THE blue ribbon did live up to its billing. Some of the notorious dramatis personae involved in the questionable personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement deal showed up via Zoom occasioned by threats of Senate contempt and arrests.

Virtually present were the Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. (PPC) executives and their padrino Michael Yang. This shadowy figure, not even a Filipino, was privileged an appointment as President Rodrigo "Deegong" Duterte's "economic adviser" and escorted the Pharmally International Holding (PIH) executives to Duterte in China in 2015 and in Davao in December 2017 - caught in a video clip that went viral. Such an escort service is known by many labels - consultant, facilitator, bagman, pagador or locally, as bugaw (pimp), depending on the package offered and bought. Those identified in the video were a veritable rogues' gallery: Huang Wen Lei (Tony Huang), his son and PPC Philippine subsidiary Director Huang Tzu Yen and Zhang Bingquiang, all wanted in Taiwan for financial crimes. The PIH's Philippine subsidiary cabal completes the Chinese connection - Linconn Ong, Huang Tzu Yen, Rose Lin and a host of Chinese names further obscured by aliases.

What came out in the hearing is a shocking possibility that the undercapitalized Pharmally that bagged P8.68 billion in government contracts with zero track record may have been a conduit of drug money laundered through these transactions. The Senate is now enlarging the hearings to include the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

Bizarre theater or danse macabre

The blue ribbon committee hearing has established that with the acquiescence of Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd, Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao facilitated the allegedly irregular P42 billion (and more) PPE procurement, including the anomalous fund transfers from the Department of Health to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM). A well-placed lawyer within Duterte's circle - a presidential appointee to various sensitive government positions landing as DoH undersecretary and finally ensconced at the PS-DBM, Lao - reportedly a stooge of Sen. Christopher Lawrence "Bong" Go who has denied it - is at the center of this maelstrom. At the hearings, he admitted that no due diligence was conducted on Pharmally, an absurdity that was ignominiously backed by Duterte's spokesperson, Harry Roque Jr. "Under the law we have a principle that a corporation has a separate personality, separate and distinct from the stockholders...there is no need to assess the personality behind the corporation because it's a separate personality." Negligently awarding billions to a practically "unknown company" and requiring only a casual background check on the incorporators and executives who turn out to be fugitives from justice - is simply irresponsible and may even be criminal.

The procurement was sanctioned under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act that gave Duterte vast emergency powers - exempting the President from the Government Procurement Act - allowing emergency negotiated purchasing. Roque claims there was no overpricing since all countries were competing for PPE and prices are dictated by supply and demand, ignorantly oblivious of externalities and leakages distorting supply/demand dynamics. Documents disclosed local competitors delivered comparatively low prices - egregiously far below Pharmally's. But overpricing may no longer be an issue. It could have been ghost deliveries.

In all these, Malacañang was complicit, not simply naïve. This brings to mind how enamored our President is with China. God forbid, if China holds the Deegong by the balls and by inference, we Filipinos!

Implications

This massive procurement anomaly as played out is even made more onerous, against a backdrop of a global health catastrophe, when Filipinos are dying, where quarantine and lockdowns with no end in sight cause massive job losses; while functionaries in the highest levels of government cohabit with sleazy Chinese gangsters; in effect altogether sucking the lifeblood of our people. All these surfaced only because the blue ribbon unearthed some facts and at first some innuendoes pointing towards the Deegong through Secretary Duque, Senator Go and Undersecretray Lao. Former senator Serge Osmeña put it succinctly: "Duterte got caught...and ayaw niya mangyari is that they will be able to find out who these guys are...and who made money on [the deal]. Nagkakandarapa sila ngayon kasi huling-huli sila."

The President could have allowed the blue ribbon to go through the charade - as he once declared that these were merely senatorial grandstanding. "No recommendations; no lawsuits; nobody goes to jail. It's all just posturing," Duterte declared, conveniently skirting his own responsibility as the executive branch does the prosecution and incarceration. And a melodramatic brazen nonsequitur: "I, your President, you trusted me; you voted for me. I am the last person to fool you. When I am no longer president, kill me if I committed mistakes or told you lies."

And the President's men, Duque, together with one of the Christophers - law fraternity brother Lao, not the surrogate son Go - could have been sacrificed as pawns to sanitize the presidency. Connecting the dots could lead inevitably to Malacañang and the ever-loyal Bong Go was at its gates to "fall on his sword." Not anymore, saved by the PDP-Laban elevating him to an eminence grise - a presidentiable! The election circus coming to town with various permutations –-Go-Duterte, Sara-Go, Sara-Duterte, ad infinitum - could have been employed as diversionary tactics blowing all these away. But Duterte may have miscalculated and panicked. What could have been just a pissing contest between the Deegong and the Dick (Sen. Richard Gordon) turned into an exposé of government nefarious dealings beyond a whiff of corruption amid a swirling vortex of prevarications, exacerbated by Duterte's untutored long-winded gibberish defense of his Chinese friends.

