Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Teresita Ang See

‘We could not stay as bystanders’

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Photos by Lilen Uy

THE COUNTRY was going through a major upheaval, and so was the life of Teresita Ang See. As the Edsa 1 uprising entered its second day, she learned her husband had liver cancer.

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Back then, the diminutive Ang See was dividing her time as part-time insurance agent and Chinese language tutor, and the contented, supportive spouse of Harvard-trained Chin Ben See, a professor of social anthropology and Asian studies. In 1971, Chin Ben See had co-founded the Pagkakaisa sa Pag-unlad, which vigorously lobbied for jus soli citizenship and the integration of the local Chinese into mainstream society.

The professor was out collecting donations for Edsa, including packs of Shanghai fried rice from a Chinese restaurant, when Ang See returned home with his medical report. Earlier he had appealed to the Chinese community over the radio and through the local Chinese newspapers for contributions, and their Quezon City house had become a depot for these.

He was running a fever by the time he got home, so Ang See postponed telling him the bad news. But there was no escaping the unpleasant task the next morning. “This is a death penalty,” he replied with equanimity. “What we don’t know is when it will be carried out. We have to accept it.” He put off going to the doctor, declaring that the fight against Ferdinand Marcos could not wait.

Nine months after People Power, Ang See’s husband passed away. He had spent the months preceding his demise trying to resurrect Pagkakaisa even as his health was slipping fast. The organization had folded in 1976 when the government tagged it as a communist front, scaring the parents of its predominantly young members.

Chin Ben See was unable to witness its rebirth as Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran in August 1987. It was his young widow who fulfilled the dream. “I had to continue my husband’s work,” Ang See, now 56, says. “I have to keep his legacy alive.”

The mother of two — a daughter, then about nine, and a toddler son — was the logical choice to be Kaisa’s president. A political science graduate of the University of the Philippines, Ang See had worked quietly alongside her husband, particularly on his studies on the Chinese in the Philippines. During the Marcos years, they wrote articles in Chinese advocating cultural integration and later supported calls for reconciliation between Marcos and former Sen. Beningo ‘Ninoy’ S. Aquino Jr., believing this would turn around a moribund economy.

After the 1983 Ninoy Aquino assassination, the couple became part of the “xerox journalism” brigade. They translated articles published in the “mosquito press” to Chinese and photocopied and sent these by courier to the local Chinese, hoping the community would discern that Marcos was bad for the Philippines and for Chinese Filipinos.

But long mired in a migrant mentality, the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines were ensconced in their role of silent bystander. The community was — and remains — largely pro-status quo. In the 1986 snap election, most of them, especially the older ones, sided with Marcos. When People Power broke out, many elders placed their restive children under “house arrest” to keep them from going to Edsa.

“We tried to persuade them that there was no way out of this crisis except for us to participate. We could not stay as bystanders,” Ang See says. “It was an uphill struggle because they perceived Marcos as having been good to the Chinese-Filipino community. We told them we were 99 percent sure that Marcos would go down.”

In the end, only a handful of the ethnic Chinese showed up at Edsa, mostly ex-Pagkakaisa members and alumni or students from the Jesuit-run Xavier School. Many others shied away, preferring to donate to the crowd through Ang See and her husband.

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IT WAS an ugly report on the Chinese community prepared by the Presidential Management Staff for President Aquino that actually hastened Kaisa’s founding. The report portrayed the ethnic Chinese as, among other things, tax evaders, smugglers, hoarders, blackmarketeers. “They were blaming almost all the economic ills on the Chinese Filipinos,” Ang See recalls.

She and members of the still-infant Kaisa immediately sought an audience with PMS boss Elfren Cruz to correct the misimpression. They later submitted a counter-report emphasizing that the majority of the hardworking Chinese were law-abiding.

Ang See went to work at Kaisa full-time. “If (Edsa) had not happened, probably I would be richer in my pockets,” she says. But at least Kaisa’s role as a “bridge of understanding” between Pinoys and Tsinoys has not gone unnoticed. In 1992 Ang See was named one of the Ten Outstanding Women in Nation Service for her work in cultural integration.

Ang See and her organization, however, would soon take on a new, altogether unforeseen role. “Farthest from our minds when we organized the Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran was the idea of that one day we will also be a leading voice in fighting crime, especially kidnapping,” she says.

As 1992 drew to a close, kidnappers were on a rampage, preying mostly on the Chinese. When 15-year-old Charlene Mayne Sy died in a bungled police rescue operation in January 1993, members of the usually docile community turned up in full force at her funeral, demanding government action.

The Ramos government dismissed kidnapping as a problem confined to the Chinese. In response, Kaisa organized the Citizens Action Against Crime and the Movement for the Restoration of Peace and Order. “We were forced by sheer necessity to give a face, a voice to the community’s trauma and fears,” says Ang See. “We (did) not have weapons against these well-organized, well-informed, well-armed, and well-funded kidnap-for ransom-syndicates. We only had public opinion and public pressure to prod the government to take action.”

