Thursday, March 24, 2011

Health workers denounce harrassments


BAGUIO CITY — Even community development workers are victims of human rights violations.

The Community Health Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region (CHESTCORE), in a press conference last March 17, denounced the military harassment of their community volunteers and workers in the region.

Executive director of CHESTCORE Romella Rasalan said the latest was the death threat received by Milagros Ao-wat, Health Programs Desk Coordinator and Administraive Officer of CHESTCORE. Since last year, Ao-wat received different text messages from different phone numbers telling her to watch-out for her life. Her family has also observed a taxi parked and the driver surveilling their house. Ao-wat said that the taxi driver was wearing dark glasses even at 6:30 in the evening and another male who was sitting next to the driver alighted and stared at her daughter who was walking home.

She was followed by the suspicious male observer from the road until the front of our gate and stood for 10 minutes before leaving, Ao-wat added.

“My family has noted the presence of this same taxi parked around the vicinity of our house at other times on December 24, January 4 and 26 and maybe other times which we did not note,” exclaimed Ao-wat.

She added that on December 1st when she was in a jeepney terminal in La Trinidad, two men were staring at her. “As a precaution, I changed my direction and walked away from the terminal.” Fortunately, Ao-wat said she saw a relative whom she asked to ride the jeepney with as they have the same destination. She added the two men continued to watch her closely the whole time.

Ao-wat said she was frightened after receiving those threats on her mobile phone and she has refrained from travelling alone.

Rasalan pointed out that several staff members of CHESTCORE were also followed by observers in the city.

On medical missions Rasalan said state security forces – Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, Civilian Armed Forces Geographical units (CAFGU) and other paramilitary forces questioned their medical teams why they were working in far-flung barrios.

“They were accused of having ties or are members of the New Peoples Army (NPA), and that, we are teaching the community health workers how to care for the gunshot wounds of the NPA,” explained Rasalan.

“These soldiers have insisted to be present in our barrio trainings,” said the director. They arrogantly sat in some of their lectures and make snide remarks on the discussions while the lecture is going on.

When the military are around, Rasalan said “some of their community health workers and volunteers are afraid to attend. Those who attend the trainings are intimidated and can not participate freely during discussions which is important in the learning process.”

“We are just simple citizens helping the far-flung communities to build community-based health programs but why are we subjected to various forms of harassment,” Rasalan asked.

The Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) through a statement denounced these actions by the state security forces against the community health workers of CHESTCORE.

Jude Baggo, secretary general of CHRA, said human rights violations under the rule of President Benigno Aquino III continue to sow fear among the people. He added that it further constricts the democratic space to a span where fundamental human rights cannot be realized.

The threatening, harassment and intimidation by the military, has been an experience under the Arroyo administration that continues today under the Aquino regime. He condemned the military for doing such actions especially against the healthworkers who provide much-needed service to the people especially in places where the services of the government cannot reached.

“The policy and treatment of the State against legal and progressive people’s organizations and institutions has not changed in essence even with the change of Operation Plans,” Baggo said. According to him, those critical of the government policies, governance and human rights records continue to be regarded as fronts of revolutionary formations and considered enemies of the State.

Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE) President Ferdinand Gaite said the condition of the basic social services is very poor. In this case, community development workers fill this neglect from the government and yet they are subjected to harassment and threats.

Gaite explained that most of the volunteers and workers like CHESTCORE and the so-called Morong 43 who are helping in the health development of the communities are tagged and labeled as members of the New Peoples Army without any basis. He believes that this is a way of restricting genuine servants of the people provide basic services where the government is absent.

He also believes that this is part of the counter-insurgency program of the government. Gaite then asks the people to strenghten their unity and to continue the fight against militarization of the State. #

Wipe out diseases, not medics


BAGUIO CITY — “A recurring disease is a cause for alarm. It needs urgent treatment,” a medical worker said.

It is a long established fact that the Philippine government has not given health care priority attention for decades now. The allotment for health services from the national budget says everything.

What is more alarming is that, community health workers are being subjected to threats, harassments, illegal arrest and detention and worse extrajudicial killings by those who are supposed to protect them, the elements of the state security forces.

Based on the budget allocation for health in 2010, the government spent P252.49 for every Filipino for the whole year or a staggering P0.70 for every Filipino a day. This year, the Aquino administration even cut down on the health budget from the P 398.9 billion in 2010 to P 361.1 billion.

In the Cordillera, most interior communities in the region have long been marginalized and neglected by the government. Like other basic social services the government failed to deliver basic health care services to these communities.

