Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cosmopolitan Lawyers?

Fourteen years ago, while in my senior year at the law school (USC- Cebu), I submitted a short essay for the law school’s ‘annual’ book, containing photos and thoughts of the graduates. My submission was published, and, for no special reason I thought of sharing it here in this column. Rereading the essay brought back memories of those halcyon days. I also realized not much has changed in my views; in fact, the essay seemed to presage the professional and academic career I would be treading today. For example, it talks about Kiribati, a nation I hardly knew then. Now, one of Kiribati’s islands –Banaba- is the focus of my PhD research relative to the global phenomenon of climate change potentially triggering environmental migrants. The story’s moral would be: pay attention to what you do today as this may point to what you will become hence. Here’s the piece, enjoy:   
Laws and institutions according to Dick’s toasts, speeches and responses are like clocks.  They must be wound up and set to true time. Three years from now, and this is a generous estimate, all the good-looking boys and girls in this album are lawyers in jusi barongs and samsonite portfolios. What will inhabit their minds? Laws for sure. Philippine laws, and perhaps, international law. But would they go beyond international law towards an emerging cosmopolitan or world-embracing law? Would the new lawyers be interested in the legal implications of, say, the legal and supranational collaborations that set to flight the Ariane from Kourou, French Guiana? What about the possibility of having to come up with an Asian parliament in the near future; or, the unspectacular birth of Dominica, Vanuatu, Kiribati and other small island nations? Are these isolated events, or would they be part of a wider web of purpose, a larger scheme of things. Would any one from our class care?
If none among our class ’87 cares, and I hope we are not representative, then we are less perceptive than the would-be historians in History-major class ’87. Historians love to see themselves in a larger setting, a sort of cosmic time-table or clock where mankind’s written history is but a wee second in the turning wheels of evolution. For them tomorrow is a sequel to that giant movie that can be more or less plotted based on moving trends of activity. The ASEAN is more than an association of Asian countries but a stepping stone, a dry run to a much larger confederation.
There was one international gathering held in Manila in 1977 called the Manila World Peace through Law Conference. It was the 8th conference of its kind – the first being in Athens in 1963. These conferences have ‘Demonstration Trials’ where Chief Justices of nations representing diverse governmental systems will hear arguments on not-usually thought of legal subjects as ownership of seabed riches or liability for damages caused by spaceship crashes. The justices are made to hand down decisions. Indeed, such fora of judges and lawyers recognize that gaps do exist in the laws on international cooperation and that they must be filled. The ‘tools’ suggested range from steps towards greater reliance on the International Court of Justice, the enactment of new treaties addressing volatile political issues, to the idealistic ‘adjustment’ of national laws to conform to one global legal framework.
According to Isaac Asimov, the concept of national boundaries will become more and more ridiculous. And it is now ridiculous enough already. What with the worldwide shift to computerization, communication and high-technology forged on a personal level.  These lightning speed gadgets of communication and information respect no boundaries, creating transnational relationships and transactions, as well as multi-state problems. Yet, existing laws are still modelled after a worn out, State-centered paradigm invented in year 1648 at the Treaty of Westphalia! If anything, new paradigms –and institutions- need to be developed, one that’s more inclusive, cosmopolitan and responsive to the supranational nature of the issues addressed to in these times.
The pooling together of trained legal minds such as the conference in Manila is a step in the right direction. It can also signal that the time is ripe for the discordant laws of various countries to be assessed and reconsidered so they may be tuned in with the times. No nation can escape the fact that all are becoming interdependent parts of a single global system. There would be no turning back.
I am wrong then to hint that lawyers do not always bother about the wider applications of law. With the albeit slow awakening of that flick of international patriotism, lawyers including those among Class ’87 of USC Law, may present brilliant showing. If historians plot the past to forecast future trends it is on the lawyer’s shoulder that these trends are concretely marked out and refined.
Key: University of San Carlos, USC Law, Lawyers, Filipino lawyers

