Strangers: Scenes From the September 21 Mobilization

A tribal chief, an alleged terrorist, and three high schoolers stand in the middle of Luneta Park.

They don’t know each other, except the high schoolers. They know each other from, well, high school. But the tribal chief doesn’t know the so-called terrorist. The terrorist doesn’t know the high schoolers. The high schoolers don’t know the tribal chief. They stand as total strangers in the middle of Luneta Park, all wanting the same thing.

If this sounds like a marginally thought-provoking setup to a joke, that’s because for the uninitiated, describing rallies is very much like setting up a joke. A farmer, a jeep driver, and a sociology professor walk along Mendiola. A lesbian, a nun, and an orphan walk into a local protest.

Often, these different demographics converge during rallies because of a painful awareness that they are, in fact, the punch line.

Which brings us to the tribal chief, the terrorist, and the three high schoolers. They are but only five people in a sea of protesters at Luneta Park who are part of the 2018 United People’s Action. The action is a September 21 mobilization to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law — one of the darkest periods in the Philippine history, and one that is sadly regaining a mythos of its own.

Marcos’ daughter, Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos, recently filed her certificate of candidacy to be a senator in the house that will hold office until 2025. And when faced with questions and demands for an apology for the multiple atrocities committed by her family, her response was, as always, denial:

Kung ang idine-demand ay admission, hindi naman puwede ‘yun. Bakit kami maga-admit sa hindi namin ginawa?”

Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos

The national debt ballooned from an $8 billion debt to a $26 billion debt. Press institutions were forced to close. And human rights violations included 70,000 arrests, 34,000 people tortured, and over 3,000 deaths at the hands of the police and military.

While the commemoration of Martial Law happens every year, many find this year to hold a more intense sense of urgency. The Marcoses have been actively pursuing a return to national executive office, and perhaps of equal importance, a return to the favor of the public.

For instance, the late dictator’s son and namesake Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., finished as runner-up to the Vice-Presidency in the 2016 general elections and has disputed the loss ever since. His name has also been thrown around when it comes being Philippine president, and was quoted earlier this year in a Financial Times interview to be suggesting his desire to be just that.

All the while, Bongbong and Imee remain completely and unabashedly unapologetic towards the atrocities committed during their father’s two-decade tenure as President. Imee Marcos, for instance, remarked earlier this year that the critics of her father and Martial Law ought to “move on” from what had happened nearly forty to fifty years ago.

In the middle – or perhaps, at the side – of the Marcoses’ attempt at regaining public approval is President Rodrigo Duterte. The United People’s Action is just as much about Duterte as it is about the Marcoses.

Duterte, whose unwavering war on drugs has officially claimed 4,500 lives, is the subject of many grievances– from the rapid inflation of the peso, to the normalization of misogyny, to the fragility of Philippine sovereignty against superpowers like the United States and China.

What’s more, it was under Duterte’s rule that Marcos found a new home after being buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani — a dictator among heroes.

These, and many more, are grievances that drive the tribal chief, the terrorist, and three high schoolers to Luneta.

The tribal chief is Kerlan Fanagel. Unlike his companions, he isn’t draped in indigenous patterns. He wears a simple red t-shirt and a matching bandana. Photo: Andrew Mencias
Kerlan Fanagel. Photo Andrew Mencias

The tribal chief is Kerlan Fanagel. Unlike his companions, he isn’t draped in indigenous patterns. He wears a simple red t-shirt and a matching bandana. But behind the unassuming appearance is a proud Blaan who has championed the Lumad community as Chairperson of the Pasaka Confederation of Lumad Organizations.

Since 2007, Fanagel has worked with Pasaka in their fight for ancestral lands in Mindanao. And Fanagel, who is a native of Davao City, said that then-mayor Duterte helped him in doing that. According to Fanagel, Duterte was an avid supporter of the Lumad community during his combined twelve-year tenure as mayor of Davao City.

Dati, ayaw na ayaw ni Duterte ‘yan as mayor,” said Fanagel. “[Ayaw niya] ng mining operations. Kaya nagkaroon ng No to Mining Ordinances.”

And Duterte’s support for ancestral lands didn’t just cover opposition to mining companies, but also the presence of the military and paramilitary groups.

