‘Negros 9’: Work for poor continues
NEGROS OCCIDENTAL—Collectively, they were called the “Negros Nine”—three missionary priests and six lay leaders who were wrongly accused of killing a municipal mayor and his companions in Negros Occidental province in the twilight of the Marcos dictatorship in the ’80s.
“Negros Nine”: Fr. Brian Gore (seated, from left), Fr. Vicente Dangan and Fr. Niall O’Brien with the six lay leaders were detained at the Negros Occidental provincial jail on trumped-up charges in 1983.
Their ordeal gained international attention as the priests from the Missionary Society of St. Columban, who included an Australian and an Irish, and the rest of the group were imprisoned in 1983 on multiple murder charges. They were released 14 months later.
Four members of the Negros Nine have died while the others are still involved in development work.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of their release from the provincial jail on July 3, 1984, Australian Rev. Fr. Brian Gore, Lydio Mangao, Jesus Arzaga, Ernesto Tajones and Peter Cuales filed claims for compensation in the Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HRVCB).
Irish Rev. Fr. Niall O’Brien passed away in Italy in 2004, Rev. Fr. Vicente Dangan in 1998, Conrado Muhal in 1990 and Geronimo Perez in 2012.
Members of the HRVCB, which processes claims for compensation of victims of human rights violations during the Marcos dictatorship, were in Bacolod City on July 3-4 to accept applications. They have until May 12, 2016, to disburse the money from the P10-billion fund set under Republic Act
No. 10368, which provides reparation for and recognition of victims of human rights abuses during the regime.
Gore considers the compensation a form of acknowledgment by the government that they were victims of the martial law years, but it would not be much or make up for what happened in the past.
“The wrongs of the past need to be acknowledged and compensated as a deterrent for the future,” he adds.
On March 20, 1982, then Kabankalan Mayor Pablo Sola and his companions were ambushed on a deserted road on the outskirts of Kabankalan town in Negros Occidental. The town is 88 kilometers south of the capital, Bacolod City.
Communist rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Marcos regime linked the three priests and six community workers to the crime. People claiming to be witnesses identified Father Dangan as the leader of the New People’s Army “liquidation” squad.
At that time, the nine were serving as voices of the poor communities against military oppression and for social justice. On May 6, 1983, they were arrested.
Apparently, the dictatorship did not expect the international repercussions of their incarceration. The Irish, Australian and US governments, as well as the world media, were especially concerned.
But Gore and O’Brien were afraid of what could happen to the lay workers, five of whom have families to support. The two priests agreed to leave the country voluntarily if all the charges against the Negros Nine were dropped.
They would not compromise on their innocence, Gore recalls, but they were prepared to leave in the interest of the lay workers.
The third priest, Dangan, was released earlier after the court approved a petition to quash the case against him.
As the case was turning out to be a global embarrassment for the Marcos
regime, the court ordered the release of the eight on July 3, 1984, citing lack
Gore and O’Brien agreed to leave within one month after the dismissal of all charges. When the regime collapsed, they returned to Negros Occidental to resume their work for the poor in the southern towns.
Tajones, one of the surviving members of the Negros Nine, now lives in Bukidnon province and works as a part-time meter reader and a volunteer of Bukidnon Diocesan Social Action Center. Another, Cuales, is project officer of Ilog Kinder Home Foundation Inc., a nongovernment organization.
Gore, Mangao and Arzaga are still closely working together as members of Negros Nine Human Development Foundation Inc. (NNHDFI). Set up in 2000, the foundation aims to continue the work of human development started in the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship and in memory of all those who suffered and died in the course of justice.
“Their struggle will not be in vain, they will not be forgotten,” according to the foundation’s profile posted on its website.
Five of the Negros Nine— Gore, O’Brien, Perez, Mangao and Arzaga—served as board members of the foundation. Other members are lawyer Francisco Cruz and Milagros Villavicencio, while another, Paz Torres, died a few years ago.
The NNHDFI is engaged in livelihood projects and environment protection in southern Negros, including some in its 12-hectare property in Bantolinao, Barangay Tanawan, Kabankalan. Adjacent to the site is a reforestation project for the 70-hectare denuded watershed of Kabankalan.
An organic farm of crops, goats, chickens and tilapia is being developed, Gore says.
The foundation also has a nutrition program for 174 pupils at the nearby elementary school in Sitio Colombo, Barangay Oringao. Each day for 200 days, pupils are given nutritious lunch by eight teams of parents who prepare, cook and serve the food.
Seventy-five percent of the program budget comes from NNHDFI through friends of Gore in Australia. The rest is shouldered by another foundation and the Kabankalan city government.
Recently, the foundation started a weaving project through a P600,000 grant
from the Department of Labor and Employment. “We now have five full-time
weavers,” Gore says.
Their products, ranging from scarves to shawls, are exported to Australia. To ensure steady supply of raw materials, the foundation planted abaca in Kabankalan.
The NNHDFI is also involved in the campaign against human trafficking in southern Negros. So far, it has filed two cases in courts and is producing a book on the relevant laws against trafficking, copies of which will be given to local governments and concerned government agencies.
The days of the Marcos dictatorship are gone, but for the Negros Nine survivors, their work for the poor has never ended.
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