Introduction: A Biographical Sketch
A Revolutionary Is Not a Terrorist
Fourteen points sum up the life of Jose Maria Sison in his complaint to the European Court of Justice demanding the removal of his name from the list of terrorists issued by the Council of the European Union. But no phrase in the 34-paged document indicates who or what Professor Sison is more than the demand that the Council of the European Union and Commission of the European Communities not only remove his name and person from the list but also pay him damages.
It is rare for people from poor and powerless countries to take on powerful governments. To the delighted exclamation of Filipinos the world over, Jose Maria Sison is proving to be the exception. The demand for damages is a valuation of one’s honor and reputation. A revolutionary is not a terrorist.
At the crux of this court action lies a deceptive maneuver by the Philippine government to coerce the revolutionary National Democratic Front to accept a virtual surrender or risk a direct confrontation with the US. Taking advantage of the United States’ need to have allies post-September 11, the Philippine government sought to have its domestic rivals included in the US “war on terrorism.” Obviously in accordance with an agreement between Bush and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo reached during the latter’s state visit to the US in November 2001, US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on August 9, 2002, shortly after his visit to Manila, the designation of the Communist Party of the Philippines/New Peoples Army a foreign terrorist organization. The US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control subsequently added Sison, Jose Maria (a.k.a. Liwanag, Armando), together with the CPP/NPA, to its list of “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons”.
Professor Sison has admitted to having been Amado Guerrero, former CPP chair. But, in his application to the European Court he points out that “the CPP Constitution requires that the Chairman be present in the Philippines in order to lead the central organs and the entire CPP on a daily basis.”
Ironically, even as Professor Sison, the CPP and the NPA continue to be classified as “terrorists,” the administration of President Macapagal-Arroyo has begun to reopen peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The latter includes both the CPP and the NPA, and Professor Sison is the chief NDFP political consultant. Should the negotiations go through as planned in February, 2004, Professor Sison will sit at the table with representatives of a government which had lobbied for his inclusion in the “terrorists” list—as he had done many times before; as he did in 2001, when the Philippine government unilaterally “recessed” the peace talks.
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The summer of 2001 most likely exemplified the rhythm of existence in Europe for exiled Filipino revolutionaries led by Jose Maria Sison: frenetic activity punctuating days of ennui and quiet study; interaction within and. among a severely restricted social circle juxtaposed against a world-spanning political concern.
It began with the founding congress of the International League of Peoples’ Struggles (ILPS) the weekend of May 24th. Some 400 men and women from 232 mass organizations from 40 countries descended on the hotel Landgoed in Almen, an amiable Dutch village of foliage-shrouded brick buildings breathing cold in the weak sunlight, where only 200 participants were expected. Despite the disintegration of well-laid registration plans, the ILPS founding congress was a resounding success, auguring well for the political center designed to bring together people engaged in the struggle for national and social liberation.
Not surprising, roughly 28% of the delegates were of Philippine origin, though not all residents of that country and some a generation or even two removed from it. They came, both in the knowledge that, while joining anything Professor Sison led could be disruptive of normal existence, with him there was always something new to learn. The day the first plenary opened at Hansehof Hall in the small city of Zutphen, those who flew 17 hours from Manila, Philippines sat in the lobby like exhausted dark herons, suitcases, bags and backpacks arranged in neat nests about their feet.
Barely two weeks later, Sison and his community were traveling via plane, train, ferry and bus to Oslo, Norway, for the second round of peace talks between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the new Philippine government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The peace talks had gone on for 15 years, through three Philippine presidents. Some 38 folders of documents, each four inches thick, on shelves in the NDFP Utrecht (the Netherlands) office, catalogued the process. The first round that April 2001 had gone off without incident, agreements reached painlessly; it seemed that, with a president and a panel who’d grown up with the revolution’s generations, a measure of peace could be achieved with minimum compromise.
But hardly had this round of talks begun when the government panel declared a unilateral recess. The excuse was the death of a notorious former Marcos military torturer, via gunfire from the New People’s Army (NPA), the CPP’s armed organization.
The respite afforded by the recess of the peace talks was broken by the death of Antonio Zumel, honorary chairperson of the NDFP. Summer was ending in an unbearable mood. Zumel succumbed to a variety of long standing disorders a few days after his 69th birthday. A former president of he National Press Club of the Philippines, he had gone underground when the late Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Nearly 30 years later, his friends, colleagues and comrades honored his life and contributions to the Philippine revolution at a quiet service in the country of his exile. Among those who rose to pay him tribute was Jose Maria Sison, himself a writer and revolutionary, who had been perhaps the most significant influence on Zumel’s life. In the middle of a sentence, Sison abruptly stopped, gave an awkward smile and left the podium. A hundred people witnessed this with mixed emotions; Sison was not one known to lose composure or fortitude, no matter the occasion. A subtle adjustment took place, altering people’s idea and image of the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Jose Maria Sison had set the tenor of political discourse and led the struggle in the archipelago since the age of 20. Belief and trust in him were created by nine years of legal mass struggles (1959-1968), eight years underground (late 1969-1977), nine years in prison (1977-1986), undergoing torture, including eighteen months with one arm and one leg shackled to the frame of a steel bed, and now more than a decade in exile (1987-2001) in a country whose language, to Filipinos, is always only on the verge of comprehension.
To his own peers, he remains the measure of a generation’s greatness and the standard by which commitment and service to the people are gauged. To the young, his writings provide a comprehensive view of Philippine history and a viable analysis of the perennial crisis afflicting the country. In common parlance, he taught his people to ask questions, indeed what questions to ask, and gave them explanations as to why we are the way we are, who’s responsible for the way we are, what should we be if we are not to be the way we are and how should we go about becoming different. For 40 years, the answers have remained steadfast. More importantly, Professor Sison himself has remained steadfast to the vision he helped craft. In a country and nation where there are no absolutes, where a jerry-rigged existence often dictates that one sell today what one held most precious yesterday—from land to women—such constancy is precious.
About Jose Maria Sison
Listed by American political science professor Robert Gorham in A Bibliographical Dictionary of Marxism (London: Publishing Ltd., 1986), as among the most important 210 Marxists since the publication of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Jose Maria Sison has based his leadership on changing the way people look at the world, look at themselves and their relationship to that world. He has done this and does it through his writings, both poetry and political analyses; and through the way his own life has been lived: in the organizing of, and in leading and guiding, every significant Filipino activist group, as well as the entire revolutionary movement itself.
Of his writings, the most influential are Struggle for National Democracy (1964), Philippine Society and Revolution (1971), Our Urgent Tasks (1974), and Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War (1976), the last three under his nom de guerre Amado Guerrero. In the last decade, his ideas comprised the cornerstones of the CPP’s Second Great Rectification Movement (1990-1992), as embodied in Reaffirm Our Basic Principles and Rectify Errors (published in Rebolusyon, 1992 January-March). His poetry, recognized regionally through a Southeast Asian WRITE Award conferred by the King of Thailand, serves both as model and encouragement among young Filipino writers to immerse themselves in Philippine revolutionary literary traditions.
But it’s in the thousands and thousands of Filipinos and Filipinas, working collectively in mass organizations which Professor Sison himself characterizes as world-class, and which political observers the world over accept as the strongest and most unique feature of the Philippine revolutionary movement where his legacy lies most tellingly. From the small Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines (SCAUP) founded in 1959, to the Kabataang Makabayan (KM—Patriotic Youth) founded in 1964, to Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN—New Patriotic Alliance) founded in 1985, to the National Democratic Front (NDFP) itself, founded in 1973, each Sison-inspired and motivated organization represents an advance in political thought, strategy and achievement. Every single one played a major role in the political development of the people of the archipelago.
Professor Jose Maria Sison is popularly referred to as Ka Joma (ka for kasama, comrade), JMS, Joema, Joe, Mahoma, or, if one were a close friend, Marya (Filipino pronunciation of Maria).The joke is that one can tell when a person began his/her involvement in the movement by which moniker he/she uses for Professor Sison. Strangely enough, if one used his formal name, it had to be complete: Jose Maria Sison. Few felt that Jose alone sufficed to identify such a unique individual.
Underground and in the countryside, Joma would be the propesor (professor), the peasants linking him to the honorable tradition of guro (teacher, from the Sanskit guru). Ironically, in the last decade, Western Europe would know him by the title professor. By whatever name, however, Ka Joma seemed the most unlikely and yet the likeliest to revive a moribund Communist Party, and ignite a revolution impossible to smother, never mind that four Philippine presidents tried and a fifth is now trying. He seems to embody the Marxist thesis that individuals become in accordance with the needs of the times; on the other hand, his life leads one to conclude that how the times unfold also depends on the character of the very individual responds to those needs.
