Senator Gavin Marshall's
tribute to Crispin Beltran
I rise today to pay tribute to the life of an exceptional labour leader,
political activist and representative of working Filipinos. It was with
sadness I greeted the news of the sudden demise of Filipino Congressman
and KMU Chairperson Emeritus Crispin Beltran. He died in late May from an
accident at his home in the Philippines. He was 75.
I have spoken many times in this place on the struggle for human rights,
democracy and justice in the Philippines. In working to make people aware
of this struggle and to support those working for change I have met many
impressive people both here in Australia and the Philippines. People who
continue to fight for a fair, just and democratic society.
Crispin Beltran was one of these people.
Crispin, also known affectionately as Ka Bel, worked tirelessly in
standing up to injustice and helping ordinary people in the collective
toil for personal and political freedoms in the Philippines. He strove to
organise and work alongside labourers, the urban poor, migrant worker
communities and rural peasants in this struggle.
As a fellow trade unionist, I met with Ka Bel many years ago in the
Philippines and learnt from his experiences and the experiences of the
working people fighting for a better deal. Ever since that time I have
been a supporter of the struggle of working Filipinos and worked in
solidarity with Ka Bel, through his roles at the Kilusang Mayo Uno, Bayan
Muna & Anakpawis parties and the Congress.
His life long endeavours have ensured popular support for change and
brought attention locally and internationally to the injustices faced by
the Filipino people. These injustices include an appalling disregard for
human rights, the extrajudicial killings of anyone who dares speak out,
and the political persecution rife in the Philippines through the arrest
and incarceration of those critical of the Government and Military.
For those who are not familiar with the life of Ka Bel, I will take a few
moments to outline the amazing contribution this man has made.
His first work was as a courier for the guerrillas working to liberate the
Philippines after the Japanese invasion and occupation. After the war, he
worked as a farm hand and janitor to support his studies. He then worked
as a gasoline boy, messenger, bus driver and taxi driver.
At age of 20, he joined his fellow taxi drivers in a strike against unfair
labour practices. The police attacked their picket line, injured many and
claimed the lives of three protesting workers. This incident drove Crispin
to join the fight for workers rights.
He then organised amongst Taxi Drivers and this work lead him to become a
labour leader in 1955 with the Amalgamated Taxi Drivers Association,
serving as President from 1955 up to 1963. This was then followed by his
work in organising the Confederation of Labour of the Philippines and
helping found the Philippine Workers Congress and other labour
Remarkably, under martial law, Ka Bel helped establish the Federation of
Unions and the Philippine Nationalist Labor Organization (PANALO) until
KMU was founded in 1980. From 100,000, KMU's membership soared to 500,000
in the 1980s. The establishment of KMU united and strengthened Filipinos
in their fight against the Marcos dictatorship.
When Marcos launched a crackdown in 1982, Ka Bel was one of those arrested
and detained. He was able to escape in 1984, and rather than lay low, went
back to organising workers and peasants in rural areas. When KMU President
Rolando Olalia was brutally murdered in 1987, Ka Bel took over the
presidency of KMU and served in that position until 2003.
In 1987 he ran for senator and garnered over 1.5 million votes but due to
a range of suspicious electoral circumstances was not elected. This did
not deter him and he was elected as a representative of the party list
group Bayan Muna (or People First) in 2001, then later Anakpawis (or
Toiling Masses) in 2004 and 2007 - explicitly supporting and representing
workers, peasants and the urban poor.
He used this time to work hard in the Congress. He pushed for wage
increases for many low paid workers, protections against labour
contractualisation practices and wholescale improvement of the Labor Code.
He vigorously opposed the privatization of many public assets and
uncovered several anomalies in funding from Government including funding
for the judiciary.
He was a staunch critic of the
skewed international campaign against terrorism, pointing out the yawning
chasm between the rhetoric of Government and the reality faced by
Filipinos, a reality of the most insidious form of terrorism - state
Like many others who take action on issues of poverty, justice and
workers' rights in the Philippines he faced this reality himself as he
endured political persecution, death threats and incarceration for his
As I mentioned earlier Ka Bel was arbitrarily imprisoned under the Marcos
dictatorship in an attempt to silence him.
Over twenty years later this happened again to Ka Bel. This time it was
under the Arroyo regime, and happened even though he was an elected
In 2006 Ka Bel was imprisoned under vague sedition and treason laws, in
what is widely acknowledged as another attempt to suppress political
dissent and opposition by the Arroyo government. Finally, after 18 months,
Ka Bel was found innocent of the rebellion charges brought against him and
In looking at what Crispin endured there is a strong message about the
dangers of vague sedition and terrorist laws which can be used to
persecute opposition and protect a rotten status quo.
As I have pointed out to the Senate previously, the situation still
continues to be dire for those who speak out in the Philippines. Since
Gloria Arroyo became President, the Bayan Muna Party and other progressive
political parties in the Philippines, such as the Gabriela Women's Party,
have been subject to extrajudicial killings and continual harassment.
Under the Arroyo government, over 130 members of the Bayan Muna Party-the
progressive party under which Ka Bel was first elected-have been murdered.
Those who have been systematically murdered include unionists, lawyers,
church workers, municipal councillors, human rights advocates and
journalists. These killings continue almost daily and are depressingly
The common factor that links the victims of these crimes is that they have
all been outspoken on issues of justice, poverty, civil liberties,
workers' rights and human rights. They have advocated on behalf of the
poor and oppressed in the Philippines, and many of them have been directly
critical of the Arroyo government.
Links tying these abuses to the Arroyo government have been clearly
established by many international organisations, including Amnesty
International and the United Nations. Professor Philip Alston, an
Australian human rights academic and the United Nations Special Rapporteur
on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, investigated these
killings and concluded that
'the executive branch of the Philippine government, openly and
enthusiastically aided by the military, has worked resolutely to impede
the work of party-list groups and to put in question their right to
This may explain why so few of these crimes have been appropriately
investigated and those responsible for these atrocities have not been
brought to justice.
Given that Ka Bel operated in an environment where so many of his
colleagues and friends were murdered it is a great testament to his
commitment and strength that he did not bow to such intimidation.
Despite the great risks he continued to strive with many other Filipinos
to bring about social change; publicly challenging injustice and toiling
alongside people from all walks of life in the Philippines.
I question whether many of us here in this place would have the stamina to
continue our work while our party members and staff were systematically
murdered. These brutal examples of the failure of one of the basic duties
of the state - to protect its citizens - show us the value of
strengthening our public institutions and political freedoms. It also
reminds us that we must shun, reject and punish those people or political
parties who practise violence and persecution.
These examples certainly put the achievements of Ka Bel into perspective.
He fought for people's right to a safe, secure and prosperous life when in
the process he endangered his own.
This was why he gained the respect of the public even as the Arroyo regime
continued to persecute him and publicly demonise his fellow activists.
I express my deepest condolences to Ka Bel's family and join workers,
friends and colleagues in celebrating his life and the achievements he
fought for. He was a man whose vision was matched by his dedication and
resolve. In closing I look forward to working with Filipinos dedicated to
pursuing, and ultimately achieving, Ka Bel's vision of a better society.#