Saturday, November 11, 2006

Visiting Ka Bel

Yesterday we visited Congressman Crispin Beltran in his hospital prison. He is a well-loved mass leader and former chairperson of KMU, a progressive union. He is also an elected representative of the Philippine Congress, but his status has not protected him from attacks by the repressive Gloria Macapagal Arroyo government. He, along with 5 other progressive members of congress, were charged with trumped up charges of "rebellion" and "sedition"--a clear attempt by the desperate GMA administration to persecute her political opponents. Ka Bel is the only one of the Batasan 6 (as they came to be known after seeking sanctuary in the Batasan, or House of Representatives) who is still being held. Currently he is being held under police guard in hospital because of a heart condition.

During our visit, Ka Bel radiated the warmth and strength that has made him such a popular mass leader. He talked at length with us about the political situation in the Philippines and the need for actions such as this mission. He and his family invited us to stay and eat lunch with them so that we could continue our discussion. Highlights of the conversation included:

* Viewing the album that Suzanne (co-chair of the Canadian Free Ka-Bel committee) prepared for him, where we saw pictures of actions in support of Ka Bel and other political prisoners that we had been involved in back home as well as documents prepared by the committee to press for his release.

* Discussing the current conditions and strategy of the labour movement in the Philippines. He talked about how the more progressive unions have been forced to move away from the model of organizing only in the workforce around the goal of collective bargaining. Emboldened by state repression of union activists, employers are demonstrating complete disrespect for this process. Instead, many unions have realized that they must organize more broadly within the community to push for broad demands in solidarity with all workers, while still pushing employers to respect the traditional collective bargaining role. The campaign for the nationwide minimum wage increase is an example of this broader approach.

* While we were visiting, Ka Bel was also visited by a representative of a garbage collectors union. He had come to update Ka Bel on their struggle and to ask his advice. The worker shared how the employer (a private garbage collection company) had repeatedly shown complete disregard for its workers, failing to meet minimum health standards, stalling the collective bargaining process (they have been on strike and without a contract for over a year), and even promoting the creation of employer friendly "yellow" union that is attempting to divide the workers. Under the increasingly regressive labour legislation, this "member stealing" is actually legal--proof of the urgent need for voices like Ka Bel in government who are in genuine solidarity with workers as well as of the continuing need for mass organizing outside of an electoral system so slanted toward maintaining the power of the country's elites. The worker spoke movingly and emotionally about how his union sees their struggle as interrelated with the fight to free Ka Bel and about how they draw inspiration from his example to continue with their work. The fact that these workers have been able to maintain their struggle throughout such a lengthy strike is proof of the necessity of the community organizing approach Ka Bel had been discussing with us moments before.

* Meeting some of Ka Bel's family (10 children, 27 grandchildren, 2 great grandchildren)--his wife, youngest daughter, and one of his grandchildren were there with him at the time. We heard the story of how he and his wife met and married almost 50 years ago. They will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in a few days, an event which he hopes to gain a day pass to be able to leave the hospital for.

No doubt the impact of ongoing detention, an uncertain future, and terrifying memories of former imprisonment and torture weigh heavily on Ka Bel in a manner that is difficult for us to imagine. However, his strength and optimism shone through during our visit--he even showed us the skipping rope he uses to maintain his exercise regime which includes 100 jumps in addition to pushups and other exercises!

We will also be carrying his words and his example with us to give us strength and clarity as we go forward with the work of this mission.

Free Ka Bel and all political prisoners now!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Free Ka Bel! Ka Bel is truly an inspiration to anyone who aspires to genuine freedom and democracy. Your trip to visit Congressman Beltran was important to help us as Canadians understand the extent of state repression in the Philippines.

I look forward to more news and photos!

- May, Vancouver, B.C.

8:43 AM  

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