Saturday, December 31, 2011

Who will pay for disaster murders?

By Winston A. Marbella

In the blink of an eye, one fourth of President Aquino's six-year term is over.  That’s 18 months of 72.  For those who are unhappy about his progress, that's too long.  For those who think he is making progress, the pace is just right.

How does he rate himself?

“We are done with the learning curve,” he said in a pre-yearend interview with a television news anchor.  “We've already put in place many systems that should correct the issues with regard to making sure that corruption is being combated.”  

For private-sector technocrats and management gurus, it may be imprudent to call off the learning curve just yet.  Veteran CEOs of many companies not as large as the government bureaucracy will attest to the reality that even  after five years on the job they are barely scratching the surface in terms of learning what's going on, much less prescribing programs to get on with the plan.

But if you have a six-year term with a quarter of it gone already, you naturally want to move on at a faster pace.  So you sort of learn as you go.  This is exactly where Mr. Aquino is.


At your first milestone, you also want to take stock of what you have done.  In a separate interview with reporters, the President specified three concrete achievements savings of 42 billion (“I'm sorry if I have an error of a billion here or there,” he said humbly), 2.1 million new jobs, and a new “aquatic product” that could generate export revenues. He said he could not divulge details just yet, but it sounded like the new export product could be big and save our economy.

The reporter wrote: “On criticisms that his government had under spent (appropriated funds) this year to the detriment of economic growth (a laggardly 3.7 percent), Mr. Aquino said his administration had first to institute “various controls” to ensure that the funds were spent properly.

As to the creation of new jobs in a deteriorating economy, economist Benjamin Diokno wrote that “half a million of those were in the nature of unpaid family workers.... The number of part-time workers increased.... more workers are looking for a job now than ever before.... This suggests that with hard times, there may be a need for a second or third worker in the family.”

Diokno summed up: “Overall, 2011 was a disappointing year.  It ends with a major catastrophe in Southern Philippines... a grim reminder of what lies ahead.  The new year begins with the same old problems and new challenges.”

Environmental murders

In a casual interview with a television news crew at the Senate session hall before he hied off to study impeachment law over the holidays, Sen. Gringo Honasan looked very relaxed.  He recalled the days when, as a young and idealistic colonel, he led various coup d’├ętat to reform society.

He acknowledged that soldiers died pursuing those revolutionary ideals.  He said the peaceful way was still preferable.  He regretted that many comrades-in-arms had died.  He said the leaders had paid their dues in jail.  Then, turning to the environmental disaster in northern Mindanao caused by illegal logging and strip mining, he wondered who will the people send to jail for crimes bordering on genocide.

Who, indeed?

As the victims of the killer floods in northern Mindanao struggled to rebuild their broken lives, torrential rains flooded parts of the country and Cebu, killing yet nine more and sending traumatic shocks among residents who are barely coping.

The United Nations urged the government to throw in more than a billion pesos more to the billions already committed to rehabilitation and reconstruction.  President Aquino went on a lightning visit to distribute relief goods with his sisters in tow after an internet storm berated him for enjoying a starlet's jokes at a Christmas party while people were dying in Mindanao.

In his lightning stops, President Aquino said the government certainly could have done more to prevent the environmental disaster.  He vowed to punish the guilty. That's when the finger-pointing whipped up another storm.

Fingers wagging

National government officials blamed the local governments for allowing illegal settlers to build houses in flood-prone areas like river banks and sandbars.  

Local officials responded by saying the national government was remiss in enforcing the laws against illegal logging and in allowing mining companies to ravage the environment.

All of them were right, of course, and all of them were guilty.  A UN official likened the devastated landscape to the tsunami-torn communities he had seen earlier elsewhere.

There were ample warnings of a disaster waiting to happen.  Barely a month into the Aquino presidency, the Climate Change Congress of the Philippines (CCCP) headed by Catholic Archbishop Antonio Ledesma had warned Cabinet officials of a looming climate catastrophe.

'Common sense' kills

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said it was “common sense” the people who had settled in the flood-prone areas should not have been there,

Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said, “I implore heads of local governments to take a genuine interest in these geo-hazard apps we have we have provided they can take the necessary steps before, during and after calamities.”

The local officials countered that the denudation of forests and mining activities under the control of the national government caused the rampaging floods that took everyone by surprise with their ferocity and speed.

God's mercy

The calamity in Mindanao was not the first.  It will not be the last.  The problem will require the best efforts from all sectors of government and non-government organizations.  

Thousands have died in previous calamities in recent years.  Now, at the slightest drizzle, floodwaters rise.  The environment is a wasteland.  It will take much more than words to save it.

If this was the only problem he had to fix, President Aquino has his job cut out for him for the rest of his term.   But there is the economy to fix, and poverty to lick, and people to jail, on top of all the other problems he has to solve.  

He cannot afford to get distracted by politics. That is why the people gave him only one term, so he can concentrate.  May God have mercy on him.

Our thoughts and our prayers go out to the victims as we enter the New Year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Corona's impeachment charges, simplified

By Winston A. Marbella

If we will go by what people say and what we can glean from news reports, President Aquino's charges against Chief Justice Renato Corona, boiled down to their core, simply mean: Corona has to go  because he has shown bias in favor of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and against the President in a string of rulings made by the Supreme Court.

The President's litany of sins allegedly committed by the Chief Justice was contained in a series of highly-publicized speeches the President delivered accusing Corona of wrongdoing.  Those alleged sins have been culled by the House of Representatives into eight articles of impeachment it has sent to the Senate for the trial of Corona.  The President has not denied having inspired the impeachment complaint approved by the House in five hours without the usual hearings and floor debates, so we can assume that the charges are essentially the same.

Before the holiday recess, the Senate constituted itself into an impeachment court as mandated by the Constitution.  Wearing the red robes of magistrates (and coincidentally of Santa Claus), the senators took their oaths to sit as judges to try Corona.  The senator-judges vowed to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.”

