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Old Political Feud In Philippines Fuels Rage Over Typhoon Response


While international relief efforts in the Philippines are in high gear, efforts by the Philippine government have been hampered. There are bitter rivalries among the country's political clans. And two major political families - including that of the president - are sparring over the response to the disaster. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has that story.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Mayor Alfred Romualdez is a constant and visible presence at city hall in the ruined city of Tacloban. This week, he seemed visibly frustrated, following reports that President Benigno Aquino III is going to investigate him for mishandling the preparations in response to the disaster.

MAYOR ALFRED ROMUALDEZ: Well, apparently, the president has announced to the people, especially in disaster-stricken areas, that he's going to have the local government be investigated because he is thinking that there might have been some lapses on the local government in warning the people about the storm.

KUHN: Romualdez argues that he did everything he could to prepare for the typhoon and that Tacloban's first responders were themselves too devastated by the storm to respond effectively. But on a visit to Tacloban this week, President Aquino suggested that the city government's handling of the disaster was worse than elsewhere.

PRESIDENT BENIGNO AQUINO III: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I'm not going to say anything about other places because as your president, I'm not supposed to get angry, he said. I'm just going to keep it bottled up. If someone warns you about what will happen, what would you do? Besides listening, you would act, right?

Many Filipinos see this as related to the historical feud between the Romualdezes and the Aquinos. Romualdez's aunt is former first lady Imelda Marcos, wife of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She's known for her extensive footwear collection. Marcos was ousted by the People's Power Revolution of 1986, led by Cory Aquino, the mother of the current president. So I asked Mayor Romualdez...

Is there any issue of family rivalries in all this, do you believe?

ROMUALDEZ: Well, you know, the more I try not to think about it, the more the perception is going stronger and stronger toward that direction. And if that happens, maybe I'll be the first mayor to be investigated because of a disaster like this. But it's really giving a very bad signal because that will discourage many mayors from reporting the true picture because they might be also investigated.

KUHN: Presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang says reports that the feud is affecting the disaster response are mostly speculation.

RICKY CARANDANG: It's a natural narrative that I think the media has picked up on and, to some extent, exaggerated. So I wouldn't want to add to that kind of speculation at this point.

KUHN: There's been widespread danger at the national government for responding so slowly to a disaster they knew was coming. University of the Philippines political scientist Bobby Tuazon says that shifting the public's blame on to political rivals is a common practice in the Philippines.

BOBBY TUAZON: This is an example of what I call blame politics. You blame others for the unfortunate things that happen to you.

KUHN: Tuazon adds that Filipino politicians routinely treat disaster relief funds as political pork.

TUAZON: People know that the distribution or such funds under the control of the president are usually distributed to the political allies and to local government units that are aligned with the administration.

KUHN: Tuazon notes that the feuding between the Aquinos and the Romualdezes is not an isolated event. He says there are over 200 political dynasties in the Philippines, and they hold much of the nation's political power and wealth.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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