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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 2889

Senator MARSHALL (9:17 PM) —I seek leave to incorporate my adjournment speech.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

I rise today to pay tribute to the life of an exceptional labour leader, political activist and representative of working Filipinos. It was with sadness I greeted the news of the sudden demise of Filipino Congressman and KMU Chairperson Emeritus Crispin Beltran. He died in late May from an accident at his home in the Philippines. He was 75.

I have spoken many times in this place on the struggle for human rights, democracy and justice in the Philippines. In working to make people aware of this struggle and to support those working for change I have met many impressive people both here in Australia and the Philippines. People who continue to fight for a fair, just and democratic society.

Crispin Beltran was one of these people.

Crispin, also known affectionately as Ka Bel, worked tirelessly in standing up to injustice and helping ordinary people in the collective toil for personal and political freedoms in the Philippines. He strove to organise and work alongside labourers, the urban poor, migrant worker communities and rural peasants in this struggle.

As a fellow trade unionist, I met with Ka Bel many years ago in the Philippines and learnt from his experiences and the experiences of the working people fighting for a better deal. Ever since that time I have been a supporter of the struggle of working Filipinos and worked in solidarity with Ka Bel, through his roles at the Kilusang Mayo Uno, Bayan Muna & Anakpawis parties and the Congress.

His life long endeavours have ensured popular support for change and brought attention locally and internationally to the injustices faced by the Filipino people. These injustices include an appalling disregard for human rights, the extrajudicial killings of anyone who dares speak out, and the political persecution rife in the Philippines through the arrest and incarceration of those critical of the Government and Military.

For those who are not familiar with the life of Ka Bel, I will take a few moments to outline the amazing contribution this man has made.

His first work was as a courier for the guerrillas working to liberate the Philippines after the Japanese invasion and occupation. After the war, he worked as a farm hand and janitor to support his studies. He then worked as a gasoline boy, messenger, bus driver and taxi driver.

At the age of 20, he joined his fellow taxi drivers in a strike against unfair labour practices. The police attacked their picket line, injured many and claimed the lives of three protesting workers. This incident drove Crispin to join the fight for workers rights.

He then organised amongst Taxi Drivers and this work lead him to become a labour leader in 1955 with the Amalgamated Taxi Drivers Association, serving as President from 1955 up to 1963. This was then followed by his work in organising the Confederation of Labour of the Philippines and helping found the Philippine Workers Congress and other labour organizations.

Remarkably, under martial law, Ka Bel helped establish the Federation of Unions and the Philippine Nationalist Labor Organization (PANALO) until KMU was founded in 1980. From 100,000, KMU’s membership soared to 500,000 in the 1980s. The establishment of KMU united and strengthened Filipinos in their fight against the Marcos dictatorship.

When Marcos launched a crackdown in 1982, Ka Bel was one of those arrested and detained. He was able to escape in 1984, and rather than lay low, went back to organising workers and peasants in rural areas. When KMU President Rolando Olalia was brutally murdered in 1987, Ka Bel took over the presidency of KMU and served in that position until 2003.

In 1987 he ran for senator and garnered over 1.5 million votes but due to a range of suspicious electoral circumstances was not elected. This did not deter him and he was elected as a representative of the party list group Bayan Muna (or People First) in 2001, then later Anakpawis (or Toiling Masses) in 2004 and 2007—explicitly supporting and representing workers, peasants and the urban poor.

He used this time to work hard in the Congress. He pushed for wage increases for many low paid workers, protections against labour contractualisation practices and wholescale improvement of the Labor Code. He vigorously opposed the privatization of many public assets and uncovered several anomalies in funding from Government including funding for the judiciary.

He was a staunch critic of the skewed international campaign against terrorism, pointing out the yawning chasm between the rhetoric of Government and the reality faced by Filipinos, a reality of the most insidious form of terrorism - state sponsored terrorism.

Like many others who take action on issues of poverty, justice and workers’ rights in the Philippines he faced this reality himself as he endured political persecution, death threats and incarceration for his efforts.

As I mentioned earlier Ka Bel was arbitrarily imprisoned under the Marcos dictatorship in an attempt to silence him.

Over twenty years later this happened again to Ka Bel. This time it was under the Arroyo regime, and happened even though he was an elected parliamentarian.

In 2006 Ka Bel was imprisoned under vague sedition and treason laws, in what is widely acknowledged as another attempt to suppress political dissent and opposition by the Arroyo government. Finally, after 18 months, Ka Bel was found innocent of the rebellion charges brought against him and released.

In looking at what Crispin endured there is a strong message about the dangers of vague sedition and terrorist laws which can be used to persecute opposition and protect a rotten status quo.

As I have pointed out to the Senate previously, the situation still continues to be dire for those who speak out in the Philippines. Since Gloria Arroyo became President, the Bayan Muna Party and other progressive political parties in the Philippines, such as the Gabriela Women’s Party, have been subject to extrajudicial killings and continual harassment. Under the Arroyo government, over 130 members of the Bayan Muna Party—the progressive party under which Ka Bel was first elected—have been murdered.

Those who have been systematically murdered include unionists, lawyers, church workers, municipal councillors, human rights advocates and journalists. These killings continue almost daily and are depressingly commonplace.

The common factor that links the victims of these crimes is that they have all been outspoken on issues of justice, poverty, civil liberties, workers’ rights and human rights. They have advocated on behalf of the poor and oppressed in the Philippines, and many of them have been directly critical of the Arroyo government.

Links tying these abuses to the Arroyo government have been clearly established by many international organisations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations. Professor Philip Alston, an Australian human rights academic and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, investigated these killings and concluded that

‘the executive branch of the Philippine government, openly and enthusiastically aided by the military, has worked resolutely to impede the work of party-list groups and to put in question their right to operate freely’.

This may explain why so few of these crimes have been appropriately investigated and those responsible for these atrocities have not been brought to justice.

Given that Ka Bel operated in an environment where so many of his colleagues and friends were murdered it is a great testament to his commitment and strength that he did not bow to such intimidation.

Despite the great risks he continued to strive with many other Filipinos to bring about social change; publicly challenging injustice and toiling alongside people from all walks of life in the Philippines.

I question whether many of us here in this place would have the stamina to continue our work while our party members and staff were systematically murdered. These brutal examples of the failure of one of the basic duties of the state—to protect its citizens—show us the value of strengthening our public institutions and political freedoms. It also reminds us that we must shun, reject and punish those people or political parties who practise violence and persecution.

These examples certainly put the achievements of Ka Bel into perspective. He fought for people’s right to a safe, secure and prosperous life when in the process he endangered his own.

This was why he gained the respect of the public even as the Arroyo regime continued to persecute him and publicly demonise his fellow activists.

I express my deepest condolences to Ka Bel’s family and join workers, friends and colleagues in celebrating his life and the achievements he fought for. He was a man whose vision was matched by his dedication and resolve. In closing I look forward to working with Filipinos dedicated to pursuing, and ultimately achieving, Ka Bel’s vision of a better society.