Saturday, October 20, 2007

Angel Island

Angel Island. {Clearly} not by me

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fatal Explosion in Manila

An explosion Friday afternoon in a Metro Manila shopping mall left at least 9 dead and more than 100 injured. Investigations into the cause of the explosion are ongoing, but authorities have announced traces of high explosives were found on the scene and fingered the Abu Sayyaf Group as a prime suspect.

I was shocked and upset to read the news. But hardly surprised. At risk of sounding like a wingnut conspiracy theorist, I have to say: the timing of this attack is just way, way too convenient.

The already unpopular President Arroyo recently got busted for distributing sacks full of cash to legislators. These “cash gifts,” ranging in value from about US$4,000 to US$10,000 were distributed at the presidential palace during a meeting of allied politicians, with the fairly transparent goal of buying their loyalty as a new round of impeachment attempts reaches congress.

Unable to deny the incident after a few legislators spoke to the press, the administration’s attempts at damage control have bordered on the ridiculous – claiming that such “cash gifts” are standard rewards for a job well done and therefore nothing scandalous, arguing that the money came from private rather than public funds and is thus not subject to scrutiny, and asserting that President Arroyo was not actually in the room when the “gifts” were handed out and consequently should not be linked to them.

Needless to say, these explanations are a bit unsatisfactory, and quite a lot of people are quite upset by this latest episode in a long, long string of corruption scandals. And this time, the opposition is not only from the left or the middle class, but also from soldiers, who have recently been denied even the pittance of a $3 bonus they should be entitled to for combat pay because of a “lack of funds.”

In short: it’s a perfect time for a public tragedy -- preferably an act of terrorism -- which can rally the troops and the public around the president, and which will justify declaring of a state of emergency, putting the capitol under tight surveillance, banning large public gatherings and pressuring the media.

And look what just happened: an explosion in the heart of Metro Manila, at a shopping mall that caters to middle-class and upwardly mobile urban professionals (a core constituency for the anti-corruption movement).

I really don’t have any idea what happened, but it seems like the situation breaks down like this:

Could it have been the Abu Sayyaf, or a similar group?
Absolutely. There is definitely a precedent for terrorist attacks in Manila by forces in opposition to the state. This is not even the first time Glorietta Mall has been attacked -- in May 2000, a homemade bomb damaged a pedestrian bridge in the complex and injured 12 people. Moreover, the Abu Sayyaf has claimed responsibility for past bombings in Metro Manila, the most fatal a 2004 attack on a ferry in Manila Bay that killed over 100 people, and the most recent in 2005, when a bus in Makati, a mall in GenSan City and a bus station in Davao were attacked simultaneously.

Could the administration be responsible?
Absolutely. The first thing that comes to mind is the Plaza Miranda bombing in August 1971, the apex of several months of attacks all bearing (to quote Alfred McCoy’s “Closer than Brothers”) “the fingerprints of a military operation,” which killed 9 and injured 3 opposition senators at an opposition rally, and provided Marcos with the pretext for suspending the writ of habeas corpus and declaring Martial Law. I’m not saying Arroyo has necessarily reached a Marcos-esque level of depravity, but the hundreds of activists salvaged* on Arroyo’s watch bear profound testimony to this administration’s absolute disregard for human life when making decisions about regime maintenance. Furthermore, when opposition to Arroyo crested in February 2006, a conveniently timed and very ambiguous coup plot was “discovered,” which allowed Arroyo to declare a state of emergency, target opposition and independent media, and crack down on leftist leaders.

Another possibility?
The initial reports of police inspectors on the scene pointed to an explosion triggered by tanks of LP cooking gas in the mall. It was not until several hours later that authorities announced that traces of C4 explosives were found on the scene. Again, it makes perfect sense that conducting forensic work of this sort would take a couple of hours. But I’m unwilling to entirely rule out the possibility that the explosion was a freak accident that is now being cynically manipulated by the government.

I suspect we will never know what actually happened. But I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that regardless of who is responsible and why, this terrible incident has played directly into the hands of the Arroyo administration.

* [n.b.: salvage: Taglish slang for the practice of torturing political opponents to death, then leaving their mutilated corpses in public places to further terrorize the population at large – which is, revealingly, common enough to require its own word]

For footage of the aftermath of the explosion, with commentary in Tagalog, see:–-PNP

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The past is a foreign country...

Self-portrait, 1998

I've realized I have a tendancy not only to think of the past as a foreign country, but also to treat my earlier self as a citizen of that country -- a distant friend perhaps, with whom I share a past but not a present.
What a shock, and a needed one, to be reminded that we share the same body, the same brain and the same heart.

