Southeast Asia: News, Culture, Voices

FPAC returns to LA’s historic Filipinotown

October 17, 2016
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It just feels right. That’s the sentiment I heard over and over from folks who gathered at Echo Park over the weekend for the 25th Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture. And I have to agree. With the downtown skyline just south and a gorgeous afternoon sun reflected in the lake, the day was filled with memories of the local neighborhood and things to come for a resilient and ever-changing community.

The vegetables and gardening booth at FPAC honored contributions from Filipino elders and traditional agriculture.

The vegetables and gardening booth at FPAC honored contributions from Filipino elders and traditional agriculture.

The food booths seemed to quadruple in size, reflecting the surging Filipino food scene in L.A. Music and dancing filled the air.

Participants addressed the  question, What is Filpino to You? with a range of creative answers.

Participants addressed the question, What is Filpino to You? with a range of creative answers.

Still, issues in the local neighborhood with gentrification are serious and loaded. I heard this, also, from many people attending. And perhaps that’s why having the festival return to HiFi is more important than ever – an affirmation that the community is not going anywhere and still plays a vital role in shaping what happens next for local residents and businesses.

Patola, sitaw, talong, ampalaya!

Patola, sitaw, talong, ampalaya!

Big props to all the staff, volunteers and artists at FPAC, that made the festival a success! As always, for anyone who wants to support the important work that FilAm Arts does each and every year, check out FilAm ARTS.

Climate change hits close to home for LA’s Filipinos, Bangladeshis

December 29, 2015
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The US is the world’s top historic emitter of greenhouse gases, yet the country’s news headlines often paint the climate picture as something happening in a distant land on a future timeline.

Not so for many in LA’s immigrant communities – who maintain strong ties to places already getting hit hard by rising sea levels and extreme weather.


Leah Tejada’s family home in the Philippines has been destroyed by repeated typhoons in the past few years. (Dorian Merina/KPCC)

We recently wrapped a series of stories on climate change, including updates on the UN-backed talks in Paris, sea-level rise, Greenland’s ice sheet melt and the key numbers behind climate science.

I also sat down with Filipino and Bangladeshi families in L.A. as they recounted how extreme weather and storm surges have shaped their homelands:

Leah Tejada was at work when she got the news: a massive hurricane had just hit near her family’s hometown on the island of Leyte in the Philippines and the emerging reports were grim.

“I was scared,” she said. “They said there’s no food, so I sent money to Manila and looked for somebody who will go by land to bring food, [like] dried fish.”

Like many Filipinos in L.A., Tejada scrambled to reach her family and send aid after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013.  When she finally got word from her three brothers – more than a week after the storm first hit – the news was mixed: they had survived, but their home was demolished. And all of them had to flee to the capital, Manila.

You can listen to the full story from KPCC here.

I also visited a local coastal community, Hermosa Beach, which is trying to take measures now to prepare for rising sea levels near its main business district.


A sand burm along the Pacific Coast in Hermosa Beach near to the pier where sea level rise is projected to flood parts of the city in the coming decades. (Dorian Merina/KPCC)

Listen to the full interview with Hermosa Beach environmental analyst Kristy Morris here. These stories capped a whirlwind period of monitoring climate negotiations leading up to the Paris deal. We’ll see what comes next!

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After Saigon: legacies, memories and new directions

May 26, 2015
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This year marks the forty-year-anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, when US-backed forces fell to communist armies of the north. It was a profound moment for the US and for Southeast Asia. Today, Southern California is home to the largest community of Vietnamese in the U.S. At KPCC, we recently aired a special week-long series exploring the legacy of April 1975.

"A lot of our people are not here with us today and those are the people we can't forget," said Kelley Pheng, 26, a student in Long Beach.

“A lot of our people are not here with us today and those are the people we can’t forget,” said Kelley Pheng, 26, a student in Long Beach.

For me, it was an intense reporting experience, spending time with families who fled a war-torn country and struggled in a new land. Like many important stories, this one is composed of multiple points of view and perspectives, shaped by memories, trauma, hopes, courage and, at times, prejudice and regret. It also drew me to explore archival material at UCI’s rich Southeast Asian Archives and explore other communities affected by the events of 1975, such as Cambodians.

