July 18, 2012

Maita Gomez (1947-2012): Beauty transfigured

“The new woman, the new Filipina, is first and foremost a militant…She is a woman who has discovered the exalting realm of responsibility, a woman fully engaged in the making of history…” - Ma. Lorena Barros, “Liberated Women II”

I only met Maita Gomez, one of two fabled beauty queens turned revolutionaries (the other one is Nelia Sancho), after she had already surfaced from the underground in the early ‘80s and became one of the leading lights of the resurgent women’s liberation movement in the Philippines. She helped found the nationalist and democratic women’s alliance GABRIELA, the anti-dictatorship women’s alliance WOMB (Women for the Ouster of Marcos and Boycott) and, after the Marcos Dictatorship had been overthrown, the first all-women political party, KAIBA (Kababaihan para sa Inangbayan), under whose banner she ran but lost for a seat in Congress representing the Malate district in Manila.

Still, she and I were only peripherally acquainted with one another.  She was then studying for her masters degree in Development Economics, was involved with several non-government organizations that were politically more liberal than Left and, except for the annual March 8 International Women’s Day rally and some other GABRIELA activities, seemed busy with concerns other than mainstream Leftist projects or activities.

It was only as recent as 2008, when a long-time common friend asked us out to lunch, that Maita and I warmed up to each other.  I had till then no idea that she had been holding some kind of grudge against me because she had been told I was spreading nasty rumors about her.  She casually brought it up and when I denied it as completely false, she immediately took my word for it, setting the matter aside.

Thereupon we plunged into an animated discussion on how to broaden the movement to oust Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from power.  That was the beginning of our friendship and more fruitful cooperation in projects with that objective.

In time, she grew more and more active again in the national democratic movement in varied ways.  She agreed to be a co-convenor of the broad formation, Pagbabago! People’s Movement for Change in 2009, together with such personalities as activist nun Sr. Mary John Mananzan, writer Bibeth Orteza, whistleblower Jun Lozada, UP professor Judy Taguiwalo and myself as BAYAN chairperson.

She was also active in the human rights movement; she agreed to be in the National Council of SELDA (Samahan ng mga Ex-detainee Laban sa Detensyon at para sa Amnestiya), the martial law-era human rights organization that has consistently worked for freedom and general amnesty of all political prisoners. She worked for a time with the progressive think tank, IBON Foundation.

But what really excited her was the founding of the Leftist political party Makabayan that launched the senatorial bids of GABRIELA Women’s Party representative Liza Maza and Bayan Muna congressman Satur Ocampo.  Maita was elected Makabayan Co-Chairperson.  She was in the thick of  brainstorming, tacticizing and working to build up Makabayan organizationally in time for the 2013 elections when she died unexpectedly last July 12 due to a heart attack.

Maita's sudden demise and the consequent revelation of many of the lesser-known details of her extraordinary life, has only further deepened what to many is an enigma.

Why did someone like Maita Gomez - scion to landed clans, toasted as tallest and prettiest in the exclusive circle of debutante-models of high society, with a sharp intellect and an uncommon wilfulness to boot - turn into a revolutionary, a guerrilla fighter of the New People’s Army in her youth, then a champion of women’s liberation, an advocate for the voice of the Left in the electoral arena, and a defender of the national patrimony (against wanton exploitation by mining companies) among many of her specific causes in later years.

On the one hand, those who knew her well would say, it was vintage Maita.  As she had emphatically taught her children, the important thing in life is to choose to do the right thing when the time comes, and to do it the best way you can, quietly and without fanfare.

Mara Llanot, a close friend, wrote:  “At UP (University of the Philippines), the bedrock of student activism, Maita befriended poor students, went to her first demo against the Vietnam War, got her first exposure in the rural areas on a medical mission, where she collected medicines, donations, etc...  From AB Pre-med, she shifted to Philosophy. ‘The movement appealed to all my deepest beliefs. My involvement translated ideals into action.’”

According to Jose Maria Sison, founding chairperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines: “Maita Gomez was inspired and energized by the First Quarter Storm of 1970, the Diliman Commune of 1971and the further mass protest actions until 1972.  She wanted to be a revolutionary.  And she availed of the opportunities in sight for learning about the revolution.”

