A while back, I wrote about some amazing Oxfam women I met in East Africa. Here’s another, this time from the Philippines.
Lan (real name Lilian, but Filipinos never use real names) is one of those quiet but effective (and very determined, and maybe not so quiet….) women that abound in development work. She
Lan, the megaphone years, circa 1985
was formerly our country director in the Philippines, but has now moved to head up a project on ASEAN (more on that below). She is also yet another Oxfam woman with a remarkable story. In 1988, as a 28 year old Communist Party activist in the Philippines civil war, her own Party denounced and arrested her on trumped-up charges of being involved in an intra-Party assassination. They held her for 6 months in the mountains, blindfolded and handcuffed in a cage. She and the other prisoners were tortured physically, mentally and emotionally. At least she avoided the fate of prisoners in other camps, who were forced to play ‘eeny meeny miny mo’, with the loser taken out, killed, and their blood smeared over the remaining prisoners.
Lan says she stayed sane by thinking about food, shopping malls, ‘normal life’. After her release, she felt compelled to try and understand how Party cadres became torturers, the various pressures that transformed what were otherwise good people. ‘Had I not done this, I would have turned into an angry and bitter woman, consumed by vengeance. It helped because it prevented me from thinking that all those years of being a CP member were a waste, and I was able to resume working for the same issues of justice and democracy, albeit outside of CP organs.’ She also sought out and interviewed 15 known torturers from the military.
The Party killed over 2,000 people in an orgy of purges and paranoia, before sanity returned as its leaders realized it was ‘eating its own tail’. Even after her release, Lan could not risk going home for two years, because the military would ‘seize me and show me as exhibit A, a ‘victim of the Communists’.’ Other people now working for Oxfam suffered similarly, one even wrote a book about it. A younger staffer’s father was a ‘military asset’ – a university lecturer who informed on leftwing students who were then disappeared by the military.
25 years on, Lan chairs the Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing and Justice (PATH), a group of survivors and the families and friends of those who perished. She is also seeking a way to erect memorials and establish ‘sites of conscience’ at the mass graves of those who died. ‘The search for truth and justice goes beyond impugning individuals, casting blame or sowing hatred. It is about reflecting on the dark moments of the Philippine Left’s history, and promoting healing and closure anchored on restorative justice rather than vindictiveness.’
Lan seems remarkably matter of fact about it all – ‘sure you can write about it, it’s on my Facebook page!’ she tells me, sipping beer in a bar where a guitarist covers ‘Wake up Little Suzy’, Tracy Chapman and Bob Marley. Another Oxfamista is appalled to hear that her hero in the movement was one of Lan’s torturers. It all feels quintessentially Filipino.
These days, Lan has come a long way from cages and guerrilla war, pursuing her activist agenda in the very heart of the Asian establishment – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The region is prone to typhoons and earthquakes, accounting for 14% of the world total number of disasters, against just 9% of its people. Poignantly, ASEAN signed the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) just 3 weeks before the deadly Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, but then, as so often, it languished in bureaucratic in-trays, wending its way through ratification by ASEAN’s ten member governments and eventually coming into force on the 5th anniversary of the tsunami.
But Lan and other civil society activists saw the potential: ‘That was the opportunity. They had the text and no implementation strategy’.
and now, with microphone
A coalition of CSOs lobbied the ASEAN secretariat and member nation ambassadors and got them to accept their support, in the form of the APG (AADMER Partnership Group), which Lan now works for on secondment from Oxfam: ‘The deal was we would help write the strategies for the implementation of AADMER provided there was a good country-level consultation process on how to make AADMER pro-people.’
Working as an advisor to the ASEAN secretariat, she now speaks the language of committees, acronyms and procedures ‘We’re now embedded. Our contributions have been recognised by the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management and our programme to facilitate partnerships between ASEAN and CSOs was accepted by the Conference of Parties.’
Some of the main achievements of the APG to date:
• The formation of the APG and the secondment of Oxfam advisors demonstrated to the ASEAN that there is a non-threatening way of engaging with CSOs; and showed CSOs that there is another way for civil society to engage with the ASEAN apart from lobbying and mass actions. The ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management has agreed to develop a framework for partnership with CSOs, with the APG facilitating the process.
• APG activities at the country and regional levels increased public and civil society awareness of AADMER, which was previously known only to specialised agencies of government. AADMER had been used by country actors in Myanmar, for example, to engage with the national government on humanitarian concerns.
• APG advisors drafted a range of AADMER implementation strategies (training, knowledge management and so on) and is currently co-organising the ASEAN Day on Disaster Management, which highlights the role of women in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).
It all sounds very bureaucratic and unheroic, but Lan sees her work on ASEAN as just another step (from megaphone to microphone?) in a life devoted to social justice. People working in NGOs are often like icebergs, with a below-the-waterline history that can be quite astounding. Discovering such histories (usually by accident, often over a beer) is just another perk of the job.