COMMENT: From George to Gloria. By Patricio P. Diaz

Just very recently, Bush and leaders of the Lower House of U.S. Congress agreed to enact a $150-billion stimulus or economic growth package to avert recession. Arroyo also asked her budget secretary for a P70-billion stimulus despite her boast that the Philippine economy is booming and can withstand the worldwide effects of the U.S.
economic meltdown.

Last January 28, Bush delivered his State of the Union Address. He had messages to Congress that will also be good for the Filipinos if Arroyo can adopt – or better, outdo — them. I'll quote a few:

As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history.  We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens.

Should Filipino leaders led by Arroyo not profess the same belief and govern by it?

And so in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free people to make wise decisions and empower them to improve their lives for their futures.  To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy.

What has the government – not just the Arroyo government – done with the taxes, the people's money, to "empower them to grow our economy"?

Just as we trust the Americans with their own money, we need to earn their trust by spending their tax dollars wisely.  Next week, I will send you a budget that terminates or substantially reduces 151 wasteful or bloated programs totaling more than $18 billion.

How wisely are our taxes spent? Can Arroyo, in all honesty, terminate wasteful or bloated projects? For instance, billions of pesos must be being spent for big billboards announcing roads and bridges as "This is the project of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo". Billions must be being wasted in fat SOPs padded on bids by winning highest bidders.

The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks, special interest projects that are often snuck [also: sneaked] in at the last minute without discussion or debate. Last year I asked you to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half.  I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote.

Unfortunately, neither goal was met.  So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I'll send it back to you with my veto. And tomorrow I will issue an executive order that directs federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by Congress.  If these items are truly worth funding, Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote.

"Earmarks" and "special interest projects" are the equivalent of pork barrels by changing names in the Philippines and inserted as riders without the benefit of deliberation. Can Arroyo not do better than Bush by not including pork barrel appropriations in budgets sent to Congress and by warning Congress she would veto the budget should they insert such appropriations?

VFA Puzzle

The message of U.S. Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney, President Bush's representative in the Philippines, about Balikatan – the military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement – has made VFA a puzzle.  Wittingly or unwittingly, it puts anti-VFA militants off-track.

Militant groups have started mounting protests in Iligan City and Marawi City against the Balikatan in Western and Central Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago from February 18 to March 13. The protests, spearheaded by Bayan Muna will be at the campuses of Mindanao State University in Iligan and Marawi and at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City.(MindNews, February 7)

The refrain is as usual. Stop Balikatan. The entry of the U.S. troops is "a transgression of the Philippine constitution and a regression of human rights".  The messages are for two Presidents – Bush and Arroyo.

But what are they protesting? According to a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Manila, there will be Balikatan involving about 600 U.S. troops but there will be "no military exercises or war games in Mindanao and Sulu.” (MindaNews, February 7).

As quoted by MindaNews, the Embassy stated:

The "approximately 600 U.S. troops will work with civilian authorities and the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) in these regions on humanitarian projects" and that the joint teams will offer "free medical, dental, and veterinary care".

"They will also construct and repair schools and other community infrastructures in areas of Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago that are in great need of assistance.  The majority of U.S. personnel are  construction engineers and medical specialists.  They will be working side-by-side with their AFP counterparts who will be in charge of all projects."

Quoting Ambassador Kenney, "These humanitarian assistance and training activities enable our soldiers to get to know each other, train together, and provide assistance in communities where the need is greatest.  True to the meaning of the word Balikatan, American and Filipinos are shouldering the load together to help the greatest possible number of people in need." (Italics supplied.)

This will be civic action, not military exercise.  Who will shoulder the expenses for materials and other needs?  Will the Filipino and American soldiers be their own security? Will all these be also shared according to the meaning of "Balikatan"?

That many communities in the three identified regions are in dire need of assistance is out of the question.  For them, the 3-week civic action will surely be grace from heaven. That American and Filipino soldiers will be able to know each other is also out of the question.

But what for are they training together? In war games, objectives are set. In joint exercises, the Filipino soldiers learn advance or modern tactics from the Americans. Held in tropical forests, Americans learn from Filipinos modes of survival.

Normally, civic action is collaterally done with war games or military exercises. This was done in Basilan in 2001 and 2002. In the forthcoming Balikatan, it will be wholly civic action.  Most probably, this is to emphasize the humanitarian approach in winning a war.

To the protesting militant groups, the U.S. Embassy statement tacitly asks:  What is wrong with civic action Balikatan? Obviously, there's none. How are humanitarian acts a repression of human rights? Obviously, they are not.

But civic action is understood as not the focus of the VFA. Belaboring to explain the shift by highlighting the true meaning of Balikatan only complicates the puzzle.  It would not be a surprise if the militants ask: "What really is behind the shift to civic action?"

And the puzzle will fuel more and more speculations about the continued stay of the American troops in Sulu and Mindanao under the VFA. ("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]).