By Gary Leupp
10 -12 June 2005
Just last week, Gen. Jovito Palparan, of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) told the “Defense” Committee of the House of Representatives of the Philippines: “The enemy is everywhere in Samar Island.” By “enemy” he meant the Maoist guerrillas of the New People’s Army (NPA). Fifty to sixty percent of the population of Samar sympathize with the NPA, added Palparan, explaining army killings of civilians on this island jutting out of the archipelago between Luzon and Leyte. He might understate NPA support. Mao Zedong famously stated that the relations between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the masses of people should be like the relationship “between fish and water.” The Filipino communists seek to replicate the Chinese experience, by establishing limited control over liberated zones that transform peasant life in ways that broaden support for the revolution and allow the guerrillas to operate among the people as easily as fish swim in the sea. The ultimate goal is to combine urban insurrection and the surrounding of the cities by the peasant-based army to accomplish the seizure of power and begin building socialism. Gen. Palparan, known locally as “the butcher of Mindoro,” must find the Maoists’ successes on Samar deeply frustrating.
Samar’s just one island, out of seven thousand islands in the Philippines populated by 88 million people. All over the sprawling multi-ethnic archipelago, the former U.S. colony that during its “insurrection” against U.S. rule (1899-1913) lost one-tenth its population, Gen. Palparan’s enemy flourishes. At present, according to the NPA, the Maoists operate “in more than 130 guerrilla fronts covering significant portions of nearly 70 provinces, in around 800 municipalities and more than 9,000 barrios.” The CIA concedes that the movement has been growing in recent years. The NPA has been around since 1969, experiencing ups and downs, learning, making mistakes followed by “rectification campaigns.” At present it looks strong and healthy. Between March 27 and May 15 it responded to an AFP offensive in Surigao Del Sur, designed to clear the way for logging and mining, by killing over 60 AFP troops. It successfully attacked the Army’s 77th IB detachment in Tugo, Abra June 3 and seized at least 30 high-powered firearms. On June 5 Joel Escubido Geollegue, a police intelligence officer with 28 years of service, defected to the revolutionary forces. The NPA seems in some respects on the cutting edge; it’s probably the first communist military, for example, to recognize and celebrate gay marriages. (An AFP spokesman condemns such unions as “propaganda” and confirmation of the communists’ rejection of religion.)
The NPA is the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP),
re-founded in 1968 by Sison, a poet and one-time professor of English at the
University of the Philippines. Its successes are in part a tribute to this man, now 66 years old and by a strange fate compelled to live in exile in the Netherlands. The man known to his friends as “Joma,” who published under the pseudonym Amado Guerrero Philippine Society and Revolution in 1971, a book that remains a kind of bible for Filipino revolutionaries. A man one American scholar has listed among the most important 210 Marxists since the inception of the communist movement in 1848. A man the U.S. government, as it was planning its illegal attack on Iraq in August 2002, declared with much fanfare to be a “terrorist.”
Appropriately, the announcement was made by Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, formerly an Army captain who’d covered up the My Lai Massacre. The same sorry figure who was chosen to trumpet the deliberate lies, assembled and arranged by the neocons’ Office of Special Plans, building the case for the blitzkrieg attack and occupation of Iraq blazing new frontiers in terrorist achievement.
Powell’s announcement met with opposition even within the Philippines government leadership. Vice President Teofisto Guingona challenged it, noting “One needs to make a distinction between a rebel who is fighting because of hunger and perceived injustice, and a terrorist who seeks to sow terror and violence.” But the European Union (although without enthusiasm) under U.S. pressure added Sison to its own terror list. The Dutch government cut off the modest privileges Sison had enjoyed as a refugee. Many in the Netherlands and in the European Parliament protested these actions, but the Bolton style of bullying once again paid off. (The ability of Washington to strong-arm the Europeans was demonstrated again earlier this year when just as Hizbollah was staging massive demonstrations in Lebanon and showing its popular appeal, the EU decided to declare Hizbollah a terrorist group. It had earlier deferred to the position of the Lebanese government that regards Hizbollah as a mainstream political party.)
The reasons for Professor Sison’s “terrorist” designation are made clear in Jose Maria Sison: At Home in the World, consisting of conversations between Sison and longtime Filipino activist and award-winning writer Ninotchka Rosca. (Rosca, not to my knowledge accused of terrorism, won the 1993 American Book Award for her novel Twice Blessed.) The U.S. government has of course always despised Sison as a revolutionary communist playing a key role in the insurgency against a government it supports. But its terror charge has to involve violence against U.S. persons or property. According to Sison, the CIA “planted stories in the press in 1988 and 1989” that he was probably liable for “inciting the NPA to commit violence against American citizens and military personnel.” In particular the U.S. government pursues (as its best bet in forcing the Netherlands to turn over Sison to a court in this country) the charge that Sison is personally responsible for the killing by sniper-fire of Col. James Rowe, the head of a Joint US Military Advisory Group assisting the government of Joseph Estrada in 1989. In Holland at the time, Sison was asked in a telephone interview with a Philippine radio station about responsibility for this event. “I answered,” he told Rosca, “that they must have been patriots strongly opposed to the continuance of the US military bases as well as US economic plunder.”
