From the streets of Bangkok: hip hop for Japan’s earthquake crisis

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Japan has now raised the alert level of the Fukushima nuclear power plant to five, according to a report today in the BBC. That’s the same severity as the Three Mile Island crisis in 1979.

A Thai group raises funds for Japan through hip hop on Rama IV Street, Bangkok.
A Thai group raises funds for Japan through hip hop on Rama IV Street, Bangkok.

Plant operators tell AP reporters that by the end of Saturday, they hope to have four of the six units at the Fukushima Daiichi site reconnected to power. But even if the power is connected, it’s still not certain that the cooling systems would then kick in or be effective enough to cool the uranium rods and avert disaster.

Last Friday afternoon, when the 9.0 earthquake struck Japan, I was in the remote islands of Batanes, about half way between the Philippines and Taiwain, right at the intersection of the Pacific and the China seas. Like many people around the region, we filled water tanks and prepared for possible evacuations as news reports came in. Thankfully, the expected tsunami did not reach Philippine shores as some had feared.

(This despite a viral text message that circulated throughout metro Manila that warned people to seal themselves inside their homes and prepare for an imminent radiation outbreak – turned out to be false.)

The picture that is now emerging from Japan is one of devastation – and ongoing fear and frustration. As the BBC puts it, “Millions of people have been affected by the disaster – many survivors have been left without water, electricity, fuel or enough food; hundreds of thousands are homeless.”

As world leaders, scientists and government officials work to confront the problem, people on the streets throughout Southeast Asia are also taking action. I came across this local Thai group in Bangkok this week who were raising funds for Japan by dancing hip hop. They generated a lively, supportive crowd during a time of regional crisis.

The Ikalahan: a forest community fighting climate change

Some 1.6 billion people directly depend on forests for their livelihoods. This month, world leaders at the UN’s Forum on Forests gathered in New York to develop a plan to preserve the world’s vanishing forests – and the people who have been living within them for generations. In order to understand how these new policies are playing out on the ground, I visited the Ikalahans, an indigenous people who live deep in the Philippine mountains.

Forester Nonoy Bugtong, 48, stands at the site where, in the early 1970s, his tribal community defeated a plan by the Marcos Administration to build a 6,300 hectare resort.
Forester Nonoy Bugtong, 48, stands at the site where his tribal community defeated a plan by the Marcos Administration to build a 6,300 hectare resort in the early 1970s.

In 1971, the Ikalahans became the first indigenous community in the country to gain recognition for their stewardship of tribal forest land. Today, the villagers use traditional methods to manage some 57,000 hectares of forests.

After four decades, the Ikalahans are the Philippine’s best chance of entering the global carbon market – and thus receiving much-needed funds in exchange for their sustainable practices.

A footpath spans a river in the village of Imogan, where some 600 Ikalahan people are at the center of an effort to mitigate climate change with traditional forest management.
A footpath spans a river in the village of Imogan, where some 600 Ikalahan people are at the center of an effort to mitigate climate change with traditional forest management.

However, some groups are raising concerns over the carbon trading program, negotiated through the UN’s REDD+ program, a source of controversy in recent climate change talks. Questions persist over ownership of the forests and the carbon within them; who will manage the funds that will be generated; and the effects of indigenous communities entering into global market-based agreements.

The story of the Ikalahan offers a glimpse into the next phase of how climate change negotiations could play out across the world’s threatened forest communities.

Stay tuned: video, audio and a print story are coming soon…

US court adds weight to human rights claims under Marcos

Activists in Manila are urging President Noynoy Aquino to support a bill that would officially recognize human rights violations during the Marcos regime of the 1970s and 80s. The two-and-a-half decades-long effort for official recognition and compensation got a boost earlier this month when a US federal judge in Honolulu approved distribution of $7.5 million to victims of torture, abduction and execution under Marcos.

Ferdinand Marcos received the strong support of former US President Ronald Reagan during his rule.

But Satur Ocampo, a board member of the Samahan ng mga Ex-detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (SELDO), a group of former political prisoners, challenged the removal of 2,013 victims from the case. According to the Associated Press, the federal court’s decision will distribute funds to 7,526 petitioners, which would amount to $1,000 each. Distribution will begin as early as mid-February.

“We reiterate that while we welcome this development, we raise questions as to how the court-appointed lawyer Attorney Robert Swift has considered the victims’ views on the case,” Ocampo told the Philippine Star. Ocampo called on Aquino to support the Marcos Victims Compensation bill, which he said, would officially recognize human rights violations during the Marcos martial law era.

Not everyone here in Manila is happy with the developments. Juan Ponce Enrile, who served as Defense Secretary under Marcos and is now the Senate President, criticized the US court decision and defended Martial law.

“Martial law was an act of State under the Constitution. It was not done arbitrarily,” Enrile told the Philippine Inquirer.