This situation gave birth to Cordillera Health Services Eduction and Training in the Cordillera Region (CHESTCORE), a non government organization promoting community based approaches and strategies to address health care problems in the region and in adjacent communities in Northern Luzon.

CHESTCORE Executive Director Romella Rasalan disclosed that they are subjected to various forms of harassment while on field work by state security forces that include soldiers belonging to Philippine Army (PA), Philippine National Police (PNP), Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) and other paramilitary groups deployed in the Cordillera interiors.

Rasalan explained that CHESTCORE was established primarily to address govern-ment’s failure to provide basic health care services in the far flung barrios of the region through their community based health program.

She added that this program aims to develop community health workers to respond to their basic health care needs.

“It is therefore logical that we go to the far flung barrios because these are the most neglected areas. These areas need medical services the most,” Rasalan stressed.

She explained that CHESTCORE trains community folks on basic community health care services to cover for the absence of government health workers. She said they also teach the use of medicinal plants to cover for the lack of basic medicines.

The group also conducts medical missions usually in disaster stricken, epidemic affected and militarized areas. Services include physical and dental check ups, and stress debriefing as well as provision of necessary medicines.

Rasalan further said the CHESTCORE staff are health professionals that include doctors, nurses, psychologists and others.

She pointed out that instead of seeking employment in urban areas and abroad these professionals chose to serve and work with the indigenous peoples, farmers, laborers, small scale miners and urban poor here in the region.

“It is unjust that we who volunteer to assist these communities are falsely accused, harassed and endangered. It is unjust that communities who organize and mobilize themselves for self-help are also harassed and endangered. It is even more unjust that, as a result of all these, the people’s health situation deteriorates further,” Rasalan stressed.

Despite the long list of human rights violations of state security forces the government alloted a bigger chunk of the national budget to military spending. The military budget has increased by 80%, from P96.2 billion in 2010 to P 104.7 billion in 2011.

In a glaring contrast, the budget of public hospitals decreased while the budget of military hospitals increased this 2011.

The budget of military hospitals like the AFP Medical Center and Veterans Memorial Medical Center were increased by P923 million and P130.7 million respectively.

The budget of 12 major public hospitals, such as Jose Reyes Memorial, Rizal Medical, East Avenue Medical, Quirino Memorial, Tondo Medical, Jose Fabella Memorial, among others, was reduced by P4 million and subsidies for indigent under the National Health Insurance Program would be effectively reduced by P1.67 billion this year.

As the military budget increase so does the number of victims of threat, harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest and detention, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other forms of human rights violations. In most of these cases perpetrators are identified or suspected elements of the military.

Despite the AFP’s pronouncements that the new internal peace and security plan Oplan Bayanihan which started last December, respects human rights in its “people-centered approach”, the rampage continue.

According to Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) Secretary General Jude Baggo, from January to February alone, 10 EJKs were recorded in the national level.

He added that there are already 43 documented cases of EJKs since PNoy assumed the presidency. This figure includes the latest victim Bonifacio Labasan, 61 of San Mateo, Isabela coordinator of Danggayan dagiti Mannalon iti Cagayan Valley.

“A healthy people is the wealth of a nation. We, community health workers provide alternative to the chronic insufficient health care services in far flung barrios. We do not deserve persecution. The perpetrators of human rights violations are those who deserve punishment,” Rasalan

Stop the harassment of all Cordillera Health Workers!

CHESTCORE vehemently denounces the escalating harassment of its staff and volunteers in recent months. We have observed several vehicles and individuals conducting surveillance on our office. Several of our staff have also been followed while going around Baguio City. Last December 2010 and this January 2011, our staff Milagros Ao-wat received several death threats through her cell phone.

CHESTCORE responds to the historically-neglected health situation in the Cordilleras

CHESTCORE (or the Community Health Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region) is an NGO that has been working to build community-based health programs since 1981. The present CHESTCORE staff are health professionals coming from various fields – doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, etc. Many of us are members of the various Igorot tribes of the Cordillera Region. Despite the many job opportunities available to us abroad and in the big urban (city) centers, we have chosen to serve the marginalized sectors of Cordillera society. Just as botanist Leonard Co did when he was field staff member of CHESTCORE, we work among the indigenous farmers, laborers, small-scale miners and urban poor.

