Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 June 2013


“Culture” can be defined as “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.” “Impunity” is defined as “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action.” Therefore, “culture of impunity” has to describe how people behave when they think they are untouchable or are above the law. Thus, a culture of impunity and the rule of law are antithetical.

Through the years, the Filipino people have been witness to this culture of impunity in practice—perpetrated by those in the government and associated with the military, the police, and politics (generally at the highest levels), who are sworn to uphold the law, more than those outside the law and who are unabashedly and publicly contemptuous of it. And while some of those practices are of an in-your-face nature (e.g., Ampatuan,  Palparan), others are much more subtle and well-camouflaged.

Recent events tend to show that if anything, the culture of impunity continues not only unchecked but also with more variations.

For example, there is the ongoing controversy between a national government agency (the Bases Conversion and Development Authority) on one side, and a local government (Taguig City) and Henry Sy’s SM Prime Holdings on the other. And the national government, with the law on its side, mind you, has been left not only holding the short end of the stick (culture of impunity), but being portrayed as the bad guy as well.  Amazing what money can do.

I have been provided (at my request) what BCDA calls a “press kit,” containing all the documents pertaining to what it calls the “Taguig Civic Center Lot”—15 in all, including two laws, a memorandum of agreement between BCDA and Taguig, legal opinions by the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel (OGCC), lease contract between Taguig and SM Prime Holdings, plus various letters. I have ploughed through them.

And what did I find? The core: The property that BCDA conveyed to Taguig was restricted, by law (Republic Act No. 7917), to be used only for national and local government centers, sports facilities, and parks. Taguig flouted that law (there is always an excuse, of course), and leased it to SM Prime Holdings. With both Taguig and SM Prime Holdings ignoring the written objections of BCDA (which quoted from the OGCC opinions—which of course both of the other parties were aware of). Also ignoring the denials of permits to construct, and threats of legal action, etc. Amazing. And obviously, they have gotten away with it.

The spectacle of the national government, or a national government agency, helpless and treated with contempt by a local government unit and a business corporation is beyond belief. And, if one reads some of the opinion pieces, you would think that all the fault was with BCDA (portrayed, impliedly if not explicitly, as the lapdog of the Ayalas).

Why am I so sure that BCDA has the right of it? Well, gee whiz, under what stretch of the imagination can one consider the new SM mall in Taguig a government center, a sports facility, or a park?

There is an important point that tends to be missed (deliberately?): Taguig City got that land for free, which means that the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the ultimate beneficiary of BCDA operations, had to forego the potential income from the use of the land—an income loss which it can hardly afford. And yet Taguig turned around, and is making money out of it (annual rent of at least P10.8 million a year, plus a signing fee of P70 million for its first lease contract with SM, and P100 million for its second). The land, apparently, is valued at P20 billion, so the Reader can do her own mental calculations about how much those contracts should be really worth.

Another interesting sidelight: Apparently, then Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano (political foe Freddy Tiñga was mayor when the turnover of the land took place) questioned the turnover through his brother-in-law, who was a BCDA director, and through direct correspondence with BCDA. The objections then apparently vanished when the Cayetanos took over as mayor.

Will the national government continue to act like a door mat?

Another new example of the culture of impunity comes to light from an unlikely source: the resignation speech of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. Enrile adverted to the scandal over the so-called “cash gifts” and the fallout when it came to light that the prevailing system of liquidation of operating budgets in the Senate (and the House) consisted of a mere one-page (more like one-sentence) certification—no receipts needed—that the expenditures had been made. Which, by the way, is the same procedure used for confidential/intelligence funds (like that given to the chair of the Commission on Elections).

Per Enrile, he and Sen. Panfilo Lacson (as chair of the committee on accounts) took the position that both chambers of Congress should revert to the old system of liquidation, which required accounting for every single centavo of public money entrusted to the lawmakers. Apparently, nobody else wanted to. In other words, the legislators find nothing wrong, and get away with, spending the people’s money but not having to produce receipts for them.

A third example of recent evidence of the culture of impunity, this time from the judiciary, has to do with the Sergio Valencia case. Valencia, a former chair of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, is accused of plunder with not one whit of evidence against him. But that’s for another time.