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Jose Maria Sison was born on February 8, 1939, of a clan of landlords in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, in a region where the only extant Luzon epic, Biag ni Lam-ang, about an Ilocano warrior, survived the combined assault of 400 years of Spanish colonialism and Christianity. He grew up and acquired consciousness in the Ilocos region and the city of Manila, at a time when US neocolonialism appeared permanently rooted in the archipelago, all rebellion pacified, all protest quelled, and all questioning stifled.
The 1950s rebellion waged by the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (People’s Liberation Army), contemptuously called the Huks by reactionary forces led by U.S. advisers, had been crushed decisively, its main units decimated, scattered or reduced to small roving bands. Practically the entire Political Bureau and the Central Committee of the CPP itself had been captured and imprisoned. US control of the archipelago was so tight that an American CIA colonel could get away with slapping a disobedient Philippine president; CIA-connected Filipino military officers could threaten another hapless Philippine president who instituted import and currency controls or deigned to even breathe a foreign policy slightly divergent from that of the so-called “Free World.”
US domination of the islands was visible in the presence of Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, the largest American overseas military bases. Parenthetically, one of the 22 sites reserved for US bases was a Sison property in the seaside barrio of Salomague in Ka Joma’s hometown. The Philippines was also a source of recruits and skilled personnel for the US military. Even the state university ran classes at Clark. To this day, Filipino recruits of the US military are not required to change their citizenship, so certain are the former colonial masters of the colonized’s loyalty.
Long before he began organizing at the University of the Philippines, there were indications that Ka Joma wouldn’t be the usual run of rich family scion. Sons of wealthy families have their lives mapped out for them. Jose Maria Sison was no exception. By his father’s plans, he was supposed to train in journalism, enter law school, go to Harvard for graduate studies, return and marry the daughter of a rich family, enter politics and perhaps become president. In such a tried and tested clan manner would the family’s economic and social position be preserved and expanded. He was supposed to become what current Philippine activists call a trapo (Filipino portmanteau for traditional politician, also Tagalog for dustcloth).
The Sisons trace their origins to a 16th century trading ship captain from Fujien Province, China, but the first Filipino Sison was registered in the 18th century in Lingayen, Pangasinan, as a Sangley mestizo (Chinese-Malay), in peculiar racist practice of Spanish colonial rule. A Sison moved to Vigan, Ilocos Sur in 1810 and married into a Spanish-Malay clan. Over the ensuing years, the Sisons would wend their way through the contradictions of the times, now serving the colonial government, now joining in local and national anti-colonial movements. Professor Sison’s grandfather, Don Gorgonio Sison, was Cabugao’s last gobernadorcillo (little governor) under Spanish colonialism, municipal president under the Philippine revolutionary government and first town mayor under US colonialism. On the other hand, Don Gorgonio’s father-in-law, Don Leandro Serrano, and his sons had also been arrested, imprisoned and tortured, first by Spanish officers for complicity in Asia’s first anti-colonial revolution in 1896 and then by US occupation forces in 1898, who also shipped them to exile.
That revolution and reaction should run as intertwined themes in generation after generation in the Philippines is no surprise. The country has been in one firefight after another, people surviving and prevailing the best way they can, ever since the Spaniards stumbled upon the islands in 1521. Most members of the Filipino intelligentsia can lay claim to such a contradictory legacy. Few, however, synthesize both history and life experience to create a relevant political philosophy. Still fewer merge words with actions. When they do, they bring together so many strands of the archipelago’s life that the result is simply grand.
Contrary to the standard practice of wealthy families, the boy Sison was not sent to a private Catholic school and instead attended public school for his elementary education. This brought him into close contact with the children of the poor. How significant this was to the formation of his worldview was evident in a rich-poor love story he wrote in Grade Three, which was published in the Ilocano magazine Bannawag. The story didn’t have the usual happy ending, indicating that even at a young age, class conciliation was not in Sison’s experiential and intellectual realm.
At age 12, he was sent to Manila for high school education at the Jesuit Ateneo de Manila. He had difficulty adjusting to the school’s religious demands. Suspected of leading his classmates in a protest against a Jesuit teacher, he was given an honorable dismissal at the end of his second year, despite his standing as an honors student. His parents transferred him to the Dominican friar-run Letran. Here as in Ateneo, he did well in academics but got low grades in religion. By graduation, he had decided on two things: to enroll at the secular University of the Philippines and to finish his four-year course in three years.
He was not, however, entering the university as a tabula rasa. At Letran, he had encountered the writings of Marx and Engels, ironically in an anti-communist book; he had listened to his father’s expressed admiration for Don Claro M. Recto, the lone senator to question Philippine-US relations; and he had heard Huk stories from his barber, who was a sympathizer of the communist-led rebellion.
The Times of a Radical
The decade of the 1950s opened with a declaration of armed struggle by the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP—Communist Party of the Philippines), wielding the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB—People’s Liberation Army), in an ill-conceived plan to seize state power in two years. That the CPP had been practically coerced into such a move, shortly after World War II and US grant of independence to the country, by the reimposition of US and landlord control, did not blur the fact that the revolutionary forces were not prepared for the banner of “all-out armed struggle” that the party unfolded. The defeat of armed struggle plunged the archipelago into a decade of revolutionary ebb.
The PKP was first established on November 7, 1930 by Crisanto Evangelista, a trade union leader. Although the archipelago had struggled for nearly 400 years, first against Spanish colonialism, then against US colonialism, averaging nearly one uprising every two years, the fire of resistance leaping from region to region, island to island, the PKP’s founding was the first effort towards a comprehensive analysis of the country’s history and conditions. It marked the first time a comprehensive vision was put forward towards the creation of a self-contained nation. Henceforth the adversarial language would be Marxist and class a demarcation of one’s place within the country’s alignment of forces.
That the archipelago had over 7,000 islands and 150 languages, hence an equal number of ethno-linguistic communities, served Spanish, American and other invaders well. By pitting one tribe against another, the Spaniards were able to maintain control with only a minuscule armed force. Spanish colonial authority relied on subjective control exercised by Spanish friars and priests, through Inquisition-type Catholicism. The natives, called indios, were also maintained at the uneducated and subsistence level, burdened by taxes, tributes and conscript labor. It was only the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which enabled a small mestizo (Malay-Chinese-Spanish mixed blood) stratum of indio society to engage in trade and thereby appropriate surplus wealth. From this would come the ilustrados who first posited the idea of nationhood. But it would take a self-educated worker, the great Andres Bonifacio, to match action to words. He established the Katipunan ng Kataas-taasan at Kagalang-galangang Anak ng Bayan (Society of the Highest, Most Respected Children of the People), a secret revolutionary organization which would be known as the Katipunan.
Bonifacio and the Katipunan launched the first Philippine national liberation struggle in 1896. But at its height, he was murdered by a faction led by a Letran-educated former gobernadorcillo Emilio Aguinaldo. The latter compromised the revolution, accepted a truce with the Spaniards, and exiled himself and other leaders to Hong Kong. When he returned to the archipelago, he hitched a ride on a US warship. The Spanish-American War had broken out on the other side of the globe. The Aquinaldo leadership would proclaim and inaugurate the first Philippine Republic on June 12, 1898, under a constitution that stated categorically that the archipelago would forge its nationhood under the protection of the United States.
When the latter refused, after Spanish surrender, to recognize the Republic of the Philippines, the Philippine-American War broke out on February 4, 1899. Although pacifying the islands required deployment of half of the US Armed Forces and lasted more than a decade, this war would be minimized as the Philippine Insurgency, its revolutionary leaders called insurgents and bandits. Nearly one-tenth of the Philippine population died in this war. One-eighth of the population of Luzon, where Manila is located, perished as a result of the US military onslaught.
The Philippines was an American colony when the Communist Party of the Philippines was born. The PKP was primarily a worker’s organization, operating in the city of Manila. It led a checkered existence, now legal, now illegal, based on the whims and needs of the American colonial authorities. Only a year old, it was outlawed, the pretext being the violence that ensued when police attacked a workers’ rally in Manila on May 1, 1930. In 1932, Evangelista and other PKP leaders were convicted of sedition and sentenced to internal exile. In the same year, the Partido Sosyalista ng Pilipinas (PSP—Socialist Party of the Philippines) independently came into existence as a peasant movement in the Central Luzon countryside.
Faced by surging fascism overseas; the Philippine commonwealth government, still under US colonial authority, legalized the PKP in 1937, hoping to use its members as cannon fodder in the looming world war. This paved the way for the PKP and PSP to merge in 1938, creating the worker-peasant alliance much desired by Marxist parties. But war was already on the horizon and Japan attacked the Philippines in December 1941, soon after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Within a year, the Japanese Imperial Army was dominant over the archipelago, with American forces and collaborators either captured or in retreat to Australia. The Japanese decimated the first-line leadership of the merged PKP-PSP in February 1942. For the rest of its short history, the PKP-PSP would be led by two sets of brothers: the Lava and Taruc brothers.
