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REMEMBERING: Our lives were never the same again

(In the run-up to the 36th anniversary of People Power that ousted the Marcos dictatorship, let us remember what Mindanawons did to fight for freedom. 
This piece by Gus Miclat was among the essays featured in the book ‘Turning Rage Into Courage: Mindanao under Martial Law,’ published by MindaNews in 2002, on the 30th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos)

Remembering is a very healthy act.

It is good for the mind, a balm to the heart and fodder for one’s soul.

It is also oftentimes necessary in sustaining one’s balance.

For not only does remembering put us in touch with our memories and the lessons that we gain from them, it also provides us a framework for moving on and a perspective to focus on to.

Thus, this exercise that we have been going through since yesterday not only deserves to be emulated but should in fact be replicated wherever and whenever it could be.

When martial law was declared, I was still in 4th year high school. I remember overhearing a neighbor say the proclamation only covered Manila. She was very emphatic about it, arguing why should Davao or Mindanao for that matter be included when the “gulo” was only confined to Manila, that the rampaging street demonstrators and indiscriminate bombings which had become staple fare then were only the handiwork of UP students, opposition politicians or hotheads.

But while she was trying to convince a huddle of our neighbors, I also remember the radio blaring the news about the declaration. I noticed hearing the anchor person suddenly losing his trademark brimstone as he cautioned a caller —who identified himself as a member of the Kabataang Makabayan — to be sure of his facts and to temper his fiery’ sloganeering on the air. This same anchorperson was known for his tirades and irreverent remarks against the government in his daily morning spiels.

Indeed, martial law turned out to be for all of us. Our neighbor was wrong. And our lives were never the same again.

At that time, it was my elder sister who was starting to dabble in activism, although she also had a spat with some KM militants at the Ateneo. Some of them are even here today. This was about their sweeping attack on the office and person of my mother who was then the head of the social welfare department in the region. But that is another story.

I was more of a non-conformist and thought that activism was a fad, thus, shunned joining this bandwagon. I preferred to play chess.

My only fling with the “fad” up to that point was joining a one-day walk-out at the Ateneo high school, as we all gathered at the soccer field to insist on sporting long hair even during our compulsory paramilitary training subject. We wanted to look like Che Guevara rather than Gen. Patton. We lost that first and only mass action in the annals of the Ateneo de Davao High School when the school administration called in our parents to literally drag us back by the ear to the classrooms!

But perhaps this non-conformity even among young high school minds, already mirrored the revolutionary stirrings in the country that was about to sweep Mindanao. For beyond our bohemian desire to nose thumb the school authorities, was a Mindanao that was being ravaged by the powers-that-be, a Mindanao that was being wantonly pillaged of its mountains and seas, a promised land bled of its soil and people. And the unfolding saga that was Mindanao, I was only starting to behold, as I would get to personally witness, chronicle, and even become a fragment to its story as Martial Law scorched the land.

There were other witnesses, chroniclers and participants to the story of Mindanao during Martial Law, like almost all of you who are here. But foremost of course were what the poet-revolutionary Emman Lacaba, who was killed somewhere in Davao del Norte, described as the “faceless, nameless, tribeless masses.” All quiet heroes and heroines in my book.

But this is what I remember:

I remember both the suffering and the struggle. I remember the repression and the pain.

I remember the agony of displaced communities – Moro, Lumad, settlers alike – as the Marcos military machine ran roughshod over their tenements, their domains, their shacks, their plots, usually in the guise of ferreting out rebels who were not even around when martial law was declared. There was not one NPA (New People’s Army) cadre in Mindanao in 1972. Yes, there were activists, there were some firebrands, there were farmer organizers from KHIRO and the FFF (Federation of Free Farmers), but there were no armed rebels then except for those who eventually formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). 

When Marcos fled in 1986, the NPA was virtually in all Mindanao provinces enjoying even a tacit alliance with the MNLF.

