Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume III,  Number 44               December 7 - 13, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Marie Hilao-Enriquez: An Icon of Human Rights Activism in the Philippines

Had martial law not been declared by then President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, Amaryllis Hilao-Enriquez – or Marie to many human rights activists – would have probably become an occupational therapist.  But in the same way that martial rule changed the course of Philippine history, it also changed the lives of thousands of youths at the time, including Marie’s.


When Marie arrived at the KARAPATAN’s (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) national office in Quezon City for our appointment, she went straight to her table and took off a wide waistband under her blouse. 

“Tita, para saan ‘yan?” (What is that for?) I asked. 

“Proteksyon ito para sa buto ko. May osteoporosis ako,” (It’s a protection for my spine. I have osteoporosis) she answered.

It was in 1998 that Marie started to have back pains because of her bone problem. It’s old age, she reassured her staff. But despite the intense pain she feels whenever her back acts up, many do not notice because up to now, Marie continues to be very active, her agility and dedication undiminished by neither age nor back pains.

Marie presently serves as secretary general of Karapatan as well as the Society of Ex-Detainees Against Detention and for Amnesty or SELDA which literally means jail in Filipino.

Scholars and activists

Marie was a scholar at the College of Medicine at the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) taking up occupational therapy when  she became involved in activism. She attended teach-ins at UP in Diliman and eventually joined the Kamuning chapter of the youth organization Kabataang Makabayan (Patriotic Youth).

Her older sister Liliosa, who was later killed by the military, was a student journalist in the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.  Her two other younger siblings were also scholars and activists in their respective universities. 

Marie’s family migrated from Sorsogon, a province in the Bicol region, a 12-hour bus ride south of Manila, when she was still in grade school. Father was a semi-retired fisherman while mother took care of the home.

Veteran human rights leader Marie Hilao-Enriquez carries a placard in protest against martial law cronies

The outcome of martial law

Sept. 22, a day before the martial law declaration was announced, she and her schoolmates were at school, talking about putting up a students’ organization.

“But the following day, to my surprise and dismay, all television and radio stations were shut down and we could not find newspapers anywhere.  When I reached the school, I saw an overflowing number of Metrocom (Metropolitan Command) surrounding the PGH.  I soon found out that our classes were suspended indefinitely so I went back home.”

As history records show, tens of thousands were arrested, primarily Marcos’ political rivals and students activists. As a result, youth organizations such as the KM went underground.   

Marie was one of those who decided to leave the university and become a full time community organizer. 

Sigurado ka ba  (Are you sure), my mother asked me,” Marie recalled. “The news broke their hearts because it meant giving up my scholarship. But they also believed I should fight for my principles. They were supportive of my decision. They also assured me that if I would have problems along the way, I was always welcome home.”

With her family’s blessing, she went on to organize the masses in their community.  Her two younger siblings took the same route while Lily stayed on in school. 

The raid

The Hilao siblings’ active involvement in the underground movement during martial law made them “hot properties” to the military.   Its search for the Hilao siblings was unsuccessful until April 4, 1974 when members of the Metrocom raided the Hilao residence.

“They were looking for my brother,” remembers Marie. She could narrate the incident vividly, as it only happened yesterday. She was then at home having taken time out from her work to look after her mother who suffered a heavy fall. 

According to Marie, it was around noon when Metrocom agents barged into their home.  Sino kayo?” (Who are you) she asked the men who briefly flashed their badges and proceeded to beat Marie’s companions.

Nasaan yung warant nyo?”  (Where’s your warrant?) she asked them but the burly agents said it was not necessary because the country was under martial rule.

The men poked their guns at her and started asking her for names of other organizers. When she kept on refusing, one of the men slapped her.

“I saw red. I felt violated and maltreated. It was my first experience of a human rights violation,” she said. “But I was never afraid, I was angry.”

“E, ano kung may baril ka e, pamamahay ko ito! (I don’t care whether you own a gun, this is my house!),” she remembers telling the Metrocom agents. The raiding team also went on to eat their food but Marie insisted they leave some for her mother who was upstairs waiting for lunch. When she took some food to her mother, Marie was accompanied by one of the agents.  When she had the chance, she told her mother that she would escape as soon as she could.

And she did.  When one of the agents fell asleep, she jumped over the wall and ran as fast as she could.

Lily’s death 

When her sister Lily found out about the raid, she went home to make sure their mother was fine. It was then that the military arrested her.  A few days later, the military pronounced her dead.

Witnesses though testified that Lily was heavily tortured and then forced to drink muriatic acid which led to her death.  Medical reports also showed she was raped by her captors.

“It was the most difficult time for our family. My parents took Lily’s death badly because her death was not a natural death,” Marie said.  Marie was the closest to Lily among the siblings but she was being hunted by the military and could not attend her wake.

Liliosa Hilao was the first woman to die in the hands of the military after martial law was declared.  Her brutal death caught the attention of the international community and exposed the Marcos dictatorship. 

