Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

The Philippine government has already declared a state of national calamity in the wake of the devastation caused by super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) on several Visayas islands. More than 10,000 are feared dead after Haiyan, the strongest storm in the world this year, ravaged entire communities – especially the costal barangays (villages) facing the Pacific.

Visayas comprises several islands located in the central Philippines. Haiyan left a trail of destruction across the Visayas islands of Samar, Leyte, north Cebu, Negros and Panay. It also affected some parts of Romblon, Mindoro and Palawan. But it was the east Visayas provinces of Samar and Leyte, which are closest to the Pacific, that bore the brunt of Haiyan’s fury.

The Philippines is situated in the typhoon belt of the Asia-Pacific region, which means it gets battered by more than a dozen storms every year. Storms usually trigger floods, landslides and strong winds on the islands and many Filipinos prepared for these extreme elements when Haiyan was first reported by the weather bureau. But Haiyan was different. It proved to be a real super typhoon when it caused a tsunami-like storm surge that instantly killed thousands.

The storm surge is responsible for the massive destruction in Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte (and also the hometown of Rep. Imelda Marcos, wife of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos). When Haiyan was about to make landfall, many sought refuge in sturdy facilities like the airport and gymnasium – but these were also laid to waste by the storm surge. A local official said that had they were advised to prepare for a tsunami, they could have chosen an evacuation center situated on higher ground.

Visayas power and communication lines were destroyed when Haiyan hit the region last Friday. It took almost a day for the rest of the Philippines, including capital Manila, to be informed about the huge damage left by Haiyan. After the partial restoration of communications in Tacloban, the country and the world were shocked by the images of devastation and misery in the city. Initial reports indicated that 90 percent of the province took a severe beating from the storm. The situation is said to be worse in other remote islands.

As of this writing, there are still many towns which couldn’t be reached because of ruined roads and absence of communication signals. But aerial surveillance by the military has confirmed fears that many villages were reduced to wasteland by the storm. Worse, medical services and relief goods could not be immediately provided to hungry and weary survivors.

The areas hit by Haiyan are among the poorest provinces in the Philippines. In fact, Eastern Visayas is the third poorest region in the country. Now it is a poor region rendered poorer by a typhoon; and the impoverished will likely become more impoverished than ever.

Rebuilding Tacloban and the rest of Visayas will prove to be a daunting task. Haiyan wreaked havoc at a time when the country is still recovering from a deadly earthquake which shook the island of Bohol (also in Visayas) just a few weeks ago. This is turning out to be a calamitous year for the Philippines despite the stellar growth of its economy.

The priority at the moment is to rescue more survivors and provide relief to disaster refugees. Thankfully, aid is pouring in from all over the world. Many Filipinos are also showing their solidarity by volunteering in the rehabilitation efforts. But this is not enough. It’s not sustainable to focus resources on post-disaster relief operations. There should be a comprehensive plan on how to prevent massive casualties every time a disaster strikes the islands.

Haiyan proved once more that the Philippines are extremely vulnerable to the harsh impact of climate change. But it also exposed the sorry state of the country’s infrastructure, chaotic land zoning system, pre-modern weather facilities, unreliable communication facilities, and inadequate disaster preparedness programs.

The reported breakdown of law and order in Tacloban is more or less due to the failure of the government to extend urgent aid to survivors. Apparently, there was no system or functioning mechanism on how to quickly respond to emergency situations.

Haiyan also highlighted the alarming deterioration of the country’s environment. For example, large-scale logging operations have depleted the watersheds which often cause massive flooding in the lowlands. Because of environment pollution, super storms like Haiyan can evolve into man-made disasters.

As for the Southeast Asian region, Haiyan should remind regional leaders to collectively address the impact of climate change. At a minimum, there should be regional coordination during disasters. When Haiyan left the Philippines, it headed straight off in the direction of Vietnam and China.

Samar and Leyte in US Military History

Written for The Diplomat

More than 6,000 American troops have been deployed in the typhoon-ravaged provinces of Samar and Leyte in central Philippines to assist in the rescue and relief efforts of the local government. In fact, Samar and Leyte are part of U.S. military history. In 1901, American soldiers stood accused of a murderous frenzy in the remote town of Balangiga in Samar. Many years later, in 1944, General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines via Leyte to fight the Japanese invading army.

After learning about the deaths of American soldiers in Samar in 1901, the U.S. government directed its military officials in the Philippines to implement the “most stern measures to pacify Samar” and “to give the Filipinos ‘bayonet rule’ for years to come.” Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith immediately penned his infamous Circular No. 6, which contains the following instructions to his troops: “I want no prisoners” and “I wish you to kill and burn; and the more you burn and kill, the better it will please me.” He ordered his men to reduce Samar into a “howling wilderness” and to kill anyone 10 years old and above capable of bearing arms.

More than 2,000 Balangiga civilians died in the subsequent carnage. Smith was court martialled for his role in this atrocity and it marked the first time that an American officer stood trial for what we now call war crimes. However, the United States continues to refuse to return the church bells of Balangiga, which American soldiers took in 1901 as a war booty.

Fast forward to October 20, 1944. General Douglas MacArthur landed in Palo, Leyte to signal the return of American troops in Philippine soil; and more importantly, to expel the Japanese army that had invaded the country in 1941.

“People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil,” said MacArthur in a historic radio broadcast. The ensuing Battle of Leyte Gulf involved one of the world’s largest sea battles and the victory of the American forces proved decisive in ending Japanese rule in the Philippines and in Asia. Many Filipinos today continue to regard MacArthur as the “savior of the Philippines.”

In 1991, American troops left the country after the Philippine Senate rejected the bases treaty. That same year, American soldiers were forced to evacuate their base in Pampanga in central Luzon island because of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Two decades later, and another devastating natural disaster has hit the country, this time bringing U.S. forces back to the islands in the Visayas.

When super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) struck Samar and Leyte on November 8, the U.S. was among the first countries in the world to offer assistance. Aside from sending cash donations, Washington dispatched its Japan-based military forces to assist in rescue operations, especially in the remote islands of the eastern Visayas region.

The USS George Washington arrived in the country last week with 5,000 sailors aboard. The U.S. also dispatched the USS Germantown and USS Ashland, amphibious warfare vessels that proved very helpful in transporting relief goods to far-flung villages of Samar and Leyte.

By last weekend, the U.S. military had already made 186 aircraft sorties, representing 480 flight hours, and had airlifted nearly 2,900 typhoon victims. Osprey and KC-130 aircraft had delivered 107,000 pounds of food, water and other urgent supplies to the local government.

Aside from the sailors aboard the aircraft carrier, there are more than 600 U.S. military personnel in the Philippines conducting relief services. About 1,000 Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit are expected to arrive soon.

Many countries have dispatched troops, but it seems it is the U.S. military that is leading the ground operations. Journalist Terry Moran wrote about how an Israeli officer was instructed by a high-ranking Philippine official “to talk to the Americans” for the coordination in the relief missions

Analysts believe that the active participation of U.S. troops in the rebuilding of typhoon-damaged communities in the Philippines is both a goodwill measure and an effective military strategy at a time when the U.S. is pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific.

Some compare the mercy missions of the U.S. to MacArthur’s historic landing in Leyte. For others, the sight of foreign troops may bring back less pleasant memories. Either way, though, the U.S. is once again poised to make history in Samar and Leyte.

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