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Unfinished Business

Written by Bruce Van Voorhis
June 11, 2008

A 75-year-old man fatally fell from a ladder while repairing a leaky roof in the Philippines on May 20 before an approaching typhoon. Normally this tragedy only affects the man's family and friends; but when the man is Congressman Crispin Beltran, the repercussions have rippled throughout the toiling masses that he represented in the House of Representatives and has touched the lives of Filipino migrant workers and others who respect him around the world.

In his case, the way he died speaks volumes about the way he lived, for how many 75-year-old congressmen would be repairing their own leaky roof? Yet for "Ka Bel," as he was widely and respectfully known throughout the Philippines, it personifies the simple lifestyle that he maintained throughout his life, from his humble beginnings as a farm hand, janitor, gasoline boy, messenger, bus driver and taxi driver to national labor leader for more than five decades to three-term congressman.

Moreover, he moved from the role of activist to that of a congressman without succumbing to the temptations of power. In spite of having access to 26 million pesos (US$596,700) annually in discretionary funds for his district, he continued to live in his modest house with its leaky roof. He could represent the interests of the working poor in the Philippines because his life was one with theirs.

Not only did he refrain from stealing public funds, but he refused to accept bribes dangled before him, such as the two million pesos (US$46,000) allegedly offered by Francis Ver last October for his support of a weak impeachment motion in Congress that would insulate President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for a year from any stronger and genuine impeachment motion. Ka Bel's disclosure of the bribe by her ally instead became a public embarrassment for the president.

Although Ka Bel is probably most respected and loved for his more than 50 years as a labor activist for those who were underpaid and overworked, his role as a congressmen should not be minimized, for he is one of the few activists in the Philippines, or, indeed, in Asia, to take his advocacy for workers from the streets to the corridors of the legislature and still remain true to the interests of the poor. He was always an advocate for their interests, not his own self-interest.

During his tenure as a congressman that began in 2001, he consistently pushed for a 125 peso (about US$2.90) increase in the country's daily minimum wage, an increase whose legislation still awaits passage in spite of today's constantly rising food and oil prices. He not only supported those who faced injustices in the workplace but also those who stood for justice in the country since the time of the Marcos dictatorship. He, for instance, was a major proponent of the Marcos Victims Compensation Bill, which, like the minimum wage legislation, has not been enacted into law since being introduced several years ago, and was a co-author of a bill seeking to criminalize disappearances in the country, a phenomenon that has claimed hundreds of victims since Arroyo became president in 2001. It too has not become law.

These examples illustrate a small sample of the unfinished business left for others to continue after the tragic and sudden death of Ka Bel. Fortunately, the Philippines has a number of other activist politicians in Congress—the names of Satur Ocampo, Teodoro Casino and Rafael Mariano come to mind—but there is a need for many others who share the vision, passion and commitment of Ka Bel to join them if Ka Bel's work for social justice is to be realized.

Presently, the interests of the affluent in the Philippines are well represented while those of the poor are underrepresented in both Congress and the administration. Consequently, the laws and policies of the country serve a wealthy minority, not the impoverished majority of the people. Ka Bel sought to change this equation and, in so doing, to make the Philippines a true democracy in which the rule of the majority prevails, not rule by the minority.

It is in this context that Ka Bel will be painfully missed. He sought to translate his activism into laws that served the common good of his country. He was a rare man today—a man of integrity, an uncommon common man. The Philippines and the world need more Ka Bels if justice is to overcome injustice.

Bruce Van Voorhis

Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.

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