First, the admission that tragedy is difficult to discuss—more so when we are removed from the tragedy. As mere spectators, it is understandable why on some level our empathy seems suspect. Which is why, before I write anything else, we must acknowledge the limitations of language. We must admit that even our native tongue cannot plumb the depths of loss and trauma that the victims of super typhoon Yolanda (internationally named Haiyan) feel.
There is a limit to how much we can communicate using words, when the incomprehensible happens to the poorest of the poor, the weakest of the weak. There is a darkness that words cannot help or hope to communicate, and if we cannot speak it, then we must at least acknowledge it, full stop.
That being said, tragedy also calls us to action. Silence is sometimes a sign of respect and the acknowledgement of the powerlessness of speech, but it is not an endorsement of fence-sitting. I have held much in the last couple of days, but that in itself is nothing special. I do not need to recount here the outpouring of emotion that have been flooding the Internet and the news, the streets and countless office cubicles.
But I have waited long enough, and as such, this is a response to many events that have taken place since November 8, 2013, as well as to the many words that were thrown from one end of the world to the other, on social media and off.
My friends: there is no reason to believe that there is no space for saying what we feel about the government. An excellent argument has already been made about criticism, and for that reason I will no longer re-state it. But what I rage against is the belief that concrete action and critical thought are mutually exclusive of one another. Must I keep silent about the blatant lies that I see, while I extend my help? Is it physically impossible to provide aid while analyzing the loopholes of this tricky situation?
Ah, but no. Easy enough to enumerate what one has done in order to defend oneself, and I will not use my writing to list what actions I have done to help the victims.
I only know that it is possible to think critically, urge others to follow suit, and do concrete action where words fail us. And where we think it is not possible there is only one imperative: we must carve out space for both critical words and actions.
But what of the question of timing?
My friends, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that there is a right time for criticism. Here’s a timeline: on November 8, super typhoon Yolanda struck the Visayas. On November 8 and 9, following the events, media reported instances of looting in Leyte. From November 11 to 12, the process of identifying the dead commenced. Also on November 11, there was an outcry for the national government to oversee matters in Tacloban. It was only then, three days after Yolanda, that President Benigno Aquino III declared a national state of calamity.
In the unfolding of the tragedy, by November 12, at least 27 countries had pledged to give aid to the Philippines. As late as November 14-15, urgent calls for help in areas such as Lipayran Island (via Aaron John Mendoyos’ Facebook account on the 14th), and Marabut, Samar (on the 15th), were being sent out. Meanwhile, the person responsible for estimating a 10,000 casualty due to Yolanda, also the man who, as some have pointed out, was responsible for helping attract the attention of both local and international networks, chief superintendent Elmer Soria, was relieved from his post. As of today, the method for disposing the dead has been debated about, the death toll has been questioned, and news about the continued delay of relief, from people close to me who have volunteered in different operations, remind us of the substance of this tragedy.
So my question is: when is the right time to be critical?
How will I know the time has come? Must I wait for Malacañang to build an LED billboard along Edsa to declare that it is now open to receive criticism? Shall I wait for the death toll to be finalized? Shall I wait, day by day, as U.S. forensics dig out body after body, speaking of the possibility of people clinging to life under the rubble, while DILG Secretary Mar Roxas tells me that searching for survivors is not a priority?
No, my friends. There is no right time to be critical. I do not have to wait for another crude shot of a dead child or a sick infant to haunt my television screen. I do not have to wait for another shout out on social media for a loved one who is still missing. I do not have to hear about how the relief operations in the Philippines is “one of Asia’s biggest humanitarian efforts”. Now is the right time to be critical, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise.
The System and Its Privilege(s)
What’s more, to the argument that the President, Vice-President, DILG secretary or whosoever, cannot be criticized because not everyone in the government is responsible for the red tape that has been delaying relief: that is pure, unadulterated foolishness, my friends, because it is not the smallest people, the most hard working, low-ranking government employee that we call shame upon when we shed light on the ineptitude of this administration.