When martial law was declared, Maita, like so many youth and student activists at the time, decided to go underground, initially in Manila and then Baguio City.  She was arrested, escaped detention and was deployed, upon her request, to the countryside and the NPA, first to the Bicol-Quezon border, and then Central Luzon, where she endured the rigors and hardships of a guerrilla’s life.

Llanot describes matter-of-factly how Maita sundered her relationship with her first husband when he asked her to choose between their marriage and her deeply-felt beliefs and commitments.  And how she turned her back to her father’s entreaties that she abandon her plans to go underground.  It gives us an idea about her decisiveness to indeed translate her ideals into action but not half of the pain that accompanies such decisions.

For Maita was not impervious to emotions.  As Llanot avers, “Maita recalls, teary-eyed, how the people sheltered her in times of danger, how they shared with her what little they had.”

Llanot’s quote from Maita reveals a  profound insight that transcended class prejudices, and could explain why Maita would thereafter consistently take the side of the downtrodden even against her own class : “Decent poor people have incredible courage because they face the same vicissitudes in life we face with nothing, without a bank account, without connections, no electricity, no back-up system. They’re so incredibly brave just to face their day-to-day life. I have come to appreciate their intelligence and their scientific knowledge. They live with nature. They know the laws of nature so intimately. I find this fascinating and admirable. I find that the poor are such generous people. Really, they are the children of God.”

Maita resumed her political activism in the legal arena after she got sick and came down from the hills.  Not immediately but eventually.  She could have gone back to her former carefree and privileged life or quietly earned a living, taking care of her children and safely pursuing her non-political interests that she had neglected while she was a full-time revolutionary. But she chose not to.

"Hindi importante yan, pero bahala sila sa gusto nila," she would tell her children and friends whenever her current passions and lifestyle were juxtaposed to her having once been rich and famous. She especially hated it and was visibly annoyed when even in “movement” affairs she was introduced as a former beauty queen, as if it matters all that much to what she believed in and dedicated herself to doing.

Once she told me, in between puffs of cigarette smoke, that she had come to a point in her life when she decided she would not spend the time, money and effort to try to keep her youthful looks.  She had far more important things to do.

But she was not beyond using - or enduring - her celebrityhood as a means to gain adherents to causes and projects she considered worthwhile.  What was important was the purpose it served; that ultimately, lending her famous name and face would help advance the people’s national and democratic aspirations and women’s emancipation.

Maita, however, had already proven that she had much, much more to contribute other than the public persona urban lore had constructed around her.   Apart from being an assiduous student of political economy, she did research and wrote on the causes she espoused, helped run progressive NGOs and taught young people what she knew as a teacher in the University of the Philippines and De la Salle University.

She also took pride and pleasure in raising her children into the caring, socially aware adults that they have become including two who have followed in her footsteps as activists.

Maita Gomez’s journey in life is indeed the stuff of urban legend.  In the end her story shows us how one can transcend one’s social class and upbringing and go on to live a fulfilling, productive life serving the people as part of a historic, revolutionary mass undertaking.  #

Published in Business World
20-21 July 2012

July 12, 2012

Revolution and counterrevolution

Last week we were shocked and dismayed by two violent deaths, three days apart, in seemingly unconnected and quite distinct circumstances.  

Willem Geertman, a 67-year-old Dutch lay missionary and development worker - after decades of living and working with indigenous peoples such as the Alta-Manobos in Quezon, peasants such as the Hacienda Luisita farm workers, victims of natural and man-made disasters, and many other communities of the “poor, deprived and oppressed” all over Central Luzon - was attacked inside his office in a gated subdivision in Pampanga; shot in the back while on his hands and knees; by a hit team that consisted of at least four men; using as getaway vehicles, a motorcycle and a van.

The police, after a cursory investigation, conclude that Mr. Geertman is a victim of robbery.  His co-workers and family members are convinced he is a victim of extrajudicial killing; in the past he had been shadowed, harassed and vilified by military men as a supporter of the New People’s Army (NPA).  Thus, they demand an independent and thoroughgoing investigation.

