The Undending Journey Of Ryan Sulat
issue 223 - September 1991
The unending journey
of Ryan Sulat
Five years old and no place to hide. Ryan Sulat is one of the many war
victims who roam the Philippines seeking refuge – but whom the world
refuses to recognize as refugees. Sheila Coronel reports.
Ryan Sulat, aged five, has spent most of his short life searching for a safe haven. He was only one year old when heavily armed soldiers and anti-communist vigilantes sprayed his home with bullets, forcing his family to flee their mountain village in the central Philippine island of Leyte. Since then he has lived in slums, convents, school dormitories, even a prison yard, unable to return to his village because the vigilantes still rule there.
He is twice a victim: once of an increasingly brutal war launched by the Philippine Armed Forces against guerrillas of the communist New People’s Army; and once of an international system of human rights which offers no protection to millions like him worldwide because, by remaining within their country’s borders, they do not fall within internationally agreed definitions of what constitutes a ‘refugee’.
Ryan’s story is that of an estimated one million people in the Philippines – most of them children – who fled their homes between 1987 to 1990 because of the fighting. His parents are farmers who also campaigned actively for a left-wing political party accused of fronting for the communists. For this vigilantes tried to kill them.
Flotsam on the sea
They escaped to the capital, Manila, where they joined other escapees who were living in an unused dormitory at Manila University. Within weeks police raided the dormitory and in the ensuing panic, the one-year-old was seized with convulsions and had to be rushed to hospital. While he was there police arrested his father and 20 other refugees.
For one year Ryan and his mother, Teresita, travelled from convent to convent relying on the priests and nuns to care for them. They tried going home to their village. But the vigilantes threatened them again. So they returned to Manila where they share a slum today with other refugees. ‘We are like flotsam on the sea,’ says Teresita, ‘We go where the current takes us’.
Just five years ago people like the Sulat family had great hopes for peace. The dictator Ferdinand Marcos had been ousted by a popular uprising. Corazon Aquino had become president of the Philippines and her Government had initiated negotiations with the communist rebels. A truce in the 20-year guerrilla war was declared.
Within months the talks broke down. In 1987 Mrs Aquino warned that it was time to ‘unsheathe the sword of war’. Since then military operations have increased in size and intensity.
The Philippine army is following a classic counter-insurgency tactic: terrorizing suspected guerrilla ‘popular bases’ to deprive the rebels of support and restrict their movements. Bombs and artillery are sprayed over villages suspected of being communist strongholds. And afterwards soldiers and anti-communist vigilantes sweep down, burning and looting the homes of those suspected of being communist supporters.
Thousands have fled. The largest military offensive to date in the central Philippine island of Negros caused 35,000 to flee their homes in 1989, streaming down from the mountains to makeshift camps on the plains. With minimal support from international agencies they had little food and water and 143 children died from measles and diarrhoea.
The evacuations continue. Early this year the military used fighter planes and helicopter gunships to bombard villages in the Marag valley in northern Philippines. The aerial bombardment forced 3,000 Isneg tribes-people to hide in caves while soldiers looted and burnt the huts, torched the ricefields and carted away farm animals. Months later a private medical mission found the tribes-people subsisting on leaves and rootcrops; over 100 of their children had already died of hunger and disease.
All over the Philippines today refugees live in cramped school houses, makeshift huts, convents and hospitals. They endure overcrowding, abysmal sanitary conditions and inadequate food and water. Medical workers are rare. Many children and old people succumb to disease. And attempts to help by the international aid community are severely disabled by the fact that officially the refugees do not exist.
The Philippine Government does not recognize the phenomenon of internal displacement because doing so would be to admit its own excesses and provide grist for the rebels’ propaganda mill, as well as shattering the already fragile support for the counter-insurgency war among civilian officials.
And without the Government’s official invitation international relief agencies are reluctant to tackle the problem. ‘We have no right to assist displaced families if the Government refuses,’ says Paul Fruh, from the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Philippines. ‘We are operating on the Government’s goodwill.’
So the burden of documenting, sheltering, feeding and rehabilitating refugees in the Philippines falls to the churches – 85 per cent of all Filippinos are Catholic – and to inadequately staffed and funded private relief organizations. Often those who help the refugees are themselves accused of being rebel sympathizers: several have been arrested by the military or prevented from entering areas where the refugees are camped.
The problem is that international agencies are only mandated to help those people officially classified as ‘refugees’ – defined by international agencies as ‘those who have crossed national borders because of well-founded fears of persecution, human rights violations or internal conflict.’ Those displaced within national boundaries are excluded from this definition – even though worldwide they probably far exceed the numbers of official ‘refugees’.
Exactly how many of these unfortunate people there are no-one knows because no agency exists to document them. And there are no international standards of treatment to protect them outside the Geneva Convention, which has not been ratified by all states. Moreover no agency exists to see that the Convention is actually observed or to protect those who fall outside its mantle. And governments alone are not reliable protectors for, as in the Philippines, they are often themselves the cause of displacement.
Desperately needed is a new, politically neutral body specifically mandated by the international community to protect the rights of the internally displaced. It should have the ability to document and monitor the internally displaced, develop international standards for their protection and ensure that these are observed. It should also define the responsibilities of governments to protect people uprooted from their homes by armed conflict or human rights violations, ensuring that their needs are met and their rights respected.
Until such a body exists increasing numbers of children like Ryan will grow up homeless, scarred by violence and with no-one in the world to turn to.
Sheila Coronel is a Filipina journalist and director of the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism.
The guerrilla war in the Philippines became entrenched during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, who was elected President in 1965. He and his wife Imelda amassed a huge fortune through corruption which they squandered on follies including a mini-village to house the Pope and his entourage during a visit which never happened, the luxurious ‘Palace in the Sky’ built for Nancy and Ronald Reagan who also never arrived and the Bataan nuclear-power station which cost over two billion US dollars – and had to be abandoned because it was built on a fault line in the most earthquake-prone region.
In 1972 – the year before Marcos was constitutionally required to retire – he declared martial law. The ensuing strike-free climate proved very attractive to foreign investors. US aid was stepped up, commercial loans flooded in. And much of this money too streamed into the Marcos coffers.
Popular resistance to the Marcos regime grew. By the late 1970s mass actions by students and the urban poor were supported by the church, while in the countryside people flocked to join the military wing of the New Communist Party of the Philippines – the New People’s Army (NPA). In 1981 Marcos lifted martial law and declared himself re-elected in another rigged ballot.
Then in 1983 one of Marcos’s fiercest critics, Benigno Aquino, was shot at the airport as he returned from exile. Millions mourned him. And they seized their chance to rid themselves of Marcos when he called a snap election in 1985 in which he ran against Aquino’s widow, Cory. Marcos rigged a victory. But the people took to the streets. They even won over the military. Finally the US withdrew its support and Marcos and Imelda fled to Hawaii.
But President Cory Aquino has not solved the old problems of poverty and injustice. Coming herself from one of the largest land-owning families, her negotiations with the New People’s Army collapsed because she could not offer a convincing land-reform programme. Since then she has declared a ‘total war’ against the NPA which has claimed many lives. Military leaders have plotted coups against her. And the army along with the paramilitary vigilante groups it encourages, have transformed parts of the country into war-zones.