From a son of Mindanao

I jokingly told my friend that I’m scared because right after I finish my studies here in Vietnam and go back to my country I will end up not going back to the Philippines but to something like Bangsa Moro. My family is based in South Cotabato, one of the southernmost provinces of the archipelago in the island of Mindanao.

Map of the Philippines
Map of the Philippines

For the past few weeks, the island has been once again the topic of media coverages after the trashed Memorandum of Agreement that was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the Philippines. This is not without complications such as the mediation (meddling) of the Malaysian government, terroristic actions that led to the death and injury of more or less a hundred individuals from the military, the rebel group, and civilians.

I was born in the central Philippines but I see myself more of a son of Mindanao. I spent my childhood there, had my elementary and high school education at Polomolok, lived my life like any probinsiyano until I left for college when I was sixteen. Although after that I seldom go back home, if not for Christmas vacations, I still feel the umbilical cord attached to an entity I consider my mother–Mindanao.

I know that it is an exaggeration to think that soon I’ll just see Mindanao seceding from the rest of the Philippines, but with the kind of government the Philippines has now, impossible is nothing, if I may borrow from Adidas’s marketing tag line. This government has done a lot of blunders before that it has lost whatever trust of the people left. And added to this blunder is the Mindanao fiasco. How could it have entered an agreement with the rebel group, thinking that in case the MOA is deemed unconstitutional, then they could easily back out from the agreement, as if it is dealing with brat kids, without thinking of the repercussions of the action?

Teenagers basking under midday sun in Basilan, Mindanao. (Photo courtesy of www.wikipedia.org)
Teenagers basking under midday sun in Basilan, Mindanao. (Photo courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org)

I see Mindanao (or at least some portions of it) as an ideal place where plurality exists far better than in the more “peaceful” Luzon and Visayas. There is no need for assimilation, or if there is it is too subtle, because there is co-existence without having to give up whatever cultural identity each of the involved party has. I agree that there were times when this was challenged and was proven otherwise, but for the Mindanao that I know, in the deeper south, where religion does play a little role if none at all, this ideal is thriving.

Has the government looked into the core of the problem, or to be fair I’ll also be asking the same question to the rebels. The Muslim minority was given the autonomy they were asking for, but what happened? It never took them a long time to fall in the same pitfall that this government has long wallowed in–corruption, lack of political will, bad governance.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development 2005-2009 Philippines Strategy document, the country faces a daunting range of development challenges. Some 43 percent of Filipinos live on less than 2 USD in a day as reported by the U.N. Development Programme’s 2007/2008 Human Development Report. That figure is even higher in Mindanao, where significant numbers of children are stunted, says the World Food Programme.

In areas affected by conflict, the effects of poverty are compounded by displacement. These people who are caught between cross fire are doubly, if not triply marginalized. Poverty and violence confronting their lives everyday with almost no hope of escaping from the complexities of human existence.

Conditions in evacuation centres are poor. Local government units charged with dealing with displaced people lack resources and are dependent on non-governmental organisations and external aid. Because war and displacement on Mindanao are cyclical, efforts to rehabilitate affected people tend to be unsuccessful. Quite apart from the suffering of displaced people, the broader population in Mindanao remains economically marginalised and lacks adequate access to basic social services.

The kind of Mindanao I grew up in may not be the same Mindanao I see in nightly news here in Vietnam. The language of the newscaster is as alien as the Mindanao being shown to me. But it does not mean that I do not understand what is happening. The solution may be variegated but one thing is certain, the government and its people must act now.

I still expect to go back to a Philippines that is in tact. With Mindanao still counted as one of its 7,107 island.

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If only all afternoons are like this one

I jogged this afternoon around a small lake called Ho Dac Di located near my neighborhood. Many people were also either brisk walking or doing the more exhausting jogging around the lake, some are just sitting alone or conversing with friends on benches littered along the bunk. I saw vendors still wearing their conical hats known as non selling assorted things like nail cutters, stick-on tattoos, made-in-china trousers and all other things imaginable.

While in the middle of my jog, I decided to pass by a stall selling mixed fruit and something they roughly translate to sweet soup. I’ve been to this food stall before with my friend Chi Le when we crazily agreed to go to this place after we finished dinner since both of us were craving for something sweet during that time. They call it sua che in Vietnamese. It’s a mixture of sweetened banana, black beans, black and green jelly, and coconut milk. Quite similar to the popular halo-halo but what makes it different is that it uses chunks of ice instead of crushed ones used in Chowking or any make shift kiosks selling halo-halo in Philippine streets during summer time.

