Profiles of Courage

Maximiliano Teodoro
de Mesa

Any opposition to a repressive regime or authority will be branded as a crime, including the promotion and defence of human rights… This we experienced during the Marcos dictatorship.” This is what Maximiliano Teodoro de Mesa, more fondly referred to by his allies as “Ka Max” had to say regarding the emerging common trend of human rights defenders globally being antagonized and persecuted for pursuing their advocacy in recent years.[1]

Ka Max was born on April 1, 1944 and he grew up to be an educated man of God.[2] He finished grade school and high school in De La Salle University[3] and went on to study Philosophy and Theological Studies at the Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay, becoming ordained as a religious missionary priest of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) in 1972.[4]

Ka Max was a priest when Marcos imposed Martial Law in the Philippines, plunging the country into fourteen years of darkness. He began working closely with other missionaries who were cognizant of the rampant abuse of human rights by state forces, but soon got himself involved in the political clash. Ka Max recalled of his arrest: “I was a former priest, I was saying mass and I was accused of recruiting the parish for the New People’s Army’s (NPA) forces, by showing a film regarding it.” Ka Max, like many of his fellow missionary church workers, were detained on suspicion of having links to the NPA. He recalled hearing the anguished cries of the members of his parish as they were being tortured.[5] He was placed at the Youth Rehabilitation Center, where at one point, he was one of four priests detained, along with Fr. Hilario Lim, Fr. Primo Hagad, and Fr. Louie Jalandoni.[6]

Human rights organizations worldwide soon got wind of what was happening in the Philippines. It was a report by Amnesty International (AI) in 1975 that raised red flags on the Marcos dictatorship. Despite the government essentially having a stranglehold on information dissemination, the AI still produced an accurate account of atrocities occurring in the country because of priests and nuns, who, like Ka Max, were acutely aware of what was happening and refused to remain silent. In 1974, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) was founded by the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP). The TFDP covertly but painstakingly gathered, housed and protected sensitive materials, documents and data that would — and did — shed light on truths in the country that Marcos tried to repress.[7] Max would eventually join the TFDP.[8]

Religious missionaries were active and visible in the resistance movement. They welcomed any with open arms. As a fellow religious missionary and ally to the TFDP, Letty Daral said, “it’s not important who you are. If people ask for help, we should help.[9] All TFDP workers and volunteers took this to heart. They worked closely with other groups such as the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity and Nationalism (MABINI) to pursue legal avenues or seek legal assistance whenever needed and accompanied them to document cases. They provided and cared for political prisoners while working for their release. Statistics produced by the TFDP were commonly relied upon by outside reports done on the dictatorship.[10]

Because their actions constantly derailed the activities of state forces, the TFDP became an easy target for the government to label as “subversive.” Many of its leaders were accused of having links with the New People’s Army (NPA) and detained on trumped up charges.[11] Work continued for the TFDP all the same, completely aware of the dangers they face every day. While the dictatorship ended in 1986, this work was far from over. While documentation served to unveil the illusion of peace, there was still no justice for the thousands of victims of Martial Law. These documentations had to be used to prove the victims’ accounts, restore their maligned honor and compensate for their suffering. These were all not new to Ka Max, of course, himself being a victim of political persecution and witness to suffering.

Various human rights institutions were established immediately following the ouster of Marcos. One of these was the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), established with the help of the TFDP on August 9, 1986 as an alliance of individuals and institutions committed to preserving and promoting human rights in the Philippines, continuing what they had begun during the dictatorship.[12] Ka Max became a part of this organization as well and led many of its initiatives.

Ka Max extended the reach of PAHRA as he rose through the ranks to become its chairman. He formed networks with regional and international human rights organizations. PAHRA and TFDP both became founding members of FORUM-ASIA, a regional institution dedicated to human rights and development under which he served as Adviser to the Executive Committee from 2004 to 2006. He was an elected member of it from 2006 to 2009 and was Executive Committee member and Treasurer at the time of his death.[13] Standing up against torture, both organizations also became members of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), with Ka Max being a member in its General Assembly.[14] Ka Max also became the vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).[15]

After the passing of Republic Act No. 10368, which created the Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HRVCB) to handle providing reparation for Martial Law victims, PAHRA and TFDP offered their assistance and worked closely as surviving victims came forward and filed their claims. They conducting a cursory research to estimate the number of victims which may still submit theirs.[[16]] The HRVCB, in processing the claims of the victims, referred to documents they submitted along with supporting data coming from the TFDP, which had been immensely helpful in proving many claims that were filed.[17] Ka Max worked towards compiling a complete list of Martial Law victims as well, but lamented that since they mostly only have archived records from the TFDP, in the form of intelligence reports, policy papers, news materials and other documents, a complete list was still not possible.[18] Ka Max wanted closure for the victims, their family and the Filipinos as a whole.

