40 years as underground rebels
Through the years, they were known simply as “ang mag-asawang Tiamzon,” the Tiamzon couple, the leaders who really called the shots in the underground movement, reputedly hardcore in their views, inflexible in defending the “correct” line.
Not much was known about them. Until their capture a few weeks ago, few outside the UG movement knew what the Tiamzons looked like.
While years ago Wilma Austria was captured and detained briefly but then escaped, her husband Benito Tiamzon, chairman of the CPP, was an underground rebel for roughly 40 years.
Forty years. Underground.
On Facebook, my friend and fellow journalist Glenda Gloria spoke of having dreams of interviewing the Tiamzons. She had so many questions to ask of the country’s most wanted UG cadres. I suspect that many of us who covered and wrote about that movement share that curiosity.
The UG movement, after all, played such a central role in recent Philippine history.
It attracted a generation of young Filipinos who saw the UG as the answer to injustice and tyranny under Ferdinand Marcos. Today, however, the UG is seen largely as a spent force.
Past and recent incidents have painted a movement with incredible capacity for dogmatic violence.
There’s the strong suspicion that the CPP was behind the bombing of Plaza Miranda.
There’s the disturbing allegation that while the 1987 massacre of farmers and activists on Mendiola in front of Malacanang was the result of a police force that historically had very little regard for the rights of citizens, there were elements in the UG that wanted the confrontation to take place, who in fact pushed for what they knew correctly would be a violent backlash that could then be used for political gain.
There’s the history of bloody purges. And more recently, there’s the incomprehensible attack on the 78-year-old mother of Senator TG Guingona.
There’s been much talk of the irrelevance of the left (including from another friend and INQUIRER columnist John Nery).
But such talk, in fact, refers to only one version of the left. The Tiamzons represent the rigid, uncompromising, dogmatically violent tradition of the UG movement.
But that’s just one narrative. There are others.
The most obvious ones are the party list groups such as Akbayan, which has had a longstanding feud with other parties aligned with the UG, while blazing a new trail in left-wing politics.
And there are the many activist groups and NGOs that may have once been identified closely with the UG, but have embraced an independent, progressive path. (The Task Force Detainees, a pillar in the human rights movement in the Philippines, is a clear example.)
Perhaps another way of looking at the UG left is to think of a chicken that got its head cut off but is still able to keep running — and spilling blood. But before that, it had laid eggs — some of them good eggs.
Before the “left” became irrelevant, it helped spawn a political culture that, in many important ways, remains relevant today.
In fact, it’s a striking coincidence that the Tiamzons were arrested just as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Aquino government were finalizing a peace agreement that could finally put an end to the conflict in Mindanao. That’s because the MILF and the UG left had shared a common history.
In interviews in the late 80s, MILF leaders told me of how they drew lessons from the UG left in the 70s and 80s, including in terms of how to create a grass-roots political movement.
That tradition of creative, grassroots politics was imbibed by my own sister Prof. Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, who spent years in the UG before breaking away during the turbulent splits of the early ‘90s.
She’s using what she learned to lead another human rights NGO, PhilRights. Nine years ago, her group exposed the NPA’s practice of recruiting children to become child soldiers, a revelation for which she was publicly attacked by the late CPP leader Ka Roger Rosal.
Her reasons for joining the movement were similar to the reasons of many other young Filipinos in the late ‘60s and ‘70s when the roots of the UG were starting to spread.
Their names aren’t that familiar to many young Filipinos today, which is unfortunate: Lorna Barros, Eman Lacaba, Edgar Jopson, Ferdie Arceo, Nilo Valerio. But their stories are still worth retelling.
Many were from upper-middle class families, others were from working class, struggling families. Most of them were topnotch students at prestigious universities, led by UP Diliman. They had potentially bright and prosperous futures ahead of them.
But they lived in a troubled time, a time of brazen corruption and political abuse. When the path to peaceful reform seemed lost with the rise of the Marcos dictatorship, fighting back as part of the UG seemed like the only viable option for any young Filipino genuinely concerned about the country’s future.
In writing “UG An Underground Tale” about the life of one of the most famous martyrs of the anti-dictatorship struggle, Edgar Jopson, I interviewed activists who offered compelling accounts of why they chose turn their backs on the creature of comforts of middle-class life to go underground.
One activist who is now a banking executive told me of being troubled by the sight of children collecting food scrap at a public market. Edjop himself joined the UG after joining a campaign to help poor farmers whose village was razed to the ground by an Ilocos warlord and after witnessing as a young union organizer the abuses endured by factory workers in Metro Manila.
Certainly, the UG was not the only force fighting back in those years. But it was the most active, most committed and seemed to be taking most of the risks at a time when many from the traditional opposition groups chose to stay silent, leave the country, or simply collaborate with the dictator.
Of course, the tragedy of the left is that from being essentially a positive force led by committed young Filipinos dreaming of a more humane society, it eventually morphed into a dogmatically violent force that bears little resemblance to the movement people like Edjop, Eman Lacaba, Lorena Barros and Ferdie Arceo helped create.
But as I’ve argued in this space in the past, the stories of those young people, especially those who died fighting against tyranny, should not be abandoned.
They should not forgotten and left to those who would deny their true importance and meaning.
Not the military and forces of tyranny who would want to suppress them. Not the demagogues of the UG left who would distort or sanitize them to fit their twisted concept of the correct line.
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