Sunday, July 27, 2008



Getting Around

Last week my wife (asawa ko in Tagalog) and I decided to play tourists in the city where we’ve lived for years now, Metro Manila. We do this from time-to-time, although not recently. In a metropolitan area of twelve contiguous cities and something like fifteen million people, there are a few things we haven’t seen yet!

About a year and a half ago passenger ferry service was inaugurated taking people down the Pasig River. This is the great waterway that winds its way from the uplands down through the city and finally washes into Manila Bay. The ferry begins on the outskirts of Metro Manila in Pasig City and ends at the walled city of Intramuros in the heart of the City of Manila and takes about an hour from one end to the other. There are fourteen stations along the way.

On the weekends there are only four trips each way and it is almost entirely local tourists with a few foreigners. With some 150 seats available everyone can have one but a lot of people hang out in a railed observation area at the front of the boat. On working days there are probably as many commuters standing as sitting. Some nice photos and more detail are available at:

When I first arrived in the Philippines in 1983 I of course passed through Metro Manila before heading to Mindanao. The person orienting me, a Canadian, observed that, “about half the people in Metro Manila are employed driving the other half around.”

Transportation in Metro Manila has changed much in twenty-five years, but a lot of people are still employed moving the rest of the people around.

Much has been written about the ubiquitous jeepneys. These contraptions came into use shortly after World War II. American military jeeps were purchased for a song with the rear extended to carry passengers. Sixty years on, this is probably still how most Filipinos – rural and urban – get around. Today’s jeepney carries the driver and two passengers in the front, and about eighteen passengers in the rear, facing each other. Getting in and out means bending way down; the older and taller you are, the more painful it is. The vehicle is decorated with aluminum horses and adorned with religious slogans and murals – some quite good – painted on the side depicting a saint, a showgirl, or the city where the owner earned the money to buy the thing. Usually the jeepney carries a name as well: Jesus the Lord, Saudi, Maria Clara, Virgin Mary, or some such thing.

Buses ply the main streets of Metro Manila, and connect the major cities. These are with aircon and without, and include used buses imported from wealthier Asian countries as well as comfortable new ones.

The main thoroughfare in Metro Manila, Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue, or EDSA, is now off-limit to jeepneys. In fact, the main jeepney-making company, Sarao, closed down a few years ago. For fifty years Sarao imported engines from Japan and built the chassis here. At the end, they were still turning out one a day. It was a cottage industry.

I feel no nostalgia regarding the eventual passing of the jeepney. The late Filipino historian, Renato Constantino, once referred to them as “an appropriate but unfortunate symbol of our nation, flashy, pretentious, and totally inefficient.” Only a Filipino with strong nationalist credentials could get away with a statement like that!

The jeepneys compete for passengers with the FXs, enclosed vehicles that are air conditioned. They carry ten passengers but are much more crowded than jeepneys and on cool, dry, winter days I’ll take a jeepney over an FX any day.

Finally, there are the Light Rail Transit trains. The first LRT was established running a strait north-south route from just south of the City of Manila to Quezon City in 1984. It is probably the best infrastructure built during the Marcos dictatorship.

In 1999 a newer train was established running down the center of most of EDSA. A few years ago a third line was established from Marikina on the far side of Quezon City and going down to Central Manila. It crosses the EDSA line, and meets the original train at the south side. Plans are for the old line to meet the EDSA line on the north side in a few years.

Were it not for the trains, ground transportation would be totally gridlocked.

Until a few months ago, one sat or stood on the EDSA train and looked down at the much slower moving buses, cars, and taxis below.

One could safely say – even though more infrequent visitors to the Philippines might deny it – that for nearly ten years there has been a steady improvement in transportation in the Philippines. There has been less gridlock, more comfortable and efficient trains, and fewer jeepneys.

Then came the energy crisis.

For over a year asawa ko has been commuting to her job in the Ortigas business district. Typically she takes a short taxi ride the beginning of the EDSA train at North Avenue Station. The train takes about fifteen or twenty minutes and the entrance way to her office right below the Ortigas Station. She takes the train on the return then transfers to a taxi or jeepney.

Already, for over a year the train has filled up completely from the first station where asawa ko boards. She’s learned how to maneuver quickly so she usually gets a seat, but it is crowded to the extreme from the moment the trip begins.

Two months ago, before the fuel crisis, the EDSA train was at capacity with 350,000 passenger trips per day. Today it is carrying 450,000 and rising every day. Bus and jeepney fairs have gone up, but the train is subsidized so as of yet there is no fair increase planned for the train. Buses have more stops, so depending on the destination the bus can be more convenient, but it’s now more expensive than the train. A huge number of former bus passengers are now taking the train, as well as motorists who park their cars near the train stations. The social demographics of the train have changed with more people in business attire pushing in along with the secretaries and working class folk.

Meanwhile, look down to the street below, and it’s empty, the buses and the few remaining cars moving fast down the road.

The government has put in more orders for the Belgian-made train cars. This will increase capacity by 25 percent. In addition, heavy commute hours, when more trains are operating, have been extended by an hour. It is estimated that by year’s end capacity and use will double.