A star was here 

When Rodney died part of us went with him. I lost a colleague in the Ormoc Historical Society where he was the secretary. He would have written the life story of Ormoc’s ‘Camay’ girl whose silhouette appeared on soap bars. I also lost a Toastmasters critic who could mimic the manners and voice patterns of our club members. He impersonated me as the shifty eyed public speaker needlessly adjusting eye glasses on the podium and pedantic with my forefinger used as baton stick to stress a point. Most of all, my wife and I lost a friend, brother, constant house visitor and singing companion. 
To say the man was talented is to state the sun is hot or ice when held long enough blisters the skin. His many talents were his charm, and downfall: for is not high talent a source of pride and complacency while simultaneously courting jealous remarks from non-accepting colleagues? As philosopher Santayana puts it man’s great difficulty is not so much choosing good from bad as good from good. If you sing like Jack Jones (‘Love Boat’), Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis all rolled into one and strut like an overweight Michael Jackson you are something, and not just in small town Ormoc. But Rod does not just sing. He woes and cuddles the audience with measured antics, throws the mike on air, turns, catches it and tap dances. He was a performer nonpareil, a Christmas tree lit all over by firecrackers. He was also a choreographer, public speaker with impeccable –if overemphasized- pronunciation, artistic director, actor, composer of its ‘Ormoc for Me’ song, couturier (made me two Indian inspired shirts), landscape artist and ukay-ukay expert who knew where to pick the right suit making one look chic and not just a blast from the 60’s. With this barrage of talents  one can become hard put which one to attend to first: In Rodney’s case he juggled them in one personality to the delight of those close to him, and irritation and envy of those who refuse to appreciate. 
Early morning of February 26 a phone call reached us telling our friend was ‘no more.’ The news took time to coagulate, and up to now difficult to comprehend. When my wife and I went to the funeral parlor he was just there at the preparation table. Hands clasped, blondish hair streaks brushed to the sides and oxygen tube attached to his nose. He looked like he was going to walk anytime with his trademark swagger and we felt like nudging him from sleep. Days before, we practiced for a contest and I could see how pleased he was with the speech’s new title ‘Meditations of a Solitary Man,’ suggestive of a newly attained ‘humility’ – his.  We also agreed to go for authentic gestures that naturally dramatize the message. Then, we gobbled the  barbecue and laughed like our days won’t end beside the lazy flow of Malbasag river. At the stalls one may notice the reflections of distant houses and the ‘hasag’ of ‘manonolo’ fishermen wading thru waist-deep waters at the bay while thrusting portable nets. 
Rodney told me he converted the movements of these fisher folks into dance forms. So with the kangkong gatherers of Anilao river and tartanilla drivers at the pier waiting for M/V Don Ramon’s arrival. He would mimic their motions:  at once familiar yet novel, simultaneously universal and vernacular. What a pity such sparks could not bloom beyond amateur attempts: to be performed, enjoyed and be the city’s pride in terms of artistic and cultural heritage. 
Tomorrow is our friend’s 9th day of the novena. I suggested his mother serve egg curry since that was his new favorite. We ate that during the joint Ormoc-Tacloban Toastmasters meeting a month before his passing. That was also when he delivered what everyone agreed was his best – a textured and subtle- speech: ‘Lo, the speech and the speaker are one!’  That night he wore his sweater sprinkled with tear-shaped pearl beads. Two weeks before his death our groups was at Don Quixote lounge. There Rodney sang our requests. His last song – a Jack Jones and Nora Aunor favorite- was dedicated to us, his friends: True Picture. Afterwards, since that was two days before Valentines, he said something about love and hinted that while others may think he was ‘superficial’ but when it comes to love, ‘my love is never superficial.’ That was vintage Rodney, as we have always known him, our friend and star! 

