Vilma Yecyec has been a health worker and organizer for the past 30 years. She has also been targeted by the military for that long.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Vilma Yecyec, has been charged with murder and frustrated murder twice. Once in 2009 and in 2012.
Not only was she falsely charged, she said, but she has not received any copy of the complaints against her. Her name was supposedly included in a warrant of arrest in connection with the deaths of soldiers in an ambush by New People’s Army (NPA) guerillas, so she learned from another colleague who was also in the list.
“I’m not an NPA. I’m a CBHP (community-based health program) trainor,” said Yecyec. Now 66, she said that she has been a health worker, educator and organizer for three decades.
Yecyec is one of the hundreds of leaders, activists and organizers in Mindanao who have been “slapped,” or falsely charged with criminal cases. The progressive groups called it Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (Slapp), which, they said, government has been carrying out under its counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan.
“They want to stop us from what we’re doing,” Yecyec said.
“There have been more than 45 Lumad, farmers, and other activists in the Caraga region alone whose names have been maliciously inserted as accused by state security agents in criminal lawsuits. In the whole island, there are more than 159 individuals facing these fabricated and malicious charges, and hindering them from carrying out their human rights work because of pending warrants of arrests, subpoenas, and other forms of legal harassment and intimidation,” said a statement from Karapatan.
Yecyec hails from San Luis, Agusan del Sur. She was already married with four children when she started as a cathechist in the late 70s. While earning a living tending a variety store, she was also a volunteer of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS).
In 1980, she was selected and trained as a parish health worker of the order of the Misioneros del Sagrado Corazon (MSC), which has a health program for the communities. She remembered going to far-flung communities to give health services, specially after a big flood in 1980.
She said that she acquired a liking for the work, seeing that no doctor ever visit the villages in spite of the dire need for health services. Aside from giving services, Yecyec and her fellow parish health workers also organized community health workers and gave them training on basic health orientation and services, making herbal medicine, Eastern alternative medicine such as giving acupressure, acupuncture, ventosa and moxibustion.
Eventually, she became the chair of Kalusugan-Mindanao, a CBHP group, which sent her to other communities in the island.
In 1985, she learned for the first time that she was targeted by the military, and was in the “order of battle” – a list of people considered “enemies of the state.” The military alleged that she was an NPA medic.
“The people in the communities told me, ‘Don’t be afraid, we know you’re not an NPA,’” Yecyec recalled. She said that she was well-known in the communities for giving health trainings.
In 1988, Yecyec said progressive health groups realized that they should not limit their role in giving dole-out health services alone.
“When the CBHP runs out of funds, who will continue its work in the community?” said Yecyec. “The role of the health worker should be to teach, not only about health, but also about other connected problems. Health is only one of the problems of the country.”
She said health workers then started discussing the national situation and issues. They started organizing peasants in the communities.
“Land is the root of the people’s problem,” Yecyec said. “If the people don’t have land, they won’t have food, which would make them vulnerable to sickness.”
By the late 80s, big local and foreign agribusiness companies have began to flock to Mindanao, displacing peasants and indigenous peoples, as the government pushed policies for liberalization.
“These businesses target the people’s lands. How could we teach about nutrition if the people no longer have their farm? How could we talk about planting vegetables when the land has been taken from them?” Yecyec said.
“The military got angry at us because we were organizing the people.” said Yecyec. When farmers become organized, they refuse to give up their lands and began asserting their rights, she added.
In 1990, she was invited to participate to tour abroad under the “South to South program” in Latin America, to share the Philippine CBHP experience with other health workers in different South American countries. This again caught the ire of the military, who alleged that Yecyec gave trainings to the guerrillas in South America.
Yecyec amusingly recalled that the allegations were again repeated when she went to Cambodia on an invitation from the health NGO of Mennonites, which used to give trainings to Filipino health workers, and was implementing CBHP in Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines.
“They (the military) said that I went to the Killing Fields so that it can be replicated here,” she said.
In spite of the harassment, the community organizing has gained momentum. The group Nagkahiusang Mag-uuma sa Agusan del Sur (Namasur) was established, with chapters in the municipalities and villages. The community health workers composed the health committee of the people’s organization.
“I did not stop because I know what I’m doing is right,” said Yecyec.
In 1993, Yecyec learned from her policeman brother, Sergeant Robinson Dalangin, that the government was after her because she was again in the order of battle. Along with her brother, an intelligence agent talked to her and asked about her family and her work.
