A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Thirty Six Years Ago

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 18 August) — A twenty-year period is considered one generation. Thus if one were to bring in the number 36, that would mean the equivalent of almost two generations. For millennials and Generation Z, 36 years ago would seem like “pre-historic times,” for, indeed, the year 1983 would be to them a long, long time ago.  But perhaps for those of us above 60, the events that unfolded in 1983 would still be fresh in our minds.  This is specifically the event that happened on 21 August 1983, exactly 36 years ago on 21 August 2019.

So what cataclysmic event  – or “a momentous and violent event marked by overwhelming upheaval and demolition or an event that brings great changes” – happened on that day of 21 August 1983?  It was the day when Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was assassinated as soon as his plane landed at the airport, now named after him.  The bullet that killed him reverberated across the archipelago and beyond its shores the sound of which brought more people to join protests and street rallies that culminated in the 1986 EDSA People Power.

Aquino was a former senator who was forced to go on exile in the U.S.A. after spending time in prison after his longtime political opponent, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.  After three years of self-imposed exile, he decided to return to the country. But as he was escorted out of the plane to a vehicle that was waiting for him to transport him to prison, he was shot in the head.  Another person killed that day was Rolando Galman who was implicated in Aquino’s murder. For all the time, money and effort allocated to investigate on who were the brains behind the assassination – even when his widow, Cory Aquino, was President and later on their own son, Benigno Simeon Aquino III – there has been no conclusive evidence to point who the culprits were.  Up to today, conspiracy theories continue to haunt the killing of Aquino.

Political scientists would credit this event as responsible for  the transformation of the opposition to the Marcos regime from a small, isolated movement into a national crusade. The fact of the matter was that the protest movement had already reached a high level of militancy both in terms of what was happening underground as well as in the legal front.  For already a decade, various sectors – from farmers, workers, urban poor and indigenous peoples to students, professionals and the middle class households – coalesced around the issues of human rights violations, corrupt bureaucracy, interference of the U.S. government owing to their interests over their military bases and calls for justice, truth and freedom. All that the movement needed was an element that would constitute a “tipping point.”

Aquino’s assassination brought his widow, Corazon Aquino, into the public spotlight and having become a symbol of the people’s rage against the dictatorship, she ran for President in the snap elections of 1986.

Although Marcos was officially declared as having won the election, widespread allegations of fraud and illegal tampering on Marcos’s behalf created the circumstances that fueled rage that sparked the People Power Revolution. The Marcoses had no choice but to flee the country, and Mrs. Aquino then took over as President.

I can still vividly recall what happened within my own little world that day.  It was, indeed, “little” as I was in prison with roughly 60 other political prisoners at the Davao City Metrodiscom Prison in downtown Davao City.  I had been arrested barely five months earlier, briefly disappeared for a week (presumed dead already by family, relatives and friends who searched for me as soon as my whereabouts could not be traced); airlifted to Davao, subjected to psychological torture and later on made to appear before the Supreme Court Justices on the basis of the late Sen. Pepe Diokno’s demand for a habeas corpus. After that hearing, I was airlifted back to Davao and jailed to face the subversion charges filed by the military at the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Davao City.

We had no access to media inside the prison, so we did not immediately hear about the assassination of Aquino. But I remember that there was a different atmosphere inside the prison that day. We could not be allowed to get out of our cells to enjoy the sun in the small yard of the prison. We were padlocked and there were all sorts of movements among the guards that suggested something was happening outside.  A few of us wondered what was happening. We thought it was again because a big mobilization was taking place, as our rights to be out of cells are suspended when rallies and demonstrations take place in the streets of the city.

I had written a journal during the 22-months that I was imprisoned which later on got published. Checking out the pages of “How Long: Prison Reflections of Karl Gaspar,” I quote from page 58:  “News of his assassination reached us here in prison the day after it happened. My mother came on Monday morning and told us about it. Naturally, I was shocked. Then I thought: an era is finally closed.  Ninoy’s death ended dramatically. We had then pegged our dreams on the existing political structure and had expected it to live up to our ideals of democracy. These ideals we would now label as reformist or even reactionary, but when we were 16 or 18, we didn’t hear these words.

