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.

Published by Manila Today

Something significant took place on July 30. Metro Manilans crowded the streets as part of a coordinated earthquake drill. Thousands marched toward barangay and city evacuation centers. Various institutions trained their constituents to follow some procedures as directed by the state. Everybody moved to safety. This was a disaster preparation activity, but it also fulfilled several crucial political objectives.

The regional drill in the country’s premier urban hub was conducted in anticipation of the “Big One”, the apocalyptic 7.2-magnitude shaking of the ground that could wipe out entire communities around the dreaded 100-kilometer West Valley Fault. Everywhere else in the world, the anxious anticipation of a “Big One” stems from geological possibilities of an earthquake of magnitude 7 and higher. And since our government agencies came out with the study that it can happen in this lifetime, the Big One of Metro Manila has been built up to secure obedience to government as much as (or even more than) to encourage disaster preparation.

The drill clinched what barangay and school seminars have aimed to achieve in recent years: instill popular awareness about the real dangers of a strong earthquake. Hopefully, it convinced many that the earthquake threat and the devastation it can cause are not based on Hollywood film effects but scientific evidence.

Nobody will admit it but the drill was an act of politics.
Furthermore, its practical value in the future is dependent on politics. Will it work out during crunch time? Politics will be the deciding factor. What is essential is not just leadership in the bureaucracy but political will to mobilize an entire society during crisis moments. What is needed is a political force capable of uniting the community. If the bureaucratic state fails to act quickly, this is an opportunity for other political interests to enhance their influence and legitimacy in the grassroots.

The drill is an outstanding concrete example of the hazards of individualism on one hand and the necessity of regular state intervention on the other. It rejects the dominant thinking of how individuals can afford to be selfish while promoting the greater good. During the drill, participants are told to cooperate, share resources, and act decisively as part of their survival techniques. The participants are reminded that they belong to a community or institution which is contrary to the prevailing mentality that individuals are responsible for their own lives if they want to survive in this world. Survival of the fittest? It’s a taboo attitude in group dynamics. In real life, our survival depends on the existence and strength of active collectives.

Meanwhile, the drill is an affirmation of the integral role of the state in boosting the capacities of high-risk communities. Again, this contravenes the neoliberal prescription against state involvement in activities that can be done by more efficient actors (read: private sector) in society. The drill teaches the public that there are vital aspects of life that cannot be left in the hands of the supposedly free market. The state, not profit-seeking corporations, should supervise disaster preparation, evacuation, and relief distribution. Economists view it as state intervention; but for us, we simply consider it as the primary obligation of the state in power.

If the drill is a political act, does it promote the people’s interest? As an initiative of the ruling state, it’s designed to perpetuate and not restructure the present order. Its political objectives are narrow. It succeeded in advancing the legitimacy of the state to command the population with minimal or no dissent. If disaster drills are effective in controlling the movement of crowds in a large territory like Metro Manila, what can stop the state from using the same methods during political upheavals in the future?

Organizing the drill is convenient for the state in search of credibility. Here is an ambitious yet necessary project that addresses the public clamor for rapid state response during disasters. Finally, the state is doing something right. And look, everybody is participating in the drill.

But after this, another political intervention is required to emphasize the continuing vulnerability of Metro Manila residents. It’s not the absence of disaster drills that put our habitats and lives in danger in our communities. Poverty, inequality, injustice, bad governance – these are the structural deficiencies we need to fix so that we can survive the great earthquake. Is there a drill to address these daily threats?

The government drill should be supported by everyone; but at the same time, we must make some progressive political assertion. Turn the drill into an event that can truly empower our communities. Through people power tactics, question the persistence of poverty, hunger, and landlessness in the country. Identify anomalous public infrastructures. Make the state accountable for the visible signs of corruption in public areas. As the people march toward safety, discuss the lack of adequate welfare services that have weakened the capabilities of the marginalized. For workers in private institutions, there should be an information campaign about labor rights.

After their participation in the recent drill, many felt empowered because they became more knowledgeable about what to do during earthquakes. We should sustain their political education by launching a more comprehensive program on disaster preparation. One of the objectives is to make people realize that many are dying already not because of natural disasters but the low quality of living in Metro Manila and the uneven allocation of resources across the country. And if more are in danger of dying during typhoons or earthquakes, it is mainly caused by maldevelopment, corrupt governance, and historic inequities.

Situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it’s common knowledge that the Philippines is disaster-prone. It’s already the 21st century but why do many communities still lack the facilities to assist residents during disasters? Why are Filipinos migrating and settling in the overcrowded districts of Metro Manila? Why do unsafe workplaces exist? Why are incomes low? Why are basic services inadequate? Why can’t we solve the perennial flooding?

The Metro Manila earthquake drill addressed only one aspect of disaster preparation. We should compel the state to focus also on how to substantially uplift the living conditions of Metro Manila residents.

It is clear that we cannot conduct this other drill without altering the socio-economic and geo-political conditions in the country. The state in power will obviously reject these political demands. Thus, there is also the need for a new political force that will challenge the reign of the disastrous state.

The metro drill actually gave us a glimpse of how the people can attempt to reclaim political power from the rich and powerful. The people crowding together, the masses marching in the streets, workers disrupted from their routines and occupying establishments, and the transmitting of information signals via church bells, TV and phones. Imagine if the political force orchestrating this drill is a revolutionary party.

What if the Big One we are told to be afraid of is not the earthquake but the coming political revolution? What if the drill is a preview of how the state will react if the political conflagration in the countryside will reach the cities in the future? What if another political force, backed by the mass movement, is able to mount a counterdrill in the metro?

If the drill sounded familiar and the mechanics are easy to understand, it is because we are reminded of previous mobilizations that gathered the masses in Metro Manila.
The drill creates a crowd that turns into a collective when it becomes conscious of its politics.

But whether the revolution will arrive or not, the metro drill should be reconceptualized as a political platform to challenge the oppressive present, an opportunity to demand a pro-poor disaster preparation program, and the unveiling of the agenda for change as we continue the struggle for the establishment of a progressive and resilient society.

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