The short, weird insurrection of Yokel Haram


Y’all Qaeda (Getty Images)

BY now most people, even in this relatively self-distracted part of the world, have heard the news of the standoff taking place in rural Oregon between a self-styled “citizen’s militia” and government authorities.

Over the weekend, the armed group of about two dozen people led by Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy (more on him and his family in a bit) and calling itself the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, ostensibly to protest the prison sentences imposed on a father-and-son pair of local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had been convicted in Federal court on arson charges three years ago for a fire that burned 139 acres of Federal land.

The group had initially participated in a peaceful street protest in the nearby city of Burns in support of the Hammonds, before taking over the closed-for-the-season refuge headquarters, where the protest became less about the Hammonds in particular and more about what the group (mostly ranchers like Bundy) says is a persistent, heavy-handed effort by the Federal government to force ranchers off their lands. Although the occupation understandably caused a great deal of alarm at first – schools were closed in the area, and Federal law enforcement assets quickly arrived to reinforce the local police – tensions have subsided a bit as the standoff wears on and it becomes clear that the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” are not really much of a threat despite having apparently brought more guns than food with them, and swearing that they will remain at the refuge “for years, if that’s what it takes” until their demands – which are more than a little vague, but at a minimum include a call for an investigation into Federal land management policy and practices – are met.

Vanilla ISIS

Although the group should have tapped into some fairly strong public currents – the present atmosphere of growing right-wing populism throughout the country in general, and in the West specifically, the long-simmering animosity between the people of the western states and the Federal government over land use and property rights – the widespread support they were hoping for has not materialized. Very few if any additional sympathizers have answered the call to travel to Oregon to join the rebellion (despite assurances that there is plenty of parking), and Bundy’s appeal to the local residents was pointedly rebuffed; in a town meeting in which Harney County Sheriff David Ward briefed residents on the situation, an impromptu vote of the townspeople was almost unanimous in favor of asking the “militiamen” to please leave peacefully; while many people in Burns and the surrounding area said they sympathized with the grievances of the Bundy group against the government, they would rather the ranchers go home and find some other way to air their complaints. It also did very little to help the protestors’ cause that the Hammond men, the original catalyst for the standoff, quietly reported to prison as ordered by a Federal judge, and made it a point to inform the public that “the occupation is in no way connected with the Hammond family.”

Much of the distinct lack of seriousness with which the Oregon standoff is being regarded can be attributed to the group’s distinctly bumpkin-esque character. Early on in the drama, some observers decried the apparent double standard with which the media was treating the group; had they been Arab or African-Americans, some commentators observed, they would have been branded terrorists, and not mere “militiamen.” It very quickly became apparent, however, that a more appropriate description might be “idiots”:


This happened. Under the tarp is a rancher from Arizona, a 55-year-old grandfather, armed with a rifle. He told MSNBC (this picture is a screengrab from the interview) that there is a warrant out for his arrest, and so he is hiding to prevent being served with it.

Apart from the group’s comical nature, its inability to gain public sympathy is at least partly due to the reputation of its erstwhile leader, Ammon Bundy. Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who in April 2014 led a similar standoff with Federal authorities that came to be known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” That particular situation was the result of a years-long feud between the elder Bundy and the government, stemming from Bundy’s refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land. Although Bundy tried to turn his dispute into a populist revolt against an overbearing government, as details emerged he rather quickly began to look less like an oppressed farmer and more like a rich, white landowner being a greedy asshole; the matter, while never resolved – something political analysts say was an error on the government’s part, because it only encouraged more such tomfoolery like the current Oregon situation – was allowed to quietly fade.

Although the sheriff of Harney County, Oregon and the people he serves are anxious to be rid of their unwelcome visitors, every indication now is that the Federal authorities intend to let the current standoff run out of steam in similar fashion. While that may appropriately avoid making martyrs of a bunch of overgrown adolescents, it does little to address a couple of real issues the Oregon standoff actually has raised, something that must be maddeningly frustrating to others who have a serious stake in them.

