Who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

In the aftermath of that spectacular failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint communiqué on its ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Foreign Minister had the gall to accuse the Philippines and Vietnam of “taking the communiqué as a hostage and insisting on turning the 10-nation group to a tribunal.” Pretty strong words. But as one newspaper said in its editorial, this was a “dishonest account.” In other words, a lie.

Taking the ASEAN communiqué hostage of their bilateral issues with China must mean that Manila and Hanoi had insisted on including words representing a consensus of sorts that was not in fact reached in the meetings. But this was not the case. Manila merely insisted that the discussions on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off and the EEZ dispute between Vietnam and China be reflected for the simple reason that they were in fact discussed. No more, no less. Isn’t the joint communiqué supposed to document what transpired in the meetings?

It’s true that Manila and Hanoi tried to raise their territorial disputes with China in the Phnom Penh meetings. Why wouldn’t they? The point of these multilateral gatherings is precisely to discuss regional issues, be they bilateral or multilateral in nature. Other parties also raised issues like the Korean nuclear crisis, for instance. Heck, even Cambodia raised its territorial dispute with Thailand. But did Manila and Hanoi try to turn ASEAN into a tribunal? Far from it. The two countries’ rationale was merely to discuss the issues and to explore ways to eventually resolve them, not to resolve them pronto. Indeed, the Philippines and Vietnam didn’t make the resolution of their disputes a pre-requisite for their acceptance of a communiqué.

The fact of the matter is, if one country can be blamed for the failure of ASEAN to issue that communiqué, it should be Cambodia. This blog won’t mince words: The Cambodians acted as Chinese proxies.

To recall, the task of drafting the joint communiqué had been delegated to a committee of four Foreign Ministers: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. Secretary del Rosario’s view was that the communiqué should reflect the discussions on the South China Sea. The others didn’t find this unreasonable, and they were able to prepare the draft relatively smoothly.

But the rub is this: According to an account by Ernest Z. Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong repeatedly met his advisers upon receiving the draft communiqué, and thereafter “rejected language referring to Scarborough Shoal and the EEZ’s, even after multiple attempts to find a compromise.” Bower further claimed that substantiated reports by those present in the meetings indicate that “Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors.”

In other words, the Cambodians consulted their Chinese friends first before expressing their disapproval of the wordings of the communiqué, and they didn’t even make room for compromise. Even after the Philippines agreed to an Indonesian suggestion to change the wording to “affected shoal”, the Cambodians didn’t budge. Now, who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

“The host should have played a bigger role, but he didn’t,” an anonymous ASEAN diplomat told Reuters. But why would he? China has been lavishing Cambodia with high-profile economic and military aid– even the gleaming Peace Palace where ASEAN meetings were held was built with Chinese funds. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out who takes orders from whom.

Now, analysts in different capitals are pointing out that the failure of ASEAN to issue a joint communiqué undermines ASEAN as a bloc, and therefore works for China’s favor in the long term. I agree. But more than that, the failure at Pnom Penh represents an immediate and concrete strategic victory for China that many are not discussing.

Unknown to many, ASEAN has reportedly finished a draft containing possible elements of a code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea. The contents of this draft have not been revealed, but, according to Prof. Donald K. Emmerson of Stanford University, there is reason to believe that the draft code includes binding dispute-settlement mechanisms, which means that it could bind China against acting with impunity in the South China Sea, as it has been doing lately.

The problem is that without a joint communiqué to hail the drafting of the code as a diplomatic milestone, the draft would not have any official recognition and can therefore be easily dismissed by China as a useless white paper. Had the draft been enshrined in the communiqué, it would have been the news, not the discord between Cambodia and the Philippines; and China would have been put under pressure by world opinion to agree to the said code of conduct.

“Intentionally or not, when Hun Sen cancelled the communique, he prevented ASEAN from publicly and prominently validating the draft as the group’s official basis for negotiation,” says Professor Kemmerson.

Clearly, this has been a case of China employing its divide and conquer strategies, thanks to its friends in Phnom Penh. Indonesia is now scrambling to control the damages, dispatching its top diplomat to neighboring capitals to seek consensus. But one can bet that as long as the “ASEAN way” of decision by consensus remains, China, though its proxies, will always be successful.

Ozawa underwhelms

It’s difficult to make sense of Ichiro Ozawa’s resignation from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) because, well, it just doesn’t make sense.

Only 51 of the so-called Ozawa children joined the ex-DPJ strongman when he defected on Monday, and two of them backtracked on the very same day, bringing the number of pro-Ozawa defectors to 49. Not only is this number not enough to deprive the DPJ of its majority in the Lower House, it’s also decreasing. Yesterday, one Ozawa defector repented to the DPJ while another declared that he will not be joining an Ozawa proto-party but will instead be an independent.

A report by the Japan Times mentioned that a second wave of pro-Ozawa defections could be looming, but with the initial Ozawa blitzkrieg this underwhelming, one can be forgiven for ruling such a scenario out. In fact, I can bet that the immediate concern in Ozawa’s office is not to encourage more defections from the DPJ but to prevent counter-defections.

The new Ozawa group, assuming the pro-Ozawa Kizuna Party joins it, may gain enough votes to introduce a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. But having such a motion passed would be next to impossible, since that would require not only the support of all non-DPJ parties, including the Communists, but the defection of around twenty DPJ members as well.

This has actually been a victory for Prime Minister Noda. As Dr. Corey Wallace, an observer of Japanese politics, opined, Ozawa’s underwhelming defection has solved the Prime Minister’s dilemma on how to handle the rebels who voted against his tax hike pet project. With Ozawa in the party, Prime Minister Noda had been under pressure from both the DPJ and his tax hike partner, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to severely punish the rebels, which could have resulted in a bigger defection that could have compromised the DPJ’s majority. With Ozawa gone, the Prime Minister has been able to adopt a strategically lenient tack without appearing weak.

Moreover, with Ozawa gone and all the other party heavyweights co-opted, Prime Minister Noda is set to be re-elected party president this September, unless he makes a major gaffe in the next two months. Who knows, he might even be the first Japanese premier since Junichiro Koizumi to stay in office beyond the traditional one-year shelf life.

As for Ozawa, the prospects are not very promising. Without the DPJ’s protection, he would probably have to spend the rest of his time in the Diet answering questions from several committees investigating his past shenanigans. Perhaps more painfully, Ozawa, long regarded for his catalytic role in Japan’s political history, would probably descend into political irrelevance; meaning, like that blue-eyed shogun of post-war Japan, the shadow shogun would just have to fade away. To avoid this fate, Ozawa would have to build a viable political vehicle. If he can’t increase his group’s numbers, he would have to join forces with others.

A reunion with the LDP-Komeito bloc is extremely unlikely, since that erstwhile ruling coalition still has an axe to grind against Ozawa. The LDP would rather maneuver to have an LDP-DPJ grand coalition– which could be headed by an LDP prime minister, who knows?– than join hands with its two-time “destroyer.”  Ozawa would have to find another partner.

Perhaps the best chance for Ozawa to stay relevant is to strike a partnership with the charismatic Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, and the loose movement that he leads.

A Political Science professor from a leading university in Osaka, whom I met last week in an international conference on North Korea in Manila, says that Mayor Hashimoto’s real goal is to gain control of the Kantei, and that he sees the next election as a litmus test of sorts for this ambition. This probably explains his openness to the idea of a tie-up with Ozawa. Despite the Osaka Restoration Association’s pro-tax hike stance, for instance, the Mayor has criticized the Noda government’s “betrayal” of the DPJ manifesto, saying that Ozawa’s actions are “understandable.”

The problem is that Mayor Hashimoto’s bloc is a loose entente that is hardly monolithic. The Mayor’s partner, Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, has made it clear that the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto, written by Ozawa, is incompatible with the Osaka Restoration Association’s ideals and that the Association should therefore not join Ozawa’s group. Another important player, the eccentric Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is planning to form a conservative party that will join a Hashimoto coalition, has a personal animosity with Ozawa. Building consensus with these political actors would be very challenging, to say the least.

Ozawa’s backroom skills will again be tested, perhaps for the last time.

Miscalculation in Manila

That’s how the Philippine Daily Inquirer describes the Philippines’ move to withdraw its ships, purportedly due to a typhoon, from the disputed Scarborough Shoal last week.  It’s now apparent that the Chinese side has no intention of reciprocating Manila’s move, and that the status quo ante will not be restored anytime soon.

Instead, the Chinese have used the typhoon to strengthen their already overwhelming presence in the Shoal. Citing the need to assist the Chinese fishing boats in the area amid bad weather, Beijing deployed another vessel, increasing the number of its ships in the Shoal and leaving Philippine officials flabbergasted. Most observers agree that Manila may have overestimated Beijing’s desire to de-escalate.

Philippine officials may probably be forgiven for misreading China’s intentions. After all, both sides had agreed on a re-positioning of their vessels last week in an apparent attempt to de-escalate. It certainly is in China’s long-term geopolitical interest to see an end to the months-long stand-off. The smarter people in Beijing know that China’s assertiveness in Scarborough is squandering the gains of painstaking diplomatic efforts to project a peaceful rise, and is alienating the Asian neighborhood enough to make Washington’s strategic “pivot” successful. Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always call the shots.

But what’s probably unforgivable is Manila’s recklessness. There appears to have been no attempt to negotiate the pull-out, probably in adherence to Manila’s stubborn position of resolving the stand-off multilaterally instead of bilaterally. It appears that Philippine officials blindly thought that China will reciprocate a Philippine withdrawal– their only basis being nothing but the premise that it also is in China’s long-term interest to end the stand-off.  Apparently, no thought was given to China’s domestic political dynamics and how they are currently shaping Beijing’s policy. How dangerously naive.

The lesson of this episode is that, again, Manila should strive to understand how Beijing works. It appears that policy-makers there remain myopic; they still see the Scarborough dispute as a convenient ploy to divert their domestic constituents’ attention away from the ruling party’s shenanigans. This is a dangerous game on China’s part, as it could lead to an adverse situation for the Communist Party if it’s not played well.

