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Issue Number 29/30, May 2008

Kapatiran Issue No. 29/30, May 2008

- Murray Horton

The Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA) is a small Christchurch-based organisation which, as our major contribution to building solidarity between the Philippine and New Zealand peoples, tours a speaker from the Philippine progressive movement through NZ every few years. There have been four previous such tours – Leonor Briones (1995), Crispin Beltran (1999), Emilia Dapulang (2002) and Marie Hilao-Enriquez (2004). You can read my articles about Marie’s tour in Kapatiran 25/26, December 2005, online at and Emilia’s tour in number 22, January 2003, online at respectively. Unfortunately there is nothing online about those two earlier tours, as they pre-date our Website but they were both duly written up in Kapatiran.

At the beginning of 2006 we started to discuss who to invite to tour NZ in 07 (these tours always require a long lead in time, because of our limited resources, the need to put together a national network, and to give us plenty of time for fundraising). We decided to go outside the immediate circle of our committee for ideas and to go outside our comfort zone in the search for a speaker. In 2005, PSNA had helped to fund four New Zealanders to go to the Philippines on a human rights fact finding mission (and you can read about that in number 25/26, online at, in which there are a number of articles by those delegates). Predictably they had all come back fired up with enthusiasm, so we invited their opinions. After a very productive discussion, we decided to invite our first ever Muslim speaker, and set-tled on Amirah Ali Lidasan (whom at least one of those Kiwis had met in 05). She also came with the recommendation of our last touring speaker, human rights leader, Marie Hilao-Enriquez, who was instrument-tal in putting us in touch with Amirah. She was a stranger to us but, in August 2007, my Filipina wife Becky and I went to Manila to visit family and took the opportunity to meet Amirah, for the first time, at an international women’s conference that she was attending.

First Muslim Speaker, First From Mindanao

She was not only our first Muslim, but the first speaker we’ve hosted from Mindanao (or anywhere other than Manila) and, at 33, our youngest ever speaker, by many years. The fact that she’s not from Manila but from a poor, Muslim part of Mindanao caused its own unique problems. Amirah spends weeks at a time travelling in very remote parts of the southern Philippines, places with no Internet connections and out of e-mail range. So communication was a real hassle for a lot of the time in the buildup to the tour – in then end we found it easier to contact her by text (and even that was a hit and miss affair). Something as mundane as posting her the necessary paperwork for her to apply for her NZ visa became a saga taking weeks and weeks before the package finally reached her. This tells you all you need to know about the Philippines’ provincial postal service (once she received that package of papers, getting her actual visa was refreshingly straightforward and fast. We thought that there might have been hassles, but there were none). And the fact that she was our first speaker not from Luzon (the main island, on which Manila is situated) meant that we had some unique expenses this time – namely the costs of getting her to and from Manila, and her overnight accommodation there at each end of her international journey, plus other incidental expenses. That added several hundred dollars to the bill.

We considered it a coup to secure a young, progressive Muslim woman as a speaker. Amirah holds two lea-dership positions – in the Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Moro [Muslim] People) Party List Organisation and the Moro Christian People’s Alliance. Just to briefly explain the former – under the Philip-pine electoral system, a certain small percentage of seats in Congress are reserved for “marginalised sectors” who would otherwise have no repre-sentation. These are the seats con-tested by the party list organisations, which have to win a certain per-centage of the national vote in order to qualify. Thus far Suara Bang-samoro has been unsuccessful in winning any seats (the most recent midterm Congressional elections were in 2007). Our publicity material said that Amirah was National Vice-Chairperson. In fact, by the time she got here, she had been elected its President.

“War On Terror”: Making The Connections

We titled her tour: “Hidden Voices: A Filipino Muslim On The US ‘War On Terror’ And Its Impact On Her People”, as we felt that this would be the best angle to attract the attention of New Zealanders (if the Philippines per se is off the radar in NZ, then the plight of its Muslim minority is positively subterranean). Presidents Bush and Macapagal-Arroyo have pronounced the Philippines to be the “Second Front” in that “War On Terror”, and, post 9/11, the US has a newfound military interest in the Muslim separatist struggle in Mindanao and the islands further south (a struggle which includes a civil war that was been ongoing since the early 1970s).