(I remember last June, watching Aquino’s inauguration along with millions of others in Manila, when Aquino’s victory was officially announced by Enrile himself on the Quirino Grandstand – an interesting twist of fate. )

Like many things in the Philippines, the past is a contested field. According to Luis Francia’s account of the heady days just before martial law was declared, a staged assassination attempt on Enrile provided cover for the government to declare martial law and clamp down on a rising resistance movement.

“On the fateful day of September 21, 1972, Enrile had decided to ride in his security car, rather than his own, later escaping the fusillade of automatic-weapons fire directed at his car by ambushers. His good fortune was ascribed to God’s intervention. The deity in this case, however, was a two-personned God: Marcos and Enrile himself. The attempted assassination, according to the government, left it no choice but to declare martial law. The next day, September 22, Proclamation 1081 put into place martial law.” (A History of the Philippines, 2010: p. 225-226)

(Check out an archived video of Marcos declaring martial law here.)

Francia then describes what happened next: “Military units fanned out across the city to arrest political opponents, activists, and anyone suspected by the regime of subversion. The first politician picked up was Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.”

Eleven years later Aquino, a leader of the opposition movement, would be shot dead on the airport tarmac upon his return from exile in the US.

Today, Senator Aquino’s son, Noynoy, is now the president of the Republic. The question is whether or not his administration will support efforts to finally and conclusively recognize the human rights violations of tens of thousands.

The group SELDA has announced plans to hold an assembly in Manila the end of this month on the passage of the bill. Meanwhile, US-appointed lawyer Swift tells AP that his team is still going after $70 million in Marcos assets through New York and Singapore courts.

A Revolution in the Philippines – Unfinished

This evening, I speak with my 16-year-old nephew over a dinner of ampalaya, fried baboy and kanin. He’s preparing for his exams in high school and has been reviewing the classic novels of Jose Rizal: Noli Me Tangare and El Filibusterismo. We work through the characters and I’m pleased to see that he’s retained many of the complex story lines that run through the novels, which were released in 1886 (Noli) and 1891 (Fili) and whose sharp and brilliant criticisms of colonial abuse and church corruption eventually led to Rizal’s execution.

When I was traveling through the Philippines in 2008 and reporting on Rizal’s legacy, some students seemed bored at the mention of Rizal and recalled his life’s watermarks with a monotone recitation – born in 1861, exiled to Mindanao, executed in 1896 – so it’s inspiring to hear his life and work live on with the youth.

Last week, just a couple days before December 30th and the anniversary of his execution by the Spanish, I drove by Calamba, his hometown on the way to the western edge of Batangas. In honor of Rizal and his struggle for independence – on the national, individual, and cultural levels – I’m including here a few excerpts of his work; for the best reminder of his relevance today comes from his own words.

From Noli: The central character, Ibarra, visits Old Tasio and finds him writing in “hieroglyphics” – it’s a language that refuses to use the Roman alphabet and insists on preserving an indigenous form. Old Tasio explains:

“Because I’m not writing for this generation, I’m writing for the ages. If they could read these, I would burn my books, my life’s work. On the other hand, the generation that can decipher these characters will be an educated generation. It will understand me and say, ‘In the nights of our grandparents, not everyone was asleep.'”

Also, from Noli, here’s a passage that I think of often as I walk through Manila. This translation by Harold Augenbraum captures the direct power and simple observation of Rizal:

“These thoughts fly around the space between the sahig, where humble mats lie, and the palupu, where a child sways in a pendant hammock. His breathing is easy and calm. Every so often he swallows his saliva and whimpers. He dreams of eating, his stomach is empty: the bits his older brothers have given him have not been enough. (From the chapter, “Sisa”).

And I must include a selection from Rizal’s final poem, Mi Ultimo Adios, written in the days before his execution, as he was imprisoned in Fort Santiago, Manila. He smuggled the single page from his cell and his words went on to help ignite the revolution:

My dreams when a lad, when scarcely adolescent:
my dreams when a young man, now with vigour inflamed;
were to behold you one day – Jewel of eastern waters! –
griefless the dusky eyes: lofty the upright brow:
unclouded, unfurrowed, unblemished, and unashamed!

And, finally, an excerpt from a letter Rizal wrote that was published in La Solidaridad in February 1890. At the time, Rizal’s Noli Me Tangare had come under harsh criticism and was banned in the Philippines. Rizal was responding to specific criticisms of Vicente Barrentes, who held high positions in the Philippine colonial government, and who said that Rizal’s work came from a “twisted” spirit.

“My spirit is ‘twisted’ because I have been reared among injustices and abuses, because since a child I have seen many suffer stupidly and because I too have suffered. My ‘twisted spirit’ is the product of that constant vision of moral ideals succumbing before the powerful reality of abuses, arbitrariness, hypocrisis, farces, violence and other vile passions. And twisted like my spirit is that of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who have not yet left their miserable homes, who do not speak any other language but their own, and if they would write or express their thoughts, they would leave my Noli me tangare very puny indeed and with their volumes there would be enough to raise pyramids for the corpses of all the tyrants…”

Mubuhay si Dr. Rizal!

