TIME The Philippines

It’s Been Five Years Since the Maguindanao Massacre and the Perpetrators Are Still Free

Filipino journalists light candles to commemorate the 2nd year anniversary of the "Maguindanao Massacre" at the National Press Club compound in Manila
Filipino journalists light candles to commemorate the second-year anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre at the National Press Club compound in Manila on Nov. 23, 2011 Erik de Castro—Reuters

On Nov. 23, 2009, in the southern Philippines, 57 people were killed, most of them journalists. There have been no convictions

The killers used a state-owned backhoe to dig a pit, then shoved the bodies in. When investigators arrived on the scene of Nov. 23, 2009, massacre in Ampatuan — a small town in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao — they found the bullet-riddled corpses of 57 men and women, dozens of whom were journalists.

It has now been five years since the worst-ever act of election violence in the Philippine history, and the worst recorded attack on journalists the world has known. By now, the awful details of what happened that day are well established: 57 people, en route to register an opposition candidate for an upcoming election — or, in the case of journalists, to cover that registration — were stopped, executed by gunmen, and buried on site. It was a brutal, sloppy job; the executioners, it seems, were not worried about getting caught.

Five years on, that culture of impunity persists. Though the Philippine’s popular President, Benigno Aquino III, promised swift action on the case, there have been no convictions. Lawyers for the clan accused of orchestrating the massacre — who, like the town are also called Ampatuan — have successfully stalled as prosecutors scramble to hold together their case while assailants track and target witnesses. (Many of the alleged masterminds plead not guilty on charges related to the deaths and deny involvement.)

The trial is a case study in intimidation and abuse. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and have others documented multiple attempts to silence witnesses with cash. Where that fails: violence. Four witnesses have already been killed, including Dennix Sakal, once a driver for one of the chief suspects, who was this month shot to death as he drove to meet state prosecutors. “Dead men tell no tales,” was the bitter remark of the National Press Club.

Even before the killings in Maguindanao, the Philippines was considered one of the world’s worst countries for journalists. More than 100 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since the 1980s, according to local rights groups, and those who target media personnel usually go unpunished. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that upwards of 90% of killers walk free.

Part of the problem is that swaths of the country are controlled by political clans with private armies and legal protection. A 2010 HRW investigation into the Maguindanao killings described them as “an atrocity waiting to happen.” The 96-page report was titled They Own People — a reference to family that, with the help of local police and military personnel, “has controlled life and death in Maguindanao for more than two decades.”

Aquino was supposed to stop this. Early in his term, the scion of an altogether different political family promised to eliminate private armies that thrived under his predecessors, and to pursue justice for Maguindanao. But his government’s handling of the Maguindanao case, as well as the use of violence against media in general, is seen by ordinary people and rights activists alike as a striking and somewhat perplexing failure. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) says that 23 journalists were killed in the first 40 months of Aquino’s tenure — the worst rate since 1986.

Asked about violence against journalists during a press conference with President Obama last spring, Aquino bungled his reply. First, he said that “something like 52 journalists,” were killed at Maguindanao, when the total dead was 57, of which no more than 32 were journalists. Many were surprised by his confusion over a basic fact about an atrocity that, as the PCIJ describes it, “put the Philippines on the world map.”

He then appeared to suggest that the journalists who were killed were corrupt and that this was the reason justice was slow in coming. “Perhaps we are very sensitive to personal relationships by the people who are deceased who were killed not because of professional activities, but shall we say, other issues,” he said.

Graft has been endemic in Philippine journalism for years, but the unfounded suggestion — if that it what it was — that the reporters killed at Maguindanao were corrupt, or that they somehow brought about their own fate, or that they deserved less than swift, sure justice, is naturally outrageous and the President’s comments have appalled the Philippine media corps.

“The lack of justice in Maguindano has merely emboldened those who would kill journalists,” says Shawn Crispin, an adviser for the Committee to Protect Journalists who has investigated the case. “If they can’t prosecute worst ever massacre of media personnel in the history of the world, what message do you send?”

