Sunday, November 25, 2007


A friend of mine, who gave me a surprise visit yesterday morning, found me sitting in front of the television set and intently shifting channels between CNN's and BBC's coverage of the Australian general parliamentary elections. "Why watch that?", he asked, more than a bit bewildered. "Who cares who becomes prime minister down there?"

As a Filipino and until a week or so ago, I cared little for Australia's Liberal Prime Minister John Howard and his bitter rivalry with Kevin Rudd, leader of the Australian Labor Party. The politics of the land down under usually held little interest for me except from the merely academic point of view. Who here cares really whether Mr. Howard wins another term after serving 11 years as leader of his government?

The truth is my interest in the Australian general elections stems from two simple, prosaic reasons - a fascination and.....well......pure and simply envy at the vitality, dynamism and forthrightness of the democracy that the Australian people are so lucky to be living under.

For sure, no democratic system, be it Australian, American, British or whatever and wherever, perfectly approaches the democratic ideal. Even what is supposedly democratically ideal can be the subject of strong disagreement and contention.

But any political system and framework that fully empowers its citizens to freely choose their political leaders, and thus determine the course of their nation's future, on the basis of their personal competence, ideology and perceived stand on the relevant issues and concerns of the times, and holds them personally and collectively accountable to the electorate for their stewardship of the government they have been elected to serve, deserves to be envied.

For a real democracy to work best, each individual citizen must be of the firm conviction that his view and his say on the conduct of his government, whether expressed through the ballot in regular elections or through whatever legitimate means, makes a real difference and has value both individually and collectively. His opinion ultimately does count, thus he is empowered.

In Lianga, as in the rest of the Filipino nation, that is not exactly what the ordinary man in the street feels about his role in the politics of his town and his nation. He is weak, ignored, irrelevant and, most of the time, forgotten. Public accountability is just a slogan and elections a sham where money and power, not the people's genuine will, count the most.

If there is a lesson to be learned from watching the developments in the Australian general elections and the approaching presidential primaries in the U.S. 2008 presidential race, it is that great political changes in a nation occurs when such changes are backed by a groundswell of public opinion supporting such change. A people must not only see the changes they want as desirable but they must want them so bad that they will disregard their differences and work together to see them happen and become reality.

Otherwise, the alternative is the way of indifference and apathy. And when we, Filipinos in particular, no longer care or even take heed of the fragile state of the democracy we are supposed to be living under then we will surely lose it altogether and will be doomed, once again, to repeat the tragic mistakes of our recent and turbulent past.

"They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."

Andy Warhol, American artist and Pop Art icon(1928-1987)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hands In The Cookie Jar

The news report that the World Bank has recently rejected some 232 million dollars in loans intended for road improvements in the Philippines particularly in the province of Surigao del Sur came as extremely bad news for tens of thousands of people living in the Lianga area. The condition of the road sections serving the town and the surrounding municipalities have been especially bad the past weeks as a result of persistent rains and the equally persistent failure of the district office of Department of Public Works and Highways in Tandag to conduct adequate maintenance and rehabilitation work on many of the affected areas.

The World Bank board, according to the Wall Street Journal, allegedly cited bidding irregularities, procurement problems, excessive overpricing and other corruption issues and has reported asked the Philippine government to defer implementation of the road infrastructure projects pending further investigation and review of Phase 2 of the ten-year National Roads Improvement Management Program (NRIMP2) which was supposed to be funded by the above loans.

The dismal condition of Lianga's roads notwithstanding, the World Bank board's findings has merely brought out into the open a fact that many astute local observers here have been pointing out for so many years. That the reason for the delay in the upgrading and concreting of the road network servicing the municipalities of Marihatag, San Agustin and Lianga in Surigao del Sur has not been the lack of adequate funding support but the simple fact that the government's road improvement infrastructure program is so riddled with corruption and irregularities that even the World Bank cannot just sit idly by without stepping in to review, re-examine and make doubly sure that its money is going where it is supposed to be - into the building of concrete roads and bridges and not into the greedy pockets of both national and local officials as well as their cohorts in the construction industry.

