Dorris Cuario and the unstoppable activists of Southern Tagalog

Dorris Cuario at the Human Rights Day protest in 2015. (Photo by D.Ayroso/Bulatlat.com)
Dorris Cuario at the Human Rights Day protest in 2015. (Photo by Dee Ayroso/Bulatlat)

“If we offer our lives to a cause, it must be up to the very end.”

By DEE AYROSO
Bulatlat

MANILA –Dorris Cuario’s death, on June 23 in a hospital bed in Laguna, was something everyone silently knew was coming. Fourteen years ago, she was diagnosed with leukemia. This year, its complications – a lump between her lungs – caused her drastic physical deterioration, and after a few weeks, she succumbed. She would have turned 51 on July 9.

Still, Dorris’ death came as a shock for many, because she was indomitable in her work as secretary general of the regional human rights group, Karapatan-Southern Tagalog. She exposed human rights violations and confronted abusive government and military officials, most notorious of them was Col. Jovito Palparan Jr., who became known as “The Butcher.” She defied threats and harassment against her and other activists – and all the while, silently battled a terminal illness.

Hers was a fighting spirit that seemed not prone to give in – not to illness, not to fear, not even to death. She was so tough, that, as another activist puts it, “She seemed invincible.”

(Photo by Southern Tagalog Exposure)
Cultural activists of Southern Tagalog perform at the People’s SONA on July 25, 2016 (Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)

She may have stood out with her strength and feistiness, but Dorris did not stand alone, as she was grown from a bunch known for its own brand of pluck and determination, as they collectively carry on people’s struggles in the face of danger, overcome grief from seeing comrades killed in brutal military campaigns, and still chant with louder voices in unison: “Timog Katagalugan, tuluy-tuloy ang laban!”

Toughened by a union’s struggle

Dorris was a worker at Asia Textiles (Asiatex) factory in San Cristobal, Laguna when a union was organized in the 90s. Fed up by the exploitative working conditions, the union staged a strike in 1996. Dorris and eight other workers were arrested at the picket line, and detained for nine days. When they were released, they learned that they had been laid off.

Dorris then decided to become a full-time staff for the Alyansa ng Manggagawa sa Pook Industriyal ng Laguna (Alliance of Workers in the Industrial Parks of Laguna, or Almapila). From defending the workers’ right to just wages, Dorris learned of the bigger context of exploitation in Philippine society, and the need to defend human rights, which was perennially under attack under repressive administrations.

In 1999, she became the secretary general of the provincial human rights group, Karapatan-Laguna.

Please also read: Dorris Cuario | Going up against ‘The Butcher’

Braving storms of human rights violations under Oplan Bantay Laya

President Gloria Arroyo’s term from 2001 to 2010 was one of the darkest times for the nation, specially the progressive mass movement which the military branded as mere front of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and New People’s Army (NPA), and subjected to relentless attack. It was a time when human rights defenders were most needed, and also most vulnerable.

Under Arroyo, the island of Mindoro served as the “killing fields laboratory,” prior to the implementation of the government counterinsurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya. Palparan was chief of the 204th infantry brigade, under whose command a death squad known as “Bonnet Gang” committed summary executions and enforced disappearances, along with intensified military operations in communities.

On April 21, 2003, Karapatan-Southern Tagalog secretary general Eden Marcellana was on a fact-finding mission in Oriental Mindoro when the Bonnet Gang abducted her along with regional peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy. Their mutilated bodies were found the next day. Irein Cuasay took over as Karapatan’s regional leader, but stayed only until 2004.

In 2004, progressives in Oriental Mindoro province suffered heavily, with the series of killings of their leaders, among them Bayan Muna’s Edilberto “Choi” Napoles and Naujan Vice Mayor Juvy Magsino, teacher and Karapatan-Oriental Mindoro acting secretary general Leima Fortu, and Edrian Allegria and Isaias Manano both of Anakpawis party-list.

It was also in Mindoro that year that Dorris led a 61-member fact-finding mission team which was surrounded and twice held up by soldiers along with suspected Bonnet Gang members.

Dorris stepped up and took over the helm of Karapatan-Southern Tagalog. It did not matter that since 2002, she had been dealing with leukemia, at the same time, grieving for her husband, whose untimely death came shortly after their wedding, also in 2002.

Under Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya, 32 battalions were deployed in the 10 provinces of the region, and Southern Tagalog activists had their hands full with almost daily cases of killings, disappearances.

Dorris and her team of scrappy human rights workers bravely investigated and documented cases of human rights violations, assisted activists who were illegally arrested, searched for the disappeared, and provided much needed guidance and company to families of victims.

They had to knock on military camps to confront Army commanders, insist to look inside detention cells, stage picket at police offices, make funeral arrangements for slain victims, facilitate medical help for survivors, and at times, exhume shallow graves.

These are the same tasks faced by all human rights workers in the country, but Southern Tagalog was among the top regions most deluged with cases. In Arroyo’s nine years, Southern Tagalog region had 179 victims of extrajudicial killings, out of the 1,206 killed. A total of 30 victims were disappeared in the region, out of the nationwide total of 206.

But the mass movement in the region was not silenced. The protests continued, as younger activists took the empty places of martyrs and carried on their tasks.

