It’s like what Obi Wan Kenobi said to Darth Vader, at the moment of their final confrontation: “the more you strike me down, the stronger I become.” In this case, the more he is persecuted, the stronger he is.
I refer, of course, to Jose Ma. Sison, chair of the International League of Peoples Struggles and chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front's negotiating panel in peace talks with the Philippine government. He has other accomplishments, among them leading the re-establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1960s. Before exile in 1987, he had spent nearly a decade imprisoned under the Marcos Dictatorship, in isolation and heavily tortured. When he was elected ILPS chair two years ago, Joma made the side comment that perhaps this would be a last office for him.
The third generation of Filipino activists calls him with affection, in Tagalog, the old man. He will, likely, never forgive me for using the phrase myself. Occasionally, through the years – and lord knows how long I’ve known the man – I’d wondered whether he had had a year, a month, a week even, when he wasn’t under some kind of persecution or threat, whether he had had moments when he could breathe freely, not look over his shoulder as it were, or cease to think of how to respond to a new barrage of verbal and/or possible physical assault on his person. Or even if he had ever wished for such a moment, such an instant.
In the past week, there’s been such a barrage, as enemies, many not even knowing him, gloat over his incarceration. On August 28, 2007, the Dutch police tricked him into going to the police station, ostensibly to discuss an assassination plot against him, and then promptly handcuffed and placed him under arrest, whisked him forthwith to the Scheveningen Penitential Facility. The people of Holland should appreciate the irony; this prison was used by the Nazis to hold and torture Dutch resistance fighters. It kind of boggles the mind how the country of Anne Frank could follow the model of their hated occupiers and keep Joma in isolation, not allowing him his medicine and clothes, nor access to reading materials, radio or television, and incommunicado to family and friends. This, for the Dutch, is “adherence to international standards” of imprisonment.
We tend to think of the Dutch as mild-mannered liberals but the histories of the Dutch East Indies Company and of Dutch colonialism refute that image. The Dutch waged war for 17 years against the natives of Padri, Indonesia; five years against the Javanese; 30 years against the people of Aceh. In Bali, Dutch invasion caused nearly 300 of the royal family and retainers to commit suicide, since Hinduism would not allow them to kill. Then there are the Boers, later Afrikaners, who held South Africa for centuries and perfected the apartheid policy, so they may continue to own diamond mines and other treasures of the country. The Dutch also maintained slave trade hubs in both East Africa and South and Southeast Asia. The Asian slave trade under the Dutch East Indies Company has been overshadowed by the African slave trade, but in 1659-1661 alone, the Company bought and sold between 8,000-10,000 “slaves” from India.
Much of the vaunted Dutch liberalism, it would seem, extends only to money-making decadence. Sure, drugs, liquor and prostitution are open and legal in Holland but try political dissent and activism. Rotterdam has been known these last two decades as a hub of the traffic of women into the sex farms and brothels of Europe. “Illegal” or “undocumented” aliens comprise nearly 70% of women prostituted in Amsterdam. And Holland leads European countries in investments in the Philippines.
Dutch interest in the archipelago is not of recent vintage. The La Naval de Manila religious festival arose from five bloody confrontations in 1646 between Spanish-Philippine forces and Dutch invaders/pirates, who wanted the islands as part of the territory of the Dutch East Indies. Before each of the sea battles, Catholic churches in Manila had the rosary and masses said to a small statue of an Asian Virgin Mary created by a Chinese sculptor, housed in the old Dominican Church near the Pasig River. After the Dutch were defeated, the victory was ascribed to this Virgin’s intercession. For three centuries thereafter, annual processions were held in her honor, which begun the rite of the block rosary, during which a statue of the Virgin was moved from house to house, to the accompaniment of rosary recitals. When they say their prayers, Filipinos should remember that the block rosary was a thank-you to Virgin Mary for keeping the Dutch away from the Philippines.
The old man and the Dutch have had a checkered relationship in the 20 years of his exile in the rather lackluster city of Utrecht. He has fought the Dutch government in one court after another, forcing the Dutch into a conundrum. On the one hand, the Dutch government accepts the validity of his contention of persecution and possible murder in the Philippines; on the other, the Dutch government refuses to grant him refugee status. Recently, the EU court of First Instance in Luxemburg ordered his assets unfrozen, because it found that the Dutch government had violated procedure when Joma was arbitrarily listed as a “terrorist.” In such a manner has the old man been exposing the gap between Holland’s reputation and action, between the image of “democratic” liberality and the reality for peoples of color and activists in The Netherlands.
Joma’s arrest will have long-term impact, not on the revolutionary movement in the Philippines, but on the ability and inclination of Filipinos overseas to self-organize, to work collectively for better job and living conditions, for legalization of their presence and for protection against sexual violence and sexual exploitation. If the Philippine government can buy, with mining and oil exploration licenses, the cooperation of a host counry like Holland in its policy of political repression against political dissent, how then can overseas Filipinos struggle against economic abuse, racism, sexual abuse and gender exploitation? The horrendous impact of this arrest is better understood in the context of the fact that 85% of the Filipino community in Europe is female. -- ###