Category: randy david

What the pork barrel scam reveals about us

By Randy David

For more than 10 years, a good number of lawmakers, with the aid of the fixers who assisted them, were able to pocket the entire cash value of their Priority Development Assistance Fund, without anyone in government publicly protesting that there was anything wrong in what they were doing. That is astonishing. It reveals a high tolerance for corruption that contradicts all the norms of modern government enshrined in our Constitution. It exposes the feebleness of our institutional control systems.

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The bases redux

By Randy David

In September 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to reject a new bases treaty that would have allowed the United States to keep its military facilities in the Philippines. That decision was a watershed in the relationship between the Philippines and its former colonial master. Many thought of it as marking the true beginning of a postcolonial era for the country, which acquired its formal status as an independent nation in 1946. Yet, the US bases issue did not end there.

There has been, since 1991, a determined effort to reverse the effects of the Senate vote. First, our leaders thought we had to appease our American friends. The Visiting Forces Agreement was crafted mainly for that purpose. Because it ran against the spirit of the 1991 vote, the VFA was rationalized as integral to our commitments under the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty. Then, after 9/11, the global hunt for the al-Qaida terrorist cells in Southern Mindanao extended the scope of the VFA. Visiting American troops subsequently became a regular fixture in Mindanao.

Today, ironically, the justification for regularizing the American military presence in the country revolves around the same reason that had been invoked in the early debates on the US bases—the threat posed by China. What had seemed so ridiculously remote in the late 1960s and ’70s, when China was an underdeveloped agrarian economy hobbled by ideology, now appears so real that if the same bases treaty were submitted to a Senate vote today, it could win handily.

What has changed dramatically is China’s place in the world. In a span of only three decades, the backward country next door has achieved a level of economic prosperity that was thought impossible under Maoist leadership. The key factor was Deng Xiaoping. It was he who made it conceivable for the Chinese Communist Party to preside over the capitalist transformation of that country’s economy.

The rise of China as an economic power has however unleashed its own dynamic. It cannot now afford to stop growing. This unceasing drive for growth has in turn fueled an unquenchable thirst for natural resources wherever they may be found. It is the old story of imperialism. A new rising power starts flexing its military muscles in order to secure resources it cannot obtain through economic cooperation and diplomatic means. That’s where China is today. It seeks to convert the economies of its poorer neighbors into components of its own gigantic economy. This is what it has lately done to Africa. It is what it has tried to do in the Philippines—not by enlisting the help of the local communists but by generously rewarding politicians who are willing to use their powers to accommodate China’s expansionary agenda.

China’s leaders had a cozy relationship with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Today, it is the opposite. China has taken an overtly hostile attitude toward the P-Noy administration. It can wait until P-Noy’s term is over. But, China now has the power to shape events—to intervene, like the United States has done, in the internal affairs of any country. In the next presidential election, China may not be content with simply being a spectator.

I salute the way P-Noy has stood up to Chinese bullying. But it is unfortunate that the assertion of our sovereignty vis-à-vis China is pushing us toward a revival of the colonial relationship that our past leaders had heroically tried to end. It is bad enough that the VFA—which was originally meant only to provide a legal cover for visiting US forces participating in occasional joint military exercises—has been used to legitimize the regular presence in the country of American troops. It is such a shame (not to mention a patent violation of the Constitution) that we are now talking of constructing new facilities in Subic and Clark for the use of foreign troops.

If all this is because we wish to protect ourselves from China, then we need to review our premises. First, the United States is in Asia for its own interests and not for ours. Part of those interests is to contain China’s military power and influence. While we may indeed find common ground with America, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that US troops are here to defend our national interests against those of China. Most of all, we cannot surrender to America the same sovereignty we passionately assert against China.

Second, do we really believe that China’s leaders are prepared to actually start a war over territorial claims in the South China Sea? It is safe to assume that they know such a war would draw the United States into the conflict, and there would be no way of preventing its escalation. Should war with China become unavoidable, US forces would prefer to fight it in Asia, rather than on American soil.