Government inflexibility and overreach

The first issue is the rather disturbing sloppiness with which the Federal courts have handled the Hammond case. The father-and-son pair were accused of arson, and finally sentenced for it in October last year. The fire which burned 139 acres of Federal land bordering their own property was the result of an accident, they said; while clearing brush on their land, the fire they had set simply got out of control. A witness testified, however, that they had intentionally set the fire to cover up illegal hunting, something the pair steadfastly denies. Whatever the case may be, they were sentenced in Federal court to less than a year in prison (the elder Hammond was sentenced to three months, his son to one year), with the judge in the case deeming the five-year minimum sentence prescribed for arson on Federal property unnecessarily harsh. He was overruled, however, by an appeals court, who ordered the already-released Hammonds back to prison to serve the balance of the five-year required sentence.

Like the Bundy family, the Hammonds had a long history of conflict with the Federal government over land management, and probably have a case to be made that Federal laws – in this instance, mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, which have come under fire for years in all manner of cases (particularly for drug-related offenses) as being inflexible and counterproductive – are being used to persecute them. Unlike the Bundys, however, the Hammonds have made it a point to pursue legal action, letting the outcomes of procedure reveal their own shortcomings.

The larger issue of Federal land policy, which the Bundy-led buffoonery in Oregon does little to highlight in any productive way, has pitted the West against the Federal government for decades. In the 11 Western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), about 47.2% of the land is under Federal control, administered by a collection of agencies – the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Defense Department, and others – who often work at cross-purposes and with little regard to the sensibilities and needs of parties with an interest in the land, whether ranchers, miners, loggers, sportsmen, environmentalists, Native American communities, or state governments.


A map of land owned or controlled by the Federal government in the US (from Wikipedia).

Certainly, it is no easy task to fairly balance all those competing interests for the land in a way that is sustainable, but the widespread agreement among people in the West is that layers of bureaucracy managed from faraway Washington is demonstrably about the worst way to go about trying to accomplish that task.

None of which makes the actions of misguided “patriots” like Ammon Bundy and his retinue of rednecks the least bit sensible or acceptable, because the topic is no longer the serious issue of equitable and sustainable land management, but simply the mere fact that a bunch of armed yahoos occupied a bird sanctuary. That they are being treated as a joke is probably the best reaction Bundy and his companions could have hoped for, because it shows that people with serious concerns are restraining themselves from the fury they must feel at being made to look foolish.

The Elephant in the Masjid

isis guysThe potentially insoluble problem of ‘Islamic extremism’ is that it is, in fact, Islamic.

THOSE who fear that the obnoxious brutality of terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is creating a growing backlash against Muslims in general routinely make the claim that the “extremist ideology” used to justify the violence is a perversion of Islam, a mere fig leaf of reason contrived to cover what is little more than a grotesque, willful sociopathy. We should not view all Muslims with fear and suspicion, so the argument goes, because of the behavior a few outside the mainstream.

In studying the background and the ideological underpinnings of ISIS, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the group – which, it should be pointed out, is just one of about 50 groups of various levels of competence and organization with similar aims – is not simply the gang of gruesome bullies “mainstream” Muslims desperately would like to convince themselves and the rest of the world they are, but as legitimately “Islamic” as any of the dozens of other variations of the faith that coexist more-or-less peacefully with the rest of the world.

In March of this year, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution published an enlightening analysis of the ideological and political roots of ISIS1; drawing primarily from the group’s own voluminous public discussions of its dogma – whatever else ISIS is, it is not at all ambiguous about what it stands for – the study’s author Cole Bunzel summarized the group’s consistent and rigorously-followed ideology in this way:

“The Islamic State’s texts and speeches emphasize a number of doctrinal concepts. The most prominent of these stipulate: all Muslims must associate exclusively with fellow “true” Muslims and dissociate from anyone not fitting this narrow definition; failure to rule in accordance with God’s law constitutes unbelief; fighting the Islamic State is tantamount to apostasy; all Shi‘a Muslims are apostates deserving of death; and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are traitors against Islam, among many other things. Importantly, the Islamic State anchors these concepts in traditional Salafi literature, and is more dogmatic about their application than al-Qaeda.”

The Islamic school of thought which ISIS follows is known as Jihadi-Salafism, a rigidly fundamentalist ideology that evolved from Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam practiced and applied, albeit with a few unavoidable modifications, as state law in Saudi Arabia. The ideology is not a perversion of Islam, but an extreme form of orthodoxy that strives to apply Shari’ah as literally as possible and has as its most important aim one of the bedrock ideas of all forms of Islam, the eventual return of the Caliphate, the state to unite all Muslims.