Of course, the Philippine government is downplaying the significance of the World Bank board's decision and DPWH offcials are now saying that implementation of the controversial road improvement projects has not actually been canceled but have been merely "deferred" pending proper review, whatever that means. I suppose that when one has been caught with one's hand in the cookie jar, the best course of action is simply to deny the crime and say that the cookies are all still there, even if they have already telltale bite marks on them.

As the national government goes high gear into damage control over this issue, the focus for us here in Lianga shifts to our local provincial officials in the city of Tandag. What's up guys? What went wrong? Whose to blame for all this mess? And more importantly, were there other hands and fingers in the cookie jar too?

In the meantime, while we all wait for answers, the people in Lianga and its neighboring municipalities confront everyday the admittedly picturesque, if extremely bumpy, dusty and absolutely disgusting roads of our part of this glorious province and wonder. When will all our traveling nightmares ever end?

Or will it ever?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Others Speak

"Benjie, this area is indeed a paradise. There is so much potential here and yet there seems to be a pervasive feeling of despair. I hope that we can soon see some changes among the local people. I really believe that people here need some major changes to affect their lives, and to get them knowing that there is potential here to make their lives better."

"I'm hoping that people can come together and work together to make major changes to help this area become what it could be. It will mean a lot of work, but it is achievable if people will just believe. I think that your blog is one way of helping this area, we need other people to know about Lianga and the surrounding area, we need to encourage tourists to visit this area. But if we expect to have tourists, then we need to demand more and better roads, more and better accommodations in the form of resorts. "

"We need to clean up and freshen up the beaches and streets. We need more places for people to enjoy a meal, not fast food, but good Philippine cuisine. Do this and this area can grow economically, but still remain the paradise it is today. Thanks for being here."

Mark and Merejen sent this comment on the blog post "Fresh View" which I have reproduced in full and unabridged above. I felt that it spoke volumes and expressed a viewpoint that many of us who love Lianga, and who still retain emotional and sentimental links to the town, share and want so much to publicly and passionately express.

Yes, I agree there is indeed a pervasive air of despair one senses among the townspeople of Lianga. It is a hopelessness borne out of false promises and unfulfilled dreams, the inevitable response of a people who have been misled and disappointed for so long and, as a consequence, have lost faith in themselves and in their capability to dream again and work together to make those dreams real.

It is also true that there is a lot of potential for development in Lianga particularly in the area of ecotourism. But its people must not only become aware of the potential, they must really understand it and what it requires, desire it and work hard to develop it and make it bear fruit. They must take charge of their future if they want to have one.

It is so easy to point fingers at the politicians for all that is wrong with Lianga and it is indeed right and proper that they should carry a large part of the blame and the shame. But it is harder for us to point our fingers at ourselves and assume responsibility for our lack of vigilance, negligence and complacency.

For Lianga is what it is today because we, its people, have failed the town. We did not do our duty. Thus, regrettably, we are now merely paying the price and living with the consequences of our folly.

Friday, November 16, 2007

All Aboard The "Skylab"

It is the kind of sight that makes foreign tourists pull out their cameras, start clicking pictures and shake their heads in amazement and disbelief.

It is a just an ordinary motorcycle, originally manufactured and designed to carry a driver and a passenger. With two wooden planks attached like a boat's outriggers on both sides of the bike chassis, you now have a public conveyance that can carry up to eight people plus the driver.

This is the famed "Skylab" motorcycle named after the legendary international space station with the jutting solar panels (considered analogous to the bike's wooden extensions) that fell back to Earth in 1979. Its reentry caused widespread near panic all over the Philippine islands which was purportedly in the path of the falling space debris. It was not.

Riding on the Skylab is an delicate balancing act, almost an art in itself and yet for many of the rural folk in the Lianga area, hitching a ride on this marvel of Filipino ingenuity, or others say foolhardiness, is a regular fact of life. It is simply the only form of public transportation readily available and, in the countryside, one takes what one can take. It's either that or a long walk to nowhere. Take your pick.

It cannot be denied that a first time ride on this marvelous contraption can be an exhilarating experience akin to a long yet thrilling rollercoaster ride. Except in this case you do without the safety harness and any form of personal protection. It is just you and your balancing skill, the driver's prowess and a lot of other random factors (pure luck included) that determine whether you reach your destination whole and unharmed or as a tangled, mangled and bloody mass of flesh and bone.

