Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Quickie Tour of Our National Museum

(December 6, 2009 Lifestyle Sunday Section, Philippine Daily Inquirer)

People who visit the National Museum want to see all of it. Well, if they did, it would take a week. With a collection dating 20,000 years back and close to a million artifacts, the museum’s collection is overwhelming. Here’s the edited, highlighted version for visitors to the Museum with particular interests and time constraints.

First thing to know is the National Museum in Manila has two buildings. One is called the Museum of the Filipino People (formerly the Finance Building), located on Rizal Park; the other across the street is The National Gallery of Art (formerly the Legislative Building) on Padre Burgos. You can Google a map to the two buildings so you won’t get lost.

If you are an architecture buff, the two American colonial era buildings will astound you. Built in 1916, the enormous five-storey Legislative Building is suffused with Athenian architectural details, like the pediments and the Corinthian columns. The classic Parthenon comes to mind, not by coincidence but as an American branding statement that their country was founded on democratic ideals.

The Finance Building across the street, built in 1939, retains the same details and majesty. Both buildings were destroyed by mortar fire during the liberation of Manila and rebuilt exactly as they once were after World War II. To traipse through the two buildings, admiring it from the outside and reviewing the preserved details inside, with the sensual staircases and the exquisite grillwork would take an hour. More so if you took in the wonderful Rizal Park fronting the Finance Building, designed by the American architect Daniel Burnham to look like a mini-version of the Washington Smithsonian mall. This area is the last remaining example of American city planning in the city.

We are just at the frosting of this museum because inside there is a dizzying choice of galleries.

Are you a nautical fan? A colonial history buff? After entering the Museum of the Filipino People, head straight to the second floor (elevator or stairways). The 16th century galleon San Diego, recovered off Manila Bay in the ‘90’s, is a wondrous return to the history of adventure and daring by intrepid Spanish and Filipino crew who crossed the Pacific Ocean, taking up to five months to get to the Americas. In their hold were the spices (worth as much as gold) silks, porcelain, ivory saints, handcrafted altars and eastern treasures that dazzled the imagination. In return, the Philippines, and eventually all of Asia would be introduced to America’s indigenous plants, vegetables, and the much vaunted silver.

There’s the ship’s navigational instruments including an astrolabe, the envy of nautical museums around the world. Theirs are usually replicas. Ours is the original. If you happen to catch one of my tours, there’s a marvelous story about the ship’s captain, Antonio Morga who would later write a comprehensive history of the islands and, 300 years later, was reviewed and annotated by Jose Rizal. What an incredible meeting of the minds, through centuries, with Rizal showing off his mettle as an ethnologist!

If you’re into porcelain, be prepared to be awed by the massive collection of Ming jars, jarlets, and plates recovered from the San Diego at depths of 160 feet still gleaming, still enrapturing those passionate for this dynasty’s treasures. And in a nearby room on the same second floor, the Museum shows off the most incredible selection of Chinese junk artifacts recovered from the Palawan seas. Jars from Siam, Cambodia, and Vietnam, plates and jarlets from China all are mouth-watering to behold.

If you are a budding archeologist or fascinated by cultural artifacts, the third floor alone with three galleries will suffice anyone’s curiosity for the very best in ethnographic material. Shell necklaces, thousands of years old, burial jars, century old handcrafted household items, wooden deities, elaborate textile, brassware and so much more helps one reconstruct the days of yore and the refined lives of our ancestors. A must see of course is the Manunggul jar, the serene burial jar with two spirits on a boat headed for a journey in the afterlife. To ponder the jar is to be transported back to a life that revered our departed ancestors.

Like the labyrinthian Louvre Museum in Paris, where a sizeable number of visitors each year visit just to see the Mona Lisa, the must-not-miss equivalent here is the Spoliarium by Juan Luna. Ensconced on the ground floor of the National Gallery of Art, this looming canvas stretched throughout one big wall is Luna’s opus. Dying gladiators are being dragged into a dungeon while Romans to the side continue to gaze in the stadium at another bloodletting spectacle. A disconsolate woman crouched on the ground, her back to us, expresses deep grief. There is allegory in this painting; Luna sees the lifeless gladiators as Filipinos and the Romans as the Spaniards. The painting inspired the likes of Jose Rizal which led to the making of our nation!