The nature of Islam as a temporal power is part of its origins; to spread his religion, the Prophet Muhammad created an expanding state, originally based on Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia, which after his death in 632 became the Caliphate. The concept of the Caliphate seems to have gone through two phases. The literal phase – the Caliphate as an actual political entity – in a practical sense lasted from 632 until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258; it lingered on in a nominal fashion in Egypt until 1517, when the last Caliph was carried away to Istanbul after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt. The more modern phase, which is implicit in the beliefs and practices that are common to the many variants of Islam, seems to regard the Caliphate as more of an ideal, creating space for Muslims in the rest of the world through gaining acceptance and accommodation.

The uncomfortable upshot of all this is that the rejection of the Islamic State by the majority of Muslims is necessarily equivocal. They can be properly horrified by and condemn its methods, they can refuse to accept its leaders’ claims to doctrinal legitimacy, but they cannot completely reject the basic idea – rejecting this Islamic State is dogmatically justifiable, but rejecting any Islamic State would be literal apostasy.

Because the fundamental nature of the faith too easily allows itself to be twisted into horrors like the “Islamic State,” for Muslims that means being subject to the suspicion of non-Muslims is by default unavoidable, because the only thing that reduces the risk of being subjugated by Islam, as non-Muslims would see it, is personal restraint on the part of individual Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims, to be fair, already practice that, and for the rest of us, we should be reminded to recognize and respond favorably to it. Whether it is fair to the non-Islamic world that we should have to expend that extra mental effort for the sake of someone else’s religion is debatable; since it is rather obvious religion itself – regardless of its flavor – is a concept humanity is not likely to ever be able to evolve beyond, we probably ought to resign ourselves to the permanence of the tension Mankind has contrived, and try to make the best of it.


1 Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper 19, March 2015. Available from the Brookings Institution website at



Life Inside the Walls

shit(Author’s note: This is an old post that’s been floating around in my ‘drafts’ folder for a couple months, which, for lack of anything better to do this evening, I decided to finally finish up. It was originally written in early May this year.)

SOMETIME this year, if all goes well, the first major projects of an ambitious, multiyear plan to give Intramuros an extensive makeover will get underway, with the long-term objective of turning the old walled city into a proper upscale tourist and commercial district.

From the perspective of broad developmental policy the proposed gentrification of Intramuros – because that is what the plan is, even though the word and its negative connotations are carefully avoided – is for the most part a positive initiative. The district is an important part of the Philippines’ history, and is a valuable tourism resource; it also contains some of the last property open for commercial development in densely-packed Manila.

That progress, however, will come at a price. After being virtually obliterated by American bombs and artillery fire during the Battle of Manila in 1945, Intramuros was rebuilt, but in fits and starts; the result is an urban environment and character that is probably unique – a working mix of heritage and decay.

back to nature

wireThat gives Intramuros a distinctly transient, living-in-the-ruins kind of feel and makes for a fascinating neighborhood culture, one that seems almost certain to be lost if or when the grand designs for Intramuros are ever realized.

The transient nature of Intramuros is reflected in its population. The permanent population divided among Intramuros’ five barangays is only about 5,000; the daytime population of workers at government agencies and private offices, students of the four universities within the walls, seamen from the nearby port, and visitors may be as high as 10 times as many.

The majority, all but perhaps a few hundred of Intramuros’ permanent residents, are the vendors, the pedicab and calesa drivers, the canteen operators, the street sweepers, and parking attendants that hustle a living out of Intramuros’ workers, students, and visitors every day. Most live in ramshackle ‘informal housing’ tucked away in otherwise neglected property lots; perhaps as many as three or four hundred are homeless.

hivebeaterioThey are, by conventional standards, apparently poor. Living in a scratch-built, hive-like tenement or on a street corner on the hand-to-mouth proceeds of proletarian jobs is not an ideal existence, and there is, to be sure, a certain frustration that permeates the environment.

shithay buhayIntramuros, however, seems to be one place where the resourcefulness of the poor pays off especially well. Pedicab drivers can earn well over P1,000 per day, and many street vendors can count on routinely earning significantly more than minimum wage. There are relatively few squatters, and most of those were formerly homeless people who simply made their encampments semi-permanent; most residents are legitimate renters, the haphazard construction of their dwellings notwithstanding. That is not to suggest that life is easy for Intramuros’ underclass, or that everyone benefits, but on the whole it seems that the faint glimmer of hope may be just a tiny bit brighter here than in other parts of the metropolis – a difference, perhaps, between ordinary despair and crushing hopelessness.