Truth will out

This verbal free-for-all has turned ugly, going down to the gutter-level with childish ad hominems and non sequitors: "Magpapayat ka muna" to the Dick; "lahat kayo, pati si Ping [Lacson], iba ang hairdo!" The President using the full force of government media with his almost nightly tirades, digging up dirt thrown at the Dick, from allegedly using Philippine Red Cross (PRC) funds to an ignorant threat of Commission on Audit auditing this private entity has degraded political discourse. While the Dick who never did accuse the President directly of involvement in a crime but did so by innuendo held the high ground, aware of the dictum that "he who loses his temper, loses the argument and loses respect." And the President did just that!

The blue ribbon known for its witness intimidation, and yes, grandstanding, may yet acquit itself. To the detriment of our decent Chinese Filipino community, it has demonstrated Malacañang's sleazy preference for foreign Chinese businessmen and fugitives - particularly after the Deegong's impassioned apologia for Michael Yang. This blue ribbon brouhaha is in some peculiar way reminiscent of the Deegong's bromance with China (Taiwan being a province), putting on center stage once more his favored treatment for bloodsucking Chinese POGO workers ("The sinification of the Philippines, The Manila Times, Feb. 26, 2020) and his pretend show of force against Chinese encroachment on the West Philippines Sea.

This is far from over. The blue ribbon may produce no convictions and incarcerations - these are executive branch prerogatives. But what will persist during this pandemic is the ubiquitous emblem of this government's corruption and impunity that we wear daily - these Chinese overpriced face masks and shields - the latter not even sanctioned by the World Health Organization or required by any other country in the world.

Onli in da Pilipins!
The Senate President crowed yesterday that the party he nominally coheads, PDP-Laban, has a “pleasant problem” — too many potential senatorial candidates. Koko Pimentel’s estimate is they have up to 20 possible choices for the 12-person slate for the 2019 senatorial race. But his list includes the five administration-affiliated senatorial incumbents up for reelection next year. This is a group that has made noises that, much as it prefers to remain in the administration camp, it is unhappy with the way PDP-Laban has been designating its local leaders and candidates, and therefore prefers to strike out on its own, perhaps in alliance with the other administration (regional) party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago, headed by the President’s daughter and current Davao City mayor, Sara Duterte.

Setting aside, then, the five-person “Force,” the administration-oriented but not PDP-friendly reelectionists (Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, and JV Ejercito), what Koko’s crowing over is a mixed bag. Some of them have been floated by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (with whom Mayor Duterte clashed in recent months): six representatives (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is in her last term in the House of Representatives; Albee Benitez, Karlo Nograles, Rey Umali, Geraldine Roman, and Zajid Mangudadatu), three Cabinet members (Bong Go, Harry Roque, and Francis Tolentino), and two other officials (Mocha Uson and Ronald dela Rosa), which still only adds up to 11 possible candidates (who are the missing three?).

Of all of these, the “Force” reelectionists are only fair-weather allies of the present dispensation; their setting themselves apart is about much more than the mess PDP-Laban made in, say, San Juan where support for the Zamoras makes it extremely unattractive for JV Ejercito to consider being in the same slate. Their cohesion is about thinking ahead: Creating the nucleus for the main coalition to beat in the 2022 presidential election. The contingent of congressmen and congresswomen who could become candidates for the Senate, however, seems more a means to kick the Speaker’s rivals upstairs (at least in the case of Benitez and Arroyo) and pad the candidates’ list with token but sacrificial candidates, a similar situation to the executive officials being mentioned as possible candidates (of the executive officials, only Go seems viable, but making him run would deprive the President of the man who actually runs the executive department, and would be a clear signal that the administration is shifting to a post-term protection attitude instead of the more ambitious system-change mode it’s been on, so far).

Vice President Leni Robredo has been more circumspect, saying she’s not sure the Liberal Party can even muster a full slate. The party chair, Kiko Pangilinan, denied that a list circulating online (incumbent Bam Aquino, former senators Mar Roxas, Jun Magsaysay, TG Guingona, current and former representatives Jose Christopher Belmonte, Kaka Bag-ao, Edcel Lagman, Raul Daza, Gary Alejano and Erin Tañada, former governor Eddie Panlilio and Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña) had any basis in fact.

