Friday, December 28, 2007

Remembering Adrian Cristobal (Feb. 20, 1932 –Dec. 22, 2007)

I was attending an international conference in New York in mid-November when I first got Adrian’s text message, saying he was checking into the Makati Medical Center. He gave no details. I texted back to say I was out of the country, but expressed confidence it was nothing serious, and that he should be back on his feet by the time I got back.

I got back last part of November. He was still in hospital, so I tried to see him at once. Unfortunately, it was the 29th of November when the Manila Peninsula standoff made Makati inhospitable. I finally got to see him the next Thursday, before coming to Myther Bunag’s Thursday Club in Malate where we had tried to lunch regularly every week for years with friends.

He lay stretched in bed, with all the tube attachments that proclaimed his delicate condition. But surrounded by his loved ones, his wife Teching, his daughter Stella, his son Che, and a sprinkling of grandchildren, he was calm, clear-headed and sharp, with no hint of the irony that charged his prose and his social and literary conversation.

He welcomed me with a bright, warm smile, called me “my friend, my brother,” as I came to his bedside and touched his hand. Teching filled me in on his ailments---his lung cancer was on stage 4, his liver was going, but he couldn’t get any chemo treatment because of his kidneys, for which he was getting dialysis three times a week; he needed food for nourishment and strength, but his diabetes restricted his diet.

Adrian showed more concern for friends who, he heard, had checked in at the hospital. Larry Cruz, who had undergone an operation, and Max Edralin, who had some minor complaint. He was glad to hear they had both gone home. Although his doctors were obviously trying to limit the flow of visitors, Adrian was so happy to see his old writer-friends. He spoke of Frankie Sionil Jose, Elmer Ordonez, Virgilio Almario and others visiting, and asking him to join, if he could, the 50th anniversary of the Philippine Chapter of PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) International that weekend.

He asked about my book (in progress) and smiled when I said it should be done by Spring and that he should be able to critique it before it goes to the publishers. I tried to perk him up (distract him really) with some small talk about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera having been made into a big film. I assumed he had read the book, having had to deliver the Cervantes lecture on Marquez at the Instituto de Cervantes first week of September. In that lecture, which he called a talk, he focused on the magical realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which Pablo Neruda, Latin America’s greatest poet of the last century, has described as “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quixote of Cervantes.”

Adrian obviously enjoyed that lecture. Using Marquez’s words in his 1982 Nobel Prize address, Adrian reaffirmed his conviction as a writer, and reestablished his position among his peers. Where Marquez spoke of “a new and sweeping utopia of life, where one will not be able to decide for others how to die, where love will prove true and happiness possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth,” Adrian spoke of “our lust for life, our sublime sense of beauty (which) will now and forever resist the beast of terror within us.”

The smile never left his face. But he obviously saw through my silly attempt to distract him from more essential things. He was beyond small talk now; he had an important thing to say, and he said it with the joy and triumph of someone who had found something he had long been looking for. “I have discovered religion,” he finally said, and asked Teching to show me a small book on miracles, which a friend had gifted him. He asked me what I thought of it, so I leafed through it and told him it’s highly inspirational. I then gave him another small book, Friends of God by St. Josemaria Escriva, which was a bit more doctrinal.

After about an hour, I left. He had already dozed off, and Teching and Stella had begun talking about asking the doctors when they could bring him home. At the Thursday Club everyone was anxious to hear about Adrian. Two weeks later, Larry Cruz hosted lunch at his Abe restaurant at Trinoma for some of Adrian’s old friends. Johnny Gatbonton, Ronnie Diaz, Fred de la Rosa, Rene Bas, Yen Makabenta, Blas Ople’s daughter Toots, Larry and I had a grand time recalling the past; we drank a warm and hearty toast to our absent friend.

On the morning of Saturday, 22 of December, after receiving the last sacraments, Adrian passed away. It was a beautiful death: he died in the state of grace, fully reconciled to Christ, after living his life to the full.

I first met Adrian Cristobal in 1969, after I entered the Marcos Cabinet at age 29. He was one of the original bright boys of Ferdinand Marcos, working with Labor Secretary Blas Ople’s writing group at Medis building in Intramuros. This was known as the Medis Group. It included some of the finest craftsmen around (Ronnie Diaz, Fred de la Rosa, Bernardo Ople, Larry Cruz, Rene Bas, Florentino Dauz, Yen Makabenta, Malang). Adrian seemed to occupy a space all his own. Dauz, poet, painter and friend of happy memory, loved to call him “Cristo” or “Maestro.”

It was a time when one could still breathe intellectual excellence in the air, and to win recognition an aspiring young man must venture into the public square dominated by men of political substance--- Marcos, Diosdado Macapagal, Arturo Tolentino, Lorenzo Tanada, Cipriano Primicias, Gil Puyat, Jose Diokno, Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo, Lorenzo Sumulong, Benigno Aquino, Jr., Gerardo Roxas, Jose B. Laurel, Jr.. Vicente Peralta, among others; men of moral rectitude and literary acclaim---Horacio de la Costa, S. J., Salvador P. Lopez, Leon Ma. Guerrero, Carlos P. Romulo, Narciso Reyes, I. P. Soliongco, Quijano de Manila, Pura Santillan Castrence, Emilio Aguilar Cruz, Teodoro Locsin, Kerima Polotan Tuvera, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Alejandro Roces, Renato Constantino, J. V. Cruz, among others.

By then Adrian had already made his name as author of I, Sulayman, The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, The Largest Crocodile in the World, some award-winning editorials on the killing of some negritos by some American soldiers on the American base in Clark and Subic, and a spate of satirical columns which not all his readers read as satire. As member of the Medis group, he was one of the intellectuals burrowed inside the Marcos camp.

Marcos had just been reelected President of the Philippines, the first and only President to have been so reelected in the nation’s history. The most important business of the day then was to prepare the President’s inaugural address. Several drafts had landed at the President’s desk; Marcos had gone over all the drafts, and ended picking out two from which he crafted his final text. One was Adrian’s, the other was mine. This marked our first close intellectual contact.

For the whole length of Marcos I, the Medis Group had been in charge of the President’s speeches. After the President’s reelection, the responsibility shifted to my office. I had to organize a writing staff with Yen Makabenta as principal workhorse, and we performed the job for the entire ten years of my Cabinet life. Adrian was not part of this team. But whether as chairman of the Social Security Commission or as head of the Presidential Center for Advanced Studies he flooded the President with memos and position papers, much of which went into his public statements.

Everyone admired Adrian’s political sophistication and intellectual reach, but I felt they were not being given enough space. I felt he could do so much more, so I introduced to the President the idea of putting down his political ideas in a book, and asking Adrian to collaborate. Marcos was delighted with the proposal and put Adrian in charge of the project. The result was Marcos’s Today’s Revolution: Democracy, and Notes on the New Society, which made many Asian leaders look to Marcos as a serious political thinker.

Upon the proclamation of martial law in 1972, Marcos created the Department of Public Information. He made me its head, in addition to my being press secretary, presidential spokesman, (and presidential speechwriter, a position nobody talks about.) Larry Cruz was my assistant Press Secretary but I had no Department Undersecretary and no Deputy Presidential Spokesman either. My workload did not allow me to get sick or go out of town even on weekends. But at one time, I needed to go to India to make a statement on martial law at an important Asian conference. As I could not go without someone acting as presidential spokesman and information chief in my place, I asked the President to ask Adrian to fill in. It was not the best favor one expected from a friend, but Adrian gamely accepted, and endured the ordeal for a week. We had a good laugh later when I learned that he had to have his blood pressure checked, after a week-long honeymoon with the Malacanang press.

Adrian lived his life to the full as a public intellectual. The public will remember and judge him as such. He did not suffer fools gladly, he gave no false comfort to his friends, but neither did he shrink nor shake before powerful adversaries. He took risks where others simply sat on the fence, but he drew a line between signature and service. However, history is always written and often rewritten by the victors; so for sometime yet he will be assessed according to how the living victors look at the Marcos years.

He will be judged not by those who are morally or intellectually equipped to render judgment, but by those who are in power and are in a position to judge because they claim to have fought or opposed Marcos, even though they may never have been more virtuous than he. The more honest observer, however, will have no difficulty conceding the courage of his conviction when it was not the easiest or most popular thing to show such courage even among those who now proclaim it to the skies.

The entire world paradigm shifted after the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989. But it was an altogether different world in 1972. At that time, the communist rebellion made martial law unquestionably necessary, and the 1935 Constitution made it possible. It took men of courage and intellectual rectitude to accept the risk of becoming part of that extraordinary solution to that extraordinary problem. Adrian was one of those.

That martial law chilled many journalists and men of letters, there was no doubt. That abuses were committed by all sorts of people in the name of martial law, there also was no doubt. But a violent storm was raging across the entire Southeast Asian region, not just the country, and it was the task of men like Adrian, and ours, too, to find little crevices on the rock surface where kindred spirits could seek refuge while the storm blew. Adrian made PCAS a home for many writers whose politics was certain to attract the attention of the military, just as I made the DPI, its Bureau of National and Foreign Information, Bureau of Mass Media Standards, and Bureau of Broadcast a sanctuary for non-conformists who had lost their media outlets and had nowhere else to go.

If, as suggested by some Adrian had kept a journal through the years, there should be some entries on how he helped argue for the early lifting of censorship, the reopening of the media and the release of newspapermen from political detention. He was first and last a writer who believed that freedom is indivisible, and that only by insisting on everyone’s freedom does one become truly free.

