Omens and Blessings

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

A new year by definition is different from the previous one. Many times, though, the difference is only in the number of the year, as 2010 versus 2009, with no other significant distinction. Few realize that there is no new year that is not slowly ushered in by an old one, and that a new year is mostly an extension of the previous one.

Once in a while, which there have been two in less than thirty years in Philippine history, dramatic events force quick changes early in a new year. Edsa One and Edsa Dos were such drastic events that they completely changed patterns of previous years and set new directions for the new year and even more years ahead.

Typhoon Ondoy and the Maguindanao Massacre, or the Ampatuan Massacre as many are beginning to call it, brought to new heights the meaning of disaster, the level of trauma. Before these destructive events had been a thread of horrible trends led by shameful hunger incidences and unmitigated corruption. In the last decade, hunger among Filipino has been reaching record levels to give the lie to any claim of economic progress. The hunger of millions of Filipinos reflects economic exploitation, not growth.

Steadily rising in the global corruption meter not only led to more shame but to suspension of economic assistance or grants from other countries. The United States had given the Philippine government special funds to fight corruption and ended up holding back on releasing MCC development funds because of corruption. The World Bank then comes up with corruption estimates of at least one third of the national budget being lost to corruption. With budgets over 1 trillion annually, hundreds of billions are illegally diverted from public service to private pockets.

The cry of Filipinos is employment and economic relief. Typhoon Ondoy was but a most graphic disaster but not in any way the worst. Neither is poverty the greatest curse. It is corruption. It is the corrupt officials who use their august positions to grow their personal wealth. Some of the corruption can be as vulgar as the ZTE contract which the President cancelled after its stink added to the pollution of Philippine governance. The cancellation was not an act of heroism; rather, it served to affirm the corruption that was aborted, not by the cancellation, but by the bravery of Jun Lozada.

There is so much foul air from corruption, beginning early in the Arroyo administration with what used to be the most expensive short road in Philippine history called Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard and to what recently Senator Miriam Santiago sharply criticized – the infamous road tax. Filipinos are beset with so much corruption that many do not even want to think about it anymore. Unfortunately, the worst evil that afflicts them is corruption as it is the root cause of poverty and even the murders and massacres committed to perpetuate it.

In a bizarre way, Typhoon Ondoy caused so much destruction and the Maguindanao Massacre so stomach-turning  that they began as curses and ended up triggering some blessings as well. The suffering of flood victims was quickly matched by a generosity from Filipinos here and abroad, and even other countries. The best of the Filipino emerged, not by the accomplishment of a superstar, but by the goodness of many. The Maguindanao Massacre also arrested, or put to a halt (permanently, I hope) to the ugly practice of political accommodation reaching all the way to arming killers in order to get votes and be assured of political control.

It should not be long when the quick findings (because they are so obvious) of an international NGO will bring the Filipino public to understand that the highest government officials were as culpable for the brutal slaying as the Ampatuans themselves. The International Crisis Group (ICG) based in Brussels is an international NGO committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. In its report, The Philippines: After the Maguindanao Massacre, the ICG stated that the November 23 killings were not the result of a clan feud but of Manila’s deliberate nurturing of a ruthless warlord in exchange for votes.

2009 saw Manny Pacquiao defeat two more opponents to take their crowns and has become the first boxer to have won seven titles. Manny is acknowledged to be the best pound-for-pound fighter of the world and did much to raise the heads of Filipinos in pride. Then, Efren Penaflorida was awarded as the CNN Hero of the Year for his effort to bring education to children from a pushcart converted to be a mobile library. Efren has been very vocal in sharing the honors with a group of volunteers and a mentor, making his award not just a personal achievement but a collective one even more.

In a very clear way, Efren’s behavior is beyond making Filipinos proud of one of their own; it is showing Filipinos that even the most ordinary can do so much for his neighbor, especially the poor.  Efren is also a symbol and representative of many ordinary Filipinos in our neighborhood, in our offices, in our organizations, Filipinos who do not get into the news but nonetheless help others. Typhoon Ondoy proved that there are countless heroes among us but the rogues and their sins grab the limelight.

I often wonder if I can avoid highlighting the evil that chokes a nation and its people. If I choose to write only about the good and the beautiful, will that convert the thieves, liars and killers to mend their ways? Seriously, I would enjoy writing only about heroism, about nobility, about kindness, if such would stop the looting and plunder of our treasury and patrimony, if it would stop the degradation of our national morals and ethics. I definitely would choose blessings over omens. Yet, I know I would fool no one, least of all myself. My constant challenge is to raise awareness of both good and evil, of laying praises on good works and shooting arrows at wrongdoing.

It is a New Year. May good win over evil in 2010.

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