“She is very sharp. She is understanding of what her colleagues are going through. And on hard times, she would always say, ‘You can do it. I believe in you.’”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – In the early morning of December 2, activist Amanda Echanis guardedly walked and stepped into a vehicle while heavily-armed soldiers and policemen surrounded her. She held her one-month-old son, Randall Emmanuel in her arms.
Her arrest has sparked outrage from various walks of life. Many still remember the brutal killing of her father and peace consultant Randall Echanis, and the death of baby River, the three-month-old daughter of political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino. Amanda was also among those red-tagged in the Dec. 1 Senate hearing.
State forces said they recovered rifles and explosives in her possession. But for peasant women’s group Amihan, this spelled nothing but an “old tactic” used to persecute human rights defenders. Amanda and her one-month-old baby, in fact, is just the latest in the increasing number of peasant rights advocates who have been arrested and put behind bars under the shrinking democratic space in the country.
Who is Amanda? And why is the Philippine government adamant about keeping her detained?
A daughter and a friend
This is not the first time that Amanda was put behind bars.
Then only two years old, Amanda was detained along with her parents Randall and Linda, who were also slapped with trumped-up cases. She was then the youngest political prisoner at the time.
She later studied at the Philippine High School for Arts, where she majored in creative writing. She pursued a degree in writing in the University of the Philippines and later joined the urban poor advocacy movement as head of the Urban Poor Resource Center of the Philippines.
Her good friend and roommate while studying at the Philippine High School for the Arts Larissa Mae Suarez described Amanda as loquacious, cheerful, and considerate. She carries herself well, wearing inexpensive clothes she would find in thrift shops and paired with artsy earrings.
Both were creative writing majors and they hit if off almost immediately, with their love for dogs sealing their forever friendship. Suarez said Amanda is also a good listener and gives the best advice. She would be quick to share her thoughts on their writing assignments and offer a helping hand when needed.
These traits she still saw in Amanda when the latter became a full-time activist.
“She is very sharp. She is understanding of what her colleagues are going through. And on hard times, she would always say, ‘You can do it. I believe in you’,” Suarez said.
A poet, a writer
One of Amanda’s early writing for the arts school was a poem on a poor family, who were forced to butcher a dog to appease their hunger. They were only 13 or 14 years old at the time. But Suarez said she could not help but be awed at the topic that Amanda, a dog person, dared to write.
Amanda was always proud of her roots. Like her late father, her mother is a long-time peasant advocate, her uncles Emmanuel and Jose “Pete” Lacaba fought the Marcos dictatorship. Eman was killed during Martial Law. Suarez recalled that Amanda would always say that it is a duty to serve the people in the same way that her family has selflessly done.
In 2006, she published a book titled, “Tatlong Paslit na Alaala,” a collection of memoirs of children confronting various struggles and different political context. She also wrote the 2015 “Nanay Mameng, isang dula,” a play on the life of the urban poor leader Carmen Deunida, who is a beloved icon in the progressive movement for her fiery speeches and sharp analyses on issues confronting the Filipino people.
“She was soft-spoken, but she could stand up to anyone whom she thought had done wrong, even those considered as an “institution” – she can face them all for as long as she stands for what right. But still with her usual soft voice–those people she stood up to probably didn’t even think she was already angry,” said Tey Krishna Lopez, a fellow artist and colleague.
The University of the Philippines’ Departamento ng Filipino at Panitikan ng Pilipinas said Amanda is someone who embodies what it truly means to be an artist and a scholar for empathizing and partaking in the plight of the marginalized, such as farmers and fishers.
“To be critical and to be involved in the struggles of the masses is the brand of humane education that our department is pushing for. And this is what Amanda embodies,” the university’s Philippine literature department said in Filipino.
Suarez said she knows that these days have proven to be dangerous for the likes of human rights defenders and activists. But her friend’s arrest, especially with her one-month-old baby’s detention as well, has shocked her.
“Amanda would never put a child in danger. It is impossible for her to bring arms and explosives in a house where children, including her baby, would reside,” Suarez said, adding that her friend’s arrest reeks of government modus operandi of planting evidence, same with anti-drug operations.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque declared in news reports that being a mother does not keep one from being arrested or subjected to criminal proceedings. Other countries, however, have laws and policies in place that allow babies to stay with their mothers, postponing of serving prison terms to uphold the child’s best interest, and noncustodial care arrangements for pregnant and nursing women.