On March 29, 1942, the new leadership formed the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap—People’s Army Against Japan). The call was to resist the invaders and their collaborators. The main base was at the foot of an isolated mountain, Mount Arayat, rising like a clenched fist out of the Central Plains of Luzon. Symbolism notwithstanding, the base was easily overrun, first by 10,000 Japanese troops.
One by-product of the struggle against the Japanese invaders was the establishment of peasant power and peasant control over lands abandoned by landlords who had fled either to the urban areas or overseas with the US Armed Forces. With the return of the US military in October 1944, the landlords reclaimed both land and tenants. Despite this, the PKP opted for legal participation in what was supposed to be a fully independent Philippines. But while the US was willing to relinquish administration of the country, it was not willing to relinquish economic control. A New York-based organization of American businessmen with investments in the archipelago demanded and got parity rights— i.e., equal rights as Filipinos in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. This required a constitutional amendment, which in turn required divesting members of the Democratic Alliance, a broad front political party of nationalists and revolutionaries, of their seats in the Philippine Congress.
The banning of the elected congressmen was accompanied by concerted attacks on trade unions, peasant associations and other organizations deemed influenced by the PKP. Arrests, imprisonment and assassinations were par for the course. In 1950, when all avenues for accommodation seemed closed, the PKP called for armed struggle. The Hukbalahap became Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan or People’s Liberation Army.
To bridge the gap between city and countryside, the PKP created a strange structure—a Political Bureau-In headed by Jose Lava, and a Political Bureau-Out, headed by his brother Jesus. The city-based Politburo-In was captured easily while the countryside-based Politburo-Out became immersed in a factional strife with two Taruc brothers, who had entered the PKP through the merger with the socialist party. Luis Taruc was commander-in-chief of the HMB and his brother Peregrino was in the Education Department of the PKP.
After the debacle of the armed struggle, Jesus Lava, as leader of the PKP, issued several policy decisions which further eroded PKP strength. Among these was the policy decision in 1955 to liquidate the people’s army and convert it into an “organizational brigade.” Another was the “single-file policy” of 1957, which reduced contact among party cadres to a one-on-one basis, thereby destroying the collective essence of party life. When the decade ended, the PKP was practically non-existent and non-operational, its reputation a matter of reminiscence among aging men and women. Into this fallow political state entered Jose Maria Sison, fresh from having organized the largest protest rally of university students in nearly three decades. He was then also a neophyte staff researcher and writer of the trade union movement.
A Self-Created Marxist
Joma was 20 years old when he graduated from the University of the Philippines, earning his four-year English degree in three, majoring in journalism and creative writing, in accordance with the first part of his father’s plan. He obtained a teaching fellowship while working on his masters. But he had been organizing informal study groups, having at last found some Marxist books in the university library, reading Marx, Engels, Mao Zedong, and some articles on the 1950s Huk rebellion. In 1959, he forged his first organization, the Student Cultural Association of the Philippines (SCAUP), a parody of the UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA). The Catholic Church maintained vigilant control over the secular university, through faculty members who were lay clerics, through UPSCA and via an American Jesuit priest assigned to the UP Catholic Chapel.
In 1961, verbal denunciations of the university, done largely by the re1igious and by military intelligence—for allegedly harboring communists and atheists—crystallized into a witch hunt by the Congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities (CAFA). Among those targeted were members of the Philosophy Department, then dominated by logical positivists and agnostics. Anti-communist hysteria was so intense and CIA psy-war operations so successful that doubting the existence of a white god was equated to being against everything Filipino.
The SCAUP, under the guidance of Jose Maria Sison, shaped an alliance of university organizations against the congressional hearings. It mounted a rally of 5,000 students and faculty before Congress, overrunning the hearings and halting it permanently, preventing a McCarthyite wave from destroying a government guarantee of academic freedom. SCAUP gained prestige and became a premier campus organization.
On the heels of this success, Jose Maria Sison criticized the curriculum of the English Department for its heavily pro-Christian choice of readings, and demanded the inclusion of radical writers. His teaching contract was not renewed, even though he was close to finishing his masters. Bad news certainly, for the young Sison had met Julieta de Lima, a young woman of dark and petite comeliness from Bicol Province. She had finished her degree in library science and was working as a university cataloguer when she agreed to marry Sison.
Because she was and is exceedingly self-effacing, Ms. De Lima was and is easy to underestimate. But she was by Sison’s side when the organizing began. The marriage having lasted four decades, all indications point to her remaining there to the end. Ms. De Lima, like her husband, would go underground, be captured, be imprisoned and like him, carry a substantial amount of government reward money on her head, among only a handful of Filipinas to be so honored.
In the early ‘60s, however, with one child and another on the way, losing one’s employment was real hardship. The Sisons had to relinquish cheap faculty housing and share a relative’s house. Despite the children, Julieta de Lima Sison became the family’s breadwinner, her salary augmented with a supply of produce from the Sison farmlands. Joma looked for employment but a challenged ruling system was both unforgiving and relentless. An intelligence dossier materialized at every prospective employer’s elbow. Even a brief stint at a private agricultural university ended when the university administration deemed him responsible for strikes in another enterprise of the owner. Overseas graduate school was no longer an option. The American Embassy in Manila had blacklisted Sison since 1961, a ban that persists to the present. Punishment, rather than co-optation, was authority’s preferred response to any challenge.
For the wielders of power in the Philippines, discontent was never the result of conditions but rather the work of instigators and agitators. In this manner, those in power held themselves not responsible, even though 70% of the population lived in unspeakable poverty, 20th century technology represented in the rural areas only by sodas and cigarettes, three stones still serving for a stove. Objectively speaking, there was no reason then as now for the poverty, the country being the world’s fifth largest gold producer and having nearly all mineral resources for industrial development, with land so fertile practically anything, even tulips, grew, with seas a blue garden of seaweed, fish and crustaceans. Yet, to this time, one meal a day was common among the poor, whose numbers increased exponentially with the passing of time, among a population where nearly 50% were minors.
Where a society was held together by institutionalized violence and pillage, intelligence and skills mattered little. Only the National Association of Trade Unions, opened its doors to the young Sison, the way to mainstream society being decisively blocked. While doing union work, he obtained a grant to study Indonesian language and literature. He still speaks Bahasa Indonesia. On a ferry ride to Norway in 2001, hearing from a tourist that she had just been to Bali, Sison asked if she spoke the language which occasioned much laughter among the young Filipinos accompanying him. They thought it was a bizarre pick-up line.
Indonesia, southern neighbor of the Philippines, was a mecca for Southeast Asian intellectuals in the 1950s and early 1960s. Under the leadership of Sukarno, the Indonesians had driven out the Dutch and established heir own state and nation. It had the largest communist party, the Partai Komunist Indonesia (PKI—Communist Party of Indonesia), outside the imperialist bloc. Here, Jose Maria Sison learned more about national liberation struggles and Marxism, making friends with PKI leaders and members. On his return to the Philippines, he was stopped at the airport, his books and papers seized by Intelligence. Among them would be his draft masters thesis on the Filipino novelist, Nick Joaquin. This was one degree he would not finish.
Before leaving for Indonesia, however, Sison had received a message from Jesus Lava, still hiding in Manila, asking for a meeting. A year passed before the request could be acted on. Lava assigned a nephew of his and the young Sison, already a self-made Marxist, to form an Executive Committee. In early 1963, then, Sison found himself in a committee of five: two Lavas, one close Lava friend, a union leader and himself. Jesus Lava hovered in the background as PKP secretary-general. Sison would be designated secretary for youth.
Two events in mid-decade would turn out to be life-altering decisions for Jose Maria Sison. First, with a charter membership of around 80, he led the founding of Kabataang Makabayan (KM—Patriotic Youth), a political center for young men and women, irrespective of class. Having joined the faculty of the Lyceum of the Philippines, he had a rich terrain for recruitment and organizing. Second, he proposed to the PKP that a summing up and critique of Party history and experience were in order.
This was 1964. One Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, senate president from Ilocos Norte, switched political parties to bag the presidential candidacy. Marcos exhibited the same strategic thinking that Jose Maria Sison had, the difference being that the former thought in centrifugal terms—of himself first, his family, his friends. Marcos had a reputation for being brilliant, topping the bar exams, and buying war medals after WWII to establish his claim to being the war’s most decorated hero. In actuality, his family collaborated with the Japanese invaders. In the creation of a personal mythology, Marcos would have no equal.