Ayaw ni Duterte as mayor ‘yung panghihimasok ng foreign sa usapin sa Davao City. Kahit ‘yung mga joint exercises ng AFP and USA Armed Forces, ayaw niya.”

Fanagel had worked many times with Duterte regarding the protection of the Southern Mindanao Lumad. And Fanagel says that, for the most part, Duterte’s defense of ancestral lands worked. “Umalis ang mga sundalo. Nag-pull out ang Armed Forces of the Philippines. Pero syempre, what do you expect? After one month, two months, bumalik ang military operations.”

At the time, Fanagel believed that the continued militarization of ancestral lands wasn’t something that could be solely blamed on the current President. “Usapin ‘yan ng patuloy na militarisasyon sa mga komunidad. Lagi’t lagi naman may militarisasyon,” he said.

Fanagel didn’t think that Duterte, in his position as mayor of Davao City, or even as Regional Peace and Order Chairperson, could totally control the presence of military. The big turnaround here, though, is that Fanagel believes that with Duterte’s current position, he can, and he should.

Ang sabi ni Duterte noong panahon na siya ay mayor pa, at kami ay nagdidiyalogo, hindi ko magawa ang [disbanding of military and paramilitary groups] kasi Malacanang lang ang makakagawa niyan. Hayaan mo na ako ang maging Presidente,” he mused.

Fanagel says that these paramilitary groups that Duterte claimed he would disband are still around, and that they’ve only gotten stronger. A far cry from Fanagel’s initial optimistic, but vigilant outlook towards Duterte’s election. “We thought it could be easier. But we were wrong.”

“But yungpagka-wrong namin,” Fanagel adds, “hindi ‘yun ay dahil naniwala kami nang todo-todo. Ang alam namin na hangga’t andiyan ang iilan ang nakahawak ang neoliberalism at state policies. Kahit si Duterte matapos, wala pa ring tunay na pagkilala sa lupang ninuno.”

Sherwin de Vera. Photo: Andrew Mencias

Somewhere in the middle of the rally is Sherwin de Vera. He’s supposedly a terrorist. At least, that’s what the government calls him. De Vera was arrested in a trumped up rebellion charge around the time that he fought against magnetite mining in Ilocos.

Last February, De Vera’s name was included in the prescription list by the Department of Justice to label the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army as terrorists.

But talking to De Vera, you see no hallmarks of a terrorist. There are no bombs. There are no guns. He brings only an umbrella, a beige bucket hat, and an unyielding love for the environment.

Ang laban kaugnay sa kalikasan ay hindi dapat talikuran. Dapat panindigan dahil this is a fight for life. Without a healthy and safe environment, you would be nothing,” says De Vera, who graduated with a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Northern Philippines.

In this chapter of his vocation as an environmental defender, De Vera currently works as a coordinator of the Ilocos Network to the Environment. De Vera is a native of Ilocos Sur, where, as is the case with most Ilokanos, he was raised to believe that the Marcoses were heroes.

The shift in perspective came upon realizing that not even Ilocos completely received the perceived benefits of Martial Law. Be it the lack of roads and communication that still remain in parts of Ilocos, or that not even Ilocos was safe from Martial Law.

Maraming nag-aakala na dahil si Marcos ay Ilokano, ay na-spare ang Ilocos from the horrors of Martial Law. But in fact, maraming claimants sa Ilocos,” said De Vera. “Hearing the stories of Martial Law victims from Ilocos would really change you. How can you say na maganda yung bagay na ‘to, na kung sa mismong tarangkahan [ni Marcos], ay ganoon?”

De Vera, who has been an activist since 2001, says that the seventeen years of activism didn’t come without challenges. He’s had to flee from his home a few times.

He’s also had to engage with the Marcoses themselves on environmental issues, such as during recent attempts for magnetite mining in Ilocos, and the construction of windmills that displaced indigenous people. Despite this, De Vera remains firm in his commitment to fighting for the environment. To him, the fight for the environment is just as much a fight for people as well.

“I live by the principle that hindi mo pwedeng hiwalay yung environmentalism doon sa usapin ng pagsulong ng karapatang pantao. Mahigpit silang magkaugnay.”

