Yellow Pad

I like the alliteration — tattoos, taxes, trains, and terrorists. I will dwell with each subject — all headline news in Digong’s Philippines — and tie them all up.

Let’s reverse the sequence of the topics, and begin with the terrorists.

“Will they do a Bobby Sands?”

That was the question that Armando Malay asked Iting, the wife of Mon, a political detainee.

Iting sought Tio Armando’s advice regarding the plan of the political prisoners to stage a hunger strike. The hunger strike intended to dramatize the plight of political prisoners under the Marcos dictatorship and pressure the regime to release prisoners and improve prison conditions.

Iting didn’t know how to answer Tio Armando. To begin, with she didn’t know Bobby Sands. Tio Armando, repeated the question: “Are the political prisoners ready to do a Bobby Sands? Such questioning was typical of a skeptic, the former dean and professor at the University of the Philippines, and the Chair of Kapatid, the organization of the relatives of political detainees. (His son-in-law, Satur, the spouse of my cousin Bobbie, was one of the many detained by the dictatorship).

Bobby Sands was the leader of the detained members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who staged a hunger strike. For the Republicans, Sands and comrades were freedom fighters, but for Margaret Thatcher and the unionists, they were terrorists.

The hunger strikers stirred the Irish and British public and the world to recognize the IRA prisoners as political offenders, not as criminals. Bobby Sands and nine of his comrades died from the hunger strike. The hunger strike nevertheless was a victory not only in improving the prison conditions of the political prisoners, but more importantly, in mobilizing international support for their struggle and advancing the Republican cause.

Tio Armando wanted to convey to Iting and the political prisoners that the hunger strike could only be effective if the protesters showed readiness to die for their beliefs. He insisted that the hunger strike should be real, that the prisoners should avoid playing a game of deception by hiding their food to survive the strike.

What Bobby Sands and his band of freedom fighters (or terrorists) showed was credible commitment. And that was what Tio Armando wanted from the Filipino political prisoners.

Which brings us to the story about trains. Trains have become a flagship of different administrations. But the trains have likewise become sources of controversies. Gloria Arroyo had her failed, corruption-riddled Northrail project. Noynoy Aquino and his Transportation Secretary Jun Abaya had troubles with the maintenance of the Metro Rail Transit and the much-delayed Light Rail Transit line from Baclaran to Bacoor.

The people have not forgotten the quip from former president Aquino, referring to the LRT construction: “At pag hindi ho nangyari ito, nandyan ho si Secretary Abaya na nangangasiwa ng proyektong ito, dalawa na kaming magpapasagasa siguro sa train.” The project remains unfulfilled. Hence, his detractors question him about the promise that he and Abaya would let themselves be run over by a train if the project did not finish during their term.

But then, only the ignorant and the foolish would have taken Aquino’s word for it. The statement was obviously not credible.

Lack of credible commitment also marked the statement of former Speaker Sonny Belmonte when he said that he was willing to be hanged if the freedom of information (FoI) bill would not pass under his speakership. “Bitayin ninyo ako kung matapos ito at hindi pa nakakapasa,” he said. Belmonte (and company) killed FoI, but he did not hang himself.

But apart from the Bobby Sands act, what are other examples of credible commitment?

It is in the area of tax reform advocacy that I find examples of the effective use of credible commitment.

During the term of the Aquino administration, the sin tax reform passed because its champions showed credible commitment. The bill was designed to include earmarking of the incremental revenue for universal health care and programs such as medical assistance and health facilities in political and district subdivisions. The earmarking assured the voters and the politicians that the sin tax reform would be to their interests.

When the sin tax bill was being undermined at the bicameral conference committee meeting, Representative Sid Ungab, the Chair of the House’s Ways and Means Committee, privately told Speaker Belmonte that a bad outcome would compel him to resign his chairmanship of the Committee. This would have caused a public uproar. It was a credible threat, leading Speaker Belmonte to instruct those House members compromising the bill to back off.

Today, a comprehensive tax reform bill is being deliberated.

To gain the support of the public, the Department of Finance has included an earmarking provision in which 40% of the additional revenue from the fuel excise tax will be strictly allocated to cash transfers and social protection, and the remainder for infrastructure, health, and education. Such earmarking is a guarantee that the revenue will be put into good use; and that it will not be used for the war on drugs that kills people with tattoos.

And what about tattoos? They are, for better or for worse, an expression of credible commitment. In many social contexts, tattoos symbolize an association, identification, or loyalty with someone or a group.

In the criminal world, a tattoo identifies gang membership. And the tattoo suggests life-long loyalty. The tattoo marks one for life. Once an Oxo or Sigue Sigue gangster, always an Oxo or Sigue Sigue member, so the saying goes.

The tattoo is a barrier to exit. A gangster could not shift allegiance from Oxo to Sigue Sigue because of the permanence of his tattoo from his original gang. Worse, even if a gangster wanted to leave the world of criminality and find decent work, prospective employers would refuse him if they discovered his criminal tattoo.

And that is Paolo Duterte’s problem. He acknowledges he has a tattoo. It is a credible commitment for something. The question the public asks: To whom is he committed?

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.