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Presente!: Bisuna vda de Ipong! Jose Ma. Sison!

By Ninotchka Rosca
3 December 2005

(Talk given at the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, Exiles and Refugees, December 3, 2005; Columbia University Law School, New York City. Other presenters were: Frank Velgara of the Pro-Libertad Puerto Rico Independence Movement; Ander of the Kalera Project, Basque Country; Lamis Deek of Al-Awda Palestinian political prisoners and detainees; Shanti Alston of the US Black liberation struggle who was imprisoned for 14 years in the US.)

Good evening. My thanks to the organizers of this event for giving us space and time to speak about the Philippines - a very small country with an enormous population, which the current government under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been dealing with in two ways. First, the Philippine government is trying to export as many Filipinos as fast as possible to as many places as possible on earth. This year, the number of people exported from the archipelago has reached 800,000, 74% of them women. The joke is that were the planet Pluto in search of women to enslave as domestic workers or sex commodities, the administration of Ms. Arroyo would be negotiating post haste with the little green guys. The second way of dealing with this population, as far as the Philippine government is concerned, is to imprison and preferably, kill as many as possible, as fast as possible. The scandalous facts coming out of this very small country are mind-boggling. Last year, it was only second to Iraq in the number of journalists killed - 13 all in all. Today, with the year barely ended, 10 journalists have been killed and 125 organizers, church persons, activists, union leaders, even politicians, have been assassinated. Please note that the country is not at war - supposedly -- though that is difficult to discern, as there are rotations of US military troops from Okinawa to the archipelago, on a regular basis.

I began with the most extreme of human rights violations because how governments deal with political dissent also evolves, relative to what is at stake. For over 30 years, the Philippines has pursued an inimical policy of development, in accordance with the demands of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. This policy relies on three pillars of so-called development: labor export, tourism development and foreign investments. These pillars have not changed even though the country has gone through one dictatorship, one parliamentary system, one presidential system and now is considering returning to the parliamentary system. The constant changing of the governmental structure of the Philippines indicates a basic flaw in the constitution of the country - a flaw that can be traced to the 1935 constitution imposed by the US colonial administration, a colonial constitution on which every other Philippine constitution has been based.

There is a lesson here, even as we see Iraq going through the same process. A constitution that does not arise from the people and is not reflective of the people's wants, needs and interests solves nothing. It will only be a source of constant conflict, particularly when such document precludes the exercise of political power by the majority and reserves that power only for the minority. In the particular case of the Philippines, that power is reserved for a very thin stratum of warlords and feudal lords, of bureaucrat capitalists who loot the public treasury and of course, for the extensions of US political and military power, namely the US Embassy which comments on just about everything that happens in the country, and US economic power, as represented by subsidiaries of multinational corporations. It is no surprise that Bechtel Corporation, a Halliburton subsidiary, controls half of the water supply of the six cities of Metro-Manila.

Halliburton was on the brink of bankruptcy when the "borderless war on terror" was declared by the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq was launched. Halliburton is now one of the largest profit-making corporations in the US, thanks partially to the 6,000 Filipino workers in Iraq who endure night and day mortar attacks without armor as they are paid $800 a month to cook, clean and make life easier if not safer for US troops. Thanks as well to the Filipino carpenters hired at below minimum wage by Kellogg, Root and Brown to construct and maintain the Guantanamo facilities in Cuba.

As Philippine indebtedness to the IMF/WB has grown (it is now somewhere around $57 billion) and consequently, its role as a source of immense profit to the consortium of banks which provide the IMF/WB loans, so has the political situation devolved into both farce and tragedy, with the human rights situation slipping into a state of savagery never before experienced in the archipelago.

There are few political prisoners now because government preference is to either kill dissenters outright or to criminalize them by charging them with kidnapping, murder, and so on. Nevertheless there are those who, even on the basis of surface data, can be deemed political prisoners. On March 8, 2005, the Philippine military commemorated International Women's Day by arresting a 50-year-old woman, Angelina Bisuna vda. De Ipong.

Angie, as she was known, was a peace advocate working in Western Mindanao. With her degree in History, she taught briefly at the Assumption College in Lucena City, Quezon. She worked as a lay missionary in Davao City. She was held incommunicado from March 8-20. She was assaulted on the 12th of March. This is her testimony:

"They mauled my shoulders, punched my side and struck me on the head with a rolled newspaper. Then they started undressing me, pulling up my bra until my breasts were exposed. They made fun of my breasts. They unbuttoned my shorts, then pulled my panties down until I was totally undressed. They started touching the private parts of my body while telling me to talk. I was shouting for mercy, saying they should treat me with respect like their own mother and sisters but they just laughed. I was so weak that I fainted. The last thing I heard was 'put the air conditioner at maximum.'