Because removing from office certain specified public officials by impeachment is an extraordinary act, our Founding Fathers (later ratified by the people in a plebiscite) specified that a two-thirds vote of the Senate (16) would be needed to remove impeachable officers from office.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, meantime, has published its official stand on the impeachment.  In a press conference later to explain its position in layman's terms, the IBP said the issue “goes beyond Corona, goes beyond the President.”  It said the impeachment threatened to disrupt constitutional balance among three co-equal branches of government...

'Grave concern'

In a strongly-worded, well-reasoned statement headlined “NO TO IMPEACHMENT. DEFEND THE INSTITUTION,” the IBP stated its case to the public:

“The (IBP), the official organization of lawyers, expresses its grave concern over the breakneck impeachment of the Chief Justice based on grounds that subvert the constitutional allocation of powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court as the final interpreter of the law and arbiter of judicial disputes as enshrined in the Constitution.”

The IBP was referring to the tripartite system of government which we have adopted.  Speaking through the Constitution they have ratified, the people, expressing their sovereign will, mandated that governmental powers be divided among three co-equal (at least, in theory) branches of government  The Congress writes the law, the Executive Branch implements the law, and the Judiciary interprets the law.

There is a very special reason for this division of powers among three branches.  The people, in their ultimate wisdom, do not want a concentration of power in a single branch because it is, to put it simply, undemocratic.  Unbridled power leads to abuse and tyranny.  Hence, we have adopted a complex system of separation of powers and checks and balances to implement this lofty ideal in our daily affairs.

The IBP continued: “The impeachment has placed on trial not only the Chief Justice but the entire Supreme Court.  The grounds invoked to impeach the Chief Justice refer to collegial decisions of the Supreme Court involving interpretations of law in actual dispute elevated for review....”


In a press conference later, the IBP said the impeachment complaint approved by the Lower House “suffers from fatal constitutional infirmities (or defects).”  It violated “constitutional guarantees of separation of powers and judicial independence,” the IBP said.  It added that the complaint was “discriminatory” against Corona and an act of “persecution.”

The IBP questioned why Corona was “singled out” for impeachment when Court rulings are decided collegially, or by majority vote.  It said many congressmen who voted for impeachment “didn't even see the complaint, an act it described as “a clear and patent disregard for the Rule of Law.”

To support its position, the IBP listed down several rulings the Lower House cited for impeaching Corona:

  • The invalidation by the Supreme Court of the Executive Order creating the Truth Commission,
  • The upholding by the Supreme Court of the laws enacted by Congress creating a province, several cities and a congressional district.
  • The issuance by the Supreme Court of a status quo ante order in the impeachment proceedings against then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.
  • The issuance by the Court of a temporary restraining order against the government's watch list order preventing Mrs. Arroyo from departing for a scheduled medical checkup abroad.

Decisions final

President Aquino has cited the same cases in his attacks on Corona.  Even another issue -- that of Corona's being a “midnight appointee” of Mrs. Arroyo -- has been decided with finality by the Supreme Court.

The IBP said: “In all of the cited cases, the record shows the Chief Justice was not the ponente but merely concurred in the majority ruling or the minority opinion.  Neither did the Chief Justice flip-flop nor change his position in any of these cases on the merits (also alleged by Mr. Aquino).  

“The decisions were reached by the Supreme Court pursuant to its processes and subjected to reconsideration proceedings,” the IBP said, meaning the decisions were final and executory because all legal avenues have been exhausted.

The IBP added:  “Even the two other grounds cited...also involve the assertion by the Supreme Court of its fiscal keeping with its independent status.”

Joker's tirade

Earlier, reacting to the impeachment complaint railroaded by the House on orders of the President, Sen. Joker Arroyo, a human rights lawyer and first executive secretary of President Cory Aquino,  said Mr. Aquino was “on his way to becoming an autocrat without having to declare martial law..”

“We have a one-man government now since (President) Noy has subjugated the House and is on his way to doing so to the judiciary,” the senator said.

“By focusing on alleged crimes of (Mrs. Arroyo) and Corona, people are being entertained by the President's bid for power disguised as transparency. 

“He doesn’t understand what government is.  He thinks that good intentions justify anything.  He doesn't understand the workings of the Constitution.”

Talking to reporters after welcoming OFWs coming home for the holidays, President Aquino said, “(W)e are done with the learning curve...(and) we will do a lot better (next year)  than what we did this year.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How will the Senate weigh the evidence?

By Winston A. Marbella

Before they recessed for the Christmas holidays, the 23 senators, appropriately garbed in the red  robes of magistrates (also of Santa Claus, coincidentally), took their oath as judges in the forthcoming impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, scheduled to start in January.

There is no doubt the senator-judges are taking their additional job seriously.  Before they took off for the holidays, they spoke candidly of how they will prepare themselves for the trial.

For Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a highly successful lawyer before joining government, it will be business as usual.  “I want to have an open, clear, serene mind,” he said.  “That has always been my method whenever I handle a case.  I do not watch any television.  I do not (listen to) the radio.  I read.  I study the case.  I study the rules so that I’m ready to handle the trial.”

Enrile will preside over the trial.  Just in case he is deposed (as rumors would have it), Enrile said he would also take time to train Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, who is not a lawyer, in the rudiments of the Rules of Court and appreciation of evidence.

Sen. Pia Cayetano says she will read up on the “art of impartiality” and “how judges practice (it0.”

For the other non-lawyers, filtering out outside influences can be tricky.  Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III says he will use an “on-and-off switch” in his brain “that screens everything.  Turn it on during the trial, and off afterwards.”

Sen. Gregorio Honasan believes an impeachment trial is more a political than legal or constitutional exercise.  This is a political process and I will...keep my ear to the ground and try to feel the pulse of the people.”  But, he hastened to add in a phone interview with the Inquirer, “We will be applying the Rules of Court and the rules of evidence.”


For Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who like Honasan is a former military officer and a non-lawyer, his guidelines are “simple.”  He said: “I am a representative of the people, so the pulse and opinion of the public is the center in this trial.”

