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The Star Online: Metro: South & East

Philippine Catholic Haiyan survivors make vow of sacrifice

Posted: 14 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

OPONG: Returning to their destroyed village after a catastrophic typhoon that killed thousands in the Philip­pines last year, a weary band of Catholics vowed a lifelong sacrifice to thank God for saving them.

They had walked through the streets of their hometown for three consecutive days before the storm with icons in hand while praying and asking the Lord to spare them from the looming catastrophe.

Although giant ocean surges that swept through their coastal village destroyed many homes, and some of the most powerful winds recorded on land tore roofs off others, all of the roughly 3,500 residents of Opong survived.

The devotees' ensuing vow was to perform a religious procession similar to their pre-typhoon marches at least twice a week for the rest of their lives.

"We want to thank the Lord for giving us a second chance at life. We want to thank Him for giving us the strength of our faith," Elsie Indi, a mother-of-four, who is one of the regular members of the procession, said after a recent march.

Ten days after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit, AFP photographer Philippe Lopez took a dramatic photo of Indi at the head of the Opong procession that came to symbolise the devotion, hope and resilience of many typhoon survivors.

The image won the Spot News category in the prestigious World Press Photo Awards, and was named by Time magazine as one of the top 10 images of 2013.

Indi, 42, her invalid husband and four children fled their home just after dawn on Nov 8 as knee-deep water rushed in, racing ahead of the torrent to a rice paddy at the base of a mountain about one kilometre away.

They, along with many other residents of Opong, sheltered in the muddy field for about six hours, waiting for the storm surges to recede into the Pacific Ocean and the intense rain to pass.

During that time, the typhoon killed or left missing about 8,000 people in towns and cities of the central Philippines near Opong, making it the country's deadliest storm on record.

"Everyone in Opong survived, we can thank God for that," Indi said.

During the most chaotic and desperate period immediately after the typhoon, some of the residents of Opong held their processions twice a day.

The procession, involving anywhere from a few people to more than 20, took more than an hour.

Such acts of devotion are common even outside times of disaster in the Philippines, where about 80% of the nation's 100 million people are Catholic thanks to a Spanish colonial heritage.

In what is known locally as a "panata", devotees promise to God to make some form of sacrifice as repayment for a prayer that has been granted.

In some of the most extreme and famous panatas, devotees around the country have themselves nailed to crosses or whip their backs into a bloody mess of red flesh every Good Friday.

"After being saved, we had to make some sacrifices. The procession is one form of sacrifice," said Virginia Piedad, 47, a primary school teacher who came up with the idea for the Opong community's panata.

Asked when the Opong residents would give up the procession, Piedad and Indi insisted they would continue their hour-long marches every Wednesday and Saturday with the same Jesus statues in their arms until they died.               

But despite the relentless giving of thanks, life for Indi and many others in Opong often feels like an abyss of anxiety and exhaustion.

The iron-sheet roofing, windows and steel trusses of Indi's cramped home were torn away or badly damaged during the storm, and she has no means to replace them.

She estimates it would cost more than 150,000 pesos (RM11,000) to repair the house, an impossible amount when her work as a market vendor brings in most of her family's only income.

Indi's husband, Roel, has not worked for six years because of severe diabetes, while three of her children are still studying.

A fourth child, a 21-year-old son, earns about 200 pesos (RM15) a day making concrete blocks for houses.

Indi said she had to borrow 15,000 pesos (RM1,100) from a local lender to reopen her stall after Haiyan, with an interest rate of 33% over the term of the six-month loan adding to almost unbearable financial pressure.

"We are begging for help. We need money to rebuild our house," Indi said as she stood at the entrance to their ruined home and cried.

Nevertheless, Indi insisted she and the other residents of Opong were fortunate simply to be alive, and that was reason enough to continue with their religious procession.

"We are thankful ... and it gives us comfort," she said. — AFP

Crackdown hits popular platform WeChat

Posted: 14 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

SHANGHAI: Chinese Internet giant Tencent has shut several accounts on its popular instant messaging platform WeChat, users said on Friday, in what appeared to be part of a broader government crackdown on political content.

WeChat, known as weixin or micro-message in Chinese, has more than 300 million users in China and overseas, allowing them to send text, photos, videos and voice messages over mobile devices.

Accounts shut down included one for "Union of Elephants" which specialised in irreverent takes on current affairs, and "Consensus Net" which featured articles on topics such as democracy.

Chinese authorities maintain a huge surveillance network, inclu­ding online, where the so-called Great Firewall of China blocks access to sites deemed sensitive and a vast censorship machine deletes content considered objectionable.

The accounts were suspended on Thursday without prior notice or follow-up explanation from Tencent, he said.

Tencent, owner of WeChat, could not be reached for comment on Friday. But a Tencent official said late Thursday that messages that violated Chinese law faced a crackdown.

"To guarantee user experience ... the release of pornographic, violent, rumour-spreading information, and other types of information which violate laws, regulations and relevant policies are strictly prohibited," Marsh Zhang, a publicity director at Tencent, said in a posting on his personal microblog.

"As soon as they are discovered, we will severely crack down and deal with them."

He made no specific reference to accounts being closed.

Other affected accounts inclu­ded those of Luo Changping, who blew the whistle on a corrupt government official, and a journalist and columnist Xu Danei, who also writes for the Chinese website of Britain's Financial Times newspaper and domestic outlets.

Some pointed out online that the closures came on the final day of the annual session of the National People's Congress, or legis­lature, while others linked them to rumours about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which had 153 Chinese passengers on board.

The crackdown mirrors similar action against another popular form of social media in China, microblogs or weibo, equivalents of Twitter

After the move, Tencent's Hong Kong-listed shares closed down just over 4% on Friday. — AFP

Philippines and MILF to ink deal on March 27

Posted: 14 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

MANILA: The Philippines and Muslim rebels are to sign a treaty on March 27 to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest rebellions, a senior aide to President Benigno Aquino said.

The terms of the deal, completed in January after drawn-out talks, would see the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) disband its 12,000-member guerrilla force and share power with Manila in the Muslim south of the mainly Catholic nation.

"After 17 long years of arduous negotiations, we are finally arriving at a political settlement that will seal enduring peace and progress in Mindanao," Teresita Deles, Aquino's chief advi­ser on the peace process, said in a statement.

The decades-old rebellion has claimed 150,000 lives according to official estimates, and condemned large swathes of the south to poverty and violence.

The insurgency also gave rise to smaller groups of Islamist militants, some allied to al-Qaeda.

"The signing ... is expected to benefit not only the Bangsamoro (Filipino Muslims) but the entire country, and will radiate beyond our borders to the regional community, and perhaps the whole world," Deles said.

After the peace deal signing, Aquino is to ask parliament to pass a "basic law" creating a Muslim self-rule area covering 10% of the country's land, with its own police force, parliament and power to levy taxes.

The law will be ratified in a regional referendum, and the region would then elect its own parliament in May 2016, coinciding with the next presidential election to elect Aquino's successor. — AFP


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