“On August 31, they will bury Ninoy’s body. Then what will happen? Perhaps Ninoy is the sacrificial lamb and his death will pay the way for national reconciliation and democratization. Like Pinochet in Chile, Marcos may really bend over backwards to bring back civil liberties and freedom. Will the non-violent third force state a big leap forward and mobilize the silent majority, or is Ninoy’s bloody death a sign that the violent confrontation between the established elite and the people will increase? Will his murder lead to an increase of repression that could result in a coup d’etat?

Reading these lines now, and having lived the years following 1983 through 1986 and today, the answers to my questions unfolded in time. Yes, the non-violent third force made a big leap and EDSA was its crowning glory, followed immediately by some kind of coup d’etat when Ramos and Enrile – along with the rest of the military – abandoned Marcos.

But as we now look around us 36 years later in 2019,  what can be said about the people’s civil liberties and freedom? How does one characterize today the relationship between the established oligarchic elite and the masses? Are we finally freed from repression?

If history’s timeline does not follow a linear direction but a cyclical one, can it be said that the country’s citizens in the past two generations have seen the rise and fall of people’s struggles and the ups and downs of achieving dreams of freedom and peace.

Such has been this poor country’s fate: a movement from the tumultuous years of the Marcos dark times to Cory’s push to bring us to light with the resurrection of democratic institutions, to the attempts as well as blunders of Ramos, Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino’s and then another martial rule regime to suffer under Duterte.

Halfway through his Presidency, we are confronted with major reasons for our lamentations: the continuation of the extrajudicial killings (EJKs), reports of gross human rights violations, corruption and inefficiency of the State bureaucracy, the oligarchy’s aggressive push to expand investments with no regard for their long-term ecological consequences, silencing of the opposition through sheer harassment, how China has been allowed to bully us into submission, ad nauseam.

On top of all these, the current moves from the military-civilian agencies beholden to Malacaňang:  Interior Secretary Eduardo Aňo’s proposal to restore the law making subversion a criminal offense. Added to this is Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzzna’s move to recommend the amendments to the Human Security Act of 2007 or TAP 9372 which would provide security officials to broaden their wiretapping powers in order to fight terrorism and other threats to national security. On the part of Senator Ronaldo dela Rosa, he wants strict military monitoring of universities to stop alleged recruitment of students to join the New People’s Army (NPA).

Meanwhile in the uplands, counter-insurgency operations continue to dislocate the Lumads even as their schools have been closed for allegedly being centers of indoctrination.

So on this month of August of 2019, are we back to August of 1983?

On the side of suppression of people’s rights and the extent of unleashing the State’s forces to quell decent, one can see the convergence. Is there a reason to hope for a militant shift? Could we pin our hopes on a martyr whose sacrifice could get us to rise?

But there have been martyrs across the country, whose lives ended because of their courageous commitments – lawyers, peasant leaders, Lumad chieftains, ecological advocates, rebels.  Unfortunately, while their relatives, comrades and friends have lamented their loss, the impact on a mass movement has been insignificant. Perhaps one reason is because, unfortunately, there is presently no people’s militant struggle for emancipation. Except for what is taking place in the uplands, one cannot speak of a mass movement existing in the country today. There is resistance, but alas, these are but pockets here and there, but mostly in Metro Manila.

So where can we glean the possibilities of a militant breakthrough? Can we find inspiration in what is happening out there in the world. In Sudan, the vast crowds that marched in the streets to demonstrate against military rule has yielded positive results. In Moscow, Russia, anti-government protesters have staged a series of pickets even as they have clashed with the police. They are demanding that opposition candidates be allowed to run in elections and political prisoners be released. And there are the thousands upon thousands of Hongkong citizens – with the young people constituting the vast majority – who in the past 11 weeks have opposed the extradition Treaty by marching in the streets, causing  a lot of headache to the officials of the People’s Republic of China. Having forced the closure of the international airport, the headline across the globe in all kinds of media made this movement the symbol of a people’s resistance to power!

Only time can tell if by 21 August 2020, our own contemporary historical timeline will go up or down.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]