Wednesday, March 01, 2006

symbols of a democracy

Haunted by the past

February 28, 2006 @ 11:56 am · Posted by Luz Rimban
Filed under In the News, Congress Watch, State of National Emergency

THE government has arrested two congressmen and announced that at least four others may soon find themselves behind bars in the wake of a failed attempt to oust President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The clampdown does not only call to mind the mood right after the declaration of martial law when Ferdinand Marcos ordered his political enemies imprisoned. The similarity reaches farther back in time to an incident that is hardly mentioned in Philippine history. Sixty years ago, government ordered the expulsion of leftists in the legislature.

The year was 1946 and a coalition of leftist and libertarian forces called the Democratic Alliance (DA), along with the Nacionalista Party (NP), fielded candidates for seven districts in Central Luzon, the bastion of the resistance movement against the Japanese occupation.

The DA was composed of the Partiko Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP), the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), the Pambansang Kilusan ng Magbubukid, and the Civil Liberties Union, among others. The candidates were mostly from the middle class—one was a doctor, three were lawyers, one was a civil servant while the rest were men of equally good standing in the community. All in all, there were six DA and one NP congressmen from Central Luzon who were carried by that alliance.

At that time, the United States was about to grant the Philippines its independence. The DA was campaigning on an anti-parity platform: they rejected the idea of giving Americans equal rights to do business in the country and exploit its natural resources, a right they thought should be held solely by Filipinos. The campaign apparently did not sit well with the Americans or their friends in the House of Representatives.

What follows was pieced together by PCIJ from the transcripts of House sessions from 1946 to 1947 and from the book "Memoirs of a Communist" written by one of the DA congressmen, the late Dr Jesus Lava. The account was published in a chapter of the PCIJ book, The Rulemakers. Below is an abridged version:

Soon after the House of Representatives convened on May 25, 1946, the leaders of the Liberal Party, then the ruling party in the country, questioned the presence of the DA members in the House. LP leader Jose Topacio Nueno filed a resolution against the DA members, citing a Commission on Election report issued just two days before "regarding scandalous terroristic irregularities" that occurred in the April 23, 1946 elections. On further questioning, Nueno admitted he was the only one who had seen a copy of that report at that point.

Armed only with the mysterious resolution, Nueno said the victories of the Central Luzon congressmen were dubious, and asked that the House defer their oath-taking. As if to show that he was not singling out the DA, Nueno included in the resolution the names of two LP congressmen who were eventually dropped from the list.

For days, the congressmen were in limbo. They collected salaries and held office but were ignored and were not allowed to vote on House measures. It was only House minority leader Cipriano Primicias of the NP who took the cudgels for the DA congressman.

Finally, Primicias haggled with other House leaders to allow the DA congressmen to speak. They did so in Pilipino, perhaps the first time in history that the national language was heard in the halls of Congress that until then reverberated with speeches delivered in either English or Spanish.

Luis Taruc, Huk Supremo and representative from Pampanga, pointed to his landslide victory — that he had gotten 39,000 votes as against his opponent's 1,000. He also his cited the Huks' role in the liberation campaign and how they marched with the US forces to help liberate Manila.

Nueno did not let that pass. He proposed that all the Huks surrender their firearms, offering to match with his own every gun the Huks laid down. "I have more than 1,000 guns in my possession," Nueno said.

Tension mounted in the session hall soon after that. Lava recalled: "In the heat of the verbal tussles, LP congressmen led by Nueno began to show extreme aggressiveness and combativeness, displaying their firearms for all to see," Lava wrote. Congressional records also note NP congressman Alex Santos challenging Nueno to a fight at a time and a place of Nueno's choosing.

Lava went on: "With that challenge, Alex brought out his pistol from his portfolio, and placed it squarely on the table. I myself had my hand grasping my gun inside my portfolio, not really knowing what to do, whom to shoot at, if and when firing started." Cooler heads prevailed and averted a congressional bloodbath.

Eventually, the government intensified its attacks on the Left, while the Left pursued anti-government action. Lava and Taruc were forced to go back to the hills. Historian Manuel Caoili says this incident set off the peasant rebellion in 1946 and is the reason that the peasants, workers and other nationalist groups have been poorly represented in Congress.

The 1987 Constitution changed all that. It had a provision that allowed marginalized sectors to be represented through the party-list system. Crispin Beltran, Rafael Mariano, Satur Ocampo, Liza Masa, Joel Virador, and Teddy Casino were supposed to be symbols of a democracy that made space for long unrepresented marginalized groups.

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