Rather, it is the system which we condemn, that same system which point blank will argue that the bodies lying on the ground are not the same bodies day after day after day, the same one that will insist that looting for food and water is a crime, even when the looters are faced with the dilemma of stealing or letting their children, their old parents, die from starvation. It is this system which lets another country lead the operations, and the same which insists that the local government units step up—this, after blaming the death and the delay on the same local government units.
But if there is point blank denial from above, what puzzles me more is the privileged anger of individual government employees on social media. Rage against misinformation, yes. Post links which clarify contested issues officially, of course. But this rudeness, this audacity to imply that every single person who wishes for more efficient relief, who questions the actions of the government—its strategies, and the speed at which it implements its relief operations—to suggest that every single person who has done this on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and various personal blogs, is an incompetent, irresponsible citizen, whose complaints only rise out of the sheer desire to join the bandwagon, is unacceptable, ignorant, and ultimately, rude.
Let me be clear that I know they exist: those people who will not bother to learn first what they are talking about (the rumors about the volunteers from Lufthansa, the chaos about the rumored taxes on donations). But to insist that this is the rule and not the exception is to use the double edge of the sword, the same one that, from the other side, says all government employees are corrupt to the core.
The wrong goes both ways, you see.
Moreover, I am puzzled at such graceless rage because it is tells us that a small but significant amount of the educated in government will stoop down and, instead of appease the people, stoke the fires of resentment, by insisting that these people are wrong and deserve to be shamed on social media. Tell me, as a government employee, one who is privileged to express yourself and the ideologies of your superiors, through official websites and announcements and press conferences, what do you stand to gain by targeting, one by one, every Facebook and Twitter post so that you may rub it in the faces of these people that they don’t know what they’re talking about?
Granted social media is public trench warfare, but there is something distasteful in this humiliation, shrouded in the name of informing others, and I tell you, it does nothing for your cause.
I do not deny the possibility of healthy dialogue with someone who works for the government. In fact it is only in having been able to participate in such a conversation that I am able to demand this of everyone—government employee or not. The capacity for logical and humane communication should not be bound by the nature of one’s work.
The Long Shadow of Debt
But there is one other thing that bothers me about this situation. For in relying on so much foreign aid, in failing in so many ways to provide for our own people, we put ourselves in a greater debt than anything that can be counted in currency. Imperialism has long arms and an even longer memory, and I fear what, politically, our archipelago will have to support in the actions of other countries (or perhaps just the one, should you understand what I mean) in the years to come.
And still I ask myself:
“Would you risk losing the help they are offering to your fellow Filipinos, in order to avoid falling into indebtedness?”
I cannot put my answer into words, but I am certain that the answer is not yes.
And Finally, to People Who Insist that This is Not War.
I am sorry, but it is too late.
This has been war for the longest time, my friends. Ever since the first colonizer stepped foot in the Philippines in 1521, growing in range and ideology until the purchase of our country in the Treaty of Paris, exploding in blood in the World War II, and now, at this very moment, seeping so quietly that identifying it is like catching smoke with your hands, this war has been living it out in you and me.
That you refuse to see it as such is not just flat out denial. It is a reduction of all that has been happening since this nation became a colony, and then an imperial outpost, since our revolution faded, unfinished. It is a lie on which one can continually feed, in order to convince oneself that only a limited number of people can help, and that the ultimate human capacity to love, is limited only to a small circle of people—those unwilling to participate in both critical language and action. It is akin to spitting on the face of the dead in the aftermath of the storm, for it is an unwillingness to ensure that the likes of this disaster will not happen again. It is not a desire for a simple life, but a simplistic one.
For in that line of thought, it is not a life of peace that is being sought after, but a death darker and more real than those suffered by the casualties of any natural phenomenon, and from which, if one persists, there can be no salvation.
Photo by Romeo Ranoco, Reuters