. There was our 1998 generation, a generation that did not see the horrors of a world war but saw horrors of a different kind.

The biggies were there. Nobel Peace Prize winners: Tibet's Dalai Lama, Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchu, Argentina's Adolfo Esquievel, East Timor's Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Ximenes Belo. Even Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi came out bigger than life on the video screen to deliver her message.

UN secretary general Kofi Annan and France's president Jacques Chirac delivered messages. Annan later received 10 million pledges for human rights collected by summit main convenor Amnesty International (itself a Nobel winner).

On the fun side there were the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morisette, Axelle Red, Peter Gabriel and other groups rocking for droits de l'homme (human rights) at the huge Bercy stadium. The ever smiling Dalai Lama was the concert's curtain raiser and exhorter of the youthful audience who gave him a thunderous applause.

But most of all, there were the 500 or so not-so-famous human rights defenders who had long been deeply and quietly immersed amongst their people, who had suffered and paid the price for raising their voices to defend the voiceless. Mothers and widows, women's rights advocates, so many lawyers, a few journalists, NGO workers, academicians, social workers, grassroots leaders.

The Palais de Chaillot, venue of the Human Rights Defenders Summit was bursting with people of different colors, nationalities, faiths, professions and painful experiences.

(I have kept Air France's in-flight magazine which had, for its cover, the logo of the 50th anniversary and devoted many pages of its December issue to human rights. It's a collector's item that should be among the exhibits in 2048.)

The 50th anniversary gathering was actually a summit called “The Human Rights Defenders Summit” not “The Human Rights Victims Summit.”

But why were the defenders, and not the victims, the ones coming together? But who is victim, who is defender? Defenders end up as victims too. And many victims have risen up to become defenders themselves. I like the word defender because it projects energy and strength. Continuously projecting victimhood is projecting defeat and weakness.

What is a human rights defender? It is “any person, well-known or not, who acts alone, in a group or in an association to promote, implement, apply and conform with all the fundamental rights guaranteed under the UN Declaration of Human Rights.”

One of the aims of the summit then was “to defend the human rights defenders because, despite the efforts of the UN and governments over the last 50 years, the protection and support for defenders is still weak.” Defend the defenders, because their situation has never been as grave as it is today, draw attention to their isolation and the danger they face every day.

Taken up were six urgent topics, human rights in relation to: impunity, armed conflict, extreme poverty, women's rights, racism, protection and promotion of children's rights and racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance.

Ten years later, I ask, where are we now? I think of the scores of Filipino journalists who’ve been murdered in the past few years.

If you read the account by David Pitts on how the UN Declaration was drafted and signed 60 years ago, you'd be amazed that it saw the light of day. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee that included, among others, Charles Malik of Lebanon, P.C. Chang of China, John Humphrey of Canada and Rene Cassin of France. Chang had wanted something that “incorporate(d) the ideas of Confucius as well as Thomas Aquinas.”

UN member states at that time could not easily form a consensus on the rights of women and racial minorities, religious liberty, the point at which human life began, the extent to which freedom of speech should be protected, the right to dissent and economic and social rights. We're still at it, aren't we?

And the most serious disagreements, Pitts wrote, stemmed from the entirely different concepts of the West and the Soviet bloc of such human rights principles as freedom and democracy.

The Declaration, by the way, has no force of law, but it has inspired so many legally binding international covenants and agreements. It has survived. We must celebrate, and we must worker harder. I hope the next 40 years will be much better than the 60 that have passed.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Filipinos in Obama’s America

On the night of Nov. 4 when Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States, journalist and book author Benjamin “Boying” Pimentel took his eldest son to downtown Oakland where thousands of people were waiting for the officials results. They found people celebrating with cheers and tears. After more than 200 years, Americans had chosen a person of color to lead them forward.

“Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama’s America”, (Anvil) Pimentel’s latest book, is about Obama’s amazing rise to the presidency and, more importantly, about how Filipinos responded to his campaign and victory. “Often with excitement, sometimes with fear and dread,” Pimentel writes.

“Pareng Barack” is also about the Filipino journey in America, “how it has intersected, sometimes collided, with those of other communities, and how it has taken a dramatic turn as America enters a new era of anxiety and hope.”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fishers and fish

Nov. 21, Friday last week, was World Fishers Day. How many people in this country, fishers included, knew that? This nation of islands floating between azure skies and azure sea is home to fishers and fish. Yet, among the poorest of the poor among us are the small fishers who subsist on their daily catch that are dwindling by the day.

Those of us who try to live a meatless life or with little meat in our diet extol the greatness of the fish. The gourmets among us know the different flavors and textures in a fish head which non-Asians miss out on because they have a horror for detached body parts.

Fishers and fish were often mentioned and given symbolic meaning in biblical times. Several of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, Peter among them. Jesus sent them off to the world with the words, “I will make you fishers of men.”

There are more instances when fish, fishers and fishing were in the heart of the bible stories—the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; the coin in a fish’s mouth that Jesus said should be sufficient for tax, and which Peter went to look for as he was told; the resurrected Jesus standing on the shore asking, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”; then the casting of the nets and the drawing in of a huge catch. So many fishing scenes. Peter, the first Pope, was a fisherman.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

KFR in Zambasulta

The kidnapping for ransom (KFR) of veteran development worker Merlie “Milet” Mendoza in Basilan last Sept. 15, and her release on Nov. 14 (after ransom was paid) was the latest in a series of KFR cases in the Zambasulta (Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi) area.

The kidnappers, believed to be from the Abu Sayyaf Group of bandits, have seized all kinds and any one they fancied. Priests and religious, tourists, media practitioners, businessmen, students, development and humanitarian aid workers. Blood has been shed, lives have been lost. It’s all for the money. Terror and cruelty are their main weapons. Worse, they even gloat about their religious beliefs.

That development workers are not spared, as in the case of Mendoza and her fellow worker Esperancita Hupida, is something not unexpected. The bandits-terrorists spare no one. Now non-government organizations (NGOs) have to think many times about sending their workers to the dangerous places where these evil elements stalk their prey.

These NGOs are focusing on poverty-stricken areas in order to improve people’s lives. Poverty breeds criminality. Addressing the roots is key. But what do well-meaning workers get in return? Mendoza, a veteran development who used to work with Assisi Foundation and Tabang Mindanaw projects, was in Basilan to look into a water project when she and Hupida were seized. Mendoza is a consultant for Mercy Malaysia and the Asian Disaster Relief Network.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Going organic, better late than later

What a surprise to learn that the government has gotten serious about pushing organic fertilizers and organic food production. This is indeed a major policy shift. I heard bells ringing and farm animals rejoicing and I imagined the citrusy, earthy smell of composting matter. Yes, all that and suddenly feeling the peace of wild things that Wendell Berry, prophet of rural living, spoke about.

The skeptic may view this government move as turning the public attention away from the raging multi-million fertilizer scam which is one of toxic-est this country has ever seen. One journalist was murdered because of this and the brains have yet to be brought to justice.

Whatever its motives, the Department of Agriculture (DA) could be but right to push organic. Can it sustain the campaign? How far will it go on the long and winding road? Agriculture secretary Arthur Yap who projects himself as a non-nonsense agri-crat should better put organic fertilizer where his press pronouncements are. And we better like this guy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

We’re only hungry

No, we’re not starving to death, we’re only hungry.

The Philippines is again prominent on the hunger map. We landed fifth (or among the top 10) in Gallup International’s survey results on the world’s hungriest. Released on World Food Day last month, the results didn’t hit the news until recently.

