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Honor or Horror? A History of Hazing in the Philippines

This tradition of supposed 'respect for seniors' dates further back in history than we realize.
ILLUSTRATOR Roland Mae Tanglao
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Philippine Military Academy Cadet 4th Class Darwin Dormitorio died of cardiac arrest due to internal bleeding on September 18, 2019. A month leading up to his death, he was humiliated and beaten by upperclassmen as part of his initiation, an unspoken tradition at the academy. He is the latest victim of hazing in the Philippines.

The 20-year-old bore many of the physical blows that were inflicted on him, including being forced to perform cruel exercises and having his face wrapped in plastic soaked with rubbing alcohol, but the abuse continued. After returning to the dorm from the hospital where he was diagnosed with urinary tract infection, his assailants electrocuted his genitals with a taser. He died early the next day.

At this rate, despite laws against dangerous initiation rites, hazing seems to be unstoppable (even President Rodrigo Duterte says it can't be eliminated). These brutal actions have become synonymous with fraternities, which gives brotherhood a bad reputation. What's more unfortunate is that fraternities and hazing didn't start out this way. Their separate histories should serve as a reminder that one doesn't have to exist without the other.

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Pennalism and Fagging

Fraternities can be traced back to the Renaissance, according to Louie Blake S. Sarmiento, who did extensive research on such organizations. Before trade unions or health services became available, people relied on guilds (usually groups for craftworkers) for protection and care. To distinguish members even from distant places, secret signs or handshakes were developed. 

In 16th-century London, guilds provided a social support function. They eventually evolved into philosophical organizations that espoused brotherly love and charity. They were known as fraternal orders or fraternities. 

Hazing, on the other hand, was said to have existed since the time of Plato. The philosopher’s academy in 387 B.C. was plagued with a practice called “pennalism” where young men played practical jokes on anyone who got in their way. Plato was against this and even compared the perpetrators to wild animals.

Despite opposition, this practice continued into the Middle Ages, coinciding with the founding of the first universities. There were cases in history when pennalism was banned in schools, such as the University of Paris in the 14th century. One of the more famous participants of hazing was Protestant leader Martin Luther who allegedly endured the practice as a student in Erfurt. According to records, he reportedly supported hazing, which he believed built tenacity among young men. 

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Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

In England, pennalism included the practice of “fagging” or humiliating first-year students. In universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, fagging meant being a servant of students from the upper years. Even Harvard had a similar tradition that was dictated by college rules. During the prestigious university’s early years, it required “freshmen run errands for all upperclassmen, never be ‘saucey’ and obey every upperclassman’s order.”  

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During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the fraternal orders of Europe were transported to America by English immigrants. It wasn’t long before these groups established themselves in colleges, including the Flat Hat Club in 1750 and the P.D.A. Society in 1773, both of which focused on academics and literature. 

According to records, the oldest Greek-named fraternity in the U.S. is Phi Beta Kappa founded on December 5, 1776, an honor society rather than a social fraternity. It was in the mid-1800s when these organizations spread across America and established chapters in different parts of the world.  



The First Fraternities in the Philippines 

Sarmiento also traced the origins of fraternities in the Philippines. According to his research, in the Philippines, the Spaniards were said to have their own fraternal orders that didn’t invite Filipinos. Citing the 1908 book History and Geography of the Philippine Islands by author O.W. Coursey, Sarmiento noted that Filipinos felt this was unfair. They would have their time, however, with the arrival of the Odd Fellows Brotherhood in the Philippines in 1872. Just five years later, the Americans brought the Freemason Brotherhood and lodges were established by military men assigned in Manila. The lodges were usually found in military base camps. These were the same men who would later fight in the Spanish-American war.

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In 1899, the ties of brotherhood were disrupted when the Filipino-American war erupted. When the war ended in 1902, things returned to normal and the Odd Fellows, Freemasons, and the Elks established lodges in the Manila area.

Of course, local fraternities were also established by Filipinos. According to Sarmiento, the most famous of which was the Kataastaasang Kagalangalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan founded in 1892 Despite being a fraternity, it also welcomed women and, in fact, valued gender equality. The main purpose of the group was the fight for independence and, even when the Americans took over, remaining members continued fighting. With Americans labeling the remaining members as terrorists and bandits, the group suffered from a lack of support and funding and eventually died out.

University-based fraternities emerged when American education reached Philippine shores. It was at the University of the Philippines, where the first College Fraternity Rizal Center was founded. It was a brotherhood of Jose Rizal followers.

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The first Filipino Greek Letter Fraternity, Upsilon Sigma Phi, was founded in 1918, considered to be the oldest in Asia and exclusive to UP Diliman and UP Los Banos students. The oldest sorority in the Philippines is the UP Sigma Beta Sorority, founded in 1932, which is also exclusive to UP students. 

Fraternities stopped during the Second World War but, after the war, they rose up again, especially in the '50s and '60s. During this time, American fraternities built chapters in the Philippines, including Alpha Phi Omega. Several local fraternities also made alliances with fraternities in the U.S.

While many associate hazing with these fraternities, this tradition and even the unfortunate deaths that resulted from these practices are not exclusive to such organizations. 

Photo by PIXABAY.
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Death and Hazing   

In the U.S., the first recorded death by hazing was at Cornell University in 1873 by the Kappa Alpha Society. The victim was Mort Leggett who entered the university the same year. By this time, hazing was a norm and first years expected to be paddled and humiliated and undergo physical challenges. 

