Sitting comfortably in the PAC computer lab I stared in disbelief at pictures of the destruction Typhoon Ketsana had caused to my hometown of Manila, Philippines. With hardly any rescue boats in sight, thousands of victims carrying their children above their heads waded through the dirty floodwaters that had seeped into nearly every area of the metropolis. People climbed to the tops of houses, even the tops of telephone poles, as the rains beat down relentlessly. At the end of that day, September 26, 2009, a month’s worth of tropical rainfall had devastated the capital of my country. And what’s worse—another storm was on its way.
My reaction was immediate and highly emotional—as soon as my last class was over, I began speaking with my Dean and professors about wanting to help. My best friend, Anthony Smith ’11, and I began talking about what we could do for our country, with even more than typhoon relief efforts in mind.
In the decade I had spent in Manila before coming to Wesleyan, I had witnessed first-hand the inconceivable level of corruption that had become entrenched in Philippine political activity. In light of such memories, we could not help but worry about the ability of this government to deal effectively with such a catastrophe. We thought it necessary to do something.
With elections coming up in May 2010, I decided to return home for two weeks, excited to help not only in relief efforts, but also in pushing for increased government transparency and accountability. In addition to the investigative interviews I had lined up for research, I planned to connect with student leaders at various Filipino Universities in order to form a united, international student group that would push for this cause.
What the Typhoon Reveals about this Government
While the floodwaters had mostly receded by the time I landed, I found that the disaster had awoken something inside the Filipino people that reminded them of the shortcomings of the current administration. According to Ellen Tordesillas, an investigative journalist for the newspaper Vera Files, Philippine news channels such as ABS-CBN had been much more successful in gathering relief funds, raising about $3.8 million in donations compared to the $1.3 million the government was able to raise.
“Why the government even had to ask for donations is beyond me,” Tordesillas said.
As soon as the typhoon hit, the government announced that they would be pulling from their calamity fund. No such funds were actually released, and the government was soon clamoring for alternative sources of aid. Their deficiency in reacting to the typhoon caused many to believe that the fund had already been drained, and was now likely resting in the pockets of various corrupt politicians.
Dr. Vergara, who served as a National Director in the Philippine Department of Health in the early 1990s and was heavily involved in the establishment of the Disaster Management Unit, pointed out that only 2.4 percent of the Philippine national budget is allotted to the Department of Health, despite the fact that the World Health Organization recommends five to six percent.
According to Vergara, when the typhoon struck, only about 30 government rescue boats had made it out from their positioning place in the south of Metro Manila to the most affected areas. When Vergara was in government, 300 rescue boats had been purchased. If the government has failed to purchase any more rescue vehicles in a decade, that would still imply that only 10 percent of vehicles were used to help the thousands of people that were affected.
The government had hardly planned for strategic positioning based on the vulnerability of different areas. In fact, Vergara pointed out, the boats that did make it out were dispersed evenly among the communities to display that indeed the government was ‘coming to the rescue’—even to those who didn’t need it. Meanwhile, thousands of victims in the most affected areas, where floodwaters had submerged entire houses, struggled with only a few boats.
“There were stories of mayors telling people to get out of the boats so their children could get in,” Vergara said. “It was unbelievable. Everyone was a victim at that point, you can’t just pick favorites.”
As relief efforts began, politicians began to take advantage of survivors. Presidential hopefuls such as Senator Manny Villar and former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, newly returned from house arrest following impeachment and corruption charges, sent out relief packages with their own personal branding. Water bottles and noodles were packaged with Villar’s name in plain sight and families could pick up relief goods with relief tickets that featured Erap’s name and photo. The outrageous use of survivors’ desperation to further campaign ambitions angered many.
A Desperate President
“This typhoon—this calamity—has only exposed the bankruptcy of our government,” explained Vergel Santos, Chairman of the Editorial Board of BusinessWorld newspaper and Trustee of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. “These are problems that will be inherited by the next administration, if the elections happen at all.”
Santos was referring to the fear shared by many that the current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is sure to face numerous corruption and criminal charges as soon as she becomes a private citizen, will try to extend her term by any means possible. Santos suggested that a series of natural disasters such as these might give Arroyo justification in declaring a state of emergency and even martial law.
This would be a frightening repeat of what most Filipinos refer to as the darkest time in our history—the 20-year reign of former President/Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who extended his term until 1986 by declaring martial law. One might think generations who lived in this era would be quick to fight off any presidential attempt to extend terms, yet every Filipino president since Marcos has tried to do so, with the exception of President Cory Aquino, who rose to power as the figurehead of the “People Power” revolution that unseated Marcos in 1986.
“People are just concerned with surviving right now,” Santos said. “We are a slow nation. Not only slow to move, but slow to understand.”
Joey de Venecia, who is running for Senator in the upcoming election, is known to many as the whistleblower in political scandal involving the First Gentleman and a contract to the Chinese company ZTE for creating a government-managed national broadband network. As I waited in his living room for an interview in his apartment in Makati City, I found myself wondering why the son of the former Speaker of the House and a successful businessman in the private sector had chosen to take up residence in a smaller apartment building rather than in the gated villages where prominent families usually build large, elaborate homes.
