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2013 Yearender: Destruction, resilience in the year of Yolanda, ‘pork’

File photos show (clockwise from top) government troops assaulting Muslim rebels in Zamboanga City; Janet Lim-Napoles at the Senate hearing, and the USS Guardian stuck in Tubbataha Reef.

MANILA, Philippines - Natural and man-made disasters jostled with the pork barrel scandal for the headlines in a year of destruction and despair but also resilience.

Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) made landfall in Eastern Visayas on a Friday, Nov. 8, rendering more than 6,000 people dead and counting, according to latest official figures, with nearly 2,000 still missing and thousands more injured.

The monster storm cut a swath of destruction across Leyte, Samar and nearby provinces, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and destroying billions of pesos worth of property, crops and livestock.

The ensuing days revealed a humanitarian disaster not seen in the region for decades, as photographs of post-apocalyptic devastation burned the wires and international news agencies paid tribute to Filipino resilience for the way people coped with the typhoon and its aftermath.

Not too soon, aid was pouring in from all over the globe and within local shores, volunteerism was revived along with political brickbats, benefit concerts and celebrity auctions were held to lend a helping hand in any form, although the rehabilitation and recovery were necessarily long term, for which a special Cabinet position was created to oversee the massive reconstruction.

In a supposed season of plenty there were efforts to make less destitute the holidays for people of Tacloban, Palo, Ormoc, Guiuan, Bantayan Island, Coron, countless other towns and cities so ravaged it was necessary to remind them that it was Christmastime, no gale force wind could stop the season of giving.

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Barely a month before Yolanda, which had evoked memories of that other great storm in 1970s Yoling closer to the capital, a 7.2 magnitude quake struck the unfortunate Visayas, centering mainly on the island of Bohol and to a lesser extent Cebu, in mid-October on the Muslim feast of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha. Centuries old churches were reduced to rubble in Loon, Loboc, Baclayon and other rustic, idyllic towns, the death toll reaching more than a hundred, but the cultural destruction was such that government and the private sector were forced to join hands to salvage whatever was left of the religious, historical artifacts in an island steeped in the Catholic faith, a tourist spot known for its tarsiers, Chocolate Hills, and a children’s choir that, however, continued to sing above the ruins.

Force majeure was not the only thing fate had in store for the country, as man-made disasters were also prevalent in the snake year now on its last gasp, because for three weeks in September a disgruntled faction of the Moro National Liberation Front laid siege to Zamboanga City and engaged government forces in a standoff that drove residents out of their homes to avoid getting caught in a crossfire.

After the smoke cleared more than 200 were dead, houses and buildings destroyed and thousands left to fend in evacuation centers, and the rebel chief nowhere to be found.

The MNLF faction was feeling left out of a comprehensive peace agreement the administration was drafting with the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which indicated the catch-22 nature of the peace process.

The Zamboanga standoff was the first in the triple whammy of tragedies that occurred in successive months in the last trimester.

Not all was bad news though, as the Philippines posted unprecedented economic growth in the first quarter, on the back of vastly improved credit ratings from international agencies, proof that the daang matuwid (straight path) fight against corruption and for transparency was bearing fruit, or so the sound bites said, even as oil prices fluctuated in their usual one rollback for every pair of increases and electricity costs, already the highest in the region, threatened to deliver a coup de grace on the pockets of average Filipinos if not for a timely TRO of the Supreme Court, where but to the SC do people run for status quo antes whether about pork or other matters of persuasion.

Speaking of which, those pork stories – notably the Priority Development Assistance Fund of senators and congressmen – literally hogged the headlines around midyear, shortly before the trilogy of disasters and well through it, suggesting political tug of war among the three coequal branches of government.

Three senators and a number of current and former congressmen faced plunder among other charges after a whistle-blower revealed a comprehensive scheme to siphon off billions of PDAF into the pockets of a few, to the detriment of public service meant for the presidential bosses.

Other branches’ pork also are going through the wringer, the Disbursement Acceleration Program of the executive and the Judiciary Development Fund of the judiciary among other discretions.

The past year also saw the much awaited comeback of Manny Pacquiao after a disastrous 2012 that had pundits speculating that perhaps the end was near for the Pacman, but doubts were put to rest after his masterful unanimous decision over brawler Brandon Rios in Macau late November, which victory he dedicated to the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. No sooner had the Pacific Storm seemingly turned back the clock when the taxmen on both sides of the ocean disclosed that the boxing legend was in arrears of several millions, even billions.

In basketball, Gilas Pilipinas earned a ticket to the world basketball championships in Spain by winning silver in the FIBA Asia championships in Manila last August.

Political contretemps with different Chinas were again evident throughout the year as the mainland tried to assert its might and alleged historical ownership over most of the South China Sea, declaring a so-called nine-dash line and virtual no-fly zone demarcating its perceived territory, that had other claimant countries as well as at least one superpower raising diplomatic ruckus, such as an exchange of notes verbale and other statements of real politick.

In May the Coast Guard was involved in the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman after a high-speed chase in disputed seas, for which the Philippine government had to issue an official apology and give compensation to the bereaved family.

The 2010 Luneta bus hostage crisis again haunted the President three years later as Hong Kong journalists heckled him at the APEC summit in Bali in October. 

Environmental concerns were brought to the fore when the US minesweeper Guardian ran aground in Tubbataha Reef in January, destroying thousands of corals in the UN declared heritage site, which disaster would only repeat itself as two other ships from separate countries also scraped the coral reef, resulting in untold damage. 

In February was the unlikely invasion of what could be northern Malaysia by Sulu royal sultanate forces, a pitched battle of running stories that strained relations between the southeast Asian neighbors. The royal army was reasserting the sultanate’s historical claim over Sabah, and the over a month-long nip and tuck resulted in several casualties from both sides, while back in Taguig long after the dust settled later in the year the world’s poorest sultan Jamalul Kiram died quietly without realizing his dream of winning back Sabah.

The midterm elections in May rang in a decisive victory for the administration Liberal Party on practically all fronts, with newcomer guest candidate Grace Poe topping the senatorial race.

The President may have seemed nonplussed by steadily falling ratings, but his sincerity and plain doggedness in pursuing the tuwid na daan were not lost on and much appreciated by his bosses, the people of the Philippines.

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