September 21, 2012

Romeo T. Capulong, people's lawyer

The deposed dictatorship saw the flowering of people’s lawyering, with many young and almost     totally unknown lawyers in all parts of the country taking the side of the people and responding to the severe conditions of military and political repression. – Atty. Romeo T. Capulong

It is in the nature of things that while there is the dark side, there also is the bright, redeeming opposite.  The iron grip of martial law was the indispensable condition for the imposition of the Marcos fascist dictatorship on Philippine society 40 years ago. Ironically, it also saw the “flowering of people’s lawyering” as the late Atty. Romeo T. Capulong, one of its foremost proponents and practicioners put it.

Atty. Capulong, quintessential people’s lawyer, died last September 16, after some years battling an uncommon bone marrow disease.  When he turned 77 last February, Atty. Capulong, who we fondly called “RTC”, mused that he wanted to live a few more years because he felt he had many more things to do and because he wanted some quality time with his family.

In actuality, RTC as a public interest lawyer, patriot, political activist and social reformer, has left a uniquely rich and enduring legacy that would be of invaluable service to our people for generations to come.

This writer cannot possibly do justice to the man and his life accomplishments in this short essay. Instead I would like to first focus on the concept of people’s lawyering that RTC developed, articulated and promoted to lawyers, young and old, all over the country, from a lifetime of honing its principles and methods in all the human rights and public interest cases he and his law firm, the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), handled.

RTC took pains to differentiate between legal aid for indigents and lawyering for the exploited and oppressed poor.  The former derives its mandate from the Philippine Constitution that calls for “adequate legal assistance” for poor litigants which is why the government has a Public Assistance Office whose lawyers are paid to give free service. So also the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and voluntary bar associations have similar programs.

“The people’s lawyers”, on the other hand, “emerged as a response to…social inequities, particularly human rights abuses, and to the aspirations of the poor for a just and humane society.”  RTC clarified that their mandate does not come from government, the law, or any “selfish material agenda”.  It derives from a genuine commitment to social change; that is, to address the underpinnings of endemic poverty by recognizing its deep socio-economic and politico-cultural roots and joining the people’s movement to extirpate these causes.

Thus, “(u)nlike the typical pro bono lawyer, the people’s lawyers do not limit themselves to the generally accepted interpretation and use of the law to uphold and protect their clients’interest. They know that in an elite-dominated society, the law is merely the expression of elite interests. Instead, they take a critical view of the law and what the law should be from the perspective of the disenfranchised or marginalized client.”

RTC would demonstrate, time and again, how he would apply these guiding principles in upholding and defending his clients’ interests including the 10,000 plaintiffs in the Marcos human rights litigation; the farm workers of Hacienda Luisita and displaced peasants of Hacienda Looc; the families of urban poor buried in the Payatas garbage dump slide; the employees of corporations like Meralco, PLDT and the big banks; the “comfort women” or sex slaves of the Japanese Occupation in WWII; migrant workers in death row such as Flor Contemplacion;  the “Maharlika 26” Moros framed-up for bombings in Metro Manila; activists arrested for silently protesting Senate deliberations on the Visiting Forces Agreement; the “Southern Tagalog 72” leaders of progressive organizations falsely accused of various crimes; the “Morong 43” health workers accused of being New People’s Army bomb-making experts or trainees; revolutionary leaders such as Jose Maria Sison, Luis Jalandoni and many others; and the list goes on.

Corollary to such principles, RTC held fast to the indispensable role of the protest mass movement in diminishing, if not equalizing, the inherent disadvantages of his kind of clients in the legal arena, wherein money, power and influence most often determined the outcome of cases.

He was painfully aware and drew attention to the fact that legal issues that people’s lawyers handle arise from a “conflict of rights or interests and from the exploitation and oppression of the numerous poor by the tiny privileged sector and/or government policies or programs.”

Thus he emphasized, “The legal battle is not confined to the courtroom. People’s lawyers employ creative forms of collective action…and rallying support for the clients' cause.”

RTC’s close and productive working relations with myriad people’s organizations and alliances at the national and local levels is a testament to how he valued their primordial role in creating favorable political conditions for winning lop-sided legal battles.

One such recent example is the struggle to free the Morong 43, forty three health professionals and workers who were arrested en masse by the miltary on false charges and through clearly illegal means while undertaking a health training seminar in Morong, Rizal.   RTC expressed deep appreciation for the domestic and international political support garnered by the hapless Morong 43 without which, despite clear and sound legal basis, they would not have been protected from further torture and intimidation at the hands of the military and eventually released from unjust detention.

Reciprocally, RTC called for people’s lawyers to “initiate and assist in a process whereby the (legal) issue is utilized for organizing and raising the social awareness, unity, and militancy of the people…”  He was especially gratified when, as a consequence of or in conjunction with legal cases he and his fellow people’s lawyers were handling, his clients, their families and supporters would become better organized and strengthened in their fighting will and capacity.

