Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When people moved mountains

October 2008 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel). National what? you might ask. In 1983, the assassination of Marcos oppositionist Ninoy Aquino wasn't the only big thing to happen in the Philippines. The year also saw the advent of probably the biggest volunteer movement in the country, perhaps in Asia. Namfrel was born as a non-partisan citizens' response to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who at that time was planning to hold an election to validate his rule. In the 1984, and especially in the 1986 elections, Namfrel was able to mobilize about half a million volunteers, to ensure that the elections will be clean and honest. It is impossible to encapsulate in a few sentences what Namfrel volunteers went through during those troubled times -- harassment, coercion, violence, death, to name a few -- just to make sure that the will of the people was respected (it largely wasn't). Businessmen, housewives, students, priests, nuns, socialites with their Evian water bottles, all of them staked their lives guarding ballot boxes and watching over the counting, asking for nothing in return, only with the hope of democracy in their hearts after decades of tyranny and oppression. The Namfrel volunteer movement precipitated People Power: without Namfrel's courageous volunteers, the revolution might not have happened. In 1986, the Filipinos were the toast of the free world, the People Power revolt inspiring revolutions to this day, and Namfrel getting nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and spawning similar organizations and soundalikes throughout the world. More importantly, the Namfrel volunteer movement proved once and for all that the Filipinos were not indolent -- as our Spanish conquerors had the world believe -- but were true citizens of their country, masters of their destiny. The Namfrel volunteers showed the world what Filipinos were really capable of when it comes to nation-building.

But of course at that time I didn't know these things. I was 6 years old in 1983, and the only memory I have of those days is us students going around town in the province wearing yellow shirts and chanting "Ninoy, hindi ka nag-iisa (you are not alone)." Who knew we were already activists when we were kids. But it didn't end there.

Ten years ago today, I first walked through the doors of Namfrel to work as a member of its national secretariat. It was my second job; right out of college I worked on a project in UP but that didn't last because of the Asian financial crisis. Like many good things that have happened to me, my applying for a position in the organization was an accident. One afternoon I boarded the bus for home after a soul-deadening day attending a recruitment-slash-orientation seminar for a marketing job for a still-secret product -- which turned out to be Encyclopedia Britannica (the big reveal involved a pretty, fair skinned sales agent unfolding a gigantic brochure for the complete set!). On the bus I was seated beside one of the attendees of the seminar. She was from my university, and I asked her if she's gonna take the job. To my disbelief she said yes, because according to her it was the practical thing to do. Turned out she had a friend who was working for Namfrel, and she was applying for a position there, but since she's taking the encyclopedia gig, would I like to have their number so that I could give them a call?

When I applied for the job at Namfrel, it was not because I was nationalistic or because I cared for democracy and all that. Well, I had those in me, having come from UP. But I applied simply because I needed a job. Money. Livelihood. I come from a middle class family with their very middle class values. Their idea of success is having a "stable job," preferably in a famous company, parking cars in front of the house for everyone to see. Nothing wrong with that, knowing how the generations before me struggled with poverty at the turn of the 20th century, and how they tried to pick themselves up after the war. But working for an NGO? I don't think they ever understood it. Nothing hurts more than your family not sharing the pride you feel for yourself and for the job that you do. (Still does. I spent more than five years in Namfrel and a couple more years employed in other NGOs). Worse, some of them are even Marcos loyalists.

It is easy to think that the first batch of Namfrel organizers and volunteers were pro-Aquino, though they were sworn to non-partisanship. It is easy to say that because at that time, everybody who considered themselves pro-democracy--meaning against Marcos--had to be pro-Aquino. Cory, Ninoy Aquino's widow, did not win because of who she was. She won because of what she symbolized. But at that time it wasn't really Marcos vs. Cory. The 1986 election wasn't really KBL vs. UNIDO. It was -- and sadly, still is (the Philippines still not having a mature political party system) -- more like good vs. evil. How else to explain the heavy presence of bishops, priests, and nuns in the polling precincts, counting centers, and in rallies? The separation of church and state is a desirable idea, but it cannot really be applied to the Philippines, at least not yet. Do you really expect the priests and nuns to stay idle when they see their flock being cheated, oppressed, or beaten to death?