Key: Ormoc City Stories

Long-Haired Doll 

          About three months before the flood, Yon asked me to write his wife. She was to come to our office for a ‘dialogue’ with her husband. At that time she had left him with the kids, among them four or five-ish year old Yola. Having known Yon for years I knew how upset he was seeing his family fall apart. His eye (what we call manukon or chicken-like) goes astray when he gets nervous.
          Yon was a high school friend. We went to the same classes in all the four years. We called ourselves the ‘jet guys,’ a group of supposedly ‘select’ souls who can juggle academics, dance and music. Yon was a good singer, which I guess ran in the family. His older sister’s rendition of ‘I just caught dancing again’ still rings sterling on my ears years after she sang it at our school’s beauty contest where the ramps were library tables connected one after the other. And though she did not win, she got my vote after my aunt whose diamond-breasted blue gown looked electric, though the judges thought otherwise. Yon danced –was our star dancer at the rag tag dance troupe. It helped that the dance instructor stayed with Yon’s family, or so I rationalized. I, Yul and a half-Chinese boy called Jimmy did the back-up stunts. Years later someone joked I should have been stoned out of the stage for my wooden steps. Yon can bend backwards lower than any of us in ‘Limbo rock.’ Though short, he looked like a real sailor in our signature uniform of white pants and floral shirts with lei. 
       Yon’s family had this makeshift corner carenderia near our old house. His mother cooked the best humba, which is pork belly  boiled in sweetened soy sauce and black beans. My family regularly bought pork delicacies from them. Another favorite was the ginamay, which is minced meat with diced carrots and  green beans. The makeshift shed is gone now. Today there’s the spanking gynecological clinic that sends pap smear slides for cancer tests to Cebu, and a burger shop churning patties with the efficiency of an assembly plant. I miss the homey recipe of Yon’s mother, which was distinctly hers. Yon inherited his mother’s prowess at the kitchen. In his adult life he would cook for weddings and at restaurants. In order to bolster his income, he alternates cooking with tricycle driving. He would stop by and offer me rides anywhere in the city for free. 
        So mailed the letter we did. Yon and his wife finally met. I  closed the law office so their dialogue can go uninterrupted. Though I was with them, I allowed them to choose the course of their talk. When their voices rose, I interrupted with questions. We began in mid-morning and ended up past lunch time. Afterwards, I asked Yon if he can see himself sleeping with another woman. He said no. I asked his wife if she can see herself with another man. She said no. They reconciled. Yon thanked for the ‘trouble.’ The family lived again in their rented house beside Anilao river. Unknown to them, a greater force of nature would uproot their home and family and change their lives forever.      
        When the waters rose, no one thought it would spill off the dikes. The city has had worse typhoons, and it never flooded. People went on their chores – I went to the office two blocks from home. As the curtain of rain thickened and pounded on the shutters, we closed before noon then went home. Across our house people played mahjong as water seeped through the floor. Some placed chairs on top of soft drink cases to avoid getting wet. Soon so much rain poured that we could no longer  see the houses across the street. Then strange things moved down the street: pails and other household items, plants, tree trunks, refrigerators and then tricycles, and large vehicles moved down towards the sea as if on a conveyor belt. I shouted to a man who stood hear his car to come up our house but he could not hear me. Soon entire nipa houses with people and later a huge container van paraded by our street. The van came from a riverside yard, smashed houses and loomed like an ocean liner as it approached and brushed by the electric post beside our house. My thoughts whirled. I asked if this was real. I thought no flood would happen after Noah. My wife and I agreed to put our baby in the bag and jump should the water reach us at the second level. She prepared milk, told us to put the rice container on top of the piano, and ordered that we eat a huge lunch – just in case. We realized later it was wiser to climb towards the roof than jump. When all our rationalization, denial and strategizings failed, we prayed ‘is there any remover of difficulties save God’ in loud staccato bursts while facing the tumbling torrents.  
        Unknown to us that time, entire districts of the city were uprooted with the mud and tree trunks. Among them was the river island of 3 thousand people where all but a handful died. Some clung to trees naked as the current stripped away their clothes. Others hopped from rooftops as houses were smashed by the container van. As bridges gave way cars were brought down along with the owners including some from the city’s rich. No one was spared for those in  the way of nature’s wrath.  
       Among the most poignant images splashed on TV from the flood was that of a father combing the hair of his lifeless daughter. That was Yon combing the long hair of Yola over and over as if asking why things happened as they did. Her body was caked in mud. He found her among the pile of dead ready for dump truck transport. Only Yola was found. His son and wife could not be located from among the thousands. 
      Yon told me he embraced his family before the waters came. They and their house and their neighbors’ houses were swept to Camotes sea. Yon lost consciousness. The next thing he was in the middle of the sea amidst debris. He said he tried to snuff his life out by drowning. It was the little bird  hopping on the trunks that did it. He said to himself if this bird can survive, he could. With his last ounce of strength he paddled. Ultimately he was rescued by residents of a fishing village several kilometers away. 
      Today Yon resumed cooking and drives his own tricycle. He sees me from time to time, mostly on legal matters connected with his motorcycle. He has since remarried. I heard his children are doing well in school. Yon and I never spoke of the flood again. His chicken eyes still wander at times. But I know no matter what he can, as he did, make it. He had collected the pieces of what was left when all was swept away. 