The so-called “war” in Mindanao in 1972 was a virtual moro-moro dubbed also as the “Barracuda-Ilaga” conflict. Largely a proxy battle brewed by the political and economic elite to tame restive forces while they gobbled up very rich resources, this strife was exacerbated by the peoples’ tragic intolerance of each other and of their misunderstanding of the forces playing them off. Still, the peoples of Mindanao saw through this scheme and eventually galvanized a massive, comprehensive — and creative people’s movement that challenged martial law, that tied down the dictatorship.

I remember the hamlets, the zonings, the demolitions of urban poor shanties spilling our barefoot brethren into the streets, into the trenches and barricades, and into the fastness of the burgeoning rebel fronts in the ranges of Mindanao.

I remember the “salvagings,” the dread of that knock in the night, nay, of unabashed warrantless seizures even at daylight, of the violent dispersals of peaceful, yet, passionate people’s mass actions.

But I also remember the “sparrow” liquidations, the tactical offensives, the daring raids and agaw-armas of the guerrillas and armed partisans on military detachments even right in the bosom of the cities. Davao was even labeled the laboratory of the revolutionary forces’ experiment of a political-military strategy that seemed to work till it was overtaken by a confluence of events.

Davao’s teeming urban poor community was the womb of the alternately dreaded and idealized “sparrows.” By the mid-80’s there was virtually never a day in Davao when a policeman, a CHDF element, a notorious traffic cop, an informer or a soldier was felled by a sparrow bullet. The urban poor district Agdao was called “Nicaragdao” in allusion to the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas who were the toast of liberation movements then. Other urban poor colonies like Ma-a was Ma-anagua, Quezon Boulevard was Bolivia-rd and so on.

Still, I remember how MNC’s — multinational corporations — devoured almost all the remaining arable plains of the island, how cash-crops and toxic fertilizers were forced upon the land, how peasants and tenants wilted under the yoke of quotas and spiraling debts. I remember NDC-Guthrie, Del Monte, Dole, Lapanday, PICOP, Stanfilco.

I remember the workers whose wages – if they had any – were a pittance, who had to cling to contractual jobs amidst the devastation of arbitrary oil price hikes and wicked working conditions.

But I also remember a growing people’s agrarian movement when waves of peasants and tenants “accessed” the land they tilled for themselves. Some, with a little help from their NPA or MNLF friends, of course.

Davao City, 21 August 1984 The Parliament of the Streets is alive in Davao City as thousands of residents, raising clenched fists, gather downtown on August 21, 1984 to commemorate the 1st anniversary of the assassination of former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino. Aquino was gunned down upon arrival at the Manila International Airport (now renamed after him) on August 21, 1983 after a three-year exile. The killing triggered more protests nationwide against the Marcos dictatorship, including Davao City where Yellow Friday marches and Welgang Bayans were mounted by an enraged citizenry. Photo by ARNEL VILLEGAS

I remember the Lakbayans of yore, when teeming masses from the boondocks marched down towards the cities and converged with their worker, urban poor, youth and so-called middle forces counterparts in a veritable united front against the dictatorship.

On one such Lakbayan, I remember goodfriend and dear comrade Alex Orcullo exclaiming to me: “this must be the feeling of liberation” — as he absorbed the sight of the convergence of red and yellow and purple flags and streamers held aloft by thousands of haggard peasants and brawny motorcycle-riding workers massing from different directions amidst the din of Joey Ayala beating his percussions, the youth and students yelling wild but organized cheers and slogans. 

That happened just outside this college, out there in the park once known to militant denizens as Orcullo or Freedom Park. Of course, we all know that Alex, who is likened to be the “Ninoy” of Mindanao, was killed on his birthday in front of his young wife and son a few months after his fleeting sojourn into the ecstasy of liberation.

I remember his widow Nenen, now a councilor, who told us when we went to retrieve his bloodied corpse that our friend Alex was now gone and we should watch our backs as we might be the next “salvaged” victim.