Days earlier, 34-year-old Arman Albarillo, former Secretary-General of the national democratic umbrella formation, BAYAN-Southern Tagalog was reported killed in an encounter with the military in Quezon.

Ka Arman had joined the NPA in 2008 after realizing that justice for the extrajudicial killings of his parents and many others, more so, the people’s emancipation from a rotten and unjust social system that underlie such human rights violations, was near impossible to attain under the constraints of that same system.  He had transcended any personal desire for retribution with his awakening to Philippine society’s ills turning his grief into an unshakeable commitment to reform society in a fundamental way.

After being in the forefront of the protest movement in Southern Tagalog, Ka Arman was forced to go underground to avoid being arrested and detained on trumped-up charges of murder filed by the military.  Consequently, he decided to join the NPA so as not to be a sitting duck for the shadowy death squads responsible for hundreds of killings. He was already on the military’s “order of battle” and had been on the receiving end of numerous death threats.

Ka Arman died fighting. His killing is legitimized by the government’s counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan with its avowed objective of crushing the communist-led rebellion.

Willem Geertman and Arman Albarillo’s deaths highlight the fact that there is an ongoing armed conflict in this country.

On the one hand armed revolutionaries led by the CPP-NPA-NDFP have been fighting for more than four decades to overthrow a social system they deem to be intolerably unjust and retrogressive.  On the other the state, controlled by the same political and economic elites that have ruled this country since independence, defends the system, utilizing all its coercive instrumentalities, but primarily the armed forces, to defeat this armed challenge through a series of counterinsurgency programs.

With endemic poverty and landlessness, a chronically anemic economy, worsening joblessness, high cost of living and perpetually inadequate if not absent basic social services,  social discontent and restiveness is a given.  The stark inequalities in socio-economic power give rise to and are reinforced by parallel inequities in political power with the ruling elite historically given to consolidating their hold on society by resorting to deceptive programs and suppression of all forms of dissent and protest, even unarmed. To complicate matters further, foreign big business and big power interests are at play with the former colonizer, the US of A, leading the pack in intervening to perpetuate the elite-dominated system.

Hence the ingredients for a boiling cauldron of revolution and counterrevolution in the Philippine setting are ever present.

And despite the “Pnoy” Aquino administration’s denunciations of the extrajudicial killings of unarmed social reformers and political activists during the Arroyo regime and promises to put a stop to these, human rights violators have not been punished.  With impunity further reinforced under Mr. Aquino, there has been an alarming rise in incidents of EJKs and enforced disappearances alongside intensifying militarization of the countryside with concomitant displacement, intimidation and other violations of human rights inflicted en mass on hapless barrio folk.

Evidently, the killings of Geertman and Albarillo are not isolated cases but rather indicate not just a continuation but an escalation of the Arroyo regime's murderous counterinsurgency policy and practice as carried out by the AFP, PNP and other state security forces.  Last June 30, the Chairperson of the Justice and Peace Action Group in Maria Aurora, Aurora Province, Romualdo "Waldo" Palispis, who is a Bayan Muna member,  was slain with a .45 cal bullet by two motorcycle-riding men. Just last Tuesday night, another pair riding in tandem strafed the office of Bayan Muna Party List in Northern Samar.      

All the pious claims of the PNoy regime that the AFP and PNP shall henceforth pay attention to respect for human rights in carrying out their counterinsurgency campaigns now appears to be all bluff and bluster intended to cosmeticize the image of the military and police forces.

What has emboldened the PNoy regime to more openly rely on a military solution to suppress dissent and resolve the armed conflict with the CPP-NPA-NDFP?  There is reason to believe that the regime, especially the AFP, are counting on their added military capabilities as a result of the increasing US military presence and activities in the country (in line with the shift in US military deployments from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific), not to mention US political backing for the PNoy regime as the latter welcomes greater US presence and kowtows to US economic and geopolitical interests.

