The foreign chambers of commerce based in the Philippines have joined the debate over power issues — and earned accusations that they’re interfering in what’s alleged to be a government effort to reduce electrical power costs.

The chambers of commerce of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Korea and Europe wrote Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo early this week. Regime threats to review and possibly renegotiate power contracts with Independent Power Producers, the Joint Foreign Chambers said, “will cast doubt on the stability of policies and regulatory rules and on the integrity of investment promotion programs in the Philippines.”

The JFC also warned Mrs. Arroyo that amending the Electrical Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) will discourage investors by creating an unstable legal framework for the power industry.

Referring to the JFC as “these people,” and as “meddlers,” regime senator Juan Ponce Enrile condemned their “meddling in [Philippine] affairs,” and reminded them that Congress — uh — “serves the interests of Filipino power consumers” and not those of foreigners. Enrile allies Joker Arroyo and Miriam Defensor-Santiago echoed his statement, as did oppositionist Aquilino Pimentel, who declared the JFC’s “impertinence” unacceptable.

No one can accuse the foreign chambers of exquisite timing, their letter having been sent barely a week before Independence Day. That’s the one day in the year when the politicos in this country spend a few moments between golf and robbing the treasury to pay lip service to Philippine independence and sovereignty — and, oh yes, to assail “foreign meddling.” But the foreign chambers shouldn’t be too concerned. The rest of the year — 364 days — the pols don’t care to remind anyone that the country won its independence 110 years ago on June 12, 1898, and supposedly recovered it from the United States on July 4, 1946.

Why should they do that by, for example, objecting when the US Ambassador shoots her mouth off on practically every domestic issue from the price of rice to government peace talks with rebel groups, or when she visited Moro Islamic Liberation Front camps where she was received like a head of state? Or by complaining when a US Marine sergeant ordered a Sulu hospital closed because it’s been supposedly treating Moro militants?

You didn’t hear the same pols grumble when the Chinese Embassy whined that the Senate inquiry into the NBN-ZTE project would compromise Philippines-China relations, or when the Japanese Embassy proclaimed that Senate rejection of the Japan Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) would discourage investors. Neither did the Philippines protest — Malaysia and Indonesia did — when Australia said it was thinking of fielding troops in Southeast Asian countries to “combat terrorism.”

It used to be the United States that had the sole prerogative to comment on anything and everything and to suggest policy changes in its former colony. The US has been the 800-pound gorilla in the country of our lost hopes for over a hundred years. Filipinos ignore it at their peril, its power not being limited to possession of the mightiest military machine in history, but including the power to help its interests along through economic and military aid.

Thanks to the Arroyo regime, however, it’s gotten so that every other country — doesn’t Korea have anything to say about all these? How about Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam? — nowadays assumes that it’s entitled to comment on any issue no matter how internal an affair of the Philippines it is. The 800-pound gorilla has morphed into an 8000-pound King Kong.

But let’s not blame the Kong. You can’t really blame anyone from assuming that independence and sovereignty aren’t of that much consequence when a ruling regime demonstrates in many ways that it doesn’t much care for either, only for its own interests. It amply demonstrated that when it entered into those seismic testing agreements with Vietnam and China in the Spratlys, for example.

This week it’s demonstrating again how lightly it regards Philippine independence. Well, perhaps not to the same degree as when it allowed foreign troops quasi-permanent basing rights on Philippine soil despite a constitutional ban, but in a, shall we say, more symbolic sense?

This year the Arroyo regime is celebrating — if that indeed is the word — Philippine Independence Day as it did last year. In 2007 it “celebrated” June 12 on June 11. This year it’s “celebrating” June 12 on June 9.

For those who’ve been somehow and thankfully isolated from Philippine affairs, there’s supposed to be, believe it or not, reason in this folly. It’s said to be in keeping with a policy called “holiday economics,” which the press secretary says encourages Filipinos to shop, drive to Tagaytay or Baguio, or fly off to the old hometown by giving them more time to do it. The assumption is that they’ll look at a three-day weekend as too good an opportunity to spend lying around the house and watching TV, or much too long a time to be cooped up in a houseful of kids.

There are a number of flies in this ointment, not the least being the high cost of driving to work and school nowadays, not to mention that of driving up to Baguio from Manila, or to and from anywhere else. That cost is driving up the cost of everything, among them hotel rates and food costs.

But certainly of greater interest is how the practice diminishes the significance of the occasion. To what extent can the celebration of events in history go beyond the date itself, in the process confusing everyone specially school children — the next generation of Filipinos bound by their citizenship to honor the date of their country’s independence by knowing its costs and why it had to be fought for?

One can argue that some holidays can be moved without much harm to their significance. But some, and Independence Day is one of them, can’t. Independence Day should be an occasion for the country not only to recall why its patriots rose against Spain and resisted US colonialism. It should also be a day for national re-examination and rededication to the ideals of freedom, sovereignty, independence and development. These are indivisible from the date itself.

It won’t do for the politicos to complain over “foreign meddling” or lack of respect for Philippine sovereignty if they themselves, and most specially this regime, don’t respect it. Alas, the Philippine political class has been the last to make Philippine independence truly meaningful. The best proof of it is its failure to rid the country of the poverty, injustice and mass misery that still haunts it today, more than a century after Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine independence on June 12, 1898.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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