The woman selling sua che, after recognizing me, tried to have a conversation in her language. I told her several times in Tieng Viet to speak slowly since my two-and-a-half-month old Vietnamese is rudimentary if not totally bad. She was so hospitable by offering me iced green tea for free; although the tea looked as if it was infused for so long a time and tasted as bitter, I took her gesture congenially. She told me that green tea is good for the body and that I seemed to be enjoying my stay in her country because I look rather healthy. I am to both I believe.

I bade her good bye and continued jogging. I noticed something odd, almost all joggers were wearing the same brand of white shoes. I remembered asking my friend where I can buy running shoes. She said that there are many stores in the night market near Ho Hoan Kiem that sell running shoes for around 80,000 VND (that’s around 5 USD or roughly 200 pesos) which made me almost faint. Maybe those were the shoes she was referring to. I smiled because of that fact.

Sua ca phe (Drip coffee with milk)
Sua ca phe (Drip coffee with milk)

After two rounds around the lake measuring roughly a kilometer and a half in circumference, I brushed away the thought of having coffee in one of the numerous cafes lining the lake. Coffee in Vietnam are notorious for their thickness and strength. The caffeine content will be enough to give someone a good bout against insomnia for two straight days (I’m joking of course, but it’s something close to that).

I headed home feeling tired but so grateful that I experienced such a great afternoon with almost nothing to worry about but the thoughts inside my head. My friend welcomed me back with boiled meat and vegetable stew she just finished cooking for our dinner. Nothing can go better than this.

On why Miss Universe looks down on women

Miss Universe 2008

As far as feminist movements are concerned, a small faction of these politically active group of women decry the exploitation of women in beauty pageants such as Miss Universe and all other identical competitions that cloak in the name of charity hidden (but sometimes too obvious) assault against half of the human population.

If one generalization is too glaring to brush off, countries that are so engrossed with beauty pageants have a history of Spanish colonization, or has been influenced by the Castilian culture; take a look at the Philippines, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America including Brazil, although it has been under Portugal, still the influence of Spain is not negligible to that small country in the western side of the Iberian Peninsula, or the US but most especially the southwestern part where Hispanic culture has the biggest concentration. If it is not a coincidence, Spain has one of the most patriarchal societies in the world. In Vietnam, the venue for this year’s Miss Universe, on the other hand, although it is also patriarchal, surprisingly beauty pageants are not popular.

Beauty pageants cloak exploitation with charity. Their skewed logic that charity, since it is their usual concern, could serve best its purpose when it is coupled with beauty (that is, the physical aspect) is humorous if not a tasteless, bad joke. In order to be beautiful, all women contestants must be tall, around 170 cm or taller, charming, with aquiline nose, slender figure, long flowing hair that can be blonde, red, or black, big and beautiful smile, etc.

Miss Venezuela, Dayana Mendoza

Let’s take a look. Distributing relief goods needs long arms and legs since trucks loading canned sardines, bedding, instant noodles, mosquito nets are rather high, so long legs are necessary. Well, it makes sense to be tall then.

There is no direct correlation, as far as I know, between narrow nose and the a keen sense of smell, so there is no need for it in disaster reliefs to find rotting human cadavers in, say, a sunken ocean liner.

A starving African mother and child won’t really be fascinated by a slender woman wearing a sash with a “Miss Universe” logo doing a catwalk in font of them while they are ravaged by HIV/Aids.

Although a long flowing hair is attractive and a sight to behold, it can cause public commotion in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, it’s vestigial since women have to wear purdah and hide all parts of their body except for a narrow opening for the eyes. A long hair, in fact, will just be cumbersome and will add more to heat inside preventing the reigning Miss Universe to comfortably hold an Afghan baby for some photo-ops.

A big and beautiful smile is scandalous amid wailing family members whose loved ones were killed in a tsunami.

Miss Universe and other beauty pageants of its kind look down on and devalue women. Granting it is unfair to generalize them because other aspects of a woman are also used as a criterion such as congeniality, intelligence (?); however, they give wrong impression to the one billion plus of humanity that NBC, Telemundo, and other media partners brag to have reached during the world-wide coverage. A woman is valuable only as long as she is beautiful as defined by a group of fashion designer, a construction company manager, a “hot” actress, a former beauty queen, Donald Trump (of course) and a cohort of some prominent people who are thought to hold the hegemonic opinion to declare who is the most beautiful women in the whole of the universe (an insult to undiscovered life forms that exist in some corners of this universe).

Although some will argue that there is an objective way of telling what is beautiful, for now, mankind has not reached a certain point of advancement where it can numerically rate beauty. Using numbers to gauge a woman’s beauty just does not make sense.

What about women deemed as ugly? Are they disenfranchised? Can’t they be good enough to distribute relief goods for charity, or charming enough to placate the warring Hutu and Tsutsi tribes in Rwanda? These are silly questions. But they are silly because these questions are raised to give meanings to an equally silly competition.

