Interview with Marie Hilao-Enriquez

When I ring her office, Marie Hilao-Enriquez is following political prisoners. She has always done so, since she was a political prisoner in a Philippines jail herself. Now, in June 2004, she is carefully and meticulously tracking each of the 32 political prisoners that the Government of the Philippines has agreed to release – a concession to the National Democratic Front in the peace talks between the two that have stumbled along since 1992. She is finding that the Government is slow to honour its word. The next round of talks is but days away, yet only 17 of the promised 32 are so far out of jail. Three of the released are nursing mothers... just as she was during her detention.

Twenty-one years old when arrested in 1974, Marie had already been at the centre of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship for four years.

‘The gap between rich and poor was so great. It was the height of student activism. 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. We challenged the Government about how the country was being run and demanded land and industrial reform.’

This work has been her life’s goal. Prison has been no deterrent. President Ferdinand Marcos was – and, even in death, still is – ‘the hated one’. His regime killed her sister.

It was in 1973 – in April, the hottest, most sweltering of months.

‘I was at home meeting with students when three of Marcos’ burly men barged in. They turned our files upside down. We asked for their warrant. They said: “It’s martial law – we can do whatever we want.” They demanded of me “Where are your sisters? Where are your brothers and the others with whom you work?” After eating our food, the one left to guard me – he lay down and dozed off. I was washing dishes at the time and angry that they had slapped me. So I tested that he was asleep by moving the table. When he didn’t wake up, I jumped the fence into my neighbour’s house. The guards had taken my glasses, so I was running away without being able to see.

‘I warned my sisters Liliosa and Josefina not to go home. But Liliosa [who was one of the editors of her college newspaper at the time] was worried about our mother who was sick. So she went home, and was arrested and tortured. Two days later, she died in prison.’

She hesitates, but then goes on. ‘I wasn’t able to sleep for two weeks.’ Her voice drops to just above a whisper as she makes her admission: ‘I think that the guards were so angry with me for escaping that they tortured Liliosa.’

More than 30 years after her sister’s death, the sadness still in her voice reaches down the phone and across the ocean to me.

‘It’s not your fault,’ I say. We are both crying.

Ten minutes later, her voice is once again strong and decisive. ‘Liliosa was the first female political prisoner to die in prison. It was for a good cause. Her death so shocked the churches that in 1974 they set up the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines [the leading human rights organization that documented cases of human rights violations during Marcos’ martial law].’

These events help explain why Marie’s family has never ceased in its determination to pursue human rights and socio-economic reform in the Philippines and – in so doing – to fight against the memory of Ferdinand Marcos and all Filipino Presidents who have followed him.

Marie’s parents were lead plaintiffs in the successful case to compensate 9,539 Filipinos for the human rights violations that they suffered under Marcos. Following a trial in Hawaii in 1992, the Marcos estate was ordered to pay $776 million compensatory damages in addition to $1.2 billion exemplary damages. Since then, after fighting their own lawyer (who wanted to compromise the settlement) and the Philippines Congress, the victims have yet to see a cent. A portion of the $600 million that a Swiss Bank was finally ordered to transfer from the Marcos’ account to the Philippines National Treasury should be used to fund victims’ compensation.

Marie laughs at the thought. ‘I hope the money is still there. With the elections, they are spending money left, right and centre. It’s a hunch, but I think that it comes from this fund.’

As she did as a student, Marie continues to advocate against the monopoly ownership of land by the wealthy. She believes that while this monopoly exists, so too will the continuing insurgency and violence in the Philippines. Now her advocacy is conducted at the highest levels of government. She is an independent observer at the peace talks in Oslo; one of two nominated by the National Democratic Front. Through these talks, an international committee to monitor human rights in the Philippines has been established, which took 72 cases in its first three weeks. ‘We paid a very high price to fight for our rights and freedoms. Many fell through the dark years of martial law. The memory of that inspires us all.’

Marie Hilao-Enriquez talked with Chris Richards