Manila Cleans up for APEC

In an action reminiscent of strongman Ferdinand Marco’s image-conscious rule, Philippine police have been rounding up residents of Manila’s teeming slums and hustling them out of sight ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which opened today, Nov. 16, and runs through Nov. 21.

“The Philippine government should immediately release the hundreds of mostly indigent and homeless Manila residents, including more than 140 children,” Human Rights Watch has said. The roundup apparently began on Nov. 9, when police began to rout hundreds from streets and slums and detained them without charge.

Dignitaries attending the conference include US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. China has not confirmed its attendance although Philippine officials are confident that all 20 of the invited leaders from APEC member economies will attend, which, together with President Benigno Aquino III, will number 21.

Although the Philippine government has announced measures intended to reduce the impact of the conclave for residents and businesses, much of Metro Manila is expected to grind to a standstill. The always-chaotic traffic has been made worse by lane closures that allow the dignitaries to bypass massive traffic jams. Nov. 18 and 19 have been declared nonworking days.

Unprecedented security

With the world in the shadow of the massacres in Paris over the weekend and continuing unrest in the south of the country from Communists and militant Islamic groups such as Abu Sayyaf, security is expected to be at unprecedented levels across Metro Manila for the entire week of APEC meetings. Officials say that security measures are likely to exceed those during the visit of Pope Francis in January.

Marcos routinely rounded up slum dwellers by the thousands and built tall white fences to hide the slums when dignitaries came to town for international events in the 70s. Welcome to the future. Public works projects underway include repainting major highways, putting up hoardings to hide vast slums from roadways and removing street vendors from major thoroughfares. With the Philippines struggling to escape decades of torpor, the city led by Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and others, is attempting to put on its best face for the arrival of the Pacific region’s top leaders, as it did for the visit of Pope Francis.

“Philippine authorities have violated the rights of hundreds of Manila residents to put a cynical veneer of ‘cleanliness’ on the city for APEC delegates,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The removal and detention of homeless and impoverished residents from where they live and work without due process is a violation of their basic human rights.”

“Dario,” a scavenger arrested on a street near Roxas Boulevard, told Human Rights Watch that development authority personnel who detained him on Nov. 11 were “brutal.”

“They were merciless,” Dario told Human Rights Watch. “They took our things or did not allow some of us to bring our belongings.”

Local authorities conduct the “clearing operations” in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development. The department’s director for Metro Manila, Alicia Bonoan, told Human Rights Watch the “clearing operations” were part of a government policy of “rescuing” and “reaching out” to the homeless and the poor, particularly children.

Bonoan said the clearing operations were conducted in tandem with a modified cash transfer program launched in 2011 that provides up to PHP4,000 (US$90) in monthly rental support payments for up to six months to 4,408 low-income families in Metro Manila. Bonoan denied any link between the ongoing operations and the APEC summit but the accounts of people who have recently been detained, their relatives and social workers from nongovernmental groups suggest otherwise.

The total number of people detained is uncertain, Human Rights Watch said. The Department of Social Welfare and Development reported that more than 20,000 people have been removed from the streets in recent months. The department said an unspecified number of residents were relocated to different locations in Metro Manila, while others were relocated far from the APEC summit venue and to the provinces.

“Abusing Manila’s homeless population shouldn’t be part of the price tag for the Philippines government to host high-profile international events,” Kine said. “APEC delegates should make it clear to their Philippine hosts that abusive ‘clearing operations’ against Manila’s most vulnerable residents only tarnish the reputations of the Philippines and APEC.”