Earlier this week, President Duterte threatened activist students from the University of the Philippines that he would have them thrown out of the state university to be replaced by “bright” Lumad students. I agree that UP can benefit from having more lumad young people attending it, but the President’s threat is purely rhetorical. He has no such power over our students, not even the UP President or the Board of Regents has such power as that belongs to the faculty of the university who assesses the academic performance of students.
What was more worrisome for me was the statement of the President, in the same speech, that the lumad should be ready to relocate. I can only surmise that a big anti-insurgency campaign together with a big push for palm oil and mining investments is being planned. Ethnocide could be the outcome of such plans, as I will write in a future column.
As for UP, it has long been a center of dissent and bastion of activism in the country. From its earliest years, the university has been the breeding ground for nationalism and development, and progressive thinking.
The onset of the Marcos administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw an upsurge of student activism, culminating in the Diliman Commune in 1971 when students and faculty members barricaded themselves, declaring the campus free from government control to protest the deteriorating situation in the country.
During the First Quarter Storm in January of 1970, students from all over the country, including those from UP staged mass demonstrations against Marcos. Pete Lacaba, in Days of Disquiet and Nights of Rage, remembers the reaction of UP president S.P. Lopez and the UP Faculty to what happened on the night of January 26 when students clashed with the police in front of Congress:
“The night of January 26,” said UP president S.P. Lopez, “must be regarded as a night of grave portent for the future of the nation. It has brought us face to face with the fundamental question: Is it still possible to transform our society by peaceful means so that the many who are poor, oppressed, sick, and ignorant may be released from their misery, by the actual operation of law and government, rather than by waiting in vain for the empty promise of ‘social justice’ in our Constitution?”
The faculty of the University of the Philippines issued a declaration denouncing “the use of brutal force by state authorities against the student demonstrators” and supporting “unqualifiedly the students’ exercise of democratic rights in their struggle for revolutionary change.” The declaration went on to say: “It is with the gravest concern that the faculty views the January 26 event as part of an emerging pattern of repression of the democratic rights of the people. This pattern is evident in the formation of paramilitary units such as the Home Defense Forces, the politicalization of the Armed Forces, the existence of private armies, foreign interference in internal security, and the use of specially trained police for purposes of suppression.”
The January 26 confrontation was followed on January 30, 1970 by an even more violent encounter, this time in the gates of Malacanang iself.
Reporting for The Sunday Times Magazine, Millet Martinez wrote how Jerry Barican, then chairman of the UP Student Council, saw these events: “Students and workers are discontented over state affairs. The January 26 and 30 incidents reflect not a Communist stand to take over Malacañang as Marcos says, but a belief that change is necessary—that is, changes in our political, social and economic set-up.”
In her article, Martinez quoted also from a manifesto by the UP Student Council on “The Real State of the Nation,” dated January 26, 1970, denouncing Marcos’ “farcical misrepresentations and patent falsehoods”, pointing that “while Mr. Marcos II loudly proclaims a program of ‘austerity’ and ‘self-discipline,’ prices continue to escalate, wages are pegged to a sub-survival level, while the country’s affluent minority of American imperialists, feudal landlords and bureaucrat-capitalists persist in their ruthless exploitation of the masses.”
Like Barican, who later on became the spokesperson of President Joseph Estrada, the UP Student Council rejected the 1971 Constitutional Convention, contending that “while the more visionary students noisily hold aloft the 1971 Constitutional Convention as our last hope for progress, we maintain that any such hope will be crushed by the money and power of American imperialists and their traitorous Filipino allies.”
Other schools also produced student activists. Edgar Jopson, known as Edjop, who graduated with a degree in management engineering in Ateneo de Manila and studied in UP Law before dropping out to join the underground, became a communist and at some point headed the Mindanao Commission of the National Democratic Front. He was killed in 1981 in Davao City, summarily executed even after he had surrendered. Chito Sta Romana, a La Salle graduate and student leader, was exiled in China during martial law. He later on became a well-known journalist, reporting from China for ABC news. Among others, he reported on the Tiananmen Square uprising. He is now our Ambassador to China. We are very lucky to have him there representing our country.
The student activism did not end with the declaration of martial law. By the early 1980s, it saw a resurgence again. In the University of the Philippines, the most famous and admired is of course Lean Alejandro, and not just because he was assassinated. The Bantayog ng mga Bayani website summarizes Lean’s well-lived life quite well: “More than his extraordinary height, Lean stood out as an activist because he possessed insight, a unifying approach, speaking and writing skills, and courage and boldness. Older and more experienced colleagues in the protest movement had him in high regard, and government negotiators who met Lean across the barricades gave him their grudging respect.”
I have no doubt that if Lean and Edjop were alive today that they would now be a senator or even a president of a better Philippines.
Today, many young people have proven themselves worthy of this activist tradition.
I am particularly impressed by Sarah Elago, Kabataan Party List Representative, one of the youngest members of Congress, and yes proudly a graduate of the University of the Philippines. In one article, it is pointed out that: “Now, even with four years of activism behind her, Sarah admits there was never a moment when she wanted to step down from her advocacies. Yes, there were instances of distraction and confusion, but she understands that the road she long ago decided to walk on is one that was, is and will always be full of struggles. But with thousands of young people who are willing to carry the cross of change with her, how could she possibly falter?” Sarah is quoted as saying: “We have kept marching onwards despite the difficulties, and we have not given up. We will not give up! Our hope springs eternal.”
Frankly, its young people like Sarah that inspires me to teach in many learning institutions (right now 10 in number). I hope that in the 200 or so students I meet every week there are several Sarah Elagos—equally or even more intelligent, articulate, idealistic, and courageous as this young leader. And to them, I always say protest is a form of learning, sometimes the best form. Indeed, they can learn more from joining marches, rallies, picket lines, etc. than being in the classroom.
Ditto Sarmiento, the U.P. Collegian editor martyred during the Marcos dictatorship (he died of a heart attack, his asthma aggravated after having been detained for baseless charges) famously asked: Kung di tayo kikibo, sino ang kikibo? Kung di tayo kikilos, sino ang kikilos? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa? (“Who will speak up if we don’t? Who will act if we don’t? If not now, when?”). Thankfully, UP student activists and other young people still ask these questions today, and answer: Kami, tayo, ngayon. (We, us, now.)
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