After the protest: Fil-Ams who dared to question Aquino

September 29, 2014

New York 1

Joelle Lingat of Anakbayan New Jersey unfurling a banner saying “End Impunity, Stop the Killings in the Philippines” during Aquino’s speech at Columbia University. Contributed Photo

Filipino-Americans took the lead in speaking up on human rights violations in the Philippines during Pres. Benigno Aquino III’s speech in a World Leaders Forum at New York’s Columbia University last September 23.

Aquino was answering a question regarding extrajudicial killings in the Philippines when Joelle Lingat, a Fil-Am and member of Anakbayan New Jersey, started to speak out.

In an interview with Pinoy Weekly, Lingat said that she was infuriated with Aquino’s statement that seemed to justify impunity regarding human rights abuses in their home country.

Aquino had just said, “The emphasis is solving the crime correctly, not just producing any suspect…There has to be certainty of punishment when you commit a crime and that is still a work in progress. We can point to several successes in this field. But others, by the sheer number of plaintiffs, it will really take time to go through the processes enshrined in our Constitution and our laws.”

Lingat immediately brought up the case of the 2004 Hacienda Luisita massacre, which has not seen justice for the victims after 10 years. Last July, Lingat, together with a group of Fil-Ams, visited the hacienda still being owned and controlled by Aquino’s family.

“Now I see the reality of what your family has done. I have been to Hacienda Luisita. I have seen first hand the continuing plight of the farmworkers, the families of the laborers of those who were massacred for wanting to earn more than 9 pesos a day,” she said during the forum.

Aside from Lingat, another youth activist, Jenab Pareja, also spoke out.

“People who are basically political activists in the Philippines, they are just fighting for what they believe in. It’s a slap on the face of the Filipino people for you to stand there and [say] that a killing is a killing. You have to be [careful] when you talk to an international audience. I have family members in the Philippines,” Pareja said.

People who witnessed the event said that instead of responding, Aquino closed his eyes and shook his head.

Lingat unfurled a banner reading “END IMPUNITY!”  and chanted “No Justice! No Peace! Stop the Killings in the Philippines!” before she and Pareja were escorted out of the venue.

Lingat (extreme left) at an exposure trip at Hacienda Luisita last July. PinoyMedia Center

Lingat (extreme left) at an exposure trip at Hacienda Luisita last July. PinoyMedia Center

Positive feedback

While Malacañang criticized the Fil-Ams for their conduct, the youth leaders said that it was the president’s own fault. “Aquino has not been dialoguing with the Filipino community. He mainly focuses on meeting with diplomatic leaders and not the people. I found it disrespectful to me and the people’s interest of which I represent. It is unbecoming of a president,” said Pareja.

“Honestly, he was in the primary position to have a conversation with us. All he had to do was say, ‘Let go of them, I want to hear what they have to say,’ and we could have had a dialogue or even rescheduled to a later time, but he didn’t. I think that’s the main point here: people in power always have the ability to make things happen, the primary question is if they actually will?” Lingat meanwhile said.

Yves Nibungco, chairperson of Anakbayan USA who was outside the forum venue, said, “We wanted to raise the issues of continuing corruption and Aquino’s defense of it through the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program), the criminal neglect of Typhoon Haiyan devastated areas and his withholding of donations worth P1.54 Billion, and the continuing culture of impunity and human rights violations under his administration.”

He narrated that after the incident, they got a lot of positive feedback through social media, emails and personal phone calls.

Lingat, meanwhile, said that she does not feel any shame for her actions. On the contrary, she said, “I feel proud and humbled to represent the voices constantly repressed. All of us in that room had the ability to stand up and speak out, yet only three of us did. I know that if I was somewhere else [outside of the U.S.], I would not be walking free right now. I recognize that. And that doesn’t change what I did. If anything, it justifies it even more.”

“There have been endless comments and letters of support being written. I am truly humbled to be surrounded by such love and compassion. I think we need to recognize that people don’t wake up wanting to create ripples, but rather that the conditions presented themselves, and that we [needed to engage the public on certain realities],” she added.

Hacienda Luisita farmers were among those who lauded the actions of the Fil-Am youth activists. In a statement addressed to the Fil-Am youth, Florida Sibayan, chairperson of Alyansa ng Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita, said, “We applaud our valiant youth activists who were responsible for the successful and militant exposition on Noynoy Aquino’s sins to the Filipino people. You always have a home in Hacienda Luisita, and in the hearts of the Filipino people.”

While raised in the US, the three Fil-Ams have not forgotten their roots. Through exposure trips to the Philippines, they make an effort to learn about and contribute to the struggle of their countrymen.

“As a Filipino migrant who have to leave the Philippines due to lack of opportunities, I directly see myself as a product of the unjust system in the Philippines perpetuated by Aquino himself,” stated Nibungco.

Lingat meanwhile said, “We all have our stories and as a people connected by [a nation], it is our duty to struggle together.”