Defence Attaché in Manila, reflects on the mateship and bayanihan between Australia and the Philippines. As the then Assistant Defence Attaché he deployed to Tacloban in the immediate aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013. He subsequently represented Australia at the Multinational Coordinating Council of the Philippine government and the armed forces of 16 countries, who worked together for faster and more efficient distribution of relief to the survivors of the disaster. He returned to the Philippines in January 2021.
“Our shared histories with the Philippines go a long way back. Our friendship is not just about the good times, but about the bad times too.”
This is how I described the bond between the Philippines and the militaries of the Multinational Coordinating Council responding to the devastation inflicted by Super-typhoon Yolanda in November 2013.
Beyond this sentiment expressed in a meeting room in Manila, I had witnessed in Tacloban the incredible acts of selflessness in the spirit of bayanihan in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon.
Amidst the dead and suffering I saw Philippine Air Force pilots, exhausted but focused on evacuating traumatized citizens to safety and delivering much needed aid to those isolated but remaining in place.
I saw an exemplary Philippine Navy officer, (then) Captain Roy Trinidad, steering a course to manage and maximise the entire military relief effort at Tacloban airport, from the many first responders from around the world who had flocked to assist.
I saw hardened Philippine Special Forces Regiment soldiers, every bit as tough as their reputation implies, balancing firmness to control a growing and desperate crowd of victims with compassion for their appalling plight, with families decimated and children orphaned. I vividly recall watching a wiry Special Forces soldier as he virtually carried what I assumed to be a grandmother, her grandchild and their worldly possessions in a sack, to the rear of a departing C130 as they were lagging behind the other evacuees.
Australia has a longstanding tradition of mateship – it is our version of bayanihan. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has a distinct term for a mate, ‘bok’, originating from the Philippine Military Academy. They all imply sacrifice for ones’ friends.
In the same way I had seen members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines actively living bayahihan, I was privileged to see among the many nations and organisations providing assistance, Australians embodying this ideal.
The Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) comprised of volunteers, were deployed with an entirely self-sufficient, 50-bed hospital. I well remember these remarkable Australians were conducting amputations within a day of commencing set up.
Australian Defence Force supplementation arrived and coordinated aid coming in and the evacuation of victims to Manila and Cebu with Royal Australian Air Force crews flying around the clock.
In time, HMAS TOBRUK ship of the Royal Australian Navy arrived with engineers on board and reconstruction of critical infrastructure such as schools in and around Ormoc commenced.
But this multinational effort, of which I have largely described Australian and Philippine contributions, didn’t come from a standing start. In our case, the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement which had been signed in 2012, eased the path for military assistance. Just as importantly, we were working together with known friends; Lieutenant General Roy Deveraturda, the then CENTCOM commander was a founding member of the Philippine Australian Defence Scholars Association (PADSA) and had completed a Masters degree at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Now Commodore Roy Trinidad and the Special Forces Regiment battalion commander at Tacloban were similarly alumni.
I arrived soon after the typhoon and vividly recall the welcome and support I received from these friends, because they knew that friendship is not just about the good times, and this was the moment Australia, together with all of the other contributors, would tangibly help if we could. This was mateship, this was bayanihan.