Friday, May 11, 2012

Interview With A Revolutionary Filipino Filmmaker (Part Two)

Fighting has been more than a pose for Samonte
Last time we heard from Mauro Gia Samonte, he was describing his extraordinary introduction to militant class struggle, through his organising of workers at the Makabayan Publishing Corporation during a period of great upheaval, and he spoke of "learning a lesson from the failed strike". I asked him more about that 'education', plus how he managed to maintain a writing and directing career through the turbulence of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Read on and prepare to be amazed by tales of violent picket line confrontation, an escape from torture, grenades and much more...

How did you put those political lessons into practice as the Marcos regime continued throughout the seventies and the eighties?
I think crucial to the issue is the timeline. It varies according to the particularity of each period in the entire two decades you cited. From the time KAMAO abandoned the picket line at the Makabayan Publishing Corporation, that was in August 1971, by no choice to pursue the fight on the legal front, up to the declaration of Martial Law on September 21, 1972, we are counting only one year. 

While my lawyers - among them now the sitting Vice President of the Philippines, Jejomar Binay - were pursuing the fight in court, I immersed myself deeply into the political activities of the Katipunan ng mga Samahan ng mga Manggagawa (KASAMA, this acronym, a translation of 'comrade', the full name translating to 'Society of Workers’ Associations'), the national federation of labor unions that formed the labour sector of the Movement for Democratic Philippines (MDP), umbrella organization of various progressive groups opposing the imminent Marcos dictatorship, among them the Kabataang Makabayan (KM – Nationalist Youth), the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK – Youth Democratic Association), mainly forming the youth sector; Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (MAKIBAKA), the acronym translating into 'fight' or 'struggle', forming the women sector; a host of other mass organizations dubbed 'Natdems', for 'National Democrats', bannering the Jose Maria Sison line of 'Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought' on the ideological plane and 'protracted people’s war' on the political plane by which to achieve a political system called 'National Democracy'.

Eventual deeper study of the concept would reveal that it is a copy-cat of Mao’s thesis that a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society dominated by foreign powers cannot proceed direct to socialism but must take the necessary transition route of liberating itself first from foreign domination, in the case of the Philippines, “US imperialism and Soviet Social imperialism.” At any rate, I was far off from a honing on politics that would enable me to perceive the ramifications of a line that while proclaiming imperialism – by Lenin, the highest stage of capitalism – as its main enemy, it nonetheless welcomed into its fold what it called national bourgeoisie, promoted to mean nationalist capitalists. 

No stretch of imagination would convince me even at that stage of my infantile Marxism that I could ever be comradely with a capitalist, nationalist or not. The irreconcilability of this standpoint with the overall political line of the national democratic movement did not at all offer a hindrance to my practice of revolutionary politics, for the simple reason that I did not entertain any other line but proletarian. I was with KASAMA, focused on organizing trade unions, educating workers on proletarian politics, and hardly found occasion to make apologias for capitalists, who either must already be "in" as the Lichaucos and the Del Rosarios or still being wooed. Soon after turning full-time with KASAMA, I was nominated Candidate Member of the Communist Party of the Philippines, designated as the Education Department Head of the Secretariat of the National Party Group in the labor federation. As such, together with my staff, I acted as the door-opener for political work among the workers – ever the first step in organizing workers into a union. 

Beginning from an orientation session with core groups, prospective unionists underwent a crash course on trade unionism, which I had to devise since the only material existing for organizing anybody in the movement was Sison’s mimeographed pamphlet entitled Struggle for National Democracy. After my initial stints on the job, I realized workers were finding the material alien to their immediate and truly urgent concerns: low wages, security of tenure, non-remittance by employers of the social security system payments withheld from employees, fringe benefits, holiday pays, long working hours, etc. 

For situating the workers into the fiber of nationalism, I focused on stressing the proletarian direction of the Revolution of 1896 that led to the downfall of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. For political economy, I gave myself a crash learning as well of the theory of surplus value which I sought to impart to workers in the most simple manner I could do to make it understood. It fattened my heart when workers, at each end of the subject matter, instantly resolved to unionize – invariably already asking for pillbox bombs by which to slam capitalists. Only after workers had gone through the study sessions would the OD (Organization Department) come in and formalize their organization into unions, thenceforth exercising administrative control over them for the federation.