Christmas attack in Philippines mars festivities

Tree of lights outside the Cainta church shortly before Midnight Mass, December 25.
Tree of lights outside the Cainta church shortly before Midnight Mass, December 25.

UPDATE: 12/272010 – Today, the Philippine National Police admitted security lapses in the Christmas Day blast. According to the police director for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the police received a warning about the bombing two days before the attack but failed to act swiftly. An investigation is ongoing. Authorities also updated the number injured to 11. The church is located inside a police compound on the island of Jolo.

This morning, local updates have been coming in from Jolo, where an explosion hit a church shortly after dawn. A military spokesperson told the Philippine Inquirer that a blast struck the church in Jolo, Sulu at 7:15 while mass was taking place, injuring 6, including the priest officiating the mass.

The Chief Superintendent for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao told the Inquirer:

“It’s a well guarded compound. It’s manned and secured by regular police forces, by the Special Action Force and a nearby detachment of the Philippine Marines, kaya hindi ko malaman kung bakit nabombahan ang chapel at paano nakalusot ang bomba (that’s why I don’t know how the chapel could have been bombed and how the bomb was sneaked in). They have to be investigated.”

It should be noted that the US continues to deploy forces on the island and it is where, in September last year, a roadside bomb killed two American Marines.

Here’s a video from the Midnight Mass I attended in Cainta last night, where the grounds were filled with worshipers through the early morning.

Another story worth noting this week is the release of the health workers, known as the Morong 43, that were imprisoned under former President Gloria Arroyo. They were accused of being part of the NPA, armed wing of the communist party, but the Administration of current President Aquino has moved to drop the charges, which human rights organizations had criticized as politically-motivated. Bulatlat has been covering the case extensively and notes that 10 still remain detained.

On a lighter note, the Christmas season is a time of numerous parties here. One of my favorite aspects is the plentiful food, including puto bumbong, a sweet purple rice dessert with shaved coconut and sugar. Filipinas Magazine has an article about the delicacy, which was popular on the streets last night.

Putobumbong vendor sells wares outside the Cainta Church, Midnight Mass, December 25.
Putobumbong vendor sells wares outside the Cainta Church, Midnight Mass, December 25.

A visit to Malacanang Palace

This week I reported on the Presidential Awards at Malacanang Palace. One of the awardees was Kinding Sindaw, a dance group that draws on indigenous myths and stories throughout Mindanao.

Kinding Sindaw at Malacanang
Potri Ranka Manis, second from left, and members of Kinding Sindaw at Malacanang Palace.

Potri Ranka Manis, a resident now of Queens, New York and the founder of the troupe told me after the ceremony that the award, called the Banaag Award, is a recognition for the arts of a region in the Philippines that is often at the crossroads of violence and conflict.

“When you say Moro, it’s always referring to something bad. This -” she said pointing to the award – “will help us as a group, to change that bias.”

Reporters at Malacanang

President Aquino appeared to be fighting a cold. After entering Rizal Hall in a burst of applause, a clutch of security guards in white barongs fanned out into the crowd. Aquino took a seat on the stage and repeatedly drank from a clear glass, stifling coughs.

You can check out a brief video I took here, though the sound is a bit low.

After acknowledging that more than ten percent of Filipinos live and work abroad, he addressed the recipients: “It is my fervent hope that you continue your dedicated service and efforts towards the enhancement and improvement of Filipinos.”

The 24 awardees charted impressive accomplishments, but the question was left lingering in the air: how long can the Philippines continue with this rate of emigration and this reliance on workers overseas?

I wrote a full report on the event for Filipinas Magazine, which you can read here.

Gay Pride March fills Manila streets

Each year more and more people seem to join, a Manila-based friend said to me as we looked on at the LGBT Pride March last Saturday. Crowds filled the intersection of Tomas Morato and Scout Lozano in Quezon City, as marchers assembled under a breezy afternoon sky.

A woman walked past wearing a placard that read, “Tomboy Love;” another woman held a sign above her head, “Freethinkers for Fabulousness!” and a car rolled down the street with a banner out the window: Jesus Loves Everyone. A contingent of men marched under the Akbayan banner with the message: Straight Men Support Gay Rights.

Some progress is being made in the Philippines, though discrimination is still pervasive and a conservative Catholic ethos permeates daily life. Earlier this year, the LGBT political party, Ang Ladlad, headed by Danton Remoto and some 25,000 strong, participated in national elections for the first time. Global Post reported on it here.

But much work is ahead, as groups such as Amnesty International and Akbayan reminded people at the Saturday march, which also drew attention to World AIDS Day. The Philippines has a relatively low prevalence of HIV cases, however, as the Philippine Star points out, nearly a fifth of the cases since 1984 were reported this year alone.

The annual march is organized by Task Force Pride. Some of the other groups at the march included the Rainbow Rights Project, University of the Philippines’ Babaylan and The Society of Transexual Women of the Philippines.