No Shortcuts for Peace: Working for Human Rights in the Philippines
An interview with Norma Dollaga by Christie R. House
I have to meditate late in the evening and allow myself to cry. I think that is strength—allowing ourselves to cry and weep—because I’m afraid if we do not cry, we will be numb to the situation.
Norma Dollaga, Ecumenical Center for Development, Kasimbayan
: Norma, as General Secretary for the Ecumenical Center for Development, what can you tell us about that organization?
: The Ecumenical Center for Development is the English name of the organization I work for. Its Filipino name is Kasimbayan. In Tagalog, Kapatiran means brotherhood, sisterhood, or fellowship. Simbayan is the church for the people, since bayan means people. So this, literally, is the Fellowship of Church People
for the People.
: Are multiple faith groups involved?
: We are generally talking about Protestants from different denominations in the Philippines. There are a few Roman Catholic members, but most members
are from Protestant churches. Membership is made up of individual church members who would like to express their faith through justice and peace ministries.
Kasimbayan started after former president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines (1972-1986). The ecumenical movement was strengthening then because of the people’s struggle. The faithful were asking: “What is the role of our faith, given this oppressive rule?”
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) sponsored a conference that gave birth to the Ecumenical Center for Development. This was a time in the Philippine ecumenical movement when Roman Catholics and Protestants could come together—not only with one another but also with the non-religious: the farmers and the peasants. This was something powerful.
Can you tell me a little bit about the peace aspect of the organization’s work?
: Building peace with justice is at the heart of our existence. Generally, our work for peace is done in a multifaceted way. Kasimbayan is part of a group called “Pilgrims for Peace,” in which different religious and nonreligious organizations are calling for the government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) to continue their official Peace Talks. [Editor’s note: The NDFP is a coalition of groups seeking reform in the Philippines. Its founding members were part of the Communist Party. For more than 20 years, the NDFP has been joined by trade unions, indigenous peoples seeking autonomy, and other revolutionary organizations seeking change from the government.]
The major agenda of the talks is vital to the lives of the Filipino people. We, the faith-based community, want peace. Pilgrims for Peace is pushing both the government and the NDFP to talk, no matter how arduous that might be. Both sides find reasons to suspend the talks between them. We still believe that peace is not only possible, but necessary.
There are four agenda items for the Peace Talks. One item has been agreed upon: the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Laws. This agreement states that, whenever there is a violation of human rights on either side—by the New People’s Army of the National Democratic Front (NPA) or the army of the Philippine government—theoretically a case will be opened and filed with both parties through the Joint Monitoring Committee. Then, both parties will review the case.
Of course, when the Peace Talks have been suspended, it is difficult for the two sides to conduct a review and proceed with other substantive agenda items. Kasimbayan and its ecumenical partners assist the victims of human rights violations through ecumenical forums in coordination with the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. I think the NCCP is deeply committed to human rights work.
We also try to promote the writing of testimonies, Bible studies, and reflections, which we then circulate. We feel this articulation through statement is very important. I think the stories of the people strengthen our resolve to pursue the Peace Talks.
: Concerning political prisoners, it seems that the ones who have no advocates—no one asking about them, no one trying to visit—are the ones who are likely to be detained longer or to disappear altogether.
: There is an organization of political prisoners called “SELDA.” In Tagalog, Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto. We visit political prisoners and campaign for church members to visit them, but doing so is quite difficult. The government denies that these prisoners are being held for their political views. In most cases, trumped-up charges have been made against them. They may be accused of anything from property damage to murder.
That is one of the issues in the Peace Talks. Theoretically, members from the revolutionary side who are engaged in the Peace Talks have immunity from imprisonment as specified in the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees. Unfortunately, what happens is the government slaps them with trumped-up charges. So the NDFP is saying: “Hey, we have an agreement. Why are you arresting our members?” And the government is saying: “No, these are not political cases; these are criminal cases.” That is the main reason for the recess in the talks.
As I mentioned, it is difficult even to visit the political prisoners. I was part of a church team organized to visit some of them around Christmastime. The problem is, as a visitor, you feel harassed when searched. The prison officials make you remove all our clothes. It didn’t matter that we were deaconesses and church leaders.
: It sounds like they were making sure you didn’t come back.
: Yes, this was a way to discourage us. And all the food we brought for the Christmas meal had to be searched. They just dug through it roughly. Even so, we are continuing the campaign for visits as part of our efforts to free all political prisoners.
: What other issues does Kasimbayan work on?
: We also support the people by petitioning the government for just land reform. Currently, the biggest environmental concern in the Philippines is the mining issue. Kasimbayan belongs to the Stewards of Creation, a formation of faith-based communities that advocate against large-scale and other exploitative mining. Specifically, we are advocating for the repeal of the Mining Act of 1995, because it gives the big mining companies so many privileges and opportunities to plunder the earth. As Stewards of Creation, we are mandated by our faith to care for the Creation and to recognize the primacy of people’s lives over the market value of trade. So in our mandate for peace, we believe there is no peace when the environment is being destroyed.
