Sunday, October 29, 2006


By John L. Silva
(published Newsbreak Magazine Nov. 6, 2006)

There’s just some museums that’s not going to be entertaining. You need to steel yourself for the Toul Sleng or S-21 Prison now called the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge finally entered victorious into the city on April 17, 1975, they announced that very same day that everyone had to leave. After decades of fighting the Americans and their installed regimes, they were now exacting their brand of ideological molding coupled with revenge. The city folk now branded as loyalists and class enemies were sent to work the countryside and die.

As you enter the grounds of the former three-storey high school turned prison, the place looks innocuous. Built by Cambodia’s premier architect Moly-Vannvan the school had the elements of sensible ’60’s architecture with shaded corridors and naturally ventilated classrooms. But that day of my visit, the air stilled and the quiet ambiance turned oppressive. It felt a lot of people cried there.

We were brought by the son of the Museum Director to the first building which housed political prisoners. Once they were the most loyal of cadre members who probably participated in the killing of many other citizens. On a whim or the paranoia of Angka (the name for the Khmer Rouge leadership) these same cadres were hauled to the prison to be tortured, to confess and then have their skulls battered from behind until they died. The rule was not to waste precious bullets on their victims.

The next building was more harrowing. The prison officials photographed every one they arrested, sitting them on stools that had a head brace behind them. This was to ensure their eyes were on the same level as the camera lens. You could see the fear and sorrow very clearly. Wives of prisoners, their children, relatives, co-workers, town mates, even casual friends, on the possibility that they too were infected with treasonous thoughts were taken in, photographed and eventually killed.

There were countless photographs on display one for each of the twenty thousand prisoners. All of them would later be brought to a site 15 kilometers out of Phnom Penh and systematically killed. They would call the site The Killing Fields.

My heart ached with every photograph. As a photography collector and curator of photo exhibits, I have been trained to seek images that were compelling, that needn’t explanations, that were hauntingly beautiful and mostly optimistic. But in this endless wall of photographs, it was so difficult to rest my eyes too long on any one image. They seemed like passport photographs, the sitters on a journey to their deaths

It was the images of children that made me slightly faint. Innocent beings caught in the web of a revengeful ideology, their faces conveyed queries and uncertainty. One moment they were playing games and the next moment they were in prison with their parents. They couldn’t yet fathom their impending deaths.

There were class rooms divided up into small cells made of brick or wood. To isolate the prisoners, each cell entrance faced only the wall of the next cell across. No talking was allowed. Those who were lucky had a cell that included a bit of window. At least they saw the sky.

Another room had hundreds of iron shackles that once wrapped around the legs of prisoners. Wall drawings showed examples of torture: hanging prisoners upside down, pushing their heads into excrement, pulling off the nails of prisoners, releasing scorpions on bloodied chests. The cruelty of the torturers knew no bounds.

In the past, the last room had a large wall sized map of Cambodia. Made of the skulls of prisoners. It has since been removed and stored in cabinets.

The tragedy of the Genocide Museum is uncomfortably reminiscent of events that happened in this country in the eighties when local communist party heads murderously squabbled with each other over ideology, loyalties, and turf. The killing fields happened here too and remains and skulls continue to still be uncovered in various parts of the country. The Khmer Rouge in four years, until the Vietnamese invasion of 1979 killed over two million of its people. One can only shudder what the communist party here - instilled then with that same I-Know-What’s-Good-For-You-Maoism - would have done if they had taken over the country.

Many of my generation opposed to American intervention in Indochina placed our hopes on the various revolutionary forces that eventually succeeded. The debauchery committed by the Khmer Rouge after they took over their country, their support from both China and the United States even as the killings were known are sobering lessons to many.

There is no escaping the almost suffocating feeling of tragedy and death in the Genocide Museum. Why visit such a place then? Because in a world replete with avoidance, denial, and escape from any painful subject, the museum is a witness to the implosion of a country and the release of an evil that senselessly killed so many. It is a lesson we see duplicated in many small and large wars that continually rages throughout the world. The greatest number of casualties are always innocent people. Visiting this museum develops a greater resolve to work for peace.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


(This piece was published in the October 9th, 2006 issue of Newsbreak Magazine)

On the surface, it looked like a scholarly get together of 60 museologists from ten Southeast Asian countries holed up in the massive Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh. For four days, Curators, archaeologists, cultural ministers and museum directors pored through documents and reviewed powerpoint presentations of their respective heritage and cultural projects. One of those days was an excursion to nearby temples and museums. After an exhaustive review, the whole group flew to Vientiane, Laos to repeat the same exercise.

“Cultural Mapping” was one of the themes of this workshop sponsored and led by the Paris-based International Council of Museums. In reality, it was to be a strategy planning session for museologists to aggressively position their museums and historical sites in the center of their country’s overall tourism development agendas.

The Asia/Pacific region despite SARS and the recent Tsunami continues to post impressive increase in tourist arrivals in their respective countries. A 30% increase in just one year for Laos. 15 – 20% leaps posted in many other countries. The reason for the boom hasn’t actually been more CNN commercials of “Malaysia Truly Asia” beamed to European and American travelers. It’s wealthy Thais now crossing over to Cambodia, Indonesians invading Singapore, and even Filipinos flying to affordable Bangkok.

