The marking of the first year’s anniversary of the visit of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) to the Philippines in November 2013 is a bittersweet one. While the disaster devasted millions of Filipino lives, its most appalling legacy is the vast open wound it left in the Filipino’s collective psyche — the realisation that theirs is an utterly helpless nation, a helplessness singularly underpinned by a government made an absolute inutile by the infantile feudal politics that drives it.In the critical few days both preceding and succeeding the lashing of central Philippines by Haiyan, the Philippine government had squandered mountains of opportunity to minimise loss of life. Lack of planning and preparation as the typhoon approached and lack of rapid and coordinated response after it exited all but doomed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Small wonder. The province of Leyte is a bastion of the Romualdez dynasty, the feudal clan to which former first lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos was born. As such, many Filipinos are not surprised that sufficient attention to the entire province’s wellbeing was never a high priority in the Philippine government which is currently ruled by the Romualdezes’ bitter enemies, the Aquino-Cojuangco clan led by current president Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III.
Indeed, today’s Inquirer.net Op-Ed spells out the political roots of the Haiyan disaster with elegent succinctness; that the condition of the province a full year after disaster struck “renewed questions about whether Mr. Aquino sees himself as president of an entire country, not only of those who voted for him.” Aquino’s “mistake”, the Inquirer editor writes, “reminded citizens across the country of the politically toxic atmosphere that hung over Tacloban immediately after it was devastated by the strongest storm to ever make landfall”. This “mistake” was a big one, and a recent one, once again highlighting the lack of learning Filipinos (as reflected by their democratically-elected politicians) are world-renowned for. Aquino had decided to skip showing up at Ground Zero in Tacloban City to mark the occassion. The Inquirer editor continues, noting the critical nature of what should have been a given in an occassion marking an important blight in recent Philippine history…
That is the role of the head of state: to serve as the focus of national attention, indeed to serve the public interest by directing national attention to issues and events of importance. To argue that he had other commitments last Saturday, or that his schedule last Friday was already full (it was, in fact, actually full), is to confuse or to conflate his duties as head of government with those of head of state. As head of government, he had to prepare for his participation in crucial international summits; as head of state, he should have rearranged his schedule to accommodate a quick trip to Tacloban.
Too bad, indeed. President BS Aquino had much to explain and much to own up to. A CBS News report, in not so many words, summarised evidence of both (1) the glacial progress in the rehabilitation of the disaster area in the last 12 months, and (2) the lack of any lessons learned as communities continue to remain in areas most vulnerable to deadly storm surges.
Just on the edge of the city, along the shoreline, entire fishing communities still live in makeshift tents. Residents tell me that when the sun is up, it’s hot as an oven. When it rains, water drips in. When it pours the tents shake violently, and they are inevitably reminded of Haiyan.
The same report also highlights the fundamental rot at the core of the way the Philippine government generally works…
According to [former Senator Panfilo] Lacson, $19,000 was allocated for each bunkhouse unit. But upon investigation, the value of each unit was found to be only $11,300. The rest of the money would likely have been pocketed by unscrupulous officials or contractors had the anomaly not been uncovered.
Suffice to say, nothing gets done in the Philippines without direct foreign supervision considering that (a) much of the resources that had poured into the relief effort over the last 12 months was either wasted or stolen and (b) the quality of the actual operations and the management around these have been found to be substandard and inept respectively.
It was quite fitting that lifestyle magazine Esquire Philippines may had actually found irony in the featuring of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas on its cover for its November issue. Roxas was appointed by President BS Aquino as his disaster response point man in the days that immediately followed Haiyan’s exit from the Philippines. But Roxas’s absolute failure to get on top of the situation on the ground there had become a standout symbol of everything that is wrong with the way the Philippines, as a society, responds to just about every challenge it faces. At one point Roxas even reminded Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez during a crisis meeting at the height of the disaster of the political realities of the situation, “You are a Romualdez and the President is an Aquino!”
While such behaviour amongst top Filipino leaders may baffle outsiders, this is really stock-standard governance style in the Philippines, where the interests of one’s self and immediate family comes first even when one is serving a public service role — another one of those head-scratchers that characterises Asia’s supposedly “predominantly Catholic” nation, a distinction many Filipinos take ironic pride in. Interestingly enough, Filipinos look forward to the visit of top Catholic honcho, Pope Francis early in 2015 — perhaps because they see in Francis a leader rather than a mere politician. But Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in a BBC report sees through all the point-missing “preparation” work Filipinos are mounting in anticipation of this visit. “Everything needs to be spick and span for the pontiff,” Wingfield-Hayes writes wryly.
Unfortunately Pope Francis’s visit will be nothing more than what it is — a visit. Beyond that, Filipinos will have to be resigned to living with the longer-term results of their chronically bad choices, Filipino politicians who are nothing more than leaders in shallow form and in witty campaign slogan.[Photo courtesy The Nation.]
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