Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I've always wondered how long the Dutch government would allow Joma Sison to run the nearly four-decade old insurgency in the Philippines from the relative comforts of Utrecht. I guess they've answered that question with Sison's arrest, reportedly for the assassinations of former New People's Army chief Romulo Kintanar and erstwhile lieutenant Arturo Tabara.

I've never met the man because I joined the Fourth Estate in Manila after he had fled the country and sought sanctuary in The Netherlands. But Sison always struck me as ambitious, egocentric. He was a political science professor when I was still wearing short-pants to school, I learned later, a man enamored with Mao, Marx and Lenin as the Cold War quietly raged on, who decided action spoke louder than words.

I was introduced to the UP "commune" through a cousin who was studying there, watched intently the unfolding First Quarter Storm at the gates of Malacanang, and struggled to comprehend what Martial Law was all about. I noticed the graffiti, Marcos and Ninoy but admittedly was more preoccupied learning the "12-step" and "swing" (where I failed miserably). The insurgency war hit closer to home when a distant cousin joined the underground and decided to bolt. In hushed tones, I could hear the family discussing how they've moved her from one relative's home to another because her erstwhile comrades were hunting her down. Even then, the intrinsic brutality of that conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives seemed distant, alien.

Joma was a name I heard often, his face as familiar to me as those of Nixon, Imelda or her brood, Bongbong, Imee and Irene. But it wasn't after I started working for the Philippine Star -- covering the defense beat -- that I'd be compelled to study him closer. I met Ariel Almendral, one of his former cadres, who'd been gathering witnesses and other evidence pointing to Joma's deep involvement in the Plaza Miranda bombing, which everyone was blaming on Marcos. I learned about Olympia and Ahos Zombie -- the feral pogroms triggered by the arrest of top party leaders.

Letters from "Armando Guerrero" -- I always thought Joma chose an apt pseudonym -- provided a glimpse about his totalitarian mindset. I thought, here was a man so thoroughly convinced about the superiority of his ideas, so ruthless in his predilections that I was ready to believe the worse of what was being said about him. I shuddered at the thought of this ideologue running the Philippines.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, even after China started experimenting with her brand of neo-socialism, and with much of the world shifting away from armed struggle, Joma doggedly held on to his convinction that "political change only came from the barrel of a gun".

Until now, I marvel at how he could, in his mind, repudiate reality so articulately. But even his genius is suspect, at least for me, when the CPP-NPA failed to exploit the opening of the 1986 People Power revolt. They were at their peak, armed partisans were inside the capital, the military was in flux -- and yet they did nothing. Pinulot sila sa pancitan. It was all downhill after that.

Joma's time, along with his idea of armed struggle, is long past. He would be irrelevant were it not for government's corruption, the military's excesses and the Filipinos' own reluctance to openly reject violence as an instrument of change. But I believe Joma had vision ripe and compelling for his era; it just failed to evolve with changing realities. If he were a dinosaur, I would certainly count Joma as a T-Rex, formidable and fearsome but extinct, nevertheless.

What makes me sad is that no one has come up since that time, to offer Filipinos a new political alternative, an ideology of change that doesn't have to come with a steep price in blood, but one that nevertheless promises a better Philippines.

Monday, August 20, 2007


The battleship "Wisconsin" (BB-64) is one of the few US Navy ships to have seen action in World War II (she was launched in time to help in the liberation of the Philippines), Korean War and liberation of Kuwait in "Operation Desert Storm".

The "Wisconsin" is over 887 feet long, 108 feet wide, weighs 57,500 tons. Her deck aft is large enough to fit one-and-a-half basketball courts.

Each of the "Wisconsin's" nine 16-inch guns can fire individually or in a salvo. Six huge gunpowder bags (the mom & kid provide a reference on the size of the gun's ammuniton) propel the shell 23 miles away (if the "Wisconsin" were moored beside the Quirino Grandstand, she could hit as far away as Binan, Laguna to the south or Binangonan, Rizal to the east or Bulacan, Bulacan to the north).

Aside from her 16-inch guns, the "Wisconsin" is also armed with a dozen 5-inch guns, 32 Tomahawk cruise missile launchers, 16 Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers and four anti-aircraft Phalanx systems. She currently serves as a floating museum at the Nauticus in Norfolk, Virginia but can be mobilized anytime for national emergencies.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


"And the seasons, they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captives on the carousel of time"
- Joni Mitchell

"She took the little maiden, on her arm, and both flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high, and then above was neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety -- they were with God"
-Hans Christian Andersen

"Everything being a carnival, there is no carnival left" - Victor Hugo

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Living here has given me some funny lessons about Americans. Here's what I've learned so far.

1. They’re usually impeccably prompt but don’t trust their sense of time when they ask you for “a minute” (as in, “Do you have a minute?” or “Can you hang on for just a minute?”). Or demand indignantly, “Now, wait there one minute!” They rarely ever mean our usual understanding of how long a minute is. From experience that “minute” could be anywhere from just a “few” to a “whole lot”. I haven’t had time to research the etymology of America’s “one minute” but I’m guessing it’s all part of their emphasis on precision, even when it’s not. At least in our vernacular, when we say sandali lang, we discard any pretensions that waiting should be measured.

