Our massacred peasants

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose () - June 29, 2009 - 12:00am

The murder the other week of Rene Peñas, who led the Sumilao farmers in their march from Bukidnon to Manila, and the violent eviction of the demonstrators from the premises of Congress at about the same time, evoked painful memories of peasant travail in the past. Rene Peñas was certainly not the first farm leader to die at the hands of those who oppose agrarian reform. And those demonstrators in Congress belong to a devoted lineage of farmers who tried — and failed — to redress their sorry lot. Sure, the comprehensive agrarian reform program has been extended but so much has yet to be done, particularly in the coconut and sugar lands.

We are an agricultural country that should be able to produce enough food for ourselves, but this government, dominated as it has always been by landlords, has long ignored the peasantry. In a sense, its hierarchs have never grasped the profound nationalist and religious roots of the aspirations of our very poor as well as their rigid compulsion to revolt.

Let us start with the Colorums of Tayug, Pangasinan in 1931. My first informant on that mini-rebellion was the late Narciso Ramos, father of President Fidel V. Ramos. He was then a journalist in Asingan near Tayug, just like Rosales where I was born. He had written about the uprising, knew its origins in landlord oppression for in Asingan, as in Rosales, were believers of the faith.

Colorum is not the official name of that peasant group. The word is from the Latin mass, and they believed in quasi-religious chants and anting-anting (charms), which supposedly endowed them with superpowers. Soon after the word came to mean illegal objects like colorum jeepneys, colorum firearms and the like. Indeed, peasant organizations here and elsewhere in the developing world derive their triumphalist motive from religion.

I interviewed the Colorum leader Pedro Calosa twice in Tayug in the ‘50s when I was with the old Manila Times. It was the harvest season and I came upon him and his wife at work in the fields just outside the town. He was small and very dark. In his youth he had gone to Hawaii like so many young Ilokanos to work in the sugar and pineapple plantations there. While in Hawaii, he organized the farm workers. Deported home, he worked the land as a tenant farmer and started organizing the barrio folk.

Pedro Calosa claimed that the spirits of Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini—all these illustrious dead—had entered his body. Why these heroes? Because they sacrificed for this land. We see in this simple explanation then the nationalist cant become flesh.

Calosa also said all the peasants in the country were bonded together by the soil and when the Colorums struck, they expected the entire peasantry would rise with them. It did not happen for though suffering had fired them, the rest who were oppressed had become comfortable with their chains. The Colorums holed up in the Catholic church until the following day when a Constabulary company from Manila arrived and dislodged them.

Like Rene Peñas of Sumilao, Pedro Calosa of Tayug was murdered; his passing evoked no outcry even from the poor he so tenaciously defended.

The Sakdal revolt erupted a scant four years after the failed Colorum uprising. The acknowledged founder of the Sakdal (to defend) movement was Benigno Ramos, a minor government functionary, Tagalog writer and eloquent rabblerouser. He advocated the partitioning of the haciendas and the expulsion of the United States. He was also pro-Japanese as were some politicians at the time who saw in the Japanese experience a possible model for our own modernization, as well as emancipation from Western imperialism. As a political party, the Sakdalistas were well knit, welded together by class feelings. On May 2, 1935, they seized municipal buildings in Laguna and Bulacan. The revolt was immediately crushed but not after many were killed. Benigno Ramos fled to Japan and returned during the Japanese Occupation. The Sakdals then morphed into the Ganap Party and formed the dreaded Makapili which brought death to many Filipinos. We see in the Sakdals, a nationalist peasant-based movement, corrupted into a tool of Japanese conquest.

In spite of its ignoble deterioration, like the Colorums, the Sakdals signify peasant support for revolution.

In the mid ‘50s in Laguna, in the shadow of Mt. Makiling, which is deified by many of the people in its environs. I met Valentin de los Santos, the leader of the Watawat ng Lahi — the Rizalista faction, later known as the Lapiang Malaya. He figured in the front pages of the newspapers in May 1967 when he led a motley band in a planned Malacañang demonstration. They paused in Taft Avenue in Pasay.

They were in gaudy red and white uniform with yellow capes, and were armed with long bolos. Like the Colorums, they believed that their pig-Latin chants and amulets made them invincible. The Constabulary challenged them and when the smoke of battle cleared, more than 30 of De Los Santos’ ignorant followers lay dead on the pavement. What a waste of human life! Had the military any sense of the past and learned from the Colorums and other nativistic peasant movements, they would have simply sent a sergeant in the resplendent regalia of a high-ranking officer, with golden epaulets and all that gleaming braid to mollify the farmers. Valentin de los Santos was arrested and confined to the Mandaluyong Psychopathic Hospital where he was murdered like Pedro Calosa,

The Hukbalahap (short for Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon or the People’s Army Against the Japanese) started as guerrillas during the Japanese Occupation and became the best organized guerrilla force; later demonized by the United States at the start of the Cold War in 1946. It became HMB (Hukbo Magpalaya ng Bayan) (Army to Liberate the People). I followed closely its genesis and eventual decay. I knew some of its leaders, Fred Saulo, Casto Alejandrino, the Lava brothers and Luis Taruc who became my compadre. Their iron commitment, their tremendous capacity for sacrifice were truly admirable.

