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Turning a lens on injustice

“On Movements in Manila” documents Filipino poverty and resistance

Stefan Christoff’s recent photo exhibition, “On Movements in Manila,” sheds light on the growing instability, socioeconomic disparity, and politically motivated violence occurring in the Philippines today. The photos that comprise the exhibition were taken during the spring of 2007, while Christoff was travelling in the Philippines on an international observers’ mission to witness and document the political situation surrounding the 2007 midterm elections.

The exhibition, on view at Kaza Maza throughout February, was sponsored by the Centre for Philippine Concerns. The photos expose issues that are often invisible to those in the West – the extreme poverty and social inequalities spurred by corporate affiliations and the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration’s governmental neglect. The images’ strength is that they provoke critical thinking about the realities of Filipino life that are usually hidden from Western eyes.

Filipino author Miguel Syjuco spoke at the exhibit’s vernissage. Syjuco’s award-winning novel Ilustrado depicts the Philippines’ rich history, and he spoke on the topic at the event. A strategically placed country for Western exploitation, the Philippines was both a Spanish and an American colony at various points in its history. After gaining independence from America in 1946, the Philippines was forced to accept the Bell Trade Act as a condition of secession, an agreement that placed severe hinderances on the Philippines’ economic independence from America. The economy is now dominated by foreign corporate interest, and depends on the more than $1 billion that enters the country monthly as remittances from workers abroad, a dynamic enthusiastically supported by the Arroyo government.

“We’ve forgotten about this country, that was very close to home, that was supposed to be the 51st state of the United States….We’ve forgotten that it was once considered the pearl of the Orient. We’ve forgotten that it has a very rich culture,” Syjuco said. “[Christoff’s] photographs are a testimony of not wanting to forget.” The devastation of poverty and social injustices that is the legacy of colonialism and ongoing economic domination are vividly shown in each of Christoff’s images.

One such photograph is an image of fluttering election banners, symbolic of the hope for change that is still very alive in the Phillippines. Such hope is not necessarily far-fetched. Grassroots struggle is nothing new in the Philippines. One of the women’s solidarity groups in the country today is named for Gabriela Silang, an 18th-century woman who led an insurgency group against Spanish colonization. More recently, dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted through a series of non-violent demonstrations and peaceful protests in the People Power revolution of 1986, though the Revolution did little to displace the long-standing oligarchies which still control the nation. However, civilian resistance continues to be suppressed today. “Political repression [is] a reality…systemic political killings targeting progressive activists, union leaders, student activists, and progressive journalists [have been occurring] throughout the country since 2001, which is when the current President, Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo, came to power,” commented Christoff.

Although the turbulent events occurring in the Philippines are not widely covered in Western media, there are major international implications to the country’s unrest. The Canadian and American governments are deeply affiliated with the current Arroyo administration. Joey Calugay, from the Centre for Philippine Concerns in Montreal, explained the causes of foreign presence and exploitation of the country. Since the start of Arroyo’s presidency, U.S. troops have been arriving in the Philippines yearly, under the pretext of military training. However, there have been accounts of U.S. troops involved in military action against the Filipino people. “The Philippines has been a strategic geopolitical country…for the U.S. and continues to be so,” Calugay remarked.

Canada has also played a role in the economic crippling of the Philippines. Many Filipino workers are employed here through temporary migrant work, such as the Live-In Caregiver Program and at the tar sands development. In the Philippines itself, Canadian mining companies have significant holdings. One Calgary-based company, Toronto Ventures Incorporated, has even been accused of violence against the Subanen indigenous people according to the online Filipino news source Bulatlat. The corporations “come in and plunder the natural resources, displace people, and basically get 100 per cent of the profits,” said Calugay. As Canadian mining companies take advantage of the country’s resources, nearly 45 per cent of Filipinos live on less than $2 U.S. per day. However appalling the Western presence, stated Calugay, “All these human rights violations and the suppression of people’s resistance and struggles against…foreign mining, is now labelled as war on terror.”

“[Arroyo’s] government is attempting to use free trade economics…to pressure the peasantry and workers to accept the economic model that they’re trying to present…and that economic model is really one that sees the Philippines as either a vast labour pool or a country filled with natural resources that corporations can harvest,” said Christoff. One photograph, of a woman from GABRIELA standing in front of election signs, captures the resistance that is occurring in the face of such governmental oppression.

Christoff took on this photo project to expose the truths about the Philippines that are not so easy to swallow – the electoral fraud, the social inequalities, the Western complicity, the destitution. Through examining these photographs, the viewer gets a small glimpse of the injustices facing Filipinos today, and the ongoing resistance against these problems.