A Letter from Prison
Temogen “Cocoy” Tulawie
Dear Fellow Human Rights Defenders, Peace Advocates
and Friends of the Bangsamoro People,
Assalamu Alaikum Warrahmatullahi Wabarakatu!
I am writing from my prison here at the Davao City
Jail where I have been confined for 332 days since my arrest last Jan.
13, 2012. I join all of you in the observance of International Human
Rights Day as we renew our universal commitment to respect, promote and
defend human rights of all people everywhere in the world.
From the confines of my prison, my thoughts and prayers have never left
my homeland in Sulu, which is admittedly centuries behind the
significant gains of the human rights movement since the signing of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. My current incarceration
speaks eloquently of the human rights situation in my beloved homeland.
If I come to think of it, I may even be more free inside my jail than my
fellow brothers and sisters who cannot speak up freely about what is
really happening inside our tiny, embattled island. Like my
imprisonment, my people are also living in a garrison controlled by
warlords, who are incidentally the government of the day. Sulu today is
like a big prison where people can hardly speak up and criticize due to
dire powerlessness amidst a culture of impunity.
It is a known fact that in Sulu nobody will dare stand up for human
rights for fear that they will end up like Cocoy Tulawie, who is now
languishing in jail, vanished and forgotten. Sige ka, magiging Cocoy
ka, is the lesson that mothers are teaching their sons for fear that
if young people will fight and stand up for human rights, like Cocoy,
they will also be punished and forgotten.
What is the message that my current imprisonment conveys to our people?
That it is simply foolish to be a human rights defender in Morolandia,
that after all human rights is not universal as it could never apply to
Sulu, that it is wiser to keep quiet and submit to the oppressor if only
to stay alive. But even those who remain silent are not also spared. No
one is spared from the violence, summary killings, mass arrests,
indiscriminate bombings, kidnappings and gang rapes. If you are lucky to
survive it all, surely, a neighbor, a child, a sibling or a loved one
will not be spared. One way or the other, we are all victims.
I am happy about the signing of the Framework Agreement on the
Bangsamoro and join the millions of Moros who look forward to a new
beginning in our political history as a proud and distinct people. While
hopes and expectations are high, I cannot help my dismay with the fact
that there is hardly anything in the framework agreement that deals
about the situation of political prisoners all over the country. While
charged as ordinary criminals by the government, it is a fact that
political prisoners are being persecuted because of their political
beliefs and primarily because of our commitment to human rights.
There can never be peace in Mindanao without justice. No number of peace
agreements signed will bring about peace if basic human rights are not
protected and human rights violators continue to hold positions in
government by simply switching political parties.
A wolf dressed in a sheepskin is still a wolf. A warlord who turns
“liberal” and sings the chorus of reform cannot conveniently claim he
has now the support of civil society organizations and present himself
like a new convert of the peace process. Peace without justice cannot be
sustainable as it is tantamount to surrender.
Despite the reform efforts in the ARMM [Autonomous Region in Muslim
Mindanao] and the “matuwid na daan” policy of President Benigno
Aquino, it is disheartening to note that Sulu has not experienced the
promised reform as it lags behind in its crooked, violent, oppressive
and corrupt ways of malgovernance.
Who will take up the cudgel for human rights when human rights defenders
are already threatened, imprisoned or worst, killed?
I am appealing to the United Nations and international human rights
organizations to remain steadfast in your support for human rights
defenders like me. Many of us have not even reached prison as they have
been summarily executed. I am also concerned with indigenous peoples’
leaders who are battling with corporate mining interests that are
intruding into their ancestral domains. My heart bleeds for the mothers
of the young Moro students from Basilan who suspiciously disappeared in
broad daylight inside a Philippine airport and for an ordinary Moro
baker who was tortured by soldiers inside a military camp and, instead
of being protected, is now the one being charged and detained by the
How can we afford to celebrate Human Rights Day amidst this fašade of
Human rights advocacy in Bangsamoro society is a lonely fight. It is
almost suicidal to promote human rights amidst a highly militarized
society that only respects the rule of the gun. Yet many human rights
defenders took the risk so that our people can enjoy and assert our
basic rights and freedom. Now behind bars, our only hope lies upon the
solidarity and support of national and international human rights
organizations, especially the United Nations, whom we know will never
forget us in this condition of great despair and suffering. Your
solidarity during this darkest period of persecution and legal
harassment will concretize the concept of universality and connectedness
of our struggle.
For my Bangsamoro brothers and sisters, let us all join hands in
supporting the transition period that will pave the way for the
establishment of the Bangsamoro government. Our collective right to
self-determination can only be achieved if we close our ranks against
the oppressors and tyrants of our society. Let us put an end to
warlordism and violence and work together to ensure that genuine reforms
will, indeed, happen within our communities and be truly experienced by
Democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in her
Nobel lecture said that, “to be forgotten, is to die a little.” I feel
inspired when she asked the world “not to forget other prisoners of
conscience, both in Myanmar and around the world, other refugees, others
in need who may be suffering twice over from oppression and from the
larger world’s ‘compassion fatigue.’”
I am incessantly praying that, with Allah’s help, I will be able to
return home, back to the loving care of my family and the warm welcome
of my people. Insha Allah.