Despite the fact that he had received so many accolades in his career, including being selected as Ad Litem Judge of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY), RTC remained well-grounded, humble and broadminded.  When conflicts arose between him and his clients and with co-counsels over legal and political tactics, RTC very clear-mindedly and even-handedly managed to minimize, if not resolve, these differences in a principled and non-antagonistic manner.

Many times we were witness to how he acknowledged his and co-lawyers perceived and actual shortcomings to his clients (all pro bono, by the way).  He never allowed the legal case and its political value and outcome to be undermined out of pique or frustration from internal wranglings.  He painstakingly explained the rationale for the legal tack being pursued even as he listened intently and tried to satisfy his clients’ questions and misgivings.

One of the clearest measures of RTC's effectiveness in lawyering for the poor and oppressed is the constant serious threat to his life and safety, including harassment and at least a couple of failed assassination attempts. But RTC was undaunted and was a fighter to the end. When his doctors advised him to retire from work in order to prolong his life, RTC remarked, in true revolutionary. "Retirement is out of the question. When I fall, I will fall fighting."

Atty Romeo T. Capulong was no Don Quixote. Drawing from his deep experience in legal battles and his mastery of the legal and political terrain, he chalked up an impressive track record including landmark victories achieved all the way up to the Supreme Court.

For RTC, his commmitment to the people’s social and national liberation meant that he be first and foremost the best people’s lawyer he could be and to make possible the emergence of a new generation of people’s lawyers.  Five years ago, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), an association of human rights, public interest, alternative law practicioners was founded with him as its Chairperson. With close to 500 lawyers and law students in its roster today, RTC can indeed take his much deserved rest secure in the knowledge that people’s lawyering in the Philippines has indeed arrived.#

September 14, 2012

Antonio Zumel, the revolutionary

Tony Zumel, even before he became a revolutionary, was highly regarded as a person of exceptional intelligence and unquestioned integrity.  His colleagues and friends are one in citing his humility, kind heartedness and instinctive empathy with the underdog.  He had a knack for easy camaraderie, no doubt facilitated by his skill at repartee and his keen sense of humor.

A hard working, seasoned and talented journalist; a determined and militant trade unionist; a patriot, civil libertarian and democrat - Zumel found his true calling and achieved extraordinary feats in his lifetime after he went underground upon the declaration of martial law and began his life as a full-time communist revolutionary.

Fellow journalist and comrade-in-arms Carolina “Bobbie” Malay in “‘KP’ Goes Underground” recounts how Zumel quietly shifted his highly public persona to become one of the tens of thousands of political activists working nondescriptly in the urban underground.

We find out how he got his first nom-de-guerre, “KP” for “katawang pangromansa” (born for romance) when he was alluded to in telephone conversations between Malay and her husband, Satur Ocampo.  According to Malay, Zumel had, “(i)n his typical self-deprecating manner” used the words to describe his physique: “slight stoop, thin chest, modest beer belly” and the appellation had stuck.

From hard-nosed liberal bourgeois journalist to highly professional revolutionary propagandist:  Zumel became the editor-in-chief of Liberation, the official organ of the National Democratic Front (NDF)  and Balita ng Malayang Pilipinas (News of Free Philippines), its news agency. He edited as well, Dangadang (Struggle), the underground regional paper in what was then called the Ilocos-Montanosa-Pangasinan region, where he had been deployed to live and work among the peasants of the Cordillera.  By 1976, he was appointed editor-in-chief of Ang Bayan (The People), the official publication of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

From polished writer and speaker in the English language to fluency in oral and written Filipino: According to fellow newspaperman Nilo Mulles, Tony Zumel “had the natural facility with English of one who was at home with the language long before he took to writing as a profession.”  In a 1985 interview with Marites Danguilan-Vitug , Tony “apologizes for his difficulty in speaking English, a language he has hardly practised in the last thirteen years. ‘But I have polished my Filipino, I feel more at home in our national language now,’ he says.”

From a failed marriage to marrying the love of his life and becoming a doting father, Tony and his comrade-wife Mela managed to have a happy family life with daughter Malaya while successfully eluding intense manhunts by the dictatorship’s armed forces.

In 1989, with their 8-year-old daughter in tow, the Zumel couple left secretly for The Netherlands on a two-year mission to do international work in behalf of the NDF and Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)  and to get medical treatment.  The Zumels were forced to seek political asylum when the Marcos government discovered their presence abroad and return home proved untenable.  By this time he began to be known by the moniker “Manong” because he was the eldest among the senior leaders of the Movement residing in Utrecht and his last alias in Manila had been “Nonong”.