While life in Metro Manila has been improving over the last several years, in recent months it has become much more stressful, mainly due to the transportation issue, and the food crisis, with the cost of groceries increasing more rapidly than even fuel.

Today the president will give her annual State of the Nation Address. As with every SONA, she will tell lies, and thousands of protesters will gather outside the congress hall. She will talk about how she is not responsible for the current economic stress, and about the success of her handout programs. She will, of course, take credit for improvements in life, including the Ferry Service or the smoother traffic. My protest, however, will be to neither watch her on TV, nor read about it in tomorrow’s newspaper.

As for the Pasig Ferry, I’m not sure if it is the most efficient way to get from the outer edge of the city to old down town, but it is decidedly more pleasant, especially at this point, then taking the train!

Moving swiftly down the middle of the river I see parts of the city I’ve been to before, but I see them from a completely different side and angle, as if it’s not Metro Manila, not even the Philippines. Bridges cross the river here and there, and there are also small boats ferrying people back and forth across the river, connecting neighborhoods. I didn’t even know these boats existed. For most of the way the river front development is shabby to the extreme, lots of abandoned warehouses and empty factories. For long stretches it seems as if it is a rural river trip in, say, Laos or Thailand. Then we turn a corner on this winding river and get a view of urban high rise. For a short stretch there is river side condo development, and a few towns have established small river front parks. But for most of the way it is either rather bleak or rural seeming.

The Pasig River is not as dirty today as ten years ago. It is a little less toxic, and rarely smells like a sewer, as it used to. Again, some things have improved. Still, the urban poor kids swimming at the sides of the river are undoubtedly damaging their health and exposing themselves to all sorts of skin disorders.

I was surprised, passing through the City of Makati, near the financial district, that there weren’t any river front restaurants to speak of. With the right lighting it could actually be very romantic. Well, maybe some day when I inherit a million dollars…

Friday, July 18, 2008



The Non-Debate


I am reviving this blog after a long hiatus. This revival is partly due to a personal, felt need, queries from friends, and mostly the encouragement of my wife. I got distracted in large part by my job search, which many of you know about, including a quite unexpected trip to California. I will endeavor to be more regular about this in the future, and will remind many of you when I make new postings.

Today’s blog is a slightly revised version of a letter I recently sent to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, by far the best English language newspaper in the Philippines, and the one enjoying the largest circulation. Being in English, its readership is primarily middle and upper class. It has national distribution and is the leading newspaper in all major cities including, of course, Metropolitan Manila. Its online edition, , is among the top ten sites for hits on the World Wide Web, reflecting the millions of Filipino overseas contract workers who read it to stay in touch with life at home.

The letter addresses a recent controversy here in the Philippines involving the Roman Catholic Bishops’ opposition to birth control and their threatening to withhold communion from “pro-abortion politicians.” There are in fact no politicians in the Philippines advocating the legalization of abortion. It is a non-debate and that is the subject of my letter.

Thus far it has not been published, and I suspect it will not be. The length is not the issue. The INQUIRER publishes lots of long letters to the editor. I believe the issue is the INQUIRER’s fear of further antagonizing the Roman Catholic Church.

The odd thing is that there is nothing for the INQUIRER to fear. Nor is their anything for politicians to fear from the Bishops. Survey after survey indicates that very few Catholic Filipinos consider the positions taken by the Bishops on political issues or on candidates. When they vote, or make choices about their family or personal lives, Filipinos vote based on their experience. Despite an often magical world-view, Filipinos are very much this-worldly. There is no contradiction and that in it self could be the subject of a future blog.

I have been deeply nurtured in my spiritual and political life by Roman Catholic priests, brothers, sisters, and lay leaders. This has been the case in the United States and in the Philippines. But I also insist that the biggest obstacle to development and prosperity in the Philippines is not the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, or even U.S. imperialism. The biggest obstacle to prosperity and development in the Philippines is the Roman Catholic Church and the medieval thinking it encourages.

The letter follows:


Dear Editor,

For several days now the INQUIRER and other media have been covering the controversy around the issue of the Philippine Catholic Bishops recommending that their priests withhold communion from “pro-abortion politicians.” This issue has been taken up in news articles, columns, and editorials.

I believer the INQUIRER could do more to insist that the Bishops clarify what they are saying. It is not enough to simply give a daily “tit for tat” account of what the Bishops say one day and what some politicians say the next.

I will not address the moral arguments around abortion. For one, these are quite complex involving definitions of what constitutes abortion and issues of fetal development and consciousness. Secondly, no Philippine politician, to my knowledge, is advocating the legalization of abortion. The reproductive health legislation before the Philippine Congress and the ordinance approved by the Quezon City Council all explicitly reaffirm the illegality of abortion.

That is the point of this letter. What, exactly, are the Bishops saying? What is the point of condemning “pro-abortion politicians” when, in fact, there aren’t any? This is where the major newspaper in the Philippines must be more proactive. The INQUIRER must aggressively interview – interrogate even – the Bishops directly and not simply report what they say in a press release or press conference. This is a case where a religious organization has insinuated itself into the public sphere and the Bishops must be held accountable for their words and their logic in the same way as politicians.

