Starweek Magazine

Who’s Afraid of Teresita Ang See?

- Vanni de Sequera -
It is always painful to witness the flame of idealism flicker weakly as its glow grows faint. It is especially distressing when the idealist in question is the indomitable Teresita Ang See, the most stubborn adversary of kidnappers this country has seen over the last decade. Service is in her blood and she will continue to pursue her other admirable advocacies, but will we ever see the diminutive anti-crime crusader take on that hateful, shadowy gallery of scoundrels again?

Because we prefer that others fight our battles–Ang See has for so long been our reluctant but dutiful gladiator–we pray she merely suffers from temporary burn-out. Many are crossing their fingers, hoping that she will rekindle the fire in her belly before it is extinguished. The truth is somewhat grimmer, although with any luck, not immutable. Exploited by politicians, censured by the community she champions, and terrified of the new batch of law enforcers, she is ready to pass the torch. It remains to be seen, however, if her conscience and the pleading families of kidnap victims will let her.

Despite a father who hailed from Fujian, Chinese citizenship until she was 18, and even a slight Chinese accent, Ang See always considered herself Filipino. Born on Christmas day in 1949, she spent the early part of her childhood in Malabon with her eleven siblings. Those were carefree days and residents could still bathe in the clean river, catch abundant talangka from its waters, and eat the crustacean meat raw. Tragedy struck when Ang See’s 44-year-old father passed away–his eldest child was just 16 and the youngest still inside his wife’s womb.

"My mother was working double jobs to support us. She worked in a cigarette factory and also sewed for a lot of people. During weekends and summer, all of us would be working. Now, they would call it exploitation of child labor," she smiles.

Ang See and her brothers and sisters would work all night repacking toilet paper and doing other menial jobs. "We would have to press two buttons together and sometimes our fingers would bleed. It would take too long to use a piece of wood to press them together so we used our fingers instead," she recalls.

The family relocated to Binondo and Ang See was enrolled at the Chiang Kai Shek College, a traditional stronghold of Chinese ethnocentrism. Already a working student by the time she was in first year high school, she devoted every spare moment to studying. Unsurprisingly, Ang See was an excellent student. "In high school, when I would get a grade below 92, I would consider it a failing grade. I share that with my children because they are very intelligent but are under-achievers, although they always managed to get honors. But maybe they’re happier," she says after some reflection.

Her steely discipline served her well at the University of the Philippines, where she received a scholarship and took up Political Science. At night, she tutored up to six elementary school children at P300 each, earning her a then tidy sum. Half her income would go to her mother to help pay the rent; the rest she used for her school needs. At UP, it was as if her eyes were pried open with a crowbar. Already fiercely independent, Ang See soon shed any lingering reactionary dispositions after a brief culture shock. She admits the university changed her life.

Her college days overlapped with the First Quarter Storm. During those combustible times, professors rebuked their students for attending classes instead of marching at rallies. Molotov cocktails were hurled impotently as tanks rumbled into the campus. As always, it was the women who maintained their composure, embracing their firebrand schoolmates and beseeching them to avert the suicide. Ang See wept as friends were bludgeoned, dragged by the hair, arrested and detained indefinitely–she wished there was more she could do.

"I couldn’t fully participate openly because at that time I was still a Chinese citizen," she explains. "Only at 18 were we allowed to elect the citizenship of our mothers. My mother was Filipina and my father Chinese. I didn’t know how to speak a single word of Chinese–when I was in Grade 1, I couldn’t even tell my teacher I needed to go to the bathroom–and yet I was a Chinese citizen. Up to UP I had to pay an alien registration fee. Even my classmates warned me because unlike them, they would just get arrested if something goes wrong. As for me, they would deport me and I didn’t even know any relatives in China."

Thirty years later, the idealism has regressed into a dismal realism. "The country remains poor, if not poorer. I had a Thai classmate who ended up Minister of Agriculture. He was studying how to grow rice in UP Los Baños and now we are importing rice from Thailand. The irony really rankles," she says.

After graduate school at the UP Asian Center, her first job was at the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry as research assistant. The young activist found the group too docile as it preferred to work from the sidelines for the citizenship of Chinese born in the country. Ang See joined the more pro-active Pagkakaisa sa Pag-unlad, possibly the first NGO formed by ethnic Chinese, which was founded by scholar and anthropologist Chinben See. They married in 1975.

"Our 17-year age gap was never a barrier. It was a very meaningful relationship. We were different in religion and upbringing. He was very Chinese while I was very Filipino although he was very forward-looking. Even at his age he was very unique among his peers by not being ethnocentric at all. It’s rare to see the generation of my husband involved in academic or NGO work because there is no money there. My in-laws could not understand although I understand their feeling of protectiveness for my children. His love for the Philippines was unseen in that generation. It rubbed off on me. For 11 years we were married — very short but rewarding years," she says.

Pagkakaisa managed to survive three years under martial law helping urban poor in Navotas, Novaliches and even Mindanao before the group splintered. "The military put us under their watchlist because they couldn’t believe that simple and ordinary people could have progressive ideas to help the country. They gave too much credit to the communists as if only the leftists would do work for the marginalized."

The group was revived after the Ninoy Aquino assassination in 1983, renamed Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran, or Kaisa. They feared the resulting economic crisis would trigger a backlash against the ethnic Chinese. Ang See proudly proclaims, "We defied the prediction of the best economists that the Philippines would go down. Many have written since that this was because the Chinese-Filipinos stayed put. Filipinos took out their capital but the Chinese-Filipino stayed put."

Unwilling to forego the momentous tussle to evict Marcos, Chinben See participated in the EDSA 1 protest rallies despite a serious illness. He was finally confined to his bed the same day the dictator fled the country. In 1986, liver cancer took his life. Ang See remembers, "He did not know how to drink, was very allergic to alcohol, and never had late nights–typical nerdy professor."