Sometime middle of 1972, in a general assembly of KASAMA, I was elected secretary general of the federation. The period truly witnessed the flowering of militant trade unionism in the country. Workers' strikes were the rule of the day. I remember the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines already taking the stand that the Workers’ Strike Movement is the revolutionary component of the people’s war in the cities. In my personal case, it was a truly feel-good period for being able to do my bit in advancing the spirit of "serving the people". In addition to organizing unions and regularly conducting education work among workers, I minded media propaganda for the strike movement, including presentation of stage plays depicting workers’ strike, shown to be increasingly making the shift to armed struggle under the aegis of the New People’s Army (NPA). 

Against advice by comrades in the KASAMA Party Group, I took the frontlines with workers in their strikes, and in one incident, I slammed the haughty general manager of a big cigarette factory with a placard as he led in a strike-breaking push. Other picketers followed suit, swinging their own placards at the strike-breaking force, forcing it to withdraw. But soon came a big contingent from the Philippine Constabulary. Against the M16 rifles of the soldiers, the picketers’ placards were utterly no match; the strikers were arrested en masse, loaded into a big constabulary bus to be hailed to the municipal jail. I was loaded singly into the lead vehicle of the constabulary arresting contingent, to be brought to nowhere I knew; 'salvaging', as extra-judicial killing had already come to be known at the time, was a scenario I braced myself for. So I had the presence of mind to grab a phone at the desk of the municipal prison to inform comrades of my situation, and when the arresting contingent head, a Master Sergeant, asked who I was talking to, I told a lie, saying it was my friends from media. That must have done the trick, because instead of the salvage scenario, I was merely brought for interrogation at the PC headquarters. From there I was rescued by the head of the LD (Legal Department), a lawyer, of the National Party Group in the labor federation. 

From then on, the Party Group decided that I should go UG (underground), meaning no longer visible in the legal operations of KASAMA, though there was no restriction in my handling of the education requirements of the federation. Two noteworthy occasions can be cited that happened during this period. One was a protest rally at the United States Embassy (it must be the commemoration of the Philippine-US Friendship Day); the other, the May 1 rally of 1972. By this time, I had already been elevated to full-fledged membership of the Communist Party and being groomed, albeit unknown to me, for greater tasks. 

On the first occasion, I was surreptitiously handed a grenade with the info that it was the same type as the ones that blasted the Liberal Party political rally on August 21, 1971. My job: explode the grenade at the Manila Police barricading the approach to the US embassy. When the policemen charged at the rallyists – the signal for me to explode the grenade – I made a quick decision to join the protesters in scampering to safety; I sought refuge in the perimeters of the Rizal monument guarded by two Marine soldiers 24/7 standing in attention and where pursuit of anybody even by policemen was taboo. It went without saying that I failed whatever baptism of fire that must have been meant for me on that occasion. 

The second occasion was the May 1 Labor Day commemoration of 1972. All of a sudden I found myself sitting as secretary general of what was called the May Day Revolutionary Committee, with the leader of the biggest peasant organization in the country as Chairman and the President of the Philippine College of Commerce, hotbed of student activism at the time, as vice chairman. What great thing could turn out in the event, I gleaned from the explicit instructions from the higher-up that somebody must always stick behind me to guard my person. Surely I sensed danger and honestly I got the creeps as I had not in all those past instances when without thought I just found myself throwing my body to stop the onrush of a strike-breaking vehicle, or face up to Armalite-wielding constabulary soldiers who for not being able to get the guts to fire just got content with bruising your ribs with the nozzles of their M16s. 

But there, as we converged in our thousands at the very gates of Malacanang, and the main speaker of the rally, the soft-spoken president of the KASAMA, could not deliver the needed verbiage to fire the multitude into bursting into whatever tumult that was that had been programmed for the occasion, and the lady secretary general of the Movement for a Democratic Philippines was frantically pressing me, albeit in a hush, to speak up, and elements in the frontlines whom I recognized to be the elite combatants from the National Trade Union Bureau were giving me frantic eye signals for me to make that one final call to arms and they would explode their concealed grenades – I kept my cool. Indications were that I was the signal fire for the battle meant to keep the bloody tradition of May Day. I didn’t make the signal fire. No battle took place. And the otherwise belligerent thousands went away from perhaps the coolest May Day celebration in the Philippines in recent memory. 

