Life behind bars for NDF consultants: Pets,stolen moments, cramped cells

consultants final raymund
FREE AT LAST, albeit temporarily. The first batch of political prisoners released as part of preparations for the resumption of long-stalled peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front.

Alexander and Winona Birondo have spent the last year gazing and waving at each other through a small opening that allows sightings among residents of different detention blocks in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City.

For seven months after their March 2015 arrest, the couple managed to share soft-diet weekend breakfast meals in Camp Crame. Once they were transferred to Bagong Diwa, however, court hearings were the only opportunities for the couple to see and briefly touch each other.

“Aldub na aldub ang dating namin,” jokes Alexander, following their release as the Philippine government and Asia’s longest running insurgency prepare to resume stalled peace talks.

ALDUBAlexander and Winona Birondo have spent a year waving and gazing each other across rooftops, with court hearings providing their only opportunity for physical closeness. Photo by Obet de Castro

The Birondos are middle-aged. Both suffer from diabetes and have been released on humanitarian grounds.

Hardly the spry, coy youngsters of the country’s most popular television variety show segment.

But Alexander says he identifies with the young lovers’ frustration at obstacles that stand in their way.

“Nasa magkabilang building lang kami, pero bawal kaming magkita,” he said. “Sa rooftop lang kami nagkikita, kaway, kaway.” (We were assigned to adjoining buildings but refused to let us meet. We could see each other only on the rooftop, waving at each other.)

“Ito yung masasabi mong napakalapit pero malayo,” he adds. “Talagang aldub na aldub ang dating.” (We were so near, yet so far. We could have been the stars of Aldub.)

In his excitement to finally see his wife, Alex’s blood pressure shot up. The reading during the mandatory medical examination required for release was 180/90.

“I had to reassure the doctor that it would easily do down,” said Alex , whose affectionate gestures towards wife draw grins from comrades.

Pet — and food taster

alcantaraMid-afternoon of Wednesday, August 17, Christina Palabay holds up a two-page document filled with dense text that detail the 46 criminal raps filed against Tirso Alcantara.

The secretary general of human rights group Karapatan is checking several mobile phone units for blow by blow updates on efforts to secure the 22 political prisoners who are covered by safety and immunity guarantees.

It is the third, nerve-wrecking day for Palabay and an estimated 100 lawyers and para-legal workers tasked with ensuring the releases. The hard work started on August 5, when the Supreme Court ruled that lower courts had jurisdiction on arrest proceedings.

“They actually camped out in the courts,” jokes Alcantara.

The military calls the 62-year-old detainee the deputy of Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal, the late chief of the Southern Tagalog Melito Glor Command of the New People’s Army.

Arrested on Feb. 14, 2011, Alcantara was incarcerated in isolation at the Philippine Army’s maximum security area at Fort Bonifacio.

He was eventually transferred to Bagong Diwa. There, he adopted a cat that once reportedly belonged to Rizal Alih, a leader of a rebellious separatist faction.

.”It’s my child,” says Alcantara. “It’s also my food taster,” he quips with black humor.

But the wisecracking Southern Tagalog rebel leader could not have imagined the coincidence that allowed him to reunite Wednesday with a grand-daughter he hadn’t seen in 12 years.

lolo and grandkidThe last time Alcantara saw Nica, she was a rambunctious four-year-old visitor to the guerrilla front.

The revolution, however, separated him from family. His daughter, based in Palawan, spent eight years in jail. Alcantara lost touch with the child.

Nica grew up with an aunt with very little affinity for politics. She doesn’t even know  about the peace talks. But on the wayto school at dawn, Wednesday, she saw a banner with a familiar name.

“She went up to the speaker. She said, ‘lolo ko yan’.”

It was dusk when Nica saw the tall, sturdy figure of her grandfather alight from a the van.

She charged at him, past alarmed security escorts, hurling herself into his arms with the cThere are some 500 political prisoners nationwide. Membership in the Communist Party of the Philippines is no longer outlawed, but most detainees are charged with common crimes.

SALUTACamp Bagong Diwa hosts the most number of political prisoners.

Ruben Saluta says conditions there are not much different from shocking photos of the Quezon City jail.

“Sometimes it gets so hot that my blood pressures goes up to 170/90,” Saluta noted. “We’re mixed with common criminals in areas that are so congested that we take turns sleeping or resting. If one of us stands up to use bathroom, someone will take our place.”



IMPERFECT HARMONY (A Malayasian Journal, I)

In the sky, between RP and Sabah

We’re hovering above twin rainbows, one lighter than the other. Soft clouds cradle curving sweeps of color.

I’ve seen double arcs from the ground, but I’ve never peered at them from above. I jiggle a bit, swing my legs (that never touch the floor) begin to croon that childhood ditty: “Red and yellow and green and white; purple and orange and blue. I can see a rainbow, see a rainbow…”

“Is there one?” The gap-toothed, bespectacled man grins and cranes his neck as close to the window without invading my space. There’s enough legroom so I lean back.

