Indigenous people seek peace after attacks

First published on Al Jazeera

Davao Del Norte, Philippines – Up on the verdant mountains of Talaingod, a young pig squeals as four men grab its legs and a freshly sharpened bolo readies to slash its throat.

Dahosay Ansam-on, 77, utters a prayer to the Magbabaya, or the “supreme being” in Ata Manobo language. As they return to their homes, the villagers hope to live in peace.

It’s been a month since Ansam-on was reunited with villagers who fled when armed men threatened to set a school on fire in retaliation for the death of a relative killed by communist rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA).

Vivien Pepito, one of the school’s teachers, could not forget her ordeal on the night of July 6, when those men knocked violently at the door of a staff house where she and her family lives.

“They wanted to get in,” she told Al Jazeera. “I cried for help so the villagers could come to our rescue.”

The lush mountains of Talaingod on the southern island of Mindanao [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Communist threat

Bringing spears and arrows, villagers drove away the men. Locals call them Alamara, a paramilitary group with alleged ties to the Philippine military blamed for attacking tribal communities in Talaingod and other towns in the province of Davao del Norte in the southern Philippines, according to Human Rights Watch.

The next morning, villagers said the men also wanted to kill Pepito and her husband, Jessie, who teaches at the same school. Over the next few days, the community, many of them parents of Pepito’s pupils, guarded the teachers and the school. Eventually, many decided to flee the village.

The Alamara men accuse Pepito and other teachers of being members of the NPA, alleging the school also promotes the group’s communist ideology to pupils.

In the same month, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte made a formidable threat: that he would bomb community schools that sympathised with communist fighters. He alleged these schools operate without government permits.

Soon after, the Philippine military accused Pepito’s school, Salugpongan, of serving as a front for the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the NPA, local media reported.

Months later in September, one of the school’s pupils, Obillo Bay-ao, was shot allegedly by the same men who harassed Pepito and the other teachers.

As tensions rose, villagers fled and sought shelter in Davao City, where a Protestant church assists indigenous peoples caught in fighting between government troops and leftist fighters.

An estimated 3,000 indigenous people fled starting in 2014 because of attacks by militiamen.

Located in Sitio Dulyan in the town of Talaingod, Salugpongan is more than 100km away from Davao City. Villagers take a 30-minute kidney-jarring trip on an off-road motorbike from the mountains down to the plains before embarking on another trip to Tagum City in Davao del Norte, eventually leading them to Davao City.

The bike trip alone costs about $10, an amount that could go a long way if spent on food, said Pepito who has been teaching Ata Manobo children for three years now.

Pepito and her husband went to the same university where they first met. After a series of assignments as students in the community, the couple decided to volunteer as teachers here as soon as they finished their education.

“I grew up having biases against minorities. When I met these people, things changed,” said Jessie.

A child sleeps in a makeshift hammock outside the school [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Pushed to the margins

Salugpongan – or the Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center – was established in 2003. It was created to empower the Ata Manobo people who are no strangers to turmoil.

In the early 1990s, their leaders initiated a tribal war against a logging company that wanted to enter Talaingod.

In response to rising calls the protect the minority, former President Fidel V Ramos signed into law the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, which led to the creation of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, an organisation often criticised for failing to serve the people it was mandated to look after.

Mindanao was annexed into the Philippines through the 1898 Treaty of Paris even though the American colonial government, and the Spaniards, never conquered the island.

Since then, waves of migrations from the northern Philippines have pushed indigenous tribes to settle into the hinterlands as the newcomers found homes on the plains.

Which is why the Ata Manobo people, like other minorities in the Philippines, often take it on themselves when it comes to matters concerning their ancestral land. Unfortunately, when they stage protests demanding the government to protect their rights, the military calls these efforts communist “propaganda”.

Vivien Pepito, one of the school’s teachers, cannot forget her ordeal [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Maria Victoria Maglana, a development worker and human rights advocate, debunks this idea.

“The view that the Talaingod Manobos are being used is premised on the ultimately derogatory mindset that the Lumads (indigenous people) do not know what they are doing and that they are ignorant and gullible,” Maglana wrote in a newspaper column.

On that Sunday morning, children and their parents dashed towards the man with the pig’s blood. They dipped their fingers into a basin and hurriedly drew red crosses on their foreheads. They say the blood will protect the villagers from the Alamara and the military, and that they will no longer come back.

“When they’re here our lives are only put into trouble,” Pepito says.

Hours later, back in the lush mountains of Talaingod, the sacrifice is turned into a feast. People plucked banana leaves and took turns in shoving food onto their makeshift plates.

For now, says Pepito, as long as the troops and Alamara militiamen are far from the school, the villagers can live in peace.

Indonesians recognised after decades in the Philippines

First published on Al Jazeera

Davao Occidental, Philippines – On the screen flashed Indonesia’s world-renowned destinations. They were told if they could name one, a cash prize awaits. But many were clueless about what they were seeing, or worse, what the man – who introduced himself as their country’s representative – was talking about.

