The lightning protest at this year’s UP graduation commemorated the 10th year of disappearance of Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño.
By GINO ESTELLA
MANILA – As students marched in their sablays for the graduation at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, the academic community commemorated 10 years of longing, as well as years of impunity, through a chosen form characteristic of UP: protest.
Minutes before the graduation program ended at the UP Ampitheater, newly-declared graduates stormed the front to stage a final lightning protest before they parted ways in their own fields. Students raised several issues and concerns of the university like agrarian reform and human rights.
“In our short stay in UP, we have witnessed the neoliberal attacks on our education,” Diliman University Student Council (USC) Chairperson Bryle Leano said in Filipino, during the lightning rally.
“For us graduating students, it is in our interest that we fight for all our basic services,” he said.
The protesting graduates, like clockwork, lined up in cascading rows of placards and streamers, each calling for a specific kind of justice in various sectors.
The protest was not exclusive to the Diliman graduation, but was “system-wide,” with similar lightning rallies held during commencement exercises in other UP campuses, such as Los Banos, Baguio, Cebu, Mindanao and Tacloban.
Other graduates who did not join the protest saw it as less of a surprise and more of a tradition, as activists stage protests at every graduation. Many say that UP welcomes and graduates its students with protest actions.
UP Diliman calls for justice
The graduation, held on June 26, coincided on the exact same day when youth activists and former UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño were abducted and disappeared 10 years ago, along with peasant Manuel Merino. The three remain missing.
“They are our fellow Iskolar ng Bayan who wanted nothing but change,” Earl Orio, a graduate of Broadcast Communication said, as he led the protest in the College of Mass Communication’s local graduation.
In 2006, the two women were abducted and detained in various military camps in Central Luzon where two similarly abducted peasant brothers Raymond and Reynaldo Manalo were also detained. The two brothers escaped and lived to file charges against the infamous Major General Jovito Palparan, the commanding officer of their abductors. Their narratives of life in captivity mirrored the Army’s terrible treatment toward the missing pair.
Raymond had pinpointed retired Major General Jovito Palparan Jr. as the criminal mastermind behind the human rights violations. Palparan is still being tried for kidnapping and illegal detention for Cadapan and Empeño. Raymond had testified how the two women were tortured and raped by Palparan’s underlings.
Recently, Palparan entered no plea in the kidnapping and serious illegal detention charges filed against him by the Manalo brothers. As a standard procedure, the judge entered a “not guilty” plea for Palparan.
“Those guilty of the crime already got away with it,” Orio said, “Those innocent are accused of things they did not do.”
UP Manila remembers Kristel
The Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), like the Diliman campus’ Ampitheater, filled up with rows of activists, each with their own placard and specific call. For UP Manila, it was a call for justice for Kristel Tejada, who should have graduated this year.
Tejada was a Behavioral Sciences student who entered UP Manila in 2012, and studied for one year while her parents struggled to make ends meet. She was unable to pay her tuition for her second year, and was subsequently forced to take a leave of absence.
Days later, she was found dead inside her room, after ingesting a bottle of silver cleaner. Although it was a suicide, student activists saw Tejada as one pushed to the wall by the reckless and rampant commercialization of education.
Cid Manalo, the outgoing Manila USC chairperson, on Facebook requested this year’s graduates to leave seats empty in remembrance of the fallen student.
“It is a symbolic, silent protest for Kristel,” Manalo said, “She will not be forgotten.”
Tejada would have also been one of the 1,200 graduates at the PICC.
“I [would] love to see you wearing the sablay anak, now that it is not possible anymore,” Christopher Tejada, her father said on a Facebook post.
UP Mindanao vows to serve the people
Meanwhile, in UP Mindanao, class salutatorian and BS biology graduate Omid Siahmard delivered a fiery speech during the graduation rites, June 28. In a video by Kim Ligue, Siahmard paid tribute to Cadapan, Empeño and Tejada who, he said, were deprived of the right to education.
Siahmard exhorted fellow graduates to live by the principles they learned from UP and join the bigger struggle of the Filipino people. “Hindi mali ang lumaban. Kaya tayo lumalaban kasi may mali,” Siahmard said.
Back in Diliman, Leano’s connection to the microphone was cut off mid-speech. It happens every year, he said, but they did not come unprepared. They turned on a gigaphone and continued on, only to be interrupted once more by an orchestra, playing the university’s anthem UP Naming Mahal (UP Beloved).
“Let us support the advancement of reforms based on the needs of the masses; the same masses who taught us to embrace the militant and nationalist tradition of an education that serves the people,” Leano said.
The lightning rally, which has become customary all throughout the UP system, also calls on the “scholars of the people” to give back to the country, which subsidized their education for four years or more.