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For Aquino, a lesson from Edgar Jopson’s journey of courage

08:25 PM April 03, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO—My last column explored Edgar Jopson’s journey of courage in connection with the sad case of Chief Justice Renato Corona. (You can read it here.)

There’s also an important lesson in Edjop’s story for President Benigno Aquino.

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In the fight to remove a chief justice facing serious allegations of corruption and abuse of power, Aquino has tried to come across as a passionate advocate of clean government.

But when it comes to another important issue, the struggle of the farmers at Hacienda Luisita, his family’s massive and controversial estate, Noynoy Aquino has been notably lacking in passion.

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He has said the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the farmers should be respected – but it’s unclear where he stands on the looming issue of how much the Cojuangco family should get for giving up the land.

(Will the government end up paying a whopping sum to his family? Will P-Noy’s relatives end up getting, as has been speculated, billions of pesos — money that should instead be used for the country’s other pressing needs?)

The issue is so important that P-Noy should make his position clearer.

He should show he stands with the farmers who have endured so much pain at his family’s hacienda. And he should declare that commitment with the same passion he’s shown in the bid to oust Corona and usher in a new era of corruption-free governance.

Doing so would even help him politically. It would paint him as a courageous champion of political reform who, in the fight for fairness, is even willing to take on his own family’s interests.

Certainly, that’s not easy to do.

Especially in a society where family ties, school ties and class ties are so strong, it is unthinkable for anyone to act against the interests of one’s family, one’s school, one’s frat, one’s barkada.

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You simply don’t do that.

But Edgar Jopson did it. Noynoy Aquino can learn from his courage and leadership in handling a difficult conflict involving his own family.

In early 1973, Edjop did the unthinkable: he helped form a union in his family’s supermarket business.

As a nationally known youth leader from the Ateneo, he could have launched a thriving career in business or politics. But Edjop chose a different path. His first job after college: union organizer.

When he heard of the gripes of employees at Jopson’s Supermarket, he felt he needed to act. Inevitably, this led to a confrontation with his father, Hernan Jopson.

As Mr. Jopson would tell me years later, when he asked Edjop for help, his son told him, “You have lawyers to advise you on these matters, Daddy. Please consult them, not me. … I’m with labor.”

The elder Jopson answered, “You’re still a Jopson. Whatever you do, you wherever you go, you cannot change who you are.”
(Could P-Noy have faced similar questions from members of his clan who are upset about the looming possibility that they’re about to lose Hacienda Luisita? “Yes, you are president of all Filipinos. But you’re still a Cojuangco.”)

In any case, Edjop’s bid to unionize the family business caused a serious rift between him and his father. It could easily have deteriorated into a permanent chasm. Edjop could have been shunned by his own family, or treated as some kind radical black sheep.

But that’s not what happened.

Clearly, Edjop knew that acting in a way that may hurt his family’s economic interests was not the same as rejecting his family.

Forming a union at their supermarket did not mean denying the hard work his parents put in to turn a sari-sari store in Sampaloc into a thriving enterprise.

Edjop eventually made peace with his father. Not only that, he became a leader within his own family.

They supported him even during his years in the underground movement. After his death, his parents, Hernan and Josefa Jopson remained active in the movement against the Marcos dictatorship, getting involved in human rights and social reform causes.

My last column also provoked strong emotions. Many found Edjop’s story inspiring. Others reject it because he joined the communist U.G. movement.

I understand the criticisms and objections. For when it comes to the history of U.G. movement, we’re talking about two narratives.

One is about hard-line cadres capable of incredible, narrow-minded violence based on calcified dogma, a story of purges and destruction, of stunted claims of having the “correct ideology.” That’s probably the side most Filipinos are familiar with today.

But there’s the other story.

It’s about young Filipinos who sought to change an unjust system and who realized that the best path forward was to align themselves with the weakest and most oppressed in society — even if it meant tremendous personal sacrifices in a time of dictatorship, one of the darkest chapters in our history.

That’s the tradition that Edjop symbolized.

The sacrifices that he and many other U.G. activists made during the darkest of dictatorship paved the way for the defeat of the regime.

There are many reminders of their contributions in the battle against tyranny.

Take “Tama Na! Sobra Na! Palitan Na!” the now-famous battle cry Aquino’s mother, Cory Aquino, and her supporters used in the final showdown with the dictator.

That came from “Tama Na! Sobra Na! Welga Na!” the slogan coined during the La Tondeña Strike in 1975, the first major labor protest action against the Marcos regime. Edjop was one of the activists who coined that call to action and who led that historic act of defiance.

His journey of courage and sacrifice made even those who disagreed with the path he took — those who are part of the elitist system he sought to change — look to him as a hero.

Father Joseph O’Hare, a Jesuit who was one of Edjop’s professors at the Ateneo, who wrote of how “it seemed more likely that Edgar Jopson would leave school and, like many of his contemporaries, go on eventually to an executive office in one of the international corporations in Manila.”

“Instead, he found himself in the end in a small house far from Manila, huddled with others who dreamed of changing a society where most of the people are poor and the poor are powerless.”

Another Jesuit, Father William Kreutz, who was Edjop’s high school teacher, said, “Anyone who follows through and dies for what he or she believes, in especially if it’s for the benefit of the nation – I think that person deserves to be called a hero.”

It was Joaquin “Chino” Roces, the respected publisher from one of the country’s elite families, who gave one of the most powerful tributes to Edjop. He did it with a quiet, simple, moving gesture.

During Edjop’s wake at the U.P. Diliman chapel in 1982, Don Chino walked solemnly toward his coffin, stopped and then saluted. He maintained his salute for minutes, standing solemnly, respectfully before the body of the young Jopson.

Only when Don Chino’s body began to shake with emotion did other mourners helped back him to seat.

With so many honoring her son — and doing so publicly which was a pretty dangerous thing to do at the height of the dictator’s power — Josefa Jopson later recalled, “I felt like I was being lifted up by the people who paid him tribute. It was as if they were rejoicing for the strength that Edjop gave them when he was still alive.”

Benjamin Pimentel is the author of “U.G. An Underground Tale: The journey of Edgar Jopson and the First Quarter Storm Generation” (Anvil, Manila, 2006.)

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel

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TAGS: Armed conflict, Benigno Aquino, Edgar Jopson, Family, heroism, Politics, Poverty, Renato Corona
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