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.