Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Sound of Silence

"Diminishing returns" is a well-worn business phrase. But as tycoons have plundered from philosophers like Sun Tzu, the better to improve profit margins, so has civil society – as big a lover of jargon – borrowed from those who otherwise sit at the opposite end of the negotiating table.

Activists and champions of various causes know about diminishing returns. They all genuflect at the feet of big business (or rich foreign political groups) for a share of those tax shelters masquerading as gifts of charity. It's just a matter of matching vested interests to causes and, in some instances, choosing the lesser evil. Which is why the NGO community is so well-versed at shifting priorities to reflect donors' "flavour of the month" or the year or the decade. There's gender, and reproductive health; there's peace-building and human rights; the current favourite is democracy-building.

If the benevolent rich display intermittent periods of donor fatigue, the warm bodies and angry souls that are essential to a successful social movement also make beelines for the exit from time to time.

Call it disillusionment, or the loss of innocence, or even being eaten up by the system. When the goal is change, the road to it may just be as important as actually achieving that social end. After all, some causes may not be won till after our lifetimes; in the meantime, we are answerable to our consciences.

Thus, we hear talk of obsolete approaches; of the need to distinguish between objective and subjective conditions; of tailoring the message to the audience; of – gasp! – listening to the crowd first before stuffing our prescriptions down its collective throat.

All of the above may be reasons for the disappointing results of the opposition's periodic calls to oust President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Maybe people have grown tired of People Power – perhaps not the grand fiesta but the aftermath. Maybe the opposition can't quite see that antipathy towards Mrs. Arroyo, and her husband and assorted hangers on, is matched only by hostility towards those who see a convicted plunderer as still a legitimate leader of this nation.

Maybe they're not listening enough, if they're listening at all. As God once quipped to a perpetual moaner: "It's not like I'm ignoring you; it's just that you talk too much I can't get a word in!"

For activists and civil society (what in God's name does THAT mean?) head honchos moaning about apathy, here's a word of advice. Listen to what isn't being said.

RockEd, that innovative group of dreamers, seems to have gotten the message right. The youth are silent because there are so many things they want to say to so many folk; they don't even know where to start. In admitting to that confusion, RockEd shows a level of honesty and degree of humility beyond the ken of opposition stalwarts.

Our young reporter, Alexis, urges us: Listen. There is music in the sunset. There is rage in silence. And there is a message from those struck mute by the clangor of our times.

As RockEd's Gang Badoy puts it: "Wala akong masyadong pakialam sa government at this point. I'm really here more to protest the non-participation of people who are lucky enough to get an education. Kasi more than Malacanang's corruption or more than the Congress's crazy way of doing things, the bigger complaint for me is that we've allowed them to do it. "

Perhaps Badoy should just take that argument one more step. We allow them to do it because we'd do the same if given half the chance.

The youth are getting it right. Change starts with us, every single Filipino soul. There are no short-cuts. If enough of us say no to tong and the quid pro quo, the crooked and the corrupt will get the message of diminishing returns. G


(*This entry was published as a column in the Philippine GRAPHIC magazine two Mondays back. The next entry came out in last Monday’s GRAPHIC issue.)

I have young adult children and so get the chance of discuss stuff with them and their friends and cousins.

They’re as cynical about politicians – both with the administration and the opposition – as their elders are. They laugh at the romantic notion of evicting President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo via postcards and snort whenever aging ideologues call for replacing Mrs. Arroyo with a junta.

Only time will tell if their distrust of “People Power” will change. For now, it’s safe to say that unless the government does something truly disastrous the young generation is unlikely to be fodder for Oust-Gloria protest rallies.

It’s a matter of perception – and of choice.

Opinion leaders, many in their 40s and older, think the country is on the road to hell and the only solution is replacing the driver.

The young agree about hell lying in wait. But they think the solution lies elsewhere: Collective tinkering with a wheezing vehicle, the dismantling of roadblocks and a more discerning choice of routes. These acts require sober dialogue, not the hissy fits coming from all shades of the political spectrum these days.

