United for human rights, democracy, and justice

September 21, 2017, this last Thursday, will be seen as a watershed moment for the Philippines. Hopefully, we are now seeing a process of unification of forces not necessarily against President Duterte or his administration but a positive coalition, a united front for human rights, democracy, and justice. But we are not yet there. And if we do not learn our lessons from the past, particularly from the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, we will not get there at all. That would be so tragic.

There are many organizational issues that should be threshed out to move forward on a united front. I will write about that in another column. For this article, I will focus on the deficit of trust that exists among individuals that belong to different ideological groups. Unless that mistrust, borne out of real experiences people have experienced in the last few decades, we will not succeed in unifying the forces that otherwise share common objectives if not shared values.

Reflecting on this issue of lack of trust, I recall my own memory of experiencing and fighting martial law. My main lesson is one must never judge others.

Every year, I ask my law and political science classes in Manila and Mindanao to do a simple Bantayog ng mga Bayani exercise. I instruct my students to choose a martial law hero or heroine, including those who were tortured and killed, and share his or her story as your own. Among others, I will ask them to look at the pictures, the faces and especially of the young men and women who died for this country and our people during the dictatorship. It’s a way of remembering and honoring, of recommitting – never again.

When I started doing this two years ago, with my constitutional law class in Xavier University as the first to try it, I ended up clicking at every name of the roster of martyrs and heroes in the roster of Bantayog Ng Bayani myself), all the 200-plus in that list. The exercise of looking at names and pictures exhausted and agitated me but it also motivated me to try to remember as much as I could what the country was like under a dictatorship. So, I decided to walk to our family home from the Xavier University (XU) campus, the same route I followed almost every day (sometimes I detoured to walk my girlfriend, now my wife, home) from June 1981 to March 1983, when I was a philosophy teacher in XU.

While walking that night, I did try to remember what it was like in 1981-1983. I remembered some fear – both my wife (a student organizer) and I have been frequently warned we were being followed by intelligence agents – but that was not the dominant feeling. It was more this tension, that something big was up, that change was coming, that we were on the cusp of a revolution.

Cagayan de Oro was opposition territory – Nene Pimentel and Bono Adaza were respectively City Mayor and Misamis Oriental governor. Membership in the cause oriented and mass organizations were growing exponentially in Mindanao, and this continued even after Edgar Jopson, leader of the Mindanao Commission of the National Democratic Front, was killed in Davao sometime in 1982. That death that had a big effect on me as Lean Alejandro’s assassination did 10+ years later. Call me naive, but up to now, I still believe that Edjop and Lean Alejandro, if they survived martial law or its transition (in Lean’s case), would be presidents of the country someday, maybe the former right at this time.

In Xavier University, the student movement was alive and well, with groups connected to the underground movements (national democratic and social democratic, but the former was more numerous and bigger) teeming. After sundown, you could see all the activist collectives and cells meeting in the middle of the football field right at the center of the campus, and I always wished I could eavesdrop and find out what they were plotting to do. 

I was identified with the Socdems because I had come from Ateneo de Manila. I was at that time exploring options, including looking seriously at armed resistance and struggle as inevitable as the political situation deteriorated. I was also ready for a serious Marxist-Christian dialogue as I have read all of Marx and Lenin’s writings by that time and have started reading Antonio Grasmci, not to mention the leading liberation theology proponents. The truth is that I had fallen in love then with Marxian (not Marxist) analysis because my entry point to Marx was his younger philosophical writings which emphasized his concept of alienation and the kind of humanity and society we should aspire to.

While walking home that evening two weeks ago, I remember one frequent feature of that same walk 30 years ago – chance meetings with student activists waiting for buses to take them to exposure areas (white areas as they called them then and maybe now) or to their home provinces. Near our house was the terminal where buses would leave for all points in Mindanao, many leaving at midnight. As I passed the terminal some nights, I would see one or a couple of student activists/leaders, including my students, waiting for a bus. Because I knew it was dangerous for them to wait too long in a public bus terminal, I made it a point to invite those young people – all male by the way – to my house. We would eat, drink beer, and talk. We would debate and disagree but I would like to think we learned from each other. And some became friends, and to those who survived the internal purges in the mid-1980s (a political event which pushed me to law school, and made me reject the sword and to embrace the word as my main weapon of choice) or the military, they remain friends.

Remembering is difficult, even painful. But it is good for the soul. It puts into context the present. It confirms to me what I have been saying these past days – never judge a person by the totality of one or even several acts of that person but by the infinity of his or her acts throughout a lifetime. I have always applied that principle to all the people I work with and that’s why I don’t judge. I certainly do not judge people I know who work in this government, doing their best to serve the people. In fact, I encourage them to stay. I do not judge my friends and family members who support the President; they have their reasons and I respect that.

If we want a united front, we cannot be judgmental against each other.

There is also a reason why I don’t judge. From Pepe Diokno, I learned that human rights are universal. I would like to think that’s why I can defend Enrile and Jinggoy’s right to bail, GMA’s and Vice-President Binay’s right to be presumed innocent, and yes Mocha’s freedom of speech, while at the same time stand by Chito Gascon, Leila De Lima, Antonio Trillanes, and Risa Hontiveros when they are attacked for their political views. When the age of Duterte has passed and his supporters are held accountable for their complicity in the massacre of the poor, I will also work so that their rights are protected. Human rights are absolute and can never be derogated for any reason.

A united front for human rights, democracy, and justice is possible. But first we must not judge.

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