“Who among you here can speak Indonesian?” Berlian Napitulu, Indonesian Consul General to the Philippines, asked the crowd of some 60 people.

There were 16 hands raised in the air. The rest spoke nothing but local languages on the Philippine island of Balut. Some, including Pidinsia Barahama Pareda, could only speak Sangirese, the language of her people, the Sangirs.

Pareda could not recall how old she is. What she knows, however, is that she was born in 1960, a year written on her birth certificate, a document she received on November 16 along with more than 100 other Sangir people – or what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calls “people of Indonesian descent (PID)”.

Back in the day, local officials said Indonesians like her could not apply for a birth certificate as they were not Filipinos.

“We were told that a baptismal certificate was enough,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview.

But over the years, she said, local officials eventually began asking them to register. So in 2005, when one of the village leaders offered to “arrange” their birth certificates for $3.90 each, she gave him money. But since then there was never news about the document, while the rest of her neighbours have long gotten theirs.

“It was already paid in full,” she said in Sangirese.

On the day she finally received her birth certificate, she had to be accompanied by her son-in-law, Walter Manabung, 39. Pareda barely spoke Cebuano nor Filipino, two languages in the Philippines, despite having been living on Balut all her life. Both her parents, too, have settled here long before she was born. Their main livelihood is harvesting coconuts for copra and fishing – just like many other Indonesian Sangirs living on the island.

Pidinsia Barahama Pareda waits for the release of her birth certificate on the Philippine island of Balut [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Balut, including Sarangani, are two major islands that comprise the Sarangani municipality in the province of Davao Occidental. A huge concentration of the total 8,745 recorded people of Indonesian descent come from these islands, according to UNHCR research from 2016.

They are third generation Indonesians whose ancestors, according to historical accounts, come from the neighbouring Sangihe Islands in North Sulawesi. One common story of their migration to the Philippines was that when their fishermen forefathers saw these islands, they went back from Sangihe – this time taking their families with them.

This occurred long before the Philippines and Indonesia began establishing boundaries between them. Thus, those crisscrossing the waters of Sulawesi and the Philippines were eventually subject to border rules imposed by the two countries.

In the case of the Indonesians in the Philippines, they were to secure an Alien Certificate of Registration (ACR) that gives them the right to stay. Payment for this document is done annually, but families have to travel from their villages to General Santos City on mainland Mindanao, which spirals up the costs they have to pay.

“And they can’t afford to pay for it because they don’t have proper income. And why don’t they have proper income? Because they don’t have a proper job,” said Napitulu.

According to the Indonesian official, the shortage of employment all boils down to the lack of proper documents. “Indeed. It’s complicated. And this is a lengthy process to finally solve their problems.”

Efforts to save these people from the risk of statelessness was strengthened in 2006 when the Republic of Indonesia reformed its citizenship law, so those who lost their nationality could reacquire it.

“We will give them a certificate of citizenship based on what their certificates tell. Now if it shows that they’re Indonesians, we will move on to the next part of the process which is to give them a passport,” he continued.

Since last year, more than 3,000 people of Indonesian descent in the Philippines have been confirmed of their nationality.

In 2011, the Philippines’ Justice Department issued a draft circular proposing how to determine a stateless person. It also sought assistance from the UNHCR in making the draft compliant with the 1954 Convention.

Since last year, more than 3,000 people of Indonesian descent in the Philippines have been confirmed of their nationality [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

A year later, the country came out with its own statelessness determination procedure. What’s more, former justice minister and now detained Senator Leila De Lima said they cannot be deported.

The country’s leniency towards undocumented aliens stretches back to the 1930s. At the time, Manila welcomed refugees from Germany who were escaping the Holocaust. It also opened its doors to Vietnamese refugees who were sailing to Palawan in the ’90s. While it has welcomed refugees, the Philippines was also hoping they would eventually return home.

In the case of these Indonesians, their government, through the Consulate General, has offered free sea transportation for those who decide to take a one-way ticket home.

“By all means, please. But don’t tell us that we were the ones who encouraged you to do so,” Napitulu warned.

Interestingly, that morning when he addressed Indonesians – many of whom could not understand what he was talking about – he mentioned the achievements of the administration of President Joko Widodo.

Widodo has made 47 major achievements, among those are massive infrastructure projects, he said. Some 7,000km of the road has been completed in his term with 3,800km in Papua. There are many jobs because of the nation’s aggressive public spending, Napitulu added.

“Indonesia is a changed country now,” he said, as if signaling it was the right time to go home.

What makes one Indonesian?

Why Indonesia? That’s a question thrown at me over and over again ever since I moved to this country.

In most instances, I say the easiest answer so people would let me off the hook: Because it’s a wonderful country. Because your people are warm. Your culture is far better than what we have back home.

