June 2007


I know it’s hard to follow Philippine politics from abroad (it’s even hard when you’re smack in the middle of it). So, I’d like to give a quick recap of some of the exciting things going on regarding Halalan2007. The fun just began on May 14th. You couldn’t invent stuff better than this.

Philippines is where…

Starbucks is more expensive than gas;

every street has basketball court but every town has just 1 school;

doctors go back to school to become nurses abroad;

soap opera is reality, news provide the dramas of life;

actors make the laws & politicians provide entertainment.

-text forward (the communication vehicle of the nation!)

The Senate, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur

So, it’s been over a month since elections were held on May 14th, and the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) still has yet to declare the winner of the last of 12 Senate seats. Lt. Anotnio “Sonny” Trillanes was proclaimed winner of the 11th seat on June 15th. (More on Trillanes later). Right now the 12th seat is up for grabs between Genuine Opposition (GO, the opposition coalition, obviously) candidate Alquilino “Koko” Pimentel III and Team Unity (TU, the pro-administration coalition) candidate Juan Miguel Zubiri.

So far Pimentel is leading with more than 100,000 votes. What could turn the tide in favor of Zubiri are the votes from Maguindanao, which are being contested for two main reasons:

1) In Maguindanao, TU candidates won 12-0. Nationally, TU hasn’t been doing so great. Of 12 senate seats, TU candidates have won 2 (it will be 3 if Zubiri wins). Yet, somehow, they managed a clean sweep in Magindinao. Now, anytime there is unanimity in politics, we should be suspicious. If there is unanimity in favor of unpopular candidates, we should be extra suspicious. When these suspicious results come from Maguindinao, a part of Mindinao, which is largely regarded as the election fraud capital of the Philippines, well that’s something.

2)  Lots and lots of fraud: In Philippine elections, fraud is the rule and not the exception. While Maguindanao is certainly not the only place where fraud occurs, election related “anomalies” have been popping up left and right. They have reached such a level of absurdity, that I myself try to stop myself from laughing whenever I think about them. Some highlights:

– There are reports that elections didn’t actually happen in Maguindanao at all. Several sources (including reports heard by the Mindanao team of the COMPACT IOM) have reported that the Elections Returns (basically vote tally-sheets) were prepared in the week before the election. One teacher (public school teachers administer elections) actually came to the media and reported participating in making these election returns. His testimony was immediately picked up by various media groups, NGO’s, and the opposition. There was finally a witness stating publicly what everyone knew but was either afraid to share or unable to prove. TU and the COMELEC gave their stock reply of “We can’t trust this person, we don’t know if he is telling the truth. We will investigate.” Strangely enough, 48 hours before the COMELEC in Manila was to hold a hearing on allegations of massive fraud in Maguindanao, this teacher was shot dead.

– Lintang Bedol, the election supervisor in southern Maguindanao actually went into hiding after the 12-0 Senate results for Maguindanao were proclaimed. I mean, into hiding as in no one could find him. COMELEC headquarters asked him to come to Manila on May 30 and he didn’t show. COMELEC tried to locate him so that he could present some election documents, but they couldn’t find him. Bedol finally appeared before the COMELEC on June 11. He didn’t have the election documents the COMELEC had been waiting for, stating they had been stolen two weeks earlier. Despite the stolen documents, Bedol said elections in Maguindanao were peaceful and fraud had not marred the vote. However, he didn’t actually know how elections were conducted because although he is election supervisor for Maguindanao, on the actual day of elections he was observing in a different province.

– The COMELEC has been toying with the idea of declaring a failure of elections and holding special elections in Maguindanao, as well as several other places (Lanao del Sur, Batangas, etc.), though Maguindanao remains at the forefront of national attention because of its possible affect on the Senate race. The nation is still holding its breath as the COMELEC investigates and decides its plan of action.

Trillanes

On June 15, Lt. Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes was proclaimed winner of the 11th Senate seat.

Trillanes is an unconventional candidate. First, he is the first active duty soldier to be elected lawmaker. Second, Trillanes actually incarcerated right now facing military court martial for an alleged coup attempt against the GMA government in 2003.

Trillanes waged his campaign from inside a jail cell. His victory is largely the result of the efforts of dedicated supporters and media attention, versus the traditional political tricks and expenditures. While a lot of people didn’t know he was running (due to his inability to campaign), a large proportion of those who did indicated they would vote for him.

Most obviously, Trillanes’ victory is a huge blow to GMA’s image. In an election that many see as a referedum on the administration (indeed, a referendum which she has lost due to the dominance of GO candidates in the Senate), a Navy officer who is known for allegedly trying to overthrow the GMA government via a coup d’etat has won a national office.

The question now is how Trillanes will actually serve in the Senate. Armed Forces Cheif of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. has stated that Trillanes election vistory will not change the terms of his captivity. He is still under the jurisdiction of military court martial. This position is, of course, supported by the administration, which claims Gen. Esperon is just following the law.

Thus, one is begged to ask how Trillanes will attend legislative session. In order to attend his own victory proclamation, Trillanes had to file a request to leave with the court martial body. The are several schemes as to the logistics of Trillanes service in the Senate, but all are still theoretical. There is no precedent for this situaiton.

