Monday, 6 February 2012

Insurgency points to weak, ineffective Philippine govt: Ex-US Peace Corp Volunteer Parker Borg

        Former Ambassador Parker W Borg reads a statement at the National Press 
        Club supporting John Kerry for president during the 2004 US presidential 
        election. - Internetpic


RARE is the occasion that a foreigner, who had once bonded with our Motherland in more ways than one, would download from the past the nostalgia that made his or her life exciting and unforgettable while living among our countrymen.

While many of them would prefer to reminisce uncomplicated and only-happier times with Filipino friends whom they had been closely associated with, it is very rare that a few would hazard an opinion on crucial circumstances our Motherland was embroiled with that were then prevailing during those times. But more so with sharp perceptions on why things were happening in the Philippines the way they do now.

Parker Borg*, a young Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) assigned in Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte, Philippines, in the early 60s as member of pioneering batch deployed in the country, came back from the past with capsulized but stimulating insights on our country’s past and present-day political and socio-economic affairs.

A few more years of further education and extensive training on international diplomacy after completing a two-year stint as PCV in our high school – the Jose Panganiban High School – teaching in our class subjects in English and Literature, Borg went on to become the US Ambassador to Mali (1981-1984) and to Iceland (1993-1996). His supposed third posting as US envoy to Myanmar (then Burma) was blocked by the US Congress because of human rights issues against that Asian country.

His last US government posting just before he retired very recently at the age of 69 was as head of the American University in Rome (AUR).

And as patriotic American, he consistently and vehemently opposed publicly and in commentaries and analysis that saw print in various American political publications several of President George W Bush policies, most notably his administration’s decision to invade Iraq after the September 11 attack on American soil by foreign terrorists.

In fact, he was among the very first to tell the American people and the world as well based on his own sources in the diplomatic community in the US and overseas and in the military hierarchy, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that the US invasion was plainly oil-motivated, although this raging allegation on Iraqi oil has remained the bone of contention among political, diplomatic and military observers.

As the invasion spiraled down and rolled on to a new phase but still remaining deeply embedded in the country, Borg’s predictions as to what would happen in the aftermath of President Bush’s actions proved 80 per cent accurate.

And on US President Barack Obama, Borg said: “He will need to show extraordinary leadership to begin finding the right solutions to the complicated problems now confronting America.

“Now that Obama and his team are in place, they will face tremendous challenges: a disastrous global economy, crisis hotspots around the world, global warming, nuclear proliferation, and a host of domestic issues ranging from health care and education, to deteriorating infrastructure and energy independence.”

So folks, as a fitting gesture on my part and knowing how valuable his insights are, I am giving way on this space Borg’s surprise reaction** to my piece titled “Insurgency and rural growth”.

“Dear Freddy,

“I read your article, ‘Insurgency and Rural Growth – two incompatible scenarios’ with greater interest than may have been the case for most non-Filipinos because I remember well from the 1960s the town of Paracale and Jose Panganiban, the nearby barrios, the iron mines at Larap, and the efforts to find gold in this northern corner of Camarines Norte.

“When I was living in Camarines Norte province from 1961 to 1963 (particularly in the town of Jose Panganiban – APH), we were warned repeatedly by Filipino friends not to venture too far off the main roads because of the presence of communist insurgents in the surrounding hills. 

“I never saw any, but I was always careful. I traveled with other teachers short distances from the main highways to barrios where there were schools, but no further. I looked at the hills surrounding both Paracale and Jose Panganiban with an air of wonder, thinking how much fun it would be to hike in the forest or climb to the top of one of the hills, but I always heeded local advice and stuck to the settled towns and barrios. 

                        Parker Borg carves a lechon (roast pig) during training at Los Baños 
                       with Brenda Brown and other volunteers looking on, Philippines, 1961. 
                       – Photo courtesy of American Diplomacy. For his  impressions about his 
                       two-year stint in the Philippines, particularly in Paracale and Mambulao, 
                       please visit

“One of my biggest adventures was a full day's hike one Saturday from Jose Panganiban to Paracale, walking along the coast through mangrove thickets and past spectacular beaches.  For much of the way there wasn't even a path, but I didn't feel that any insurgents might be spending time so close to the sea.  