Sydney 29.11.10 

Key: Ormoc Flood, Ormoc stories

University of Sydney Museum

Friday, June 15, 2012

It has to be you

    When I first saw you, that lipstick was red as it can be like the wide bands of your shirt. You were young, on the go, plucky like Sally Field, and can talk straight and true. While I could not stare people in the face. Bumbling student, that’s what I was who loved wearing dull pink cotton long sleeves with Mickey Mouse prints, a gift from my aunties in America. And there you were, quick, and sharp and would not bog down in arguments as long as you’ve not finished your piece, although I know you’re not always right all the time. You are still the same, a bit mellowed perhaps, while then my ‘truth’ was more hidden, behind black rimmed plastic glasses, that Clark ‘Superman’ Kent look, a charitable moniker but nice to hear nevertheless. 
    When I met you, you were already ‘made,’ widely traveled and grown. You’ve been farther north than Aparri, where you had that photo at the beach sitting legs straight on the sand, chin pulled upward, right hand cupped at the back of your head and that toothy smile. I placed it at the front page of our photo album. What a perfect shot of a magic moment and confident subject! How patient you were to see through my slouching, and stuttering, the obvious half-lies and alibis and youthful indirections. Somehow we managed to bridge them all, these discrepancies like we don’t mind them, or when we don’t quarrel at the differences we laugh. We still find ourselves giggling before TV and movie shows, sometimes cry little when we hear Bette Midler sing ‘you gotta give a little, take a little and let your poor heart break a little.’ 
    I remember the time when I thought, and said to myself it has to be you. Was it some hill or island or leaf fringed porch and moonlight? The shady forms and twigs and leaves interplayed on your face like dancing wayang puppets of Indonesia, so real yet dreamlike, clear cut yet ungraspable as the half forming shadows of the mind. 
    When you told me you took care, bathed and cleaned your ailing grandfather, I knew somehow. I remember when you were pregnant and my Rayban was snatched how you shouted at the hold-upper so loud the shades fell from his grip. Or the time we brought our students to a luxury hotel on a field trip and were not allowed entry by the guard maybe because we all looked like non-tourist ‘provincials,’ and I told you let’s just go home. Yet, you convinced the guard to allow you to talk to the manager, and then we were not only granted the tour but given the hotel’s best guide - a resident Japanese tour guide. Pictures of your brave moments are what I shall always keep - from you my helpmate. 
    How grateful am I to be given chance to interact with you in this lifetime. Just to be with you I am happy. If He wills it, beyond we shall be consorts. Read a poem yesterday by Yeats and thought it is so you and so me that little teardrops fell on my cheeks as I read thus:

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

(ps. happy anniversary!)


The Gentle Rain
     AS I’m writing this it is raining outside. The kind that gently patters on the roof reminding me of my childhood days in the village south of Albuera town.  We used to huddle with friends in my grandmother’s house across the street watching the gravel dirt road fill its puddles into pools while listening to radio “dramas” such as “Handumanan sa Usa ka Awit”. Our pulses would throb with anticipation greeting the program’s signature music as the “announcer” reads the sender’s life story in letter form with unforgettable feeling and pathos.
       I am also conscious that a friend and elementary classmate of mine from the village died last week and will be buried tomorrow, leaving behind a young family of seven children, the eldest having just graduated from high school. He was Rosalito, a dark-skinned man with slightly stocky build from our village’s fishing sitio called Cabatuan. I remember him coming from that place ever since elementary days and it was also there where he grew up, got married and died. During those times especially after typhoons, we would sneak out with friends and go to sea to “collect” washed up but “usable” plastic debris and toys. I always asked where those things - some faded flowers, tumblers and toys- scattered ashore came from and wondered if they were from sunken ships.

      After grade 3, my parents decided to transfer my studies to Ormoc. From that time on I seldom saw or heard from elementary chums in the barrio. I heard some went to Manila— one was said to have worked as domestic helper of the Enrile household while another one, the girl with the brightest eyes of them all in elementary, with the possible exception of her twin sister, died of pimple infection. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether these were just myths or truth. We hear all sorts of stories—some tall tales—once in a while from friends in the barrio.
      I was already a lawyer when Rosalito started seeing me again, sometimes in our house or in the office in the city. He would bring fresh catch from his fishing trips and would tell me stories about his growing children and how his “poverty” prevented him from buying them even a dictionary. According to him his children were honor students back home. I accompanied him to Mancao bookstore where we bought a medium size dictionary. He told me other things as well, but what stuck in my mind to this day was his unflinching, unusually intense concern towards his children’s formal education. My mother who used to teach in our place told me Rosalito always managed to find ways to pay the “amutans” and equip his kids with required school paraphernalia. He also made sure his kids attended school with clean though simple clothes. Who knew if he was hounded with premonition that soon he would go in his sleep and not wake up? And this, before his kids could finish  school.
     I did not realize how difficult life was for Rosalito, his wife and children until the day I visited their place when news reached me of his death. His house was small and spare with no modern conveniences, the ones most of us take for granted. It was said he put off buying things since “all” his earnings from subsistence fishing went to his children’s upkeep and education. Understandably he was concerned he might not be able to send off his eldest son for college education. He told me he planned to enrol him to VISCA for a two-year course. The cut out picture displayed on his coffin was when he went on stage to accompany his boy receiving honors from school. How happy he must be that time, I thought to myself, though he didn’t smile in the picture. I myself have never attended closing or graduation ceremonies of my children and honestly I have reasons to envy this man who took time out to be with his kids during their school recognitions. I noticed my friend was wearing T-shirt in his death. I regretted asking his wife if they could have found a barong. I realized his white T-shirt, simple in its quiet dignity was the best he could wear under the circumstances. It had some prints with a quotation: “Life is a basketball, the more you dribble the more you fumble. But if you hold the ball firmly and determine to shoot, it will surely hit the goal”.
    Estrella D. Alfon wrote a story entitled the Gentle Rain first published in the Sunday Tribune Magazine in January 1937, where we find this: “See it commences to rain. They say when it rains just when somebody has died, it means that the dead one did not yet want to leave this world. Is not life like the gentle rain? The gentle rain that overflows the river and that washes away its banks. The gentle rain from which springs so many forms of life, and through which as many others are destroyed”. Just like Maring in the short story, my friend never mentioned any sadness. Only being happy and wanting to be happy, although in his case I know for one how he already gave all his happiness—to his children.
15 June 2012
amutan – contribution
handumanan sa usa ka awit – remembrance from a song
Si Dodong Namarayeg Ug Donut

