Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Philippines as refuge

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

In the past days and hours, I have been receiving updates on the Muslim Rohingya refugees who continue to sail in droves from Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Rakhine State to Southeast Asia. They are unwanted even in their country of origin and they are looking to distant shores where they can live in safety and peace.

Much has been written about who they are, why they are, where they come from. The fact is that thousands of the Rohingya have been adrift at sea and looking for shore. Many have died at sea and even on land after disembarkation. Six mass graves have been discovered in Malaysia. Hunger, disease and violence have taken their toll on these hapless refugees who find themselves without a country, without citizenship, without a homeland to call their own.
Much, too, is being said about the Philippines as a country that has taken in, over the centuries, refugees of all races and religions, victims of political persecution and discrimination—from the so-called White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks to the German Jews who were in danger of incineration by the Nazis during World War II and, only three decades ago, the Vietnamese fleeing a war and an imminent communist takeover.

The so-called Indian Sepoy who mutinied against the British troops in the 1700s and refused to leave may not be considered refugees, but they found in the Philippines a home and stayed put in Cainta, Rizal. And over the centuries, there were the Chinese from mainland China in search of greener pastures.

The Philippines may not have turned out to be the country of their dreams compared to the US of A—many left eventually—but during the most difficult time of their lives, the Philippines opened its doors and these islands became a safe haven for them. And those who chose to stay could stay. In the case of the Vietnamese who had nowhere to go when the refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) had to be closed, they were given a place of their own (like Vietville in Palawan) courtesy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

I’d like to think of my beloved country as the refugees’ “first stop” or temporary haven, and if they do not really want to stay for good because their eyes are set on more progressive countries, that is fine. Vaya con Dios.

But with the Rohingya’s plight becoming a problem that needs to be addressed not only by Southeast Asia but the international community, some Philippine officials have spoken up. An official from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said the ARMM could take in some refugees. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has met with UNHCR representative Bernard Kerblat on what position and action the Philippines can take vis-à-vis the Rohingya.

But geographically speaking, the Philippines is quite far from where the boat people are adrift (the Andaman Sea), far from the route they are taking (the Strait of Malacca). The shores along these waters are those of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. And, well, even of India, Bangladesh and Burma, the latter two of which could be the unwanted Rohingya’s homeland but do not want them.

I am told that Burmese authorities do not want to hear the word “Rohingya,” which would mean that these people qualify as Burmese. They’d rather refer to them as Bangladeshi. Sure, they look more like South Asians than Southeast Asians, but should skin color determine a people’s right to a homeland? Here are a million or so ethnic minorities caught in a game of ping-pong.

Tomorrow, a meeting of Southeast Asian country representatives will take place in Malaysia. Their meeting on the refugee issue should result in immediate relief for the Rohingya. Long before this, Philippine officials had made known their soft spot for the refugees.

I had a long lunch conversation with Kerblat during the weekend. He gave the Philippines two thumbs up for its eagerness to step forward to address the plight of the Rohingya. It may not take the form of again opening sites for refugee camps, but the eagerness and willingness are to be emulated, he said.

Concretely, what can the Philippines do? I asked. For starters, Kerblat said, maybe one or two Philippine Coast Guard vessels can help scour the seas and bring the refugees to safety. The Philippines can also offer shelter to even a token number of refugees. It can again show the way without jumping the gun on its Asean neighbors.

I chuckled and said Filipinos are often known to be presentado and adelantado. Kerblat, a Frenchman, understands Filipino ways, having lived and worked here these last six years and being married to Filipino visual artist Vicky Abad of Batanes. (The two were relief workers on the Thai-Cambodian border 30 years ago when they met inside a bunker while shelling was going on. Their two grown sons are now also in the humanitarian field. Kerblat has been in many difficult missions around the world.)

And where is Burma’s “The Lady,” human rights icon and Nobel Peace Prize awardee Aung San Suu Kyi in all these? The former political prisoner who is now a member of parliament has yet to make a concrete stand. Will she or won’t she? Is there much to lose politically if she comes out in favor of the Rohingya?

