Sister Mary John Mananzan is not 'leader for life' of a 'communist terrorist' group

Jonathan de Santos - Philstar.com
Sister Mary John Mananzan is not 'leader for life' of a 'communist terrorist' group
In this June 24, 2020 photo, Sister Mary John Mananzan wears a shirt with a slogan opposing the anti-terrorism bill
News5 / Mary John Mananzan

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 12:13 p.m., June 27) — "What does it take to be chairman emeritus [sic] of GABRIELA," the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict asked over the weekend as it accused an activist nun of being in league with communist rebels.

As it turns out, what it takes is helping found the group and leading it "for more than two decades," which Sister Mary John Mananzan, OSB did.

The NTF ELCAC has been pushing the narrative that Mananzan has "close ties to a communist terrorist group" and, according to a report by state-run Philippine News Agency quoting task force spokesperson Lorraine Badoy, is "putting forth an ideology of 'communism.'"

The allegations were made in response to Mananzan's criticism of the guilt verdict in the cyber libel case against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. and of the judge who issued the decision.

In a post on the NTF ELCAC's Facebook page, Badoy, who is also an undersecretary at the Presidential Communucations Operations Office, asked: "Why is Mary John Mananzan so closely allied to a group that has brought this country so much grief and destruction and that has, as its main goal the overthrow of government?"

Mananzan helped found Gabriela — properly, General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action (GABRIELA) — in 1984 to consolidate women's groups during the Marcos dictatorship.

At the time, Gabriela Secretary General Joms Salvador told Philstar.com on Thursday, the alliance was meant "to unite women in their broadest expression of solidarity and action for rights and welfare during the Filipino people's struggle against the Marcos dictatorship."

Since then, Gabriela has worked to push for the economic, socio-cultural and political rights of women, she said.

"We conduct advocacy campigns on a wide range of issues, from violence against women in its various forms to true economic empowerment of women, to issues of democratic participation and national sovereignty, because we believe that as half of our population, women should have a voice in every aspect of our society," she also said.

"As former chairperson, she contributed much in steering GABRIELA's campaigns on women's rights, women's political participation, and accountability of institutions to women. She was also instrumental in GABRIELA's organizational and alliance work especially among the religious, professionals and other sectors," Salvador said, adding that as chairperson emerita, Mananzan has "a lifetime advisory role to the entire organization."

She is not a "leader for life," as Badoy claims and, Salvador clarified, is "not as involved in the day-to-day operations of GABRIELA as when she was chairperson."

In usage outside of the NTF ELCAC, emeritus is an honory title, like when the University of the Philippines confers the title of professor emeritus "upon retired faculty members in recognition of their exceptional achievement and exemplary service to the university."

'Oldest feminist in the room'

Speaking at the "She For She" forum organized by the French Embassy in 2017, Mananzan described herself as a feminist, which she defined according to two questions:

"Are you aware that there is discrimination, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination of women as women... it cuts across class, race, creed, nationality... that is what we call the Woman Question. Do you see that? If not you are deaf and blind and dumb," she said.

"Secondly, if you recognize that there is the Woman Question, are you willing to change the situation in any way you can?"

She said: "If your answer is yes to both of them, you are a feminist even if you are a man."

Calling herself "the oldest feminist not just in the panel but in the room," she noted that women's rights have advanced a lot since the 1980s, when feminists were accused of "destroying the family."

But, she said, "we have a lot more to do because the grassroots women, 80% of them or maybe 90% of them, have not really been reached by our ideas and that is a great challenge for us."

Already Gabriela chairperson emerita then — she was conferred the title in 2009 — Mananzan was introduced as executive director of the Institute of Women's Studies of St. Scholastica's College, the college in Malate where she is now vice president for external affairs.

'Communist ideology' or critical thinking?

In an 2018 interview for CNN Philippines Profiles, Mananzan did not deny that she has worked with communists — already a well-documented fact.

"All the things that they tell you 'naku, mga komunista, mga demonyo yan (Oh, no. Communists, they are demons)', and you happen to work with them when you began to work with the poor and you realize they are such wonderful human beings. They really were sincerely wanting to change the Philippines," she said, speaking of her time as an activist nun during the Marcos years.

