Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Break

Tomorrow is the start of my Christmas vacation. I will be leaving Lianga for a short time and that means that I may have to take a break from my daily excursions in to the digital landscape of the World Wide Web.

I would like to apologize to those who might be expecting to see some new posts to this blog during the next week or so. That may not be possible. I will try my best to be able to go online and get a post or two published but will make no promises.

But I hope to be back very soon and start blogging again. Merry Christmas to all.

A Life Well Lived

As a physician, he had a formidable reputation. It was said that he had the gift of healing and that this gift had saved many lives singlehandedly plucked by him from the jaws of almost certain death brought about by disease or accidental trauma. But it was as a surgeon, a skilled wielder of the surgical blade, where he would truly made his mark.

In the more than 30 years he had practiced his profession in Lianga, countless stories of his exploits in the hospital operating room have been told and retold over and over again. Most of them have to do with his ability to do his best work even under the most difficult circumstances.

He did surgery under candlelight or with the aid of a flashlight whenever electricity was unavailable. He was often his own anesthesiologist because for many years there was no one else qualified to do that job for him. As a result he was lightning fast and would be finished with a case and out of the operating room in the time it would take another surgeon to scrub, dress in OR greens and make just the first cut in the same patient.

He was also unflappable and did not panic under the most trying conditions. And it was in those times of medical crises when a patient's life was in the balance when his cool head, decisiveness, resourcefulness and ability to quickly think through complex problems that made the difference in the struggle over life and death.

Outside the operating room, he was a brash and forthright man with a rather acerbic sense of humor yet he had many friends and was well liked and respected by all. For beneath the seemingly stern facade, was an idealist with a soft heart that was generous to a fault. He gave always more than he received and never regretted it.

His standing in the community made him an influential voice to be heard but he never envisioned himself in the role of a civic leader. He detested politics especially when his personal integrity clashed with the immorality or amorality of politicians in power. Then his voice could be heard speaking out loudly and fearlessly.

But he was first and foremost a healer and it was for this legacy he wanted to be remembered.

In the 11 years since he left us, there are still people who stop me on the street, either in Lianga itself or elsewhere, to wish me well and share stories about this man who was my father. In the end, they always say the same thing.

Many years ago, either they themselves or someone close to them was seriously ill or gravely injured. Whoever it was, he or she was brought to the hospital in Lianga and my father was able to help them. "Thank God for your father," they would say. "He saved a life that day and we will always remember what he did."

Dr. Jose Y. Otagan was only 66 years old when he died in his sleep on December 20, 1996. It was not his fate to live to a ripe old age. But the quality of a life is never always measured solely by its longevity. What matters most is the way that life is lived.

In Papa's case, it was a life lived to the fullest.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


They are practically everywhere and can be as ubiquitous as the common cold during the rainy season.

Look for an on-going public infrastructure project or, even more so, a completed one, say a concrete road or public building, and for sure one is present. Check a newly acquired government vehicle, say for example a police patrol car, a hospital ambulance or firetruck, and you can cut off my head if you don't find one neatly stenciled on the vehicle's side panels.

The same also goes for mechanical, electrical or medical equipment of whatever kind and size. If it happens to be purchased in part or in full with public funds then you must have something like it prominently displayed somewhere on the unit itself.

What is it? Just signage, ranging from small, painted notices to huge billboard size posters complete with full color pictures and illustrations, proclaiming that such and such project or item has been built or acquired "through the efforts of......" or is "a priority project of....." President So-and-so, Governor So-and-so, Mayor So-and-so and so on and so forth. And beside the lettered proclamation, is often a full, colored portrait of the aforementioned official smiling benevolently at the world.

I am always at a loss to justify in my mind the need to spend the certainly not inconsequential sums of money on all this signs and notices. There is certainly no need or use for them.

It does not take an Einstein with a genius IQ to figure out that most if not all of these infrastructure works, vehicle or equipment acquisitions (including the signages too!) are funded with government taxes and revenues. No private money, in almost all instances, (most certainly not from the personal pockets of these public officials) is being spent.

So why is there this obsessive, compulsive and also costly need for elected officials to pat themselves on their backs for doing precisely what they have been elected to public office for? Which is to serve the public good and look after the welfare of all their constituents? Why the need for overstating the obvious?

