The plotting chapels | Inquirer Opinion

The plotting chapels

/ 12:08 AM October 17, 2015

Small but well-loved chapels may prove to be the strongest opposition to the government’s tide embankment program in Tacloban, Palo and Tanauan in Leyte, under which a powerful, 4-meter-high dike will be built along the east coast of the province. The chapels have their own tactics, and, like the people of the area, they are very resilient.

There may be as many as 36 chapels along the 27-kilometer route of the planned embankment. Some are very old, some are in ruins, some were rebuilt after Typhoon “Yolanda.” The embankment will plow through them all.

Needless to say, the chapels are opposed to this embankment. The chapels don’t travel, of course, so they can’t meet, but they have their own ways of communication. This is the story of how the chapels in the poor coastal barangays of Tacloban, Palo and Tanauan defeated the government’s tide embankment program.


The chapels believed that the people would not be able to stop the tide embankment program by themselves. They saw that the government was ready to spend P7.9 billion on the construction, and that it was closely allied in the work with the Japan International Cooperation Agency. It was already late in the game: The national elections would be held in a few months, and the government would not be in the mood for rethinking or delaying the work, even if such delays are called for. Finally, the people had never before opposed the government on a matter of such scale. The chapels decided to help the people, and they began to communicate with one another.


In the beginning, the chapels spent much time catching up with each other’s activities; their last work together, after all, was in the final days of World War II. When they got down to serious planning, they decided they would follow one of the oldest strategies in warfare—divide and conquer. They asked themselves: What would divide Filipino and Japanese engineers working side by side in the regional office of the Department of Public Works and Highways in Palo? And they realized: gold, the Yamashita gold that people all over the country have been looking for since 1945.

The chapels had to find a way to put it in the minds of the Japanese engineers that Yamashita’s gold was buried in part in the chapels they would destroy. Meanwhile, they would put it in the minds of the Filipino engineers that their Japanese coworkers were acting strangely and they should therefore keep a close eye on them. The trap was set, and the chapels sat back to see how it would work out.


Soon the Filipinos saw a copy of a cable sent to Tokyo by one of the Japanese engineers, asking for information on the towns along the east coast of Leyte where Japanese troops were stationed during World War II. Were there engineering units among them? the engineer wanted to know.

It was true, the Filipinos said to themselves, the Japanese planned to find the gold. But why should they get the gold? the Filipinos asked. Shouldn’t we have an equal opportunity? Soon each side was planning to outwit the other. Each pretended to be working on the embankment, but they were both using every opportunity they had to locate the gold. In the end they were no longer doing any real work on the embankment. Their Japanese and Filipino bosses noted this and criticized them, but the engineers had a bad case of gold fever. The tension among the engineers rose to crisis levels.

Then the Filipino bosses found out what was going on, but instead of ordering a stop to all the gold-hunting, they conspired with their engineers to continue it. They decided they would find an excuse to do a preliminary examination of every large structure, including every chapel. They would find the gold, seize it, put it someplace safe, and get back to the embankment construction.

Alas, the Japanese superiors found out about this plan and protested sharply. The argument spread to Manila and on to Tokyo.

The arguments became so heated that all work on the embankment ceased. Ordinary families in the path of the embankment had no idea of what had happened.

Japan and the Philippines argued their cases through the various levels of international courts that cover such matters. In connection with one of these legal cases, a scientist conducted the simulations that the Philippine engineers had not done. He found that the country was very fortunate that the whole plan was aborted, because his simulation showed that the embankment would stop a direct storm surge, but the surge would travel inland up the rivers and do even more damage than it would have done if there were no embankment.

Later another simulation was made with even more sophisticated computers. This study found that the political fallout from the embankment’s damage inland would have lost the election for the president’s party. We are not allowed to reveal which party would have won.

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Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

TAGS: Japan International Cooperation Agency, Leyte, Palo, supertyphoon ‘yolanda’, Tacloban, Tanauan

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