It is said that very few people die of starvation. According to Bread for the World (Brot fur die Welt or BW), a Church-related development agency that has worldwide reach including in the Philippines, only a small percentage of hunger deaths are caused by starvation. Most hunger-related deaths are the result of chronic undernutrition, which weakens the body's ability to ward off diseases prevalent in poor communities. Most hungry people have some food, but not enough food or enough of the right kinds of food.

And so when people actually starve to death—because no food is available—the cause is primarily political, not environment-related. In North Korea, BW notes, untold millions starved because of the government's unwillingness to give up on failed economic policies. In Sudan, millions are threatened with starvation because of an ongoing military conflict that devastated the country's ability to produce food and because the government restricts the flow of emergency relief.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The people’s agenda

The 7th Asian Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) held in Beijing two weeks ago came up with resolutions and recommendations that were sent to the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) of heads of state and policy makers who also held their gathering in Beijing a week later. I was at AEPF—the people’s version—which had for its theme “Social and Ecological Justice” and which preceded ASEM.

The final version of the 2008 AEPF resolutions have been sent to ASEM and I hope the leaders and policy makers who attended ASEM would take heed. After all, AEPF, since its inception 14 years ago, has been issuing warnings against neo-liberalism, globalization and the like. With the Sept. 2008 financial melt-down that changed the world, there is reason for the smart alecks of finance to heed voices from the underside.

AEPF consists of social movements from Europe and Asia with networks in communities, organizations and individuals committed to working for a just and equal world. AEPF’s “people’s agenda” is based on four fundamental principles”: the promotion of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights; the promotion of environmentally, socially and economically sustainable patterns of development; greater economic and social equity and justice (including equality between women and men); and the active participation of civil society organizations (CSO) in democratic life and decision-making process of their countries.

With the current global financial crisis affecting everyone on this planet, AEPF is urging leaders to give special attention to the poorest, the excluded and the marginalized.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The view from the underside

Beijing — As I said last week, although the theme of the 7th Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) is “Social and Ecological Justice”, there was no escaping the current global financial crisis that began in the posh financial enclaves of the world and in the brains of its overpaid architects in expensive suits.

And so even with 33 workshops on different crucial topics, the AEPF Asian and European participants spent night hours outside of the workshops deciphering this financial meltdown.

We called it “Beijing Nights”. Anyway, there was no escaping for a night in town because the venue—sprawling Dragon Spring Hotel with its lovely willow trees and lagoons—was outside the city. Beijing Nights meant there was work to be done in the session rooms and bottomless tea.

AEPF, held every two years, is like an overture to the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) of heads of state. It’s the people’s version, and resolutions arrived at here are sent to ASEM for state leaders to consider when they meet a week later. Will they seriously listen now?

In Helsinki in 2006, the AEPF thinkers-doers and worried civil society delegates already warned about unbridled neo-liberalism. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 was not to be forgotten. There was a lot of discussion about free trade agreements and globalization. A Filipino professor gives this layman’s definition of the much discussed fount of evil called neo-liberalism: “A night watchman’s concept of the state, it means privatization, deregulation, liberalization, with minimal state intervention in the economy.”

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Asia and Europe meet in Beijing

Beijing--Here we are together again, this time in Beijing, for the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum 7 (AEPF7). This is a follow-up of AEPF6 in Helsinki in 2006.

The last time I was in Beijing was 24 years ago. (I was in Nanjing last year.) In 1984 our group was hosted by the Chinese government and we were toured around several major cities for two weeks. Most Chinese people were still wearing the standard green or blue Mao suits and Mao caps with the red star then. I still have those but I didn’t bring them with me for wearing here in chilly Beijing or I’d look stupid or mistaken for a leftist “G&D” in a time warp.

Non-government and civil society organizations (CVOs) that are non-state and non-corporate from Asia and Europe are gathered here for this year’s forum theme: “For Social and Ecological Justice”. AEPF is dedicated to increasing understanding and solidarity between the peoples of Asia and Europe and to promoting harmony, peace and development of the two regions.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

‘Isang bagsak’ for Oca

My heart broke that I couldn’t be present at the Oct. 3 fund-raising evening for Oscar D. Francisco (Oca to his friends) but I told myself that I will do my part to help him. The affair was held at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes).

Oca’s name is not about to be etched on the black granite wall at Bantayog where the names of martial law heroes and martyrs are etched. Oh no. Oca is alive is not about to go into the night. With the prayers and help of his friends, he will get well and again serve communities in the Oca style of bursting energy, intensity and, most of all, laughter.

Oca, hang in there.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Filipino mandarin

It was a big but not a glitzy, showy affair. Definitely not for the loud society pages but more for the art critics maybe. From the invitation to the event, the book, the food and drinks to the renderings in sculpture and painting, and most of all, the music—they all suggested muted elegance. Perhaps one could call that class.

Music lovers were treated to a musical feast at the Meralco Theater last Saturday evening for the celebration of the 85th birth year of the late Robert Coyiuto, a trailblazer in the insurance industry. It was an event so well planned by his descendants who chose fine classical music to honor their patriarch and set the tone of the celebration. More on the music later.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

‘Surgeons do not cry’

“My knife is my wife,” Dr. Jose “Ting” Tiongco told me 12 years ago. “My fascination with surgery has been total I have forgotten to get married.”

Ting is a brilliant surgeon, one of the passionate doctors who blazed a trail in health care cooperatives in Davao and later in the rest of the Philippines. Twelve years ago I did a feature-review (“Ting Tiongco and the dream”) of his book “Child of the Sun Returning”. On his book he had scribbled, “You once asked me if I was writing a book. I did. In my heart. Aniana.” Aniana is Visayan for “here it is.” A more dramatic translation would be “It is here.”

Earlier, I did a long cover story on him for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. I went to Mindanao just for that. I got to watch him perform a Caesarian operation and interview his fellow doctor-visionaries. These doctors were once called “doctors who refuse to say die”.

Twelve years after “Child of the Sun Returning” I received from Ting another book titled “Surgeons Do Not Cry”, a compilation of his column pieces for a Mindanao news agency. On it he scrawled: “Twelve years later and the anger and bewilderment is still there. Thank God there is still hope!”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A day at a factory

I invited myself to the factory. The company does not need media exposure or publicity. They don’t sell their products here. In fact the owner requested that there would be no mention of his name (let’s call him Mr. K), the company’s name, the brand names, etc. It was I who was interested to know more about what was going on in the factory, how production was, the workers, the size, the product. I had never been to something like this before.

I met Mr. K and his wife, through a friend, during the breath-stopping Cloud Gate Dance Theater performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines some weeks ago. The show was part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. The Cloud Gate’s founder Lin Hwai Min of Taiwan is an RM awardee (1999).

One day last week, I visited this Taiwanese-owned luggage factory (let’s call it the K company) just outside of Metro Manila. This factory produces some of the most expensive, if not some of the most durable luggage in the world, more expensive and more durable than the enduring popular brands that we know. That is what Mr. K, the Taiwanese owner, an electronics engineer, told me and he showed me why and how much the products cost abroad.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Knowledge economy 101

Seoul--When you give something a name, you empower it. And so, they’ve given it a name—knowledge economy or knowledge-based economy. In layman’s terms knowledge economy (KE) means using knowledge to create wealth. Wealth isn’t a bad word if it means quality life, not just for a few, but for all.