The obvious truth is that this signages are prime examples of blatant political propaganda of the most tasteless yet insidious kind. What they seek is to indelibly imprint upon government projects and programs the individual political identities and personalities of political leaders and personalities.

These are then depicted as omnipotent and paternalistic father figures whose favor must be cultivated and courted because they can arbitrarily dispense public funds and initiate the much needed programs and projects their constituents so desperately need. Democratic institutions and processes, thus, become subordinated to the political machines and the personalities that run and dominate them.

What is then promoted is a corrupt political culture that not only tolerates political patronage (and the graft that results from it) but actually glorifies it or at the very least sugarcoats it so that it becomes palatable and acceptable to the electorate. The end result is a surrealistic situation where corrupt public officials enrich themselves in office while presenting (often effectively), by clever propaganda, a clean, solicitous and compassionate image to the public.

Stripped of propaganda value, however, these signages are, at best, narcissistic exercises in self-glorification serving no other purpose than only to inflate the egos of those whose faces and names they so prominently and so lavishly display. And at the expense of taxpayer too! How lucky can you get?

In many ways, these propaganda materials (for that is what they actually are) are symptomatic of the malaise that is deeply eating away at the foundations of the democracy we are supposed to be living under. So is the massive graft and corruption already deeply rooted in our political culture and the gradual yet relentless concentration of so much power and influence among the political and economic elite that has swept aside and rendered inutile and impotent the doctrine of public accountability among public officials.

In Lianga when I see billboards like the ones pictured here, I am instantly reminded of William Shakespeare and the Bard of Avon's succinct comments on those who brag too much about what they may have done or claimed to have done. He wrote, " We wound our modesty, and make foul the clearness of our deservings, when of ourselves we publish them."

Or better yet and on a more earthy and vulgar note, he also wrote, "It will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass." Now that is an eventuality I would very much like to come to pass.

The sooner the better.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Blood Thirst

When my father was very much younger, he fancied fighting cocks and like many of his fellow cockfighting afficionados , he raised and even tried to breed them as a hobby. He cared for and pampered them then trained and conditioned them like prized athletes, and in many ways they were exactly that.

They had only one purpose. To fight gloriously then win and live to fight again or die miserably on the hard packed dirt of the town cockpit already stained by the blood of their fellow fowls while a howling mob of human spectators clapped their hands, thumped their feet and screamed for blood and death.

I never did develop the same fascination or "addiction" to cockfighting but during the times when I did accompany my father to the cockfights and even later on when I did watch them out of curiosity, I also felt emotionally drawn, despite my reservations, in no small degree into this violent, bloody yet viscerally exciting sport, if we can call it that.

It's not just the betting that got to me (although to many spectators that is what it is all about) but something more. Perhaps it was the fact that something approaching ultimate dénouement, a climactic resolution of a drama of life and death was unfolding before me. Nothing really brings out the worst...... or the best in man than the illusion of his control over life and death over creatures he considers lesser than himself.

In many ways the cockpit is a modern version of the Roman Colosseum where death matches between gladiators were public spectacles. Only we are more civilized and more enlightened, thus we let animals do the fighting and the dying for us.

But it is the same bloodlust that filled the Colosseum to the rafters with spectators that drives us to the cockfights, the same addiction to the spectacle of violence and imminent death. The betting, even victory or defeat (despite what affictionados say) becomes incidental and often irrelevant. It is always the bloody spectacle that appeals most to the savage within us all.

In his later years my father gradually gave up his gamecocks and his visits to the town cockpit became fewer and fewer then finally ceased all together. He said that the whole thing was becoming more costly that he could afford.

I would like to think that he had developed a gradual aversion to the idea of cockfighting itself. Perhaps it was the soul of the healer and physician that was so strong in him that made him change his mind.

In the years that followed, all traces of his cockfighting past eventually disappeared. The cock pens and cages were dismantled and recycled for other uses. The gaffs, their bindings and all the other numerous bits and pieces of equipment that no self respecting cockfighting enthusiast can do without were all given away.

I wondered then if he had harbored any regrets for doing what he did. If he did he gave no sign of it.