He continued cooperating with the HRVCB in processing claims until his death on September 28, 2016. Immediately, human rights crusaders with whom Ka Max worked with not only in the Philippines but worldwide expressed grief over losing an impassioned warrior of social justice. Ka Max has finished his part, and the rest is on those who remain. The list of victims he worked hard to compile and the closure for them he sought are currently being completed by the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission (HRVVMC), the successor to the HRVCB, with the help of other human rights organizations, some led by those whom he inspired and guided, that still stand today.

Ka Max went above and beyond in his self-imposed mandate of championing freedom, human rights and social justice. Though details on what he did during Martial Law are scant, it is clear that he did not stop; rather, he intensified his effort to help victims in his capacity as a member of various organizations. As many of his colleagues collectively shouted in celebration of his life, he upheld, defended and promoted “human rights to the MAX.

 

“Any opposition to a repressive regime or authority will be branded as a crime, including the promotion and defence of human rights... This we experienced during the Marcos dictatorship.”

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References:

Berthelot, Yves. “Anti-torture movement pays tribute to Max de Mesa.” OMCT. September 30, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://www.omct.org/en/resources/statements/anti-torture-movement-pays-tribute-to-max-de-mesa.

“Bill passed to give martial law victims more time to file claims; ethnic origin to be included in national census.” Senate of the Philippines. November 18, 2014. Accessed June 3, 2021. legacy.senate.gov.ph/press_release/2014/1118_prib1.asp

“Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders Condemned.” Viasna. Page created February 17, 2012. Accessed June 3, 2021.

“de Mesa, Maximiliano Teodoro M.” De La Salle Alumni Association. Accessed June 3, 2021. www.dlsaa.com/honors-and-awards/awardees/de-mesa-teodoro-maximiliano-m.

Doyo, Ma. Ceres P. “75,730 claims of rights violations under Marcos are being processed.” Philippine Daily Inquirer. September 29, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/726107/75730-claims-of-rights-violations-under-marcos-are-being-processed.

Hilario, Ernesto M. “The NPA, a tunnel, and a prison escape plot.” Rappler. April 1, 2014. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://r3.rappler.com/nation/53893-npa-tunnel-prison-escape.

“History.” Task Force Detainees of the Philippines. September 23, 2009. Archived June 29, 2019. Accessed June 3, 2021. web.archive.org/web/20190629234154/https://tfdp.net/about-us/history.

“In loving memory of Max de Mesa (1944-2016).” Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development. September 29, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2016. https://www.forum-asia.org/?p=21589.

Lamb, Kate. “Duterte’s dirty drug war, eerie echoes to the days of Martial Law.” KBR. October 3, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://kbr.id/english/10-2016/duterte_s_dirty_drug_war__eerie_echoes_to_the_days_of_martial_law/85569.html

Orejas, Tonette. “40 years after Martial Law, victims remain unidentified.” Philippine Daily Inquirer. September 19, 2012. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/273760/40-years-after-martial-law-victims-remain-unidentified

Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates. 2021. “Happy Bday kasamang Max De Mesa.” Facebook, April 2, 2021. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=143138224399663.

Robles, Raissa. Marcos Martial Law: Never Again. Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, 2016.

Stothard, Debbie. 2016. “It’s hard to accept that wonderful HRD Max de Mesa has left us.” Facebook, September 28, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/debbie.stothard/posts/10154189351243192.

“The Alliance.” Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://philippinehumanrights.org/about.

[1] “Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders Condemned,” Viasna, page created February 17, 2012, accessed June 3, 2021, http://spring96.org/en/news/50051. This was said by de Mesa in 2012 in response to the arrest of Ales Bialitski, the president of Viasna, human rights organization, and a human rights defender in Belarus, which was one of many attacks on human rights personalities at the time, an issue de Mesa fought against since Martial Law and until his death.