To “earn” his membership into Kappa Alpha Society, Leggett was blindfolded and marched up a slippery and narrow trail beside a ravine. It was nighttime and Leggett was said to have been abandoned by his seniors. Amid the treacherous circumstances, he fell down the gorge. None of the Kappa Alpha Society members were punished and several details of Leggett’s death were omitted from school records, including the fact that the young pledge was blindfolded during the ordeal. Historians write that this is proof that coverups have been happening since 1873.  

In the Philippines, the first recorded death of a pledge or neophyte in a fraternity was in 1954. Members of Upsilon Sigma Phi allegedly mauled Gonzalo Mariano Albert whose appendix burst, leaving him to die in the emergency room. This prompted then President Ramon Magsaysay to form an executive committee to investigate Albert’s death. 

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The committee, composed of University of the Philippines officials, submitted a 116-page report to Magsaysay on October 29, 1954. It stated that, according to the medico-legal findings, the hazing did not contribute to Albert’s death. The beating he received, however, weakened his physical condition.

The report did recommend that certain members of the fraternity be made responsible for what happened, including the expulsion of four officers of Upsilon and a one-year suspension for 25 members. The report also recommended the elimination of physical initiation for fraternities and sororities in UP. However, this report was forgotten and was never acted upon.

At least nine other hazing victims were reported after Gonzalo’s death, and in 1995, Republic Act 8049 or the “Anti-Hazing Law" was passed. Tragically, this law was borne out of another death linked to hazing.

The victim this time was Lenny Villa, an Ateneo student, who wanted to be part of the Aquila Legis fraternity. According to reports, he was beaten until he died on February 10, 1991. This highly publicized case led to the conviction of five members. Fidelito Dizon, Antonio Mariano Almeda, Junel Anthony Ama, Renato Bantug Jr., and Vincent Tecson were found guilty of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide. Their punishment included imprisonment ranging from four months to four years and P1 million in damages. 

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This decision was given 21 years after Villa’s death

After Villa’s case, there were at least 23 other hazing-related deaths in fraternities. A more recent one was of Horacio Castillo III’s, a student from the University of Sto. Tomas. However, this statistic does not include those who died from the alleged hazing of gangs (in 2015, a 14-year-old boy died after participating in the alleged hazing of the True Brown Style or TBS Gang in Bulacan) or even the upperclassmen from the Philippine Military Academy. The PMA also has its own separate record of deaths linked to the rite.

The earliest recorded case in the PMA was the death of Manuel Salas on February 13, 1978. It was reported that upperclassmen dropped shot puts or heavy metal balls on the stomachs of freshmen. Salas was killed while another student hemorrhaged and nearly died. The latter was Alan Purisima, who later became the chief of the Philippine National Police from December 2012 to February 2015.

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In 1981, Cadet 4th Class Andres Ramos Jr. reportedly died of traumatic shock due to severe beatings. The military court sentenced a cadet to five years of hard labor for his participation in hazing and another was suspended for not reporting what happened.

The next instance of death allegedly due to hazing in the PMA was in 2000. Cadet 4th Class Ace Bernabe Ekid was allegedly singled out by the upperclassmen for being good-looking and wealthy. However, the official investigation ruled out hazing and Ekid’s official cause of death was written to be heatstroke. 

Just a year later, these hazing rites claimed the lives of two more cadets, Edward Domingo and Monico de Guzman. In 2002, two cadets were convicted of homicide in Domingo’s death and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Darwin Dormitorio's recent death has once again sparked conversation on stricter anti-hazing laws.

Photo by PIXABAY.
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Revision of Laws?

According to a report by Philstar, after over two decades since the passage of the Anti-Hazing Law, there has only been one conviction. 

This was in 2015 when the Supreme Court found two Alpha Phi Omega members guilty of violating the law for the death of University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) student Marlon Villanueva in 2006.

In 2017, when Castillo’s death sparked discussion about the law, members of the upper and lower house filed separate bills seeking to amend the Anti-Hazing Law.

Senator Tito Sotto filed Senate Bill 223, which seeks to impose a heavier penalty when hazing is committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol and also when alumni are present during hazing. Another senator, Win Gatchalian, believes the current Anti-Hazing Law is not effective and must be overhauled to eliminate loopholes. 

Gatchalian's Senate Bill 199 aims to prohibit all forms of hazing, except for initiation rites that do not inflict physical or psychological suffering or injury. This is similar to House Bill 3467 by Bagong Henerasyon party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy. The same bill proposes heavier fines and longer sentences. At the same time, Gatchalian wants schools to educate students about the consequences of hazing. 

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If hazing has terrible consequences, why does it keep happening? And why has it been practiced for centuries? Is loyalty truly forged through shared hardships? (Read: Brotherhood: In Defense of Fraternities)

“We all went through this,” Senator Panfilo Lacson of PMA Class of 1971 said during a budget hearing on September 30, 2019. 

The senator sympathized with both Dormitorio and the cadets who face lifelong consequences due to his death. Lacson also authored an amended Anti-Hazing Law that finally defined hazing as a crime, regardless of whether it results in someone’s injury or death. 

“Times have changed,” Lacson said during the same hearing. 

For more on the history of fraternities, Sarmiento will be publishing a book History and Encyclopedia of Philippine Fraternities and Sororities: The Glory Days of the Past and the Issues Faced Today." (In Progress).

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Nicai de Guzman
Nicai de Guzman is the Head of Marketing of Rising Tide, one of the fastest-growing mobile and digital advertising technology companies in the Philippines. She also writes for SPOT.ph and Entrepreneur.com.ph.
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