Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Weakening of Philippine Democracy

After my return from Mindanao, I sat down and put to paper my thoughts on the proclamation of a state of emergency by President Arroyo. For more than one reason, this is a depressing story. As a liberal at heart, I abhor situations in which governments curtail the civil liberties of their citizens. I also happen to spend my professional life trying to promote democracy. In my eyes, the clock of democracy has been turned back in this country.

Many years ago, when I was still a journalist working in a radio station in Germany, we were full of admiration for the democratic achievements here. I doubt whether today’s journalists in Germany and elsewhere have similar sentiments about political developments in this country.

If you are interested in my thoughts, please read my commentary “The Weakening of Philippine Democracy” published today.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Exploring Cagayan de Oro

Apart from meeting criminologists, I took time out to explore Cagayan de Oro, a city that claims to be “in blossom, in bloom and in boom.” While I find that PR-statement exaggerated, one can easily notice efforts of the municipal authorities to give a face-lift to the place to attract investors and tourists.

Unlike other Philippine cities, in Cagayan de Oro there is a resemblance of urban planning. Situated along the Cagayan River, the city has a historical center with a fine (and airy) cathedral and a rather attractive down town shopping area (apart from the various modern malls which all look more or less alike and are not worth mentioning here), formally known as Divisoria.

Luckily, I was there on a weekend, when at night time the whole area is converted into one giant open air market with vendors – many of whom Filipino Muslims – from the surrounding districts and provinces. It reminded me of the night market in Chiang Mai (Thailand) I had recently been to. In both places, pirated CD-Roms and DVDs occupy numerous stalls.

Mindanao’s second city has a huge student population. Nowhere else in the Philippines have I seen so many Internet cafés in such a small area as in Cagayan de Oro (I frequented them for online updates on the political developments in Manila.)

Less attractive than the Internet cafes and bars with their youthful customers, I found the many beggars, many of whom blind or crippled asking for small donations to buy some food.

On the flight back to Manila, I sat next to a Filipino gentleman with whom I engaged in a lively political dialogue. At first, I assumed he was a journalist or a political analyst because of his profound commentaries regarding the political crisis. In the end, he turned out to be a Protestant clergyman.

Of course, we discussed the president’s declaration of national emergency. At one point, I said, what a stupid and counterproductive thing to do. My co-voyager’s response to my comment:

“When you are in fear, you don’t think straight.”

It’s never good if those at the top don’t think straight.

I hope to find some time in the next few days to put to paper a more profound commentary regarding these depressing (and certainly illiberal) developments in domestic Philippine politics.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Discussing Terrorism in Mindanao

I missed the “political action” last Friday in Manila, because at the time the president proclaimed the state of emergency, I was in Cagayan de Oro to present a paper on “Terrorism as Political Ideology” at the first Mindanao-wide conference of the “Professional Criminologists’ Association of the Philippines” (PCAP). I enjoyed that meeting and the discussions with the criminologists. They are a highly specialized and also sophisticated professional group who I rarely have a chance to get together with.

Terrorism, as is well known, has many dimensions. To listen to criminologists from an area with a home grown terrorist problem discuss this issue, I found both intellectually stimulating and enlightening.

My own contribution, which to my delight was well received by an audience of over 300, was an overview of terrorism as an ideology including remarks on possible strategies to confront the terrorist challenge. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I included liberal concerns and considerations regarding this important debate. Among others, I emphasized:

“From a liberal viewpoint, we should never sacrifice or infringe on human rights, for if we do that, we would hand victory to the terrorists and the enemies of freedom.”

I have posted the full text of “Terrorism as Political Ideology” on my Foundation’s homepage.

At the conference, it was hard to oversee that a fellow liberal is the driving force of PCAP. Gerry Cano is the Executive Secretary of PCAP and also a key figure in an ongoing effort to strengthen the network of Young Liberals in Southern Philippines.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Dealing with Disaster

The news from Southern Leyte is both horrendous and depressing; it is difficult to find words befitting the suffering. It is not the first, and unfortunately probably not the last time, that such calamities strike this country. In this regard also, the Philippines belongs to the less fortunate group of nations.

As the rescue operations continue and brave men from far and near race against time hoping to pull survivors out of the piles of mud, it seems too early for a serious debate on how this could happen, and who – if anyone at all - will be made accountable.

When this public debate begins, I hope it will go beyond the level of “analysis” offered in today’s issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The leading paper editorializes that the organized reaction to the landslide “has been disciplined, proportionate, and on target.”

