December 2012

 

Doctrine divides, Action unites

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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 government.

How can we afford to celebrate Human Rights Day amidst this fašade of hypocrisy?

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 our people.

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.