Kumander Liway: NGO head was Red rebel vs Marcos dictatorship
Who is Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda that a US Department of State-attached agency has charged her with misusing its funds?
The founder and president of Visayan Forum Foundation Inc. (VFFI), who has been charged by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with fund misuse, was a known former communist leader who fought the Marcos dictatorship in Negros Occidental.
Oebanda has been accused of falsification of documents to hide the misuse of at least P210 million ($5 million) in funds donated to her organization that provides services for victims of exploitation and human trafficking.
Oebanda, 53, was known by her nom de guerre Kumander Liway when she was a New People’s Army (NPA) commander in the province during the martial law years.
According to a February 2006 Sunday Inquirer Magazine feature on Oebanda, the second and eldest girl in a brood of 12, grew up in Bacolod City in Negros Occidental with her siblings, a sickly mother who focused on raising them and a father who struggled to make ends meet by fishing and doing odd jobs.
Despite being poor, Oebanda, a swimmer, managed to go to college at Colegio de San Agustin in Bacolod on a sports scholarship.
A catechist at San Sebastian Cathedral, she was supporting human rights victims when martial law was declared in 1972. She was also responsible for organizing youth leaders who later joined the underground movement in the 1970s.
A military crackdown on Bacolod activists in 1976 drove her to quit school and head to the hills of southern Negros to join the armed struggle against the dictatorship.
She met her husband, Ricardo, in the armed movement when they were both in their late teens. There, she became known as the elusive Commander Liway.
Oebanda, pregnant with her second child, was captured by the military after an encounter in September 1982 in Hinobaan town, a known rebel-influenced municipality in Negros Occidental. She and her husband were imprisoned for four years.
While in the mountains, Oebanda gave birth to a son, Eric. While in detention, she gave birth to two more, Kip and Malaya.
Freed in ’86
She and her husband were among those released after the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that ousted former President Ferdinand Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino, mother of incumbent President Benigno Aquino III, to the presidency. After they were freed, a fourth child, Ani, was born.
Ten years ago, the Oebanda marriage was annulled.
Upon her release, Oebanda went to Manila and started a small business until she organized the VFFI in 1991.
According to the group’s website, the VFFI is located in 20 provinces and cities with 11 offices in the Philippines and has been involved in the empowerment of vulnerable migrants, especially victims of human trafficking, domestic servitude and other forms of exploitation.
The VFFI says it has helped hundreds of victims of human trafficking, mostly domestic workers and children.
Vicente Abadesco, regional coordinator of the VFFI in the Visayas, said the charges against Oebanda were unfair and unfounded.
Abadesco, also from Bacolod City, said Oebanda was a kind and simple person.
Former Bacolod Councilor Jocelle Batapa Sigue described Oebanda and her group as the most committed and active organization working against human trafficking and the rights of domestic workers in Bacolod and Negros Occidental. The group has a program in Bacolod City that helps child prostitutes learn how to use computers as an alternative means of livelihood, she said.
“Oebanda was very dedicated to her work, very simple, humble, soft-spoken and approachable,” said Sigue, who used to head the Bacolod Gender and Development Council and is presently the executive director of the Anti-Trafficking Legal Society.
Oebanda has been recognized for her advocacy against human trafficking.
Her awards included the 2005 Anti-Slavery Award from the Anti-Slavery International, the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship by the Skoll Foundation and the first Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor given by the US Department of Labor.
Oebanda has been named by the US Department of State as one of its Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery in its 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report. She was also one of the honorary awardees of the 2011 World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child and was given the Prix Caritas Award 2011 by Caritas Switzerland for her pioneering and innovative work in the fight against child prostitution, child trafficking and child labor. With a report from Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas
Sources: Visayanforum.org, Sunday Inquirer Magazine, Inquirer Archives
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