Here’s an excerpt from my feature on the Cambodian American community in Long Beach:

Four decades after the Khmer Rouge seized control of Phnom Penh, Cambodians in Long Beach are still coming to terms with the tragic events that sent thousands fleeing their homeland.

“It was really chaotic,” said Lian Cheun, who escaped from a prison camp in Cambodia as an infant along with her parents. “Everybody had survival in their mind, trying to figure out how to reconnect with family, trying to find family that are missing.”

The new generation of Cambodian Americans at the annual New Year Parade on Anaheim St.

The new generation of Cambodian Americans at the annual New Year Parade on Anaheim St.

In some cases, family members were split up in the labor camps set up by the Khmer Rouge. When the regime fell in 1979, the country was in turmoil, prompting many to make for the border with Thailand, where they spent time in refugee camps on the way to the U.S.

In Long Beach, Cambodians have established a close-knit community and a busy business district, but the experience of the past is often never far behind.

Read and listen to the full story here.

I also met some amazing artists who are exploring their family histories and covering new territory. I was especially impressed with these three artists, who joined us in the studio to talk about how they’re taking on taboo subjects in their community with creativity:

 (From left to right): Artists Lan Tran, Care Le and Trinh Mai.

(From left to right): Artists Lan Tran, Care Le and Trinh Mai.

Check out all the stories in the series, After Saigon, here.

Philippine President Aquino unveils bill to establish autonomy in Mindanao

September 11, 2014
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This week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino outlined details of a plan to establish an autonomous area in the Southern Philippines for Muslims and indigenous communities.

The proposed bill, known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), is the most concrete step since the government signed the 2012 peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the leading separatist group in Mindanao.

Indigenous groups protest in front of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Davao City, 2009. The Lumads say that mining led to the polarization of the indigenous communities. AKP Images (Creative Commons, Flickr) / Keith Bacongco

Indigenous groups protest in front of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Davao City on Monday, March 02, 2009, and call for the scrapping of Mining Act of 1995. The Lumads say that mining led to the polarization of the indigenous communities. AKP Images (Creative Commons, Flickr) / Keith Bacongco

There was much hope at the time, but talks quickly got bogged down, most notably over who would profit from natural resources and taxation in the newly-formed region. That issue, and others, are addressed in the current draft bill, which despite criticism, has received support from some key officials.

“This law is for the children who wish to run across school grounds instead of running for their lives,” Mujiv S. Hataman, governor of the semi-autonomus region, said in a statement posted on Facebook Wednesday. “This law is for families who want to put life into the earth through crops and produce, no longer to dig graves for their fathers and sons who have fallen in war.”

Philippines Magsaysay Awards

President Aquino acknowledged that economic development in the region has lagged behind other parts of the country, in his address.

“Kaya naman gusto nating bigyan ng pantay na pagkakataon ang lahat, lalong-lalo na ang mga nasa laylayan, upang mabigyan sila ng kakayahang makiambag sa pag-angat ng bansa,” he said in Tagalog.

A few key points in the current draft bill. It will:

— Establish a local self-government system, which will include law enforcement
— Retain locally most tax revenue from natural resources in the region
— Set up an area of land that will include the region now known as ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim   Mindanao); Cotabato and Isabela; and other municipalities that voted in 2001 to be included in the region
–Set up a way in which other areas could join the region. Voters in Mindanao where at least 10 percent of the registered voters ask for inclusion at least two months before ratification of the deal could be included.

Here’s an excerpt from the preamble to the draft bill:

“We, the Bangsamoro people and other inhabitants of the Bangsamoro, imploring the aid of the Almighty, aspiring to establish an enduring peace on the basis of justice in our communities and a justly balanced society, and asserting our right to conserve and develop our patrimony…do hereby ordain and promulgate this Bangsamoro Basic Law.”

Importantly, the draft text also includes this line:

“The freedom of choice of other indigenous peoples shall be respected.”