As I have said in a previous post, how China would respond to the Philippine withdrawal could be indicative of who’s gaining the upper hand in the on-going national debate within the Middle Kingdom on how China should behave as an emerging power. As things stand, Beijing’s hawks appear to be winning that debate. If so, Manila should brace itself. The next battle will be the Recto Bank, where Philippine companies are set to drill for natural gas soon. That area is a vital core interest for the Philippines, whose expanding economy is bound to create greater demand for energy in the immediate future.

Military rule will remain in Egypt

All eyes are on Cairo now as two of the country’s presidential candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, have simultaneously declared victory in yesterday’s presidential polls. But whoever wins the presidency, Egypt would likely remain under military rule.

The election is arguably the culmination of the decades-old war between the Islamist Brotherhood and the military clique, which has been ruling the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since Mubarak’s ouster last year. For all intents and purposes, the two institutions represents the only credible power poles in Egypt: The military, aside from being the guarantor of the nation’s security and political stability, controls a substantial portion of the Egyptian economy. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has a formidable grassroots support that makes it the only credible threat to the military’s political power.

Between the two, the military has the obvious upper hand. Having hi-jacked last year’s people power revolt through a silent coup, the generals of the Council have been dictating the terms of the post-Mubarak transition. Through the whole machinery of the government, the ruling generals appear to be moving mountains to ensure General Shafiq’s victory. But even if the former Air Force Marshall fails to win, the Council can still retain power by making the Brotherhood’s candidate a lameduck president.

Earlier, the ruling generals had the Parliament dissolved by the Supreme Constitution Court on technical grounds. The said Parliament had been writing a constitution, which would have defined the powers of the president vis a vis the Council. But now that the Parliament has been dissolved, legislative powers has reverted back to the Council, which means that the Council will now be the one to define the powers of whoever would be elected as president. If the Islamist Morsi becomes president, the Council would certainly make his office practically toothless.

As if these are not insurance enough, a case has been filed before the Supreme Constitution Court questioning the legality of the Brotherhood itself.

As I see it, therefore, the Brotherhood’s only options now are either to cut a power-sharing deal with the Council or to mobilize massive street protests. But I suspect that any protest actions would likely fizzle out since the Brotherhood has reportedly lost some public support following concerns about its reckless introduction of Islamist bills in the previous Parliament. Moreover, the Justice Ministry has recently declared that military and intelligence officers could again arrest civilians, hinting that the Council is willing to flex some muscles in order to nip massive protest actions in the bud.

Cutting a deal with the ruling generals, meanwhile, would be a pragmatic option, but it would not yield much tactical advantage. The Islamists would have to negotiate from a position of weakness, which means that the Council– unless prodded by the United States, which is unlikely at this point– would only allow few concessions to the Brotherhood, if at all. Moreover, cozying up to the generals might alienate the conservatives among the Brotherhood’s ranks.

In short, more than a year after risking their lives in a people power revolt in Tahrir Square, the Egyptians will now have an empowered military clique ruling alongside a toothless president and without a parliament. This arrangement will likely stall, or even reverse, the country’s democratic transition; but it will also guarantee a predictable regime that would maintain whatever is left of Egypt’s, and the entire region’s, stability.

The ball is now in China’s court

Finally, a face-saving opportunity to end the tense stand-off at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Last Friday, citing bad weather conditions, President Benigno S. Aquino III ordered the two remaining Filipino ships in the area, a Philippine Coast Guard patrol craft and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources research vessel, to pull out of the disputed waters. The President’s order followed an earlier pull-out by both China and the Philippines from the shoal’s inner lagoon, which was seen by observers as an attempt by both sides to de-escalate tensions.

President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson says the withdrawal is a unilateral decision meant to ensure the safety of the Filipino crew, and that China has nothing to do with it. But Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters last week that the Chinese had also agreed to withdraw their ships from the disputed waters, hinting that a deal of sorts had actually been reached.

So far, however, there’s no sign that the Chinese would honor this supposed agreement. While the Chinese Embassy in Manila has lauded the Philippines’ withdrawal, it was mum on the question of whether Beijing would follow Manila’s lead. This is despite the fact that Manila’s pull-out has given the Chinese government the opportunity to also withdraw around thirty of its maritime surveillance ships from the disputed waters without losing face to its nationalistic domestic constituents.

Yesterday, Malacanang reiterated that it is waiting for China “to honor its commitment” to pull its flotilla out of the shoal. In other words, Manila was sending Beijing a message: We’ve done our part, now do yours.

Obviously, ending the Scarborough stand-off is a necessary tactical initiative for the Philippines, which has very limited military options. But this is so with Beijing too, for different reasons.

China’s firmness on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off has alienated several Asian capitals, thereby squandering the gains of almost a decade of delicate “peaceful rise” diplomacy. To say that China’s soft power has been weakened by the stand-off is an understatement; Asian countries are now beginning to gravitate further towards the United States, which has publicly stated that it intends to remain as a Pacific power. Japan, whose ruling party used to have pro-Beijing leanings, for instance, has chosen to re-affirm its alliance with Washington, while Vietnam is practically laying the welcome mat for America’s Seventh Fleet in Cam Ranh Bay.

Clearly, to repair the damages to China’s image in the region, it’s necessary for Beijing to reciprocate Manila’s goodwill.

Needless to say, the restoration of status quo ante—that is, making the Scarborough Shoal free of government ships from both sides pending the completion of a code of conduct on the South China Sea disputes—should be a win-win solution not only for both the Philippines and China but also for the region as a whole.  But would Beijing see it this way, or would it find Manila’s withdrawal an opportunity to cement its newfound control over the disputed shoal?

How China would respond to the Philippine withdrawal could be indicative of who’s gaining the upper hand in the on-going national debate within the Middle Kingdom on how China should behave as an emerging power. Surely, the rest of Asia is watching closely.

Another showdown in Thailand?

The current truce between Thailand’s royalist elite and the populist government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother Thaksin was ousted in a royally-sanctioned coup in 2006, has been a refreshing respite from the taxing instability that the Kingdom had to endure during the latter part of the last decade.  Unfortunately, a storm that could disturb this fragile peace seems to be brewing in Bangkok.

On one hand, the Parliament and the Constitution Court are on a collision course over the ruling Puea Thai Party’s moves to have the military-imposed 2006 Constitution replaced. The Court, invoking its judicial review powers, has issued a restraining order against parliamentary debates on the proposed charter change measure; but the ruling party insists that the Court has no jurisdiction, citing a constitutional provision that says judicial review of parliamentary bills must be prompted by the Attorney-General first. Nitirat, an organization of law professors from Thammasat University, has urged the Parliament to defy the high court.

On the other hand, the debates in Parliament over the National Reconciliation Bill are bringing the colored crowd back to the streets. The bill, authored by 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, contains a blanket amnesty provision for all political offenses committed from 2005 to 2011. The opposition Democrat Party, which instigated an embarrassing brawl during a parliamentary session, alleges that the bill will pave the way for Thaksin’s return. The royalist Yellow Shirts have launched an “Occupy Parliament” protests against the bill, while the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts are mobilizing “to protect” the Parliament.

These two developments could severely test the mettle of Prime Minister Yingluck, whose heavyweight allies have recently returned to the scene following a five-year political ban. The onus is for her to diffuse these crisis-provoking tensions without undermining her own support base.

Backing off on these two measures could greatly undermine the Prime Minister’s authority among her Red Shirt supporters, especially in light of her refusal to amend the country’s draconian lese majeste laws, and of Thaksin’s widely-criticized insinuations— which he subsequently denied– that he’s willing to work with the royalist elite. But conversely, defying the Constitution Court could result in the banning of her political party, while ramming the reconciliation bill could provoke another Red Shirt-Yellow Shirt street confrontation that might invite extra-constitutional interventions from the army or the Palace.

It’s true that there’s currently an arrangement of sorts between Prime Minister Yingluck and the royalist elite led by the President of His Majesty’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsunalonda, and the army chief, General Prayuth Chanocha. This arrangement calls on the government to keep the royalist order intact, on Thaksin to stay in Dubai, and on the army to stay in their barracks. So far, the Prime Minister is keeping her end of the bargain; but would the King’s men keep theirs?

For now, they have to. But in the event of another major ruckus in Bangkok, or a crippling constitutional crisis between the Legislative and the Judiciary, I’m sure they will– at the very least– be tempted to intervene.

The royalists know that they can’t really keep Thaksin away indefinitely, and that they would all be finished as soon as the ailing King passes away. This is why I think the army and the Palace would find any opportunity to write the rules of the post-Bhumibol era extremely appealing.

Noda’s LDP card

Tokyo is currently abuzz over the decision of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to reshuffle his Cabinet yesterday. He fired key officials like Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister and former candidate for Prime Minister Michihiko Kano;  Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism Minister Takeshi Maeda; and Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka. Kano’s ministry was implicated in a recent Chinese spy scandal, while the other ministers have been widely criticized for several embarrassing gaffes. Maeda and Tanaka, for example, had been officially censured by the opposition-controlled House of Councillors.

But the motivation behind the sacking of these ranking officials is not to impose accountability for their infractions but to pave the way for negotiations with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over the proposed increase in the country’s sales tax, the Prime Minister’s pet project. In short, the ministers are being offered to the opposition as sacrificial lambs.

The Prime Minister is trying to win the opposition over after failing to gain the support of Japan’s acknowledged shadow shogun, Ichiro Ozawa, for the tax hike measure. Ozawa, who has recently been reinstated as a member of the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) after having been acquitted of corruption charges, has consistently opposed any increase in the nation’s taxes. Prime Minister Noda argues that the country needs the tax hike to finance its ballooning social services and to pay off its debt. Ozawa, on the other hand, insists that the government must first reduce its spending, and therefore streamline the bureaucracy, in order to solve the deficit. He’s been very consistent with this position ever since.

The two rounds of talks between the Prime Minister and the shadow shogun ended in a deadlock last week. And while Ozawa hinted that he is still open to continued talks, Prime Minister Noda, who had called the negotiations with Ozawa a “lifetime gamble,” is making it appear that he’s giving up. Many are saying that the stalemate has diminished the Prime Minister’s political stock and boosted Ozawa’s.

“All this pomp surrounding a meeting with a member of his own party, as if he were welcoming a foreign dignitary, is a huge blow to the Prime Minister’s authority,” says LDP president Sadikazu Tanigaki.