Careful guy. He shoves up reading glasses, wedges a finger to mark the pages of his Raymond Carver book, grabs hold of the seat in front and the left armrest. His corduroy jacket slides inches from my face. I sniff Old Spice, dad’s favorite scent.

He knows the old tune, too, but hums it off-key. “I’ve never seen them this way!” He sits back, says thank you and introduces himself as Jake, a businessman from Kansas.

I am tempted to ask about tornadoes and Dorothy and Toto. Instead, I choose a more Oriental reference and muse whether rainbows would feel as silky as they look. Jake rubs his nose and tries to smile.

“Death is like a silk scarf, too.”

truly_asiaThat’s probably a quirky way to start a series of travel vignettes about Malaysia. But stream of consciousness is an apt method for a first visit that was very much hit-and-miss, with one important assignment and the rest left to the fates.

I don’t do guidebook travelogues so don’t expect Lists and all that. If you want impressions, however, and a smattering of people I meet, then read the rest on my travel blog, Here’s the link to the first part of the series.

#Facepalm Almost forgot: I have other blog sites :)

I am hopeless at keeping MY stuff; great at hoarding other people’s writings. Today, doing Google research on some old articles, up pops a reminder.
Oh, yeah, I have a travel blog!
Actually, several blogs, created on one reckless day. A friend had mentioned my swerved and rambled across so many fields — it would be good to organise these into several blogs sside from (this, the main scaRRedcat blog).
So since wordpress is a free site — unless, like me, and only for this blog, you pay for a domain and some premium theme) — I registered several blogs.
A note from that time:
“The problem with being a madcap writer is, that readers could get confused by the jumble of themes. Though I’m the one who gets confused the most. That’s certainly true now as I comb through old files of published articles and columns, and snippets that have never seen the light of day. “
Here are the blogs and some “about” notes:

EROS AND AGAPEEros&Agape  (nope, not THE erotica site 🙂 comes with this note:
The title comes from a section in my first blog, also called scaRRedcat, now lost to the cosmic wastes. It’s self-explanatory.
Many pieces in this blog come from a time when Adrian Cristobal, publisher of The Manila Times,  challenged me to “drop the manifestos” in favor of stories about life and lust.
(Truth: he and a couple of senior editors were fighting to spare me from the “massacre” that happened when Mark Jimenez took over the newspaper. I don’t think Jimenez every forgave them for hoodwinking him into believing “every newspaper needs a resident leftist” — but that’s another story.)
I took Adrian at his word and caused a minor scandal by having my main op-ed page column (“Left-Handed” changed to “Southpaw”) carry titles like “For Play,” “The Big O” and “Self-Service”. You get the drift. (Yes, another columnist, “Quirky”, Lakambini Sitoy, and I got away with it.)
I like politics too much or I’d probably be richer now, writing in this vein. The sensual side of this writer folded up,  on the op-ed pages anyway, when Tito Guingona gave his “I Accuse” speech.  (My friends will tell you I write sometimes scary erotica 🙂 Let’s leave that for another day.
The section, “Why A Travel Blog?” says this:

I love travel. I collect travel magazines just to check what worlds are opening or closing. And I am dismayed by the amount of glossy paper and spectacular photography that are sacrificed on the altar of public relations.

A straight PR piece is fine.  But when it masquerades as journalism, or when the demands – okay, persistent requests — of clients result in a puff piece taking one whole page of newsprint, I see wasted opportunity.

In my old magazine, we took pride in travel pieces that were not commissioned. We didn’t have a budget for that section but our staff had a talent for getting lost in alleys and strange byways as an offshoot of undertaking more “serious” coverage or attending conferences and seminars.

I won’t pretend to be an author of travel literature. Not in the way of Pico Iyer of Colin Thubron. I don’t have the time or wherewithal to invest that kind of time and energy and logistics. Maybe one day, when I grow up….

But I’ve got a stash of little pieces and several notebooks full of unprocessed notes. And so here I am, with a travel blog that will probably feature people as much as places.

There’ll be many holes in my articles. How to get there, how much to pay, who’s who and what to pack… for that, I recommend guidebooks. All I have are memories.

GRACE NOTESGraceNotes will the title of my first book, when I get around to completing the re-writing of stuff and the writing of new essays.
Joel Pablo Salud, the new “Chief” of the Philippines Graphic keeps on reminding me to hurry up. He’s come up with, what, three books while I take my sweet time. And Mae Paner has come out with her Kwentaxi debut after just a year churning out tales!
Joel picked “Grace Notes”, which is the title of one column I wrote for the Graphic.
A note about this blog:
A catch-all for everything outside of politics and war, art and travel reportage. It basically covers people, real and imagined, who never make it to the headlines. Which, I guess, means there will be plenty of politics, war, art and travel here.
ANIMAI owe the title to my sister, Nenen, and her classical artist friends. Anima is the name they called their group whenever they sang in chi-chi restaurants. I liked it and asked permission to steal it.
My memory must be failing. I remembered wanting Anima to be about art. But the “about” section says:
ANIMA means “life force”.

