1/29/2015
We'll still mess this up somehow

Huge crowds, inevitably, gathered at the route Pope Francis will take on his first motorcade in Manila, from the Villamor Air Base in Pasay to the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila. Huge crowds, all hoping for a chance to see the Catholic Church's highest leader, all hoping to, in their belief, be blessed somehow by him physically passing them by, maybe waving at them.

The atmosphere was as manic as expected, of course - well, one would glean that much from the television. The mere appearance of the long string of security personnel at the front of the motorcade incited howls from the crowd. A rumbling roar, maybe a roaring rumble, slowly came in, and the next thing you know, you were lost in it, even if you're just at home watching television. The reporters say the same thing, about the pope being closer and closer to their point. And then he does appear, and he does pass them by, and the reporters lose composure themselves, becoming one with the crowd.

"Malapit na po si Pope Francis sa aking kinalalagyan," Noli de Castro reported from his vantage point near the Apostolic Nunciature. The lights from the siren grew brighter as the motorcade approached its final destination. And then, the pontiff appears in his sights.

"Lolo Kikooo!" Noli yelps, in an unguarded moment of sheer joy.

The pope enters the gates to his residence for four nights, and the roar dies down, but very slowly.

Noli tries to wrap up his report behind a throng of people still buzzing from the blessings they supposedly received, all waving at the camera, aiming to be seen, be recognized, be famous for half a second or so. "Maraming salamat sa mga tao dito," he said - and I'm paraphrasing, I must note. "Maraming salamat sa disiplina habang dumadaan ang Santo Papa. Tenkyu! Ang babait ninyo!"

It was, admittedly, designed to be a throwaway line, but what struck me about that remark is what it implies: the assumption that we Filipinos are usually not disciplined, that we are usually rowdy and chaotic and just plain terrible to be with, at least during organized events. We talk about needing discipline a lot - on queues, on sidewalks, on the roads - because we just feel that there isn't any, so much so that one motorcade going smoothly is seen as a major victory. We behaved, we were told. Good job!

But it was just the beginning. Pope Francis was here for four nights and four days. He had a long list of events to attend to; he was to be out and about, from point A to point B to point C and back to point A, via three Popemobiles and one plane. The logistical undertaking is a monster. The whole of Metro Manila was shut down to prevent anything untoward from happening. Offices and schools went on holiday. Roads were closed. Police presence was escalated to levels never thought possible before. Even phone coverage was shut off, ostensibly for security reasons, but mostly preventing those in the crowds from immediately posting so-called selfies of themselves with the pope. Everything was done so things can run as smoothly as possible. As my mother said the day before the arrival, it would be a very terrible thing if somebody succeeded in killing the pope - and in the Philippines, of all places.

And yet, the reaction was the same: we'll still mess this up somehow.

Nothing terrible happened throughout the pope's five-day sojourn in the Philippines. There were no threats to security, no rowdy people making things difficult for everyone. There was tragedy - the death of Kristel Padasas, a volunteer - but as it was an accident, brought by strong winds that cut short the pope's visit to Tacloban, it was tagged as an unfortunate incident. The backlash would occur, however, a few days later, when reports of a "family camp" at a posh resort in Batangas surfaced, attended by homeless families that the DSWD rounded up from Manila, ParaƱaque and Pasay - the very cities Pope Francis would be in.

Why did they do that?

Why are they hiding the real Philippines to the pope?

The pope would have wanted to meet them!

Of course, we'll still mess this up somehow.

Cynicism has become a default reaction for Filipinos, and for good reason: almost every time, despite taking every measure, something happens that makes the result less than perfect. When it comes to government, this cynicism just goes up further. This bunch of incompetent nincompoops, always ruining things for us, just so they can get whatever they can get. The government, whoever is in power, could never get anything right. Allegations of corruption are brushed aside if it concerns an ally. Investigations are constantly held in the Senate not to gain insight for new legislation, but to grill and roast and make a dog's dinner out of somebody's reputation. Services are undermined, if not cut outright, and whoever complains is dared to seek out alternatives rather than their grievances be taken into consideration.

The government, whoever is in power, could not be trusted with getting anything right.

That's not to say that everything our government does is an abject failure. This cynicism tends to cloud over everything, and whatever genuine achievements the government does make - achievements to the nation, not to particular individuals - get brushed aside. For all the perceptions of corruption levied against Gloria Arroyo, for instance, one can't deny that the economic reforms under her mandate paved the way for the Philippines' record economic performance under her successor. The same perceptions hound Ferdinand Marcos - perhaps worse perceptions, what with martial law and an unfathomable number of human rights violation - but infrastructure projects under his watch have become part of the country's landscape.

Still, we'll still mess this up somehow.

"Ang problema kasi sa gobyerno," my father began, "maganda man ang intensyon, laging nakokorap." We were stuck in traffic one morning, and we were talking about the new license plates being rolled out by the LTO. "Tignan mo 'yang RFID na 'yan. Noon pa nila planong gawin 'yan, kaya lang, ayun, nakorap. Pero 'yang bar code sa mga bagong plaka? RFID 'yan. Kaya naman pala nilang gawin. Nakokorap lang talaga."