Regular riders on the Skylab express pooh-pooh the physical dangers of commuting on these modified motorcycles. They say that road safety is achieved because the passengers and the driver all cooperate and help maintain the over all balance and stability of their vehicle. In other words, it may look outright dangerous but in truth it really is not.

There may be some degree of truth in what they say. For it is a fact that road accidents involving these two wheeled contraptions have not been as frequent as one might normally expect. Why that is can be the subject of a lot of conjecture.

I wonder indeed.

I have often also wondered if there is something in the character of the rural Filipino that makes him contemptuous if not more accepting and tolerant of the risks involved in riding the Skylab. Perhaps it is his innate peasant fatalism at work.

Or perhaps it is just an acceptable way of flirting with danger, a way of silently communicating to other commuters on the road, "Hey! Here I am. Life is very hard but I don't care. I am brave and now feel truly alive! Look at me! My life is in my hands!"

Me? I am not that brave or even that fatalistic enough. I'd rather walk.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Fresh View

I must have walked or drove through the bumpy, dusty streets and roads of my town more than a countless times and the sights, sounds and smells of it have already become familiar to me. Perhaps that has become the problem.

They have in, one sense, become...well....too familiar and commonplace. Not worth a second thought or look and the sensations thus no longer savored and much less appreciated anymore. Truly, in this case, familiarity does really breed contempt if not mild disdain for what has become merely ordinary or banal.

I recently had visitors from Manila and while showing them around Lianga, the enthusiasm and amazement that seemed to ooze from them as they oohed and aahed while visiting the area's sights to see and places to visit had me reflecting once again on one simple and undeniable fact.

There is a lot of nature's beauty in this place. As a coastal town, Lianga's local scenery is dominated by the wild desolation and often restless panorama of its coastal sea. The coastline is studded by white-fringed beaches, mangrove forests and rocky coves bordered by coconut trees and wild vegetation.

Yet opposite the sea are the remains of thickly forested mountains and hills rich in exotic flora and fauna. For the city dweller, therefore, the sight of vivid, blue-green mountains swimming in the early morning mists stretching beyond vast fields of richly green rice fields or hills carpeted with thick grass and bristling with trees are as breath-taking and awe-inspiring as the stunning view of the sunrise across the white sand and clear waters of the local beaches.

These are treasures of unestimable value yet many of us here have become blind if not inured to their existence. It is often through the fresh eyes of visitors and outsiders that we become aware of all the wild yet poignant beauty that surrounds us. And it is through them, perhaps, that we regain our balance and a new appreciation for the world we are living in.

Years ago, a foreigner once told me that I was lucky to be living in paradise. I vehemently disagreed with him then. Nowadays I may still have my misgivings but when it comes to pure, natural and unspoiled scenery, I must admit that Lianga can be as close to paradise as you can get.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Judas Money

Five hundred pesos is by local standards a tidy sum of money. It may be less than ten dollars in U.S. currency but it is almost twice the legal daily minimum wage and represents a sizable chunk of the weekly food bill for the average family in Lianga.

To have at least one five hundred peso bill in your wallet or purse at any one time is, for most people here, a welcome blessing indeed and more than what many of the impoverished folk can hope for or, even if we are to believe the stories, kill or die for. Times are that hard really.

Now, to have just one or a couple of these bills freely given and placed in your hands is, by any standards, extremely good luck indeed and, for the ordinary working man, the stuff of dreams. But more than a week or so ago, during the two nights before the Oct.29 barangay elections, such a thing did happen to a lot of people in Lianga.

Of course, it was no red suited Santa Claus on a sled pulled by Rudolph and the other reindeers who was giving away all that money instead of the usual Christmas presents way in advance of next month's Christmas Day. And the money was not given gratis or for free either.

What happened then was simply vote-buying done as it has been always done by politicians in Lianga in all previous elections. You do get the money in your pocket, delivered to your house and hassle free but in return you have to vote for the candidate shelling out the money. A straight forward business transaction, the money for your vote and no questions asked.

A foreigner friend of mine who witnessed the recent elections expressed shock and dismay at the audacity and the finesse with which the supposedly clandestine vote-buying operations were conducted, in many cases done often quite openly even in the light of day. Then he personally confided in me his disappointment at the ease and alacrity with which many of the Lianga townsfolk seem to tolerate and even accept this travesty of their basic democratic right of suffrage.