“I’ve been persecuted by the government for two years… I couldn’t do business with many of my former business friends because of the President,” de Venencia said. “I got death threats in 2007 and 2008, and my phones continue to be wiretapped. My father, who was Speaker of the House then, was kicked out. Being a son, that was one of the hardest things for me—seeing my father get kicked out of a position that he had worked so hard for… How can you encourage whistle blowing when people see corruption if they know they will be persecuted?”
Recently, five mayors in Arroyo’s home district in the province Pampanga have been pushing for her to run for Congresswoman, yet many have expressed fears that this would only allow Arroyo to become Speaker of the House and later switch the Philippine political system from presidential to parliamentary, and then become Prime Minister.
University of the Philippines Professor of Sociology Randy David is one of Arroyo’s strongest opponents in this area. In June 2009, David announced that he would run against Arroyo should she seek a seat in the House representing their home district.
When I sat down with him on October 22, David said he had to give his candidacy some real thought, as it would require him to give up his position at the University as well as his weekly column in The Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“I have not made up my mind yet,” he said. “I don’t regard myself as a politician. I don’t think I have the stomach or the heart for it. I’m a teacher, but I want to challenge her. The whole point is really just to slam the door against Arroyo.”
A Chance of Hope
“Inside my suffering country, treachery is king, excellence and goodness are weakened and buried in anguish and misery.”
During our interview, Neric Acosta, a candidate for Senator, closed his eyes and slowly repeated this line, written by Filipino writer Francisco Balagtas, first in Tagalog, and then in English.
“The country is really at a crossroads,” he said. “People are frustrated, people are angry, but people are still hopeful.”
Acosta is campaigning with Presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino, the son of former President Cory Aquino and former Senator Ninoy Aquino, whose assassination in 1983 sparked the slow move toward the revolution that would eventually overthrow Marcos.
Noynoy had been thrust into the race in the wake of his mother’s death in August, as people were reminded of a time when they were able to unseat a dictator and give rise to a leader whose morals they could trust. Cory Aquino’s funeral procession had drawn out crowds that resembled yet another “People Power” revolution. For months, the streets of Manila were covered with pictures of her and messages of gratitude. Yellow—the symbolic color of the revolution—was everywhere.
Acosta explained that his experience campaigning was no different. People in the provinces waited for hours just to show their support for Noynoy, who held 62 percent of popular support according to the polls when I sat down with Acosta on Oct. 23. Clad in yellow, men held up signs that read, “Noynoy, in you is our hope” and “Tuloy ang laban” [continue the fight].
“To say that this is more than an electoral exercise would be an understatement… it’s People Power masquerading as an election,” Acosta said with unrelenting conviction. “It’s the spirit of the times, a force field of people wanting to return to the capacities of their excellence.”
While my research has led me to discover what I can only imagine are a mere slice of the problems that face my country with regard to government accountability, it has also allowed me to see the positive changes in attitude and the admirable efforts of various organizations to make this election year different.
At a hand-over ceremony of Gawad Kalinga, one of the largest and most reputable development NGOs in the Philippines, families who had once lived as informal settlers in houses made from aluminum were formally given the rights to the land on which they had built sturdy two-story homes, decorated by Philippine movie stars and famous interior designers who had volunteered for the project.
“Before, every time a storm would come, no matter how small, we would all be so scared, because our house could be broken down so easily,” a beneficiary of the project said. “Now, even though the waters were waist deep, we weren’t afraid. Instead, we went to go help our neighbors across the street, whose houses are not as strong.”
During my time in Manila, I watched plays that advocated for long-term change and voter education, and I met with NGOs, private organizations, and schools that were working hard to inspire Filipinos to believe that this election would bring about a change in all of this. I found the spirit that had inspired my own trip in so many forms—I simply had to define my place in the fight.
As I settle back into the regular swing of life at Wesleyan, I will continue to create my own niche in the politics of my home while abroad. Working with student leaders I met and established ties with while I was in Manila, as well as Filipino students studying in the U.S. who still remember and are willing to fight against the troubles of their home country, I hope to establish a united, non-partisan, international Filipino student organization that pushes for government accountability and transparency.
During my trip, I found that it is the Filipino youth that needs the most inspiring, as it seems that my own age group has been the least active in the efforts to bring about a government we can finally trust. Many of my interviewees had noticed this sense of apathy, attributing it to the fact that our generation had never actually lived under martial law, endured suffering, and witnessed the country slowly overcome these forces. From my place in the U.S., I will work to bring these issues to fellow Filipino students and also try to encourage active involvement through my own actions.
For the upcoming election, I believe it is necessary to advocate for transparent elections and voter education. We must question the actions of government organizations, such as the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), that have failed thus far to convince many prominent members of the Philippine community that they are ready to conduct a national switch to automated, rather than manual, elections. Their failure to comply with law and immediately release the source code of the system they will be using seems suspicious, and calls into question issues of transparency and voter fraud. These are issues of huge importance, for while we have had fraudulent elections in the past, we have not yet had an outright failure of elections.
We must also engage in active voter education, both for the rural and remote communities that will likely have trouble adjusting to the automated system, and for the overseas Filipino population that plays an instrumental role in our economy and must have an effect on our politics. Partnering with organizations such as Gawad Kalinga and Youthvote Philippines, which produces various voter education materials, and with the help of additional funding for this mission, I hope to make an impact demonstrating that the youth, too, can restore Filipino pride that lies beneath years of suffering.