Of course, that “member of the party” happens to be Japan’s leading political tactician who commands an army of around one hundred loyal Lower House parliamentarians. Prime Minister Noda’s tax policy won’t clear the Diet without those one hundred votes, which is why he’s trying to lure the opposition’s votes instead. This goal– gaining the opposition’s support after failing to get your party-mates’ nod– is a political peculiarity that can only happen in Japan.

But is the Prime Minister really trying to lure the LDP as an end goal in itself, or is he merely trying to bluff his way to gain Ozawa’s grudging support? Is this another game of brinkmanship, Nagatacho-style?

The LDP has two preconditions for its support for the Prime Minister’s tax hike proposal. Firstly, it wants the DPJ to part ways with the hugely unpopular Ozawa. Secondly, it wants the Diet vote on the tax measure to be followed by a snap election. The LDP, which has recently made gains in opinion polls, badly needs an election soon, before the Third Force movement led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto could assemble its national machinery and therefore present itself to the public as the viable non-LDP alternative to the underwhelming DPJ.

For Prime Minister Noda, an early election means that his party could lose its grip on power only three years after it overthrew the long-entrenched LDP hegemony. For Ozawa, on the other hand, an early election could obliterate his army of one hundred, since they are all political lightweights with no substantial machinery to keep their Diet seats. It doesn’t help that Ozawa’s war chest has been practically depleted, and that he’s now too old to build another political party from scratch.

“I’m willing to risk my political career for this,” says Prime Minister Noda. By trying to lure the LDP, and hinting that he may agree to hold early elections in exchange for its support, the premier seems to be telling Ozawa that he’s willing to risk the DPJ’s hold on power, too.

Will the shadow shogun call the bluff?

China’s fishing boat aggression


When a state projects its overwhelming military might against another state in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, it’s called gunboat diplomacy. But when a state uses not the traditional military warships and jets but a supposedly harmless flotilla of civilian fishing crafts, it’s a fishing boat aggression.

In the Scarborough Shoal, it was the encroachment of Chinese fishing boats into the Philippine Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which prompted a reaction from Manila, that led to the current tensions between the Philippines and China. The role of these private Chinese fishing boats in the escalation of tension in disputed areas is indicative of the new pattern being employed by China in asserting its claims.

In 2010, a Chinese fisherman rammed his boat on a Japanese Coast Guard ship on the waters around the Senkaku Islands, causing a row between China and Japan. In 2011, on the other hand, Chinese fishing boats inflicted damages to oil exploration activities in Vietnam’s EEZ.

This is how Beijing’s fishing boat aggression works: Purportedly Chinese civilian boats will venture into the other country’s EEZ. When patrol boats of that country try to apprehend them, maritime patrol vessels from China’s Fisheries Bureau (under the Ministry of Agriculture) will suddenly appear to secure the Chinese boats, often resulting in a stalemate. China would then reiterate its so-called “inalienable right” to the disputed waters, and insist on a bilateral negotiation to resolve the stand-off.

As the stand-off drags, China would then flare up domestic nationalist sentiments by demonizing the rival claimants, like Japan and the Philippines, through its controlled media. This is then followed by economic pressures like the restriction of rare earth exports to Japan in 2010, the cancellation of tourist travels to the Philippines, and the dumping of Philippine banana exports in China. Finally, China would rattle its saber by making bold pronouncements of its willingness and capability to defend its territory militarily, just as it dismisses suggestions to resolve the disputes through mechanisms under international law. Meanwhile, Chinese fishing boats continue their activities, ignoring all protestations.

Obviously, China is employing this new strategy for two reasons. Firstly, Beijing wants to show that the disputed waters are indeed traditional fishing grounds for Chinese fishermen, in order to buttress its “historical claims” to the said maritime territories. Secondly, by using vessels from the Fisheries Bureau instead of, say, the Coast Guard, the Chinese side is trying to dodge accusations of aggressiveness by characterizing its activities in the area as being civilian in nature.

We have to acknowledge that the Chinese fishermen believe their government’s claims that the disputed waters are really Chinese territory, of course. But it cannot be denied that these fishermen know the danger of venturing into those disputed waters. Without the Fisheries Bureau’s backing, it’s less likely for these Chinese fishermen to risk chartering through these disputed waters. In other words, the boldness of the fishing boats to rummage the disputed waters stems from the protection given by the Fisheries Bureau.

Are these Chinese fishermen merely engaging in private economic expedition, or are they playing accomplice to China’s assertive policies in the disputed waters? It’s difficult to tell. But what’s apparent is that the weight of pressure that China employs whenever stalemates arise due to these fishing boats is indicative of the aggressive nature of Beijing’s South China Sea policy.

Clearly, Beijing is using these supposedly private fishing boats as a tool to advance its claims in the disputed waters. This fishing boat aggression is here to stay, and China’s rival claimants should know how to deal with it.

Readers may indicate their wish to contribute posts in the blog’s comment section.

Enrile sets the tone

The final debate between prosecutors and the defense counsels in Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial at the Senate this afternoon showed the glaring difference between how the Prosecution and the Defense view the impeachment proceedings. The prosecutors framed their arguments more on on the basis of the fundamental political question of whether it is in the interest of the Philippines for the Chief Justice to remain in office. The Defense, on the other hand, wrapped their speeches with elaborate legalese that, for me, served only to buttress the Prosecution’s claims that the Chief Justice’s defense is merely an excuse. It doesn’t help that many among the senators are non-lawyers.

But the oral arguments aside, what caught my attention was the messages sent by several important players in this impeachment drama. I’m sure these messages are not lost on many political observers.

The first unambiguous message was Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s assertion of the Senate’s sole authority to conduct the impeachment proceedings. The Defense team has a pending petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court questioning the jurisdiction of the Senate Impeachment Court on grounds that the House of Representatives committed grave abuse of discretion in transmitting the Articles of Impeachment to the Upper House. Chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas has also said that he will take the case to the Supreme Court in the event of an acquittal. The Senate President, however, sternly stated that the Supreme Court has no power to overturn the Senate’s decision. That, I think, was a message to the Supreme Court: Don’t encroach on our territory.

In an ambush interview with the Inquirer, Associate Justice Martin Villarama, who had been assigned to write the ruling on the impeached Chief Justice’s petition, said something that’s music to the Senate President’s ear: “We’ll accept the (Senate’s) verdict. Whatever it is, we’ll accept it.” It’s difficult to tell if this is the Supreme Court’s reply to the Senate President’s message, of course; but it’s an indication that the Supreme Court is no longer as assertive in protecting its chief as it was seen to be when it immediately released that TRO on the Senate’s inquiry into Chief Justice Corona’s dollar accounts, which the Senate graciously respected.

The second message, meanwhile, came from the House of Representatives through the speeches of Congressman Rudy Farinas and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte: “The House of Representatives has done its constitutional duty of impeaching Renato Corona and proving his guilt, not only by clear and convincing evidence, but conclusive evidence brought about his admission before the honourable Senate of the charge against him under Article II of the Articles on Impeachment.” I think this was the Lower House’s way of putting the Upper House on the spot before the court of public opinion. It was undoubtedly a challenge to the Senate: We’ve done our part, now do yours.

Finally, the third and most intriguing signal came, again, from Senate President Enrile. Just before the court adjourned, the Senate President posed several questions to the Defense’s star lawyer, Justice Serafin Cuevas.  The presiding officer basically laid down several premises: Firstly, a public servant’s disclosure of his foreign currency deposits has no inherent harm to his person. Secondly, the constitutionally-mandated duty of public officials to disclose everything they own is a sovereign command from the people themselves that all public servants must not ignore. Thirdly, and this is very telling, the word “culpable” in the impeachable offense of “culpable violation of the Constitution” is derived from the Latin word “culpa.” The Senate President pointed out that, according to basic Roman Law, culpa means fault deserving of blame; a contrast from dolus, which means intentional violation.

The Senate President’s insinuation is a very compelling one: In determining “culpable violation of the Constitution,” intent is irrelevant. Therefore, the Defense’s argument of “good faith” is immaterial. This, to my mind, stunned Justice Cuevas, whom I believe was roughly handled by the Senate President.

The exchange between the two legal eagles was not without humor and was extremely interesting, so I’m posting the video here:

Now, was Senate President Enrile setting the tone for the Chief Justice’s conviction on the basis of culpable violation of the Constitution and not just betrayal of public trust? Most observers think so. Congressman Farinas, however, burst the bubble by telling the presiding officer that the framers of the Constitution actually intended “culpable violation” to mean “willful violation.”

At any rate, the first two premises laid by Senator Enrile was telling: A public servant’s constitutional duty of disclosing all assets trumps the statutory privilege of keeping his dollars hidden from public view. To me, that was indicative of how the Senate President and his bloc of four senators will vote. This is significant because, the way I see it, the Enrile bloc can swing the verdict.

The Senate President’s voice holds considerable sway among the senators, especially those who are undecided. To me, his forceful interpelation of Justice Cuevas was his way of using that voice– and its influence– for the first time. He was indeed setting the tone.

I will be greatly surprised if the Senate acquits the impeached Chief Justice tomorrow.

UPDATE, MAY 29: The Senate votes 20-3 to oust Chief Justice Renator Corona from his office. The verdict is “immediately executory.”

UPDATE, MAY 30: The Philippine Star reports that the Senate President and his bloc of four senators met with the Nacionalista Party’s senators Loren Legarda and Manuel Villar, and Lakas chair Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. on Sunday, confirming that the Enrile bloc indeed swayed the vote.

Also, Yahoo! News reports that Senate President Enrile has categorically stated that the Senate will defy the Supreme Court should it try to overturn its decision.

Thin line between law and politics

Impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona’s come-back at the Senate yesterday was definitely a rebound from that monumental walk-out blunder last Tuesday. His announcement that he was finally opening his dollar accounts up for public scrutiny, although practically useless to the Impeachment Court, was a brilliant political stroke that undoubtedly earned for him some vital political capital. The chief magistrate is definitely a cunning politician.

But beyond the effect of his Senate appearance on the court of public opinion, what I find very interesting was the manner with which he defended his failure to declare his multi-million wealth in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). It has an important implication on the conduct of the impeachment trial itself.