“I returned to Camarines Norte, stopping in both Paracale and Jose Panganiban in 1996 for the first time in more than thirty years. I had come to the Philippines to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the arrival of the Peace Corps in 1961.  

“After the sessions in Manila a group of my former colleagues and I rented a car and drove from Manila into the Bicol (Peninsula).  

“Gone completely were all the dense tropical forests of Quezon province and the uninhabited western edge of Camarines Norte that I remembered well from frequent bus trips along the rutted road to the capital. 

“The forests had been replaced by seemingly random plantings of coconut palms. We later ventured into the Bicol National Forest Park between Camarines Norte and Camarines Sur, only to see that all of the majestic trees I remembered from a boy scout camping trip into the area had been cut down.  

“I was told that the tropical forests had been too valuable a resource to let stand in such a poor part of the country. As I drove past the wasted landscape, I thought how many politicians had made a killing helping Japanese companies abscond with this irreplaceable resource and whether there had been any benefit to the communities in the area.

“Visiting the urban parts of Camarines Norte was equally disturbing. The main roads, although sometimes paved with concrete, were still narrow and cracked, not much better than they had been thirty years earlier. 

“Although Daet and particularly the fishing village of Mercedes, showed a bit more prosperity, the rest of the countryside seemed as poor as I remembered it. 

“The rice paddies and coconut stands, of course, presented an idyllic tropical beauty, but there were few signs of any enterprise other than traditional agriculture and its marketing. 

“The towns of Paracale and Jose Panganiban may have contained a few more cement houses with tiled roofs and a few more paved roads, but for the most part both towns and the surrounding barrios looked much as they had previously, but with the appearance of three to four times as many people trying to survive on the same economic base as had existed in the 1960s. 

“Everyone I met worked for the government as teachers or local administrators, farmed or sold things to each other in slightly larger versions of the sari-sari stores I remembered. The iron mines at Larap had closed.  While there was talk of new gold mines, there was little talk of any other enterprises. 

“I had been living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the time of my return visit to the Philippines in 1996. This was my second time to live there because of my posting as young diplomat for two years from 1965 to 1967. 

“Images of both places prompted immediate comparisons about the differences between the two in the 1960s and the 1990s. As contrasted with the Philippines, Malaysia by the 1990s had created a strong middle class society for the majority of its population. 

“Asphalt roads had reached the most remote corners of the country. The old houses and old shops had been often replaced with newer more modern looking structures. Suburban housing developments and shopping malls were not unusual. Automobiles (many like the Proton, made in Malaysia) were common possessions of many people in all of the towns. One could buy in small towns any of the goods available in the capital. 

“What could account for the difference? 

“First, I had to admit that rural Malaysia seemed slightly more prosperous in the 1960s than the rural Philippines had been, but not enough to create the dramatic present difference.  

“Second, Malaysia had a stronger resource base not only because of its tin and rubber production, but also because of the discovery of sufficient oil in recent years to become a minor oil exporting country.  

“This was certainly a big factor, but then I thought about modern agriculture in the two countries. Both countries had destroyed large sections of their rainforests over the decades, but Malaysia had done so with very specific plans for each swath of cleared land:  to plant oil palm, a crop greatly in demand in the industrial world. 

“The sale of wood from the rainforest had been secondary to the desire to promote industrial agriculture. I wondered if there had been a plan when the Philippine rainforest was eliminated – or was it mere clear cutting for profit with only a vague plan for its future agricultural use. 

“While the Malaysian land was converted to oil palm, it seemed the the Philippines had continued to focus on planting coconut palms with the hope that industrial uses of coconut would grow with the excess supply already on the market.   

“Third, while both countries had been governed by authoritarian regimes for most of the thirty-year period, the Malaysians had been more effective authoritarians. 

“Ferdinand E Marcos had run the Philippines from 1965 to 1983 and the United National Malay Organization or UNMO had run Malaysia since its independence in 1963.  

“A critical difference seemed to be the intense focus of political leaders in Malaysia in raising living standards in rural parts of the country. 

