Martial law dictatorship red-tagged bishop, two nuns

“The act of labeling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists … (used as) a strategy by state agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen cited the above quote (which he culled from a 2011 journal) as the definition of “red-tagging” in his Nov. 10, 2015 dissenting opinion in the case Zarate v. Aquino III.

A parallel definition, cited by the Commission on Human Rights, comes from the International Peace Observers Network. It says: “An act of State actors, particularly law enforcement agencies, to publicly brand individuals, groups or institutions as … affiliated to communist or leftist terrorists.”

Many citizens today, particularly the youth, may think that the Duterte administration invented red-tagging. But they should not be surprised to learn that almost 50 years ago – under his martial-law one-man rule – Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was already sticking that label on those who openly criticized and opposed him. Certainly, the term “red-tagging” was not in use then, but the alleged acts invoked fitted those in the above-cited definitions.

Among the persons targeted in that infamous Marcos time were these three faith leaders:

• Bishop La Verne Mercado of the United Methodist Church, who was secretary-general of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) for 14 years. In June 1974, Mercado, along with NCCP staff and guests, was arbitrarily picked up by the military and detained for about a month. The accusation: “aiding the enemies of the State.”

• Sister Mariani Dimaranan, a history teacher, was the registrar and head of the social science department of St. Joseph’s College in Quezon City. A Franciscan sister, she was arrested and detained for six weeks in Camp Crame and Fort Bonifacio in 1973, for alleged involvement in “subversive activities.” In prison she learned about the brutal torture of political detainees, leading her to join the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFD) soon after she got out. She headed TFD for 21 years.

• Sr. Christine Tan, the first Filipino to head the Philippine province of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS), founded in France more than a century ago. From 1973 to 1976 she headed the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), where she became known for her militancy and firm stand against tyranny. It was during her term that the AMRSP set up the TFD, which performed the invaluable service of documenting human rights violations during those dark days.

It was a privilege for me, as a political detainee for nine years under the Marcos dictatorship, to have personally and fruitfully interacted with all three of these deeply human, patriotic fellow Filipinos.

At the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center in Taguig, I welcomed each of them as the political detainees’ elected spokesperson from 1977 to 1985 (the year when I freed myself). We worked together on campaigns for the release of detainees by batches and priorities, which entailed our staging weeks-long hunger strikes in prison. They brought us news of developments on the political situation, sharing with us valuable insights into the fast-developing resistance to the dictatorship.

The names of all three are among the hundreds now engraved in golden letters on the granite Wall of Remembrance at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City.

Bishop Mercado was a respected ecumenical leader in the Philippines and abroad who worked for the release of those imprisoned with him and other political detainees, and aided families of the “disappeared” to locate their loved ones. He played an important role in bringing the dictatorship’s abuses to the attention of the world.

By initiating the NCCP Program for Peace, the bishop paved the way for the “unrelenting pursuit” of peace negotiations between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. He helped organize the Ecumenical Bishops Forum, bringing together Catholic and Protestant bishops to share experiences and concerns in their pastoral work among the poor and marginalized and in peace-building.

About Sr. Mariani Dimaranan, Bantayog ng mga Bayani wrote: “One of the most well-known personalities of the anti-dictatorship struggle was a small dark-skinned Catholic nun who worked tirelessly to seek out and defend victims of human rights violations, presenting factual data that the regime could not deny.”

By 1986, when the Filipinos’ defiant but peaceful protest ousted the Marcoses from Malacañang, the TFDP led by her counted 65 local offices across the country that provided direct services to political detainees and their families. It also had built up an international network to campaign against political detention in the country.

On Sr. Christine Tan: Bantayog pointed out that she was someone from a family of means who opted to become a nun and, rather than live in a convent, chose to live among the poor. In the late 1970s, together with several sisters, she lived and worked among the poor of Malate [Manila] and stayed with them for more than 26 years.

She founded the Alay Kapwa Christian Community and helped set up cooperatives and livelihood projects for the poor in Manila and in the provinces of Cavite, Quezon and Cebu.

“The sisters’ vow of poverty,” Sr. Christine said, “declared that they must give of their resources as well as of their time to others. Every minute must be used well and deliberately.”

The three are among many exemplary individuals who became thorns in the side of the Marcos dictatorship, for which they were branded subversives, communists, leftists. The name-calling silenced dissent for a time, but not for long.

Truth will out, despite the efforts to silence it then, now, in the future. Decades ago, there was the martial law dictatorship. Today, there are the divisive, budget-busting efforts directed by Duterte’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

History indeed offers precious lessons for us – the people – to learn.

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Published in Philippine Star
February 26, 2022

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