OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
UP Diliman early this week unveiled an art installation appropriately labelled “Barikada” at the Oblation Plaza. Toym Imao could not have created a more fitting tribute to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune. When this eight-day event was unfolding, we were still struggling with high school physics and editing our high school paper.
Scout Magazine was quite observant when it wrote: “A closer look at the details of the artwork shows red-painted bamboo ladders and armchairs that seem to represent the fraught relationship between an educational institution and the dissent it can foster against an authoritarian rule.”
For the Diliman Commune captured the bold spirit that makes the state university what it was and what it is today. UP students, teachers, transport groups, and residents said no to the entry of military and state forces into the University on February 1-9, 1971, one year and a half before martial law was formally declared by President Marcos.
UP was the last bastion of democracy during martial law. Dissent was nurtured in the university because the community enjoyed academic freedom to ask the whys and wherefores of socio-political dynamics. Against a repressive regime, a free-thinking campus could only produce dissent and resistance, rather than concurrence and support.
The irony is that the climate of dissent was not limited to UP. It was the outcome of the progressive ascent of critical thinking in Ateneo, La Salle, St Theresa’s, Maryknoll, St Paul’s, PCC, UE, FEU, UST and in practically all universities in the Philippines. Resisting attempts to muzzle freedom would always be liberating. They forced those in the academe to understand the period that led to martial law and the attendant repressive conditions. Dissent and resistance moved together, and if pushed further, they were radicalized and transformed into an affirmative action of actually fighting repression.
It is also interesting that while the military somewhat respected UP’s academic freedom, it nevertheless deployed intelligence agents in their late 40s and 50s to attend introductory courses in history, political science, and economics. They blended very well with 16-year-old freshmen.
The military dictatorship did not storm the UP campus to arrest student leaders and faculty members in the mid-1970s. Instead, the military appeared to be more sophisticated at the time by arresting students and faculties outside Diliman. They used then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile’s arrest and seize orders and brought their haul to the Metrocom’s Southern Command headquarters inside Fort Bonifacio.
The list of detainees from UP included us as chairman of the then Student Conference, the forerunner of today’s Student Council, the late Abraham Sarmiento Jr. who succeeded us as editor of the Philippine Collegian, and Alexander Magno, our vice-chairman at the Student Conference. Some faculty members and union leaders joined us in the detention cell good for only ten people. We were arrested outside UP and charged with subversion for yes, publishing a student paper and working for the restoration of the UP’s studentcouncil.
Of course, we threw our support behind the ranks of Filipino laborers and the religious group of priests and nuns against Presidential Decree 823 abolishing the right to strike in the workplace. Under martial law, there was no court trial to prove our innocence or to justify our detention for weeks and, for some others, months and years. We were issued permanent release by the AFP intelligence service after President Marcos signed his approval in the early 1980s.
Today, 50 years later, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana delivered to the UP his unilateral abrogation of the 1989 accord between UP student leader Sonia Sotto and Defense Secretary Enrile that provided additional layer of protection for the UP community and in the process, further strengthened democratic tradition in this country.
One would expect that 50 years after the Diliman Commune and hundreds of billions in budgetary allocation could have bought some intellectual sophistication for the military intelligence community. But this expectation failed. That decision to abrogate the accord of understanding with the UP community on the basis of possible link with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) or the New People’s Army (NPA) was made without evidence. They presented a list of so-called NPA rebels recruited from UP but was repudiated by many who were in the list. Some turned out to be respected business journalists, practicing lawyers, business figures who were previous UP student leaders. A few of them were listed as killed during alleged encounters with the military but who turned out to be very much alive. This is a very expensive red-tagging exercise.
Greater clarity in thinking would have instructed the military establishment that dissent could be sown and propagated even within the military itself. Previous PMA graduates were radicalized when they saw corruption and military abuse in the face. Whistleblowers could be produced in government think tanks and other layers of the executive branch. In the US, Edward Joseph Snowden started with his passion to serve the government by fighting in the Iraq war but he ended up a whistleblower at the National Security Agency. He witnessed various global surveillance programs impinging on individual freedom and privacy. His reason was unimpeachable: “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
Most UP students and graduates and ,for that matter, people who care about this country have only the good of this country in their heart and mind. But an environment of academic freedom nurtures critical thinking, and critical thinking may lead to some thought of dissent against what is believed to be non-welfare promoting set-up.
What prevents the military intelligence community to think beyond UP as a hotbed of radicalism is its adherence to standard operating procedure or SOP. Bureaucratic solution foments avoidance of risks. Instead of validating a 50-year thinking that UP produces communists and NPA rebels, they would rather choose the road more travelled, and this was to sustain their dogma. Instead of checking the list of names believed to be CPP-NPA recruits, the military intelligence compromised the integrity and credibility of their defense chief who had to issue his apology. All this is what people refer to as the illusion of understanding.
Imao’s art installation should provide us with the idea that we must be alert with this kind of understanding that is presented in a package with pure labelling but without so much care as to list down its list of ingredients. Caveat emptor.