If pushed on their statements, the Bishops would probably say something like this: “Promoting artificial birth control lowers the overall moral climate of a nation resulting in more extra-marital and unplanned sex resulting in more pregnancies and ultimately in more abortions.” Again, the media need to push them on these issues as their reasoning is contrary to all empirical evidence and also shows a marked confusion over what the Roman Catholic Church actually teaches.

I have taught Christian Social Ethics (Moral Theology) to both Catholic and Protestant students preparing for ministry in both the Philippines and the United States. Although I am not a Roman Catholic, as a student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, I studied ethics from Jesuit theologians and ethicists. To put it simply, I know what I’m talking about.

While the Roman Catholic Church opposes so-called “artificial birth control,” this is normally treated as a separate matter from abortion. According to Roman Catholic teaching, abortion is legitimate only when continuing the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, or when it is collateral to some other life-saving medical procedure, such as removing a cancerous uterus that happens to contain a fetus.

With regard to “artificial birth control” such as birth control pills, vasectomy, or condoms, while the Catholic Church clearly opposes this, it is an area where a Roman Catholic may disagree with the Church and still be in communion.

As for suggestions that promoting “artificial birth control” somehow leads to more abortions, nothing could be further from the truth. On several occasions INQUIRER articles have cited the figure that there are close to a half million abortions per year in the Philippines. This is close to the number of abortions annually in the United States, a country where abortion is legal in all states, and accessible in most. The United States is a much more populous country where “artificial birth control” is readily available yet, relative to the size of the population, there are far fewer abortions in the United States than in the Philippines.

The aggressive promotion of birth control and family planning technology in Malaysia and Thailand in the 1970s is telling. At that time, the population growth rates in those countries and in the Philippines were similar. Today, the population growth rate remains dangerously high in the Philippines, but is much lower in Malaysia and Thailand. The rapid economic growth in those two countries is attributable, in part, to the drop in population growth. Money that would otherwise have gone to schools to educate the growing number of children each year could be invested in infrastructure, resulting in more prosperous societies. The smaller number of children who were born in Malaysia and Thailand could go to better, less crowded schools, providing them a better education and resulting in countries that are, again, more competitive economically.

While the United States may be more liberal than the Philippines in matters of human sexuality, it is more conservative than many Western European countries. In the Netherlands and in the Scandinavian countries, for instance, sex education begins at a younger age than in the USA, and is far more comprehensive. Young people understand how their bodies work and how, if they choose to be sexually active, to avoid pregnancy. In these more liberal countries, however, young people start having sex at a later age and with far fewer pregnancies and abortions than in the relatively more conservative United States.

The basis of most Roman Catholic Social Teaching is what is called, “Natural Law.” Another way of talking about natural law is to speak of common sense or, simply, what we know from applying human reason. Common sense suggests that if couples have access to birth control – artificial or otherwise – there would be fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer abortions.

Today in the Philippines a significant number of people are not Roman Catholic. They are Protestants, evangelicals, Muslims, members of other faiths, and nonbelievers. Add to that the greater number of Roman Catholics who choose not to live every aspect of their lives according to Roman Catholic teaching, and you probably have a majority of the population. This majority, while generally opposing abortion, accepts modern birth control and family planning as a normal part of modern life and deeply resents the imposition by the Roman Catholic Bishops of a minority point of view on the general population.

Insofar as there really is no abortion debate in the Philippines, it seems to be “artificial birth control” that has the Bishops so upset. It is the responsibility of the INQUIRER and other media to insist that the Bishops clarify this and to explain their reasoning. If their reasoning is flawed, it is the responsibility of the media to point this out.

Respectfully submitted,

Thursday, November 29, 2007





Where the People Aren’t

This is a very bad day in the Philippines; possibly the worst in twenty years. I am writing this on Thursday evening, November 29. I was planning to post a new entry on this blog over the weekend, but this is not the topic I was planning to take up. A midnight to 5 a.m. curfew begins in two hours. Metro Manila has not had curfew since the fall of the dictator Marcos in 1986,

As I do most every Thursday or Friday I spent the morning reading in the Asian Development Bank library. This is without doubt the best library of development economics in Asia. I usually don’t get much past the magazines and journals, however. Not long before noon there was a notice that soldiers accused in a failed mutiny in 2003 were marching in the Makati central business district and that the area should be avoided.

I got home to Quezon City in mid-afternoon and stayed glued to the television for the next six hours. Some 30 or 40 lightly armed soldiers in fatigues marched to Makati’s Manila Peninsula Hotel and took over. With them was the leader of the failed 2003 mutiny Antonio Trillanes and his sidekick General Danilo Lim. The 2003 mutiny was centered on the Oakwood Hotel, also in Makati. Trillanes has been in jail for the last four years while his trial drags on and on. In the meantime he was elected to the Philippine Senate with 11 million votes (the 24 Philippine Senators are elected at large, with 12 elected every three years) in the May elections. Trillanes and Lim had walked out of the trial in what is portrayed as a spontaneous action.