The tall painting by Luna’s contemporary and best friend, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, across the room, facing the Spoliarium cannot be overlooked as well. The Assassination of Governor Bustamante By The Friars, depicting the stabbing of the Governor by ruthless priests is a somber reminder of past colonial excesses and why revolution was inevitable.

Want a feel of the Museum’s 3,000 paintings and sculptures? Head to the third floor where three galleries devoted to paintings and sculpture by National Artists, from Fernando Amorsolo to Bencab and a wonderful array of master and contemporary paintings by Fabian de la Rosa, Dominador Castaneda, Diosdado Lorenzo, and many more reside. All given pride of place in the pantheon of Philippine painters. If you are attentive enough, you’ll come face to face with a small Jose Rizal sculpture called Mother’s Revenge.

There’s always temporary exhibits solely worth going. Currently at the Museum of the Filipino People, (fourth floor) there a fabulous retrospective of couturier Salvacion Lim Higgins’ dresses and gowns she created from the 50’s to the ‘80’s.

Each of these “bite-sized” sections of the National Museum can be done under an hour and is enough to satisfy a visitor. After all, museum visits shouldn’t be done once as is often the case in this country. A museum should be a fountain of culture and the arts we all regularly drink from and refresh in.

John L. Silva is Senior Consultant to the National Museum. He regularly leads more extensive tours of the National Museum. Check his blogsite for more information or e-mail him at for tour schedules.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Couturier Way Ahead of Her Time. Salvacion Lim Higgins (Slim)

This Slim retrospective of her work from the forties to the nineties must not be missed. Fab gowns, fab layout. Now at the National Museum till March 2010.

For our staff Christmas party, we are designating several of our maintenance people to get both financial and material support whose houses were totally wiped out in the last flood. If you have found the National Museum to be impeccably clean and giving us pride, it is through their efforts. In fact during the flood many of them were trapped and had to sleep in the Museum while they lost everything. I am designating a portion of Dec and January tours, usually for teaching public school teachers, to be given to these victims.

Pass on this announcement to your list and I know they will be enthralled with the Slim exhibition. Balikbayans? Send them over.

See a fabulous exhibit, and help our staff in turn.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Learn to be an Internet Savvy Advocacy Writer

Workshop coming up!

The best thing that’s happened for media activists these days is the appearance of social networks, blogs, and websites where we can plug our causes and make our points to the public without relying on traditional media.

A call to help typhoon victims immediately. An editiorial opinion from your blog to lambast political shenanigans. A website report to show the positive effects of your organization’s work which could lead to funding. An e-mail blast that can gain constituents throughout the world. The internet has made our freedom of expression so much more powerful and global.

Are we using these mediums to its maximum advantage?

Long time advocacy writer and fundraiser John L. Silva will hold a day-long workshop to teach you how to harness these new medium forms and create advocacy pieces that have impact. Through e mails and blogs, John has managed to curb corporate abuses, expose government malfeasance, and make our country a better place to live.

Still, the basics of good writing cannot be overlooked. You will learn to write good persuasive copy, through learning the basics of researching your subject, forming cohesive and powerful arguments, and creating an orderly and well written piece.

Because of the Twitter phenomenon, John will teach you how to write with brevity and succinctness in mind. Lengthy and turgid prose will be dispensed with. Development and academic language will be disposed. You will learn to write for the public in order to gain constituents and financial support.

This new writing skill, wedded to the new technology that you will learn, will give your advocacy work more significance and more results than ever before.

Workshop Schedule: Wednesday, December 9, 2009.

9:30 AM - at 4:30 PM.

Ortigas Library, Ortigas Building

Corner Meralco and Ortigas Avenue

Ortigas Center, Pasig City

The workshop includes a CD containing supplemental study material. Workshop fee is PhP 3,500 per person. Lunch is on your own. Bring your laptops and a sweater since the Library tends to get cold

Reservations necessary. Text/call 0926 729 9029 or 0917 419 5928 or e-mail

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The National Museum is a photographer's delight. Various artifacts get attention, but increasingly the interior and exterior of our buildings amaze people. Andy de los Reyes got the sensuality of our staircases in the former legislative building now the National Gallery of Art. You must come if only to be awed by the details of this 1916 colonial-era building. I have many tours for the rest of November and December. A great Christmas gift to visiting Balikbayans and loved ones returning home for the holidays. Click on the photo to enlarge and see my tour dates. See you at the Museum!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I had heard one of my guests talk about how the National Museum was the setting for a date. She was quite impressed with the guy and eventually married him. People go to bars or parties to meet people. Well, there's also the National Museum.

