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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – When he studied at the University of the Philippines in 1968, Benito Tiamzon fell in love not with communism but with writing.
He wrote for the Philippine Collegian, the official student newspaper of UP Diliman, and would hang out with campus writers, recalled a former senior cadre of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) who knows Tiamzon from those years. Tiamzon eventually joined a militant student movement, the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) which, along with the Kabataang Makabayan (KM), would form the backbone of the national democratic movement during the Marcos years.
Tiamzon started party work by organizing labor unions in Metro Manila under the CPP’s Metro Manila-Rizal Regional Party Committee, according to various intelligence reports on him. He organized Marikina’s market vendors and shoemakers, for example, as well as workers in Caloocan.
Tiamzon has come a long way since.
On Saturday, March 22, military and police units captured him, his wife Wima and 5 others in Barangay Zaragosa, Aloguinsan, Cebu.
This is not his first arrest.
Tiamzon was arrested and detained in Fort Bonifacio following the 1972 declaration of martial law by then president Ferdinand Marcos. After his escape, he remained an elusive catch who carried the aliases “Celo” and “Sencio,” according to a veteran intelligence officer who thrice attempted to arrest Tiamzon and failed each time.
The former CPP cadre we interviewed said Tiamzon has one distinguishing mark: he has 6 toes in one foot.
The military said that at the time of his arrest on March 22, Tiamzon was the chairman of the CPP and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), while his wife was the secretary-general.
He’s more than that, however.
Now 63, Tiamzon is credited for consolidating the party after it suffered its biggest split in the early 1990s.
The split came about after CPP chairman-in- exile Jose Maria Sison initiated a rectification campaign that ordered cadres to return to the old principles of a protracted people’s war, discouraged “adventurism” in the ranks, and slammed party leaders who wanted to fast-track the revolution by expanding in key cities and provinces. Sison’s stern reminders came in the form of a 1992 party document titled, “Reaffirm Our Basic Principles and Rectify Errors.”
A massive purge followed, splitting the communist movement into two major factions: the so-called “Reaffirmists,” who heeded Sison’s back-to-basics order, and the so-called “Rejectionists,” who believed that the party needed to adapt to the changing times.
As rebel units disintegrated and the movement’s minted names left the CPP, the Ramos administration then declared that the communist movement was in an “irreversible decline.” The government was so convinced of this that at one point, it gave the Philippine National Police (PNP) the primary role of fighting the insurgents so that the military could focus on external defense.
Tiamzon stood by the party during this difficult period and pursued the rectification campaign, intelligence officers and former CPP cadres told Rappler. “He consolidated the party after the split. He should be credited for that,” a former cadre said.
True, the communist underground is no longer as formidable as it had been at its peak in the 1980s (when it had about 20,000 armed members). Robert Delfin, a veteran intelligence agent who was behind the sensational arrests of senior rebel leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, said in a previous interview: “Ang NPA ay parang bolang kristal. Kapag nabasag, hindi mo na mabubuo.” (The NPA is like a crystal ball. Once it is broken, you can no longer make it whole again). (READ: Timeline of CPP-NPA arrests under Aquino)
But the communist underground has managed to bounce back in some regions, taunting authorities and regaining some political base. The military has also since taken back from the PNP the primary role of running after the guerrillas. And despite its measly number of about 3,000 armed members today, the communist movement continues to be a strategic security threat as far as the military is concerned.
Tiamzon played a key role in that rebuilding.
He first showed his organizational muscle when he was assigned in the Samar provinces in the 1970s to provide “political direction” to the NPA there, according to the former CPP cadre we interviewed.
In fact, sources told Rappler that the Tiamzon couple became vulnerable to surveillance right after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) struck the Samar-Leyte area in November 2013. They were spotted in and out of the area, according to sources.
The region became an NPA stronghold in the Marcos years due to poverty and the tactical skills of two rebel commanders during this period: Pedro Calubid and Arturo Tabara (Tabara was assassinated by the NPA, a casualty of the split).
It was Benito Tiamzon who assisted Calubid and Tabara in Samar during those years, ensuring “political development” for party organs there, the former cadre added.
In 1976, the CPP through Sison issued a crucial organizational document that set the orientation for countryside work. Many believe that Tiamzon wrote the bulk of that party document, after he studied and summed up the various organizational experiences of guerrilla bases from Isabela to Davao. He used his vast experience in Samar – and the rebels’ success there – to emphasize “painstaking organizational work,” recalled the former CPP cadre.
Another former CPP cadre recalled: “That was his strength…he was able to explain with clarity the various organizational challenges facing the party. In meetings, he would summarize conflicting positions and ideas. He was good at that.”
In 1985, nearly a decade after the release of the party document that he helped author, the CPP suffered its worst political debacle: it decided to boycott the February 1986 snap elections called by Marcos. The elections, which Marcos won officially, triggered massive protests that led to the EDSA revolution that brought him down and catapulted Corazon Aquino to the presidency. The CPP was left sitting on the fence.
The CPP chairman then, Rodolfo Salas, took the flak for that “strategic blunder,” as insiders would call it. He resigned.
Tiamzon was ripe for the position of chairman, which he would hold in an acting capacity and in between transitions. He was formally elected CPP chairman during a plenum sometime between 2004 and 2008, according to intelligence reports.
Government and military officials have been describing Tiamzon as the hardliner vis-a-vis peace talks with the Aquino government. Alex Padilla, government’s chief peace negotiator, told Rappler last year that while Sison seemed open to resuming peace talks with the administration, Tiamzon had imposed difficult preconditions for the talks. (READ: Joma wants peace, the ground doesn’t)
A veteran intelligence officer however said Tiamzon himself was subjected to disciplinary action over reported problems caused by the underground movement’s decision to support the candidacy of businessman Manny Villar in the 2010 presidential race. But party insiders dispute this.
Whatever it is, the guerrilla army that Tiamzon once led is celebrating its 45th anniversary a week from now, on March 29 – proof of its tenacity and the persistence of conditions that had driven young men like him to rebel 4 decades ago. – Rappler.com