Recap of Neri Colmenares’ Speaking Tour 2022

Written on behalf of Aotearoa Philippines Solidarity, a civil society group of activists and professionals with an aim for human rights awareness of the Philippines’. We work to organise speaking tours and learning opportunities for solidarity with human rights movements in the Philippines and migrant rights in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Unpublished…for now.
Featured image by @ai.innesmills .

CW: Torture description, political violence discussion.
This article contains a photo of a drug war victim who has deceased.

There are several moments which solidify why it is so important to learn about the world. One of those moments was attending one of my first human rights conferences as a teenager, hearing the story of a lecturer who interviewed a survivor of the Pinochet regime’s torture. The survivor recounted the story of being forced to watch the torture of his young daughter. The survivor said one thing always lasts after political violence of any kind; the remaining anger and mental torture of not knowing if and when one will have a future of safety and survival.

Another one of these learning moments would arise the afternoon I met Neri Colmenares. Neri Colmenares is Filipino human rights lawyer and one of the youngest political prisoners at the time of the Marcos era. He recounted the story of how he survived his torture. No statistic can capture the sensation of a gun. “The cold metal of a gun in my mouth. The rattle of my brain when an empty round fired. The knowledge that the guards had forced us political prisoners into a game of Russian Roulette. The mental torture is the type which lasts forever”.

How many things might we take for granted? Writing for student magazines and being silly and outspoken about politics are things I took part in. Neri Colmenares, who started his activist journey as a student writer, recounted people being forced to eat written admissions of guilt during forced confessions. Perhaps even a dissenting opinion is something that we might think of as something that is a treasure to others.

Photo by Raffy Lerma, via Inquirer.net.

The talk began with an infamous photo which would come to capture the injustices of the Duterte administration, a young woman and her boyfriend in the position of the Pieta; Mary and the crucified Christ. Duterte’s Administration saw an era of peak vigilante ‘justice’ in the form of drug killings, where mainly the addicted and the accused poor were targeted and killed in extrajudicial killings where they were accused of drug dealing. It was the Reichstag Fire of Asia Pacific, create a scapegoat of the poor to distract from larger problems of corruption and authoritarian politics creating crime and discord. Colmenares discussed the death beyond the body, the death of hope for change and open discussion. The bombastic and violent communications of Duterte became replicated on a grander scale, politics would not be discussed in a logical way but in the way of the leader; acceptance of extrajudicial killings and no room for reasonableness, only anger and volume.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Rappler journalist and Duterte administration target, Maria Ressa once said, that if you ever needed to look at what democracy would be, the Philippines is a vision of what a more polarised and violent political sphere can turn into. One of Colmenares’ arguments was that the social environment of the Philippines had been changed on multiple levels of society, that we must be mindful of the pervasiveness of disinformation. This ranged from paid trolls to cyberattacks all the way to changing public perceptions of terrorism which would later be recognised in Filipino law. A tool of political violence in the Philippines is ‘Red Tagging’, where a group or individual would be deemed as a communist or terrorist, with their personal information published for a vigilante to physically harm or kill them.

Now, with the return of the Marcos political dynasty, the country is seeing the continuation of corruption, human rights violations, debt, poverty, authoritarianism and historical revisionism of torture and political violence under the previous Marcos dictatorship. It has been 100 days since Bong Bong Marcos (the son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos) and Sara Duterte (daughter of dictator Rodrigo Duterte)* came to power. And what a world it is that people have to accept it.

But no dictatorship lasts forever. There is a drumbeat of international attention towards the Philippines with these key steps outlined by Colmenares:

  • Condemnation of human rights violations by the United Nations and the European Union
  • A Philippines Supreme Court requirement of body cameras for police, the condemnation of red-tagging and the dismissal of key cases of trumped up charges against political opponents such as Leila De Lima
  • And an impending International Criminal Court investigation.

But most importantly, there are wins not to be ignored. Human rights wins through the involvement of millions in the electoral mass movement and a renewed willingness to act and organise within one of the biggest social media communities in the world.

An important point Colmenares asks the audience to consider is that disinformation campaigns target diaspora communities most of all. They are more isolated, many may be unaware of pathways of help in the country they immigrated to, they will want to feel pride in their country, they will feel significant struggles in their immigration journey. Many will use social media, in particular Facebook, as their way to receive news. There is much to be done in supporting diaspora communities, to show our mutual care as so happy memories and support can be shown to prevent people looking to extreme movements for meaning, belonging and national pride. We will want to show that political awareness and critical thinking is a tool which people can use for the rest of their lives. That to want to learn and show mutual support is an expression of love and a way for us to feel proud as Filipinos. To be Filipino has always transcended the definitions of state violence.

Thank you to Neri Colmenares for never letting go of that trust and sense of family of Filipinos to learn and build solidarity in a difficult political time. It’s up to us to learn from the stories of torture survivors, it is a way for us to draw the line and say that torture in any form is unacceptable. It is a way for us to also give a sense of hope that an aspect of mental torture will not last forever, that safety and survival is in the future.


*Truly stranger than fiction. The Philippines runs on political dynasties where it is common that voters will want to vote for the son or daughter of a preferred candidate in following elections.

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