I am currently commuting between Al Jazeera English (AJE) live stream, Twitter, Facebook, CNN, BBC, GMail, and Star Sports–monitoring the popular uprising in Egypt and the Australian Open men’s finals.
I suddenly remembered where I was and what I was doing exactly forty-one (41) years ago.
At the time, at around 7:30 pm, I was in the vicinity of the Malakanyang Palace together with about fifteen and twenty thousand youthful demonstrators. Then, I was a college freshman myself at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.
We were in the vicinity of the presidential palace angry over the violent dispersal of an earlier peaceful demonstration in front of the Congress of the Philippines building held on January 26 on the occasion of the first state of the nation address of the newly-re-elected Ferdinand Marcos.
Ferdinand Marcos in his prime
The 1969 elections which pitted a re-electionist Marcos against the lackluster Sergio Osmena, Jr., was marred by allegations of cheating and massive vote-buying to make sure Marcos wins. In retrospect, it was not necessary since Osmena did not stand a candle to Marcos and his beautiful wife, Imelda, was as beguiling to the ordinary voter as before.
It was commonly believed that the election spending nearly bankrupted the public treasury. It appears that Marcos converted the central bank’s forex reserves into pesos to finance his campaign chest. What compounded the situation was the unprecedented increase of world prices of crude oil imposed by the newly-organized Organization of Petroleum Countries (OPEC). These developments helped depress the national economy.
Rodel Rodis, a student leader then who is now a resident in California, reminisces in the pages of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (February 4, 2010):
Forty years ago on January 26, 1970, I attended a massive student rally outside the Philippine Congress to protest what we believed was the true state of the nation just as Ferdinand Marcos was delivering his self-serving version inside.
I was aligned with the “moderates” then, part of the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) of Edgar “Edjop” Jopson, who was the featured rally speaker. After he spoke, Edjop called on Gary Olivar, a leader of the “radicals.” A neighbor and one of my closest childhood friends, Gary was just about to speak when Edjop abruptly decided to hand over the mike to radio commentator Roger “Bomba” Arrienda.
Jopson addressing the January 26 demonstration
As Roger was delivering his speech laced with his usual bombast, the crowd kept yelling Gary! Gary! Gary! Instead of turning the mike over to Gary as we had agreed when we prepared the “united front” program of speakers, Edjop decided to end the rally by singing the national anthem. But just as the long rally was about to end at 6 p.m., a young labor leader grabbed the mike from Edjop and started delivering a fiery speech in Tagalog.
“Passions were high, exacerbated by the quarrel over the mikes;” wrote Jose F. Lacaba in his book, Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, “and the President had the bad luck of coming out of Congress at this particular instant.”
Marcos was about to board his presidential limousine when someone hurled a crocodile papier mache in his direction. It missed him but it ignited a fury of retaliation by a phalanx of riot police who swung their rattan truncheons at the heads of helpless students, “moderates” and “radicals” alike, unifying them in their common pain, as a stunned nation watched transfixed on live TV.
In the days that followed, indignation rallies denouncing police brutality were held in many campuses throughout Metro Manila culminating in the January 30 March to Malacanang from Plaza Miranda through the Mendiola Bridge. By nightfall, thousands of students surrounded the heavily fortified palace when suddenly the lights went off. The Metrocom riot police retreated into the night, replaced with battle-hardened army soldiers armed with high-powered armalites out to quell a rebellion.
Before that long, dark bloody night was over, four students lay dead, scores paralyzed, and hundreds maimed from gunshot wounds.
As my high school friend, Mario Taguiwalo, recalled: “The death of friends, the terror of gunfire, the taste of truncheon taught a lot of ‘isms’ in one night. By the morning of January 31, 1970, a thousand chapters of student organizations had begun taking root in schools and communities nationwide.”
The next three months were filled with protest demonstrations, rallies, and “people’s marches” that all came to be called The First Quarter Storm, which another close friend, Nelson Navarro, described as “that cathartic student revolt in the first months of 1970 that shook the nation with its intense and all-encompassing life-changing experience.”
I was a member of the secretariat of the Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP) that was formed to coordinate the demonstrations and rallies in 1970. A year later, my parents “exiled” me to San Francisco, fearful that I would share the same “salvaged” fate of so many student activists.
When Marcos declared martial law in September of 1972, he imprisoned thousands of activists, including many of my friends like Gary, Edjop, Mario and Jerry Barican, among the best and brightest of my generation.
Jerry Barican (in spectacles)
Living through the martial law years in the United States, I taught Philippine history and political science at San Francisco State University and at Laney College. I went to law school, passed the bar, set up my private law practice, was appointed president of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and was elected to the San Francisco Community College Board.