These are sweet answers that I know most of you would like to hear from someone who comes from a country that’s not far different from yours. We, too, have millions of people living under the poverty line. Corrupt politicians. Ridiculous infrastructure. Dismal quality of public education. Whenever I’m asked to show pictures of my country, I often get reactions like, oh, Indonesia is a lot better. I would then acquiesce.

You see, I don’t have much time to pull a debate over these matters. I also do not want to dedicate huge portions of my life hurting my friends’ national pride. Once, a friend asked how much is a Philippine peso when converted to the Indonesian rupiah. Today a peso hovers around 300 IDRs. He swiftly said, well, then, our money’s worth is bigger than yours. I simply smiled. Of course, it’s the other way around.

One of the main reasons I seal my lips whenever I’m cornered to answer questions like this is that I fear I’d end up earning more enemies than friends by blurting out my thoughts aloud.

Also, the question would reveal how personal my migration to Indonesia is.

It starts, after all, with a personal story three years ago on the southern part of the Philippines, near the maritime border that both our countries share.

Meet the Sangirs

The story is about your people who migrated to the Philippines in the 1950s. They call themselves the Sangir people, the tribe from small groups of islands on North Sulawesi.

There are thousands of them living on the islands of Balut and Sarangani. Sometimes, they call themselves Indonesians. At other times, they consider themselves Filipinos, especially the new generation of Sangirs who have never seen Indonesia.

SAFETY FIRST? These passengers slept on the deck of the ship traversing the Sarangani Straight. Photo by Mick Basa

Just a few days before Christmas in 2012, I sailed into Mabias, the port of Sarangani province in the Philippines to which both islands politically belong.

The trip takes 8 hours from General Santos City on board a medium-sized ferry that carries sacks of rice, chickens, fighting cocks, goats, crates of bottled soda, and people coming home from the main island of Mindanao in southern Philippines.

Just before we were about to board the ship, we were told that it’s no longer accepting passengers. It’s reached its maximum passenger capacity, so the next trip would carry passengers in January the following year. I bargained if it would be possible to board as I was rushing to gather facts of a story that’s due very soon. Finally, after speaking to one of the coast guards, we were able to hop in.


On Pakiluaso, a small coastline village of around 30 families on Balut Island, I met Nerlyn Sasamu Dagcutan. A dark-skinned and big-boned woman, Dagcutan is a pamong, an Indonesian term for guardian. As a guardian, her main task is to train the young Sangirs to speak Bahasa Indonesia, your country’s national language.

Unlike in many public universities where lecturers get to present their materials using multimedia projectors, Dagcutan is left with nothing but a piece of chalk and a dusty blackboard inside a 20-square-metre concrete school that they “borrow” on Saturdays. The school happens to be owned by the Philippine government, where on weekdays students there get a piece of education, the Filipino way.

Dagcutan has another noble duty on Saturdays. Apart from teaching Bahasa Indonesia, she teaches the kids to sing songs like “Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke.”

In English, as you know, the song goes: “from Sabang to Merauke, islands pile up, they are connected, to become Indonesia.”

The kids memorize the song by heart, without any idea where these islands are, or a sense of what the song truly means. Yet for Dagcutan, she says it is important that the children learn about their homeland.

I tell you their story because many of you who are in no doubt citizens and residents of your country sometimes get into trivial fights.

In April, one of the world’s respected artists, Anggun Cipta Sasmi, and one of your country’s pride, wrote an open letter to President Jokowi, pleading him to grant clemency to those set for execution that month.

But reading the online comments, I saw that some of you told her she had no business meddling in Indonesia’s problems. By moving to France, you said, she’s lost her moral ascendancy to bring the issue into light. She is no longer an Indonesian, you said.

These views bring me back to people like Dagcutan and the over 6,000 people of Indonesian descent who are living in Mindanao.

If this happened to the famous Anggun, I fear your people in the Philippines could suffer the same fate. What if they start asking Jokowi to look into their plight as de facto stateless people, would you also question their identity, too, since they no longer live in Indonesia?

It is not far-fetched to imagine that these people have long been wanting to tell Indonesia’s central government about their plight.

Things like this happen in my country, too.

Veronica Pedrosa, an international journalist whose parents were forced to live in exile in London during the regime of the late dictator and former president Ferdinand Marcos, once confessed how her nationality would be questioned “when I speak in the Philippines.”

Today, as your country marks its 70th independence from The Netherlands, I ask: What makes one Indonesian?

Is being a KTP holder and being a natural-born citizen who is able to speak the national language enough to make one pass as an Indonesian?

Globalization has made walls crash, with new identities forming and some fading. People cross borders in search of a better life.

As it happens, the new generation hopes it could ride the wave by embracing English as medium of instruction in schools. Yet some things are quite sensitive at this point. Language, I was told by some of my lecturers, is one of the pillars of national identity. Others would even say that embracing English tarnishes one’s Indonesian identity.