Representatives from six countries—Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, Philippines and Vietnam—gathered in Seoul to learn more about knowledge economy and how it could be made to work in their respective countries. If you look at the list of countries that were invited, you would right away see that these are the economic laggards in Asia. In Pilipino, we say, the kulelat or in Ilonggo, kulihot.

The World Bank Institute and the Korean Institute of Development brought together individuals from these six countries, most of them educators from universities, government officials from the education bureaucracy, economic planners, information experts, plus a couple of media practitioners. Before we left for Seoul, we had to attend a teleconference and then go through some online learning about (KE) through—here’s a new word—moodling. Yes, in a classroom in cyberspace.

But nothing beats coming face to face with one another and with the gurus of KE who preach the gospel of KE. You bet, there was a lot of KE jargon flying around and a few times this journalist had to ask: What does that look like on the ground?

And what’s KE all about? Here are the ABCs I have lifted from notes.

Knowledge economy rests on four pillars: 1) improving the economic and institutional, 2) fostering innovation, 3) upgrading education, and 4) strengthening information and communication.

A sound economic and institutional regime (EIR) is of primary importance, we were told, for achieving better policy results in the functional knowledge pillars as well as for getting the most from related investments. Advanced economies have something to show for their success. They have well-established institutional frameworks based on democracy and free markets. But hand in hand with the development of a KE is an institutional framework that goes far beyond and into labor markets (employment flexibility, employability, mobility), sophisticated financial markets (microfinance, venture capital), products and services markets and effective protection of intellectual property.

What about the kulelats with mediocre economic and institutional regimes? They would require “a well-articulated, strategic set of steps focused on very specific problems and taking into account bureaucratic, political, social and economic interests.”

Innovation was a word that was mentioned so often. It is supposed to be the spearhead of the KE concept. Innovate or be left behind. Innovation is key to the developmental success of a number of countries, South Korea among them. Technological innovation, in particular, is crucial for dramatic growth, it enhances competitiveness and increases social well being.

Innovation can be defined as “the design, development and diffusion of something new to a given context, leading to a significant improvement in the economic, social or environmental conditions.”

Innovation occurs at three levels: 1) local improvements are made by adopting available technologies to satisfy basic needs or to upgrade products or services, 2) competitive industries to develop through adaptation of technologies initially produced in or by developed countries, 3) ultimately, new innovations of global significance are developed.

Innovation cannot be forced to happen. In developing countries an appropriate technical culture must first be built. Then there should be incentives to support and stimulate entrepreneurship.

And now the education pillar. Education is supposed to be the great leveler and enabler. It creates opportunities and reduces poverty. The educated individual is able to create, share, disseminate. An educated population, being more sophisticated, has higher demands, thus driving industries to innovate.

Strong information and communication technology (ICT) is the fourth pillar. It is the component that should fill the knowledge gaps in poor countries. ICT creates better efficiency and improves services. ICT creates advances in manufacturing, trade, governance, health care, agriculture and delivery of services. ICT also reduces costs, breaks down time and distance barriers and enables speedy mass production of goods.
Getting there, becoming a so-called knowledge economy does not happen overnight. Erecting the four pillars requires a long-term strategy. A country may be strong in one pillar but weak in another. Leaders and policy makers must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their people and resources.

For those interested, the World Bank Institute’s Knowledge for Development (K4D) has developed the Knowledge Assessment Methodology (KAM), an internet-based tool that provides a basic assessment of the KE readiness of a country or region. Log on to www.worldback.org/kam and find out.

KAM is meant to be a user-friendly interactive tool based on the KE framework. It was designed to help countries assess their strengths and weaknesses and compare themselves with their neighbors. KAM could help identify problems and opportunities for a given country, help direct its focus, say, in making policies and investments and how it could make a transition into a knowledge-based economy.

KAM is able to assess a country’s or a region’s comparative KE position on a global scale (compared with 140 countries), on a regional scale (compared with eight regional groupings), on the basic of human development and the basis of income levels.

KAM na.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Reflections for Ramadan

One of the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees I was able to interview recently was Ahmad Syafii Maarif of Indonesia. He is the awardee for the Peace and International Understanding Category.

The banner headline last Monday was was “Fighting continues as Ramadan begins.” Just below it was my article with the title “Terrorists hijack God, says RM awardee”. I thought it complimented the banner story.

Here was a revered Muslim scholar and activist, trying all his best to help restore the good name of Islam which has been tarnished by terrorists. “Terrorism is not the authentic face of Islam,” Maarif keeps stressing again and again. “The terrorists hijack God.”

These “hijackers” kill with the name of Allah on their lips, they invoke the name of Islam to justify their extreme causes. At this time when Islam is suffering a bad image because of the extreme behavior of some its adherents, a voice—brave and loud—calling for moderation is hard to find.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Meeting greatness

Over these past many years, I have been privileged to meet, get to know and write about some of the great men and women of Asia (or GMWA as we have come to call them).

“Great Men and Women of Asia” is also the title of five volumes of easy-reading books (there’s more to come) that contain stories about the lives of Asia’s greats, both the known and the little-known, the times and milieu they live/d in and their contributions to enrich this part of the world through their selfless deeds, courage and creativity. Plus, plus.

Greatness of spirit or the G-factor is the plus that makes them a breed apart. It is a gift, a grace. The reason the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) picked these persons (and institutions, too) to be emulated.

The great news is that the GMWA series recently won the “Excellence Award for Best Writing in book form about Asia” at the 2008 Asian Publishing Awards held in Singapore. The GMWA books bested 79 entries from 23 countries. Congratulations to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) and staff, Anvil Publishing, the books’ editors and the bunch of us writers who had consented to be harassed. We did great in our own little way. Greatness has certainly rubbed off on us.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Kasilag: ‘Making a difference in music’

MANILA, Philippines—I was in Davao City last week for the soft opening of the Heritage Museum of the Pamulaan Center of Indigenous People’s Education and to attend the opening of the 2nd National Conference of Indigenous Peoples Higher Education in the Philippines. (I will write a feature story about the events in another section.)

While the members of the University of Southeastern Philippines’ Pangkat Silayan Theater Collective, gloriously clad in their ethnic attire, were playing genuine ethnic sounds, I thought of National Artist for Music (1989) Lucrecia Kasilag. She had worked hard to put ethnic music in the mainstream through her compositions, until the sounds became familiar and ensconced in the Philippine musical landscape.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The boy who ate MSG

In literature you have the boy who ate stars (two different works and authors from different continents but the same title) and in tabloid journalism the boy who had a fish for a twin. In the recent news we had the boy who ate MSG.

More than a week ago there was a news story from Sagay City, Negros Occidental about a two-year-old boy who had MSG (monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer commonly known as vetsin) to go with his rice. He must have had too much of MSG (as there was no dish to eat with his rice) and he got dizzy, fell down the stairs and hit his head on the ground. His destination was the hospital where doctors found him to have suffered from head trauma as a result of the fall.

According the news report by Carla P. Gomez (Inquirer Visayas) and from TV news online the boy was out of danger but there was bleeding in an area of the brain that needed attention.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

'Boses': Music to heal

"MUSIC is a holy place, a cathedral so majestic that we can sense the magnificence of the universe, and also a hovel so simple and private that none of us can plumb its deepest secrets... It is the sounds of earth and sky, of tides and storms... From the first cry of life to that last sigh of death, from the beating of our hearts to the soaring of our imaginations, we are enveloped by sound and vibration every moment of our lives. It is the primal breath of creation itself, the speech of angels and atoms, the stuff of which life and dreams, souls and stars, are ultimately fashioned."