In my case, I was glad he gave it all up. The cockfights were were too bloody and barbaric for my taste. I prefer to indulge my inner savage nature by watching boxing matches and other contact sports on the television screen. The more contact and the more violent, the better.

That, in my view, is the more modern and civilized thing to do.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Palay On The Road

A common sight for travelers and motorists passing by through Lianga is palay or newly harvested, unpolished rice spread out to dry in the sun like yellow-green carpets covering up to one lane of the concreted portions of the national highway. It is something the locals take for granted but visitors, especially those from the city, always end up up shaking their heads and clucking their tongues in disbelief at the audacity of it.

Imagine yourself finally on the concrete highway and itching to step on the accelerator after dawdling for what felt like eternity on rough, bumpy roads. Then you come upon your side of the highway blocked by carpets of palay while traffic is zipping by on the other lane. What do you do? Do you, like the rest of us considerate mortals, wait for the traffic to clear the other lane and leave the palay alone? Or do you just curse the heavens and drive roughshod over the whole thing. It's the highway after all, isn't it?

That may be but if you do run over the palay then be sure you drive very fast so that you'll not be seen and caught by its owner. Otherwise you might end up being chased by him with a long and sharpened bolo knife in one hand and a homemade shotgun in the other.

Rice, in Filipino culture, is a valuable commodity with almost sacred and mystical properties. Running over it on the highway, even in its raw, unpolished state and despite its being improperly spread out and dried on surfaces intended solely for vehicles and pedestrian traffic, is an act with almost sacrilegious connotations. Better leave the palay alone. Who knows what bad karma or bad luck brought by the wrath of the rice gods may befall those who dare defile it.

It is a frustrating, if not infuriating and exasperating, exercise in futility to try to explain to the local rice farmers and some rice traders here why they should not be drying their palay on the road surfaces of the national highway. After all, they reason out that the highways and the roads are public property and for public use. Therefore, their use of these public infrastructures for albeit a rather unusual purpose, is not improper but merely an extension of their rights as citizens to freely use or, in this case, misuse it.

Any attempt to argue about reciprocal rights and civic responsibility with them becomes ultimately mired in non sequiturs and irrelevancy. To stubbornly persist arguing against such rock hard obstinacy is to invite irritation if not exasperation then anger. Then it's back to speedily driving away or running very fast from either the bolo knife or the homemade shotgun. In the end, it is a better and wiser choice to just give up and leave with your dignity and body parts intact and whole.

Discretion, they say, is the better part of valor. I could not agree more.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Collateral Damage

The Diatagon barangay gymnasium is a large wood and concrete structure located right smack in the middle of the barangay's commercial area and adjacent to its public market. On a typical, normal day, it is usually deserted except for bystanders watching the occasional basketball game played by youngsters playing hooky from school.

Yesterday morning I was there and what I saw was a dark, stiflingly hot and crowded beehive of activity and the whole building resembled many of those abandoned and dilapidated structures one sees in city slums occupied by derelicts and the homeless. The pictures speak for themselves.

For the gym is now the temporary shelter for the at least two thousand people (some 200 families) displaced by the on-going military operations and violent clashes between government troops and New People's Army guerrillas in the hinterlands of Diatagon where many so called lumad (indigenous cultural minorities) communities and settlements exist. Two other evacuation centers are located in the barangays of Buhisan and Janipaan in the neighboring municipality of San Agustin.

Feeding and looking after the health needs of the evacuees, most of them women and children, have become the responsibility of the Philippine Red Cross, the Lianga municipal government and other aid agencies. But the longer the current situation persists, that task may become more and more difficult especially if more evacuees may be coming to seek refuge. Health officials here also fear that the lack of proper sanitation facilities and the crowded conditions at the barangay gym may lead to the outbreak and spread of communicable diseases.

On the other hand, military authorities here have taken pains to point out that the on-going offensive in the Diatagon area is a legitimate operation designed to flush out communist rebels from their local strongholds and seize control of those areas previously controlled by them. Thus, according to them, the actual targets are not the residents of the lumad communities but only NPA insurgents hiding and taking refuge within them. They have also denied charges by local human rights groups that their soldiers committed human rights abuses and have harassed and intimidated residents and forced them to evacuate their homes and seek refuge in evacuation centers.