In short, the young also think our politicians are hopeless fools but they have higher confidence in themselves and their fellow citizens.

We rant and nitpick and perpetually moan about a half-empty glass. Our kids eye the choices available, roll up their sleeves and plot to have fun while working for their future.

We whine about peons in call-service centers. Our kids give lopsided, sleepy grins while waving their payslips.

We scream at the television when it displays lying officials and truculent critics of the government. Our kids pick up the remote control bar and switch to MTV. Or they power up the PC, go-online and surf for You Tube gems.

We rant and rave but take daily short-cuts, contributing to the corruption that floods the bureaucracy with its evil stench.

Our kids line-up and stare down crooked bureaucrats across the counter, and wear them down with patient but dogged negotiation.

Our politics sucks, yes. Yet the economy is growing, partly due to government policies but mainly because Filipinos are learning that their success is independent of the crooks and fools who walk the corridors of power.

I don’t know whether Mrs. Arroyo will complete her term. And frankly, I don’t really care.

But I know there’s hope for us Pinoys when my son, all of 22, announces a plan to “retire” after his second stint as chef on a cruise liner and come home to start a small business using savings from wage and tips and extra income as comic barker in fun art auctions.

The kids may be on to something. Revolutions take all kinds.

Only When We Laugh

MANILA, Philippines -- “The Pen? Such poor taste! The buffet is much better at the Shang!”

Trust Filipinos to get the text brigade going. Minutes after Antonio Trillanes IV and company walked out of a Makati court trial to sashay towards the Peninsula hotel, SMS started boogieing down the information highway.

Not black propaganda; the ones from the Armed Forces and the administration we’ve learned to recognize – they lack humor and sag with the weight of grammatical errors. Just ironic and, in some instances, sarcastic quips from the usual uzi’s (Filipino slang for kibitzers; it says a lot about a culture that, unfortunately, sees acts of violence as entertainment).

That the uzi’s – that’s all of us – opted to view the show this time from the safety of living rooms and offices, signalled early on that Trillanes and Danilo Lim were headed for failure.

There were none of the spontaneous agit-prop that swamped our mobile phones during EDSA II -- which itself was different from the original People Power uprising in that there was no gaggle of troops needing warm bodies as shields.

Instead, there were jokes, many on the verge of mocking and insulting: How the gum-chewing Trillanes couldn’t be taken seriously, how some reporters were skirting too close to the groupie line, and the Magdalo guy, behind Lim at the press conference, who sported televised history’s most spectacular display of a bad hair day.

Later, angry messages of condemnation also came through text. This was no viral campaign by the administration. The messages conveyed outrage at Lim and Trillanes for cavalierly claiming they were empowered by the “masses,” the “people” and, the voters.

Was it lawyer JV Bautista who tried to underplay the crime committed by calling the whole shebang a “political act?” He was partly right; the response to their caper underscored how the political can be very personal.

My sisters, for example, who sneaked in Trillanes at the bottom of the Senate ballot – to give him a chance, to have some fiscalizer in the chamber– let loose a string of curses when he claimed the plot to drag down President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from power had the blessings of the 11 million voters who gave him his Senate seat.

“Color blind ba si Trillanes?” (Is Trillanes color blind?) “Apples are red and oranges, orange!”

“I voted for a Senate seat, not a junta!”

Poor Trillanes; assuming car horns and whistles were declarations of support. I suppose there’s nothing so humiliating for a handsome, macho young man than appropriating a hotel for his party and discovering the only takers are a bunch of old geezers and lawyers stuck in a state of suspended adolescence.

“Get a date with Sonny. He knows how to give a girl some rock and roll. But remember: he cries easy and and bring a gag in case he starts to whine.”