Years later, into the period of martial law, that lady secretary general of the MDP, who on various occasions postured herself as a staunch advocate of Jose Maria Sison’s line of national democracy and who on the occasion of the 1972 May Day celebration was egging me to start battle, would be uncovered as a deep penetration agent of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the revolutionary movement; from my personal knowledge of her activities then, I’d say that her reaches in the national democratic movement had gone far and wide. 

Until this day, I’m at a loss as to what would I have accomplished if I did perfectly as I was being programmed to do on the cited occasions. Possible answers are many. One, I could have contributed to the widespread damning of Marcos. But then again, so what if Marcos were damned? Would that have liberated the workers for which I immersed myself in the movement in the first place? Two, I could have helped deter Marcos from proclaiming martial law. But then still again, truly violent incidents had happened in the past (the First Quarter Storm, highlighted by the University of the Philippines Commune, the January 26Confrontation, the Battle of Mendiola, and the Plaza Miranda Massacre, etc.) that would have sufficed Marcos’ reason for declaring martial law earlier, and yet he did not. 

What immediately prompted Marcos into declaring martial law was his discovery of a huge arms shipment from China by the Communist Party of the Philippines. Wrangling in the inner circle of the CPP had led to the bungling of the shipment, much of which fell into government hands. With glaring proof of armed rebellion, Marcos found justification in his declaration of martial law. There was nothing but pointlessness in my assigned tasks on those two occasions – save for the fact that by not doing them I surely saved a lot of lives. To repeat, I joined the movement fired solely by a desire to help achieve workers’ liberation. Everything I did was toward this end; otherwise I didn’t do it. And so it was for me, in the period from the KAMAO strike to the declaration of martial law. 

But your question touches on political work I did in the period beyond and all the way to the eighties. Crucial this time is my standpoint on the Jose Maria Sison line. According to Sison, the Philippines was a semi-feudal, semi-colonial society which imperialism, i.e. US, would not allow to develop into capitalism; the country was being maintained as a supplier of raw materials for capitalistic enterprises, particularly US. My take is that the Philippines had gone capitalism the minute the country’s bourgeoisie gained political power in 1946. We know the mode of production is determined by the relations of production. In the Philippines in the seventies were industries with a character of mass manufacture, as in steel, textile, garment, cement, ceramics, and even car manufacture. In all these, the forces of production are workers and capitalists and the relations of production is private expropriation of the social character of labor, the hallmark of capitalism. And if, as Sison argues, US imperialism dominates Philippine society, all the more does it validate the stand that capitalism is dominant in the country – a cog in the whole monstrous machine of world capitalism, what else but by Lenin’s assertion, imperialism? That a large component of Philippine economy was agricultural in nature does not make for a semi-feudal economy, agricultural production being the handiwork of the very people who are in control of the capitalistic industries. And that the Philippines hosts large US military bases does not make the country any more a US colony than Spain and Japan which were sites as well of large US military installations. 

Further readings of the five volumes of Mao Tse Tung Thoughts revealed to me a most condemnable affront to the great leader: Philippine Society and Revolution by Jose Maria Sison which he passed off as a concrete analysis of concrete Philippine condition is a shameless virtual verbatim copy-cat of Mao’s analysis of Chinese society back in the twenties when China was parceled off by imperialist powers among themselves, the ruling dynasty at their mercy, with no central political power, with warlords contending against one another for control of the countrysides. This was not the Philippines during the seventies, when a strong central government had been well in place, whose sovereignty placed in doubt by no one in the world, and whose foreign relations were conducted on mutual respect with equals. In my conduct of political education among workers and in inner study circles of the Party, I had not even for once budged from this position. 

Knowledge of this must have gone all the way to the Party sovereign so that when, getting everybody caught unawares, martial law was declared and the order was issued for party units to retreat to the countryside, the order was not meant for me as well. I was, literally speaking, left out in the cold. Compartmentalization was so strictly adhered to in the party organization such that you did not get to communicate with elements outside of your unit. When our party unit was plucked out of the city, I was left with no one to integrate with. So I turned to the ever-welcoming masses, organizing discussion groups in which I formalized my call for a shift in strategy in advancing the proletarian revolutionary line. Small, discreet discussion groups were what was possible to hold in the circumstance of martial law. This move prospered up to an extent. But when my organizing work reached that point – as it always did –  in which the organized force asked for arms, I had to bow to my utter helplessness. Precisely the kind of bowing I did when I joined the Sison movement for the opportunity of advancing the workers’ struggle the way I saw fit – the way I saw best for the proletariat.