That quote is from the Overture (introduction) by Don Campbell, the author of the amazing book, "The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit."

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Korean teachers here to learn English teaching

For several years now Korean kids have been coming to the Philippines to attend English camps. On board my flight from Seoul last week I counted about 100 Korean kids all wearing blue T-shirts and with ID cards hanging from their necks. One teacher was carrying all the passports. I took photos while they were boarding. The kids looked like they were from elementary school.

Now it is the Korean teachers’ turn to come and learn how to teach English and use English for teaching. The first batch of Korean teachers arrived Tuesday last week for a month-long training in English teaching. Education and tourism officials call this “education tourism”. There is environmental tourism, medical tourism, rest/recreation/retirement tourism and now you have education tourism.

Sure, we’re supposed to have been left behind by our Asian neighbors in the academic department but there’s still English we are good at and could teach. And I hope this does not go the way of agriculture. Many years ago the Thais came here to study agriculture, but look now, they’re the world’s biggest rice producer and we are the biggest rice importer.

Fifty teachers from elementary and middle school from Busan, South Korea are now participating in the Specialized Training Program under the National English Proficiency Program (NEPP) of the Department of Education. The program’s duration is from July 23 to August 23.

In exchange, I was told, the local government of Busan will donate $6 million worth of learning equipment to the Philippines.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Baseco worries, Juana Tejada rejoices

When you are poor you think of yourself as vulnerable, you consider changes in the landscape of your life that is not of your doing as threatening. Will the changes mean being thrown about again like flotsam and jetsam on one’s native shores? Where to move, where to live and where to find livelihood? Will so-called industrial and commercial development take over, leaving the vulnerable to fend for themselves?

Residents of the Baseco compound in Manila’s Tondo district are anxious that proposed changes in the place where they had been settled will mean they could be moved out. The government agencies concerned should be forthright with the poor and not leave them to speculate about their fate.

Some 6,000 to 10,000 poor families have been residents of Baseco since 2001. Baseco is 56 hectares in area. In the beginning it was frequently underwater but improvements on the reclaimed site were done. In 2002, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared that the 56 hectares should indeed be for the homes of the poor. That same year, four major fires hit the area which led to the reclamation of five more hectares. This area was divided into lots for about 1,000 families.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Say “four, double six, six, four” and remember.

46664 was Nelson Mandela’s prison number when he was in prison for 27 years on Robben Island, off Cape Town in South Africa. He was prisoner number 466, imprisoned in 1964. Like other prisoners, he was referred to not by his name but by his prison number. Mandela was 46664.

Tomorrow, July 18, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, freedom fighter and former president of South Africa, turns 90. He has been feted by artists and celebrities as well as people from all walks of life in the past weeks. The gathering of people was not just about him and his favorite causes but also about us, about this world we all hope could be a better place. After all, this man is the quintessential symbol of Everyhumanbeing’s quest for what is good—freedom, justice, equality, peace, prosperity for all. His personal suffering and triumph may not be every one’s lot but they had an impact on every citizen of this planet whether we felt it or not.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rampant crime in the country’s NGO capital

Women working and living in the so-called NGO capital of the Philippines are up in arms because of the rampant criminality in the area.

Quezon City’s Teacher’s Village East and West and Barangays Central and Pinyahan and neighboring areas, home to dozens of national and international NGOs (non-government organizations), is a prime spot for criminals who prey mostly on women walking the streets to and from their offices or homes. This area is right behind Quezon City Hall!

Almost every female NGO worker in this prime address has a crime story to tell about herself, her co-employees, friends or neighbors. Cell phone and bag snatching, hold-ups, break-ins, carnapping, name it. Not a few had had not one, but several encounters with criminal elements in this Quezon City area. The perpetrators are mostly on motorcycles.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Faint church presence in sea tragedy

I thought about this over and over.

I would probably be excoriated for saying this but I wish the zeal and over-eagerness of the nuns, priests and brothers who were falling all over themselves to support, surround and sustain (for weeks and months) NBN-ZTE whistleblower Rodolfo Lozada Jr. were also seen in the aftermath of the recent sea tragedy that claimed more than 700 lives.

Falling all over themselves, translated in Filipino, is nagkakandarapa.

I didn’t see that same zeal in the wake of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars and I felt let down. I thought the Catholic Church as an institution and as represented by its consecrated members (the clergy, the religious priests, nuns and brothers) was generally lukewarm to the victims and the bereaved after the sinking of the Princess of the Stars.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Remembering heroism aboard MV Cassandra

Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

Those lines are from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (first published in 1918), a very long and difficult poem dedicated to the German Franciscan nuns who died in a shipwreck during a storm that lashed at the North Sea. The nuns left Germany because of anti-Catholicism.

With the sinking of Sulpicio Lines’ Princess of the Stars during the weekend at the height of typhoon Frank, we are, once again, in a recall mode. A list of past sea disasters and staggering numbers of dead are again brought out for us to behold and shudder at.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dying Filipino caregiver in Canada is being kicked out

In my column last week on “Caregiver” the movie, I ended by saying the movie should have a sequel. Well, it’s that column piece that is having a sequel. And this is for Filipino caregiver Juana Tejada. Juana de la Cruz, the EveryOFW.

I now step aside to project the myriad voices raised on her behalf. First, let me quote portions of a stinging column piece (“Our nanny state, save for nannies,” June 11) written by Joe Fiorito for Canada’s The Star.

“Corey Glass may get to stay. He is the American deserter—call him a war resister; better still, call him a conscientious objector—who came to our country to avoid the war in Iraq.

“All parties in the House of Commons approved a motion last week urging the government to allow him and others like him to remain in Canada as permanent residents. The vote was 137-110 in favor. If the motion is not binding, it has moral force.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Today, the 110th anniversary of our independence, it behooves us to remember the millions of Filipinos toiling in foreign lands so that their loved ones back home could have a better life. Who would have imagined 110 years ago that there would be a diaspora and that Filipino workers—professionals, skilled, unskilled—would populate every nook and cranny of this world?

So much Filipino blood, sweat and tears have been shed on foreign shores. Someday, we hope to see a reversal of fortune and Filipinos will be on the top of the heap in their adopted countries and on top of the world back home.

The other day I watched Chito Rono’s “Caregiver” (from Star Cinema), the Sharon Cuneta starrer on the life and work of a Filipino caregiver and other caregivers in London. I could nitpick on a few things but on the whole, the movie was a great tribute to the overseas Filipino workers (OFW), the caregivers in particular. I definitely recommend it for viewing and I hope many Filipinos abroad would get to watch it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

“Poor” grade for government’s asset reform

“Poor.” This was the dismal grade for the implementation of asset reform laws intended to benefit farmers, indigenous communities, the fisherfolk and the urban poor.

In this season when the country is suffering from a crisis in food security, comes the information that those who belong to the mentioned sectors, with the exception of the urban poor, are mostly food producers. Asset reform in these sectors has been slow. No wonder!

The Philippine Asset Reform Report Card (PARRC) Project gave the dismal grade of “poor” after conducting a survey that involved “the largest samples studied to date of beneficiaries in the four asset reform programs.” The Philippine Partnership for the Development of Human Resources in Rural Area (Phildhrra) spearheaded the survey project.