“This rigmarole about protecting the Philippines is window-dressing: is it not?” Sen. J. William Fulbright asked Rear Adm. Draper Kauffman in a 1969 hearing of the US congressional subcommittee on US security agreements and commitments abroad. Admiral Kauffman, then the commander of the US naval forces in the Philippines, stammered and replied thus: “No, sir; I do not think it is window-dressing. I think it is a mutual advantage or else we would probably have to pay rent, something like that, if there were no advantage to them. I think they believe it to be in their advantage from their own defense point of view, but I believe we are there … because these are very fine bases for the United States.”

American interests in the region have not changed much. But, we have changed. We cannot turn our back on what we achieved in 1991 when our senators said “No” to a new bases agreement—emancipation from our colonial past.

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Communities of memory

By Randy David

A few days ago, I participated in a forum to explore the purpose and methodology of establishing a “museum of memory” that would contain and preserve memories from the dark period of martial law. The concept behind this is prompted by the strong feeling that today’s young people hardly have an idea of what happened during the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship. The premise, of course, is that the memory of this period must not be allowed to fade because, if Santayana is correct, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

On the initiative of the Edsa People Power Commission and the National Historical Commission, three specialists from Latin America were invited to share their insights and experiences on the establishment of museums, parks, and monuments commemorating the struggle against dictatorship and state violence in their respective countries. The three guests—Eugenia Ulfe of Peru, Patricia Tappata of Argentina, and Lelia Perez of Chile—spoke with great wisdom about the complex struggle to recover the voices of the countless victims of repression and their sometimes frustrating quest for justice when the dictatorship ended.

The exercise of memory, they said, is but one of the four essential tasks of a post-authoritarian government if it is concerned with healing and reconciling the national community. The other three are: truth, justice, and reparation. Listening to them, one realizes that the main reason we have been poor at remembering is because, in the first place, we failed to document in a sustained and systematic way what happened during that period, particularly in the remote towns and among the less prominent sectors of our society. That failure has left an empty space in our own consciousness.

The idea of setting up a process to hear the victims and to confront the perpetrators of state violence was from the outset rejected as divisive. The successive coup attempts launched against Cory Aquino’s presidency served as stern warnings that the government would be making a big mistake if it started digging up inconvenient truths about martial law.

Without anything approximating a truth commission, the most that could be produced was a list of the victims, and even this was incomplete. Because some of the central figures of martial law were part of the new government, it was difficult to bring any of the military leaders responsible for the tortures, disappearances, and illegal detentions to trial. Later, a general amnesty formalized the self-induced amnesia that set in almost as a precondition to the survival of the new government.

Reparation was one area where something valuable could have been accomplished. Yet even this was denied the victims. When the latter sued the Marcoses before American courts demanding compensation for the victims of human rights violations, judgments in their favor could not be enforced without the consent of the Philippine government that had claimed prior rights over all Marcos properties. To this day, the government has refused to compensate the victims of human rights violations during martial law. Yet, it did not think twice about paying the debts owed to financial institutions that were incurred by the Marcos regime.

The three Latin American guests said that symbolic reparation is often more important to achieving closure than material reparation. This entails giving the victims and their kin the chance to recover their dignity and validate their experiences. This can only be done if their stories are allowed to be freely told, collected, and preserved. These stories must be situated in the broader context of the events that marked that period. Someone’s imprisonment or torture or rape in the hands of military captors must not be treated as a cause for stigma or shame, to be buried as a family secret. Only in this sense can truth be redemptive.

From all this, wrote the Jewish philosopher Avishai Margalit in his thought-provoking work, “The ethics of memory,” we may glean an ethics of remembering that must be distinguished from the politics of memory or the psychology of memory. An ethics of memory implies an obligation to remember and also to forget. It involves complex attitudes and sentiments that come with what he terms “thick” relations—relations that are “moored in shared memory.”

“Thick relations are grounded in attributes such as parent, friend, lover, fellow-countryman.” The operative themes that mark such relationships are those of loyalty and betrayal, gratitude and love. “Thin relations, on the other hand, are backed by the attribute of being human.” These are our relationships to the “stranger and remote.” Here, the operative themes are usually those of respect and humiliation. Margalit says that ethics refers to how we should live with those who are bound to us by shared memory. Morality refers to the rules that govern our relationships to the rest of humanity.