I've seen it all in the course of guiding. Stolen glances. Silly remarks to start a conversation. There's actually a lot of sexual tension in a museum tour. I find it all amusing and can tolerate it for so long as the guests still give me their attention.

Many of my guests are actually quite endearing. In their attempts to seeking their roots and being awestruck with our collection, they become vulnerable. They bare their selves and become open to an encounter.

But if nothing happens, at least you'd have learned how great we are as a people.

Monday, October 05, 2009


"After 2 workshops, I finally figured out how to personalize my emails to friends and donors. I did one on what happened to our staff and kids during the typhoon with a specific appeal for them to send money. I'd done such an appeal describing what we want to do before but for the first time, some people actually sent money. They said they were touched by the story I wrote."

Olie Lucas
Unang Hakbang Foundation

October 4, 2009

Dear friends,

I am offering one Advocacy Writing Workshop (Thursday, October 29) and two Grant Writing Workshops (Saturday, October 31 and Thursday, November 5, 2009). Given recent events, I will include in these workshops writing tips to accentuate emergency relief work and needs to get financial support and news coverage.

Advocacy Writing

Advocacy Writing like submitting editorials and letters-to-the-editor, writing and publishing articles and blogs and participating in a variety of forums are an essential component to organizations or corporations that have a cause to present to the public or a corporate social responsibility (CSR) feature to highlight. Your cause is widened, gains members and helps in providing solutions to eradicate the problem. Many funders these days are interested in supporting organizations and organizations that have a strong advocacy component.

I will help you learn to research and gather your writing points, develop a coherent and powerful article that persuades the general public and gather both moral and financial support. An example of my own advocacy writing can be found on my blog:

My written advocacy pieces have helped in stopping the destruction of heritage buildings, eliminated the posting of corporate banners on trees, removed illegal structures on historical sites, increased literacy rates among public school teachers and students, promoted the arts, championed gay and lesbian rights, and preserved freedom of expression. Many of these pieces appear on my blog as well.

Grant Writing

With over 30 years of grant writing experience, fundraising work and giving grants, I have taught thousands of non-profit organizations how to write a succinct, readable and winning grant proposal.

Many international funders don’t understand the proposals sent from Philippine organizations. They are often criticized for being too “wordy,” “vague,” full of academic and development jargon, and imploring in tone rather than partner-oriented.

International funders increasingly insist that proposals be brief, exact and easy-to-read. They want to read proposals that are not stop-gap measures but contribute to solving or eradicating a problem. They want measurable outcomes rather than hopeful prognostications.

My work in international funding organizations has given me the ability to recognize and discern exactly what these funders want and I will share them with you.

For the grant writing class, you will learn the how-to’s in seeking funding, the research phase, the query letter, the important segments of a proposal and the salient points of a winning proposal.

In all my classes I share the art of writing a persuasive narrative, one most likely to be read and seriously considered. Compelling, gripping accounts about your organization’s work in story telling mode secure grants and garner public support these days.

Advocacy Writing Workshop

October 29, 2009

9:30 AM – 5:00 PM

PhP 3,500 pesos

Grant Writing Workshop

October 31, 2009

9:30 AM – 5 PM

PhP 3,500 pesos

Grant Writing Workshop

November 5, 2009

9:30 AM – 5:00 PM

PhP 3,500 pesos

Reservations necessary. Text/call 0926 729 9029 or 0917 419 5928 or e-mail

All workshops include a CD containing supplemental study material. A non-refundable fee of PhP 2,000 pesos will be applied towards your reservation.

All workshops are held at the Ortigas Library, Ortigas Building located at the corner of Meralco and Ortigas Avenue, Ortigas Center, Pasig City.

