An Open Letter on the 21st Death Anniversary of Atty.Al Surigao

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Greetings of peace to all of you!

As I am writing this message for this occasion I cannot help but shed tears as I recall the manner with which my great uncle died. I did not realize that it has already been twenty-one years since he was brutally murdered by agents of the military inside his simple abode in Pardo and in the presence of his family. The request of Paz of Karapatan to give a message has forced me to remember a sad chapter in the family. But then, I am also happy that up to now his friends commemorate his death, recall why he died, and in this sense he lives again in our hearts.

I would like to share with you a passage in the Bible which I think will give us a proper perspective in treating the death of Atty. Alfonso Surigao. John 15:13-14 state and I quote, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

Atty. Alfonso Surigao was a passionate and dedicated human rights lawyer. He defended the workers here in Cebu, the poor peasants who were harassed by the military in Leyte, and he probably counselled the urban poor, the students and development workers against state terrorism during his time. Atty. Surigao genuinely understood the struggle of his friends for genuine land reform, just wage and dignified working conditions, and for social change. On the other hand, he knew the risks of defending the poor. The family and some of his friends strongly adviced him to slow down or go abroad for a while knowing that he himself became a target of the military. He was not cowed when a bomb was thrown at his small office. He fearlessly continued to defend the poor, eventually became their friend and embraced the cause his friends were fighting for.
He lived a simple life and was not lured to go into large corporate practice. His family lived in a dark apartment cramped with books and family stuff and located in a crowded district in the city. He drove in a battered volkswagon.
Atty. Alfonso Surigao realized that the change of one president to another did not change the situation of the poor and the country in general. The promise of democratic space that went with the installation of then president Corazon Aquino was hallow and short lived. It merely gave more space to emasculate the strength of the state to go against its considered enemies through the declaration of “unsheathing the sword of war” and implementing the state policy of Total War.
The Total War policy resulted to bombings and hamletting in Leyte which forced the poor peasants to leave their farms. The houses of the urban poor were demolished, workers harassed, students and professionals abducted and all those who expressed against repression were considered enemies of the state and enlisted by the military in its Order of Battle. Human rights violation was rampant. This gave him, together with other human rights lawyers, more work to do. Immediately prior to his brutal murder he was defending evacuees from the municipalities of Burauen, La Paz, Leyte known as the Leyte 26 Detainees.
On May 27, 1988 or barely a month before his death, he defended me when I was arrested here in Cebu at the Hall of Justice because I was a student leader of the League of Filipino Students in Leyte. I came to Cebu on internship program with The Freeman as third year mass communications student of the Divine Word University in Tacloban. I and my two classmates were assigned by The Freeman to cover the court hearings of the Leyte 26 Detainees which Atty Surigao was among the counsellor. To save money, as we were the students then with limited budget in Cebu, i decided to ride with Atty. Surigao as he promised to bring me and my classmates to CENDET where we would cover a press conference by a peasant group where he was a speaker.
Right at the doorstep of the Hall of Justice I was arrested by the Military Intelligence Group and brought to Camp Sergio Osmena. I was later released in cognizance to the president of San Carlos University. During the inquest, he violently argued with the military which almost resulted to a boxing bout with them. The military did not want my release despite the order of the fiscal. It was sad that when he died, I and my father could not attend his funeral.
Atty. Alfonso Surigao was the husband of my father’s cousin-Auntie Rebecca. At the same time, the wife of Fiscal Rodolfo Ugsad, my father’s elder brother, was a sister of Uncle Lolong. He was simply Uncle Lolong to me who gave gifts when he visit us in Leyte. When our family come to Cebu we would surely stay for a night or two in their house where he and my father would discuss human rights situation in Leyte until late evening. Later, when I became an activist myself he would give me money, without me even asking. He was more than an uncle. He was a friend to me, a financial and moral supporter. Uncle Lolong was not perfect. But he had deep faith which I think made him fearless. He reminded me when I had occasions to talk with him to work for others as Jesus’ had done and to live according to His ways. And when I am scared, to remember the prayer of David as a young boy in Psalms 23. How I miss Uncle Lolong!
Atty. Surigao was killed because he was defending the poor. The situation now has worsened. From Total War Policy we are now faced with Oplan Bantay Laya. Oplan Bantay Laya is the rehashed form of systematic persecution of peasants, workers, urban poor, students and professionals and development workers to suppress growing unrest of the people. It is a counter insurgency program that falsely perceive dissent by the people and legitimate organizations as destablization and therefore enemies of the state. Under the control of the Inter Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), an agency designed to legally persecute human rights activists, people’s organizations and other development organizations, they suffer from vilification or red-labeling as being communist fronts and subjected to surveillance if not arrested and murdered. More lawyers are killed now than during Atty. Surigao’s time.
If we are truly his friends we have to continue to work for the elimination of the present oppressive structures in our society. We can give meaning to the senseless death of Atty. Alfonso Surigao and to all others who died if we carry on the work they have left off. We may miss the physical presence of our dear Lolong. However, his death should not break the spirits of friends but rather should give life to a stronger and higher resolve to struggle for the upliftment of human dignity and genuine change in our society. In us, all others who died will live.
In behalf of the Surigao family I thank the organizers of this event. Mabuhay kamong mga abogado ug tanan nga nakigbisgog para sa hustisya ug katarungan!

Nancy C. Ugsad-Estolloso
Executive Director
TUBURAN Rural Women, Inc.

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One response

  1. Thanks for an open letter of Nancy Ugsad. This reminds me during the late 1980’s when Maj. Rico Palcuto, was assigned as chief of the Regional Security Unit, in Cebu. He was using civilians to conduct surveillance who are against the military abuses, like the CADRE, a vigilante group headed by Jun Alcober and Cerge Remonde. They were military assets and responsible for a series of killings during that time for one reason. To get more insurgency funds and for their own benefits, like Jovito Palparan. But the Arroyo administration has given them more power under the umbrela of the world known, corrupt government.

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