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


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