This is a point of contention for some indigenous communities in the area, whose traditions predate the arrival of Islam in the Southern Philippines and who are often caught up in the conflict between separatist forces and the federal government.

The two students who were among the five Lumads who were fired at by military. (Photo courtesy of RMP-NMR)

The two students who were among the five Lumads who were fired at by military. (Photo courtesy of RMP-NMR)

Other issues still remain before implementation can take hold. It’s still unclear what the effect will be on militant groups, such as Abu Sayyaf, who are not part of the deal and who continue to exert control and launch attacks from their base in Basilan. Also, local residents continue to raise concern about government-backed violence. Last month, 118 families belonging to the Manobo tribe were displaced from their homes from fighting. Local missionaries blamed paramilitary groups operating in the area.

As for the Bangsamoro Basic Law, it now goes to Congress where some lawmakers have already raised concern over the constitutionality of the plan. Expect a debate, and changes, before it gets closer to becoming law.

Saysay project captures Filipino American voices

October 28, 2013
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Filipinos make up the largest and fastest-growing Asian group in California, but often their stories are overlooked or distorted in media and the public conversation. I’m very happy to be part of a new effort, from the Filipino community itself, to document and craft its own storytelling through the Saysay Project.

Here’s how FilAm ARTS, the group behind the project, describes the effort:

The SAYSAY Project is a community-sourced documentation project by FilAm ARTS to capture the myriad of experiences in the Filipino diaspora through story telling.

“Saysay” (pronounced sigh-sigh) is a Tagalog word that has a double meaning: to have intrinsic value and to declare. This project aims to engage the community to tell their stories, and to document and preserve these shared stories for future generations.

George Villanueva also has an interesting report in KCET about the recent Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, where Filipinos from across Southern California contributed stories to the Saysay Project.

Philippine-born Pilar Diaz, who immigrated to and grew up in Colorado and now lives in Los Angeles, was asked about her experience being interviewed during the SaySay Project. She said, “it made me reflect about who I am, how I got here. Even though I go about my everyday life in L.A. operating as an American, telling my story reminded me that I’m Filipino, have Filipino values, and see the world as a Filipino too.”

Check out the full report here.

We’ll be conducting workshops in the Southern California region in the coming months, so to tell your story or to check out more about the Saysay Project, go here. Salamat!

Malaysian police use “drug charges” to stop protest of trade deal

July 26, 2013
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This week, the latest round of secretive trade talks for the massive Transpacific Partnership Trade agreement took place at an exclusive resort in Malaysia’s Kota Kinabalu, drawing protesters and prompting more than a dozen arrests.

Malaysians protest the latest trade talks on the TPPA, (Photo: ChannelAsia.)

Malaysians protest the latest trade talks on the TPPA, (Photo: ChannelAsia.)

The trade deal, which the US is pushing and Japan just announced it is joining, would cover 12 nations and have vast implications for millions of people, especially those in poorer Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Often as a journalist, it’s a tough sell to get people interested in faraway negotiations on a trade pact that has lacked transparency and offers few, concrete details.

However, thanks to investigative work by groups like Citizens Trade Campaign and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, enough internal documents have been leaked to paint a picture that should draw attention. (One chapter, made public in 2012, reveals attempts to give special rights to corporations under the deal, allowing them to undermine national and local protections on public health and food safety.) The documents also show that the pact, known as the TPP, could affect:

–labor rights and workplace protections
–land holdings and agricultural rules
–access to medicine for residents in poor countries
–Internet freedom and online expression

According to the US trade office, the Obama Administration is hoping to put the deal in place by the end of this year. But even in the US, there is opposition. In June, House Democrats signed onto a letter calling for increased transparency in the talks and protection of American jobs. Criticism is also coming from abroad.

This week I spoke to Nizam Mahshar, a Malaysian activist with the Malay Economic Action Council, who was at the police station in Sabah after 14 protesters were detained on “drug charges” on July 20. Mahshar told me that the arrests were enough to derail the protests that day, but that actions to educate local businesses and residents continue. Their concerns are shared by some prominent critics of the deal, including former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who has called for more transparency in the talks.