TIME The Philippines

Tacloban Survived the World’s Strongest Recorded Storm, but Only Just

Eric and Roby Mameta by their house in Tacloban, in the Philippines, on Oct. 8, 2014, next to one of the ships that were washed ashore by supertyphoon Haiyan Per Liljas

The Philippine city hardest hit by Supertyphoon Haiyan a year ago is still struggling to come to terms with what happened

Darkness settles over the Philippine city of Tacloban and over Ameberto Atchecoso’s mind. His life, as he knew it, ended on Nov. 8 last year, when Supertyphoon Haiyan ripped through the provincial capital of Eastern Visayas. As always, during a major typhoon, his wife left their wooden house to take shelter one of the ward’s sturdy concrete buildings, while Atchecoso stayed back to protect their belongings.

“But we weren’t prepared for the water,” he says.

In a matter of minutes, their house was flooded and sucked out toward the ocean. Atchecoso was swept into the onrushing swell, but managed to regain his footing and make it to another building down the street, dodging debris flying in the air. An hour later, when the worst had passed, he found that the house where his wife had been taking shelter was completely submerged, leaving no survivors.

“Since then I can’t sleep, so I drink every night,” he says.

Supertyphoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, made landfall as the most ferocious storm in recorded history, when it lashed Eastern Visayas with wind speeds exceeding 300 km/h. A tsunami-like storm-surge deluged communities along the eastern seaboards of Leyte and Samar islands, claiming at least 6,300 lives and displacing 4 million people.

International responders have since managed to feed and find emergency shelter for the affected population. Cash-for-work programs saw a clearing of debris in a matter of weeks. There’s been no major outbreak of disease. But that doesn’t mean that everything is O.K.

“The government money that’s beginning to flow into the area needs to be invested in proper rebuilding,” says Julie Lyn Hall, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative in the Philippines. “The worry is that we’re starting to lose momentum. Without a further push, we’ll leave services dangerously vulnerable. And as the initial period of survival is starting to pass, despair is becoming more apparent.”

Tacloban was the hardest hit of all affected communities. Located at the end of a narrow bay, it took the brunt of the storm surge that was up to 7 m high. Concrete houses were reduced to their skeletons, and others flattened to the ground. For weeks, the city was smothered in debris, its air saturated by the nauseating stench of putrefying corpses. Mobs of desperate inhabitants scoured the streets for nourishment, picking clean every mall, warehouse or mom-and-pop store in their way. Some held up and pillaged from trucks that were bringing in aid.

Ronald Barsana saws felled coconut trees in Maslog, the Philippines, on Oct. 6, 2014
Ronald Barsana saws felled coconut trees in Maslog, the Philippines, on Oct. 6, 2014. Per Liljas

Today, many parts of Tacloban are teeming with the hustle and bustle of commerce, and construction sites are dominating the cityscape. But Bernardita Valenzuela, information chief at the City Hall, emphasizes that this is but a superficial impression.

“It looks good, but underneath we’re still lacking food, safe housing and livelihood,” she says.

Since there are no local revenues to speak of, Tacloban is almost wholly dependent on external assistance. Frustration is growing over a lagging dispersal of recovery funds.

“The international community saved us from falling flat on our faces,” Valenzuela says. “But our own national government has not helped, and that for me is unpardonable.” A power drill almost drowns out her words. “We received a check to repair the City Hall, civic center and public markets, but that’s not what we need. We can work even if this building doesn’t have a nice facade, but 800 families still live in tents. For me, that’s heart wrenching.”

Valenzuela shares the view of many locals that the absence of funding has to do with the long-standing feud between the families of Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Romualdez’ uncle, former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is widely believed to have had a hand in the execution of Aquino’s father. Marc Singer, a senior analyst at Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA), says that the central government clearly had “no great love” for Tacloban before Haiyan, but highlights still another reason for the delayed release of monies.