Kerblat’s latest text-bulletin: “As we celebrate, honor and commemorate the day of UN peacekeepers, a dream came to my mind. I dreamt that the Pambansang Watawat for which Rizal gave his life is now a vector of peace floating in the Andaman Sea rescuing refugees and migrants at the invitation of neighboring states. And, with other member states, contributing their assets around the Gulf of Bengal, [saving] the waves of victims of human trafficking.” #

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Remember 1991's garments factory fire

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

With 72 persons dead—the majority of them women—in last week’s fire in a slipper factory in Valenzuela, I could not help but recall the fire in 1991 that claimed the lives of 19 women workers in a garment factory in Mandaluyong. I interviewed some of the survivors and next of kin of the victims and wrote a Sunday Inquirer Magazine feature article (“Death by Fire at a Garments Factory”) on that tragedy.

That fire was not the last of factory fires and factory tragedies. I would again write a magazine story about the deaths in a paper factory (“There’s Blood in Your Paper”) where workers either got swallowed up in vats of paper pulp or fell into them. Somehow I was allowed into the paper mill to see for myself the cauldrons of death and figure out how the series of unfortunate events took place. Geez, I thought while I was there, I hope I don’t slip into one of these heaving pools of goo. I wasn’t wearing proper footwear, you see.

With “Valenzuela’s 72” on my mind, I dug up my 1991 magazine piece and read the opening quote from a protest song: “Si Lina ay isang magandang dalaga/ Panggabi sa isang pabrika…/Nang muling makita, hubad at patay na/ Halina, halina/ Damitan ang bangkay at sa ating puso/ Hayaang humimlay si Lina…”

Was it Lina? I wrote then. Was it she in a tabloid’s banner photo of a severed head with half a face being poked at by firemen, policemen, media men and grieving relatives? In the early morning hours of March 14, 1991, shortly after the fire at Edral Garments in Mandaluyong was put out, firemen and police, with the help of survivors, came up with a tentative list of those who had perished in the blaze. The initial roster contained the names of 19 young women, two of whom were listed merely as “Lina” and “Merly.” Later their full names were made known, but these didn’t help to establish which names belonged to which heap of crumbling bones and ashes.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

FOI: soon or never

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

More than 14 years and three presidents ago, or since the 12th Congress, freedom of information advocates have been pushing for the FOI bill’s passage. It’s been an uphill trek, with lots of rock slides and turnbacks, and on the part of the lawmakers, dillydallying and last-minute disappearing acts.

If the FOI bill were a cardiac patient in the emergency room, it would have had several near-death experiences. But FOI believers never said die every time the bill flat-lined.

 If this were a telenovela, it should be on its nth season by now. The next nine months will be crucial to the FOI bill’s passage or nonpassage into law. It is now in the hands of the 16th Congress and up to the pushing power of the Aquino administration whose mandate ends in June 2016.

 Two days ago, the Right to Know, Right Now! (R2K RN) Coalition issued a statement urging Congress to speed up work on the FOI bill so that it would be passed into law by February 2016. The coalition says that if that happens, the law will become “the perpetual pillar and legacy of the democracy that Filipinos claimed and restored under Aquino’s late mother, Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino.” It will be the best 2015 Christmas gift for the Filipino people. What a great way to mark the 30th anniversary of the February 1986 People Power uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship and ushered in freedom.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Canada's trash still here after two years

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPIION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Despite cries of “Return to sender,” “Nimby” (not in my backyard), “Take back your garbage” and protest actions by environmental groups against the 50 containers of trash that arrived here from Canada in June to August 2013, the foul, toxic and disease-causing cargo is still here.

Are Philippine authorities so uncaring that something as undesirable as foreign garbage would be allowed to sit on our soil for that long? And why would a supposedly friendly and wealthy nation such as Canada play deaf? Do Canadians think we can be so easily ignored and brushed away? Well, yes, if you recall the massive devastation that a Canadian mining company wrought upon the island of Marinduque about two decades ago, the adverse effects of which the island’s residents suffer to this day.

President Aquino’s state visit to Canada this week is a good time to raise the stink once again. Opening a foul topic to one’s host may be an undiplomatic act of a guest head of state, so people’s voices should win the day.

Like a foul-smelling rot that continues to seep through the cracks until it is taken away, this garbage issue will fester if it is not addressed. So this state visit is a great opportunity to release the foul smell once again for concerned parties to inhale.