2. Be careful whom you offer your seat to in a crowded bus. I’ve stopped counting how many sharp, angry looks I’ve gotten from “elderly” women while trying to be a gentleman. “Age” is very subjective to Americans, I discovered. The official retirement age starts at 62, but many continue to work past that. Unless I see them staggering at the turns, I’ve learned it’s best to keep my eye on the newspaper.

3. They’re a very polite people. They greet everyone with “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” When I first got here, I thought they expected me to tell them just how I was. Wrong! I’d get puzzled looks as I tried to answer them, cutting me off just as I was coiling up for the meat of my life’s story. It’s not like our kamustahan, where a greeting is usually accompanied by a tale or two, usually the latest juicy gossip. A simple “Good, and how are you?” would suffice, I discovered.

4. I’ve found out the hard way that it’s easy to get lost in underground parking here. I’ve always taken pride in my navigational skills, but over here, it fails me at times. I blame it on the elevators, of course. I usually try to remember how many floors I pass from where I parked to my destination floor. So when I go back, I just press the floor I thought I left my car on. But some building elevators here have this crazy notion of location – B-1, for instance, is I assume the first floor down after the Ground Floor. Wrong! It’s actually the “first” floor of the building (i.e., the bottom-most floor). If there are four underground parking levels and I wanted to get to the first one after the Ground Floor, I should’ve pressed B-4, not B-1. Ay mali!

5. Never ask for the “comfort room”. You’d only get puzzled stares and a lot of “what ya say?” Toilet, men’s or women’s room should work out fine. And while you’re at it, don’t ask for your “chit” or motion a square with your index finger and thumb when you want to get your “bill” at a restaurant.

6. While smoking and someone approaches you as if asking for a light, chances are he wants a light and a cigarette. At $4 a pack, you’d think a sari-sari store selling cigarettes by the stick would do brisk business here.

7. They say "thank you" a lot, for almost every little kind deed. Not saying "you're welcome" in return is just plain, rude. And they hate rude people here.

8. I've found that women here like to show their cleavage (perhaps because they have reason to). It's okay to look but staring would be considered rude specially if they're bouncing all over the place. Come to think of it, not all of them hate being rude.

Friday, August 10, 2007


The Little President is trying to play general (again!), this time in Mindanao. I’m worried.

She’s marching through the same path Erap took at the dawn of the new millennium, acceding to his generals’ wishes to “finish off” Muslim separatists and thereby earn “pogi points” from the public. What we witnessed instead was a virtual stalemate arising from President Estrada’s epic miscalculation (some say, it was the total of absence of it) about his quarry’s strength and the AFP’s own capabilities.

It seems PGMA will suffer the same fate. Even this early, I can see where her Basilan and Sulu campaigns are headed – an embarrassing deadlock. The Army has been battered in both places; the beheading of ten soldiers in Basilan is the pretext for this latest offensive. As if the AFP doesn’t already have its hands full.

Looking at my “crystal ball” (I think it's better I call it my "crystal bull") here is how I see it will go. PGMA will declare war (in mock indignation over the Abu Sayyaf and/or MNLF and/or MILF atrocities). Muslim “terrorists” melt away to civilian areas, begin a bombing campaign or take hostages en masse. The Army bombs, bombards and straffs suspected rebel lairs (likely causing a lot of “collateral damage”). Local (especially religious leaders) and international groups (especially the OIC) bear pressure for government to stop the fighting. The offensive stops, both the military and Muslim groups declare victory. The AFP may “neutralize” some key leaders but the core of the rebellion remains. This isn’t really a prediction. It’s more of a time-tested template.

In almost a decade of covering the military for the Philippine Star, I had several opportunities to observe military operations in Mindanao. The AFP’s favorite weapons are the 105mm howitzers and OV-10 Bronco’s. In short, the underlying and overriding philosophy of their campaign strategy has always been overwhelming firepower. They fire those howitzers morning, noon and night. After unloading their ordnance, the Bronco’s fly fast and low, as if in salute. Surreal. I recall how I thought they looked eerily like scenes from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

I have to confess I enjoyed those coverages. Roughing it in the field, imagining the soldier’s perils, and marveling at the firepower brought to bear on the “enemy” have a certain allure. We journalists liked to think we too were involved in this mortal struggle. That ends at sunset. We’d likely be found in the nearest city (certainly not some remote shanty-town), gulping ice-cold San Miguel while ogling the girls. Nothing wrong with that, so long as we get our stories out first.

I guess it’s still the same today. A whole lot of people want these wars in Mindanao…except of course those likely to get caught in the fighting. They’re the women, children and elderly – Christians and Muslims alike – who are likely to bear the brunt of the suffering, death and destruction. They don’t understand why people safely ensconced hundreds of miles away would be so enamored by war in their towns and villages.

They will never understand that a confluence of desires and agendas hundreds of miles away has guaranteed their continued misery. And for so long as their suffering is not felt in those places, they should brace for more of these episodes of violence (I shudder at the thought of fanatics mounting a terror campaign in Metro Manila that could make the Valentine’s Day or Super Ferry bombings look like child’s play…if that time comes, we’ll really be in trouble!).

