From Tacloban to Kidapawan: Blaming the victim

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, Veronica de Leon Gregorio

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From Tacloban to Kidapawan: Blaming the victim
In perilous times like these, anger and a sense of urgency are virtues. Anything less is a denial of justice.

When people died because of Super Typhoon Yolanda, they were blamed for not evacuating early. When farmers were killed in Kidapawan, they were blamed for protesting to begin with.

To blame the victim is a reflex for many. It is by far an easier act than to ask questions why they happened the way they did.

To add insult to injury, the blame is often couched in righteous promulgations against the victim. After all, to ask questions about context and power relations is too much hard work.  

This is the job of the sociologist, often the party pooper in the public sphere. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, got it right when he claimed that the function of sociology is “to reveal that which is hidden.” For the sociologist, the “hidden” lurks as taken-for-granted assumptions and behaviors that oppress people, especially those whose voices are largely unheard.  

The hard questions

Tacloban and Kidapawan, while far from each other, are not isolated incidents. These places have witnessed the disastrous convergence of natural catastrophes and government inefficiency. The impact is heaviest on the poor. And there’s no reason for us to expect any sign of abating.  

As sociologists, we ask fundamental questions if only to reveal that which is hidden. These are not new but they need to be asked again and again.   

First, what are the living conditions of affected communities three years after Yolanda Second, what exactly has brought Kidapawan farmers to beg for that which they have been producing all their lives? 

Nothing can be more fundamental than the questions we are raising. Farmers in Kidapawan, together with the fisherfolk in Tacloban, are the have-nots who feed the haves. They are at the very bottom of the Philippine economic pyramid. Because we conveniently buy our food from air-conditioned groceries, many of us do not immediately see this reality.

To be fair, investigations have started and rehabilitation is still ongoing. But we bet these will take a long time. No wonder that in both places, people have taken to the streets.

Protest in Tacloban

“Hindi pa rin kami nakakabangon. Wala pa rin kaming maayos na hanapbuhay. Hanggang ngayon hindi pa naibibigay sa amin ang ipinangakong ESA (Emergency Shelter Assistance).” 

                                                                    – Tatay Selorio, 61, Tacloban (February 22, 2016)

It has been three years since Yolanda ripped through the province of Leyte, hitting Tacloban City the hardest. Issues on spoiled relief goods and missing funds remain unanswered, but the most striking has to do with the state of distribution of the ESA. According to the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), shelter is the second most unmet need (next to livelihood) of Yolanda survivors. 

Despite the urgent need for long-term recovery through permanent housing projects, the National Housing Authority reported in October 2015 that only PhP 27 billion has been released (out of PhP 61 billion) to build 205,128 houses for all Yolanda affected communities. NHA officials have reported that these houses will be completed by 2017.  According to the Tacloban City Housing Office, as of November 2015, NHA has only built 572 out of its target 14,162 permanent houses in the city. Displaced families are still in various sites including evacuation centers, transitional bunkhouses, and makeshift settlements. 

To commemorate the second anniversary of typhoon Yolanda last year, People Surge, the broadest organization of Yolanda survivors, transformed San Juanico Bridge into a symbolic space of protest. They proclaimed that survivors from Eastern Visayas are united in demanding accountability from the government.

Protest in Kidapawan

DONATIONS. Sacks of rice in Kidapawan after the violent dispersal. Photo by Ferdh Cabrera/Rappler

“We bring our sentiments on the streets so that the provincial government will notice our demands.” 

                                                     – Pedro Arnado, KilusangMagbubukidngPilipinas (KMP) 

In January this year, North Cotabato was declared under a state of calamity due to the damage on crops caused by El Niño. Despite the board’s access to calamity funds, no distribution of food aid was made from February to March and farmers from different towns starved.  Kidapawan City, one of the towns severely affected by the dry spell, suffered losses of over PhP 1 billion.

In the last week of March, around 6,000 farmers and indigenous people from different parts of North Cotabato barricaded on the Cotabato-Davao highway to demand 15,000 sacks of rice and farm aid. 

But instead of heeding their calls, the state sent the police to disperse them.  Shots were fired on April 1, leaving at least 5 dead, 100 injured, and 87 farmers and 6 children missing, 78 illegally detained, and 4,500 trapped inside a Methodist church.

Anger and justice

Calamities are natural. Human disasters are not. When stakeholders fail to prepare, deaths happen. And in some cases, murder as well.

Must we blame then the victim?

Nobody takes to the streets on a whim. People cannot be simply deceived to take the heat and then the bullet. If at all, to protest, inasmuch as it can be violent, is paradoxically the last and perhaps only resort of the poor. When elected officials and bureaucrats fail to provide the most basic support, they betray the social contract between electorate and government. 

The disenfranchised are then compelled to organize themselves to protest. Nobody protests on a whim.  

In ordinary times, sobriety is necessary if only to listen carefully to the collective voices of the deliberately silenced masses. 

But when people are getting killed, punditry that justifies their death is travesty. Nor do we need at this time government apologists blabbering on what they have done. The facts remain: In Tacloban, survivors are dying due to adverse housing conditions. In Kidapawan, farmers were killed and those left behind are persistently harassed.  

At the end of the day, we ask hard questions not because we are just academics. We demand answers because we are angry.   

Especially because it is election year, these are not ordinary times. In perilous times like these, anger and a sense of urgency are virtues.  Anything less is a denial of justice and, therefore, a prolonging of people’s suffering. –


Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist and the director of the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University.  Veronica de Leon Gregorio is an incoming PhD student in sociology at the National University of Singapore.  They both work on Vote of the Poor 2016, an ongoing study funded by the Institute of Philippine Culture.  Follow them on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio and @nikkigregoriooo

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