POSTSCRIPT / January 19, 2006 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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US is just doing its job protecting GIs in trouble

WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Hello, is anybody around? The country seems to be going to pieces, but we see nobody of consequence doing anything about it.

Dissidents raid a police station, free the prisoners and cart away government firearms. Motorcycle-riding assassins gun down targets at will. Prices of electricity and fuel, even food!, keep rising and the government is poised to slap an additional 2 percent consumption tax. Real wages keep dropping and jobs disappearing. Many households survive on just rice and salt. Nobody minds red lights and pink wire fences anymore.

Government bigwigs in official luxury vehicles zip around escorted by motorcycle cops. The Supreme Court voids a fat contract for overpriced sub-standard computers peddled by an unqualified firm but is ignored. Big-time grafters step up making hay while the glorious sun shines. Not to be outdone, many government employees routinely bring home office supplies.

The politicians lording it over us seem blind to all this. They are busy striking deals, even on constitutional amendments, to ensure their staying in power and amassing more wealth. They have not found time to pass the budget. They call themselves public servants and people’s representatives, but do not really care about the masses.

Who is running the country anyway?

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LOTTO LOOT: Meantime, you have until 8 p.m. today to plunk in P10 and buy a chance to win almost P125 million in tonight’s SuperLotto 6/49 draw of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

I do not mean to be a killjoy, but what happens in the dead of night between the 9 p.m. draw of the winning Lotto combination and early the next morning when the number of winners and the outlets that sold the tickets are announced in the media?

Despite assurances from the PCSO that everything is above board, many bettors cannot shake off the fear that bogus winners may be inserted right after the draw. Any expert with top-level access to the system can do that in minutes.

I am not saying that that is being done. What I am saying is that after-draw insertions of winning bets is possible, and that there is a way to prevent it.

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SIMPLE, DOABLE: To dash this lingering doubt, it has been suggested here that upon close of betting at around 8 p.m., all bets be consolidated and burned into a read-only compact disk (CD). The winning bets in the CD should then be determined and announced during the televised draw. That should preclude possible insertions after the show.

That CD produced before the actual draw is better assurance than self-serving statements that the game is supervised and audited, and that the winners have been confirmed to be real people served by legitimate agents.

There is no reason why the PCSO should not adopt this simple, inexpensive and doable CD safeguard — if it wants to improve transparency and enhance the credibility of Lotto and its managers.

There should also be no problem adopting our other suggestion that the bet ticket be printed by better equipment on better quality material so the numbers, codes and other data appearing on it do not fade before the one-year deadline for claiming prizes.

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WE SAW IT COMING: The insistence of the US government that the four American servicemen facing rape charges in Olongapo would remain in its physical custody should not surprise us.

Not only did Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez give us a sneaky preview of it. The Philippine officials who negotiated the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement and its lopsided provisions knew all along that this was bound to happen.

(Yet they still signed the VFA and our Senate even ratified it as a treaty despite the failure of the US Senate to give its advice and consent and wrap it up as a duly ratified treaty.)

So now we have this embarrassing spectacle of Philippine officials referring to the VFA as a treaty while the other contracting party, the US, regards it a notch lower — a naked Executive Agreement without a shred of congressional concurrence to clothe it.

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NO RECIPROCITY: We watch in horror as the entire Philippine government is held at bay by a mere embassy. Can you imagine our embassy in Washington, DC, standing up to reject a similar demand of the US Department of State?

If a Filipino sergeant on official errand in the US is accused of shoplifting at Macys, will our embassy embrace him into custody and refuse to surrender him to the New York police? Yes, I am talking only of the police, not yet the state department!

We got into this onerous agreement with eyes wide open. Let us not now blame the US for invoking an agreement supposedly signed by two consenting equals.

A state is expected to protect or at least assist its citizens who get into trouble abroad. The US embassy is just doing its job, which would have a parallel in the hypothetical case of a Filipino non-com being arrested in New York.

It is significant that there is no reciprocity in the VFA. The pact pertains only to American personnel — both military and civilians — running afoul of the law while in the Philippines. It does not speak of Filipino soldiers getting into trouble in the US.

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JURISDICTION: During the negotiations, everybody, I dare say including the waiters, knew in advance that the possible irritants are in the area of criminal jurisdiction. Rape, for one offense, is common enough in a liberty town like Olongapo to have taught us all the lessons we needed on the subject.

Yet, we, both sides, neglected to do a creditable job of resolving jurisdictional problems before they crop up as expected.

We were not babes in the diplomatic woods. We knew what was likely to happen when foreign forces marched in and mixed with the native population. We were in a position to predict and solve disputes in advance.

Criminal jurisdiction is not a dark area of our bilateral relations. From the days of the Commonwealth to our July 4 “independence” and the signing of treaties and agreements, we have had a variety of enlightening problems with the US involving the ticklish issue.

Yet we — both sides — failed to write an error-free contract. Why were we in a hurry, in the first place, to fall into a trap that was in full view? The Senate might want to look into this indecent haste.

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READ FINE PRINT: To show readers where the present dispute comes from, we print below Section 6 of the VFA’s Article V on criminal jurisdiction that the US embassy invoked in refusing to yield the accused servicemen:

“The custody of any United States personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with United States military authorities, if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings. United States military authorities shall, upon formal notification by the Philippine authorities and without delay, make such personnel available to those authorities in time for any investigative or judicial proceedings relating to the offense with which the person has been charged. In extraordinary cases, the Philippine Government shall present its position to the United States Government regarding custody, which the United States Government shall take into full account. In the event Philippine judicial proceedings are not completed within one year, the United States shall be relieved of any obligations under this paragraph. The one-year period will not include the time necessary to appeal. Also, the one year period will not include any time during which scheduled trial procedures are delayed because United States authorities, after timely notification by Philippine authorities to arrange for the presence of the accused, fail to do so.”

Under similar agreements that the US has with other countries, as in the case of NATO allies, the US would not dare refuse to surrender its off-duty soldiers accused of violating a local law where the complainant is a citizen of the host country.

In Okinawa, which is not even a NATO partner, as a rule the US readily yields erring off-duty servicemen to local authorities.

How come the US relegates us to a lower category when its officials talk lavishly on special occasions about special relations and, cross my heart, our being a friend and ally?

Maybe it is our fault. It is.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 19, 2006)

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