Prepare for more

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Well, the battle cry was “Change!” And change is what we are getting. Some may not like it but most Filipinos, until the most recent national survey anyway, apparently are still in agreement through their vote of trust and approval for President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

The most prominent changes thus far are 1) of personalities, from Aquino to Duterte and from the Liberal Party to Duterte’s favored political groups, and 2) Duterte’s drug war versus hardly any before. There were extremely high prospects for peace with the Left but it has since sputtered badly. The change was so fleeting that it is hard to consider it a change at all.  The peace with Muslim separatists was begun much earlier, from Gloria Arroyo’s time, in fact. But the Basic Bangsamoro Law that could have started a truly new start in Muslim-Christian Mindanao was never passed in Aquino’s term and remains in limbo today. Change is just around the corner but the corner keeps widening.

The Marawi conflagration is change, too, but the unwanted one. There was the Zamboanga siege during PNoy’s time but it seems small in comparison. And there was no major rebuild Zamboanga program like the one being talked about for Marawi. The effort to rebuild Marawi should emerge as a flagship program. If it is effectively rolled out, it will foster closer ties between Christians and Muslims. I pray that the country as a whole will be actively involved in the Rebuld Marawi movement, and that the effort begins as soon as possible.  Mindanao was so solid behind the Duterte candidacy, eagerly hoping for prioritized progress, not a war and martial law.

High expectations, though, demand high delivery, and not much has yet been delivered in Mindanao. The mining industry went into spasms and has not recovered its rhythm. It may never do if mining laws are strictly enforced. The economic downside, though, may be more than compensated if nature is protected from the ravages of open pit mining without simultaneous remedial action. The ISIS and the BBL-in-limbo have denied Mindanao more autonomous rule, the pump priming of the economy, and direct support to poorest sectors of the country.

The Duterte administration seems determined to push an aggressive infrastructure program running to trillions of pesos. Once those projects start, they would be the most powerful evidence of change, not just for the jobs they generate, but the promise of a future better prepared for growth. Many of these planned projects, though, are located in highly urbanized areas – or to connect them. That means serious inconvenience will first be experienced for several years before the benefits come. This is normal and unavoidable. Building, building, and building means not just more money to be spent (and borrowed) but extended inconvenience at more severe levels.

Political change other than a change of personalities remains pending. Martial law, despite its argued necessity due to radicalized rebellion, is not political change and has even delayed it. Our political leaders have been talking about changing the Constitution, shifting to federalism, and creating a revised BBL for Mindanao. The process will be difficult because the political atmosphere has become more contentious with a costly drug war claiming too many lives, including those of the young and innocent. Also, the Philippine National Police as an institution is confronted with its own internal list of policemen involved in the drug trade – and how does it apply tokhang on its own?

On the corruption front, it seems the President is alone in his desire to dramatically change the landscape. The Bureau of Customs scandal involving a seemingly unbreakable  system and the possible entry of drugs at astronomical volumes tells us that eradicating corruption is not as easy as politicians promise during campaigns. So early in the game, even the DOJ’s Bureau of Immigration was rocked by the Jack Lam scandal involving fraternity brothers of the President and the Secretary of Justice. Dismantling corruption needs a focused effort just like battling the drug trade, and maybe an Eliot Ness-type task force under the Office of the President. Bad habits are almost impossible to break without a battering ram and a leadership totally committed to fight them.

As for poverty, historical, crippling poverty, affecting tens of millions – where is the grand plan to unravel and undo it? I am sure that the Cabinet has a number of plans that target reducing poverty but the public does not know what these are – and cannot participate in the process. Poverty eradication by government is impossible without the active contribution of the private sector, maybe even of the religious. Something that is historical and massive like poverty would need a total approach where all sectors have defined responsibilities and accountabilities.

But it seems that demolishing the drug trade is still the number one priority of the President. I must assume that if we know what he does, we would also be urgently distressed. I hope, though, that the anti-drug campaign being waged will be expanded to just beyond killing drug lords, drug protectors, drug pushers and users. If the illegal drug trade has become such a scourge to the whole of society, then the whole of society must learn how to fight back and regain the security of its communities and territories. This is no different from insurrection, no different from corruption, no different from poverty. They are all cancers and, by this time, are intimately connected with one another. It does not take a genius to know that when the whole is threatened and attacked, then it needs the whole to defend itself. Government may be government, but it is not the whole.

Nobody said change will be fast or easy. The more meaningful the change we want, the more demanding it will be on us. Spiderman may have said that with great power comes great responsibility, but all superheroes know that great change comes only with great sacrifice. We better prepare for more.


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