In a few weeks, a government now led by Cory’s son will begin peace talks with rebels represented by a former priest who was with the group that coined the original version of that battle cry: “Tama Na! Sobra Na! Welga Na!”—“It’s time to strike!”
It’s an odd twist in our history.
Cory’s call to action against a ruthless tyrant began as a protest slogan of a relatively small group of factory workers, backed by leftist and church activists, including members of the underground, the UG.
Together, they took part in a little-known, but decisive, confrontation with the Marcos regime. In October 1975, about 500 workers of La Tondena in Manila staged the first major labor strike under martial law. Working behind the scenes were UG leaders, including Edgar Jopson and Father Luis Jalandoni, now the chief representative of the National Democratic Front. Priests, nuns, and students later joined the fight.
As new peace talks begin, Noynoy’s government and the UG could perhaps reflect on this connection in our history, as they struggle to find a way to end the war.
It won’t be easy.
On each side are people who have become so addicted to war, they’ve grown allergic to peace.
On each side, there are those who cling to a demonized portrait of the other.
To the UG, the military is an unreformed and unreformable instrument of repression, incapable of protecting the nation’s interests. To the military, the UG is a vicious force, working toward a dark, totalitarian future under a repressive party of dogmatic ideologues.
There are elements of truth in both images, of course.
There are those in the military who see nothing wrong with using military repression, including torture, to deal with dissent. Some even fantasize about the military in total control, fuelled by the belief that the armed forces as the organization that can fix the country’s ills.
And there are those in the UG who arrogantly see themselves as the only true champions of the people, who fantasize about a time when one party claiming to know the correct path will finally be in charge.
And on both sides are people who do not want the war to end for other reasons. For they see war as their career, as a way to hang on to, even expand, their power.
(Some probably even profit from the conflict. There’s money to be had in protection rackets and other illegal activities for any creative-minded military officer. For an enterprising rebel commander in some remote part of the archipelago, extortion funds, a.k.a. revolutionary taxes, are an easy way to make a living.)
The challenge for both sides is to break free from the painfully narrow storylines, to see more nuanced portraits of each other.
Take the military, a huge, complex, and essentially divided organization.
Just recently, an officer accused of rebellion applied for amnesty. It’s hard to say what moves former Lieutenant Senior Grade Antonio Trillanes nowadays—he’s a politician now, after all.
But it was clear what partly moved him eight years ago when he rebelled against government: Disgust with the corruption in the armed forces. He felt so strongly about it, he even explored the problem in an academic paper.
And there are probably others like him in the armed forces, idealistic and committed officers, but who may be wiser, more forward-thinking than Trillanes. For while they believe strongly in the need for change, they also know that adventurism—say, launching a military assault on a fancy hotel—is foolish and pointless.
They probably understand that the principle of civilian rule over the military is sacrosanct in a democracy, and they may even acknowledge that there are probably those in the UG with whom they share a belief in the need for change.
And the UG?
There are countless stories, moving and inspiring, of young men and women, many from rich and powerful families, who gave up their lives of privilege out of a burning desire to change a society burdened by dehumanizing inequality. Edgar Jopson, Lorena Barros, Nilo Valerio, Emmanuel Lacaba.
And some of them are not wedded to a narrow ideology.
Before his death in 1982, as his widow Joy Asuncion told me, Edjop was troubled by the stunning revelation that the UG may have been responsible for the bombing of Plaza Miranda in 1971. Many others have left the movement to explore other paths to change, disgusted with the bloody purges in the UG, its display of Khmer Rouge-like capacity for violence and cruelty.
The challenge is to find people on both sides with the burning passion for social change, but who are humble enough, strong enough, courageous enough to acknowledge an indisputable fact: This war must end. That this war has turned into a pointless, vicious cycle of vindictive violence.
Winning the peace will be tough. But the history of “Tama Na! Sobra Na!” offers an important lesson.
For in the two historic confrontations in which it was used to rally Filipinos, the slogan worked. It was effective. It led to victory.
The 1975 labor strike was eventually broken up by Marcos’s security forces. The workers and their church sympathizers were hauled off to jail. Edjop and Jalandoni were forced to go into hiding.
But the strike turned out to be a political turning point. It broke the wall of silence under martial law. It sent a powerful message to Filipinos: “We don’t have to be silent. We don’t have to give in to fear.”
The strike inspired a generation of activists, and triggered protests that set the stage for the final confrontation with the tyrant. In 1986, Filipinos rallied around Cory to finish the job. A dictator, one of the most ruthless and greediest in the history of Southeast Asia, was finally overthrown.
As new peace talks kick off, it is perhaps time to turn once again to that slogan of defiance, that battle cry of victory. It’s perhaps time to reclaim it, to revive it, to give it new life as a cry for peace.
“Tama Na! Sobra Na! Kapayapaan Na!”—“It’s time for peace!”