Morong 5: The lost brigade

Why did 5 of the so-called ‘Morong 43’ decide to back the military’s claim that all of them were guerrillas? They had a change of heart. And it’s not hard to see how.

“Nameless. Faceless.” That’s how the late student-turned-revolutionary Emmanuel Lacaba described the New People’s Army (NPA) of his generation. Sitting down to dinner with 5 of the infamous “Morong 43,” the romanticized poem about Asia’s oldest communist insurgency pops into my head.

We are tribeless and all tribes are ours.
We are homeless and all home are ours.
We are nameless and all names are ours.
To the fascists we are the faceless enemy.
Who come, thieves in the night, angels of death.
The ever moving, shining, secret eye of the storm.

Eleanor Carandang, Cherelyn Tawagon, Valentino Paulino, Jenilyn Pizarro and John Mark Barrientos aren’t nameless and faceless anymore, not after a series of TV and radio interviews where they exposed the rest of the “Morong 43” as true-blooded guerrillas.

The first thing that strikes me is how ordinary the 5 are—these are people you ride the LRT with or bump into in a mall. Any of the five could have been my neighbor, my co-worker, my relative. They were certainly not the “angels of death” nor “thieves in the night” that Lacaba waxed poetic about.

They smile their shy smiles, work their cellphones, and giggle like a barkada hanging out on a Friday night after work. But the difference becomes apparent in the way they talk. Jargon. “Sumampa sa hukbo. Partido. YGP. Tactical offensive. Armado. Prente.” Not just activist jargon, but Left underground jargon.

Propaganda, Psy-war

“Morong 43” is the group arrested in February 2010 in Morong, Rizal, tagged by the military as NPA members conducting explosives training. Cause-oriented groups such as Karapatan insisted they were health workers training poor villagers, and who were tortured in detention by their soldiers.

Most of them had already been released on President Aquino’s orders.

“Morong 5” sprung from the propaganda and psy-war that ensued between the NDs (national democratic movement organizations) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines over the arrest of the alleged rebels.

“Morong 5” claim they are communist guerrillas operating in the Bulacan-Rizal-Laguna-Quezon area, commonly referred to in ND lingo as ST—Southern Tagalog. They say they were in Morong for a national-level medical training for combatants.

Were they really just health workers being manipulated by the military—either through torture, coercion, intimidation, blackmail or bribery—to claim that they are NPA cadres? Or is this yet another case of the decades-old trick of a shadow organization hiding behind legitimate groups with perfectly legitimate causes?

The Morong 43’s arrest grabbed the public’s attention like no other insurgency story did in recent years.

It brought back fear—buried in our collective memory as a people—of days when innocent activists were routinely tagged as Red, locked up and tortured. Take the well-documented case of Liliosa Hilao, a detainee during the Marcos years. Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation says post-mortem findings on her body showed swollen face lips, cigarette burns, 11 injection marks on arms, deep handcuff marks on wrists, torso badly bruised with finger and gun barrel marks, brain and internal organs cut to pieces and soaked in muriatic acid. Hilao was also believed to have been raped.

Another, a doctor who now enjoys a successful practice, narrates her arrest during a medical mission to Northern Luzon in the 1980s. She was slapped and subjected to water-cure, the precursor of water-boarding. She was sexually molested. She says it took years for her to heal from the psychological trauma.

They deny their underwear was ever removed by their guards, or that their private parts were washed by someone else

The “Morong 5” women, unlike their Karapatan-represented counterparts, say they were loosely handcuffed during the first days of detention but not blindfolded, not even when using the toilet. They deny their underwear was ever removed by their guards, or that their private parts were washed by someone else. They claim they were never subjected to the humiliation that the rest of the Morong 43 reported to the media.

All 5 vehemently deny they were tortured or coerced.

Winning hearts and minds?

Military officers say the AFP has come a long way in respecting human rights after four decades of insurgency. The group’s military handler claims the “Morong 5” is a case of truly winning hearts and minds.

Cherelyn, a morena with piercing black eyes, is a widow at 32. In jail, she says she witnessed the exact opposite of what she was brainwashed into believing about the military. She uses the word “kalinga,” nurture.

