A gift of compassion for Francis | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

A gift of compassion for Francis

“You shall not kill” was what I told policemen of Quezon City last May 22 when I saw them confiscating the goods being sold by the poor on Agham Road. Victims of the recent demolition of their homes, the poor were only trying to eke out a living.

“This is a sidewalk and [selling assorted goods] is against the law,” the policemen said, trying to justify their action. I replied: “When you destroy their livelihood, you practically kill them.”

It was a good opportunity for me to confront the authorities because a few days earlier, while on board a tricycle, I saw a pregnant woman trying to retrieve her wares that had been scattered by policemen on Agham.

These incidents—of government officials abusing poor people—have become a very common sight all over the country. There are no qualms of conscience even if these officials know that they are dealing with citizens whom they had vowed to serve. They select laws they can use and disregard those that protect human rights because the poor cannot afford to defend their rights.

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The recent violent demolition on Agham brought home this point very well. The Constitution clearly provides that demolition has to be done in a “just and humane manner.” The provisions of the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, for all its defects, should have been followed conscientiously: There should be notice of at least 30 days prior to eviction, adequate consultations, proper identification of all persons taking part in the demolition, and decent housing at affordable cost with basic services and employment opportunities.

Moreover, the government forces were in full battle gear during the demolition, hitting even unarmed citizens and using powerful tear gas—all in the name of road widening but in reality to facilitate the business interests of the Ayalas. In Quezon City, development means slow death to poor people.

Even until now, the National Housing Authority could not care less whether the families who were left homeless continue to live under sun and rain. There is no more budget, the homeless have been told. They are not even allowed to pitch tents over their heads during the day. The whole urban poor area is now like a Nazi concentration camp surrounded by wires and with the exits closed. What would happen if there is a fire?

Well, the security of the land appears to be more important than human beings. And to add insult to injury, people of other faiths have been hired, who themselves live in the area as security guards—a divide-and-conquer technique.

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Many people have become numb to this treatment. Or maybe it’s the lull before a storm.

The government closes its eyes to the reality that demolition and relocation without job opportunities have always been a failure, have only caused additional suffering for the already suffering people. Many of those relocated have sold their houses and returned to Manila just to have something to eat. The government does not see that its laws on land reform, contractualization, “libing” wages, privatization, etc. exclude the poor from the benefits of society and thus push them to become squatters. The government sees only the high profits of business and personal gains.

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Pope Francis has articulated it in Evangelii Gaudium #53: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

When I jogged around Agham last May 29 at 4 a.m., I saw, to my surprise, some families whose houses had been demolished sleeping on the sidewalk. As human beings endowed with dignity, they have a right to shelter, which should have been given them especially in a predominantly Christian country like ours. But that is not the case. The government has gone on a demolition spree to clear Metro Manila of its half-million squatter families, in the process pushing more and more people into grinding poverty that kills. Violence on the unarmed only convinces people that the government listens only to those with arms. This begets more killings.

The police and the military should never be used to crush the dignity of the poor for the moneyed and powerful. Rather, they should promote Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services.

There was no electricity on Agham from 6 p.m. of June 1 until 8 a.m. of the next day. So many families had to endure the heat and mosquitoes. Would that happen if Agham were populated by the rich? Discrimination against the dignity of the poor has become so commonplace that nobody seems to be bothered by it anymore.

Pope Francis, who will visit the Philippines in 2015, reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium #209: “We are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth.” A compassionate Philippines will be the best welcome for him.

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Fr. Pete Montallana ([email protected]), a priest for 37 years now, lived with the urban poor for 13 years “following the footsteps” of St. Francis. He worked with the Agta-Dumagat in Infanta, Quezon, when he was chair of the Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance, of which he is now a member.

TAGS: demolition, nation, news, squatters

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