loloTherein lies the paradox of urban renewal as it applies to Intramuros. The vision behind the reconstruction of the district leads to something the city never was. Throughout its history, Old Manila was always a gritty, crowded port town and colonial capital; yes, it had its numerous churches, and universities, and semi-monumental government buildings, but as a center of political and commercial life in the Spanish era, it attracted the downtrodden, the petty criminals, and the opportunists of both the honest and dishonest sort. There has always been a healthy proportion of seediness in Intramuros; what the district is today is, in effect, the result of letting 500 years of history in a working town run its course without applying too much in the way of comprehensive planning to it.

we deliverApplying the comprehensive planning now – with the entirely reasonable objectives of maximizing a valuable tourism resource, attracting new businesses and residents, and improving the overall economy and standard of living in the district – means applying a certain degree of artifice: If the grand design is ever realized, Intramuros will be a nice place, but it won’t be an authentic one. From a tourism perspective, at least, it is not a problem unique to Intramuros or the vision of the leaders driving the changes; authenticity is almost always contrived – think of it as the difference between putting on a little make-up and a nice blouse to greet visitors, rather than answering the door wearing eyebags and the t-shirt you slept in.

window on the world

And it’s probably not a problem that can actually be solved, not when “maintaining authenticity” means consigning a certain part of the population to permanent poverty, or low-return labor, or otherwise less-than-dignified living conditions.

When it’s gone, the disappearance of the “real” Intramuros will undoubtedly result in a net positive for most everyone concerned. But there will still be something lost, and even if that is ultimately for the better, it’s still worth remembering.

All photographs © 2015 by the author, who spends the better part of six days a week working in Intramuros, and has never gotten over being fascinated by it.


Liberty in the Real World

jew hebdoThis past Thursday morning, at just about the time people on this side of the planet were learning of the savage attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I was in a Q & A session at The Manila Times College with a group of visiting students from Thammasat University in Thailand. The group of about 30 – mostly third- and fourth-year students and all Thais, naturally, except for a trio of young ladies from Indonesia – were in town primarily to attend a youth conference on ASEAN integration, and the majority of them were students of international relations or political science.

One of the questions asked by the students was about the state of press freedom in the Philippines, which was poignantly appropriate, and not only because of the big international news of the day; just that morning, yet another local journalist – a tabloid writer and radio news anchor in Bataan – was murdered by cycle killers. Press freedom is obviously an issue in this country, not only because of the all-too-frequent attacks against media people, but also because this is one of the few places where libel is a criminal offense. The latter circumstance is one our visiting students could relate to; Thailand, of course, has strict laws against anything perceived to be offensive to the King, and Indonesia’s laws accommodate restrictions against perceived offenses to Muslim sensibilities.

Those kinds of institutional limitations imposed against freedom of expression are actually just imperfect reactions to the sort of social resistance to it represented by the spectacularly visible horror of the Paris attack, and on smaller but perversely more ubiquitous scale by the not-infrequent attacks against individual journalists in the Philippines. The underlying logic is that preventing criticism and ridicule of certain threads of the social fabric eliminates one source of disorder. It makes the assumption that some things are in fact sacred – for example, Thais’ reverence for their monarch, Indonesians’ deference to the perspective of their country’s major religion, and Filipinos’ overweening sense of self-worth.

The opposite point of view, expressed by the narrative that dominates the public discussion in the wake of the Paris tragedy, is that freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the press, should be absolute. The underlying logic in that is the existence of that freedom prevents greater disorder, because those threads of the social fabric are harmful – obeisance to royalty takes away the right to self-determination, Islamic morals are discriminatory and encourage a certain level of violence, and an excessive consciousnesshead selfie of personality encourages impunity.

Neither perspective is quite right, but both have a certain intellectual appeal. The latter is based on a very visceral response; whatever we may believe about the context of the event, we are repulsed by its extreme asymmetry. The assumption that some limitations must exist is based on reason, faulty though it may be in some cases – any event must have a cause, after all.