In 2008, Dorris along with 71 others, mostly regional leaders, were charged with trumped-up murder case in relation to an NPA ambush in Oriental Mindoro. Seven of the 72 were arrested and detained, including human rights lawyer Remigio Saladero. In 2009, the case was dismissed, but was revived again in a Laguna court in 2011.

The case was finally dismissed in February 2012.

Defiant of her illness

In 2010, Dorris had to take a leave because of worsening health. “Her complexion had turned gray,” described her close friend, Nonie Intengan, who is also Gabriela Women’s Party-list fourth nominee.

Karapatan-ST deputy secretary general Glen Malabanan assumed the leadership. Glen is the daughter of Bayan Muna-Laguna leader, Romy Malabanan who was killed on Dec. 23, 2003.

But even as she was supposed to be resting, Dorris still helped in the electoral campaign that year. “Gumora-gora pa rin sa elections,” Intengan said. In 2012, Dorris was even able to organize a group of teachers, she said.

In 2014, Dorris decided to end her leave. “Gusto kong ilaan ang huling natitirang buhay ko sa kilusan (I want to dedicate the rest of my life to the movement),” Intengan recalled her words.

Dianne de Chavez, the current spokesperson of Karapatan-ST, recalled that she wasn’t thrilled when she first met the returning Dorris.

“Oh no, who is this mataray (bitchy) old woman?” she thought. Soon enough, she got to know Dorris, who became “a mother, a sister, a comrade, who was very kind to me and my family.”

Dorris Cuario joined the End Impunity campaign in 2015
Dorris Cuario joined the End Impunity campaign in 2015

De Chavez said Dorris showed her the ropes of paralegal work, conducting human rights campaigns, assisting political prisoners and handling the myriad of cases, along with the human rights lawyers. Although Dorris no longer joined strenuous fact-finding missions, she always had De Chavez’s favorite meal, sinigang na hipon, ready when the latter returns.

“Our time together was short, but it was well-spent, because she tried to train me on everything she learned,” she said.

A leader for all tasks

In many rallies, Dorris headed the paralegal team, joined negotiating committees, and also gave fiery speeches during programs. But she also took on technical tasks when needed, such as heading the food committee, assisting medics, and once, even took the command of a mobilization.

She was affectionate and caring, checking on everyone with the question: “Kumain ka na ba (Have you eaten)?” As she was soft, she was also tough, specially in disciplining the pasaway, those who stray from the ranks and don’t listen to the command.

Diego Torres, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-ST spokesperson, said he first met Dorris at a protest, and she just sidled up to him and started talking.

Dorris even ribbed him about matching him up with a colleague. “There is someone I know who is ‘interested’ in you,” she would tease.

Dorris Cuario (Cartoon by Renan Ortiz, posted in pinoy wekly.org)
Dorris Cuario (Cartoon by Renan Ortiz, posted in pinoy weekly.org)

She was a brilliant instructor, Torres said, and he learned from her style of using popular ways to explain abstract concepts in educational discussions. Torres was also impressed by her dedication to attend to political prisoners. “She visited them even if she was sick, she knew every single case,” he said.

Collective courage

Bayani Cambronero of Makabayan-ST recalled an incident at the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Camp Aguinaldo where they asked for a dialogue during the peak of the Mindoro killings, but military officials refused to face them. AFP personnel required them to show IDs and other documents.

“Dorris stood her ground and insisted on a dialogue, until Gen.(Edgardo) Batenga relented,” Cambronero said, adding she had shown what can be done “to assert human rights and the right of the people.”

In 2015, a Southern Tagalog activist recalled how they were barred by a phalanx of police men from proceeding to a barangay hall in Kawit, Cavite to assist an activist who was arrested. Dorris went up to the police men one by one, and listed their names.

“Let me see your name plates! Why aren’t you wearing your name plate? Sige, tsapa na lang (Okay, just your badge number, then)!” she reprimanded some police.

Such courage is not rare among ST activists, who are known to confront state forces who try to infiltrate their ranks during mobilization. In 2012, police and an intelligence asset once tried to harass a fact-finding team by driving by and taking pictures of key leaders. The activists did not flinch and instead pursued the vehicle, took pictures, and taunted the police, pointing at their own faces: “Make sure you get a good picture of this!”

A flowing spring of activists ready to defend, ready to die

Dorris, like many ahead of her, took up the challenge to become a leader when her time came. Although key leaders were killed, disappeared, arrested and harassed, still many had taken their place, and Southern Tagalog groups still comprise one of the biggest contingents in rallies in Metro Manila.

“There are many who are prepared to die for the country… the level of commitment goes as far as being ready to defend the people’s right, to die and be a martyr if need be,” Cambronero told Bulatlat.

(Photo by Southern Tagalog Exposure)
(Photo by Southern Tagalog Exposure)

Torres recalled how Dorris would tell younger activists about the life and times of Eden Marcellana, Arman Albarillo, and many martyred leaders in the region whom they never had a chance to meet, but whose lives can inspire them as they carry on the struggles for land, just wages, human rights, national liberation.

“If we offer our lives to a cause, it must be up to the very end,” Torres quoted Dorris.

Now, Dorris also lives on through younger activists, who will tell stories about her and her indomitable spirit, and of the many others in the unstoppable, flowing stream of activists in Southern Tagalog. ()

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