SEA Games: Medals and controversy for the Philippines

Host country declared overall champion of regional biennial event, thrilling spectators, but questions remain.

The Philippines clinched the championship of the 2019 SEA Games, winning 387 medals, including 149 golds [Tatan Syuflana/AP]

Tarlac, the Philippines – Amid allegations of corruption and massive overspending, logistical mishaps, and the reported displacement of Indigenous people, the Philippines will end the 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) on Wednesday with a victory – at least for its athletes.

The host country scored 387 medals, including 149 golds, as of December 11, the most out of the 11 countries who competed in 56 sports over 500 events. Thailand came in second with 318 medals and Vietnam third with 288 medals, although it clinched six more golds than the Thais.

But as the euphoria of triumph begins to wear off, the Philippine government will have to face allegations of corruption and displacement of Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands that have hounded their hosting of the SEA Games.

On Monday, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said that the anti-corruption office has created a fact-finding panel to look into possible corruption in the organising of the SEA Games.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo had earlier promised a thorough and impartial investigation, saying: “There will be no sacred cow in this government.”

The investigation was spawned by the chaos leading up to the opening of the region’s biggest sports event.

Viral images of workers hammering away at unfinished structures and a press conference held in a room made of unpainted cinder blocks raised questions about how the 7.5 billion peso ($147M) budget for the event had been spent.

The internet compiled the worst incidents under the hashtag #SEAGamesfail.

In a special report, social news network Rappler documented how the government galvanised its online machinery of supporters to mollify public outrage and manage the SEA Games public relations crisis.

Million-dollar cauldron

A 50 million peso ($1m) cauldron used for the ceremonial lighting of the SEA Games torch came to represent extravagance and overspending in a country where about 17 percent of the more than 100 million population does not earn enough to cover their basic needs.

“When I see that our country spent P50m+ on a cauldron, which will be used once, I see extravagance. This P50m could have been spent on developing our athletes, which is a must if we want to compete and win at the highest level,” said former karate champion Gretchen Malalad.

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The Philippines’ women basketball players celebrate their SEA Games championship against Thailand on Tuesday [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Two hours north of Manila, in the New Clark City Sports Complex, which served as the hub for the SEA Games, tourists and spectators took their photos in front of the cauldron.

“I also thought it was overpriced when I read the news, but then I saw how grand the opening ceremony was and then the Philippine athletes started winning. Well, I’m not an engineer. I don’t know how much such structures are supposed to cost,” said Angelo Salonga, who came to watch the games with two of his friends.

Another spectator, Vicente Caringal, a 61-year-old coach for a girls’ softball team, hopes that the rousing win for the Philippines will compel government officials to invest more in sports as a pillar of youth development.

Caringal was accompanied by his team of female players – aged between 18 and 19 years old – who he has been coaching since they were in the fifth grade.

The team never had enough government funding to buy proper sports equipment or travel to compete in tournaments. A few years ago, Caringal borrowed $1,000 so the girls could compete in a regional little league tournament.

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The 2019 SEA Games cauldron drew controversy after it was revealed the government spent $1m to build a structure that will only be used for about two weeks [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

“My wife was so mad at me,” he said, shaking his head.

Displaced, dismissed and disregarded

Bigger than the controversial cauldron is New Clark City itself, a modern metropolis the government envisions building over 9,450 hectares (23,351 acres) in Capas, Tarlac about 110km (68 miles) north of Manila.

The first phase of the project was the building of a sports complex with an aquatics centre, stadium and an athletes’ village specially constructed in time for the SEA Games.

Activists and Indigenous peoples defenders said the structures had displaced the Aetas Indigenous communities.

On December 3, the Aeta inhabitants of a village were given seven days to leave their community in order to make way for the construction of an access road from New Clark City to the nearby airport. Protests were organised against this decision.

This would displace some 500 families, uprooting them from their ancestral land and stripping them of their source of livelihood.

In a statement, the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA), which is overseeing the project, said that the seven-day notice “is a standard follow-up letter sent to all claimants who rejected the financial assistance offered by the government.”

A financial assistance package of 300,000 pesos ($6,000) has been “made available to all project-affected people, including Indigenous peoples and farmers at the start of the development”, and relocation sites were provided within New Clark City.

“The Aeta’s farmlands, the source of their daily food and livelihood for centuries were destroyed, and they want to replace it with money that will be gone over time? That is not just compensation,” said Pia Montalban, convener of Kamandang, a collective of artist-activists defending the Aeta communities.

Tony La Vina, lawyer for the affected Indigenous community, said they had requested a meeting with the BCDA to discuss options and that, in the meantime, the Aetas “will stay put”.

“The Aetas want to be assured that they are accommodated. Given the economic magnitude of this project, there are enough funds available to make sure the right thing is done,” said La Vina.

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Petronila Capiz Munoz said the Aeta community has a historical claim on the land, where the government is building a new sports complex and a modern city [Ana Santos/Al Jazeera]

The BCDA maintains that the new project will be built on government-owned land and that no ancestral domain titles had been issued for it.

“Therefore, Aeta communities are not displaced,” reads the BCDA statement.

Senator Risa Hontiveros has filed a resolution to open a Senate probe into the BCDA development project that will reportedly displace some 15,000 local farmers and 20,000 Aeta Indigenous communities.

“We need to understand that it is not just homes and livelihood that are being taken away from them. For IP communities, their cultural identity is tied to their lands,” said Hontiveros in a statement to Al Jazeera on Wednesday. 

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Ernesto de Guzman, with his wife, Lolita, came to see the diving event at New Clark City on December 6. Ernesto, an Indigenous Aeta, makes $9 a day working as a labourer at the new project north of capital Manila [Ana Santos/Al Jazeera]

According to Leilani Macasaet, assistant vice president for the BCDA, 500 Aetas are employed in New Clark City working in construction, cleaning, maintenance and security since construction began 18 months ago.

They include people like 49-year-old Ernesto de Guzman.

Last Friday, de Guzman and his family were up at 4am and at New Clark City by 6am to watch the swimming and diving competition in the aquatics centre that he helped build.

He makes 450 pesos ($9) a day working as a labourer, while his 33-year-old daughter makes 400 pesos ($8) a day working in housekeeping.

The local government provided transportation for De Guzman’s family and other Aetas, so they could watch the games that were happening a few kilometres away from the ancestral land they call home.

Righteous indignation

Petronila Capiz Munoz, known as Apung Pet, is indignant about all this talk about money and the need for land titles to legitimise her claim over her land.

In her home, a few kilometres away from the New Clark City complex, she brings out a messenger bag.

Inside is an envelope filled with legal documents, scholarly articles about the history of her Aeta ancestors, and even a map she drew from memory to prove that she and her ancestors had roamed and lived in the land before the Spaniards came to colonise the Philippines.

“They’re (BCDA) asking us for land titles but we didn’t buy this land – we inherited it from our forefathers.”

She insists that she and the Aeta community are not against development, but are angered by the government’s lack of concern for their wellbeing and scoffed at the government’s proposed reparation for displacement like offers of employment.

“What will happen to the Aetas like me? I’m 56 years old. I didn’t get an education. What kind of job will they give me? I’ll end up sweeping the floor on the land my ancestors and I own.”

Source: Al Jazeera