The absolutist perspective condemns that as victim-blaming, which is exactly what it is because it could not be anything else. No matter how sensitive one may be to the barbarity of the crime, examining the motivation for it always leads to assigning part of the liability to the victim. It may be something as unwitting as being in wrong place at the wrong time – that seems to have been the unfortunate fate of the French hostages at the end of the rampage that began with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices on Wednesday – but the inescapable reality is that if the victim had done something differently, he would have not been killed.

On the other hand, the flaw in the more idealistic perspective is just that, its idealism. There is the world as it ought to be, and then there is the world as it is: Making judgments about what the limits of others’ sensibilities should be may not be expressed in the same sort of appalling violence as that carried out by Paris’ self-styled defenders of Islam, but the underlying attitude in some ways just as intractably separates people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ because a universal benchmark for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ doesn’t really exist; all humans can rely on for guidance in how to behave towards one another is the difference between “what I believe” and “what the other believes.”

The media as a profession has to wrestle with humanity’s problematic reality every day, because the occupation forces a trade-off; one either takes the risk of provoking some degree of violent reaction, or takes the risk of compromising one’s own ideals and possibly even the objective truth by accepting limitations to freedom of expression. Making the right choice seems almost impossible. Of course the world would be a better place if media practitioners – or anyone else, for that matter – did not have to make that choice, but it is what it is.

My comment to the visiting students the other day was that press freedom in the Philippines and perhaps everywhere does not seem to be matched by a complementary level of press responsibility. “Responsibility” in this case cannot be defined by something as simple (and misguided) as prescriptions like “avoid needless sacrilege” or “don’t be a character assassin,” but rather “don’t be reckless.” Journalism, in whatever form it takes, only works when it tells the story effectively. How it accomplishes that must be left to the judgment of the storyteller – judgment that in turn cannot be effective if it is not made within the context of real-world conditions, with an understanding of the implications of framing a story in a certain way.

Hypothesizing the motivations of storytellers whose story got them killed is a speculative trap; to presume that the murdered artists at Charlie Hebdo did tell the story they had to tell in exactly the way they intended and clearly understood what it might provoke is more respectful of those who can no longer speak for themselves, and is logically more secure. Their work, while vulgar, does have a clear point.

I do not believe that a brutally lethal assault is ever a proportional response to whatever perceived harm a cartoon could cause; satirical doodles do not in any sense deliver the same sort of terrorism as automatic weapons fire. Obviously the world has a long way to go towards taking in that bit of news, and that’s a shame. But it’s the world we’ve got to work with.

It’ll All End in Tears

tiananmen squareWhile much of the world has been looking on in admiration at the events unfolding in Hong Kong, on Friday the China People’s Daily, which is essentially an official publication of China’s ruling Communist Party, offered this stark warning: The protests are “against legal principles, and doomed to fail. There is no room to make concessions on important principles.”

In direct terms, that means the protestors’ immediate demand that Chief Executive Leung CY step down will not happen, nor will Hong Kong be granted the full democracy supposedly “promised” by Beijing when Great Britain handed the colony back to China in 1997. Those things simply will not and cannot even be considered by the Chinese government, and in fact, beyond perhaps making some very minor concessions such as not punishing the “Occupy Central” organizers and participants too harshly in the aftermath, the government cannot afford to allow any outcome that looks like a positive result.

Most news analyses of the “umbrella revolution” have pointed out, correctly, that its chances of success are slim because the Communist government needs to avoid the risk of similar protests erupting in other parts of the country, particularly in already-restive regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. But the assessments have overlooked the biggest factor: Hong Kong’s history, and the Chinese attitude towards it.

Hong Kong Island became a British colony as a result of China’s losing the First Opium War in 1839-1842; in effect, the city was a war prize. During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), British control extended into Kowloon, and in 1861, after the Convention of Peking between China and Britain, France, and Russia – one of the “unequal treaties” signed during the “Century of Humiliation,” when China’s sovereignty was progressively eroded by the Western powers and Japan – Great Britain formally took over all of Kowloon Peninsula. The Second Convention of Peking in 1898, in which Britain signed the 99-year lease for Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories, came about as a result of China’s losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895; the British simply took advantage of China’s weakened position to expand their foothold.