Trillanes cited the impeachment of US President Bill Clinton where the senators “decided along party lines.  So it's as simple as simple as that.  We won't complicate it.”

Trillanes's candor is refreshing, but the senator-judges who are lawyers may take issue with his simplicity.  Fortunately, he said he would immerse himself in seminars to be conducted by his lawyers to prepare him for the trial.  He may yet change his simple approach with a broader constitutional view of the impeachment process after his lawyers have tutored him.

Senator Sotto, who is not a lawyer, said. “We cannot go by public opinion alone.  We also go by the Rules of Court, the evidence to be presented, the strength of arguments.  We need to factor in everything to arrive at an intelligent and justifiable decision.”

'On the merits'

The eminent constitutional expert Fr. Joaquin Bernas, who co-wrote the present Constitution as a member of the Constitutional Commission convened by President Cory Aquino under her revolutionary government, has written:

“Fortunately, the numbers game (in the House of Representatives vote to impeach in five hours, without the usual hearings and debate) may not be easy to apply to the Senate composition today.  The Senate will try the case. The alignment in the Senate is not easily figured out and there are tried and tested statesmen in the Senate who can influence the novices.  We can therefore have a decision that is clearly based on the merits.”

A two-thirds vote of the Senate (16) will be needed to remove Corona from office.  The reason the non-lawyer senators are boning up on the Rules of Court is because they will consider (not necessarily adopt in full) its precepts. The Rules recognize three standards in making a decision: “proof beyond reasonable doubt” in criminal cases, “preponderance of evidence” in civil cases, and “substantial evidence” in administrative cases.

Rules of evidence

There are strict definitions of each.  Proof beyond reasonable doubt means moral certainty or that degree of proof which produces conviction in an unprejudiced mind.

Preponderance of evidence simply means superior weight of evidence as determined by the court considering all the facts and circumstances of the case.

Substantial evidence refers to such amount of relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion.

Whether an impeachment proceeding is criminal, civil or administrative in nature is still a subject of debate, according to Carmelo V. Sison and Florin T. Hilbay, co-editors of the book “Impeachment Q&A” published by the University of the Philippines Law Complex in 2000.  The authors wrote:

“At best, it can be said that an impeachment proceeding is one that is sui generis, or class on its own, in which the standards to be applied are circumscribed only by the Constitution and the oath under which the senators have sworn to do impartial justice.”

Fr. Bernas opinion

Fr. Bernas believes the weight of evidence needed in an impeachment trial may lie somewhere in between proof beyond reasonable doubt and substantial evidence.  He writes:

“Usually what is sought is evidence that is 'clear and convincing.'  You might say that this means stronger than substantial evidence but not necessarily satisfying the requirement of proof beyond reasonable doubt.... I must admit that it is a matter that is not easily measured.”

What this means is that, to borrow a phrase from the jury system, the jury is still out on this one.  It also means that the Senate has wide latitude to determine for itself the quantum of evidence it will require to remove the Chief Justice from office.

Here, policy considerations enter the decision-making process of the Senate.  Policy decisions include a decision to be partisan and petty, or to serve the higher interests of the people as enunciated by the time-honored principles of the Rule of Law and the separate allocation of governmental powers expressed by the sovereign will of the people when they ratified the Constitution and its system of checks and balances. 

Or, policy could be perversely construed from the fleeting popular will presumably expressed in periodic popularity surveys often quoted by self-proclaimed populist politicians who cater to the lust for blood of a lynch mob to accumulate power beyond that apportioned by the Constitution as an authentic expression of the people's sovereign will.

These are the policy options before the Senate when it decides the impeachment of Renato C. Corona.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ghosts of impeachment past

By Winston A. Marbella 

Anticipating the forthcoming impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona in the Senate, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago is haunted by the memories of the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

The Estrada trial showed “one example of when common sense does not achieve justice because there are technicalities involved that cannot just be dismissed as technicalities,” said Santiago, a former judge and professor of constitutional law.

She was referring to the climactic incident when the Senate voted 11-10 to reject the admission as evidence of the so-called “second envelope' supposedly containing damning evidence against Estrada.

The second envelope purportedly contained a letter from businessman Jose Dichaves requesting the Equitable-PCI Bank to allow him to open an account under the name of Jose Velarde.  The letter further asked that all of Velarde's banking transactions be coursed through Dichaves.

Prosecutors alleged that Velarde was President Estrada.

'Very upset'

Santiago recalled: “At one point, we had to decide, should we open the second envelope I voted no.  I explained that under the Rules of Court, that cannot be done because we would need to alter or amend the complaint before we can open it.”

“But since the people were only watching (on television), they thought I just didn't want the envelope opened.  And they got very upset...because not all people are familiar with the Rules of Court,' Santiago said.

The Senate has adopted generally the Rules of Court and rules of evidence as part of its impeachment rules.  This is why the non-lawyer senator-judges are spending the holiday break to bone up on the rules.

Among other things, the rules specify that an accused must be informed of the specific charges against him, the evidence to be presented, and his right to confront (or cross-examine) witnesses. If additional charges are made, or unspecified evidence included, the original charges have to be amended. Lawyers say these procedures are meant to protect the accused’s constitutional rights.

Santiago, who has been elected a judge at the Criminal Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, said the rules are ''borne out of centuries of trial practice.”

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Vicente Sotto III, who voted with Santiago against admitting the second envelope as evidence, recalls; “People thought the vote against the envelope was a favor to the former president.  And of course we all know the consequences that followed.”

Dramatic walkout

The prosecutors stormed out of the Senate trial dramatically.  People were called to protest in the streets via text messaging.  Weeks of street protests followed.  The Estrada government fell after several Cabinet members resigned and Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes “withdrew military support” from Estrada.

Fetched by General Reyes, Estrada gave up Malacanang peacefully to avoid bloodshed.  His Vice President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was sworn into office in hastily assembled inaugural rites by the Supreme Court.  The rest is history.

