Calm before the storm
What came to be known as the “Pope Francis effect” seems such a quaint and far-off notion now. Yet it was only in January, or barely eight weeks ago, that Filipinos were in full rapture mode with the visit to the Philippines of the popular Pontiff of the Catholic Church. It didn’t feel like a put-on; for the five days that he was on Philippine soil, people of all stripes seemed nicer, more good-natured, wholly cooperative especially when it came to hewing to government-imposed security arrangements, less unreasonable, and more understanding of the inconveniences caused by temporary road closures and bad traffic. The piety appeared heartfelt, and the call for the nation to renew itself in the wake of this moment of benediction—to live the spirit of Francis’ exhortation for greater Christian compassion, charity and tenderness toward one another—was the dominant sentiment on the airwaves, the social media and the streets.
It didn’t last. No sooner had the Pope exited Philippine airspace on his way back to Rome than the political sniping and daily bellyaching resumed, to reach overwhelming proportions just days later with the tragic news of a firefight on Jan. 25 between Special Action Force commandos of the Philippine National Police and Moro gunmen in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Not only 44 SAF troopers but also 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front men and three civilians lost their lives in that encounter, but the grief that engulfed the public centered mostly on the SAF 44 and their families.
The flip side of that mourning was the widespread anger directed at President Aquino’s administration for the botched operation to take down wanted terrorists; the anger would only increase every time the President came out with what sounded like another less-than-forthcoming statement about the tragedy. Meanwhile, a consequence unforeseen by the Palace when it green-lighted the Mamasapano raid came to pass: The peace process with the MILF painstakingly built over the years and about to reach its conclusion with the deliberations on and passage of a proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law screeched to a bitter stop. The general public took a hard look at the idea of making peace with rebels who had not only routed government troops but also had allegedly defiled the bodies.
The BBL and its perceived legal infirmities were hung out to dry. In many cases, the prejudice extended to the MILF and the historic Moro cause that it represents, with atavistic calls for all-out war against Muslims in Mindanao quickly gaining ground. It’s worth noting that the appalling bigotry, rooted in ignorance of the age-old Moro grievances and plain fear of “the other,” belies every tenet of Christian fairness and open-mindedness that Pope Francis preached merely weeks ago and that had brought the general public to heights of hope for a kinder, gentler Philippines. It’s even more noteworthy that, in the face of the saber-rattling going on in Manila and other cities far from the specter of war, those in Mindanao—Muslim and Christian alike, among them Cardinal Orlando Quevedo—are the ones cautioning against any indiscriminate rush to judgment and the resumption of arms.
This much is clear: The pious afterglow is a mirage, dissipating all too quickly in the harsh light of Philippine politics. As the country observes yet another Holy Week, it’s not being cynical to consider this moment a mere breather before the next round of skirmishes, of which there will be plenty once Easter Sunday is over: the BBL, for one, up again for contentious deliberations; the ongoing standoff in Makati between two mayors; China’s continuing expansion in the South China Sea and its hypocritical broadsides at the Philippines for the latter’s fortifying its own islands; more wearisome back-and-forth between the administration and the opposition as each seeks better positioning for the 2016 elections; also, the general hotheadedness that pervades the air as the summer months get on and the traffic remains as intractable as ever, the MRT bogs down nearly every other day, power outages plague the metro and other parts of the nation, the tap runs dry, and forbearance comes close to running out.
It’s the calm before the storm. We can all use a bit of the “Pope Francis effect” again—not for the holy days, when demonstrations of goodwill and graciousness are expected, but for the difficult days further ahead.
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