Louise Espina, Shawn Magtabog, and Mark Santiago. Photo: Andrew Mencias

The youngest people at the rally are about college age. That is, until you see Louise Espina, Shawn Magtabog, and Mark Santiago. They’re three high schoolers from Philippine Science High School (Pisay) Main Campus who followed the mobilization after their local action program at school.

Right off the bat, Espina, Magtabog, and Santiago don’t look like your usual protesters. Mostly because they aren’t. For Espina, Magtabog, and Santiago, the United People’s Action is their first big mobilization. In fact, Magtabog and Santiago wouldn’t even consider themselves activists yet. “I want to be though.” said Magtabog.

“It’s nice. I see people actually dedicating a lot of time and effort into fighting for what they believe,” said Santiago. Magtabog agreed, saying “it’s uplifting, seeing so many people resisting tyranny.”

For the three Pisay scholars, it’s a feeling out process. They’re there to listen and to feel. Espina, who is a member of Pisay’s social science club AKSIS, is the only one of the three who’s been able to integrate with the Lumads through the Lakbayan program.

“I wanted to cry,” said Espina. “It left me [with] a lot to think about, going [to Lakbayan] twice and finding out that things haven’t changed. People say a lot of things, but it’s different when the [Lumads] themselves say it. How things are taken away from them, and teachers are getting killed, and how they have to struggle just to plant their crops.”

Of the three budding activists, Espina is the most unsettled, perhaps due to her experiences integrating with Lumads. Magtabog, on the other hand, is the most outwardly composed, having been raised by what he calls “socially aware” parents. Santiago, who grew up in a private school, seems to have the biggest paradigm shift.

The growing pains of activism are clear, but what unites the three is an understanding that they’re responsible for the future – and present – of the country’s endeavors.

Pisay has long been considered to be the premier high school in the Philippines, with a strict screening process involved to become a scholar. It was also noted for having a strong activist culture during the Marcos era, which has returned to form in recent years. This cultural capital is something that the three are aware of.

“It makes me feel the need to do something, since most Filipinos don’t know better,” said Magtabog. “I feel the responsibility to fight for the people who don’t know better.”

“The difference between us from people who don’t know better is hindi sila aware na may ganito silang rights,” said Espina, “they don’t know that they should be protected from atrocities.”

“When I entered Pisay, it sparked that I should be aware of the social issues of the country,” said Santiago. “I lived in a bubble. [Sa Pisay] ko narealize that I should be active in things like this.”

It’s a set-up to a joke. A tribal chief, a tagged terrorist, and three high schoolers walk into Luneta. They’re strangers surrounded by other strangers. But for Fanagel, De Vera, and the three Pisay scholars, empathy is key when it comes to people you’ll never meet.

Lahat tayo biktima. Kahit yung mga tao na di nila nararamdaman. ‘Di ibig sabihin noon na ‘di sila biktima,” said Fanagel. “If there is martial law in Mindanao, at may de facto Martial Law sa ibang bahagi ng Pilipinas. Dahil tayo ay bahagi ng isang bansa, may Martial Law sa buong Pilipinas. At lahat tayo biktima noon.”

“Part of it is the history of Pisay activists. Whenever I hear their stories, I think to myself, bakit hindi ako?” said Magtabog. “I feel the need to [be active] because of them.”

Dapat tignan ang aktibista bilang tao. Bawat isang aktibista na nagkakaroon ng threat hindi lang siya yan. Damay yung pamilya, at yung personal na buhay,” De Vera said. “Usapin siya ng laban sa buhay.”

It gets dark in Luneta Park. But the people stay. They surround a stage that, since the beginning of the program, featured a rotating cast of victims and leaders. Their words change, but their message doesn’t. And, on surface level, the stories could seem repetitive and insignificant, like when something gets disfigured after looking at it for too long.

The night has settled into the place, and not everyone knows each other, but everybody stays. And you have to think that what’s keeping the streets lit is the strength of all these strangers that know too well how this sounds like the set-up to the same sick joke that they’ve heard more times than necessary.

And so a tribal chief, a tagged terrorist, and three high schoolers walk into Luneta. They know the punchline, and they never forget. TNP

Photography Andrew Mencias and Reiven Pascasio

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