From that time till his death in 2001, Manong lived the life of a political refugee.  Contrary to nasty rumors and black propaganda by government paid hacks, the life of political refugees in The Netherlands was not a life of ease and merrymaking.  For nearly a year, while their application for asylum was being processed, the Zumels were confined to refugee centers billeted with hundreds of fellow refugees from different countries, in cramped quarters and nearly destitute living conditions.

At that time, liberal policies for political refugees allowed the grant of a modest stipend for living expenses according to the standard of an ordinary worker.  Of course the standard of living in a developed capitalist country is a far cry from the lifestyle afforded fulltime revolutionaries in a semi-feudal, underdeveloped country like the Philippines but the innuendoes of lavishness are figments of an overactive reactionary imagination.

The greatest luxury to revolutionaries living and working in The Netherlands was that the NDF and even the CPP are considered legal entities and as such, their leaders and members can operate quite openly without constant fear of being arrested or politically harassed by the Philippine government.

According Luis Jalandoni, Chief Negotiator of the NDFP in peace talks with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines, in his article “Serving the Philippine Revolution and the Filipino People Abroad”, Zumel displayed his mettle as a proletarian internationalist and diplomat on many occasions.

One of the first assignments entrusted to him was establishing and promoting relations with countries of the Non-aligned Movement in the Belgrade Summit in 1989. Thereafter he met with many leaders and members of states and different liberation movements, political organizations and institutions.  He won their respect, admiration and trust as he “firmly and judiciously” carried the revolutionary movement’s principles and line, shared hard-won lessons in struggle and patiently and warmheartedly conducted discussions and debate over contentious issues.

Jalandoni gratefully acknowledged Zumel’s invaluable contributions “in all formal and informal peace talks and preparatory and assessment meetings since 1990.”  As the first Chairperson of the NDFP, Zumel had the distinction of signing the NDFP’s Declaration of Adherence to International Humanitarian Law in 1991.  Stricken seriously ill upon arrival in Manila and unable to join the International Solidarity Conference for Peace held in April 2001, Manong “insisted on writing with his own trembling hand an addition to his speech, to underline the role of the peasantry in the struggle for a just and lasting peace in the country.”

According to “Life in Exile”, an article in Liberation (July-September 2003) Manong revelled in get-togethers of Filipinos whether members of the expatriate or Filipino migrant workers community in Netherlands, Belgium or Germany.  He loved the banter, the exchange of views, the Filipino food and the singing and dancing with his kababayan.  He listened intently to their travails abroad as well as to conditions of their families left behind in the Philippines.

The Zumels were unfailingly hospitable and warm hearted to visitors from home, whether fellow revolutionaries, activists or relatives, friends and acquaintances.  Manong always made it a point to ensure his visitors were comfortable especially those who were non-political and may feel out-of-place in the always intensely political discussions going on. Once this writer offered to do the dishes after a hearty dinner prepared by his wife and he gently shooed me away.  He said as an explanation, “I do my most profound thinking while washing the dishes, you see.”

Tony Zumel had many outstanding character traits, talents and skills that he brought to his life in the revolutionary movement.  At the same time, his maturation into a revolutionary leader further honed his talents and skills and buffed his qualities as a person to a level of brilliance that his legacy deserves to be preserved and perpetuated for the new generations of Marcelo H. Del Pilars and Amado V. Hernandezes.

The establishment of the Antonio Zumel Center for Press Freedom and its push for projects like the lecture series “What is Needed by Philippine Journalism Today” and scholarships for children of journalists killed in the pursuit of their profession is one such effort.  It deserves unstinting support. #

Published in Business World
15-16 September 2012

September 05, 2012

Tony Zumel @80 (He never wrote 30)

Last August 10 was the 80th birthday of Antonio Zumel, newspaperman extraordinaire, pioneering trade unionist in the newspaper industry and President of the National Press Club in its heyday, as well as one-of-a-kind revolutionary leader, the first Chairperson of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and negotiator then senior adviser in peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the NDFP.

The Antonio Zumel Center for Press Freedom held a gathering of relatives, colleagues, comrades and friends to mark the occasion with the tagline “Tony Zumel @80 (He never wrote 30)”.  In so doing, they celebrated the man and his legacy of unselfish, unflinching service to the cause of press freedom, nationalism, democracy and all-round progress for the Filipino people and nation.

Who was Antonio Zumel?  Born in 1932 in Laoag City to Antonio Zumel Sr., a fairly successful lawyer and Basilisa de Leon, a former school teacher, “Ching” as he was fondly called by his family, learned early the virtues of honesty and integrity.  In a short autobiographical article, “Our People’s Interests Come First”, published in the NDFP publication Liberation in 1986, Zumel recounts how his parents, though relatively well-off, were against extravagance of any kind and were strict disciplinarians.