John L. Silva, who conducts all the workshops has had 30 years of fundraising experience having worked for Oxfam America, the American Cancer Society and Greenpeace. He is a co-founder and former trustee of Venture for Fundraising, an NGO teaching fundraising to other non-profits locally and throughout Asia. He is fundraising adviser and trustee to various organizations such as Ballet Philippines, Hands On Manila, Synergeia, the National Museum and Mangyan Heritage Society. He has lectured and taught fundraising courses in the Netherlands, India, and Malaysia to international NGO's. He is a published author and has written for various publications here and abroad. Read him at:

Thursday, September 17, 2009


By John L. Silva

(Imelda in front of the Cultural Center with drag queens in the background. Photo by Steve Tirona, Silver Lens Gallery Manila)

The recent Cultural Center of the Philippines’ costly extravaganza entitled Seven Arts, One Imelda, honoring former first lady Imelda Marcos’ founding of the Cultural Center was offensive and insensitive. It exacerbated the already wide division between the poor and the rich in this country.

Mrs. Marcos arrived in her signature terno with a bib of rubies and diamonds draped around her neck. She sat enthroned with her fawning sycophants through a variety of acts performed by artists she had sponsored in the past.

Since the evening’s program solely emphasized Mrs. Marcos’ role in arts patronage, the center’s fortieth birthday was quickly forgotten, and the artists’ performances eclipsed. Instead, Mrs. Marcos was given carte blanche, allowed to display ostentation as she is wont to do, which if memory serves us right, was an important factor in the overthrow of the Marcos government in 1986.

When the Cultural Center was inaugurated in 1969, there was criticism for its expensive construction, for cost overruns and kickbacks. It became a hated symbol of wasteful, conspicuous spending. Despite declarations then by Mrs. Marcos that the center would highlight the best of Filipino arts and culture, it was known more for hosting foreign performers with accompanying lavish celebrations that further rankled the general public. The center became a private auditorium for Mrs. Marcos, for catered affairs when necessary and its cultural fare dictated by whim rather than sobriety.

After the discredited Marcos regime was expelled, through time and more sensible management, the Cultural Center was exorcised and morphed into an accessible and well loved venue for all social classes. It started presenting more locally based productions and thoughtful performances. Shorn of its elitist stigma, the building’s architecture has even been given a second look and is now recognized as one of our finest cultural edifices.

It is appalling now to see a return of the obscene glitter and bling that was thought to have been dispensed with in the 1986 People Power revolution. In the not so distant past, overthrown despots faced the guillotine or firing squad. In more recent times, exile was preferred, and in the case of a magnanimous Philippines, there is the option of returning. But certain codes of conduct, unfortunately not spelled out, nonetheless do apply. That is, the returning vanquished party should have the decency to change their old ways, the ones that got them into trouble in the first place. Like flaunting their jewels and ill gotten wealth.

While the various court cases against Mrs. Marcos have yet to be resolved, many Filipinos have given the former first lady a wide berth due to the way she has lived and conducted her life. Cultural workers such as myself, have on occasion begrudgingly given her respect due to her having been a cultural proponent in the country, despite the controversy surrounding her political reign.

But when Mrs. Marcos wraps herself in jewels and struts her stuff, shoes and all, again, oblivious to a world that has roundly condemned her opprobrious behavior, she empties any remaining reservoir of civility and the abeyance of guilt that the patient Filipino people have afforded her. Her actions revive the memory of the reviled symbol the Cultural Center once was. We are indignant again by Mrs. Marcos who mocks the required social etiquette of living in a poor country.

The major initial funds of $3.5 million for the building of the Cultural Center were given by the United States, in effect, by American taxpayers. Subsequent donations came from Filipino taxpayers, along with donations from wealthy people in a Marcos fundraising practice that was once described by the opposition as “sophisticated extortion.” This tribute to Imelda program, with it’s invitation-only audience and the marked absence of the American ambassador, managed to overlook and not thank the real financial backers of the Cultural Center.