Here is the State of the Nation for you. The survey hopes to put asset reform in the nation’s development agenda. I hope government officials in the executive and legislative branches would take a long, hard look at the survey results. They know how to interpret facts and figures and read the signs of the times. (A number of them also know how to be makapal and act as endorsers in product ads and advocacies. These ads may have worked for name and face recall but none of these politicians will get my vote.)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gross national happiness

One often hears a Filipino or oneself saying, or chirping, “Mababaw lang ang kaligayahan ko.” When translated literally, it almost sounds like “My joy is shallow” when what it really means is “It takes so little to make me happy.” It, in fact, suggests that there is a deeper, fuller joy than what is apparently caused by that “little”.

There’s been much ado about the recent research findings that challenge the so-called Easterlin Paradox that has long been held—that happiness does not necessarily increase with income. That is, after a point of satiation has been achieved.

Now come the new research findings from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business showing “a clear positive link” between wealth and “subjective well-being” based on global surveys.

They show that the facts about income and happiness turn out to be much simpler than first realized. Namely:1) rich people are happier than poor people. 2) richer countries are happier than poor countries, 3)as countries get richer they tend to be happier.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Unsafe in banks

It was one for Truman Capote. The bank robbery in Laguna last Friday morning that killed 10 was one for the books. Nothing like that had ever happened in this country. I am not talking about the swiftness, the amount of money taken or the daring. I am talking about the naked cruelty of those who planned and carried it out.

They didn’t just take the money and run. They made sure no one saw or recognized their faces and lived to tell story. They made the bank employees lie face down on the floor and fired at them one by one, execution style. They had planned it that way. Who were they? What kind of men were these?

One bishop compared them to animals. Unfair to animals! Animals are good creatures, true to their essence and have no evil human attributes.

Whenever I am in a bank waiting in line to do a transaction, a scenario always crosses my mind—a bank robbery unfolding before my eyes. And what do I do next, where do no crouch and how do I stay cool? Should I keep my eyes shut but my ears alert to the sounds and my nose keen to the scents? Should I play dead or feign a heart attack?

Thursday, May 15, 2008


What’s May without the Flores de Mayo and the Santacruzan? What’s life without the childhood memories of May, of blazing summers and sudden downpours, of food and fiestas, of beaches and rivers and flowers and songs?

I know there will always be endless debates about the excessiveness in fiestas which are mostly celebrated in May. And there’s the churchy part that could also spark debates but most people choose to bask in its saccharine, flowery feel because it’s related to faith and worship and God and us. Or so we think.

Recently the Santacruzan, the Maytime procession that usually features celebs representing icons in biblical and Catholic Christian history, had its share of questions when Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales frowned upon and wished to ban Santacruzans that feature male gays dressed as female saints and the like. A church-related event was not going to be done this way, he said.

Many in the gay community raised a howl, saying this was a form of discrimination against them. Why, they said, also want to be part of the religious festivities and they are also children of God.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rice notes

I texted my good friends Sr. Isyang and Sr. Emma whose Susi Foundation serves farmers’ rice cooperatives in Southern Luzon to ask if there are extraordinary stories in their area related to the current global and local rice price crisis. These award-winning nuns-turned-farmers have been working in a farm setting in Quezon for the last 30 years.

Sr. Isyang texted a reply: “Effect of high rice prices here is families spend less on merienda, parties & other nonessential expense. Dey can still eat 3x a day, rural kc. Small rice mills have less stocks coz of cost. Less going 2 cockpits of those saving 4 food. No xtra-ord stories.”

Our common friend Ika Laurel Loewen who was based in Germany for a long time is back for good to produce food and give hope through her little farm in Barangay Laurel in Tagkawayan, Quezon. (She was my former schoolmate at St. Scho who later left for Spain to study and then settled in the land of Beethoven.) This great-grandniece of national hero Jose Rizal has named her little place “Mi Retiro”. Sure, it’s a place for rest but definitely not for retirement especially when there is a food crisis.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

No to FIELDS of hybrid rice

Hybrid does not necessarily mean more and better.

During this time when a global food crisis is upon us and the world’s impoverished population has to deal with food scarcity, a variety of solutions have been thrust upon us. But questions regarding the soundness of some of these solutions have to be raised.

The presidential fiat on the implementation of FIELDS has to face questions coming from civil society groups, among them, Centro Saka, concerned and alarmed over the aggressive promotion of hybrid rice. Centro Saka is a policy research and advocacy non-government organization. It is the secretariat to the National Rice Farmers Council, a loose coalition of small farmers organization nationwide formed in 2003 during the National Rice Farmers Summit.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Popes apologizing

This is not the first time that a Pope has apologized for the sins of commission, omission and indifference of the Roman Catholic Church. History brings to light so many of these faults and there is no way a powerful and huge religious institution could sweep these under the altar. The only good way is to face up, say sorry and do something concrete to correct the mistake if that is possible.

The late and much-loved Pope John Paul II did a lot of apologizing for many faults that are now written into history. And he and the Church were the better for it.

One of the things JPII’s successor Pope Benedict XVI did during his recent six-day US visit was to apologize to victims of sexual abuse. The Pope did this personally by meeting with many of the victims—women and men who were sexually molested, many in their youth, by members of the US clergy. It was a moving and emotional private meeting which the Pope himself had requested.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What color is your rice?

White or brown or red in the time of rice crisis?

Make mine violet. This is the rice I’ve been eating for some time. I wish I could call it wild. It’s an indigenous Philippine variety that is organically grown in Cagayan by farmers affiliated with the Foundation for the Care of Creation. It’s cheaper and more nutritious than the blah commercial white polished (P33 to P35 per kilo) that’s grown with chemical pesticides and stripped of the nutritious outer fibrous layer.

This violet rice (this is not the glutinous type used for desserts) is nutritious, delicious and only P30 per kilo for now. But it’s in short supply because, I understand, it’s not all that cheap to grow and transport. And the locals, I am told, don’t really go for it.

This great variety ought to be preserved and if there is a demand for it there might be more next, next harvest time. The so-called fair trade marketing groups should get interested and partner with the farmers who have good, safe, nutritious rice to sell.

I still caught that era when brown, unpolished rice was deemed inferior—because cheaper—by many and very white rice was considered the staple of the haves. Well, a few decades later, things went the other way. Brown unpolished became the choice of the discriminating and diet-conscious. It was more expensive and hard to find. Dark-colored was in, like dark brown unrefined muscovado sugar as against bleached refined sugar that has been stripped of all its “impurities” and the rest of its goodness. Fiber was in and was brought back into breads.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The world in a grain of rice

The first lines of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” play in my head when I think of the so-called rice crisis. The word rice has taken the place of the word sand. “To see the world in a grain of rice, and heaven in a wild flower…”

Many rice crisis seasons ago (when fancy rice was P20/kilo), I wrote a piece on rice that a number of readers responded to because it brought on memories. This season I again often think of rice in all its glory, the many names of rice in the four Philippine languages that I know and the images they bring forth.

Rice harvests conjure up images of the past, of one’s childhood, of summers and fiestas and times of plenty, of peasants and revolutions, of the simple folk, the countryside and its beauty, of hunger, hope and humanity. No wonder Amorsolo celebrated some of these in his paintings.

When a particular thing—food, animal, plant, product—holds an important place in the local culture, it is given many names. These names could refer to its various forms, the different stages in its life, the end products. They could refer to quality, consistency, strength, age, beauty.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Low carbon Holy Week

If we feel drawn to contemplating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ this Holy Week, we might as well also contemplate the crucifixion of Mother Earth. But we must bear in mind that the high point of Christianity is not the crucifixion but the resurrection. The whole of creation, too, must rise in triumph. We cannot leave Earth to grovel and groan behind us.