“The administration came to power on a clear anticorruption platform,” he says. “Two months after Haiyan, the construction of resettlement homes came to a halt amid allegations of price rigging and corruption. Since then the government has been very cautious about allocating funds, and delays in the recovery also persist due to bureaucracy and a lack of resources.”

On Oct. 30, President Aquino finally approved a $3.8 billion plan, supported mainly by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, to rebuild infrastructure, resettle a million people and provide livelihood assistance. Some 25,000 people across the province still live in transitional housing. Another 200,000 or so live in partially repaired but ramshackle dwellings in zones deemed unsafe for habitation. They are all extremely vulnerable to new storms. Only a tenth of all evacuation centers are still usable in a region extremely prone not only to typhoons, but also volcanoes, landslides, floods and earthquakes. Finding safe land is an enormous challenge.

“If you overlap maps of all hazards you will find that there is no available land that is not prone to disaster,” says Luiza Carvalho, the U.N.’s resident and humanitarian coordinator.

While the international community came together for an unprecedented mobilization of relief, donor fatigue has now set in. The U.N.’s Strategic Response Plan has only received about half of the funds it requires.

“Unfortunately, the resources are lagging behind for the recovery phase,” says Carvalho. “Twenty-six percent of our funds have come from individuals, and that’s fantastic, but most of that’s been earmarked for the humanitarian response.”

Among the international development community, Haiyan is now being talked about as “the new normal.” The Philippines is hit by more typhoons than any other country, and their frequency and severity are seemingly increasing. In the two years leading up to Haiyan, two other supertyphoons pummeled the country. A study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology notes that the intensity of typhoons over the past 40 years has increased by 25%, and the duration of the storms has extended. Earlier this fall, Supertyphoon Vongfang bypassed the Philippines at the last minute, averting a humanitarian crisis potentially worse than the one wrought by Haiyan.

Mayor Romualdez, whose home was also gutted in the storm, has become something of a spokesperson for disaster-prone cities in international climate panels during the past year. He is advocating a global climate discussion at the local government level, and spending on advance planning rather than relief.

“You have to start asking why millions of lives continue to perish while billions of dollars are being spent,” he tells TIME. “If you plan smarter cities you end up spending only 10% when disaster strikes. You have to see this as an investment, not a cost. Like vaccination and prevention instead of waiting for the emergency.”

Carvalho agrees. “Mitigation programs are often not as popular as resilience and disaster-risk reduction programs, but they can be efficient,” she says.

While an impressive total of $3.04 billion has been allocated for climate-change adaption and mitigation programs, there is little immediate comfort for the region’s working poor. Around 1 million people made their livings from the now devastated coconut plantations. For generations, people have been relying on the trees’ steady yield of nuts, leaves and edible sap. Withstanding extreme weather for up to a hundred years, the slender, flexible trunks were a metaphor of the inhabitants’ own resilience. However, the record-breaking winds of Haiyan proved too fierce, and rendered 15 million trees unproductive.

“We used to lead a simple, happy life before the storm,” says Lerio Sabulao, barangay captain, or neighborhood leader, in the little village of Maslog on the island of Samar. “The coco trees provided 80% of our income. Now we’re totally reliant on fishing — except there’s not that much fish as before either.”

Ronald Barsana sows a coconut seedling in Maslog, the Philippines, on Oct. 5, 2014. Per Liljas

In the outskirts of the village, Ronald Barsana heaps a thin layer of soil on top of a sprouting coconut. Fully grown trees are scattered like jackstraws around him. His economic security, a plantation inherited from his grandparents, was demolished during one exceptionally stormy night.

“When I saw the destruction, I thought, All is lost, we’re going to starve,” he says.

The first months after the typhoon, a well-wisher lent Barsana a chainsaw, with which he cut up his felled trees and built new houses both for himself and others. But money for further houses quickly evaporated, which meant that his logs started to rot.

“The life as a farmer was tough already before the storm,” he says. “I dream that my children will finish school, unlike me.”

However, these days, eking a living off taro and other vegetables he’s planted on the little slope behind his house, that dream seems far away. He can only afford two meals a day, let alone school supplies for his children. And his coconut seedlings will not carry fruit for another five to 10 years.

