Sunday, February 13, 2011

An General implicated in corruption commits Suicide - BUT WHY?

Is it because he is ashamed of what he did? Or was it really an act of an innocent man unjustly implicated? Will the investigations lead nowhere as it has any investigation before it? In NCIS, the character of Mark Harmon, Jethro Gibbs, favorite line is "Just doing my job." Are there still any public servant in the Philippines who are just doing their job. If the politicians and public servants in the Philippines just do their job, we will not be uncovering one corruption, launching one investigation, with regularity and then forgotten.

A general's suicide: Hara kiri or hala bira?

A colleague of mine asked me whether the recent suicide of a Filipino general was in some sense a "hara kiri." I wished it was. But I told her that while it is a lovely parallelism, it is a non-sequitur. 

For how could it be that, when we do not have the Japanese culture of ritual suicide? And how could it be that, when we do not have the Japanese feudal history that gave rise to this practice as an integral part of the code of bushido and the discipline of the samurai warrior class?

I proposed to her that what we have in the Philippines is not the social practice of "hara kiri" but the social paean to “hala bira." She was puzzled.

Deeply, catholic in origin, "hala bira" is an adaptation of "Mardi Gras" which is French for "Fat Tuesday" referring to the practice of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten Season, which starts on Ash Wednesday. In many areas of the world, the term Mardi Gras has come to mean a period of activity related to celebratory events and merrymaking.

In Western Visayas, Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan Mardi Gras and Iloilo’s Dinagyang Mardi Gras where the yell is popularized, it is rendered as a tribute in devotion to Santo Niño.

In Kalibo, the tagline "Hala Bira (Hit Them)" comes from the (latently racist) folktale that Santo Niño once saved Kalibo from Moro raiders in the 17th century. It is believed that artillerymen repulsed the raid with the battle cry as gunpowder smoke blackened their faces. The shooters emerged from the fighting looking like the dark-skinned Atis (Negritos), thus, the term Ati-Atihan.

In Iloilo, it is a tagline expressing merrymaking (dinagyang) in honor of Santo Niño whom the Ilonggos believe can be miraculous in times of famine and drought.

Despite its religious import, what strikes me the most about “hala bira" is its bacchanalian symbolism--- its ritual of fattening ones’ self with rich food before fasting, its riotous and wild revelry intensified by the consumption of alcohol from street booths installed along the parade route. If just for a moment, one can be uninhibitedly greedy. If just for one moment, one can be unaccountably intoxicated.

Like a herd of drunk politicians, civil servants, and military leaders running wildly and grabbing anything they can get hold of while in the corridors of power --- Sige, hala bira!What are we in power for? Everyone’s on the take. Sige bigyan mo si Sir, si Ma’am, si Misses, si Anak, si Apo, etcetera.

Unfortunately, after the intoxication wears off, there is one problem---the hangover. Whether it is a physical, psychological, moral, or spiritual hangover---what matters now is how one responds to it. Some get depressed, some become calloused, some commit suicide, and some live a semblance of a religious life. How others live their lives is still a mystery to me, especially the dishonest and shameless ones. But that is another story.

If hara kiri symbolizes a selfless act borne out of one's duty to fellow soldiers or citizens, hala bira symbolizes a selfish act borne out of one’s self-indulgence or personal aggrandizement.

It is sobering to be reminded of the side of the general’s death and the mourning of his family and friends. And yet, it is more sobering to recall the other side---the side of lowly soldiers who died because the resources intended to protect them in battle had been skimmed by their superiors---the side of poor military families who practically have to scrounge or beg for financial assistance to bury their dead while family members of their superiors are celebrating their “hala bira" real estate binging in the U.S.

This is a social issue and not a personal issue. I wish our leaders would treat it as such and not allow it to blow over just like the other investigations of corruption. The resolution of this investigation is a benchmark for the kind of country that we want to become. Our confidence to effect dramatic changes for our country must not be shaken.

Let’s move forward with the investigation!

The author is an urban and regional planning consultant and a professor of urban sociology and urban planning at California State University, East Bay. He has written books on the American Urban Regional Experience and Perspectives on Urban Society.Email:

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