When it was built, the Cultural Center was criticized for its costly price tag. The Marcos loyalists then derided the criticism saying that a center for the arts shouldn’t take a low priority just because there were many more pressing needs. The masses, the argument went, shouldn’t be deprived of art, aesthetics and beauty. I for one would support that argument, if not for the fact that it is now 40 years later and the country is still poor. My tenuous support for the Cultural Center continues so long as people like Imelda Marcos aren’t invited by no less than its trustees to parade their vulgar jewels in people’s faces, particularly poor people. Such behavior has all the semblance of a Marie Antoinette-Let-Them-Eat-Cake attitude and ruins all chances for the country to unite and progress together.

For some of us, we’ve chalked up Mrs. Marcos’ behavior as silly antics, a sort of campy diversion, good for a few laughs and some eye-rolling. But it’s many years later, the humor has gotten quite stale and poverty still besets our country. There are many more Filipinos, in this even harder times, who see this needless pageantry and seethe in insult and collective anger. This sort of spectacle earns editorial ridicule here and abroad, plummets our national ratings in transparency and governance surveys which in turn drives away foreign investors and becomes a rallying point for the aggrieved in NPA and Al-Qaeda lairs. As a bastion for the best of our country’s culture and arts and a magnet for much needed tourism dollars, the Cultural Center has now done a great disservice to itself and to the country.

I take the Cultural Center to task for having foisted a shameful evening at the expense of the Filipino people. As recompense I would like to see a series of performances and exhibitions that were banned during the Marcos Regime. Let the public see what could not be seen nor heard nor read during Mrs. Marcos’ former cultural renaissance. Let the gala opening be dedicated not to one person but to the many who disappeared, were tortured or summarily killed during the Marcos regime. And then let the public decide which type of culture and the arts should receive accolade and support.

Let this anniversary and that kind of repugnant evening be the last of such shenanigans. Will profligacy and debasing our people be the sport for tomorrow or shall we renew the basic standards of decency and egalitarian virtues which a previous revolution had bestowed, albeit fleetingly, on our benighted country?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Adding A Cory Dimension to My National Museum Tour

In a world of short memories, I wanted the life and example of President Corazon Aquino to linger a bit longer. In my regular National Museum tour, I’ve added insights to artifacts and aspects in the museum that explains the values imbibed by the woman we call Cory. The Museum’s American colonial architecture, embodying democratic details from ancient Greece, reveal Cory’s own democratic ideals. Our pre-historic burial jars, beautifully made, prove our long tradition of revering and remembering our ancestors, a steadfast Cory trait. Our ecclesiastical artifacts from wooden altars to devotional saints are keys to Cory’s bedrock faith. Our paintings and sculpture much depicting the suffering and travails of our countrymen are evidence of Cory’s empathy for the poor.

For a limited time, my tour shows Cory’s values originating and intertwined with the best of Filipino artifacts and works of art found in the National Museum. In her last interview, when asked what she thanked God the most for, she replied unhesitatingly, “I thank God for having made me a Filipino.” Come on my National Museum tour and you’ll see what Cory meant.

Young people are especially invited.

Tour Schedules: Aug 26, 29, Sept 2, 5, 9, 12, 16, 19, 23, 26, 30, 2009
Adults: 800 pesos. Young people (18 years) 500 pesos. Group discounts available.

Reservations necessary. Call/text 0926 729 9029, 0917 419 5928 or

Tours begin promptly at 10:00 AM at the rear entrance of the Museum of the Filipino People (formerly Finance Building), Rizal Park, Manila.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


A full length movie entry in the 2009 Cinemalaya Festival
By John L. Silva

Story line: The separate lives of four young men, trying to make do in a tough city. Unbeknownst to one another, the events they go through intertwine with each others’ lives. There’s the bad tempered Salesman hawking false certificates on Recto, (the Manila street known for getting diplomas, certificates, anything fake). There’s hunky Seaman trying to sell property he inherited but located in a bad neighborhood. Then there’s Mr. Straight Laced who’s become padre de familia (the OFW father killed someone in the Middle East, and is in jail) and must make sure his younger sister in college is studying right. And there’s Twinks, who gets a girl pregnant presumably out of love but now has to hawk everything on the street, from stolen toiletries to his cute bod to make sure there’s enough for upcoming hospital bills.

The Salesman, when he’s not humping his fat sugar mommy is constantly on the prowl and, one day, seduces a nice virgin college girl who turns out to be the sister of Mr. Straight Laced, and, when he finds out about it, beats up the Salesman.

