Ten years on

By Matt Lang

Election Marcos I was soaked by the end of election day. My shirt felt like something that was growing on me. We waited for the polls to close at a precinct in Surigao City. It was 11:30 pm, the polls were scheduled to close at 6 pm. Some people had waited in line for over ten hours. Whether they waited because they believe in democracy, or whether they waited because they sold their vote and there were thugs watching to make sure they voted accordingly, waiting that long in those conditions was a remarkable feat of human endurance. There was another precinct in the same school compound that was approaching the level of a fiasco. At 11:30, it was not anywhere close to closing. We did not wait. We later heard it closed sometime after 1:30 am.

Over thirty people were killed on election day (in addition to those who died during the campaign), and every observer saw cases of vote buying and voter intimidation and lack of secrecy at the polls and procedural irregularities and machine malfunctions. Every team reported these same problems.

The United States and the European Union congratulated the Philippines on a peaceful and clean election.

Gate to camp where Morong 43 are held On my last day in the country, some of us visited 43 health care workers and volunteers who were arrested in February on trumped up weapons charges. They were on a retreat learning how to be first responders after a natural disaster. The military raided the retreat center where they were staying in the early morning and detained them claiming they were conducting bomb making classes. They accused them of being members of the New Peoples Army. No warrant was presented. The day we visited them happened to be their 100th day in captivity.

They were hopeful that they would be released soon, or that they would at least get their day in court. It is the very least a democracy can promise any of its citizens. It is not, however, a promise the government of the Philippines always keeps. Our delegation visited the cellblock where the men among the 43 were being held. They were on the fourth floor, the top floor. On the ground floor were Muslim detainees, all accused of being members of the Abu Sayaf, a group with ties to Al Qaeda. None have been charged with any formal crime. They have been held there, some for almost ten years, in a crowded, gray, damp Guantanamo-on-the-Pasig. While we were there we heard a recording of the call to prayer. It was noon. First one, then a few more, then more, the men trickled out of their cells and unrolled their prayer rugs in the hallway between the cells. They prayed. We on the fourth floor stopped our conversations, stepped to the railing, and watched. One of the men looked up at us and I looked into his empty eyes. He looked into my eyes. His face said nothing.

I thought about the fact that it had been ten years since I had spent a year in the Philippines. I lived in Mindanao, I traveled to Muslim areas. Perhaps I had been to his hometown. Perhaps we had been in the same town at the same time. I thought about all I had done in the ten years since: all the places I been, all the movies, all the restaurants, all the swimming, all the rain, all the sun; I got married, bought a house, had a daughter. Maybe this man is guilty. But he could be innocent. He has not gone on trial. We do not know. I do know that in those same ten years, he has been able to little more than wait, and pray to a God who seemed far away from there.

The Rev. Matt Lang of Chicago served as a Young Adult Volunteer in the Philippines from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He served as an election observer to the May 2010 election in the Philippines with Nancy Eng MacNeill of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

The first picture is by Marcos Scauso; the second is by Nancy Eng MacNeill.

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