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Siege at Congress: A Sidelight

February 19, 2010

By Amadis Ma. Guerrero

First published in the Graphic, February 11, 1970, p. 10-11, 50-51

No hay tiramos donde no hay esclavos.

There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.

—A paraphrase from Rizal scrawled on a placard during the January 26 demonstration, and borne beside the Kabataang Makabayan streamer.

“FILIPINO STUDENTS are among the gentlest in Asia,” a foreign correspondent wrote not too long ago. He made the statement in his dispatch shortly after witnessing a demonstration before the American Embassy, during which some students, after forcibly opening the gates, advanced several meters into the chancery’s compound and then voluntarily retreated to the outside premises.

Then came the student rebellion early last year, during which the youths turned on their own schools, broke windows, set fire to cars and committed other comparatively minor acts of violence. Our correspondent, perhaps embarrassed, reversed himself. This time he stated in his report that “Filipino students seem to be abdicating their role as Asia’s gentlest students.”

This newsman unfortunately went on home leave a few months ago, and so he was not around to cover the January 26 siege of Congress. had he done so, he would perhaps have added that the abdication was now complete. And, diligent reporter that he is, he no doubt would have noted the excesses of the police. (The man who temporarily replaced him, however, was on the spot, and later he told an acquaintance that the police action was “bad, very bad” — this, from a seasoned journalist who covered the tumultuous anti-Sukarno demonstrations in Indonesia and saw a student bayoneted to death by police.)

Unlike the students, the police have never been gentle to start with; they have always been the mongrels of the scavenging Establishment. And on January 26 the full fury of their barbarism was unleashed, displayed for all the world to see, and it exploded into the ugliest riot the Philippines has ever seen. The series of clashes which followed were headlined all over Asia, and played up in many other countries.

On January 30 the students, at least the radical ones, retaliated in kind and went on an orgy of destruction in front of Malacañang and its vicinity. Fire trucks were commandeered, cars were burned and one gate was stormed. Several deaths occurred (whereas before there were only injuries, now there already are fatalities). The pattern of violence gives rise to sober thought.

STUDENT ACTIVISM is a new phenomenon on the Philippine scene. The image of the Filipino student has always been that of one more embroiled in parties, puppy love, pop music, and the like than in national issues. The Filipino student was looked upon by sociologists as conservative, lazy, apolitical and what not. In the early ’60s however, this image changed with one blow.

In December 1964, students and labor unionists protesting the Laurel-Langley Agreement marched before Malacañang and besieged the Palace gates — and were met with blows from the rifle butts of nervous guards. The demonstration was tame by foreign standards, but it was the most violent one in local memory, and it signified an awakening, a change in temper among the studentry.

Other rallies followed, culminating in the October 1966 riot, when police battled with students expressing their opposition to the Vietnam war and the Allied Summit convening then. Today demonstrations are part and parcel of our everyday life, a prerogative not only of the youth and the laborers but also of schoolteachers, priests, farmers, and even lepers.

Surpassing them all in intensity were the January 26 demonstration and the January 30 Malacañang riot, wherein students by the thousands played the role of the matadors to Ferdinand the Bull. No other President in our history has generated so much opprobrium and contempt among the youth and the exploited elements. Demonstrating students and farmers seeking social justice have broken into one of his official rooms, and unspeakable names have been hurled at him during rallies. A makeshift coffin, a papermache crocodile with the legend “Marcos$,” rocks and placards have been hurled at his car, his pictures have been defaced and made to look like Hitler and Bonnie and Clyde (and we all know who Bonnie is supposed to represent).

One legislator, Sen. Emmanuel Pelaez, braved the wrath of both police and the small but radical elements who apparently ignited the violence the night of January 26. Some have expressed puzzlement at his act, giving out speculations as to his motive. Perhaps the Senator went to such lengths because he has been most active in seeking non-partisanship in the coming Constitutional Convention. Perhaps… but it may be closer to the truth to state that he intervened in the disturbances because his help was sought by student leaders from Ateneo and the UP.