Common destiny and future

A scholar of modern-day Indonesia, Benedict Anderson would agree that part of the nationalism project is a shared language. But he also did say that “nationalism arises when, in a certain physical territory, the inhabitants begin to feel that they share a common destiny, a common future.”

What common future could be shared if Indonesia’s growing economy only brings good news for the middle and upper classes, and not for the 40% of the population’s poor who live below $2 per day.

What common future could be shared if the rule of law is out of sight?

Shouldn’t nationalism be more than just the language we speak?

It is interesting to explore Dagcutan’s national identity: apart from being a penghubung, she is also a village leader at Pakiluaso. Philippine laws ideally don’t permit aliens to run for public office. Like Indonesia, implementing laws in the Philippines is another story, and that somehow works to Dagcutan’s advantage.

In fact, Indonesian ballots reach as far as their island; and their votes are counted for every legislative and presidential elections. Though at times, things like this only add to their identity crisis: Are we Indonesians or Filipinos?

As Indonesians, they make it a point to visit their homeland once a month, another Indonesian residing on Balut island, Alfrede Lahabir, once told me three years ago.

A fisherman, Lahabir does that to meet relatives on special occasions. I remember that once, he invited me to come with him to Matutuang, part of the Sangihe group of islands. By boat, he told me that we could reach the area from Balut between 3 and 6 hours.

The Indonesian identity question is something I would rather leave for you to answer. Ultimately as a journalist, I throw the questions, not the other way around.

The Sangirs’ stories have in a way shaped my life as a “legal” holder of Philippine citizenship. Many of us do not see this as an issue. We do not go to bed having to think about who we really are. My birth certificate and passport tell me I’m Filipino. You’re Indonesian because your KTP says so.

But for people like Dagcutan and Lahabir, they are considered aliens in the land where they live. As non-Filipino citizens, they often find themselves in trouble with land ownership, and access to state-sponsored insurance. Again, these are problems we don’t have to go through, because our government recognizes us as their citizens

I came to Indonesia to hopefully bring their questions here.

On the day that I was preparing to leave Balut island three years ago, one of Lahabir’s kids asked me, “When are you coming back?”

“I do not know, po (Sangirese for adik),” I replied. I simply do not know.

I sat in front of the boat so they could not catch me shed tears that were swallowed by the sea.

Two years later, I joined Rappler as a business reporter.

But the Sangirs’ stories are so complex that often in my sleep, their voices continued to haunt me. When are you coming back? You must tell more of our stories.

Today I am here in the country they imagine as their home. – First published on

From love motels to Christian hotels

MANILA, Philippines – In Manila, there lived a “king” who ran motels notorious for hosting two-timers who played with fire or couples who met for short trysts, especially during the love month of February.

The managers even urged hookers in bars to bring their patrons to their motels, so every night was profitable like no other.

But 7 years ago, Wyden King yielded to what he called a “conviction,” or “being awakened from a state of sin,” and as a result, sought repentance. It was a long time to fully obey God, as he became a born again Christian way back in 1992.

King is the son of Angelo King, the Filipino-Chinese, self-made businessman and philanthropist, who made a fortune from the popular Anito Motels.

“I had a conviction to go to the north to close the business,” King told Rappler in an interview.

From Anito to a ‘Christian’ hotel chain

The conviction led to the closure of the highly profitable Anito chain of motels, which were named after the collective Filipino pre-Hispanic belief on spirits.

King now identifies himself as a Christian who runs a business guided by Christian principles.

King leads Armadillo Holdings Incorporated (AHI), the parent company of Legend Hotels Corporation (LHIC), which in turn, operates Kabayan Hotel, a no-frills hotel catering to overseas Filipino workers returning to the Philippines, looking for an affordable overnight stay in the capital.

“It’s not fancy wancy but a nice place to stay if you just want a place to rest your head and have decent meals,” said one guest in his review of King’s hotel in 2014.

Apart from Kabayan Hotel, LHIC operates The Legend Villas in Mandaluyong, The Legend Palawan, The Mabuhay Manor, PinoyPamilya, and MyPlace.

The hotels show that King’s transformation was for real.

At each of the hotel’s lobby stands a wooden drop box, where guests could convey their prayer requests.

Prayers, too, play a role in the business. Every morning, the workers gather to pray together. It goes on for the whole week, “for them to experience God,” said King.

The story about the transformation of the former Anito Motel operator has become so popular, it has preceded King’s name.

“When people ask me where I work, I would tell them, I work for that company run by a man who used to own motels which he closed because he was born again,” said Jay Jaraplasan, the hotel’s business development officer.

The hotels no longer serve a niche market, and moved on to cater to a wider one.

“We’re not targeting couples. We work on families and corporate bodies,” said Abigail Apura, the hotel’s marketing officer.