Working for Namfrel was no walk in the park. It was tough. During election period, our work involved organizing provincial and municipal chapters, and setting up the nationwide parallel vote count, not to mention all the paper work that had to be done to set up such a count (preparing for one could take a year). In between elections, we worked for electoral reform advocacies, specifically the automation of Philippine elections. That entailed a mountain of tasks, including briefings of key publics, filing an impeachment complaint, plus the requisite congressional hearings. Most days we'd go in in the morning without knowing what time we'd be able to go home (I once reported for work at 9 in the morning and was able to go home at 3 in the afternoon, the next day). What's tougher, we didn't have money. Many NGO workers we met seemed to be rolling in dough, but not us. Namfrel doesn't ask for donations or financial assistance from foreign agencies and companies; everything is locally sourced -- truly, Filipinos for the Philippines. The same self-imposed rule applies to the local volunteer chapters, who have to source donations for their own local operations, getting next to nothing from the national office. This is how Namfrel is set up, the concept of bayanihan at work, relying on your neighbors to get things done. But what this meant was, most of the time, we got our meager "salaries" late, almost no benefits, and overtime pay was unheard of. Sometimes we had to borrow money from family and friends just to be able to go to work? Why then go to work? Because if we didn't, nobody else would do what we were doing. Challenges like these truly created a bond, a camaraderie among us staff members, that I always try to look for (but fail) whenever I take on another job or join another organization. We would drink together, watch movies together, feel angry or stressed out together, even run out of money at the same time. But we had each other to rely on, so it was ok.

But frankly, our small sacrifices were nothing compared to what the volunteers had to do out in the field. They had to get all these people to work for nothing come election time, when candidates were doing the same but with a fee. They had to liaise with the election commission, the teachers, the police, schools, potential donors. They had to rent boats, sometimes helicopters, out of their own pockets, to get election returns from far-flung islands. They had to deal with intimidation, violence. To look at Namfrel volunteers is to look at commitment, zeal, selfless love for country. Yes we in the office didn't have money, fancy computers, we had to use scratch paper because that's what we had most of the time, but our "problems" seemed puny compared with what the hundreds, thousands, of volunteers had to do. They had to move mountains. That is why when there are people out to discredit Namfrel or try to tear it apart, we take it personally. To do so is to slap all who have shed tears and blood for the organization's cause.

Steering the ship during our time was Jose Concepcion, Jr., Joe to his friends, Joecon or JC to us. Many people will agree that Joecon is (still) probably one of the toughest bosses one could ever have in the country. The man has reduced employees and trainees to tears, to resign from their jobs pronto, because of his work ethic and his personality. Joecon had been Namfrel's prime mover, its voice, since inception. There were others of course, but no one has put his stamp and identity more to one organization than JC. For many people, Namfrel was, and still is, Joecon. He was easy to dislike, but we stood by him because at the end of the day, after the anger, frustration, and tears, we still respected him because of his love for the country and commitment to democracy. He remains one of our personal heroes.

When we were kids, we always dreamed of one day changing the world. In Namfrel, we would wake up in the morning and realize we were making a change. Most of us in the secretariat have gone our separate ways, like volunteers going back to their own lives after doing election work. But I believe all of us -- staff, volunteers -- still carry Namfrel within us. A few years ago, a newspaper said that Namfrel is now but a shadow of its former self. Maybe. Namfrel has ceased being just an organization. It is now an ideal that we seek and try to uphold in the things we do, wherever we are now. We look for it in the jobs that we seek. We look for it in the people we work with. We try to organize something like it in the countries that we go to. We hope to replicate it in our communities. We hope to see it in the people we elect, and the people who should be serving us.

Yes, Namfrel is probably just a shadow now. But it is not dead.



Telibert said...

Good job! Candid! I think this should be linked to the Namfrel website (now under construction).

Paolo Maligaya said...

Thanks TCL!

N said...

i emailed your blog to our namfrel friends (including dgm and ma'am cora).

nice post, brings back a lot of memories for me.

miss ko na ulit ang namfrel.