The concessions made to retain much of Hong Kong’s “uniqueness” after the handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 were pragmatic – necessary at the time to ensure the turnover went smoothly and happened on scheduled – but never really intended to be permanent. In effect, the Chinese perspective towards Hong Kong is the same as it is towards Taiwan: The metropolis is part of China and always has been, and sooner or later, the opportunity to take it back in proper fashion will present itself.

The “Umbrella Revolution” may very well have just provided the PRC that opportunity. And the assumption that China could not or would not put an end to the protest in an aggressive manner really has no basis in reality.

The common belief that China wouldn’t dare handle Hong Kong in the same way it handled Tiananmen Square in 1989 because of the risk that it would suffer the consequences of global opprobrium overlooks a couple critical points. China is much stronger economically and much more integrated into the global economy than it was 25 years ago, and is certainly aware that anything more than rhetorical condemnation on the part of the world’s other developed economies would be self-destructive for them. It’s not a difficult inference for the Chinese to make, because in the years since Tiananmen, the West has provided numerous demonstrations of its willingness to subordinate political ethics to economic objectives; for example, the first Gulf War, the Iraq War and the so-called “War on Terror,” and the handling of the global financial crisis.

Beijing’s ‘Plan A,’ presumably, is to achieve its objectives in Hong Kong without having to resort to violence. But the operative process is “achieving its objectives.” What is worrisome about the “Umbrella Revolution” – spooky, actually, in a way – is the way the protesting mass is similar to the one that was eventually dispersed with extreme prejudice in Tiananmen Square a quarter-century. The crowd in Hong Kong comprises people from many different sectors and of all ages, but it is dominated by youth, and does not have clear leadership, but rather is a collection of loosely-associated groups. People here and in other countries that still have an unreasonably romantic notion of democracy find the “grassroots” character of the Hong Kong protest charming, but it may be its biggest flaw, because it was exactly that kind of situation the PRC was able to exploit 25 years ago to break up the embryonic democracy movement in Beijing, and then impose tough measures to prevent its recurrence.

Go home, kids. It was a good effort and we admire your enthusiasm, but this is not going to end well if you hang around.

Why the Philippines Will Likely Never Solve Its Corruption Problem

bo trialMy Manila Times column for yesterday (Saturday) is about a topic that should probably get more attention from one certain active economic sector in this country as well as, I discovered after I wrote it, those political personalities who like to imagine themselves champions of the “anti-corruption” cause, and the people who actually believe them.

The essential facts of the original story, which was first reported by Reuters, is that the highly-publicized and aggressive anti-corruption campaign of the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is wreaking havoc on the casino industry of Macau, which relies on Chinese high-rollers brought to the city by junket operators for about two-thirds of its $45 billion or so in annual gambling revenue.

Casinos are an excellent place to launder bribes and other ill-gotten wealth, which is precisely what a significant number of junket clients – some government officials, others crooked businessmen – have been doing. The Chinese government, not being staffed by complete idiots, has been leaning on the junket operators to divulge information about their clientele, which has spooked illegitimate and innocent customers alike. As a result, the junket operators have either dropped out of the business, or have looked for alternatives farther away from prying Chinese eyes in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Macau’s gaming industry will see revenues shrink by about $15 billion this year, and will probably not see them return. The casino industry is hoping the mass market will take up some of the slack, but they’re realistic about it – some VIP rooms are already closing, and there is a sense that the industry on the whole will have to contract a bit to stay healthy, which is in no sense a comforting outlook with regional competition on the rise.

In my column I opined that Macau’s woes present a dubious sort of opportunity for the gaming industry in the Philippines, which is currently the focus of a great deal of perhaps over-optimistic development investment. But in a conversation with my editor after the column had gone to print, she pointed out that there is an entirely different issue revealed in this story.

The reason the Chinese anti-corruption drive is perceived to be effective, according to my editor, is that each case that is brought to the public’s attention has a consistently definitive result. Bo Xilai, the individual in that picture up there who looks like he’s having a really bad day (he was, as a matter of fact), is a perfect example: He was a top official, and a very popular one, well-known and respected not only on his own turf in Chongqing but nationally as well. After his wife had someone murdered, the cover under which Bo’s own backroom dealings were hidden completely unraveled, and he was brought up on a variety of corruption and abuse of power charges, subjected to a speedy and efficient trial, and handed a life sentence. He is probably lucky he didn’t get the death penalty, but for convicted corrupt officials in China it seems a fine distinction – he has vanished from the public consciousness so completely he might as well be dead.

