Introduction by Carolyn Forché

As political prisoner

Cover photo on A Comrade is as Precious as a Rice Seedling, published 1984 in New York City

[Below is the Introduction by Carolyn Forché to three poems of Mila D. Aguilar in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 1986.  Carolyn Forché is an academic scholar currently connected with Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The article below is taken from Questia Media America, Inc.,]


Publication Information: Article Title: Poems by Mila D. Aguilar. Contributors: Mila D. Aguilar - author. Journal Title: Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. Volume: 18. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 1986. Page Number: 9-14.


The Bulletin wishes to celebrate Mila Aguilar's release from prison by the new Aquino government on 29 February 1986. She has returned to her former post as the assistant director of the Extension Service Center of St. Joseph's College, Quezon City, Philippines. With Corazon Aquino's coming to power there has presumably been a change in the overall situation described in the following essay by Carolyn Forché. The Bulletin offers this essay and a selection of Mila Aguilar's poetry, as a tribute to all those who have suffered, are suffering, and will suffer cruel and unjust imprisonment at the hands of oppressive governments.

The Editors


by Carolyn Forché

Within the Philippine archipelago of over seven thousand islands, there operates another archipelago of 174 prison camps and detention centers, where President Ferdinand E. Marcos confines his opponents by decree, despite his announced suspension of martial law four years ago.

A "typical" isolation cell measures three meters square (with toilet), where prisoners are kept padlocked but for brief exposures to daylight. In the camps, men and women relieve themselves in buckets; where toilets and sinks are available, they are often clogged. The air is sepia with dust, fruittlies, and mosquitos, so that prisoners have written that even the occasional breeze seems trapped inside. There is little water available for bathing, in some places only the rain, collected at intervals of six and eight months. The daily food budget of thirty to fifty cents (U.S.) is skimmed by "caterers" and guards, to allow only rice gruel, perhaps a small fish, a little coconut milk or soya, a rare egg. The drinking water is polluted. Prisoners suffer from malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, beriberi, tuberculosis, malaria, and amoebic dysentery. Medicines are scarce.

Upon apprehension, detainees are taken to what the military refers to as a "safe house," for a period of interrogation under torture which can last as long as a month. They are then transferred to a camp, provincial jail, barracks, or "rehabilitation" center. Torture methods include beatings, electric shock, cigarette burns, thumbtacks forced under fingernails, sleep deprivation, sexual molestation, and the water ritual, whereby a victim's face is tilted back, and the mouth and nostrils filled to near drowning. Those who survive complain of chest and leg cramps, insomnia, failing vision, and psychological imbalance. For the latter, a word has been coined in the Philippine dialect Cebuano: the word buryong, "suggestive of food that has begun to ferment due to prolonged storage (buro) and psychosis (buang)." ""1 Without English equivalent, it describes the state of anxiety, fear, mental lethargy, and disorientation that afflicts those who succumb to it.

Mila Aguilar, a Filipina poet who has been detained for a year, speaks of her poetry as among her defenses against buryong. On 6 August 1984 she was arrested along with Cynthia Nolasco and Willie Tolentino in La Loma, Quezon City, by the Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group (MISC) of the Philippines Constabulary. The three wore blindfolded and taken at gunpoint to Camp Crame, where Mila Was forced into isolation in a windowless room and, according to Amnesty International, endured beatings, kicking, strangulation, electric shock, and sexual molestation while being held incommunicado for interrogation purposes. The original military charge of "subversion/rebellion and/or conspiracy to commit subversion/ rebellion and/or sedition" was reduced three days later by a





Carolyn Forché⊥ is a member of the Freedom-to-Write and Silenced Voices Committee of the PEN American Center. This introduction was originally published in October 1985 in cooperation with the PEN American Center in New York.




Bienvenido Lumbera, in the foreword to Why Cage Pigeons? Free Mila Aguilar Committee.



civil court to mere violation of Presidential Decree 33, "illegal possession of subversive documents."

Mila's companion, Cynthia Nolasco, categorically denies that the three were in possession of such documents, insisting that "they must have come from a military storehouse" ( Malaya, 23 January 1985). The civil court set bail at P600 ($33 U.S.), which the three paid in cash, but before they could be released, the military produced antedated Presidential Detentive Act[s] legalizing incarceration for up to one year without charges.

So began an unusual and telling confrontation between Philippine courts and the military. Mila Aguilar was kept in solitary confinement, then taken before Military Commission No. 25 and charged with subversion; before Special Military Commission No. 1, she was charged with rebellion. On the grounds that all such military commissions were to have been abolished with the lifting of martial law, the poet refused to enter a plea before these tribunals, so as not to recognize their legitimacy. The three then petitioned for mandamus (an order issued to an office, agency, or corporation to follow an order).

On 16 November, the civil court denied the military's motion, and on 19 December, the Supreme Court ordered the release of Nolasco and Tolentino, despite the Presidential Detentive Act[s]. They were released, but Mila remained in solitary.

