On the bustling streets in Manila the world moves fast, traffic winds quickly over roads, street vendors push popular food, rivers of people move in mass, currents amongst the infamous traffic jams, all is moving in Manila while the beautiful Pacific ocean shimmers under the sun.
Behind the urban beauty and chaos that shapes each day in Manila lies a major political crisis that shapes contemporary politics in the Philippines. Since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power in 2001, hundreds of progressive political activists have been murdered—most often executed by paramilitary death squads—in a chain of killings pointing to a pattern of politically-driven murder targeting left social movements in the country.
Amnesty International reported that “the attacks, mostly carried out by unidentified men who shoot the victims before escaping on motorcycles, have very rarely led to the arrest, prosecution and punishment of those responsible,” in an extensive report on political killings in the Philippines published in 2006 by Amnesty, continuing later in the document to say that “the common features in the methodology of the attacks, leftist profile of the victims, and an apparent culture of impunity shielding the perpetrators, has led Amnesty International to believe that the killings are not an unconnected series of criminal murders, armed robberies or other unlawful killings. Rather they constitute a pattern of politically targeted extrajudicial executions taking place within the broader context of a continuing counter-insurgency campaign.”
In 2007 I traveled to Manila as political killings were on the rise across the country, to participate in the International Observers Mission (IOM) bringing together progressive election observers from across the world to monitor the 2007 mid-term elections in the Philippines. Elections in the Philippines often spark political violence and killings shaped by criminal political ambitions, patterns that are clearly presenting themselves again surrounding the upcoming 2010 Presidential elections scheduled for May. Last November the Philippines was rocked by the largest killing of journalists in recent history, as thirty journalists lost their lives in the southern province of Mindanao, leading the Philippines to be widely declared as one of the most dangerous countries for the media by organizations such as Reporters Without Borders.
“On movements in Manila” my photo exhibition on the Philippines showing throughout February in Montreal at the Middle Eastern cafe Kaza Maza, collects moments captured in Manila while participating in the grassroots election observation mission in the Philippines. As photographs the focus is on Manila’s urban landscape, one widely shaped not by the cold glass surfaces common in western cities but by human hands, a grassroots and humane city in the most basic sense. It was grassroots social movements across Manila that made my photo exhibition possible, hosting me for informal talks and discussions in popular areas in the capital where political killings and violence against progressive movements in the country such as Bayan are often a horrifying reality.
Celebrated Montreal poet Kaie Kellough commented recently about my exhibition “On movements in Manila” writing that “the photos are both timely and timeless. They document the realities of life in Manila as the country heads toward elections. Simultaneously, the photos extend beyond the present moment, and beyond documentation,” writes Kellough, “They invite us to ask: How will the elections change what the camera’s lens has framed, what its shutter has fixed? Precisely because these photos prompt that question, they involve us. We wonder if the people who scavenge for their subsistence among smoldering rubbish-piles, if the smiling but smudge-faced children, if the shanty-towns that extend along the waterfront will continue to exist in their present state. We shake our heads at this fragility, and we too are shaken.”
In these two images from my current exhibition, first we see a young girl who lives in Smoky Mountain, a urban poor community in Manila, who is intensely impoverished and struggling to survive amongst garbage and rubble. Second we see the housing in Smoky Mountain, a community literally built within a landfill, which I spent time in during my travels in Manila. The house featured in the photo is the family home of the girl featured in the first photo.
In the most extreme circumstances it was the grassroots organizing for justice and dignity which was most overwhelming in the Philippines, worlds beyond the contemporary political reality of progressive political networks in Canada. Given the strength of social movements in the Philippines what is clear is that today grassroots activists across the Philippines need our solidarity as they struggle against political violence and incredible odds.