New Internationalist

Law For The Poor

Issue 205

new internationalist
issue 205 - March 1990

Human Rights
Kidapawan, Mindanao

Sol Jubilan (left), a human-rights lawyer in Mindanao, consults with one of her clients who has had to leave home because of military action.
Photo: Peter Stalker

Law for
the poor

A final report from the battle front

Sol Jubilan's car plays the Cuckoo Waltz every time she touches the brakes (quite often) and has a naked woman on top of the gear stick. Sol is only about five feet tall and peers hopefully over the dashboard to see the road ahead. I say I find her vehicle strange.

'I got it as payment for a case,' she laughs. 'Four years' work for a group of teachers.' She brakes (to musical accompaniment) outside a gas station but changes her mind; it is owned by the local Chief of Police with whom she has a long-running dispute.

My strongest impression of the Philippines is of people like Sol. She is all sorts of things: a human-rights lawyer, community organizer, she even runs a children's home. And, though she has to cope with the worst excesses of the Aquino government, she is such a bouncy character with so infectious a laugh that it's difficult to be serious for long.

Sol works in Kidapawan - a town in the interior of Mindanao, the largest island in the southern Philippines. With the Muslim MNLF insurgents busy to the west of us (in this morning's paper I see that they've just murdered a couple of Austrians), the NPA in the hills all around, vigilante groups like the 'Alsa Masa' patrolling the cities and truckloads of Army and CAFGUs thundering round everywhere else, this has become one of the most conflict-ridden parts of the country.

Almost everyone I come across in Kidapawan seems to have Sol as their lawyer. They might be trade unionists, fired for organizing on the plantations, or tribal people trying to protect their land from mining, or evacuees driven from their homes by military action.

All are in trouble. They are just the kind of people who forced the People Power revolution - yet they are exactly the groups on which President Aquino seems to have turned her back.

I first meet Sol at a gathering of Lumads, the tribal people of Mindanao. They have already lost much of their land to the multinational pineapple and banana plantations - as well as the loggers. Now their sacred Mount Apo is being threatened by geothermal exploration.

'They are going to destroy our God, our Mount Olympus,' one of their leaders Thomas Ito tells me. 'Even with only the two wells, our people have started to get diseases: coughs, colds and inflammations.' To see for myself I take a trip up the mountain to the geothermal wells - though it turns into something of a white-knuckle experience as I have to perch on the top of a very full jeepney. Still I can see the kind of destruction in prospect - as well as the depressing trail of loggers carrying timber down the mountain.

Then Sol drives me to nearby Kisante, to another group of her clients. In Mindanao, as in Negros, thousands of refugees have fled their villages to escape the violence.

'When the Government has a "total war" policy, the civilians bear the brunt of it,' says Sol. She exchanges her high-heels for a borrowed pair of flip-flops and we trek through the woods to the refugees.

'Their stores were looted,' she tells me, 'and they were harassed by the military.'

The decision of the NPA to continue its fight against Aquino was one of the earliest signs for foreign observers that all was not well with the People Power revolution. Back in 1987 the NPA's attitude seemed perverse; surely Mrs Aquino offered some hope for change? In retrospect it seems they were right: Mrs Aquino has had little resolve, even had she the power, to transform this into a truly democratic country.

The NPA certainly pushed the President into a closer embrace with the military than she might have liked. But the concessions she has made to the soldiers have only encouraged them to demand more. And though Mrs Aquino may feel battered by each coup attempt, it is ordinary people, particularly in the countryside, who have felt the real impact of military excesses.

Even worse than the heavy hand of the military is the 'privatization of terror'. The creation of the Armed Forces Geographical Units (the CAFGUs) has been a dismal development. Imagine equipping your local teenage hooligans with high-powered machine guns and you get some impression of the havoc and fear that the CAFGUs create.

On the way back to Kidapawan we pass a CAFGU training camp with the 17-year-old trainees in their crisp new uniforms stomping around the parade ground. Just past their camp Sol points out the Vietnam-style 'strategic hamlets': regimented rows of new cane houses (with military look-out posts above them) to which the more suspect communities have been relocated.

The NPA has only 30,000 regulars in a country of 57 million; hardly a massive force, yet it shows no signs of being crushed by all this military pressure. It has respect and support in the areas it controls. Indeed the greater the repression, the greater the attraction of armed opposition: the NPA flourished under Marcos's martial law and stands to gain now from the militarization of the countryside.

Those who choose to work within the law have a tough time. 'Cases against the military have to be heard in military tribunals,' Sol explains, 'where they are usually whitewashed - and witnesses are often afraid to give evidence.'

The scale and complexity of the problems which face ordinary Filipinos seem almost overwhelming - the poverty, the corruption, the violence. But that does not stop Sol and millions of others from trying to solve them.

Nowadays many people see Mrs Aquino not as part of the solution but as a continuation of the problem in a different form. She got relatively little popular support during the last coup attempt. Now the President has very little time to realign herself, to ally with the popular organizations rather than the army. It could be done but it may need more nerve and political skill than she can muster.

Are there ways in which people outside the country can help? There are. First, economically. The Philippines has one of the world's worst debt problems. One reason why people like Nora Sacagung in Manila, for example, lack basic services is that 40 per cent of the Government budget actually goes into Western pockets. Leonor Briones is the President of the Anti-Debt Coalition. I spoke to her in Manila.

'In 44,000 barangays in the Philippines,' she says, 'there is no water - and most of our diseases are water-borne. Studies by Unicef show a very great deterioration in the quality of health services. The debt service is twice as large as the expenditure on social services.' It is absurd that the poor should be subsidizing Western banks. We in the West should protest against this as loudly as ever.

We can also give practical help to groups in the Philippines struggling to make up for the Government's inadequacies. Many of the voluntary agencies in Europe, Australia and North America are supporting local organizations which help everyone from the rice farmers of Banaue to the sugar workers of Negros.

But it is just as important to protest against the human rights abuses. Amnesty International makes a valuable contribution. And the Philippines support groups in most NI readers' countries can offer information and ideas. Mrs Aquino was evidently struck by the voices of protest during a recent visit to Canada.

'Why is it that I read of these things only in the foreign press?' she asked. I put the question to one of the country's most tenacious fighters for human rights, Sister Mariani of Task Force Detainees of the Philippines.

Orphaned Remelie Gemita and Flor Pispis.
Photo: Peter Stalker

'That's a way of evading the situation. The papers here do report human-rights violations - though maybe now they are on page seven instead of the front page.

'I would like to stress the power of information and the function your magazine has. People should be told of the real situation. And there should be fact-finding missions. We really need people to come and see for themselves.'

This particular fact-finding report will end in Mindanao - with more of Sol Jubilan's 'clients'. They live in a rickety wooden building by the main road through Kidapawan.

'This is what we call a halfway home,' says Sol, 'for children whose parents have been killed. Many of them are direct victims of military atrocities.'

Flor Pispis, for example, is 11. Her parents were trade union leaders whom Sol was helping with a claim. They were found in a hole, shot dead. The killers were never found.

Remelie Gemita is seven years old. Her father was a local official of a peasant group. Her parents, along with her brother and sister, were slaughtered in their home by vigilantes two years ago. She hid under a blood-soaked blanket and was left for dead. She says she can't sleep at night - she misses her parents.

'They are all very resourceful,' says Sol. 'They are village children used to helping around the house, keen on repairing things and gardening. They will go back to their communities when their relatives can look after them. But with all the violence in the countryside at the moment that might take a year or so.

Just now they seem disturbed and one of them looks at me and whispers to Sol. 'Why isn't he smiling?' Why indeed? Time to cheer up and take one last picture.

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