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Neri Colmenares is coming to town! Are you joining the conversation?

Neri Colmenares is coming to town! Are you joining the conversation?

By Jojo Geronimo

Why we are all Jhed and Jonella now!

Neri Colmenares is coming to town, barnstorming through Toronto and other cities of Canada and the US to meet with Filipinos in the diaspora and Canadian government officials.

But who’s Neri Colmenares and what can he tell us we don’t already know? What difference will his visit make in our lives? Good questions. So let’s talk about his reasons for coming here.

As I write, days before Neri’s plane lands in Toronto, news spread like wild fire about two young women who boldly announced in a packed townhall, “We were abducted, we did not surrender! All hell broke loose.  In that press con a government task in charge of anti-terrorism was going to present the two activists as armed combatants who had surrendered to the military that now held them in custody. But unexpectedly, in complete reversal of the script, the two young women – Jhed Tamano and Jonilla Castro – bravely confirmed in the presence of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF=ELCAC)  that they were abducted by the military and were forced to sign a confession. They presented themselves as community workers that they are whose job is to defend the environment, homes and livelihood of the fishing community from the destruction caused by the government’s Manila Bay land reclamation project.

On October 2nd, from 12PM-2PM, York University will host Neri Colmenares for a discussion with faculty, academics, and students about the challenges and current state of human rights in the Philippines. The Philippine Study Group organise the event.

The scary and heart rending story of the abduction and subsequent re-appearance of these two young women is met by an equally scary and heart stopping silence from the general public and the government. Why the lack of outrage from society at large in the face of such blatant and violent suppression of human rights in our midst?”

Neri visits Ottawa October 5 2023 in a community forum on Philippine Democracy

This single story of Jhed and Jonila runs the gamut of human rights violations, from red-tagging and harassment prior to abduction, to the actual abduction, illegal confinement and denial of independent counsel and forced confession, followed by denial of facts and threat of charges from the authorities.

And this precisely is what Colmenares is coming here for – to meet with us to talk about things that matter but which we find difficult to talk about openly. It is not just about Jhed and Jonila now, but about our livelihood, our dignity and our very survival as a people.  These are the things that we don’t talk about because of fear, or because we’re too busy, or because we find these things too “political”, too controversial, and we don’t want to rock the boat.  Pabayaan na lang natin sila Marcos o mga pulis, wala naman tayong magagawa. Tumahimik ka na lang, baka mapahamak ka pa o mawalan ka pa ng trabaho.

On October 7, a luncheon called “Nerienda” will be prepared for Neri Colmenares in Montreal.

But will our silence really bring us peace? Will the harassment stop? Will they stop killing with impunity those who speak the truth and raise their voice in dissent? Will our acquiescence or complicity buy us safety and freedom?

And this silence, this sense of helplessness, perhaps our apathy or denial of the ugly realities around us – these are the difficult but absolutely necessary conversations that Mr. Colmenares is coming here for.

Neri Colmenares will hold community forums in Edmonton and Calgary on October 12 and 14 respectively, before
departing for his final leg of his visit in Vancouver from October 15 to 19, 2023.

How to break this silence and regain our voice? How do we find the courage to confront this abduction, not just of two people, but of our whole country now caught in the grip of fear and helplessness? Somehow, we must find our strength as a community who share the same experience of captivity and are committed to work together for our common liberation.

The story of Jhed and Jonila (let’s call them J and J here) – named the Orion 2 when they were forcefully disappeared in Sept.2, 2023 – is the terrifying face of our violent social reality that calls for our joint attention. The story of J and J is but a microcosm or snapshot of everything else that is destroying our society like the plague.

Consider firstly that J and J, our two valiant activists, were defending the livelihood of poor fishing communities and their environment from willful destruction. Jonilla is a community organizer and volunteer from the Alliance for the Defense of Livelihood, Housing and Environment in Manila Bay (ACAP KA Manila Bay) and Jhed Tamayo is a program director for a Church-Community Partnership of the Ecumenical Bishop Program for Manila Bay. Attacking environmental defenders is also an attack on the environment and the poor.  J and J’s activism symbolizes our people’s defense of the lands and waters of the country against powerful corporations carrying out destructive mining, logging and other resource extraction activities around the country.

Secondly, the violent abduction was conducted by virtue of state authority and the laws of the land turned into weapons against the poor, and using scarce government resources to suppress the people’s rights and endanger their lives. This is what is often referred to as state fascism. This is also a case of corruption and mismanagement, for how much of the national budget is spent in surveillance and other covert and not so covert military operations that brand hunt down activists as terrorists?

Now we come to a third consideration why the terrible yet valiant story of J and J is a trumpet call for us all to assemble together and talk – harap harapan, as concerned citizens, kababayan, members of the Filipino diaspora in Canada: the attack on J and J is an attack on us all – all our sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers, and all their husbands/partners, fathers, sons, and brothers.

The abduction of J and J is an abduction of our freedom, our dignity, and our rights to secure livelihood and clean environment.  If we stay silent in the face of the abduction of J and J, we would have allowed it to happen to our families, communities and the society as a whole.

The Human Rights Tour is Neri Colmenares’s first Canada Tour, with speaking engagements in Toronto from October 1-3,
Ottawa from October 4-5, Montreal from October 6-10, Edmonton from October 11-13, Calgary from October 14-15, and
Vancouver from October 16-19.

The abduction of J and J must stop. We cannot allow them to defend Manila Bay all by themselves while we stand by idle. They should not be left alone defending themselves before a compromised or discredited justice system. They and their community organizations should not bear alone the burden and duty of protecting our values of truth and our institutions of justice and freedom.

Neri Colmenares, human rights advocate, a voice in the halls of Congress who never ceased to speak truth to power – Neri Colmenares, a victim of martial law under the former dictator Marcos Sr who is the father of Ferdinand Marcos Jr – NERI COLMENARES IS COMING TO TOWN. Let us all come and listen, speak our mind, and break the silence. Tumindig tayong lahat! Ang bawat isa sa atin ngayon ay isang Jhed o Jonila.  To echo their words: “We too have not surrendered our rights! We will protect one another, liberate ourselves together, and fight back as one to stop the abduction of our dignity, our rights, our livelihood, our land and our seas!  ####