MANILA, September 16th. We were sitting in one of the offices at the headquarters of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) talking with some of the staff about where we were going. Most people were excited about Rachel’s position (which made sense because she’s working at NCCP) but didn’t know much about Mindanao, except that it was unsafe. The woman who was speaking to Clifford and I was different. She said that Manila was great, but that she preferred Mindanao, and was excited and worried for us at the same time, albeit reassuring us that whatever happened we would learn, saying: “If you want to know and understand the people of the Philippines, you go to where they are struggling, you go to Mindanao.”
DAVAO CITY, September 30th. 5:00am. My day started early. I was accompanying Jade, a community organizer, to a forum on land reform that was being held in the municipality of Boston, a town about 6hrs of travel to the northeast, on the Pacific coast. The first few hours went by quickly, as some other staff of InPeace were hitching a ride, since we were passing through their destination. Around 11am, long after we parted ways with our hitchhikers, we stopped at the side of the road to pick up leaders of various farmers right’s groups who were also to speak at the forum. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed some delicious chicken at a road eatery. As we were getting ready to pile back into the van, Jade turned to me and asked if anyone had updated me. At the shake of my head, he went on to explain. Three of the leaders of the local farmer’s organization had gone into Boston yesterday to prepare the venue for the forum. He had just learned of their arrest by the military forces stationed there. He did not know of their status, as no one could reach them by cell or text. Jade hoped the forum could continue once we learned more details and secured the release of the leaders. What had started as an educational field trip had become a rescue mission, a team of negotiators.
BOSTON, DAVAO ORIENTAL. 2pm. My first impression of Boston was that it was rather small. It had one main road that lead in and dead ended at the beach. Our driver pulled over and we piled out, squinting in the sun, and stretching after a very long trip. Our group quickly attracted stares, either they weren’t used to people visiting, or they weren’t used to seeing a 6 foot-plus ‘americano’ in their town. Toni, one of the secretary generals with us looked around for the municipal hall, figuring that was where the military would camp. Once he acquired the information we made our way down the dusty road. We found the hall easily enough, it was hard to miss the gated compound with men in fatigues standing with M16s slung over their shoulders. Toni led the way, followed by Grace, the other secretary general, as we approached the shelter where the military had set up their hammocks. Toni opened the first round of negotiations, asking the military for the whereabouts of the leaders and providing their physical descriptions. My translator informed me that they men on duty would check to see if anyone matched that description, and they exited the compound, leaving us under the heat of the sun, and the glares of the off duty soldiers.
Grace looked at me and said: “This is what we have to deal with here in the Philippines. Militarization.”
My translator indicated that we should sit down while we waited for the soldiers to come back. After about 15 minutes, a tricycle pulled into the compound with one of the leaders sitting in the passenger seat. One of our companions produced a camera and started taking video and pictures, as the leader, Richard, spoke about what happened to him. He looked like he’d had a rough night, and he was scared. My translator related that Richard was interrogated the night before by the military, and that the other leaders were being held at the Department of Tourism. After a couple more minutes, it was decided that we should go to the department of Tourism ourselves, since the soldiers who’d said they would bring us the other leaders were no show.
The department of Tourism was a one story building with a scenic view of the Pacific ocean. Inside, we found the other leaders, both shaken and smoking cigarettes to calm their nerves. I had time to reflect on the irony of the choice to convert the tourism building to a detention center, especially if touring the inside of the building was all a vacationer planned. A soldier soon arrived and introduced himself as a lieutenant of the 6th Infantry division, second in command of the troops stationed in Boston. Negotiations for the release of the prisoners then began in earnest. My translator was having a hard time keeping up with the flow, but even I could tell when they broke down, as the lieutenant stood up and conversation got more heated. My translator poked my arm and said: “We’re leaving now, they won’t release the prisoners.” He went on to say that the military claimed the prisoners were staying of their own volition. The lieutenant couldn’t release anyone because no one was being detained, even though our eyes and film told us otherwise. Grace didn’t give up. Then the lieutenant said something, got up and walked out. My translator said: “We need to leave, they have accused us of being part of the NPA.”
The New People’s Army (NPA) is an army of guerrilla freedom fighters, and currently designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union.
Outside, a crowd of off duty soldiers had gathered, and while I couldn’t understand the meaning of their comments, I recognized the nature of their harassment. I lingered, prompting my translator to tug my elbow, saying: “We need to leave now, because now we’ve been accused of being NPA, they have grounds to arrest us.” That did it for me. We left quickly, piling into the van and leaving town behind us, unsuccessful in the release of the Farmer’s Organizers, and without having the forum. It was only 4pm.
The ride back was sober, everyone was occupied with their own thoughts. During dinner, my translator explained: “This is what it’s like all the time…People are afraid to form unions, even though they have no rights, because they just get labeled terrorists, and thrown into jail or worse.” Grace, picking up the conversation, informed me that the last leader of the of the farmer’s union in Boston had been killed by a military strike team in 2009. Jade turned to me, apologizing for the canceled forum and added : “This is what we do. Farmer’s rights defenders.”
They all wanted to hear my reaction, and what I thought. I was embarrassed at my ignorance, saying I had no idea things were like this in the Philippines. On the way back to Davao City, I noticed every military checkpoint we passed and thought about the people we had left behind, and the people of Mindanao.
What started as a field trip to a forum, became a rescue and fact finding mission and ended with me, Adam Shaw, US citizen, being accused of terrorism and membership of a internationally labeled terrorist organization by the Philippine military.
In the office the next morning, after having told my tale, my bosses and coworkers remarked: “Welcome to the Philippines.”