Read in this context, it becomes clear that the project of a museum of memory has to confront the tricky issues posed by the ethics of remembering. This cannot be done by a committee working separately from the communities of memory that alone must decide what to remember and what to forget. The purpose must be neither merely to exhibit the trauma of the past nor to demonize the perpetrators. If it is to succeed, a memory museum cannot have any other purpose than to reawaken the values of loyalty, forgiveness, gratitude, and solidarity that hold us together as a people bound by thick relations.

The fate of our mother languages

By Randy David

This school year, when public school teachers begin using 12 of the country’s mother tongues as languages of instruction in the first three years of grade school, they may find that employing the local language for writing and reading won’t be as easy as speaking it. They have to persist and not give up easily.

Our languages have suffered immensely from our failure to regularly use them for written communication. One can imagine how difficult it must have been for the Department of Education to produce mother tongue-based teaching materials overnight for the new K+12 basic education program. This is not the fault of our languages. It is, rather, the result of the confused language policy of a political system torn between two social tasks—the building of a national community and rapid economic development. Except for the rare writers and culture-bearers who continued to express themselves in their mother tongues, hardly any educated Filipino today uses the local languages in their written form.

Tagalog has survived as a written language mainly because it had been mandated to be the base of Filipino, the national language. Even so, it can hardly be regarded as the principal language of the literate Filipino. That place belongs to English. Proof of this is the almost total absence of foreign books translated into Filipino. It is bad enough that only a few literary and scholarly works are published in Filipino or in any other Filipino language. Worse, not one of our local languages is used as a medium for transmitting the knowledge and literature of other cultures.

Compare this with the situation in other countries. While English has become the world’s most widely spoken second language, everywhere in Europe, people prefer to read English and American works in their French or German or Italian or Dutch translations. In bookstores in Germany or France, newly released novels originally written in English exist side by side their translations in German or French, but the market clearly favors the translations. The logical explanation for this is that, while they speak good English, Europeans also think they don’t know it well enough to grasp its idioms and nuances.

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks offers a different explanation for the preference for translations. He says that “in most translations there will usually be some memory or trace of the original language, which, for those who are familiar with it, will reinforce their sense of knowing that other world…. But rather than feeling persuaded as a result to give up on translations and tackle the novels in their original language, they seemed to take pleasure in criticizing the translator for having allowed this to happen…. Again, the reading experience reinforces self-regard.”

We find this, by the way, not only in Europe but also in Southeast Asia, where one would stumble upon translations of, for example, Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” or Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” in Bahasa or in Thai. Again, this is hardly surprising in countries where home-grown academics and writers themselves regularly publish their works in the local languages rather than in English.

It is typical for educated Filipinos to take pride in their command of both spoken and written English. This, no doubt, has come about largely because English is the only language they learn to read and write. But one must wonder whether this is necessarily a good thing. “When you learn a language,” says Parks in the NYRB article, “you don’t just pick up a means of communication, you buy into a culture, you get interested.” For many English-speaking Filipinos, who have lost their mother tongues, there is no other world against which they can compare the one they read about in English. This could partly explain the great cultural gap that divides educated Filipinos from the rest of the Filipino nation.

But, as significantly, the great haste with which we embraced English as our lifeline to the modern world made us throw away our own languages. Many of these languages had already acquired formal structures when the Americans came at the turn of the 20th century—thanks to the Spanish friars who, rather than teach Spanish, had taken pains to prepare vernacular dictionaries and grammar books in aid of religious instruction. It may be true that the persistence of this Babel of languages made it difficult for the Filipinos to unite against their Spanish oppressors. But then, the resistance against the American colonial power fared no better after America made English the language of instruction in the public schools.

Today, in the age of globalization, the Babel of local languages, or what remains of them, might be the last refuge of the ethical. This is a point made by the renowned scholar of postcolonialism, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her most recent work, “An aesthetic education in the era of globalization.” She writes: “Even a good globalization (the failed dream of socialism) requires the uniformity which the diversity of mother-tongues must challenge. The tower of Babel is our refuge.” Much of the ethical component of a language is what usually gets lost or distorted in translation—“as the unaccountable ethical structure of feeling is transcoded into the calculus of accountability. The idiom is singular to the tongue.”

In a previous column, I have written that perhaps of the various components of the K+12 program, it is the use of the mother tongues for the early learning years that may yet prove to be the most important. I have a strong hunch that the recovery of what is ethical in our culture begins from this.