The 2009 US Counterinsurgency Manual, from which the PNoy regime crafted its own "Internal Peace, Human Rights and Security Program" claims to give primacy to non-military over military means, but US "war on terror" and counterinsurgency practice worldwide is based on employing to the hilt its military superiority, unmindful of heavy civilian casualties, gross human rights violations, violations of international law and riding roughshod over the sovereignty of nations.

No doubt, the US has a direct hand in running the PNoy regime's counterinsurgency campaign and is providing a wide range of planning, logistical intelligence and other operational support, including combat operations. Recent joint military exercises include simulation of combat and intelligence operations against the NPA.

Interestingly, PNoy's Oplan Bayanihan, also differs from Arroyo's Oplan Bantay Laya in the inclusion of the peace negotiations as part of its counterinsurgency program. But this only betrays the fact that the PNoy regime considers the peace talks not as the key to resolving the armed conflict by addressing its roots but rather as secondary to the military goal of "reducing the CPP-NPA-NDFP to irrelevance" in two to three years.

It is no surprise then that the Philippine government (GPH) has openly backtracked, if not reneged outright, from its prior agreements with both the NDFP and the MILF on how the peace talks could proceed towards substantive agreements.  In the case of the MILF, the GPH has reportedly reverted to offering the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as the form of self-government for the Moro people, something the MILF had long rejected and is eons behind the Bangsa-Moro Juridical Authority stipulated in the 2008 draft MoA on Ancestral Domain, and the substate being proposed by the MILF.  In the case of the NDFP, the GPH reportedly prefers to hold  non-formal talks and non-meetings with the NDFP to discuss "matters of mutual concern" regarding the talks, rather than proceed with the formal discussion of social and economic reforms on the basis of The Hague Joint Declaration and other bilateral agreements.

Neither the CPP-NPA-NDF nor the MILF-BILF are about to lay down their arms and sign an accord on a negotiated political settlement. With the talks in danger of sliding backward rather than moving forward, and with worsening conditions of crisis rather than fundamental reforms in sight, the armed resistance can be expected to further intensify.

The current oppressive regime, now presided over by Mr. Benigno Aquino III, escalates its senseless, bloody counterinsurgency campaigns in a futile attempt to suppress the people's protest. Yet Oplan Bayanihan now, like others before it, has only served to strengthen resistance, both armed and unarmed, as many others step forward to pick up  the cause of each fallen martyr, enlightened by their work and inspired by their example. #

Published in Business World
13-14 July 2012

July 05, 2012

Ka Arman: victim, fighter, martyr

        “Gawin na lang nila ang gusto nilang gawin sa akin tulad ng kanilang ginawa sa aking mga magulang. Hinding-hindi ako titigil sa paghahanap ng hustisya para sa aking pamilya at buong sambayanan.” – Arman Albarillo (1978 - 2012), human rights victim; New People’s Army fighter

I write this column with a heavy heart. The news of the killing of two good, selfless  and brave men crowds out all other concerns and reduces them to the mundane.  One never really gets used to it - whether it is another extrajudicial killing of a social activist or the death of a guerilla fighter - especially if your paths had crossed at some point in this arduous life’s journey.

Willem Geertman, a 67-year-old Dutch development worker who devoted his entire adult life to serving the poor peasants, indigenous peoples and urban poor in Central Luzon, in particular the farm workers in Hacienda Luisita and the Alta-Dumagat tribes in Aurora province, was killed last July 3, in broad daylight, in front of his office, by assassins suspected to be under the direction of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as part of the counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan.

The circumstances of his assasination are still being investigated by an independent fact-finding mission since his family and co-workers cannot rely on the Philippine National Police to do a credible much less thorough job of it considering military men are implicated.

Arman Albarillo, a 34-year-old human rights victim who eventually became a tireless and fearless human rights defender then charismatic leader of the national democratic movement in Southern Tagalog,  was felled by bullets in an encounter of his New People’s Army unit with AFP soldiers in San Andres, Quezon last June 30.

Ka Arman, as he is fondly called by his comrades, did not wait for an assasin’s bullet to get to him.

He had been listed in the AFP’s dreaded “order of battle”, a virtual hit list against those labelled by the government as “enemies of the state”.  Military agents had also confronted him and tried but failed to intimidate him into laying low much more turning himself into a military asset.

