In The News

Back to the Philippines, But First: Renato Corona, Lady Gaga, and that Debate over the Sea

May 23, 2012

At the end of a sabbatical team-teaching one course and blogging weekly, I am eager to get back to my work on the ground in the Philippines. At the end of this “Representative Professor” series, it’s interesting to look back at both what I’ve written and some of what has transpired in the past four months.

First, and probably most familiar to international readers, has been the continuing saga of competing Philippine and Chinese claims in the West Philippine/South China Sea. The dispute seems to have spilled over into economic affairs, with banana exports to China being held up (though there are reports of an agreement on joint phytosanitary inspection by the two governments and of joint oil exploration between Philippine and Chinese companies). Japanese interest has apparently been piqued, with reports that 10 coast guard vessels will form part of Japan’s ongoing developmental assistance to the Philippines. Considerable attention is now being paid – with the International Crisis Group examining internal Chinese decision-making on these maritime events, while the Asian Center at the University of the Philippines has launched a useful new website examining international affairs from a Philippine standpoint.   Interesting implications for the conflict in Mindanao have been drawn by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on their website, suggesting that the government of the Philippines would be well advised to solve the Moro problem in order to be better able to focus on external defense.

But enough about this – I keep trying to insist “it’s not all about China.” I’ve written about the multi-faceted relationship between the Philippines and the United States, which will (one hopes) be on display in the upcoming state visit of President Aquino to the United States next month.

On the domestic front there has been a considerable amount of attention paid to the role of religion. One of the most famous Filipinos in the world, boxer and member of Congress, Manny Pacquiao, became entangled in controversy when his remarks expressing doubt about gay marriage were conflated with a quotation from Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Christian bible (and he was declared persona non grata at a L.A. shopping center). Meanwhile, after her banning in Indonesia, Lady Gaga ran into opposition from religious Christians in the Philippines, but she did manage to have two shows in Manila. Such religiosity might seem surprising since Bob Tebow, missionary father of football star Tim Tebow, thinks that 65 million of the 92 million Filipinos have not had the bible preached to them.

And a good illustration of why I wrote there is controversy about the current level of anti-Muslim prejudice, the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a photo of a woman in a full burqa (she was the mother of an official of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao being sworn into office by President Aquino) with a caption, “Security Risk.”  This immediately caused a backlash, accusing the newspaper of being insensitive and biased (while security officials insisted, of course, that she had been properly screened).

Reviewing my first blog, I see that I did not blog about the cherry blossoms in Washington (they came early and were gorgeous) or whether country experts are better at predicting events in-country (I’ve not gotten around to reading Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock).

Looking at the immediate future, it seems that the twists and turns of the dramatic impeachment trial of the Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona requires more devoted attention than casual readers are likely to muster. But given the importance of the event for the Philippines it cannot be ignored. So, I offer one final (and simplifying) recommendation:  the decision is likely very soon, so wait to see if Chief Justice Corona is convicted by the Philippine Senate. If he is, then President Noynoy’s political capital will be very much enhanced and the current administration will for a time be master of all it surveys in Philippine domestic politics. If the Chief Justice is not convicted, the administration will be mortally wounded and attention will turn to the next presidential transition (scheduled for June 2016) – a full four years early.

This is the eighteenth and final posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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