Aid organizations and the Philippine government are ramping up programs to provide affected populations in the countryside with employment. Richard S. Bolt, country director at the Asian Development Bank, acknowledges the enormous challenge to get the region’s coconut farmers back on their feet. But he also sees opportunities to “diversify away from relatively low-productivity coconut and introduce new higher-yielding varieties, as well as better institutional arrangements for organizing farmers to disseminate better production practices.”

Steven Rood of the Asia Foundation also sees hopes for the medium and long term. “The macro-economic outlook is good, insofar as direct government work, direct cash transfers, increased school spending and health spending will be helping the poorest the most. A better investment in human capital, even for rice and coconut farmers, can quickly make a discernible change.”

PSA’s Singer points out that the region was the second poorest in the Philippines before the typhoon.

“When we’re talking about rebuilding, and building back better, we need an appreciation of what was there before. The Eastern Visayas has always been an economic backwater, producing less than 3% of the nation’s GDP.”

And in the meantime, Haiyan’s survivors must learn to process their grief.

“Everyone who came here has been surprised by the Filipinos’ remarkable resilience and willingness to pick themselves up and start afresh,” says Hall of WHO. “But people are beginning to be very low, and there’s a great need of mental-health services. The one-year anniversary of the typhoon, Christmas and the Pope’s visit in January will be very important to help them get through these tough times.”

So will music. R&B streams out from a function room in an upscale restaurant in Tacloban. The City Hall choir and a five-man band are rehearsing for the commemorative ceremony on Nov. 8. Whitney Houston is mixed in with old Filipino hits.

“I get goose bumps and almost start crying when I sing some of these songs,” says 17-year-old Maria Teresa Roben. “Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking of the typhoon and all the children that died, [including] my classmate. The sound when the water entered our house, the hopelessness and feeling that I was going to die. Before, I didn’t believe in God, but now I pray every day.”

Mayor Romualdez is present, as he is during most rehearsals.

“We have to protect our next generation so they can strive for the Filipino Dream,” he says. “Their peace of mind is extremely important. They have to be able to sleep without fearing a new flood.”

The one-year anniversary of a relative’s death is called babang luksa in the Philippines, and is an important date typically observed with rituals. For this babang luksa, the mayor’s office in Tacloban is organizing a commemorative walk, a memorial service by the main mass grave and a large candle-lighting ceremony. It is expected to draw a great crowd, but some prefer to spend the day alone. Ameberto Atchecoso is going to light candles by the building where his wife died. Then he is going to slaughter the pig he bought as part of their retirement fund.

There’s so much talk about the future in Tacloban, but all ordinary people like Atchecoso can think about is the here and now.

TIME The Philippines

See the Philippine City of Tacloban One Year After Supertyphoon Haiyan

Photographer Chris McGrath captures the slow resurrection of Tacloban

Supertyphoon Haiyan became the strongest storm on record to make landfall when it crashed into the eastern Philippines on Nov. 8 last year, with wind speeds exceeding 300 kph and a 7-meter storm surge. The city of Tacloban, provincial capital of the Eastern Visayas, bore the brunt of its devastating power and was practically destroyed.

Photographer Chris McGrath documented the death and destruction immediately following the typhoon. One year later, he returned to capture the same scenes, painting a picture of a city that, at least on the surface, has returned to some semblance of normality.

TIME The Philippines

U.S. Marine Asks for Lesser Charge in Killing of Transgender Filipina

Activists participate in a protest to seek justice for a Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude outside a justice hall where a preliminary investigation was held at the Philippine city of Olongapo, north of Manila, on Oct. 27, 2014 Lorgina Minguito—Reuters

The high-profile killing has sparked protests in the Philippines

The U.S. Marine accused of killing a transgender Filipina has asked prosecutors to reduce the murder charge to homicide if the case is brought to court, since there is no “probable cause for murder.”