Meanwhile, Twinks is desperate, as girlfriend is about to give birth and he’s scrounging around for the last 600 pesos to pay the hospital. He’ll do anything so when he goes with friends to a moviehouse where gay men have sex with callboys, he declares he’ll allow being blown but draws the line on going down on them. He returns later to the movie house and hits up a Fat Old Gay Guy. The Gay Guy demands that Twinks go down on him and there is this long excruciating scene with Twinks looking fairly forlorn as he slowly nuzzles into the Gay Guy’s crotch. The scene is quite graphic but mouth and crotch are so out of kilter that it looks like Twinks is slurping on the Guy’s kneecaps.

The next scene is Twinks holding his newborn baby, hospital bill paid, but alas, he sheds a tear, painfully recalling the sacrifices he’s undergone, including tainting his virgin mouth.

Hunky Seaman on the other hand is trying to sell his condemned property with the most hokiest of lines for each prospect until an older man shows up expressing interest on both property and Seaman’s bod. Seaman accepts the negotiated sale price knowing fully well there’s a sexual string attached. As he’s being ravaged, there’s a close up of Seaman’s face writhing, revealing ecstasy and Catholic guilt. So the next scene, predictably, is him in the shower, soaping himself vigorously, especially his ‘molested’ privates, to remove any trace of male saliva that impugned his manhood.

And to make the point very very clear that he’s very very straight, the fool right after picks up a whore on the street. The bed scene shows him at his macho animal best, lunging at the whore, throwing her in bed, slurping on her tits, and as he’s about to go down on her, the whore’s pimp barges into the room with a gun, knocks the Seaman, and flees with whore and the bag full of money from the sale.

In the tradition of high Filipino drama, we can predict the story’s ending won’t be peaches and cream. There’s an array of woebegone conclusions: Aside from bruised knuckles and swollen fight faces, one character gets VD, passes it on to another who then swallows a whole bottle of pills, while yet another loses his marbles wandering the city naked except for his divine black hip briefs. There’s also minor tragedies like having electricity cut off in a house because they didn’t pay the bills and the indignity of having to get a job in McDonald’s because OFW daddy can’t send money home no more.

I give Astig high marks for the original and rappish musical score, fine acting by all (playing gritty roles is quite a challenge), good photography, and just the right street wardrobe.

The script unfortunately sucks. Two of the straight male characters wind up being exploited and abused by older gay men. Did you see the gay men put guns to their heads so they can get head? Twinks, like many stupid straight men, gets his girlfriend pregnant and has to suck a man for pay. Poor thing. I’m suppose to empathize with his irresponsibility? And what happened to equal sucking rights? If he earlier declares he’ll be OK being sucked, then what’s the problem with sucking instead?

As for hunky Seaman, a note of caution for those who follow in his stead. If you strut around with a tight t-shirt shamelessly showing off pecs and chest, then you are fair game to everyone, including lustful gay men. If you’re buff and show it then expect a proposition. And, if you accept the proposition, then please quit the guilty pained look while being serviced. You’re suppose to enjoy it.

In a bizarre reversal the straight men come off as victims of detestable gay predators! Yes, there are vile gays in this world and a scriptwriter has the absolute right to portray them. But if you make traditionally oppressed gays as predators then the basis for such portrayal has to be believable. Well, the straight men in this movie with their good looks could have had any woman to sleep with and be bankrolled. I’d actually respect a straight man who can’t bear the thought of blowing another guy and instead goes out and digs ditches. But that wouldn’t be a juicy depraved story so let’s dump on the baklas.

When there was some haggling between Twinks and Old Fat Gay Guy over the price of a blowjob, the Gay Guy actually knew Twinks’ hospital bill of 600 pesos. So Gay Guy, after some grousing, magnanimously agrees. At this point, you’d think Gay Guy should get the Mother Teresa Compassion Award but instead, he’s portrayed as a heartless Fat Old Fag who just wants a blow job.

The movie’s raw, underbelly portrayal of rough city life has its good points. We are made conscious of the daily shit a lot of people go through in a city. It is often uncomfortable but good to squirm in your seat and face all this pageantry of pain and even a little redemption. Like Twinks and girlfriend contemplating leaving the city with baby and starting afresh in the province.

