Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Darryl Johnson - Service in the Philippines
Zamboanga is a pleasant tropical city of about 300,000 located on the far southwest corner of the island of Mindanao, the largest of the Philippine islands (Luzon has a much larger population, and is about the same size). It is close to the farthest reaches of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, and the small islands west of Zamboanga (Basilan, Jolo and others) have been terrorist havens for decades. The US supports Philippine efforts to build schools and medical clinics and bridges and docks and other infrastructure to encourage loyalty -- or at least passive acceptance -- toward the Manila government, which is a long ways away, literally and figuratively. These efforts have been somewhat effective, in part because the terrorists (the Abu Sayaf Group, the Moro National Liberation Front, Jamma Islamiya) are really brutal, but mainly because people want to be on the winning side. As for scenes from the colonial era in the Philippines that resemble The Ugly American (which was actually set in Thailand, by the way), the impression is accurate up to a point. But it is also true that Filipinos love Americans. One question I got numerous times was, "Why can't we become the 51st state?" The week I arrived, I presided over a movie premier about a daring rescue operation in the latter days of WWII, where Filipino guides helped untrained Americans liberate, with zero casualties, a Japanese POW camp holding 600 Americans and a few Aussies. It's a true story which virtually all Filipinos know. But I had never heard of it. There are examples of shared American and Filipino history all over the place, and MacArthur lives, from Corregidor to Leyte Gulf to the Manila Hotel! Unfortunately for those who have to live with today's realities rather than yesterday's dreams, the population (90 m) is far in excess of the economic or political capacity to support or govern, and the Philippines has gone from being the richest country in East Asia after WWII to being one of the poorest. President Arroyo enjoys very little respect, especially conpared to her movie star predecessor, Erap Estrada, who made little effort to govern, and to his predecessor, Gen. Fidel Ramos, who remains very popular. The society is very hierarchical, with a few hundred people at the top (mostly educated in the US) and millions at the bottom. In sum, it's a fine place to visit, but a somewht uncomfortable place to live.