MANILA - One of the two organized groups of Filipino women who were victims of Japanese sexual abuse during World War II is hopeful of getting justice from Japan after the latter struck an agreement with South Korea in late December over the issue of "comfort women," its members and lawyers said Wednesday.
However, Isabelita Vinuya, 84, president of the Filipino comfort women group Malaya Lolas (Free Grandmothers), stressed the victims' hopes rest on the condition that the Philippine government and President Benigno Aquino help them demand an apology and compensation from the Japanese government, as the South Korean government did on behalf of South Korean comfort women.
The issue of comfort women relates to women mostly from Asia who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II. It has remained a sticking point in Japan's relations with a number of other nations. A number of women in the Philippines were also sexually abused by Japanese soldiers separately from the brothels. Malaya Lolas represents such women.
"We rely on our government because it is the only one that can help us. If it's only us, we might not even be recognized at all," Vinuya, a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 13, said in a news conference. Her suffering took place when Japanese soldiers stormed her village of Mapaniqui in Pampanga province, north of Manila, in November 1944.
"Our hope is revived, but of course that's only if the government and the president help us. We'll have much more hope if they actually do that," she said.
Vinuya was joined at the press conference by fellow victims Candelaria Soleman, 85, Avelina Culala, 84, and Emilia Mangilit, 82.
The governments of Japan and South Korea announced on Dec. 28 their agreement over South Korean comfort women.
Under the agreement, Japan acknowledges the injury caused by its military to the women's honor and dignity, and that it will earmark around 1 billion yen (some $8 million) to fund the establishment by South Korea of a foundation that will provide support for the remaining comfort women.
Harry Roque, the lead legal counsel for the Malaya Lolas, whose members have dwindled to 33 from 90 at the time of the organization's formation in 1997, said the Japan-South Korea agreement shows what government backing can do for the causes or struggles of its own nationals, something that the Filipino victims have not enjoyed.
He said that while the Constitutional Court of Korea ordered its government in 2011 to fight for the rights of South Korean comfort women, leading to the forging of the recent agreement with Japan, the Philippine Supreme Court rejected the same plea by Malaya Lolas in 2014.
"We are hoping that the discussions between South Korea and Japan will have an effect on our clients because, of course, we cannot allow Japan to only settle with South Koreans, and forget the Filipino and Chinese victims of rape," Roque said in the same press conference.
"What's important is not the amount (of financial compensation), but the mere fact that the Japanese government paid the victims in South Korea for the commission of an international crime, the crime of rape, during World War II...there should be a similar agreement between the Philippines and Japan. But again, of course, it depends if the president will fight for the rights of our comfort women."
Roque said that while there is no more available legal remedy in the Philippines for his clients, following the 2014 ruling of the Supreme Court against them, they are considering bringing the matter before various entities in the United Nations, such as the Committee on Torture, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and the Special Rapporteur on Transitional Justice.
They are also considering filing a criminal case for graft, dereliction of duty, and causing damage to women against Philippine officials in the executive department.
All complaints would be based on the fact that the South Korean government was able to successfully get the Japanese government to admit to the crime and pay compensation to South Korean comfort women.
Vinuya said they will reiterate their demands when Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visit the Philippines later this month by writing them a letter and possibly holding a demonstration.
Malaya Lolas, which is based in Mapaniqui, does not regard as an official government statement the apologies expressed by various Japanese officials over the last several years. They were also excluded from the Asian Women's Fund that gave compensation to some other comfort women in the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia starting in the mid-1990s because, according to them, unlike the intended beneficiaries -- comfort women -- who were abused for a longer period, Malaya Lolas members only suffered for a night.
A group of Filipino comfort women, the Lila Pilipina (League of Filipino Grandmothers), whose original 174 members have dwindled to 70 as a result of the deaths of a number of the women, has regarded the Japan-South Korea agreement as a moral gain in the struggle of the latter's comfort women, and hopes it will inspire Aquino to do the same for the Filipino victims.
In earlier pronouncements, Aquino has already acknowledged the apologies offered by several Japanese leaders and officials, and sought to deal with the demands of the Filipino comfort women internally, instead of passing it on to the Japanese government.
However, the two groups complain that there is still continuing disregard for their concerns and no one from the Aquino government has reached out to them.
There were an estimated 1,000 Filipino women who were sexually abused by Japanese soldiers from 1941 up to 1945. The surviving victims are now in their 80s.