Torture survivor: Graffiti is a valid act of political expression

Graphics by Luisa Sandoval/Bulatlat

“The Operation Pinta and Operation Dikit are unique because the message it carries is serious; issues and appeals that reflect the real situation of the masses such as ‘Land for the peasantry’; ‘Fair employment for the workers’. For most Filipinos, this is not difficult to understand.”


(UPDATED: Aug. 7, 2021; 6:32 p.m.) MANILA – Jon Bustamante, 52, can still vividly remember his dreadful experience on March 19, 1988.

He was 18 then, a student at the Pamantasang Lungsod ng Maynila and a member of the Kabataan Para sa Demokrasya at Nasyunalismo (Kadena). He, Rey Francisco, 21 and five other Kadena members had just finished what they called as “Operation Dikit” (OD) of anti-US bases posters along the main thoroughfare of Manila. It was 8:00 p.m., he said, when an owner-type jeep stopped and six civilian wearing men suddenly accosted them.

“The other five were able to run. I and Rey were arrested,” Bustamante said in an online interview with Bulatlat.

Bustamante said the men were obviously soldiers and reeking with the smell of alcohol. The men took them inside the jeep blindfolded, and then brought them to Nagtahan bridge near the Malacañang Palace where their torture began.

“We were blindfolded for three nights and two days, tied and interrogated while they tortured us,” he said.

Such harrowing experience flashed into his mind when he read the news about the two activists who were killed while painting graffiti in Albay.

2 activists gunned down while writing graffiti in Albay

“I was shocked when I first saw the photo. The photo alone will give you an idea of what happened. Of course I suddenly thought of what happened to us, but what happened in Bicol was worse and brutal. They were killed without hesitation,” Bustamante said.

“It seems that this is a standard operating procedure among the police that activists or critics are killed. What if the text would be ‘Run Sara’? Would the police shoot them too?” he added.

Getting punished for expressing opinion

Like the two young activists Jemar Palero and Marlon Naperi, Bustamante and his companions used grafitti as a form of political protest.

During that time, Bustamante said the Senate was deliberating the extension of the Military Bases Agreement between the United States and the Philippines. The Cory Aquino administration was just installed two years after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from presidency, but Bustamante said the Cory Aquino administration had implemented a total war against grassroots organizations.

On the third night of their captivity, Bustamante and Francisco were brought to Letre in Navotas, then a secluded area. They were brought out of the car.

“Our feet and hands were tied with wire and our mouths were gagged. Suddenly I felt a strong blow to the neck which knocked me down. I was still conscious but I didn’t move. They use a long machete,” he said.

A few minutes after the men left the area, he shouted for help. A security guard heard him and found him. He was brought to the Jose Reyes Memorial Hospital.

But Francisco did not make it. He was hit twice and had an asthma attack. His body was found the next morning.

Due to the physical maltreatment, the left side body of Bustamante’s body was paralyzed for a while.

“I was able to recover, but not fully,” he admitted.

This incident forced Bustamante to go on exile. He is now based in the Netherlands and working as a web developer in a non-government organization based in Belgium. He is also with the overseas Filipino group, Migrante-Netherlands.

Valid acts of political expression

He said OD and operation pinta (OP) are forms of protest and not just a simple vandalism.

“There are OP and OD because there is no available venue for the toiling masses to convey their grievances to the general public,” Bustamante said.

Bustamante said that activists in developed countries also use graffiti as a political protest.

“The OP and OD are unique because the message it carries is serious; issues and appeals that reflect the real situation of the masses such as ‘Land for the peasantry’; ‘Fair employment for the workers’. For most Filipinos, this is not difficult to understand,” he said.

The Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) agreed, saying that OP or OD cannot be simply dismissed as acts of vandalism “or the willful destruction or damage to public or private property.”

Lisa Ito, CAP secretary general, said, “The acts of political graffiti reflect how deeply entrenched inequality in our society is: that more people are turning to the streets to express anger and criticism because traditional avenues for reform, conflict resolution, and justice are no longer seen as viable or working. The police have no right to kill unarmed people who paint the words “DUTERTE IBAGS(AK)” in public.”

Repressive government

Bustamante said that the Philippine government has been repressive since Marcos. This is the reason why the people are launching various forms of protests such as OP and OD.

Ito also said that the country has had enough of the Duterte administration’s gravest human rights violations and misogyny, selling out to China and puppetry to the US, and grandly demonstrating the lack of will to protect the people from the harshest impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The act of writing the people’s calls on the wall is clearly an indictment and condemnation of the Duterte administration’s failure to govern,” she said. “It is an act of criticism that should never be silenced with bullets.”

Ito pointed out that the Filipino citizens have the constitutional right to exercise freedom of speech and expression. She said that the killing (of the two activists) is an act of impunity.

“It sets a terrible precedent in a supposedly democratic society: underscoring that those who dare dissent will be criminalized or worse, be robbed of one’s right to life,” she said.

“The very fact that citizens and activists are writing the sentiments of the people on walls—are are getting killed for this—says so much about our society. If the mass media is gagged in telling the truth, if the courts are passive in pursuing justice, if the police are the ones behind the crimes, are we surprised that activists and ordinary people turn to practices, such as graffiti, to signal that things need to change?” Ito said. (RVO) (

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