PSNA aimed to use Amirah’s tour to make the connections between what is happening at the sharp end of the “War On Terror” and NZ’s involvement in the US military/intelligence Empire. For that reason, we went out of our way to take Amirah right up to the inner gate to the top secret Waihopai satellite interception electronic spybase, near Blenheim, the first of our Philippine speakers we’ve ever taken there, and the first member of a clearly identified target group (of the global network of spybases of which Waihopai is part) that we’ve taken there. Waihopai is NZ’s biggest and most important contribution to the “War On Terror” and all other US-led wars. Amirah’s visit there was well covered by mainstream media and she herself was very pleased to have gone there, she clearly understood the significance of the place. You can learn more about Waihopai by visiting the Anti-Bases Campaign’s Website at

The actual timing of Amirah’s tour (late October, into November, the latest in the year we’ve ever toured a speaker) was determined by events, such as Ramadan, which we’d never had to take into account for any of our four previous tours. But, by pure coincidence, it meant that Amirah was in the country right when the NZ State was behaving in a very similar fashion to the Philippine State. By which, I mean that she arrived in NZ just days after October’s “anti-terror” raids and was on tour during the fullblown “terrorism” hysteria that followed that. I refer you to my article “A Bad Case Of Terrorism Hysteria” in Peace Researcher 35, December 2007, which can be read online at

This showed that our two countries have rather more in common that had been otherwise apparent. She was able to see for herself, and to incorporate into her speeches and interviews throughout the country, that a repressive and erroneous clampdown on those demonised as “terrorists” can happen in a First World country just as in a Third World one. That led to her tour ma-king connections not originally envi-saged by PSNA. She and I (her tra-vel companion and opening speaker) took part in protest actions in both Wellington and Auckland in the course of her tour.


Fundraising is critical, tours like this simply wouldn’t happen if PSNA couldn’t raise the money for it. I should explain that PSNA could have paid for it all, but that it would have virtually cleaned us out. So PSNA underwrote it, whilst seeking funding elsewhere. There was no “natural constituency” to approach for money (unlike in the previous cases of our two trade unionist speakers, Crispin Beltran and Emilia Dapulang), so we cast a wide net. Response was slow to start with and we thought that PSNA would end up footing a lot more of the bill than with previous tours, but our fears were unfounded. In the end, income was more than $6,000. We got a very generous response from collections at all of the public meetings (one individual put in a $350 cash cheque to the Christchurch collection). There were donations totalling $3,350 from a number of organisations – Chris-tian World Service (always the big-gest donor to PSNA’s tours), Caritas, Quakers’ Peace and Service, the Workers Institute for Scientific Socia-list Education, Riverside Community, Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa and the Anti-Bases Campaign. So just over half came from organisations and the rest came from individuals ($500 was the biggest individual donation).

Expenditure came to $4,700, in round figures. Financially, this was our most successful ever tour. It brought in the biggest amount of money we’ve ever raised on any of our five speaking tours (quite con-trary to our expectations) and cost less than our $5,000 budget, despite it involving some unique expenses, which I’ve already detailed. One of the reasons for us coming in under budget was beyond our control – the much more favourable exchange rate with $US (i.e. for international air fares) compared to Marie Hilao-Enriquez’s 04 tour. And since the tour we have also received our biggest ever GST refund, virtually entirely comprising Amirah tour expenses.

National Network

Each one of these tours necessitates putting together a national network to organise it (PSNA only exists in Christchurch, there are no branches elsewhere. Interestingly, partly as a result of Amirah’s tour, there has been interest expressed in setting up Philippines Solidarity Groups in both Wellington and Auckland. The Wellington one is now up and running). We depend on a very reliable number of individuals in various cities, and some have done it for us several times before – Tim Howard in Whangarei; Dion Martin in Palmerston North; Rod Prosser, John Maynard and Lee Tan in Wel-lington. Mary Ellen O’Connor was our Wellington organiser (on past tours she had been a key Nelson organiser). In Dunedin, our organiser was Greg Hughson of the Abrahamic Interfaith Group, which was the one religious body that played an organisational role. This was the first time we’d ever worked with them. Thanks are due to him, to Najib Lafraie and his family, and to Gillian Southey of Christian World Service for putting us in touch with them and thus ensuring that Dunedin was included in the tour. In Auckland, our key organiser, for the first time, was Helen Te Hira, a union official, and the National Distribution Union played a big part by means of providing officials to drive Amirah and I around that city (not to mention hosting us for lunch in their Onehunga building and giving me free use of their office facilities for several hours). Thanks are due also to John Minto of Global peace and Justice Auckland, who organised the public meeting.