At any rate here is his story:

None of the legislators (Pelaez narrated) knew what was happening outside. Some thought the demonstration was over, but left by the back gate because of the traffic problem. At about 6:30 p.m. he went down and was told the back door was closed, so he went over to the lobby. At that point some agitated leaders from the Ateneo and UP rushed over, saying, “Senator, there’s a riot outside,” and appealed to him for assistance.

Pelaez stepped outside — “and what I saw was a melee. The policemen were chasing the students, and the students were throwing stones. The policemen were indiscriminately chasing everyone, and there were so many of them (students).” One had been collared by the police (Romeo T. Acosta, about 18 or 19, from the UP College of Forestry). The anti-riot squadmen “were brandishing their sticks at the boy. They were really angry, you could see that. So I embraced the boy” to prevent him from being beaten up.

Police Chief Gerardo Tamayo came over and had a talk with the student leaders. They told him to stop his men from chasing the youths and to release those arrested. Tamayo was vague, could not tell where the students were, then said they had been taken to the precinct. He also refused to withdraw the policemen.

“So I went down and tried to separate them, but I couldn’t.” He demanded from a police official, a Major Paralejas, that his men “get out, get out. What are you (police) doing down here? If you are not here, the students won’t be throwing stones.” But Paralejas refused, saying he had no such order from Tamayo.

At one point the students cheered Pelaez and carried him over their shoulders. But he made the mistake of calling Tamayo over, and the Police Chief was roundly booed. “I tried to distract them, then the police charged again. They were the ones provoking the students.” Pelaez asserted that it was the sight of the anti-riot forces, with their white crash helmets, murderous rattan truncheons and guns, that had inflamed the students. Had they been pulled out, the violence would have subsided.

So “melee na naman. The police were hitting everybody, and the students were throwing stones, there was no question about that. I looked for Tamayo, and this time he agreed to bring them up (the legislative steps).” They still refused to leave, however, saying they feared the legislative building might be burned down. They also refused to go inside — perhaps they feared they would be burned along with the building.

“They agreed to move to the left side. But the other group, the Metrocom and the Special Forces, continued charging. There was no coordination between the police and the Metrocom. The MPD regrouped, and deployed on the stairs facing the students as if they were guarding a rampart.”

They were tempting targets, their helmets could be clearly seen. . . “di tinira na naman sila! And the police charged all over again. . . stupid . . . and all the while the melee was continuing. The students were chased all the way to the Muni Golf Links, the Sunken Gardens and Plaza Lawton. The most serious beatings took place in the dark.”

Pelaez said “even the non radical students were retaliating,” and, one might add, getting hurt. Mervyn Encanto, secretary-general of the National Union of Students, “a very responsible fellow,” was struck in the head while trying to help some victims. “The sight of the policemen was like a red flag to the students.”

The Senator believes the bloodshed could have been averted had the police and the students secured a key strategic area out in front of Congress. “Both the police and the NUSP were negligent in securing this area, allowing radicals to make their way there. The KM held the area in front of the entrance, they never moved away from there.”

He stated one radical woman leader (’tis said the KM girls are even more radical than the boys), who registered anger at him, barked at her commandos: “Tama na ang salita. Sige action. Huwag matakot.” (“Enough talk, just action. Don’t be afraid.”)

Pelaez said the police were stoned from the KM side of the building, triggering another round of clubbing, including girls, and in front of the tv cameras. The police fell for it, son-of-a-gun, I tell you, the police fell for the trap. This is the thing that the KM was looking for — club the girls in front of the cameras. The idea was to get someone injured or killed.”

Forty-two injured cases were treated at the PGH that night. At 9:30 p.m. Pelaez arrived at the city jail to help the arrested students, and he stayed on until four a.m. At this point though it would be best to turn the narrative over to Sen. Salvador Laurel, one of the few promising beacons of light in the sea of darkness that is the political life of the Philippines.