But then, the foreigner that he is and the fact that he is new to Lianga, he does not understand one basic thing about local politics.

You see, if there is one "truth" the majority of the townspeople believe in, it is the fact that their individual or even collective votes rarely make a difference in the outcome of elections, whether it be local or national in nature. When there is so much perceived cheating and manipulation of electoral votes in Philippine elections and when such offenses against the most basic democratic values and principles remain unpunished and are often instead rewarded, then who among the majority of the Filipino electorate can still believe in the sanctity and value of the ballot?

I, however, still do. But, unfortunately for the few who do share the same opinion, it is also a truism that in a "democracy", it is always the majority and not the minority that rules and, in the final analysis, make the rules.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

For the Nth Time

The mechanic at the auto repair shop in Butuan City was brusque yet sympathetic. Another cracked ball joint in the front suspension of the car and a multitude of angry pesos signs started dancing in my head. It's cursing time again for me.

I have come to love Lianga and living in it but there are certain times when I have the sudden urge to curse the day fate or destiny brought me to stay permanently in this coastal town by the sea. And ninety-nine percent of the time when I do that it is always when I am in the car and creeping, crawling and lurching along the rocky, potholed, and absolutely disgusting roads that crisscross this part of my province.

The question that often comes to my mind as the car rattles along is what manner of unfortunate bad luck or perennial misfortune is my town so cursed with that it has to be, for decades now, the luckless location of what may amount to be the most neglected road system in the country today. I have pondered long and hard yet have not been able to come up with a satisfying answer to this day.

There are many who say that this part of the country is so far off the beaten track that the government simply has no real or sufficient justification to improve the road infrastructure. No major industries nor any major business investments exist in the area hence the absence of the concrete paved highways that almost all of the other parts of the country have come to take for granted.

But that is just like putting the cart before the horse, isn't it? For an underdeveloped province to truly grow, the government must provide the needed requirements. Foremost among them is a modern transportation system and, at its most basic, that means a modern highway or road network linking the population and production centers to the transportation hubs and centers of the country.

To say that politics is the primary reason for the poor condition of Lianga's roads and bridges is to hit closer to the truth of the whole matter. For what is clear and unequivocal is the fact that despite their avowed and professed concern for the people of Lianga and the economic development of the municipality, the present crop of provincial government officials including those representing the province in the national government do not give a damn about the town except for a fact that it is a pawn to be played in the political chessboard of the province.

Lianga is no longer a major town and its voting population is relatively insignificant in comparison to such major population centers as Bislig City or Tandag. But it happens to be an old town and political control over the town whether real or imagined has great sentimental if little strategic or tactical significance for the politicians of the province.

Thus the town has become a mere chess piece in the political games politicians play and it is this unstable mix of feuding political interests and the often unpredictable changes in the political alliances and loyalties that determine who has political control and influence over it that is the primary reason for the lack of a coherent development program for the area and the lack of sufficient political will to implement one if such a program happened to really exist.

Thus it is a town in perpetual political flux and nothing regarding economic, social, cultural or infrastructure development gets done. Essential and necessary programs and projects get stuck in the limbo of unfulfilled promises and proposals.

The end result is the emergence in the local people of what one can call a kind of "political fatalism", a morose view of both local and national politics as a power game rich and powerful politicians play while the local electorate and the common masses end up always the losers in the never ending battle for political and economic control of political fiefdoms.

Thus it is easier and more practical to sell your vote or political allegiance to the highest bidder since your vote, by itself, does not count much at all in the present scheme of things. "Democracy," one voter in the recent barangay elections told me, "is a scam and all politicians cheat anyway."

Yet, for the nth time, I still cry out to Governor BB Pimentel and Congressman Philip Pichay. Please do something about the roads in our part of the province. Get your heads and your acts together and just do something!

The people of Lianga and its neighboring municipalities have, so far, been extraordinarily patient and forbearing with their local government officials. But the same officials cannot and must not remain complacent. There is a lot of anger and disappointment out here and those who think they can still continue to sell false promises and hot air and continue to get away with it may have to rethink what they have been doing for so long.

Otherwise if they will not, they may end up instead sowing wind and harvesting in return the bitter whirlwind of discontent and ultimately the bitter fruits of their own destruction.