It used to be that Southeast Asian tourism advertisements were all hawking sand, sun, and even women. For a long while, the only thing interesting in the Philippines was Boracay. But that sort of marketing has reached saturation point and the more astute tourism boards of the various countries are sniffing at heritage tourism.

Delegates were exchanging along with the usual country flag pins, brochures on heritage trails, folk museums, and colonial architecture. “Cultural Mapping” was actually a group exercise on how to persuade the hundreds of thousands of heritage groupie travelers from bustling Angkor Wat in Siem Reap to sleepy Phnom Penh. The delegates one day boarded buses to drive for several hours outside the city to visit Phnom Chisor temple, a nearby silkweaving village, the Tonli Bate Lake resort and several other temples in the region. One evening, there was a tour of their National Museum. The delegates noted the various cultural offerings that could be potential employment opportunities. The lack of infrastructure hindering the tourist potential of the area was also reviewed. And most importantly, preventive steps were offered in making sure that an increase in tourists would not harm or pollute the already fragile state of many of these temples and sites.

Likewise, the group was posed with the same question on their trip to Laos: How to get the throngs of tourists now invading Unesco Heritage Site Luang Prabang diverted to the even sleepier capital of Vientiane. The delegates again took a day-long bus tour of the Great Sacred Stupa (Pha That Luang), the former royal temple Wat Pha Kaew, the oldest temple Wat Si Saket and a resort site outside of the city. There was also a side-trip to their National Museum.

Both countries’ national museums have significant and very precious holdings in worn heritage buildings. Much of Cambodia’s Khmer art and buddhas from Laos were stolen and wound up in museums in Europe and the United States. There are still some very fine pieces left to appreciate. In Laos security precautions are so tight that their most precious Buddhas are locked behind thick glass and bars that you can hardly see them.

The Thai delegation was serene and authoritative as well they should. They had 14 million visitors last year. Aside from their beach paradise Phuket, Thailand has long known that their temples and heritage sites like Ayuthaya and ancient cities like Chiang Mai have an appeal to high-end tourists that spend a lot more per day. Thanks to a well-loved monarchy, their National Museum and National Archives will expand significantly in honor of the King’s ongoing jubilee celebrations.

Singapore, despite the brickbats and the sneers about having all that money to buy themselves culture, erect museums, and heritage theme districts, is laughing all the way to the bank (2004 tourism receipts was 9.4 billion Singapore dollars). After realizing that colonial architecture does bring in wealthy tourists, Singapore began to take a second look at their old buildings ready for the wrecking ball and proceeded to fix them up with a vengeance. Then they went on a museum building binge and by the end of this year will cap it will their newly renovated and more expansive National Museum.

But the sleeper country has been Malaysia. Last year Malaysia posted 16.43 million visitors (four million of that from Singapore alone). That’s eight times more than the paltry two million yearly visits that the Philippines has been lingering in for the past decade. Malaysia has reached this astounding double-digit figure due to a strong heritage thrust in their marketing efforts. Malaysia has long partnered with their local heritage non-governmental organizations with former senior government officials taking on trusteeships. This collaboration has resulted in keeping significant heritage sites intact, in constructing new museums, and the continued refurbishing of their National Museum. There’s an added secret to Malaysia’s tourism success. Blessed with a population of only 26 million and a low percentage growth rate (2.0%), the country has been able to keep intact and preserve its huge forest reserves, national parks, and pristine seashores. They have eco-tourism, and a genuine one at that.

For those nine days, museum and heritage “heavies” played surrogate parents to up and coming Laos and Cambodia helping them to identify the roadblocks to increased tourism traffic. Many of the recommendations were actually pertinent to many of our own countries. They include: Increased government funding for museums and heritage sites, infrastructure in place to reach outlying provinces with heritage tourism potential, preserve colonial, temple, and indigenous architecture, develop arts and crafts of higher quality, and promote arts and cultural festivals throughout the whole year.

The last two recommendations have been adroitly mastered by Thai tourism officials. This year, they decided they will look more closely at tourist revenues rather than tourist arrivals. If they can increase the former significantly, then there is no mad rush to pump tourist arrivals. So the pressure is on to produce and sell more expensive crafts, souvenir items, and have fancier festivals in the hopes of bringing richer tourists to their country. For heritage groups, this is also welcome news since a moderate amount of tourists won’t create too much harm with fragile monuments and sites.

There was a large presence of Vietnamese delegates quite articulate in promoting heritage tourism. They have already exceeded the Philippines in foreign tourist arrivals (3 million last year) and they plan to reach 18 million next year? Huh? Well, the Vietnamese have had a unique plan to boost local tourism and they have been counting the over ten million locals who have been visiting monuments, museums, and heritage sites throughout their country. The Ho Chi Minh house museum in Hanoi never ceases to have long lines each day. And they have some enviable eco-tourist sights like Ha Long Bay as well. The Vietnamese not only push ancient heritage sites like Hue but they are gung ho at making sure their countrymen visit monuments and sites that chronicle their recent victories such as defeating the United States in 1975. At their National Museum in Hanoi, I was told by its curator that even at the height of American bombing in the early seventies, the museum was never closed to the public.