That’s enough to bring him into the crosshairs of those who wish to control the entire world. Washington contends that the charismatic Sison remains the leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines, bears responsibility for the actions of its military wing, and that NPA killings of U.S. soldiers or intelligence operatives are “terrorist” by definition. U.S. agents have attempted, rather clumsily, to pin responsibility on Sison for the Plaza Miranda bombing in 1971, which killed nine and seriously injured eight senatorial candidates of the anti-Marcos Liberal Party. But Marcos’s own defense minister Juan Enrile himself stated in an 1986 interview was ordered by the former Philippines president, and the CIA’s own investigation ruled out the Maoists’ involvement in the attack on Liberal Party leaders. The discredited charges recur anyway, and in the post 9-11 climate, the neocons in power seem to think they can fix any “facts” around their policies. The policy on Sison is: Get him!
Sison tells Rosca that a high Philippines official, House Speaker Jose de Venicia (who calls himself a friend of the rebel leader), contacted him soon after 9-11 (November 2001) to warn him that the U.S. would vilify the party and its allies and proclaim them terrorists if they did not accept a Manila-dictated “final peace agreement.” As I pointed out in June 2002, the new situation allowed Washington to attack “red targets in the Terror War”—targets with no relation to al-Qaeda or Islamist terrorism but still on that politically skewed blacklist and subsumed under a general category of “evil” that a frightened U.S. public trusted its leaders to accurately identify and fight. When the Maoists refused to capitulate, Washington redoubled its efforts to have Sison expelled from his home in exile. This is a bit of a problem, since the Netherlands has certain laws that allow Sison safe haven.
Sison has reason to avoid returning to his homeland. He’s had really bad experiences with the security forces there. Captured by the AFP on November 10, 1977, he was brought on that very day before the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and a score of generals. He later recalled the interview in a poem:
I am brought to the center of hell
To the devil and his high demons
For a ritual of flashbulbs.
The devil waves away his minions
And we engage in a dual of words.
For a start, he talks of buying souls.
Repulsed, he shifts to setting
A trap for fools and the innocent.
Repulsed again, he ends with a threat
That he will never see me again.
As if midnight, the tight manacles
And the demons were not enough,
I am blindfolded and moved in circles,
A series of boxes swallow me;
A sprawling fort, a certain compound
With a creaking-croaking gate
And finally a cell of utter silence
Sison spent nine years in prison, including a year and a half in solitary confinement strapped to a cot. He was released following the “People Power Revolution” in 1986 when Ferdinand Marcos was toppled after an obviously rigged election produced popular outrage. (This same Ferdinand Marcos had been toasted by the current U.S. president’s father in 1981—as Sison languished in prison—for “adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic process”) Marcos’ successor, Corazon (Cory) Aquino, widow of a Benigno Aquino, Marcos’ top mainstream political rival assassinated at his order in 1983, freed Sison and began negotiations with the Maoists for a peace agreement. These negotiations have continued intermittently in Europe during ensuring Philippines administrations. But embattled by right-wing military challenges, and pressured to prosecute the war, Aquino must have come to regret freeing the Maoist leader.
Soon after his release, the Maoist leader embarked on a world lecture tour, receiving from the Crown Prince of Thailand the Southeast Asia WRITE award in Bangkok in October 1986. While visiting the Netherlands three months later, Sison learned that his passport had been revoked and that charges had been filed against him under the Anti-Subversion Law of the Philippines. (These were later dropped, and Sison presently faces no formal legal charges anywhere.) Fearing arrest if he were to return home, and hearing reports of an assassination plot, Sison requested permission from Dutch authorities to remain in Holland. Responding to arguments by Amnesty International, the UN High Commission on Refugees, and Sison’s lawyer, the Dutch government allowed him to remain in the Netherlands and receive a small stipend. But in the mid-1990s the US pressured the normally tolerant and humanitarian Dutch to expel Sison. The State Council (Raad van State), however, has upheld his legal right to be in the country, even though the Netherlands also now in compliance with U.S. demands officially lists him as a terrorist!
Meanwhile Sison remains chief political consultant to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in ongoing if stalled peace talks with the Manila authorities. (The NDFP includes the CPP, the NPA, and Revolutionary Council of Trade Unions, the Christians for National Liberation, Patriotic Movement of New Women and other ethnic, professional, labor and cultural organizations aligned with the CPP.)
The Bush administration has no interest in such talks, facilitated by the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway, which since 1992 have born some fruit in the form of twelve different agreements, and a draft Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. It merely wants to smash the Maoist insurgency. Plainly the Bush administration takes seriously the threat of Maoism in the world; the U.S. ambassador to Nepal has stated, “the threat [Nepali Maoists] represent is terrific” and raised the possibility that guerrillas might actually take the capital. The same thing could one day happen in the Philippines, a country of much greater geopolitical interest to the U.S.