In a way, the hotels’ shift from a “love hotel” image made sense.

Amor Maclang, an expert on brand architecture as well as crisis management for over 14 years, shared the perils of branding products for only a single occasion.

Love hotels, for instance, see a spike on sales on Valentine’s Day, but what about on other days?

“You need to extend the lifetime of a product so it’s not only tied to one day,” Maclang said.

Less profits

But for King, the re-branding was not a contrived one, but rather a statement on how serious he was about his spiritual transformation.

“We’re not so aware of the image. It’s just that, I had a conviction to the Lord to close down the business,” King said.

While marketing the hotels with this dramatic, turnaround story sparked some interest, it also brought with it accompanying challenges.

5 years ago, LHIC lost P37.91 million ($858,080.57) in net income, from earnings of P8.58 million ($194,205.52) in 2009.

They recovered in 2012 with P9.96 million ($225,441.38) in income, and in 2013 at P10.85 million ($245,586.24).

Competition from other hotel companies is part of the reason. King said he was “betrayed” by partners from Anito days who formed their own chain of love hotels.

Also contributing to his leaner profit was his fulfillment of tax obligations. They also regularly gave tithes to the church.

“There’s a moral standard we abide by. Furthermore, we join our Christian beliefs in the way we do our business,” he said.

What made sense, too, was when AHI diversified its assets to stay profitable. Under the parent company are firms engaged in garments and laundry, leasing, and real estate.

AHI owns the Titanium Corporation, Ithiel Corporation, Kalinisan Laundry Group, Clean Living Incorporated, St Raphael Development Corporation, and Kings Development Corporation. Combined, they employ more than 2,000 workers.

God’s plan

King takes the back seat in running the business now, as he’s focused on running Nameless Faceless Selfless, another AHI subsidiary which provides spiritual services chiefly for the workers.

Making a profit is no longer his preoccupation, he said. “What’s important with God is character, and not wealth.”

King foresees that his businesses will grow at a very slow rate.

When he lost the last Anito Motels chain in 2008, it meant sacrificing a cash cow that earned for him almost P2 million ($45,269.35) every day.

“What is important with God is we become in His image and likeness, because that’s God’s plan,” the transformed King said. – First published on



Pope Francis lifts troubled Philippine flag carrier

MANILA, Philippines – Emotions ran high Thursday, January 22, as the flight and cabin crew of the country’s flag carrier gathered to recall their encounter with Pope Francis aboard the Shepherd One.

More than 30 PAL employees – pilots and cabin crew – spoke with journalists at PAL’s headquarters in Pasay City on Thursday, 3 days after the carrier brought home Pope Francis.

“He prayed over me, and his stare was very peaceful. He started praying, and he asked me before we ended, ‘Please pray for me,'” Ruby Carol Manzano recalled in a press conference arranged by PAL.

Manzano was among the cabin crew that attended to the Pope, his delegation, and accompaying media on Shepherd One from Manila to Ciampino airport in Rome, Italy.

Many of them had the chance to interact with the Roman Catholic Church leader as he took time to greet passengers onboard.

PAL served as the Pope’s carrier for his Philippine visit, specifically to Tacloban and Rome.

The PR 8010 flight brought Pope Francis back to Rome after a 5-day visit from January 15 to 19 to Asia’s largest Catholic nation.

Flying out of troubled weather

On January 17, the Shepherd One flew the Pope to Tacloban to spend time with Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) survivors.

The papal trip had to be cut short because of Tropical Storm Amang (international name: Mekkhala) which had placed Leyte and surrounding provinces under Storm Signal Warning No. 2.

Pilot Captain Roland Narciso and the team made a difficult decision to fly the Pope back to Manila amid bad weather which paid off as the Pope congratulated the team for a safe flight out.

In a way, the privilege the PAL crew had was what millions of Filipinos wanted.

On those days the Pope was in the country, a sea of devotees swelled in areas where the pontiff made appearances.

Manuel Antonio Tamayo was PAL’s commander for the papal journey to Rome, and has flown many times with former presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Fidel Ramos, and the late Corazon Aquino.

Tamayo’s career as a pilot began in 1988 after leaving the Presidential Security Group (PSG) under the first Aquino administration.

Now 63, Tamayo has two more years before reaching the mandatory retirement age for pilots.

Serving the Pope gained him a 4-star badge which he proudly showed to Rappler in an interview.

“It was a blessing,” said Tamayo, vice president of the airline’s flight operations.
Troubled flag carrier

A blessing, PAL president and chief operating officer Jaime Bautista said, is what Asia’s longest serving commercial carrier needs the most at this difficult time.

Amid the carrier’s feat for being picked as the official papal carrier, PAL is facing an ordeal.

Its parent company, PAL Holdings Incorporated, booked total liabilities of P111.12 billion ($2.54 billion*) in the first 9 months of 2014, with net income only at P237.06 million ($5.37 million) in the same period.

