The Social Volcano

by Clarence Henderson
21 May 2001

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Clarence Henderson and published at his Web site Pearl of the Orient Seas, a section of the Asia Pacific Management Forum.

Ninoy Aquino often used the "social volcano" metaphor, referring to the molten rock down below getting hotter and hotter, bubbling slowly toward the surface, then finally erupting with dire consequences. And the Philippine social volcano has erupted before - for example, when the poor rioted and burned churches in Pampanga in the 1930's, when the Hukbalhap rebellion of the late 1940's almost brought down the government, and at various times during the long insurrections of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army.

The events that followed the arrest of the mythologically poor Erap represent yet another volcanic letting off of steam. However, those events should also be seen as a warning sign that the Philippine social volcano is storing up a huge load of molten lava that can only continue to be ignored at tremendous risk to this nation.

As I have noted in other Pearls, one of the major challenges here is the continued unchecked population growth aided and abetted by the Catholic Church. There are now 77 million Filipinos and counting, with perhaps 50 million living below the poverty line. An estimated one-third of Manila's 10.5 million inhabitants live in subhuman conditions few of us can even imagine. We're talking disease-infested, polluted, and downright dangerous squatter settlements, under bridges, in hovels with no sewage or potable water, along railroad tracks. We're talking an ever-larger population of hungry street urchins and beggars, malnourished children sniffing glue and sleeping in cardboard boxes, bony fingers tapping on our closed car windows on dark rainy nights, toothless old women peddling cigarettes by the stick while they're dying of untreated chronic illnesses. We're talking man's inhumanity to man.

But these poor folks live on the fringes of consciousness of the people who matter - the people who make the decisions, the people sitting behind the dark-tinted, bullet-proof windows of their chauffered Benzes on their way to steak and lobster at five-star hotels.

But even the slowly growing middle classes have a low opinion of the masa and would just as soon not be confronted with the reality of what poor peoples' lives are really like. One of the more disturbing things about "EDSA III" was the way office workers and managers got such a kick out of passing around text messages making fun of those less fortunate, forwarding vitriolic messages peppered with obscenities putting down the ignorant poor folks as a mob of ignorant hooligans, foolish enough to be so easily duped by Erap cronies.

Those text messages were generated by the opposition; the rumor mill has it that Ronnie Puno had 200 people with 200 cells churning out the texts. That sort of dirty trick is to be expected in this situation. But why did the office workers have to forward them around, adding to the 100 million texts a day that clog Manila's telecoms grid? For that matter, why did so many Manila columnists react with pious chest-thumping about good triumphing over evil, exhibiting smug hubris and self-righteous moral superiority? Such messages are guaranteed to stir up even more resentment among the poor.

The social volcano, then, continues to simmer. One of the more fascinating (and dangerous) aspects of the situation is that there are few coherent political groups among the "working classes," no charismatic revolutionary leaders, and lots of room for manipulation. Indeed, the opposition Senators who inflamed the mob at EDSA that night and got them to march to the Palace had an easy job of it. The poor in the Philippines have always been manipulated, whether by politicians, businessmen, oppressive landlords, jueteng lords, usurious merchants and money lenders, or unethical companies selling shoddy goods. Why should this time be any different?

The wretched of the Philippines have been used for so long that it's no wonder they rallied around the cause of "Asiong Salonga" (the name of a prototypical Erap/Robin Hood movie character). Having experienced centuries of exploitation, Erap was the first President whom they were able to identify with. The fact that Erap abused the trust of the poor is beside the point, this is about symbolism.

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