I am completely disgusted by the behavior of everyone involved: the police, the rebel soldiers, the media, and the rebel’s civilian supporters including the three senile old idiots former Vice President Teofisto Guingona, former University of the Philippines President Francisco Nemenzo, and retired Roman Catholic Bishop Julio Labayen.

The police allowed armed soldiers to march to a five star business hotel and take over. Overwhelming force could easily have been amassed and stopped the march. Once there, the police allowed scores of media people and smaller numbers of urban poor (some still carrying the sack lunches they had been provided in this “spontaneous” uprising) to enter the hotel as well.

During the press conferences conducted by Lim and Trillanes from inside the hotel, they spoke vaguely of the corruption and illegitimacy of the government of President Gloria Arroyo. True, the government is illegitimate. No one seriously doubts that she cheated in the election of 2004. Trillanes is also correct in criticizing the impunity with which the military has gunned down several hundred leftwing political organizers and journalists since she took power in 2001. Arroyo was vice president when a military-civilian uprising installed her in power following the ouster of Joseph Estrada in 2001. But what does taking over a hotel and driving out the guests have to do with anything?

The media poured into the hotel. It was indeed exciting to watch the televised events from both sides, from that of the rebel troops, and from the side of the police. It is the job of media to get as close to the action as possible, but this was a criminal event, this armed takeover of a hotel. It was not the same as covering a revolutionary movement. It was not like going to a rebel zone, then returning to government controlled territory. It was more like covering a bank robbery from the perspective of the armed bank robber.

This will be an important point in the next days and weeks. Was this a criminal or political event? Insofar as the rebel troops have no ideology, and no mass base, I would insist that it was a criminal event.

Finally, there were the civilian supporters. In addition to the three stooges mentioned above, there were also the “running priest” Robert Reyes, former Sanlakas Party List Congressman J.V. Bautista, and a handful of other has-beens. Their presence reflects the near total bankruptcy of the left, including the religious left.

The brave Lim and Trillanes vowed that this was where they would make their stand. An hour or so later, when the police finally began to assert control over the situation and fired some teargas into the lobby, the civilian supporters said this only showed the violence of the regime, responding with brutality to the nonviolence of the rebel soldiers.


If armed bandits knock over a bank without firing a shot, we do not refer to them as “nonviolent.”

As for Lim and Trillanes, they quickly agreed to exit the hotel to the waiting police vehicles. They didn’t want to endanger the innocent civilians, they said. The hundred or so urban poor supporters on the outside, stickers and pre-printed support posters in-hand, quickly abandoned this spontaneous uprising as well.

Along with a significant number of media people who were inside the hotel, the soldiers and their civilian apologists were hauled off to jail.

Bishop Labayen pontificated about the voice of the people justifying their actions.

Hey Obispo, the people weren’t there.

The winner of this fiasco is Gloria Arroyo, who now has further justification for her repressive policies.

Thursday, November 22, 2007



It’s been too long since my last posting, but I do plan to be more regular with this from here on out. In addition to Rick Penner’s comment on the second posting, he recently sent around an email to his wide network of friends endorsing this and several other blogs. So, I guess I’d better say something new.


I’m writing this on Friday, November 23, here in Quezon City. Most of my American friends and family are dazedly digesting their turkey, or trying to walk it off. One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving is the leftovers: leftover turkey, then the turkey sandwiches, then the white meat in the chef salad, finally, the soup.

Despite so much else from America that has been adopted by the Philippines, Thanksgiving is not one of them. In very recent years, even American style Halloween has become part of middle class Filipino life, the costumes and candy being pushed hard by the shopping malls. But not Thanksgiving.

Fact is, I never thought much about Thanksgiving over most of the years I’ve lived here. A telephone call from a family member, or a greeting card from my mother arriving a week or so after the holiday (mail service has improved even if no one uses it anymore), would remind me of what was happening back home.

That is, until I took over a study abroad program. A week ahead of the holiday, a member of my first batch of students called and said they would pay for the turkey, if I’d be willing to cook it. The party would be at the apartment several of them shared.

That’s when I met Mr. Butterball. I’d never cooked a turkey before. Growing up, Thanksgiving was something we alternated with my mother’s family – one year at our place, next year at there’s. Both my mother and aunt were great cooks, and I don’t recall the turkey ever coming out of the oven less than perfect. And, lucky for us, they went for the white meat leftovers, and we took the dark. My mother and aunt never met Mr. Butterball either.

So, I cooked the turkey for my students, and while it is surely jam packed full of chemicals it’s pretty hard to go wrong with an imported Butterball turkey. The first taxi driver wouldn’t permit us to put it in his trunk. The second one was willing to take the risk and, six years on, he probably still has turkey grease smelling up his cab.

We got it to the party, and if I recall, there were at least a few side dishes. The turkey disappeared almost instantly. That was a big group of 20-year-olds.

That launched a tradition. From then on I’d cook the turkey at home and have my students over along with several other close friends. We’d have a few side dishes, but the students would bring most of the rest. I think the last Thanksgiving dinner had well over 40 people.