Only the other day, Francisco Lava of the succeeding Lava generation and I were reminiscing about his forebears who certainly were not dirt poor tenant farmers. The Lavas, Casto Alejandrino belonged to the wealthy principalia as did Pedro Abad Santos whom Luis Taruc idolized. Juan Feleo of Nueva Ecija who was elected member of Congress in the early Forties was also one such paragon — rich, urbane, he gave up everything, his lands, his family, his life for the peasantry. I recreated Luis Taruc whom I knew best as Ka Lucio, the faded revolutionary in my novel Mass.

The Huks were eventually fractured not really by ideological disagreements or ethnic loyalties but by the unsinkable egoism of its leaders — the very same tragic flaw which sundered the New People’s Army and almost all of our fledgling political institutions.

An element of religiosity also suffused the Huks, not so much in their allegiance to the communist creed. Among the lower echelons was the same religiosity that infused the Colorums and the Sakdals. As Luis Taruc himself had confided — if he was a bit more opportunistic, he would have exploited that religiosity of his followers, some of whom had regarded him as possessed with unearthly powers, which explained his miraculous escapes.

The greatest tragedy during the administration of President Cory Aquino happened in the late afternoon of January 22, 1986 when some 20 farmer demonstrators were killed in Mendiola street by the military. How could such a tragedy occur? Whose fault was it? The farmers under Jaime Tadeo had wanted to see the President to press their claims for agrarian reform which Cory, in the previous election campaign, had promised. She was not ignorant of the agrarian unrest that cankered Central Luzon where her vast 6,000 hectare-hacienda is located — the sanctuary no less of the New People’s Army Commander, Dante Buscayno. She refused to see the farmers because, as she explained, “they had no appointment.”

It was all there on television for us to see — the volleys of gunfire, the frenzied dash for cover of the demonstrators, the dead and wounded sprawled on the pavement.

Prof. Toru Yano of the Kyoto Center of Southeast Asian Studies told me later that Cory was elected to get the Nobel Peace Prize that year after the triumph of EDSA I. Professor Yano who was the Asian member of that Nobel Committee said that senseless massacre aborted it.

In death, that tiller from Sumilao, at the very least, will be remembered for he had a name. But those who fell in Mendiola, and all over the world as well, those selfless men with the plow who feed us, will pass as anonymously as the beasts of burden that help make this sweet earth bear fruit. We who survive, who are sustained by their labor are yoked with them. If we can, nameless though they were, we must always remember what they did, render imperishable the terrible injustice of their dying — an outrage which will never be redressed. This, too, is the indelible shame we must bear for having elected to power the very same tyrants who forged their chains, and worse, became their remorseless executioners.

In the Senate, the most important agenda in Senator Loren Legarda’s 2010 platform is her espousal of agriculture, her hopes that eventually we will be able to feed 90 million Filipinos. In media, I salute the economist Solita Monsod for her dogged support for the peasantry, an advocacy backed by competent scholarship. Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, the Catcholic Bishops’ Conference, too, and all those religious orders, the Jesuits— demand agrarian reform. We are grateful to the late Fr. Hector Mauri who devoted a lifetime to the welfare of the sacadas of Negros, so, too, to Fr. Arsenio C. Jesena, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, and to so many young priests and nuns.

The revolutionary tradition fortified by the peasantry is the dimly remembered continuum in our history. Even the New People’s Army — in spite of its wretched failure after 40 years — is agrarian in its inspiration. I had asked Luis Taruc if any of the NPA cadres ever visited him to learn from him or, at the very least, establish that connection — and he said, no.

There, of course, lies what ails so many of the attempts to reform this country. The methods are not indigenized, the young revolutionists think they are reinventing the wheel.

For those of us who have plowed a fallow field and planted rice, who have watched the greening of the land, the transformation of emerald expanses into vistas of shimmering gold as the grain ripens — we know there is no sight more evocative than this, or a scent as fragrant as that of the newly harvested field. Verily, it is the peasants who understand the vibrant meaning of all these, of mother earth as the nation we must love and worship, our most precious gift from God. Such devotion is enshrined in our national anthem, sang by every schoolchild. To sing the anthem in its prescribed form, to honor our flag — these are much too little a price for us Filipinos to pay.

So then, if the peasant is the true nationalist — he could also be the sterling revolutionary who subscribes implicitly to what that Sakdal general, Salud Algabre said in 1935. “No rebellion ever fails — each one is a step in the right direction.”

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