As the charges and countercharges fly back and forth, one interesting accusation made by some tribal and lumad organizations remains unanswered. They have accused the local military of being unwittingly used by mining and logging interests close to local politicians to ensure that they obtain a monopoly on mining and logging concessions in many areas claimed by the indigenous people as part of their ancestral domains. These supposedly mineral and timber rich territories fall mostly within the areas influenced and controlled by the NPA and have been said to be major sources of revenue for the insurgents.

These tribal organizations have ask the government and military to undertake more dialogues and consultations with tribal and lumad leaders in order to settle these contentious issues and quell social unrest in the tribal communities that according to them is one reason why many residents in these communities are sympathetic to the communist insurgents who have consistently promised to fight for the rights of cultural minorities over their ancestral lands.

Whatever is the truth or truths behind the rather chaotic situation in the Diatagon area, there is a an urgent need for the government and the military not only to resolve soon the ongoing conflict there and attempt to restore some degree of normalcy to the local peace and order situation but to be more transparent and forthcoming with the rationale and the objectives of the military operations being currently undertaken. There is also a need for them to coordinate more closely with each other and the civilian populace so as to minimize the so called "collateral damage" and insure that the negative effects of such operations on affected communities are immediately addressed and mitigated.

Overall success by government forces in the current Diatagon conflict involves more than tactical victories in the field or superior body count. It is always about total pacification and the "winning of the hearts and minds". And from where I sit, the military and the government may claim they are winning the battles - and with their superior numbers and better equipment they should be - but they are not certainly winning the sympathies and good will of the people they are supposed fighting for.

It is the same old story about winning battles and yet facing the possibility of losing the war. And after decades of fighting a tenacious and resilient insurgency, and learning by bitter experience what works and what does not, it is both tragic and disastrous that, based on what is happening in Diatagon, this is the one lesson the government and the military here has not really learned or taken to heart.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Postscript to "Questions"

The on-going offensive by government troops against NPA guerrillas in the hinterlands of Diatagon must be really heating up. Since Saturday, the thumping sound of Philippine Army helicopters could be heard all over Lianga as they passed over the town at low altitude on their way to provide air support to Army troopers, that reports from Diatagon are saying, have been engaging the rebels in sporadic firefights since early Saturday morning.

The same unconfirmed reports have also indicated that government forces have airlifted to hospitals in Butuan City in Agusan del Sur an undetermined number of wounded personnel for medical treatment. The communist insurgents are also said to have incurred casualties based on the blood trails supposedly found at the encounter sites.

The current military operations in the Diatagon area are now appearing to be part of a serious push by the government to fight, contain, if not eliminate the insurgency problem in this area, a tall order if we were to review the rather checkered history of the government's counterinsurgency program in this part of the country. Yet there is astonishingly little or no real news or information about it coming from official sources or from the print, radio or television news media organizations. If this is due to a deliberate news blackout imposed by the military or the government one can never be sure.

What is sure is that the armed conflict there is causing havoc and disrupting the lives of hundreds of residents living in the affected mountain villages and communities. The hundreds of evacuees living in the Diatagon barangay gymnasium is proof of that. The military, of course, considers most of them NPA sympathizers or supporters but be that as it may, if one is poor and uneducated and forced by circumstances to live in a so called "Communist influenced or controlled" area, what else can you be?

And what about the residents of Lianga and Diatagon and all the other nearby municipalities and barangays already anxious and deeply concerned that the armed hostilities will spill over into their own communities? Not an altogether a remote possibility if we are again to base such fears and concerns on what has transpired in the not so recent past when similar military operations have been conducted in the area.

What is really the objective of this ongoing military offensive? Is it an attempt to solve the long festering problem of an armed insurgency solely by force of arms where proper education, genuine economic development and good government should be given more focus? Or are there other real reasons for the government's sudden interest in "flushing communist rebels" from their "communist rebel strongholds?"

One wonders if the real rationale for this armed conflict is more economic rather than political and if the real issue at heart is not the crushing or destruction of a protracted armed insurgency, one anchored supposedly on the precepts and doctrines of an already discredited ideology, but an attempt to wrestle control and influence over a stretch of territory fabled to be rich in mineral resources and lush with timberlands prime for commercial exploitation.