I am not, and I doubt my editor is, either, so naïve as to believe that two years of an aggressive program under Xi has made a real dent yet in the endemic corruption in China, nor that there are not political motivations behind many of the cases. No government or hubris-filled “reformer” can completely “stamp out corruption”; even in places like lily-white Singapore not a week passes without news of some erring official or business executive being brought to account for stepping over legal and ethical boundaries. What a sincere, sustained, and practical effort against corruption can achieve, however, is to establish new norms. Yes, corruption still does occur in “corruption-free” places like Singapore and always will, because some individuals will always be outliers; the norm, however, is different, and it makes identifying and removing those outliers quickly much easier and less disruptive.

China has an awfully long way to go to reach that “established norm,” but there are indications it is heading in the right direction, and what has happened in Macau is evidence of that. Whether focusing on the Macau junket trade actually results in any evildoers being collared is beside the point; a key enabler of corruption has been removed, and almost instantly at that – in just three months this year, Macau’s casino revenue dropped by half. That’s problematic for the economy of Macau, of course, but on the other hand, relying on money-laundering for a little more than half of your semi-autonomous city-state’s tax base is not really a prudent or sustainable economic model.

Compare that progress – to say nothing of the ‘norm’ in even more developed places – to the current state of the Philippines, especially in light of the near-constant and obviously cynical political noise made about “fighting corruption,” and the prospects for this country’s making even the slightest progress towards ethically evolving appear dim indeed. In China, if you are found guilty of corruption, you’re gone. Out of sight, out of mind, with no reputation or even a name any more, and sure as hell no chance of ever getting near another position of responsibility or influence if freedom at some point in the distant future is even an option, which it more often than not isn’t. Here, being corrupt – which is a judgment left to the public media sphere – makes one a celebrity. A serial insurrectionist gets elected to the Senate from inside a jail cell; a deposed and actually convicted President who is still on the list of the world’s worst plunderers is handily elected to the Mayor’s office of a major city.

A police general who has let a large part of his force deteriorate into a criminal mob and has been exposed by his own boss (although one must assume unintentionally, considering the doltish source of the revelations) among others as having received millions in property as inappropriate gifts or outright bribes is staunchly defended by the President, rather than being immediately fired and hauled to court on criminal charges.

The reason the Philippines will never even begin to curb corruption is because no one in this country is really willing to consider corruption repugnant instead of entertaining. And we in the media are probably as much to blame for this as anyone else; we dutifully report the day-to-day dramatics of people like Janet Lim Napoles and Gigi Reyes as though their jailhouse health complaints were somehow actually relevant, and we tell ourselves we need to do it to keep up with the market, because it’s what people want to read, watch, and listen to. On the other hand, the voices from the audience demanding a better, more honorable product are pretty faint, if they even exist and we aren’t just imagining we hear their occasional murmur.

It’s not enough to change the rules, or change the system, or change the people in it – what this country needs is to change its soul. And I’m not sure that’s even possible.

Another Rejection of the Divine Right of Kings

ooh fireI expected, as I think most people did, that the Supreme Court’s ruling that the controversial “Disbursement Acceleration Program” (DAP) invented by President B.S. Aquino 3.0 and his clever, soulless accountant Butch Abad would be that it was blatantly unconstitutional, but I was somewhat surprised that the vote was unanimous (13-0, with one abstention). I don’t think even The Manila Times’ ace reporter Jomar Canlas – who, thanks to having developed a carefully-cultivated, well-protected source at the Supreme Court, routinely breaks news of important rulings and other Court affairs days or weeks before they become public knowledge – saw that coming, and given the usual behavior of the Court, or more specifically, Aquino’s four sycophantic appointees Maria Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen, a 10-4 or 9-5 vote seemed like the probable spread. A vote like that would have allowed the Administration shills to stay in their boss’ good graces, particularly after their unanimous vote against the PDAF in November last year.