2009 is the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City where gays, lesbians, transsexuals and their sympathizers decided enough of the repression and vilification and changed the whole world’s views and behavior towards us. Stereotyping, ridiculing, and demonizing this sector is passé in many parts of the world. Astig only confirms to me that this country still has a lot of catching up to do.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Woman Who Gave Us Our Rights Back

It was a demonstration against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s declaration of a State of Emergency on February 24, 2006. It felt like Martial Law was coming. She banned any gathering at EDSA shrine, the ground zero of the February 1986 revolution.

I was in the march headed down Ayala Avenue and did not know until I looked back that we were in front of Cory. There was tension in the air; we were told the Army would stop us. There were plainclothes thugs around. A bomb could be thrown at us. But when I realized Cory was behind me, I felt an obligation to protect her and my fears dissipated. I turned around and took this picture. She looked confident and determined. Later at the rally, she would gracefully but firmly make an appeal to President Arroyo. Resign she said.

Along with many others, I would not have been able to come back to the Philippines to renew life here if she had not led the 1986 revolution. I had been on the Wanted list for having publicly opposed the dictatorship.

And now, happily back for many years, I have been able to say whatever I felt was wrong, advocated for whatever I believed in, written whatever grievance I had. Cory’s passing reminds me that it was she who made these basic democratic rights possible after a long absence.

Her death and the retelling of the revolution she led will hopefully be the deterrent against any new revival to curb these rights.

Thank you Cory for letting me come home.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


On the day President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo met with President Barack Obama, I checked the websites of the major US papers for coverage and the possible appearance of my submitted editorial about President Obama giving cultural and education funds to the Philippines rather than more military aid to Mindanao. (Full editorial on the previous post)

There was no coverage of the visit on the day of and day after. Instead, the visit was lost with the more important “Beer Summit” the meeting between Obama and Professor Louis Gates and Cambridge Police Sargeant Crowley.

In Salon, the main story was about a two-headed baby born in the Philippines.

And later an ad would appear for a detective agency who can check out your Filipina chat to make sure she’s legit. They specialize in “…catching cheaters and liars. We don’t like them either.”

Only the White House Website carried a 13 minute press conference video of the two presidents sitting side by side and making remarks. Obama said the same things we’ve always heard, that we have been long time allies, that there are 4 million Filipinos in the United States…

Arroyo’s remarks were muted as well and she thanked the President profusely for passing the bill that compensated Filipino veterans who fought for the United States in World War II. If there is anyone to thank, it is the veterans and their band of activists that pressed on the bill’s passage for decades.

Obama entertained two questions from the press. A Filipino reporter asked Arroyo’s personal impressions about Obama. And as a followup question the reporter asked Obama his own impressions of Arroyo as well. The inanity of the questions pushed Obama to crack a joke about how much younger he looked.
A second reporter would ask what the press was to expect with the “Beer Summit.” And that was the end of the visit.

And the war in Mindanao continues.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When The President Comes A-Calling

John L. Silva

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s visit on July 30, 2009 with President Barack Obama comes with the likely request for more military aid in to continue the war against Al Qaeda terrorists in her country. A similar request was made five years ago on the last visit with then President George Bush.

The former American colony hasn’t resolved the decades long conflict in the southern island of Mindanao, home to the country’s Muslim population. The government’s army fight against separatists and the more sinister Abu Sayaf group funded by Al Qaeda, continues despite millions of dollars of American military hardware and up to 600 American military advisers on the island.

Despite the occasional capture of senior Al-Qaeda commanders, Mindanao has paid a heavy price. The war and the spate of bombings (38 so far since January) have killed hundreds of civilians, displaced over 500,000 people, orphaned children, and in resentment, recruited boys as young as ten years old to fight for the Abu Sayaf terrorists. Mosques have been destroyed, school houses turned into refugee centers, and with the conflict, human rights violations have increased.

The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) program has for the past five years poured money (much of it to Mindanao) into lackluster programs like promoting democracy and governance to increasing business opportunities. Its education funding component has fared better.

