Since childhood, Malayapinas has seen the dark side of globalization and violence in the Philippines. She walked to school barefoot after early morning hours selling eggs and cigarettes to ship passengers in her nation’s ports. She toiled in the banana plantations to earn her way to college and became a young mother. Since secret military forces abducted her trade-union husband, she has raised her voice for local health, fair trade, and food security. Her dream is to see the Filipino people live to the fullness of their potential and women free to chart their own destiny. She faces numerous death threats for speaking out.
I am crying with anger at the shocking news of Monday’s mass slaughter in Maguindanao, a province not far from my home in the southern Philippines. Ever since I learned that my two women lawyer friends were among the casualties, my body has turned numb.
Concepcion “Connie” Brizuela, 56, and Cynthia Oquendo, 35, were stalwart human rights defenders on cases of extra judicial killings in Mindanao under the Arroyo government until the very end. We were together in our advocacy to stop political killings here in the Philippines.
I will never forget the laughter of Connie. She was so gentle in her ways but so firm and brave in confronting human rights violators. Cynthia was a quiet one who stood proudly for what she believes in.
On that fateful Monday, they had been traveling with a delegation of mostly women and journalists that were stopped by armed troops. They were on their way to file a Certificate of Candidacy for the May 2010 election for Buluan Vice Mayor Ishmael Mangudadatu in the provincial capitol of Maguindanao. Mangudadatu is vying for a governatorial seat against the incumbent Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. of Maguindanao Province come May 2010 national election.
Their bodies were among the fifty-seven found buried in shallow graves, allegedly murdered by one hundred policeman and para-military troops of the Ampatuans, the ruling warlord clan in Maguindanao. Some were reportedly raped, decapitated, and chain-sawed. Two of the bodies were pregnant women. Faces of the some of the victims were so mutilated they couldn’t be identified by families.
The torture was horrific. “My wife's private parts were slashed four times, after which they fired a bullet into it,” said Vice Mayor Mangadadatu in an interview published by the Philippines Daily Inquirer. “They speared both of her eyes, shot both her breasts, cut off her feet, fired into her mouth. I could not begin to describe the manner by which they treated her.”
Is this is the kind of democracy the Arroyo government is proud to show the international community? Reporters Without Borders states that this is the darkest day of journalism in modern history—the largest single killing of journalists ever recorded.
Sadly, the death of colleagues is not strange to me. I have lost countless, including my beloved husband twenty years ago. He was a trade-union organizer. Some of my disappeared colleagues still visit me in my dreams at night, like brave Luing, who left behind two beautiful daughters.
Under the Arroyo government, violence has worsened as more military forces have become involved in the lawlessness and culture of impunity that reigns all over the island. At least sixty-seven journalists, not including the Maguindanao massacre, and more than thousand activists have been killed, disappeared and tortured during her reign.
Activists in my country are often labeled “Enemies of the State.” Usually, they were shot to death or forcibly taken, even in broad day light by believed military agents wearing bonnets, brought into safe houses, tortured, interrogated and silenced forever.
Not one has been sentenced to jail and justice has not been served. This impunity paved the way for the mass carnage we have seen this week.
Mindanao: Land of Promise and Conflict
I grew up against the backdrop of a dangerous world of war and poverty in Mindanao, the second largest island of the Philippines.
Mindanao is marked with richness in natural resources in land and in water. It is endowed with mineral resources of gold, nickel, copper, lead and chromium. The gold mines alone in Mindanao account for almost half of the national reserves. It is home to the almost twenty-seven indigenous cultural tribes of Moro and Lumads.
Yet, in contrast to its beauty and abundance, Mindanao is considered the country’s poorest region. More than 60% of its people are impoverished. Much of the island is dominated by large multi-national corporations such as the DOLE Philippines and Del Monte-Philippines. Big local and foreign mining and logging companies control vast tracts of land.
I was five years old when Martial Law was declared by Marcos in 1972. Battalions of the Philippine Army were deployed in our communities making Mindanao a battlefield of government forces and Moro resistance forces. I grew up witnessing military personnel killing innocent civilians anytime of the day. Bombings became a natural phenomenon every day of our lives.
As a little girl, I remember that whenever we heard news of Muslim attacks in the night I would constantly shake from nervousness. Tatay (Father) had to wrap me in a blanket just to keep me warm and stop me from shaking.