Most of my students were second generation Philippine-Americans, so the side dishes might include store-bought pancit (noodles), home-made lumpia (spring rolls), and a whole range of other cooked and purchased items. I learned from an older Philippine-American friend that this would be a pretty typical Thanksgiving dinner for a Philippine-American family in the U.S. I was very proud of one of my few non-Filipino students who cooked up banana cue – bananas cooked in oil and sugar and not too badly burned.

Two year’s ago my wife had her first Thanksgiving in the United States. Again, the turkey was central, but the side dishes included sushi. No one in this brother’s family is Japanese, but it was in the Napa Valley, so one expects culinary surprises.

Last year I was reading in the New York Times that Thanksgiving is the favorite American holiday of migrants. It is vaguely religious, but unlike Christmas or Easter, it doesn’t showcase any particular religion. Turkey is almost always a part of it, but the side dishes might be curries, enchilada, or chopsuey.

I often suggested to my students that we do the dinner on Friday, so they wouldn't have to be concerned with class the next day. But they insisted Thanksgiving had to be on Thursday, and it had to have mashed potato.

One year some of my local friends, Filipinos of course, asked me to explain what Thanksgiving was all about. So, I gave them the rundown of the first Thanksgiving, of how the native people had supported the settlers through their first winter, and how the feast happened before the onset of the second winter. This is more-or-less historically correct, I believe.

Being a university event, however, I couldn’t pass up the “teaching moment,” so I had to say a bit more. After the close of the Civil War, and not long before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln first declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It was a way to bring the country together around a religious theme that wasn't too religious, and to try to move on after the devastation of the war. The sadly ironic thing is that this commemoration of cooperation between indigenous and settler peoples was made a holiday at the very time of the most deliberate and systematic slaughter of the remaining indigenous peoples. Some call it the Westward Expansion.

But as for the Butterballs, you might be wondering what they’re doing here. Well, the Philippines doesn’t observe Thanksgiving, but we do have the longest Christmas season in the world, starting on or around September 1. It’s the berrrrrrrr months of our tropical winter. For weeks now, the stone cold Butterballs have been piling up higher and higher in the shopping mall supermarkets!

Sadly, since the U.S. State Department declared a travel warning on the whole of the Philippines (this will be taken up in another blog one day), and I no longer have students, and I’m less reminded of this American holiday.

Yesterday, at the multilateral agency where my wife works, we did have our turkey, however. There are some 4,000 staffers there, and they enjoy a very good cafeteria with several different national cuisines served for every breakfast and lunch. Upstairs is the fine dinning restaurant. All of this is very good, and very cheap even by Philippine standards.

Probably not more than a few hundred of the staffers are American, but the upstairs restaurant did have a Thanksgiving Special. My wife and I were escorted to our reserved table by the window. It was lovely. The pumpkin soup was scrumptious. Then the main course arrived. I looked down at the plate, and mostly I saw a white plate! Hey! This is Thanksgiving! I shouldn’t see ANY plate below that food. I shouldn’t be able to walk away from here! A little dab of white meat, a little dark, some potato, and two – count them – two sprigs of asparagus. What is that?

My wife reminded me that this was a fine dining restaurant, and it was lunch, on a working day. People are going back to work within the hour.

Oh, okay. So it goes.

Happy Thanksgiving. I wish we could be together.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Malls and Bombs



I was planning on posting the first of a three-part blog on the changing nature of NGO work in the Philippines. Some forums I’ve gone to recently prompted this, along with an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer by Herbert Docena that looks at the U.S. military posture in the Philippines. A lot of the civilian infrastructure in the Southern Philippines is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and has far more military than civilian application. Although Herbert doesn’t address this aspect of it, a significant number of U.S.-based charities, including religious ones, are substantially funded and driven by USAID, thus the tie-in to my eventual post on NGO work in the Philippines. Herbert’s article is accessible through the following PDI link:

Or through the link with his organizational website:

I will take this up again in a future posting.


Friday morning, October 19, I spent reading at the library of the development agency where my wife works. After lunch I began my trip home on the Metro Rail Transit train, the fastest way to get around Metro Manila despite the crushing numbers of people during the morning and late afternoon commute. The last stop of the train is the North Avenue Station which opens on to the new TRINOMA mall in Quezon City. It takes its name from the fact that the massive new mall is located on the triangle bound by Mindanao, North, and EDSA avenues – Triangle North of Manila. As with many cities in the developing world, the dozen cities that make up Metro Manila have become a city of malls.

When I lived in Manila in the late 1980s there were only a few American-style malls. There was the original Ali Mall in Quezon City’s Cubao district, near the Araneta Coliseum where Mohammad Ali fought his “Thrilla in Manila” back in 1976. Then there was the ShoeMart (SM) Mall on North Avenue. When my parents visited me here in the Philippines for two weeks in the1980s we went shopping in SM North Mall. I can’t recall why. My parents had lived most of their lives in a Central California farm town of barely six thousand people, less than the population of SM North on a Sunday, at that time. My father did not use strong language. As we rode the crowded escalator up to the second floor, my father looked left and right, and through the noise I could hear him mutter, “My God, it’s a mad house." SM North is now four or five times as big as it was in the 1980s, and right across the street is the slightly more upscale TRINOMA. There are plans to connect the rival malls with a pedestrian bridge, thus keeping patrons safe above the fray, air-conditioned, and spending their money.

