Philippines: Urban poor join new left party

Issue 

"We are the bat people, the people who lived under bridges in Manila", explained urban poor organiser Ka Lisa as she took a small group of international observers around a section of an urban poor relocation settlement in Bulacan, about 60 kilometres north of Manila.

Since 2002, entire communities of urban poor have been forcibly relocated to Bulacan from their "squatter" shanty homes in Manila to make way for never-to-be-completed rail and road developments ordered by the corrupt government of President Gloria Arroyo.

These projects are publicly derided as "the most expensive road/railway lines in the world", as the cost millions of pesos to progress just a few metres because of systematic graft in government contracts.

The relocation of the urban poor evicted from Manila has become a further source of corruption. "This is a privately owned relocation project", explained Ka Lisa. "The government collects the rent from us and pays it to the private owner."

"And", she added, "if we want anything done, even basic services, we have to bribe officials".

Back in Manila, the urban poor scraped out a living sorting rubbish (many lived on or near rubbish tips), or working as casual day labourers or even as fisherpeople.

But in Bulacan there is no work and to travel to Manila costs between 100-200 pesos when the basic income for labourers is only 300 pesos a day. The journey to Manila can take up to two hours each way, as we discovered for ourselves.

To make things worse, since 2005 these urban refugee communities in Bulacan have faced aggressive military repression. An army detachment set up camp in the area and began hunting down community organisers and activists, tagging them "communists".

Residents were herded into local squares or halls, shown propaganda films about the "communist" threat and were urged to identify and turn in their leaders.

Then, a series of abductions and disappearances of community activists followed. A number of youth were picked up and tortured by the military.

Ka Lisa and Ka Sally, another urban poor organiser who spoke to us, were forced to go into hiding until last year.

"We could continue to organise, because the people hid us", explained Ka Sally, noting that this urban poor community had been one of the longest-organised in the country. The community had founded Zone One Tondo Organisation (ZOTO), the first ever urban poor organisation in the country.

Ka Sally and Ka Lisa are leaders of the urban poor base of the newly formed left-wing Power of the Masses Party (PLM) and they proudly announced that they had already joined up 978 members of this settlement of about 10,000 families.

ZOTO is a founding affiliate organisation of the PLM. The party's vice-chair for international affairs Reihana Mohideen told Green Left Weekly: "The PLM's urban poor base is 150,000. Mostly in Metro Manila, this comprises about half the new party's base."

According to Mohideen, "The urban poor population in Metro Manila is at least two-thirds of the urban population. They live in shanty town-like slums and are commonly known as squatters as they have no legal rights to the land they occupy.

"However, an increasing number today are those whose dwellings have been demolished or destroyed due to fires, etc., and are now residing under bridges and in the streets outside the established and generally organised urban poor communities.

"We consider the urban poor to be a part of the working class. Their main demands are for housing and for jobs. Many of the immediate struggles are against demolition and forcible relocation of their communities.

"Given that the trade unions have suffered terrible setbacks and even defeats owing to the onslaught of neoliberal globalisation in the past decades, the urban poor have been easier to mobilise in struggle in the recent period.

"We consider the urban poor to be a strategic section of the working class in the struggle against elite rule and for system change in the Philippines."

[Reihana Mohideen will be one of a number of international guest speakers at the World At A Crossroads conference in Sydney, April 10-12. For more information, or to register, visit http://www.worldatacrossroads.org.]

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