Senator Santiago said the aborted impeachment trial should also serve as a lesson to media 'that they do not immediately give color to our decisions.  It would help if you also consult your legal advisers to determine if we are doing the right thing,” she said.

“People would be watching and people have native wisdom that would help them determine who is telling the truth,” she said.

'It (will be) a question of whose story is more credible.  It would also be a question of whether the laws would be applied correctly and whether people agree that these laws are applied correctly. There would e documents, witnesses,” she said.

Lightning fast

The House of Representatives voted in December to impeach Corona on eight counts.  It took 188 congressmen five hours to read and sign the impeachment complaint, or less than two minutes per congressman.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines has assailed the “breakneck” impeachment in a strongly-worded public statement.  It also said the impeachment was constitutionally flawed in that the House was “arrogating unto itself the power to interpret the law,' a power allocated by the Constitution to the Supreme Court.

Sen. Joker Arroyo, a constitutional law expert who will sit as one of 23 senator-judges, accused President Aquino of installing himself as “a one-man government now since (President) Noy has subjugated the House and is  on his way to doing so to the judiciary.”  He added:

“By focusing on the alleged crimes of (Mrs. Arroyo) and Corona, people are being entertained by the President's bid for power disguised as transparency.”

'Does not understand'

Comparing President Aquino to his mother, President Cory, Arroyo said: “(He) is intolerant of dissent, any disagreement with what the government does.... He does not understand...the Constitution.”

Joining the integrated bar, the Philippine Constitution Association (Philconsa), a group of constitutional experts, said:

“The awesome power of impeachment is an instrument to preserve, not to destroy, any of the branches of government or their respective heads.  Impeachment should not be the subtle tool for partisan politics, personal vendetta or hatred.  It must e exercised with 'extreme caution' and only in 'extraordinary cases.'” 

The Philconsa statement quoted its vice chairman, Dean Froilan Bacungan; 'The odd manner in which the House of Representatives exercised its power of Impeachment is a classic example of premeditated violation of due process of law and a denial of equal protection.”

'More to be impeached'

In a Christmas-eve interview aired over Channel 7, President Aquino said he would not hesitate to (have the Lower House) impeach other justices “if they have violations of the Constitution, if there is an impeachable offense.”

The President's statement reflected an earlier pre-Christmas tirade from his Secretary of Justice, Leila de Lima, who warned the other justices appointed by Mrs. Arroyo of impeachment.  De Lima said when the justices further aid Arroyo will be “the time the people, through their representatives in Congress, impeach them.”

A University of the Philippine professor, Solita Monsod, has likened the rampage to impeach Corona to a “lynch mob.”  The term traces its roots to the American West, where irate mobs summarily terminated court trials by resorting to a convenient rope and a hanging tree.

We came very close to that in the Estrada impeachment.  Which is probably why Senator Santiago is retelling her haunting memories of that impeachment past.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How will the senators decide?

By Winston A. Marbella

President Aquino stands to gain much if he succeeds in getting the Senate to remove Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona from office by impeachment.  The President will be able to appoint a Chief Justice more to his liking, plus he gets to appoint an associate justice of his own choice in a Court packed with appointees of the former president he has vowed to send to jail.

That is why so much is riding on how the 23 senators will vote on the articles of impeachment sent by the House of Representatives as the basis for trying Corona.  A 2/3 vote is needed to boot Corona out of office, or 16 votes.  Getting 16 senators to agree on that will require some deft political maneuvers by the President, a skill he has mastered judging by his experience in getting an overwhelming vote to impeach in the Lower House.

This early, Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada has disclosed rumors that Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile might be replaced in preparation for the impeachment trial.  This has been denied all around, but it does not mean it will not happen if Enrile stands in the way of removing Corona.

In a stunning demonstration of political muscle, the President got the House to impeach Corona in less than five hours.  That should get the senators to do some serious thinking.

But right now, they are focusing on preparing themselves for the impeachment trial, especially the non-lawyers who constitute half of the Senate.   How they are going about preparing themselves gives outsiders a sneak preview of how the voting might go at the end.

Legally adroit

For Enrile, a former justice secretary and successful lawyer, who will preside over the impeachment court, his legal training will come in handy.  “We will be objective,” he told the Inquirer, adding: “At least, I can speak for myself.

“I do not want to listen to any discussion or anything.  I want to have an open, clear, serene mind.  That has always been my method whenever I handle a case.

“I do not watch any television.  I do not (listen to) the radio.  I read.  I study the case.  I study the rules so that I'm ready to handle the trial.”

Enrile will allow himself one distraction, though.  He said he will train Estrada in the rules of evidence over the holidays just in case rumors are true he might be replaced as Senate president.

How to be objective

For Sen. Pia Cayetano, a member of Enrile's ruling coalition, filtering out media influence might take some doing.

“How much do you listen to?  How much do you watch?  How much do you engage (in), or allow yourself to be taken in by emotional statements of either party?  We have to be careful,” she said.

“We are all born with our biases.  I genuinely believe we must learn the art of impartiality, and I will actually be reading up on how to develop (it) and how judges practice (it),” Cayetano said.

Majority Leader Sen. Vicente Sotto III will use an “off and on switch” in his brain.  “Whatever you see on television does not really matter,” he said.  “What is important is the evidence presented to the impeachment court.  

“So whatever information I will receive outside the court, imagine the brain having an off-and-on switch that screens everything.  Turn it on during the trial, and off afterwards.  That's not really hard to do,” Sotto said.

“We cannot go by public opinion alone.  We also go by the rules of court, the evidence to be presented, the strength of arguments.  We need to factor in everything to arrive at an intelligent and justifiable decision,” Sotto said.

