THAT WE MAY REMEMBER Free again but…

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/23 February) — I was released from prison in March 1985 after 22 months of detention. But long before I regained my freedom, I had made a decision on how I would proceed in my engagement with human rights, justice and peace issues: as a religious Brother. So I joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer or the Redemptorists.

In the last year of the Marcos dictatorship, I found my way to the sugar haciendas of Negros as a postulant among the sacadas during the tiempo del muertos (time of death). Negros was hit with a long drought. Hunger stalked the haciendas and children were dying from malnutrition. It was also the period of intense mobilizations as the organized sugar workers went on marches and rallies.  There was also the Escalante massacre that led to the long march across Negros.

After Negros, I was tasked to move to our Novitiate in Lipa City but before taking on the formation program as a novice, I was allowed by my superior to go to the US to thank various groups who had intervened on my behalf so Marcos would release me as political prisoner.
I was in Chicago when People Power erupted at EDSA.

Thanks to Cable TV, then newly-developed, the news was carried live across the world. In the company of Filipino activists and supporters in Chicago, I watched in awe as the crowds gathered at EDSA. We had our own vigil and we heard that similar vigils were taking place across the US, especially in New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles.

Thanks to Cable TV, we saw how the EDSA epic unfolded to its dramatic end. I longed to be with those at EDSA, but my consolation was that I saw on TV the three-day event which would not have been possible if I were in some hinterland area in Mindanao or the Visayas.

Shocked but optimistic
Like many activists, I was shocked with how EDSA erupted in the manner that it did.
No one ever predicted something like this happening. We had imagined our own historical trajectories which did not happen at all; instead, there was this “show” at EDSA. How to understand this phenomenon? How to explain the outburst of popular dissent leading to a widow taking up the Presidential office? How to take in the fast changing landscape with the almighty dictator, his ambitious wife and his lapdogs taking a fast exit in order to avoid the lynching mob?

But there was optimism. With the release of all political prisoners, the initial peace talks with all armed groups, popular faces in the Cabinet some of whom rose from the popular human rights movement, the restoration of democratic institutions and a new Constitution, it seemed like a new day had dawned for the Pinoys!

I finished my Novitiate and was off to my first mission experience among the Redemptorists and their lay associates within a year after Cory took office. We found ourselves in San Fernando, Bukidnon, one of the most isolated towns of the province.  There, Bisaya settlers had moved in to farm after logging operations ceased. There were still Manobos living in the mountainous areas. Logging was still operating at the Pantaron Ridge.

The Scarboro Missionaries immersed among the peasants and in the mid-1980s they noticed that water for irrigation purposes had turned scarce. Intuitively, they knew this phenomenon was connected to the continuing logging operations. The Scarboros invited us in the hope that through the BCCs (Basic Christian Communities), we would organize the people and then deal with this ecological issue at a time when environmental activism was only at its nascent stage.

EDSA’s People Power strategy was appropriated in San Fernando as the peasants formed a human barricade to prevent the logging trucks from delivering the logs to the ports in Cagayan de Oro City. With Secretary Fulgencio Factoran (a human rights lawyer during the Marcos dictatorship) serving as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and with a lot of support from civil society (media had become progressive by then having been liberated from censorship), the people won in their fight to stop logging. That was good news and we felt very strongly that the Cory administration was a great improvement from the Marcos regime.

But this appreciation of the State’s capacity to be on the side of the poor did not last. Even as Cory battled with a host of enemy fronts – the military factions that mounted a series of coup d’etat attempts, with her inexperience in running the State, with the complexity of the forces of international trade and commerce at work in the rising context of globalization – those in the grassroots were the ones who most felt the unfavorable impact of all these.  Where Cory’s government could not deliver on promises made and people’s expectations were unmet, her popularity could not carry through. We, too, became disgruntled and disappointed even as we knew radical change would not come with her regime.

This disappointment deepened in Josefina, Zamboanga del Sur in 1988. This town in the hinterlands of the Zamboanga peninsula was at the foot of Mt. Malindang, the natural site for an NPA guerilla zone.  The peace talks between the government and the NDF-CPP-NPA had collapsed earlier. As poverty situation had remained unchanged, there was still massive support of the landless peasants to the rebels at this time. This was true in many parts of the Zamboanga peninsula.

Cory turned hawkish and declared her total war policy against the insurgents. Military operations expanded across the Mt. Malindang range. Villages were dislocated with bombings and more massive hamletting; bakwits – the poorest of the Subanens – flooded the towns like Josefina.  Caught in a situation of war, it was difficult for many among the civil society to retain their openness to engage the State and it became easy again to be on the opposition side, versus the government and its military forces.

The Cory magic was gone. All that potential for radical change in our democratic institutions got wasted.

By February 2011, the Filipino people will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of People Power at EDSA.
Is there a reason to go out in the streets to join in the merriment to show gratitude for the fabled People Power?  Should families gather around the dinner table and have their thanksgiving meal – complete with the cheapest rice, galunggong and tuba – to tell stories about EDSA and the Pinoy’s heroism?  Should we build monuments of the Aquinos and put them side by side with the Rizals in our public plazas?

Each one of us will have to search deep into our hearts and decide what to do during the third week of February 2011. But we also have to be grounded in a post-colonial, post-elitist and post-Manila-centric reading of Philippine history to have a better perspective of what we still need to do as a people to unite ourselves and work together for the emancipation of the poor and marginalized among us.
{ This piece was first published in the February issue of OUR Mindanao, the monthly publication of the Mindanao News and Information Cooperative Center. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is author of several books, among them, “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures.” His latest book is “The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul.” He writes two columns, one in English, the other in Bisaya, for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews).