FROM Pope Francis’ historic visit, Mamasapano massacre to the Philippines’ third crown in the prestigious Miss Universe pageant, Filipinos became witnesses to various events in 2015 that will be remembered for years to come.
Pope Francis charms the Philippines
It’s not every day that you get to see the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics in person. That is why for five days in January (January 15-19), Filipinos from all walks of life trooped to several areas in Manila and Tacloban to get a glimpse and feel the presence of charismatic Pope Francis.
He met with priests, nuns, young people and celebrated mass at the Quirino Grandstand that drew a record crowd of six million despite the stormy weather, breaking a 1995 record when five million attended a similar event led by now Saint John Paul II in the same venue.
The highlight of the pontiff’s visit, however, was his meeting with survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) which killed thousands of people and destroyed communities and livelihood in November 2013.
Francis’ message of compassion and hope earned praises and some were even moved to tears.
Just as the Aquino government was making strides in bringing lasting peace in Mindanao, a monkey wrench was thrown into the clockwork and set back most of what it have planned to do.
On January 25, 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force were killed in an encounter with Muslim rebels and armed groups while on a mission to hunt terror suspects Abdul Basit Usman and Zulkifli Bin Hir also known as Marwan.
Twenty-three other people died because of the bungled operation, which brought jarring political consequences such as all-time low in the popularity ratings of President Benigno Aquino III and the stalled passage of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress.
While Aquino assured that those responsible for the bloody incident would be held to account, he also called on Congress to hasten the passage of the proposed BBL, which was aimed at ending decades of armed conflict in Mindanao through the establishment of a political entity that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Aquino remained hopeful that the measure will be passed before he steps down from power in June 2016.
Air travelers got worried in the last three months of 2015 when news came out that some passengers were victimized by airport personnel who plant bullets in their luggage.
Various groups condemned the scam as unsuspecting individuals, including overseas Filipino workers, were forced to pay thousands of pesos in bribes under threat of lawsuit.
One of them is Gloria Ortinez, who had been working in Hong Kong for about 30 years.
Her return to Hong Kong was stalled when she became a victim of ‘tanim-bala’ at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Ortinez was eventually acquitted by the Pasay City Prosecutor’s Office but upon return to Hong Kong, she found out that her employer has terminated her despite a communication from the Philippine Overseas Labor Office requesting the employer to give OFW Ortinez time and consideration to return to Hong Kong.
The National Bureau of Investigation later on confirmed the presence of such modus, which is reportedly not a handiwork of a syndicate.
“The NBI cannot establish that. In these incidents, only certain people are involved,” said Justice Undersecretary and spokesman Emmanuel Caparas in a press briefing on December 10.
Six airport personnel were also charged for the bullet-planting incidents, two from the Transportation Security (OTS) and four from the police Aviation Security Group (ASG).
Manila scores in sea dispute with Beijing
Malacañang and nationalists lauded last October the ruling of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal admitting jurisdiction over the case between the Philippines and China on the disputed territory in the West Philippine Sea.
This was despite Beijing objections that the arbitration body has no authority to hear the case brought up by Manila.
While the UN tribunal acknowledged its jurisdiction over the Philippine case against China, however, it did not include in its ruling the merits of the case as this would be subject of further hearing.
The Philippines believes it has a strong case because did not ask the tribunal to rule on maritime boundaries delimitation and the issue isn’t about territorial sovereignty.
Instead, the Philippines is asking the tribunal to invalidate China's nine-dash line that covers 90 percent of the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), as well as confirm the environmental degradation caused by Beijing's massive reclamation.
The Philippines is hoping that the process will be completed before the Aquino administration steps down in June 2016.
Mary Jane Veloso’s last-minute reprieve from firing squad
Just as her family and the nation were preparing for the worst, Filipina drug convict Mary Jane Veloso was saved from firing squad with just a few minutes to spare on wee hours of April 29.
Amid appeals from various groups and personalities including President Benigno Aquino III and world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, Indonesia issued a reprieve at the eleventh hour as Veloso was given a chance to prove that she was a victim of drug trafficking.
Hours before the reprieve, Veloso’s alleged recruiters Ma. Cristina Sergio and live-in partner Julius Lacanilao surrendered to police although both still denied involvement in the 30-year-old’s case.
In November, Indonesia announced that it had suspended the death penalty, which benefits Veloso and others, because the government wants to focus on improving Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
Veloso was arrested in Yogyakarta airport in 2010 after authorities found 2.6 kilograms of heroin in a suitcase supposedly given by her Filipino companion who recruited her for a job as a domestic worker.
Pacquiao bows to Mayweather in ‘Fight of the Century’
After months of anticipation, eight-division world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and prized American fighter Floyd Mayweather Jr. squared off with the latter emerging as winner before a sell-out crowd at a Las Vegas hotel on May 2.
Pacquiao's camp revealed that he had sustained an undisclosed injury to his right shoulder while training, and while it had healed in time for the fight, he re-injured it in the fourth round. Critics said that the injury contributed to his defeat.
Still, the bout earned criticisms as some had been disappointed in Mayweather's defense-oriented strategy and Pacquaio's difficulty in landing punches. This had led to some critics and media outlets to describe the multi-million dollar bout as a complete waste of time and the “hype of the century.”