Theologian and ecologist Sean McDonagh who spent years in the Philippines wrote in his book “The Greening of the Church”: “A Christian theology of creation has much to learn from the attitude of respect which Jesus displayed towards the natural world. There is no support in the New Testament for a throw-away consumer society which destroys the natural world and produces mountains of non-biodegradable garbage or, worse still, produces toxic waste…

“The disciples of Jesus are called upon to live lightly on the earth—‘take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics’ (Luke 9:1-6). Jesus constantly warned about the dangers of attachment to wealth, possession, or power. These in many ways are what is consuming the poor and the planet itself…

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Signs of hope

The search is on again for innovative ideas to address development and poverty challenges as well as local governance. Up to P1 million each in grants is up for grabs for organizations with proposals on this year’s theme, “Building Partnerships for Effective Local Governance.”

I have been a frequent goer to the yearly Panibagong Paraan “marketplace”. It’s a great source not only of innovative ideas, it is also a great source of stories to write—what people think up in order to be of help to their fellow Filipinos. Here you can feel the quiet heroism and daring of those who are working on the ground among real people with real needs.

If you want to take a break from soul-polluting politics, go to the mall for this event. It will surely take away some of your cynicism, bitterness, hopelessness and fatigue. Eat healthy afterwards.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A woman named Chiara

"THERE is no problem that love cannot solve," Chiara Lubich once said.

Chiara was known as a leading proponent of love and unity. Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh. She had gathered them all to pray and work together.

"That all may be one." This was the prayer of Jesus that this exemplary lay woman made her own and lived out throughout her life. Millions have since sought and trod the path she had opened to all. Millions have gathered as one, in varied times and climes, in many parts of the world, to celebrate and heed the call to oneness.

Chiara, founder and president of the worldwide Focolare Movement, with established communities in 182 countries, passed away last March 14 in her home in Rome. She was 88.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sins of the high-tech, modern age

Some issues to ponder this Holy Week.

The so-called seven deadly sins are certainly no longer just seven and there could be deadlier sins than what had traditionally been known as the signposts that lead to damnation.

But contrary to what came out in the news recently, the Vatican did not issue a list of new sins. The remarks of Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, were misinterpreted by the media as a Vatican update to the seven deadly sins laid out by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century.
(These seven deadly sins are pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.)

Today these sins are often looked upon as personal when compared with the more devastating “social” sins that violate a huge number of people and creation.

Zenit.org, an online news organization devoted to Vatican affairs, denied there was a new list by quoting what Girotti had said that led to the news about “new sins”.

“There are various areas in which today we can see sinful attitudes in relation to individual and social rights.

“Above all in the area of bioethics, in which we cannot fail to denounce certain fundamental rights of human nature, by way of experiments, genetic manipulation, the effects of which are difficult to prevent and control.

“Another area, a social issue, is the issue of drug use, which debilitates the psyche and darkens the intelligence, leaving many youth outside the ecclesial circuit.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spratlys on my mind

Suddenly there it was, Pag-asa, a little green island floating on a sea of turquoise blue. Our small Air Force plane felt like a feather floating in that windy vastness. And I remembered the famous pilot-philosopher Antoine de Saint Exupery’s words” “Below the sea of clouds lies eternity.”

After some two hours of eternal sea and sky from Palawan, there it was. The Air Force 10-seater Nomad plane circled just a little longer to allow us to feast our eyes on the proverbial emerald isle and take photographs and then came down with a light thud on runway abloom with dandelions.

I was in Pag-asa, one in the Spratly Group of Islands claimed by the Philippines, many years ago when the issue of possession and ownership was again in the international news. The Spratlys then were being seen as a flash-point and that gave a sudden cold flash in the spine because there are six other formidable Asian nations (Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) making claims to the rest of the more than 50 islands “rumored” to be sitting on a bed of oil. The islands that the Philippines claims are called Kalayaan or Freedom Group of Islands.

Today the Spratlys are again a hot item in the Philippine news because of the joint “exploration” some years back the Philippines had with China and Vietnam, both claimants too, and whether or not this had anything to do with the scrapped controversial ZTE-NBN deal with China that has been rocking the political landscape in the past months.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Spirituality of/for revolution

Last week, while the country was in the throes of yet another people power outing/revolution, an updated version of Bishop Julio X. Labayan’s 1995 book, “Revolution and the Church of the Poor,” was (re)launched. This book is about what the bishop perceives to be an all-important ingredient for a revolution to work—spirituality.

Who is Bishop Labayen? “Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, a member of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, is viewed by many as ‘controversial,’ having figured in clashes with the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. In a sea of conservatives in the Philippine Church hierarchy, the bishop is considered ‘a voice in the wilderness.’” I wrote that many years ago.

But wait, I had waited for the chance to say this: Recently, the 80-ish bishop figured prominently in the media when some thoughtless ideologues marched him into the Trillanes Peninsula military misadventure/press conference and, when things got awry, left him there to fend for himself. When the smoke cleared and the misadventurists (and the media people who were doing their job) were hauled away, Labayen found himself among the detained, hobbling his way to the barracks and overnight detention. Good thing Fr. Robert Reyes was there, too, and looked after him. Task Force Detainees had to get him out the next day. Where were his thoughtless handlers/users? There, take that.

I do stress Labayen’s being a Carmelite— steeped in the spirituality of mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila—to contrast with his being perceived as a leftist by the military and even by his colleagues.

In his book, Labayen attempts to present the Church of the Poor from “the perspective and analysis of revolution.” And vice versa. The book is not an apologia or defense of church people’s romancing Marxism and so-called liberation movements. Far from it. What Labayen wants to see is “a letting go of what has become irrelevant and obstructive, a going beyond ... a dying to what has ceased to serve life ...” What he is driving at is the failure of revolutionary movements to deliver. Some things just didn’t work. Or don’t work anymore. Or were bound to fail.

“What I write here,” says Labayen, “is the fruit of my 33 years of pastoral experience as the Bishop Prelate of Infanta (in Quezon province) ... interwoven with the dark strands of trials, crises, harassment, persecution and marginalization, and also with the bright strands of pastoral breakthroughs, deep insights, qualitative turning points, reassuring faith-experiences of the living God of history, His/Her comforting presence in the midst of abandonment, and discovery of the fathomless depths of the human spirit.” The bishop has the “K” (“karapatan,” or right) to write a book like this.

But before Labayen tackles revolutions, he presents two models of the Church: the “imperialist” Christendom model and the Church of the Poor. In this context, he says that “while the Church may be historically shaped and conditioned by history, the same Church was founded by Jesus Christ to shape history.”

Chapter 5 (“Where did revolutions go wrong?”) makes a straightforward criticism of revolutions abroad. He cites Europe and China and lingers in Latin America, Nicaragua especially, where the Church played a vital role in the revolution. “In the initial process of revolutions,” Labayen writes, “the outcomes either fall short of the initial noble intentions or, sometime after victory, shortchange the masses.”

At home, Labayen cites the failure of the Christians for National Liberation (founded “with the intention of having a Christian presence in the revolution”) “to influence the revolutionary process to make it more humane, compassionate and less rigid.”

He notes that cultural and psychological perspectives are often not taken into consideration in revolutionary affairs. It cannot all be politics and economics, Labayen points out. The human factor is important. The human heart and the human spirit, he argues, also seek to be liberated.