Miss Venezuela might have gone home to Caracas with the crown, and her smile might have covered the front pages of all July 15, 2008 news papers all over the world; but she has done nothing to elevate the status of the sex where she belongs.

The Philippines as a failed state (?)

In the recently released report called Failed State Index made by the Fund for Peace Foundation and the magazine Foreign Policy, the Philippines ranked number 56 out of 177 countries that were included in the list. This gave the Philippines a high vulnerability rating. The most vulnerable state in the world is Sudan followed by Iraq and Somalia while the most sustainable states in the world, mostly coming from Scandinavian countries are led by Norway, Finland, and Sweden.

The index rank was based on the indicators identified by the researchers as necessary in creating or maintaining a stable state.

Social Indicators 1. Mounting Demographic Pressures
2. Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons creating

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies 3. Legacy of Vengeance-Seeking Group Grievance or Group Paranoia
4. Chronic and Sustained Human Flight

Economic Indicators 5. Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines
6. Sharp and/or Severe Economic Decline

Political Indicators 7. Criminalization and/or Delegitimization of the State
8. Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
9. Suspension or Arbitrary Application of the Rule of Law and Widespread

Violation of Human Rights10. Security Apparatus Operates as a “State Within a State”
11. Rise of Factionalized Elites
12. Intervention of Other States or External Political Actors

██ Alert

██ Warning

██ Moderate

██ Sustainable

██ No Information / Dependent Territory

Source: Fund for Peace Foundation

Based on these criteria, the Philippines scored 8.32; the highest possible is 12. The higher the score of a country is the more vulnerable it is for collapse. Norway, the most stable state in the world got a 1.73 overall score while Sudan scored 11.37. However, Fund for Peace said that people in countries that figured in the top spots of the Failed State Index should not panic since this kind of study does not seek to predict when the state will collapse or whether it will disintegrate in the near future. This study will help national policy makes to look into the indicators and try to improve on them if they want their countries to survive strife, famine and all other issues pertaining to national security.

I am very skeptical when it comes to surveys done by western organizations to gauge my country’s, say, human rights index, happiness index, enjoyment as regards sex index, or all other kinds of indexes including this recently released Failed State Index. Not that they are unreliable, in fact, they make sense and are helpful with regard investment policies, economic decisions, or healthcare reform. However, methodology-wise, these American/European based research group failed to take into account other factors (or indicators, as they say) such as cultural diversities and other factors that we simply cannot give numerical value such as ties within smaller social structures or the spiritual dimensions of the community. Moreover, as most of my more radical friends would passionately believe, studies like this are West-centric, that is to say, the perspective used to look at things are that of a white man with all the trappings of his biases and putting forward the interest of rich and developed nations, which, up to a certain degree, I agree.

I once had a conversation with Dr. Raul Pertierra, a professor of Anthropology who teaches in UP, Ateneo, and La Salle. He told me that the Philippines is far from being a failed state. Although its institutions are near-failures if not utter failures, other aspects of the society remain intact such as the family, church, and smaller units of the community. However this won’t be for long. With parents going abroad to provide food and send children to school, the present Filipino family is now more vulnerable than ever; the the people having less confidence with the Roman Catholic Church and its leaders, the Church will not hold on for long as well.

Now what is in store for the Philippines? This blog entry will not attempt to give a grand solution to this problem. In fact the writer of this blog is as confused and as disillusioned as any Filipino anywhere in the world. Still, I’d gamble my all for this country. For what is forthcoming is a new breed of Filipinos who are more aware, more responsible, and with bigger dreams for this country. I’ll stake everything on this country’s youths.

Can I have a nice cup of tea, please?

Alphabet

One’s ability to speak and write using the English language can determine one’s position in the social ladder especially for countries like Vietnam where majority of the people do not speak the language but understand the importance of English for their ascent from a position of a lowly office clerk to the level of an international CEO. Most ambitious college students would spend time with you if they know you speak English well and that being with you will improve their vocabulary as well as their accent. A Vietnamese mother, who became a friend, even offered me a good bargain to stay in their house and pay only half of my current rent just so I can be with her children to practice their use of English. Although I have not decided yet whether I will accept the offer, the deal sounds fair enough considering that I am a scholarship boy who is trying to save every single dollar that I can.

Aside from that, it also widens social network as they are eager to strike a conversation with you or to become your friend. You get better service in cafes and even bigger serving of rice when you eat in food stalls. (Although they may charge you higher. This time, one’s knowledge of the local language comes in.)