Twenty years ago, on January 30, 1990, four years after People Power ended martial rule, I returned to Manila to attend a reunion I had organized, a gathering of friends at Freedom Park in Malacanang Palace, to mark the 20th anniversary of the First Quarter Storm.
Not present was my friend, Edjop, who became a revered people’s hero after he was beaten, tortured, jailed for his underground anti-dictatorship efforts, and later executed by the military on September 20, 1982 when he was barely 34 years old.
But Jerry Barican was there. Once the radical president of the UP Student Council, he had become a staunchly conservative lawyer who justified his sea change by paraphrasing Churchill, “If you’re not a radical by 18, you have no heart. If you’re still a radical by 30, you have no head.” Jerry went on to become a spokesman for President Joseph “Erap” Estrada.
Mario Taguiwalo was there too, proudly serving as President Cory Aquino’s Undersecretary of Health. “Every time I am tempted to give up on people,” Mario said, “I am reminded of the power of ideals deeply held and I persevere again seeking to convince and not to compel.” Also there, among other friends, were Digoy Fernandez, a radical from De La Salle who had become a banker and Maan Hontiveros, an activist who was now the owner of her own communications company.
Gary Olivar couldn’t make it because he was busy in New York, working as a Sumitomo Bank executive after obtaining an MBA from Harvard University. But he sent me his message, which I read at the ceremony, about how “a singular dream moved a generation.”
“A dream so compelling in its inception, so irresistible in its sweep, that it hurled thousands of us against the walls of this palace—as if somehow through the sheer weight of our passions on that endless night, we would reclaim the palace for our own.”
“In the conceit of our youth, we believed we could repair the broken bones of a people long despoiled and fulfill a dream of human freedom, of national sovereignty, of equitable progress for every Filipino.”
Gary Olivar, the bright, articulate student leader who accidentally caused the First Quarter Storm when he wasn’t allowed to speak, is now the official spokesman of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“Reunions are beautiful,” Nelson mused at the gathering, “because the older we get, the more we cease seeing ourselves as friends or enemies. We are simply survivors sharing a common memory.”
I was not a student leader at the time; I was an ordinary student who was ‘radicalized’ by the events of January 30-31. I was unable to join my classmates and dorm-mates for the January 26 demonstration and several female high school classmates who were also studying in UP Diliman were trapped inside the UP-Ikot jeepney which carried the sound system the UP delegation used for the demonstration.
Incensed by the January 26 police dispersal, I joined the January 30 mass action in front of the presidential palace. The mood was angry and the activists were obviously led by the radicals rather than by the moderates.
The radicals were led by the Kabataang Makabayan founder Jose Maria Sison as well as the leader of the New People’s Army Bernabe “Dante” Buscayno. Laborers also took part, protesting against graft andcorruption in government, and the decline in the economy caused by high oil prices. Some believed that the unrest is the plan to overthrow the government through a direct assault on the Palace.
Jose Ma. Sison
The night ended violently when the police used tear gas and arms to quell the demonstrators. Students tried to counter using Molotov cocktails and pillbox bombs while retreating. The storm extended to Divisoria district in Tondo, Manila well into the early hours of January 31. After the failed protest, some of the surviving radical students, mostly from the University of the Philippines, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, and the University of the East, became avowed Marxists, and took up arms, engaging in guerrilla and urban warfare.
Bernabe Buscayno aka Kumander Dante
The events of January 30-31 catalyzed the phenom known as the First Quarter Storm, which Wikipedia, describes as “a period of leftist unrest in the Philippines, composed of a series of heavy demonstrations, protests, and marches against the government from January to March 1970, or the first quarter of 1970. It was one of the factors leading to the declaration of Martial Law in 1972.
When the composite force of soldiers and riot police started their attack on our ranks later in the night, I found refuge with many others within the walls of San Beda College along Mendiola street near Malakanyang.
Metrocom riot police beating up youth demonstrators
I remember cringing in fear together with my fellow ‘refugees’ and our priest-guardians as my eyes hurt so much with the tear gas clouds swirling around us and while automatic rifles were beating their deadly staccato. Afterwards, we hear the cries of the wounded and the defiant yells of youths who tried to fight back defensively.
The storm will eventually lead me to drop out from school, join the underground movement against the Marcos dictatorship when he declared martial law in September 1972, and my capture, torture, and incarceration from September 1973 to December 1974.
The storm shaped me. Without it, I believe I would have been an entirely different person than what I am. Now.