Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking back (2)

This is my column today, my last for 2008.

Last Monday, I wrote about what I thought and felt were some of the major events of 2008 that made major impact on our lives. In this piece, I will continue where I left off but will mostly focus on the events of 2008 that fall into the general category of “unfinished business.”

Easily topping the list would be the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008. There was great anticipation that the controversial bill would finally get passed by Congress before the end of the year. The anticipation had valid basis—there was initial groundswell support for the bill when it was filed. Unfortunately, as the year drew to a close, a number of representatives were reported to have already withdrawn support for the bill on account of unrelenting intimidation from the Catholic Church.

One congressman I know, who incidentally will vote for the passage of the bill but does not want his support for the bill publicized as he does not want to get any more visits or calls from his bishop, revealed the extent of the Church lobby against the bill. We’re not just talking social visits and vigorous application of moral suasion; we’re talking harassment, threats, and blackmail. One has to have steely resolve not to buckle given the kind of tactics employed to ensure that the bill doesn’t get passed into law.

It is easy to believe that the Church has been resorting to dirty Machiavellian tactics. Church leaders have been demonizing the legislators who authored the bill—the standard talking point was that the bill was the work of the devil himself—and even threatening legislators who would vote for the passage of the bill with excommunication. I’ve listened to far too many homilies delivered by bishops and priests that were shot through with fallacies and wrong information about the bill, among them, that it would eventually pave the way for the legalization of divorce and abortion. These assertions are founded on acrobatic logical deductions that don’t really add up. The Church has anchored its opposition to the bill on the grounds that it is anti-family.

The Church knows that most Filipinos support the bill, which is why certain bishops have started to reach out to our legislators to find a middle ground. At the root of the conflict is the simple fact that the Church and the advocates of the reproductive health bill don’t have the same frame of reference on the critical issues around the bill such as what comprises reproductive health, contraception, or even abortion. The debate will extend to 2009. It is possible that the Church will win this round once again. But it will be a temporary victory. The bill will get filed again and again and again. It’s just a matter of time.

Another major issue that didn’t find a satisfying closure in 2008 was agrarian reform. Some kind of a compromise agreement, which was the six-month extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, was hastily patched together just to appease both sides of the warring factions.
Agrarian reform has been a crucial social issue since I was wearing short pants in grade school. I doubt if we will ever be able to put in place a real and genuine agrarian program in our lifetime; unless the power structures in society are changed drastically, which of course is not going to happen anytime soon. The people who stand to lose their haciendas and their plantations to agrarian reform are the very ones who are in positions of power—from the Executive to the Legislative and even the Judiciary branches of government. Anyone out there who thinks these people would willingly hand over huge tracts of land to the working class needs to have his head examined.

There will be acrimonious debate in the next few months as members of the ruling class go through the motions of showing that they have hearts that beats for the downtrodden. But in the end, even if a law does get passed, the landlords and those in power will always find a way to thwart the real intentions of the bill. It has been done before. Case in point: The stock option program implemented at Hacienda Luisita which was really just another creative way to get around CARP.

Obviously, there’s a whole bunch of unfinished business that’s still festering at some committees at the Senate from the ZTE imbroglio to the fertilizer fund scandal. But there really is no point in expecting that these issues get resolved at all because it is apparent that resolving issues and providing closure to issues are concepts that are alien to our senators.

Ensuring maritime safety was another unfinished business, which unfortunately is a problem that’s been in search of a resolution since as far back as I can remember. This year, the major tragedy was the sinking of m/v Princess of the Stars but there were other passenger ships that also sank. A sound byte that is included in one of the media network’s yearend summary of 2008 events is that of Transportation Undersecretary Maria Elena Bautista sadly concluding that our shipping companies still have to attain a certain level of responsibility.

I agree with her, but isn’t that precisely her job description? To ensure that Sulpicio Lines and all the other shipping companies grow a conscience? That we finally burn all those floating coffins and stop endangering the lives of Filipinos? The excuse being forwarded, which is that there are no alternative transportation systems that will replace them is pure nonsense. I am sure that there are more than enough businessmen who will jump at the opportunity to get into the shipping business once the more established companies with a dismal safety record are banned from the industry.

And lest we forget, the selection process to choose the Seven Wonders of Nature is still on. There are a number of Philippine sites that are in the top 50 among them the Palawan Subterranean River which has been topping the list for a number of months now. Only one site from each country will be retained for voting until July 7, 2009 and by the looks of it the Palawan Subterranean River at Puerte Princesa will be our country’s main entry.

There are people out there who think it is embarrassing that Philippine entries tend to win in contests where open voting is allowed. For example, when Ishmael Bernal’s Himala was chosen as the CNN’s viewer’s choice award as most favorite film for Asia-Pacific, a number of people raised their eyebrows and began picking on the film. Some said other Asian films in the final list were better, or that other Filipino films such as Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag would have been a more prudent choice. This kind of nitpicking is symptomatic of our problems as a country and as a people: We’re hopelessly fragmented.

I am going to end 2008 with a personal rant against the contractors of the public works project being done at Vito Cruz Street in Manila. I know. It’s supposed to be a project designed to improve delivery of water services to the south of Metro Manila. But given the way they have dug up and made impassable Vito Cruz Street and a number of streets parallel to it, they very well could be building an underground city. The project’s original deadline was July 31. Then it got moved to September. And then they promised that the project will be completed and the suffering and the agony of everyone who lives or have to pass by the area regularly will finally end by Dec. 31. That’s today.

Of course they are not going to meet that deadline again. When I passed by Vito Cruz yesterday, the intersection at Taft Avenue was still barricaded by heavy equipment and the whole stretch from Vito Cruz to Adriatico Street still looks like Manila immediately after World War II. Public works has become a major source of abuse and display of arrogance of government and contractors. It is time the government and contractors are made answerable to the misery experienced by Filipinos when public works projects do not meet timetables or are done haphazardly without any consideration for the safety and welfare of people. I intend to make this a major advocacy in 2009.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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