But of course, he presents another paradigm: Christ. Not the one who is conveniently portrayed as a radical to polarize social classes, but the Christ who preaches about an interior revolution in the human heart and spirit. The bishop is now onto another plane. Labayen, the social action man, is not shy to say: “Those who are committed to revolution often think that the interior journey of the human heart and spirit is tantamount to copping out of the struggle ... considered reactionary (and) will delay the revolution.”

He urges revolutionaries to “consider the essential condition for a genuine and lasting revolution which is that of a radically changed human heart and spirit. In other words, a spirituality for/of revolution.” He dares suggest that they “understand the contribution of the mystics and psychologists... It may well be that here we encounter a yet untapped inner resource that we have not harnessed for revolution. Could it be that herein lies the ingredient that is lacking for the satisfactory and fulfilling outcome?”

I am stumped by this. I have long waited for someone to say this.

Dig into your inner well, he exhorts. Then he offer words from Juan de la Cruz’s Spiritual Canticle: “And then we will go on/ To the high caverns on the rock/ Which are so well concealed;/ There we shall enter/ And taste the fresh juice of the pomegranates.”

If, as they say, John of the Cross, when peeled and stripped of the Christian layers, is really a Buddhist monk, I think, Bishop Labayen, if stripped of his activist label, is really a contemplative, a monk at prayer, on his knees in the bloody fields of battle.

‘Spirituality of/for revolution’

Last week, while the country was in the throes of yet another people power outing/revolution, an updated version of Bishop Julio X. Labayan’s 1995 book, “Revolution and the Church of the Poor,” was (re)launched. This book is about what the bishop perceives to be an all-important ingredient for a revolution to work—spirituality.

Who is Bishop Labayen? “Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, a member of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, is viewed by many as ‘controversial,’ having figured in clashes with the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. In a sea of conservatives in the Philippine Church hierarchy, the bishop is considered ‘a voice in the wilderness.’” I wrote that many years ago.

But wait, I had waited for the chance to say this: Recently, the 80-ish bishop figured prominently in the media when some thoughtless ideologues marched him into the Trillanes Peninsula military misadventure/press conference and, when things got awry, left him there to fend for himself. When the smoke cleared and the misadventurists (and the media people who were doing their job) were hauled away, Labayen found himself among the detained, hobbling his way to the barracks and overnight detention. Good thing Fr. Robert Reyes was there, too, and looked after him. Task Force Detainees had to get him out the next day. Where were his thoughtless handlers/users? There, take that.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Letter from Jun Lozada

Dear Ma. Ceres,

This is my first time to write to a journalist and the only reason I am doing so is to express my appreciation for your advice that I should rise to my full height and to be braver than I think I am.

Until now I am still wondering why I am here in this situation, I have always thought that I am not fit to even be the spark to begin a light, but for some strange reason I am here. I am doing my best to play the part by sticking to the truth that I know and speaking with malice to no one.

I am not one to go into the rhetoric of false humility nor am I one who basked in the falsehood of egoistic rapture. I am simply out to tell the truth that I know, harassment and threats and failed attempts to my life notwithstanding.

I was not prepared to carry this cross, I was arguing and pleading that I don't be the one to carry it. I guess one of my friends put it succinctly for me, that it’s God who chooses our cross lest we choose the gold ones or the light ones. I am now carrying this heavy burden of living up to people's expectation, fending off the harassments and threats, facing off my legal battles in the courts, tending to the needs of my young family, assuring my wife that we still have a life to live even during these extra-ordinary times and even after the glare of media and the public has waned. All of these are heavy loads especially now that I am out of my home and living out of donations from well meaning Filipinos.

But rest assured, I will rise to my full height with the grace of God and the love of the people, just give me a little time!

Sincerely yours,

Jun Lozada

P.S. you have my permission to use this letter as you see fit.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rise to your full height

Imagine grown men bickering over undershirts and formal attire on nationwide TV while the nation was in the throes of war between good and evil, truth and falsehood.

While I have no reason to doubt the gist of the revelations of Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada on the ZTE-NBN multi-million-dollar deal that implicated public officials and private individuals, and his alleged forcible abduction by police and airport officials; while I do not question his motive to “save my soul” and by doing so, also “save the soul of this nation”, I have some observations to make of his behavior that tends to undermine his credibility.

I make these observations not to chip away at his credibility (why on earth should I do that and gain the ire of his fans) but so that he does not further erode it himself.

Okay, the gravity and magnitude of his accusations have made us sit up and listen and act. Hundred million plus dollars that translate into billions of pesos for “commissioners”, big names, big players, big deal. But while listening to all these since Day One of Lozada’s testimony at the Senate hearing, press conference and TV appearances in assorted venues, I could not help noticing chinks that I find annoying, disconcerting and exasperating. Things that make me wanna say out loud to him: Look, I believe you and wanna believe you. Could you please do it well and right, in a manner that befits your dignity and the gravity of your revelations?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

‘Permissible zones’, bukol, guavas

The phrase “permissible zone” has been bothering me these past few days that witness and whistleblower on the ZTE-NBN deal Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr. has been in the media and the eye of the storm.

I must say that his revelations have discomfited me. No, not the alleged much-coveted multimillion-dollar commissions he has been talking about (so, what’s new?) although these are really staggering amounts, and greed has no limits. What I found discomfiting is that while with all candor Lozada has revealed what he knew he also admitted that he has tread what he called the “permissible zone”. That was after Sen. Miriam Santiago brought up what she had dug up on Lozada.

I felt sorry and I thought, why can’t anyone be really squeaky clean? Why do whistleblowers also have to have some mud on their person? I am not questioning their motives for coming out and I admire their spilling the beans. In the case of Lozada, he could indeed be experiencing enlightenment and divine inspiration.

But I just feel let down upon realizing that it is difficult to find someone who is willing to tell all and at the same time is also beyond reproach. I wanna shout, “Yes I believe you, but sana…”

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Fr. Geremia forgiving Norberto Manero

What was it that drove a man to such bewildering heights and plunged him to such lonely depths? What voices did he hear? What lights, what darkness had he seen? What visions, what dreams?

Fr. Peter Geremia, a man so outwardly driven yet so inwardly drawn, had written in a diary his experiences, thoughts and more importantly, his painful prayers during his years of missionary work in this country. I was fortunate to be allowed to read his diary which was later published as a book (“Dreams and Bloodstains: The Diary of a Missioner in the Philippines”, Claretian Publications).Long before the book came out I did a magazine feature titled “The Diary of Fr. Peter Geremia.”

Through his raw diary he very reluctantly, almost wearily, let some of us see his core, the shreds of his life and whatever was left of himself. His diary was also an oppressed people’s bitter story, distilled and kept in one man’s prayer cup.

Geremia continues to walk with all of us. In his younger days he waded through the floods of Laguna, the squalor of Tondo and the blood in Mindanao. He has plumbed the bowels of this land.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Healing phenomenon

Is the Philippines now gearing up to be a Christian spiritual pilgrimage site in Asia? Are the Filipinos spiritually ready for this? Or could we still be described as practicing split-level Christianity?

The media coverage of Fr. Fernando Suarez’s healing activities in many places in Metro Manila and the provinces has been quite sustained since he arrived last December. The number of people that flock to the healing Masses has grown exponentially because of the media coverage and one could see from the news reports that working the crowd has become increasingly difficult for the healing priest. The sick poor are crying out for the priest’s attention. They flock to the healing venues, arriving there way ahead of time to wait, hoping they would have their turn to be face to face with the priest and be embraced, prayed over and miraculously healed.

