Saturday, August 31, 2013

Baguio in the time of Napoles

The country’s at a crossroads at the moment: do we finally really go down that “Daang Matuwid” or do we continue on that road much travelled. One Janet Lim-Napoles is now in custody on a kidnapping charge.

The victim is one Benhur Luy who alleged that Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim, detained him against his will. He’s one of several whistle-blowers that brought the alleged misuse of public funds amounting to about ten billion pesos out in the open. “Misuse” is such a kind word in this case, but let’s go with that. Napoles allegedly masterminded the scam in cahoots with senators and congressmen. Now that’s not news.

While I keep an eye out on the Napoles saga, I keep the other one on the goings-on in my own community – Baguio, the city of pines. They’re not totally unrelated. In fact, the issue of squandering public funds, the people’s money, is at the center of both the Napoles saga and struggle to stop the ongoing rape of Baguio.

Baguio has had its share of battles in it’s a bit over a century-old history as a city. I would have probably joined the clamor of members of the Philippine Assembly to scrap the then planned establishment of this highland R&R destination at the turn of the 20th century. So much money being spent for the benefit of mainly the privileged, the elite, mostly Americans who wanted a respite from the heat of the lowlands particularly during the summer months. The colonial government responded to the opposition by declaring Baguio as the official Summer Capital of the Philippine Islands in 1903, and that made the expenditure official, and therefore, necessary.

The Americans envisioned a city, and needed a visionary to turn that vision into an actual blueprint. Daniel Burnham was given the job to create the Plan of Baguio, which he completed in 1905. The plan included a warning to all of us against the “misdirected initiative of energetic lumbermen” that may “cause the destruction of this beautiful scenery.”

The much revered George Malcolm drafted the city’s charter, that, according to Robert R. Reed in his book, City of Pines: The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital, envisioned a city free from petty politics. In 1909, Baguio officially became a city.

Just a few hours after bombing Pearl Harbor, next on Japan’s scopes was Baguio City. In the morning of December 8, 1941, Philippine time, Japanese planes dropped bombs on Camp John Hay. Before that year ended, Japanese ground troops entered the city and Baguio, along with the rest of the country, was officially under Japanese rule. For the next four years, the city’s residents endured the ruthlessness of Japanese soldiers. Ms. Fe Muller recalled how as a young elementary pupil all of them would be herded to the general area where the Dangwa bus station behind the Baguio Centermall is today to watch the execution of suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers. The gruesome spectacle served as a warning to everyone that a similar fate awaited those who would be found guilty of resisting Japan’s power.

Liberation came on March 15, 1945, but freedom came with a price: the almost complete destruction of the city in the hands of its liberators. The Americans carpet-bombed the city that killed countless innocent civilians including Baguio’s former mayor, Eusebius Halsema. Yet Baguio got back on its feet, and soon regained its status as the country’s top tourist destination.

Such were Baguio’s battles through the years, and Baguio rose to the occasion every single time. In 1990, a lot of people then have given up Baguio for dead after the devastating earthquake on July 16, some even abandoning their homes and leaving the city for good. But thanks to its people, the city was soon brimming with life once again, and was even heralded as the country’s cleanest and greenest city.

Today’s Baguio faces a new battle, this time against the exact same thing that Daniel Burnham warned us about: misdirected initiatives. Baguio’s leaders seem to be determined to turn Baguio, once naturally beautiful known for its healthful climate, into what it’s not: a smog-covered concrete jungle. They’ve cemented much of a rose garden and placed a gate and fences around it, and they want to put up more gates around the park. They want to cement portions of the Melvin Jones grounds to accommodate a permanent tiangge. The Baguio Athletic Bowl is now being handed over to a capitalist for “development.” Several trees stand dead at the Botanical Garden because they encased it inside a concrete parking and commercial building. Equipment costing 120 million pesos hardly made a dent in solving the city’s garbage disposal problem.

All that money, people’s money, being poured into initiatives that would render the city unsustainable. The very taxes that we pay empower them to disregard the sentiments of a community and the future of this city. And the more money there is, the more power our leaders believe they wield. Its pine trees, its heritage and source of pride, beauty and life, are seen merely as a hindrance to development and more concrete structures. 182 of them are on deathrow for being in the way of a parking and commercial building and our mayor says, “I cannot do anything.”

Meanwhile, Janet Lim Napoles surrendered to no less than the president himself. She was then whisked to Camp Crame to be “processed” away from media cameras, transferred the next day to an airconditioned room at the Makati City Jail, then later in the day the court ordered her transfer to a detention facility in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. The “cell” looks more like a furnished apartment amid lush greenery. Pnoy now has the one in a presidential term opportunity to leave a legacy that would be celebrated and honored for generations to come – this is his Bagumbayan moment, his Cry of Balintawak, moment at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport.

And we, citizens of Baguio City, are also at a point of no return. We have two options: we can either sit idly by and watch our city being raped because the rapists believe that with a passive majority, they can easily get away with anything, or we can all stand up and put a stop to this heinous crime, work hard to bring back Baguio's natural beauty, defend its dignity and leave a Baguio that our children’s children can be proud of.

This is our moment, our very own 1904, or 1909, or 1945, or 1990. Only this time, we're not at war against another nation, but against a rotten political system. Only this time, it's not a natural disaster that's causing the destruction of our city but corrupt politicians with a misguided sense of progress and development.

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