On top of that, it still needs to sort out its underutilized fleet.

Bautista returned to the Lucio Tan-led airline as president and COO in October 2014. His position was assumed by San Miguel Corporation’s (SMC) Ramon Ang when it acquired 49% ownership of the flag carrier.

PAL and SMC’s partnership in 2012 was meant to help the airline, then in the red, but did not succeed.

Fuel price fluctuations, competition from budget carriers, security and safety risks, plus the continuous expenses due to re-fleeting caused PAL’s break even or loss periods.

Pope’s blessing

PAL is not the only airline that faced challenges in 2014.

Cebu Pacific Air, Inc is facing a hefty government fine over flight delays and cancellations during the holidays that stranded thousands of passengers, while AirAsia Indonesia suffered a blow when its plane headed to Singapore from Surabaya crashed into the sea.

For Bautista though, the arrival of the Pope, and the privilege of being the pontiff’s official carrier, was a gleaming moment for the troubled airline.

“It really boosted the morale of the people,” he said, referring to the PAL employees.

During his speech, Bautista was seen struggling to keep his eyes from welling up. Many of the cabin crew could not help but cry.

“We’ve had many problems, issues. But we can solve all of that,” he said. – First published on

FamilyMart: The growing Japanese ‘sari-sari’ store

MANILA, Philippines – In just two years, Japanese convenience store chain FamilyMart branched out more than 60 times in Metro Manila.

And by the end of 2014, FamilyMart targets a hundred more to gradually realize their business plan of 500 branches across the Philippines.

The aggressive expansion of the company – competing with rivals 7-Eleven, Gokongwei-led Ministop, some Mercury Drug outlets, Villar-owned Finds Convenience Stores Inc. (FCS), and gasoline station-based Shell Select and Caltex Star Mart whose brands have been around in the Philippines for a long time – might catch the attention of the many.

But FamilyMart, after all, is the second largest convenience store chain in the world, with more than 22,000 branches, only behind 7-Eleven.

In the Philippines, it operates under a joint venture firm by SSI Group, Inc. – franchisee of some of the world’s coveted brands – and Ayala Land Inc., the largest real estate developer in the country.

Within the year, it plans to get listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange as it raises more capital to fuel its expansion, said Anton Huang, FamilyMart CVS Inc. president.

But how exactly is it competing in the market that has been dominated by established convenience store chain operators?

“For the longest years, the convenience store is just a place where people go inside, grab something to eat, and you go out and leave,” FamilyMart CVS Inc. president Eduardo Paredes Jr. said.

Its café-like experience, Paredes said, is the one that give them an advantage, and he thinks it is what Filipinos have been looking for in what could be a modern-day “sari-sari” store that sells ready-to-eat gourmet food like turkey ham with raspberry cream cheese sandwich, garden salad, cobb salad, and even Japanese favorites California maki, katsudon, and ramen at reasonable prices.

“Filipinos are very aspirational, you know. We could afford this but you want a little more,” he told Rappler.

It’s a convenience store that affords customers generous seating area. At every branch there’s a corner where tables with chairs upholstered in brown leatherette are allotted for customers. Walls are painted in white, while the store lights in incandescent yellow give the stores a warm tone.

“The lighting is really nice on the skin tone. So you wouldn’t think that you would be in a convenience store,” said Maja Olivares-Co, the interior designer of FamilyMart stores in the Philippines.

Olivares-Co, who is also behind the P75-million ($1.67-million) rehabilitation project of the historic Paco Market, said this is what sets FamilyMart apart from its competitors.

“What FamilyMart is doing is they have a seating area. If you have a seating area, that’s less revenue. But they’re giving that back to the customer. That alone is a commitment to a certain level quality of service that most aren’t able to give or aren’t willing to give,” she said.

To make sure the customers keep coming back not only to sit and wait for the MRT3 station to decongest and not buying anything, the convenience store chain prepares new assortments of ready-to-eat food every 3 months, Paredes said.

“We have to show the consumers there’s always something new to look forward to. Just like our twirl-all-you-can [ice cream], we’re just here for a year, now we have launched about 7 flavors already and we rotate it so people look forward to the flavors,” he said.

Facing established competitors like 7-Eleven and Ministop, the newcomer in the Philippines is positive that through its “unique niche” – from giving back seating space and a healthy array of ready-to-eat menu – it would reach its business plan of 500 stores by 2018.

To do that, it announced in August that it would franchise out its convenience stores. Franchisees invest a minimum capital of P4.4 million ($97,930.23), while the FamilyMart group would spend P3.4 million ($75,673.36).

Their profit sharing model: franchisee gets 75% of the earnings, but pays the staff and security, rent, taxes and insurance, supplies, repairs and maintenance, inventory loss and shrinkages. The company, meanwhile, gets 25% of the profit, shouldering half of the electricity cost, while paying for marketing, audit, area manager, and merchandising services.