The KM gave Marcos’s candidacy critical support, because of a campaign promise to keep the Philippines out of the Vietnam War, which had become an American war. His predecessor, Diosdado Macapagal, father of current Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, had imposed de-control measures, reversing his own predecessor’s policy of protecting the fledgling Philippine economy from transnational corporations. It was a futile attempt to curry favor with the US and the International Monetary Fund/World Bank.
Macapagal’s four-year-term had been uneasy at best, with constant rumors of an impending coup d’etat. A degree of cosmetic nationalism—changing independence day from the US-mandated July 4th to June 12th, the founding of the first Philippine Republic; a friendship with Sukarno; and a vision of an alliance among Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia—had earned him the displeasure of the United States.
Sukarno lost power in 1965, in a bloodbath still remembered by one Balinese writer as rivers so clogged with bodies not an inch of water surface could be seen. The PKI, largest party in Southeast Asia, disappeared almost overnight. The freewheeling air of radicalism was replaced by such stultifying control that when I visited Indonesia, nearly 30 years later, students would be asking if they could inquire of the government if they could ask for a permit to picket.
With Indonesia quiescent, a newer—and yet older—hotspot in Southeast Asia drew the region’s attention: Vietnam. Because the Philippines hosted the US’s largest overseas military bases, it was merely a matter of time before the country was drawn into the war. Most Filipinos did not realize that through the CIA, Filipinos were already working with the US to defeat a national liberation movement. One even drafted the constitution of South Vietnam; others were in Cambodia and Laos. Operation Brotherhood of the Philippine Jaycees was all over Indochina.
True to his character, Marcos did an immediate turn-about upon winning the elections. He sent a Philippine military contingent, the Philippine Civic Action Group or PhilCAG under Lt. Col. Fidel V. Ramos, to build the infrastructure for a mechanized war. This brought the KM and SCAUP into direct confrontation with the Marcos government.
Mindful perhaps of appearing like Vietnam’s French colonizers, the US presented the war as a fight against communism and hastily built a pseudo-alliance with its client-states. The first summit was hosted by the Philippines and Marcos, who received the accolade from President Lyndon R. Johnson of being “America’s right arm in Asia.” On the eve of the summit, in October 1966, Jose Maria Sison led a picket in front of the Manila Hotel. The police promptly routed the picketers, arresting and jailing Sison and friends for a few hours.
The following day, on October 24th, UP students led a march by 5,000 students. The police dispersed the demonstrators by wielding truncheons, breaking heads open, stepping on the fallen. Thus was born the October 4th Movement, under the leadership of then Student Council President Voltaire Garcia, a law student. He would become a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, be arrested and imprisoned by Marcos in 1972, the stress of which would lead to his early death. He was among the first members, of the NDFP’s Preparatory Commission.
This brutal dispersal was repeated again and again, as students took to the streets in ever increasing numbers. KM membership grew to thousands. At its second national congress in 1967, three years after its founding it could elect representatives from every city and every region to its national council. In a polyglot country, the KM created what had been deemed impossible: a language of common concepts, ideas and conclusion, the language of a single vision rising out of the fractured history and disparate islands of the archipelago.
At the University of the Philippines, the SCAUP, the UP branch of the KM and various left groups started the drive to capture the Student Council and the university student newspaper, the Philippine Collegian. SCAUP led the first walk-out of College of Arts and Sciences students and organized a lecture series on socialism. The Student Council inaugurated projects like the Nationalist Corps, sending students to rural areas to study, learn and work alongside peasants. What had been discussion groups of ten or a dozen students mushroomed to wall-to-wall teach-ins, students meeting in hallways, on the lawns, in building lobbies.
Through the KM, dissent hit the university belt, a district in downtown Manila where five huge universities were located with tens of thousands of students. A KM branch operated in every single one.
While the war in Vietnam was the initial focus of the discontent, questions about American involvement in that country led inevitably to questions about US presence in the Philippines. When an American GI shot and killed a boy scavenging in the garbage dump of Clark Air Base, when his superiors gave the boy’s parents tins of sardines and a sack of rice in recompense, the debates exploded into pickets and rallies, and sheer disgust with the military bases.
Marcos contributed his own self-indulgence and corruption to the general disaffection with government. Having the national costume, the barong, redesigned by Pierre Cardin was the least of it. Through sweetheart deals with Antilles-registered companies, actually owned by him and his friends and relations, government money was steadily privately expropriated. The lifestyle the Marcoses created, supposedly along the lines of the Kennedys’ Camelot, had aspects incomprehensible to Filipinos. When Imelda Marcos’s retinue hied off to Switzerland for rejuvenation shots concocted from duck embryos, the expense was doubly scandalous to Filipinos who ate duck eggs with embryos washed down by beer. Imelda’s construction fever was also starting—nice excuse for the heavy borrowing that the Marcos government did with the IMF/WB. From a few hundred millions of dollars at the start of Marcos’s term, the foreign debt began its agonizing climb to billions of dollars. By his fall in 1986, the Philippines was the only Asian country among Latin American countries in the list of top borrowers of the IMF/WB.
Marcos also unmoored the currency from its government mandated dollar-rate exchange. People watched in dismay as the peso sank seven to the dollar, twelve to the dollar, gasoline prices sky-rocketing, power costs rising, savings shriveling and even food itself becoming an impossible luxury.
Pride went alongside the currency fall. The “second only to Japan” rank of the Philippine standard-of-living in the post-WWII period turned out to be a delusion. Nothing made sense anymore. The search for answers, for new directions, became imperative, then urgent, among the young. Suddenly, they wanted to check out imperialism’s old boogey, the People’s Republic of China, never mind that the Philippines had no diplomatic relations with that country. Suddenly, everyone was reading Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. Into this seething cauldron, Jose Maria Sison’s Struggle for National Democracy dropped, a book which gave name to the essence of the vision the young were looking for. Instantly, it was map and guide to the student activist.
Underneath the success, all was not well within the PKP, where Jose Maria Sison, hemmed in by the Lavas, strove to create a modicum of organization. Jesus Lava had surrendered in 1964 to the Macapagal administration, leaving his inexperienced relatives, all with comfortable city lives, in charge of the PKP. Still, Sison tried to forge a revolutionary party out of the material handed to him. He submitted a draft summing-up of PKP history under the three Lava brothers (1942-1964.) A Lava nephew objected, proposed presenting his own summing-up, never did and instead began trying to isolate Sison. He was also quarreling with a cousin over party leadership. Sison realized that the PKP was in an incorrigible mess. In April, 1967, he organized a new provisional political bureau with members drawn from trade unions, a peasant organization and the youth movement.
The following year, he led the reestablishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines and three months later, the formation of the Bagong Hukbong Bayan (NPA—New People’s Army). He went underground, ending his legal existence as Jose Maria Sison. He left behind, in the urban areas, hundreds of thousands of students singing about the NPA, how the people’s warriors were on their way to the city from the countryside; they sang as they walked out of classrooms, into the streets, to gather in front of Congress, of the Presidential Palace, of every erring institution, to demand accountability and responsibility of the landlord-dominated government.
As if to celebrate Sison’s new level of commitment, the First Quarter Storm broke out in 1970—three months of daily demonstrations, growing into weekly protest rallies each massing from 50,000 to 100,000 young men and women. Organizations were metastasizing all over the archipelago, new ones sprouting, including the MAKIBAKA, an all-women group which promptly picketed the ubiquitous beauty contests in Manila.
The trigger to all this was the brutal dispersal by gunfire, not truncheons, of demonstrators at a Marcos State of the Nation speech before Congress on January 25th. For three months non-stop, young men and women ran the gantlet of riot police and gunfire, to affirm their commitment to national democracy. It was fitting accolade to the full-grown revolutionary Jose Maria Sison had become. He was 30 years old.
A Petite Summing Up
The first ten years of Jose Maria Sison’s growth and practice as a Marxist and revolutionary endowed the Philippine Left with characteristics which remain to this day. The 1961 overrunning of the congressional witch hunt of the University of the Philippines was the first time a mass assembly brought government functions to a halt. Multiplied a thousand times over, it would translate itself into People Power, strong enough to overthrow two presidents, though not, as he himself would warn, an entire political system.
Years later, as the entire Soviet bloc fell and the Berlin Wall disappeared, an American writer would remark to me that it was the Philippines that started all of it and no one remembered anymore. There was no way for me to explain the irony of her comment.
The vital role that youth organizations—growing from Sison’s tiny SCAUP in 1959 to the KM in 1964 to the Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP) in 1970—played in the country’s near-instant politicization meant that the young would always have a special place in the Left. As Sison himself would say; a movement without many young people was in trouble. By the time he went underground, the KM was 20,000 strong; it was also center and core of interlocking alliances, both formal and informal, of student and youth organizations. At its full strength in the 1970-1972 period, the youth movement could mobilize up to 150,000 for demonstrations and rallies in Manila alone. More than this, it was the young who read, wrote, debated and discussed, who went to factories and fields to organize, ignoring danger and difficulties, all on a matter of principle.