I remember the other widows and the orphans and the victims of rape and torture. I remember those who just wanted to do good, to make a difference. I remember those who were incarcerated for days, months, years. I remember Karen Guantero, Hilda Narciso, Babette Prudencio, Soc Par, Boy Ipong, Triponio Andres whom we fondly called Molong, and yes, Alex Orcullo.

I remember Edjop, Bryan, Freddy Salanga, Karl Gaspar, Larry Ilagan, Nanay Bising, Sr. Consuelo. Friends, colleagues, students, comrades all.

1 remember the thousand others responsible for struggling, transforming the Mindanao social landscape into the proverbial battleground for the hearts and minds of the era.

For these were the people who really mattered. It was they who sowed and reaped the triumphs which we now remember, which we now emulate, which we should always celebrate.

For yes, I do remember, too, the victories. I remember how our people organized and responded to the scourge of martial law.

The fervor that eventually confronted the Marcos regime was an exhilarating, contagious and liberating wind. Indeed, those polarized times was also the heyday and high tide of mass consciousness, of mass political mobilization, of unity among a broad anti-dictatorship spectrum, of an unremitting collective resolve to unshackle not only a fascist regime but a decaying order as we felt the raw power emanating from the palms of the “tribeless, the nameless, the faceless.”

I remember when Karl Gaspar disappeared and most of us felt initially numbed and paralyzed by the fact that if they could do this to Karl, they could do this to anybody. But friends and comrades from a wide spectrum met and collected their bearings, discussed and planned our moves to ferret Karl out. 

As we continued to “tacticise,” I could feel the fear turning to rage and the rage turning to courage. I felt the empowerment process in the natural. So we went out there looking for Karl, “raiding” suspected military safehouses to the bewilderment and consternation of the military. And in an ironic twist of roles, in one safehouse that we “raided,” a military thug demanded if we had a search warrant!

Karl was eventually surfaced on an Easter Sunday in Manila.

That experience was very telling. I remember wistfully thinking that if ever the military were to arrest us, it should be at that instance because I knew how friends, comrades and the people would have responded the way we did for Karl. And we would have been safe, albeit in jail, but un-tortured and could even be used for propaganda against the regime. Unfortunately, my desire to read all those novels in jail was not realized. I must have been too presumptuous. Because those were inspiring times.

The people’s response in Mindanao may have also inspired the national social effort to oust Marcos and build a truly new and egalitarian society. Even Mindanao symbols such as tubaos and malongs suddenly becoming de rigeur for activists all over the country. Mindanao was so much romanticized. And for good reason.

Like, perhaps nowhere else than in Mindanao did we then find a truly pilgrim church. It was the church which provided first the shelter and then the infrastructure for people to “educate, organize and mobilize.”

Programs evolving from the Mindanao church such as the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) were key avenues in the empowerment process of the different sectors. So-called legal organizations, legal programs and legal institutions or “lo-li-po-ps” as we coded them then, were the precursor of many of our so-called NGOs now. These were very instrumental in not only providing succor to the oppressed masses but in also animating the obtaining revolutionary process then. For yes, more than anywhere else in the Philippines, perhaps, it was, indeed a revolutionary situation that enveloped Mindanao during the twilight of the Marcos dictatorship.

In fact, a substantial number of church people-priests, nuns and lay workers—were also working with, if not for, the underground. This in no time also challenged the church hierarchy who eventually dissolved their official ties to some of these institutions. Perhaps scared by the “red menace,” the hierarchy distanced itself from the seeming irreversible surge of people power engendered by the programs of their institutions and even by their Basic Christian Communities or GKKs.

Even the foreign missionaries scattered around Mindanao were conscripted into the social movement, some even becoming more passionate and more nationalistic than us. In fact it was some of these comrades who established and nurtured the very vibrant solidarity network abroad.

And yes, Mindanao was the veritable “exposure” area for visitors from abroad. And many visiting alternative tourists inevitably found themselves enlisted into a massive solidarity support web overseas.”