Friday, October 12, 2007


I went to a presentation today about the military crackdown of the recent uprising in Burma. Terrible, and disturbing in and of itself. But I managed, somehow, to sit and look pictures of beatings and corpses. Until one image flashed on the screen and I nearly had a breakdown.
It showed the inside of a monastery raided by the military, with broken glass, upended furniture and a pool of blood on the floor.
It wasn’t, by any means, the most graphic picture in the series. But it triggered ghosts of a trauma I thought I had managed to lay to rest.

It looked so much like images I still carry burned into my retinas that I almost vomited. I wanted to run out, but didn’t trust myself to squeeze out of the crowded room without freaking out worse, so I stayed in my chair and rode it out.
Just over six years ago, when I was 19 years old and living in Barcelona, I went to Genoa to join protests against the G8 summit. The entire experience was incredibly intense. What I remember most, these years later, is the feeling of menace. I’ve been to some fairly dodgy places in my life, but nowhere has compared to the palpable sense of danger I felt from the moment I set foot in the city until the moment I left, speeding out of the city through back roads afraid for my life. The pinnacle for me, or perhaps more accurately the darkest pit, was the raid on the Diaz school on July 21, where people participating in the Genoa Social Forum, including myself, had been staying during the summit.

I reprint below –typos and all-- an email I sent out the afternoon of July 22, 2001, which describes the situation with much more immediacy than anything I could possible write now.

hey. first i want to let everyone know that i am okay(physically at least). so are cj, shira, macia, soren,alessia and everyone from la fabrica. (sorry for thoseof you who don,t know these people, but i don`t have time or energy to write 2.
i dont know if youve heard anything about the raid on the indymedia center and the school across the street here in genoa. theres some pretty good general information about it at
when it happened i was sitting outside in front of the indymedia center, where there were some meetings going on. things had been pretty tense but it was late and i was very tired, and thinking about going to sleep. all of a sudden, somebody shouted police, and we looked up and saw lines and lines of riot police running down the street towards us. for a minute we nearly ran into the school that had been used as a sleeping place for GSF activists, but at the last minute we turned and ran into the indymedia center, just before the gate got shut. we closed the building up, and ran to the windows. i didnt get a good view, but people who were looking said that they saw the police drive a truck through the gate of the school, then run towards the building, screaming and throwing bottles. just after that the police came into the media center. they made all of us sit on the floor next to the wall, and then searched and trashed the building, taking as much legal support and networking databases as they could. the floor where i was was very tense, with the police walking up and down with sticks and yelling in italian, but after a while it relaxed a bit, and nobody got hurt. they kept us there for about 45 minutes without searching or id-ing anybody.
then they left and someone ran into the hall saying really shaken up saying they had massacred the people across the street. we ran out and there were lines and lines of riot police between us and the other building. they starting bringing stretchers into the building. they were going in and out for over an hour. people saw large black bags being carried out as well. it was hard to see much, but i know for sure that i saw one person being carried out on a stretcher still in his sleeping bag, with a bleeding headwound. it was awful. it just kept going on and on and on. and the tension kept mounting with the police as we were all screaming and crying. after they carried all of the stretchers out, and arrested everyone who could walk out, they ran back to their vans and left, leaving the building open.
when they were gone, we went to the building to tru and get peoples things out, and to try to see what had happened. there was blood everywhere, peoples bags dumped out and scattered, doors to anywhere someone could hide smashed open. everywhere it looked like people had been sleeping there were pools of blood. then the journalists came in and starting filming everything and anyone who was crying and it was even worse. i tried to keep focuse on saving peoples personal things, but i had to leave the building for a while after being in a stairwell with a bloody board lying in a huge pool of blood with a handfull of hair next to it. everywhere that in looked like people had been sleeping was covered in blood. there was blood all down the stairways and smeared all over the walls. there was a radiator with a big circle of blood on it and drips on the floor below. and the police left the building open for everyone to see it.
there were some people in the building who managed to get out by climbing onto scaffolding, and some who managed to hide. everyone has said that when the police came in everyone was just running and trying to get away, or asleep.
when the police would come into a room people would lie down on the floor and try not to provoke them, but that the police were obviosely enjoying themselves.
there still hasnt been a full list of everyone arrested and hospitalized released. crusty from petrushka in defenitly in the hospital with a head injury.
im afraid of being in this city, but the people from GSF seem to have abondoned everyone, so im staying to try and help with legal support. ive been really lucky so far and i hope it will last. people have been organizing safe places to sleep for those of us who are staying, so i should be fine.
but please, tell everyone you know about what has happened here. the media is really shutting it out and its really important that people know. anything you can do to try to raise attention (even forwarding this email if neccesary, removing the beginning bits) would be really appreciated by everyone.
take care
The end of this story is that there was no safe place to sleep in Genoa that night. The list of those arrested and hospitalized did come out that afternoon. 62 people were beaten into the hospital, nearly all of them with head trauma. Almost everyone involved in the demonstrations had fled town, with most of the organizers from the larger NGO’s regrouping in Milan.
My instinct for self-preservation is stronger than this story may suggest – though I did, after all, at least have the sense to run to the building full of journalists when the riot police showed up – but after what I had witnessed, leaving town while people were still in the hospital seemed unconscionable. It came down to just a few of us left in the media center trying to coordinate some sort of local clearinghouse for information and to get the arrestee’s belongings to safe places.
As night fell, though, it became clear that staying in Genoa any longer would’ve been suicidal. We were being tailed by police as we tried to go to a place to sleep. Some signals were made which, according to my Italian friends, were unambiguously death threats. I don’t even remember exactly how we got out of the city, but I remember almost not being able to breathe from fear until we got onto the autostrada towards Torino.
In the immediate aftermath, the degree to which I’d been traumatized was clear. The next day was the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten so drunk I couldn’t take my own shoes off. I was living in a fog I couldn’t crawl out of until I went into the Alps to sit in the forest for a few days. When I visited Torino a few years later, I recognized nothing in the city. I still haven’t been back to Genoa.
But I thought I’ve been able to put the experience behind me. It’s not something I ever talk about. I honestly don’t think I’d even thought about it in years. But I learned today, it still cuts pretty deep, and probably always will.