Moment of truth

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a critic of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, said that that would not influence his appreciation of evidence against Corona, who is accused of favoring Mrs. Arroyo in a number of court rulings.   Sen. Franklin Drilon has counted 19, although the House sent only eight articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Said Lacson: “Speaking only for myself as a senator-judge, I will really be very objective and listen to the presentation of evidence ... to the presentation of the defense, and I will base my decision on what I will see.”

Lacson said the coming elections could be a hypothetical factor for “especially those who are running for re-election in 2013.”

“In my case,” Lacson said, “I swore on my parents' graves that I will be guided by my conscience first and foremost when I appreciate the evidence during the trial.  This may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and I want to make sure I will make the right and just decision when I finally cast my vote to convict or acquit Chief Justice Corona.”

'Political exercise'

Sen. Gregorio Honasan believes the impeachment trial “is more a political than legal, or even a constitutional, exercise.”

“This is a political process and I will recalibrate constantly my moral compass, keep my ear to the ground, and try to feel the pulse of the people,” he said.  “We will be applying the rules of court and the rules of evidence.... As a senator-judge I will consolidate all information (and) try my best to study.”

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, a former military officer like Honasan, views the impeachment process as “a political trial.”  

“Of course most lawyers will try to think it is a legal trial because that is their area of expertise,” Trillanes said.  “But I am looking at it differently.  I am a senator of the republic.  I am a senator of the people, so the pulse and opinion of the public is the center in this trial.  And that’s how I will judge based on public opinion on one hand and appreciating the evidence on the other.”

Trillanes recalled the impeachment trial of US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, which he described as “decided along party lines.”  He said: “So it's just as simple as that.  We won't complicate it.”

'My own man'

Trillanes spent several years in detention for leading a failed military putsch against Mrs. Arroyo.  He was granted amnesty by President Aquino and allowed to occupy his Senate seat, to which he was elected in 2007.

“It's irrelevant here,” Trillanes told reporters.  “I am my own man,” he said, adding that Mr. Aquino “has not directed anybody (or) given instructions” to allies in the Senate.  Should that happen as in the Lower House where Mr. Aquino has admitted calling the shots with the House leaders, Trillanes said, “I will cross the bridge when I get there.  Ultimately, it's going to be my decision, and the way I will go through that decision-making process will be based on certain criteria that I alone will establish.”

Sen. Francis Escudero, who campaigned for Mr. Aquino in 2010, said the political nature of an impeachment trial was just “one aspect.”  He said judgment should be based on the quality of evidence and existing rules.

“There should be no politics or bias,” he said in Filipino. “We should just dispense justice, which is basically defined as giving every man his due.” 

If the senators accomplish only half of what they promise, it should still be a trial worth watching.  The impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada collapsed when prosecutors walked out over a ruling by the senators to exclude evidence not relevant to the articles of impeachment.

The Estrada government fell when members of his Cabinet resigned after weeks of street demonstrations.  This led to Chief of Staff Gen. Angelo Reyes “withdrawing support” from Estrada.  The Supreme Court hastily swore into office Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  The rest is history.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The search for the guilty

By Winston A. Marbella

The logs strewn across the desolate landscape told the criminal story: Typhoon “Sendong” was just an accomplice in the genocide; illegal loggers and miners killed hundreds in the storm’s deadly wake.

The logs rode the floods spawned by a devastated landscape and punched through houses and people as they cut a deadly swath of destruction on their way to the sea.

The death toll was still rising past 1,000 as President Aquino went to the disaster area to announce a massive rehabilitation and reconstruction effort worth billions of pesos to bring northern Mindanao back on its feet.

Rebuilding ravaged homes and infrastructure will take years.  Mending broken lives will take longer...

Wanted: Foresight, prudence

In grief, a Catholic bishop has laid the responsibility for the Mindanao calamity firmly at the doorstep of President Aquino.

“He should scrap that mining thing!” Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes said.  “It is he who is the primary supporter of mining activities in the country.  He should have foresight.  I'd like him to be more prudent.  He should look after our future and not (that) of foreign mining companies that destroy our environment.”

The bishop added: “Mining companies are the ones responsible for cutting trees.  They are the ones destroying the country's environment.  They have the obligation to help the people there in Mindanao especially those who were devastated by this calamity.”

What the bishop seems to be saying is that massive rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts will go to waste unless the root causes of environmental disasters are stopped.  Strip mining and illegal logging seem to be the major culprits deserving of the President’s vaunted political will.

A tropical storm struck northern Mindanao over the weekend, triggering massive flash floods in Cagayan de Oro City, Iligan City, and surrounding areas.  The death toll is expected to rise past 1,000, making “Sendong” one of the worst to hit the country.

'Could've done more'

In a lightning visit to the devastated areas four days after the tragedy, President Aquino was introspective.  “I need to ask myself: Did the government do enough to prevent this kind of a tragedy?  I don't think that I can accept that we have done everything.  I know we could have done more.”

The President said a massive relief effort was underway with the aid of foreign agencies and governments.  “There is also going to be a fact-finding team to determine exactly where we can still augment the systems and procedures in place so that there are no casualties of this magnitude ever again,” he said.

Then he indicated the government knew exactly where to begin.  “I think all of us are aware exactly of certain situations that have happened, deforestation which has always been a problem.  We have a geo-hazard map that identified Isla de Oro as a place that will be a catch basin of floodwaters when a storm comes.”

“Because we know the topography, we have also identified places where the water will quickly flow,” he continued.  “Why were there residents still in these places?  We don't have any intention of fixing blame at this time.  But it is our obligation to find out what happened.”

He stressed: “Going back to danger areas should no longer be permitted.  I want that very clear.... no settlement in portions already described as extremely dangerous... like Isla de Oro and neighboring barangays.”

Disaster waiting to happen

In fact, the government knew the area was a disaster waiting to happen.  Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, chief executive of the World-Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines (WWF), said an environmental study presented to lawmakers three years ago had predicted the Mindanao disaster.

The effects of extreme weather events were part of a study made by the WWF, the Philippine Imperative for Climate Change (PICC), and Filipino scientists.  President Aquino's current adviser for the environment, Nereus Acosta, was head of PICC.