“UMNO did this primarily because the Chinese business community could prosper through normal growth policies, but the party's political base among rural Malays required a concentrated rural focus, an effort that succeeded through forceful government policy, relative honesty, and perseverance, so much so that UN officials later praised Malaysia's unique ability to extend the benefits of development throughout the country. 

“By contrast, Marcos, who probably had stronger authoritarian control, was more focused on amassing wealth for family and friends throughout his 18-year rule.  Before Marcos and afterwards, politicians played their usual Filipino games of sharing power and wealth among their politically elite supporters. 

“The rich got richer and the rest were left behind.

“As if these were not enough, I thought there seemed to be a fourth reason for the difference: the Catholic Church and its promotion of large families. 

“As best I can recall, the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia. The population of the Philippines more than doubled between 1960 (27 million) and 1990 (60 million) or 222%. At present the population is estimated to be close to 90 million, more than triple the 1960 level or 322%. 

“Malaysia has also experienced an explosion of growth, but from a smaller base and a slightly lower rate. 

“Islam also promotes big families, but in Malaysia the religious leaders were either less effective, less forceful, or the Indian and Chinese populations less co-operative. 

“The population of Malaysia also doubled between 1960 (about 8 million) and 1990 (17 million) or 211%. By 2008, there were 25 million Malaysians, an increase of 311 % over the 1960 figure (but fewer Malaysians than there had been Filipinos in 1960).  

“While the Malaysian numbers do not seem dramatically different from the Philippine figures, it is necessary to take into account the large number of Philippine expatriates, living and working outside of the Philippines. 

“Once source, Clarence Henderson of Henderson Consulting in Manila, estimated that in 2000 some six to seven million Filipinos lived outside the Philippines or about 10 % of the country's total population. 

“Their remittances of some US$7 billion each year (more than US$15 billion for 2008 – APH) had become the Philippines largest source of foreign exchange. Few articles are ever written about expatriated Malaysians because the numbers are small and their remittances insignificant. 

“The bottom line, however, is that the lack of economic opportunities in the Philippines has sent a large percentage of its young men and women to other corners of the globe to seek their livelihoods.  

“As we get older, we all like to think about how nice it would be to return to our roots and pursue the simpler lives we recall from our childhood.  

“You have written a very compelling piece about the Paracale region, the problems your aunt experienced dealing with insurgents, and how this has made you think twice about fulfilling your dream of returning home and establishing a farm. 

“While communist insurgents may be a special problem now in the area around Pinagbirayan (Munti and Malaki), I know they were a force in the Paracale area in the 1960s and have probably been present since at least the late 1940s, ebbing and flowing in strength over the years depending on the economic scene and the effectiveness of the local constabulary. 

“One has to ask why is it that more than sixty years after the Hukbalahap movement first emerged has the communist insurgents remained a significant force in so many parts of the Philippines. 

“Elsewhere, communism is a dead religion. 

“Why did the communist insurgents from the 1950s in Malaya, Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma all disappear, but they remain a frightening presence in the Philippines? 

“My own conclusion is simplistic: decades of alternating weak or authoritarian governments that have robbed the Philippines of its wealth and plowed little back into rural development; poor planning, ineffective management, and limited sustainability on those few occasions when the government focused on rural development; and a church that has rejected any type of family planning, thus permitting a population explosion that can only be supported through mass emigration. 

“The problem you see may appear as the insurgency, but this is only its manifestation. 

“The fundamental problem lies with the ineffectiveness of the Philippine government over the past sixty years to bring a better life to most Filipinos. 
“I have written much more than I planned, but your nostalgic piece about life in Camarines Norte inspired me to record some of my own recollections about the region and its problems. 
“Please accept my comments in the spirit of friendship they are intended.


* Parker Borg began his career in the US government when he joined the first batch of Peace Corp Volunteers (PCV) to the Philippines in 1961. He was assigned for two years in the writer's hometown Jose Panganiban in Camarines Norte, in the Philippines, to teach English in the local elementary and high school. This writer, then a first year student, was among his students.- APH)

** Parker Borg has consented to have his email to the writer posted on this space.

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