May 19, 2008
Alexander Martin Remollino: Investigative reporter, Bulatlat online news journal.
Lives in Laguna, a province south of Manila.
A STREETBUZZ INTERVIEW
STREETBUZZ: Alex, please tell me about your childhood.
ALEX: I was born in 1977 in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila. But we later transferred to Laguna. That was where I spent the rest of my boyhood. My parents were a middle-class couple, but we were often in some sort of financial trouble during my growing up years. My father was an accountant; before I was born my mother was often in secretarial jobs. She later became a fulltime housewife / mother. I have one brother, he stays fulltime in the house.
STREETBUZZ: How did you find school? What kind of student were you?
ALEX: I was the type of student who would win in quiz contests. But I rarely made it to the list of top ten students in the class. Early on I was noted by some of my teachers for what they described as an aptitude for writing on my part.
STREETBUZZ: Then you went to college?
ALEX: I went to college in 1994 at the University of Santo Tomas, the oldest university in the Philippines. I took up legal management, its pre-law, that's the type of course that will usually lead its graduates into corporate law. There were a series of events in college that got me more and more interested in literature. For example, I was starting to get deeply interested in history at that time, thanks to several really good professors in my social science subjects, and through my readings in history, I also came across some titles that I had never heard of at the time. That was when I discovered that our university library had this wonderful collection of literature, whether Philippine literature or world literature. I guess my immersion in literature gradually developed into an interest in becoming a writer.
STREETBUZZ: What did you do after college?
ALEX: I first spent a few years trying to get along as a freelance writer, contributing various articles and poems to various magazines. And then I worked briefly for IBON in 2002. Later that same year I started writing for Bulatlat.
STREETBUZZ: What can you say about your career with Bulatlat?
ALEX: I've spent some of the most fulfilling years of my life working for that publication. It was very fulfilling because a lot of what I've learned about the journalist's trade I learned there because by taking on some of the more exciting or even challenging assignments that in the consultations with the editorial board, the issue plannings, we were able to cook up.
STREETBUZZ: Please describe the editorial board.
ALEX: They are among the brightest people that I have met so far in the journalistic circles. They always have a way to spot interesting angles in the issues that we cover, angles that other journalists have tended to overlook.
STREETBUZZ: So they've guided you, supported you...
ALEX: They have guided us in such a way that we would develop our own ways of analyzing the issues that we cover. They've been supportive whenever we had ideas especially for big stories. And that contributed toward enriching our work as journalists.
STREETBUZZ: What is your plan about your future professional career?
ALEX: The way it is, I compare my situation as a journalist with other journalists who work in other publications: even though they receive higher wages than we, the intellectual and professional environment in Bulatlat is more satisfying. Yes I plan to stay for awhile, probably as long as Bulatlat exists even.
STREETBUZZ: Personal life?
ALEX: Still a bachelor. I think I'm enjoying it while it's there. Yes, I'm focused on my professional career at this time.
Interviewing at Camp Crame, Metro Manila.
STREETBUZZ: Shall we start with the so-called peace process with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front, one of two primary Muslim separatist organizations in Mindanao); you have been writing about that topic lately. The departure of the Malaysian IMT (International Monitoring Team) from Mindanao seems like a very bad sign for the future of discussions and prospects for peace. What's your opinion?
ALEX: The departure of the Malaysian delegates is really a bad sign. It signals that things are really up for worse. The International Monitoring Team which is composed of delegates from not only Malaysia but also Brunei and Libya are tasked with monitoring this implementation of agreements related to the negotiations between the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) and MILF, as well as the implementation of the development projects in the conflict areas. Now Malaysia had the biggest contingent in the IMT and now they are starting to leave. Before their departure, Malaysia facilitator Othman Abdul Razak was reported as having issued a statement blaming the Philippine government for the continuing impasse in the negotiations. This signals a serious drop in confidence in the prospects for the peace talks on the part of Malaysia which is facilitating the negotiations.
STREETBUZZ: Why is the Arroyo administration is passing up this opportunity for a diplomatic success? She has had a string of failures lately, this would seem like a chance to have something work for a change.