The government sat up when the Chinese community threatened to arm itself and organize its own patrols. By then, the Philippines was being called “Asia’s kidnap capital.” By then, too, the Central Bank was reporting a capital outflow 400 percent higher than previous years. Explains Ang See: “That’s the capital flight from the Chinese businesses that were pulling out because of the kidnapping. It’s not just a narrow, parochial concern of the Tsinoy community because of the economic repercussions of the continuing kidnapping cases.”

The rash of abductions came at a time when Tsinoy entrepreneurs were becoming increasingly prosperous. By the early 1990s, ethnic Chinese businessmen were running the country’s biggest bank and its biggest shopping malls.

To this day, kidnapping persists largely because there are many “perfect victims,” says Ang See, especially among the Tsinoys. “They do not report the crime,” she says. “They do not cooperate with the police. They pay the ransom big. They pay the ransom fast. When the police don’t even know that a crime has been committed, how can they solve the problem?”

The involvement of law enforcers in some cases likewise makes it hard to end the scourge of kidnapping. Apparently, what began in the early 1990s as a military-police ploy to discredit the communist rebels-by infiltrating its ranks, conducting kidnappings, and blaming these on the New People’s Army-went awry. The moneymaking scheme proved too tempting for some police and military officials, and they turned to crime.

The government did score significant breakthroughs against kidnap-for-ransom groups. But the gangs almost always staged a comeback. Ang See says the government’s failure to carry out the death sentence imposed on kidnappers is partly to blame. The syndicates, she says, “think they can get away with the crime.”

Protracted litigation is yet another nightmare for victims and anti-crime NGOs. “Many of (the victims) ended up spending much more on the litigation than what they had paid for the ransom,” she says. “That discourages victims from filing charges against their kidnappers.”

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ANG SEE says the “darkest phase” in her anti-crime work came during the early years of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC), headed by then Vice President Joseph Estrada. Kidnap victims wouldn’t cooperate with authorities because of either “moles” in the PACC or police officers involved in kidnapping, including Col. Reynaldo Berroya.

Although Estrada at first refused to believe Ang See when she told him about Berroya, he later made sure his “kumpare” was jailed and convicted for the kidnapping of Taiwanese businessman Jack Chou. But that was after two cars tried to drive Ang See’s vehicle off a road. She received nuisance calls daily, from 11 p.m. to three a.m. Threats jammed her beeper. Military intelligence, she says, ascertained these to be Berroya’s handiwork and assigned two bodyguards to her round-the-clock.

Ang See moved from house to house and traveled in borrowed cars. She restricted her children’s movements and had them regularly reporting their whereabouts to her. She eventually pulled the children out of school and then spent months hiding overseas. She admits, “My kids were the ones who suffered most. I had to apologize to them (but) it’s better to be paranoid rather than to be sorry. Always inside me was the fear that if something happens to me, who will take care of my kids?”

When Estrada became president, Ang See accepted the position of Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force commissioner. Yet she was among the early birds at Edsa on Jan. 16, 2001, showing disgust over the decision of senators-turned-judges in Estrada’s impeachment trial not to open an envelope supposedly containing information about his bank account.

Kaisa was the only Chinese-Filipino organization that went all out for Edsa 2; as in Edsa 1, many ethnic Chinese preferred the status quo and continued to back Estrada. Some even called Ang See an “ingrate.”

Ang See, though, says Edsa 2 saw more Tsinoys, including those from the Chinatown schools. “There were many young people there,” she says, “and we did not hear anything like what we heard in 1986 that they were under house arrest, that their parents refused to let them go to Edsa. We found them quite articulate and very much involved in this political event unlike 20 years back. I think it is a very good indicator of the success of integration: (Tsinoys) no longer separate (themselves) from mainstream concerns.”

Then, barely a few days into her presidency, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made Leandro Mendoza PNP chief and Berroya the Intelligence Group head — over the objections of anti-crime groups. Says Ang See: “I feel very much betrayed. I was expecting her (Arroyo), at least at that point, to listen to us, but she did not. That was my first big disappointment with her. That was the time when I said that enough is enough, that other people take up the cudgels because I had to protect my two children and myself.”

But Ang See couldn’t just walk away. Since then, each victory she scores against kidnappers has become a balm to soothe the pain of betrayal. Her work on cultural integration has also kept her spirits up. She considers the opening of the Kaisa Heritage Center, which showcases the impact of the ethnic Chinese on the Philippines, as the most tangible proof of the success of integration.

Ang See says the democratic space in the post-Marcos period sped up the process of integration and ended the days of the capitan chino, the traditional middleman between the fearful, uncertain Chinese community and the country’s leaders. Today the Chinese in the Philippines identify themselves as Filipinos with a rich, proud Chinese heritage, and have gained confidence in dealing directly with mainstream society, especially the government.

“The community has grown up,” says a beaming Ang See. Somewhere, Chin Ben See must be beaming, too. — Yvonne T. Chua