• The ones that won’t go away

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    From the time we witnessed a bumbling, nervous, and completely lacking in etiquette President B.S. Aquino 3rd welcoming Pope Francis to the Philippines, I think most reasonable people resigned themselves to the inevitability that such a huge event in the hands of this particular Administration would result in some kind of fallout.

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    While Malacañang has so far evaded serious scrutiny for the allegedly missing funds (about P47 million, according to most reports) earmarked for bonus payments to the thousands of PNP personnel providing security, the disturbing decision to shut down cellular networks during papal events, and the questionable circumstances about the use and subsequent crash of a private jet carrying government VIPs in Tacloban, the internment of Manila’s street people by Dinky Soliman’s DSWD during the papal visit is turning out to be difficult for the Administration to brush off.

    Even though accusations of rounding up and hiding street dwellers—particularly children —began hounding Soliman even while the Pope was still in town, and even though this is not the first time the city’s least fortunate inhabitants have been made to temporarily disappear during a major event (the last time was during the World Economic Forum regional meeting last May), it did not seem that anyone here paid much attention to the story, until it was published by Time magazine—and then the Guardian, the Agence France-Presse wire service, the Daily Mail, Gulf News, South China Morning Post, NBC News, The Independent, and dozens of political, social, and church news blogs.

    While Soliman and other government functionaries have offered various excuses such as, “only 99 families were involved,” “they were being given livelihood training, not being hidden from the Pope,” “it was for their own safety,” and “it was a sort of vacation really, since they were taken to a resort,” the admitted fact remains that some number of homeless people in areas where papal visit events would be taking place were removed to a provincial location for the duration of the visit, and returned to their usual areas and circumstances immediately after the Pope departed. That’s as far as the appreciation of the issue goes with the foreign media; this is one circumstance when the normal lack of attention to background details of news from the Philippines does not work in the Aquino Administration’s favor as it usually does.

    The move to put street people in ‘protective custody’ was the worst possible decision the regime could make in the context of a visit from Pope Francis, a significant part of whose celebrity can be attributed to his pro-poor evangelism. It encourages objective outside observers —not just media, but aid managers and prospective investors as well—to look more closely at this country’s contrasts: The contrasts between a growing economy and a large, abysmally impoverished population, and the contrasts between words and actions from the Philippine leadership.

    One of those contrasts is the disconnect between the Administration’s “open for business” rhetoric and its slow—and in the view of most prospective investors, completely unnecessary— progress in replacing the 1995 Mining Act. Last week, I had an opportunity to ask Andrew Weymouth, the Australian embassy’s trade and investment expert, what Australian mining concerns are telling him about the issue.

    “What they’re telling us is that the Mining Act is a good law,” Weymouth said, referring to the 1995 regulatory regime arbitrarily abolished by Aquino’s issuance of Executive Order 79 in 2012. “The Philippines ought to implement the existing law properly.”

    Weymouth and Australian Ambassador Bill Tweddell were both quick to stress that the rightful concern of the Philippines for making sure that the country reaps the economic benefits of mining while preventing permanent harm to the environment is completely justified and supported without question by the Australian government. However, Weymouth suggested, the present uncertainty—which is about to mark its third anniversary, incidentally—is surely not achieving those aims for the Philippines. Mining companies, explained Weymouth, who is far from being the first to share these views, are looking for clear regulations that are reliably upheld over the long-term, and offer a fair, competitive revenue scheme. If the Philippines has those, both he and the Ambassador pointed out, the boost to the economy through well-managed mining would be formidable. If not, well, “There are other options,” Weymouth noted.

    In a perverse way, by making needlessly counterproductive decisions the Aquino Administration is actually doing a great public service, and from a certain perspective, even fulfilling the President’s pledge to make government more transparent. By attracting more critical attention, albeit through moves that are objectively stupid, more realistic and practical information will become available to the public, which is especially helpful in a year that will be important for the country on a number of levels.

    ben.kritz@manilatimes.net.

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