Saturday, July 29, 2017

The big picture

MARTIAL law makes many people feel safe. Often left out in the assertion is a question: safe from whom?

In the late 1980s, on my first job, I travelled by land to Sta. Catalina in Negros Oriental. I was hired by a consultancy firm hired by a government agency that had World Bank funding to solve poverty.

An invisible speck in the entire bureaucracy, I was tasked to ask farmers about a comic book on land tenure.

Being young, I missed out on the joke and saw only the final report as the Holy Grail of a quest that took me from Alegria in the south of Cebu to San Miguel in Bohol.

In the bus from Dumaguete to Sta. Catalina, it rained hard. My bag floated in the greasy pool that collected the rain dripping from the bus roof. I hugged the comic books in their plastic bag, and worried what I would do without clean clothes for the coming week.

The thought that I would have to revert to the field worker’s strategy of using underwear “side A-side B” distracted me from the camouflage helicopters that hovered over Sta. Catalina, one or two at a time but all the time.

During the motorcycle ride to the upland site office, I asked the driver about the torn bark and hole gouged out by bullets in a tree.

An encounter, he said. Ambush? I asked. Farmers, he said. So what did they fire with: produce? I asked, still peeved about the rain and my sodden bag.

The site office was located beside a military detachment, but it was indistinguishable where one ended and the other began. The same barbed wires connected the margins. When lights went off at curfew, I listened to the distant popping sounds.

Christmas in May, I thought before falling asleep.

Field workers were instructed not to get involved with our neighbors on either side of the spectrum. Yet, we slept near and drove around with one side. Did we feel safer? I thought I did.

Interviews went like a breeze in Sta. Catalina. Above the farms, helicopters crisscrossed like green-bellied flies.

The farmers and I watched the circling choppers more than we discussed the comics. Like strange antennae, the long prows of M16 barrels and muzzles protruded from the sides of the Sta. Catalina “flies”.

The gunner stationed at the open sides of choppers is an “innovation” learned from the Vietnam War, according to a U.S. Army documentary, “The Big Picture”.

Inviting young Americans to train as “shotgun riders,” the 1967 documentary shows instructors sitting beside the open doors as if they were “on (their) front porch,” coaching young men to fire M16s at 450 rounds a minute, with one reminder: “Don’t get carried away while firing; it’s important to conserve ammunition.”

In Sta. Catalina, I finally caught on.

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*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 30, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Ear to the ground

WHAT is “the situation on the ground”?

Today is the 60th day martial law was imposed by President Duterte in Mindanao.

Last May 23, the President reacted swiftly to the Maute Group’s occupation of Marawi City.

As commander-in-chief, the President can suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or impose martial law “in case of invasion or rebellion,” based on Section 18, Article VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

However, the 1987 Constitution is more specific than the 1935 version, which President Ferdinand Marcos used as the basis for passing Proclamation 1081 and putting the country for the first time under martial law.

As amended by the 1986 Constitutional Commission created by President Corazon Aquino, the 1987 Constitution imposes a limit on martial law: no more than 60 days.

Today is the deadline. Will martial law be lifted or extended?

Two weeks ago, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez proposed a five-year extension of martial law.

The 1987 Constitution permits the Congress to extend martial law if “the invasion or rebellion persists and public safety requires it”.

Yesterday, the two houses of Congress were expected to hold a special session to decide on the President’s request for extension of martial law in Mindanao. (Update: During the joint session on July 22, the Senate and the House voted to extend martial law until December 31: 261 for, 18 against.)

Sixty days ago, the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf terrorists torched Marawi; robbed, raped, and killed civilians; and tried to create a “province of the Middle East-based Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in Southeast Asia.”

The deadline to suppress the rebellion has lapsed many times. Yesterday, the military again said it expected to retake Marawi “in a few more days.”

But lawlessness and the IS threat are apparently still serious enough for the military. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said martial law will prevent some 700 jihadists from entering the country.

Despite its jingoistic rhetoric, the military says something that must be repeated: what is the “situation on the ground”?

Yesterday, in Iligan City, Tindeg Maranao (Stand Up Maranao) gathered some 100 evacuees to oppose the extension of martial law.

It is an opening salvo for the July 24 protests being organized by civil society groups around the country. On this day, a day after the 60-day deadline of martial law in Mindanao lapses, President Duterte will deliver his State of the Nation Address.

The evacuees call for an end to martial law and the end of military airstrikes in Marawi City.

On July 24, some 260,000 evacuees vow to return to Marawi City. “We will go home!”

What is the “situation on the ground”?

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in the July 23, 2017 issue of SunStar Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Paper cuts

WHEN you write, you make an incision. You make a cut and think you know what follows.

Sometimes, the writing surprises. The sliver opens and a stranger looks out. You cannot look away. You can. You want to. You don’t want to.

Writing is pain. It should come with the standard warning for danger zones: DO NOT ENTER.

I should have said this when I was invited by the “Tug-ani,” the official student publication of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu.

Michelle Grace Cabrales, a Business Management student who’s the current Tug-ani EIC, and her team invited writers to discuss the craft and make a critique of articles submitted by the participants.

I chose covering human trafficking to jumpstart the talk on features, which two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jon Franklin likens to “news of the emotions”.

Students of UP and the University of San Carlos showed up for the Friday talk, which included fellow teacher and writer Joanalyn Gabales and our resident cat, Walter Stefano.

Our small group discussed after my talk our reactions to four articles written by “Tug-ani" writers. Claire Michaela Obejas, a Psychology major who wrote one of the articles, asked how one knew which voice to follow when a writer found herself shifting from one point of view to another in the course of writing an article.