Recall that in several TV interviews prior to his appearance at his trial, the Chief Justice had said that the declarations he had made in his SALN, which states that he is worth three and a half million pesos, match everything he owns. The testimony of the Ombudsman, however, had cornered him into admitting that he actually has around eighty million pesos and more than two million dollars in several bank deposits that he had not declared. Article II of the Impeachment Complaint accuses the Chief Justice of gross misdeclaration of his SALN.

The Chief Justice justifies the non-declaration of his peso deposits by claiming that these are co-mingled funds that belong to his immediate relatives. As for his dollar deposits, he claims that the Foreign Currency Deposits Act (FCDA), a Marcos-era law, requires “absolute confidentiality” of dollar deposits; hence, he could not declare his dollar savings, which he said is an accumulation of the returns of his dollar investments since the 1960s when he was still in college (note that it was illegal for Filipinos to engage in dollar trading during those times).

In short, the Chief Justice is saying that the constitutional provision on declaration of assets by public officials is limited by a statute requiring “absolute confidentiality” of dollar deposits. A bewildered Senator Francis Pangilinan asked if he meant that the FCDA trumps this constitutional provision, and the Chief Justice implied that it does. The provision has the qualifier “as may be provided by law,” said the Chief Justice, and that law refers to the FCDA.  I have no formal legal training whatsoever, but I find this interpretation extremely peculiar for three reasons.

Firstly, the said constitutional provision (Article II, Section 17) mentions the phrase “as may be provided by law” only twice: In reference to the frequency of the filing of the SALN, and the manner with which the SALN is to be disclosed to the public. The FCDA concerns neither of these.

Secondly, the FCDA’s “absolute confidentiality” clause applies only to bank officials who must not divulge any information on foreign currency deposits of their clients. The clients themselves, however, are free to divulge these information, which is exactly why the Chief Justice was able to waive his bank secrecy rights last Friday.

Thirdly, the Constitution does not speak of any exception to the assets and liabilities that public officials are required to disclose. Indeed, any exemption would defeat the purpose of the SALN itself, as activist Red Tani has suggested. Moreover, relevant laws would show that the SALN is supposed to contain “all other assets such as investments, cash on hand or in banks, stocks, bonds, and the like (Section 8, RA6713).” No exceptions whatsoever.

These mind-boggling peculiarities aside, the Senate would now have to decide whether the impeached Chief Justice culpably violated the Constitution by failing to declare his multi-million assets in his SALN. To do so, the Senate would have to determine whether the Chief Justice’s counter-intuitive interpretation of the supposed conflict between the FCDA and the constitutional provision on the SALN is correct or not.

This is tricky, because the supposed conflict between the two laws is a strictly legal issue that only the Supreme Court has the competence and the power to resolve. As columnist Frederico Pascual tweeted, the Senate’s mandate is to merely decide the impeachment case against the Chief Justice, not to interpret the laws.

This is of great interest for students of politics and Law for it shows how the sui generis impeachment process traverses a very thin line between the political and legal realms. So how should the Senate navigate this line?

My take— and this is of course not an expert opinion– is that the Senate, if it chooses to, can determine what the correct interpretation should be for the purpose of arriving at a decision. This doesn’t mean that the Senate would be usurping the function of the Supreme Court, since its primary intent is to merely exercise its mandate– to arrive at a decision– rather than to interpret the laws. Obviously, the Senate’s interpretation would not form part of precedence. It can be validated or disproved by a Supreme Court decision.

Which begs the question, if the Supreme Court ultimately rejects the Senate’s interpretation, would it render the Senate’s decision invalid?  Again, this exposes the thin line between the political and legal realms. I think a Supreme Court rejection would only affect the legal question of how to reconcile the FCDA with the constitutional provision on the SALN, but not the decision of the Senate Impeachment Court, which concerns a purely political question.

Beyond legalese.

How then should the senator-judges decide if the Chief Justice’s interpretation of the laws is correct or not? Indeed, how should the Senate decide the case in general? These questions must be asked because it seems that quite a number of Chief Justice Corona’s supporters believe that he should be acquitted on the basis of technical legalese.

They cite, for instance, the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine to condemn the presentation of “illegally-obtained” evidence against the Chief Justtice. But, as lawyer Butch Dado had blogged, this doctrine should not apply on impeachment cases since “the potential damage to our political institutions and processes by the imposition of fruit of the poisonous tree rule outweighs any possible abridgement of personal privacy rights” of the accused.

Alexander Hamilton once described the impeachment process as “a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.” The idea is that, through the senators, the people are supposed to judge the moral fitness of their government’s high officials. For the purpose of procedural considerations, judicial rules apply, but only to a certain extent. These judicial rules must not get in the way of removing an obviously erring official.

The senator-judges should decide on the basis of the public’s basic sense of right and wrong. Is it right for a chief magistrate to recklessly assume that his supposed bank secrecy rights are more important than the constitutionally-mandated value of transparency? Is it right for the Chief Justice to use the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit of the law? Is it right to entrust the Supreme Court to a man who had lied several times before and during his three-hour monologue at the Senate? How high should the bar of integrity and honesty imposed on the head of the judiciary be?

Ultimately, the impeachment process is a policy-making process that must resolve the question of whether or not it is in the interest of the nation for the impeached official to remain in his office.

 ELSEWHERE: Speaking of technical legalese, a lawyer-blogger has correctly pointed out that the Impeachment Court should disregard Corona’s interpretation of the supposed conflict between FCDA and Article XI, Section 17 of the Constitution. Under rules of court, it has no probative value since Corona was not presented as an expert witness.

Also, Corona’s uncorroborated testimony is a mere denial of the charges against him. Jurisprudence puts premium on “categorical testimony that rings of truth” (read- Ombudsman) over “bare denials” that are not backed by proof. Justice Cuevas and Corona admitted under questioning that they have no documentary proofs whatsoever.

Moreover, in view of the evidence, Corona’s undeclared assets are presumed by law to be prima facie ill-gotten. Therefore, Corona has the burden to prove otherwise. Note that he never presented any proof; he merely denied– and cried. Read the blog here.

Former Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban said that the prosecution has been, to a minimum extent, successful in presenting a prima facie case, while the Defense has failed. See his column here. Former UP College of Law Dean Raul Pangalangan, meanwhile, says the Chief Justice’s interpretation of the law on SALN is “plain wrong.” See his Inquirer piece here.

Rappler has a very interesting article on the intriguing rift between Corona and Associate Justice Antonio Carpio here.

Read about the root of all this brouhaha here.

More on the Corona impeachment drama here.

Convict him

I have long maintained that impeachment is a policy-making exercise as much as it is a judicial one. Therefore, the senator-judges must decide not only based on the articles of impeachment but also on the general question of whether or not it is in the interest of the nation for the impeached official to remain in his office. Based on the behavior exhibited by Chief Justice Renato Corona in his appearance before the Senate Impeachment Court the other day, it should now be a no-brainer. He must be convicted.

His three-hour testimony was full of irrelevant innuendoes that besmirched the reputation of a number of people. He threw far-fetched accusations (a leftist haciendero?) against the President that can best be described as non-sequitur. He practically admitted that the Ombudsman’s testimony was actually correct, after he had called it a “lantern of lies.” He offered inconsistent explanations behind his unexplained wealth. He wrapped his refusal to open his accounts up for scrutiny with a repulsive Red Herring, which is nonetheless a stroke of political genius: he said he would only waive his bank secrecy rights if all the prosecutors and Senator Franklin Drilon would waive theirs.

At the end of the day, after promising to explain himself, and to open his dollar accounts “in due time”, all he offered in his testimony were baseless assertions that are, at best, hearsay. Senator Allan Peter Cayetano even asked chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas yesterday if the Chief Justice would offer proof to back his assertions up, and Justice Cuevas said the senators would just have to take Corona’s words because there are no proofs.

The worst part, of course, was the arrogant conclusion of his testimony. Addressing himself by his lofty position and in the third person, he said: “And now, the Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused.” In an imperious fashion, he rose without waiting for the presiding officer to discharge him, shook hands with Jose Roy III and another defense lawyers, and, with the equally overbearing Cristina Corona and Midas Marquez in tow, walked out. Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile banged the gavel and, within hearing distance of the Chief Justice’s entourage, asked Justice Cuevas to bring his client back, but Corona ignored him.

Clearly taken aback, the heretofore very lenient Senate President Enrile sternly asked the Sergeant-at-Arms to seal the Senate building and prevent the Chief Justice, whose car’s engine was already fired up, from leaving. Senate guards blocked Corona’s way to the elevator, prompting the Chief Justice to ask the Sergeant-at-Arms, “Am I being arrested?” Mrs. Corona said, “Is this Martial Law?”

The Chief Justice’s son-in-law, a physician, then claimed that Corona left the witness stand because he was suffering from a hypoglycemic episode. He claimed that the Chief Justice  had skipped lunch, which was belied by a TV5 report. The Chief Justice, now on a wheelchair, was then ushered back into the Senate Hall. Justice Cuevas, who appeared genuinely out of the loop, apologized for what he said was a misunderstanding. The Chief Justice didn’t mean any disrespect, he said; he was just on the verge of fainting.

To most observers, the events of that fateful day were clear. Chief Justice Corona never intended to submit himself to direct and cross-examination in the witness stand. He felt it beneath him. As blogger Leo Alejandrino said, he just wanted to talk.

I have written about the enormous risk of a cross-examination by prosecutors and Liberal Party senators, especially since Corona is not known for being articulate. My take is that he merely wanted to turn the witness stand into a press conference as a last-ditch effort to gain brownie points in the court of public opinion. How else could one explain the logical fallacies in his three-hour monologue? As Chief Justice, he should have known that witnesses are not allowed to give speeches in the stand. Their testimonies are supposed to be delivered through direct examination.

Moreover, as Chief Justice, he knows that whatever he would say on the witness stand would be privileged. Meaning, he will not be held accountable by libel and defamation laws. That’s why he was free to slander just about anyone, including a dead man.

He had, of course, under-estimated the resolve of the Senate President, who was clearly intent on upholding the dignity of the institution he represents. The presiding officer gave the Chief Justice until Friday to come back for direct and cross-examination; the Senate would give its verdict either on Monday or Tuesday. The Chief Justice, who had been rushed to a posh hospital after the commotion at the Senate, remains confined in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the said hospital.