Because he was himself a voracious reader and prodigious writer, Sison conferred a tradition of scholarship to radical Filipinos. As in no other place in the world had a movement been as well documented, organizations churning out statements, flyers, press releases, etc., at the first hint of an issue or controversy. For a while, every organization had a vision-mission-goal document, plus a welter of explicatory materials. Where books were a luxury and where the tradition was oral, this was a new and intense thing. The educational materials created clarity of politics and political intent, where hitherto obscurantism had prevailed.
Because he was a poet, Sison also bequeathed to the open mass movement a tradition of culture-making. The KM had its own cultural arm, starting as a Cultural Bureau eventually metamorphosing into the Panday Sining (Art Smithy). All basic organizations, especially those of workers, peasants, women and the youth, would have their own cultural groups. Writers and artists also self-organized to help the national democratic movement. Not only did some of the country’s leading writers and artists arise out of or belong to the national democratic movement; the drive to know one’s self historically created the artistic impulse to integrate modern content with traditional art forms and music.
The draft political report Sison submitted to the PKP had a sub-text: errors and shortcomings were sources of lessons. Pride, ego and “face” were not to stop any revolutionary from learning those lessons, in the interest of advancing the movement. To date, assessment and evaluation, small and large summing-ups, remain integral to the activist life, as strengths and weaknesses are identified and methodologies refined.
The involvement of Julieta de Lima in all of his undertakings no doubt inspired the idea of women’s formal involvement in politics, political movements and the revolution. The KM had its women’s bureau, designed to recruit and train women for activism and leadership. This was both new and yet a continuance of tradition. The Philippines had a women’s political party long before anyone else.The babaylan (local priestesses) led the first resistance against Spanish colonialism and Christianity. By formally acknowledging the critical value of women to a political movement, indeed to a revolutionary movement, Sison paved the way for increasing numbers of Filipinas to engage in the making of politics. The KM Women’s Bureau is generally acknowledged as ancestress of both the underground MAKIBAKA (Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan—Free Movement of New Womanhood) and GABRIELA, the largest and most militant open women’s alliance in the archipelago. The Philippines now is reputed to have the strongest women’s movement in Southeast Asia.
By giving up a life of comfort, by electing to go underground, by involving himself not only in leading but also immersing himself in revolutionary armed struggle, Sison hammered home the ideal of praxis: as you say life should be lived, so should your own life be lived. His life and work exemplified the unity of theory and practice. Armchair or cappuccino political theorists have not been held in any kind of respect in the Philippines ever since.
By his life as well, Sison made vivid the truth that even as circumstances forged a person, so could a person forge circumstances. Among a people well trained in fatalism, one of whose constant phrases was bahala na (it’s up to god), this lesson was profound.
Embryonic though these characteristics might have been when Sison went underground, they were salient features of the Philippine national democratic movement. They helped the movement weather four decades of repression and suppression.
In the Storm’s Eye
On December 26, 1968, Amado Guerrero (beloved warrior) led some 70 men and women in the reestablishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines. He was elected chairman of its Central Committee. The following year, on March 29th, the New People’s Army was founded, with 65 fighters led by Commander Dante, nom de guerre of Bernabe Buscayno, a guerrilla leader of a remnant band from the HMB (Huk).
The two dates were a virtual code. By holding its reestablishment on the birthday of Mao Zedong, the new CPP signaled a turning away from the Soviet party line, denouncing it as revisionist and as a betrayal of Lenin and Stalin. By establishing the New People’s Army on the day that the HUKBALAHAP (People’s Army Against the Japanese) had been established in 1942, the CPP affirmed its links to the historic mission of its predecessor party: of armed struggle against foreign invasion and occupation, of armed struggle for the seizure of political power.
The two dates indicated a union of new and old proletarian fighters in the CPP, a dialectical break and continuity in Philippine communist history. They indicated that the new CPP was at a higher level than the old because of lessons learned. And because most party members were in their 20s and 30s, the Party was also reinvigorated.
There was no hesitancy to this new formation. Characterizing Philippine society as semi-colonial and semi-feudal, the CPP immediately raised the banner of armed revolution against US imperialist control over the Philippines and against the country’s system of governance by the comprador bourgeoisie, landlords and bureaucrat-capitalists. It identified imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism as the principal enemies. It would wage a protracted people’s war and encircle the cities from the countryside. Its leading force would be the proletariat; its main force the peasantry. Upon this basic alliance would be built the national united front to draw in the urban petty bourgeoisie and the nationalist bourgeoisie. Because the peasantry comprised the revolution’s main force, agrarian revolution would be its main content.
The CPP itself would demand the strictest discipline of its members. Party cadres and members were bound by the organizational principle of democratic centralism. The collective was the essence of Party life. Social investigation was required as basis for the right to speak. Work was subject to assessment and evaluation along ideological, political and organizational lines. Everyone practiced criticism and self-criticism.
The poet Emmanuel Lacaba, murdered at age 27 by Marcos’s military in Davao, Mindanao Island, wrote of his brief sojourn as Party member and NPA fighter as being in “the shining secret eye of the storm.” This was true in a profound subjective sense. Under Philippine laws, joining the CPP was punishable by death. This meant that all questions regarding life’s options had been resolved. Everything one had and one was were now tendered to the service of the people and the revolution. Highly motivated, highly ideological, with awesome focus, a party of less than a hundred led by Amado Guerrero and an army of 65 fighters led by Commander Dante set about the task of mounting a revolution.
Years later, Jose Maria Sison would acknowledge the party’s debt to Bernabe Buscayno (Commander Dante), still referring to his old comrade as Payat (the thin man). Buscayno was a slim, wiry man, legendary in his ability to confound the Philippine military. From him and other veterans of the HMB, the urban-raised Party cadres learned how to set up camp, go on forced marches, attack, retreat, harass, ford rampaging rivers, etc. A lack of such skills would have been costly for the Party.
But the CPP was only a fledgling, still growing wings, talons and beak, while its enemy, the Armed Forces of the Philippines was full grown, numbering tens of thousands and was backed by the strongest power in the world and in human history, the United States of America. It had access to war technology and methodology refined and developed in the actual suppression of entire peoples, from American Indians to Filipinos themselves. In the first years of the CPP’s life, it came close to annihilation as its enemy tried to develop a purely military situation between 5,000 army regulars and some 200 NPA warriors in the province of Tarlac, birthplace of the CPP. But Sison had anticipated this and, as early as 1969, he had sent cadres to Cagayan Valley to organize. At this time, though, if a cadre survived for a year in the countryside and was neither captured nor killed, he was considered a veteran.
Amado Guerrero had taken the lesson of the PKP’s defeat to heart. Even as KM chairman, Jose Maria Sison spoke occasionally of how fool-hardy it was to over-concentrate the revolution in Central Luzon. While the area was traditional locale for unrest, dissent and uprisings, it was also studded with military bases and forts. Precisely because of that tradition, the enemy was strongest there.
The Philippine military appeared to be gaining the upper hand in Tarlac province, capturing men and weapons, killing NPA fighters, when, in late 1970, Sison directed a raid on the armory of the Philippine Military Academy, the country’s elite school for military officers. Rifles and machineguns were seized. A special NPA commando team, in cooperation with then Lt. Victor Corpus, carried out the raid. Corpus was at the time a member of a secret CPP cell within the government military. This was the beginning of a high profile pattern of military officers and government officials defecting to the underground.
The CPP and the NPA flourished in Isabela Province, whose interior was still forested and undeveloped, where the terrain was difficult and which barely registered in the national awareness. The spine of the Sierra Madre allowed them a clandestine, if perilous, route from north to south of Luzon. Here, within three years, the Party created a strong base among villagers and the peasantry. The province served as training center as well, with cadres sowed and scattered all over the archipelago after their education. In due time, these cadres would create over 60 guerrilla fronts, all waging armed struggle and organizing in practically all the major islands of the archipelago.
Making revolution was certainly no dinner party. Rain forests did not evolve for humanity alone. Amado Guerrero survived more than a dozen near misses with the enemy. His commitment was not to be gainsaid. He once forded a river, clinging to a rope, seconds ahead of a mountain torrent which washed away two comrades, who were never found. He crossed a stretch of the open sea in a flimsy boat, to escape a thousand-soldier encirclement. Considering that Jose Maria Sison could not swim a stroke, this was great daring, indeed.
