Vigil marks 1,000 days since Philippine massacre

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

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”

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):

Signs of change in Burma?

The decades-long repression in Burma, one of the most isolated nations in the world, could be showing signs of easing, according to a new assessment released today from the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Burmese people, including women and children, lining up for basic goods. Photo: Reuters.
Burmese people, including women and children, lining up for basic goods. Photo: Reuters.

Here’s an excerpt:

In recent weeks a series of concrete steps have been taken to begin implementing the president’s reform agenda, aimed at reinvigorating the economy, reforming national politics and improving human rights. The political will appears to exist to bring fundamental change, but success will require much more than a determined leader.

The BBC seems to agree:

“The Burmese government has made a number of conciliatory gestures in recent weeks – easing restrictions on the media, allowing a visit by the United Nations human rights envoy and holding meetings with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.”

The ICG is a smart, well-respected group, although not immune to criticism. (Its assessment on Papua’s independence movement a couple years back drew fierce criticism from activists on the ground.) When I was reporting in Jakarta, I interviewed Sydney Jones, the ICG expert on Indonesia and found her knowledgeable about the complexities there.

However, conditions in Burma are often hard to read.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in 2010 (though barred from running in elections – which was the real threat to the military regime) has herself warned against too much optimism. After all, according to a report from Human Rights Watch earlier this month, at least 2,000 political prisoners remain locked up in Burma.

There are other signs as well. Today, the New York Times takes a look at the role public outcry is having in possibly changing government policy on a controversial dam across the Irrawaddy River. The Times notes that the project would flood a piece of land four times that of Manhattan and cause “irreperable harm” to communities downstream. It’s also created a rift within the government, which could be a good thing.

Passions are high. A government minister broke down in tears at a news conference last month when asked about the dam. High-ranking officials are said to be sharply divided over the wisdom of the project.

When I interviewed Phyu Phyu Sann, Burma researcher at The Global Justice Center in New York and former student leader in Rangoon who had to flee Burma, she was less hopeful. At the time, the regime had blocked international monitors for the elections in 2010, and things looked bleak.

But change is always possible.

Finally, for those interested, I highly recommend the Anders Ostergaard film, Burma VJ, which remains one of the best insights into Burmese society under the military rule. It’s a powerful documentation of the courage of a band of video journalists during the violent crackdown on the Saffron Rebellon in September 2007, which killed many. Check out the trailer below:

Record of Philippine indigenous poetry released in Batanes

I have just wrapped-up a 9-month Fulbright research stint in the northern Philippines islands of Batanes. The end product is an educational website and audio CD dedicated to preserving and documenting Laji, the indigenous oral poetry of the Ivatan people.

You can see more in the video above, or visit the website

The CD and website will now be used in the public schools of Batanes to help revitalize the tradition and transfer this cultural knowledge to the next generation. In true Ivatan style, the entire project has been collaborative and cooperative. Dyus Mamahes du dinyu atavu!

Can local forest control fight climate change?

MANILA – Romeo Aquino, tribal chieftain of the indigenous Dumagat people in Central Luzon, calls the mountains north of Manila his home. When I visited him recently, he told a story of rampant deforestation and illegal settlements — all on land that is, at least officially, tribal territory recognized by the government.

Romeo Aquino is the tribal chieftan of the Dumagat people, guardians of a threatened forest north of Manila.
Romeo Aquino is the tribal chieftan of the Dumagat people, guardians of a threatened forest north of Manila.

In the article, Facing the Forests, published this month in the magazine The Caravan, I report on how Romeo’s community is fighting deforestation and what it means for the global effort against climate change.

Here’s an excerpt:

The struggle of the Dumagats to protect their forest home exemplifies the challenges facing the ongoing global effort to slow the pace of deforestation. According to latest United Nations data, 1.6 billion people depend directly on forests for their livelihoods; many, like the Dumagats, are indigenous groups and poor communities on the margins of society.

Scientists estimate that deforestation—which destroys some 1 million hectares of forest in Southeast Asia each year—also accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions. As a result, the fate of local communities like the Dumagats, fighting to preserve forests, has emerged as a key front in the struggle against climate change. The UN has designated 2011 the ‘International Year of the Forests’, and representatives from 147 nations, who attended the UN Forum on Forests in New York this February, pledged a “people-centric” approach to forest preservation, with an emphasis on poverty reduction.

The full article is here. Also, my blog post on the Ikalahan people, another Filipino tribal community embarking on carbon monitoring, is here.

Report from Bangkok: Press Freedom Threatened

BANGKOK, THAILAND — This month marks the one-year anniversary of protests in Thailand that brought Bangkok to a standstill in 2010. Some 88 people were killed and 1,800 injured in the violence. The country still remains in transition. When I was in Bangkok last month, Red Shirt protesters had blocked a busy section of the old city and taxi drivers were uneasy when I asked them to take me there. Meanwhile, the current government of Abhisit Vejjajiva is preparing for an election expected later this year.

One legacy of the instability has been the government’s crackdown on media and information. Chiranuch Premchaiporn is an editor with the news website Prachatai. She faces up to 20 years in prison for her role as a journalist and is accused of publishing comments considered offensive to the monarchy. Her case is being watched as a test of the state of media freedom in Thailand today.

I sat down with Premchaiporn in March and discussed her recent court appearances. I also asked why her news site continues to be blocked at times – despite the lifting of the government’s emergency rule last December. Keep an ear out for the full interview to air on FSRN stations in the US later this month.

The intersection of Sathon - Naradhiwas in Bangkok, Thailand, one year after the protests.
The intersection of Sathon - Naradhiwas in Bangkok, Thailand, one year after the protests.