I suspect that the Chief Justice would no longer appear at the Senate, and therefore break his promise of explaining himself and opening his dollar accounts up. I will not be surprised if he would shift the battle to his home turf, the Supreme Court, and claim that the Senate acted with grave abuse of discretion because he was denied due process. If it goes that far, I’m sure the Senate would hold its ground and the country would again be on the verge of a constitutional crisis, one that the Supreme Court would ultimately lose.

Meanwhile, the senator-judges would now have to determine whether the Chief Justice’s glaring failure to declare all his wealth in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) constitutes betrayal of public trust. But beyond this issue is a question posed eloquently by noted sociologist Randy David:

“Let us for a moment set aside the issue of the four dollar accounts he has virtually admitted to owning, and assume the law indeed allows him to treat these as non-assets in view of their confidential nature.  Let us likewise grant his claim of lifelong frugality that supposedly enabled him to accumulate millions of dollars in savings. Let the impeachment court answer only one question: Is it right to continue entrusting the leadership of the justice system to this man?”

Renato Corona eschewed delicadeza by accepting a midnight appointment; believes that the absolute secrecy of dollar deposits is more important than transparency and accountability; fudged his explanations regarding his unexplained wealth through logical fallacies; slandered many people; and acted in contempt of the Senate Impeachment Court. He even appears to be not above dragging the whole institution he leads, and even the country itself, into a constitutional crisis just to keep his position. Clearly, this man does not deserve to remain chief magistrate of the Republic.

Convict him.

UPDATE: Reports say Justice Cuevas has announced that Corona would be attending tomorrow’s trial.

ELSEWHERE: A very informative Medico-Legal discussion on whether the walk-out was really due to a medical emergency or not can be found hereMore on the Corona impeachment drama here.

An Ombudsman with balls

Impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona’s gamble has clearly failed. Seeking to turn the tables on his accusers by attacking the premise of the alleged ten million dollar deposits in his bank accounts, he had his lawyers summon Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales as hostile witness. Since the Supreme Court had already imposed a TRO on any probe on his foreign currency deposits, he probably thought that the Ombudsman has no solid evidence, and that he can bombard the public with his convoluted legalese and cry fishing expedition.

But as it turned out, this strategy was a monumental blunder. It may be too soon to say that it’s all over, but in the public’s eye, it really is. The Ombudsman’s evidence was beyond incriminating: Transaction records of the Chief Justice’s accounts, based on a 22-page report from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), show around thirty million dollars in withdrawals alone. The movement of the money implies that the chief magistrate was involved in either money laundering or foreign exchange trading and speculation. More importantly for the impeachment court, these millions were not declared in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN).

Clearly taken aback, chief defense counsel Serafim Cuevas tried to block the Ombudsman’s PowerPoint presentation. But the senators knew better; they didn’t want a second envelope redux. For Justice Cuevas, it was arguably the worst cross-examination ever in his long career as a brilliant litigant. For Chief Justice Corona’s handlers, it was a horrible PR nightmare.

But the horror, it seems, is shared by many politicians. The Ombudsman’s actions have wide-ranging implications for them.

Ombudsman Carpio-Morales obtained the supposedly confidential information by merely asking the AMLC for it. How could this be, asked Senator Allan Peter Cayetano, when the AMLC had refused to share the bank records of the unlamented Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee asked for it? The AMLC had said at that time that a court order is needed to share the said information.

The answer is obvious, and the fact that a lawyer like Senator Cayetano had to ask this question boggles the mind. Both the Constitution and the Ombudsman Law empowers the Ombudsman to seek even confidential information from any government instrumentality, sans court order, in the course of her investigation. Other officials like senators don’t have the same powers.

The famously feisty Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, however, expressed apprehension. She “juxtaposed” the Ombudsman’s powers with the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA), which states that the AMLC would have to find probable cause first before it submits information to the Ombudsman and recommend appropriate investigation. But even this should have been a no-brainer, and I think the senator was just being KSP when she raised this.

First of all, the AMLA processes apply only to the AMLC and not to the Ombudsman. If it is the AMLC that detects something fishy, it would have to go through the AMLA-mandated steps of determining probable cause first before proceeding. But if it’s the Ombudsman who detects irregularities in bank transactions, she doesn’t need to wait for the AMLC to declare probable cause; she can obtain the information from AMLC and proceed with her own investigation. Secondly, and this is something even a sixth grader knows, the Constitution, which grants the Ombudsman motu proprio power to investigate, obviously trumps mere statutes like the AMLA and the Foreign Currency Deposits Act (FCDA).

Senator Defensor-Santiago further asked: “Are you of the opinion that should somebody file a complaint against any senator or member of the House, you can go straight to AMLC, and ask for records without going to the court or without waiting for probable cause to be found by the council itself?” Obviously, the answer is yes. And the implication is that, well, all public officials are at the mercy of a very powerful constitutionally-mandated graft-buster. No crooked official is safe.

It’s a shocker, I know. Even the senators were shocked by the precedence set by Ombudsman Carpio-Morales’ actions. Who could blame them? Previous ombudsmen had been very timid in excercising the wide-ranging powers they actually had. It’s the first time the Philippines is seeing an ombudsman who has balls.

Some cynics are pointing out that this might have human rights implications. But what rights would a zealous ombudsman violate? The right to privacy? Public officials are mandated by law to give up, to a considerable extent, their right to privacy. That’s why they are required to file their SALNs every year in the first place. The law puts greater premium on public accountability over flimsy rights of public officials, as it should. Moreover, if these public officials have nothing to hide, why be bothered by the Ombudsman’s wide-ranging powers?

Clearly, the appointment of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales is one of the best decisions President Benigno S. Aquino III has made. She has given teeth to the heretofore unassertive Office of the Ombudsman. As Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Vina said, this has opened a pathway to transparency and accountability never before seen in the Philippines.

China plays a dangerous game

There is an emerging analysis among students of Chinese politics that the heated rhetoric coming from Beijing regarding its stand-off with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal is a ploy to divert the country’s attention away from the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng scandals that have rocked the Communist Party (CCP). Apparently, the party brass deem that this diversion is vital to stabilize the political situation in the midst of the on-going delicate baton-passing between President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping.

The CCP has long used nationalism, along with economic gains, as a pillar to support its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people, as well as to distract them from its domestic political abuses. This explains why Beijing is encouraging its state-run news agencies to beat the nationalist drums at the Philippines’ expense, with several newspapers seriously advocating war with Manila. According to some friends in Beijing, the ploy has succeeded; the Scarborough stand-off is now the talk of the town, and the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng cases are now old news.

Obviously, Beijing’s leaders believe that the Philippines would be a convenient target of nationalist sentiments since, unlike Vietnam or Japan, it doesn’t have the ability to threaten China back. “This is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back,” says The Comparativist, a Hong Kong-based blog.

But the bullying could go overboard, and if it does, there would be more headaches for China’s leadership.

We have to understand that there are jingoistic actors in China who genuinely believe that the Filipinos must be ejected from the Scarborough Shoal by force. Among them are some conservative officers in the navy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Hainan-based civilian maritime authorities, and even local governments. Can Beijing control these actors? Let’s hope it can, because the on-going state-encouraged nationalist outrage could embolden them to engage in highly provocative actions in the disputed waters. Indeed, they may even construe the saber-rattling from Beijing as a cue for them to do just that.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider the fact that there currently is a small armada of vessels belonging to China’s civilian maritime authorities floating on the waters around the shoal. The local government of Masinloc has reported that these ships are preventing Philippine fishing boats from entering the shoal’s inner lagoon. The Philippine government has advised the said boats to just carry on with their fishing. What would the Chinese ships do should a single, ballsy Philippine fishing boat insists on entering the lagoon? Given the nationalist uproar in China, it’s not hard to imagine that a Chinese sailor there might decide to either fire warning shots, fire at the boat, or sink the boat.

Now that would be a provocation at par with the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. The world would construe it as cold-blooded murder. It will surely result in an overwhelming international condemnation of China, totally undoing years of delicate efforts by Beijing to project a “peaceful rise.” It will likewise begin the process of pushing almost all Asian countries into the American orbit, hastening the success of Washington’s “pivot” to the East. Heck, it might even spark a regional arms race that could strain the resources of the region and, ultimately, of China itself.

Meanwhile, the Philippines, despite its weakness, would be forced by domestic considerations to respond. The United States, on the other hand, would be compelled by the Mutual Defense Treaty to back it up. Perhaps the Seventh Fleet would sail west of Luzon, just to send a message. If it ever reaches that point, the CCP would have to back down– and lose face in the midst of overwhelming nationalist outrage.

Corona’s gamble

On Monday, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and his protégée, Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, exhorted the Defense to present impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona before the Senate Impeachment Court. The Defense heeded their exhortations the very next day, announcing that the Chief Justice himself would take the witness stand, but with some interesting pre-conditions: The Ombudsman and ten others must testify first. The Senate President immediately agreed.

It has now become clear that revelations regarding the Chief Justice’s dollar accounts has changed the dynamics of the game for the Defense, which explains why the accused has decided to take the stand.

Continue reading “Corona’s gamble”

Thailand after Bhumibol

As the pompous Coronation Day celebrations in Thailand climaxed yesterday, I was reminded of an old Thai prophecy that says the present Chakri dynasty would only last for nine generations—King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth Chakri monarch—and that a tenth one would be disastrous. Given the current political context in Thailand, this prediction has become nine times more believable today.

King Bhumibol is without a doubt the most notable Southeast Asian monarch since King Chulalongkorn the Great, who modernized Siam and kept it free from colonial control. Ascending to the then largely irrelevant throne by accident in 1946, he saved it from extinction and, through his charisma and political acumen, revived it to become one of the few politically relevant monarchies in modern times. Skillful in dispensing patronage and influence, he became powerful to the point that he could make national leaders come on their knees, literally, when summoned.

Continue reading “Thailand after Bhumibol”

On Clinton’s ‘hands-off’ declaration

Some lawmakers in Manila are upset with American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the United States does not take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. They should know, however, that a declaration of American neutrality in terms of the competing claims in the area is in fact more beneficial to the Philippines.