We endure long bus and jeepney rides and even longer hikes along treacherous mountain trails to reach the far-flung barrios we serve. Instead of working in big hospitals as we have been trained to do in school, we treat patients armed only with our stethoscope, BP set, meager medical supplies and our acupuncture needles and medicinal plants. Instead of conducting lectures in formal classrooms in big universities, we train peasant men and women (most of who have not finished elementary) in small barangay halls, churches and nipa huts so that they too can render service as community health workers. We have long foregone the big salary, modern luxuries and fashionable white coat that the health professions are known for. We are content to receive a living allowance equivalent to the salary of a government midwife or even less.

Our greatest reward has always been seeing the transformation of barely-literate farmers used to silently enduring poverty and exploitation into empowered leaders and members of their peoples’ organizations and Health Committees. We bear witness that it IS possible to place “health in the hands of the people” through community-based health programs.

Latest forms of harassment and Oplan Bayanihan

These latest forms of harassment we have suffered are but the tip of the iceberg. While on fieldwork, CHESTCORE staff have been subjected to various forms of harassment by state security forces (Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit and other paramilitary forces) – questioning our motives for working in far-flung barrios, implying that we have ties or are members of the New People’s Army (NPA), implying that we are teaching the health workers how to care for the gunshot wounds of the NPA.

Worse, as part of their military combat operations, they have insisted on being present during some of our barrio trainings, sitting in on some of the lectures and even commenting on the discussion while the lectures are going on. When the military are around, some of the community health workers are afraid of attending our trainings, and those who do attend are intimidated and cannot participate freely during the discussions. This is a clear violation of the community’s right to safety and security. It is a clear violation of the community’s right to go about their activities without fear or disruption. It is also a violation of our staff’s right to safety and security while doing their jobs.

With the implementation of the AFP’s Oplan Bantay Laya, many community workers like us became victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs). In most cases, the victims of EJKs were first labeled as Communists and/or NPA sympathizers and then subjected to intensifying surveillance and finally, direct threats. Even as the AFP recently announced in its new Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan that they will adhere to Human Rights/ International Humanitarian Law and the Rule of Law, we fear that there are no guarantees that this pattern of red labeling, surveillance, harassment and EJKs will stop.

We assert the people’s right to health

Igorot communities have suffered centuries of marginalization and discrimination. Even today they continue to suffer the highest poverty and malnutrition rates in the entire country. The Philippine government’s meager budget for health fails to deliver even such basic health services as immunization and antituberculosis medications to their far-flung barrios. Now the people’s health and livelihood are endangered further by the encroachment of large-scale mining operations and commercialized agricultural production.

It is unjust that we who volunteer to assist these communities are falsely accused, harassed and endangered. It is unjust that communities who organize and mobilize themselves for self-help are also harassed and endangered. It is even more unjust that, as a result of all these, the people’s health situation deteriorates further.

It is therefore our duty to expose and denounce the human rights violations we health workers and the Cordillera peoples have been subjected to. We do so in behalf of the communities we serve. We do so to assert the people’s right to health.

We stand with our fellow health workers as we appeal for your support

We stand with the many doctor-consultants and specialists who generously treat patients referred to them by the community health workers. We speak out, as well, in behalf of our network of student volunteers who accompany us on fieldwork during their semestral or summer breaks. More importantly, we speak out in behalf of the hundreds of community health workers CHESTCORE has trained and who courageously continue to render health services in their respective barrios.

We also stand with our fellow volunteer health workers all over the Philippines who do the same work and suffer the same harassment. We speak out in solidarity with the Morong 43 and Dr. Chandu Claver. We condemn the killing of Leonard Co and of Dr. Bobby de la Paz.

We are coming out in public to ask you – our families, friends, allies, support network and the general public -- to stand with us as well, to speak out vehemently against the harassment of Cordillera health workers.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Year After Ordeal, Life Goes on for Freed ‘Morong 43' But Scars Remain

A year ago today, the military and police illegally arrested and detained the “Morong 43? health workers. While most of them have been freed and are now trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, many still have nightmares and still feel vulnerable and exposed to danger.


MANILA – Physically they are already free, they appear fine and they are picking up the patterns of their old life, but many of the Morong 43 health workers today seem to be still struggling with the memory of their abduction exactly a year ago today, Feb. 6, and their subsequent torture and detention.

“I still can’t sleep well,” said Dr. Merry Mia-Clamor, one of the Morong 43 who was released last December. Even when she manages to sleep, it is fitful at best. She told that what she is going through is common among the Morong 43 health workers. She still has nightmares when she is alone in the dark. She dreams of soldiers seizing one of them and spiriting a detainee out of jail in the dead of the night.

