BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hacienda Luisita

My latest blog for The New Internationalist:

Time to end feudalism in the Philippines

This is a story of an unending struggle; of hectares and hectares of land tainted with blood, of deaths; of lost lives; of sun-roasted farmers and their wrinkled skin; of power; of landlords; of a president; of a tightly guarded sugar estate.
I arrived in the famed Hacienda Luisita in the middle of the night. From the national highway, I could see nothing but darkness and hectares and hectares of plantation.

I drove further inside. Then I saw them.

In the middle of the grassy lot, under a glistening moon and pitch-black sky, inside a makeshift tent, a group of farmers were dancing and singing the night away. I could smell the strong stench of gin from afar. It was almost tangible, the excitement.

Music, laughter and cheers sliced into the silence of the night.

‘There’s reason to be happy this time,’ says Ka Lito, a 54-year-old peasant leader who looks twice his age with his wrinkled skin.

Ka Lito is one of generations of farmers at the Hacienda Luisita sugar estate in Tarlac, a province some 200 kilometres away from Manila.

Luisita, once hailed as Asia’s largest sugar plantation, is the ultimate symbol of the old feudal system in the Philippines.
On this giant patch of earth, farmers fighting for their land have been gunned down or snatched in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Many of the planters have lost a loved one, a friend, a fellow worker to management’s hired goons.

One afternoon eight years ago, a barrage of bullets rained across the sugar estate, killing workers who were fighting for higher wages. It was 16 November 2004 when close to 15,000 farmers and mill workers gathered to fight for higher wages and better treatment.

Dispersal units in full battle-gear opened fire on the striking workers. There are varying reports on the number of deaths. Five. Seven. Fourteen. But the number does not matter. One death is too many.

Hacienda Luisita is a 6,500-hectare sugar plantation owned by the wealthy Cojuangco clan, which includes the late former President Corazon Aquino and her only son, incumbent President Benigno Aquino III, two presidents who promised to make the Philippines a better place ‘for the Filipino people’.

To this day, farmers are asserting their right to the land, saying that an agrarian reform law passed during the time of President Corazon Aquino mandated the distribution of agricultural land to farmer-tenants.

And even before that law, a government social justice programme as early as 1957 had mandated the distribution of the land to legitimate farmers. Farmers argued that the clan’s patriarch, Jose Cojuangco Senior, did not heed the government’s programme, which called for the distribution of the land. The Cojuangcos never paid for the land; government agencies did, the farmers said.

Last year, the Supreme Court ordered the immediate distribution of roughly 5,000 hectares of the sugar estate. Months after the Supreme Court issued the order, the president’s allies at the House of Representatives swiftly impeached the Chief Justice, the chief magistrate of the Supreme Court.

They cited various charges including graft and corruption. The impeachment proceedings are still ongoing.

Ka Lito said this decision gives the farmers a glimpse of hope.

There’s reason to be happy, he said.

But whether or not the Aquino-led government will implement the Supreme Court’s decision to finally distribute Hacienda Luisita to the farmers remains to be seen.

I write this on the 26th anniversary of the historic People Power Revolution, a peaceful revolution that toppled the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

I was in third grade then, oblivious to what was happening around me.

What was clear was that everyone was wrapped in euphoria. The adults around me were all hopeful and optimistic.

My mother, a mother of three very young children at the time and a government employee, went to EDSA, that major thoroughfare where the people gathered, to add her voice to the upheaval. Everyone wore yellow shirts and waved yellow ribbons, she said. Yellow became a symbol of democracy and hope at the time. It is the same colour used by Corazon Aquino, the housewife who opposed the Marcos dictatorship, as her standard colour.

My mother would tell me again and again, like a bedtime story, her EDSA story. How she tried to stay safe behind a green military tank while praying the rosary, amidst a sea of people. My mother, who never attended a rally her whole life before then and whose father-in-law worked as a lawyer for Marcos, mustered the courage to go there for the future of her children, she said.

Things would be better, she promised, as she echoed the promises of EDSA.

Twenty-six years later, there is a giant golden statue of the Virgin Mary on the roof of a church inEDSA built in memory of the peaceful revolution. Today, EDSA remains a major thoroughfare and the name of the bloodless uprising that happened 26 years ago. Nothing else.

The Philippines is still mired in deep poverty and the promises of that upheaval have yet to be fulfilled. Corruption in government is as entrenched as before, human rights abuses continue and the economy is still struggling.

And in a sugar estate named Luisita, where the grass is a shade of burnt yellow, farmers are still struggling for their land. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ready, Get Set, Go!

Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle. - Helen Keller

El Nido. Photos by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Culture of impunity thrives in the Philippines

My latest blog for The New Internationalist:

The story goes that one ordinary day, as ordinary as the rising of the sun, they disappeared. They were abducted and were never seen again. Witnesses attest that they were raped repeatedly and beaten again and again by members of the Philippine military.

Two women. Two missing daughters. Two names: Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeño.

And it’s not just them. They are just two among thousands of unresolved human rights cases in the Philippines, a place where young men and women disappear in the middle of the night, where farmers and peasant workers are abducted and tortured and where women are raped in military camps and far-flung villages.

More than a year into the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the president has yet to fulfil his promise to improve the overall human rights situation in the country.