[2] Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, 2021, “Happy Bday kasamang Max De Mesa,” Facebook, April 2, 2021, accessed June 3, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=143138224399663. This is the official and verified Facebook page of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA).

[3] “de Mesa, Maximiliano Teodoro M.” De La Salle Alumni Association. Accessed June 3, 2021. www.dlsaa.com/honors-and-awards/awardees/de-mesa-teodoro-maximiliano-m. He finished grade school in 1958 and high school in 1962.

[4] “In loving memory of Max de Mesa (1944-2016),” Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, September 29, 2016, accessed June 3, 2021, https://www.forum-asia.org/?p=21589. In Latin, Societas Verbi Divini, hence SVD.

[5] Kate Lamb, “Duterte’s dirty drug war, eerie echoes to the days of Martial Law,” KBR, October 3, 2016, accessed June 3, 2021. https://kbr.id/english/10-2016/duterte_s_dirty_drug_war__eerie_echoes_to_the_days_of_martial_law/85569.html

[6] Ernesto M. Hilario, “The NPA, a tunnel, and a prison escape plot,” Rappler, April 1, 2014, accessed June 3, 2021, https://r3.rappler.com/nation/53893-npa-tunnel-prison-escape.

[7] Raissa Robles, Marcos Martial Law: Never Again (Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, 2016), 137.

[8] “In loving memory of Max de Mesa (1944-2016).”

[9] H. Marcos C. Mordeno, “Remembering the days of fear, celebrating courage,” MindaNews, September 2, 2015, accessed May 20, 2021, https://www.mindanews.com/top-stories/2015/09/remembering-the-days-of-fear-celebrating-courage-2/. Sr. Letecia “Letty” Daral worked with TFDP-Butuan as its regional head and coordinator.

[10] Robles, Marcos Martial Law: Never Again, 137-38;”History,” Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, September 23, 2009, archived June 29, 2019, accessed June 3, 2021, web.archive.org/web/20190629234154/https://tfdp.net/about-us/history.

[11] Robles, Marcos Martial Law: Never Again, 137-38.

[12] “The Alliance,” Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, accessed June 3, 2021, https://philippinehumanrights.org/about; “History,” Task Force Detainees of the Philippines.

[13] “In loving memory of Max de Mesa (1944-2016).”

[14] Yves Berthelot, “Anti-torture movement pays tribute to Max de Mesa,” OMCT, September 30, 2016, accessed June 3, 2021, https://www.omct.org/en/resources/statements/anti-torture-movement-pays-tribute-to-max-de-mesa.

[15] Debbie Stothard, 2016, “It’s hard to accept that wonderful HRD Max de Mesa has left us,” Facebook, September 28, 2016, accessed June 3, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/debbie.stothard/posts/10154189351243192. This was shared by PAHRA’s official Facebook page. Stothard was the Secretary-General of FIDH during de Mesa’s time, as indicated in her post.

[16] “Bill passed to give martial law victims more time to file claims; ethnic origin to be included in national census,” Senate of the Philippines, November 18, 2014, accessed June 3, 2021, legacy.senate.gov.ph/press_release/2014/1118_prib1.asp.

[17] Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, “75,730 claims of rights violations under Marcos are being processed,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 29, 2015, accessed June 3, 2021, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/726107/75730-claims-of-rights-violations-under-marcos-are-being-processed.

[18] Tonette Orejas, “40 years after Martial Law, victims remain unidentified,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 19, 2012, accessed June 3, 2021, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/273760/40-years-after-martial-law-victims-remain-unidentified.

Teodoro Maximiliano de Mesa, fondly called “Ka Max” by his allies, was a staunch defender of human rights in the country. Photo retrieved from De La Salle Alumni Association at www.dlsaa.com/honors-and-awards/awardees/de-mesa-teodoro-maximiliano-m.
Teodoro Maximiliano de Mesa, fondly called “Ka Max” by his allies, was a staunch defender of human rights in the country. Photo retrieved from De La Salle Alumni Association at www.dlsaa.com/honors-and-awards/awardees/de-mesa-teodoro-maximiliano-m.

de Mesa, Maximiliano Teodoro

Birthday: April 1, 1944

Death: September 28, 2016

Parents: N/A

Spouse: Jenny de Mesa

Children: 2 (Chris, and Karl)

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