“I told him that I am a catechist and a health worker, and the agent said that his cousins had the same kind of work in Cotabato,” said Yecyec. The agent asked how she ended up in the military “order of battle.”
“I told him I don’t know,” she said. “As a catechist and health worker, I give service to the people, and I earn a living for my family.”
Anticipating the worst, Yecyec said she talked to an RGS nun and wrote a letter to the bishop in the diocese, telling them about her work in the communities, the military surveillance and the “OB” threat.
“I told them that if anything happens to me, you would know who took me or who killed me. I told my co-workers, if I am disappeared, ask the military,” she said.
In spite of the risk, Yecyec said, she was well-protected by those who know of her work. Once, she even went home for the Lenten season, and joined the Via Cruzes procession. She recounted that her village mates were so worried because military agents were there looking for her, but failed to recognize her.
She even rode the same bus as the military agents and a Civilian Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu) member from her village, but surprisingly, the Cafgu did not squeal on her. “I later wrote him and thanked him for that,” she said.
In 2004, Yecyec learned that she was charged with multiple and frustrated murder, and included in a warrant of arrest in connection to an ambush by NPA guerrilas on government soldiers in Buenavista, Agusan del Norte. She said she was then also helping organize villages in the province.
“When the NPA carries out an action, the military turns its ire on health workers and other activists,” Yecyec said.
Yecyec narrated that she and her colleagues who were named in the arrest warrant personally talked to the government prosecutor to clear their names. The military, however, insisted on the complaint, and it remained “pending.”
In 2012, she again heard of an arrest warrant with her name. It was another multiple murder charge, this time, in connection with the deaths of soldiers in an NPA ambush in Agusan del Norte, where she was also helping organize farmers.
“Why do they keep linking us with the military actions already admitted by the NPA and which we have nothing to do with?” Yecyec said. “Don’t we have the right to give health services and to organize?”
She said that unlike the harassment she experienced before, government employs a different tactic, with the filing of trumped-up criminal charges against activists. She cited the case of prominent indigenous leader Genasque Enriquez, who was arbitrarily arrested on Aug. 22 as he came out of a conference on the people’s initiative on pork barrel. Enriquez, the secretary general of Kasalo-Caraga and second nominee of the Katribu partylist, was detained on murder charges in connection to an NPA action against the military, and was released on bail on Aug. 23.
Even if one’s name is not in the arrest warrant, they can still get arrested as “John and Jane Does,” she said.
“They fabricate cases to stop us,” Yecyec said. “If we let fear prevail, we won’t be able to do anything. And the human rights violations against the people will continue.”
As a precaution, Yecyec said, she had stayed away from her home in San Luis.
“I didn’t come home for Christmas in 2012, nor 2013,” she lamented. She communicates with her children through phone, or she arranges special visits. She apparently misses her grandchildren who had been asking her to come home for their birthday or other occasions, but it’s a risk she can’t take.
“I’m actually easily scared, I’m even scared of firecrackers. But I’m not afraid of what they’re doing to me,” she said.
Yecyec said she feels the pain of the families of victims of killings and disappearances, and laments the grave human rights violations in Mindanao.
“I could picture these happening to my own children. And if I don’t do anything, who will,” she said.
Yecyec shared one of the myriad issues besetting Mindanao communities. In Siargao, the livelihood of fisherfolk have been affected by the conversion of fishing grounds into ecotourism areas. She also cited Nonoc island, which is being eyed as one of the “agreed locations” to be used as military facilities by US troops under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), which would mean that it would be off-limits to the people.
While organizers raise the political awareness among fisherfolk, Yecyec said they also encourage them to implement alternatives, such as food sources.
“The fisherfolk don’t even have space for their boats, because of the sanctuary… but we campaigned for vegetable gardening, using plastic bags, old boats, bottles as hanging gardens,” she said.
She likened her work to a tree, flourishing on fertile soil.
“Like a tree, our work take roots on the people, on fertile ground. So that even if the top gets cut, the tree continues to thrive,” Yecyec said.
She said that in her hometown San Luis, where she started organizing, the plantations have been kept out. Peasant leaders and other activists continue to organize and campaign in the communities.
“Even when I’m not there anymore, I know that I helped in raising the people’s awareness,” she said.
As she told the intelligence agent some 20 years ago, she recalled: “I really teach, health trainings among others. If we don’t organize the people, who help will assert their rights? If they have an organization, they can act on their own. They won’t need us anymore.”