Lily’s case also led to Marcos’ formation of a church-military liaison committee that would look into complaints of political prisoners.  One of the concerns of the committee was to immediately release nursing mothers especially when the husband is also in detention.

“Lily’s death led into something better,” said Marie.  “It made the people aware of the callousness of Marcos’ tyranny.  It was heartbreaking for us but I think Lily willingly gave her life to change society.”

A battle of wits

After Lily’s death, Marie went to the countryside to continue her work as an organizer.  She was arrested on Oct. 7, 1974 in Pampanga, a province in Central Luzon. She was detained first in Camp Olivas in San Fernando, Pampanga, and then transferred at the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) for a month until she was again transferred to the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center where most of the political prisoners were being held.

In detention, she went through the usual interrogation routine but the torture she suffered, she said, was more psychological than physical. Marie describes it as “a battle of wits.”

Before the military could start asking their questions, she was quick to say “kung ano ang itatanong n’yo, itanong n’yo ng mahusay at ‘wag kayong magtatanong tungkol sa mga kasama ko dahil hindi ko sasabihin kung nasaan sila.” 

She recalls how her captors became defensive especially when she brought up the case of Lily. “Maybe they realized I wanted to get even,” said Marie.

Marie was captured together with her husband, Romy Enriquez. She gave birth to their first born, Elisa Liliosa, in detention.

As soon as she recovered, Marie started the campaign for her release and that of Mila Astoria-Garcia who was also a nursing mother.  

Other political prisoners in Bicutan supported them and went on hunger strike for two weeks in 1976 to press for the release of the two nursing mothers and their children.  They were released on July 6, 1974. 

Working mother

Marie took care of the family because her husband continued to be incarcerated. But her close ties with her former co-inmates were never broken.  She attended various forums to discuss the issues of political prisoners, she spearheaded jail visits and helped consolidate the families of the political prisoners. 

This effort led to the formation of Kapisanan para sa Pagpapalaya at Amnestiya ng mga Detenidong Pulitikal sa Pilipinas (Association for the Release and Amnesty of Political Detainees in the Philippines) or Kapatid, which literally means brother/sister. This is a human rights organization composed mainly of families and friends of political prisoners.

“I knew very well how it was to be in jail and I wanted to help, not just my colleagues but also their families who have become indirect victims of political imprisonment,” she said.

After the dictatorship

The struggle against the dictatorship culminated in what is known today as the 1986 People Power Revolution.  Then President Corazon Aquino released a great number of political detainees. 

It started for Marie a new crusade. As part of Selda, she helped in the processing of released political prisoners. 

“I owe too much to them because they were the ones who campaigned for my release in 1976.  That was my way of thanking them,” she said. 

Selda was formed in 1985 but it was after the fall of the dictatorship in 1986 that the organization became very active. In May 1986 the organization had its first congress.

Selda’s founding chair was Manila Times publisher Don Chino Roces while the founding general secretary was ex-detainee Fidel Agcaoili.  Aside from Agcaoili and Roces, the other board members were: labor leader Rolando Olalia, journalist Dean Armando Malay, broadcaster and human rights lawyer Jose Marie Velez, retired Navy captain Dan Vizmanos, and UP professor Juliet de Lima-Sison. Marie headed the National Secretariat.

Organizing the ex-detainees

After Marcos was toppled and escaped to Hawaii, the new leaders of the Philippines government painted an atmosphere of a free society. As a result of the people’s struggle for civil and political liberties, Filipinos were allowed to organize and assemble.

“We seized the opportunity to re-organize ex-detainees and reintegrate them into the society,” said Marie.

One of the important tasks Selda took on was the filing of a class suit against the dictator Marcos.  On March 1986, board members of Selda started talking with American lawyer Robert Swift who became the lead counsel for the plaintiffs.  By April, the case was filed at a trial court in Hawaii. 

Tita Marie, as many call her today, helped in consolidating the data and finding the lead plaintiffs for the class suit.  Her mother and younger sister were two of the ten named plaintiffs in the case.

Filing a case against the Marcoses fell within the aims of the organization.  Nobody, not even the Aquino government, went after the dictator whose state policy killed, tortured and disappeared thousands of freedom fighters. 

“It was our incumbent responsibility because we were the ones who survived.  And because we were the only ones who survived, we have the responsibility, not just to ourselves but to our nation as well.  We have to go after the perpetrators of human rights violations and let the nation remember the dark days of martial rule,” she said.

The martial law victims finally won the case against the Marcoses in 1994. 


Marie carries with her the lessons from defying a dictator.  She says she takes inspiration from those who have offered their lives, time, intelligence and capabilities to the struggle for national democracy. 

 “I have committed myself to fight for genuine change in our society.  The best of our generation are in this movement for social change.  If they could give themselves, why could I not myself?” she asks.

To this day, Marie can still be seen on street marches or on visits to political prisoners throughout the country. Or she is at international conferences on human rights including the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva where only last October her report forced the government delegation on the defensive. Bulatlat.com

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