“Sabi sa amin sa bundok, totortyurin kami, sasaktan, rereypin. Pinadama sa amin nila Sir ang pagmamahal ng magulang. Parang anak nilang ituring kami pati mga anak ko.” (We were told in the mountains that if arrested we would be tortured, hurt, raped. They only showed us love—they were like parents to us and to my children.”)

 Health worker or NPA? Human rights activist or Marxist? Community organizer or insurgent? One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, especially in a country like the Philippines where everyone has attended at least one rally and knows at least one person “who had gone to the hills.”

 Turning point

It wasn’t difficult to believe the stories of “Morong 43” about how they suffered at the hands of the captors. They had very detailed accounts of how they were put in isolation, an accusation the military never denied.

And with the Aquino government wanting to walk the democratic talk, it was just a matter of time before the Morong detainees secured their release, and they did so in 10 months, complete with raised fists in front of cameras on Freedom Day.

Why then did the 5 break away from the ranks and start singing a different song? When did they become a lost brigade?

It’s hard to imagine the three women of the group, one of them barely out of her teens, as rifle-toting amazons. Jenilyn is a pretty, fair-skinned 19 year old who dropped out of high school after she was recruited. She had been an active NPA member for barely a year when she was arrested.

Jenilyn claims she joined the rebels to seek justice after a relative sexually molested her. Her comrades persuaded her to forget her vendetta. “Hindi tayo tinutulak ng paghihiganti.” (We are not motivated by revenge.”) She relented but to her dismay, another comrade crawled into her bed one night while she was sleeping in a safe house. She reported the offense and the offender got the obligatory disciplinary action, but this pushed her down the road to disillusionment.

When she was arrested, Jenilyn realized it was her chance to start anew. She claims the soldiers treated her with respect and were attracted to her. “Nagka-boyfriend ka ba sa mga sundalo?” I asked her if she has a boyfriend among the soldiers. “May nanliligaw po.” She lets on later that there were many suitors among the uniformed men but not among her direct handlers. Her eyes light up as she reluctantly admits she had said yes to one of them. “Bahagi ba siya ng pagbabagong-isip mo?” (Is he part of the reason for your turnaround?) No, she says, claiming she met him after she had turned.

Eleanor’s decision to go against the collective script and admit she is a guerrilla effectively ended her marriage

The most outspoken is Eleanor, 31, a mother of five with a steely determination in her eyes. Her decision to go against the collective script and admit she is a guerrilla effectively ended her marriage, but she says with a wry smile, she got her family back.

Love and revolution

Eleanor joined the NPA because of love—her husband, a platoon commander in the mountains of Sierra Madre expected her to be a dutiful wife and stay with him in the jungle. Now, her love for her children compels her to disown the rebel army.

“Bakit ka bumaligtad lalo na andoon ang asawa mo?” I asked Eleanor how she could turn her back on the NPA when her husband was there. She claims she is a mother first. “Kasi po noong tumatawag ako “Ate” na ang tawag sa’kin. Gaano kasakit yun na Ate na ang tawag sayo? Kapag nagtagal ako sa kulungan, baka hindi na ako kilala ng aking bunso. At tsaka po, dalaga na rin po yung panganay ko.” (When I called them up, my kid called me “Ate” (Elder Sister). How painful is that, when your child calls you Ate? If I had stayed longer in jail, my youngest would no longer know me. And besides, my eldest is almost a young lady.”)

 Cherilyn’s lifestory is rife with ironies. Her husband died in an encounter with the military in Quezon. Yet she does not hate the institution that killed the father of her 3 children. She says they knew the stakes were high when they signed up.

What she resented was when her comrades prevented her from visiting her husband’s wake, a decision that seemed sound since the wake would have been monitored. “Hindi ko man lang siya nakita kahit po yung bangkay kahit po yung libing. Di talaga nila ako pinayagan. Nagwala po ako… sabi ko uuwi na ako, hindi talaga nila ako pinayagan kahit konting silip lang.” (I didn’t even see his corpse, not even the burial. I was in a fit of anger, but they never relented, not even a peek.)

None of the Morong 5 handlers are in the room during our interview in a restaurant. Their anecdotes ring true but it’s obvious they are ready for the questions. Their knowledge of the rebel organization isn’t deep but by no means that of laymen. If they are lying, they must be good con artists.