Si dodong namarayeg ug donut
Gihatud ni tatay sa terminal,
Nangadlawon nga  maabtan ang “first trip”
Kay mag test kuno.

“Hala pilia nga dili gutman sapagtungha”
“Duha ka donut’ tay, tagsa ta”
“Hutda nang tanan, dong”
“Mikoot si tatay sa katapusang kuwarta
Gisuklian sa iyang paniudto.
Sydney 15 June 2012

Remembering my Father

    Today is my father’s birthday. Born on April 9, 1933, Dominador Tumamak Tabucanon would have been 79 years old had his life not ended 30 years ago. He was a remarkable man. I miss him more than I could express. I wish I could write a longer piece about him, maybe someday. For now, its just scribbled tidbits on the life and times of the man. If you have recollections of him, would be happy to know.
    There are three things I would like to say about Papa: 1) much like many Filipino parents he made sure we got good education, 2) how he dealt with his fellow men, and 3) love for family, both his nuclear and larger family.
1. Education. Papa was a stickler for academic propriety and excellence. He corrected my use of "trucking" to refer to buses that passengers use in going to Manila: " 'Trucking' is for cargoes, not people."Yes, people and things are not the same. He also made sure that we read, andbought books for us. He was himself a well-informed person who regularly read papers and the Reader's Digest. His long-standing rule in the house was those who read do not do house work. I took advantange of this "law", that up to this day I do not know how to cook! I guess, every good law has its downside. Papa's education was anchored on loyalty. Many may not agree, but in my case it worked. For instance, he insisted I (and Vilma) do my high school at Western for he studied there, and it worked forhim (e.g. he became a lawyer). Logically, this is incorrect. What was good forhim, may not suit his children. Its like saying I went to this mountain school barefoot, you do the same. Yet Papa's insistence on my sticking it out with Western paid off for when the school opened its law school they took me in as dean. That's loyalty and Papa's foresight in action.
2. Fellow men. Papa had an exceptionally high social intelligence.This did not always sit well with Mama who wanted a quieter and more domesticatedhousehold. During Papa’s time ours was an open house. The trip from Ormoc toTinag-an was an odyssey of sorts by stopping by, drinking, eating and talking with his clients and friends. I developed some kind of social phobia after theexperience. Yet, if there was one thing Papa cannot be faulted, it was hisability to connect with people: people of all shapes and sizes, denomination,  persuasion, sexual orientation and economic standing. He was one of the few individuals I know who does not know how to discriminate. He was loved by the people in return. His love was universal and cosmopolitan. When TV was new in the villageand some households charged fees for a view, he said our TV should be free; sowith the beach house in Tinag-an.  He said that should be for free use by the community.
3. Family. Papa loved his family, his wife, children, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and cousins galore. It was a love that radiated through and through, and I don’t know how he did it but he seemed to have memorized the names of each and every cousin of his including their spouses, children and grandchildren. My shy and private nature is but a speck of that genius of knowing one's exact family interconnections to the dot. He does not distinguish between blood cousins and cousins by virtue of his marriage. When Dodok, who was Mama’s first cousin had Aplastic Anemia, Papa spearheaded the line up of blood donors and offered him  a room in Ormoc (had it painted and screened). Papa was loved by his larger family in return. He treasured gifts and made sure we knew who gave what to him: his law books, office table (the one with DTT initials that looked like they were bullet holes), and cabinet were given. He treasured the Samsonite bag given by his sisters, and was proud of the dollar check gifts he received from his family in America which he would divide among us, his children, by ratio and proportion according to age. And that suited me, being the eldest, but then I did not choose to be born first.
    All in all, Papa’s was a life well lived. He was a good man, and a kind man, to his family and the community.  I am happy to have met and interacted with him, enough to recollect some of the many good things he did. For my part, I have dedicated some of my important life works and projects in his name and memory.
    Papa, I hope wherever you are that you are happy:  All your children have married and they have their own children now. Life goes on. You have not failed us: you were a good father and person to all of us.
Sydney 9 April 2012