Although he tried to affect a stern autocratic appearance in public, Adrian had a heart of marshmallow, when it concerned his artist friends. One such friend was Jose Garcia Villa. Villa, now dead, had been living in New York as a famous Greenwich village poet, supported by a sinecure at the Philippine Mission to the United Nations. He had come to Manila at the e First Lady’s invitation, along with other international artists like the Russian poet Yvgeni Yevtushenko.

Upon Adrian’s advice, Villa had come to me to course his request to the President for an upgrade in his appointment. I promptly forwarded this to the President. Several days later, Villa was at Malacanang to attend a dinner in honor of Yevtushenko. He was at his acerbic best. “How could you think of honoring a Russian poet when you have not even honored your own?” he said to me. Then a young protégé of Villa’s went up to Yevtushenko to ask him, “who are you?” As Marcos walked into the reception hall, Villa came up to him and said, “if the government had been a little more intelligent, you would have made me Ambassador a long time ago.” Whereupon, the President said to me, “Kits, you will take care of this.”

This instantly quieted Villa. But I knew what that statement, and the body language meant. Afterward, I would get a daily call from Jose---that’s how Adrian and I called him—and all I could say was that I was waiting for final word from the President. Exasperated, Villa finally dealt me the ultimate blow: “I once called you an angel of a man, I was wrong. In a few years, you will be like Carlos P. Romulo.” Romulo was the Foreign Secretary then, and Villa’s opinion of him was undeservedly low.

I did not know how to pacify Villa. Adrian had to do it, while making sure Villa kept his post, despite his misbehavior at the Palace.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

God is alive and well, thank you

In the last half of the 19th century, the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche famously declared, “God is dead.” Not so, it turned out. By 1900, Nietzche, not God, was dead. Still, the 20th century tried to sustain his vision of the Ubermensch (superman) by doing everything to banish God and the love of God from public view, especially in the First World. The result was what the Catholic convert and brilliant editor of First Things, Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, has called, in his book of the same title, the “Naked Public Square.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in the United States, a country built under a “sacred canopy,” to borrow Peter Berger’s phrase, and where more than one hundred years ago Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic Democracy in America, saw religion as “the first political institution.” There, public prayer was banned in schools and other public institutions on constitutional grounds and suddenly it was no longer politically correct for one to be seen praying in public. The Europeans for their part decided that having to acknowledge their Christian roots in the European Constitution would run counter to the secular vision of Europe.

As that most violent of all centuries ended, many felt the movement against God had finally succeeded. Much of the Christian world had been dechristianized and paganized; the consumerist market had won, and materialism had become the dominant way of life after the collapse of the Soviet empire, and atheistic and materialistic communism was formally declared to have lost. In its millennium issue, The Economist of London, one of the most influential secular magazines in the Western world, was bold enough to run an obituary of God. But again, as Mark Twain would have said, news of God’s death was grossly exaggerated.

Towards the end of 2007, the Economist admitted its mistake. In its Nov. 3, 2007 special review of religion and public life, the magazine reported that far from turning away from religion, more and more people had been turning to it in the last hundred years. From 1900 to 2005, the magazine noted, the number of people identified with the world’s four biggest religions----Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism— had risen from 67 percent to 73 percent of world population. Evidently, the number of believers continues to rise. But so also the intensity of the ideological attack on God and religious belief. Gone are the great religious wars, but the war against religion itself has arrived. Science and technology has become the bearer of the New Age, proclaiming a way of life without God, or with God totally on the outside. With man now able to make another man (in test tubes), his relationship to himself has been fundamentally altered, so wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). Post-modern man now looks upon himself as “his own product --- no longer a gift of nature, or of the Creator God.”

It is a crisis ---a world crisis--- of man’s truth. Men and women no longer seem to know what and who they are –whether in relation to themselves or in relation to others, most especially the Wholly Other, God. Whereas Christianity, according to Sheed, produced a civilization that listened to God while looking at man, post-modernity simply shattered its ear drums. Albert Camus once wrote: “I wonder what the future will say of modern man. A single sentence will suffice: ‘he fornicated and read the papers’.” That dim view of postmodern man has apparently arrived. Filled with self-love, he seems, forsooth, to have left no space for anyone or anything else. T. S. Eliot looks into it more deeply in ‘Choruses from The Rock’:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycle of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Examine our social discourse, our politics, our economics, etc. We seem to have replaced the first principle of practical reason (synderesis) which bids man to do good and avoid evil, with the pleasure principle, the driving force behind the “sexual revolution” and in particular what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “dogma of hedonism,” which has sought to turn everything upside down. American sitcoms, soap operas and movies, observes the philosopher Peter Kreeft, never glorify murder or rape or stealing or even lying. But they never fail to glorify fornication, adultery, sodomy, abortion, etc. They tell you to control your drug addictions, and your gun addictions, and your smoking addictions and even your overeating addictions, but never your sex addictions, he writes. Everything has been or is being deconstructed with sex---marriage, family, culture, man himself.

You deconstruct when you try to show that certain universally held concepts are not truly universal after all. Nietzche invented this technique, but the French philosopher Jacques Derrida was its last acknowledged master until his death in 2004. In one interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Derrida proposed that the word “marriage” be deleted from the French civil code to clear the juridical path for homosexual unions. That failed to take off, yet same-sex “marriage” is today performed in at least five countries; civil unions, domestic partnerships, common law contracts, pacts of common interests, civil pacts of solidarity, etc. grant to homosexual couples benefits akin to those associated with marriage in at least 23 countries, including parts of the United States. Within the United Nations system, the term “reproductive rights” has become the mantra that threatens to divinize the killing of millions of unborn children each year. So while Western activists denounce “genital mutilation” in some African tribes as barbaric, “fetal mutilation” – the mutilation of the fetus – has become the crowning glory of the legal system of at least 149 countries, and counting, starting with the near-mighty G-8.

That millions of unborn children are killed every year in the name of a false right and a false freedom cannot be an expression of man’s love even of himself. It is a desecration of man and his preeminent place in the natural order of created beings and things. But no monstrous crime can ever turn God against man. God has not revoked his promise to Abraham in the Book of Genesis, that if there be but ten righteous men in Sodom, “I will not destroy it” (Gen 18:32); in the fullness of time, the Father sent His only begotten Son to redeem the whole of mankind from sin. Thus, Benedict XVI assures us in his first encyclical that Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), and again, in his second one, Spe salvi facti sumus (In hope we were saved), that we have a “God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end,’ until all ‘is accomplished’.” And that, “if we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live’.”

There are no seasonal truths. Every moment is an opportune time for fallen and redeemed man to see how he has lived the Love of Christ, the only Love that, in Dante’s words, “moves the Sun and the other stars.” The world has tried to bury this Love in endless ways that put the pleasure of the senses above everything else. This is not, and cannot be for those who listen attentively to the voice of reason, even though they may not yet know Christ. Unaided by anything supernatural, they can see by the use of natural reason alone that the dogma of hedonism contradicts the very reason for their earthly existence; man is not a mere mound of clay molded and plugged into an energy field built by science, nor a coming together of various sensual appetites; he is body and soul fused together by the breath of God, and ordered to an end higher than himself. Moved by faith, hope, and charity, the individual Christian will see beyond natural reason’s ability to see, and he will see himself as an imperfect being capable of being perfected only by the grace of God. His real life is in God; he dies forever outside of the living God.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The next move is Erap's

Some light is finally being shed on Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV’s Nov. 29 caper at the Manila Peninsula hotel, which confirms some of our worst fears. The whole affair was clearly based on a completely wishful view of the balance and behavior of forces on the ground, and the main actor’s even more wishful view of his native strength.

The adventure appears to have been not wholly spontaneous. It appears to have had some “planning,” but if in chess, it was a startling opening without anything else, a Plan A without a Plan B, which has characterized all of the failed moves against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ever since.

The Trillanes group had apparently calculated (hoped) that a crowd would naturally build up and join the former Navy lieutenant from the 2003 Oakwood incident as he walked the distance from the Makati courthouse to the five-star hotel. But while his route crossed and followed streets heavy with vehicular traffic, no pride or passion of partisans lined the sidewalks waiting to march.

It now appears that while the group saw their hero as a Pied Piper who would charm the crowds as he piped along, they had made it quite plain that other groups were welcome so long as they were not identified with former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada (Erap).

They forgot that without someone they truly identify with, crowds that could end up at the mercy of water cannons, police truncheons and tear gas will not sprout from the ground like mushrooms; they have to be organized, even rented, to be precise.

At the time, Erap was out on a medical mission in one of Quezon City’s poorest communities. He was in no position and had no chance to respond to the Trillanes media event, precisely because he and his supporters were specifically excluded a priori, by name, from taking part in the effort to confront Mrs. Arroyo with a long bill of particulars that begins ironically with her 2001 takeover of the presidency from Erap.

The Trillanes group apparently fancied themselves above and distinct from the opposition that had consistently questioned Mrs. Arroyo’s right to, and conduct of, the presidency. They seemed determined to save the country from Mrs. Arroyo, from Estrada and from everybody else except themselves.

Asked by the media who would succeed Mrs. Arroyo if she was removed, Trillanes enigmatically answered, in Filipino, “the leadership that would emerge.” But someone identified on radio as belonging to the Kilusang Makabansang Ekonomiya (KME) said, “Chief Justice Reynato Puno.”

Puno’s name was never mentioned again, either during that extended live coverage or in subsequent published newspaper reports. Neither has his name come up in the running, post-standoff revelations of the other Puno, Interior Secretary Ronnie Puno. And not one word has been heard from the Chief Justice himself.

Will the Arroyo government allow this to simply vanish under the rug? Nobody knows.