In its World Report 2012, published by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, the group lists different human rights issues that Aquino has yet to address: extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances; private armies; torture; targeted killings of petty criminals and street youths; conflict with the New People’s Army and reproductive rights, among other issues.

‘President Benigno Aquino III maintains that the government is “working overtime” to prevent new cases of human rights violations and to resolve previous cases, and has pleaded for patience. Yet despite promises of reform, his administration has made little progress in addressing impunity. Extrajudicial killings of leftist activists and petty criminals continue, with the government failing to acknowledge and address involvement by the security forces and local officials,’ Human Rights Watch said in its report, released last month.

In the area of extra-judicial killings for instance, the human rights watchdog said the government has ‘largely failed to prosecute military personnel’ implicated in the killings of hundreds of leftist politicians and political activists, as well as journalists murdered since 2001.

‘Only 7 cases of extra-judicial killings from the past decade have been successfully prosecuted, none of which were in 2011 or involved active duty military personnel,’ the group said.

This was despite the military’s promise to improve the human rights situation in the country by going after those implicated in past cases.

And in stark contrast to the promises made by the administration, Human Rights Watch said politically motivated killings have continued.

‘Human Rights Watch has documented at least 7 extrajudicial killings and 3 enforced disappearances for which there is strong evidence of military involvement since Aquino took office in June 2010,’ the group said.

Citing some cases of disappearances – such as that of 4 leftist activists in 2006 and 2007 (Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeño, Manuel Merino, and Jonas Burgos) – Human Rights Watch said that the families continue to face ‘inaction from the government’.

President Aquino has also failed to fulfil his promise to dismantle the ‘private armies’ of politicians and wealthy landowners.

These groups have long been responsible for serious abuses, including the politically motivated Maguindanao Massacre which killed 58 people including media workers.

‘Promises to revoke Executive Order 546, which local officials cite to justify the provision of arms to their personal forces, also have not come to fruition. Aquino still defends the use of poorly trained and abusive paramilitary forces to fight NPA insurgents and Islamist armed groups,’ the group reported.

The list of human rights issues that have yet to be settled and addressed goes on and on.

Victims of human rights violations can only hope that the current administration will finally fulfil its promises.

‘The Philippines is a multiparty democracy with an elected president and legislature, a thriving civil society sector, and a vibrant media. Several key institutions, including the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, remain weak and the military and police still commit human rights violations with impunity,’ Human Rights Watch concluded.

Indeed, a culture of impunity remains despite promises of reform. Whether or not the administration is serious with its commitment to address human rights issues has yet to be seen.

Meantime, mothers of missing students, loved ones of victims and the victims themselves will continue their quest for justice.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Breathe In, Breathe Out

My yoga teacher taught me breathing techniques but it is my experiences the past year that taught me the importance of exhaling.

Exhaling, according to Wikipedia, is the movement of air out of the bronchial tubes, through the airways, to the external environment during breathing.

To me, it simply means, taking a second, a pause, a stop, to be able to breathe again. Since I was a small girl with pink pigtails, I've had difficulty breathing. Literally. One of my so-called heart's valves has a condition that makes my chest heavy.

Fast forward to 30 plus years later, I still find it difficult to breathe -- in crowds, in enclosed areas, in sweaty zones, in protests, in rallies, in difficult coverages, in conflict areas, in suffocating relationships.

But as I turned a year older in a paradise of an island that is host to an enigmatic hut 150 steps above sea level, the perfect home to be in as I embrace the merciless hands of time, I promised myself that I will keep on mastering the craft of exhaling.

It is my birthday wish that the pains, heartaches, nightmares and bruises of the year that was have all been washed away with the smashing waves of the deep blue sea, taken into the abyss and never to be felt again.

It is my birthday wish that I will be able to breathe smoothly even if Science says otherwise, just as I did, for the very first time in my years of existence, when I was able to swim in deep waters without a life vest and simply enjoyed the breathtaking universe beneath it.

It is my birthday wish to conquer the big world, of the giant expanse called universe, of the unknown, of wide, open spaces; of the farthest horizon.

It is my birthday wish to stop worrying about things I do not know, to stop expecting, to stop being mad and exploding at the littlest of things.

Most of all, it is my birthday wish to not be scared anymore of life and love and be able to share Damien Rice's belief that I can close my tired eyes knowing that "no one will harm me."

To be able to tread in the deep waters and not be scared anymore. I know it will happen because he is holding my hand.

In the parallel universe of my existence, dreams do come true.

I long for that exhale. I live for it. Namaste!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Northern Palawan Diaries: Leave the LV Bags Behind

Sun, sea and sand. There's no better way to enjoy the elements but to leave the non-essentials behind. Travel light, fill one's backpack with just the basics. The really important things in life can't fit in a bag, as I've said before: Love and light.

SEASON 1: CORON - The remote island expedition starts here...

SEASON 2: The birthday bash

SEASON 3: You want war? I'll give you war. I'll be there in my bikini. (Apologies to Gretchen Baretto)



Before Yoko and I met, we were half a person. You know there’s an old myth about people being half and the other half being in the sky or in heaven or on the other side of the universe or a mirror image. But we are two halfs and together were a whole - John Lennon

Photos by Jes Aznar, me and kindred spirits on board.