Jose Maria Sison, ‘teacher, guiding light’ of insurgency; 83
MANILA, Philippines — Jose Maria “Joma” Sison, founding chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), died in self-exile on Friday without seeing the end of one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies which he launched more than half a century ago. He was 83.
Sison passed away at 8:40 p.m. on Friday after two weeks in a hospital in Utrecht, the Netherlands, CPP chief information officer Marco Valbuena said in a statement on Saturday. Valbuena did not specify the reasons for Sison’s hospital confinement.
Sison’s passing came 10 days before the CPP was to mark its 54th year on Dec. 26.
Details of Sison’s funeral and interment were still being discussed by his family, “as well as the possibility of bringing home his remains or ashes, following Ka Joma’s expressed wishes,” Valbuena said in a message to the Inquirer.
“This will also allow Filipinos to pay him their last respect and give tribute to his lifelong work and dedication to their cause of freedom and democracy,” he added.
But even with Sison’s passing, the CPP vowed that the revolution being waged by its armed wing, the New Peoples’ Army (NPA), and the Marxist umbrella, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), would continue.
“The Filipino proletariat and toiling people grieve the death of their teacher and guiding light,” the party said in a statement on its website.
“Even as we mourn, we vow to continue to give all our strength and determination to carry the revolution forward guided by the memory and teachings of the people’s beloved Ka Joma. Let the immortal revolutionary spirit of Ka Joma live on!” it said.
Ateneo, UP studies
Sison was born on Feb. 8, 1939, in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, to a prominent landowning family with roots in China’s Fujian province.
He studied high school first at the Ateneo de Manila High School and transferred to Colegio de San Juan de Letran. He entered the University of the Philippines (UP) where he graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master in arts in comparative literature. He met his wife, Julie de Lima, at UP. They have four children.
A former youth leader and university professor, Sison founded the Marxist-Lennist-Maoist CPP on Dec. 26, 1968, a breakaway party from the pro-Soviet Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas.Four years earlier, he founded Kabataang Makabayan (KM), which became the largest progressive youth and student organization in the country in the early 1970s.
On March 29, 1969, the party established the NPA and launched an insurgency following Mao Zedong’s “protracted people’s war” streategy of surrounding the cities from the countryside.
Beginning with a small band of Red fighters, the NPA grew to a peak strength of 25,200 in 1987, according to military estimates. The military said that due to battle losses, surrenders, purges and a major split in the communist movement in the early 1990s, rebel strength had dwindled.Military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro last month said the NPA had 24 guerilla fronts with “more or less” 2,100 active fighters.
The ongoing armed struggle grew out of the global communist movement, finding fertile soil in the Philippines’ stark rich-poor divide.
The rebellion also benefited from the Marcos dictatorship, when the legislature was shuttered, the free press muzzled and thousands of opponents tortured or killed.
Bookended by Marcoses
Sison’s life as a revolutionary has been bookended by a Marcos in Malacañang, starting with ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a fellow Ilocano who hunted him down, and the late dictator’s son and namesake, who is now the country’s President.
Sison was captured in 1977, heavily tortured and kept in solitary confinement until his release in 1986 after the Edsa People Power Revolution.
When the first peace talks under then President Corazon Aquino failed in 1987, he sought asylum in the Netherlands and had been based there since.
The military establishment expects the “crumbling” of the insurgency’s leadership with Sison gone.
“The loss of a ‘teacher’ and ‘guiding light’ leaves the organization with no purpose and clear direction. But the organization needs to have a good teacher and guiding light who will lead its members away from violence and destruction,” said Col. Medel Aguilar, the spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
‘Symbol of crumbling’
In a statement, the Department of National Defense (DND), said Sison’s death was “but a symbol of the crumbling hierarchy of the CPP-NPA-NDFP, which he founded to violently put himself in power.”