Why ASEAN is duty bound to help climate change-affected Pacific populations

    The effects of climate change are now being felt in various regions of the world. Scientists have documented rising levels of sea and air temperatures. While hurricanes and floods are experienced in one region, droughts and disruption to rainfall are felt in another. In the polar regions there is the melting of glaciers and ice caps.The Pacific region with its low-elevation island nations dispersed in a vast ocean setting makes it particularly vulnerable to challenges from the physical environment. The region is predicted to be among those where the adverse effects of environmental changes can be felt the most. Coastal flooding due to unusually high tides displaced a number of people in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and the northern coast of Papua New Guinea in December 2008.  Already people are relocating due to saltwater inundation and contamination. The first batch of Carteret islanders had resettled in Bougainville island Papua New Guinea in 2009 on a plan that would ultimately transfer 1,700 residents due to increasing inhabitability of their atoll home. In 2005, President Anote Tong of Kiribati spoke before the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the need of atoll countries to consider relocation of their populations. In 2008 during the 63rd UN General Assembly session the President of Vanuatu noted the possibility that ‘some of our Pacific colleague nations will be submerged’(UN General Assembly, 2008).

    The Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), consisting of ten western Pacific rim countries (including the Philippines) is the next door neighbour to the vulnerable Pacific nations. The Pacific is closer than many ASEAN residents suppose. Davao is closer to Palau than to Baguio: 981 kilometers compared to 1,164 kilometers. Indonesia’s easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua (formerly part of Irian Jaya) share the island of New Guinea with the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea.  As such,  ASEAN is in a unique position to push for heightened global awareness and action for the vulnerable Pacific populations facing the possibility of relocation. Yet, it is strangely silent on the issue. ASEAN has both moral and legal obligation not to turn its back on its drowning Pacific neighbours. Morally, ASEAN – or at least most of it – is part of the western fringes of the Pacific region. It is proximate to many Pacific nations, and it has both the resources and landmass to help: two of the world’s largest archipelagos are ASEAN members.  The obligations of humanity require that everyone be they individuals or states, have the duty to prevent or minimize human suffering and distress. Most of us intuitively acknowledge a moral obligation to ‘relieve human suffering or distress’ when doing so would not equally endanger our life and limb. Such stems from our common humanity and is most manifest in one’s instinctive – almost reflexive- response to save a drowning person from a pool, either by ourselves or through another. Writing on the universal obligation to help famine victims of Bangladesh in the early 70’s, Singer posits that such an obligation extends to individuals beyond state borders. His argument is premised from the fact that suffering from lack of food and medicine is bad, and that it is within the power of other states to prevent or relieve the suffering in such a situation. Singer believes that the more privileged nations can do something to reduce the number of starving people without giving up the basic necessities themselves.

    Legally, international human rights instruments mandate everyone to observe the duty to preserve life, the right to life being one of the foundational principles of international relations. ASEAN has legal obligations under international law towards potential climate refugees from the Pacific. Under international human rights law, the right to life is one of the foundational principles of international relations. ‘Everyone has the right to life’ mandates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Corollary to the right to life is every person’s right to adequate food, clothing, housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions (ICESCR, 1966); everyone has the right not to be deprived of his or her means of subsistence (ICCPR, 1966). Climate change deprives people’s means of subsistence in a significant way;  coastal flooding and inundation due to rising sea levels render islands uninhabitable. ASEAN may learn from the African Union (AU) experience.  While AU accepted the UN Refugee Convention definition of ‘refugee,’ it expanded it to include  those compelled to leave their country owing to ‘events seriously disturbing public order.’ Many scholars believe this includes  the environmentally displaced.

    ASEAN can choose to take on the easy path of insularity and parochialism as regards the looming issue of environmental migration, or it can take the high road by transforming itself into a dynamic regional actor pushing for clear policies on how to address it.  Displacements are by nature traumatic and carry with them the impoverishments  of  landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, increased morbidity and mortality, food insecurity, loss of access to common property resources, and social disarticulation (Cernea, 2000). ASEAN can do much to help its vulnerable neighbors. With its archipelagos and off shore islands it can open its doors to vulnerable Pacific populations. Resettlement may be permanent or else temporary, pending determination of the environmental migrants permanent home, as in the case of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. At the very least, ASEAN can help raise global consciousness and awareness in rallying the international community to collectively address the issue.


