|"On 10 December every year, Human Rights Day commemorates the date on which|
the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"
It has been 28 years since the EDSA Revolution, which saw the end of the Marcos Regime and the election of a new leader who was looked to by many to lead the Philippines into an era of peace and hope. It was Corazon Aquino herself who said, “Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn’t be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice.” Yet, 28 years later, the Philippines is still mired by human rights issues – poverty, corruption, violence and injustice – preventing Filipinos and Filipinas from securing their most basic economic, social and political rights.
Here in Winnipeg, a city where census figures show that Tagalog is the second-most commonly spoken language – over French, and in a province where people of Filipino descent make up five per cent of the population, there is an absence of discourse on the dire human rights situation in the Philippines. There is sensitivity around broaching the topic out of fear despite being in a country seen as “safe” and championing the human rights of all people. This past spring, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights interviewed Marie Hilao-Enriquez for their Oral History Project to document the ongoing struggle for rights realization and peace. It is her hope that Canadians stand in solidarity with those who are seeking justice in the Philippines; in particular, Canadians who have a connection to the motherland.
Marie Hilao-Enriquez was twenty-one years old when she was arrested in 1974. She was one of many students who witnessed the huge and growing gap between the rich and the poor and sought to lessen the divide through education and organization. “We went out of our university classrooms and went to the workers and farmers – our brothers and sisters – to live with them and organize resistance,” Marie told New Internationalist Magazine in a 2004 interview. “We challenged the [Philippine government] about how the country was being run and demanded land and industrial reform.”
The Marcos government violently responded to the peaceful social movement, declaring martial law, shutting down all media – television, newspapers, radio – suspending classes, and arresting tens of thousands of people, primarily student activists and political opponents to Marcos. Marie and her younger brother and sister felt their part in the movement was more important to ensure freedom in education and in the struggle of the Philippine people and decided to quit university and go underground to become full-time community organizers. One other sister, who was an editor of her college newspaper, decided to stay in school. In 1973, she was arrested by the military after going home to check on her mother who was sick. Guards, looking for Marie and her organizer siblings, instead took her and tortured her so brutally she died two days later.
When Marie was captured the following year along with her husband, she was transferred from one military camp to another, where she was interrogated and endured substantial physical and psychological torture.
“But I lived, and must have survived the ordeal to give voice to the voiceless and speak the truth on the rocky road to peace.”
While in detention, she gave birth, naming her child after her sister who just a few months before had been murdered by the military.
In prison, Marie met another nursing mother, Mila Astoria-Garcia, and worked to campaign for their release along with their newborn children. After other political prisoners supported them by going on a two-week hunger strike, Marie and Mila were released on July 6, 1976.
Today, Marie still works to campaign for the release of political prisoners with whom she relates much ever since her work as a young student organizer resisting a government that served to suppress citizen voices and efforts to empower vulnerable, marginalized groups – peasants, workers, farmers and the indigenous. She is the chairperson of Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of Human Rights in the Philippines) and co-convener of EcuVoice (Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace). This past May 28-30, Marie visited Winnipeg while doing a cross-Canada tour talking about the recent rise in killings and calling for the Philippine government to resume peace talks with the National Democratic Front. In addition to her interview at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, she spoke with church groups and various communities in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, and met with Members of Parliament in Ottawa. Her many supporters have written statements and letters on her behalf and about the human rights violations in the country, and include MP Paul Dewar, the United Church of Canada, Mining Watch, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, KAIROS, and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines. Recognizing the escalation of violations and the urgency to act, Amnesty International has identified the Philippines as one of the top countries affected by impunity in violence and corruption. It is promoting a global campaign to Stop Torture through letter-writing, demonstrations, demands for government accountability, implementation of human rights law in The Hague Joint Declaration (1992) and CARHRIHL (Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, 1998), the release of political detainees, and the cease of violence as a means of suppressing dissent.
While the 1986 People Power Revolution was the culmination of a movement to resist the Marcos Regime, and Marcos’ successor Corazon Aquino did release a large number of political prisoners, justice has not been served and Marcos has not been held to account for the thousands of people who were killed, tortured and disappeared under his dictatorship. Moreover, interestingly, while the current government – led by Corazon Aquino’s son – has been praised for its “good governance” in articulating its “commitment” to human rights and that “impunity no longer persists,” unlike B. Aquino’s immediate predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Karapatan has documented 204 extrajudicial killings, 22 enforced disappearances, and 482 political prisoners under the new Aquino government – all “with zero accountability.”
Marie attests, “These human rights violations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention and others continue. And because they are state-sponsored they continue with impunity.”
But Marie survived her ordeal, and she lives to give voice to the voiceless as they suffer countless violations. She continues to campaign for truth on this rocky road to peace. And her courage continues to inspire.
With files from Bulatlat, New Internationalist Magazine, The Philippine Reporter and Karapatan.