[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo (top left) lays a wreath at the Rizal Shrine in Koronadal City while Chief Justice Reynato Puno (top right) leads the activities at the Andres Bonifacio monument in Caloocan City during the 111th Independence Day celebration yesterday. Lower left photo shows people spreading out the largest Philippine flag measuring 100 by 200 meters at the SM Mall of Asia grounds in Pasay City. At right is a Philippine flag made of roses, chrysanthemums and Malaysian mums that was on display at a mall in Baguio City. Ernie Penaredondo, Jonjon Vicencio, Andy ZapataMANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, JUNE 13, 2009 (STAR) The country is badly in need of heroes in this time of global economic crisis, President Arroyo said yesterday.

Speaking at the 111th Independence Day rites in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, Mrs. Arroyo said the celebration’s theme was on Mindanao and jobs.

“Heroism is not obsolete. It comes in many forms in different times,” the President said. “When the nation needs us, it is an opportunity to become heroes today.”

She said if the country’s heroes in the past fought and died for independence and political freedom, Filipinos should be inspired to unite and help combat the effects of the global economic crisis.

The rites signaled the simultaneous nationwide flag-raising ceremony to mark the country’s Freedom Day observance.

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, Armed Forces Gen. Victor Ibrado, South Cotabato Gov. Daisy Avance Fuentes, Labor Secretary Marianito Roque and Koronadal City Mayor Fernando Miguel assisted the President in raising the Philippine flag.

After the flag-raising rites, the Chief Executive shook hands with representatives of tribal communities as she walked towards the monument of national hero Dr. Jose Rizal where she laid a wreath.

During the wreath-laying ceremonies, a military brass band played “Pilipinas Kong Mahal,” and an Air Force helicopter dropped fresh flower petals on the crowd.

The celebration also featured an ecumenical invocation led by religious leaders of various sects and ethnic groups.

Towards the end of the program, the President led the awarding of employment certificates, livelihood packages and scholarship checks or training vouchers provided by 15 government agencies.

She also led the launching of the “Mega Job and Livelihood Fair” that was replicated in other parts of the country that would run for three days.

Despite slowing growth, the Philippines fared better compared to developed neighboring countries that saw their economies contracting, Mrs. Arroyo said.

“Investing in our country’s infrastructure is one of the top priorities of our economic reform agenda,” she said.

She cited the P30-million rehabilitation of the General Santos City airport.

“Our efforts to support our workers during these challenging times range from investments that will help create new jobs, livelihood assistance to affected workers, and retraining programs that will help them find new employment, among others,” she said.

The President also reiterated her commitment to resume talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a Muslim separatist group fighting for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.

She said the government has already started assembling the pieces for the possible resumption of peace negotiations with the MILF through the support of the Malaysian government.

“We all want peace to resume but we must be patient,” she said, adding that she had already discussed with the new Malaysian prime minister the government’s willingness to sit down with the MILF rebels and discuss peace.

The Malaysian government is reportedly keen on again acting as peace broker of GRP-MILF peace negotiations once they are resumed.

A bitter pill to swallow

Mrs. Arroyo returned to Manila in the afternoon and hosted the traditional reception for members of the diplomatic corps and the “rigodon de honor” at the Palace Ceremonial Hall in the evening.

In her speech at the reception the President said the Philippines was “blessed to be among the resilient ones” amid the global economic crisis.

She said no nation was spared from the global recession “but some are fairing relatively better.”

She emphasized that in the first quarter of the year, the country’s Gross National Product grew by 4.4 percent while others in the region experienced negative growth.

“This is because we took the bitter pill of economic reform years ago,” Mrs. Arroyo. “We invested these revenues in long-overdue physical and human infrastructure.”

“We worked hard to bring increasing balance to our national economy by pumping more money on infrastructure and welfare, expanding on our domestic demand, and decrease our reliance on exports,” she said.

She said the country also diversified its trading partners that helped bring new job opportunities for Filipino workers.

First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo was conspicuously absent during the reception. But catching the eye of journalists and other Palace officials and guests was cosmetic surgeon Dr. Vicki Belo, who is involved in a sex video scandal.

‘Getting out of the box’

The Palace, meantime, brushed off speculations that President Arroyo and key administration allies conducted the simultaneous commemoration of Independence Day across the country to prevent opposition to Charter change from snowballing.

“It’s ridiculous,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said, adding that the palace was “getting out of the box” of traditional celebrations that entailed money and parades.

“We would rather have this job fair to give opportunity for our displaced people to find jobs, because our problem now is our economic slowdown,” he said.

Ermita said the Arroyo administration is focused on job generation, citing the continued economic slowdown in the country as a result of the worldwide recession.

He said Mrs. Arroyo has released a total of P10 billion to cover the job generation program under the Comprehensive Livelihood Employment Program (CLEP), aside from the counterpart that is expected from the private sector.

