Saturday, April 28, 2007


Here are two recent headlines from the two major Filipino newspapers, the type of headlines that would never, ever be seen in Canada:

"Limbo does not exist"

"Campaign death toll hits 22"

The first headline refers to a statement released by the Vatican that the higher-ups in the Catholic hierarchy have decided, after much internal deliberation, that there is no 'limbo', no place where the dead souls of children not yet baptized go to rest for all eternity. This was front page, above-the-fold, bold-black news here in the Philippines.

The second headline details the deaths of twenty-two officials running for public office during this hectic, maddening election season in the Philippines. That's right -- public officials, and the unfortunate bystanders caught in the way -- are routinely killed during election season. Shot. Stabbed. Bludgeoned. Blown up. Boom. Democracy at work. Pass the cheque.

Why would these headlines not be seen back home?

Religion and politics at work, essentially.

Canada is a religious country, yes. Well, not really. Perhaps. There are many Christians, many Muslims, many Jews, but we don't wear our faiths on our sleeves, and we certainly don't splash it on the front page of our daily newspapers. We keep it private, for the most part. Most Canadians couldn't tell you the particular faith of their elected leaders, and most Canadians couldn't particularly care, either.

Here, they do care, because almost everybody is a Christian, and most of those Christians are Catholic. (Not everybody, I guess. There is a substantial Muslim minority, mostly in the southern islands of the Philippines, and a small minority of that minority are the terrorists who are blowing things up left and right and trying to establish their own, separate country -- much like the Muslims in the southernmost part of Thailand. The Muslims here in Baguio are usually the merchants, staking out their corners on Session Road, selling the used clothes, jewelry, and assorted, bewildering knicknacks. Their children are also, usually, the beggar children.) In this Catholic country, if you are not religious, well, you're strange. Weird. A little odd. Everybody assumes you are, so they don't even ask. It's common for taxi drivers and teachers and the average folk to end a conversation saying 'god bless'. Almost every taxi, for that matter (and jeepney, too -- the half-bus, half jeep that serves as cheap public transport) is adorned with tiny crosses, miniature Jesuses, plastic replications of Mother Mary. E-mails end with 'God be with you'. Such an overt display of religiosity struck me, initially, as somewhat unsettling. Now I see it for what it is: the natural display of their innermost beliefs. Even now, as I type these words, the music here at the Internet cafe alternates between hard-core rap and Christian pop. There's no contradiction.

Which is why newspapers can get away with -- and, indeed, must-- proclaim major changes to the Christian doctrine up-front and big as life. When last year's film of Dan Brown's novel The DaVinci Code was released here, you would not, fucking, believe the controversy it caused. Its' rating as R-13 was front page news in all the papers. You would have thought Jesus himself was coming back to diss the flick. But so it goes. Religion is life here, and they treat it as seriously as life.

However, this is the Philippines, which means that it's poor, and massively overpopulated, a land where both divorce and abortion are illegal, and a country that was recently voted by foreign businessmen as the most corrupt in all of Asia, which means, ipso fact, that politics is a dirty, dirty business. I mean, shit, they have, on tape, the current president, Gloria Arroyo, fixing the last freakin' election, telling the chief election officer to make sure that she wins by at least a million votes. Due to the legality of the conversation's recording, however, not much can be done.

It starts from the top, and the sleaze slithers down. If I've learned anything from living first in Cambodia and now living here, it's that in poor countries politics is where the money is. Period. End of sentence. Full stop. Practically the only way to make any money is to become a politician, and once you are there, you want to stay there, forever and forever, the power and the glory, amen. President Arroyo was adamant about changing the presidency into a parliament system this year. Why? A president can serve only one five-year term; a prime minister can serve indefinitely. Big shock, her wanting a change.

So if you run for office here, you are upsetting the elite, the incumbents, and when you upset the incumbents, you could get killed. Not 'killed' as in you lose a shitload of votes; 'killed' as in shot in the head as you walk through your door. Out of all the countries in the world last year, which one was the most dangerous for foreign journalists, the place where more reporters were killed than anywhere else? Iraq? Afghanistan? Uh-uh. The Philippines.

Both of these -- the one about religion, the one about politics -- remind me of the vast gap that exists between where I'm from and where I am. This is a big, wide world, one where religion can hold sway and where public office remains a dirty, deadly business.

And at the root is poverty. Living without hot water. Generations of people living in shit and squalor. When all you have is shit and squalor, you look to the Lord. When all you have is shit and squalor, you will do anything, try anything, kill anything, to make your way up.

And stay there.

Two newspapers. Two headlines. Two days apart. The country in a nutshell.

All that's left to do is read between the lines.

Which is the work of a lifetime.

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