And as other legal organizations, programs and institutions sprouted not only from the ribs of the church infrastructure, and as people started to assert their rights and push the limits of martial law to, more perilous boundaries, more and more people were organized into their respective sectors. And more and more creative juices flowed and the complementation of both the “illegal” underground activities and the “legal” work paved the way for perhaps the most comprehensive revolutionary atmosphere in the country at that time.

Mass and sectoral organizations were sprouting all over. Even their acronyms revealed the elegant and empowered state people were in, to wit: LIHUK, which means “act” for Lihuk Hugpong Along so Katungod (Action Alliance for Peoples Rights); MOMENTUM for Movement for an Empowered and Truthful Media; COLUMN for Concerned Lawyers Union of Mindanao; MEDIA-Mindanao for Media Engaged in Developing Integrated Alternatives, and then of course we also had that penultimate acronym for MINDANAO: Mindanao Democratic and Nationalist Opposition.

Mindanao then had a vibrant cultural and media scene going. From the GKKs to the schools to almost all sectoral organizations; there was always a cultural or micro-media component in place. We published the first student news organ, Atenews, during martial law in 1974 predating even the resurrection of UP’s vaunted Philippine Collegian. Our first editorial even lampooned the faculty moderator assigned by the school administration to watch over us.

We made “butas” or initially organized the youth and student sector by establishing a cultural group called Kulturang Atin.

There were newsletters galore and Mindanao had some of those distinct art illustrations that accompanied its pages, foremost of which were those of this guy named Itok who is also known as Nonoy Rodriguez.

We even put up our own media outfit in Media- Mindanao, our media service institution in MCRF or Mindanao Communications and Resource Center and DEMS or Development Education Media Services Inc. which churned out the first alternative tape albums of Joey Ayala.

Even then, we were branching out into the so-called “established” press as we took our advocacies into the pages of the then crusading and hard-hitting San Pedro Express and the short-lived Mindanao Currents. Friends like Freddy Salanga and Carol Arguillas cut some of their journalistic teeth here with us.

Mindanao’s colorful and rich cultural heritage was likewise reflected in the cultural arena of the peoples’ movement. From Marawi — Fr. Dong Galenzoga’s Maranatha, to the Sining Kambayoka of the Mindanao State University to Davao’s Kulturang Atin and Sining Malay, to Karl Gaspar’s and Jehoven Honculada’s MSPC creative theatre program to Nestor Horfilla’s Kalasikas and Fe Remotigue’s Mindanao Community Theatre Network; from the mimes of Narayan to the one-act shows of Aba Kuaman and Tony Apat — the cultural scene then ranged from street theatre to ethnic rock operas.

Even some of Manila’s progressive theatre artists came down and asked to be “deployed” in Mindanao. Al Santos, Nic Cleto, Chris Millado, Jack Yabut, Nanette Matilac, and Celso Alan Glinoga who I pay tribute today as he succumbed to an ill-fated disease last week.

It was also in Mindanao where the legacy of multi-sectoral formations were genuinely nurtured and where welgang bayans became a byword.

This is where multi-sectoral formations evolved to encompass the most comprehensive spectrum ever assembled against the dictatorship: peasants and lawyers, workers and journalists; urban poor and students; lumads and BR’s or bourgeois reformists; politicians and bishops; women and teachers; government workers and artists; fisherfolk and landlords; nuns and entrepreneurs.

These multi-sectoral assemblages epitomized what could have been a real and functioning democratic coalition government that mirrored the aspirations of the majority. Thus when welgang bayans were launched in Mindanao, the dictatorship trembled as entire cities were paralyzed; as generals like Rodolfo Biazon shed tears when confronted by puny student leaders like Rocky Balili or Flor Garcia in the middle of a barricaded street; as urban poor multitudes and farmers occupied entire highways; as bakeries and stores willingly poured out their wares to the hungry and thirsty strikers while even the commercial radio stations gallantly, continuously reported the welga as it progressed.