Hence the necessity to destroy this man, who despite the incessant legal threats, vilification and surveillance remains (in the words of one of his poems) “at home/ In his own country and the world.” This book gives us some insight into why he’s so at home in varied venues. Son of landlords, privileged by education and family connections, he had become an anti-government and anti-imperialist activist by age 20. Acquiring a post at the University of the Philippines, he became deeply committed to Marxism and to student organizing. He worked hard to restore the PKP (the Communist Party of that time) to the revolutionary path it had trodden in the 1940s, when the “Huks” had fought first the Japanese then the neocolonial administrations that followed formal independence. Blacklisted, he was forced to leave academe for trade union work. Sison obtained a grant to study in Indonesia, where he learned the Indonesian language and forged ties with what was then the largest Communist Party outside the socialist bloc. (This was before Indonesian strongman Suharto crushed the Communists in a massacre of perhaps 700,000 Indonesians in the mid-1960s.) In the classroom, courtroom or on guerrilla patrol in the forest, he has been at home.
Sison has always cultivated a wide circle of friends. While critical of the Catholic biases in the university curriculum, Sison established ties with progressive Christians in the Philippines. High-ranking prelates are among his admirers and supporters in the west. When he applied for a U.S. visa, repeatedly between 1987 and 1992, in order to accept invitations to speak to Harvard’s Human Rights program, the San Francisco Bar Association and other audiences, the presiding bishop of the Episcopalian Church attempted to intercede with Secretary of State James Baker. His friends range from ranking mainstream Filipino politicians to former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to communist and progressive activists in Europe. Quotes from Clark and Philippine Senate Majority Floor Leader Loren Legarda defending Sison appear on the book cover. Sison writes and lectures tirelessly about Filipino realities, this month delivering a lecture to the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. Truly a dangerous man, not least because of the respect he commands in so many circles.
This book replicates some of the biographical details of The Philippine Revolution: The Leader’s View, published in the U.S. in 1989 and based on interviews with Rainer Werning, which remains a more thorough biographical source. But the present book updates the record, as Sison responds to Rosca’s pointed questions about the course of Filipino politics up to the present regime of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the restoration of capitalism throughout what was once the socialist bloc, the “rectification movements” within the CPP which have allowed its growth in recent years, the “war on terrorism,” and Sison’s own designation as a terrorist and his protests about that issue to the European Court of Human Rights. A comparison of these two works reveals most significantly the evolution in the CPP’s views of the Soviet bloc. Cautiously reconciliatory towards the latter in the late 1980s, while disinclined to yet condemn the anti-Maoist leaders in China, the CPP now shares the view of Maoists elsewhere: both Gorbachev’s USSR and Deng Xiaoping’s China had abandoned the socialist road. Discussion of this issue and its implications for the Filipino movement was one of the main objectives of the rectification campaign in the early 1990s.
Punctuated with Sison’s poetry and numerous photographs, this book suffers from a somewhat inadequate index—perhaps an indication of hasty editing. That’s understandable, because this material needs to be aired right now. But I confess at this point to a quandary: if I recommend this book to the reader, do I thereby personally incur “terrorist association” charges? I have written fifteen or so book reviews for the American Historical Review, Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Asian History, Journal of World History, etc., uncontroversial dry academic stuff for the most part, dealing with aspects of Japanese history. But this time I’m writing about a book coauthored by someone the Bush administration in its wisdom, which some believe divinely inspired, has labeled a “terrorist.” In these troubled times when academics in general are under attack (for criticizing imperialism, opposing pseudo-science, promoting critical thought, advocating strict separation of church and state, insisting on tolerance for sexual diversity, upholding affirmative action, displaying insensitivity to conservative students and viewpoints, warping young minds, abetting terrorism, what have you), I must submit this to Counterpunch “in fear and trembling.”
The 1999 law is pretty clear:
Effects of Designation [of organizations as “terrorist”] Legal
1. It is unlawful for a person in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to provide funds or other material support to a designated FTO.
2. Representatives and certain members of a designated FTO, if they are aliens, can be denied visas or excluded from the United States.
3. U.S. financial institutions must block funds of designated FTOs and their agents and report the blockage to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of the Treasury.
1. Deter donations
2. Increase awareness and knowledge of terrorist organizations
One apparent reason for constructing the “terrorist” blacklist is to discourage calm rational discussion about the designated groups (as well as designated individuals like Sison). The State Department gives the Congress the updated list each year for a perfunctory look and (receiving no dissent) makes the American people aware and knowledgeable about what organizations they must hate and fear. Then the people know not to say anything good about or lend “material support” to these targets lest they invite surveillance and even arrest. It’s all about intimidation, frankly presented as such. Are you at all sympathetic to the Mujahadeen Khalq? The IRA-Provisionals? Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam? The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)? The Kurdistan Workers Party? Hamas, the most popular political organization in Palestine? Keep it to yourself! The verdicts are in, and you question them at your own risk. That at least is how those compiling the list want you to think, in this fine free country.
Such interesting times. By merely buying a book you can make the statement that you reserve the right to think, and to judiciously study reality even as the empire-building “actors” sneeringly dismiss rational thought itself. If your book order puts you on some government list, let’s hope is a very long one with lots of distinguished names.
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: email@example.com