Mashar told me that none of the civil society groups or local representatives from trade unions or industries have been consulted.

“The whole negotiation right now is being driven by the United States and for us, the developing countries, [we] are victims of being bullied by these big countries.”

Check out the full interview with Mashar on Free Speech Radio News that aired July 24, 2013 here.

The next round (the 19th) of TPP negotiations will be held in Brunei from August 22-30. In the meantime, you can access more documents about the trade deal here. Also, check out this music video on the TPP, where more than just the melody is familiar:

Climate change to alter Mekong River Delta, study finds

April 3, 2013
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Climate change could have vast implications for the Mekong River Delta in the coming decades, including affecting extreme weather, population migration and the ability of farmers to produce vital crops for hundreds of millions of people.

Those are some of the findings of a recent study from the Mekong ARCC, a five-year program funded by USAID.

Rice is a staple for half the world's residents. Climate change could affect the crop 's production in the Mekong Delta. (Photo: ARCC)

Rice is a staple for half the world’s residents. Climate change could affect the crop ‘s production in the Mekong Delta. (Photo: ARCC)

Dr. Jeremy Carew-Reid, lead author of the study, called it “shocking” and told Inside Climate News: “We’ve found that this region is going to experience climate extremes in temperature and rainfall beyond anything that we expected.”

Those climate extremes could fundamentally alter the production of such staples as soya, maize, cassava and rice, according to the study.

One interesting note in the research is on rice cultivation, a key source of food and livelihood in the region. About half the world’s residents depend on rice as a main staple in their diet and a third of the world’s rice supply comes directly from the Mekong Delta, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. (You can download a 2012 FAO study on rice cultivation here.) Much of it comes from the rice fields in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Authors of the Mekong ARCC study say that an increase in seasonal rainfall could actually “increase the suitability for lowland rainfed rice culture,” but follow with a word of caution: “The model does not take in account extensive flooding or flash floods related to projected increased rainfall which past experience has shown to be extremely destructive of rice and other crops.”

Changes in rainfall and increased flooding could hit the Mekong in coming years. (Photo: ARCC)

Changes in rainfall and increased flooding could hit the Mekong in coming years. (Photo: ARCC)

Other key findings:

–Population growth is putting pressure on rural resources and could lead to a weakening of rural communities’ ability to adapt to climate change, leading to shifts in migration, especially from rural to urban areas.

–Deforestation and illegal logging could continue to affect “floods, landlsides and land degradation,” further worsening climate change’s influence in the region.

–Hydropower projects in the area could contribute to more environmental risks, by contributing to “forced relocation” and “food insecurity” for residents.

You can access the full study and supporting documents here.

The Mekong ARCC team is inviting public comment on the draft report until April 12. Know of some good community groups, farmers or local residents in the Mekong area? I think it would be great to have their voices help shape this study. Comments to Mr. Simon Tilleard:

Vigil marks 1,000 days since Philippine massacre

August 17, 2012
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This Sunday, media rights activists and victims’ families will mark 1,000 days since the Magindanao killings. The ambush and shooting was the worst election violence in Philippine history and the single deadliest assault on journalists worldwide. On November 23, 2009, 58 people, including 32 journalists, were killed in the southern Philippines ahead of regional elections. Within months, the Justice Department filed charges against nearly 200 members of the powerful Ampatuan clan, but ahead of this weekend’s milestone, it’s worth asking: after 1,000 days, has justice been carried out?

Despite calls for justice, none been convicted for the 2009 Magindanao massacre. (Asia Times)

Six members of the Ampatuan clan are on trial, but recently key witnesses are showing up dead, including one gunman for the Ampatuans who testified that he had driven armed men to the site of the killings. The targeting of witnesses is deeply troubling, but the government’s inaction in the face of the murders is equally worrisome for hopes of a fair and open trial.

A researcher with Human Rights Watch described the terror that these killings have created for other witnesses who play a key role in the prosecution:

“I’ve spoken with some witnesses and they told me that they don’t feel safe at all, and their families are likewise exposed to this danger,” he said.