The young Batangas solon witnessed the battle from the Legislative Building, but he did not go out “because I saw the futility of Pelaez’s actions. The policemen were ignoring him, and some of the students were jeering him. So instead of copying Pelaez, I thought I could do something effective.”

The chance came that evening when some students called him up from the police station, asking that he act as their lawyer. Laurel proceeded immediately to the city jail accompanied by Sen. Eva Estrada Kalaw, newly elected Rep. John Henry Osmeña, and some aides.

He found a large group of students there, some seriously wounded. One had a long gash on his forehead, while another had fractured his fingers during an attempt to protect himself. One of the first things that the Senator did to direct police officials to order that all those arrested be brought to the MPD Headquarters (and not to some outlying precinct where they could be beaten up mercilessly).

The charge against the students was serious, that of tumultuous affray, which carried with it a penalty of six months to a year in prison as well as a provision of no bail. “I looked for Fiscal Castañeda, but he was not there although he was on duty.” Two other fiscals were summoned, but they did not arrive until an hour later.

Laurel convinced them to change the charge from tumultuous affray to breach of the peace. This carried only a maximum penalty of six months, and the accused could be released without bail provided he reappeared every two weeks while his case was pending. (It was Laurel himself who authored this amendment, one of four “Justice for the Poor” Bills of his. The second bill provides that a case involving a poor man should be heard first if a richer man’s case is also pending. The third grants free transportation, lodging and meal allowances to indigents or to persons with insufficient income. The fourth bill gives free transcript of stenographic notes for the poor man’s lawyer during the trial. A stenographer who fails to comply can be penalized.)

“For lack of ink the students were not released until three a.m. We waited from 11:30 p.m. until three a.m. for the ink pad. It was very frustrating, the fiscals did not even know the law. Here were these students, being aided by three senators and a congressman . . . you can imagine what an ordinary citizen has to go through (a sentiment echoed by Pelaez).

“I tried very hard to get the students out. Firstly, there is a law requiring them to be released. Secondly, I did not want them to be living martyrs of the law’s delay.” All but two of the detainees were released. “They could have been provocateurs, but I don’t want to prejudge them. One could not even talk straight, and police said the other was wielding a bolo.” Laurel estimates that a total of 80 or 90 persons were injured that night.

In a privileged speech the following morning, the senator told his colleagues “without wishing to prejudge the policemen nor exculpate the students, I must invite attention to the fact that the anti-riot police made unnecessary use of fore. Helpless women fell prey to their truncheons. I saw with my own eyes four students who were standing fast, holding the streamers of their organization and, without any provocation on their part, being attacked and beaten up by the police.”

Laurel, who has filed a bill that would penalize those disrupting a valid demonstration (with a heavier penalty for peace officers), noted two very important and urgent problems: that “of responsible anti-riot-control, and the problem of keeping pace with the thinking of the youth, mindful always that professional agitators may be in their midst without their knowing it.”

Waxing eloquent on the youth, the young legislator said “Yes, their spirit must not be broken but we have to temper and restrain their passions. Let them demonstrate. Let them perorate. let them denounce the evils that they see. Let them assemble peacefully in the exercise of their civil liberties. And in so doing, let them be impatient without being reckless. Aggressive without being destructive. Passionate about their causes without being bigoted about their beliefs. Let them be assertive without being insolent. Emphatic without being arrogant. Bold but not rash. Law-abiding but not docile. Humble and respectful but not servile. Patient but not insensible. Sensitive but not petty. Idealistic but not unrealistic. Realistic but not ruthless.”

The situation in our country grows more perilous by the week, it is like being sucked into the unrelenting grip of quicksand. The Right is becoming more fascistic and the Left increasingly destructive. Hanging in the balance is the fragile fabric of Philippine society. #

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