ALEX: Well you know at this time the credibility of the Arroyo regime has hit rock bottom not only within its own turf, but also in the international community. Now the GRP-MILF peace talks were in fact offering a chance for the Arroyo regime to win some saving grace for itself. Late last year, before December, the two parties were able to reach an agreement defining the coverage of the proposed BJE (Bangsamoro Judicial Entity, a proposed Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.) But last December, the GRP suddenly inserted the phrase 'constitutional processes' in the agreement without the MILF's consent. Not only was that a violation of the spirit of the original agreement, it also strikes at the very heart of the issue in Mindanao. And other places that are part of the Bangsamoro's homeland. When you get to the gut of the issue in Mindanao, the struggle of the Bangsamoro is basically about autonomy. It is the struggle for a homeland that was taken from them by centuries of colonialism and the succession of governments in cahoots with the conquerors. That is an issue that should go beyond such gobbledygook as 'constitutional processes.'
STREETBUZZ: So why did the Arroyo admin torpedo the ship? Are there other forces in the picture, for example, TNCs (transnational corporations) who want resources?
ALEX: I really don't know why the Arroyo regime would sink its own ship. I don't know why it would risk the one lifesaver that it could hang on to. What I do know is that the areas covered by MILF territory are rich in oil and gas deposits that TNCs and their local partners may be hungry for.
STREETBUZZ: Let's move on to the NBN-ZTE (National Broadband - Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment Company) scandal. It seems the Senate Blue Ribbon Commission investigation is at an impasse, as even Governor Suplico's recent 'surprise witness' may refuse to testify. What's your analysis?
ALEX: The surfacing of the star witness Jun Lozada (celebrated NBN whistleblower) could not have happened at a more opportune time for the Administration. Because he was the one witness who could put together a lot of the allegations of corruption involving the First Family and its henchmen. And yet he came out after the vote at the most inopportune time (February) because it was nearing the end of classes, and even the Senate was nearing the recess from its session. So it was that combination of circumstances that gave the Arroyo regime what you may call a breath of fresh air, buying itself time to turn people's attentions to other issues. So if he had appeared earlier, e.g. long before the school break and senate recess or after that, either January or July, there might have been much bigger effect , because there might have been bigger opportunity to sustain the momentum of this issue. And to pursue both the investigations and the rallies to their logical conclusions.
STREETBUZZ: So in your opinion, what is the state of the scandal and the likely outcome at this time (feel free to use your crystal ball)?
ALEX: At this point the ball is in the hands of the citizenry and the likes of Jun Lozada. Right now it is up to them to continue the campaign by whatever means available at this time of year. Jun is still going around, I think that he needs to continue doing that, maybe more. And the citizens' groups need to continue drumming up the issue so it doesn't just get swept away from public discourse.
Interviewing at Welcome Rotunda, Quezon City.
STREETBUZZ: HR. What can you say about the human rights situation in the Philippines at this time?
ALEX: There seems to be an illusion that things are looking up for the human rights situation in Philippines. The extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances are less rampant than in the last few years, esp. compared to 2005 and 2006. But the thing is, they are still taking place and not a single case involving state security forces has been resolved. There have been a number of cases in which military men were confirmed to have been involved but none of those identified as the perpetrators have been convicted. There have always been observations that state security forces were involved in the killings and disappearances. The existence of the national security plan Oplan Bantay Laya confirms that the extermination of the activists is part of official policy.
STREETBUZZ: But the administration and military leadership insist the few cases in which security forces were involved in killings and disappearances were just a few bad apples.
ALEX: I can cite at least one case in the Bicol region, the case of Pastor Isaias Santa Rosa. Several armed men stormed into his house one night, and held his brother and other relatives at gunpoint, inside the house, while he was dragged out. This Pastor Santa Rosa knew something of martial arts, I think it was judo, so as the armed men who dragged him out were preparing to shoot him, he was able to put up a fight and was able to kill one of the assailants in the process. But eventually he was killed. And the assailants left his body on the street beside that of their companion. That turned out to be a big mistake on their part, because when the police investigators searched the dead assailant's body for identification, they found among other things an ID indicating the corpse belonged to a certain corporal Lordger Pastrana of the Philippine Army. They also found a mission order authorizing him to carry his gun. But of course no prosecutions yet regarding this case. There are a few similar cases in other parts of the country, as in places as far as Mindanao, as well as Southern Tagalog which may be quite close to the Bicol region but is nevertheless separated by clear geographical boundaries. There have been more than 900 extra-judicial killings all over the country. And the manner in which most of these have been carried out is similar to that of the more prominent cases. Now while state security forces were identified positively in only a few cases, there is a clear pattern to the killings. Which shows that they involved not just a few bad apples.