By early September 1985, the Supreme Court is expected to hear the case of Mila Aguilar, but if the court orders her release, it may be that only intensified international pressure can force the military to comply. Could such pressure bring Mila Aguilar her freedom? The Philippines-section of PEN International views her chances as "about nil," but the efforts of such writers as Noam Chomsky, Nadine Gordimer, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker have, in concert with other international efforts, secured her release from solitary and her transfer to Bicutan Prison, considered a government "showcase."

The Philippine PEN asserts that Mila is not in prison solely "for her writing," but because "the military believes that [she is a member of] a Communist conspiracy that is behind the insurgency of the New People's Army. . . . The Communist Party in the Philippines is illegal and many members of PEN have for some time now been arguing for its legalization so that membership in it should not be cause for imprisonment." While continuing its work for Mila's release, Philippine PEN "would very much like to see . . . our American colleagues appeal to Washington so that no aid should be given to Marcos—aid which only entrenches him in power and lengthens the agony of the Philippine people." 2

According to the Philippine government, the country carries a foreign debt of $26 billion, making it the fifth largest debtor nation in the world, behind Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela. 3 The Philippines Resource Center believes the debt higher, and its ranking third. Since the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino in 1983, the value of the Philippine peso has decreased by more than half. The Philippine government admits that 75 percent of its population falls below the poverty line, by its own standards of poverty. Philippine labor is the cheapest in all of Asia, and the U.S. accounts for as much as half of all foreign investment. During Fiscal Year 1985, the U.S. has provided $270 million in military and economic aid, while U.S. lending institutions contributed $1.1 billion to Philippine coffers. The World Bank supplemented this with $300 million, and the International Monetary Fund added $615 million. 4 Critics contend that the rule of Marcos is completely dependent on such aid. Between 1983 and 1988, the U.S. is providing $900 million in compensation to the Marcos government for the maintenance of Subic Naval Base in Bataan and Clark Air Field in Pampanga. Subic is the headquarters of the Seventh Fleet, charged with protection of the Asian-Pacific Basin and Indian Ocean oil routes. (Part of the money is earmarked for an "Economic Support Fund" to assist people in the regions surrounding the bases, but the effective channeling of these funds has been called into question by observers in the region.) These bases are the largest maintained on foreign soil by the United States.

The strategic reliance of the U.S. on the Philippines is not a matter of dispute. But since 1972, "the number of political prisoners and torture victims . . . has topped 70,000. The number of deaths resulting from guerrilla warfare around the country has mounted to six figures." 5 On 2 June 1985, President Marcos announced that "the Philippines may have to call for military help from its allies to fight communist rebels. If the integration of aid and foreign-trained troops is so massive that it is equivalent to outright attack, then we may have to ask for the help of allied troops as provided for in the mutual defense pact." In a published interview prompting that announcement, Marcos is quoted as saying that he "might ask the United States to send in cornbat troops. . . ."

According to the New York Times, "diplomatic and other sources, including members of the Marcos government, say they believe outside help for the rebel movement is minimal and limited largely to support from private or religious organizations. . . .  Sagging service morale, which has affected performance in combat, and widespread allegations of abuses by the military against civilians are blamed for much of the support the rebel movement has been winning in the countryside" ( NYT, 2 June 1985).

Nadine Gordimer has written of a "double demand" imposed upon writers in regions of political conflict, . . . the first from the oppressed to act as spokesperson for them; the second, from' the state, to take punishment for being that spokesperson." 6 In recent months, writers and journalists in the Philippines have borne that burden. According to the Philippine National Press Club, "The Philippines accounted for nearly one quarter of the global total of 29 reporters killed in 1984." 7 The slain journalists include:

Manuel Julian, 28, a newspaper columnist of the San Pedro Express, who was. shot dead by gunmen inside a movie theater in Davao, about 600 miles south of Manila on 2 June

Nabokodonosor Velez, 47, a commentator for the labor-run DYLA radio station in Cebu, about 360 miles south of Manila, who was attacked by six gunmen on 1 June as he watched his 19-year-old daughter compete in a beauty contest


2 Internal communiqué, PEN International. 3 San Francisco Examiner, 16 June 1985 . 4 Philippine Resource Center. 5 Marcos's Secret War in America, The Nation, 12 May 1984 , pp. 577-579. 6 Nadine Gordimer, "The Essential Gesture", Granta no. 15, pp. 137-151. 7 Philippine Resource Center.



Charlie Aberilla, 64, a radio commentator and columnist with the Mindanao Scoop in Ilagan, shot down in the announcer's booth at radio station DXWG (while on the air, pleading for his life)


Arturo Yonzon, La Union reporter, shot dead at point blank range in San Fernando in April 1985, apparently as a result of an expos6 he wrote about a legal protection racket


Tim Olivares, a reporter for Tempo, who disappeared in February and is presumed dead after publishing reports of a drug-smuggling scandal


Vicente Villordon, like Velez, a commentator on Cebu City's DYLA radio station, shot dead by unknown assailants as he was leaving work in December 1984


Alex Orcullo, editor of Mindaweek, "executed" at the roadside in front of his wife and. son in Davao City in. October 1984


Jacobo Amatong, publisher and editor of the Mindanao Observer, gunned down with human rights lawyer Zorro Aguilar in Dipolog City in September 1984