Her husband’s deathbed wish was to remedy the indignity that nearly one million ethnic Chinese in the country possessed no treasure house to display their heritage. Despite their small communities, the French had Alliance Francaise; the Germans, Goethe Institute; the Americans, Thomas Jefferson Library; and the Japanese, Jica. Those curious about the Chinese legacy in the Philippines were pitifully brought to the Chinese Cemetery. Through the remarkable philantrophy of Dr. Angelo King–who provided the seed money and the inspiration for Ang See to think big–the P140-million Kaisa Heritage Center in Intramuros was finally completed in 1999.

In January of 1993, Kaisa spearheaded the organization of the Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order (mrpo), an organization founded by Ang See. mrpo mobilized the immense funeral protest–conservative estimates placed the crowd at 100,000–that accompanied 15-year-old Charlene Sy to her final resting place. The aftermath catapulted Ang See (by then recognized by the media as an expert on Chinese-Filipino affairs) into the limelight.

At Sy’s wake, a battalion of mediamen followed then Vice President Joseph Estrada inside the funeral parlor. The unwanted attention and ill-timed burst of flashbulbs reduced Sy’s family to tears. An indignant aunt, feeling Estrada was milking the moment, shouted, "Yan naman lang ang alam niyan–publicity!" The incensed Vice President assumed the comment came from Ang See.

Wagging his finger at her face, Estrada browbeat a perplexed Ang See, accusing her of blaming him for the rash of kidnappings. Fatefully, the TV cameras recorded only Ang See’s defiant response. "You promised six months, sabi mo six months. In broad daylight, this happened. Ikaw ang nangako!" she shouted.

She was collared by one of Estrada’s burly bodyguards, dragged outside, and fortunately rescued by friends and relatives. The incident, repeatedly aired on television, made Ang See a celebrity. People cheered the plucky little woman who stood her ground against the bully.

Already the spokesperson of Citizens Action Against Crime (caac), Ang See became the unofficial spokesperson of the Chinese community. She was a natural–intelligent, effusive, and passionate. "Our slogan was ‘After Charlene, Who’s Next?’ We thought that it was just a rhetorical question. My anti-crime work is something I do out of sheer necessity. I always thought that it would be an ad hoc work," she says, adding that she actually looks forward to the day when such advocacy would be unnecessary, when the situation would be such that even an organization like Kaisa would be of little or no use.

She claims she became the voice of her community by default. "I was the only one willing to talk. It was only when kidnapping became much worse in 1995 that I deliberately went out of my way to use public opinion. That was the only thing I knew how to use against the well-protected and well-funded gangs. At that time even Cabinet members had this idea that the Chinese can take care of themselves. In other words, they can afford to pay ransom."

The ever-charming Estrada wooed her back and Ang See readily admits that his administration made significant strides against the kidnapping scourge. She broke off the relationship, however, after a sinister crony managed to ingratiate himself back into Estrada’s inner circle. That was the final straw for Ang See–she had earlier presented the President with evidence clearly linking the man to the kidnapping trade.

As in the 1986 snap elections, wherein Ang See aligned herself with Aquino against Marcos, hers was the only Chinese-Filipino organization that actively campaigned for Estrada’s ouster during EDSA 2. Ostracized and even lambasted in Chinese-Filipino columns, she was tagged an ingrate. She is adamant that Chinese-Filipinos must rise beyond their parochial concerns. "Our vision was proven correct again: what is bad for the Philippines could never be good for the Chinese community," she says.

Perhaps too candid for her own good, Ang See has never been far from controversy. The most damaging indictment against her is her excessive support for the discredited Panfilo Lacson. "I did not support him for his candidacy for senator. The Chinese-Filipino community chewed me off for this, especially for not appearing in his first fund-raising campaign. Everyone was looking for me. I supported him as PNP chief and I strongly believe he did his job well. He was able to discipline his men and morale was very high. I still believe that he is the best PNP chief but I can’t say that openly. People will misinterpret it and the opposition was using it," she says, struggling for diplomacy.

Ang See has suffered much for her outspokenness. Her car has been rammed off the road and her son threatened by a kidnap warning. She has moved residence thrice, pulled out her two children from school once, and left the country after the more menacing cases of harassment. Today, there are repeated attempts to ascertain her itinerary through probing calls made to her secretary. Ang See’s in-laws, as do her friends, wish she would tone down her tirades for the sake of her children.

Few can blame her for succumbing to the weight of pessimism. She now grudgingly subscribes to the view conveyed to her by a former Defense Secretary that no one in the upper echelons of the police and military hierarchy is untainted, although she will settle for current PNP Chief Hermogenes Ebdane ("…at least he has not been implicated in kidnappings").

She accepts that the most constructive help she can extend to PNP Chief Ebdane is to revive her efforts to serve as a bridge between the distrustful families of kidnap victims and the police. Will she do it?

"(Before) I went out of my way to convince the victims (to cooperate with the police) but now I haven’t done that. It’s one of the factors why kidnapping is mushrooming like crazy. I have to keep that confidentiality now. Then I had enough trust in people...to report a kidnapping even if the victim refused to cooperate. At least four in high positions now were implicated in kidnappings before. I cannot get victims killed. I told the Chinese-Filipino community that I’m no longer willing to do the fighting for them in the same way I did before."

Teresita Ang See acknow- ledges that she has never been as fearful as she is today. She promptly agreed with her daughter’s decision to study in the US–it will give her peace of mind at last, she says.

Battered and bleeding, it seems she is about to give up the fight. Admittedly, it would be cold-blooded to shove her back into the ring. Those behind her corner, though, pray their champion finds her second wind.
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E-mail the writer at [email protected]

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