Outside of this deadly cat-and-mouse, the open mass movement carried on its own form of struggle, holding one demonstration after another. In 1971, as campaigning for senatorial elections reached its peak, two grenades were hurled at the opposition Liberal Party grand meeting in Plaza Miranda, Manila. Scores of people were killed and injured; among them the LP’s top leaders and media people. National condemnation was immediate and public. Marcos, whose party was obviously losing the elections, was held culpable. He responded by suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Military intelligence listed those who were to be arrested and detained.
Faced by this threat to civil liberties, the national democratic movement established a broad united front to oppose fascism in the country. The Movement for a Democratic Philippines agreed to form the broader formation, Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties. Among those who joined were two senators who led the fight against US bases, Jose W. Diokno and Lorenzo Tañada; and Chino Roces, publisher of the largest circulation newspaper in the country. Bowing to pressure, Marcos lifted the writ suspension, only to declare martial law the following year.
The Long Night of the Dictatorship
1972, the year of Presidential Proclamation 1081 (PP 1081 imposing martial law) was a strange year. The Philippines was struck by 22 typhoons and Central Luzon nearly returned to the sea. Students collected relief goods for the disaster-stricken peasants only to have them stolen by the military. There were reports that dikes on various rivers had been opened to protect Clark Air Base from the torrential floods. A small ship was found aground on the reefs off the shoreline of Isabela Province.
Because Marcos’s second term was ending and the Constitution provided for only two terms, he called for a convention to amend it. Delegates had to run for seats at the convention. Unfortunately for him, candidates reputed to have his support all lost, while nearly a dozen winning delegates declared their opposition to any amendment which would allow Marcos to run for president again. Among them were the nationalist businessman Alejandro Lichauco, member of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism, and Enrique Voltaire Garcia, who as a student had led the October 24th Movement in 1966.
Among those gearing up for presidential candidacy were Sen. Benigno Aquino, now head of the decimated Liberal Party, and Sen. Salvador Laurel, Jr.
With the exception of the last named, all were promptly arrested when PP 1081 was issued, at midnight of September 21, 1972, part of OPLAN (operation plan) Sagittarius. Almost 5,000 names were reportedly on the list of those to be arrested and detained in one fell swoop: senators and congressmen, convention delegates, mayors and councilors, media men and women, student leaders and activists, and even those who only had names similar to those on the list. The raucous city of Manila fell absolutely quiet. All radio and television stations were silenced, all newspaper offices closed, building entrances blocked by coiled razor wires.
Marcos’s term-end was coinciding with the end of the Laurel-Langley Agreement, the enabling law of the parity rights provision in the Constitution—those rights which gave American business the same status as Filipinos in the acquisition and exploitation of Philippine resources. The Philippine Supreme Court, under the unsung but great Chief Justice Roberto Concepcion, had ruled that Americans would not have the right to own property in the Philippines upon the agreement’s expiration.
As quickly as he had all legal opposition arrested and suppressed, Marcos solved both questions. The new constitution gave no term limit. Marcos ran unopposed. Actually, he didn’t even run. A fake referendum as to whether he should continue in office—vote yes or no—was held. He claimed over 90% approval. Then, he extended Laurel-Langley by presidential fiat. The way was now open for his, his family’s and his friends’ lifetime dictatorship.
Urban-based activists descended on the CPP in the countryside by the hundreds, straining resources. In one guerrilla front, Party cadres fed student and community activists, sat them down and interviewed them one by one, to determine as accurately as possible whether he/she was indeed in danger of arrest and detention. Those who weren’t were sent back to organize—in secret this time, creating a shadow network ranging from just beneath where the Marcoses stood to the homes of the poorest in the cities. Those in real immediate danger were integrated into the countryside struggle.
Martial law triggered an internal debate within Lava-led formations. Some 70 members of the Lava youth formation refused to accept collaboration with the Marcos Dictatorship. They were executed. In 1974, the Lava-led party surrendered and its cadres and officers joined the government.
The CPP’s membership, on the other hand, expanded from its initial hundred to thousands, cadres scattered all over the archipelago, all working to create storm centers. Because secret communications between islands were complicated—the CPP’s National Liaison Committee in Manila was periodically busted, its staff imprisoned—to be a party member at this time meant being a cadre, with high organizing skills and even higher political consciousness. Going through the CPP’s Basic Mass Course and Basic Party Course was only the beginning of one’s education.
No doubt to help the work along (regions, by and large, were operationally autonomous, so that a breach by the military in one area did not spill over to the next; or the capture of one organ didn’t lead to the capture of other organs), Amado Guerrero issued Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War in 1974. This document codified the lessons of the Party’s first five years of armed struggle and defined tactics and methods for a protracted people’s war in an archipelagic terrain.
That Filipino Muslims in Mindanao began their own war of liberation relieved the CPP to some extent of the intense and intensive military pressure. At certain times, the AFP withdrew battalions from NPA fronts and poured them into Mindanao and Jolo islands, in a futile quasi-blitzkrieg. Jolo City was napalmed, the dead and injured untallied. American expertise in counterinsurgency was manifest in death squads, paramilitary groups, vigilante groups, cults and other aberrations. A transvestite military man, playing rock music and claiming to be Christ, sowed terror among villagers; cults frightened by their own barbarity practiced ritual cannibalism to appease the spirits of those they murdered. An unleashed military wallowed to satiation in pain and death. It slowly grew insane from its own orgy. Men and women were tortured large-scale and the killing count soared in a prolonged holocaust for which few have been held responsible.
At the same time, the Marcos Dictatorship shrouded itself in mythomania. Spray-painting grass green in summer time for Imelda Marcos’s extravaganza; staged television reports of her distributing houses to the homeless; building scores of vacation houses for the family and their guests; Marcos allowing a Japanese company to relocate its “dirty” plant to the Philippines—the list of travesty went on and on. And like a contrapunta, there were the periodic loans from the IMF/WB, as the dictatorship mortgaged the seas, the land, the mountains, the rain forests and the people. Most of the money was pocketed privately. Incredible amounts remain stashed to this day in Hong Kong, Swiss and other foreign banks, under various names.
The relentless pillage, the destruction and depletion of the country’s resources (90% of the rainforest destroyed to enrich 450 persons) and the people’s deepening poverty made revolution urgent and imperative. Strikes had been banned under the dictatorship but barely two years into martial law, workers at a liquor corporation, one of the country’s largest, laid a picket in front of the company compound. Nuns and priests joined the picket line even as it was assaulted by police and hired thugs. This open defiance broke the silence imposed by fascist terror. Strikes would follow fast, one after another, in 300 workplaces from October 1974 to January 1975. This surge of worker resistance would presage the formation of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU—May First Movement). This militant trade union movement would be a favorite Marcos target, its officers repeatedly arrested and detained, members and lawyers abducted and disappeared.
In 1976, the first major blow to the CPP-NPA came when Commander Dante was captured. The following year, Amado Guerrero was captured. The currents of the revolution swirled momentarily in distress; the talk in Manila was that it took seven men to fulfill all the responsibilities that the chairman carried. Nevertheless, Party cadres were certain that by this time, the revolution was “over the hump;” it was well on its way. CPP membership had grown to 5,000, spread out among ten regional organizations; the NPA had a thousand rifles and nine regional commands. Let the Marcos Dictatorship indulge itself in momentary success, showing off captured CPP officials, including Jose Maria Sison and Bernabe Buscayno; the process of arousing, organizing and mobilizing the masses continued.
As to be expected, Sison was beaten up, subjected to the water cure and death threats. His long poem, Fragments of a Nightmare, nearly surreal in its use of demon imagery, detailed the experience. He endured prolonged mental torture, during which he was deprived of his eyeglasses, shackled to a cot, was isolated in a prison cell with boarded up windows. In such circumstances, the only strength was keeping faith with one’s self, keeping faith with the others who continued to struggle. More, he fought along with them, sending out advice, smuggling out analyses and essays.
Charges of rebellion and subversion were lodged against Jose Maria Sison. It was a joke, certainly, because they were filed before military tribunals which had no respect for rules of evidence. Sison and his lawyers followed a strategy of jamming procedures with paper, filing petition after petition before the Supreme Court, pitting it against the tribunal. The hearings were useful in breaking his isolation, allowing him to leave his cell, to see people, and speak to them.
In December 1981, the Sison’s last child was born in prison. At the end of March 1982, following a mass campaign of almost a year, Julieta de Lima with her infant child was released. She returned periodically for visits with her husband. She brought news and information and brought out his words.
The following year, Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., who had been allowed to leave prison and the Philippines for a quadruple by-pass operation in the US, refused to remain in exile any longer. He returned on August 21, 1983 and was gunned down at the Manila International Airport. His wake and funeral were attended by nearly a million people.