The first time KME mentioned Puno heading a proposed caretaker junta was in late October. The newspapers carried the story without comment. They still did not comment when Puno decided to keep silent, but permitted (or obliged) the Supreme Court (SC) spokesman Jose Midas Marquez to react to the KME announcement.

In that statement, the spokesman said:

1. The Chief Justice had not spoken to any of the proponents but had only read about their proposal in the newspapers.

2. “The news reports, nevertheless, if accurate, are humbling, and the trust confided in Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno is appreciated.

3. “The Chief Justice, however, would rather stay out of politics and remain in the judiciary which he has committed to ensure its independence and strengthen its integrity.

4. “Chief Justice Puno would also like to appeal to everyone to keep the judiciary out of the present political turmoil --- the judiciary should always be above politics. Otherwise, it loses its authority as an effective and credible dispenser of laws and justice.”

Still no comment. Not a single member of the Integrated Bar, not a single justice, judge, radio or TV channel or civil society critic of the Arroyo government offered any comment. No senator or congressman threatened to investigate.

I found it necessary to point out, in my blog (, which the Tribune regularly reproduces, that:

1. The proposal of a junta headed by the Chief Justice was of such gravity that he should have personally issued his own statement, instead of letting a mere subordinate do it;

2. The SC spokesman can only speak for the Court on matters proper to it, not on issues personal to its members. The junta-proposal is strictly personal to Puno and therefore outside the spokesman’s official responsibility and competence;
3. Nobody ever suggested that Puno had ever met or talked with any of the proponents before they made their announcement. Why then did the spokesman have to point out that Puno had not talked to any of them? Was this not the kind of denial that merely confirms what is being denied?

4. As the primary guardian of the Constitution, the Chief Justice should have been outraged that his name was being associated with an extra-constitutional project. But no, he found the news reports “humbling,” and “the trust confided in (him) appreciated.” In short, he was thrilled.

5. There was not a word from Puno, his spokesman or any SC justice denouncing the junta-idea as outrageous for being unconstitutional, or Puno’s proposed place in it as absurd. I noted that KME was not asking Puno to head the proposed junta; rather the group was asking the public to support the idea of a junta headed by Puno;

6. Puno’s failure to denounce what he had a serious duty to denounce amounted to an expression of support for it. “Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi tractatur de ejus commodo---He who is silent is considered as assenting, when his interest is at stake.”

That was in early November. The fresh mention of the Chief Justice’s name during the Manila Pen standoff makes the whole issue current. Will we finally hear from the Chief Justice? What is Malacanang’s official take on it?

It now seems clear that whatever it was Estrada and his supporters had been pursuing since 2001, it has now been taken over by an anti-Arroyo, anti-Estrada group. Erap and his supporters have been unceremoniously devoured. Yet, without the open support of the masses whom Estrada leads, no group could possibly succeed in forcing Mrs. Arroyo out.

Unpleasant as some may find it, no one in the protest movement --- and for that matter no one in the country today – has Estrada’s drawing power. Since he came out of his six-year detention, he has been mobbed by huge crowds whenever he went. The two other former presidents ---Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos --- are not likely to create any stir inside a crowded sports stadium, shopping mall or busy street.

So, will the Trillanes group set aside its hubris, say sorry and reach out to Erap? Or will Erap now finally recognize that allowing all sorts of people to capitalize on his original cause in order to rail against Mrs. Arroyo while simultaneously rejecting and denouncing him as unworthy of their exalted company has been one very costly mistake? The next move is Erap’s.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Neither kid gloves nor mailed fist for Trillanes

The administration is in a pickle trying to decide how to handle Senator-detainee Antonio Trillanes IV. Using kid gloves is certainly out of the question, but a mailed fist could turn the former Navy first lieutenant into a full-blown underdog. Malacanang cannot possibly want this.

Arrested and detained after the 2003 failed Oakwood mutiny, Trillanes was mysteriously picked up by the “Genuine Opposition” as a senatorial candidate last May. With no reasonable hope or prospect of winning, or even campaigning, he ran on the lone promise of impeaching Mrs. Arroyo, after two failed attempts in the House of Representatives.

This was a serious misquote of a senator’s role, which is primarily to make laws and, on occasion, to sit as an impartial judge in a Senate impeachment trial after the House has impeached an impeachable official like the President. But the pro-opposition voters knew no better than the single-issue candidate; with an extra push from mostly young military officers, civil society and the Left, and at least one well-known perennial contributor to seasonal political campaigns, the candidate won.

The court then ruled that he may not attend the Senate sessions or committee hearings, nor use his place of detention to conduct official Senate business. Thus, a senator elected by the Filipino people is unable to exercise his rights and perform his duties because of a case where the complainant is also the Filipino people.

Some lawyers argue, off-court, that since his election came very much after his arrest, it supersedes the court’s decision to hold him without bail. Moreover, his election is deemed to have removed all risks of flight of the accused who is presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise. This, however, has not been put formally to the court.

On Nov. 29, he walked out of his trial in a Makati courtroom, and marched all the way to Manila Peninsula hotel, with Brig. Gen. Danny Lim in tow, and all the security men assigned to guard him. There he called for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation to pave the way for a new transition government. He was arrested several hours later, and taken to Bicutan for a new round of processing. Since then his troubles have grown, and so have those of his jailers.

Administration Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago has proposed that Trillanes be stripped of his title as senator, and his jailers have threatened to transfer him from his cell in Camp Crame to the national penitentiary at Muntinglupa, there to lie in the company of common criminals.

Both threats are highly intimidating. But one does not have the same effect as the other. And the effects on Trillanes may not be as grave and damaging as those on the administration. Let us see how.

The expulsion proposal requires a process, pursuant to the Constitution and the Senate Rules of Procedure. Both documents allow a senator to be suspended or expelled from the Senate for disorderly behavior, upon a vote of two-thirds of all its members. This entails a debate on principles, a determination of the facts, and the final judgment of one’s peers.

As a matter of principle, the Committee on Ethics could first determine whether it is legally, morally and politically acceptable for an elected senator to call for the replacement of a sitting President by an extra-constitutional personality or structure. This is the core question.

There are two parts to this proposition. The first part refers to the call for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation; the second part, to the proposal for an extra-constitutional replacement, which does away with the law on presidential succession.

Whatever the motive, there is nothing wrong in calling for a President’s (any President’s) resignation. Valid or not, it is part of the right to free expression. Mere political bias is enough to justify such call. For instance, from November 2000 to January 2001, at least eight senators called for President Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s resignation, while sitting as judges in his Senate impeachment trial. Nobody threatened them with disciplinary action; the anti-Estrada crowd held them up as some kind of icons, instead of censuring them for censurable court behavior.

But the second part of the proposition may not be so easily defensible. On this point Sen. Santiago and the other administration senators could go to town, and compel the committee to take a clear position on the principle. They will, however, need the concurrence of at least 16 senators to suspend or expel the offending senator. Does the administration have 16 senators? This is the decisive question.

Meanwhile, the court will have to allow Trillanes to appear before the committee to personally answer the charges against him. And once there, he could expatiate on all his grievances against the regime, and repeat to his heart’s content his call for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation. That the administration is eager to take this risk is, at best, doubtful.

The proposed transfer to Bilibid Prison is something else. Stories about how young and good-looking prisoners are normally violated by hardened inmates who have virtual control of the prison life of everybody else are enough to make Lawrence of Arabia shiver. So, were Trillanes to be tossed inside Bilibid and violated by its resident sodomists or tortured by its self-appointed torturers, the administration could end up with a severe human rights scandal it doesn’t need at all.

The greater danger, however, lies in the possibility of Trillanes being welcomed by the inmates as one of their own. Despite his repeated failure from Oakwood to Peninsula hotel, some people think he is still eminently recyclable. One particular analyst seems to believe his latest failure has not diminished his luster. Many inmates tend to identify with the underdog and could have the same thinking. It is noted that prior to Erap’s pardon, about a hundred inmates were reported to have offered to divide the former President’s life sentence among themselves so that he would not have to serve at all. Of course Trillanes is not Estrada, but something similar could happen.

The administration’s dilemma is not an easy one. It could get impaled in the horns of the dilemma if it allows its desire for vengeance to guide its actions, instead of trying to act in the most just manner that would win the approval and support of the people. It was not too long ago that then Justice Abraham Sarmiento reminded the powers of the day that neither justice nor democratic governance is about “getting even;” it is worth pointing out that winning the people’s trust and one’s perceived enemy is always the more desirable option.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Can GMA escape the wrath of the press?

In taking over the Peninsula Hotel and demanding that President Gloria Arroyo finally step down last week, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV must have hoped that somehow a few of the protest votes that had made him a senator last May (four years after he led the 2003 failed Oakwood mutiny) would incarnate around the hotel to protect him from the police, just as the EDSA I crowds protected the rebels in 1986.

Nothing like it happened. Instead of getting rid of Mrs. Arroyo, Trillanes merely disappointed many of his supporters, and probably put paid to whatever real plans the opposition might have had for Mrs. Arroyo before 2010. The hotel episode had no discernible planning or public support; it looked like a hasty rerun of the first eruption at Oakwood.

Trillanes’s lawyer has accused the police of roughing up his client. For her part, Sen. Miriam Santiago has proposed that Trillanes be expelled from the Senate for grossly disorderly conduct. None of these cut more deeply than the embittered lament of former Trillanes supporters and fans who say he has totally lost it. “It’s all gone into his head,” said one, “he seems to believe he can now walk on water.” One formerly supportive cleric could only mutter expletives.