Filipinos are weary of corruption - that is putting it lightly. Filipinos are tired of corruption. Similarly, Filipinos are tired of putting their hopes up, and yet we still do. We still do, even for the smallest of things: Manny Pacquiao possibly knocking Floyd Mayweather out, the prospect of a Filipina Miss Universe, the (insulting) prospect of a partially Filipina Miss Jamaica. As much as we believe there is really no way to go but further down, we still would want us to see go nowhere but up, which explains the fairy tale-like story of Noynoy Aquino being elected president.

Five years into his term, and opinion of him has split sharply. There are people who think he's turned the country around - some have gone as far as hoping he'd run again, despite the obvious roadblocks - and then there are people who think he's just plunged the country further into darkness. The same cynicism that caused our mistrust in government is the same cynicism that powers the loud back-and-forth between both camps, both denouncing the other's inability to be enlightened. The same cynicism clouds over the genuine accomplishments the Aquino administration has done in those five years: a strengthening economy, the beginning of long-delayed infrastructure projects, the clearer possibility of peace in Mindanao.

Just you watch. We'll still mess this up somehow.

Granted, change does not come immediately - change definitely does not come, conveniently, within the six-year window of a president's term in office. For now, we remain cynical, until we are absolutely certain that we finally get what we think we deserve. The politician's insistence to claim credit for something that hasn't fully bloomed makes this a harder prospect. The back-and-forth does, too. Thus, when something does happen, we don't really celebrate anymore. We just shrug and move on, glad that we can move on.

Many decades have been spent working on achieving peace in Mindanao. That thing's hovered around my head since my childhood: peace talks with the Moro National Liberation Front during Fidel Ramos' time, the "all-out war" with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front during Joseph Estrada's time, the many attempts to resume talks during Arroyo's time. And then, in 2012, the MILF and the government finally hammered out an agreement, one that took years of trial and error, one that indirectly claimed many lives and put many more in danger. With the triumph of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the prospect of peace was much more clearer, and yet all most of us could do was shrug and move on. Finally, we can move on.

But it is, of course, just the first step. To fully replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao - dubbed a "failed experiment" by Aquino - a new structure has to be put in place. The first step, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, is still slugging its way through the legislature. Once it's ratified by the Bangsamoro region's population, elections will be held, and then the hard work to actually make it work begins.

I bet we'll still mess this up somehow.

A botched police operation in Mamasaporo, Maguindanao, intended to arrest two terrorists wanted around the world, led to the death of 42 members of the PNP Special Action Force. A long gun battle ensued between these commandos, armed for the possibility of minor fighting with splinter groups, and the MILF, who controlled the territory where Marwan, accused of supplying explosives and other materials to terrorists, was supposedly hiding. There is supposedly a ceasefire between the government and the MILF, on the strength of the Bangsamoro Agreement, and yet this happened.

As both sides conduct their own investigation, trying to figure out just how the hell this could have happened, the cynicism long festering inside Filipinos has gone into high gear. The peace process is on the verge of derailment. At least two senators have withdrawn their co-authorship of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, decrying the untrustworthy MILF. Estrada, now mayor of Manila, has resumed his calls for an "all-out war". The more sober politicians have called for a restoration of trust in the peace process and its proponents. In a televised address last night, Aquino called on Congress to continue working to pass the law, in honor of the dead.

The Manila Standard Today's claims, however, threatens to further enhance the cynicism, the lack of trust, the apathy Filipinos already have towards those in power. If the newspaper's source - a police general who took part in the operation's planning - is to be believed, Aquino gave command of the operation to PNP chief Alan Purisima, who was suspended after allegations of corruption. Supposedly, Purisima had critical intelligence regarding Marwan, and refused to allow anyone else access to it, insisting that he head the operation to arrest the terrorist. Aquino allowed this through, and decided to bypass PNP deputy chief Gerardo Espina and DILG secretary Mar Roxas, a close government ally and the executive official with oversight over the police.

That secrecy ostensibly doomed the SAF men who entered MILF territory to arrest Marwan and his associates. When gunfire erupted, the SAF called for back-up from the army, who refused because of the ongoing ceasefire, and a lack of knowledge about the operation. It took almost a day for additional forces to arrive - the army was finally convinced by MalacaƱang itself, as the story goes - but by then the casualty rate was high and it was impossible to turn back.

The final allegation was a suggestion that, expecting a successful operation, Aquino would be there to present Marwan to the media. Suddenly you can't help but think that this botched police operation - this secret operation catching most relevant parties unaware, leaving at least 42 people dead, and throwing the still fragile prospect of peace into the fire - is all so a few men can bask in glory. For virtually disgraced Purisima, it's the satisfaction of having caught a terrorist wanted around the world. For Aquino, it's getting another opportunity to call himself a much better president than the predecessor he constantly vilifies.

The catch is, nobody is certain if Marwan is under custody, or on the run, or dead. Nobody is certain if those who died did not die for nothing.

Yesterday, in his televised address, Aquino said he did not know why Roxas or Espina were not made aware of the operation. He also evaded questions as to who gave the ultimate go-signal to proceed with the operation. "I don't think I was ever asked that question," he said. "Isn't that a rhetorical question?"

Maybe we did fuck this up somehow.

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