Many of these malls are bigger than anything you may have seen in the United States, including the “Mall of America” in the US Midwest. Many of them are far more opulent as well, including fine-dinning restaurants and combining air-conditioned walkways, vast verandas, dramatic views of the city, and with thick vegetation reflecting the tropical climate.

SM North, which is being renovated, sports bill boards saying it is “one of the ten biggest malls in the world.”

Big deal, several malls here are much bigger.

The SM Megamall, a few stops down on the MRT train and adjacent to my wife’s workplace, used to be Asia’s biggest mall. The SM Mall of Asia, on the south side of Metro Manila now claims that title.

The biggest chain of malls, the SM chain, is owned by Henry Sy. Following this are the Ayala malls owned by the Ayala family, a Spanish mestizo family and, according to Forbes, the wealthiest family in the Philippines. The Ayalas have been rich forever, and the San Augustine Cathedral in Old Manila’s walled city includes two-hundred-year-old Ayala crypts in the side chapels. Pulling up third is the Robinson’s chain of malls. Most of the MRT stations are within walking distance of a mall, if not immediately adjacent to one. It is the mall train. Several competing malls are already connected by walkways passing over the traffic below. I imagine one day they will all be connected, from Quezon City in the northeast to Pasay City in the far south. One could walk the whole of Metro Manila in air-conditioned comfort.

By the end of such a walking excursion, however, you will have suffered permanent hearing loss, as is already the case with most people in Metro Manila.

There is a direct relationship between the noise levels in a mall, the frigidity of the aircon, and the income levels of the shoppers – the poorer the clientele, the colder and louder the mall. Poor folk come to a mall to cool down, and to be entertained. They want their money’s worth!

SM North Mall leaves one half deaf after an hour, and you had better bring a sweater if you’re planning to take in a movie. The Rockwell Mall, which you can’t even get to on public transportation, goes for the very upscale shopper and is nearly silent. So, if you want powerful aircon, well, you can get that at home.

A few weeks after the new TRINOMA mall opened I realized it was not going for the same demographic as the Ayala’s Glorietta Mall in the City of Makati’s financial district. TRINOMA now leaves me almost as hearing impaired as SM North. Adjacent to a new cross-country bus terminal, TRINOMA advertises itself as a “regional mall” capturing shoppers from the provinces a few hours north of Metro Manila. You can see the probinsyanos wandering the mall, wide eyed, and hanging on to each other. ATM machines every 50 meters insure that they won’t come up short on cash before they head back to the bus terminal and the return trip to Bulacan, Tarlac, or Pampanga.

Speaking of Glorietta and TRINOMA, if you are avid international news junkies Glorietta might ring a bell for you, and this brings me back to the opening paragraph. I was in the grocery store in TRINOMA on Friday, on my way home from that library trip, looking for something to grill on the weekend. The security office at the agency where my wife works sent me and several thousand other staff and family members a text message to our cell phones. A bomb had just gone off at Glorietta Mall in Makati.

Intermittent text messages kept us informed of the events and investigation in Makati, and warned us to keep away from malls, public places, and public transportation. As a firm believer in the “lightning never strikes twice …” adage I promptly erased these messages, but I also didn’t spend any longer in the mall than I needed to look for my rib eye steaks.

While we were still dating my now wife and I used to rendezvous at least once a week at the Glorietta Mall. We don’t go there very often now because TRINOMA and the new Gateway Mall in the Cubao area are closer, but we still go there once in awhile, and we know exactly where the bomb went off.

It was serious explosion, ripping up through three floors and blowing a hole in the roof of the mall, and leaving at least eleven people dead and over 100 injured.

What is interesting is how quickly we absorb the shock, those of us who did not lose a loved one and who were not injured. On Sunday, two days after the event, we were in the SM North Mall to get some gardening supplies. The mall had about half the number of people one might normally expect for a Sunday. Barring any new bombings, I suspect the crowd will be back to normal by next Sunday.

The October 21, 2007 editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer notes the sadness of our country, the fact that there are so many suspects in this bombing. The real tragedy, however, is that for a great many Filipinos and other residents, including this one, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her government are among the suspects. This is not the assessment of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists, but of average work-a-day people.

In his article in the October 22 Inquirer, political analyst Amando Doronila notes that whoever is responsible for the bombing, it certainly did draw attention away from Arroyo’s latest political scandal. Several days ago a handful of governors and congress people attending a meeting at the presidential palace reported that they were given gift bags stuffed with money. The governors received P500,000 (over $10,000 U.S.), congress people got P200,000, and mayors received P50,000. Enough people admitted to this, even showing the cash to the media, that the president and her people can’t get out of it. Some of her aids deny it, while others are saying they don’t know where the money came from or who was handing it out. It is estimated that the equivalent of over $3 million U.S. was given away.

This is only the most recent and probably most serious scandal to rock the government in recent years. There’s the question of the president’s legitimacy. She took power in a popular uprising (although she was vice president at the time). She cheated in the following presidential election, and close aids and family members appear to have been involved in a fraudulent bidding process for a broadband system to be implemented by a Chinese company. It just goes on and on.