Our Southeast Asian counterparts imparted a lot of lessons to the Philippine delegation. It was obvious that heritage and museums sells and their tourist figures show it. In the Philippines, our over 200 museums, including the National Museum could use more government support for maintenance, renovation and exhibition programs. The most recent announcement by Tourism Secretary Joseph Durano to push malls as tourism sites might be revisited. From our conversations with Thai and Singaporean delegates, they acknowledge that their own malls have brought in tourists. But, they know wisely that heritage tourism is what draws high-end spenders. Balikbayans are welcome. But rich and heritage fancier Koreans, Japanese, Singaporeans, Chinese, and Thais should be vigorously welcomed as well.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


By John L. Silva

In the past, anti-billboard advocates had little ammunition except aesthetics and moral suasion in appealing to billboard companies over the proliferation of these structures. The first spate of fallen billboards the past year did not faze the billboard companies whose pithy response was an empty promise to regulate their ranks. Just recently, in talking to representatives of United Neon over removing their billboard in the University Belt, citing aesthetic and safety considerations, they listened but instead griped over the mushrooming of fly-by-night billboard companies.

If the current public anger over the billboards are to have an effect, let’s get down to brass tacks. First, the billboard companies do not exist nor multiply on their own. Filipino and multinational companies pay for, support, and abet billboards as a cheap advertising alternative. That’s the first mistake. Marketing studies repeatedly show that when you have unregulated billboard clutter, the message is diluted. Cellphones, fast food, real estate and adult diaper billboards side by side and on top of each other no longer have an effect except to be randomly chaotic and ugly.

To motorists (aka consumers), research findings on billboards reveal they raise blood pressure levels, distract and create accidents, and now, can topple and kill us. Instead of selling their wares, companies are now complicit in physically harming their market.

Companies know that billboards deflate real estate prices and discourage tourism, two industries that sorely needs a shot in the arm. It’s hard calling the country a retiree/vacation paradise with the current billboard blight.

Certificates of compliance are issued with regularity to billboard companies by various city governments. Billboard companies have gotten away with stating that their structures can withstand winds of 200 kph. But billboard insiders also admit that unscrupulous sub-contractors can scrimp on building materials and erect structures whose wind resistance claim can’t be relied on. Typhoon Milenyo’s deadly winds by the time it got to Manila was reported between 110-140 kph.

If the Mayors of the cities are now decrying billboards the income they get from it can mollify their resolve. In Manila, you can get a certificate of compliance for a large billboard for a fee of 80,000 pesos. Count the billboards and multiply the fee and their howling may just be that.

When the media reports how traffic was snarled for hours due to fallen billboards, it misleads people to think it’s all a motorist inconvenience. Meralco representatives have stated that aside from downed trees, fallen billboards have destroyed powerlines and caused blackouts. Trees are relatively short and you can saw them easily. A fallen billboard, four stories high can down large transformers that have to be blowtorched to extricate them prolonging the power outages Manila residents have experienced. Every day without power translates into billions of pesos lost in commerce, airport and transportation disruptions, business shutdown, schools and universities closed, and vital centers like hospitals and military camps jeopardized. A fallen billboard is not just a nuisance. It is a national economic calamity.

It seems a puzzle why the media does not identify the billboard companies whose billboards have fallen, nor do they state what company was actually advertising on those billboards. The public has the right to know who’s responsible, just like the public knew who was responsible for the Guimaras oil spill. And now, with deaths involved, the public, particularly the aggrieved, should know who are criminally liable.

A reminder about Corporate Social Responsibility much bruited about these days. When Typhoon Milenyo blew a massive billboard on two vehicles at the corner of MIA Road and Roxas Boulevard, the owners were not around to secure their fallen property, nor took care of the injured, and the police were nowhere to be seen. In less than an hour, hundreds of scavengers from the nearby squatter’s area swarmed all over the fallen wreck sawing it to pieces for scrap resale. This scene of wholesale looting happened for the next two days and witnessed by millions of commuters traversing Roxas Boulevard. The values imparted was that a company was negligent and couldn’t care less about people’s lives and that looting was alright to do. Yes, there’s poverty and poor people will do everything in desperation. But corporations, in their unbridled use of billboards must take responsibility for the spawning of lumpen values diametrical to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s pending bill in the Senate, entitled Anti-Billboard Blight Act (S.B.1714) has greater hope for its passage given recent events. If approved, the bill will, among other things, severely limit the number of billboards, will not exceed 300 sq feet in size, will not be allowed in areas that will impair scenic vistas or jeopardize traffic signs, and will not be erected within 1,000 feet of a historic site, school, church, or park. In other words, a much needed and very welcome law for our country.

It took one major typhoon, a needless death and scores injured to shake public consciousness and condemn billboards. It may have been caused by nature’s wrath but corporate rapaciousness wasn’t too far behind.

John L. Silva is the Senior Consultant for the National Museum of the Philippines and is a member of the Heritage Conservation Society.