Melanie Newell, coordinator for the Center for Global Studies and the Center for Peace and Justice at George Fox University in Oregon, discussed her experiences with the Morong 43, last Friday.
“Morong 43” is the moniker for a group of 43 community health workers who were arrested last year in Feburary in Morong, a town in the Philippines located near Manila. The group was attending a training workshop when military and police forces raided the area with a neighborhood search warrant. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives after authorities found bomb-making materials on site. Authorities claimed the group was part of the New People’s Army (NPA), an armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
“In [American] terms, they were pretty much framed,” Newell said.
According to Newell, the group was handcuffed, blindfolded, and denied due process. Newell also reported many women were sexually abused and tortured. At the time, two women were pregnant and were moved to a hospital. Both gave birth to healthy babies.
Driven by meeting and working with the Morong 43 on a trip to the Philippines coincidentally a few weeks after the arrests, Newell began a movement at the George Fox University campus. In her ‘”Free the 43” campaign, she spread awareness and support for the prisoners by educating her college community about the issue. She mobilized 600 student and faculty members to create petition letters sent to Filipino senators and President Benigno Aquino III.
“We tried to make students aware of what was going on and emphasize the importance of national pressure,” Newell said. “In cases such as this, a lot of times…the nation as a whole isn’t enough to persuade the government.”
In response to demands and outcries in the Philippines and abroad, 38 prisoners, including the two women with children, were released in December. According to Sun.Star, a Philippine news website, two members remain in prison as of October 24, 2011.
Jay Gonzales, director of the Yuchengo Philippine Studies Program, identifies himself as an anti-Marcos activist, having protested against the Filipino dictator in the 1980s. Gonzalez attributes the country’s political strife to the current president.
“What pains me is that the president that we have [in the Philippines] is somebody whose father was a political prisoner who we protested so many times to be freed, and he’s the one that tolerates this,” he said.
“I’ve always been an advocate for human rights, but this event definitely opened my eyes to the current state of human rights in the Philippines,” said Caroline Calderon, senior president of Kasamahan, USF’s Filipino organization. “It would be awesome to have a collaborative event…among student organizations to raise awareness of any human rights issue.”
The illegal arrest of the Morong 43 is one of numerous human rights cases taking place in the Philippines. According to Jack Stephens of the San Francisco Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, there are about 350 political prisoners in that country.
Many of those arrested are done so on the basis of their beliefs and actions calling for political reform in the Philippines.
As of 2010, there have been a reported 1,200 approximate deaths of political and human rights advocates.
“Students must raise awareness of these humanitarian and social justice [issues] through their classes, study abroad immersions…and reading mainstream and alternative media,” Gonzales said.
“Change the world from here does not mean we should wait for the issue to come to campus.”