Lawyers for Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton presented the motion at a preliminary hearing in the northern Philippine city of Olongapo on Monday, Rappler reports. Pemberton did not attend the hearing.

Jennifer Laude, 26, was found strangled and drowned on Oct. 11 in a motel bathroom where witnesses last placed her together with Pemberton. The case has become politically charged because of a defense agreement giving the U.S. military custody over the suspect.

Last week, Pemberton was transferred to a Philippine military base, and he is now detained at the Philippines’ military headquarters in Manila under joint custody.

According to Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN, Pemberton’s lawyer Rowena Garcia Flores said he did not file an expected counter-affidavit because he had not yet had the “opportunity to examine the case.”

Laude’s killing has sparked widespread protests against the defense agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines, and has also led to calls for greater protection for LGBT people in the country.

On Monday, Laude’s German boyfriend, Marc Suselbeck, was charged with gross arrogance and serious disrespect to Filipino authorities after climbing the fence surrounding the camp where Pemberton was held, and shoving a military guard, the Philippine Star reports.

TIME The Philippines

Philippine Transgender Murder Becomes a Rallying Point for LGBT Rights

A Filipino activist holds flowers and a slogan during prayers in suburban Quezon city, Philippines on Thursday Oct. 23, 2014, to call for justice for the killing of Filipino transgender Jeffrey "Jennifer" Laude. Aaron Favila—AP

Activists say the death of Jennifer Laude highlights the vulnerable position of trans people in the Philippines

The burial of transgender woman Jennifer Laude has sparked a “National Day of Outrage” in the Philippines, with LGBT organizations staging candlelight vigils across the country on Friday.

A U.S. Marine has been accused of her killing.

“We will deliver messages of solidarity and push for justice,” says Charlese Saballe, chairwoman of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). “The media attention to Jennifer’s case means a slow movement toward bringing transgender issues to the mainstream.”

Following Laude’s Oct. 11 murder, media have mostly focused on the fact that suspect Joseph Scott Pemberton has been held under U.S. guard, under a defense agreement between the two countries. Loud criticism has been raised over the agreement, with protesters attempting to carry a mock coffin to the U.S. embassy in Manila on Friday.

However, as Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation’s representative in the Philippines, points out, much of that will blow over.

“There’s the sensitivity of not treating Filipinos as second-class citizens in their own country,” he says. “But the backdrop is that the average Filipino citizen is very much in favor of having U.S. troops here. This doesn’t threaten U.S.-Filipino relations; the strategic benefits for the alliance will override this specific issue.”

Rather, some people hope that the strong bilateral connection between the two countries could impact the LGBT rights struggle in the Philippines. LGBT groups have participated in several protests outside the U.S. embassy in Manila and at vigils in the U.S.

“If media and other groups in the U.S. frame [Laude’s murder] as a hate crime and focuses on transgender rights, it might trickle down to people in society here and affect how they treat transgender and LGBT people,” says Saballe.

While visible, LGBT people in the Philippines lack anti-discriminatory legislation and the legal recognition of transgender available in many other countries, including the U.S.

“[Seen] with American eyes, the position of the LGBT community in the Philippines is an unusual one,” says Rood. “It’s a normal part of the Filipino community, but the violence they may be subjected to has not been very visible. This will certainly be a rallying cry.”

Saballe, whose organization also monitors violence against LGBT people in the Philippines, stresses that the community is “not really accepted in society.” She adds, “Only days after Jennifer was killed, two other trans women were murdered.”

Friday’s protest action is being held simultaneously in four cities in the Philippines, with a solidarity event also arranged in the Netherlands and a discussion forum in Thailand.

TIME The Philippines

Witness Says Suspect U.S. Marine Didn’t Know Murdered Filipina Was Transgender

A primary witness in the high-profile murder case gave testimony to a Philippine Senate hearing today

A friend of murdered Filipina Jennifer Laude testified that the American suspect, who went out with the two of them on the night of the crime, didn’t know that they were transgender.

Mark Clarence Gelviro made her statement during a Philippine Senate hearing Wednesday and also identified U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton in a photo lineup, reports online news portal InterAksyon.

