With their own lives very probably on the line, nine human rights activists from the Philippines this week told stories of government-sponsored terror at a series of public hearings in Washington, D.C., several of them sponsored by church organizations.
Three bishops and six leaders of justice-oriented organizations, a delegation sent to the United States by the National Council of Churches of the Philippines, testified during Ecumenical Advocacy Days March 9-12 to a deteriorating climate of fear in which friends and colleagues were being murdered in a campaign to eliminate activist leaders and silence their protests.
The group brought a detailed 99-page report documenting the killings of more than 800 civilians and the "disappearances" of another 196, some of them students, since 2001. The victims, they said, are priests, pastors, human rights workers, labor leaders, journalists â those who spoke up for the poor and who criticized government policies.
"We come out of an obscene climate of political repression," declared Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, a lay leader of the Philippine Baptist Church at the initial press briefing. "We come to North America appalled at the political intolerance of government authorities whose response to abject poverty, to unemployment and landlessness is military might and a vicious campaign to obliterate a burgeoning movement for social transformation."
The delegates, known as the Ecumenical Voice for Peace and Human Rights in the Philippines, were present to participate in the fifth annual Advocacy Days, an event sponsored by more than 50 churches that draws 1,000 people to Washington to lobby their senators and congressmen. The Philippines group came also to address the International Ecumenical Conference on Human Rights in the Philippines on March 12-14 and to appear before a congressional hearing of Sen. Barbara Boxer's East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A Call to Action
The report, titled "Let the Stones Cry Out: An Ecumenical Report on Human Rights in the Philippines and a Call to Action," ( ) begins with this description of the situation: "The Philippine Government has launched relentless military campaigns against the 'enemies of the state' and in the name of the 'rule of law' and 'political stability.' But the results of this strategy have been mounting reports of dead bodies sprawled on highways and bushes, of female students abducted by armed men in the dead of night, never to be seen again, of the cries of anguish of mothers as their sons â felled by assassins' bullets â die in their arms, of a well-loved bishop bathed in his own blood after being stabbed several times, and of children terrorized and traumatized by soldiers who have taken over their villages."
The report was prepared by a writing team from the NCCP, according to the Rev. Rex Reyes, an Episcopal priest who served on that writing team. Reyes will be joining the delegation later this month when they make presentations to the United Nations' Human Rights Council in Geneva. The report presents the protests and indignation of human rights organizations, churches, civil libertarians, and fact-finding missions from all over the world.
"This report is the collective cry for justice by thousands of Filipinos who bear the brunt of human rights violations under the Philippine government's counter insurgency strategy," said Ruiz-Duremdes as she introduced the NCCP delegates who had come to Washington to issue their "Call to Action."
Déjà vu situation
Marie Hilao-Enriquez, general secretary of KARAPATAN, a human rights advocacy and monitoring alliance, explained that KARAPATAN had been documenting the violations from 15 regional centers. "For martial law victims like us, we live in a dÃ©jÃ vu situationâ¦ but unlike under the Marcos dictatorship, now the situation has become more cruel and more insidious because there is no declaration of martial law but the rights of the Filipinos have become alarmingly violated."
Hilao-Enriguez criticized the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for outlawing peaceful demonstrations in front of the presidential palace which had been allowed even under Marcos. "But the worst part of it is the resort to extra judicial killings of key leaders and members of progressive organizations which were at the forefront of protest actions against her policies."
A counter insurgency program named Operation Freedom Watch by the Arroyo government consists, said Hilao-Enriguez, "of deploying military troops in the rural areas to cow the citizenry into silenceâ¦ Troops have been deployed in areas which are considered as rebel strongholds."
After the deployments start, said Hilao-Enriguez, "we would see the systematic killing of farmer leaders, trade unionists, church people, lawyers, human rights workers, journalists, indigenous people's leaders, the Moro people, youth and women."
