By Romel Regalado Bagares
“For values to change,” Gerald Gahima, the chief prosecutor for the Republic of Rwanda once told New Yorker correspondent Philip Gourevitch in the aftermath of a genocide that killed 800,000 people within a short period of a hundred days, “there has to be an acknowledgement of guilt, a genuine desire for atonement, a willingness to make amends, the humility to accept your mistakes and seek forgiveness. But everyone says it’s not us, it’s our brothers, our sisters. At the end of the day, no one has done wrong. In a situation where there has been gross injustice and nobody is willing to seek forgiveness, how can values change?”
Gourevitch records this conversation in his heart-rending book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (1998).
Meanwhile, Michael Ignatieff wrote in his 1997 book The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience these pained lines – “What does it mean for a nation to come to terms with its past? Do nations have psyches the way individuals do? Can a nation’s past make a people ill as we know repressed memories sometimes makes individuals ill? Conversely, can a nation or contending parts of it be reconciled to its past as individuals can, by replacing myth with fact and lies with truth? Can nations ‘come awake’ from the nightmare of their past, as Joyce believed an individual could?”
Ignatieff, quoting the Irish writer James Joyce as he reflects on the horrors he had witnessed in Central Europe in the genocide of the 1990s as a journalist, speaks of the “nightmare from which we are all trying to awake” – the deep wounds inflicted by a history of humanity’s inhumanity to its very own that, as it were, continue to fester, that refuse to close, that do not heal. Indeed, what does it mean for a nation to come to terms with its own past? (At the time, Ignatieff was a correspondent for the New Yorker; these days, he is Liberal Party member of the Canadian Parliament).
The two writers’ words come to mind when I think of the sad and arduous journey of the Malaya Lolas, who are among the hundreds of Filipinas – or the so-called “Comfort Women” –forcibly conscripted as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
Made victims twice over by a plagiarized and twisted ruling of the Philippine Supreme Court dismissing their demand for redress in the controversial case of Vinuya v. Executive Secretary, they very recently hogged the headlines once again following a 38-10 vote by the House Committee on Justice, which found the majority opinion’s reporting magistrate or ponente in the said case, Associate Justice Mariano C. Del Castillo, answerable in an impeachment proceeding for betrayal of public trust.
As my co-counsel in the case, Prof. Harry Roque, notes, the impeachment proceeding against Justice Del Castillo and the Malaya Lolas’s pending motion for reconsideration before the Supreme Court, “are the last remaining legal attempts to obtain justice for these victims.”
When we filed the case in 2004, the Malaya Lolas numbered around 70. Today, there are fewer and fewer of them. In their younger days, they suffered unspeakable terrors and horrors of the body and soul; today they are in the twilight of their years – many of their fellow victims and survivors have in fact, perished without seeing the coming of dawn when justice is theirs. They continue to suffer because their own government has refused, in the last 60 years or so, to lift a finger, despite a clear mandate under international law as well as the dictates of human conscience, to take up their cause.
Worse, it took our Supreme Court nearly six years to rule on their claim, and when it did so, its reporting magistrate had to resort to plagiarism and misrepresentation to justify the High Court’s decision to deny them justice, saying that alas, while indeed their horrendous suffering is undeniable, no legal remedy is available to them.
Ironically, the South Korean Supreme Court – using the very same arguments we had deployed in Vinuya – would subsequently rule as unconstitutional the South Korean government’s refusal to take up the case of their own Comfort Women against Japan.
This is what the “values” that Rwanda’s Chief Prosecutor speaks of are all about: how much importance we place on the vicissitudes of historical memory upon the progress of our national life; the kind of public, and yes, official discourse, we make in regard to historical injustices committed against our people , and by logical extension, against the idea of the “nation” – what Ignatieff calls “a vast reckoning between generations.”
For the historian counsels us that such a reckoning only happens when a “publicly sponsored discourse gives it permission to happen.”
But the continuing effect of the Philippine government’s refusal to adopt the claims of Filipino Comfort Women is to condone and excuse the perpetration of rape and sexual slavery as crimes against humanity; inevitably to relegate, without resolution, these crimes to the annals of history; and, ultimately to condemn through governmental indifference, ignorance, and deceit, the Filipina Comfort Women, to oblivion.
This is how we as a nation must come to terms with our past – not by ignoring or erasing the Comfort Women’s painful existence from national memory but by fully acknowledging the suffering and shame they have been subjected to all these years, and above all, by fighting for justice long denied them.
This essay first appeared in my weekly column for the Iloilo City-based The News Today.