So, many people believe she may have orchestrated the bombing to divert people’s attention, or to create a pretext for declaring some form of martial law. On the other hand, many people also believe some faction of the military is behind it, to destabilize the regime.

But life goes on.

If accurate statistics were available I think they would indicate that life is safer in Metro Manila than in most cities in the United States. I can go to any neighborhood most any time of the day or night. Of course, one exercises caution, but there are parts of Fresno, or Oakland, or Washington, DC – all cities where I have lived – that I would never dare to visit.

Much of life in the Philippines is simply waiting to see what happens next.


Thanks to those of you who wrote to say you’ve read the blog, and to those of you who have posted comments.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Right to Information: A Human Right

To follow up on my last post, probably the best article on Burma that I’ve seen since the beginning of the “saffron revolution” was written by Bertil Lintner in the October 2007 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Lintner has been writing about Burma for the Review for decades but I was actually surprised to see his byline in the truncated version of the Review that exists today. It’s a depressing read, but probably the most intelligent piece on Burma to be written recently. He says that unlike other Asian nations that have experienced military rule such as Indonesia or Thailand, Burma is unique. In other countries there were still competing elites such as the business class or traditional nobilities. When the Burmese military took over in 1962, they took over everything. The business elite, which was mostly made up of ethnic Indians and Chinese, fled the country. Any change that comes to Burma will involve a split in the ranks of the military. There is no indication of that happening. The generals know that if they “don’t hang together, they will hang separately.” The most that marching monks can do is to signal to the lower ranking officers that there is no long-term future in military rule. As yet, however, there is nothing to suggest that the lower ranking officers are ready to rebel.



Earlier in the week I had the privilege to attend a forum on “The Right to Information and Legal Accountability in International Financial Institutions” held at the University of the Philippines – Diliman, and sponsored by several local and international NGOs working on accountability issues. The forum was prompted by the presence in Metro Manila of international NGO representatives attending meetings of the Global Transparency Initiative, one of the forum’s sponsors.

Panelists and audience combined amounted to not more than sixty or seventy people; it might have been good had a larger number of people been able to participate as the issues taken up are important to the Philippines and other developing countries. On the other hand, the relative candidness on the part of panelists might have been inhibited had a larger group – including media – attended. Panelists were mostly public interest lawyers from the Philippines and abroad, as well as representatives from the Philippine-based Asian Development Bank.

There was general agreement that information about development infrastructure projects funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the other multilateral development banks is far more accessible today than, say, fifteen years ago. This was also of personal interest to me as I was working on these issues in the mid-1990s while living in Washington, DC, working mostly on Philippine development issues. Still, as the NGO representatives would stress, there is much, much further to go.

The ADB’s associate secretary for compliance review, Suresh Nanwani, made an interesting point at the outset. He said that while panelists certainly had disagreements, everyone there agreed on the importance of these issues. Communities should have information about project plans that will impact there lives, and they should have input on the discussion. “Operationalizing this,” however, “can be a different matter.” He noted that despite their disagreements, they all spoke the same language. Although not all were lawyers, they could all follow legal arguments. Although not all were economists or social scientists, they all understood the concepts. They meet in gatherings like this, “and we bond.” What, on the other hand, could it possibly mean for a small farmer in India to be told that he had the right of “access to information?”

Toby Mendel, a Canadian-based attorney working for the Article XIX Global Campaign for Free Expression, presented a human rights argument in favor of ready access to information from the MDBs. Essentially he argued that the right to information is enshrined in United Nations covenants and should be held as equal in legal weight to the individual’s right to not be tortured. Further, just as nation states should not torture people and cannot establish other institutions with the right to torture people, likewise, nation states are bound to provide their citizens with information about their plans and activities and any institutions that nation states establish – individually or collectively – are also bound to provide information about their activities. Access to information is a human right, just as the right to not be tortured is a human right.

The mechanisms that would allow individuals to take up human rights cases with multilateral entities are not yet in place, however. In the long run the international treaties that brought the MDBs into being will have to be re-written to make MDBs accountable to individuals. This will take a long time, Mendel conceded. Still, policies have been put in place and must be strengthened which do make the MDBs more accountable.

One problem is that communities which take issue with an MDB project can only make appeals within the MDB compliance process itself. There is no higher authority outside the MDB to which individuals or communities may appeal and which could compel MDB compliance.

The ADB’s Nanwani briefly outlined the process by which communities can raise objection to project plans. This can result in additional reviews and copies of the review document are then made available to both the ADB directors and the community that has taken issue. This actually goes further than the World Bank process where review documents are only made available to the directors and not to the community concerned.

I would concur that significant progress has been made in the last 15 years toward making the development banks more accountable. Accountability assumes, however, that the target country enjoys at least a relative degree of democracy, and has a vibrant civil society that can make meaningful to the “small farmer” this access to information. Unfortunately, most of the governments which receive infrastructure loans from the MDBs are not very democratic.