If the description above isn’t graphic enough, there’s a film at:

Monday, October 08, 2007


I listen to classical music so rarely that I sometimes forget how much I love it.
But an afternoon spent trying to drown out background library chatter has reminded me that certain pieces, like Satie's Gymnopedies, can transport me in a way that almost nothing else can.

When I got home this afternoon I was inspired to play my violin, for the first time in longer than I care to admit.
At times, I'm frustrated by the limits my diminished motor skills impose. I simply no longer have the kind of precise muscular control I had when I was 15. I struggle through music I mastered as a teenager, and it's hard to imagine having the drive -- or the time -- for the consistent, disciplined practice it would take to get back up to a reasonable level of proficiency.
It's still a joy, though, just to play. To draw my bow across the strings and hear the bright, clean sharpness of a perfectly-tuned E string, the murky complexity of a minor scale, or the exacting precision of a Bach Minuet.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The eucalyptus grove -- my favorite place on the UC Berkeley campus.
I wish these photos could capture the smell of sunlight hitting the leaves drying on the forest floor.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Oh, I am so bad.
Looks like I'm back to posting about how I don't ever post.
School seems to do this to me.
What can I say? By and large, I find what I'm doing in school interesting. Which is why I'm here. But it doesn't make for great narrative. As in -- I actually spent a fair chunk of my day in a very involved discussion about how to best diagram the fluid and variegated nature of the plural society that existed (according to some, but not all scholars) in the Burma Delta in the early twentieth century.
Actually though, today was a rather more interesting day than usual. I had the opportunity to have lunch with Zainah Anwar, the executive director of Sisters in Islam a feminist group based in Malaysia. Apart from offering a very interesting vision of Islam, one that manages to be both iconoclastic and devout, she was a fun person to get to hang out with for a bit. I am planning to write a profile of her for a class assignment, so more on her later.
I also had the chance to attend a screening of Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem by Masako Sakata, a visiting scholar from Japan at the J School. Her husband, an American Vietnam veteran, took ill and died, quite suddenly, at the age of 54. Masako's search for insight into the underlying causes of his death pointed increasingly to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Eventually, her own personal quest to survive his death led Masako to travel throughout Vietnam, meeting Vietnamese villagers who suffer from diseases they believe are caused by the dioxin in Agent Orange, and whose children suffer from horrible birth defects, even 3 generations after the war.
It was a difficult film to watch -- lots of long, lovingly shot cuts of terribly deformed children -- but very moving, especially because Masako's personal journey is so much a part of the story.
Unfortunately, the film is unlikely to get much distribution in the U.S., but keep an eye out for it.
...And now that I've cracked the guilt barrier about posting, perhaps I'll be writing more.