The American position on the Scarborough crisis, as articulated by Secretary Clinton in yesterday’s Philippine-American ministerial dialogue in Washinton, is actually more nuanced than the supposed neutrality that these lawmakers—and the Daily Tribune— are trying to paint. While Washington does not take sides on sovereignty issues; it has declared that it is against the threat or the use of force, and is in favor of a multilateral approach, in solving the Scarborough crisis. It has also reiterated that it will honor its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and that it will commit itself to building a “minimum credible defense posture” for the Philippines.

China’s actions in the shoal these past eighteen days have made it apparent that its strategy is to gain control of the territory through bullying tactics, as opposed to the Philippines’ desire to resolve the stand-off through a rules-based mechanism. China also insists that the Scarborough issue is a bilateral matter that must not internationalized, but the Philippines thinks otherwise. By calling for a “collaborative and multilateral diplomatic process” to resolve the stand-off, therefore, Washington has basically adopted Manila’s stance.

Of course, by saying that it will abide by the MDT, the United States is merely being strategically ambiguous, since that treaty does not have an ‘automatic retaliation’ clause. Obviously, Washington intends to keep its options open. This should not be a source of concern for the Philippines, however, since strategic ambiguity also characterizes the American position on Taiwan. Indeed, in the event of an actual armed attack on any Philippine vessel in the shoal, the Americans will surely come to the Philippines’ aid, just as they will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion from the Mainland. They just have to. Not doing so would make the United States appear unreliable in terms of honoring its treaty obligations, which will surely spook the four other treaty allies in the Pacific and turn away Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and the other Asian countries that the Americans have been trying to win over.

So, when militant leftist congressman Neri Colmenares said that Secretary Clinton’s declaration could embolden China “to start a limited war in the shoal just as it did to Vietnam,” we know that he’s just being, well, a typical militant leftist. This statement, which is a stark contrast to his Bayan Muna Party’s earlier demands for the US to stay off the territorial disputes, reinforces the perception that for the militant left, things are often a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The truth of the matter is that a shooting war in the Scarborough would be more probable had the United States declared support for the Philippines’ sovereignty claims to the shoal. Such a declaration would validate the suspicion held by many Chinese citizens that the Philippines is merely acting as a proxy for the supposedly vicious American agenda of encircling China and containing its rise. The hawks in Beijing– like General Luo Yuan and the Global Times, for example– could in turn use this to further fan nationalist flames, which would extremely limit the wiggle room for the Chinese government to make compromises with its Philippine counterpart. This would make it very difficult for both sides to diplomatically manage the on-going stand-off.

Clearly, despite these lawmakers’ concerns, the Philippines has been able to get the minimum American support it needs. Its negotiators, however, could have done better in pressing for greater American assistance in terms of upgrading the country’s terribly dilapidated armed forces. But that’s for another blog entry.

Another score for Najib?

Just as the international community was beginning to buy the packaging of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak as a reformer, and the acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in his second sodomy case as a sign that Malaysia is indeed reforming, authorities violently dispersed the third Bersih rally for electoral reforms in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday. This resulted in a quick condemnation of the Malaysian government by international observers and the world press.

But while Prime Minister Najib, his United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO), and its friends in the Barisan Nasional coalition may have lost some brownie points internationally, it appears that they have gained some political capital domestically. Indeed, analysts are now pointing out that the protesters may have walked into an UMNO trap.

Prior to the planned march, the government’s body language had already betrayed its desire to crack down on the protest given the slightest excuse. Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, for instance, had said that the police would take all necessary measures should protesters insist on marching into the iconic Dataran Merdeka. The government had previously banned the Bersih groups from holding their rally at the Dataran, which ironically translates to ‘Freedom Park’ in English. Bersih leader and Malaysian Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan had pledged to respect the ban, but insisted on bringing the rally as near to the Dataran as possible.

The police did allow the protesters to come near the barricade to the historic square, where the two-hour sit-in protest had been largely peaceful. But just minutes after both Ambiga and opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim declared the rally a success and urged the crowd to peacefully disperse, some protesters tried to break into the barricade. This resulted in the violent dispersal by the police, and the ensuing ruckus that rocked Kuala Lumpur.

As expected, the largely pro-UMNO, government-owned mainstream media highlighted in their reports that the melee was instigated from the line of the protesters. They conveniently ignore the fact that, as international observers point out, the response from the authorities had been largely disproportionate. The UMNO, for its part, lost no time in saying that the ugly turn of events prove that the Bersih rally was less about electoral reforms and more about wrestling control of Putrajaya. These have put the Bersih groups, along with the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition that backed them, on the defensive.

In effect, the violence that characterized the protest actions last Saturday deflected the nation’s attention away from the issue of skewed election regulations that favors the ruling coalition. It has also given the UMNO renewed political ammunition to discredit Bersih’s legitimate grievances, as well as to demonize the PR by accusing it of hi-jacking the Bersih movement and blaming it for the embarrassing rumpus.

It might be too early to say, but it seems that this has been another score for Prime Minister Najib. As I have written three months ago, the Prime Minister clearly knows how to play his game.

Manila should try to understand how Beijing works, too

When China prevented the Philippines from apprehending illegal Chinese poachers caught pilfering endangered marine life in the Scarborough Shoal— in clear violation of Philippine and international laws— it probably thought that the militarily-weak Philippines would meekly submit and call it a day. But as an American expert on Asian affairs said, Beijing has clearly underestimated Manila’s resolve.

For sixteen days now, Philippine and Chinese vessels are in a stand-off in the Scarborough, and neither side is showing signs of blinking. The military power asymmetry between the two sides is beyond obvious. China has an overwhelming advantage. The Philippines, however, knows how to play its cards.

Manila is holding its ground by keeping its ships in the Scarborough while simultaneously rallying international support for its cause and intensifying its military alliance with the United States. Under the circumstances, these are the best insurance to at least maintain the status quo as the Philippines tries to elevate the dispute to international tribunals.

It is true that the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are still reluctant to take a collective stand on the crisis because of their deep economic ties with China, but that doesn’t mean that they are not concerned. Indeed, they have expressed these concerns through Track II diplomacy, and I’m sure that the smarter people in Beijing know that they, along with the world, would condemn China should it unleash its vastly superior navy on the Philippines. Gone are the days when might is right.

The smarter people in Beijing know, too, that taking the shoal from the Philippines by force would push almost all Asian countries to the American orbit. It will intensify the alliances between America on one hand and Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia on the other. It could make Vietnam an American ally, and Singapore, along with other ASEAN states, very friendly to the United States. It will totally undo a decade of efforts by China to rein in these Asian states through its “peaceful rise” overtures, and shift the region’s balance further towards Washington.

The Philippines, on the other hand, stands to gain tremendously by merely holding its ground. The longer the crisis drags and the tenser it gets, the more leverage Manila gains in, firstly, negotiating its way to get more military concessions from the United States, which will be pressured by public opinion to acquiesce, and, secondly, trying to rally the world into forcing China to bring the matter before international courts, where Manila stands to win.

Should the Chinese try to end the stand-off by firing the first shots, the United States will be forced to honor its treaty obligations and defend the Philippines. It won’t be different from what would happen if the Chinese invade Taiwan. Washington wouldn’t dare? It would, especially in an election year; and with world opinion supporting it to boot. The smarter people in Beijing know this, too.

Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always get to see their views become official policy. With too many different power poles and loose definition of where the lines between these poles are drawn, China’s policy-making can be unpredictable. The smarter people in Beijing form probably just one of these poles; the other poles can be either too myopic to see the dynamics of long-term balance-of-power realpolitik or just too jingoistic, or both.

Indeed, if we believe Gordon Chang, who says that the conservatives in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have gained too much leverage in Beijing’s policy-making circle, or the International Crisis Group, which says that purely domestic maritime agencies struggling for a say on the dispute in their efforts to protect their turfs have been steering China’s actions in the South China Sea; then we shouldn’t expect China to be always rational in dealing with this crisis. Japan realized this painfully when it became a target of China’s soft economic sanctions due to a similar stand-off near the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2010.

In order to avoid dangerous miscalculations, therefore, the Philippines should strive to understand the nuances of Beijing’s domestic politics and bureaucracy, and calibrate its actions accordingly. President Benigno S. Aquino III should include China hands — long-time Beijing resident and journalist Chito Sta. Romana comes to mind, for instance — in consultations and discussions on how best to deal with the Scarborough crisis.

Should the principle of separation of Church and State apply to atheist groups?


Auguste Comte, considered the father of Sociology and Positivism, proposed in his “Law of Three Stages” that societal development undergoes three stages: (1) Theological, where nature and the natural phenomena are sought and understood through mythical and supernatural explanations; (2) Metaphysical, where understanding of the origin of nature and the natural phenomena was through abstract and philosophical explanation; and (3) Positivism or Scientific,  where nature and the natural phenomena are explained and understood through scientific methods and means, and invalidated abstract or supernatural concepts as an explanation. For Comte, the third stage is the pinnacle of the development of human society.

This same understanding of human societal development as positivist and humanistic unites a group of people who call themselves variedly as humanists, atheists, agnostics, secularists, freethinkers, non-believers, naturalists, sceptics and non-theists. The more passionate of them are bonded through formal groups like American Atheists, British Humanist Association, International Humanist and Ethical Union and Secular Coalition for America, to name a few. They have created structures to manage, organize, fund and campaign for the propagation of secular-humanistic-atheistic values, ideas and ethics in society.

Many of them, like the British Humanist Association, have developed secular ceremonies for marriage, baptism and funeral as an alternative to churches. Others organize retreat-like camps like the Camp Quest where children are taught of humanist, secularist and freethought ideas.  Some have engaged in militant atheism, like Richard Dawkins who aggressively preach atheism and naturalism in the backdrop of the eventual eradication of religion. Evidently, signs that the theory postulated by Comte one hundred fifty years ago may seem to be dawning.

However, the changes and development in the dynamics on how the varied worldviews of irreligion are providing alternatives against the traditional turf of churches and religion is something that needs to be qualified. It is understood that the formal formation of various movements of irreligion are still in its infancy. But nonetheless, the ideas, beliefs and convictions they are rooting for are clear. Hence, qualifying irreligion in the level of religion is possible, and necessary in the context of liberal, constitutional democracy.