STREETBUZZ: So what do you think is the human rights outlook over the next three years of the Arroyo administration?
ALEX: Definitely we can expect the extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances to continue, maybe increase again or maybe decrease further; but they will surely continue.
STREETBUZZ: Any comments about the current involvement of the United States in the Philippines?
ALEX: What I find interesting in the form that the US involvement takes in the Philippines at present is the fact that the US government has refused to tolerate less corrupt and less tyrannical regimes (in other countries.) But it continues to tolerate the Arroyo regime, which had recently been rated as the most corrupt in Asia and one of the most corrupt in the world, and which has earned the ire of the international community for its contempt for human rights. I think the reason for that is Ms. Arroyo is probably the most committed ideologue for neoliberal globalization in this part of the world. I mean, look at all the laws that place the Philippines within the WTO framework: you'll find that most of these were authored by Ms. Arroyo when she was a senator in the 1990s.
STREETBUZZ: And also her enthusiastic embrace of the US government having labeled the Philippines as a second front in the global war on terror, right?
ALEX: I think it is important to note right now the involvement of US troops in Mindanao, particularly in Sulu, where the US troops deployed, are not just the ordinary American soldiers, but members of the JSOTF-P (Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines) whose work is officially declared as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. There have been several instances recently in which US soldiers were seen around the vicinity during offensives conducted by the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) in Sulu. The most recent case was the bombardment and shelling of a village in Indanan, Sulu, where the main camp of the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front, another important Muslim separatist organizations in Mindanao. Unlike the MILF, the MNLF has already reached agreement with the Philippines government.) is located. The bombardment involved among other things the use of smart bombs, a kind of equipment that the Philippine military does not have.
STREETBUZZ: Let's switch to the killings of journalists. You are involved in a hazardous occupation. The IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) has labeled the Philippines as the second most dangerous place for journalists after Iraq. Do you have a death wish or something? What are your comments?
ALEX: The most striking difference between Iraq and the Philippines right now is that Iraq is a nation that is clearly at war, while the Philippines claims to be a nation at peace. So it is an irony that would have been laughable were it not so miserable considering that it involves the deaths of journalists. That the Philippines could come in second to Iraq in being among the most dangerous places for journalists. It has to be noted that many of the journalists killed under the Arroyo regime were working on exposés against corruption at the time of their deaths. Their exposes were mainly directed against local politicians who were known to be warlords in tier respective areas. The Arroyo regime meanwhile has a record of using the machineries of local politicians in taking the votes for itself in the provinces, so there's a connection.
STREETBUZZ: Any personal stories or comments about the dangerous life of a journalist? Have you ever been threatened or felt at personal risk?
ALEX: One experience I can remember is something that took place in early 2004. I was with a group of journalists covering a press conference by the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines.) That was somewhere in the Cordillera region. When we were going back to Manila after the press conference, we were stopped by the police, at a checkpoint in Sabangan, Mountain Province. We were on a convoy back then and the police were telling us that they had reports that we were taking a wanted man along in our convoy. We let them search our vehicles and of course they didn't find anyone. But we were still held for almost two hours. Later on we received word that we were all under surveillance by the PNP (Philippine National Police.)
Some fellow journalists who covered the police beat have told about seeing a picture of me in a police video about journalists who are supposedly allied with the militants, but I still have yet to personally verify that.
STREETBUZZ: Closing words?
ALEX: Thus far, life for me hasn't always been a walk in the park. But I think I can at this point be proud: that 30 or 40 years from now, when children ask me what I did during the best years of my life, I'll be able to give them a clear answer.
A STREETBUZZ INTERVIEW