By Danton Remoto
Last July, I was invited by the Supreme Court to join a forum-consultation with leaders of so-called marginalized groups. So there I was, with leaders from the peasant, fisher folk, factory, women, physically handicapped, elderly, indigenous peoples, environmental, and youth sectors for a two-day meeting held at the Court of Appeals.
The succinct speech by Supreme Court Justice Reynato Puno set the tone of the meeting of minds. He said that the court is aware of the importance of consultation especially with those from the marginalized groups, who are often at the receiving end of injustice. I remember them now, since controversy has rocked some justices in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court itself has just handed its shameful verdict that NEDA Chairman Romulo Neri was exercising executive privilege when he was talking to Mrs. Arroyo about the NBN-ZTE deal. Really?
But hope was regnant on that day. Aside from the forum in Manila, a similar forum was being held in Cebu City and Cagayan de Oro City. And thanks to the wonders of teleconferencing, we were able to see and listen to what was happening to the two other cities during the two-day forum.
On the afternoon of day one, we were divided into different break-out groups, the better to list down our manifold concerns. I served as the rapporteur of Group Six. Our facilitator was Justice Magdangal M. de Leon – a justice with a good grasp of the law, but more important for me that day, a keen listener to our many words.
The next day was reportage day, and we handed our PowerPoint presentation early. But lo and behold, just a minute before I would speak, our PowerPoint could not be found. It would have made another soul quake in his or her boots, but remember I have been teaching English for 22 years, and what is a report without a PowerPoint presentation?
So I gamely strode to the stage and gave our report, which I had read ten times already and therefore memorized thoroughly. I annotated it with crisp words in Tagalog and vivid examples from popular culture. I think I woke up the audiences in Manila – as well as in Cebu and Cagayan de Oro – from their post-lunch torpor.
Lumads and mining
It turned out that we had common concerns. The issues I reported on had similar threads coming from the other groups. The framework of our discussion began with the barangay, all the way to the Supreme Court issues. Highlights include the following.
An indigenous people’s leader in our group said that the barangay justice system is run by people who do not know the culture of the IP in their midst. Therefore, they cannot understand the underlying layers beneath the issues because of cultural differences. An even more basic question had to be sieved: who exactly are the IPs? Are Muslims part of the IPs in Mindanao, or just the lumad? Our group leaders also reported on IP cases in the Davao provinces and the Cordilleras that remain undecided to this day.
The environmental leaders decried the mining going on in Rapu-Rapu island in Albay, which is a flagship project of Mrs. Arroyo’s administration. Studies have shown that the mining activities there are dangerous. There are even spills now, but no action is being done even in the barangay level. The NGOs have done technical studies.
But the burden of proof is being placed on the marginalized sectors, to show that there indeed are toxic substances being released. In short, the victims are the ones being asked to show proof of the toxicity of the environment after the spills. Too poor to pursue the case in court, they are also browbeaten by local media which, they claim, are trying to paint a scenario of low toxic levels in the area.
On the other hand, our women leaders said that the barangay leaders are not aware of the barangay protection order for women and children. Barangays play a big role in the implementation of the republic act on Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC). The barangay protection order provides an immediate shield for the women and children victims. However, in reality, the barangays cannot give the immediate protection that they are mandated by the law to do.
Instead of giving help, the barangay officials connive with the men and issue excuses and even insensitive comments, for example, that these are squabbles internal only to the family. The barangay officials lack training and act as judges when they should only be mediators. That is, if you can find the barangay officials in their posts at all. You have to go to their houses to plead your case. And our informants claim that even some councilors are not aware of the R.A. on VAWC.
For their part, our farmers complained that they are forced to attend conciliation proceedings that are done to force a settlement even before the case reaches the court. Many of them agree to forced settlements because of poverty. They have no money to pay the lawyers, and thus, no issues are resolved.
The basic problems in the law itself is not addressed, i.e., the stock distribution option in the land-reform program. Moreover, some sheriffs just demolish shanties even without any order to demolish from the courts.
They also decried the lack of a Barangay Agrarian Reform Chairman, which is part of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program(CARP). Thus, there is nobody with a technical knowledge who could settle controversies involving agrarian reform issues.
The Juvenile Justice Law is also violated when the under-aged offenders are punished even at the barangay level. Our informants even detailed cases of torture and abuse. The urban poor in our group stressed the right to have adequate housing and again, demolition with due notice.
On the other hand, our fisher folk questioned the parameters and limitations on the authority of the barangays to implement the law. For example, the military men would block the fisher folk who would go out to sea at dawn, citing insurgency problems. The barangay officials would do nothing when complaints are filed.
More IP problems involved the intrusion of military elements in their areas. The military dictates the people’s schedule, on who could come in and go out of the areas they live in. In the indigenous justice system, the old folks settled the disputes, banking on the traditional wisdom of the elderly. But nowadays, young barangay officials who know nothing about the culture and history of the IPs decide on their cases.
A solution to this is the creation of an Office for Indigenous People’s Affairs. There is already one in Quezon City, as well as in La Trinidad, Benguet; Iriga City in Camarines Sur; Davao del Norte and Davao del Sur; as well as in Talipao, Sulu. This office should fall under the Local Government Units, per the law, but it is not implemented.
Our group also protested the curtailing by the police of the people’s right to seek redress for their grievances. The no-permit, no-rally rule constitutes abuse of authority, they said, since the police cannot permit or not permit rallies – they can only re-route the rallies. Moreover, the police are color-blind when it comes to protest rallies, considering all of them as enemies of the state out to disturb the peace and bring down the government. They just blindly follow illegal orders from their officers, who are insensitive and not aware of the rights of the protestors.
Maximum tolerance should be implemented by the police, but such is not the case. The protestors are subjected to physical abuse, as we see on TV, and not follow guidelines in containing mass action, despite law and jurisprudence to this effect. A torrent of verbal abuse and excessive force is rained down on the protestors on the streets.
The police need more training in handling complaints and in inquest proceedings. Moreover, some policemen act as “hired guns” of mining companies. Truly, the time when the police were called Manila’s Finest have come and gone, along with so many things we could be proud of in the country.
Next: problems with fiscals, the National Labor Relations Commission, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.