It seems, however, the Armed Forces might be willing to be flexible. On June 16, Gen. Esperon confirmed that “rebel forces” would still face the rule of law despite the election results. However, Esperon was also open with the policy and legislation suggestions he would have for a bloc of former military officers in the Senate. Dealmaking is part of Philippine politics. It seems suggested that even the supposedly rigid and harsh military law is able to be bent.

Ok, so evidently my plan of referring you all to a newspaper article didn’t work, which I guess is because it’s not specific enough. So, here we go, please refer to this FAQ for general questions and contact me with specifics :).

When are you coming back? Are you coming back?

I’m planning on staying here for another 1-2 years. (Ahhh shocker!)

Why?

Basically, it comes down to work. The decision to stay was really hard for me, for several reasons:
1) I really desperately miss you guys
2) I really desperately miss New York
3) HUGE paycut (huge doesn’t even begin to describe)
4) I never intended to stay this long, and my mind was very much set on going back

But, in the end, after thinking long and hard, I decided my employment prospects are much better here than they would be in the US (the opposite of what is true for all other Filipinos, I know). I’ve been offered a research position at the Institute for Popular Democracy here, and they’re really being flexible as far as working with me and what I want to research and my financial and legal situations here. So I decided to stay based on the following reasons:

A) I definitely want to go back to grad school in the next couple years. If I’m going to study democratization and third world development in grad school anyway, it makes a lot more sense to actually work on those projects here instead of US policy right now.
B) The fact that my work is directly related to the field I want to study, plus the fact that this is a unique experience (which enhances the chances that I will bring diversity to the class) will probably better my chances of getting into a good grad school.
C) Instead of just following someone else’s program or doing all the research or just number crunching and then someone else synthesizing the research, analyzing it, and their name going on the report (with mine maybe in the thank yous), here I will really get a chance to pick something specific to work on, to conduct my own original research and analysis and have my own name put on it.
D) They have also expressed the desire for me to be directly and publicly involved in policy campaigns, so I’ll have a chance to gain some notoreity as well.
E) Additionally, I have already gotten some notoriety here. I’m doing well, as you can see from previous blog entries, I’ve gotten a good amount of media coverage. I’ve also appeared on tv (clips of news spots on ABS-CBN and GMA, as well as a 30-minute interview on ANC, ABS-CBN’s cable news channel). So, I’ve got some contacts in media.
F) In addition to contacts in media, I’ve also got some contacts in government. Due to my media coverage, I’ve also been offered a position with a senator (I mean, he actually sat down and met with me, we made some chika for almost 2 hours, and then he asked me if I was interested in joining his office), and have contacts with a provincial governor.
G) There is so much need here. The obvious is the need for political and economic reform, and I would say the need for reform is much more dire here than in the states. It’s a little harder for me to get excited about political reform in the states now that I’ve seen conditions here; especially given what I’ve seen and am continuing to see regarding the elections (I think the death toll is nearing 200). But the need is also really great now because there is a real chance for reform now. People are waking up and there are a number of exciting movements now.
H) The perhaps less obvious need is the need for talent. I’ve become really sensitive to the whole Philippines brain drain issue. In fact, the sentator I was talking to expressed his observation that a reverse brain drain might be starting, and he hopes it continues. Competition for jobs at think tanks and political reform machines is so stiff in the US. I mean, people ask for masters degrees as a requirement for lower-level research associates, I’ve basically done the work of a research associate in the states and you DONT need a masters for the vast majority of it. Furthermore, you’re looking at a salary in the range of 35-38k, for someone with an advanced degree! You have a masters and you get paid the same as a secretary! Here in the Philippines there is a huge waste of talent. The brightest students, who in the US would be encouraged to become CEO’s or nuclear physicists, here are encouraged to take up nursing and go abroad. Furthermore, there is a huge need for talent in political reform, and there’s a need for a new generation in the left as the old generation has had so many personal splits they can hardly work together. I almost feel it would be irresponsible of me to leave.
I) I would get to travel with this job :). Staff often goes to localities all over the country, and one of the projects I’m working with actually neworks with Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, so I would possible have a chance to go there as well.

Are you sure it’s not becasue of your boyfriemd?

Actually, I can honestly say it’s NOT because of him. We had talked about it pretty often and if I left he would have just come with me. As I was deciding, I really was adamant about not letting him come into the equation. Additionally, being with him in the states would probably be even more convenient because my uncles wouldn’t be around checking our every move. At least now that I’m staying there’s no rush to get married or anything. (I’m sure this answer is gonna spark a lot more questions haha. sigh)

So are you fully adjusted to life there? Do you like it better there?

Well, I miss New York SOOOOO much, I can’t even explain. I get so sad and nostalgic everytime I think about it…which makes me think how much worse it must be for our parents in the diaspora to be over there. I mean, I don’t hate life here, It’s fine, but I haven’t been as happy as I was in New York. I think a lot of that, though, of course has to do with all you guys, but also has to do with me not having my own place here. I haven’t really been able to feel at home because by staying at relatives’ houses, instead of my own, I’ve felt transient. The fact that I go back and forth between their places and have to think of their opinion of everything I do makes the feeling worse, like I’m not settled.

But it looks like that’s all going to change now since yesterday I put a deposit on an apartment. It’s awesome, a 10 minute walk from my office. And I love this area, it really is like the Village…small shops and places to eat and drink. Artsy and intellectual types. I really get reminiscent of lower Manhattan around here. So I think I’ll be much more adjusted once I’m settled into my spot and have my regular hangouts.