Pemberton allegedly met Laude and Gelviro on Oct. 11 at a bar in Subic Bay, a port that often hosts U.S. warships. He was visiting for a joint military exercise involving 4,000 American soldiers and sailors. Gelviro claimed to the hearing that Pemberton was drunk but friendly, and that he “thought we were real women.”

The three of them then allegedly went to a motel in nearby Olongapo City, where Gelviro said she left the two others alone in a room. Gelviro claims that, a little while later, the motel cashier notified her that Pemberton had left and that Laude was unconscious in the room, her head submerged in the toilet bowl.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who chaired the hearing, later said she considered the evidence against the suspect “damning,” reports the Philippine Star.

The now almost two-week-old case has stoked massive criticism over a bilateral agreement that allows the U.S. to keep custody of military personnel accused of committing crimes on Philippine soil. Pemberton was transferred Wednesday to a Philippine military base, but is still being guarded by American servicemen.

“We have our own guards, and yet they don’t seem to trust them,” said Defensor Santiago according to Asia One. “And we’re in our own country, not America.”

Philippine President Benigno Aquino rebutted claims that local authorities were going too easy on the suspect at a foreign correspondent’s forum in Pasig City on Wednesday.

“He is not being treated with kid gloves,” Aquino said, “and the Americans, may I reiterate, are conforming to the [Visiting Forces Agreement under which] they have to make this person and others available for both the investigative and the judicial processes that are forthcoming.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Laude’s sister Michelle testified to the panel that the victim was not a sex worker. During the year leading up to her murder, she had barely been outside the house, Michelle said, claiming that Jennifer was subsisting on a monthly allowance from her fiancé.

Read next: Laverne Cox Talks to TIME About the Transgender Movement

TIME The Philippines

Philippine-U.S. Ties Tested After Visiting Marine Accused of Murder

CORRECTION Philippines US Killing
Julita Laude, mother of killed transgender Jennifer Laude, talks to reporters during a rally near the USS Peleliu, where U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton is said to be held, at the Subic Bay free port, Zambales province, northern Philippines. Oct. 18, 2014. Aaron Favila—AP

Protesters have been chanting 'U.S. troops out now'

The alleged murder of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude by a U.S. Marine has sparked outrage in the Philippines, with some calling into question the U.S. military’s presence in the country.

Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, the U.S. military is allowed to conduct drills in the Philippines. The accord also gives the Philippines the power to prosecute American service members if they fall foul of the law, but they can remain in U.S. custody until the end of judicial proceedings, the Associated Press reports.

Several small protests took place in the country’s capital, Manila, and the city of Olongapo, where the alleged murder took place, and in the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay free port Saturday, where the suspect Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, is being kept on the U.S.S. Peleliu. He has been summoned by the Olongapo City Prosecutor’s Office to attend a hearing Tuesday.

Protesters have been chanting “U.S. troops out now” and calling for the Visiting Forces Agreement to be abolished.

But authorities say the case is isolated and not related to the treaty.

Read the full story here.

[Associated Press]

TIME The Philippines

The Philippines’ Most Active Volcano Is Now Shooting Lava and Super-Heated Boulders

Nearly 24,000 people have been evacuated

Evacuations are continuing on the island of Luzon in the Philippines after an active volcano began billowing smoke and spewing lava and heated boulders.

Seismologists have raised the alert level at Mount Mayon to critical. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology says that magma is now accumulating at the crater and that a major eruption is possible “within weeks,” according to CNN.

The institute’s head, Renato Solidum, told the Associated Press that technically the volcano was already erupting “but not explosive.”

He said: “Currently, the activity is just lava coming down. If there is an explosion, all sides of the volcano are threatened.”

AP reports that nearly 24,000 people from villages within an 8-km (5 miles) radius from the crater have been evacuated.

Scientists have recorded rock falls and small earthquakes around the crater and say the red glow of lava is visible at night. Volcanologist Ed Laguerta told AP that lava and boulders could be seen rolling down from the crater on Tuesday night from as far away as 12 km (7 miles).