Just this time, while I am writing this, I am overhearing a group of Vietnamese college students talking about this guy accessing their Wi-Fi who speaks English but is a Filipino. I am not anymore certain about the other aspect of the conversation as I am limited by my two-week-more-or-less old knowledge of the Vietnamese Language.

I was invited to several gatherings because they wanted to know this “Filipino boy” who wanted to learn Tieng Viet in a country where a corporate guy could easily pay 10-15 USD per hour just to learn English. And they’d even be more delighted if they find out that this boy taught Literature and Journalism in the University of the Philippines, subjects that use English as a medium of instruction.

In the Philippines where majority of the people can speak and write decent English, its human resources are at an advantage in a world market where almost all transactions are conducted and communicated using English. It’s not anymore fashionable to think that using English marks colonial mentality, that it is a vestige of American influences, or that it makes you less nationalistic.

Filipino school children

My grade six teacher would be very delighted if I’ll share this experience with her as she was the first person who helped me appreciate the language (after my mother who is a high school English teacher). I remember her giving us vocabulary and pronunciation drills every Monday and a practical exam on Friday. “Someday you’ll thank me for doing this,” she would say every time we complained if the exercises started to become tiring.

And indeed I am.

Where have all the rice gone?

I grew up in the vast plain of South Cotabato in the Philippines. The only obstruction there is to one’s view of the horizon is Mt. Matutum, an active volcano that nourished the soil of the province, making it the second biggest pineapple plantation in the world trailing behind that one in Hawai’i. However, despite the big revenues the local government gets from the planting of pineapples as well as the canning of these succulent fruit , not to mention the vast number of labor force Dole Philippines employs to keep its operation going, the people of South Cotabato have not abandoned the still important–and now gaining more media attention in the Philippines and in the rest of the world that considers it as their staple food–rice.

The pineapple plantation of Dole Philippines on the foor of Mount Matutum (Polomolok, South Cotabato, Philippines)

My father, who grew up in Iloilo, a province in one of the islands in central Philippines, used to tell his stories about their life as a family of farmers and how he, as a young boy, had to wake up at four in the morning to bring the carabao (water buffalo) to the nearby stream and ready the beast for an early morning plowing of their one and a half hectare land. Every time we eat our meal and he sees that we wasted too much rice, he will proceed in telling us the difficulty of growing rice and the things a farmer has to go through just so we can have our bowl of rice.

Before I left for college more than five years ago, a kilo of rice cost around 20 pesos (0.50 USD in current exchange rate); however, just before I left for Vietnam two weeks ago, I was shocked when a rice variety my mother used to buy now costs 40 pesos or roughly double the 2003 price. It even shocked me more when I saw a long queue of housewives and children alike obstructing the flow of traffic just to buy subsidized rice costing around 26 pesos. Where have all the rice gone?

It is rather ironic because the International Rice Research Institute, the world’s largest research group that develops new rice variety that will have to feed the burgeoning need of humanity’s need for rice is found in the Philippines. What is even more ironic is that the Philippines is the world’s biggest rice importer. Amid this crisis, one can only ask what happened to the results of the studies conducted to improve rice production?

Granting that this is a world-wide problem as the rest of the world say Myanmar, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam are also experiencing the same fate why are these countries able to come up with mechanisms that will better enable them to face the crisis more prepared and therefore less severely hit?

I am a believer that the world has sufficient supply of food to feed its six billion plus inhabitants. With all the current technologies that make this possible, this feat is not impossible. When we look deeper into the movement of rice from preparing the field, applying fertilizer, planting, harvesting, distribution, down to the retailers and then to the homes, one will conclude that there must something wrong in one or more of the processes involved. I do not want to simplify things here. The problem is just so complex to place the blame on any of the entities. But when we try to isolate them, we shall see that the part that concerns distribution brings about most of the problem. Here politics is more than just about building farm-to-market road or giving subsidy to the farmers; here it is the game itself, especially in countries such as the Philippines that remain to wallow in cloaked feudalism/landlordism where serfs are not anymore serving the nobility but are enslaved by the more pwerful, more vicious landlord–the state.

In South Cotabato, as in the rest of the country, the promises of the Compehensive Agrarian Reform Program remain suspended in air sucking out the breath out of each farmer’s lungs. I have known of a farmer in Landan, Maligo, Lam-caliaf who continue to toil their lands without any hope of eventually owning the land of their birth.

The problem of rice shortages in the Philippines is just a by-product of a century long unwinnable struggle of farmers such as my father’s family to own the land they plow and for the government to help them secure these lands.

More than the money generated by the local government from taxes and revenues derived from pineapples, the more pressing concern is the what, the where, and the how of rice production. If it continues to ignore this problem of the people queueing for a kilo or rice these same group of people might think of another option to get food, an option that no one of us will like.