This subsidiary blog of the scaRRedcat Group celebrates life and meditates on death and mayhem through the stories of people real and imagined. These writings do not qualify as “hard news” coverage, though some articles first appeared as columns in national broadsheets or news magazines.

ANIMA is the counterpart of the “Loons & Wounded Birds” section in a late, departed blog site. Real life could turn out more fantastical than fairy tales; imagined scenarios may read like a news feature.

We could call it “creative non-fiction”. But some days the creative may outweigh nonfiction. And some days non-fiction might read like some fantasy. I’ll try to make it easy by posting clear labels — though it will probably take away half of the fun. Some posts will probably be more images than words. It really depends of what moves me.

The stars of the stories come from up and down the economic, gender, religious and cultural byways. These vignettes mostly focus on characters as a way of parsing issues. The blog will probably feature as many artists as practitioners of the darker arts.

There’s one last blog,
There is nothing there yet though many articles written in the last five years would probably fit into this space, not to mention the various Facebook posts and convocations.
Check out the few articles, essays on these blogs and tell me how you like them, and share suggestions for improvement. Except for JUST DO IT. I promise to start inputting a story a day in these blogs.
A warning: because my writings do ramble and swerve and swoop and duck into all kinds of strange alleys and byways, some of these words will pop up in more than one blog 🙂


It’s a mad montage of gorgeous faces and horrific aftermaths of people’s actions.

Carlos Celdran…. on a Throwback Monday find
Carlos Celdran…. on a Throwback Monday find

Starting with dreamer and trouble-maker Carlos Celdran, with an old Haribon Society ID displaying tousled, Byronic high school glory. Carlos wears a vast array of hats (literally, too). He’s a world-famous tour guide who’s lifted his corner of the profession into performance art. He’s an activist for reproductive health and gender rights and gotten grief from the Catholic Church. And, yeah, he bagged the first victory among Philippines users — for his stop Torre de Manila petition — and he’s done it twice.

A bizarre press conference serves up the yin and yang of China’s fractured self. Call it the Mad Lauriat, with ambition and unforgotten slights as aperitif and the main course fermented by years of pain and rage.

Braving Fire. Chen Guo joined a group suicide attempt in January 2001. Photo from
Braving Fire. Chen Guo joined a group suicide attempt in January 2001. Photo from

The before and after faces of two beautiful women who set themselves on fire in a political protest.

There’s something definitely lost in translation. The race for sensationalism is deadly to your brain cells. Nothing tells us why and how the Falun Gong can get women to immolate themselves. Nor does it say how US journos came up with the startling suggestion that the women were government stooges.

My instinct says, not  the latter. Stooges are inherently driven by self-interest. I doubt if the Chinese government ever gifted stooges with rewards on the level that could erase the primal fear of losing one’s face. That will need some cosmic belief, for better or worse.

Iran is rewarded for scaring the world with nukes. $500 million. Well. someone wants to reward the PH government for its inefficiency. Emergency powers, indeed. Everyone forgets this country has spent the years after emergency powers untangling the messy results.

Manny Pangilinan needs nobody’s blessings as he continues gobbling up huge chunks of industries — this time, the media. He’s got TV5 and its news website, Interaksyon, and shares in assorted other media firms, and now he wants GMA. He’s given “multi-media” an entirely new meaning! As the news website he owns acknowledges:

“Any PLDT acquisition of a broadcast network would have to go through the gamut of regulatory and Congressional approvals. As it already owns TV5 and BusinessWorld — as well as minority stakes in Philippine Daily Inquirer and Philippine Star — PLDT’s bid for GMA would attract close scrutiny, if not opposition from certain quarters concerned over the concentration of media power in one conglomerate.”

UNREST. After two years of relative calm, Thai protesters trying to oust yet another Thaksin government.
UNREST. After two years of relative calm, Thai protesters trying to oust yet another Thaksin government.

It’s rock and roll — again — in Bangkok

“Protesters, led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, have declared they will shut down the Bangkok and force a resignation of PM Yingluck Shinawatra before they install an unelected people’s council that will undertake reforms.  They plan to blockade key intersections across the city before attempting to cut water and electricity supply. The armed forces has sent more than two dozen companies of troops to protect important ministries and utilities.”