"When I regained consciousness, my hands were still tied at my back but loose enough for me to untie the knot. I was shivering with cold. They had again taken away all my belongings. Even though I was very tired, I did not sleep at all.

Around 8 a.m., I was again blindfolded. The soldier was so angry when he learned I had a bed that he took it out himself. Then he punched my ribs and said that should I tell the officers what he was doing to me, I would really get it. He punched my ribs several times…."

This goes on in the same vein. Later, she was told that she had two cases: one was rebellion which was bailable at 12,000 pesos, filed at Dipolog City which was some distance away; the second was a case of triple murder also at Dipolog.

Ms. Ipong belongs to what is known as the Philippine national democratic movement - which started way back in the 1960s, enduring the full brunt of the viciousness of the Marcos Dictatorship for more than a decade. Like many Filipinos and Filipinas, Ms. Ipong chose to struggle for the people's rights and freedoms in the face of the rapacity and violence of the US-supported Marcos Dictatorship and all the US-supported puppet administrations thereafter. The struggle continues because as people said, even way back in the 1960s, the struggle is not against this or that individual, or this or that leader; it is a struggle against a system which has enabled and continues to enable the ruling elite to arrogate all social, political and economic power unto themselves, to the detriment of the advancement of the Filipino people and the country as a whole.

The acknowledged ideologue or political philosopher, if one wished to use a more neutral phrase, of the national democratic movement is Prof. Jose Ma. Sison, currently in exile in The Netherlands and also currently listed by the US, Canada and the European Union as a terrorist. Since his passport was cancelled in 1987 by the Aquino government of the Philippines, Prof Sison has been engaged in a struggle to obtain official recognition of his status as a refugee and asylum-seeker. It has been a long struggle, replete with idiocies rather astonishing to link with a supposedly liberal country like Holland. Last year, Prof. Sison's lawyers asked the Court of First Instance in Luxembourg to be allowed to examine the evidence on which the European parliament based its decision to declare him a terrorist. The Luxembourg court denied the petition because the evidence ostensibly would compromise intelligence. So Prof. Sison is in the unenviable position of having to defend himself without knowing exactly what he is accused of.

To be declared a terrorist is not an easy experience. Apart from the constant fear that one would be taken to Guantanamo or some secret prison, there are more immediate effects. Prof. Sison's little subsidy, made necessary by the Dutch government's refusal to give him a work permit, was abruptly cut; the Dutch government froze his bank account which had a thousand euros at the time; cut off his access to medical care, food, etc. They also threatened to evict him from the apartment where he resided with his wife and son, both accepted as refugees in The Netherlands. Friends and supporters of Prof. Sison have enabled him to overcome to some extent the financial damage from the Dutch government's actions. However, the prospect of his being "extradited" - if this were to be done via legal process - or "rendered" - if this were to be done the fascist way - to a location where torture is not only tolerated but encouraged has risen exponentially this year, partly because things aren't going very well for US-led imperialism and partly because the Filipino people continue to agitate for the ouster of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from the Philippine presidency.

I cite these two cases in particular to show how the so-called borderless war on terror enables reactionary governments to afflict both those within and those outside their national territorities, in connivance with reactionary governments of Europe and North America. Considering this, it would seem that one important way by which we can express solidarity with political prisoners and political exiles and refugees is to question -- both in the courts and before public opinion -- just what is this label "terrorist." More and more men and women are being imprisoned, simply on the basis of this label; or if they beat the accusation, ruined economically by the legal costs of trying to defend themselves. More and more are kidnapped, tortured and killed. And under the guise of protecting communities from terrorism and terrorists, more and more areas are being militarized, as is happening now in the island of Mindanao. Following the dispersal, impoverishment and death of people within these communities, multinational corporations walk in to claim the wealth of these areas and create profits for themselves.

We who live in the United States should be the most active in understanding and asking the following questions: a) what is a terrorist? b) who defines terrorism? c) what is the process by which someone or something is declared terrorist? d) who controls that process? e) is there a process or a place of recourse for redress of grievance concerning the label of terrorist?

If these questions cannot be answered satisfactorily, within the full dimensions of democratic principles, we can only conclude that the label "terrorist" is a fascist devise to instill fear and coerce obedience; that it is no better and indeed far worse than the McCarthy blacklist which victimized so many Americans in the 1950s. And in that old bit of US history, there is a lesson as well.

Should we allow this arbitrary act of labeling to go unchallenged, it would not be far-fetched to wake up one day to discover that instead of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, all of us will be presumed to be terrorists until otherwise proven.

Thank you for standing in solidarity with Angelina Bisana vda de Ipong and Prof. Jose Ma. Sison. ###

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