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A year of promise ends mostly in disappointment

HONG KONG (SE): Last year began with a bright spot in the Philippine world, as the nation geared itself up for the much-awaited visit of Pope Francis to the shores of the Pearl of the Orient Seas.

Nevertheless, some dark spots did fall across the horizon, as one year on, the survivors of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) were discovering that the rehabilitation of their devastated homes, cities and farmlands was being treated by many more as a business opportunity than a response to a tragedy.

But in mid-January, Pope Francis did arrive in Manila and although the vast crowds that turned out to greet him mostly went home soaked to the skin, his message of mercy for the suffering was welcomed like a balm for pain to the ears of the suffering masses.

Almost appropriately, his voyage to Tacloban was interrupted by a brewing typhoon and, although cut short, locals turned out to paint the town white in welcome for their most august visitor, who was described as a ray of hope shining in the darkness.

Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong, buoyed by the pope’s Peace Message for the New Year, in which he stated that tying work visas to residency is slavery, turned out as well to urge him to remember them in his messages to government personnel.

However, while the pope may have been diplomatic, Church leaders in The Philippines were scathing in their criticism of the president of the country, Noynoy Aquino, for his distorted historical rundown on Church history and the self-credits he awarded his own administration.

The continual flow of blood in the country, especially on the war-torn southern island province of Mindanao, gained prominence when a military operation in Mamasapano that is believed to have been planned by United States of America advisers, ended up in the deaths of 44 people.

The botched operation again saw the president come under fire for his failure to act in preventing the operation, but both Christian and Muslim leaders in the province vowed to remain dedicated to the peace process.

There was a sign of hope in Hong Kong when the employer of Indonesian domestic worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, was found guilty of and sentenced for causing grievous bodily harm, intimidation and failure to pay salary.

The verdict gave migrant workers more faith in the legal process, but as the year progressed community leaders expressed disappointment that despite a call from the judge in the case, Amanda Woodcock, for a review of the live-in rule and vulnerable situation legislation leaves workers in, the government was treating the matter as a one off and, while the case may be exceptional in its ferocity, such incidents are too frequent to regard as exceptions.

Dolores Balladares, from United Filipinos, agreed that it reflects flaws in the government legislation that is supposed to protect the welfare of migrant workers.

As the Year of the Goat began migrant workers took part in the annual One Billion Rising day calling for protection for women and for the root causes of their abuse to be addressed and removed from cultural, legal and society laws and practices.

On the same weekend, migrant communities welcomed the newly-ordained Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing as the vicar general with responsibility for their pastoral care at a Mass at Christ the King Chapel in Causeway Bay.

For the bishop, it was his first contact with migrant communities, but he said that he was deeply touched at the meeting and praised them for the witness to their faith that they give in their daily lives among Hong Kong’s predominately non-Christian population.

In April, the Philippine bishops again campaigned against the introduction of a civil divorce law and while they appealed heavily to scripture to back up their campaign, people, especially women, complained they did hear the cries of deserted wives and children for legal protection or look at what is happening in the country.

In the same month, the number of people fleeing fighting in the civil war in Maguindanao rose to over 120,000 sparking a humanitarian crisis that put the spotlight on the urgency of the peace process. It is estimated that over two million people were displaced between 2000 and 2007.

The Philippine nation again looked towards migrant workers as Mary Jane Veloso was given a reprieve by Indonesian authorities from the firing squad. She has been charged with smuggling drugs, but maintains that she is innocent and did not know the contents of the bag she was carrying.

The case has highlighted the need for people to be extra careful about the content of parcels that they are asked to carry for others.

In May, Luis Cardinal Tagle became the first Filipino or Asian to be elected as the worldwide head of Caritas.

The visit of a United Nations team to The Philippines highlighted the practice of arbitrary torture and arrest without warrant by the police and the military, and the findings several years ago of special rapporteur, Philip Alston, citing vilification and guilt by association as being major factors in the widespread government human rights abuses are believed to still be valid.

The much-criticised K-12 education system debuted in June, but has not been going long enough for any judgement to be made about its effectiveness. Short term, it has created many difficulties.

Philippine Independence Day was marked in Hong Kong with a visit by the famed Madrigal Singers, but a group of students from Hong Kong University possibly did more to warm hearts introducing an ongoing education process on health care and lessons on how to deal with the difficulties and grow from living in a foreign culture.

The students themselves described it as a two-way learning process and came out greatly admiring the Filipino workers for their honesty, adaptability and courage in facing the many difficulties they come up against in life.

Also in June, a systematic attack on leaders of indigenous communities surfaced in Davao when the military opened fire in Paquibato in what was said to be an encounter with Communist forces.

It also marked the beginning of a systematic justification by the authorities of execution-style murders of more leaders during the second half of the year, which local people say is really the liquidation of anyone who opposes large scale mining on their land.

In July, the Philippine bishops asked for a prayer for peace to be offered at all Masses in the country, as tension with China became more heated over territorial rights around the Spratley Islands. Although violence has not broken out, the threat remains.

Migrant workers again missed the cut in the president’s State of the Nation Address, leaving them believing that as far as their government is concerned they are out of sight and out of mind.

The Sto. Niño had an outing in Manila, taking a boat ride down the Pasig River to highlight the environmental degradation of the country. It was a prelude to a concerted push to care for the environment, which climaxed with former climate negotiator, Yeb Saño, leading a pilgrimage from the Vatican to the Paris climate conference in November.

Two extremely sensitive issues to migrant workers exploded in September and October with a push to search balikbayan boxes by Philippine customs and then the discovery at Manila Airport that security staff were secreting bullets into luggage in order to extort bribe money.

Neither issue has been satisfactorily resolved, but the wounds of those who were direct victims remain raw.

One sign of hope as the year came to an end was a visit to Hong Kong of the youngest member of the Philippine senate, Ram Aquino, to tout his make-starting-a business-easier legislation, which he says can open new roads for migrant workers when considering returning home for good.

But mostly people can only look back on a year of broken promises and dashed hopes, with maybe the lowlight being the Commissioner for Elections, Arthur Lim, telling a forum at the consulate, at the end of a week that had seen three electoral candidates murdered, that he admitted there had been some hiccups in the election process in the past.

But every year must be faced with hope and the celebration of Christmas gives confidence that there will be lights shining out of the darkness in 2016.


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