Mount Mayon, which lies about 330 km (210 miles) southeast of the capital Manila, is one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes. It has erupted 50 times in the past 500 years.


TIME Hong Kong

‘Racist’ Insurance Commercial Draws Outrage in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's Domestic Help System Under Scrutiny Following Recent Cases Of Abuse
Indonesian domestic workers protest in the streets of Causeway Bay to demand better working conditions in Hong Kong on Jan. 26, 2014 Jessica Hromas—Getty Images

An insurance commercial in Hong Kong has been deemed as racist by advocates of domestic workers and prompted outrage on social media

An insurance commercial in Hong Kong that features a male Chinese actor who impersonates a clumsy Filipina maid has been deemed as racist by domestic-worker advocates and prompted outrage on social media — reminding many Hong Kong residents of the unfair treatment of foreign domestic workers.

The advertisement for domestic-helper insurance by Malaysia’s Hong Leong Bank shows the Chinese actor as “Maria” while wearing a curly wig and covered in dark orange makeup. Foreign maids who are mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have become a common fixture in Hong Kong since the booming of the economy in the mid-1970s.

Along with the immigration of more than 300,000 domestic workers to Hong Kong have come horror stories of their unjust treatment by employers. Recent high-profile cases like the hospitalization of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid who was allegedly beaten by her employer for eight months, have brought to light the abuse of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and prompted many of them to speak up. During the One Billion Rising event in February, a global campaign to end the abuse of women, hundreds of domestic workers there joined together to demand fairer treatment.

Erwiana’s employer, Law Wan-tung, is currently on trial and has pleaded not guilty to charges of withholding payment, criminal intimidation and causing bodily harm.

An Amnesty International report in 2013 stated that Indonesian women trafficked as domestic workers face “slavery-like conditions” in Hong Kong and that both the Hong Kong and Indonesian governments turn a blind eye to the “widespread abuse and exploitation” that foreign workers endure.

The controversial commercial comes only a few weeks after pictures from textbooks that feature racial stereotypes went viral on social media in Hong Kong. One exercise in the book invited students to match job descriptions with nationalities, prompting children to associate domestic work with a seemingly Filipina figure.

Advocates for domestic workers say the recent outpourings of racial discrimination are only a fragment of the mistreatment that domestic workers have experienced for years. Eni Lestari, spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, told AFP the commercial lampooned an entire community by dressing the Chinese actor up in blackface instead of hiring an Indonesian or Filipina woman to play the role. Although it was supposed to be funny to Chinese residents, Lestari added, “what they don’t realize is what’s funny is actually racist.”


TIME The Philippines

One of the U.S.’s ‘Most Wanted’ Terrorists Is Arrested in the Philippines

Officials in Manila have nabbed a top commander of the Islamic extremist outfit Abu Sayyaf

One of the U.S.’s most wanted terrorists, Khair Mundos, was brought into custody by Philippine authorities on Wednesday morning, after he was arrested in a slum near the capital’s international airport.

Mundos is a key figure in the Philippines-based terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, believed to have been responsible for a spate of lethal attacks on U.S. troops and Filipinos since forming near the city of Zamboanga in the early 1990s. His capture brings an end to a seven-year manhunt.

After fleeing prison in February 2007, Mundos worked as a “fundraiser, bomb maker, and instructor” for Abu Sayyaf. One of his roles was arranging receipt funds for his group from al-Qaeda.

“Mundos confessed to having arranged the transfer of funds from al-Qaeda to Abu Sayyaf group leader Khadaffy Janjalani to be used in bombings and other criminal acts throughout the [Philippine] island of Mindanao,” said a U.S. State Department statement.

In 2009, the State Department offered half a million dollars for information leading to his arrest. Mundos also became the Philippine government’s most sought-after terrorist, and was accused of having ties to the leader of the region’s most feared militant group, Jemaah Islamiyah, according to a U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.

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