Until the police began rounding up the suspects, it appeared a clear win for government. It took the high-handedness of the police, who did not seem to know they were already winning, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, which was already theirs. By arresting and putting in handcuffs the 30 or so newsmen covering the event, one 81-year-old retired bishop, a younger priest, and a former vice president, the police completely cancelled their gains and unwittingly opened a second front against their president.

The old foes of Ferdinand Marcos were the first to point out that not even during the darkest days of martial law did they see anything like it. Were the political opposition to fold up, this new front could hold, manned by media men and clerics who are not likely to forget the incident. Life would not be easy for the regime even if it stayed. We learn early in school that the pen is mightier than the sword; in this information age, this includes television, computers, the internet. The clerics have the word of God.

This is not to suggest that the media could ever be faultless. They could be corrupt, superficial, bigoted, relativistic, but they have the last word always. They represent a universally desired value ---press freedom --- and they constitute a universal brotherhood (and sisterhood). Upon the proclamation of martial law in 1972, when Marcos ordered the newspaper offices padlocked and press censorship imposed, the international press was the first to tell him that he had more to gain from suffering the political agitation and personal calumnies of the anti-Marcos press than from closing down the most inflammatory and offensive newspapers.

It turned out to be prophetic. The media never forgave Marcos. Even after he had lifted martial law, some of the foreign wire services continued to refer to him as “Dictator Marcos” rather than “President Marcos.” As press secretary, presidential spokesman, and information secretary (then minister) from 1969 to 1980, I was attacked by some of the Palace courtiers for allegedly maintaining despicably good relations with the world media, while Marcos was stuck with a bad press. To this day, some so-called scholars and academics writing occasional pieces out of Hawaii or Canberra have not abandoned the use of “Dictator Marcos.”

The press had an unusually long honeymoon with Cory Aquino, and up to a point with Fidel V. Ramos. But it played a distinctive role in cutting short Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s presidential term of six years. Erap’s fight with the Philippine Daily Inquirer was particularly fueled by the decision of his businessmen friends, particularly those in the movie industry, to stop advertising in the paper----reportedly at the President’s behest. I never saw evidence of Erap’s hand in it; I am more inclined to believe that an over-eager factotum bit more than what he could chew, and presented Erap with a fait accompli. Erap was probably pleased with the initial result, without analyzing its real implications or consequences.

PDI survived the ad boycott, but Erap never regained the paper’s respect. Since his conviction by the Sandiganbayan on Sept. 13, 2007. the newspaper has lost no opportunity to describe Erap as “the convicted plunderer,” even after he had received full pardon, which formally erased not only the punishment but also the crime of which he had been convicted.

In the Manila Pen incident, the police argue that they had repeatedly asked the media to vacate the premises, but that they simply ignored the police. They suspect the media of having gone there not simply to cover the event but also to lend support to Trillanes. They find it highly suspicious that the press and TV cameras got there even ahead of Trillanes. They seem never to have heard of the media getting advance tips from those who want to ensure maximum coverage of an event. Thus, based on the most shaky assumptions, they simply handcuffed everyone and hauled them off to Bicutan. Truly unfortunate.

Maria Ressa of ABS-CBN is right. The media were there to cover the event; it was not for the police or the government to tell them how to do their job and when to leave. The attempt to evict the media from the scene prior to the police assault was an attempt at censorship. The media had every right and reason to resist, and they did. Of course, any of the reporters and cameramen could have gotten hurt had there been a stampede, an explosion or a shootout. That was the risk they took; it did not constitute a crime for which anyone of them could be or should be arrested.

Apparently, Mrs. Arroyo realized the mistake as soon as she saw it, and ordered the police to “expedite the processing” of the media representatives. She could not, however, embarrass or dress down the police. That was too little, too late. The war with the media is on, and there is very little one can do about it. But Secretary Ronnie Puno of the Department of Interior and Local Government, who is on top of the police, could probably still save Mrs. Arroyo a lot of trouble if he should assume full responsibility for the mistake, and give up his position to placate the press.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

In Washington, D.C. last month, I had the chance to follow the CNN-sponsored presidential debate, featuring Senators Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and five other Democratic hopefuls. Each one tried to appeal to their tv audience, but somehow I felt the most engaging American minds were not there. I found myself for the nth time agreeing with Walter Bagehot’s claim in The English Constitution that the parliamentary system is likely to come up with more substantial political leaders than the presidential. Nonetheless, there was no mistaking how seriously each one wanted to become their party’s standard bearer.

Back home, I had not completely overcome my jet lag when I saw the footage of Senator Mar Roxas’s coronation as Liberal Party president. Nothing should take your breath away about the presidency of a political party, especially one that has been recycled after more than twenty years of being inactive. But this was a pompous extravaganza completely out of proportion to its legal cover. It was clearly calculated to project Mar Roxas’s presidential candidacy in 2010, and it made no bones about it. Oras na! (repeated several times).

Some people could wear their presidential ambition like mumps, if they don’t mind the aesthetics. But everything in its place. The extravaganza would have been expected in 2009 or even late 2008, but not now. Indeed, because of its proximity to the 2008 United States presidential election rather than to the 2010 Philippine one, one was momentarily misled into thinking that Mar Roxas was out to dislodge Hillary or Obama from the Democratic race.

Everything about it seemed wrong. First of all, it was being held amid foul weather. The nation, Bicol region in particular, was bracing for yet another super-typhoon, and the news headlines were all about Albay Governor Joey Salceda trying to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Albayanons in preparation for the typhoon. The region had not completely recovered from the last super-typhoon that had buried whole families in Albay and destroyed at least 25,000 homes in Catanduanes. It was simply not prepared for a new one, or for some people’s presidential ambitions. Neither was the nation.

Not to be outdone, Villar followed with his own launch. Since then the Nacionalista Party commercials have tried to edge out the Christmas carols in the air. As its last secretary-general before the NP went under the KBL juggernaut during martial law, I am familiar with how its old political leaders lent their substance to the party. But it will take more than ambition or money to regain that glory. The same with the LP.

In fact, the past record of these two parties is what shows up the tatterdemalion politics of their new leaders. The 2007 senatorial elections showed their utter lack of principles. Both the NP and the LP fielded three senatorial candidates each on the two opposing 12-man senatorial tickets---one candidate each under Team Unity (TU), two candidates each under Genuine Opposition (GO). The NP also ran one senatorial candidate whose sister was already sitting in the Senate until 2010. Neither the LP nor the NP said it was wrong for candidates to spend hundreds of millions of pesos to land a job that paid less than one million pesos a year. They still are not prepared to say so.

Where the party processes are alive and well, it matters not if one announces his desire to become president upon reaching the age of puberty. The party convention, which is normally held a little before the start of the legal campaign period, ultimately decides. But where every candidate is self-proclaimed, without his peers having to anoint him in a party convention, one who heads his own party and has billions to burn becomes a candidate the moment he says so.

Such is the case of Mar and Manny. They are not going to submit to an UNO or GO convention in 2009 or 2008; they are presidential candidates as of now, three years before d-day. Not because the masses madly want any of them to run, but because they have lots of money to throw away. The 90-day legal campaign period is only for those who take the law seriously.

But until the presidency is formally put up for sale to the highest bidder as in Christie’s or Sothby’s, it seems reasonable to require those who want to become president to show some principled stand on fundamental issues, and some ideas on how to address the country’s most serious problems.

For instance:

There’s no end in sight to the war in Mindanao. What ideas have we heard from the “presidentiables”? None.

Family incomes are declining amid claims of economic growth. Access to health services and educational standards are falling, while hunger and homelessness are shooting up. What have we heard from them? Nothing.

The national debt continues to climb, so does the national budget. But the country’s infrastructure remains degraded and the basic services under-funded because of syndicated corruption disguised as pork and perks for the elected and the Comelected. What concrete proposals have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

Many can no longer seem to distinguish truth from lies, good from bad, right from wrong. What have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

The weakening of the dollar and the artificial rise of the peso is hurting the very people who are bringing in the dollars---the 12 million or so Filipino overseas workers and the last remaining exporters who have not been wiped out by the Chinese. What have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

The political stalemate between the administration and the opposition continues. Members of the Executive Department continue to ignore summonses from the Senate in violation of the Constitution. Too many investigations are piling up in the Senate but not a single court case against the alleged grafters. What are the “presidentiables” saying? Nothing.

Last July, the Senate’s inaugural session was presided by a senator who did not have the legal authority to do so. Last week the Senate allowed a Cabinet member to speak at the plenary session during the budget debate, in violation of the Rules. Senators habitually use unparliamentary language, without it being expunged from the record. What have the Senate “presidentiables” done about these? Nothing.

The electoral system is thoroughly corrupted. We need a brand-new Comelec, computerized counting, and some basic electoral reforms as a precondition for the next election. We also need a law that would bar political spending beyond what an elected official will earn legally from his elective office. And a law that considers automatically resigned a sitting senator who runs for President or Vice President at midterm. What are the “presidentiables” saying? Nothing.

A few days after the Roxas- Villar launch, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and Brig. Gen. Danny Lim, both under military detention on charges of coup d’etat, walked out of the courtroom in Makati, marched to the Peninsula Hotel some five kms. away, and kept the police at bay for most of the day. The standoff ended only after the police drove an armored personnel carrier into the lobby and arrested everyone, including one retired bishop, one priest, one former vice president, and all the mediamen covering the event. The police then declared curfew from midnight to five a.m. without a prior proclamation of a state of emergency.

