Thursday, June 24, 2010

Corruption in the peace department (2)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” —One of the eight Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

From Tibet, the United Arab Emirates and here at home came e-mailed reactions from Filipinos who were outraged and shocked at the disclosures of Secretary Annabelle Abaya, outgoing head of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process (OPAPP). Abaya who has headed the agency for barely a year discovered a nest of corruption inside the august department mandated to help bring about peace in strife-torn areas in the country.
As I said last week, that situation was not entirely unknown. There had been stories from insiders who knew about what was going on. Someone I knew who had worked with the OPAPP and left in disgust years ago once told a group of us that someone in the office had asked her if she wanted to participate in a ghost project. She replied in jest that she didn’t need the money as she had enough. She also described the power to corrupt of the Commission on Audit personnel assigned to the OPAPP at that time. Speaking of bantay-salakay.
Some readers said they were bitin (in suspense) with last week’s column piece (we dwelt on Abaya’s discoveries on her first and second days in OPAPP) and asked to have more of our interview with her. So here is more.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Corruption in the peace department

“Ah, it was an exciting novel. It was action-packed from Day 1.”

Thus started Secretary Annabelle Abaya, head of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process (OPAPP), when she recounted to the Inquirer the unraveling of the web of corruption in the peace office. Abaya headed the agency for less than a year, succeeding Avelino Razon who ran for Manila mayor and lost in the last elections. Soon she will leave her post when the newly elected president, Noynoy Aquino, assumes office and appoints a new head.

Abaya’s non-fiction “novel” deserves serialization. For now, here’s a teaser from the interview she gave the Inquirer. Hold your breath.
“Yes, no one warned me. At 9 a.m., on my first day on the job, I was briefed that I would get several millions on the first five days of each month, and was presented with a list of whom to pay. I pretended to act normal. I didn’t know if this was legitimate. I thought I was only being tested. But by mid-day, someone else came along with another list of persons we supposedly need to pay monthly.
“When I asked if the people on the list were the same people on the other list given to me in the morning, I was told, ‘Wala ho akong pakialam sa listahan ninyo. Ito lang yung sa akin.’ (I have nothing to do with your list. This one is mine.)

“Still I acted normally, not wanting to show alarm bells ringing in my head. I wanted them to think I was cool about it so they will tell me more. But by the end of the day, the same person came to me and said that a new release was made to my office for a specific project. I was given a list of people to be paid off for the release: “P10 million to this, P3 million to that, P1 million to this and that. I couldn’t hide my shock this time, so I asked what this was for. I was told, ‘Ganyan ho talaga ang kalakaran dito’ (That’s how business is conducted here.) I had to catch my breath and take hold of my panic. That night I couldn’t sleep till 3 a.m.”

That is just the prologue. Take a deep breath. There is more to the P170-million fund scam that Abaya brought to the open. The amount may be peanuts to big-time plunderers and highwaymen but this is not the Department of Public Works and Highways, this is the peace office, supposedly hallowed ground for peacemakers whom Jesus Christ extolled in the Beatitudes.

People are used to knowing about corruption in high places especially in government agencies involved in high finance projects, contracts, bidding, procurement, revenue collection and the like. But learning about corruption in an agency tasked to delve into the roots of unrest and discontent that lead to armed resistance of the citizenry, in an office mandated to find permanent solutions to decades of strife is so, so shocking.

What a letdown. Not that no one had suspected this all these years. I had heard horror stories from someone who used to work in the OPAPP and left in disgust, something about the resident auditor wielding power in liquidations and sowing fear in the hearts of those who did things straight. “Iipitin ka (You’d be in a tight spot) if you didn’t play along and your legitimate expenses and liquidations would be questioned,” an insider said then.

Now it is the head of OPAPP herself that has revealed what she discovered during her short stint. Abaya recently announced in a peace forum in Mindanao that she was “proud of breaking the back of corruption” in the government body directly tasked to facilitate peace negotiations with the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the communist New People’s Army. The OPAPP is, of course, expected to go beyond table talks and negotiations, and find ways to bring lasting peace to in strife-torn communities.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A verdict 25 years after Bhopal tragedy

IN THIS DECADE of disasters, both natural and man-made, it behooves us to remember the 1984 Bhopal tragedy in India which killed more than 20,000 people and whose aftereffects continue to destroy the health of thousands. In terms of human lives lost, it is considered the world’s deadliest industrial catastrophe, and it could have been prevented. It was one of the worst ecological disasters in history, rivaling Chernobyl in Russia.

Now, 25 years after that lethal gas leak, an Indian court has sentenced seven former top managers of the US-owned Union Carbide pesticide factory to two years in prison. According to an Agence France Presse report, the company executives were originally charged with culpable homicide but, to the outrage of survivors and victims, the Supreme Court in 1996 reduced the charges to death by negligence with maximum imprisonment of just two years.

There is little to rejoice over in this verdict.

The Bhopal local government had also charged Union Carbide’s CEO Warren Anderson with manslaughter and, if convicted, he could serve 10 years in prison. Warren evaded international arrest and a summons to appear before a US court. Extradition moves were unsuccessful. In Aug. 2002, Greenpeace found Warren living a life of luxury in the Hamptons. He was not included in the recent verdict because he was considered an absconder.

Many of the youth of today and the future might not know about Bhopal because the tragedy is not likely going to make it to the textbooks. Does it not qualify as a historical entry like the 79 A.D. Mt. Vesuvius eruption that buried Pompeii? Will our own 1991 Ormoc mudslide that killed thousands in a blink of an eye make it to our error-ridden textbooks (which are a huge disaster in themselves)? And didn’t we see a likeness of Ormoc in last year’s “Ondoy” and “Pepeng” disasters? And not to forget the Marcopper mine disaster that poisoned the province of Marinduque.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

D-Day for FOIA

Friday is D-Day for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Will it be passed in the House of Representatives on the last session day? Just one more nudge, isang pindot na lang, and if it gets passed (as it had been in the Senate) we will become more enabled and empowered citizens of this nation. What a great day it would be.

What previously have been kept in the dark can now be brought easily into the light. Many things that have been hidden can be easily laid bare. Without fear and trepidation, the Juans and Juanas of this country, journalists among them, can demand easy access to information. It will also be time for those perennially hiding their shady deeds to give up old practices and start living honorable lives. (As if giving up an addiction would be that easy.)

We can also stand tall and proudly tell some of our Asian neighbors that like them, we have this empowering law.
What is FOIA if not simply the hows of our right to information as enshrined in the Constitution? This right is already etched in stone, we just need the mechanics on how to exercise that right and yet…
 As they say, while it has been easy for us to speak and speak out loud, it has not been easy for us to know. Indeed it has not been easy for the FOIA to get to where it is. One day before D-Day and the FOIA is still precariously perched on the edge of a cliff.

All the multi-media and civil society efforts by way of editorials, live discussions, talk shows and forums have resulted in people’s heightened awareness of its importance. But Congress has chosen to procrastinate till the last day or the end of time, so to speak. If the FOIA falls down the cliff on Friday, it will have to again start from the bottom in the next Congress. All the efforts to get it to where it is now will be for naught. It will be back to the salt mines for us.