The decision instantly brought to mind another momentous unanimous Supreme Court decision that was made, half a world away, 40 years ago this month: The 8-0 vote of the US Supreme Court in the United States vs. Richard Nixon case, which denied a motion by the embattled US President to quash a subpoena for the infamous “Nixon tapes” issued by the US District Court in Washington, DC at the request of Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Those tapes, which were records of conversations held in Nixon’s White House office, were central to the rapidly-expanding Watergate case; Nixon and his attorneys, realizing as everyone else already did that those tapes contained damning evidence of the President’s personal involvement in the attempted cover-up of the Watergate burglary and a number of other crimes, worked furiously to avoid having to turn them over to investigators, citing national security concerns and in particular, “executive privilege.”

The US Supreme Court’s ruling on July 24, 1974 – which as in the present-day DAP case took an unusually long time to be issued – held that “executive privilege” was not absolute, especially not when it was being used to forestall a valid investigation and judicial process. Unable to defy the courts any longer, Nixon permitted the release of the tapes, and on August 5, the “smoking gun” was discovered: A recording of a conversation that indicated Nixon had been informed of the White House’s connection to the Watergate break-in not long after it happened, and had directed his staff to deflect the investigation. Already 09269L01.jpgfacing impeachment – the House Judiciary Committee had voted to pass an impeachment case on to the full House of Representatives even before the Supreme Court ruled on the tapes – Nixon was informed by Congressional leaders that he would in all likelihood be convicted and removed from office in a Senate trial if it came to that, so on August 9, after giving a tense yet nonetheless weirdly statesman-like address to the nation the previous evening, Nixon resigned, handing over the presidency to his Vice President of less than 10 months, Gerald R. Ford.

There are some eerie similarities between the two cases. Richard Nixon was very different from Noynoy Aquino in some fundamental ways, certainly. Working-class Nixon was a brilliant student, served as a Naval officer in World War II, and was a competent practicing attorney before entering politics, where he gained national prominence through a number of accomplishments as a Congressman, Senator, and then Vice President of Dwight Eisenhower; as President, he was noted for an energetic foreign policy that improved relations with the Soviet Union and China, he expanded environmental laws, initiated significant economic programs (which may or may not have actually been good ideas), and supported affirmative action and equal rights for women. Noynoy Aquino, on the other hand, is…Noynoy Aquino. What the two men do have in common, however, is having been enormously popular at the time of their last elections, and having the same sort of sociopathic vindictiveness, overall lack of ethical sensibilities, and unhealthy obsession with their place in history. Both men presided over Administrations that were uniquely noted for number, scale, and breadth of the scandals that occurred, but both were, at least for a while, able to prevent suspicion from falling on them personally.

When suspicions did become too great to ignore, both presidents preemptively claimed innocence in addresses to their countries on primetime television, and when that didn’t work, both had a bloc of ideological support within their respective Supreme Courts that they thought they could count on to at least ease the blow of an adverse ruling by making it less than unanimous, and therefore debatable. In Nixon’s case, three of the eight justices who voted against him were his own appointees; a fourth, William Rehnquist, recused himself from the case because he had served for a time in the office of Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell. (Nixon, incidentally, had trouble with Rehnquist’s name, and in the taped conversations that were finally turned over to the Special Prosecutor after the Supreme Court ruling, Nixon could be heard several times referring to him as “Renchburg”.)

And of course, both presidents finally pushed it too far, overestimated their own infallibility, and had a personal hand in activities they must have known were blatantly illegal; Nixon’s culpability was established by the tapes he tried so hard to keep from being heard, while Aquino’s was established by his own accountant, Abad, who threw his boss under the bus in his own testimony before the Supreme Court prior to yesterday’s ruling.

It remains to be seen whether B.S. Aquino will suffer the same fate as R.M. Nixon. Within minutes of the announcement of yesterday’s ruling, there were reports that impeachment complaints against Aquino and charges of fraud and malversation of funds against Butch Abad were being readied, but expectations that the moral turpitude of officials like the Secretary of Justice and the Ombudsman (both of whom seem to labor under the additional handicap of having no apparent legal skills) and the Philippine Legislature who would actually handle an impeachment proceeding will suddenly vanish are pretty low. After all, an impeachment on the grounds of willfully violating the Constitution to repurpose funds that mainly ended up in the hands of the legislators themselves will expose many of them as conspirators, and that is a path none will willingly tread. The effect on the country will probably be the same either way: Two more years (or more) of political paralysis, with the focus of those in power directed not towards the people’s business, but their own self-preservation. Sad to say, it’s a situation the country is probably used to by now.