: I understand that the land which many of the mines are sitting on belongs to indigenous peoples, and that many indigenous people are being driven out and displaced.
: Yes. One economist is quoted as asking: “Is it a geographic accident that all of these mining applications and explorations are in the sites where there are indigenous communities?” Many groups believe that their communities are highly militarized because they oppose the mining corporations.
: When you say that an area is “militarized,” what do you mean?
: Military personnel move into an area to regulate the activities of normal living in the communities. For example, in one of the conferences we had with Moro women, they said that they have to ask permission from the military to go and tend their own farms. The women have to ask, because the men are always suspected of being revolutionaries, or rebels, or terrorists. There are some reports from the region that military personnel are staying in the houses and even in schools—they just move in. So that is what it means to be militarized. It is quite difficult to fight this legally. The kind of testimony that I am giving you would not be valid in court. Statements must be written, signed, and presented on the right forms. This is the reason for our fact-finding missions.
: Can you tell me about the fact-finding missions that you have been on?
: When there are killings and other human rights violations in the indigenous communities, an invitation issued by the region will be sent out to human rights and faith-based organizations to come and investigate. We interview witnesses to gather data. Then we translate the data into the form of an affidavit. If you want to fight legally, you have to be legal in the process. We human rights advocates in the Philippines understand the difference between actual truth and legal truth. When there is no affidavit, it doesn’t mean that a violation didn’t happen.
When we make an analysis of a legal battle, we have to consider the economic situation of the people. Some cannot share in the fact-finding or give testimony because they are afraid. In the Philippines, even the lawyers and the journalists are in danger. So we have to gather strength from one another to document what is happening.
We used to think of these violations as happening only in the rural provinces. But recently, we had to organize a funeral for a poor urban woman with 10 children who was a leader in the fight against the demolition of houses in her community. She was killed right in front of her house in Manila.
Kasimbayan, through its network of human rights groups and environmentalists, creates venues for Christians to discover what is happening. It is important to consider where the church members are coming from. Most of the local churches are not ready for this—sometimes simply because they don’t know what is going on. We are hosting integration work, encouraging young people and church workers. If they want to know what is happening, we will take them to visit the mining communities and the indigenous people so that they can learn from them directly.
Chrisie R. House is the Editor of New World Outlook. Norma Dollaga is a deaconess with The United Methodist Church in the Philippines. She both attended and taught at Harris Memorial College in the Philippines, founded by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. She is currently the chairperson of Church and Society for the Philippines Conference and Women’s Coordinator for Religion and Culture. Her current appointment is as General Secretary of the Ecumenical Center for Development (in Tagalog, Kasimbayan).
Photo 1: Religious leaders at the head of a march in Davao on March 12, 2003, to repudiate the March 4 terrorist bombing of the Davao airport. The bombing killed 21 people and wounded more than 100.
Photo by Paul Jeffrey
Photo 2: UMC Deaconess Norma Dollago (first, standing) on a fact-finding mission team to a community affected by Magnetite mining. The team listens and records the testimony of a woman in a militarized zone.
Photo: Courtesy Kasimbayan
Photo 3: Residents of the indigenous village of San Fernando, on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, fled their home on March 14, 2012, shortly after the March 5 assassination of Jimmy Liguyon, their baranguay captain. Liguyon was killed by a paramilitary squad led by Aldy Salusad, which was angered by Liguyon's refusal to sign papers ceding the community's land to a large mining company.
Photo by Paul Jeffrey
How to Be a Light Traveler
by Norma Dollaga
I have been on many fact-finding missions, and they have taught
me a lot:
• How not to forget the things you should be carrying from your place of origin and back.
• How to listen to people’s accounts and remember their stories beyond the facts you want to gather.
• How to operate while following the rules.
• How to ask the right questions politely and either seek permission to write down what you hear or develop a strong memory.
• How to blend with the people and respect their culture.
• How to let the victims, witnesses, and community members know that you are there to stand by them.
• How not to expect that meals will be always available.
• How to adapt your body to sleep on a bench, municipal hall space, or in any nook where you can rest your back and head—or how not to sleep at all.
• How to forget the comforts of life you have known.
• How to adapt to sudden changes of plans and not be fussy when things do not turn out as expected.
• How to encourage people to tell their stories and express the things they are usually not allowed to divulge.
• When and how to hold back your tears, as well as when and how to weep.
• How to take care of the data gathered and at times stuck in the most hidden pockets of your backpack as protection from rain or confiscation by the military.
• And, most of all, how to value people’s stories and keep them in your heart like sacred Scripture.
Photo: An interfaith fact-finding mission team in the Philippines makes its way deeper into the interior to reach a remote village.