What both lists have in common is they could be surveys-on-the-cheap, trial balloons to get the public pulse. Until the 17th Congress reconvenes briefly from May 14 to June 1 for the tail end of its second regular session (only to adjourn sine die until the third regular session begins on July 23), it has nothing much to do. Except, that is, for the barangay elections in May, after a last-ditch effort by the House to postpone them yet again to October failed.

Names can be floated but the real signal will come in July, when the President mounts the rostrum and calls for the big push for a new constitution—or not. Connected to this would be whether the Supreme Court disposes of its own chief, which would spare the Senate—and thus, free up the legislative calendar—to consider Charter change instead of an impeachment trial. In the meantime, what congressmen do seem abuzz over is an unrefusable invitation to the Palace tomorrow — to mark Arroyo’s birthday. An event possibly pregnant with meaning.
“Then I fall to my knees, shake a rattle at the skies and I’m afraid that I’ll be taken, abandoned, forsaken in her cold coffee eyes.” – A quote from the song, “She moves on” by Paul Simon, singer/songwriter

THE recent tremors affecting the central provinces of Mindanao caused by a series of seismic waves radiating to the northern and southern parts of the island, were like nature shaking a rattle, emitting sharp sounds and unnerving motions from the underground, both frightening and bewildering as to the intensity and confusion they generated.

The successive earthquakes and aftershocks were rattling the nerves not only of residents close to the epicenter but also those living along the active fault planes who were not used to strong earth movements. Some reported dizziness, anxiety, depression and other post-traumatic stress symptoms after experiencing continuous shaking and periodic vibrations.

As this article was written, less frequent but perceptible tremors were felt on the affected areas although everyone is reportedly bracing for aftershocks which many hope and pray, would not turn out to be the dreaded “big one,” as some irresponsible persons are falsely posting on social media. Shake a rattle drum to this latter blokes.

According to Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), since the 1900s, Mindanao has been rocked by at least 35 earthquakes, three of which, felt at “Intensity 7” or worse, were deemed destructive: the 1976 Moro Gulf earthquake which caused a tsunami reaching up to nine meters that killed about 8,000 people including the unaccounted ones; the 1999 series of earthquakes in Agusan del Sur damaging roads, and poorly constructed schools and infrastructure; and the Sultan Kudarat earthquake in 2002, killing eight people with 41 others injured and affecting over seven thousand families in the provinces of Sarangani, North and South Cotabato (Rappler 2019). Shake a rattle of prayers for all who perished in these tragedies.

The series of earthquakes in October of this year, just weeks apart, with magnitudes of over 6 hitting many provinces, again, in Cotabato and southern parts of Davao accounted for the death toll of 22, damaging homes, school buildings and many infrastructure, shaking and sending chills to many residents who have to deal with continuing albeit smaller tremors which can be felt as far up the city of Cagayan de Oro and down the southern province of Sarangani.

Some local officials reported residents having developed “earthquake phobia” keeping watch on their clock hanging inside their tents in evacuation sites, losing sleep with anxiety awaiting when the next tremor would be coming. With frayed nerves, some would panic over even slight ground shakings.

But this is not about the temblor as much as the response of people and the country’s leaders and responsible officials. Except for the government of China which donated P22 million in aid and support for relief efforts in Mindanao, hurray for China, other foreign countries just expressed condolences and messages of sympathy to families of victims. No pledges, no assistance. Perhaps, they can’t trust our government agencies to do the job for them anymore. To them, a shake of the baby rattle.

To the initial bunch of donors who immediately come with their financial assistance such as Yorme Isko Moreno of Manila with his P5 million personal money, Mayor Vico Sotto with relief goods and P14 million coming from the people of Pasig City, Mayor Marcy Teodoro of Marikina with 100 modular tents, movie star Angel Locsin who moved about sans fanfare for her charity work offering food and other assistance to victims in Davao and North Cotabato, to Mayor Inday Duterte for relief distribution, Cebu provincial government for disaster relief campaign and to the many nameless others who came with their relief aids, shake a rattle of joy and thankfulness for their kindness and generosity.

To our government officials and politicians goes our appeal to set aside politics, distribute the relief items according to the wishes of their donors and not allow goods to rot because of political colors as was shown in the previous administration’s handling of donated goods. To them, shake a rattle of enlightenment and peace.

In whatever disaster or crisis that befalls the country, trust Filipinos’ resiliency and coping mechanisms such as resorting to prayers and humor to come to their succor.

Social media become a natural venue for memes, practical jokes and bantering such as the ones which came after Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy reportedly claimed that he caused to stop the earthquakes so they can no longer create damage. To everyone, shake a rattle of laughter and fun while we help provide for the needs of our less fortunate brethren in Cotabato and Davao provinces.