The Sangguniang Panlalawigan created quite a stir this week when it passed a resolution declaring a local civil society leader, Atty. Robert Chan of the Palawan NGO Network Inc (PNNI) “persona non grata”.  The resolution was a bit of a surprise even to the media covering the legislature, as there had not been a precedent agenda on the subject. It just sprang out of a privileged speech of one of the board members and unanimously adopted by the body.

It commonly happens in any legislative chamber or policy-making body that matters are resolved fait accompli in backroom caucuses and that plenary procedures to formalize an agreement or a decision become mere optics. This makes it hard to second guess what had transpired before the plenary action of the resolution sponsored by Board Member Al Rama and to understand the context of the decision they had made.

The explanation of Board Member Rama was that the resolution was simply to vent out their collective “dislike” on the person of Atty. Chan, no more no less. He was also deliberate in pointing out that the resolution, as persona non grata resolutions go, does not impose any legal impediment on the personal rights and privileges of Atty. Chan.

As to what exactly prompted the resolution was a hard sell, considering that its proponents were apparently reacting to something that transpired, according to  Chan, two years earlier when he recorded a fundraising video for PNNI’s work on environmental enforcement. Rama railed against the video in his privilege speech, calling out Chan for ostensibly raising funds at the expense of the provincial government who he was criticizing in the video.

It is relevant to look at the dynamics of the relationship between the Palawan civil society community and the provincial government if one is to understand the context of the Board’s unprecedented decision. To put it straight, there is no love lost between the two.

There is a curious footnote to this subject.  In the mid 90’s during the term of the late governor Salvador Socrates, PNNI had also clashed with the provincial government on various policy matters. Among those was Capitol’s endorsement of a controversial cement plant project in Sofronio Espanola which was strongly objected to by the non-government organizations.  They even debated as early as that time the push by several lawmakers to divide Palawan into two provinces, an initiative that did not quite get the traction Capitol wanted.

But what was different from today was during Socrates’ time, the dynamics between the two was based on critical collaboration. The NGOs were constant participants in local special bodies including a PNNI seat in the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD). The NGOs were not outside the Capitol holding placards and denouncing government; they were seating in board rooms debating policy issues and agreeing to disagree with their counterparts.

Socrates knew to accept and embrace criticisms as par for the course and an important aspect of governance, perhaps having played an important role in the DILG in ushering the Local Government Code in the post-EDSA era with its novel concept of civil society participation in governance. The provincial government at that time even appropriated funds in its annual budget to provide institutional support to PNNI and other civil society organizations.

That relationship ended when the late governor’s plane ditched into the waters of Cagayancillo and he was gone.