The 2009 study showed that major Philippine cities, including Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, were at risk of massive flooding.  The multi-sectoral group presented to lawmakers a simulation of extreme weather events.  

“They said I was being too alarmist,” Acosta recalls now.  The simulation showed that the coastal cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in northern Mindanao would be ravaged by massive floods from the overflow of river basins and sea surges caused by typhoons.

“Cagayan de Oro and Iligan are vulnerable because they sit near mountain ranges and are coastal areas,” Acosta said.  “It would really hit where it hit now.”

The simulation showed water from the sea and the Cagayan River overflowing to flood large parts of the two cities. This happened last weekend, Acosta said.

River runs thru them

The two cities are not only near the shore.  Rivers and tributaries run through them.

The Cagayan River, one of the major natural drainage systems in Mindanao, cuts through the two cities on its way to the sea.  The river's headwaters come from the Katalungan mountain range in Bukidnon.

In his on-set remarks, President Aquino said: “To prevent a repeat of this tragedy, we need to know where there were shortcomings, who were at fault, and how these should be made accountable.”

“Someone should answer for this,” Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio Ledesma said.  “For a long time we've been asking watershed protection, water basin protection, because this would affect not just those from the lowland area of Cagayan de Oro but also those from the north-western part of Bukidnon,” the bishop said over the Church-run Radio Veritas, referring to the Church advocacy to protect the environment.

Internet storm

President Aquino himself was not spared the growing wrath of people looking to hold accountable those who were responsible for the tragedy.  The Internet went on hyper drive after sexy television host Valerie Concepcion revealed in her Twitter account:

“Done w/ work.... Tnx for having me..:)  It was nice to see Pres. P-Noy laughing at my jokes & enjoying my performance...#Malacanang #PSG night.”

She was referring to the Presidential Security Guards' Christmas party at Malacanang Park which the President attended. 

It was Saturday night.  In the darkness, people were dying in Mindanao.  

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Night of terror, death & heroism

By Winston A. Marbella

For days, Philippine weathermen had been tracking tropical storm “Sendong.”  It didn't seem particularly worrisome.

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pages) issued a weather bulletin saying a tropical cyclone had formed near the island of Guam in the Pacific Ocean, but it was too far away to affect the Philippines.

On the morning of Dec. 14, Pages issued a weather advisory saying the weather disturbance was classified as a tropical depression with winds of 55 kilometres per hour near the eye.  It was east of southern Mindanao and was moving west at 19 kph.

At that speed, PAGASA said, Sendong would enter the Philippine area of responsibility late Wednesday, Dec. 14. or early Thursday, Dec. 15.  It did at around 8 a.m.

In its 11 a.m. advisory that day, PAGASA issued a severe weather warning that also showed the path Sendong was to take and the areas to be affected.  No public storm signals were set yet.  PAGASA raised storm signals later that day.

PAGASA also said the storm would make landfall in Surigao province by the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 16.  Curiously, Sendong was accelerating toward land.  Before it entered Philippine territory on Dec. 14, it was traveling at 19 kph.  It accelerated to 30 kph in 24 hours.  

Then disaster struck.

'Just seconds'

“It was just seconds,”  Marlyn Campanilla-Tan recalled how the water had risen.  “One moment it was at our ankle, the next it was up to our neck,” she told the Inquirer.

As the river rose a few dozen meters from their house, Marlyn pleaded with her 77-year-old father, Roque, to join the family at the rooftop of their house with nothing but a statue of the Virgin Mother.  He refused, believing the river would subside.

“I feel guilty because I could not save him,” said Roque's 23-year-old granddaughter, Toni Tan.  “She was the one who saved us,” her mother, Marlyn, said.

Toni had punched a hole in the ceiling, pulled herself up, and grabbed the other members of their family while her father, Ray, pushed them up.   “I had to find some way to get to the roof,” Toni said.

Rescue workers found her grandfather/s body buried in the mud at the ground floor.

Swept away

Joan Valdez, 26, who sold duck eggs for a living, survived by clinging to a banana tree with one arm and clutching her four-year-old son, Jorniel, in the other arm.  But he did not make it through the night.  Her youngest child, Juraiza, 2. was found dead.  Her eldest, Reizalyn, 6, was swept away from a relative's embrace and was still missing.  Her husband, Ricky, also survived by clinging to a tree.

As the floodwaters rose Friday night, Joan recalled, “We decided to move to the big house of our neighbor.  We thought we would be safe there.”

The flood tore through another neighbor's house and slammed it into the house they had taken refuge in and demolished it.

Lorebel Casillano also had pushed her 10-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter up the roof of a neighbor's house.  The surging waters swept her away.  Moments later she saw her neighbor's house swept away, too.  She has not found her two children and husband.

Zim Doromal, 32, a farmer, found his wife's body at a funeral chapel.  His wife, Ann, 26, a nanny, had died embracing her ward at her employer's house.  Her cousin, Julita Abau, also a nanny, died while holding on to the other ward.  

“We used to cross raging rivers for amusement,” Zim recalled.  “If they had left the children (ages one and two), I am sure they would have survived.”

Zim and Ann have two boys, Kenth Jezald, 5. and Kim Anthony, 33.  “Now I must go home and tell my two children,” Zim said.


Rafael Oblimar, 46, a tricycle driver, said “the floodwaters rose so fast I had only time to grab my two daughters.”  They are Charity, 7, and Angel, 6.  He said he would have lost Angel when she slipped from his hands while he was crossing the flood.

“I could not imagine what would have happened if the two rescue workers were not there to save her,” he said.  “They are both here, alive.  I thank God for that.”

Leonides Remolado, 64, said;  “That's how it is.  Something ends, something begins.  We will start anew.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with all of them this Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas reflection on creation

By Winston A. Marbella

The celebrated British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was back in the news toward Christmas last year with a second book, The Grand Design, where he makes the controversial statement: “Because there is a law (of physics) such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

In his first book, A Brief History of Time, which catapulted him to prominence, Hawking wrote: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we should know the mind of God.”  In Grand Design, Hawking seems to have found the mind of God, as we shall see.