What have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

While Trillanes and Lim premised their action on well-known grievances against the Arroyo regime, some have suggested that the ill-disguised premature presidential campaign may have caused them additional pain. Thus they struck back by displacing the high-octane premature campaign from the political headlines and the tv screen. If only for that, the apparently unplanned exercise did achieve something, after all.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Is the junta now our preferred way to the future?

Because the nation is grievously ill, the renewed call for President Gloria Arroyo’s resignation is not likely to subside until she finally steps down or until the anti-Arroyo forces are completely worn out. It’s either one or the other. But so infected is our politics and so superficial is our view of things that all sorts of untried ideas are coming out of the woodwork on who should rightfully replace the beleaguered president.

Article VII, Section 8 of the Constitution provides: “In case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation of the President, the Vice-President shall become the President to serve the unexpired term. In case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation of both the President and Vice-President, the President of the Senate or, in case of his inability, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, shall then act as President until the President or Vice President shall have been elected and qualified.”

In case both the President and the Vice-President simultaneously vacate, the Senate President, or in his place, the Speaker of the House of Representatives takes over, and within ten days Congress enacts a law calling for special elections to elect a new President and Vice-President not earlier than 45 days nor later than 60 days from the time of such call; provided, the vacancies do not occur within 18 months from the date of the next presidential election.

This constitutional rule gets thrown out in a revolution, a coup d’etat or military takeover. A public proposal, attributed to Bishop Antonio Tobias of Novaliches, Bishop Deogracias Iniquez of Kalookan, Bishop Emeritus Julio Labayen of Infanta and former Vice-President Teofisto Guingona, Jr., seeks to dispense with this rule and suggests a junta, headed by Reynato Puno, chief justice of the Supreme Court (SC), to run a caretaker government. The proponents identify themselves with the Kilusang Makabansang Ekonomiya (KME), which seems to have lost faith in all politicians.

Puno himself has not rejected the proposed junta nor personally declined the honor of heading it. But Supreme Court (SC) spokesman Jose Midas Marquez has declined in his behalf. Normally, the SC spokesman speaks for the Court only on matters proper to it. Puno’s role in the proposed junta is strictly personal to Puno, totally unrelated to the Court’s business. But it is the spokesman, not Puno, who speaks.

Marquez says Puno did not talk to KME before they floated his name, but only read about their proposal in the press.

“The news reports, nonetheless, if accurate, are humbling, and the trust confided in Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno is appreciated. The Chief Justice, however, would rather stay out of politics and remain in the judiciary which he has committed to ensure its independence and strengthen its integrity,” he says.

“Chief Justice Puno would also like to appeal to everyone to keep the judiciary out of the present political turmoil---the judiciary should always be above politics. Otherwise it loses its authority as an effective and credible dispenser of laws and justice,” he adds.

If this was intended to help Puno, it doesn’t. On the contrary, it digs his political grave.

First of all, the proposal to have Puno head a junta, under KME’s highly improbable scenario, is of such gravity that he should have personally issued his own statement, instead of letting somebody else do it, even though he might have actually composed the statement himself. Nobody will ever understand why a man deemed worthy by the KME to lead a caretaker government should hide behind a subordinate.

Second, why did he have to say (again through Marquez) that he never spoke to the proponents, when nobody said he did? This is the kind of denial that merely affirms what is being denied. Note that KME was not asking Puno to head a proposed junta; rather, KME was asking the public to support the idea of a junta headed by Puno. What happens now if somebody came forward to claim they had talked to Puno before the trial balloon was floated?

Third, how could Puno possibly take delight in the “trust confided” in him by KME when he is being openly associated with a patently extra-constitutional project that repudiates his oath as Chief Justice? A Chief Justice true to his oath would have shown offence (even if for public show only) that a group is openly talking of setting up a junta and announcing him as its head. He would have denounced the project as preposterous, and the idea of his heading it as even more so.

But Puno “appreciated” the “trust,” according to Marquez, except that “he would rather stay out of politics and remain in the judiciary.” He and his spokesman were completely silent on the constitutionality of the proposal.

The maxim of the law, Black’s Law Dictionary tells us, is: Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi tractatur de ejus commodo—“He who is silent is considered as assenting, when his interest is at stake.” In failing to point out the unconstitutionality of the proposal, when duty required him to do so, did not Puno show support istead? And since the spokesman speaks for the Court, did not his failure to reject the junta suggest that the Court itself supports it too?

Criticism of the KME proposal has focused not on the junta-idea itself, but on the choice of Puno as its head, and on KME arrogating upon itself the right of the majority to make that choice. Puno’s highly publicized “begging off”, just because the SC spokesman has said so, allegedly because he wants to “stay out of politics,” looks like a dance, a poorly disguised attempt to project himself as completely “apolitical,” thereby raising his own stock to those who will have nothing more to do with politicians. Appearing to withdraw is but a tactical move to invite open and intense courtship until the ones courting end up on the lap of the one being courted.

Most of those who read the spokesman’s statement apparently saw only what Puno had wanted them to see. But even in that docile kingdom where everyone was trained to swoon whenever the monarch walked past, wrapped in the most dazzling clothes, it took but one little child to shout, “The Emperor is naked!” And everyone awoke.

Puno may be in no better luck. His recent initiatives (politico-legal summit, writ of Amparo, etc.) have been praised even by those who have not understood what they were praising. But history will forever record Puno as the author of that infamous doctrine of “constructive resignation”, which has thrown the country into its longest constitutional crisis since President Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s unconstitutional removal in 2001.

Not too long ago the SC was wildly praised for reportedly striking down Executive Order 464 as unconstitutional. But when one finally read the ruling itself, one discovered that the SC actually upheld the patently unconstitutional order, requiring all Cabinet members to seek the President’s consent before appearing in Congress, and to invoke “executive privilege” to withhold information when they finally appear. So deceptive was the reporting that even retired justices have been led to parrot the deception.

Puno’s failure to reject the junta-idea as unconstitutional has clearly undermined his position as Chief Justice, possibly beyond repair. Some people believe he has made himself impeachable. However, none of the President’s men who publicly commended Puno for what they read into the spokesman’s statement, ever reproached him for saying nothing about the constitutionality of the proposed junta. Neither did they point out, on their own, that it is indeed unconstitutional. Are we then to conclude that even within the Arroyo regime itself there is a growing belief that the junta, not our periodic rotten elections, has become our preferred way to the future?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pardon bought GMA time, but fall cannot be stayed

What we are witnessing today is an open war among the original conspirators of Edsa 2, which unconstitutionally ousted, arrested and jailed President Joseph Ejercito Estrada in 2001. At the center of this storm is not so much what they are saying as what they are not --- their need to justify to posterity what they did to Estrada, especially now that he is a free man.

The Edsa-2 conspiracy attained its final objective on Sept. 12, 2007 when the Sandiganbayan convicted Estrada of plunder and sentenced him to reclusion perpetua. But the partisans felt betrayed, and their unity promptly crumbled, when on Oct. 25 President Gloria Arroyo granted Estrada executive clemency and ended his six and a half years in jail.

“What happens to us now?” This was the question that immediately faced the old Edsa 2 actors who saw in the pardon the possible proof or likely seed of a political alliance between the primary beneficiary and the principal victim of Edsa 2. Nobody expected anything like it; not even former President Fidel V. Ramos seemed prepared to see what hit their ranks.

Edsa 2’s partisans could overlook any and all of Arroyo’s sins --- sins for which the overwhelming majority of our people, poor and powerless, had long demanded her ouster---but not this one. This was a betrayal of their common cause, which had put them above the rule of law and everybody else. Edsa-2 was all about removing Estrada and putting him away for a very long time, if not forever. It had no room for acquittal, parole or pardon.

It was Dostoevsky, rather than St. Thomas or any moral theologian or philosopher, who said that the most difficult sin to forgive is the knowledge of those you have wronged that you have, in fact, wronged them. Estrada knows who has wronged him, and has forgiven them; but they cannot seem to forgive him his knowing that they had wronged him.

These lords of selective morality never asked whether it was right for the Supreme Court justices to declare that Estrada had resigned “constructively,” when in fact and in truth he never did. Or whether any court of law could acquire criminal jurisdiction over a President who has not resigned or been removed upon conviction in an impeachment trial. They never asked whether the requirements of due process had been met before they put him on the dock; they simply accepted everything his accusers and prosecutors said – hook, line and sinker.

Thus, to them, freeing Erap was a crime bigger than stealing the presidency twice in four years; bigger than the unsolved killings and disappearances of political militants; bigger than the massive corruption that has turned government into a criminal syndicate and public office into a den of thieves; bigger than the rape of institutions, and the destruction of political, constitutional and moral values, not least of which are the integrity of the military, the independence of the judiciary, the constitutional rights and prerogatives of Congress, the sanctity of the ballot, the inviolability of the impeachment process, the incorruptibility of churchmen and the vigilance of the press.

Thus, they showed no outrage when military and police generals were shown to have cheated for their Commander-in-Chief in the 2004 elections; none when FVR weighed in to prevent Mrs. Arroyo from falling at the height of the Hello, Garci affair; none when the electioneering generals were promoted to powerful positions as reward for their crimes against the Filipino people; and still none when she showed every resolve to make the country the undisguised vassal of a foreign hegemon. They simply looked at the numbers in the bourse, and decided that so long as the profit-taking was good, questions about legitimacy, rule of law and justice were but “political noise” that must be contained. It mattered little to them that amid the moonshine about the economy getting stronger, the people were getting progressively poorer.

Who really profited from the “pardon”?

