How Taiwanese Relief Saved a War-Torn Philippine City

Despite a diplomatic spat between Taipei and Manila, a Taiwanese aid organization provided crucial assistance to a city under siege

A dark cloud fell upon decades of healthy cultural, trade, and economic exchanges between Taiwan and the Philippines in May 2013 after Philippine coastguards fired at a Taiwanese fishing vessel that had reportedly intruded into Philippine waters, killing a Taiwanese fisherman and sparking an unprecedented diplomatic spat between the two countries. As the two nations seek to repair ties, a Taiwanese civic organization has shown that it is possible to put political aside in the service of humanity.

After the shooting incident, in which 65-year-old fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) was slain, Taipei threatened to curtail diplomatic and economic ties with the Philippine government, even though Manila publicly apologized to the family of the victim and to the Taiwanese government. Besides ordering the filing of homicide charges against the Philippine coastguards, Philippine President Aquino has called upon Filipino and Taiwanese civic organization to help restore relations between Taipei and Manila.

Some groups have answered the call. One of these non-government organizations (NGO) is the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation. With Filipino-Chinese-Taiwanese volunteers, the foundation is a symbol of cooperation between the two countries and provides various forms of assistance to those in need. It has also helped rebuild classrooms in areas ravaged by armed conflict.

Founded in Hualien in 1966, the Tzu Chi foundation was the brainchild of Dharma Master Cheng Yen (證嚴法師), a Buddhist nun and follower of the late Venerable Master Yin Shun (印順法師), a significant proponent of Humanistic Buddhism.

Master Cheng Yen set up the charity organization to help poverty-stricken communities where local residents did not have access to basic services. The organization began as a group of some 30 housewives who donated a small amount of money each day to care for needy families.

The foundation is rooted in Buddhist values and beliefs and is known for actions related to charity causes, medical contributions, education development, humanities, international disaster assistance, bone-marrow donation, community volunteerism, and environmental protection. Although it started as a charity, the organization has since extended its programs to include medicine, education, and culture. Its goal is to promote “sincerity, integrity, trust, and honesty.”

The group has since become a major actor in civil society, with approximately 10 million members and chapters in 47 countries.

As it expanded outside Taiwan, the foundation set up operations in the Philippines. In 2000 it established itself in the Southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, a city of more than 800,000 people. Of the 132 cities in the Philippines, Zamboanga is the 6th most populated and the third largest in terms of area. There, the foundation conducted surgical missions and provided other forms of humanitarian assistance. It built an eye care center to restore the vision of scores of people. It also provided US$3.4 million in assistance to needy individuals in the neglected southern Philippine region.

Thirteen years after it began operations in the city, the foundation faced its toughest humanitarian challenge when more than 400 separatist rebels from neighboring islands sailed off to this bustling city, declared their independence, and took 180 civilians — including women and children — hostage. In September 2013, the heavily armed rebels engaged in a three-week battle with 3,000 Philippine soldiers in and around the city. Amid the fighting, as many as 10,000 houses, buildings and state schools were burned down. More than 200 lives, including women and children, were lost. The war left more than 100,000 residents homeless who had to be placed in temporary evacuation centers.

Flights, sea vessels and other forms of transportation were cancelled, and the standoff literally crippled the economy of the city. At the height of the war, local businesses were losing US$46 million daily. As international NGOs and U.N. humanitarian agencies did not have access to the city when war broke out, the Tzu Chi Foundation was the among the first international NGOs to respond.

Tzu Chi Foundation local coordinator Anton Lim, a veterinarian and national board member of the foundation, said that the foundation’s immediate response was to address the food shortage at the height of the war, when stores, big or small, were shut down, and locals and displaced individuals did not have access to food. Lim notified the network partners of the foundation who initially provided 500 sacks of rice for the starving victims of war. When government soldiers defending the city ran out of food during hostilities, Tzu chi workers entered the battle zone and distributed food rations so that the soldiers would not go hungry.

As many as 20,000 individuals remain displaced by the war. Tzu Chi has provided more than 8,000 sacks of rice to the victims. Many of the recipients are women and children.

Education officials reported that most school children are deprived of basic education because government-owned classrooms were used as temporary evacuation centers. Believing in the government slogan of education for all, Tzu Chi built 63 classrooms in seven evacuation centers in the city to bring back some sense of normalcy for school children. Thousands of children still have not returned to school after the war, and these children are “unaccounted for,” according to education authorities.

Local economists say it will take 25 years for the city to recover from the socio-economic dislocations caused by the devastating three-week war. Tzu Chi was instrumental in helping the economy recover from the immediate effects of the war. It will continue to play a major role as the residents begin to rebuild their lives.

Noel Tarrazona is a freelance journalist in the Southern Philippines covering the growing military presence of China and U.S. in the West Philippine Sea. He completed a Master Degree in Public Administration and a candidate of Doctor of Public Administration. He can be reached at ntarrazona@gmail.com

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