The elder Zumel often exhorted his children not to allow other people to oppress them nor to oppress other people either. According to eldest daughter, Nena, their father also taught them never to pick a fight, but never to run away from one as well.  The younger Zumel recalls that beneath his father’s stern countenance beat a kind heart as shown by how he always let old peasants hiking their way to market with their heavy load of produce hitch a ride in his car, a rare convenience during those days.

When Ching was 13 years old, his father died such that their family’s livelihood drastically fell. Ching and his eldest sister worked to support their studies. Some of the siblings left home to live with relatives.  The young Zumel found himself in Manila trying to scrape together a living working at odd jobs as a casual laborer at a dump for war surplus equipment and as his uncle’s assistant in his water taxi at the Manila pier in order to continue his studies.  He got a lucky break when another uncle gave him a job as a copyboy or “gofer” in the newsroom of the Philippines Herald.

Thus was Zumel initiated into becoming a newspaperman doing menial tasks while learning from what he called “crackerjack” editors, copyreaders and reporters and from journalism books he bought and avidly read.  In two years he was promoted to proof reader where he worked in the Mechanical (Composing) Department and soon developed a “close affinity” with the workers there. Shortly after, Zumel who was now called “Tony” quit school to get all his education from on-the-job training working at the Herald and what he called the “university of hard knocks” or the real world.

Tony Zumel went on to be a top-notch reporter of Herald then news editor of Bulletin. Nilo Mulles, a close friend and newspaperman himself spoke highly of him in his posthumous testimonial to Zumel, “Crinkles of Mirth” where he described Tony’s “superior prose” with his “eye for the neat turn of phrase”, taking the time “to ruminate over the exact meanings and nuances of words” in order to produce his well thought-out stories.  Mulles also pointed to Zumel’s integrity as a writer: “Great respect for facts shows in his work.”

Zumel himself recounted how there were so many temptations to become corrupt while he was covering political beats.  He “tried to be all (his) stories and gained some reputation as an uncompromising reporter.” At this point in his life, he described his political standpoint as “bourgeois liberal”.  In his colorful language: “Pumuputok ang butsi mo sa mga depekto at injustices sa lipunan, pero sinisimangutan mo naman ang radikal na pagbabago.” (You rage against society’s defects and injustices but you frown on any radical overhaul of the system.)

With his upbringing to stand up against oppression, Zumel immediately signed up for the union that was formed by Herald employees and workers under the leadership of Teddy Benigno.  After this fledgling effort fizzled out, Zumel persisted in establishing an independent and militant union against the union busting of management; this culminated in an attritional three-month strike that led to the eventual weakening of the union and Zumel’s resignation from Herald and transfer to Bulletin.  Even as he was made an editor in Bulletin, he insisted that he would remain a union member and leader.

Zumel and his barkada were habitues of the National Press Club from the day of its inauguration in 1955. He became a board member for a dozen or so terms until he finally ran for president in 1969 and won.

Soon after, he got in contact with activists in the national democratic movement in the persons of the staff members of the Dumaguete Times, a provincial newspaper whose entire staff had been arrested by the military and local police and were being held incommunicado for being “subversives”.  The NPC together with other press clubs in Manila and in other provinces campaigned for the release of the beleaguered young journalists who turned out to be members of the nationalist youth group, Kabataang Makabayan (KM).

Aside from reading political materials and having political discussions with his new KM friends, Tony became swept up in what he described as “the explosion of popular political energy in the first three months of (1970) which has come to be known as the First Quarter Storm of 1970.”  He became a part of the “surging mass movement” which he saw to be “committed to extirpate the roots of our country’s problems – imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism – and attain genuine national independence, democracy and progress.”

Zumel won a second term as NPC president at which time he opened the doors of the club to the activist organizations of students, workers, peasants and other sectors under the umbrella of the Movement for  a Democratic Philippines, a precursor of sorts of the currently existing national democratic alliance, BAYAN.  The club’s premises became a venue for countless press conferences, assemblies of nationalists, civil libertarians and other progressive forces and refuge from police and military dispersals of mass actions and rallies especially at the nearby Plaza Lawton, now Liwasang Bonifacio.

Upon President Ferdinand Marcos’ suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in August 1972, he helped establish the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties (MCCCL) together with highly respected political leaders such as Senator Jose W. Diokno. The MCCCL was strongly linked to the mass movement of the basic sectors of what progressive church people called “the poor, deprived and oppressed” in Philippine society and led the massive demonstrations and marches that presaged the declaration of martial law.

On the day martial law was declared, Antonio Zumel went underground. From that day on, for nearly two decades, he would be known by various other names and seen in many places. But it was the same Antonio Zumel who had never run away from a fight, and who had now chosen the best time, place and way to do it. #

Published in Business World
31 August- 1 September 2012