A friend from long ago 

When our youngest was born, I suggested to call him ‘Mariner’  in honor of an old friend Marinus whose name means ‘he who comes from the sea.’ To persuade  my wife I used the pretext that the name ‘connects’ with her formal education as BS and MS in Marine Biology graduate from the University of San Carlos. She was not convinced, and of course I did not insist. Now, I’m doing the  next best thing, which is write a pean about the unusual and unique person who I remember as clear as yesterday, though he died 30 years ago.           
I knew Marinus in high school, through letters. Unlike today’s cyberkids who have access to the internet and could chat with the world in seconds, our time in the mid ‘70s seemed closer to the Pony Express era in the way messages were handwritten, and relied on what seemed like forever waiting for the response to arrive  a  month later. To compensate, I wrote lengthy and vivid narrations of school and home ‘adventures,’ ask questions (to keep the interest going) and share whatever odd schemes I would have fancied on at the moment.
            The old post office was at the ground floor of a two storey private residence in upper J. Navarro Street beside tiny Osmeña bridge beyond which was our school. My buddies and I knew approximately when mails would arrive. With the patience of rock fans queuing for hours just to buy a concert ticket, we would waylay outside the post office building for the mail cars and watch postmen (among them the  brother of our music teacher) disgorge letters from khaki mailbags instead of wait for the letters to be transported to the school library. 
            This was the time when there was not much to do in our small city, except eat  Spanish bread at nearby bakeries where we also knew the schedule when hot bread was taken out and  placed on top of tables in round nigo containers. And when the salesclerks turn the other way, some friends would put hot rolls in their school uniform pockets all for the fun of it. Some evenings we ‘joy ride’ on vehicles of rich friends, or join street corner ‘taxi’ (pay dance) discos in Mabini or Carlos Tan Streets. But if there was one other activity I and a few other chums liked doing the most, it was pen-pal writing. This was how our naive and adventurous minds got their first inoculation of strange lands and on how faraway people lived. All through exchanges of  letters, photos and stamps. Even before high school, I had this burning curiosity as to how life is lived in the other side of the globe, where Christmas trees have real snow while in our case we put dried bubbles of Perla on the branches. So when the pen-friend craze hit our school, I was an easy convert.           
            This started when a lady classmate received fresh cuttings of ‘pen-friend’ columns from a newspaper in Hong Kong sent to her by her cousin. This was the time when we thought Philippine pen-pal advertisements were bogus and don’t answer, while Hong Kong pen-pal sites were not only real, but the persons advertised would end up marrying  interested Filipinos. So we scrambled and scoured on the names, and each one of us appropriated several addresses for ourselves and wrote furiously to the ‘friends.’ 
            A month later, I met our high school librarian walking down the stairs with bundles of letters. She handed to me two sealed foreign looking envelopes with my name scribbled on their face: one from a young lady from Malaysia who enclosed reserved leaf veins dyed in bright pink and tangerine, and another from  William Ho of Hong Kong.That was the happiest day of my sophomore year and soon, my friends received their responses as well. I loved the smell of the mails and we treasured the letter and photos like relics. One thing led to another and I found myself becoming a regular letter writer to people around the world of all shapes and sizes including a grandmother from New Zealand who, knowing that I collect stamps gave me stamps with pictures of roses from her country. By this time, I had become somewhat of a veteran in the epistolary art, and had written to and requested several magazines to publish my details where I usually say that I’m interested in all people of any age. 
            Marinus wrote me by way of a large card with a painting of a dream-like scene from the Amazon forest. He called the card ‘flamboyant’ but necessary to catch my attention hoping I’d write back. He found it curious a young man of 16 could be broadminded. As we exchanged mails, I learned he was a lithographer –whatever that meant- as well as homegrown philosopher from Fort Lauderdale, and in due time, I became his ‘student’ and friend. I regularly received books from him, many written by Krishnamuri, ratiocinating on the theme ‘truth is a pathless land.’  I would have twice a month dose of Marinus’ own mental meanderings and scribbled ‘philosophizings.’ I was a willing student and would write back about my reactions as well as what I felt I earned.  From him I learned that happiness is the discovery of beauty beyond the self. My understanding of this is beyond the confines of our petty pursuits for money, success and recognition lies an immense wellspring of beauty, the  kind one would find, say, in a dewdrop clinging for dear life on a leaf, the smile of banana vending village women, and genuine affection rooted in care for others.        
            Marinus refused guided tours - called them artificial - and liked to explore  new places by himself. He preferred the wet market to talk with ordinary folks, hear their stories. He said this was how he got to know places and people, not through the studied by lines of tour guides waving measured smiles from  air-conditioned coach buses. Before Marinus got sick, he visited us in Ormoc.  I brought him to    my parents’ house in the village and introduced him to my parents, family members and friends. At that time there was revelry and dancing  at the village square led by my very own father who danced the  curacha. This was in 1980, the same year  Marinus died months after he went back to America. His death was a shock. He was 34. His twin brother telegrammed me about his passing – and how he chose its date and time, and that some of Marinus’ old clothes were sent to me. I never received them. And I never became interested in pen-pal writing again. 
            Now, 30 years after, the memories of those days are  still intact. Marinus was a friend from long ago, my mentor, and the first to call  me ‘world citizen.’ To him I dedicate these words from a sonnet of Shakespeare: ‘To me, fair friend, you never can be old.’