I recall a conversation at the World Bank that I was part of way back in the mid-1990s along with the Philippine peasant leader Jaime Tadeo and the Bank’s senior agricultural analyst for the Philippines. Tadeo objected to the economic restructuring that the Bank’s sibling institution, the International Monetary Fund was pushing on the Philippines. The Philippine economy had to be restructured, the argument went, in order to bring in more hard currency with which to pay back its existing loans, and therefore qualify for new loans. Restructuring would open the economy up to more involvement and control by foreigners, Tadeo objected. These are decisions your government is making, the Bank official told Tadeo. If you don’t like it, then change your government, don’t complain to the Bank.

Tadeo reminded him that the Filipino people had changed their government when they ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, yet the people were still being made to pay back the loans that the dictator incurred. The loans, in effect, are not made to governments, but to people who have little say in them.

The situation has improved, but the MDBs are still working with dictators.

Monday, October 8, 2007

POSSIBILITIES: Burma and the Philippines

In 1998, shortly after the election of Joseph Estrada to the Philippine presidency I asked a fellow foreigner, an Irish Catholic priest who has spent most of his life in the Manila area, what he thought would happen next. Estrada won the race with a forty percent plurality, but the remaining sixty percent who voted for other candidates intensely disliked him.
"Well, the longer I'm here the less inclined I am to make any predictions about Philippine politics," he answered. "But I do know that the elite is apoplectic, and I think that's probably a good thing."
Nine years later, long after Estrada was ousted in a civilian-military uprising that installed Vice President Gloria Arroyo into power, Estrada is still a dominant figure in Philippine politics, albeit from house arrest in his luxurious rest home in the countryside. Meanwhile, Arroyo is the most hated president since Marcos and there is abundant evidence that she cheated in the presidential election of 2004..
During the days of the uprising that ousted Estrada in 2001, a Belgian friend of mine in Davao remarked: "Well, President Ramos was much better than we expected, and Estrada is much worse."
As a long-term resident of the Philippines, and as someone who has worked on Philippine issues for even longer, I am reluctant to say much about the current political malaise, or suggest where it is going.
Since I have never been to Burma -- but have read and thought about the country and its peoples since the 1988 uprising -- let me make a few tentative comments.
Here in the Philippine many columnists have been comparing the recent mass demonstrations led by safron-robed monks to the "people power" uprisings of 1986 and and 2001. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Burmese are using the Philippines as an example. I doubt if the Philippines was ever on the minds of the monks or other marches in Rangoon or Mandalay. As former Philippine Congresswoman Etta Rosales remarked at a forum on Burma, "they are giving a message to us, to the rest of the world. It is something different. It is not a Philippine-style uprising."
And even if so, the similarities don't go far. The Burmese military is far more willing to fire on clergy and other unarmed people than the Philippine military. That is not to say the Philippine military isn't quite capable of brutality, but the Burmese variety is much, much worse.
Recently rumors and text messages whipped around the world and all over the Philippines suggesting that ten thousand monks had been killed in Burma. I asked a friend who has been monitoring Burma closely for over 20 years what he thought of this. "That's not confirmed, and I kind of doubt it, but the military is definitely capable of that."
For two weeks now there have been daily rallies in front of the Burmese Embassy in Makati, Metro Manila. Every day a different group organizes it. One day it's the Akbayan (Citizens Action Party) group, another day a women's coalition, another day organized labor takes it on. On the day that the Alliance of Progressive Labor was there several workers had their heads shaved, to show solidarity with the Burmese monks. The day before, one of the organizers asked me if I'd be willing to submit to the razor. I told him that I was expecting a job interview soon -- had to look good. "Ha, I can't use that excuse," he laughed, "I'm a labor organizer, no one's going to give me a job interview!"
The rallies have been spirited and determined, but so far the largest has only drawn 200 people. I'm not sure we have received the message of the Burmese monks. As my friend, the one who monitors Burmese affairs, said, "It's going to take more than rallies."
At a more recent forum, Benito Valeriano, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affair's point man for the Association for South East Asian Nations, defended the Burmese junta at every turn. He argued that Myanmar was the country's true name, that the junta sincerely wanted to implement democracy and, in response to a question from the audience, insisted that it would be "improper" for the Philippine government to have any relationship to the Burmese National League for Democracy. Congresswoman Rosales took him apart, piece by piece. "As you know, the NLD won the election of 1990, something which the junta refused to recognize. The junta is NOT the legitimate government of Burma." She noted that many ASEAN parliamentarians were engaged with the NLD and that there has even been discussion of inviting the NLD as an observer to ASEAN meetings of parliamentarians, a discussion that the Burmese delegation boycotted.
Naturally, we speculate what direction events in Burma will take. It seems that the Burmese junta has the upper hand, but there is some suggestion that they will meet with opposition leaders, indicating that the protests in and out of Burma might be having some impact, but hardly enough.
Some have hoped that there will be a split in the military, as in the Philippines in 1986. At least one or two high level Burmese officers have defected. Still, there hardly seems to be the fractures there that were developing in the Philippine military in 1986. I think it is more likely the military could disintegrate from the bottom, as happened in Iran in 1979.
But then, I've never been to Burma, and as for the the Philippine uprising of 1986, no one predicted that, either. I am waiting to be surprised.