Of course, all that could change. Just stop presidents from playing generals and generals from playing warriors. The only real warriors are those in the frontlines, doing the bleeding and the dying. There’s no nobility in slaughter bereft of purpose or even a glimmer of hope that this latest war will not end in another pointless stalemate. Some reporters might feel deprived of the “action” but heck, they can get their kicks somewhere else.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


I've found patents fascinating. A little over a year working at the Patents & Trademarks Office Carlyle campus in Alexandria, Virginia provided me an opportunity to look at patent work upclose. I admit I knew nothing about patents, but exposure has heightened my appreciation and understanding of its role in America's continuing strength. And hope for mankind.

I see the patents institution as the heart of intellectual property rights. And by extension, a bedrock of private ownership and private enterprise. It celebrates the power of the individual, showcasing the potency of a single, original, viable human thought. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." Any society that is propelled by new ideas, I believe, would find the concept of patents indispensable, perhaps even essential to its survival.

I'm barred from talking about patents applications (believe me, they're enough to fill volumes, from the most absurdly funny to the truly impressively ambitious), but feel compelled to write about something that I've been immersed in since the summer of 2006.

There is a raging debate whether the concept of patents (defined as exclusive rights granted by the state for a fixed period of time in exchange for disclosure of an invention) actually advances or stymies technological advancement. Foremost among the criticism is that it limits access to badly needed products or know-how, especially those that impact the world's poor and marginalized, such as breakthrough medicines that at the onset, will usually carry a prohibitive price. But without it, most pharmaceuticals would hesitate to invest in a new drug if they can not recover the costs. The patents concept is one of the oldest. It has evolved since the Romans and Greeks granted the first patents (e.g., for new food recipes), and this ongoing debate will certainly exert the right pressure for reforms. I have no doubt about that.

After the patent runs out, the technology becomes public property.

And since they are the big-stake players, large multinationals often end up in either end of patents infringement battles. Like the recent $1.5 billion suit filed by Alcatel-Lucent against Microsoft, involving MP3 technology.

Google has an engine that can help surf through seven million patents from the US alone. Beats me, just how many there are in the world since most countries have their own patents system.

By ensuring that invention and innovation remain rewarding, patents provide the impetus for continued development.

Sometimes I wonder how, with the huge volume of issued patents, any new invention can get patented. But they do. Just as human needs change and grow, so too do the tools by which to meet those needs. I'd like to see it as proof-positive of the infinite potential of the human mind.

Friday, August 3, 2007


I heard the happy news. Congratulations! The world beckons, waiting for a conqueror.

As I'm writing this, I'm looking at your picture with your Ate Nez when she graduated from kindergarten. I've kept the picture in my wallet forever. The leather's all torn now, and I have trouble taking the picture out from the window pocket. I guess you must have been 3 or 4. But like the pictures of your Ate Nez and Kuya Arp that I always keep close to me, I shall probably always see the three of you at that joyful age.

I'm glad that you finally finished college. That's a high-water mark that's eluded about a third of our family. And knowing what you had to go through to get there, you should really be proud of that achievement.

I wish I could have been there. Because I would have enjoyed conjuring in my mind, images of approving smiles from everyone who believed in you and more importantly, believe in what you can be.

I would've remembered your Tatang waking up so early (no matter how late he went to bed!) to drive you to St. Paul's, passing by that Shell station in White Plains to buy a cup of coffee. I would've remembered how Grampa and Gran'ma were worried sick that you were not eating enough. I would've remembered how your Tita took it upon herself to carry on where your Tatang left off...to be a guardian, friend and mentor.

I would've remembered how you liked to horse around with your Kuya Arp, or when you were littler still, hide behind his formidable back. I would've remembered those hushed conversations with your Ate Nez, as you traded secrets that I dared not ask.

I would've remembered how your Daddy-Grandpa talked about you over a bottle of San Miguel, eyes twinkling in a merry mix of pride, hope and worry. I would've remembered how Lulu would take you in her arms, embrace you tightly, a warm but silent assurance that everything's gonna be alright. I would've remembered how your Dad would hustle to buy you the latest Nokia or juggle his commitments to be with you. And though they are apart, you must know they tried, very hard. They must be both very proud of you, and I'm glad.

You see our joy is not so much that you've become our first bona-fide "La Sallista" (we all knew that was coming!) but because we see in you and what you've become, the love and toil of so many people who've cared for you so deeply over the years. And know that for those who have gone ahead of us, they continue to live through you.

As you travel further down the road, you will see that the twists and turns are never-ending. You will face obstacles -- some larger, some smaller than what you've hurdled in the past -- but always remember that the Lord never gives you a cross you can not bear. You can and you will! The impossible just takes a little longer.

In our dreams, I believe you still talk to your Tatang, and he to you. I wish he would talk to me too but I guess he has his hands full with you and your Kuya Arp and Ate Nez. And through life's incessant uncertainties, you can rely on this one inviolable truth -- you are loved. Congratulations Darling, and Godspeed!