Committed to human rights, basic reforms and just peace

Today, Aug. 8, this column pauses to pay respect to a man, born to a family of means and comfort, who opted to devote his life to the struggle for fundamental reforms and fight for the rights and welfare of the impoverished, exploited and oppressed in our society.

And he lived up to those commitments, despite the many obstacles and challenges he had to surmount.

Fidel V. Agcaoili would have turned 76 years old today. Tragically, a sudden surge of an ailment that induced profuse internal bleeding cut short his otherwise vigorous life last July 23. He passed away at a hospital in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where for many years he had been staying in a small upper room at the office of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

At the time of his passing, Fidel was chairperson of the NDFP negotiating panel in the on-and-off GRP-NDFP peace negotiations, which President Duterte once again sought to revive last December, although he had unilaterally terminated them in November 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic has sidelined further talks. It was Fidel, as NDFP emissary and peace panel member since 1992, who met with Duterte in Davao City after the latter’s proclamation as president in May 2016, getting his commitment to resume the peace talks that year.

He was the second NDFP peacemaker to have died of illness in Utrecht. The first was Antonio L. Zumel, former NDFP chairperson, born on Aug. 10, 1932, passed away on Aug. 13, 2001. His name is now engraved on the Wall of Remembrance of the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City.

Like Tony Zumel, Fidel was a beloved comrade and friend. He was also my compadre, the sole sponsor at my second daughter’s baptism.

The man could be grim and determined, sharp-tongued at times, often jovial and funny – but never insincere.

We started working together in the bi-monthly publication, Progressive Review, edited by Jose Ma. Sison, Luis V. Teodoro Jr. and Francisco Nemenzo Jr., which first came out in May-June 1963. Fidel handled business matters; I was a member of the editorial board.

His work with Progressive Review was cut short when his father, a top lawyer and friend of Marcos since their UP Law days who strongly disapproved of Fidel’s activism, sent him to continue his studies in the United States. But he persisted, and maintained links with colleagues here. After his return to the Philippines, we resumed working together discreetly, avoiding the frontlines of open protest actions.

After Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and ruled by decrees, Fidel and I assumed various duties in the underground revolutionary movement, which was then focused on resisting and overthrowing the Marcos dictatorship. Captured separately (he in 1974 and I in 1976), we both survived torture and isolated detention (bartolina) until we were allowed to join fellow political prisoners at the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center (now Camp Bagong Diwa) in Taguig City.

In 1978, we formed the Samahan ng mga Bilanggong Pulitikal, which systematically worked for the release, batch after batch, of political detainees; organized and managed our day-to-day collective life in prison; and coordinated nationwide actions to press for the release of prisoners and to call attention to the continuing torture and other human rights violations.

Fidel was released in 1984, after almost 10 years of detention. I managed, with the help of journalist colleagues at the National Press Club, to free myself the following year.

After his release, Fidel initiated, with several others, the formation of an association of former political detainees. That led to the founding of the Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (SELDA) on May 25, 1986, with the late Joaquin “Chino” Roces, the Manila Times publisher, elected as chairperson and Fidel, as secretary-general. When SELDA trustee Jose Mari Velez initiated the filing of a class suit before a US trial court in Hawaii seeking judicial recognition of the Marcos dictatorship’s human rights violations, Fidel worked hard with the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines to document the cases of some 10,000 ex-political detainees.

By the mid-1990s the Hawaii court ruled in favor of the petitioners and ordered their compensation, amounting to $2 billion, to be taken from the ill-gotten wealth that would be recovered from the Marcoses. Fulfillment of the compensation with a much smaller amount, however, had to come through the passage of a law by our Congress in 2013, with Bayan Muna legislators among the principal authors who arduously pushed its approval over 12 years.

In its statement honoring Fidel, his life and struggles, SELDA hails him as a pillar of the organization. And in a joint statement, human rights defenders Karapatan, SELDA, Hustisya and Desaparecidos said they share “the tears of the people he had served well and inspired in the long, continuing struggle for just and lasting peace.”

On that last point, let me cite Fidel’s important role in advancing and preserving the valuable gains of the GRP-NDFP peace talks against the sustained attempts to ignore or negate them by those who claim the talks haven’t achieved anything substantive , particularly the militarist saboteurs in the Duterte government.

As co-chairperson of the Joint Monitoring Committee, the bilateral implementing body of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) and as head of the NDFP Monitoring Committee since 2004, Fidel ensured the publication in book form of important documents, making them available to the public. Among these are the following:

• In June 2006, a book containing the facsimile of all 17 written agreements forged by the GRP and NDFP in 14 years of intermittent formal negotiations;

• In May 2007, a revised and updated comparative study of 23 cases of extrajudicial killings filed against the GRP but which the Gloria Arroyo regime was attributing to the NDFP. The study’s original version was presented to the UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston in February that year;

• In August 2009, a presentation of the NDFP Reciprocal Working Committee Perspective on Social and Economic Reforms; and

• In December 2018, an updated book containing the facsimile of all the major agreements and joint statements of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations from Sept. 1, 1992 to June 9, 2018. It included the agreements signed or initialed by the negotiating parties, in the series of formal and informal talks from March 2017 to June 2018, that were aborted by President Duterte.

In the book’s preface, Fidel wrote: “But these aborted agreements… could be used as basis for resuming the peace negotiations with any GRP regime that is willing to talk with the NDFP to address the roots of the armed conflict and pave the way for a just and lasting peace, in accordance with The Hague Joint Declaration.”

Words from a man who wouldn’t give up any small hope to achieve genuine peace in our times.

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Published in Philippine Star
Aug. 8, 2020

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