Perhaps the story can now be told. At the height of the Malacanang bribery scandal, following the allegations of large-scale bribery offers in the grossly overpriced $329.5 million ZTE National Broadband Network deal, an explosion hit the Glorietta 2 shopping mall, killing 11 and wounding over a hundred people. It occurred on the very day the Sandigan was hearing the oral arguments on Estrada’s motion for reconsideration (m.r.) of its Sept. 12 decision. Mrs. Arroyo’s top defense and security officials had called it a terrorist act but could not produce a credible terrorist to claim it; it threatened to see Mrs. Arroyo finally toppling over. All her flanks were exposed, and she stood virtually alone.

Then a recently retired Western diplomat planed in and sat down with certain high government officials. They reportedly discussed the possibility of forming a transition team to run the post-Arroyo government. But even walls have ears, and this apparently quickly reached Malacanang. So Mrs. Arroyo reacted with lightning speed, and fast-tracked Estrada’s pardon. Her negotiators got Erap’s lawyers to withdraw his well-argued m.r., which showed so clearly and convincingly why the court had erred in convicting him of plunder, and instead write her a letter asking for pardon.

Without Estrada having to say anything himself, this was enough, for Malacanang’s purposes, to send out a signal to the outside world that Erap and the masa had decided to back the beleaguered president. It was pure perception play, a clever manipulation of images and symbols. As soon as news of Estrada’s pardon leaked out, some proposed key players in the proposed transition team fell under the weather and got scarce. At Glorietta, the terrorism theory quickly gasified into an industrial accident, thereby eliminating the possible involvement of any “terrorist” or government agent.

None of these was apparently known to Estrada. Upon his lawyers’ advice, he had authorized his m.r.’s withdrawal and the request for pardon in good faith, not realizing that in consenting to this political maneuver, he was in fact saving her from the inglorious end, which so many had longed for and long foretold.

To most of Erap’s supporters, Mrs. Arroyo owes Erap and the nation a debt of justice, which must be paid in full. Stealing the presidency is a far graver crime than looting the treasury; it demands restitution. They see the pardon as a puny and grossly imperfect attempt on Mrs. Arroyo’s part to make amends to Erap for usurping his office in 2001. They also see it as tacit recognition on her part that Estrada’s case was primarily political from beginning to end, and that pardoning him after conviction was one way she could, if ever so slightly, try to salve her own conscience.

This was why although the masa seemed genuinely happy to see their old idol back, many were not so happy that, after fighting for justice for so long, he had to withdraw his m.r. and ask for pardon from his oppressor, who needed the pardon much more than he did. Thus when Erap publicly thanked Mrs. Arroyo for her act of clemency in San Juan, and asked his hometown crowd to applaud, they could not bring themselves to do so; some of them literally booed.

Because they love Erap, the masa will respect his decision and will not criticize it. But they are not likely to support her continued stay in office. For his part, because he is essentially a grateful man, he will probably continue to thank Mrs. Arroyo, despite his having lost to her his presidency and his personal liberty for six and a half years. But he has no obligation to save her from her inevitable fate.

The fire now burns like the California fire in the open field. It will rage on until the structure called the Arroyo regime is reduced to ashes. Estrada has no reason to burn down with it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Why accident story won’t wash

The evolving official wisdom is that the Oct. 19 Glorietta 2 shopping mall explosion, which left 11 dead and over 100 wounded, was caused by an accumulation of methane gas inside the basement catching fire and causing a 3,500-liter diesel tank to explode. It won’t wash.

Many reasonable men will sooner believe that white is black than accept it. There is simply too much going against it. Both National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales and Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Hermogenes Esperon had called it an “an act of terrorism.” Somebody had tried to recycle the so-called Rajah Solaiman Group (RSG) to claim credit for the crime. Sources at the Philippine National Police (PNP) bomb data center and crime lab had claimed evidence of RDX (Royal Demolition eXplosive) and Composition C-4, which uses RDX as its base, at the site.

Some chemical engineering professors had rejected the accident story, based on their scientific knowledge of the properties and characteristics of diesel fuel and methane gas. Diesel fuel, they pointed out, will burn and cause a fire---yet there was no fire----and methane gas will explode only from extreme heat, at least 110 degrees Celsius or higher, but not at ambient room temperature of 28 -30 degrees Celsius.

Finally, some foreign forensic experts were said to have established the use of C-4. At least one foreign naval personnel, who was reportedly allergic to RDX, was said to have developed blisters in his hands upon entering the scene. A forensics report was said to have been submitted to some foreign embassies. Sources who claim to have seen the report say the experts estimate some five kilograms of C-4 was used, mounted as shaped in columns, a design reportedly consistent with what is used by military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EODs) units, and similar to that used by the U.S. Special Forces.

Shaped charges, according to ordnance literature, are meant to direct the detonation wave and focus the energy of the explosion. These are normally used to pierce armor or cut metal; if placed on a pillar, they will destroy the pillar and whatever structure it supports. The report suggests the probable involvement of personnel with special military expertise, the sources said.

It is a pity that the men from the FBI, U.S. Navy SEALS and Australian Federal Police, whose presence at the site has been well noted by the press, would probably not be in any position to confirm or deny the story the government will put out, unless so authorized by their respective governments. But it will not be their governments’ business to confirm or contradict Manila’s official story. For this reason, it is unlikely the alleged foreign forensics report will be released by any embassy.

But reason is still our best tool for analyzing the relevant facts and theories. A finding of “terrorist act” compels the government to produce the “terrorists,” and the attempt to bring in the RSG was a complete farce. Failure to produce a credible terrorist would only validate Senator-detainee Antonio Trillanes IV’s charge against Gonzales and Esperon as the brains behind the blast. It would ultimately deepen President Arroyo’s moral crisis which had been temporarily snowed under the Glorietta story. A finding of “industrial accident” on the other hand shifts the burden to the owners of Glorietta.

The sudden arrival of the accident story follows a pattern last seen in the Malacanang bribery scandal. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, several governors signed a full-page ad denying previous stories about the unexplained distribution of P500,000 in cash inside Malacanang on Oct. 11. The very next day, Wednesday, Oct. 24, two officers of the League of Provinces of the Philippines confirmed what they had previously denied but claimed that the money, exposed by Pampanga priest-governor Ed Panlilio and Bulacan Governor Joselito Mendoza who both got P500,000 each, reportedly came from their non-revenue generating association of provincial governors. The “yes, it was a bomb, no, there wasn’t a bomb” story follows the same consistent pattern of inconsistency.

Now, despite all the data that argue against it, an accident is still within the realm of possibility. The only trouble is that even if was, in fact, truly an accident, and nothing but an accident, nobody will believe the story. The government has zero or below zero credibility. Having lied too often, openly, crudely, and routinely, the government cannot expect to be believed whenever it lies, or even when in exceptional instances it decides to tell the truth. Because those in power have openly and flagrantly violated so many laws without being punished or held to account, people have a tendency to presume them guilty even of crimes they have not committed. This is a government that has lost its reason for being, these are officials who have lost every reason to be in office. The solution is not to change the story, but to change those telling the story.

Nothing we have said here will prevent the regime from declaring an industrial accident, if they have already decided to do so. Then they will declare the matter closed. It is to be hoped, though, that before they do so, they will at the very least take the following steps:

1) Require Gonzales and Esperon to explain the basis of their original statement that the explosion was “an act of terrorism.” Since this contradicts the accident story, it would mean their statement was completely irresponsible, unbecoming of the dignity of their high office. If they do nothing, they should be considered “constructively resigned,” to use the famous formulation of Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

2) Fire those who gave official currency to the bogus claim of RSG, if they are in government, and charge them in court, whoever they are.

3) Identify the PNP sources who had reported evidence of RDX and C-4, ask them to produce the evidence, and punish them appropriately if they cannot.

4) Require Senator-detainee Antonio Trillanes IV to either reaffirm or withdraw his allegation against Gonzales and Esperon as the mastermind of the blast. Allow him to appear before a committee of his peers at the Senate, as an exception to the general prohibition on his attending the sessions of the Senate.

Perhaps by doing these, the government may yet hope to convince some people that the explosion was not at all its handiwork. This, however, will not prevent those who believe that if it was Divine Providence, rather than venal men, that had picked Glorietta as the setting of this tragedy, then it must have a clear and urgent message for Mrs. Gloria Arroyo. The Lord has heard the cries of his people, and He wants her to set them free. She, like the Pharaoh long before her, must take heed, or else the land will reek of death from terrible plagues.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why there’s no tidal support as in 9/11

Neither National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales nor Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon or anyone in their employ need to have planted Royal Demolition eXplosive (RDX) or Composition C-4 at the Glorietta 2 shopping mall last Friday for them to assume responsibility for the incident that has so far claimed at least 11 lives and wounded over 120 innocent civilians.

In more civilized and decent jurisdictions, the thing to do, even before the culprits are identified and hunted down, is for those in command to apologize to the nation that the incident, regardless of were behind it, had occurred, and for them to formally step down. It helps to assuage the sorrow and anger of the nation.

The incident need not even have cost lives. If memory serves, one defense minister resigned after the wingtip of a military plane brushed against a civilian aircraft on the ground, causing no injury to anyone or damage to either plane. The minister was nowhere near the scene, but he felt it should never have happened, and he felt personally responsible. He held the honor of his office higher than his personal claim to it, and the honor of the nation higher than his own.

Both Gonzales and Esperon have been tagged as the alleged brains behind the bombing. Senator Antonio Trillanes IV has offered no proof of his accusation, and Esperon has vowed to investigate the former navy lieutenant senior grade who is under military custody for his alleged role in the 2003 Oakwood mutiny. Esperon gave a clear indication of where he wants to go when he said that all the C-4 in the inventory of the Armed Forces had been properly accounted for, except for what had been recorded as “stolen” prior to the Oakwood affair.