Muslim public school students have the lowest literacy rates and the highest drop-out rates in the country. Started seven years ago by the Ford Foundation, and expanded later by USAID, public school teachers are given skills to teach English, Science and Math and school textbooks distributed to elementary students. In just three years, and with smarter teachers, illiteracy rates once as high as 80% among first graders in Muslim dominated areas declined sharply to just above 10%. Working through local non-government organizations (NGO’s) in combat zones, the programs are supported by Muslim parents and the staff work unimpeded and without danger.

One thorny aid issue is the long held practice of using American intermediary organizations, usually Washington D.C. based, who successfully bid for large chunks of USAID funding, and then turn around and issue funding guidelines to local NGO’s working in the field. Oftentimes the guidelines have scant regard for local conditions, verging on impossible objectives, like training out-of-school youths and imposing quotas for job placements in a region where there are no jobs to be had except to be a terrorist. These myopic guidelines have more relevance in America’s inner cities and President Obama’s Indonesia childhood and his community organizing experience may encourage him to review the efficacy of distant funding intermediaries and instead award local NGO’s working in the field.

Meanwhile, there is a disturbing trend of imported Muslim fundamentalist culture appearing in Mindanao impeding the gains made. More teachers and women on the street wear borqas, the all black veil and garment with only the eyes seen and imported from the Taliban culture of Afghanistan.

Teachers confide of increased pressure to ban dancing and singing and the visual arts confined only to calligraphy. A hundred years ago, photographs of Mindanao show Muslim women with heads uncovered or lightly veiled and dancing sensually to native gongs.

An increasing number of informal study centers called Madrasahs have sprouted teaching young boys the Qur’an and Islamic values, its course content not reviewed by the government’s department of education. Government textbooks for Muslim-majority public schools are in scant supply in contrast to a $10 million dollar ten-year commitment by the Libya based World Islamic Society Foundation to distribute textbooks in the Philippines.

The Obama Administration’s new policy of diplomacy with the Muslim world, a precursor to dialogue and debate, and its emphasis on education and cultural exchange may be the novel prescription needed in war torn Mindanao.

Instead of the usual knee-jerk reaction in committing more military aid, President Obama could start reviewing with President Arroyo how his approach to the Muslim world can be translated into more non-combative ways to establish peace in the region.

The Philippine government recently incorporated Madrasah education in the public schools and it would benefit from adapting curriculum reforms being done in the United States and implemented in Saudi Arabian textbooks deleting references like jihad, or holy war and walaa wal baraa, the notion that Muslims should be emancipated from “non-Muslims.” By extension, the Obama Administration could meet with other education funders in Mindanao, like Libya and Australia, to ensure the curriculum they sponsor and the textbooks they distribute have the same reformist orientation.

Despite the hubris about American military might as the harbinger of peace and ensuring global security, it is (until the Iraq war) in universal education, cultural creativity, and advancing diversity that has won much of the world to past and present Pax Americana. Establishing a public education system in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century ended a bloody Philippine American War. Transporting 700 American teachers (called the Thomasites after the ship that carried them) to teach the ABC’s to peasant Muslim and Christian children established the foundation for an egalitarian society, and did more to establish peace and amity than the 126,000 American soldiers sent to fight in that war.

Implicit in advancing diversity in the United States was many years of hard non-violent struggle, eschewing dogma and always finding common ground. One resulting outcome, the election of President Obama, resonates deeply with tens of millions of young people throughout the globe who by circumstances are poor, discriminated against, deprived of freedom and opportunity. It resonates as well with young Filipino Muslims today, on the brink of changing their lives for the better or for the nightmare we dread and will regret.

Instead of arms, send books of the widest breadth in subject matter. Send cultural performances and exhibitions that expand notions of aesthetics and exalting the human form. Send Muslim-American clerics who foster inclusive and peaceful interpretations of the Qur’an. Send civil libertarians, peace and gay activists proving tolerance makes a great nation. Send the enormous assemblage of talent that promote cultural excellence and pluralism as the preferred ammunition for this administration and the allure and cachet of Islamic fundamentalism will, in this region, wither on the vine.

John L. Silva is a trustee of Synergeia Foundation, an education reform organization, teaching public school teachers throughout the country including Mindanao.