TO BUILD what he called a “Cordillera Nation,” Fr. Conrado Balweg joined the communist New People’s Army during the final years of the Marcos dictatorship and then broke away to form the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) in March 1986.
At least that’s how tales about the grand “Balweg revolution” is summed up today.
The left-leaning Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) was waging its own campaign for “genuine” Cordillera autonomy even then and succeeded in injecting provisions in the 1987 Constitution that acknowledge indigenous peoples’ rights. That Charter mandates the creation of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and in Cordillera due to extensive lobby from Luzon’s indigenous groups.
But it was the story of the Tingguian Catholic priest-turned-folk hero to which the media had naturally gravitated.
Balweg and three other SVD (Society of the Divine Word) priests were forced to go underground when they protested the government-backed pulp firm, Cellophil Resources Corp., whose operations endangered a Tingguian territory in Abra.
Media reports brought Balweg to the attention of then President Corazon Aquino, and the agreement that they signed became the foundation for the 24-year-old Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).
Cordillera students are taught about the Sept. 13, 1986 “sipat” (cessation of hostilities) between Aquino and Balweg at Mount Data Hotel in Mt. Province, which was facilitated by the Baguio-based Cordillera News Agency (CNA).
Joel Arthur Tibaldo, who covered the sipat for CNA, wrote in the group’s website (http://cna-tv.tripod.com): “To symbolize unity among the Cordillera tribal people and the national government, Cory offered a Bible, an Armalite rifle and a rosary to the CPLA and Balweg [repaid the gesture by handing her] a warrior’s shield and head ax in return. During that symbolic encounter, gongs were played and the uniformed combatants rested their rifles and mimicked wild birds dancing.”
Running full circle 24 years later, Aquino’s son, Benigno III, who assumed the presidency, officially accepted a closure plan on July 4 that would start the disarmament of the CPLA, which was left headless by Balweg’s assassination on Dec. 31, 1999. Through the decades, the militia had also been diminished by the exodus of members who formed factions.
With funding from the current administration, the closure plan converts the CPLA into “a potent force for socioeconomic development” that would oversee the development of 57 villages in the region, which accepted the CPLA presence and where its members live, said Arsenio Humiding, CPLA chair.
Ending the CPLA was “not what Balweg would have done,” said the rebel priest’s son, Jordan, who is based in Tabuk City in Kalinga.
The young Balweg received an award intended for his late father during the kick-off ceremonies of CAR Day on July 1. But he also denounced the CPLA closure plan.
“Maybe we can finally say we have closed the negotiations started by our founder when we have achieved autonomy, because the closure of the Mount Data pact makes autonomy an impossible quest,” he wrote the Inquirer in Filipino.
The closure plan comes on the heels of a third campaign to legislate the creation of an autonomous Cordillera region.
“Before my Papa died … I remember him giving instructions to his loyal followers to continue this journey, whatever happens,” Jordan said.
He is supporting a separate group of Balweg loyalists, who want the Aquino administration to reconsider its deal with the CPLA wing led by Humiding and Gabino Ganggangan, the mayor of Sadanga, Mt. Province. Ganggangan is secretary general of the CPLA’s political arm, the Cordillera Bodong Administration (CBAd).
“Closing the book on the CPLA at this point, when the grant of regional autonomy is still forthcoming, is a historical distortion of the worthiness of the Mount Data sipat … [and would] supplant the very instrument that bore the imprint of their struggle,” said Andres Ngao-i, who is regarded by this group of CPLA veterans as the CBAd president.
“The political solutions to Cordillera concerns are better served by giving impetus to the core issue of regional autonomy not by economic appeasement for the benefit of a select group,” Ngao-i said.
The CPLA officials who negotiated to end the militia’s life feel Ngao-i has put a huge burden on the shoulders of the people Balweg left behind.
“We knew we were being heroic but the CPLA never set out to be heroes. We just wanted government to stop Cellophil’s operations, end the big dams which displaced Cordillerans, set in motion the process for creating the Cordillera Autonomous Region and improve the conditions of the mountain region,” Ganggangan said.
At the 1986 sipat, President Corazon Aquino was handed an outline of 26 demands that addressed “the Cordillera problem,” wrote Fernando Bahatan, a former director of the defunct Cordillera Executive Board.
After further discussions at the presidential mansion in Baguio City, Aquino cemented the peace talks with Executive Order No. 220, the law that established the interim Cordillera region.
Ganggangan said the CPLA would not abandon its agenda. He said the “closure was an unfortunate term to use” to describe what was simply “a reinvention” of the militia.
“I resented the fact that the CPLA, after 25 years, has been associated with squatting, offering protection and other criminal activity due to the crime of a few members,” he said.
The bad press only worsened the realities which the CPLA had to deal with in the course of its struggle, he said.
“The Cordillera communities are really exhausted. Twenty-five years [of negotiations] is too long to hold everyone’s attention, given that life has become hard … We knew we could no longer keep up. We discovered we don’t have the political influence to push an agenda anymore. We were losing supporters. It was also hard to finance operations,” he said.
“But the bigger danger is when people lose interest in our message for autonomy,” he said. “As far as our sipat demands for autonomy are concerned, the CPLA did not capitulate. We agreed that achieving an autonomous region required us to submit to the process of legislation … In fact, that is why many of us decided to go into politics.”
The CPLA shouldered the cost of Balweg’s 1998 failed bid for Abra representative, believing that legislation was key to fulfilling the group’s demands.
But even then, the militia’s leaders have realized that people had grown weary and exhausted about the autonomy campaign, Ganggangan said.
“It was our communities which suffered most during the struggle. We [in the militia] could starve but we could not see our families waste away. The closure plan also intends to pay them back with projects,” he said.