By ROCKY JAKE NGALOB
Known to many, most law students are most conservative and timid type of students. Conservative in a way that they don’t want to involve themselves with any student demonstration that advocates social change. And timid, because they cower behind their law books memorizing provisions and learning its wisdom but fail to impart to society that is exploited due to the complex legal sphere which law students, lawyers and the chosen few can only comprehend.
As a young law student
This however was not the case with the late Attorney Kissack Gabaen during his time in law school. Kissack as a young law student in Baguio Colleges Foundation (BCF) used his knowledge of the law for the benefit of the student sector in the late 90’s. He practiced his knowledge simultaneously with the student struggle wherein he found himself leading one of the most historic student mass mobilizations in Baguio. This was the first victory he and his fellow student leaders could claim on the side of the oppressed student sector.
They, he and other student leaders who are now also lawyers, barricaded BCF in protest against unjust tuition fee increase. For three straight days, they picketed and fenced the five entry gates of BCF which paralyzed its operation. The institution then eventually gave-in to the demands of the students and the school had to refund the unjust increase to its students. This was a scene in BCF where the long lines of students were not to pay but to withdraw their tuition from the cashier’s window.
The young law student Kissack also gave legal consultations and advice to fellow students regarding their vested student rights when he was elected Secretary of the Supreme Student Government (SSG). The SSG office in BFC was open to all students thus it was always packed with students seeking services, like those who were barred from taking the exams because they were not able to secure permits. Kissack along with others acted as a negotiating panel of sorts to argue in behalf of the students to take their exams. Their office was also tagged as the dirtiest because of the scattered placards, streamers, flags and paint. But despite this, their SSG office was crowned as the student center of BFC during their time.
As a law graduate and a volunteer paralegal
Fresh out of graduation, Kissack volunteered with the Cordillera Indigenous Law Center or Dinteg, (the ibaloi term for law) a law center that provides free legal services to the indigent locals of Cordillera. Here, he gave free legal education services and trainings to students and to different communities. Especially to communities then that were going to be affected by the building of the San Roque dam.
Kissack also extended his services to other downstream agriculture areas that were affected by the Lepanto mining company. He conducted numerous discussions on the legal remedies which the communities can use against the destruction being perpetuated by Lepanto mining on their means of livelihood, the environment and dwelling areas.
He functioned like a lawyer even when he was but a paralegal volunteer long before he even passed the Bar exam and not just as any lawyer but as a people’s lawyer.
As a family man
After having witnessed and experienced the issues plaguing the indigenous communities of Cordillera and its neighboring provinces, Kissack devoted himself to aiding the needy, sadly even when it called for him to leave his family for a while. Karl, his younger brother never did understand Kissack’s decisions where he isolated himself and chose his “work” over his family. It was only during Kissack’s wake as people came to give him tribute that Karl realized the rationale behind why his older brother took the less-traveled-road to helping the needy. Here, Karl gained closure to the pain he carried against his older brother not being able to attend his wedding years ago.
Kissack did not only think of his family’s welfare and future but also the majority of the needy indigenous people as well. He fought not only for the future of his children but also for the future of the voiceless children. His children never understood this until his wake where they heard testimonies after testimonies of people who Kissack had worked with and numerous people from the communities whom Kissack helped and extended his services.
As a people’s lawyer
While reviewing for the Bar, Kissack squeezed time from his limited studying hours to join rallies in Manila and tagging along his review buddies. His review buddies include Atty. Manja Bayang and Atty. Randy Kinaud. When Kissack also secured his license as lawyer, he joined the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a nationwide union of people’s lawyers that aims to protect, defend and promote human rights, most especially for the marginalized populace.
Most of Kissack’s early clients were from the urban poor, youth, students, labor and indigenous peoples, among them were mostly political activists and human rights defenders. This continued even when he was employed as the Regional Presiding Officer of the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in Region Four.
His employment with government through NCIP did not make him veer away from the path of a people’s lawyer. In fact, Kissack helped remind the NCIP officials in Region 4 of the real intent and wisdom of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) to uphold the welfare of the IPs. A clear testament of this is the pending administrative case Santos vs Gabaen, wherein Kissack denied an almost half a billion worth project in Region Four. An implied gesture of being on the side of the affected IPs over the multi billion foreign investment.
Kissack’s love for serving the IPs did not stop there, on his spare time mostly on the weekends if he was back in Baguio, he would always find time for events and forums in need of his expertise as a resource speaker or to inspire audiences. He would travel to the far-flung communities of Cordillera to render legal services as NUPL. Among which were travels to the outskirts of Ifugao threatened by a proposed 390MW hydro power dam.
The people then resisted and started organizing their ranks, then their leaders were sent numerous death threats. Even the office staff of the Ifugao Peasant Movement (IPM) were sent an envelope containing a photo of an Ifugao cloth used to wrapped their dead with the phrase “Gray-May, June-Gloom, and No Sky-July”. This prompted Kissack to return to Ifugao with hopes to boost the morale of the people so they could assert their rights to the protection of their Ancestral Domain and not to cower in fear despite the threats.
Prior to him being employed by NCIP, Kissack was a member pool of lawyers in the James Balao case. He was also acted as one of our BIBAK adviser in University of Baguio. He stayed behind us all the way, most especially during the time when all of our officers were issued an exclusion order by the University. He shared his expertise in the table negotiations that helped greatly in lowering the sanction against us then from exclusion to probation. All of us who were issued exclusion, graduated. Some were even inspired by Kissack and now are enrolled in law school including this author.
What we will miss most of Kissack is his banter about his accomplishments as a student leader while he was a law student, and rightfully he should, because probably it was his way of encouraging us to go beyond his accomplishments as a student leader.
“Nalaka ti law school no ag field kayo” (Law school will be less difficult if you do field work and immerse yourselves inside the community), were the words that always comes out from his mouth every time he sees us with our annotated law books. True enough, because it is only through immersion where you can grasp and comprehend accurately the issues, and from there you can appreciate the application of law.
Kissack may have died at the young age of 43, but the way he lived his life fighting alongside the oppressed and marginalized, he has outlived those who existed for more than half of century who chose to live their lives at the side of the oppressors.
We lived in feudal society where the oppressors, the ruling elite, those who monopolize political power and hog economic resources, tilt the scale of our justice system in their favor, living behind a trail of human rights abuses, oppression and exploitation. It is our responsibility as students of law not only to tip the scale of balance for the masses but also to educate and boost the awareness of the people about the prevailing social and economic inequities plaguing our country.
Let us break the culture of dogmatism among students of law and once again revive the militancy within them as agents of law. As what Kissack once said before we enrolled in law school, “true agents of law should advocate social change and should root their decisions from the people’s struggle for justice not from the government, not from the law books, and most especially not from vested self interests”.
Thank you and farewell Atty Kissack Gabaen. # nordis.net