We tried hard to get Amirah to Nelson but couldn’t get a local organiser, so Nelson was off the itinerary for the first time in five PSNA speaking tours. But, by contrast, Amirah was the first of our Filipino speakers to go to Blenheim, and enormous thanks are due to Steffan Browning (with whom I’ve worked for years on Waihopai spybase protests, wearing my Anti-Bases Campaign hat). He single-handedly organised the Blenheim visit for us, just days after the local body elections in which he was a Mayoral candidate. Heartfelt thanks are due to all of these people and to the others who helped in each centre, as the tour would not have been possible without them. Amirah spent two weeks touring both islands, speaking in Christchurch, Dunedin, Blenheim, Wellington, Palmerston North, Auckland and Whangarei. We stayed with all manner of people, in their homes and I can definitely say that I had an interesting time in my fortnight on the road with her.

It’s worth noting that although Amirah is Muslim, there was virtually no involvement from NZ’s Muslim community in organising her tour (let alone attending it). Only in Dunedin was there any Muslim organiser, in the person of Najib Lafraie (former Afghan Foreign Minister, now Politics Lecturer at Otago Univer-sity). The Lafraies were the only Muslim family to host Amirah (and me) anywhere in the country. Muslims were either a tiny minority of her audiences or completely absent. In Blenheim, a local Muslim made an effort to try and get his fellow co-religionists along (he told us that not only had he publicised it locally but to every mosque in NZ), but only three of them turned up (him and his wife and a friend). Amirah attended an interfaith meeting at the Christchurch Mosque (at the invitation of a local Muslim woman) and met with a couple of groups of Muslim women in Auckland. And that was it. Wellington people asked me to ring the head of the local Muslim community to see about Amirah meeting them, attending the mosque, etc. I did so, but nothing came of it. It can only be speculation as to why the local Muslim community stayed away, but Amirah wasn’t too bothered about it, and one possible explanation may be that local Muslims are wary of being seen as involved in “politics”, particularly a struggle in the Philippines about which they probably know no more than anyone else in NZ.

Likewise, there was noticeably less attendance by local Filipinos than on previous tours. Once again, the reasons can only be guessed at, but in light of the very widespread prejudice against Muslims in mainstream Christian Philippine society, it’s not hard to work out why Amirah’s compatriots stayed away (if there are any Filipino Muslims living in NZ, they would be a tiny minority within that community). One pakeha woman at Amirah’s public meeting in Whangarei (the last of the tour and the city where Marie Hilao-Enriquez, in 2004, had the biggest turnout by local Filipinos) said that she’d invited her Filipina neighbour who replied: “I won’t come. The speaker is a Muslim and they want to take over the Philippines”. That sums it up in a nutshell. A pity, but the tour wasn’t for the benefit of either local Muslims or local Filipinos. It was aimed at the majority NZ population and was very successful in raising the issues with that population.


In terms of numbers who attended those public meetings, they were predictably small – ranging from 15 up to about 40. That’s not surprising – if the Philippines per se is off the radar of the NZ progressive movement, let alone the NZ public, then the struggle of Philippine Muslims is positively subterranean in terms of NZ public awareness. In fact, PSNA was very pleased with the public response to this tour which, thanks to better media coverage than Marie got in 04, reached far more people than those who actually made it to (or even knew about) Amirah’s public meetings.

And not all Amirah’s meetings were public ones. In Wellington, we met with an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and had a very interesting discussion across the full range of the New Zealand-Philippines State to State relationship; in Auckland we met with a Human Rights Commissioner and were briefed about the newly fledged direct involvement of that official NZ body in the Philippines’ human rights crisis (both of those meetings have led to follow up work by PSNA). Amirah had her own meetings with groups such as Muslim women and local Filipinos in several cities, plus with activists campaigning against the “anti-terror” crackdown here.