I interviewed Fr. Suarez last Dec. 23 and came out with a Dec. 31 front page feature story on his life and work (“Filipino healing priest does so ‘many miracles like in Bible’”). When I checked the Inquirer website early in the afternoon of that day, I found my article with an icon on it which said “Most Read” article. I wish I knew how many hits it got. You can access the article at www.inquirer.net.

Two weeks later, thousands flocked to the 40-hour vigil at Montemaria in the outskirts of Batangas City where a Marian shrine is to be built. The heavy downpour did not deter the crowd from waiting for the 40-ish Fr. Suarez who also had to brave the mud and rain to get to the site overlooking the sea. Manila archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales and Lipa archbishop Ramon Arguelles graced the occasion and celebrated Mass there.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ordinary Filipinos, extraordinary difference

A plug: Tomorrow, if you have the chance, go to the launching of the book “Profiles Encourage: Ordinary Filipinos Making an Extraordinary Difference” at 5 p.m. at the PowerBooks in Greenbelt 4 in Makati.

It’s a small book with a big heart and it features 11 “ordinary” Filipinos (nine individuals and a couple) who made a difference in their little corner of the world and tells about how this difference created ripples that reached and touched the lives of many. It is also about quiet heroism and courage, doing what needed to be done despite the odds. And yes, despite the age, the young age, of some of them.

The featured ordinary Filipinos are James Aristotle Alip (“A Small Loan that has Gone a Gong Way”), Al Asuncion (“Champion, Mentor, Friend”), Josette Biyo (“A Planetary Journey in Cell Stages”), John Burtkenley Ong (“A Man for Others), India and Javier Legaspi (“Weaving Heritage and Hope”), Jika David (“Breathing Life into Dreams”), CP David (“Paradox, Friend, and Builder of Dreams”), Nereus Acosta (“Making Sense Out of Making a Difference”), Onofre Pagsanghan (“A Lesson in Life, Passion, and Hope”) and Milwida “Nene” Guevarra (“The Power of Example”).

I read the book in one sitting. As diverse as the stories of these individuals are, one thing struck me: each one of them is a teacher, a teacher of life. And while not all of them do or did stints in the classroom, each one was able to teach and stoke fires the way only great teachers could. Because they shared the essence of their lives.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Time to set them free

In Aug. 2003, weeks before the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, I spent days at the New Bilibid Prisons interviewing the men who were convicted in the Aquino-Galman double murder case.

I had hoped then that after 20 years, one or several of the convicts would finally own up or make a revelation as to who ordered them to do what they did and lead us to the mastermind.

I got none of that for my three-part series. What I got was the men’s recollection of that fateful day in August, what they were doing when the shots rang out and what they did after the shots rang out. And of course, what the years behind bars had done to their personal lives and their families.

Except for Sgt. Pablo Martinez who, years earlier, had been trying to say something about his complicity but was largely and strangely ignored, the rest had nothing to say. Each one spoke for himself only—where he was, what he did and did not do.

Now, the prison doors are about to swing open so that these convicts could walk free. There is no loud uproar against their impending release. There are only regrets that no one else, other than Martinez, has given leads as to the mastermind.

Ninoy’s four escorts down the plane to the tarmac have always maintained that it was Galman who shot Ninoy. And those who peppered Galman with bullets insist they were just doing their job. ``Galman did it.’’ And not one of them as the court had ruled.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A cleaner year

The Christmas season ended last Sunday on the Feast of the Epiphany which is about manifestations of the divine kind. Don’t’ we hope to also see manifestations of the human kind, the kind that would ease the burden on the environment and us critters?

The garbage and the pollution that Christmas and the New Year had wrought should have eased up by now. (The holy season has become a dirty season.) It’s time to clean up. Clean up our surroundings and our insides. And let our singing of “and heaven and nature sing” become a reality.

There is hope for the flowers. Here’s some good news:

2008 Waste Trading Markets. The Philippine Business for the Environment (PBE), the Ayala Foundation and several big corporations are continuing the Waste Trading Markets where trading and buying of waste and junk take place.

Trade your scrap paper and cardboard for bathroom tissue, table napkins, bond paper and notebooks. Exchange your empty ink and toner cartridges for remanufactured ones. Your plastic bottles and plastic scraps could be exchanged for hangers, basins, pails and stools.

If you don’t want to trade, they will buy your junk electronic/electrical equipment (PCs, laptops, radios, etc.) and broken appliances; used lead acid batteries (from cars, UPS/voltage regulators, busted rechargeable lamps); used PET plastic bottles and other plastics; aluminum and tin cans; scrap paper and cartons; used ink/toner cartridges.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

‘The Peace of Wild Things’

One of the profound greetings I received for the New Year was the poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, who is known as the prophet of rural America. Based in his Kentucky farm, Wendell, 74, is a well-known conservationist, poet, novelist, essayist, professor, lecturer, philosopher, Christian writer, farmer and defender of agrarian values and small-scale farming.

Feel and listen to the poem’s soothing message. You can’t go wrong with this.

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Healing priest does so ‘many miracles like in the Bible’

Filed Under: Mysteries, Diseases, Personalities, Belief (Faith), Good news

MANILA, Philippines -- He could not believe his healing power. He wanted to run away from it.

A Canadian woman declared dead eight hours earlier, her organs ready to be harvested and donated, suddenly opened her eyes after Filipino priest Fr. Fernando Suarez prayed over her.

Suarez, who was then a seminarian, was stunned. “Let me out of here,” was all he could say, ready to flee.

He was supposed to go and see the woman earlier but he was not able to make it in time. When he arrived at the Ottawa Civic Hospital in Canada, it seemed too late. But Suarez went to see her anyway and, surrounded by doctors whom he requested to be present, he prayed over the woman.

The miracle happened.

The woman is now well, Suarez says, and has resumed her normal life.

That case, which happened almost nine years ago, is probably the most stunning of all, but Suarez continues to amaze, baffle and bring hope and joy through his ministry that has seen the healing of countless sick and infirm in many parts of the world, including the Philippines.

“It is not me,” he says casually. He is convinced that he is just a channel for God’s healing power.

The soft-spoken Suarez, a 2007 TOYM (The Outstanding Young Men) awardee for religious service, projects an ordinariness that is both pleasant and endearing. His boyish looks do not easily reveal “what God has wrought” through him. He does not have an electrifying aura nor does he shriek and shout to slay evil elements like some Bible-thumping televangelists do. Suarez goes about it gently, in his own soothing way, touching, praying over people, pleading for healing. And because he wants everything centered in the Eucharist, he always begins with a Holy Mass.

Like in the Bible

Miraculous healing continues to happen. People who have been assisting him for some time have witnessed the impossible.

Businessman Greg Monteclaro of Couples for Christ-Gawad Kalinga has seen it all. “Except the raising of the dead,” he says. “But the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk -- all that is told in the Bible -- I have seen it happen.”

In Bulacan, Monteclaro narrates, there was this young boy who was born with practically no bones. “He was soft -- like jellyfish. I was holding him in my arms when Father Suarez prayed over him. I myself felt the bones grow inside the boy’s body and suddenly there he was --walking.”

How does one explain that?

“My own problem here is that I have seen so many miracles, it has become so common to me,” Monteclaro says.

Not that he is complaining.