After an arrest warrant was issued for him in 2008, together with 71 other leading activists in various mass organizations in Southern Tagalog, on trumped-up charges of murder and multiple murder filed by the AFP, he decided to join the New People’s Army and take his battle for justice to a qualitatively higher plane.

Why is it important to take more than just passing notice of the death of this young man, an ordinary son of peasant stock, who would likely have led a quiet, unobtrusive life in his native hometown of San Teodoro, Mindoro Oriental had not historical circumstances and perhaps fate, in a non-metaphysical sense, intervened.

It is precisely because Ka Arman died in the heat of battle, in an armed conflict, that the Philippine government has failed to stamp out militarily nor render politically irrelevant despite a series of bloody counterinsurgency programs designed in the mold of the US-directed anti-communist “dirty wars” in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Ka Arman’s life and death is pathognomonic of what has ailed and still ails Philippine society and why the New People’s Army will continue to draw the youth of this land into its fold.

He was the son of Expedito Albarillo, a Bayan Muna (BM) municipal coordinator and a barangay councilor in San Teodoro, Oriental Mindoro and Manuela Albarillo, a Gabriela member. On April 8, 2002, Arman’s parents were killed by suspected elements of the 204th brigade of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) then led by retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. Before this, Expedito was placed under the military’s order of battle in 1998, was jailed from 2000 to November 2001 based on a trumped-up charge of murder. They were among the first victims of extrajudicial killing under the Arroyo regime’s Oplan Bantay Laya, a counterinsurgency program that included physical elimination of targetted individuals suspected to be part of the “civilian infrastructure” buttressing the NPA in the rual and urban areas.

I first met him in 2005 when he testified, together with his youngest sister, at an International Tribunal held in Manila to hear mounting cases of human rights violations by the Arroyo regime.   He had become transformed, like many others before him, into a dedicated fighter for human rights.  I was struck by the way he turned his grief into courage, refusing to be cowed by the military’s direct and indirect threats against him and his other orphaned siblings.

Ka Arman then became Secretary General of BAYAN-Southern Tagalog effectively leading the alliance in rallying the people of the region to fight militarization and state terrorism, landlordism and landgrabbing, trade union and generalized political repression, other oppressive government policies and programs and US imperialist domination and military interventionism.

This is when I came to have more personal interactions with Ka Arman.  I found him not only good at arousing, mobilizing and organizing the basic sectors of workers, peasants and urban poor, he also had the capacity to relate well to the middle forces - professionals, small landowners and small to medium scale businessmen – as well as local politicians who were in opposition to national government impositions and shenanigans.  Once  I chanced upon him having an animated discussion with a senator whose wife is a high-profile governor of a Southern Tagalog province.

In time, the protest movement in Southern Tagalog had become so vibrant and strong that the government decided to go after Ka Arman, together with 71 other major regional mass leaders at the time, utilizing false criminal charges, in a brazen attempt to cripple the movement in the region.

While the ST-72 as a group fought an uphill legal battle to clear their names, some of whom were arrested and died in prison or while on the run, Ka Arman made a fateful decision.  He would not allow history to repeat itself and reduce him to become another hapless victim of state fascism.

To defend himself and, more importantly, to pursue his lofty vision of a liberated country and society, he decided to bear arms as a member of the NPA operating in the region he knew best.

While the legal democratic movement lost an articulate spokesperson and an indefatigable organizer in the person of Ka Arman, the armed revolutionary movement gained a highly-conscious guerilla fighter with a will tempered in the fire of political mass struggles and campaigns.

The current oppressive and exploitative system, now presided over by Mr. Benigno Aquino III, continues and escalates its senseless, bloody counterinsurgency campaigns in a futile attempt to suppress the people's protest. Yet Oplan Bayanihan now, as did Oplan Bantay Laya and other Oplans before it, has only served to make the ground more fertile for resistance, both unarmed and armed, as many others step forward to pick up  the cause of each fallen martyr, enlightened by their work and inspired by their example. #

Published in Business World
6-7 July 2012