THE human rights rally at the Redemptorist rotunda reached some 3,000 the first time I coordinated with Fr. Rosaleo ‘Rudy’ Romano as rally marshal for the delegation from the University of San Carlos (USC) way back in December 1979. I remember the mass action as much bigger and more militant despite the threat of arrest and dispersal we faced then compared to the one I saw at the same rotunda last July 11, 2010.
The event last Sunday commemorated the 25th year since military men abducted Fr. Romano and fellow anti-dictatorship activist Levi Ybanez on July 11, 1985 and triggered a wave of giant militant protests in Cebu months before the then President Ferdinand Marcos called for a snap election and the subsequent EDSA 1 in February 1986.
The commemoration however was much smaller, attended by some 500 mostly young people who were not around when these historic events transpired, compared to the rallies during those dark years under the dictatorship.
It was much smaller even compared to that human rights day rally in 1979 when majority of the population were still afraid to come out into the open, an event that transpired before the freedom marches in Cebu and the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.
Fr. Rudy was head marshal during that fateful human rights day. Despite the absence of a rally permit, the throng marched from the rotunda to Fuente Osmena where anti-riot policemen and a firetruck awaited our arrival. The martial law authorities obviously knew our plans but we pushed on with the plans.
After we arrived at the Fuente skating rink with arms linked (kapit-bisig) — I think it was already 5 pm. — the firetruck approached and began hosing us when orders for dispersal went unheeded. Moments later, a platoon of anti-riot policemen advanced from behind us. A team nabbed Fr. Romano. Drenched and frightened, we ran to different directions to escape arrest but later regrouped spontaneously to demand Fr. Romano’s immediately release.
The late human rights stalwart Jose ‘Pepe’ Diokno, who was due to leave for Manila after speaking before the crowd that afternoon, returned and joined us that night until the police released Fr. Romano.
The numbers, militance, excitement, and dispersal then was a stark contrast to the gathering of around 500 who called on the new administration of President Noynoy Aquino for justice in the Romano case and the rest of the disappeared since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.
Perhaps Filipinos today are already lulled by the so-called democratic space that saw the dramatic electoral victory of President Noynoy and thus the small number who remembered last Sunday.
But the continued disappearances and assassinations of political dissidents despite the return to democracy show that significant remnants and vestiges of dictatorship remain. Unless we achieve justice for Fr. Romano, Levi and the rest of human rights victims through the decades, President Noynoy’s promise of change remains basically meaningless.
With his huge electoral mandate, I hope President Noynoy will succeed in going beyond removing such symbols of elitist abuse like the “wang-wang.”