By Jhesset Enano at Luis Hidalgo
It was three in the morning on June 3, 2010 when members of the 743rd Combat Squadron of the Philippine Air Force raided a peasant community in Taysan Batangas. They surrounded a residence in the village where three members of the youth were staying for the night. They riddled the house with bullets, screaming “Lumabas kayo dyan! Mga New People’s Army (NPA) members kayo!”
The youngest and only woman in the group dropped down on the floor, trying to avoid the bullets. But one of the rubble hit her on the head, causing her to bleed. The young activist was brought to the military hospital, sparing her from military interrogation. Her companions weren’t as lucky – Romiel Cañete and Ronilo Baes suffered interrogation and mental and psychological torture in a military camp.
Upon recovery, she was transferred to the Batangas City Provincial Jail and charged with illegal possession of explosives, the violation of the firearm ban, the violation of the omnibus election code and illegal possession of fire arms and ammunition. To this day, she claims the said cases have no basis at all.
More than a year later, the now 22-year-old Maricon Montajes, a Film student from the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, remains a political prisoner—the youngest to date. Yet despite the year Montajes has spent detained, Governor Vilma Santos of Batangas and the President’s own spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, deny that “political prisoners” exist at all.
Student, friend, activist
Today, Maricon is detained at a compound in Batangas. Unlike the cold bars and cramped cells of the usual jails, the community housing her and her co-detainees is dotted with nipa huts and sari-sari stores, where the women are allowed to form cooperatives.
She was once a student of the College of Mass Communication. As a practicing filmmaker, she also struggled with deadlines of her productions. She shared laughs with her friends and hung out at the usual spots in CMC. She is also a daughter beloved by her parents. Most of all, she is a Filipino who has chosen to stand by her own principles.
Originally from Davao, Maricon first entered college at UP Baguio, before transferring to UP Diliman in 2008. However, a year later, she decided to leave her studies and integrate with the peasant community in order to study their plight in the countryside.
Kathy Molina, her fellow Film student and blockmate, spoke fondly of Maricon. She remembered Maricon’s cheerful and humble character. “She is a good listener, and she says the nicest things… You will feel at ease when you are with her,” said Molina. “She acts like a kid. You’ll only see her frown once, and that is when she’s hungry—she even cries when she is!”
A committed activist and member of UP Sining at Lipunan (UP SILIP), Maricon fought for student rights. “The privileges that we get to enjoy now in CMC—for example, the free laptop charging in the lobby, construction of the tambayan, etc.—Maricon was involved in movements that fought for those rights,” Molina said.
Roselyn Correa of the League of Filipino students said Maricon’s advocacies also involved farmers’ rights and genuine agrarian reform. These problems in the Philippines are age-old, yet it did not stop the young Maricon from believing in the cause and fighting for it, even though it has now cost her her freedom.
The political prisoner
Human rights watchdog KARAPATAN Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights Acting Secretary General Roneo “Jigs” Clamor defined a political prisoner as “a person who was arrested and detained because of political beliefs (and charged with) criminal charges to cover up nature of violations.”
According to a KARAPATAN report, there are 356 political prisoners in the country as of October 31, 2011, with 77 jailed under the term of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, including Maricon.
However, the Aquino administration has maintained there are no political prisoners in the country. Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in news reports that most of the recorded cases were actually criminal in nature.
Clamor said it is quite ironic that Aquino denies the existence of political prisoners when his father Ninoy was a political prisoner during Martial Law.
While presenting a picture of democracy, the government chooses to ignore the situation of political prisoners in the country by criminalizing the political activities of progressive individuals, said Angelina Ipong of Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at para sa Amnestiya (Selda). This goes against the Amando Hernandez Doctrine of the Supreme Court, which ruled that citizens involved in political activities and movements should not be considered a criminal for his or her political beliefs, she said.
Ipong visited Maricon a couple of times and said that she saw herself in the young detainee. “She’s full of hope and not negative. She understands why she’s there, and she knows it’s not a worthless thing.”
Ipong herself was once a political prisoner. She was arrested last March 5, 2008 while in a seminary house with men and women peasant leaders in Zamboanga del Sur on charges of homicide, possession of fire arms, among others.
“They brought me to a military camp where I was blindfolded, beaten up all over and sexually harassed,” Ipong recalled, adding that she was already 60 years old at that time. She was later brought to Pagadian City Provincial Jail, where she stayed for six years before her release just this year.
For Ipong, a political prisoner has a role—a sign of hope. “Where she is is just a small jail. The Philippines is a much larger one.”
The fight continues
In 2010, UP students, friends and family of Maricon and friends and acquaintances of her fellow detainees Romiel Cañete and Ronilo Baes responded to the situation of the political detainees. Thus, Task Force frEEDOM was created.
TF frEEDOM is currently based in different places nationwide. In Davao, it is led by Maria Concepcion Maricon, Maricon’s mother. In UP Diliman, it consists of various organizations, such as the University Student Council, the CMC Student Council, the Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP (STAND-UP) and UP SILIP, among others. TF frEEDOM also has an alliance in UP Baguio. Together, these volunteers and organizations aim for the release of Maricon and all the political prisoners.
TF frEEDOM campaigns by disseminating information about political prisoners through country situationers, forums on human rights and film showings (called the Freedom Filmfest). TF frEEDOM also gives support to the political prisoners, such as legal and moral support, through jail visits.
The alliance also held a forum on Maricon’ situation at the UP Film Institute on Dec. 2, during the showing of “Ka Oryang,” part of the Cinema One Originals.
TF frEEDOM’s name was coined after Maricon’ nickname “Eedom” (from the word “freedom”). She was named after freedom since she was born on February 25, the anniversary of the first People Power Revolt.
For many, Maricon served as an inspiration. Her friend Molina dedicated her thesis entitled “Padayon” to Maricon and all the political prisoners. “For me, going through the process of creating this particular film is for the campaign to release all the political prisoners, so that students will be able to see their true conditions, and others may be given an opportunity to know the thoughts of political prisoners themselves,” Molina said.
For STAND-UP CMC Chairperson Kal Peralta, Maricon is an inspiration as a youth and as a media practitioner. “She is my idol,” said Peralta. With a laugh, she added, “Even though she is smaller than me, her courage is so huge and her advocacies reach higher levels, that she risked being away from her family and friends to educate masses and obtain freedom.”