Tragedy Upon Tragedy in the Philippines

The loss of one life is tragic. But the
loss affects more than one. It is a loss to families, friends and communities.
In this sense, no one dies alone. And our delegation visit with victims of
extrajudicial killing in the Philippines reminds me that we are all affected by
the violent taking of life.

Manila–the young widow said, “They have taken my lover, my friend, my companion, my children’s father. What more can they take from me?” And then she said quietly, it is very hard to be a mother alone.

Her husband, Jose “Pepe” Manegdeg III, was gunned down after leading a training seminar for paralegals. The 37-year-old was coordinator of Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Cordillera and Ilocos. Twenty-two bullets penetrated his body.

In another group a second mother speaks. Tears well in her eyes as she remembers a twenty-three-year-old son who was excited about life and committed to assisting poor people. He had volunteered to work with community groups who assisted indigenous people, something his church and parents approved. Juancho Sanchez, son of a pastor and active member of the Christian Youth Fellowship of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines, was handing out water to strikers when police and military charged and massacred several people.

In a flat voice, a third woman tells of the loss of her husband, one of a group of fisherfolk gunned down by a military squadron. The fishing group were in the wrong place at the wrong time, victims of a military policy of search and destroy–and, apparently, ask questions later. He left behind five children. With no land or savings, she has struggles to support the children on land owned by others who allow her to plant garden crops. Since her husband was murdered a child has also died of a brain tumor, she says with no affect in her face or voice.

The list goes on and on–Joel Baclao, age 40; Fr. William Tadena, 37; Rev. Edison Lapuz, 38; Rev. Raul Domingo, 35; Vincente Olea, 71; Abe Sungit; Alfredo Davis; Junico Halem; the stories weigh heavy on the heart. Behind each death is a wider circle of relationships; friends, family, loved ones each of whom lives with the pain and a profound need for justice. But the need for justice remains unresolved and the pain lingers.

Since 2001 when the Arroyo administration came to power, 149 church persons and human rights activists have been murdered and their killers remain at large. The killings appear systematic. Among many there are identifiable similarities.

And unfortunately, judges, journalists and opposition politicians have been similarly dispatched. Extrajudicial executions are undermining confidence and trust in the government, military, police and judiciary. The longer this goes unattended, the more damaging it will be to the quality of life in the Philippines.

The signs are already apparent. A report prepared by the Armed Forces of the Philippines released in March 2005 identifies The United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ of the Philippines and the National Council of Churches of the Philippines as an “Enemy of the State.” Such labeling is equivalent to a license to kill church leaders when viewed in the context of these unsolved murders.

The rationale given to us by a high-ranking Philippine military officer is that the country is the “second front” in the war on terror. It is true there are dangerous people operating in the some parts of the Philippines and they seek to overthrow the government. Moreover, they use violence to press their point.

But voicing critique of the government is not sedition. Protesting civil wrongs is not terrorism. It’s democracy.

And serving poor people isn’t a threat to the state. It’s Christian ministry. We could not be Christian and do less.

The United Methodist Delegation for Human Rights in the Philippines called upon the government to discriminate between true terrorists and those who are merely expressing their rights under the law. “The war on terrorists should be on terrorists,” said Bishop John Hopkins, “not on clergy, lawyers and human rights workers.”

The war on terror is not an excuse to label the political opposition as seditious or disloyal to the republic and then to systematically eliminate them. When we venture into this dangerous territory it is not only the lives of dissenters that are at risk, the freedom of all the people of the society is in peril.

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