On the Disappearance of Elizabeth “Loi” Magbanua

Editor’s Note:

On May 3, 2022, Elizabeth “Loi” Magbanua left her home in Manila. Loi has been a grassroots union and women’s rights organizer since the 1980s. On that day, she was joining with other labor organizers for a meeting. After the meeting, Loi and another colleague left the meeting at 7pm in the evening. Then they disappeared, and to this day they have not been found.

In the Philippines, labor and social movement activists have been subject to intimidation, abduction and assassination. Loi and her colleagues’ disappearance are neither the first nor the last of such treatment of activists. We previously spoke with Kara Taggaoa who was repeatedly arrested for her activism.

In this conversation with Ruth Manglalan, a long-term organizer and Loi’s partner. They have worked together in the labor and women’s movement for many years. Ruth generously shared about Loi’s work and commitment, her disappearance and its aftermath, and the tireless organizing that Loi and so many others have been engaged in.

Asian Labour Review (ALR): Can you talk about Loi, and what happened to her enforced disappearance?

Ruth Manglalan (Ruth): I’m Ruth Manglalan. Loi is my partner, and we have been together for 18 years. Our anniversary was May 28. But she went missing on May 3, 2022, so we didn’t get to celebrate our anniversary. Loi was a worker and an active union member in an electronics factory in the 1980s. After the factory closed down, she volunteered to become a union organizer in other factories.

We became partners in 2004. We’ve been working together, organizing women and domestic workers. In these past few years, we’ve been based in Manila. The area where we stay has a large number of workers at the port. Loi was working with the Manila Harbor Center which is a union. They were preparing for a certificate of election.

She was also organizing residents of an urban poor community in danger of losing their homes because of the reclamation projects. They had just formed a neighborhood association. I remember this because she was so proud. She was also busy because at that time it was the last stretch of the national election. She was busy campaigning for Leni Robredo. She was with KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno) by then.

The last time I saw her was on May 3. I left home before her because I had an appointment. I didn’t see her again.

ALR: It sounds like she’s someone who is very committed, and putting all her energy into organizing. Why do you think that she is able to do so much across so many areas of work?

Ruth: One of the things that I liked about her is that she has this quality of steadfast workmanship. She likes to just give her all to what she believes in. She is very practical. She was really a worker. She is disciplined when it comes to time, and she’s very organized in her work. She writes down everything. She really believes in the cause of women and workers. That’s why she’s was able to do all this. And, because she’s part of organizations that have been helpful in guiding her in her work.

ALR: This reminds me of what you wrote in an article after Loi’s disappearance. You said she embodies the proletariat practicality.

Ruth: She does what needs to be done. She doesn’t agonize over little things. She doesn’t overthink. If she is asked to do something, she does it. That’s our difference. I tend to overthink and plan everything. Everything should go according to what I have planned. But she isn’t like that.

ALR: I know the life of organizer is really, really hard. What keeps her going for all these years?

Ruth: She knew the struggles and the difficulties of the poor. Her families were poor peasants, and they didn’t have their own land. They lived next to the railroad. They didn’t have their own house. Then she became a worker. Her life got better when she became a worker because they had a union and they were able to fight for the rights and higher wages.

That’s where her conviction came from. If the workers have the right to form unions, they can fight for the wages and benefits. They are not going to be wealthy, but they’re going to be comfortable. It’s going to be better than not having anything at all.

ALR: You mentioned in the same article that before her disappearance, she had expressed apprehension about her safety. Was she anticipating that something may happen to her?

Ruth: We have heard stories of other activists – some of them we know – having gone missing. It was a time when the repression was relentless. She’s been noticing that some people were asking about her. She was worried. But she thought, “Well what can I do?” It isn’t like she can just stay at home. She informed me and her colleagues what’s going on with her. They’ve used this buddy system, so she was always with someone.

ALR: I’m wondering why you think she was a target. Do you think there’s a reason she’s singled out?

Ruth: Actually, there were four people who went missing. I just think it’s got to do with the work they’re doing against the reclamation projects, and possibly the work with the workers at the port area which is a strategic industry.

ALR: What happened to the organizing after the disappearance? Was the organizing still going on? Or, did it have to stop?

Ruth: It didn’t stop, but it has been disrupted. The organizers were distracted because they were looking for the four organizers who went missing, talking to the families and updating them about what’s going on. To be honest, the effect was really chilling. I am friends with organizers, and some of them couldn’t sleep. It was a combination of being afraid, and being really, really sad. We have lost these people who are our colleagues and friends for years.

It was a very traumatic experience for everyone. These four people are very good people. They are kind people. They are not just organizers and colleagues, they are friends. Right now the organizers are regrouping. They are actively taking part in the wage campaign. So the organizing has been disrupted but they they’re regaining their footing.

ALR: In the days after Loi’s disappearance, what happened and what went through your mind?

Ruth: My first thought was that I lost her. I knew that the military has taken her from me, and I have lost her. The first day that’s all I could think of. I actually didn’t know what to do because I have been an activist for a few decades, and I have heard the stories of those who were abducted and disappeared. I cannot find her, and it was really devastating. I have a very close friend whose husband was also a victim of enforced disappearance. She tries to find her husband but he’s been gone for 20 years.

We formed a fact-finding team to investigate what happened and started a search mission. We tried to make sure that we have exhausted the means finding them on our own. We had reasons to believe that the military or the state forces were involved. The other complicated thing we had to go through was because we are lesbian partners, the government doesn’t recognize us and doesn’t recognize me as a legitimate complainant. We had to convince Loi’s family to make the complaint.

ALR: How do you make sense of all the disappearances and killings?

Ruth: It’s been going on since the Martial Law under the first Marcos (from the 1960s to 1980s). The dissent hasn’t stopped, however. The core issues are people’s poverty and the exploitation of workers, including the very low wages and contractualization. The living costs are going up now, too. These core issues of the people remain unresolved.

Naturally, people aren’t going to sit down and take this. It wasn’t able to stop the people from protesting because it is about survival. If you’re a parent, you are not going to just stop and be afraid. You have to fight for the future of your children, your grandchildren. So the dissent continues.

They can scare a section of the population for a period but they cannot do that for a long time because poverty and repression can only fuel more resistance.

ALR: How are you feeling now?

Ruth: I’ve been asked that. A lot. There are some days that are bad. There are some days that it’s just really difficult. Recently, you’ve heard of the abduction of two activists. I unwittingly clicked on the video of the abduction. It only took me a few seconds before I broke down. It was too much.

There were days that are really, really difficult for me to write, to go out and do work, and then I just go through with it. Well, Loi disappeared. Who is going to be her voice, and the voice of those who disappeared? Who is going to take on her struggles? That’s what keeps me going.

ALR: What do you want to see happen? What do you think should be done to prevent things like from happening to others?

Ruth: I want to believe that I’m going to see her. I want to see her. I hope to see her and hear from her, and I hope for her to come back to my life. If that isn’t going to happen, what I want is to find out the truth and find those who are responsible for her disappearance to pay for it, to be brought to justice.

That’s why I’m working together with other victims of human rights violations. We are gathering different organizations and individuals to watch over the civil liberties of the Filipino people to make sure that those in the communities fighting for their economic rights aren’t being targeted. I just look forward to people enjoying their rights.

(Photo: Rappler)