"The moment pala that you get opened to such a thing, when your horizons widen, you become less dogmatic, you become less arrogant. You learn, you know what Jesus really meant, which is humility," she said.

She said that St. Scholastica's adopted "the thrust (of) education for justice and social transformation" in the 1980s and, "as a part of that, then the women's studies came in."

She said that school administrators believe that "it's not enough to produce students who will have a career, who will make a living, but they are citizens of their country and for us these citizens must be agents of change."

"That means to say whatever they see that is not correct in the society, they have to be able to transform this, to change this in any way they can." 

She said: "For us, what is important is critical thinking. You do not just say 'OK' to everything."

In the same interview, she said that she has experienced spritual enlightenment through political activities, a point she also made in a 2017 article in Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News).

"It is my faith that is urging me to do this. Christ is an option for the poor," she said in the article, which points out that she "[adds] that her inspiration is Jesus, 'not Marx.'"
She said: "If Jesus was here with us today, he would be more likely with us in the streets."

Communist tag

Gabriela is not a communist group despite the NTF ELCAC's insistence.

It is, instead, an organization in the national democratic movement, which, Salvador explained "basically asserts the recognition of the right to non-discrimination of every democratic sector... and that we have to assert our national sovereignty against foreign domination and exploitation."

Support for or membership in an activist group does not mean membership in the Communist Party of the Philippines or the New People's Army. Although some activists do end up taking up arms against the government, many remain activists or go into development work while many others move on to other things.

In reaction to a proposal to revive the Anti-Subversion Law that outlawed being a communist, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra stressed in August 2019 that "being leftist is far from being terrorist."

The Department of Justice has a pending petition before a Manila court to proscribe — officially declare — the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People's Army as terrorist groups. For now, though, as Guevarra said in 2019, "mere membership in the CPP is not a crime unless overt criminal acts are committed."

He said in the same statement, however, that when the ideology is translated to overt acts that "threaten the national security or at least cause widespread fear among the people, government has to step in, and step in really hard."

Equating activism with support for or joining communist rebels is called red-tagging, which has been defined in Philippine jurisprudence as "the act of labelling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy... by State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’"

The Commission on Human Rights has often warned against the practice, saying it "violates the constitutional guarantee of presumption of innocence and may have serious implications on the security and movement of individuals and groups involved."

The Palace has played down the accusation, with presidential spokesperson Harry Roque saying it is "a personal expression of whoever said that," adding that if people are free to criticize government, people in government are also allowed to criticize those outside government.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office previously reposted false claims that the NTF ELCAC made about the franchise issues faced by network giant ABS-CBN. PCOO said the claims were shared without being vetted and has since limited the content that it will share on its official social media channels.

'Wild and baseless accusations'

Movement Against Tyranny, an alliance that includes activists, lawyers, and members of the clergy, last week called out Badoy for "accusing one of the living pillars of Philippine activism... of aiding and abetting rape, pillage, mass murders, and other horrific crimes."

"Such wild and baseless accusations coming from an undersecretary and official of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict not only defames Sister Mary John's person and reputation but puts her life and liberty in peril," the group also said, pointing out human rights workers and activists previously branded as "communist terrorists" have ended up dead.

Alumnae of St. Scholastica's College have also slammed the accusation on their social media accounts.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former Philippine National Police chief and chair of the Senate national defense and security committee, at a Management Association of the Philippines webinar this week, said Badoy is entitled to her opinion but rejected the accusation.

"Personally, I don't believe that because I have marched with Sister Mananzan in the streets before, we were together, we were marching before," he said as he defended the anti-terrorism bill at the webinar.

"I don't believe that Sister Mary John Mananzan is a terrorist," he said in response to concern that the accusations against Mananzan foreshadow how the bill will be implemented when it becomes a law.

Salvador said Thursday that Mananzan's supporters "need to recognize and articulate that any attack against Sister Mary John is an attack on her activism, and the principles that have guided her life's work as a compassionate, indefatigable, honest and true daughter of Philippine society."

"To support Sister Mary John in this battle against misinformation, outright lies, harassment, and attacks on her rights as a woman and as a citizen would mean standing up against the lies and malicious redtagging and asserting our democratic rights against state repression and violence," she also said.

(Editor's note: This article has been updated to include the Palace's position on the 'red-tagging' of Mananzan)





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