The 1950s could be a world away from even today’s dystopian times. Those were the times when students were told to “just study” in school, women were not welcome in politics and the economy, activism was unheard of, and the two-party system can’t get enough from the corruption and patronage they thrive on.
Enter Jose Maria Sison and his contemporaries from the University of the Philippines. They went to Congress to disrupt and scuttle the hearings of the Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities, which was harassing and red-tagging Filipinos questioning the status quo.
They took to studying topics and reading books beyond what the university syllabus provides. They discussed pressing national, social, economic and cultural concerns of the public. Not only did they look with concern for Filipino working families; they did not see workers and farmers as charity cases. For these rising new activists, these humblest of Filipinos are the wealth-makers and liberators of the country.
By 1964, Sison and his UP contemporaries had been able to attract the imagination and commitment of brilliant students from many other universities and colleges. He founded and chaired the Kabataang Makabayan, the ancestor of activist groups that would liberate minds and mobilize many for the next decades and until today.
Black-and-white photos from this era show Sison in the company of great nationalists, attending events of the KM and the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties.
One does not need to believe in what Sison believes. Even those who don’t cannot help themselves in admiring Sison’s patience and tenacity in pursuing his goals. By 1968, he had helped rebuild the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the New People’s Army by the next year.
Sison’s seminal Struggle for National Democracy and Philippine Society and Revolution became the basic texts for understanding the country’s past, present, and future.
The First Quarter Storm of 1970 was a national cultural phenomenon, never before seen since the outbreak of the old Philippine revolution. Students, workers, farmers, professionals, and even entrepreneurs talked about imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism as the root causes of the people’s problems. Pamphlets, long articles, flyers, newspapers broadcast the call for nationalism and democracy, as the antidote policies marked by pro-imperialism and elitism.
The FQS was a phenomenon because the challenge to the status quo came not from the ranks of traditional politicians or the political class. To Sison’s credit, he acted on his belief that democracy must belong to the people, and that the people must be able to freely think, speak out, organize, and take action in order to effect changes in their own country.
Prior to Sison, the belief was that politics belonged only to politicians. Sison and his comrades questioned, challenged, and smashed this. He helped organize Filipinos into a movement with a credible and well-thought out political program bannered by genuine agrarian reform, national industrialization, the emancipation of women, a pro-people culture, and so on. Thanks to KM and the many organizations inspired by Sison’s teaching, no politician or even pundit can lay claim exclusive franchise to political expression and action.
By the time Ferdinand Marcos imposed Martial Law to facilitate his family’s large-scale theft, Sison and the movement he had helped build was ready to confront, challenge, and fight the dictatorship. The underground movement welcomed those who sought sanctuary from the dictatorship’s terror and those who discovered the validity of revolutionary action to fight tyranny.
It was thus no surprise that many viewed Marcos, Benigno Aquino Jr., and Sison as that time’s top newsmakers and political figures.
Sison’s subsequent arrest became top news. Marcos thought his arrest would end the movement. However intelligent he thought he was, Marcos could never understand that he and his family were the biggest recruiters of activists and revolutionaries. Plunder, state terror, and economic crisis provided people an impetus to self-organize and to mobilize by the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
Marcos had Sison tortured, tied to a cot for months, or in solitary confinement. Outside, Filipinos thought and took action for themselves. After the downfall of Marcos, Sison sued for damages over his being tortured. He won, alongside the class action suit.
Publicly-available documents reveal that Sison was not interested solely on revolution. He was also a peacemaker who thought that the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines could negotiate, compromise and finally agree on addressing the root causes of the country’s problems.
Sison had a hand in breakthroughs in the peace negotiations, according to foreign observers. He was simply not the grim-and-determined ideologue and bloodthirsty monster that some like to paint him to be. Together with many negotiators, he shares the credit for the The Hague Joint Declaration, the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees, and the first substantive agreement, the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law.
Up until his demise, the NDFP negotiating panel and national council kept reelecting Sison as chief political consultant.
In 2007, Sison was arrested in his Utrecht home and detained on charges facilitated by the Philippine government. He defeated the charges in open court, and was ordered to be freed. Trumped-up charges, a favorite of the NTF-ELCAC and its predecessors, cannot survive that long outside Philippine courts.
Many have met Sison since his world tour and exile in 1987, when the Corazon Aquino administration canceled his passport. He enjoyed the company of migrant workers, professors, academics, poets, artists, activists, and journalists.
The first time I met him was in 1996, when a friend and myself made a side trip from Belgium to The Netherlands. We went to Utrecht to personally present him and NDFP chair Antonio Zumel their Gawad Marcelo H. Del Pilar trophies from the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. The award is the CEGP’s highest honors, and the guild honored them for their courage and brilliance in presenting alternatives to the status quo, and their service to the campus press.
We had pre-conceived notions of Sison, Zumel, and other Filipino exiles. They were warm and welcoming, eager to hear every bit of news from the country they love. They asked about the situation in Metro Manila, about movement-building, and more.
In 2012, when I was part of a group of journalists invited to visit Oslo, Norway, we asked the NDFP international office if we could interview with Sison and Fidel Agcaoili at the Amsterdam airport on our way home. We didn’t want to pass the chance.
We thought that we would just have coffee at an airport coffee shop. It turned out there are function rooms at the airport. Practically all the Utrecht-based negotiators were there. They were excited to meet fellow Filipinos, to answer questions and to exchange views.
A few years ago, traditional politicians and their political hacks accused Sison of going to bed with Rodrigo Duterte. But why would Sison do such a thing, and risk everything he worked hard for? It was simply unimaginable for traditional politicians that a liberation movement can talk peace with anyone, and of course, there’s no profit to be made with peace talks. Billions in counterinsurgency funds, a perceived source of corruption, would be lost.
Duterte knew that the NDFP and Sison won’t be conned. He can’t or won’t commit to social and economic reforms, or political and constitutional reforms, which are the next substantive agenda. By the time Duterte scuttled the talks, he had made pacts with China, the military hungry for more war funds, and his oligarchic base.
Not many know that Sison was a genuine Ilocano, born in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur. He came from comfortable family. He was an outstanding student, and if he had his own way, he could have ended up a traditional politician. But his discovery of activism and revolution changed his outlook and aspiration. He ended up being a people’s freedom fighter, a challenger to Marcos, a thinker and a statesman of the Philippine Left.
As news of Sison’s passing spread across the country, expect many organizations, aboveground and underground, to pay tribute to him and his ideas. Here was a man who gave up everything, even his access to his own country, to serve our country as an exiled revolutionary and peace negotiator. Here was a man who as a professor and as a movement-builder taught his people to reimagine their own country and strive to make it truly free, democratic and prosperous.
No retelling of Philippine history would be complete or credible without mentioning Jose Maria Sison and his role as a liberator of millions of minds and hearts. His place is secure there. – Rappler.com
Tonyo Cruz is an opinion columnist for the Manila Bulletin. He was former assistant vice president for Luzon and deputy secretary-general of the CEGP, and later served as public relations officers for activist groups and activist members of Congress.