In 2010, I was a summer intern for the largest, progressive human rights organization in the Philippines, Karapatan: Alliance for the Advancement of Peoples Rights. As a non-Filipino, I never imagined that I would become so involved in the Filipino cause. Faced, however, with the dire human rights situation as well as the fervor of the people’s movement – I realized that I not only supported the cause, but that I wanted to dedicate my life to the Philippine struggle. Suffice it to say, that summer changed my life.
A few months before my internship, 43 health workers held a workshop on community health in Morong, Rizal province. They were raided by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), held incommunicado in a military camp, tortured, and imprisoned on the basis of trumped up charges and planted evidence. The 26 women of the “Morong 43” were held in one very cramped and damp cell. By the time I visited them in May, two of the women were close to giving birth, and many were sick. The conditions in the jail were palpably horrendous, and visitors were subject to strip search. While humiliating, it did not come close to the torture described by the prisoners, nor the pain of a child’s longing to be with their wrongfully imprisoned mother.
One of the Morong 43 was Merry Mia Clamore, a physician. She is the wife of the Deputy Secretary General of Karapatan, Roneo “Jigs” Clamor. Their son, Diego, five years old at the time, taught me what it meant to feel powerless and be powerful at the same time. Diego, who we lovingly called “Egoy,” would speak at rallies and press conferences about the “bad guys” who took his mom, a doctor that healed people in hospitals and in the community. In the office, while Jigs worked, Egoy would stare out of the window and cry for his mom to come home.
The building that houses the Karapatan office also houses the offices of the National Union of Peoples Lawyers (NUPL), whose lawyers often represent the victims and families that Karapatan serves, and BAYAN, an alliance of mass organizations dedicated to national liberation and democracy. Many working in the building are themselves survivors of human rights violations. The guards in the garage were victims of torture, and the cleaning staff were parents of extra-judicially killed student activists. At the time, the Chair of Karapatan was Marie Hilao-Enriquez, sister to the first detainee, Liliosa Hilao, to be killed by the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos.
Today, when the AFP calls the Bayan and Karapatan building a safe house, they’re right. This building where I worked that summer and the place I go to every time I am in the Philippines was indeed a safe refuge for survivors and their families. We cooked, we ate, we interviewed victims, prepared affidavits, and played with the children and the cats. The AFP, however, is wrong to call the building a place for rebels or storage for firearms. I have slept many nights in that building. I have worked in every office, used every bathroom, rummaged through every closet for political t-shirts and placards. I have climbed through the piles of old banners and paint cans in the garage. I have hung my laundry to dry in all the tiny specks of yard and fire escapes. Let me tell you, there is just no space to hide any guns or bombs or rebels. The offices requested the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to conduct a search, and they also found no guns and no bombs.
But there is something the AFP should be afraid of in that building: The powerful, resilient, bad ass, lawyers, activists, cultural workers, and human rights defenders. They have worked tirelessly throughout the decades to fight for the rights and welfare of the Filipino people. As the Duterte Regime and its goons continue to harass, arrest and kill innocent people, the families and survivors who are thrust into activism also grow. Let me tell you that hell hath no fury like a mother whose son survived an assassination attempt.
In the past several days, a Karapatan human rights defender has gone missing in Mindanao, over 50 peasant organizers and cultural workers were arrested in Negros, and offices of progressive organizations have been raided. De facto martial law is in effect throughout the Philippines, and the death toll under the Duterte regime has far surpassed the numbers under Marcos. It is estimated that 3257 were killed under Marcos’s Martial Law. As of December 2018, the chair of the Commission on Human Rights estimated that the Duterte’s death toll could be as high as 27,000.
Let this be a warning to the Duterte regime, a lesson from the Marcos era: fascism does not bode well for sitting presidents. When people are dying from hunger and oppression, they become desperate. The will of the people to survive and fight back is much stronger than any blow by the state. Killing unarmed people only forces them to the mountains to pick up arms. The intense political repression of Marcos’ Martial Law regime of the ‘70s strengthened the people’s movement that eventually ousted him. State repression remains the biggest recruiter to the progressive movements and even to the guerilla army. The world is watching, we are advancing the solidarity movement for the Philippines, and we are rooting for the Filipino people.
Yoko Liriano is a long-time solidarity activist for the Philippines. She is Communications Coordinator of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines – US Chapter (ICHRP-US) and Co-Chair of the Hawaii Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (HICHRP).