While he admitted having no idea yet on the exact number of jobs that the program would generate, he said he is expecting it would go by the hundreds of thousands because some 17,000 unemployed would be hired for various jobs and livelihood programs in the city alone.

‘Freedom from want’

But senators said it was time for Filipinos to experience clean and speedy elections as well as true and genuine reforms as the country celebrated its 111th Independence Day.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile expressed pride in the Filipinos’ relentless pursuit “of democratic ideals and values, even if intermittent political storms threaten the independence of our democratic institutions.”

Sen. Richard Gordon said the country remained imprisoned by an election system marred by wholesale cheating and fraud long after it had gained independence.

He said a truly independent nation is one that is completely democratic, especially in the system used to choose the leaders of the country.

Gordon said the computerization of the 2010 elections was tantamount to modernizing Philippine democracy.

With the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) issuance of the resolution awarding the automation project to the winning bidder, the senator said the nation “is one step closer to attaining the long hoped-for honest, clean, speedy and credible election.”

Sen. Manuel Roxas II, on the other hand, said the next president’s tough job would be to liberate 27.5 million Filipinos from poverty and hunger that the Arroyo administration failed to do.

Roxas, who led the Independence Day celebration in Cebu City, said a lot of people remained poor, hungry and jobless, and they must now be able to enjoy a different kind of freedom.

He said the next president should not concentrate on what he could deliver during his first 100 days in power but “the agenda should be for the entirety of his six-year term.”

“Let us ensure that nation-building is anchored on a solid rock of morality and good governance, good governance that begins at the top and reflects all the way down,” he added.

Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., for his part, appealed to the Filipino people, particularly the youth, to exercise responsibility and patriotism while enjoying the fruits of independence.

In his speech during the commemoration ceremonies of the declaration of the Philippine Independence in Kawit, Cavite, Revilla emphasized that while the country had already obtained its freedom from colonial forces, the struggle for reforms still remained.

He reminded the youth that their ancestors fought and laid down their lives to achieve national liberation to benefit the next generations. — Aurea Calica, Roel Pareño

GMA to House: Prioritize tax bills By Paolo Romero and Delon Porcalla Updated June 13, 2009 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines – President Arroyo asked leaders of Congress yesterday to pass long-pending revenue measures, saying the government needs to spend more to shore up the country’s defenses against the global economic crisis as well as fund new laws like the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program and the Salary Standardization Law.

Mrs. Arroyo made the call during an off-cycle Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) meeting at Malacañang, and as House leaders were parrying accusations that they were more preoccupied with rewriting the Constitution than tackling urgent measures.

“It’s rather unusual that the President would call for a LEDAC during recess of Congress, but this time she did, precisely to drive home the point that as soon as Congress resumes session in July, these revenue measures ought to be given top priority,” presidential adviser for political affairs Gabriel Claudio told a news briefing.

“We are hoping that Congress would be focused on these in spite of certain political issues that may hang over them,” Claudio said.

“There is, in fact, a sense of priority and urgency over such revenue measures,” he added.

At the LEDAC meeting, leaders of Congress and economic managers also agreed to take a second look at a bill filed by Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez imposing certain taxes on telecommunications firms due to the precarious fiscal situation of the government.

Palace and economic officials admitted that efforts to amend the Constitution may have taken away precious time from congressmen to act on the revenue bills but expressed optimism the lawmakers would come around and face up to the task.

Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, briefing lawmakers, said the need for fresh revenues has gained urgency as collections from value-added tax have declined due to a drop in consumption. He also cited the need for bigger expenditures, particularly P120 billion for CARP next year.

He pointed out the projected deficit for the year has risen to P250 billion.

“Let’s say they have four hours a day in session. If they have four hours a day for Cha-cha, maybe they also have time for other revenue measures. But because there’s LEDAC, I think we’ll move faster,” Teves, a former congressman, said.

He said Congress is also being dissuaded from approving bills that may have negative impact on revenues such as those granting more fiscal incentives.

Among the revenue measures that need to be approved are the proposed rationalization of excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol products that can generate anywhere from P19 billion to P21 billion annually; the Simplified Net Income Taxation System, P5 billion; and the rationalization of fiscal incentives which could raise anywhere from P5 billion to P10 billion.

“We need these badly. We can use these revenues to increase spending for social services and infrastructure to generate growth,” Teves said.

“Based on our projection, every P1 of investment funded by revenues can generate something like P3 in income,” he said.

In Legazpi City, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said he believes Mrs. Arroyo is not behind the latest Cha-cha bid and that senators are ready to block it.

“With my dealings with her for a very long time, I believe that she is not behind Cha-cha as she does not show any hint that she wants to tinker with the Constitution,” Enrile said at a press conference.

