davaotoday.com photo by Barry OhaylanLike his father, who was gunned down one day in October 1988, Omar Bantayan has long been in the crosshairs of those who are carrying out what is believed to be a systematic campaign to eliminate not just those the military had been labeling as communists but labor leaders as well the perennial thorns in the side of abusive and greedy capitalists.

By Carlos H. Conde

DAVAO CITY These days, Omar Bantayan feels like hes reliving the life of his father. And its not just because they share the same experiences and convictions.

Like his father Oscar Bantayan, who was a national council member of the labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement) at the time of his death, Omar, young as he is, is a respected personality in the labor movement. He is the secretary-general for Southern Mindanao of the KMU.

Like his father, who was gunned down one day in October 1988, Omar has long been in the crosshairs of those who are carrying out what the KMU believes is a systematic campaign to eliminate not just those the military had been labeling as communists but labor leaders as well the perennial thorns in the side of capitalists, especially the abusive and greedy ones.

Like his father, Omar lives at a time of growing political repression, when freedom of expression is under threat, when dissent is suppressed and increasingly becoming verboten, when those who oppose and question government actions are labeled as communists or enemies of the state.

Omar is one of the so-called Davao 8, eight leaders and personalities from various progressive groups who have been implicated in a rebellion case filed against Bayan Muna congressman Joel Virador all on the basis of their being present at an anti-government demonstration on Feb. 24.

My father was murdered at a time when a Red scare was sweeping the region, Omar says. (He was 10 years old at that time, his brother Orvil, nine.) That same McCarthyism is still sweeping the land, and Omar and other activists have found themselves being tagged as communists, effectively marking them for death.

His father certainly watched his back, as Omar does now. In one of those rare instances that he managed to visit an open-air restaurant/bar, Omar made sure that he would be able to see whoever went inside the place. Its always better to be safe, he would tell his friends.

Omar (2nd from right) with other activists in Davao. (davaotoday.com photo by Barry Ohaylan) Although the last time a labor leader was slain hereabout was in 1992, Omar thinks that his enemies are a relentless bunch. Im sure they will make an attempt on my life sooner or later, he says. For now, he is thankful that Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has made it clear to the elements of the state who are the usual suspects in these political killings — that he, Duterte, does not want the blood of labor activists to flow in his city, ironic as that may seem.

Omars worry is when these killers or their masterminds would decide to go over Dutertes head and carry out their murderous ways, the mayor be damned.

Omars fear is not baseless. Last year, 31 leaders, members and sympathizers of labor unions and labor groups were murdered all over the country. It was the highest death toll in five years and not a single case has been resolved. Also, most of the victims of political killings in recent years came from the labor movement.

Its unnerving, Omar says of the killings. His family is affected, naturally. He and his wife Diane has had several discussions about his work and the danger it entails for him and his family. Diane once floated the idea of him finding another work.

My wife is cool about what I do, Omar says, his use of the word cool betraying his age (hes 28). But there are times when we would fight and argue about it.

But nothing has worked so far to stop him, not even the complaints of their four-year-old daughter Julianne, who says she hates Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo because the president has kept her father from her several times. Like when Omar was forced to hide for a whole week in November 2003 because of reports that he was a target for assassination.

Shes bad, Julianne says of the president, her face snarling a wee bit. Because of her, Tatay sometimes cant sleep by my side.

Julianne is a precocious and playful four-year-old who responds to Omars reprimands with a curt Yes, your majesty, complete with faux disappointment on her face. Omar is endlessly amused each time Julianne memorizes English dialogues from watching too much TV and uses these lines when talking to him.

A child like that should be enough to make someone like Omar rethink what hes doing. Because, tragic as this may sound, Julianne is a daily reminder for Omar that the cost of his beliefs and convictions could be quite high.

But, like his father, Omar is a determined activist.

Omar had been a student activist. He worked for two years at Kadamay, the urban-poor group before working for the KMU in 2001. Nowadays, he spends his time doing paperwork or making protest placards at the KMUs impossibly humid office along Anda Street. He is also quite visible in the press. Although, according to him, he avoids establishing a pattern of his movements and routine. Thats the trick to survival, he says with a grin that is at once disconcerting, considering the subject.

Some may be put off by his age a labor leader at 28, who never really experienced a real job in a factory or a banana plantation? But no one questions the conviction and the intelligence behind that youthful faade.

Theres no question that the killings of labor leaders and union members are part of a larger campaign to eliminate and intimidate the Left, Omar says.

Theres no question, too, he says, that these killings are benefiting greedy capitalists and abusive employers.

That trade unionists are being targeted is likewise not surprising. The labor movement, Omar explains, has been at the forefront in calling for the ouster of Arroyo. It has the warm bodies to fill the streets. The labor movement has all the motivations poor working conditions, starvation wages, lack of benefits, abuses in the workplace, and, of course, the killings to want Arroyo deposed.

Whats happening, Omar points out, is a combination of a backlash against labor militancy and the general framework of state terrorism now being implemented by this regime.

Somewhere out there, a father must be mighty proud of a son. (Carlos H. Conde/davaotoday.com)

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