Me and my piano

I WAS Grade 6 when father bought our piano. Though old looking and secondhand, it nevertheless gave us joy as children. It was about the only ‘antique’ thing in the house, and though the case had dried up with scratches, yet its curved legs were elegant and sometimes you notice the leaf carvings on the sides. I was very happy seeing it ‘arrive’ at our home. Years before, I remember trying hard to open the lid of another piano in a family friend’s house but could not do so because it was locked. I was scolded.
When my grandmother’s church bought a pedal powered organ (this was before electricity reached the village) the instrument was temporarily placed in our house until carpenters finished making its plywood casing complete with lock. I would spend hours banging, rolling and frolicking my fingers on the keys, sometimes put the side of my head on the naphthalene smelling keys like they’re pillows and then kick the pedals to grandmother’s dismay. The organ was promptly transferred to the church.
Our first teacher was Ma’am Rosie, the piano owner’s daughter. Story has it that her father, a Boy Scout master, died on a ship that sank between our village and a nearby island. I remember she wrote a letter to my parents offering to sell her piano. Father must have asked us what our thoughts were, since I recalled reading Ma’am Rosie’s letter and can still picture her slanting handwriting strokes and color of the pad she used.
On hindsight, how difficult it must be for Ma’am Rosie to give up the only piano she had, her true friend and companion, a real possession bought especially for her by her father. Whatever her needs were that time, she must have also hoped my parents would be able to take care the way she took care of her piano. Maybe she also prayed the new owner’s children would find delight in it the way she, in her time, filled her own house with abundant laughter, music, love, and life entertaining her parents with skillfully executed servings of melodious and ‘sonorous’ (her term) Visayan piano songs.
In the beginning she would to come to our house on weekends and taught me and my sister waltzes and duets. At times it was difficult absorbing everything she said. So she would play her favorite pieces, and demonstrate the simple, to complex executions of Visayan folk tunes on the piano saying, all these keys are really ‘one and the same.’  That was the point of my difficulty. Since the keys looked alike how would the fingers know which key to land on? Yet we plodded on.
A few weeks passed and Ma’am Rosie stopped coming to our house. Maybe the rigors of travel from her town to our village with really bad un-cemented roads proved too much on her. To continue our lessons mother enrolled us in a formal piano school in the city. I can still hear on my mind the thunder deep metallic sound of the tall upright with yellowed keys where my sister and I took turns striving to hit the correct keys, as our legs dangled from the seats hardly reaching the pedals. Our new teacher was a competent woman, piano wise, who loved wearing matching up and down ‘terno,’ bags and umbrella. She can attack and scale with ease the difficult notes of Malagueña, Glow Worm and, Charles Williams’ ‘Jealous Lover’ -the theme from the movie The Apartment. Jealous lover, to her, represents one woman’s quixotic love for a priest - hers.
My sister never went farther beyond the first piece ‘Off I go to Musicland’ (‘training ear and eye and hand’). Probably she found formal training tedious and not to her ‘free spirit’ temperament. She abandoned the lessons altogether. But she has evolved in other areas of music such as karaoke singing, shaping and ‘perfecting’ her voice craft along the style of Sharon Cuneta a favorite singer of Tagalog compositions. Whenever she comes for a visit our sibling ritual is to do pop numbers with piano accompaniment. Reveling on the piano had been my and my sister’s bonding.
Rabindranath Tagore once said that the faith waiting in the heart of a seed promises a miracle of life which it cannot prove at once. I am thankful of the unflinching trust of our first music teacher, giving up her piano for us. It was faith that says hey, these bumbling musical ignoramuses whose only input is raw interest can still evolve (a saving grace worth looking into) not necessarily as big-time musicians but, at least, can be counted on among those who continue to keep faith in music’s mysterious power to bring souls to higher levels of life and love.