“Our business plan calls for 500 stores within 5 years. We’re depending on how things go,” said Huang.

But will FamilyMart reach that plan?

The Wall Street Journal says the Philippines is ripe for convenience store expansion. In 2012, it said shoppers in the country had fewer convenience stores compared to other countries in Asia. There was one convenience store per 40,917 people in the same period, compared to South Korea, where one convenience store served 2,060 people.

Next year, Paredes said they plan to expand in Cebu, with four companies already expressing their interest for a franchise.

Aside from Cebu, Davao and Iloilo are FamilyMart’s next locations due to a substantial number of business outsourcing firms that have relocated in these cities, said Paredes.

“Based on 18 months we’ve been our operation, we’ve met our business plan and we’re quite happy the way things develop,” said Huang. – First published on


Photo courtesy of Sakura  Chihaya

Life along the borders

BALUT ISLAND, Philippines – “If the waters are calm, we could reach Indonesia in three hours or so,” Alfrede Lahabir points his lips toward the window of his nipa hut, where the Celebes sea can be seen.

“We go to Indonesia at least once a month,” he says in a mixture of Manado Malay and Cebuano, taking a puff of his clove cigarette.

“We buy soap and cigarettes from Matutuang and Bitung and sell it here. In return, we sell kitchenware from the Philippines when we reach those islands.”

Matutuang, a part of Indonesia’s Sangihe group of islands, and the Indonesian city of Bitung, were only three to six hours away where Lahabir lives in Pakeluasu, a small coastline village of around thirty families in Southern Philippines.

Always mistaken for another Filipino, Lahabir, 31, actually belongs to the Sangir tribe of Indonesia, whose parents once braved the waters between Balut Island and Indonesia’s Sangihe Islands to reach and settle here.

Lahabir was born in Sarangani, a province south of mainland Mindanao. Now, he is one of the estimated 6,000 people of Indonesian descent, living in the southern coast of Mindanao, according to Pasali Philippines Foundation, a group the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees(UNHCR) tasked to map out the Indonesians in the Philippines.

Living off the border of his own country excluded Lahabir from the usual privileges enjoyed by other Indonesian citizens. Born and raised in the Philippines, he still looks up to Indonesia as the country where he belongs. Yet, having lived here for so long, he has become estranged from his culture, which he can only access through VCDs and other items brought in here from Indonesia.

Every year each Sangir family member has to pay 150 pesos for the Alien Certificate of Registration (ACR) to the Philippine government for the privilege of staying in the country.

Although the fee is relatively small, the Sangirs have to travel by boat from Pakeluasu to the center of Mabias, on Balut Island, which costs them P500. From Mabias, they had to board a launch to General Santos, which costs them P350 for each person, making it very prohibitive for the whole family to register.

But Lahabir doesn’t mind.

“We just have to comply with the rules – because, after all, we are aliens in this land,” he says.

Now married to a Filipina and a father of two, Lahabir practically lives on fishing. His wife opts for Filipino citizenship for his children, making Lahabir the only Indonesian in the household.

The couple only has simple plans for the future: to let the children finish college. They still don’t know how to go about it. “We don’t dream of getting rich,” Lahabir says. “We just want to have enough to make ends meet.”

Indonesian communities here have its own community liaison officers, called “penghubung.” A penghubung, such as Nuryati Rabika Elarde, 43, is appointed by Indonesian Consulate to coordinate with their community and the consular office.

“Many cannot renew their ACRs because of poverty,” says Elarde, a resident on Sarangani Island.

Elarde volunteers to teach the Sangir children Bahasa Indonesia once a week but as soon as the children return to their own Sangir language, they forget about Bahasa Indonesia for the rest of the week. Just like onnBalut Island, the Sangirs speak Sangir first, and Cebuano, second. Most of them could hardly speak Bahasa Indonesia.

Lahabir’s son Alfreddie, 9, says he’d rather be a Filipino than an Indonesian. He speaks fluent Tagalog, and was very good at it, and told me he did not know how to speak Sangir.

Later, I caught him speaking Sangir among his friends.

“I don’t want to be an Indonesian,” he said in Filipino. “I just don’t want to.”

Alfreddie’s renouncement of his Indonesian roots is betrayed by his presence at a day care learning centre in Pakeluasu every Saturday, where Nerlyn Sasamu Dagcutan, 37, is the “pamong,” an Indonesian term for tutor, one who’s tasked to train the children their national language.

On weekends, the 20-square meter concrete school owned by the Philippine government serves as the time for the Sangir children to learn about their ancestor’s culture – as well as their national language.

The students, all children of the Sangir villagers, bring nothing but themselves. Others, fortunate enough, bring notebooks to jot down what their teacher writes on the chalkboard.

“We don’t have language books nor visual aides so the students learn faster. I keep on repeating the lesson all over again the following week because they keep on forgetting it,” Dagcutan laments.

