Just over three years since the declaration of martial law in 1972, condition in Davao region as one of the hotbeds of insurgency was worse in terms of unlawful arrests and violations of human rights. A December 1975 American consular dispatch from Cebu to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. was the ‘Detention of Church Workers in Davao’.
On November 19-20, 1975, the account said, sixty-nine Filipino clergy and lay leaders were rounded up and detained in Davao City and in the provinces of Davao del Norte and Davao Oriental. Newspapers, in a contrary report, stated that twenty of the arrested were released when in truth only five were actually freed.
A collateral damage in the round-up was the closure of Tagum-based diocesan radio station DXDC, which was run and managed by the Maryknoll Missionaries (MM). ‘CD” in DXDC stands for ‘community development.’ At the time of its closure, Fr. Howard Bieber, MM, was station director, while Napleon Kuizon was station manager. Versim Enad, later the mayor of Panabo City, was production manager.
The consular report added:
“The arrest total was relatively low because many potential detainees went into hiding before they could be caught. Additionally, Church sources in Davao City believe the total arrest there were because of the national meeting of Catholic Sisters who could quickly spread the news on the detentions. Arrests in Davao [del] Norte were reportedly less than expected because of moderation of local PC commander in Davao Oriental where bulk of the arrests were made. Local PC commander apparently overstepped his authority and carried out personal vendetta against Maryknoll Fathers. Church sources said he would have arrested another 300, but he was relieved of his command on December 11, before he could do so.”
Church informants traced the crackdown to three reasons, namely: (i) elimination of groups organized without state approval, a reason why most of the detainees were Filipino priests and lay workers; (ii) retaliation against the liberal Church for its involvement in the boycott of the Nov. 16-17 national referendum, especially in Mindanao where less than fifty percent voted; and (iii) pressure from Presidential Assistant on National Minorities (PANAMIN) Manuel Elizalde, Jr. “to break successful Church competition in organizing cultural minorities.”
The reasons confirmed reports the arrests were done by PANAMIN-sponsored persons and Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF) members, who claimed possible collusion between the New People’s Army (NPA) and the detainees.
In getting the supposed evidence, especially in linking the “white priests”, mainly American missionaries of the Maryknoll Fathers, with the NPAs, the government operatives used three tactics: (i) the promise of immediate freedom once the “big fish” was identified; (ii) deceiving illiterate detainees into believing their thumbprints were used for release papers, which were “in actuality prepared statements”; and (iii) beating the detainees suffered so they would make statements under duress that would be disclaimed later after their release.
Instead of yielding to state persecution, the Church leaders were elated because this “led many moderate elements to unite with the activists” and the detentions “further isolated [the] liberal Church from the influential Filipino groups and forced some of those working with activists to go undergound and possibly join [the] NPA.”
Amid the ongoing arrests, Bishop Joseph Regan, a Maryknoller detained and tortured for a decade in China, became the moving inspiration of those who were persecuted by the state.
The closure of DXDC, meanwhile, affected the Church’s efficiency in disseminating news. To address this, the clergy created the “memo press”, a statement distributed through the local religious congregations.
Bukidnon, on the other hand, was not spared from the massive round-up but it was not hit as hard, the dispatch stressed, due to the irresistible grassroots support for Bukidnon Bishop Francisco Claver, a Jesuit priest-activist, and the sophistication of his organization.
The consular report declared: “When local POC attempted to close Claver’s vocally anti-government Visayan language weekly ‘Ang Bandilyo’, Church workers prevented them by pointing out that ‘Bandilyo’ was not included on the arrest and seizure order. Thus, only the radio station DXBB was closed.”
It was in 1976 that then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce-Enrile padlocked both the newsweekly and the broadcast outfit.
Overall, the sweep did little in damaging the image of the activist Church in Mindanao. In fact, the sacking of the PC provincial commander in Davao Oriental was regarded as a victory. While there remained the apprehension that more arrests would in some way isolate the liberal Church from non-Church groups, the disconnect was expected to be brief.
Interestingly, while the Church was visibly shaken by the detentions, the consular report noted “the Church held up so well” and was inspired by the “determination to continue along activist path.”