Albay Gov. Joey Salceda shared Enrile’s opinion.

“Knowing her, I don’t think she would push for Cha-cha because this is not wise economically. Protest actions against Cha-cha are hurting the economy right now,” Salceda told The STAR.

“But if the President will ask my advice what to do with the rising protests against the Cha-cha issue, I would advise her to tell her allies to stop the move,” Salceda said.

Meanwhile, former House speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. called on Mrs. Arroyo to “cut and cut clean” in the con-ass controversy.

“But this requires humility and bowing before the will of the people and the will of God,” De Venecia said.

“They’re flaunting their power against public opinion,” he said referring to congressmen who approved the resolution allowing a Senate-less constituent assembly.

‘Rally of politicians’

Mrs. Arroyo’s House allies – and one opposition congressman – said the June 10 anti-Cha-cha gathering in Makati City was more of a “rally of politicians.”

Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez, spokesman for the minority bloc, said the rally became a vehicle for political grandstanding because of the presence of personalities with political ambitions for 2010.

“That is precisely why I said politicians should be invisible in the rally. It should be a rally of the people, not a rally of politicians,” the deputy minority leader said.

Presidential wannabes Senators Manuel Roxas II and Loren Legarda were at the rally last Wednesday.

Speaker Prospero Nograles said Roxas was “trying hard” to use the occasion to campaign. The senator distributed garlic during the rally to ward off “con-asswang” or ghoul in Filipino folklore.

Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante said politicians who joined the rally “used it for their own political agenda.”

“I am really dismayed. Now the people are asking are they really for the people or their own interests. Let the people judge,” he said.

“People are smarter and more aware about issues. They are tired of political gimmicks as these do not address the country’s problem,” Zambales Rep. Ma. Milagros Magsaysay said.

“If I can be candid about it, these rallies are funded by presidentiables, the opposition and the (usual) anti-government forces,” Manila Rep. Amado Bagatsing told reporters.

“We’re just asking. And I will repeat it, we’re just asking. We have not even made specific proposals in the Constitution. What term extension? What martial law? They are just diverting it. That’s farthest from the truth!” he said.

Quezon City Mayor Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte downplayed insinuations of a looming martial law. “Martial law is out of the question. The President cannot unilaterally declare martial law,” he told newsmen.

The former congressman and one-time Speaker likewise assuaged fears of a no-election scenario. “I’m convinced that there will be elections by 2010. The con-ass, they did that just to have a justiciable issue. And I hope the Supreme Court puts it to rest.”

Former Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay, one of the spokesmen for Lakas-Kampi-CMD, said the opposition would always make use of the Charter change issue to get media mileage.

“This (Cha-cha) is the dance that never gets out of tune. Believe me, it (rally) is not about con-ass. It’s all about 2010. It’s nothing more than a political exercise where these presidentiables get free publicity,” he said.

Another administration stalwart, Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez, said the rally was the handiwork of people who are out to protect, not the country’s welfare, but their own personal interests.

“It is an early campaign for presidentiables. It is an opportunity for them to address a huge crowd with very little expense,” the chairman of the House committee on oversight said.

“With that rally, they will hit the headlines, be in the news at the expense of attacking us, that we are so bad because we want to perpetuate President Arroyo,” he said.

“Our resolution on con-ass was just a vehicle for amendments. There are no actual amendments so why are they harping about term extension, GMA will run and perpetuation of power?” Suarez asked.

“There is no move like that in the resolution,” Suarez reiterated. “We’re only asking the Senate to join us.”

“Don’t the demonstrators know that one of the duties of a congressman once elected is to amend laws? They do not want us to perform our duties, that’s the effect,” Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo said.

Romualdo, chairman of the House committee on good government and public accountability, said the Makati Business Club is against Charter change because they don’t want economic reforms.

“They want to control business in the Philippines. Most likely it’s the clamor for economic provisions to be opened up they do not want,” Romualdo added.

“All of them, they are not looking for the interest of the country but their personal interest, their hidden interests.”

Militant groups, meanwhile, said the administration’s brazenness in pushing for Cha-cha showed that the country has yet to be truly independent 111 years after the end of Spanish colonization.

“Our forefathers would cringe at the kind of puppetry being displayed by the Arroyo regime. It has been one sell-out after another. There is the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and now there is Charter change,” Renato Reyes Jr., secretary-general of Bayan, said.

For his part, Rep. Raymond Palatino of the Kabataan party-list said youth groups will begin a signature drive against con-ass beginning Monday.

“We expect to gather one million signatures until the State of the Nation Address in July. Let this be a testament of how youth and students everywhere despise con-ass and attempts of the Arroyo administration to extend her term,” Palatino said. - With Eva Visperas, Cet Dematera, Rainier Allan Ronda

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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