Tonight is my last night in Phnom Penh, and I am eager to go home to the Philippines after being away for 12 days. I am anxious to check how Inay is recovering from her debridement. Girlie and Ayen say that my absence seems longer than the 12 days, and warn me to expect a lot of requests for meetings.
A week ago, I joined the Pinoys/Pinays at the English language mass in Phnom Penh sponsored by the Maryknoll missionaries. It was pleasant surprise to see Fr. Jim Noonan, a friend from way back, and Lieke, a Dutch woman who used to work in Office of Human Development with Bishop Labayen. Jim sent his greetings to Inay, and Lieke reminded me, “I was the one who fetched you from the airport when you returned from Europe in 1981.” Small world.
The choir was dominantly Filipino, and sang wery well. Dinky Soliman, who is here on a World Bank engagement to promote social accountability, said that even some non-Catholics attend the mass because of the singing. They hold their regular practice in the “House of Joy,” where Joy Ogan lives with Malou of Asia Foundation.
A few rows in front of where I sat, there was a couple of our kababayans wearing protest T-shirts. In front, with a big red heart, they proclaimed “I love JLo.” At the back there were twin slogans – “Atras Gloria! Abante Pilipinas!”
After mass, around 40 of us gathered at the Bistro Lorenzo, owned and run by a Filipino couple. No, it’s not a franchise of its namesake in the Philippines; Lorenzo is the name of their young son. We had a sumptuous buffet at only 6 dollars per head. Badette Bolo, country director of Habitat for Humanity, also brought binagoongang baboy which quickly disappeared.
They told me that many of the group meet every Saturday, after mass. They call themselves Barangay Sabado. Most are working with international development NGOs in Cambodia. Others are professional consultants or hold corporate jobs.
The previous Saturday, they had an after-dinner forum, where Dinky presented a powerpoint backgrounder on the NBN-ZTE scandal and the recent anti-GMA protests. When they found out that I was in Phnom Penh, they invited me to speak at a follow-up forum, and I agreed.
Actually the initial invitation was to have dinner with the Pinoys/Pinays. Who can refuse a free meal and a chance to meet kababayans?
I told them that I learned a similar lesson during my informal exile in Europe. When we invite the Pinoys/Pinays to a forum at which snacks would be served, a couple of dozens would come. But when we invite them to a merienda-cena to be followed by a forum, the number would double!
The discussions after dinner were lively, and thoughtful. Although majority of them had already taken an anti-GMA position, some of those who came for the forum raised the kind of questions that reflect the thinking and feeling of many middle class professionals inside and outside the Philippines.
All of them agree on the need for change, even in the presidency. But they ask, “Who will replace GMA?” If it is Noli de Castro, hardly anyone thought it would be for the better. Of course some argued that this should not be an excuse not to press GMA to step down. But there was a clear sense that they wanted some reassurance that thnigs would be better.
I shared with them the little I know of Jun Lozada, based on three conversations with him and a couple of phone calls. They wanted to know how the rest of the country felt. I told them that those who are openly calling for GMA’s resignation may still be a minority, but growing. And so far, those who are pro-GMA cannot establish a credible and effective pole in the contest for influence over public opinion.
After their first forum, the organizers formed an e-group. They are circulating a statement for signatures. They plan to give the signed statement to the embassy, and to their contacts in Philippine media. They get their news from the internet, texts and TFC – The Filipino Channel.
The forum organizers gave me one “I love Jlo” T-shirt as souvenir. I asked why they have not used scarves, since they are typical of Cambodia. Sure enough, when I got back from Laos, they showed me colorful scarves with their silkscreened messages: “Pinays and Pinays sa Cambodia: Pikon Na! Stand up for Truth and Justice.” They sent a couple of hundred with Dinky when she flew to the Philippines last Thursday, to sell to rallyists on Friday.
Inevitably, they ask: “What can we do from here?” I threw it back to them, since they know better what is possible in their situation. But I urged them to at least make their voice heard, through whatever channels they can use. “You are still citizens of the Philippines, and the government even calls you modern heroes. Even your questions are useful, since they challenge the protest leaders to think through the implications and consequences.”
I left for Lao PDR the next day, to do the interviews for the feasibility study I have been engaged to make, but promised to get in touch again as soon as I returned to Phnom Penh.
While waiting for my flight back to Phnom Penh, someone at the Vientiane airport who said he was going to Kuala Lumpur asked, “Are you Filipino?” He turned out to be also Pinoy, and he knew of my name. Pidio finished his engineering course at the Ateneo, and is a contemporary of Edgar Jopson. We had a lively discussion while waiting for our plane.
He believes that there are changes happening in the Philippines due to the influence of overseas Filipinos. It is not just because of the money they send home. It is also their ideas, drawn from their life outside and their experience of other ways of doing things, including dealing with other governments. They exercise influence on fellow Filipinos with whom they communicate, through face to face conversations and phone calls, text messages and emails. Some have returned to challenge the established politicians in their home towns; a few even won in the last elections.
The changes that he thinks are happening may not necessarily be as overt as electoral victories. In fact he is not sure about the precise changes, but he thinks that overseas Pinoys and Pinays are bringing about and will help bring about more changes than we recognize and anticipate.
In my conversations and all-too-brief encounters with fellow Pinoys/Pinays in Cambodia, I got glimpses of what Pidio was trying to get at. They are part of the hope that drives us to work for changes , whether we live and work inside or outside the Philippines.