Philippines diary

April 17, 1991

EMLYN JONES participated in the "Pilgrimage to the Philippines" organised by the Philippines-Australia Ecumenical Church Conference in January. Printed here are excerpts from her diary of the period.

Wednesday, January 9

I sat next to a Filipina on the plane who described in gruesome detail the murder of her uncle. The person who wanted this job done, she said, had paid the police to do it. While listening to her story, I watched on the video screen pictures of some glamorous seaside resort. Film star-looking people in brief swimsuits lay around in the sun. They dived in or sailed on the clearest of blue seas and ate at tables laden with delicious food.

This was an apt introduction to the obscene contrasts between the very rich, the phoney tourist glamour and the grinding poverty of the majority of people in the Philippines.

We visited Makati, the smart business quarter in Manila. The suburb next to it is where the embassies are. All are guarded by armed guards. We saw the Film Centre. It was built so rapidly at Imelda's command that part of it collapsed, burying the workers in concrete. As they couldn't get them out, they just continued building over them! It is now cracked, too dangerous to use and said to be haunted.

We went from there along abominably rutted roads to Smoky Mountain, a vast area by the filthiest of rivers, where thousands of people work to recycle rubbish. I had heard about it but never realised it was so huge and so highly organised: people washing materials in the filthy water and arranging them in neat piles — plastics in one pile, sacks in another, tins squashed and piled together.

Behind these busy workers, thousands and thousands of them, was a vast area of the most sordid shanties imaginable. There is a pall of smoke over the area caused by the spontaneous combustion of rotting garbage.

Last night we went to the Philippine Episcopal Church. Bits from the welcoming ceremony speech by the priest: "You have come to our land at a time of great crisis ... Millions with no food, no homes ... stripped as a people by the unjust system ... We welcome you to our struggle for peace and justice."

This was followed by an absolutely brilliant ballet (even more subversive than the speech). It represented the history of the people. A man in a tall stars and stripes top hat and jacket manipulated dancers on strings — puppets representing the Filipino presidents.

Friday, January 11

Just back from Bulihan, an urban poor settlement about three hours from Manila. Bulihan was settled about 10 years ago when the poor working in Tondo (the dock area) had their houses bulldozed so that the road from Cavite to Bataan could be widened. They were told that houses had been prepared for them. Once they were dumped at Bulihan, nothing had been prepared except the lavatories. The inhabitants now call Bulihan "Toilet City" in Tagalog.

There is no work in Bulihan. The few men who have a job have to do the long trip to either Tondo (stevedoring) or Smoky Mountain (sorting rubbish). Travelling back the same day costs too much, so the men will stay away several days. One I met says he usually sleeps under a truck!

A good day's work at either of these places will earn about 100 pesos ($5). The women at Bulihan will earn — if they work late — as much as 20 pesos a day.

As different parts of Manila are tidied up, more people are dumped in Bulihan. There are a number other urban poor settlements outside Manila, with Bulihan being the furthest out.

The people are amazingly well organised in an organisation called ZOTO. It was formed during the Marcos martial law period. ZOTO Bulihan has nine chapters which look after a number of things: medical, finance, welfare, political education etc.

Bulihan people said the education of children was of a low standard and difficult for the jobless to afford. Most people could only afford one uniform for their kids. Children are fined 50 centavos if it is not worn. To read a book in the library costs 50 centavos. Transportation is three pesos. Children are forced to collect empty tins to sell.

Sunday, January 13

We joined the picket outside the Maxima garment factory. They want an extra 17 pesos a day. The cost of living has gone up, especially the price of oil, which affects many other things. They are finding it hard to manage.

We got to the picket line on Saturday, spent the day with the workers and slept there on Saturday night. They had a sort of shelter made of tarpaulin and bits of cardboard on the pavement outside the factory. In spite of their poverty, the noise of the traffic, the dirt, they were very friendly and cheerful and good at communicating their problems.

Sunday, January 20

We visited villages so that we might experience the conditions of the peasants. Government neglect was common to them all. They grow high yield rice (HYR). This type won't produce without chemical fertiliser and pesticide, supplied by the Land Bank together with the seeds for planting. With old varieties, they could just save enough seed for the next crop but this does not work with HYR.

The cost to the peasant is high. When they can't borrow enough to plant next year's crop from the bank, they have to go to usurers. They don't seem to be able to get out of the vicious circle of ever increasing debt. Besides this is the rent they have to pay.

These poor wretched devils feed this country and cannot afford to feed themselves.

Wednesday, January 23

We arrived in Tagbilaran, the main city of Bohol. Bohol consists of a main island and 67 islets and in 1989 had a population of 928,092.

We got to the land of the Bohol Cattle Co. The farmers who have settled on this land are having their right to be there disputed under the provisions of the Land Reform Bill, which was grossly in favour of the wealthy owners.

The peasants spoke of the "Nice People" [NPA — New Peoples Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines] who would liberate the Philippines from the multinationals and the US bases so that all could have land.

In Buenos Aires, the local Basic Christian Community (BCC) emphasises that they are not political. The aim is to get together as Christians. In spite of this, BCCs are frowned upon by the establishment. All this bible study and togetherness, they fear, strengthens the peasants.

Sunday, January 27

Yesterday we went to the office in Tagbilaran of Task Force Detainees. People were there to ask for help. One was 17-year-old Emilia Ambaic. Emilia and her husband, on the way back from a fiesta, stayed in a house that was raided by the Police Constabulary, and Emilia's husband was killed. She asked the police why they had shot her husband and they just said, "You can find yourself another man".

Perigrinia Banga's two sons are in prison. Her husband was shot while chopping wood. Her son Eduardo was arrested on January 12 and Luciano on January 15. Marlyn Miano was arrested at the same time as Eduardo Banga. There are no charges against any of these three.

Thursday, January 31

On a hillside above Olongapo, the red-light area near giant Subic BayUS Naval base, is Father Shay Cullen's centre for the rehabilitation and education of children addicted to drugs. They also take sexually abused children and indeed any child with serious problems. The population of Olongapo (250,000) services the R and R needs of the US military personnel. There is no industrialisation, just bars and amusements.

Alex Hormosa, who works with Father Shay, says the mayor wants to get hold of the land on which the centre is built so that a big hotel can have the beautiful site. Both Alex and Shay have received death threats.

Child prostitution is rife. Americans ships bring AIDS.

We went to the Buklod women's centre, a meeting place for women to gossip and have a cup of tea, where they can do courses, learn literacy and skills to give then an alternative to go-go dancing. Women who have babies can take them to Buklod to be looked after before their night's work. The only other alternative is to leave them locked in their rooms.

Although the women are issued with condoms, the women told me "we ause the servicemen mostly refuse. The life of a bar girl is beset with fear. The fear of times when no US warships are in port — no ships mean no money, no food. When the ships do come, there is the fear of brutality, of pregnancy, the pains and difficulties of abortion or the difficulties looking after the baby.

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