Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Seeing a Different Home: My Reflections on the Hong Kong Mission

Rey Asis, ASA regional secretariat member

Going back to the Philippines after almost two years of being away from it was something I have always been looking forward to. I was both excited and agitated for several reasons, two of which I will reveal: one, I have been wanting to see my family (or what is left of them as majority of my kin has migrated to Canada), and two, to know and see for myself the political landscape of my country.

I was coming home for another important reason and that is to be in a fact-finding mission that my organization and several local and regional organizations have decided to do as a response to the worsening spate of human rights violations in the Philippines.

Amidst the violence that reaps through the heart of my society, I was happy to know that people from other countries are concerned and expressing their support and solidarity through a lot of ways, this fact-finding mission being one of them.

First days

Stepping into the hot steaming concrete of Metro Manila, I knew I had big work ahead of me.

Meeting with the local secretariat, many of whom were leaders of various organizations including Karapatan and the rest of the secretariat of the Stop the Killings in the Philippines campaign, was to me very important as it laid down the current human rights situation in the country vis a vis the update on the preparations for the Hong Kong Mission on Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, the name we have given to the fact-finding mission.

Visiting the provinces where the fact-finding mission will be held and meeting with the local leaders and provincial coordinators of Karapatan were also crucial. As organizers of the mission, it is best to know the situation there, the security of the area and the present state of the victims and/or their families as well as the whole community they are presently at.

Attending to the logistical needs of the fact-finding mission, talking with concerned people whom we know can help in the mission as well as learning the ropes of running a fact-finding mission were a few of the things I learned in the course of the first few days.

In those short days (time seemed to be in a sprint always), I realized the importance of learning a lot of things as the grave situation of the people in my country needs more people to be involved and exerting a lot of pressure to the government who has done such a lackluster job in resolving the extra-judicial killings.

More people need to be saved. The victims have to be given justice. Tricks and things have to be learned.

Seeing with one’s own eyes, hearing with one’s own ears

I have always known the ways and means of the Philippine government and its military in dealing with political dissent but it never occurred to me the gravity and magnitude of the violence, of the violation.

I did not find it unusual that I cast doubts at first although after hearing one account from another and how devastating the impact has been on them, I immediately cast my doubts aside.

Most of the victims were from poor families or those leading a life of subsistence. They were either landless farmers, fisherfolk living in dying fjords and rivers or vendors selling their produce in talipapa, or small wet markets.

Except for three, all of the people we interviewed were women, either wives or mothers of the victims. They were kin of people who were either killed or abducted by alleged military men. They spoke of love for the people they have lost or are still looking for. They spoke of justice so succinctly as if it has become staple like rice in a Filipino meal yet so unavailable as if they cannot afford it. They were all crying for it. They were all demanding it.

The youngest of the interviewees was a 14-year old boy who witnessed the abduction of Karen Empeno and Shirlyn Candazo. He lived in the house where Karen and Shirlyn were staying the night they were abducted by what he identified as military men. He witnessed and experienced himself the atrocity of the military as he was hit and dragged by the military themselves.

As most farmers are shy, he too was quite wary of the people he was talking to that afternoon yet he never showed fear of what he was talking about. Many of us gasped and sighed in disbelief when we learned that he never stayed in school for very long as his family’s situation was so poor that he was forced to work and help his already working family to put food on their table.

I wondered at some point, now that they have moved to the refugee camp away from the militarized area, how could they possibly survive? As if reading my mind, he went to speak: It is hard to live in peace without justice. Although life here is hard, I am willing to fight it out. I have nothing to lose.

He tasted violence himself. He was breathing it and he was not afraid to resist and struggle against it. Something that I at my age have yet to learn.

At his very young age, he taught me well.

Standing Up

Coming from an organization that hails students’ rights and involves them in social change, I have seen the grave political situation in my country. Repression hits at the core of the resistance and recognizes no color, age or religion. It is the height of fascism where popular dissent is deemed illegal and terrorist and should be silenced and dealt with heavily.

Students are not spared from these brutal state-sponsored attacks as one colleague too was recently shot dead. Lawyers, lay people, priests, journalists and human rights advocates themselves are neither spared.

In all these days of disquiet, the government was tight-lipped. And when it did open its mouth, it was either all lip service or a railing against the rebellion it accused of killing the lot. If the communists were indeed the one doing the killing rampage, one participant mentioned, why would the witnesses be afraid still to enter the witness protection program? Clearly, there is a flaw in this logic that the military is uttering to the public.

It was made clear in the participants’ minds how flawed the Philippine judiciary system is, how questionable the task forces created by the government itself to look into these cases, and how vigilant the Filipinos are in resisting this raw violence and standing up for themselves.

As a student of society and a Filipino myself, I was proud. This shameless government faces up to a people who will not cower. And the people I was with in the whole week of the fact-finding mission, many of them at the least, knew the importance of exposing this to the international community and rallying the people of Hong Kong and the rest of the world to express their support and solidarity to the Filipino people.

The challenges

In a matter of days, I will be coming back to Hong Kong to meet up with the people who joined the fact-finding mission. In a matter of days, I will be meeting up with my colleagues in the Asian Students Association and the several students of Hong Kong to talk about this situation and the need for us to go together in this growing campaign to stop the killings in my country. In a matter of days, I will be seeing fellow Filipinos and enjoin them in this struggle.

There is a bigger challenge for many of us who have gone and seen for ourselves the loss, or the grave violation, of human rights in the Philippines, to speak about it and tell to as many people as possible. Encouraging them to join in the activities that the mission will hold and even to go and see for themselves the situation here will prove beneficial.

What is important right now is that the situation here is known and that people in my sector at least will be involved.

Lives have to be saved. And justice has to be served.