Mauro standing for election in 1998
I think I have this incorrigible affliction with naivete in dealing with people: that they can take me in good faith the way I take them in good faith – as I, not knowing you from Adam, take you in sheer good faith now. Hence in a Party that proclaimed adherence to democratic centralism and the principle of criticism-self-criticism, I had this pure belief that my criticism of the Sison line would be well taken and that a changing of the Party’s strategy could be undertaken for pushing the class liberation of the proletariat. My isolation, albeit undeclared, by the Party upon the declaration of martial law, proved me, indeed, that naïve. It was during that period that the tune and lyrics of the song I emailed to you [Reach For The Apex Of Great Proletarian Service] began taking shape in my mind. In my lonesome, I never lost hope that someday the Party would realize that for all my unflinching resolve to combat the Sison line, I had never been remiss in my dedication to serve the working class. Jobless, politically isolated, and  seeing not much opportunity in a restricted press.

What difficulties did you encounter in putting across your political perspective in writing amidst dictatorship?

Curiously enough, none whatsoever. But let me set it straight early on. If you are referring to writing in publications, like magazines or newspapers, I hardly made any political writing. Remember, I was a movie journalist, a glamorized term for entertainment writer. I was writing articles on movie stars, entertainment celebrities, and movie reviews. That was on the media surface. And I maintained that identity all the way to the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship. But precisely because my writing was being made to make-do with the ersatz of journalism, from time to time I’d long for release of my purely political thoughts, as very private manuscripts or when the desire for audience became unbearable, as subject matters of my movies , i.e. Isla Sto. Nino (Island of Sto. Nino ), an anti-US imperialist piece, Walang Panginoon (Without Master), on the life inside the NPA, and Ibilanggo si Neneng Magtanggol (Imprison Neneng Magtanggol), a call to arms veiled in symbolism, and, of course, Daluyong At Habagat (Winds Easterly and Westerly), on oppression and exploitation of workers during the post-war period. 

Not so many compared to the bulk of my credits which number more than fifty. Sort of putting that my service to the working class has been better done than said. But surely, other writers suffered restrictions from martial law as you want to hear from me, some of them my friends even. 

Which brings us to a point. Martial law curtailment of press freedom was evidently selective. It targeted those who were obstinate not in defense of people’s liberties but in calling for the ouster of Marcos. These are two different matters, defending people’s liberties and ouster of Marcos. The bottom line is to ask the question: 'was Marcos martial law repressive of the people?' I’d put the question on the scale of war: on the one hand the oligarchs, deprived of their decades-old control over Philippine politics and economy, on the other Marcos, determined to perpetuate that dismantlement. By taking over Meralco and ABS-CBN, for instance, and making them government-owned, was that repressive of the people? Definitely, I say no. By condemning Marcos for that take-over and calling it in your writing as a crime against the people, are you justified in writing so? Again, I say no. And what does that make of you if Marcos jails you for doing that kind of writing? Suits you fine. 

In the main, that was how Marcos was pictured as an enemy of the people, by being a staunch enemy of the oligarchs. Marcos waskidnapped by the American government and forced into exile in order to give way for Cory [Corazon Aquino] to the presidency of the land. What were Cory’s first acts upon assuming the presidency? She ordered the release from prison of Jose Maria Sison and Kumander Dante along with the return of Meralco and ABS-CBN to the oligarch Lopezes. To those who claimed repression for being imprisoned under martial law, search deep into your conscience. Had I in that incident when I was singly brought to Camp Crame been kept in jail and made to rot there, would I have raised a hoot? I would have blamed it on my stupidity of getting caught. 

Frankly, Adam, my great concern at the time, which remains to this day, went far beyond ideas of crushing  the Marcos dictatorship. It was the crushing of capitalism. On the eve of the EDSA happening, when it became clear to me that the Americans were ready to replace Marcos – the Seventh Fleet was at Manila Bay; international media, billeted at the Manila Hotel, was preparing for something big – I proposed a linking up with Marcos in an alliance against US imperialism. Under the circumstances, Marcos was the potential great ally of the movement. It would have been bloody, yes. But then what revolution had been without blood?

Mauro blogs at KAMAO Punch, and tweets @mauro_gia.

The interview continues here.
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