The injustice I have witnessed has fueled my passion to see peace rising above poverty in my country. It has catapulted me to the world of social activism and women’s activism even in the face of political persecution. I have survived several attempts on my life. It is a constant struggle of uncertainty, of choices between life and death for those of us who are left behind.
Yet, I only want to help ourselves as Filipinos having three square meals a day, a roof over our heads, a medicine for our sickly bodies and decent jobs for a living.
I just want to have a community where there is no violence against women and children, where women are dignified and respected instead of being raped and massacred. [paging]
Arroyo’s undeclared martial law
In the eight years of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency, her human rights record has almost surpassed that of former dictator Marcos.
KARAPATAN, a human rights organization stated in their 37th year Martial Law Anniversary commemoration this year that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is a new dictator, who along with her cohorts, has put the nation under an undeclared martial law for almost a decade. The same human rights violations—the extrajudicial killings, the abductions, the enforced disappearances, the torture, the numerous forcible evacuations, the stifling of the people's voices—are reminiscent of the Marcos' era, but made worse with the disguise of booming economy, peace and democracy which the Arroyo regime tries to project.
Today, the ruling Ampatuan warlord clan in Maguindanao has long enjoyed the favor and protection of Arroyo government as her political ally. Concessions were made with the Arroyo government to build up their own private armies as protection against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro revolutionary militants in the region.
There is solid and compelling evidence for the full force of law against Ampatuans, but the government is dragging its feet for days for Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. surrender.
As public outrage grows, I recently joined hundreds in a nationwide indignation rally in Jaro Cathedral, Iloilo City. We gathered to condemn the violence that has led to the most gruesome killings in modern Philippine history. Candles and torches were lighted as symbols of protest and courage. I was surrounded by more than one hundred journalists, activists, human rights lawyers, women, student journalists and church leaders.
As the flames of the candles and torches lighted the darkness of the night, I could see the faces of my two friends and all other victims shouting for justice. As the shivering voices of women and journalists raged in the silence of the night, I can hear their cries begging for their lives!
“We must rage against this gruesome mass slaughter,” challenged Nestor Burgos, National of Union Journalist of the Philippines (NUJP) Chairperson during the rally.
“This is not only against press freedom but this is against humanity. I find it hard to sleep in this time of mourning and anger,” Burgos cried.
“We will never allow this horrifying death of our women and journalists to happen again,” lamented Lucy Francisco of Gabriela, a national women’s human rights network.
“President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo must be answerable to all these violence in Mindanao and all over the country.”
I may not able to hear their cries, their voices of anger but I know they fought and died bravely. I will raise their voices. The Filipino people, the women, the journalists and lawyers today are turning their anger and sadness into courage; the courage to fight violence by state instruments; the courage to be free and the courage to face death and fight for life.
It is imperative that the Filipino people unite together and call Mrs. Arroyo accountable to this culture of violence and impunity.
The military and police officers allegedly involved in the massacre must be arrested, including the Ampatuans who allegedly masterminded the massacre. Court cases must be immediately filed against the perpetrators in independent courts of the country.
Indemnification must be given to families of the victims by the government. Ampatuan and their private armies must be disbanded immediately.
Only through strong public pressure such as demonstrations, a massive information campaign against impunity of killings, networking with all sectors of our communities, lobby work among legislators, and international and independent fact finding missions will the Arroyo government be answerable to such a gruesome crime against the Filipino people.
We call on the international community to support us in our quest for justice and peace in our homeland.
As for me, my commitment to serve my people and my sisters in need calls me every second of the day. This I can’t refuse.
I salute the women and all the victims of Maguindanao massacre who bravely defied the powers of warlordism and violence. Their living memories, as well of those of all my murdered colleagues and friends, hold me to giving, hoping and fighting for freedom and a better tomorrow beyond my lifetime.
Corazon Aquino, the first woman president of the Philippines and Asia recently passed away on August 1st after a long battle with cancer. She was instrumental in leading the People Power Revolution that ousted the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. She stood her ground fighting tyranny until the very end. She believed that “the real power of our democracy lies in the people.”
And so, the ultimate hope for us Filipino people is ourselves, holding on to the belief that we as a people can make social change even in the darkest years of our history.