MMDA's Pialago under fire for 'zero empathy' toward activist Nasino, baby River

Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) spokesperson Celine Pialago came under fire for her remarks on the plight of detained activist Reina Mae Nasino and Nasino's daughter, River, who died at 3 months old.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, October 18, Pialago said not all mothers who are detained are able to join their children's burials. Nasino's supporters, added Pialago, should scrutinize who the detained activist is.

The original post was deleted, but a screenshot was reposted on the same Facebook page. (READ: Baby River, who died in 'cracks' of justice system, laid to rest under tight police watch)

"Kaya iyong mga sumisimpatiya kay Reina Mae Nasino, pag-aralan 'nyo mabuti ang dahilan bakit siya nakulong at kilalanin 'nyong mabuti kung sino siya sa lipunan," said Pialago, who holds the rank of assistant secretary. "Masyado ninyong ginagawang pang-drama serye sa hapon ang paghihinagpis niya. Tigilan 'nyo!"

(To those sympathizing with Reina Mae Nasino, know first why she's detained and understand who she is in society. You're making so much drama about her grief. Stop it!)

A day later, Pialago stood by her "drama serye" statement, as it was directed at groups "taking advantage" of the situation.

"I'm not taking back the term 'drama serye,'" she said in a text message, even as she extended "apologies to all grieving mothers if they think I'm insensitive, same to Miss Nacino (sic)."

Screenshot from Celine Pialago's Facebook page

Prisoners' rights group Kapatid, in a statement, said words and actions that downplay what happened to Nasino "are desperate attempts to cover" the violations by the Duterte government.

"It is a real story that exposed the countless injustices committed by the government," the group said.

"MMDA Chair Danny Lim, a former political prisoner himself, should have long shown the door to his spokesperson.... It should be obvious by now that sensitivity cannot be taught nor proper manners and right conduct if one is empty-headed," Kapatid added.

Nasino, who was arrested in November 2019 during a crackdown on progressive groups, bid goodbye to her daughter River while in handcuffs and surrounded by police on Friday, October 16.

They were separated a month after Nasino gave birth on July 1, despite widespread calls for the child to stay with her mother. Three-month-old River later died of acute respiratory distress syndrome on October 9. (READ: The role they failed to play: How courts let down baby River)

Nasino was originally granted a continuous 3-day furlough for the wake and burial, but a Manila court cut it to 6 hours – spread over 2 days, for 3 hours each – after the Manila City Jail Female Dormitory claimed there was inadequate manpower to guard the activist. But critics pointed out that dozens of law enforcement personnel were deployed during the furlough – "overkill."

The Salinlahi Alliance for Children's Concerns demanded that Pialago apologize for her remarks, saying that the MMDA spokesperson showed conduct unbecoming of a public official.

"The statement of Ms Pialago demonstrates the systematic and continuing effort of the Duterte administration in inflicting further pain and suffering [on] Reina and [on] those who mourn over the death of baby River," the group said.

Human rights lawyer Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers said groups would also sympathize with Pialago if she were in Nasino's position.

"To start with, we will never ever wish this horrible tragedy and injustice to visit the Asec, her mother, her daughters, her sisters, and her aunts," Olalia said.

On social media, Filipinos denounced Pialago for "disrespect" and "zero empathy" toward Nasino and baby River.

They also pointed out that Nasino remains innocent until proven guilty.


Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.