We will qualify irreligion in the level of religion in two ways, first as a worldview and second as an active structured organization motivated and founded on a worldview or a set of worldviews. Then, we will look at how this is a cause for us to re-think and expand the separation of Church and State principle as a democratic ideal in the light of new developments in human society.

Firstly, Worldview has been defined by Leo Apostel and his associates at the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies (CLEA) of Free University of Brussels as “a map that we use to orient and explain, from which we evaluate and act, and put forward prognoses and visions of the future. Hence: (i) orient; (ii) explain; (iii) evaluate; (iv) act and; (v) predict are the basic aspects of a worldview”.  (Apostel, et al. World Views, from fragmentation to integration, 1994) He further elaborated the qualifying of worldviews through seven standards:

  1. A model of the world (What is the nature of the world? How is it structured?)
  2. An explanation model (Why is the world the way it is and not different? Why are we the way we are and not different?)
  3. An evaluation model (Why do we feel in our world the way we feel?)
  4. An action model (How can we and do we have to act and create in this world? How can we influence and transform?)
  5. A rational futurology (What kind of future is ahead of us? And what are the criteria that allow us to choose for the future?)
  6. A model of model construction (How do we have to construct a model of the world such that we can answer the above questions?)
  7. Fragments of worldviews as starting points (What are the partial answers that can be given to the above questions?)

So, in taking this approach, we can surmise that a worldview is a distinct body of knowledge and ideas that take its own approach in answering important human questions and understanding, whether philosophical, scientific, social, political or religious. This separates a mere idea or concept to a worldview. It is in this regard that humanistic-atheistic irreligion is a worldview, as much as various religions are also worldviews. Religion and irreligion are worldviews trying to answer the same questions of life and nature. They are competing to provide answers and truths. Hence, religion and irreligion are worldviews in equal footing.

The second qualification proposed in this essay is that irreligion like religion is active structured organization motivated and founded on a worldview or a set of worldviews. The church is the expressed system and organization of religion. It is the structure of religion that maintains, enriches, promotes and defends its worldview. Similarly, Humanistic-Atheistic-Secularist worldviews are now enriched, propagated and defended through emerging formal structures, which we can call as worldview-structures like the British Humanist Association and American Atheist. One saliency is the fact that worldview-structure is active, that it engages the society to propagate its own worldview. This is an important difference to a passive worldview, which is stuck in the theoretical realm, like, for instance, anarchy.

Moreover, the worldview-structures, including various organized religions, compete in the public arena to push for their own worldview regarding, for instance, the origin of nature. A Hindu, for example, will have a distinct worldview vis-a-vis an Atheist or a Scientologist or even a Communist. Hence, the actual confrontations of different worldviews happen in society through the worldview-structures. Some lobby the government, some do public demonstrations, some are involved in public discourses, while others, in the case of formal churches, propagate their views through their normal church services.

Thus, in light of the progress and development in human social stratification and grouping as motivated by their worldviews, we see a case where direct and indirect imposition of worldview in society and in state to be no longer an exclusive complaint against religion or church; instead it has progressed: irreligious groups are now imposing their worldview as the standard worldview as well. This new reality is what this essay scrutinizes.

The principle of the separation of Church and State in liberal democracy was practically founded on the idea that State will never espouse an established religion. Henceforth, legal frameworks were developed in various liberal democratic countries to uphold this idea. To cite a few, the “free exercise” and “non-establishment” clauses are enshrined in the First Amendment of American Constitution, while Article II, Sec 6 of the Philippine Constitution contain a direct expression of the separation of Church and State.

The motivation is to allow each individual to freely pursue his or her own belief without any prior restraint, fear or threat. It assumes also that the State should remain neutral, while the Church should keep itself mellowed down in relation to core state functions. This environment ideally provides healthy pluralism; no religion is given the privilege in the society.

However, this essay put into question the potency of the principle of the separation of Church and State not just as a political theory, but as a legal doctrine that has clear implications in society, in light of the analysis of the emergence of worldview-structures. In the legal framework of the separation principle, where do you place irreligious organizations, which, like the Church, forward a worldview to the society?

In American Jurisprudence, we find very few cases and citations about irreligion. In Torasco v. Watkins, Justice Hugo Black hinted that Secular Humanism could be considered a religion in the likes of Buddhism and Ethical Culture. However, Peloza v. Capistrano School District establishes that as far as the ‘establishment clause purposes’ in the First Amendment is concerned, Secular Humanism is not a “religion”. Still, in Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia and Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, the court granted the Ethical and the Humanist organizations tax exemption because they function like a ‘church’.

Clearly, there is a seeming confusion regarding the status of irreligious organizations that promote worldview-structures. Although Justice Black in Torasco v. Watkins rightly identified non-theistic belief systems as akin to religious belief systems, no law qualifies or defines irreligion and non-theism. This lack of qualification represents how liberal democracies have failed to anticipate the rise of these alternative worldview-structures.

Hence, the task at hand is overwhelming. The development worldview-structures has made it a necessity to re-think, and possibly expand, the current principle of separation of Church and State with the view of properly qualify the non-religious and irreligious worldview-structures. The political and legal implications are great. If this is not addressed, certain worldview-structures, like the atheistic-humanistic groups would have immense privileges in forwarding their worldviews to the state, at the expense of religions and churches, which in the current set up are effectively checked. This is fatalistic to the progress of liberal democracy. In the name of preservation of democratic ideals and of freedoms, we should start to re-think now.

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North Korea needs a satellite

So soon after agreeing on a moratorium on all missile testings and other nuclear-related activities in exchange for American food aid, the North Koreans are again making what appears to be a complete u-turn: They will launch a satellite into orbit next month. While, as Pyongyang insists, a satellite launch is different from a ballistic missile testing, both use the same technology. The proposed launch, therefore, could in fact be a violation of the spirit of last month’s Leap Day Deal.

Not surprisingly, the Asian neighborhood is abuzz: South Korea is condemning its northern neighbor for this latest provocation, the Philippines is seeking US help in monitoring the North Korean rocket, while Japan is thinking of shooting that rocket down. The United States has said it might hold off the food aid. Even China, Kim Jong-un’s only ally, is reportedly peeved. What’s with the North Koreans?

The initial reaction of most analysts is to say that this is just another example of North Korean deal-breaking. Remember the cycle of North Korean negotiations we have discussed in the previous blog entry? The late Kim Jong-il was good at cutting a deal and then breaking it after getting what he had wanted. This time around, however, Kim Jong-un has not even laid his hands on a single American grain yet. Obviously, he needs the 240,000 tons of US food, which would prevent a looming famine, badly enough to agree on a deal with the Americans. Why then is he risking a cancellation of the food aid by insisting on going ahead with the satellite launch?

Well, first of all, I think Kim Jong-un is not really the one calling the shots in Pyongyang. In fact, I don’t think policy-making there is being conducted by a single authority. Like most other countries, North Korea, especially in this fragile post-transition period, is not a monolithic actor. There are different power centers with competing intentions. There are those who are keen on ending the country’s isolation, while there are those who don’t see the wisdom of dealing with foreign powers. What makes this worse is that Kim Jong-un and his regency are probably too inexperienced– and they just haven’t consolidated control yet– to coordinate these competing visions and harmonize them into one consistent policy.

Indeed, it could even be that the Foreign Ministry officials who had sought the Americans out last month are not even aware of the plans to launch a satellite, which were most likely pushed by military officials. Between these two competing elites, it is the army that has greater leverage over Kim Jong-un and his handlers, of course. And for them– and this is probably shared by Kim Jong-un and his regent Chang Song-taek too– launching the satellite is so vital to the stability of the regime it actually trumps the need for American food aid.

The symbolism of a satellite launch on the eve of the centenary birthday of North Korean founder and eternal president Kim Il-sung is very important for the regime in Pyongyang. The said regime had long promised 2012 to be the year for North Korea to finally achieve strength and prosperity. Therefore, it must have an extravagant display of prosperity by pulling off nation-wide celebrations, and of strength by pulling off a successful launching of a communications satellite. The regime is clearly aiming to raise the morale of the impoverished North Korean people with these symbolic rituals. Indeed, I suspect that this eccentric regime thinks that its legitimacy in the eyes of its people depends a lot on this satellite launch.

As for Kim Jong-un, his legitimacy as a leader in the eyes of the North Korean elite, and therefore his ability to consolidate power, would probably depend a lot on this satellite launch, too. As I have said in a previous post, keeping the North Korean elite in check requires doing something, well, spectacular.

Militant secularism in Western Europe

In response to a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights involving two British women who were dismissed by their employers for wearing crucifix while working, the government of the United Kingdom is set to argue that Christians have no right to wear the crucifix at work. British ministers will point out that since wearing of the said symbol is not a requirement of the Christian faith, the right to wear it cannot be invoked against the right of employers to set out a uniform policy that bans the wearing of the said symbol.

In accordance with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right of individuals to manifest their religion or belief, some religious symbols like the Sikh turban, the kara bracelet and the Muslim hijab are given special protection against company policies. The government’s position, it seems, is to strike a balance between the right to manifest one’s faith and the right of employers to define what their workers should wear at work. The idea is that the prerogative of companies must be limited only when it adversely affect the practice of a worker’s faith, and, since Christianity doesn’t require the wearing of crosses, non-wearing of crucixes doesn’t adversely affect the practice of one’s Christian faith.

This case involves several crucial questions regarding human rights: Does the right to manifest one’s belief in accordance with Article 9 apply only on manifestations that are ecclesiastically sanctioned and not on those that are personally-motivated? How important are company prerogatives when weighed against freedom of religion and freedom of expression? Indeed, can the State define what is a requirement and what is not within a religion, as the British government ministers are trying to do? It would be interesting how the European Court would resolve these questions.

But beyond these legal questions, I find this development very interesting because it represents resistance by proponents and defenders of religion against an overwhelming tide of secularism in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Most students of sociology would argue that there is a war between secularism and faith, and in that war both sides are more or less on equal footing– indeed, the very divisive and emotional national debate in Britain over the legalization of homosexual marriage is still too close to call. But I think this characterization is no longer accurate. For all intents and purposes, I think secularism has won. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom remains to be officially Christian– the Queen is the head of the established Church while the Lord Bishops, at least technically, help make laws as members of the House of Lords– the national discourse is already grounded on secularist principles. And this is true not only in Great Britain but throughout Western Europe as well.

