In the aftermath of Typhoon "Ondoy," which devastated the Philippines, Lila Shahani wrote an open letter to her uncle -- former President of the Philippines Fidel V. Ramos, confronting him about the state of politics, government and corruption in the Philippines. The letter attracted media, political and public attention.
Here, Lila Shahani tells us what motivated her to write the letter -- how she found the strength to speak out against political corruption -- and why we in the U.S. need to pay attention to what happens politically in the Philippines.
What prompted you to write the open letter to your uncle?
The catalyst was Typhoon “Ondoy” -- a massive typhoon that took place late last year. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and almost 80% of the capital was under water. There were merely a handful of lifeboats for half a million people. There had actually been a fairly large emergency fund -- but the money had apparently been misused by certain corrupt officials.
I was appalled. The Philippines was still the place where I had left much of my heart. I saw my friends cowering on roofs – carrying their laptops –and sometimes they had to choose between those very laptops and their shoes.
I suspected that my uncle was planning to endorse the administration’s presidential candidate, Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro – who had been in charge of the disaster relief. He was the guy who ended up with the handful of lifeboats for half a million people. Because my uncle has maintained considerable power even after having stepped down, whoever he anointed -- or officially endorsed -- often tended to make it, which is why I considered it important at the time.
I wrote the letter to my uncle because I was hoping he would endorse Noynoy Aquino instead, who has now won. I really wasn’t such a huge fan of Noynoy at the time – but I still thought he would be the best person for the country.
What did you have to overcome to write this letter?
On a personal level, because we [as a political family] were not supposed to speak about anything sensitive or critical – I pretty much shut up for most of my life.
But I could only have broken my silence with this letter. In retrospect, I don’t see how I could have done it any other way. It was the only way I could say to the country and to the world, “Hey, I’m me – I’m not my uncle’s clone – I can think beyond my family name.”
But the only honest way of doing that would have been to say: “I love my uncle, I admire him, I disagree on certain issues -- but I am still proud of what he has achieved.”
That’s the spirit in which I began. Of course, I didn’t expect this massive response afterwards. I put the letter on my Facebook wall – I had only 80 friends at the time -- but I got thousands of responses. The letter ended up in several newspapers here. I got calls to do interviews on TV. I was a bit floored – it was 2009, after all – my uncle had been out of power since 1998. I thought, “Why does anyone even care about what I think?”
I don’t think the letter made a splash so much because I endorsed Noynoy -- I think it made a splash because a Ramos family member was critical but respectful of another family member, which is kind of unheard of here – either you genuflect, or you fling mud, which is sad.
Do you plan to stay in the Philippines and to continue to voice your political beliefs?
Had Noynoy not won, I might have had a more grim view of my ability to contribute, because I might have been very actively silenced. I hope I’ll be able to help out now, even in a small way.
But the Philippines is not yet out of the woods. The new vice president -- Jejomar Binay -- is not from Noynoy’s political party. I hope the ideological and practical differences between the two can be resolved. Oligarchs who funded them both will want to maintain their monopolies and will want payback in terms of government positions and contracts. The House is also full of former President Arroyo’s allies, and the Senate is pretty evenly divided as well. It will be hard for Noynoy to enact long-term reforms unless he has people supporting him. So while I’m elated and optimistic about Noynoy’s win, I’m also realistic and slightly guarded about the future.
Do you see any signs of political change in the Philippines that give you hope?
Frankly, we’re lucky not to have ended up like Thailand. Strategically, the U.S. is going to need all its Asian allies, what with China’s forays throughout the developing world and the current tension between North and South Korea. The global financial climate is unusually volatile now as well, given what has happened with Greece and the Euro, which in turn has affected the U.S. Having a stable anchor in Southeast Asia (which, significantly, has direct waterways to the Middle East) is absolutely critical for the U.S. So it’s ultimately in US interests to have a Noynoy presidency succeed. And, like Obama, Noynoy is clearly for reform, so these could be very exciting times indeed.
Photo by Mike Alquinto
Lila Shahani did her undergrad at Brown and went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts for her MA. Places of work: CCP, UP, Oxford University Press, UNICEF and UNDP. She has worked as an editor and policy adviser for the UN in NY and is currently a doctoral candidate at Oxford. Learn more at her blog, Notes from an Insomniac.