Friday, November 30, 2007


MANILA, Philippines -- A detained coup plotter and new senator of the republic took over a luxury hotel in the country's financial district Thursday in yet another armed attempt to oust President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. But the moment Antonio Trillanes opened his mouth marked the beginning of the end of his bizarre quest for power.
After taunting government forces, saying his group of an estimated 30 rogue troops had enough will to oust the unpopular Mrs. Arroyo, Trillanes and cashiered general Danilo Lim surrendered amid noxious teargas fumes and the crash of glass as an armored personnel carrier rammed its way into the Manila Peninsula hotel lobby.
Trillanes ended the seven-hour standoff claiming his group did not want to be responsible for the possible deaths of a handful of civilian supporters and more than a hundred journalists.
"You are victims and witnesses to the ruthlessness of this government," the former Navy officer told reporters.

No People in quest for Power
The real reason for Trillanes' ignominious surrender was apparent hours before elite cops led him to a bus enroute to the capital region police headquarters.
Despite a viral text (SMS) campaign and the appearance of a website supporting the coup attempt, and Trillanes' televised appeal, no crowd gathered around the hotel.
The only report of civilian reinforcements were two jeepneys blocked by cops. The occupants of the vehicles, said to be urban poor supporters of deposed president Joseph Estrada, claimed they had been paid a few hundreds of pesos to attend a rally.
Bad weather could have discouraged protesters from gathering around the five-star hotel. Government troops in full battle gear also moved fast to block access to the Peninsula.
A defeated Trillanes would later complain that his supporters were turned away or were scared off by the state's bristling display of force.
But threat of bloodshed failed to stop two People Power revolts that toppled the same number of Presidents. The first peaceful uprising that ousted the two-decade dictatorship of the late Ferdinand Marcos had nuns and students facing down tanks. The second massive protest that brought down Mr. Estrada also took place amid threats of a government crackdown.

Wrong message
The real reason for the failure of the Peninsula caper was simple: While majority of Filipinos distrust and dislike the scandal-prone Arroyo government, their cynicism also covers an inept and fragmented political opposition.
It is an opposition with varied, often conflicting, interests. The manifesto prepared by Trillanes' camp sounded the death knell for their attempt at people power.
Aside from listing the scandals that have hounded Mrs. Arroyo, the manifesto also alleged that the incumbent Chief Executive had "stolen" the Presidency from Mr. Estrada.
That statement, in effect, alienated the million-strong protesters that had massed on the EDSA highway after Mr. Estrada's Senate pals blocked the opening of crucial evidence in his impeachment trial.
It may have been aimed at rousing Estrada's still many fans among the urban poor. But the renegade officers and their civilian cohorts may have forgotten a salient fact of Philippine people power exercises -- the need for middle-class skills and resources.
Mr. Estrada's recent pardon, in fact, had caused an outcry from reformist groups in the country, including the private prosecutors that won a conviction for plunder. It was seen as an encouragement of corruption and a desperate, expedient act by an administration facing public unrest over a series of scandals involving high officials and Mrs. Arroyo's controversial and powerful husband.
How Trillanes could have thought that Mr. Estrada could be a rallying point is something that boggles political observers,
In fact, most politicians identified with the ousted leader stayed away. And the former president himself seemed clueless about the madcap stunt.

The few civilian opposition leaders at the ritzy hotel seemed as out of touch with reality as the younger military officers were.
Former vice president Teofisto Guingona at one point raised a glass of water for a premature victory toast. Trillanes' laywers, JV Bautista and Argee Guevarra, acted as cheerleaders when their client's confidence started flagging and he turned away to avoid reporters' questions. The lawyers, alluding to the November 30 holiday honoring Andres Bonifacio -- leader of the Katipunan that started the uprising against Spanish colonizers -- said there would be no backing down. They likened the stand-off and the imminent threat of government force as an opportunity for heroism; both said they were ready to die.
Trillanes never as much while vowing to bring down the government. And in the end, it was with a whine and a pout that he ended his pathetic excuse for a coup.