Typhoon Haiyan – my thoughts

The big news of recent days has been the natural disaster in the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Initially, the estimated death figure is 10,000. The Phillipines government has revised it down to over 2000. However, there a number of observers who pointed out  that the figure will rise drastically when missing people who are likely to be washed into the sea are accounted for.

One observation that strikes me is the helplessness of the Philippines government in dealing with this crisis. The situation on the ground seems chaotic with widespread lootings and shooting, while most people still remain hungry and in desperate situation. Food aids have been slow or non-existence. Foreign military troops headed by US and Western allies are reaching Philippines shores to sort out the mess, as if the Philippines is still a colony of the West. But foreign assistance should only be supplementary as the several hundred foreign troops and aid workers can only provide limited on the ground support. Tens of thousand of  local troops, policemen, aid workers and local volunteers need to be mobilised to help their fellow countrymen.

There are murmurs of criticism from the foreign (Western) media on the apparent inaction or slow response of the Philippines government. The gun culture, the week central government  and the communist rebels have been blamed, but somehow the ineptness of President Aquino in dealing with disaster crisis receives little attention. I suspect it has to do with Aquino’s high standing in the eyes of the Western media due to his anti-China stance.

Hopefully the situation can be improved in days to come, with more donations and aids coming in. China has also started to donate material goods. In such a situation, it is better to donate material goods rather than say $10 million in donation.  High remunerations for expatriate aid workers, transportation costs, jacked-up cost of goods purchased in Western donor country and local corruptions  means that probably less than 10% of the monetary value actually goes to the disaster victim. Directly giving blankets, tents, portable generators and food packets are much more effective that publicly announcing donations of say $30 million dollars.

I’m sure in days to come, more Asian countries will come forward with material donations to the victims. However, the current poor relation between China and the Philippines will make it hard for Aquino government to approve Chinese naval ships sailing in to provide direct assistance. Some Western media have already used this disaster as a PR stunt and denounce the apparently meagre contribution from China. But it is still early days, and merely proclaiming aids without delivering them to those that need them badly is of little help. China is a country that can truly help the disaster region recovers, both in the short and long term, but will the Philippines government tone down its hostility against China and request for assistance. But we’ll see how the events unfold …

Typhoon Haiyan: gun culture of the Philippines hinders relief efforts
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/philippines/10444736/Typhoon-Haiyan-gun-culture-of-the-Philippines-hinders-relief-efforts.html

By Alex Spillius   12 Nov 2013

There are other countries in the world prone to natural disaster, but what distinguishes the Philippines, and has made the delivery of aid even more problematic after Typhoon Haiyan, is the prevalence of guns.

The archipelago of 7,000 islands has the geographical misfortune to be affected by 20 or so tropical cyclones a year.

The Philippines is also bedevilled by harsh poverty and weak central government – despite the best efforts of the current president Benigno Aquino.

But there are few disaster zones in the world where nightfall is punctuated by the sound of gunfire and aid agency convoys need to wait for the army to restore a semblance of order before leaving their warehouses.

There are 3.9 million guns – legal and illegal – held by civilians in the Philippines, or about 4.7 per 100 people, which isn’t that high in global terms. But people are prepared to use them. The murder rate is among the highest in Asia and three times that of the United States, at 8.9 homicides per 100,000.

Illegal guns are not just carried by criminal gangs and insurgents. They also belong to civilians and politicians who keep private armies. Earlier this year the president boosted his credibility by winning top prize in a shooting competition, even as television reported a major shootout between police and thieves on a motorway.

Guns are so common that shops, restaurants and malls in cities commonly display signs asking customers not to bring their weapons inside. All private security guards carry either handguns or shotguns, or both.

Analysts tend to blame the colonial history of the Philippines for becoming a gun-happy independent nation. It is said that three centuries of Spanish machismo were followed by 50 years of American preaching on the right to bear arms, making for a volatile mixture.

Whatever the causes of the pervasive gun culture and high murder rate, the reports of armed looting that emerged two or three days after Haiyan struck surprised no one. Even if some reports were exaggerated, the Philippines’ reputation for poor law and order preceded it.

The army and police have sent reinforcements to control Tacloban, the worst affected city, leading Mr Roxas to declare today that looting had been stopped.

But Jericho Petilla, the energy secretary, said of Ormoc, another city in Leyte province: “On Saturday, Ormoc city was still under control. Now there is no control.”

Ferry passengers were reportedly being held up by armed men on arrival at the port, he admitted.

On Monday, the head of the United Nations’ disaster assessment team in Tacloban said he would not deploy an aid convoy without a military escort. On Tuesday that process was still in its early stages.

The difficulties in distributing aid showed how, nearly 70 years after independence, central government has yet to impose itself fully throughout the archipelago of 80 provinces and dozens of languages and consequently struggles to cope and coordinate with the disaster of the scale wrought by Typhoon Haiyan.

A communist insurgency that lasted for decades only petered out a few years ago. Rebellion blighted the semi-autonomous Muslim south until a fragile peace agreement was signed with insurgents last year.  Weapons are still strewen around those areas.

Even in the best of times, the authority of the army and police is not fully recognised in Leyte province and elsewhere. Manuel Roxas, the secretary of the interior, admitted earlier this year that the Philippines National Police was still being challenged by criminals on a routine basis.

Infrastructure – potentially a great pacifier and route to development – is notoriously feeble and has been cited as one of the primary obstacles to the country’s development. Only 20 percent of the country’s roads are paved, while ferries which connect the islands are unreliable and prone to over-crowding and capsizing.

The central swathe of islands struck by Haiyan is among the poorest parts of a country where 40 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Despite marked economic growth in the past few years and numerous economic reforms by President Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines ranks only 163rd in the global GDP per capita league table.

In the long term, thanks to abundant natural resources, an established if flawed democracy, and the remarkably sanguine spirit of its people, the Philippines should prevail.

But thanks to the scale of this fresh disaster, growth is sadly now expected to contract, and the cycle of disaster and poverty to continue.

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About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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