For many staunch proponents of secularism, however, having the national discourse grounded on secularist principles is not enough. They are actively seeking to marginalize religion and remove it from the public square. As a result, Western Europe’s brand of secularism is increasingly becoming militant in orientation. Atheist thinkers, for instance, are actively calling for the eradication of religion, characterizing it as a threat that must be banished from society. And they are quite successful in influencing the public’s mood. Indeed, why else would companies be willing to risk a high-profile trial at a European court just to stick with their ban on crucifixes?

Last year, the world saw how oppressive militant secularism can be when France decided to ban the wearing of burqa, an Islamic clothing that covers a woman’s whole body, in public. The supposed intention of this ban is to combat what secularists see as a religious-based oppression of women; yet women who wear it willingly choose to do so as a matter of faith. As a result, many Muslim women are now forced to choose only one of two rights: freedom of religious expression and freedom of movement. Those who choose the former are in virtual house arrest, since they couldn’t venture outside their homes wearing burqa.

While religious fundamentalism is no doubt a threat to democracy and a hindrance to progress, viewing religion as inherently fundamentalist is dangerous. Indeed, by trying to sideline religion for fear of fundamentalism, staunch secularists become fundamentalist themselves; and secular fundamentalism, as we are seeing in France, can be as oppressive to liberty as religious fundamentalism.

In this respect, ironically, Turkish society is way ahead of its Western counterparts. Having gone through its own brand of secular fundamentalism, imposed by the Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that sidelined Islam for many years, it has now become confident enough to allow Islamic ideas to contribute to the forging of a vision for modern Turkey. Contrary to the fears of the West, this phenomenon has not led to the dilution of secularism or democracy. In fact, the Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is preaching secularism throughout the Arab world.

Clearly, militant secularism is the next hurdle in the evolution of Western European societies. Having achieved secularism only relatively recently, many are understandably very zealous in preserving the gains and preventing religion from again encroaching on many societal spheres. I think this is a natural part of the maturation process of the said societies. As an optimist, I think the natural direction of societal evolution dictates that, sooner or later, these societies would realize the folly of secular fundamentalism and its inconsistencies with democratic ideals.

The real question is, how long would it take Western European societies to get past their secularist zeal? I think this would depend a lot on how the leaders of the faiths would respond to the overwhelming secularist trend. Proponents of religions must continue to strongly argue for their cause, but their arguments, as President Barack Obama said, must be based on “universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” They must defeat secular fundamentalism not by showing that it is against their god’s will, but rather because it is against democratic ideals.

Unfortunately, religions themselves are yet to get their acts together, and many religious leaders remain too myopic to see the need for their churches to adapt to a changing society.

Corona’s Original Sin

“I know the legal justifications for your appointment, but what’s the moral justification?”

This was my question to Renato C. Corona, the most controversial Chief Justice the Philippines ever had, during a dinner-meeting with several bloggers at his Supreme Court office in Manila last Wednesday. The said meeting was organized by Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, editor of Blogwatch.

“Well, modesty aside, if you see my qualifications, I think you’d agree that any president would appoint me, or at least consider appointing me, to the post,” he said.

“Yes, I do agree with you, sir. But why, then, did you not wait for President Aquino to appoint you instead?”

“Well, you see, the Constitution does not provide for an acting Chief Justice.”

Continue reading “Corona’s Original Sin”

Understanding Fukushima

Japan and the world pause in prayer today for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country’s northeastern region exactly one year ago. The said natural disasters led to the meltdown of several reactors in one of Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco)’s nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. Although the Japanese government at that time tried to downplay the extent of that nuclear whammy, ostensibly to prevent widespread public panic and chaos; it was, in retrospect, the greatest existential threat Japan has ever faced since World War II.

While the earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters that were beyond human control, the Fukushima disaster wasn’t. The best way to honor the victims of the March 3, 2011 disasters, therefore, is to understand what went wrong in Fukushima with the view of preventing, or at least mitigating, another such disaster.

The real lesson of Fukushima, according to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is that nuclear power should never be considered an option by any nation. “I have thought very hard about the types of safety measures necessary to prevent any such disaster from happening again,” writes Kan, “However, when one weighs these measures against the tremendous risks, it is clear that no amount of precautions will make a country completely safe from nuclear energy. I have reached the conclusion, therefore, that the only option is to promote a society free of nuclear power.”

Of course, many, including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano and current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, would disagree with the former Prime Minister’s conclusion. Indeed, from a pragmatic perspective, nuclear energy remains to be the way to go. But it’s clear now that, as Japanese-American physicist Dr. Michio Kaku said, when Japan decided to pursue nuclear power as a matter of policy thirty years ago, it had made a Faustian deal with the Devil, so to speak. The benefits of nuclear energy in terms of reliable and cheap energy are so great, but so are the risks it poses. What Dr. Kaku doesn’t know, however, is that the Japanese public was never actualy informed of these risks.

‘Absolute safety’ myth.

A very informative and hard-hitting 400-page report by Professor Yoichi Funabashi and Kay Kitazawa of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation exposes an “absolute safety” myth regarding nuclear power. In their zealous desire to win public support for nuclear energy in the 1970s, the nuclear lobby– composed of nuclear proponents in the private sector, local government, and the powerful Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI)– deliberately downplayed the risks of nuclear energy. In fact, even their disaster drills were done half-heartedly since “Japan’s nuclear community has also feared that preparation for a nuclear accident would in itself become a source of anxiety for people living near the plants.” Over time, even Tepco officials themselves were trapped by this absolute safety myth. As a result, there had been a general sense of complacency in the nuclear energy industry regarding the safety of the power plants.

As an excuse for the insufficiency of the safety measures of the Fukushima power plant, for instance, Tepco’s officials had said that the scale of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami had been unprecedented, and therefore unanticipated. But, as Funabashi and Kitazawa’s report stated, the March 11 tsunamis couldn’t have been unanticipated since simple research would show that the Jogan Tsunami of 869 AD in the same area actually had similar heights. Indeed, “even Tepco’s own nuclear energy division understood that there was a risk of large tsunamis at Fukushima,” yet the company never bothered to put up safety mechanisms that would have protected the Fukushima plant from last year’s tsunami.

Inefficient bureaucracy

Complicating this is the lack of an efficient and independent government regulatory authority that would have ensured the safety of the country’s nuclear power plants. Enforcement of such safety regulations was supposed to have been the job of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), but the agency had been largely ineffective. NISA is under the wing of the METI, and METI is a proponent of the nuclear lobby. It doesn’t take rocket science to link the corrupt practice of amakudari to the lack of NISA’s teeth in policing the nuclear energy industry. In fact, even the IAEA had long raised this problem with Japan, but the bureaucrats in Tokyo had always been dismissive. It would have been logical to put NISA under the Ministry of the Environment, or perhaps to make it an independent agency under the Prime Minister’s office; but Tokyo, long controlled by bureaucrats who serve corporate interests more than national interests, had not even thought about it.

Indeed, this problematic bureaucracy posed more problems during the actual response to the disaster itself. The people that make up NISA, for instance, could not even answer then Prime Minister Kan’s questions, since they knew almost next to nothing about nuclear power plants or what was going on in Fukushima. This was because the NISA is staffed not with technical experts but with career civil servants. Usually, these bureaucrats barely warm their seats before hopping to other METI positions; therefore, there had been very few reasons for them to be experts in their job.

Kan: An underrated leader

When the nuclear crisis broke out, bureaucracy and red tape between the Prime Minister’s Office and practically all the other government agencies had already been posing a problem in terms of responding to the tsunami and earthquake disasters. Such problems were unacceptable in confronting the nuclear disaster. Fukushima, after all, was in fact a virtual war with an invisible foe. It was a race against time to prevent a nuclear menace that would have paralyzed practically half of Japan, including Tokyo, a city of thirty million people.

As a result, Prime Minister Kan stepped up, appointing private advisers to do what the bureaucrats failed to do, which was to give him sound advice. He became intensely involved, micro-managing the government’s response to the disaster and in the process infuriating some politicians, Tepco officials and the powerful bureaucrats who appeared to have been more concerned about the Prime Minister’s encroachments on their turfs than the existential threat posed to the entire nation by the invisible nuclear enemy.

The Prime Minister’s leadership in that crucial time in the nation’s history may have been a bit underrated. It is true that he failed to rally the people, who had been waiting for assurance from their leader, at the crucial moments of the disaster; but that’s, at worst, merely a minor oversight. Besides, rallying and assuring the people was more of an Emperor’s job than a Prime Minister’s; and His Majesty certainly did a very admirable job in that regard. What’s more important to note is the fact that Prime Minister Kan risked his career by making bold decisions, such as his appeal to the sense of duty of Tepco officials who had ordered their workers in Fukushima to leave the plant when radiation levels rose to alarming levels. It was practically an order for those civilians to die for their country– certainly very controversial but arguably necessary in the context of those events.

Amidst the confusion, Prime Minister Kan’s hands-on involvement gave direction to the government’s efforts, which included the largest mobilization ever by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). He held on despite the obstructions from some politicians, including those within his own party; the nuclear lobby; the bureaucracy; and the mainstream media. They all demanded his resignation. And when what little political capital he had were zapped by all these, he used his resignation as a leverage to push for what he thought were vital pieces of legislation. Clearly, Prime Minister Kan had exemplified selfless leadership, patriotism and a deep sense of duty. Unfortunately, not only is his leadership in those trying times under-appreciated; it’s being pilloried in the mainstream media. I hope history would be kinder.

The larger ill

The fact of the matter is that the Fukushima disaster could have been prevented, and the government reponse to it could have been better, had there been honesty on the part of the nuclear lobby in characterizing the risks of nuclear power; proper system of checks and balance in implementing government safety regulations regarding the nuclear power plants; and more efficient coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office and the various government agencies. The lack of all these is symptomatic of a larger ill: A strong but short-sighted bureaucracy.

Sadly, Japan is not learning its lessons. Bureaucratic delays and squabbling continue to stall the creation of a master plan for rehabilitation and reconstruction, thereby wasting an entire year for the country, for instance. It’s often said that Japan has plenty of fine citizens, but I can say that there seems to be a shortage of fine leaders.