I remember those massive welgang bayans when even Marines were called into the cities in a vain effort to quell the seething passion of the people for radical change. Students were marching in the major streets, workers and urban poor were barricading intersections; lawyers were scurrying to and fro to assist in negotiations or to stall the inevitable arrests; other middle forces units were either also garrisoned in different choke points or providing logistical and moral support to the vanguards of the strike while spontaneous marches by other sectors burst when one of their lot was likewise arrested.

Today, the welgang bayan phenomenon has become part of Mindanao’s psyche.

I might be exaggerating, but any group now can call a welgang bayan and if the issue appears basic and legitimate, even the local government will support it. And there will be a standstill, no, a holiday during the welga. Gone may be the same passion and the mass political consciousness, but it is a marvelous testament to its progeny.

Indeed, those were interesting, dazzling, liberating times. Some of us were even so cocksure of final victory in just a couple of years or even months, that some who had legal work stopped paying their SSS premiums.

We were so confident that the political momentum was ours that we even called a Mindanao Summit and demanded that the government attend and listen to what the people had to say. Of course, it was Catch 22 for them. We wanted to further polarize the situation. We calculated that they wouldn’t come, so we reserved seats for them, properly labeling the chairs and strategically putting them in front for all the people, the media, the world to see that the government was really isolated from the people.

Larry Ilagan was promptly arrested afterwards. And so were some others. The regime became even more repressive and some of us especially those in the legal arena, were scattered. Even then, the repression all the more whetted the blazing coals of resistance. The massacres of entire families, of entire communities, nay, of entire peoples — be they in Lanao, Sulu, Misamis, Surigao, Cotabato, Davao – only served to embolden the people further, organized them further, unified them forcefully. The regime also started to abandon its initial pretentious adherence to “the rule of law” and cracked down hard on the legal front. But it was also too late for them to nip the massive resistance movement in Mindanao.

From the plateaus of Bukidnon to the ranges of Agusan; from the alleys of Agdao to the mangroves of Zamboanga; from the beaches of Oroquieta to the jungles of Kitanglad; from the asphalts of Cagayan to the highways of Marbel; from the mosques in Jolo to the kapilyas in Trento; from the corridors of Ateneo to the courtrooms in Butuan; from the fields in Kidapawan to the factories in Iligan— the hearts and minds of the peoples of Mindanao had been won.

I left for Manila in 1985 feeling no longer effective in my work in Mindanao after my immediate peer group was decimated either by arrests, deaths or by the summons of lying low. I was given a choice to either go underground in Mindanao or stay legal in Manila. I chose the latter as it also gave me the chance to pursue a beloved.

I also left at a time when the movement was starting to be bedeviled by paranoia; when the scourge of mistrust cut deep into the soul of the movement, turning comrades against each other, brother against sister; allies against friends. But this is another story to tell, another truth to confront, and another memory to remember. It is also another justice to be served. It is for all of us involved to sort out and not only for some to claim that their version of the story is what was, what is. Maybe another truth telling process is essential for us to be healed and to move on.

Perhaps it is obvious that my personal background in “broad legal alliance” work or united front and coalition building has only stroked for you a broad canvas of the Mindanao scene then. There are others here who could remember for us more the other details — both gory and celebratory. There are others here who have been detained, tortured, violated, who have lost a loved one, a friend or a comrade, who may have lost them one by one or in one sweep like when our dear friends were taken down by the ill-fated MS Cassandra. But definitely, all of us were burrowed deep in work either in the cities or in the countryside. And all of us were animated by the simple dreams of the masses to live in dignity, in freedom and in justice.

So this is what I remember.

It’s been quite a journey from wanting to sport long hair to losing some of them now.

Thank you for remembering along.

(Augusto “Gus” Miclat, 45, is now executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue. This piece was written in January 2000, for a “Remembering Martial Law” forum at the Ateneo de Davao University). 
Editor’s note, 2022: Miclat is still Executive Director of IID as of February 2022. He is now in his mid-60s

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