Catholic Church hinders growth of public intellectuals in RP -- expert

Catholic Church hinders growth of public intellectuals in RP --expert
By Purple S. Romero,
Posted at 05/28/2010 5:26 PM | Updated as of 05/28/2010 5:34 PM

MANILA, Philippines--Influential sectors or "veto groups" have stymied public intellectuals in Southeast Asia, an authority on nationalism said on Friday in the forum of Nippon Foundation Fellowships for Asian Public Intellectuals held at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Benedict Anderson, professor emeritus of International Studies in Cornell University, pointed out that public intellectuals are concerned not just with meddling governments, they are also “up against veto groups,” or influential sectors which immediately block policies or ideas that either go against their belief, or question their power.

Public intellectuals are experts in various fields who help shape public discourse and introduce reforms. They are those who frequently appear in the media to comment on newsworthy issues.

In the Philippines, where 81% of the 90-million population are Catholic, the Catholic Church is the “single, most powerful veto group,” Anderson said.

He decried how the Catholic Church has successfully impeded the distribution of contraceptives and curtailed the education of people about reproductive health, thereby also slowing down the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Mary Racelis, professor from the University of the Philippines Department of Anthropology, agreed with Anderson. She said that the Catholic Church continues to shun forms of modern family planning, such as the use of condoms and birth control pills. Talking about abortion is also a big no-no. “You cannot discuss it,” she said. “This is always a struggle.”

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has campaigned against the passage of the Reproductive Health Care bill, which would mandate the government to fund and promote the use of contraceptives. After 14 years, the bill reached the plenary in Congress in 2008, but intense lobbying from the Catholic Church and pro-life advocates stalled its enactment into law.

Military power

In Indonesia, Anderson said, the presence of the military continues to intimidate public intellectuals.

The military has weakened press freedom during the time of President Suharto. Indonesia’s armed forces enjoyed considerable power under his regime as they helped him overthrow Suharto’s predecessor, Sukarno, in 1967.

Media practitioners then were warned against producing scathing reports against the military.

While the Indonesian government is now under the helm of civilian rule, research about military, especially their wealth, is still far and between, Anderson lamented.

“There is no single book about the military,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, a law whose implementation lies in the hands of men in uniform has also discouraged the probe of the government and its actions.

Under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial, the police and military can arrest and put behind bars people who are suspected of carrying any anti-government activity. The Malaysian government has initially used ISA to stop communist forces in 1948.

Anderson said though, that in reality, ISA is now used to suppress critics of the government.

Infallible monarchy

In Thailand, Anderson said, the “veto group” is the monarchy, which is above public scrutiny.

It has a law, the lese majeste, which prohibits any form of criticism against the king and the royal family. Those who defame the monarchy could be imprisoned for 3-15 years.

Anderson said that lese majeste has the undeniable capacity to censor public intellectuals, even those who are not Thai citizens. He cited the example of Paul Handley, author of the book “The King That Never Smiles,” which assailed Thai King Bhumibol Adulyade as anti-democratic.

The book almost did not see the light of day, Anderson said, as the Thai government allegedly tried to stop its publication by the Yale University. The book was eventually published in 2006.

Anderson said, though, that public intellectuals should not be silenced by veto groups. “The history of public intellectuals is marked by courage,” he said. -

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