Here, the kids learn to sing songs of patriotism “Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke (From Sabang to Merauke)” despite never understanding the song’s meaning. For Dagcutan, she says what’s important is that the children learn about Indonesia, their “tanah air (homeland).”

“At least, in my own ways, I have taught them something about our country,” she says. – Published on Rappler

Should the Philippines legalise prostitution?

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Gently brushing her cheek against her newborn like a breeze in the warmest hours of the afternoon, 20-year-old Adelyn has a lot to thank for since she became a mother.

A young single parent, Adelyn said the birth of her daughter helped her break the cycle of being a prostituted woman, an event in her life she never expected to happen.

Running away from home to escape her father’s cruelty, she moved to Cebu 3 years ago, carrying with her an ambition to live a life she wanted – free from violence and poverty.

Promised a job to become a hostess in a bar where she was instructed to go “outing” with patrons, Adelyn took the offer, thinking that “outing” would only mean going out with them for a drink.

“I experienced all the things a woman would never want to happen,” she said in Visayan.

Adelyn was only 17 years old then when she was promised a “high-paying” job. Concerned groups said she is just one of hundreds of women here who have been trafficked. Recruiters offered jobs but compelled the women to engage in sexual activities in exchange for payment.


Lory Pabunag, 36, a mother of 3, said she had a horrible experience that dates all the way back to 1994.

“Someone told me that there was a restaurant looking for a waitress whose pay is good. But when I started working for them, I got surprised because we were forced to wear skimpy dress. There was no food in the restaurant – only beer and finger foods,” Lory said in Visayan.

Lory realized her employer had already “sold” her when a customer asked her for an “outing.”

“First, I thought outing was just to have fun and drinking until I realised the taxi we rode was heading to a motel,” she said.

There have been 1,099 registered prostituted women in Davao City since 2011, Carina Sajonia, Talikala advocacy officer said.

Talikala, a non-government organisation that looks after the welfare of prostituted women, said 2,198 are unregistered while an estimated 4,000 women and children are also engaged in prostitution. About 20% are believed to be minors whose ages range from 12 to 17 years old.

“Don’t judge us because you don’t even know our story,” according to Lory, who said prostitution is not even a job that many people think they wanted.


She recalled having been abused countless times by her customers. One time, she said, a police officer shoved a gun inside her genitals and started beating her, taking all of her money. Days later she had to see the doctor since her vagina got infected.

“How bitter this life is. My only hope is to raise my 3 children, buy their milk and clothes. Why do our customers treat us like we are rubbish?” she said in Visayan.

She flirted with death once, when her customer, a judo instructor, turned angry when she refused to do anal sex.

“He immersed me in a bath tub filled with warm water while I was naked. He insulted me, saying I’m no longer a virgin. Of course, I already had children. My head was already bleeding. He began striking me with his fist and foot. I thought I was going to die,” she said.

Prostitution in the Philippines remains an illegal activity and has specifically victimized women. This means that those who arrange for clients and control those prostituted are not regarded as violators of the law.

But local government units tolerate these activities by providing business permits to establishments known to house prostituted women. Prostituted women, on the other hand, are given “pink” cards, said Sajonia.

Legalise prostitution?

The United Nations, in its October 2012 report, said criminalisation “increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination” and suggested that Asian countries, including the Philippines, legalise prostitution.

The report said there is a “greater chance” of safer sex practices when prostitution is decriminalised by providing health and safety standards in the said industry.

“There is no evidence that decriminalisation has increased sex work,” it said. But women’s rights organisations in the country have opposed the UN’s proposal.

“Legalisation of prostitution will only legalise the abuses and exploitation within the system of prostitution,” said Jeannette Ampog, executive director of Talikala.

“Legalisation of prostitution will benefit the sex industry, and the people behind it will become legitimate businessmen,” she added.

For the sons and daughters of women who used to be in prostitution, legalising it will only mean that the government has turned its back from women looking for a way out of the illegitimate industry.


“My mother (succumbed to prostitution because of poverty. She has not finished school. She did it for us. And there are others (who engage in prostitution) who did it simply because they were deceitfully recruited,” said 16-year-old Anna Mae.

Prostitution, according to 16-year-old Edward (not his real name), is a product of poverty. His friend Anna Mae and Louie agreed. All their mothers once engaged in prostitution.

Aspiring to become a politician someday, he said he is determined to make “better” laws that will advocate for women’s rights. He wants to do it to honor his mother.

“Our law says prostitution is a crime. And it has identified only women as the perpetrators of what it calls an illegal activity,” he said.

For the ones trapped in a job no woman would ever have dreamed of being in when they were young, Lory – who now works as a volunteer of a group of prostituted women – said the pain from their dark past is eased by the hope their children represent.

“Slowly, I’m finding a new meaning of life through my children and by loving myself,” Lory said. – First published on