Given the gravity of his charge, Trillanes has the duty to substantiate it, even though many people seem ready to believe, even without proof, the worst things said against the administration. But this should not happen in a close-door investigation conducted by his jailers. One way to do this is for the Senate to create an ad hoc committee for this specific purpose. This is not without precedent. In 1960 the House of Representatives named a 15-man committee to investigate charges of bribery made by then Congressman Sergio Osmena, Jr. against President Carlos P. Garcia. When Osmena failed to validate his charges, the House suspended him for 15 months.

At the same time, an independent investigation of the bombing, an idea supported by Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., should now be carried out, with the help of well-known outside institutions like the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain’s Scotland Yard. This should insulate the search for truth from those who may want to dictate or influence the conduct of the investigation or its results. The ideal setting would be a new government with completely new officials to support such an investigation.

All sorts of cockamamie theories have been advanced to explain the blast. After Gonzales and Esperon had called it a terrorist act, sources at the Philippine National Police Bomb Data Center and crime laboratory reported traces of RDX and C-4 from the scene of the blast. RDX is an explosive that works by itself or in combination with other ingredients in explosives, while C-4 is a composition that uses RDX as its base.

But where real terrorists usually claim credit for their deed at the first breaking news, it took the so-called Rajah Solaiman Group (RSG) more than 24 hours to send a text message lamely owning the crime, and demanding even more lamely the release of some imprisoned brethren, if the government did not want to see more bodies.

In the worst written film script, the terrorists would demand the release of their imprisoned brethren, as a necessary condition for them not to poison the water system, release the rockets, or blast the football stadium in the middle of a championship game. Not only is the RSG script unique, RSG itself is more mythical than real; it does not appear in any credible website monitoring terrorism. Obviously, whoever wrote the script was not much concerned with sounding credible.

After the RSG yarn failed to wash, the police dismissed earlier findings of RDX and C4, and advanced the theory that the explosion could have been triggered by fumes leaking from a diesel fuel container or methane gas from a septic tank and igniting inside the concrete basement. This is quite a jump.

If this theory is sustained, Ayala Land, Inc, which owns the mall, could end up answering charges upon charges of criminal neglect, and having to pay millions, if not billions, in indemnity claims. It could rearrange the listing of billionaires in the next issue of Forbes magazine.

No sixth sense is needed to see that the Glorietta bombing has indeed displaced the Malacanang bribery scandal from the news headlines. This need not mystify anyone; this is how the media have long behaved, here and elsewhere. But it would be wrong to believe that the bombing has taken the heat off Mrs. Arroyo for her role in the latest Malacanang bribery scandal, and that the people are ready to see her conduct the business of the presidency as usual.

A close Arroyo confidante has been heard to wonder why while all of America and most of mankind rallied behind George W. Bush after 9/11, so much distrust and outright accusation greeted Mrs. Arroyo after the Glorietta explosion. I take that as a perfectly innocent remark, not an expression of disappointment of someone who might have thought that if the Glorietta was bombed, it would unleash a tsunami of sympathy and support for Mrs. Arroyo’s continued rule.

Perhaps the explanation is really simple. Our people had already decided they have had enough of Mrs. Arroyo, and that the Glorietta bombing has merely postponed the inevitable.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Erap may get reprieve from right reading of plunder

Very few were surprised when, after six years of trial, the Sandiganbayan found ousted President Joseph Ejercito Estrada guilty of plunder and sentenced him to reclusion perpetua on September 12, 2007. Then, as now, many felt the case was primarily, if not purely, political; that there was no way to acquit Estrada without effectively finding President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo guilty of a worse crime.

Estrada and Arroyo were first elected president and vice president respectively, for a term of six years, in 1998. In 2000, Estrada was impeached by the House of Representatives and brought to the Senate for trial. But the trial ended in the streets when the prosecutors walked out, and anti-Estrada forces called for his ouster. The Armed Forces chief of staff then led a mutiny and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swore in Mrs. Arroyo as president, without a vacancy in Malacanang. That was January 20, 2001.

Intense pressure was promptly made to bear on Estrada to resign formally and leave the country, or at least to leave the country even without writing a letter of resignation. When he refused, he was charged with plunder, arrested and jailed on April 25, 2001. He has been in detention since.

The plunder law (Republic Act 7080) was enacted in 1991. It was meant to punish, according to its authors, “not simple cases of malversation of public funds, bribery, extortion, theft and graft, but [the] plunder of an entire nation, resulting in material damage to the national economy.” Thus, “any public officer who, by himself or in connivance with members of his family, relatives by affinity or consanguinity, business associates, subordinates, or other persons, amasses, accumulates, or acquires ill-gotten wealth through a combination or series of over or criminal acts…in the aggregate amount of P50 million shall be guilty of the crime of plunder and shall be punished by reclusion perpetua to death.” The death penalty has since been stricken off our laws.

To establish the crime of plunder, it is necessary to prove beyond reasonable doubt a pattern of overt or criminal acts indicative of a conspiracy or an overall unlawful scheme.

Estrada was accused of having amassed P4,097,804,173.17 by:

(a) Receiving or collecting P545 million from illegal gambling in
connivance with Charlie ‘Atong’Ang, Jose ‘Jinggoy’ Estrada, Yolanda T. Ricaforte, Edward Serapio, and John Does and Jane Does in consideration of “toleration or protection of illegal gambling”;

(b) Diverting P130 million from the tobacco excise tax share of the
Province of Ilocos Sur in connivance with Atong Ang, Alma Alfaro, Eleuterio Tan, Delia Rajas and other John Does and Jane Does;

(c) Ordering and compelling the Government Service Insurance System
(GSIS) to purchase 351,878,000 shares of stock, and the Social Security System (SSS) 329,855,000 shares of stock of the Belle Corporation for a total of P1,847,578.50, and collecting P189,700,000 as commission from Belle;

(d) Amassing P3,233,104,173.17 from commissions, gifts, shares,
percentages, kickbacks, and depositing the same in the account of Jose Velarde at Equitable-PCIBank.

The court acquitted Estrada on (b) and (d), but found him guilty on (a)
and (c). Estrada, through counsel, moved for reconsideration. On Oct. 19, the Sandigan heard oral arguments on the motion.

It was an education in the law, particularly on plunder. Arguing for the defense, lawyers Estelito Mendoza and Rene Saguisag pointed out why Estrada could not be held for plunder.

The crime of plunder, Mendoza pointed out, quoting the law and the Senate debates during its enactment, requires an overall scheme and a conspiracy to commit a combination or series of inter-connected acts which, when executed, results not only in the unlawful accumulation of P50 million or more, but also in material damage to the economy of the nation. The prosecution failed to show this, Mendoza argued; there is, therefore, no basis for the court’s conclusion.

In the case of the jueteng money, the prosecution built its case solely on the word of former Ilocos Sur Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson. He testified that he collected money from the jueteng operators over a period of time, recorded his collections in listahans, which he described as “ledgers,” turned over the money to Estrada in exchange for his “toleration or protection” of jueteng.

Mendoza pointed out that the only crime established by Singson’s testimony was his own. For Estrada to be held liable for plunder, he should have conspired with Singson and others. But the prosecution failed to allege a conspiracy, and Singson, who has confessed to his crime, is not named as a co-conspirator. Absent such conspiracy, Singson’s crime, which the state had chosen to condone in exchange for his uncorroborated testimony, cannot be attributed to Estrada or others.

The acquittal of Erap’s son, Senator Jinggoy Estrada, and his lawyer Edward Serapio, corporate secretary of the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation, which received and retains custody of P200 million from Singson, only makes the point clear. There can be no finding of plunder.

Another co-accused Atong Ang entered into a plea bargaining agreement with the state and was convicted of the crime of corrupting public officers. This effectively erased the original charges against him, and removes him as a possible co-conspirator.

Likewise, in the SSS/GSIS purchase of the Belle shares, purchase was done by SSS Administrator Carlos Arellano and by GSIS head Ding Pascual. Again, the prosecution failed to allege a conspiracy, and neither Arellano nor Pascual was named as co-conspirator. Estrada cannot be held liable for the acts of Arellano and Pascual.

Assuming the acts alleged in (a) and (c) have been committed, they do not constitute “a combination or series” flowing from a conspiracy or an overall scheme and whose execution materially damaged the economy of the nation. The prosecution failed to allege it and there is no evidence on record to show it.

Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio, mild-mannered and low key, read a prepared rebuttal. But it was mute on the specific issues raised by the defense. Mendoza took this to mean the prosecution was conceding the points of the defense. But even if the prosecution does not concede, the oral arguments succeeded in raising reasonable doubt about the correctness of the court’s decision. For this reason alone, the Justices may have to reconsider.

There may be a broader and highly compelling reason. This is the first plunder trial since the law was enacted in 1991. And the accused is a former President. There may be some pressure to affirm the conviction, but the precedent the court will set could very well apply to the next outgoing President, and the next and the next. In an imperfect system where today’s prosecutors may be tomorrow’s prosecuted, the court may not want to create a precedent that would make it so easy for any administration to let the last former president spend the rest of his natural life as a convicted plunderer.

Glorietta bombing gives Gloria no special grace

At least nine people died and 129 were wounded from the explosion that tore through the Glorietta II shopping mall in Makati on Friday afternoon. It was the first bloody incident since the renewed call for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s resignation began to gather steam, in the wake of the bribe-giving frenzy that had sought to protect her from the fallout of the $329-million ZTE National Broadband Network bribery scandal.