During the workshop, my response addressed the question as a technical one involving planning and publication: on an assignment, a writer discussed with the editor the desired format, angle, length, and deadline.

If contributing an article, a writer has better chances of publishing if he or she scopes out the targeted section, the ratio of text to graphics, and the targeted audience.

Yet, Claire’s question went beyond the challenges of deadline and market. Striking out beyond the safe harbor of information and “verifiable” truth, a writer can wander without noticing into the quagmire of memory, introspection, and self-conflict.

When one finally notices the water rising, what act of self-preservation does one choose: retreating back to the shallows or going into the deep?

In a movie directed by Wong Kar-Wai, a journalist and a secretary discover that their spouses are having an affair.

“In the Mood for Love” is set in Hong Kong in the 1960s, which Wong depicts as a claustrophobic prison of cramped apartments, nosy neighbors, and double standards.

Albeit betrayed, the protagonists do not want to betray their spouses. Or think they don’t.

Not even his profession in dealing with truth saves the man from self-deception.

Beyond the tidy rules of grammar, writers learn that paper cuts are the deepest, “the most unkindest cut of all”.

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 16, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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Saturday, July 08, 2017

In the dark

In the dark

NIGHTMARES happen. Last Friday, I was working late at the office when the power went out.

The tinkling of the piano that had been soothing on Spotify a moment ago now turned sinister. The glare emitted from the laptop screen cast long shadows on the walls.

I was alone in the office, the entire second floor. Or so, I hoped.

I cleared away papers while straining my ears for any sound. When I did hear something, I was brushing my teeth.

Investigating the open door to our office, the evening shift guard heard the unmistakable sounds of choking.

The squeaking of the door he pushed open made me almost swallow the toothpaste, as well as the toothbrush.

Catastrophe averted, I moved to the lobby, lit by the stretch of Gorordo Ave. that was crawling with cars.

Students from the nearby night high school walked in counterflow to the stalled vehicles.

In the resurrected debate over the bus rapid transit (BRT) versus the light rail transit (LRT), the right of pedestrians has been sideswept again.

Many people walk home when getting a ride entails a long wait. Walking is free.

I walk because I need the exercise. Many a dog performs a public service by dragging its overweight owner for a walk.

The sidewalks fronting the campus must be among the most pedestrian-friendly in the country because of the ancient acacias.

What can be more magnificent than the crown of a century-old tree? What is more vulnerable?

The most harebrained scheme I read about was a proposal to implement an LRT-MRT system to “complement” the BRT for Cebu.

A transportation official said that the LRT-MRT railways will be set up on an elevated platform and not interfere with the BRT traffic below.

I wonder again if our planners ever commute like we citizens do. Nothing but carbon emissions and urban blight thrive under the LRT-MRT in Metro Manila.

Wary of the predators prowling under the belly of the public transport system that has so far not delivered the masses from Edsa hell, commuters like me choose mall transit points.

“From the frying pan to the fire” comes to mind when malls go on weekend sales, and the metropolis descends into a different kind of madness.

Last Friday, as traffic crawled, the sidewalks of Gorordo Ave. became lanes dedicated to those who have nothing but the power to walk.

When I shifted my glance slightly, I saw how the sidewalks disappeared under the press of street commerce. Across these nightly transformations is the barangay hall.

Why do I not wonder if some form of power failure keeps our officials, and by extension public service, perpetually in the dark?

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 9, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 01, 2017


THE CALL time to assemble prior to marching was ignored by Batch 2017. That could be predicted.

What could not be foretold were the thoughts that wandered as I dutifully stood at the imaginary head of the imaginary queue, followed by the first student to lead (still imaginary), in alphabetical order, the graduating class of “iskolar ng bayan”.

What awaits these young people beyond the march that was about to start (imaginary again), after the moment the university would pronounce them as graduates and alumni?

The question darted and ducked as I gave up all appearances of duty to pose for photos with these gilded young people, familiar enough as my students these past years, but strange and daunting, too, with a way of gazing back and talking about the future that their former selves could never pull off in the nail-biting days before the official list of graduates was released.

Then I spotted on the ground, beside someone’s fallen hankie, yellow-green blossoms that resemble, had these still been aloft our heads, clusters of sea stars drifting in an unseen current.

Unlike the iconic sunflowers that have been biologically engineered to bloom in time for graduation at the Diliman campus, the ilang-ilang tree in the Lahug campus goes generally ignored.

Some of us remember that the tree was already there when we were undergraduates. We ignored it, too, preferring the nearby “tambis” tree, prolific and easy enough to climb for its juicy fruits in summer.

Then a former janitor made a morning rite of picking the fallen ilang-ilang and placing a blossom on each desk in the faculty room. A male colleague joked that it was so “awkward” to receive flowers from another man.

I remember giving him the look. “Then can I have yours,” I said and scooped the brown gnarled litter from his desk to mine. It was unnecessary as the perfume of one ilang-ilang blossom can permeate a whole room, let alone a tiny brain.

Even now, when it is increasingly a challenge to stoop for the blossoms the wind has shaken free from the branches, I gather ilang-ilang to take back to my desk, press between pages, or bring to meetings.

Unlike flamboyant orchids, the ilang-ilang blossom is found more often on the ground, never as corsages. Its journey from air to ground is short and fraught.

When still green, the blossoms blend with the carabao grass carpeting the ground. Trodden, ran over, crushed, perhaps merely being severed from the tree starts the quick descent from yellow to brown, the inevitable decay.

Seneca wrote, “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars”. As the ilang-ilang tree drizzled earthbound stars over yet another batch of graduates, I thought the reverse is also true.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 2, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”