“They told me that they’re convinced that people intend to harm them, although many of these witnesses who’ve already testified in the trial and those who have been listed as witnesses, are under the protection of the government.”

Current President Benigno Aquino, III has pledged to root out corruption and waste in the government and has brought legal action against his predecessor Macapagal-Arroyo, who had ties to the Ampatuans and left office amid several scandals, but families of those killed in the massacre have understandably called for swifter accountability in the Magindanao case.

The overnight vigil will begin Sunday evening at Bantayog ng mga Bayani located at EDSA corner Quezon Avenue. Details here.
Part of the activities are the screening of this excellent film from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism:

You can also hear our update on Free Speech Radio News from last year tracking the justice system’s failure to hold the accused accountable:

Deforestation in Mindanao worsens flooding, local communities say

January 3, 2012
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Reports of the most recent – and devastating – flooding in the southern Philippines highlighted the fact that most victims were caught unaware on the early Saturday morning of December 17th, just a week before Christmas, as torrential rains fell and hillsides cascaded into villages. Two weeks later, as the news cycle moves on with its voracious appetite, it’s tempting to chalk up the tragedy to an unfortunate, and unpredictable, act of God. And some reports have.

Half a million people have been displaced by recent flooding in Mindanao - many of them children. (Photo: UN.)

But there’s a deeper story here. And it’s one that local communities and environmental groups have been clamoring about for decades. Due to rampant deforestation – and the corruption that enables it – northern Mindanao’s denuded hillsides and swollen rivers have created dangerous circumstances for flooding and displacement. A 2009 University of the Philippines study warned that lowland communities are particularly at risk.

This week, the Philippines Senate said it would take up a probe into the cause of the flooding, but Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile expressed doubt that illegal logging was a factor, which doesn’t bode well for how serious the Senate’s committee on energy will take the investigation.

And don’t count out the influence of multinational corporations. The UP Study points to one section of the Upper Pulangi Watershed that was converted into 2,000 hectares of pineapple plantation owned by Del Monte Philippines. When I asked Francis Morales, with the northern Mindanao group Panalipdan about the site, he said the area used to be forest cover for the local communities.

Now, half a million people have been driven from their homes. During a visit to the affected area UN Humanitarian Coordinator Soe Nyunt-U compared the destruction to a tsunami.

Can this kind of destruction and suffering be prevented? It’s a question worth asking.

Francis Morales, of Panalipdan, and Lisa Ito, from the Center for Environmental Concerns, discuss deforestation and corruption in the Southern Philippines in an interview with me on Free Speech Radio News after the flooding.

Deep Foundation and Hydro: “At Your Request”

November 22, 2011
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Check out the video from a Filipino group based in Queens and New Jersey, Deep Foundation. I profiled them a few years back in Filipinas Magazine.

Here’s how that profile began:

(Filipinas Magazine, May 2009) — Members of the hip-hop group, Deep Foundation, stood beneath the elevated tracks of the Number 7 train in Queens on a recent Saturday afternoon. Temperatures hovered around freezing, but five heads—covered by stiff-brimmed baseball caps—formed a circle and leaned toward the pavement.

“Yeah, I’m coming from the motherland, hot like PI summer, man,” rapped 23-year-old Ryan Abugan, known as Hydroponikz. “My swagger be New York but my blood was brewed in Q.C.!”

The lines are from the group’s debut album, “The First Draft.” Deep Foundation, or DF, whose core members are all Filipino from New York and New Jersey, released the album late last year and has spent the first part of 2009 on a tour of West Coast cities. A series of videos featuring the album’s music have also just been released. For the group that was founded in 2001, the breakout album serves a dual purpose.

“It represents the foundation of hip-hop that we believe in and our Filipino roots,” said Mark Malacapay, 26, known as Ill Poetik. Malacapay, whose family is from Bacolod, moved to New York from the Philippines at age 10.

Here’s another nice re-mix of a legendary Filipino tune (and the song that is excerpted in the article above):

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