Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Team Asia

I haven't even finished writing my blog entries about my last election observation mission, here comes another one. Twenty-two foreign observers from the Asian Network For Free Elections (ANFREL) are now in the Philippines to observe the election in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), scheduled to take place on Monday, August 11. The Asia Foundation (TAF) has organized the observation mission, and I helped out Tatine Faylona (fellow election observer in Nepal and Program Officer of TAF) with the manuals and forms and other stuff. I wanted to do more for this mission, and would have wanted to go with the observers to Mindanao, but I cannot leave work.

ANFREL observers also came last year for the elections and they were deployed only in the ARMM. They made a big media splash when they said that the election in the Philippines was worse than that in Afghanistan. No less than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself had to respond to that. But can they be blamed? A bomb went off in the polling place being observed by one of the delegates. A couple of observers got offered money in exchange for votes because people mistook them for Filipinos. Et cetera. Read their report HERE.

The observers arrived in the country last Thursday, and a briefing was held last weekend at their hotel in Makati. Lots of familiar faces. Aside from the Bangkok-based staff of ANFREL (headed by Somsri Hananuntasuk, or Sui, who used to lead Thailand's Amnesty International), there's Tad from Malaysia and Moline from Cambodia, both fellow observers in Nepal, and then there's Ramesh and Pradip from two election-monitoring organizations in Nepal. Other countries represented are Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Some observers actually backed out, not only because of security concerns, but also because up to this time there's uncertainty whether the election will push through.

I'm not going into details as to the reasons behind the possible postponement, or any other issues pertaining to the ARMM, because I might sound uninformed or plain ignorant. The truth is, like most Filipinos, there's not a lot I know about the ARMM. I haven't even observed any election there because every election period I'm at our headquarters in Manila. The issues surrounding all these talks about the peace process, the MNLF, MILF, ancestral domain, etc., these are issues rooted in events that took place even before the Spanish came to the Philippines, and for centuries these issues have been largely supressed, denied, warped, or simply because the largely regionalistic, predominantly Catholic Philippine population just did not/do not care enough, which I'm a bit guilty of. I remember in 2004 I was in Indonesia observing their election. In Central Java, a group of young Muslim activists started asking me about Nur Misuari and the Moro struggle, and I was rendered speechless. Here I was observing another country's affairs, and I couldn't even say anything about things going on in my own backyard. To say that I was embarrassed will be a severe understatement.

The observers spent three days being briefed on the ARMM, on Mindanao, the Philippines and Filipinos in general, and the coming election, particularly the use of machines. There will be two technologies to be used in the elections on Monday: one is the electronic voting machine (EVM) in Maguindanao, and the other is the automated counting machine (ACM) for the rest of the ARMM. For the EVM, voters will get to vote by pressing buttons on a machine. For the ACM, voters will use ballot papers similar to those used in exams wherein ovals corresponding to choices are shaded. These ballot papers will then be counted by machines. No more writing of candidates' names, or deciphering handwriting. Results for both methods shall be transmitted electronically to the national counting center, meaning no more manual filling-up of those giant election returns. Visit the ARMM election WEBSITE for more details about these technologies.

The participants were able to try for themselves the two machines. It certainly wasn't the first time I participated in such a machine demo for Philippine elections. The automation of the counting and canvassing of Philippine elections has been a dream for many Filipinos, most especially those of us from groups like Namfrel that advocate electoral reforms. If only the original automation law had been implemented on time, we would have modernized our elections since 1998. What we got instead were pilot tests, half-hearted support from lawmakers, confusing stance from the election commission, an impeachment complaint against a corrupt election commissioner (which she won, but the moral victory was ours), and other election-related scandals left and right (hello Garci!). Many people were /are against modernizing Philippine elections, simply because it will prevent them from cheating. But hopefully this time this is it.

(The second day of the briefing ended with Rano from Cambodia...hitting the floor with b-boy moves. Our jaws dropped and we were like, kumusta naman ang breakdance!" There was a threat of salsa dancing for the third day, but fortunately it finished way too late for shameless Latin moves.)

Saturday night we took a breather and headed to Xaymaca for some reggae. It was Tatine, me, Jayson from TAF, Mark (who was at Namfrel's Mindanao desk last election and now temporarily with TAF), Atty. Zen Malang of the Bangsamoro Center for Law and Policy, Tad, and another Malaysian observer, Badrul, who was ANFREL's youngest observer ever when he joined the mission in Afghanistan a few years back (check out the documentary "The Observer" where he was featured along with the other ANFREL observers in that mission; the movie made the rounds of international film festivals). The last time me and Tatine and Tad got together like this was in Jazz Upstairs in Kathmandu last summer (in the case of Tatine and I, this was the first time we hung out with anybody after the Nepal mission). It was a wild night with Coffebreak Island. Early on the guys were already on their feet dancing to the bands' music, but when Coffebreak Island played "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," Rancid's "Time Bomb," and "Wooly Bully," there was no way I could keep still. I joined in the skanking, hair not just down but all over the place, though not in full abandon like Tad and Atty. Zen. (A couple of days later, I saw Atty. Zen on TV in a suit, attending the GRP-MILF signing in Putrajaya, Malaysia. I was like, that guy is a reggae nut!). It was a well-deserved break for everybody (the calm before the storm?), as we made toasts to the peace process (?!) while Marley banged on our eardrums.

(The ANFREL observers have already been deployed in the ARMM. Here's hoping that everything will turn out well and that everyone will be safe.)

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