The statue, again
HEART AND MIND - Paulynn Sicam (The Philippine Star) - May 15, 2018 - 12:00am

Late last year, the Tuloy Foundation, in partnership with the National Historical Commission, seeking to honor Filipino Comfort Women, acknowledge their sacrifice and accord them the dignity they deserve, commissioned a statue of a woman, veiled and blindfolded but standing tall and defiant, that was erected on the sidewalk of Roxas Boulevard fronting Manila Bay. 

The statue is a belated but necessary acknowledgement of the historical fact that during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, hundreds of young Filipino girls were subjected to systematic rape, sexual abuse, torture and murder by the conquering Japanese forces. While many of them were killed, a number survived to tell their gruesome story.

Shortly after the statue was inaugurated, the Japanese Embassy lodged a protest against its presence.

Last week, under cover of darkness, the statue was yanked out of its foundation and unceremoniously removed. In the dead of night, using a backhoe, government workers assaulted and abducted the statue so that only a hole remained in the ground where it once stood. The first official explanation was the lie that it stood in the way of a drainage project. But later, the president himself said that he had ordered it removed because it offended the Japanese government.

By kowtowing to the sensibilities of the Japanese government, the president has reprised the pain and shame of the Filipino women who were violently and serially assaulted by the Japanese invaders during World War II.

We were not aware of the existence of so-called “comfort women” until 1993, when idle gossip about sex slavery during the Second World War took human form in the person of Lola Rosa Henson. Aided by a group of feminists, Lola Rosa came forward and told her story of terror, sorrow and pain.  She was only 15 when she was taken by Japanese soldiers and kept as a sex slave. Lola Rosa was serially raped by up to 30 soldiers a day for nine months. 

We were still reeling from the shock of Lola Rosa’s story when other women survivors of Japanese atrocities emerged to tell theirs. Up to 174 Filipino women broke their silence and talked about the horrible secret they had lived with for decades. Defying social mores, they shared their trauma and anger — one of them was raped 11 times in three hours — saying that the public must be made aware that it happened so that it never happens again. 

They survived the vicious assaults and endless rape, but shame and family pride prevented them from talking about the ordeal for five decades. How did they survive 50 years of keeping the horror they went through to themselves? How did they deal with the indignities they suffered at the hands of their captors? 

There are stories about the war, when young women were married off in a hurry to whomever happened to be available to give them some sort of protection from the marauding troops of the occupation. But not everyone could be protected. Young girls — children of 13 to 17 years old, actually — were made into sex slaves of the imperial forces. But we were not aware of this until five decades later.

Filipino women were not the only victims of sex slavery. Up to 400,000 women in 10 Asian countries that the Japanese occupied were victimized, so that when in December 2000 the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal declared the Japanese Emperor Hirohito and 10 officials guilty of this most heinous war crime by the Japanese Imperial Army, the surviving comfort women from all over Asia-Pacific rejoiced. Justice at last! Or so they thought.

To this day, the comfort women have gotten neither an apology nor material compensation. Japan is in denial that it happened, and our government has not shown interest in getting justice for our women, saying the matter was already settled when Japan paid reparations to the government after its defeat. At best, it is a private matter that is better pursued by the private sector. 

Our infrastructure has been rebuilt by Japanese money. Japanese aid continues to pour into the country. But what about the lives of their victims? If they had their way, the Philippine and Japanese governments would prefer that the rape, torture, murder and subjugation of Filipinos were conveniently forgotten.

As an act of friendship and goodwill, we have allowed the building of shrines in our land where the Japanese come to honor their ancestors who perished here. But ironically, the only monument recognizing the dignity and quest for justice of the Filipino comfort women has been banned from public view. The uprooting of the statue and its banishment by government is a repeat of the indignity, disrespect and shame forced on the Filipino comfort women by the invaders seven decades ago.

 As Tuloy Foundation’s Tessie Ang See said in a statement, “The blindfolded comfort woman pleads for justice, recognition and reparation. We cannot shame the comfort women all over again by disrespecting a statue built to honor and remember them.” 

But to our shame and frustration, our government just did.

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