Shortly thereafter, 10,000 women, some from the upper-class, most from the lower-income classes, marched together through the streets of Manila, demanding justice for the murdered senator and others killed by the Marcos dictatorship. This event was swiftly followed by intense organizing of open formations all over the country: Justice for Aquino, Justice for All (JAJA); GABRIELA, the women’s alliance; the Nationalist Alliance for Justice, Freedom and Democracy; etc… The stench of a decaying regime was pungent throughout the land. Marcos himself was reported to be stricken with lupus, though he kept denying it, and was supposedly on his second transplant, though he kept denying that too. One man who saw him just after the Aquino assassination said he looked “like death warmed over.”
Overthrow, Freedom and Exile
The peso rate to the dollar was a disaster; the foreign debt had ballooned to an amount impossible to repay. The Philippines had shifted its export emphasis from bananas, garments and copper concentrates to exporting men and women, sending them to indentured slavery overseas. The social costs of the so-called pillars of development—tourism, export processing zones and labor export—were as staggering as their economic costs. Prostitution, drugs, slavery accompanied all three pillars. With 100% repatriation of profits for transnational corporations, the national economy was depleted. With poverty afflicting nearly 70% of the population, the quick buck became standard operating practice, as survival became the paramount, if not the only, virtue.
The United States, which had backed the Marcos Dictatorship for nearly 14 years and Marcos himself for two decades, was not a disinterested bystander. Coming swiftly down the road was the end of the agreements which enabled the US to maintain Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base. With government at a virtual standstill, demonstrations happening with such fury and of such dimensions, young and old braving guns, water cannons and razor wire barricades, all under the Left’s leadership and inspiration, it was obvious that something had to be done. Removing Marcos was a problem fraught with implications. Because he had pampered the military, he held its loyalty. His overthrow would require splitting the military. This seemed too high a cost but eventually, a strategy to isolate Marcos-loyal troops was adapted. In 1985, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) was launched by graduates of the Philippine Military Academy, generally regarded as comprising the military elite.
Marcos then was pressured to agree to hold snap elections, instead of waiting out the 1987 and of his term. He didn’t want to hold elections; his subalterns didn’t want him to hold elections; he was too weak to mount a national campaign. But in a live telecast via satellite on a US news-analysis show, he was dared to hold elections. Being a vain man and in constant denial of his unpopularity, Marcos agreed.
Corazon C. Aquino, widow of the murdered Benigno, was chosen to be the opposition presidential candidate. She and her supporters were carefully weaned away from the Left, which had borne the brunt of the struggle against Marcos. From his prison cell, Jose Maria Sison issued a long analytical essay, calling for broad united front tactics and critical collaboration with Mrs. Aquino. This was not heeded. The Left issued a boycott policy, unable to accept the idea of yet another landlord in office. Mrs. Aquino owned one of the biggest sugar plantations in Tarlac Province—and a sugar landlord was just about the worst landlord in the country.
Marcos won, of course, and for a day or two, the country was quiet, seething in defeat and unsure of what to do. The Left was the first to issue a call for the overthrow of the Marcos regime. It was followed by a pastoral letter from the Catholic bishops, calling the regime illegitimate and immoral; then the Aquino group called for civil disobedience. At this point, the US-rigged plans went operational. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, supported by RAM, launched a mutiny. The Catholic Church, through Jaime Cardinal Sin, lent its support and, in a perverse manner of arousing and mobilizing the populace, called on the population of Manila to surround in their hundreds of thousands the military camps to protect the soldiers in mutiny.
But the ranks of organized workers, youth and other people surrounded the presidential palace itself. Hemmed in and unable to have his orders implemented, Marcos fought his battle through the media. In this war of words, Enrile implicated Marcos in the Plaza Miranda bombing and confessed that the supposed attack on his car, the excuse used to declare martial law in 1972, never happened. He had to know; he was one of the “Rolex men” who approved the martial law imposition, so labeled because Marcos gave each a Rolex watch afterwards.
All governance came to a standstill. All work came to a standstill. In the impasse, a plane attacked the palace with a few rockets. That was all it took for Marcos, et al, to pack bag, baggage, jewelry, crates of money, etc., board a US transport plane and fly off to Hawaii. Marcos would remain there until his death and beyond, for an enraged people refused to let his body have a state funeral or be buried, as Imelda wanted, in the Heroes’ Cemetery.
Jose Maria Sison, held incommunicado in his cell, overheard a radio report to which his guards were listening. Turning towards an adjacent cell, which held Alex Birondo, another political prisoner, he cupped hands about his mouth and shouted: “Crisis! The end of Marcos is about to come.” Analysis and evaluation were instant and accurate.
On February 25, 1986 Aquino was proclaimed president and on March 5, 1986, Jose Maria Sison and Bernabe Buscayno were released. They were brought to the new head of state, who giggled, says Sison, like a schoolgirl. Aquino wanted peace talks with the National Democratic Front, the umbrella formation of the 14 underground revolutionary organizations, including the CPP and the NPA.
The two, as well as other political prisoners, came out to a country still buoyed up by the overthrow of the dictatorship. Dinners in their honor were hosted by some of the 60 ruling families. On May 1, 1986, Labor Day, Sison sat on the left side of Mrs. Aquino while Gen. Fidel Ramos sat on her right. At one point, they watched a huge hammer and sickle appear among the workers as the Internationale was sung. Wherever he appeared, Sison was greeted with thunderous applause and by autograph seekers.
In part, to meet the demand for his lectures and speeches, Jose Maria Sison accepted a fellowship at the Asian Center of UP, regained the title of professor, and delivered a series of ten lectures. These lectures helped a befuddled Left find and regain its bearings, in the midst of its anguish, as the old comprador and feudal lords returned, having used the revolutionary movement’s work as springboard to regain power. The Left was immersed in self-flagellation, blaming one another for the boycott error. The fractious boycott debate would obscure a far worse problem, Kampanyang Ahos, a bloody witchhunt raging in Mindanao. Members of the CPP Mindanao Commission, in the wake of defeats, ascribed responsibility for disastrous errors to suspected deep-penetration agents of the military. It was a fratricidal undertaking.
The Aquino government was plagued with the twin threat of the RAM and remnant Marcos loyalists. Even as a constitutional convention’s hand-picked delegates struggled to draft a basic document for the land, Marcos loyalists tried to duplicate the February 22-25 mutiny. They holed up at the Manila Hotel with their guns and later abjectly surrendered to Gen. Ramos in July. RAM, on the other hand, saw the presence of a few liberals in the Aquino administration as indication that the Left had penetrated the government. Even as a new Constitution was forged and candidates began lining up to run for office, RAM came up with OPLAN God Save the Queen. The idea was to show off RAM strength through assassination of the leaders of the Left. Sison was an immediate prime target.
One reason for RAM’s hysteria was the Aquino government’s avowed willingness to engage in peace talks with the National Democratic Front. By hindsight, the NDFP strategy in the first peace talks appeared tentative. For one, prior even to laying down a substantive agenda for the talks, it already acquiesced to Aquino’s demand for a 60-day ceasefire. It would set demands one day and retract them the next day. Towns and villages under NDFP control were exposed when underground officials visited. Later, the military subjected such territories to intense suppression. It was a most confusing and reckless period.
The abrupt expansion of democratic space, however, enabled Jose Maria Sison to launch yet another organization in 1986, a political party called the Partido ng Bayan (PnB—The People’s Party). Through the PnB, people’s organizations managed to field candidates in 1987 for the new legislature and to gain experience in electoral politics. The senatorial candidates were limited by controllers of the Commission on Election computers to only 10% of the votes. Thus they lost. Two congressional candidates won, despite the assassination of six other candidates, the kidnapping of staff and campaigners, the bombing of PnB offices nationwide, and military control of voting in nearly 700 towns classified as bailiwicks of the revolution. In the subsequent elections for executive officials, PnB advised its candidates to run under other parties. By this means, hundreds of seats at the municipal and provincial level were won.
Immediately following the PnB founding, Professor Sison left for a university lecture tour of New Zealand and Australia. He was gone throughout the month of September. He was in Thailand in October, to receive the Southeast Asia Write Award for poetry. He returned to the Philippines for a week, from October 15-22, to pick up his visa to Japan. Throughout his first tour, he was hounded by black propaganda from then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. And once back in Manila, he came to know he was primed for assassination under OPLAN God Save the Queen.
He was in Japan in November 1986 when RAM struck, torturing and killing Rolando Olalia, head of the KMU, then mutilating his body. In Professor Sison’s absence, RAM had chosen another high-profile target. The NDFP promptly announced suspension of the peace talks. But eight days after Olalia’s funeral, the NDFP agreed to ceasefire, indicating that there were negotiations after all. Jose Maria Sison learned about the ceasefire only from a news agency reporter. He was so dumbstruck he didn’t know what to say. Olalia’s murderers were to go scot free. He wanted to return home but both friends and comrades advised him to remain overseas.