“His death deprived the Filipino people of the opportunity to bring this fugitive to justice under our country’s laws. Sison was responsible for the deaths of thousands of our countrymen. Innocent civilians, soldiers, police, child and youth combatants died because of his bidding,” the statement said.
The military estimates that over 50,000 had been killed on both sides of the conflict.
The DND called on the remaining members and supporters of the rebels to turn their backs on their “violent and false ideology.”
“The greatest stumbling block of peace for the Philippines is gone; let us now give peace a chance,” it said.
Condolences from AFP
In a separate statement, the AFP offered condolences to Sison’s family, saying “our disagreement with [Sison] ends with his death.”
“We may have opposing stances on the methodology he adopted to effect societal reforms but still we pay our respect to the dead and extend our sincere condolences to his bereaved family. Let us now all pray for peace to reign in our country,” it said.
“It’s an opportunity for his successor, if there will be, to chart a new direction in promoting reforms. Hopefully, away from armed struggle,” it added.In contrast to the AFP statement’s conciliatory tone, Vice President Sara Duterte gave a curt remark on Sison’s death: “May God have mercy on his soul.”
While exiled, Sison continued to serve the communist movement as chief political consultant to the NDFP in on-and-off peace negotiations and as chair of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle.
He had been conducting lectures and occasionally wrote commentaries on national and international events and issues on his website.
Sison had said he stopped serving as chair of the CPP after he left the country, but many analysts believe that he still wielded strong ideological influence over the party, its members, and supporters.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), said that regardless of one’s political leanings, reading Sison’s writings was a must to understand the social ills that led him to the revolutionary path.
“He was a very astute political observer and he keeps abreast of what is happening here and in the world,” Reyes said.
“Wherever you may be on the political spectrum or whichever side of the political fence, he is someone that you have to read in order to understand what’s happening in society because his insights were quite sharp. We all can learn something from him,” Reyes said.
‘By Amado Guerrero’
Two books authored by Sison, “Philippine Society and Revolution,” using his alias Amado Guerrero, and “Struggle for Nationalism and Democracy,” were among the “required readings” for national democratic activists.
Sison also wrote poems. His first poetry collection, “Brothers and Other Poems” published in 1962 established him as a nationally recognized poet.
The late English professor was “Joe” to fellow KM founders and his contemporaries at the Student Cultural Association of the UP, according to Judy Taguiwalo, who served briefly as social welfare secretary under former President Rodrigo Duterte.
He was “Joma” to Taguiwaldo and others of the 1970 First Quarter Storm generation of activists.
“Then [he was called] JMS, Tatang, Lolo to succeeding generations whose awakening to the nature of the Philippine crisis and the need to continue [Andres] Bonifacio’s revolution, but this time of a new type was inspired by his writings and own practice,” Taguiwalo told the Inquirer in a Viber message.
Sison, to her, was a “great professor of history and revolution.” “But he was first and foremost a revolutionary,” Taguiwalo said. “He knew what it was to sacrifice (including torture, imprisonment and exile) in the service of the people.”
Rumors of death
Sison had been often rumored to have died earlier. On his 83rd birthday this year, he called the gossipmongers “liars.”At that time, he said he was in “good health” and had “no life-threatening illness.” But he admitted suffering from “some inflammations on the legs” due to rheumatoid arthritis.
In 2017, Duterte, who was once a student of Sison, claimed that the exiled CPP founding chair had colon cancer. Sison denied that.
All of Aquino’s successors—except for former President Joseph Estrada—tried to resume peace talks with the rebels, but it was only former President Fidel Ramos who managed to conclude significant agreements ahead of a political settlement of the armed conflict.In his own bid to forge a peace agreement, Duterte declared himself a socialist and appointed Taguiwalo and other leftist personalities in his administration and reopened talks. But he later called them off after insurgents continued attacks on government troops during a truce.
—WITH A REPORT FROM DEMPSEY REYES, INQUIRER RESEARCH, AFP AND REUTERS
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