The writer also searchers for the perceived causes of the calamity:

“Ours is still a religious nation, so it is only to be expected that both public discourse and private conversation have touched on the threshold question: How can God, or Allah, or Providence allow something like this to happen?”

I respect, even admire, the religiosity of many Filipinos. In this specific case, however, religious fatalism boils down to negligence and a lack of responsibility. Unlike other natural disasters (last year’s tsunami for instance), the deadly impact of the landslide at Guinsaugon could have been reduced if not averted by human action.

Geologists, environmentalists and other concerned citizens had warned again and again about the hazards of living in that area. It should have been the responsibility of a responsible government (both local and national) to tell the people to get out (and stay out) of harms way.

But maybe that is expecting too much of the political class.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Political Crises in Thailand and the Philippines

I am back in Manila from a weeklong visit to Thailand. Coming from the Philippines, I was impressed to find out that in that country too domestic politics are in a state of turmoil. According to my favorite English-language Thai daily (The Nation), the campaign to unseat Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra “seems to be dividing Thailand like never before.”

Such dramatization of the political divide reminds me of the publicized mood in the Philippines at the climax of the campaign to impeach President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) last September. Compared to what is going on in Thailand today, the political climate in the Philippines has simmered down considerably.

I find it worthwhile to compare the political crises in the two South East Asian democracies:

In both countries, the political leaders are at the center of the political turmoil. While his opponents blame Thaksin of misusing his political power to amass material wealth, the opposition in the Philippines accuses GMA of rigging the elections in her favor. While the quality of the allegations is different, they are equally damaging to the stability of the respective governments.

In both countries, the political parties of the opposition play a minor role at best. They are not at the forefront of the political battles in Thailand and in the Philippines. In both countries, the opposing forces have chosen to politicize the alleged misdeeds of the political leaders. This indicates a lack of trust in the institutional processes.

And finally: In both countries, the opposition lacks unity, a clear strategy and a leader acceptable to everyone. Therefore, the opposition is weak. This becomes particularly obvious when compared with the strength of the leaders in power.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Greek Restaurants in Asia

You may have wondered why I cared to mention that I would have dinner at a Greek restaurant yesterday. Those who know me are aware of my special interest (some would say affection) for all things Greek. In the many years I spent in Hellas (the official name of that country), I not only learned to speak the language but also to like the local food.



This said, I was happy to come across a Greek eatery here in Chiangmai. Actutally, there are not that many Greek restaurants in this part of the world. In the Philippines, friends of Hellenic cuisine frequent To Mati restaurant in Rockwell, Makati City, which I would like to call the best Greek restaurant in Asia. I was told that a new Greek place has opened in Tagaytay (about an hour's drive from Manila), but this I have yet to test.

I have come across Greek eateries in Taipei (Mykonos) and Tokyo (the basment place was then called Aphroditi, if my memory is correct). Both were nothing to brag about. I am sure this listing is all but complete. Please let me know about other Greek resturants in Asia I have missed.

Meanwhile, should you be in Chiangmai try Kosta's and Maria's souvlakia at Zorbas Restaurant. I find them tastier than the ones in Athens or Thessaloniki.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Thailand (1)

The idea of having to update this publication is still relatively new to me. But, I agree that blogs need new material every few days, because that's the only way to attract you, my dear reader.

Since leaving Manila last Sunday for Thailand, I have been extremely busy. So busy that I did not even find the time to read the newspapers, not to think of posting on the blog. Stressful days, first in Bangkok, where I facilitated a strategic planning session on political communications, and then in Pattaya, where I went for a meeting of my Foundation, have come to an end.

I am now in Chiangmai in the North and looking forward to relaxation and some inspiring moments in what seems to be an enchanting environment. There is so much I could say about my Thai impressions, but I'll leave it with two or three short observations for today.

While I have never come across a larger red-light-district than in Pattaya (and I should mention that I spent my college years in Hamburg living just two blocks away from the notorious Reeperbahn of St. Pauli), I have yet to see so many bookstores in one area as here in Chiangmai.

This would not be My Liberal Times if I wouldn't make at least one political comment. Alone a glimpse at today's headline of Thailand's major English-language newspaper THE NATION make the political turmoil back in the Philippines almost look peaceful: "Real War has just Begun", is how that papers' editors word in a catch-phrase the political situation in Thailand.

I hope to share some comparative thoughts from a Philippine perspective on this tomorrow. Meanwhile, I will run off for dinner to "Zorbas", the Greek Restaurant in Chiangmai. This city, so I have gathered, is not only cultivated; it is also pleasantly cosmopolitan.

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