By By Atty. Romulo P. Atencia
“GOODBYE PHILIPPINES”
posted 9-Jan-2016  ·  
4,636 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

New Year's Eve at the symbolic center of New York City is marked by the descent of the traditional lighted crystal ball from atop a skyscraper amid fireworks and a blizzard of confetti at the center of the famed Manhattan crossroads, the climax of an annual rite of winter dating back to 1904. Every year as the clock nears midnight on December 31, the eyes of the world turn once more to the dazzling lights and bustling energy of Times Square. Anticipation runs high. More than a million people hail the arrival of 2016 with kisses and cheers. The world holds its breath, and cheers as the clocks strike twelve. An estimated one million people in Times Square, millions nationwide and over a billion watching throughout the world are united in bidding a collective farewell to the departing year, and expressing joy and hope for the year ahead.

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The transition to the new year is quite different in the Philippines. Filipinos love fireworks and firecrackers and a celebration of any major event is not complete without it. Although about 80% of the country's 100 million people are Roman Catholics, superstition dictates making ear-shattering noises during New Year's Eve to ward off bad luck. So, every “Juan” tries to outdo each other in setting off firecrackers and “kwitis” or sky rockets. Some even shoot guns into the air to celebrate the December festive season.

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China claims to have invented gunpowder approximately 2,000 years ago in China. Marco Polo transported this invention to the Middle East where European Crusaders brought it to England. Credit for developing fireworks into a true art form has to be awarded to the Italians. It was they who were able to develop aerial shells that launched upward and exploded into a fountain of color; lighting up the night sky to the enjoyment of onlookers. These firework displays grew more and more elaborate over the years, gradually working their way into the back gardens of everyday families. For nearly 2,000 years, the only colors fireworks could produce were yellows and oranges using steel and charcoal. It was only in the 19th Century that pyrotechnicians had the technology to introduce reds, greens and blues to the night sky. But dubious “credit” is sometimes also given to Filipinos for having the most number of deaths or severed limbs and maimed bodies due to the riotous celebration of New Year since pyrotechnics was introduced into our shores. It is said that the pyrotechnics industry traces back its origins to1867 when a local resident learned the craft from a parish priest in Sta. Maria, Bulacan. The priest used “kwitis” to wake up parishioners in time for the Misa de Gallo. The secrets of this trade were passed to succeeding generations, which led to the present-day proliferation of factories along Angat, Baliuag, Bocaue, Norzagaray, and Sta. Maria, in Bulacan province.

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Obviously, as exploding gunpowder is always dangerous, there’s a list of powerful and unlicensed firecrackers that are banned by the government, among which are:  Goodbye Philippines, Goodbye World, and Goodbye Universe. While their names are quite amusing, the damage they can unleash is no joke at all as private individuals have different ways and means of celebrating the event. For instance, a drunk man died after he embraced "Goodbye Philippines", as it was about to explode, health secretary Janet Garin recently told reporters. "His jaw was shattered. He was so intoxicated he hugged the Goodbye Philippines," Garin said, adding the man was pronounced dead at the hospital. In fact, the news reports sound the same every year. Stray bullets and exploding firecrackers kill and injure hundreds in the Philippines. It is not uncommon to see firecracker victims being rushed into emergency rooms grimacing in pain as they hold their bloodied limbs. Also fires caused by pyrotechnics are frequent. A 6-hour long fire caused by “kwitis” started a slum inferno in Tondo last Christmas. We should have learned our lessons by now. But people continue to explode pyrotechnics and shoot guns to celebrate New Year. This season, the health department listed 380 injuries due to fireworks and four others due to stray bullets.

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It is time to stop this dangerous “tradition” of celebrating New Year’s Eve with a bang. We should engage in other, more sedate and enjoyable means of observing this supposedly joyful parting of the year. Like celebrants in Times Square and other parts of the world, we should hail the arrival of the new year with kisses and cheers. And if pyrotechnics cannot be avoided, it must actually be done by a responsible government agency or NGO, not just any private individual who might have his own kinky or dangerous way of lighting firecrackers. There should be very tight controls on explosives and incendiary devices. The technology used in fireworks could be used by terrorists or other people who have taken up arms against our government. We now live in dangerous times.  There is a theory of a supposed Clash of Civilizations – that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War era. In the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris and California, extraordinary measures should be taken to ensure security at public places where many people usually congregate.

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Indeed, steps have been taken in our country to address problems associated with pyrotechnics. President Ferdinand Marcos shut down fireworks factories in Bulacan. During the time of President Gloria Arroyo, Republic Act No. 9516 increased the penalty to reclusion perpetua for the unlawful possession, etc., of any explosive or incendiary device, where the explosive or incendiary device is capable of producing destructive effect on contiguous objects or causing injury or death to any person. The same penalty was imposed on policemen and other persons who planted such evidence. In spite of recent alarming accounts of “tanim bala” and other incidents of planting of evidence, RA 9516 remains to be good law. At bottom, what matters is proper enforcement of the law and greater vigilance on the part of private citizens, never to allow abuse by those who enforce the laws. 

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