Pacquiao, 37, will return to the ring on April 9, 2016, just a month before he will be judged by voters if he is worthy to be promoted from congressman to senator.
The lawmaker will be facing a familiar foe: Timothy Bradley.
Pacquiao is expected to earn at least $20 million from the fight with Bradley, whom he defeated for the WBO welterweight title in April 2014. Bradley won in their first meeting in June 2012 but observers had Pacquiao winning convincingly.
US Marine convicted for killing transgender Jennifer Laude
Over a year after he was charged with murder over the death of Filipino transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude, Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton was found guilty of homicide instead of murder as demanded by the victim’s family.
He was sentenced to six up to 12 years of imprisonment by the Olongapo Regional Trial Court.
On the evening of October 11, 2014, Laude’s body was found inside the bathroom of one of the rooms in Celzone Lodge in Olongapo City where she checked in with Pemberton after meeting at a nearby bar.
Pemberton admitted choking Laude after having found that she was biologically female but said he did not have the intention to kill her.
The solder said that she was still alive when he left her in the shower, not at the edge of the toilet bowl where police responders reportedly found her.
On December 1, the court delivered its verdict and said the killing of Laude was downgraded to homicide as it did not meet the standards for murder.
Aside from imprisonment, Pemberton was ordered to pay fine worth P4.5 million to Laude’s family for civil indemnities, loss of earning capacity as Laude stood as the breadwinner of her family, for burial and funeral expenses and for moral and exemplary damages.
The court also ordered the transfer of Pemberton from his temporary detention in Camp Aguinaldo to the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City but Pemberton’s legal counsel immediately appealed. The court then allowed him to remain in the military camp but under the custody of the Bureau of Corrections.
Search for next Palace occupant begins
Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senators Grace Poe and Miriam Defensor Santiago, former Local Government chief Manuel Roxas II, and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte all have their eyes set on the May 2016 elections’ biggest prize: the presidency.
While they could not officially campaign until February 2016, these personalities are already facing various issues, legal or otherwise, that test their viability as candidates.
Binay is hobbled by corruption allegations while Poe needs a final ruling from the Supreme Court whether she has met the residency and citizenship requirements for presidential candidates.
Santiago’s admission that she licked late stage lung cancer still raised apprehensions while Roxas’ performance as Cabinet member has been touted as sub-par.
Born with a silver spoon, Roxas was also branded by his opponents as elitist in a country where a quarter of the population is considered poor.
Duterte, meanwhile, has been criticized for his dictatorial tendencies and alleged lack of respect for human rights when he admitted that he had already killed 1,700 suspected criminals in Davao City.
Philippines hosts Apec Summit for second time
The whole country on November 18 to 19 witnessed the coming of over 11,000 delegates from all over the world in Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Economic Leaders' Meeting.
United States President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and social media darlings Mexican leader Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian premier Justin Trudeau took part in the summit which the Philippines hosted for the first time since 1996.
Apec 2015 was held amid simmering tensions between Philippines and China due to territorial disputes in the West Philippines Sea.
However, the Philippines decided to put aside the issue temporarily to focus on the summit's objective: promotion of trade, investment and inclusive growth, which is needed to defeat poverty in Apec member countries.
The summit was also held just days after the November 13 Paris attacks which left 137 people dead, forcing the country to enforce strict security and road closures near summit venues and hotels in Metro Manila that caused heavy traffic and inconvenience to commuters and motorists.
Normally, trade and economic issues are discussed at the Apec meeting. But following the Paris attacks, the world leaders welcomed efforts to fight terrorism.
They called for continued individual and collective actions, as well as sharing of best practices, in securing infrastructure, travel, supply chains, and financial systems from acts of terrorism.
New economic strategies were also discussed: Building inclusive economies, fostering the participation of micro, small and medium enterprises, building sustainable and resilient communities and enhancing the regional economic integration agenda.
In summary, President Benigno Aquino III said the main challenge for the economic leaders is to find a way to sustain and strengthen quality growth, particularly by considering policy responses that promote inclusivity, while addressing the current domestic and external challenges to Apec countries' growth.
Third Miss Universe crown for Philippines
It was a victory 42 years in the making with a dramatic plot twist in the end.
Philippines’ bet Pia Wurtzbach beat out 79 other ladies around the world to secure the country’s third Miss Universe crown after Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran, who won the title in 1969 and 1973, respectively.
Wurtzbach's victory though was shrouded with controversy when pageant host Steve Harvey mistakenly announced her as first runner-up to Ariadna Gutierrez of Colombia.
Harvey immediately corrected the mix-up and awarded the crown to Wurtzbach. Gutierrez was named first runner-up and Olivia Jordan of the United States placed second runner-up to complete the top three.
Celebrity judges Perez Hilton and Niecy Nash also vouched for Miss Philippines’ victory, saying the four-man judges’ panel gave a unanimous vote for Wurtzbach.
Prior to joining beauty contests, Wurtzbach, 26, was a professional model, actress, host, chef, beauty writer, stylist, and make-up artist.
She competed in the Binibining Pilipinas pageant in 2013 and 2014 but failed to win the title of Miss Universe-Philippines.
Wurtzbach, however, was not discouraged as she joined for the third time in 2015 and eventually bagged the title of Miss Universe-Philippines, which allowed her to represent the country in the competition held on December 20 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Sunnex)