The truth may be simpler: they’ve had a change of heart. It’s not hard to see how.

All of the Morong 5 had spent only 1-4 years in the movement, except Valentino whose involvement spanned 7 years—babies in an organization of lifers. The Morong 5 aren’t the “lumpen culturati” of Lacaba’s poems—they are housewives, farmers and high school students. Their understanding of Left dogma are at best elementary. They committed to a vague vision of emancipation from social inequality. Once the military convinced them social hierarchies are inevitable in life, a class war becomes pointless.

Where have all the ideologues gone? Is the Left intelligentsia fading away in the banality of everyday struggle?

They are part of the Melito Glor Command but barely know Melito Glor, the NPA luminary and namesake of their command. Glor, in contrast, fits Lacaba’s descriptions of the bohemian-turned-“people’s warrior.” A UP medical student and a fraternity brother of Ninoy Aquino and Ferdinand Marcos, he dropped out of college to join the communist insurgency in the lush jungles of the province of his youth. He was killed in an encounter there in 1979.

Geriatric insurgency

Gone are the days when the Philippine Left lured firebrands like Jose Maria Sison, Boy Morales, Emmanuel Lacaba and Lean Alejandro. Nowadays, you have to be content with the predictable rhetoric of Teddy Casino and Liza Masa.

Critics say Left recruitment among Gen-Xers plummeted along with the rise of Facebook

Where have all the ideologues gone? Is the Left intelligentsia fading away in the banality of everyday struggle filled with e-mailing press releases, writing revolutionary tax demand letters and learning first aid?

Critics say Left recruitment among Gen-Xers plummeted along with the rise of Facebook.

The Communist Party of the Philippine’s “advanced detachment” in The Hague and in the boondocks are certainly advanced in age and inflexible as ever. The latest top cadre to be arrested is Tirso Alcantara, alias Ka Bart, allegedly the top military commander of the Melito Glor Command. City-based comrades who met him during trainings and integrations in Southern Tagalog in the 90’s remember Ka Bart as a spry, young, hotshot commander operating near the mystical Mt. Banawe. Now, he’s in his mid-60s.

Trusted sources in the communist movement could not confirm if these 5, in particular, were NPAs or if the Morong training, in particular, is an NPA medical training. But these sources say the Morong 5 incident had the hallmarks of an underground training that was compromised. “Natimbog,” one source said in Pilipino. “I thought the health workers drama was a cover story from Day 1. Walks like a duck and talks like a duck.”

New master

I turned to one of the men of the Morong 5, John Mark Barrientos, 21 years old, a typical probinsyano, painfully shy and soft-spoken I ask him why he changed sides, after all, he didn’t have a wife and kids pulling him back. I could feel the anger in his answer: while his comrades expected him to do their bidding, they were insensitive to his needs. He was not allowed to go home and see his parents, while higher ranking cadres would come and go as they please.

 The last of the Morong 5, Valentino, is 35 years old. He has been an organizer for 7 years. He’s inscrutable and hides his feelings very well. He talks about being tired of a rebel’s life.

 Both Valentino and John Mark say they only want a peaceful life, yet they know peace will elude them for a while longer. They say “the movement does not forgive” but claim they bear no grudges against their former brothers-in-arms. I suspect they will be looking over their shoulders for a long time.

I asked them if they did not resent the fact that their ex-comrades in the Morong 43 are now free while they are still stuck in the barracks of Camp Capinpin. They say they are happy there. Like leaderless Ronins who had found a new master, they are content. John Mark and Valentino say they would not mind staying in the camp indefinitely. Eleanor wants to join the Armed Forces. Jenilyn wants to go back to school.

The mothers see a stable future. The men are no longer battle weary. The teenager is in love.

There is no hint that torture and coercion had been part of the military’s repertoire in turning the Morong 5, but economic persuasion and emotional manipulation certainly played a major role. They enjoy a very modest monthly stipend. Their children were sent back to school and they could now indulge in simple pleasures. (While I was talking to the mothers the kids were at Jollibee, under the watch of military nannies.)

The mothers see a stable future. The men are no longer battle weary. The teenager is in love. 

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