Noe Alejandrino, a reporter for the Manila Business Weekly, murdered in Bocaue, Bulacan, in , September 1984


Geoffrey Siao, a reporter with the Philippine Post, killed in March 1984 reportedly for his exposé of irregularities involving government officials. ""8


When Jacobo Amatong was taken to the hospital, he managed to whisper "army—anny—army" before his death. No one has been charged with the killing. ""9

During 1984, a documented 4,168 people were detained for participating in public demonstrations and other opposition activities. Of that number, 851 ""10 remain in prolonged detention, an unfavorable condition compared to mere imprisonment, wherein the prisoner is sentenced to a given period, and at least knows the date of its termination. Ironically, these detainees are themselves among the fortunate, having escaped being "salvaged" by the military. Among the Philippine contributions to the twisted euphernology of the latter twentieth century, is this word salvage, which in Philippino military parlance means "to save" information extracted from a victim before destroying the source, or "to save" a Marcos opponent from a life of opposition. Last year, there were 538 documented cases of "salvaging"; during the first three months of 1985, another ninety-three. A case is only considered documented, however, when a body is actually found.

The Philippine Supreme Court has come to the aid of such voices in the past, stirring hope for the outcome of its decision regarding Mila Aguilar. Last year, the government "withdrew subversion charges against We Forum publisher Jose G. Burgos, Jr. , and twelve columnists and staffers three months after the Supreme Court ruled a July 1983 raid on the tabloid's premises illegal. The bulk of prosecution evidence against Burgos and others consisted of documents seized during the raid, and as a result, government lawyers admitted their case was weak. Government attorneys also attempted to block a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the return of We Forum's confiscated equipment, but eventually lost in this effort as well. We Forum was relaunched on 21 January [1985]." ""11

"For these writers," writes Gordimer, "there is no opposition of inner and outer demands. As they are writing, they are at the same time political activists in the concrete sense: teaching, proselytizing, organizing. When they are detained without trial it may be for what they have written, but when they are tried and convicted on crimes of conscience it is for what they have done as 'more than a writer.'" She quotes Camus: "It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write." ""12

"I am tempted to join/ The black rosary passing by/ Which they say wards off evil./ But I do not believe in God,/ So for now I find refuge/ In writing a poem" Mila wrote in Poem Written Amid Struggle. In " To a Foreigner" she acknowledges that you accuse me of sloganeering/ and being unpoetic/ By writing lines like/ "Damn the U.S. Marcos dictatorship," and replies to this in still another poem. In the face of class murder/ How can we be lyrical? One is reminded of Neruda's response to those who warned him against the inclusion of politics in his poetry: the truth is, I do not wish to please them.

Those who know Mila speak of her as a precocious child, who wrote and illustrated her first book (about rabbits) while still in first grade, who began writing poetry at the age of nine, and continued through school to produce work in all genres. By eighteen she'd completed undergraduate studies in English and the Humanities, and while studying for her Master's, taught English at the University of the Philippines and contributed regularly to Graphic magazine. "She was an artist then," remembers her sister, "who believed in art for its own sake." She developed "expensive hobbies" like photography and was possessed of indefatigable energy. Her sister recalls that in 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson visited the Philippines, they attended a student demonstration together against Philippine involvement in Vietnam and "Operation Brotherhood," whereby Philippine medical personnel assisted U.S. combat forces. The demonstration inspired Mila, who returned home with "her arms covered with bruises" from the jostling of the crowd, but was, despite this, radiant. It was as a student that she was drawn to opposition of Marcos. At the time of her arrest, she was serving as assistant director of an adult education program at St. Joseph's College, delighted that she would at last be able to provide for her twelve-year-old son, Dodoy, whose father was killed by the military in the mid-seventies. Both Mila and Dodoy suffer from asthma, but the child stays often with his mother in her cell, despite the dust that aggravates the condition. Dodoy telephoned relatives in the United States recently, asking that more letters be sent hurriedly on his mother's behalf.

From prison, Mila inscribed her poetry book Why Cage Pigeons ""13 to PEN President Norman Mailer: "who has been so kind to support my release without the benefit of having known me. I hope I am equal to your trust. Sincerely, Mila Aguilar."





Philippine Resource Center, San Francisco.




Committee to Protect Journalists, Update, April 1985.




Nadine Gordimer, op. cit.




To date Aguilar has published three volumes of poetry: A Comrade Is as Precious as a Rice Seedling. New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1985, available from Kitchen Table Press, P.O. Box 2753, Rockefeller Center Station, New York, NY 10185; Pall Hangs Over Manila, and Other Poems. San Francisco: Fishy Afoot Press, 1985, available from Philippines Research Center, Box 101, Mansfield Depot, CT 06251 for U.S.$3.00 plus $1.00 for mailing; and Why Cage Pigeons? Manila, 1986, also available from the Philippines Research Center for U.S.$3.00 plus $1.00 for mailing.




Committee To Protect Journalists, news bulletin, 7 June 1985 .




Philippine Resource Center.



The poems included in the Bulletin are:

The Chicken and The Coop

As the Dust

Pigeons for My Son



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