From Japan he went to Hong Kong in December, then to India in January, and later in the month, to Europe. Landing in Holland on January 23, 1987, he was met by Luis Jalandoni, later head of the NDFP negotiating panel, with news of the massacre of peasant demonstrators in front of the presidential palace. By February, Aquino had declared total war on the revolutionary forces. It was, for the reactionary forces, an opportune moment. Despite bloody coups launched by RAM and the threat of Marcos loyalists, General Ramos had kept only a minimum military force in Manila and deployed most of his forces in the countryside. He would launch one military campaign after another to contain and paralyze the CPP and NPA whose mass base was already weakened.
The revolutionary movement did not emerge unscathed from the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. In the cities, its band of allies from the middle and upper classes narrowed abruptly, many electing to join the Aquino government. The influx of money from funding agencies overseas also affected the usual practice of moving activists from the city to the countryside. More activists stayed in the urban areas, staffing non-profit organizations and tailoring projects and programs to funding agencies’ specifications.
Under the dictator, the movement had guarded information and documents stringently, maintaining its clandestine nature. Now, documents, even Party documents, were making their way to the mainstream media, often even before the intended recipient got them. Papers critical of this or that CPP decision or policy were circulating openly. Ang Bayan, the CPP’s journal, suddenly lost the phrase “guided by Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought” from its masthead. Basic documents of the first congress of the NDFP talked about pluralism. The adversarial language was evolving from Marxist to what the Left itself would call Gorbachovite and bourgeois-liberal.
Worst was the continuing efforts of highly placed CPP officials, including two members then of the Political Bureau and a former member to cover up the criminal consequences of the most grievous errors of line. In Mindanao, nearly a thousand men and women had been decimated from 1985-1986 in an orgy of “house-cleaning”—i.e., winnowing presumed military deep-penetration agents from the revolutionary ranks. A similar campaign occurred in Eastern Visayas, then Southern Tagalog, albeit with lesser casualties. Some activists and cadres were abducted from Manila and taken north, to be investigated and tried. Some were killed. Some, traumatized by torture inflicted by their own purported comrades, broke down. Some fled and abandoned their responsibilities. In one region after another, towns and villages complained about the burden of having to feed and house large concentrations of armed fighters.
Professor Sison would say, years later, that he felt he was being made to wallow in crap, as he came to know of the witch hunts, the shrinking of the mass base, the unjustifiable special operations of some special units, the breakdown of morale and discipline. One by one, the most basic principle of the CPP-NPA were violated; one by one, the iron rules of NPA discipline were broken. Even bystanders were appalled. Criticizing the phenomenon of self-constriction and alienation from the masses, he expressed in 1988, the need for a rectification movement.
From Holland, where he was stranded when the Aquino government canceled his passport, he began tracing the sources and causes the revolution’s affliction. By late 1991, the Second Great Rectification Movement was ready for launching—a process in which every component of the national democratic revolution, sector by sector, organization by organization, organ by organ, went into self-examination. This process consisted of an ideological, political and organizational summing up, of identifying strengths and weaknesses, of successes and failures, of criticism and self-criticism. It was a harrowing one, a cleansing away of extraneous ideas picked up and adapted through the decades. At the core of the Rectification Campaign was the document Reaffirm Our Party’s Basic Principles and Rectify Errors.
In the course of the process, Professor Sison was among the, if not the most, vilified person of the national democratic movement. Even as the Philippine government continued its attempt to destroy his character and his legacy, so did some members or former members of the CPP itself, who could not accept the conclusions drawn by the rectification campaign. But the committed remained in the movement; those who understood the history of the Party and the history of Jose Maria Sison remained; they studied and learned and set out with fresh eyes to continue with the tasks of the revolution.
At the end of this process, which was partly a grief-keening for all those wrongly killed or punished, the CPP and the NPA emerged stronger than ever. They are, as Professor Sison himself adjudged, on an even keel. And that was answer enough to all the criticisms and name-calling he endured.
Even the most reluctant observer would admit that as a result of the rectification process, the CPP is now ideologically, politically and organizationally stronger. With the renewed expansion of its mass base, 128 guerrilla fronts have been established while both the urban-based mass and underground organizations have grown. It was fortuitous that the rectification campaign came at the time it did: when the East Asian economic crisis broke out, the CPP had strength enough and clarity of vision enough to become a source of hope for the impoverished and disaffected of the Philippines.
A Personal Note
A recitation of facts, a recounting of events—these are a poor approximation of what the national democratic movement has meant to Filipinos like me. My personal metaphor for the Philippine revolution is that of St. Elmo’s Fire, whipping into existence in every one of the 7,100 islands. Impossible to capture, impossible to exterminate, it comes into being because conditions call for it. It is a people’s affirmation of the will to freedom, to life, to creativity, as opposed to the ignorance, slavery and death imposed upon the country by colonialism and neocolonialism.
I have known Jose Maria Sison since the 1960s, nearly the duration of the national democratic movement itself. I was a member of SCAUP, KM and a host of other organizations. This could be construed as bias in his favor. I prefer to think of it as being a witness—to a man and his time, to Sison Time. It is a much more accurate label to those years of sacrifice than “Marcos time.”
I’ve heard and read both praise of and attacks on Professor Sison, some with a kernel of truth, some pure hogwash. One newspaper report about his supposed villa in Holland I actually read in the efficiency apartment he, Julie and their son Jasm shared with various visiting friends. That kind of black propaganda from Philippine military intelligence was understandable, even acceptable. What is not is the grievous vilification from those who had been with and fallen out of the national democratic movement. They, of all people, would know best the time, effort and sacrifice that have characterized Sison’s 40 years of revolution. Nevertheless, the most recent Philippine military plot to assassinate him was reportedly planned with the help of a former NPA leader.
A chronology of Jose Maria Sison’s life is only a poor approximation of the man’s complex character. In the course of research for this book, I spent two months in Europe, with Sison’s community of exiles. Two incidents during this time illustrated how varied circumstances can be, when one sojourns with the men and women of the Philippine revolution.
On a ferry trip back to Holland from Oslo, Professor Sison suggested that we all relax at the restaurant-club on board. He and two companions went ahead, as I needed to do something in my cabin. I followed about a half-hour later. The club had a bar, a small dance floor, a female singer and a live band. Professor Sison liked to dance; still does. We had just come off the dance floor when the singer announced the band would do the birthday song in honor of—yeah, right—this writer, whose birthday was six months away. As I looked around in utter surprise, one of our companions pointed at Professor Sison and said he’d set it up in my absence. As the band blared “happy birthday to you!”, I had to stand, bow, blow kisses at the applauding crowd, as my three companions, including Ka Joma, convulsed with laughter. It was a prank characteristic of the innocence of maybe twenty, thirty years ago.
But even as I thought of this, another image of the man came to my mind. In Oslo, Norway, when the government panel unilaterally recessed peace talks with the NDFP, there was consternation and dismay. To bring NDFP personnel out of the Philippines involved long and tedious preparations; to bring Professor Sison, Luis Jalandoni and the top NDFP echelon out of Holland involved even longer and more tedious preparations. Some of us couldn’t help wondering whether something could have been done, whether they could have done anything, to forestall the government action.
The NDFP secretariat room in the hotel was always a noisy one, with people talking and laughing, going in and out, bringing coffee, food, cigarettes, working on the computers, answering phones—in direct contrast to the government secretariat room which was always quiet, its doors firmly shut. On this particular afternoon, following the talks’ cancellation, the telephones were ringing insanely, with overseas calls from Philippine media asking for interviews.
Jose Maria Sison walked in, still wearing rubber flip-flops, sat down and waited for the phone-patch interview call from a radio station in Manila. When it came, he answered, mildly and slowly at first. As he explained the true reasons behind the recess, analyzed the government’s actions and voiced the NDFP’s indignation, his voice gained strength and passion, rising gradually until it filled the room; himself growing oblivious to the presence of so many men and women. The room fell quiet. Men and women began listening, then listening intensely; then sharing his contempt for the arbitrary silliness of the Manila government; and at last, feeling his outrage that the death of a military torturer outweighed in gravity—as far as the Manila government was concerned—discussions regarding peace, development and justice for the Filipino people. The sidelong glances men and women traded in the room were suddenly fierce and fiery, the hangdog look gone. By the last ten minutes of the phone interview, only Sison’s voice was regnant in the room. That he spoke not only for all those present was clear. He spoke for a multitude, that sea of the anonymous, the poor and “the powerless” who nevertheless comprised the source of power for the revolution.
NEW YORK CITY, USA