Remembering Zen Malang: Moro human rights lawyer, humanitarian, patriot

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 20 March) – Only a few friends knew he was going to go anytime soon, and when he succumbed to a rare cancer just after the call to prayer at noon on Saturday, March 20 in his home in Cotabato City, Zainudin “Zen” Malang, Moro human rights lawyer, activist, humanitarian and peacebuilder, left a message to friends not to be depressed but to celebrate his life.

“I have had a good run, a great run.  So, instead of being depressed about my news, please join me in being grateful for the life I have lived,” he wrote to his classmates at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Law in a yearender message last December, a copy of which he sent MindaNews’ Carolyn O. Arguillas after informing her on January 22 that he was stricken with a cancer so rare there is no treatment as yet, not even on clinical trial.

Malang gave permission to publish what he wrote to his Law school classmates as his last piece for “A Moro in Exile,” a column he wrote for MindaNews occasionally, after another column titled “From the Plains of Kutawato.”

“Been fighting the Big C for past two years. Only a handful here in Cotabato know. And I want to keep it that way,” he said via Messenger.

Zen Malang posted this photo on his Facebook page on October 19, 2017.

“Doctor and I no longer think in terms of stage. Because of the rareness of my type of C, we don’t ask ourselves anong stage,” he said.

Malang was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, also known as bile duct cancer, in November 2018.

He said he had the tumor go through  an expensive genetic profiling in the US “and they came back with ‘no treatment available, not even one on clinical trial.”

His death came a month and a week after his mother, Bai Sitti Lupia Balabaran Salazar Malang, passed away on February 13.

He told his Law school classmates that he had led a “full life, a very colorful life… the life I wanted to live and experienced most everything I want to experience in life.”

“I jokingly tell friends and colleagues in Mindanao that my life mission is to go where no Moro has gone before and looking back, I can honestly say that is exactly what I have done,” the 54-year old Malang wrote.

He said he had “two loving, gorgeous, and well-grounded daughters” and even if things did not work out between him and their mom, “fortunately, we are on very good terms.”

“I have made a career out of helping people caught in violent conflicts .  I have set an example for younger Moro lawyers, done things they and others thought couldn’t be done.  I was able not only to live my life according to my principles but make others recognize those principles and respect me for it,”  he said, adding he was “truly grateful for my life, with very few or even no regrets. So please do not feel bad for me.  Just join me in celebrating the life I have lived.”

Despite his many accomplishments, Malang wanted to be known simply as a “lawyer from Mindanao who spent years on deployment in acute emergencies in East Africa and the Middle East. Before that, he was the founding head of a human rights and civilian protection organization in Mindanao and was one of the five members of the peace process monitoring body.”

Malang was the first Executive Director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC),  established by 12 convenor organizations to “pool together, rationalize, and standardize their human rights initiatives in conflict-affected communities in Mindanao, particularly in Moro communities which have the least access to human rights and humanitarian services.”

Zen Malang (extreme right, in black), and his MinHRAC family during MinHRAC’s Field Monitoring Coordinators’ 3rd General Assembly and Stocktaking on January 6 to 8, 2012 at Sarangani Highlands in General Santos City. Photo posted by MinHRAC Dabaw

MinHRAC noted that “true peace in the conflict-affected communities cannot be attained without human rights,” that the successful defense and advocacy for human rights in the conflict-affected areas can only be possible with the active involvement of residents and stakeholders in these communities; and that all aspects of human rights work must observe the basic principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence.”

As Executive Director, Malang returned money to a foreign funding agency for imposing something that MinHRAC had earlier disagreed with.

Malang was also among the founders of the Bangsamoro Laywers Network.

He was a member of the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT), the body set up by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to monitor the implementation of the peace agreement.

Moro patriot

“Brother Zen was a Moro human rights lawyer-activist and a critical thinker like us who played an active role in the peace negotiations by representing the MILF in the Protection of Civilian Communities Component of the International Monitoring  Team. Farewell, Bother Zern. My salute!,” wrote Robert Maulana Marohombsar Alonto, a member of the MILF peace panel that negotiated with the Philippine government.

Lawyer Mary Ann Arnado, secretary-general of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, thanked Malang for “sharing and enriching our advocacies with your critical and ever questioning mind.”

Bayan Muna Rep. Karlos Isagani Zarate described Malang as a “respected and dedicated Moro human rights advoacate and defender” who was a co-founding member of the Union of Peoples Lawyers in Mindanao.

“We lost today a Moro patriot,” said Noor Saada, a development worker and peace advocate.

Naguib Sinarimbo, Minister of Interior and Local Government and spokesperson of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said “the Bangsamoro Government mourns the death of Atty. Zainudin Malang, a Moro patriot and human rights lawyer who defended the rights of the displaced and marginalized Bangsamoro. His contribution in the Moro struggle, especially on the application of International Humanitarian Law, will be remembered. “

Zen Malang’s Facebook profile photo, posted on December 9, 2018.

“We lost one great lawyer,” said Zamboanga City-based reporter Julie Alipala of the Philippine Daily Inquirer who remembers how Malang, despite his busy schedules as humanitarian worker in conflict areas, “never failed to follow-up on journalists whom he considered allies in human rights reporting.”

“You fought for the rights of the marginalized, the oppressed. You were a ferocious human rights lawyer but also very iyakin,” Jamela Aisha Alindogan of Al Jazeera wrote.

“What a life well lived in the service of the Bangsamoro,”  Alindogan said.

A book titled “Memoirs of a Moro Humanitarian and Human Rights Lawyer” containing the writings of Malang will be published soon, according to Amor Pendaliday who compiled his writings. (MindaNews)