But first we have to backtrack to a time when there was yet no time---to a place where there was yet no space---to shed light on a place where there was yet no light.


Our classical mental picture of the beginning is an empty space with nothing in it---no light, no matter, no energy, no time, nothing--just empty space.  As physicists imagine it, there was not even space with nothing in it—there was simply no space, period—absolutely nothing, nada.

And then there was light.

The fire of creation ignited (by itself?) or was ignited—sparking the Big Bang envisioned by theoretical physicists like Hawking  A flash of  light—pure energy—creating space as it expanded at a rate beyond human comprehension—the universe as we know it today.  The universe is still expanding and accelerating at the edge, creating more space, time. Energy and matter as it unfolds.

In the first milliseconds of creation, particles of matter and energy interacted in thermal equilibrium.

Before four minutes were over, protons and neutrons had linked up to form atomic nuclei.  The universe was now composed of 20 percent helium nuclei and 80 percent hydrogen, the most basic element with one proton, one neutron and one electron. 

Nuclear fire

Hydrogen is the fuel of the stars, which are really huge nuclear furnaces that fuse together hydrogen atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy—an ongoing hydrogen bomb—the nuclear fire that burns in the stars!

Clusters of galaxies—hundreds of millions of them, each composed of billions of stars---began to form around 17 billion years ago.

Our sun and planets congealed from a cloud of stellar gas and dust at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy around 4.5 billion years ago.  Around 3.8 billion years ago, the Earth had cooled enough to form a crust.  Around 3.5 billion years ago, microscopic living cells began to roam the Earth.

Biological life

Around 1.8 billion years ago, plants grew in the sea...  Around 700 million years ago, rudimentary animals—jellyfish---appeared.

Life moved to dry land 425 million years ago.  The first insects appeared 400 million years ago, the first land vertebrates 325 million years ago.  The mammals appeared 200 million years ago, the early horses 55 million years ago, the ancestors of modern cats and dogs 35 million years ago.

Around 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus appeared in China.  Homo sapiens emerged 600,000 years ago, learned to control fire 360,000 years ago.  Humans invented complex language 40,000 years ago, music 35,000 years ago.

Around 20,000 years ago, man learned to grow plants.  The Babylonians invented the calendar 6,700 years ago.  Humans learned to write 5,500 years ago, or at around 3,500 B.C.  The rest is history.

Swirling controversy

Amid the controversy over the book, Hawking and his co-author, the American physicist Leonard Mlodinow, whom many credit for the book’s lucid prose, became frequent guests on American television.

Mlodinow explained it was not his intention to delve into theology and confront the age-old questions of God’s hand in creation.  He is a scientist, Mlodinow said, and he stopped at the point when he set forth the view that physical laws sparked the chain of events that created the universe.

Before that moment, Mlodinow said, is the realm of philosophy and theology, disciplines beyond his competence as a scientist, although he may have his own beliefs.

In classical physics , the view was widely held that God set in motion a universe that runs according to very precise laws. 

Responding to evidence emanating from recent findings in quantum physics and modern cosmology, theoretical physicists have leaned toward a less strict view of creation---that God allows spontaneous creativity in the unfolding of the universe. 

Creating universe

In such a creative (or creating) universe, God allows surprises to pop up and delight Him, as in the development of biological life as we know it today.  All that God needed to do was to set things in motion as the Prime Mover.

It is perhaps this modern view of creation physics that coincides with the second book of Hawking, the view that God allows creativity in the unfolding of the universe, a view of creation reflected in a Jewish folk story:

“And God said to Abraham, ‘But for me, you would not be here.’  ‘I know that Lord,’ Abraham answered, ‘but were I not here there would be no one to think about You.’”

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Yuletide leap of faith

By Winston A. Marbella

This is our second Yuletide season after the publication of a highly controversial book, The Grand Design, which raised age-old questions about the origins of the universe and the role that God played in creating it.

Its author, the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, exploded into global prominence when he published 22 years ago A Brief History of Time, an epic scientific opus on the origins of the universe.

For 36 years Hawking has been working on melding the two cornerstones of modern physics: Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which examined the origins of the cosmos on a grand scale, and quantum theory, which looked into the laws that govern subatomic—or particle--physics.

Mind of God

Since Isaac Newton first outlined the pillars of classical physics, theoretical physicists have been pursuing a scientific Holy Grail, the Unified Theory, which sought to marry Einstein’s Relativity with quantum physics.  The quest has been elusive.

In Brief History, Hawking explored the vast universe that separates cosmology from quantum physics, concluding: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we should know the mind of God.”

In his latest book, The Grand Design---co-written with American physicist Leonard Mlodinow, who provides the English we can understand---Hawking asserts: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

On the surface it would seem that Hawking has digressed from his earlier writings about God as creator.  But closer scrutiny may disprove this.

In the 22 years between the two books, Hawking has done more theoretical work on black holes, cosmology and quantum gravity.

Collapsed stars

Black holes are areas in deep space where matter is so concentrated its immense gravity sucks in everything, including light.  We cannot see it, but we can detect it, because its huge gravity distorts the space and stars around it.

Scientists believe black holes are collapsed stars that imploded to the size of the Earth.  The immense gravity generated by that vast amount of stellar material gives us a blind man’s peek into the origins of the universe, in a manner of speaking.

The physical laws that govern black holes, the cosmos and particle physics are variations of the same theme, physicists believe.

There is no laboratory big enough to experiment with the cosmic laws---we would need something the size of a galaxy of a billion twinkling stars for that—and we would only be scratching the surface, again so to speak.

Cosmic lab

The Hubble telescope—floating in space above the distorting haze of the Earth’s atmosphere—has sent back remarkable images of funnel like structures stretching across millions of light years (the distance travelled by light in a year, that’s 300,000 km/sec x 60 secs. x 60 mins. x 24 hrs. x 365 days—you can do the math!).

One end of the funnel appears to be sucking in stellar material from exploded stars and regurgitating it out the other end millions of light years away—the stuff of which new stars are made.

Radio-telescopes like Hubble’s are able to peer into outer space, compressing billions of light years of creation into our eyes.  To get a sense of that, the light from our star—the sun—takes eight minutes to reach our optic nerve.

That means that the light from sun we see is eight minutes old.  In those eight minutes it could have exploded—but we won’t know that until later.  A radio-telescope that reaches, say, four billion light years into space, brings us light--or a picture of reality--that is four billion light-years away!

Powerful radio-telescope can now peer into the edge of the universe, the horizon of creation believed to be some 18 billion light-years away.  Assuming we could stop along the way to take pictures, we would be getting snapshots of creation one, two, or three billion light-years away.

What is real time then in the vast expanse of the universe?  And what is the present time?  But we are getting light-years ahead of ourselves, so to speak.

Time traveller

The American writer T.S. Eliot hopped, skipped and jumped across the universe, disregarding time and space.  In a sense he was a time traveler; a physical impossibility perhaps, but maybe the only way to comprehend the universe.  Eliot traversed the vast distances between literature and philosophy, between physics and theology:

We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

Viewed in this light, Hawking only appears to have backtracked on his earlier views about God.

A leap of faith maybe, and--dare I also say--a quantum leap?

Yuletide greetings to one and all---and to all a good cheer!

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Christmas meditation

By Winston A. Marbella

'A rare triple celestial treat'
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted: 04:03:00 12/24/2010

To herald the coming of the Yuletide season last December, the heavens put on an awesome celestial show, recalling the first Christmas when a comet lit up the night sky and a supernova (exploding star) ignited a fireworks display visible for days all around the world even in the daytime.

This time around, as if to reflect the joy in the heavens, we were treated to a rare “celestial trifecta,” three events occurring at the same time:  As the moon rose, the world witnessed a total lunar eclipse and a “selenelion” occurring on the “Long Night Moon” as the winter solstice set in.

The winter solstice is that time of year when the night is longest and the day shortest, portending that soon, as the days grow longer, it will be Christmas.

A selenelion occurred when the rising eclipse moon and the setting sun were both visible on opposite ends of the horizon.  A Long Night Moon occurred because at mid-eclipse the moon was full.

In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost’s 108-word, 16-line, four-stanza classic, he pauses at the middle of his journey in the dead of night.  He does not make clear whence he came or where he was headed, but it does not really matter much to him.  What matters, for our purpose today, is this memorable line:

Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Frost did not say it, but it must have been the night of the winter solstice, that time of year when the night is longest and the day shortest.  It happens normally on the 21st or 22nd of December, and the physical reason is pretty straightforward: the tilt of the earth from its axis causes the four seasons in the temperate zones as it hurtles around the sun on its yearlong journey.

Passing seasons

From the autumnal equinox on the 21st ot 22nd of September, when night and day are equal in length, the days have been growing shorter and the nights longer until the winter solstice. 

Then the cycle reverses: the nights grow shorter and the days longer until the vernal equinox on the 21st or 22nd of March, the official start of spring, when day catches up with night. 

Then the days grow longer even more, reaching full glory in the summer solstice on the 21st or 22nd of June, the longest day of the year.  From this day onward, it’s downhill again for day, until we reach the winter solstice.

Coming light

Thus, among the ancient peoples, who somehow figured out how to chart the passing of the seasons by looking at the heavens, the winter solstice had always been celebrated on the day the light began to grow long and strong again: the resurrection, as it were, of the dying light. 

And so it came to pass that when the early Church fathers met at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD to fix the day to celebrate Christmas, they chose the winter solstice, which at the time was set by the Julian calendar on the 24th or 25th of December. 

Because the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC had over the years accumulated errors in setting the day of the solstices, it was replaced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 by the Gregorian calendar we use today.  But Christmas stayed on December 25.

And so, as the song goes, “It came upon a midnight clear.” 

Triple treat

Turning back the hands of time, astronomers and astrologers alike agree that a comet and a supernova (an exploding star) had lit up the night sky to guide the Three Wise Men from the East on their way to a manger on a hillside in the little town of Bethlehem, one cold, wintry, starry, starry night.

It was as if in obvious delight, God had timed the journey of Halley’s comet around the sun to coincide with the birth of His Only Son, and exploded one star out of the trillions he had created to ignite an awesome celestial fireworks display---seven days ahead of the New Year!

The chronicles of ancient Chinese astrologers confirmed the burst of a supernova, visible even in daylight, occurring at about the time of Christ’s birth. 

Tuesday’s lunar eclipse was visible in the Philippines partially. As the sun set and the moon rose, we caught the moon ending the last quarter of its journey across the darkest part of the earth’s conical shadow, the umbra.

Horizontal eclipse

And as if this celestial treat was not enough, the heavens provided another spectacle to delight the eye and twist the tongue: a selenelion, also called a horizontal eclipse, because the moon rose at the opposite side of the horizon from the setting sun, which made the two celestial bodies visible for a few minutes---a moonrise and sunset at the same time.

In mid-eclipse, the moon was full, an occurrence known as the Long Night Moon, and hours later the winter solstice set in, the longest evening of the year, Wednesday by our time. 

There is nothing extraordinarily significant about these three celestial events occurring together, except that they don’t happen very often.  The last time a total lunar eclipse coincided with the winter solstice was on Dec. 21, 1638, or 372 years ago, and it won’t happen again until 2094.


Nothing is extraordinary or significant about that, unless you are Robert Frost, who, after briefly stopping by woods one snowy evening, reluctantly resumed his journey, although very tired and needing rest, because he had promises to keep:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

It is not coincidental that the heavens should arrange the symphony of the stars so that the winter of our discontent could vanish silently in the gathering light of Christmas.

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