Twitter photo grab
Twitter photo grab

How many more cycles of the poor electing their bet and the middle class and elite promptly massing for ouster? Losers of elections wanting to gift themselves the right of rulers. This is so deja vu. And we hear the same murmurs now in the Philippines. Not necessarily from losers. A council. A council. Shortcuts and the never-neding cycle of conflict. Doesn’t take much to know who benefits.

Veronica Pedrosa tweets about a boy beaten to death by traffickers in Malaysia.

This isn’t the first case of refugees being oppressed in Thailand. Go around Bangkok’s red light district and ask for the nationalities of the women.

Trafficking. How much trust and opportunity were lost when an award-winning NGO was charged with siphoning off a big part of donors’ funds? I think of a recent lunch when a friend stressed the need for organizations to be self-sustaining.

A reminder that I may not have watched a single Oscars contender yet. Can’t wait for Emmanuel Lubezk’s “Gravity” (a likely Oscar win) and Hayao Miyazaki’s 2-D historic drama (animation), “The Wind Rises”.

DZBB Flash: Isang tanker at kotse, nagkagitgitan sa ilalim ng Skyway, Makati City.; wala namang napaulat na sugatan.

And for a surreal end from ‏@BostonDotCom.  They used to photoshop models to make them look thinner, more idealized. Then the models started mutilating themselves to kill any inconvenient reminder of reality. Then the real people started to protest. And now they  photoshop models are photoshopped to make them look fatter.

“The vast majority of the models who need reverse Photoshopping aren’t women who just happen to have that body type… They are part of a social institution that demands extreme thinness, and they’re working hard on their bodies to be able to deliver it.” — Lisa Wade, chair of the sociology department at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who blamed “an industry that requires women to be unhealthy and then hides the harmful consequences.”

Fun, Free Family Bonding at the Luneta

Want to give your kids summer fun that goes beyond the malls and play stations? Here’s a free and genuinely interesting offering from Rizal Park!
The National Parks Development Committee (NPDC) launches today (May 4) the “Labs Kita Saturday” weekly program at the Luneta. Today’s eventwill feature the Park’s first free art workshops at the picture-perfect Musical Dancing Fountain are, from 4 pm, withe the theme  “.
The event is organized by NPDC Executive Director Juliet Villegas through the Public Relations and Events Management firm Blitz Communications Philippines; Arts Association of the Philippines (AAP); on-the-job trainee students of Far Eastern University, De La Salle University– asmarinas, and Technological University of the Philippines; and in partnership with UniSilver TIME, DONG-A, and UnliSolutions Manpower Services & Events Management Inc., Media partners include Business Mirror, Health and Fitness Newsprint Magazine, and Pilipino Mirror.
Along with other members of the AAP, the art workshop will be led by seasoned artists and its current President, Fidel “Maestro” Sarmiento, and shall utilize mediums such as oil pastels, sand paper, and felt paper.
Free oil pastels will be provided to the first 500 families who shall register for the “Labs Kita Saturday” art workshop, while the first 200 families will be provided with free sand paper to be used during the said activity.
Meanwhile, all registered participants have chances of winning several masterpieces or paintings from Sarmiento through a raffle draw.

Tales of Rage and Sorrow — WW2 in Penang, Malaysia

Which general executed for WW2 crimes against humanity was an artist?  Tales of Rage and Sorrow — WW2 in Penang, Malaysia: is a travelogue on men at war, both victors and vanquished, and the hapless. An excerpt:

There is nothing to do but close your eyes in silent prayer for the departed owners of the rows of combat boots; muddy, frayed and in some cases still caked with dried blood. There is a backpack. There are jackets and helmets. These were once owned by men who breathed and cursed and scratched their heads and crotches. Men who’d barely escaped internment but who would spend the next decade wondering at the fate of other men later brought to their old fort…

There is Death all over, with his black robe and sickle. There are his victims. And there is a life-size installation of a cartoon bubble, very Western, much like those gothic graphic tales, with a tortured man spouting curses at his tormentors.

In one building, I find myself looking at a room with a row of beds. It seems strangely unsoldierly, though at first there isn’t a single thing you can pinpoint.

Then my eyes fall on a white slip by a chair; it is almost hidden from sight.

scaRRedcat has a new Travel Blog

Surigao City, photo by Tin Repolona
Surigao City, photo by Tin Repolona

Hello friends,

I spent the Holy Week re-writing and updating old articles and scribbles. I ended up with so much stuff and finally decided to fill up the long-planned secondary blogs. Here’s the first of them, “The Footloose Kit” and housed in I’ve got enough stuff and promise to upload at least thrice a week. So please, do visit regularly. Here’s the first of the travel pieces, “Tales of Rage and Sorrow: War in Penang, Malaysia”. 

Hope you enjoy the ride! (Of course, I will still be writing on this main blog, but it will be mainly news features and commentaries. Watch out for other sub-blogs, which I’ll share as they go up. Cheers!