Typhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, struck the Philippines in November 2013 with winds of up to 190 mph (305 kph). At least 10,000 people died in one Philippine province alone.

Typhoon relief for Philippines is welcome, but what of others?

W. Scott Thompson laments media frenzy in devastated Tacloban

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 8:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:12pm

The Philippines is Hong Kong's close neighbour but the archipelago seems to elicit interest only when something ghastly has happened. Right now, it's the worst storm in recorded history. That's saying quite a lot.

Luckily, Haiyan was also fast-moving enough to do far less damage than it might have. But it came on the tail of a 7.2 earthquake in Bohol. Isn't enough enough?

The Philippines has had one of the roughest histories in Asia. First to get independence, it was sold down the river by its American "liberators". But its own people don't get full credit. The Filipino liberator and first president, General Aguinaldo, went to Hong Kong by agreement and did a bit of selling out himself.

One wonders, why are these people, run roughshod over by Spanish, Americans, Japanese, and by their own greedy political class, so welcoming? It's pertinent now.

My biggest question is why the Philippines is a 24/7 top-drawer disaster show. Why is the whole journalistic pack of wolfhounds combing over Tacloban?

This is not to indicate the slightest indifference to the agony of Leyte and Samar, the two provinces that bore the brunt of the typhoon. A close friend has sent a heart-rending account of a 12-hour trip across Leyte, locating family and property, too often finding old family houses simply gone, or relatives present but living off the ground.

But this, on a world scale of disasters and even given that it was set off by the fiercest storm of world history, is distinctly a second-rung catastrophe.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami swept off far more people from Aceh in its first minute than have yet been specifically identified in Leyte - though of course the count will only grow worse. I recall an earthquake in China in the 1970s that was even more devastating than the tsunami.

But the press hounds will go where they can go. The airport may have been flattened, but anyone determined to get into Tacloban will have had only technical difficulties. Some flights have got in. The rich of the media can hire planes, including to and from nearby, less damaged airports.

And the Filipinos themselves are the warmest people on earth. Once in, every journalist will soon find himself "adopted" by a family.

And once a disaster is "fashionable", then the international relief agencies will enter in lock-step progression. So, too, the US, the European Union, Britain - all are sending meaningful help, in the form of food, water, medical supplies, and in an order that is impressive in the footage we see. Everyone wants in on the act.

One of the most curious non-events of the storm was "the dog that didn't bark". For over 50 years, the Romualdez family has dominated Leyte politics, the more so after one of the poorer ones became first lady and chief shoe show-off.

Where is Imelda Marcos, of the 3,000 shoes? Where is the "Rose of Tacloban"? Most informal auditors would point to at least US$30 billion of unaccounted-for Marcos assets, which the Philippine government, for various unworthy reasons, has never had the guts to go after. The family plays poor, but lives princely lives, untouchable it seems by the laws of the nation.

One would have expected them by now to have donated millions, if not billions, of pesos. The Philippine rich live among themselves and I guess just don't consider it seemly to get an elbow soiled in a flattened village of their own ancestry.

It's great that a small flattened city like Tacloban should be getting so much attention and relief. I just wish it were more evenly divided among disaster-ridden people worldwide.

W. Scott Thompson is professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts. He lives in Manila, Bali and Washington


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