While most of them have gone back to work by now and are coping well with it, Dr. Clamor says, she still feels vulnerable whenever she is out in the street. The other freed health workers interviewed by also said they feel the same, although they are also quick to reassure everybody who asks that they are fine.

Lydia Obera, the eldest female Morong 43 detainee, told that, “Personally, I feel I’m okay. Everything is as it should be, as natural as can be.” She asked other health workers to tell her if they noticed something different with her. “They said I was just like before.”

At 62, Obera is slim, sprightly and cheerful. A gentle, fun-loving Waray, Mama Del, as she is affectionately called in the health sector and by the inmates at Camp Bagong Diwa detention facility, had for some reason been accused of illegal possession of firearms and of having violated the Comelec election gun ban a year ago. Mama Del is one of the health staff of the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW).

“My memory seemed to have sharpened,” Mama Del said. In fact, she said, she could now recall cellphone numbers, which she had difficulty doing before her arrest. Like the other members of the freed Morong 43, she said, she gets her strength from the warm welcome and support of friends, family, colleagues and all those organizations whose members visited them while they were in jail.

“When I visited the public hospitals where the members of the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) are working, their welcome was truly heartwarming,” she said.

Mama Del no longer has nightmares; she said she only had them when she was in solitary confinement, which lasted 14 days, at Camp Capinpin. Others in her neighboring jail cell would try to wake her up when she was having those nightmares. “I was shouting in my sleep: ‘Why did you arrest us, we did nothing wrong!’”

Today, Mama Del’s eyes sparkle as usual when she animatedly tells stories about the good things that they managed to do even when they were in jail. But she apologetically admits that she still can’t shake off the feeling of vulnerability as she goes about her day-to-day activities. She said she feels that something bad might still be inflicted on her or to her loved ones, or that she might be slapped with yet another trumped-up charge by the military.

“I never cried while I was in jail, not even at Camp Capinpin,” she said. She only shed tears of happiness when they won their freedom last December. But the memory of Camp Capinpin, where “mornings are so quiet you could hear only the chirping of birds,” can spoil her mood.

“I don’t want to go back to what happened in our health training in Morong and at Camp Capinpin. It makes me furious,” Mama Del said. It seems to remind her as well why she continues to feel vulnerable.

The same feeling of vulnerability or of being exposed to danger from the military marks the trips to and from work by Gary Liberal. An operating-room nurse at the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center (JRMMC), Gary, 44, has been at JRMMC for 20 years at the time he went to Morong, Rizal, on this day last year to serve as resource person in the training.

He, too, had been warmly welcomed back in the hospital by his co-employees. “So far, there’s been nothing untoward about my going back,” Liberal said. He resumed working as head operating-room nurse at JRMMC last January 17. He also reassumed his position as president of the employees’ union in the hospital.

“The adjustment back to work had been easy – things are the same, there are the usual numerous patients to attend to, the usual SOPs (standard operating procedures). There were only slight changes in SOPs since I’d been gone, but essentially the mechanics are the same. There are now a few new colleagues here, too,” Liberal told

Even if working in a public hospital is neither subversive nor illegal, Liberal said, he had received advice from well-meaning doctors to just go out of the country for his security. Freed along with the other Morong 43 last December, with all charges against them dropped, the concerned doctors nevertheless told him that “when the military has arrested you, it is like your head has been marked”.

Indeed, he could clearly remember how the military interrogators at Camp Capinpin had told him that “we know where you are working; where you live. When you get out, we can easily follow you. We can kill you even when you have been released.”

Today, Gary Liberal, Lydia Obera and Dr. Merry Mia-Clamor intend to resume everything they used to do as health workers before their arrest happened. Liberal said he is still willing to become a resource person in health trainings, though, jokingly, he said he prefers that it be conducted within Metro Manila. (Because their health training last year was held in Rizal, Liberal traveled to the place the night before his scheduled topic to avoid being late. The next morning the training was raided.)

They are trying to cope with insecurity when out alone by being attentive to their surroundings. Some, said Dr. Clamor, are consulting psychiatrists to help them cope with the trauma.

All of them are fervently grateful for the outpouring of support from local and international organizations. These have strengthened them in their struggle for freedom. They are also grateful for the warm welcome that greeted them.

They lost 10 months of what would have been their normal life with their family, work and organizations. During those 10 months, Liberal, for instance, did not earn anything from JRMMC, even if it was not his fault that he was prevented from reporting to work.

While the probability of receiving compensation for the lost 10 months of their lives is still far-fetched – the military has so far refused to even apologize – the released health workers have to deal every single day with the dark memories of their illegal arrest, detention and torture.

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