The victims were all innocent shopkeepers, sales clerks, shoppers, window-shoppers and plain passers-by, typical random victims of terrorism. National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales was quick to call it that ---an “act of terrorism,” but failed to identify the suspected terrorists. And no terrorist group has since owned the crime.

Senator Antonio Trillanes, the former naval lieutenant senior grade who remains under detention for his supposed role in the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny, was as quick to denounce the bombing as the handiwork of Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, and Gonzales himself, who both denied the allegation.

“Terrorist” attacks are, by definition, staged by terrorists. They normally leave their fingerprints, and announce their purpose or motive. Some incidents, however, may be manufactured and made to look like the work of terrorists, to justify an extreme response that begins with the arbitrary suppression of human rights and civil liberties. Nobody usually claims credit for these.

Criminal regimes, confronted with rising opposition and dwindling public support, are likely to resort to this tactic. The Arroyo regime will resent being so classified, but that is how many observers regard it, after having been associated with so many incidents, the latest being the bribery scandal in the highly overpriced NBN deal and the second bribery scandal in the initiation of the nuisance complaint for impeachment against Mrs. Arroyo in the House of Representatives.

The new anti-Arroyo wave began after former NEDA director-general Romulo Neri told a Senate inquiry that Benjamin Abalos, then chairman of the Commission on Elections, had offered him a P200-million bribe to approve the NBN project; that he had reported it to Mrs. Arroyo; but that she did nothing about it.

Thereafter lawyer Roberto Rafael Pulido reportedly took a fee to file a preemptive non-complaint to immunize Mrs. Arroyo from being impeached for a period of one year, under the highly questionable Supreme Court ruling on impeachment. At least 190 congressmen were later said to have received P200,000 to P500,000 each to support the transmittal of the nuisance complaint to the Committee on Justice, which is now expected to kill it.

Unfortunately, the largesse spread to the governors who had come to Malacanang that same day, and Murphy’s law intervened. (“If anything can go wrong, it will.”) The visibly incredulous priest-governor of Pampanga, a first timer in politics, picked up the P500,000 he had received inside a brown bag in awe, and showed it on television. This was a first in the history of the Palace. It instantly exposed what the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines called the “moral bankruptcy” of the regime, and quickly revived calls for Arroyo’s resignation. The same calls had dominated the headlines after the famous “Hello, Garci” tape revealed the cheating in the 2004 presidential elections and subsided only before the campaign for the 2007 elections.

It was at this point then, when Mrs. Arroyo seemed to be ripe for the coup de grace, that the Glorietta II explosion came. It quickly threatened to divert public attention from the smoldering bribery scandal that had brought the regime so close to the edge. Panicked by scandal, Mrs. Arroyo suddenly found the opportunity to appear on tv, looking glum and angry, and condoling with the victims and their families.

She then warned “destabilizers” not to exploit the tragedy for their own ends. She sounded dead serious, but her words did not quite blunt the accusation already making the rounds that it was a “bomb me” operation, as probably indicated by the traces of C4 at the point of impact. C4 is found in the military inventory alone.

Mrs. Arroyo was right to ask the nation to unite in trying to discover and punish the perpetrators. One way to do this is to bring in independent, reputable foreign experts, who will tell us the truth, rather that somebody’s propaganda line. But it would be totally wishful if she also expected the people to unite in supporting continued immorality in government.

Not even tragedy wipes out our sins. Mrs. Arroyo cannot possibly believe, or even suggest, that the Glorietta incident had earned her a reprieve from the rising call for her resignation and that of her entire government. For if the incident was, indeed, the work of terrorists, then the first conclusion that could be drawn from it is the appalling incompetence of her government.

There was a marked failure of intelligence. The C4 obviously went past the K-9 special agent and his dog deployed at every mall entrance to smell gunpowder, C4, dangerous drugs and other substances. Are we now to grant the point of the security critics when they say that because of inept and incompetent security policies and practices these dogs are not even able to smell these dangerous substances anymore?

How then can we depend upon the regime to ensure the physical security and safety of our people? Should the regime be given special grace for its demonstrated ineptitude and incompetence? Indeed, the bombing should unite us not only in grief but also in condemning the savagery of the unknown perpetrators. But what happens if it is ultimately shown that the “act of terrorism”, which we all condemn, was, in fact, as Trillanes and others suggest, an illegal military or police operation?

We should mourn the dead, show our compassion for the wounded, and do everything to make sure that the Glorietta incident does not ever happen again. But we should allow no one and no incident to deter us from insisting on having a government grounded on the truth, justice, and good rather than on falsehood, injustice and evil, and that will never exploit any human tragedy to prolong an immoral rule.

Friday, October 19, 2007

We must now compel Arroyo to remove herself

The butchers of Burma may have made their country the most frightening in the world. But the Arroyo administration has made itself the most corrupt and morally depraved in Southeast Asia, if not in the world. Everyone else may only run for second place.

The moral decay did not begin on Oct. 5, 2007 when lawyer Roberto Rafael Pulido and Laguna Congressman Edgar San Luis initiated, reportedly for a fee, what is generally seen as a nuisance complaint for impeachment, purposely to protect rather than prosecute President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her role in the now-cancelled, highly overpriced, bribery-ridden $329-million ZTE National Broadband Network contract.

It did not begin on Oct. 11 when 190 congressmen in the morning and more congressmen in the evening, and 48 provincial governors in-between, reportedly received brown bags containing P200,000 to P500,000 each from unnamed official functionaries in Malacanang.

It did not begin when Pampanga's priest-Governor Ed Panlilio revealed that he had received one such brown bag containing P500,000 in five bundles of P1000 bills, and showed the money to the public during a press conference.

The moral decay had long set in. It was well in progress in 2001 when Mrs. Arroyo first seized the presidency in a judicially assisted military coup, supported by probably well-meaning but myopic and misguided members of the perfumed elite.

It was in an advanced state in 2004 when Mrs. Arroyo claimed victory in the presidential elections despite evidence of massive fraud, participated in by well-positioned military and police officers named in the infamous tape-recording of her highly incriminatory conversations with former Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, Jr.

The rot spread when none of the generals so named were investigated or court martialed, but were promoted instead and put on top of their far worthier and more honorable comrades. It continued to assail our senses whenever a major scandal erupted, and the questionable transaction was cleared, the palpable wrongdoer absolved, and the whistleblower ended in the soup. One could expose the ugliest details of the most sordid crime by those in power, and the only response he got was: "So what? Is there anything you can do about it?" And there seemed to be no stopping it.

Constitutional and legal shortcuts abridged human rights and civil liberties, thrashed the principle of check and balance and the separation of powers, and made certain laws subject to whimsical and wrongful modifications by the Executive. The Supreme Court justices legitimated many of these abuses; on their own, they single-handedly destroyed the constitutional law on impeachment.

No public distinction seemed to exist anymore between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, between good and evil. The strength of the law has been replaced with the law of the strong – the law of those in charge. And the only distinction that seemed to matter to them was between "we" and "you" ----"we are in power, and you are not."

After years of seeing their civil and political rights violently suppressed, many had come to believe it no longer made sense to protest against the criminal syndicate that has replaced government. All the syndicate had to do was to buy those who could be bought, and arrest, intimidate and physically silence by temporary or permanent means those who could not be bought.

It took the priest-Governor of Pampanga brandishing that venal bundle of cash on television, and Mrs. Arroyo maintaining a Sphinx-like silence for days while the headlines screamed rape for the people finally to see that official corruption and depravity had gone too far ---far beyond what they were prepared to tolerate.

No one is naïve enough to believe this was the first time money of this kind was ever distributed inside the Palace. The last two failed impeachment attempts against Mrs. Arroyo had been marked with similar stories about congressmen being bought by the Palace. But not a single courtesan squealed.

This was the first time physical evidence of political loot ever made the prime time tv newscast, courtesy of a political novice who was not suffering from a severe surplus of funds nor nursing a political grudge against Malacanang. But while all of Mrs. Arroyo's men with an IQ below room temperature were trying to explain the unexplainable, Mrs. Arroyo kept herself scarce, as though nothing had happened, nothing was happening, and nothing could ever happen to disturb her peace.

That tv footage, played and replayed over and over again, could yet do to Mrs. Arroyo what that famous photo of a Vietnamese officer about to empty his handgun on the head of a kneeling Vietcong man did to the United States and its allies in Vietnam during the war.

Had this incident happened in Japan, where we recently saw a spate of Cabinet resignations, Mrs. Arroyo and her entire government would have immediately resigned, with a profuse apology to the Filipino people. If she was impelled by a greater sense of honor and duty to the people, she might have committed sepuko and disemboweled herself within hours. Instead, she went missing from the scene for seven days and tried to distract herself and the nation from the burning issue of the day. Only then did she finally say the "cash gift" should be investigated.

Some senators also want it investigated. But it is no longer the season for such kneejerk. Almost everything in this country has been investigated; we are suffering from a surfeit of probes without purpose and without result. We must now compel Mrs. Arroyo and her entire government to act. They must learn from the Japanese and other civilized races and remove themselves from the scene, while it is yet possible to do so with some dignity and grace.

Otherwise, we must now do our duty and claim our rights, reclaim our country from the deep abyss where gross immorality has grounded it. This is no longer the time for anyone of us to be sending frivolous or insulting text messages as a way to get even with the object of our outrage. This is the time to be angry, as Jesus before the money-changers in the Temple got angry, yet to decide calmly and soberly that we will confront the evil and end it, whatever the cost or consequence. This has to be the point of no return. There should be no turning back.