One of those killed was Episcopalian Alyce Omengan Claver, shot by masked men on July 31 last year. According to Reyes, it was her husband Dr. Chandu Claver who was the target. He was also shot, but survived. The two were active human rights workers, said Reyes.
Such killings further the goal of the Arroyo government "to silence all protests," said Hilao-Enriquez. "They make use of the counterinsurgency program to hit back, especially the leaders of the so-called democratic movements or the people's organizations which are in the forefront of people's protests. The victims of the killings, for example, before they are killed are labeled as communists, labeled as members of so-called front organizations. Before they were killed, there was a vilification campaign against them in the print media, on radio and even on leaflets. And then after that, surveillance ensues and the next time they will be killed by men on motorcycles and wearing masks. This is the pattern in the extra judicial executions."
Bishop Solito Toquero, resident bishop of the United Methodist Church in Manila, faced exactly that situation with two of his church's district superintendents. "They have been labeled and they are in 'the order of battle' of the military. That means they are targeted for assassination." Toquero sent one of the men to Singapore "to be a missionary and he is there now with his family."
He told of students from the University of the Philippines who were conducting research in one of the provinces. "They just disappeared. Until now. The parents went to the Supreme Court for a habeas corpus petition. But until now -- and it has been two years already -- they do not produce these two students."
A Muslim Filipina, Amirah Ali Lidasan, secretary general and co-founder of the Moro-Christian People's Alliance, told how Muslims in Mindanao where she is from are being made the scapegoats. "We were called the terrorists. We were the reason the Rim of Security Act was passed. And we are the ones being projected in the media as the bad people. So it is a rare joy for us to talk, to clear our name," she said, thanking the National Council of Churches for inviting them. "In Mindanao, the people who are killed are not the terrorists. The victims are mostly women and children. The victims are non-combatants. And the victims are civilians like us."
Their lives at risk
"What will happen to you when you return?" asked a reporter. "Aren't you putting your lives at risk by speaking here?"
Hilao-Enriquez answered. "We really aren't sureâ¦ Right now, 37 of my colleagues were already killed, out of the 835 that we have documented. I was telling my lawyer friend yesterday to ask some of his friends in the immigration [office] to see if there is a warrant of arrest [for us] on the list when we go back. "
Hilao-Enriquez said she thought "one of the last bits of hope that has shielded us is for us to maintain the high profile in public and media. Even that though, with Bishop [Alberto] Ramento, the dear bishop that we had, the supreme bishop of the Philippine Independent church, didn't work wellâ¦ We are cognizant of the risk that we take." [Bishop Ramento was killed Oct. 3, 2006.]
Bishop Eliezer Pascua, general secretary of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, said the opportunity to speak out before the U.S. Congress was too important and too rare to pass up. "It is not that we would like to play the hero in this very dangerous situationâ¦ never we thought of that," he said. "We feel like telling the truthâ¦as far as we experience, as far as our spirit can discern. We will tell what we know about violence, human rights abusesâ¦ particularly these political killings."
Then, choking up, his voice cracking, Pascua admitted "We don't know what will happen when we get back. Fear is very real in us. I am particularly afraid. But this is a matter of making a choice between life and death, between freedom and oppression. The choice is very clear for us."
The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the U.S., present at the press briefing to express solidarity, said it had been his experience over the last 30 years "that if the international community puts a spotlight on the killings and the violence â¦ that is a protection" for those who speak out. "It is when the United States and other western nations are silent and do not expose the violence that it is even more dangerous."
Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes issued a challenge: "Share our via dolorosa. Stand with usâ¦ hear us out. There is only one struggle for justice and peace and your liberation is tied to ours. The commonalities of the situation unite us."
Then she made an appeal to the churches. "Please keep those letters coming," Ruiz-Duremdes pleaded. "We know for a fact that fact-finding missions that your churches have sent to the Philippines and their attempts to talk to the victims and to people in government have made a dent in the way the government is responding. So we would like to thank you for what you are doing, but let's keep that kind of pressure on."