Amirah brought a PowerPoint and relied on it totally as the central prop at her meetings (she didn’t actually deliver the speech that she supplied us, which you can read elsewhere in this issue). It was a very good one and she modified it at various times during the tour, taking on board suggestions that I made to her which would make it more easily understandable by NZ audiences. In 2004, we had terrible technical problems getting Marie’s PowerPoint to work in nearly all venues and she ended up giving an unaccompanied speech more often than not. Fortunately, we had nothing like the same problems with Amirah’s PowerPoint – which is not to say that it was smooth sailing. In more than one venue, there was a struggle to get it started, and/or working properly. In two major venues, due to misunderstandings, the local organisers had not provided a laptop and everyone had to wait until one was found. In Palmerston North, Amirah had been warned that there would be no PowerPoint facilities available, so she made some overhead projector transparencies especially for that one meeting.

On the subject of technical hitches, I should mention the major one that occurred on the very first working day of the tour, namely that gale force winds which battered Otago and Southland closed Dunedin Airport for the day and caused our plane to have to turn back to Christchurch, five minutes out from landing. This led to the very real possibility of Amirah having to wipe Dunedin from her itinerary but, fortunately, it was a morning flight and Air New Zealand put on buses to get several hundred stranded air travellers to their destination. The hours spent on the bus were put to good use – the Otago Daily Times rang and did a lengthy interview by mobile (which had to be done in several segments as the bus went out of and into cellphone coverage areas). Immediately upon arrival in central Dunedin we walked to the ODT office to meet the reporter and to have Amirah’s photo taken. We arrived in Dunedin less than two hours before Amirah’s public meeting but it all worked out remarkably well (the only thing that to be cancelled there was a community radio interview). Travel in New Zealand is never dull. We had several other flights, some in very small planes to provincial airports and there were no other problems (which is good, because Amirah told me that she is not a good flyer). The other journeys were by bus and private car.

Extremely Good Media Coverage

Media coverage was extremely good. The major disappointments were that Radio NZ’s Nine To Noon was not interested (it had featured live studio interviews with both Marie Hilao-Enriquez in 2004 and Emilia Dapulang in 02); and that the Listener, which was all set for its first ever interview with one of our speakers, pulled the plug at the last minute. But these were outweighed by the positives. She was in the Christchurch Press (first Philippine activist they’ve featured since 98); Otago Daily Times (which had interviewed Marie in 04 but not published anything); Marlborough Express (a first – Blenheim media coverage featured photos of Amirah at the inner gate of the Waihopai spybase); and Manawatu Standard (front page with several photos, whereas Marie had no media coverage in Palmerston North). Plus several community papers: Star (Dunedin); Blenheim Sun, Tribune (Palmerston North), and specialist newsletters – National Distribution Union’s Union Express, Green Party’s Te Awa. She did two NewstalkZB and one Radio Live interviews in Christchurch; community station interviews in Christchurch & Wellington (studio) and an iwi station studio interview in Whangarei. She missed out on a Radio Waatea (Maori) interview while in Auckland due to a misunderstanding. There had been the possibility of an interview with the Northern Advocate in Whangarei but the journalist was not available on the day. As with all our previous Philippine speakers, there was no mainstream coverage at all in Wellington or Auckland (while in Auckland I rang and spoke to the chief reporters of both the New Zealand Herald, the country’s biggest paper, and the Listener. Both expressed interest but nothing came of it). In my report on Marie Hilao-Enriquez’s 04 tour, I said that hers was our first tour to produce no press clippings. I’m pleased to report that Amirah’s tour was a major improvement on that, producing a good sized number of clippings.

This Is Why We Do What We Do

In conclusion, the tour was extremely successful. I feel that it was extremely worthwhile for several reasons – financially; networking and making links; media coverage; and, most importantly, raising awareness of a totally unknown aspect of the struggle of the Philippine peoples (and I use that plural advisedly, because Amirah’s tour made plain the wish of the Moros for either real autonomy or outright independence). It would have been a revelation to many Kiwis who would have had no previous knowledge of what has been going on in Mindanao and points south for decades, centuries actually. It may well be that, realistically, Amirah’s tour was a one off, rather than the beginning of an ongoing relationship between PSNA and Moro organisations (in contrast to our relationship with some of the groups represented in previous speaking tours we’ve hosted) but we consider that an achievement in itself, because it constitutes a 100% increase in the relationship we previously had with Bangsamoro. That, by itself, justifies the need for the solidarity work that we do – to give voice to the voiceless.

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