Thievery!

Maita Gomez is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the August 31, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

I recently watched Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera” at the PETA theater. The play is about bribery and betrayal among thieves, and Anton Juan artfully gave the audience a greater sense of association and enjoyment by inserting digs and allusions to Philippine political criminality.

Personally, it got me thinking….

Crime news has become an obligatory section of news reporting. There are reporters detailed to the “police beat” who hang around police stations so that they are on hand to cover crime stories. I imagine that such a reporter probably has a whole slew of stories at the end of the news day and then picks and chooses the juiciest ones to serve up to the public. So, we get a daily dose of criminal news from the print media, radio and television. On top of this, the headlines and top stories are, of course, reserved for multi-million peso scams and major corruption.

I wondered:  Do other nations see as much thievery as we do? Do they react to crime with outrage or the apathy that seems to have become pervasive in our own country?

Everyday brings fresh news reports of theft, petty graft, molestation or abuse of women and children, shoot-outs or knifings at drinking places or community hangouts.

I live in a mixed commercial and residential area that is supposed to be a tourist area. All around our neighborhood I see illegal activity.

Kids are sniffing glue. Pimps and women and child prostitutes are signaling their availability. In this area, it is wise to hold your bag firmly under your armpit or clutched to your chest. You can be approached with requests for pamasahe (transportation money) or letters requesting help for medical expenses. One guy even had a really creepy blob of plastic intestines (quite real-looking) sticking out of his torso. But it is not a good idea to stop when someone comes up to you on our streets.  While one person holds your attention someone else may pick your pocket, slash your bag, or approach you from behind with a stick-up weapon.

Night and day, people and, often, whole families sleep on these streets. Young children beg and many beggars carry children. While these activities may not be considered criminal in themselves (I draw the line at using children to make yourself more pitiful.), they are somebody’s crime. Possibly the most responsible are those from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, who fail to rescue the destitute, and the police and barangay tanods (watchmen) who get their take for allowing these activities.
Recently, I talked to a tanod who told me that in the coming elections, they are going to shift their loyalty back to the former mayor because, “Sa mayor ngayon, maraming nawala sa amin.” (“With the current mayor, we have lost a lot.”) He was referring to the perks and dilihensiya (petty rackets) that they got for being barangay officials. Then he reminded me to tell my balikbayan sister that it was his birthday on the following Friday.

Being Filipino, I had learned to take this petty thievery for granted, to consider it “par for the course” or “weather, weather lang,” to look the other way and not make a big deal of it. But not this time.  I still had the “Three Penny Opera” on my mind and even if I did not show it, the conversation made me sick.

I have resolved to henceforth avoid chatting with the guy. He wants to run for barangay captain and the word is that he and his kakampi  (allies) are asking all the people they know to re-register as residents of our barangay so that they will have more votes to count on. (It is the barangay officers who certify that you are a resident.) So here was a petty official that was “fixing” the election as far as he is able.

Turning philosophical, I told my sister, “If the people in the top echelons of government steal money and privilege with impunity, how can we expect the people below to do otherwise?”
That didn’t help. I still can’t get over it. It still makes me sick.

This particular barangay official is a sort of pal of mine, I thought of talking to him about his obligation to be honest and do what he can to be of service to his country. If he refuses to listen then I will stop being his pal and will not help him get elected.

I know, it sounds so naïve. Why should he listen to such an unprofitable proposition? Maybe I should just keep my cards close to my chest, not let on and just help someone else win the in the elections? My sister warned me, “Be careful.”

I was reminded of a rumor I heard a few years ago, during the Garci days:  A very close friend of Gloria Arroyo, one who never said anything against her except in very private conversations, supposedly went to Malacañang and talked to her—as a friend—asking her to resign. Not long after this, her family was investigated by the Bureau of Internal Revenue and charged with PhP6 million in tax liabilities. It is just a rumor, but many of the people who heard of this did not think it was a coincidence.

I refuse to be intimidated. I think I will do it anyway—talk to the barangay official. It’s too much.

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