I wonder indeed.

I could, of course, be wrong. But as the casualty lists on both sides of this conflict grow longer and the number of displaced and affected civilians and noncombatants increase day by day, it becomes imperative that the people of Diatagon and Lianga start asking their government to account for the high human cost of the ongoing conflict and reveal, once and for all, for what such a high price is being paid for and why are they paying part of the price for something they don't have even any idea what.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


It is a sight the residents of Diatagon, a barangay or village some 9 kilometers north of Lianga, have seen many times before and will likely see again and again in the foreseeable future. Ordinary people and entire families fleeing from their homes in the nearby mountain villages and settlements and seeking shelter in the Diatagon barangay gymnasium, a public structure that has been the temporary home for hundreds of evacuees like them many times in the past.

They say they have left their homes for fear of being caught in the crossfire between government soldiers mostly belonging to the 58th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army conducting offensive operations in the vicinity of their villages and rebel insurgents of the New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

The affected villages and settlements, most of which are tribal or lumad communities nestled amidst the timber rich mountains bordering the municipalities of Lianga, San Agustin and San Miguel, are considered "rebel controlled or influenced" by the government and the military and have been classified as such for decades now. During the 1980's, for example, the Diatagon area was the location of many violent clashes between government forces and NPA guerrillas, fierce encounters that had esulted in many casualties for both sides.

Getting verifiable reports of what is really happening in Diatagon can be difficult in Lianga where no local print, radio or television news media exists but from all indications the military operations there have been apparently going on for some weeks now. There have been reports of armed encounters between government troops and the insurgents and rumors of casualties but neither the military leadership here or the local municipal government has been keen to talk about what is really happening.

As a result of this dearth of information, rumors are rife that the on-going offensive is part of an overall plan to eventually clear this part of the province of the presence of rebel forces in preparation for the entry of economic interests keen to invest in mining and logging ventures in area. In 2005, similar clearing operations by Army troops in the nearby Andap valley also led to the mass exodus of mountain folk to evacuation centers in Diatagon. Until now, the rationale for that military action has not yet been fully explained.

What is worrisome are reports from evacuees that some military units are actually occupying villages and that a number of their troops are living with residents and sleeping at night in private homes, thus essentially using these civilians as human shields. Schools and other public buildings have been reported to be similarly co-opted. As to whether in all these cases the permission or consent of residents or their community leaders were either sought or not, one can only speculate.

Complaints of unnecessary and illegal searches of homes and persons are also being made. Also cited are cases where patently private information were allegedly improperly solicited from residents through threats and intimidation. In many instances for example, private mobile phone numbers were supposedly demanded by soldiers manning checkpoints and some residents, including children, were allegedly intimidated and threatened to provide soldiers with information about NPA activities in their area.

If this accusations and reports are all true then the local military brass has a lot of explaining to do. Their mandate to fight insurgency and enforce the law even in insurgency prone areas does not include the right to use whatever methods they think necessary, including those violating basic human rights or are in direct violation of the generally accepted rules of war and armed conflict, even in an domestic insurgency setting. This is especially essential when dealing with civilians and non-combatants even if they may be sympathetic to or are actually supporting opposing or enemy forces.

Accusations of military misconduct aside, it must also be pointed out here the municipal government of Lianga is supposed to be the one responsible for monitoring the on-going military operations in Diatagon and coordinating with the military units on the field to ensure that the personal safety and general welfare of civilians in the affected villages are not in any prejudiced or disregarded. But municipal officials, except for a few exceptions, have been strangely silent or noncommittal whenever this issue is raised.

In most computer war games, a so called "fog of war" covers much of the simulated battlefield that prevents opposing players from seeing the all-over tactical situation and leaves all of them guessing the movements and intentions of their enemies. It enhances realism and makes these games more exciting and challenging.

There is a comparable fog of war that has settled in the midst of the villages and communities in the remote highlands of Diatagon. But what is happening there is no game and the local people have the right to know.

In the meantime, an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear hangs over these hamlets and settlements and that is something that the unfortunate residents there, as well as the people in Lianga and Diatagon, may have to live with for the time being and who knows for how long.