Popoy Lagman: A revolutionary life

By Dan Mariano, Today, 8 February 2001

Filemon Popoy Lagman was a journalism student at the University of the Philippines at about the time that I entered the so-called Republic of Diliman to pursue the same course. However, he was still a freshman when he decided to drop out of UP and work full time in the revolutionary movement, which had just erupted into the scene to change forever Philippine politics. This was during the early 70's, the era of the First-Quarter storm of 1970 and the Diliman Commune of 1971.

When Ferdinand Marcos placed the entire country under martial law in September 1972, Popoy was already deep in the revolutionary underground. Those of us who were forced to similarly resort to clandestine activism found out that he was already a responsible comrade, i.e. a full-fledged member and a leading cadre of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

A tireless party worker, Popoy had risen to the chairmanship of the party's Manila-Rizal regional committee by the mid-70's. It was this organ, in contravention of the CPP's theory of protracted people's war with its emphasis on building guerilla bases, that authorized the formation of the first New People's Army units in what was then called the Greater Manila Area.

First fielded in late 1972, these urban guerillas were called armed city partisans, or ACPs. The first two ACP formations (north and south of the Pasig) were virtually smashed by martial-law authorities in March 1973. But enough stragglers—Lagman among them—survived the mass arrests to keep the concept of urban guerilla warfare alive and to relaunch the ACPs in 1975 despite the lack of support from the party higher-ups.

With the capture of Sison, Bernabe Buscayno and Victor Corpus by the Marcos military, the Manila-Rizal committee won a certain measure of autonomy. Under Lagman, it devised new and creative ways of making life difficult for the dictator. It established and cultivated ties with the aboveground political opposition and other anti-Marcos groups. It developed a formidable united front with so-called middle forces.

The Manila-Rizal committee was able to help put together the original Lakas ng Bayan (Laban) ticket in the capital region for the Interim Batasang Pambansa elections on April 8, 1978. Among the Laban candidates were Benigno Ninoy Aquino Jr., Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Charito Planas and Alex Boncayao.

On the eve of the IBP elections, the Manila-Rizal committee and its allies spearheaded the country's first ever noise barrage. Thousands of Manilenos took to the streets, motorists leaned on their horns and housewives banged pots and pans for several hours on the night of April 7, 1978—shattering once and for all the myth that the Philippines was made up of 40 million cowards and one son of a bitch.

The protest, moreover, gave the lie to what would become the official results of the voting which saw the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan ticket - led by Imelda Marcos—winning, predictably, by a landslide. This, although the Marcos-controlled media all but ignored the outpouring of popular indignation on the eve of the elections.

In the post-election crackdown, the Laban candidates dispersed. Pimentel hied back to his native Cagayan de Oro. Planas fled to the United States. Boncayao went to the countryside, where revolutionary martyrdom awaited him. Ninoy, of course, remained in prison until he was allowed—with pressure from the Carter administration—to undergo medical treatment in Boston.

Despite the tactical successes of the decision to take part in the parliamentary elections and to stage street protests at the height of martial rule, the party higher-ups yanked Popoy out of the Manila-Rizal committee and penalized him with a reassignment to his native region of Bicol. While serving as a foot soldier in the peasant army, he avenged the murder of a comrade's father. At about the same time, his first wife, Dodi Garduce, was dispatched to Central Luzon, where she was eventually killed in an encounter with the military.

By the 80's a rehabilitated Popoy was sent back to the capital where he soon regained the leadership of the Manila-Rizal committee. In 1984 the committee once more declared urban warfare on the Marcos dictatorship with a new unit, the Alex Boncayao Brigade. The ABB's bloody inauguration came by the way of the assassination of a police general, Tomas Karingal, whom the guerrillas tracked and gunned down at a Quezon City beer garden.

In the subsequent years, the Manila-Rizal committee under Popoy abided by the party leadership's decision to dissociate the revolutionary movement from the political opposition, which began to gather strength following Ninoy Aquino's assassination in 1983. In the provinces, it was the NPA that was rapidly gaining ground, a situation which led its leaders to believe that victory was at hand.

In the 1986 snap presidential election, the radical Left adopted a boycott policy, which Popoy reportedly tried to have reversed. At the first People Power revolt, it found itself marginalized. The political blunder—along with its paranoid purge of suspected government infiltrators—would prove costly to the revolutionary movement

By the late 80's, the distance between Popoy and the central party leadership began to grow once more. Reflecting on the movement's past miscalculations, he started to question some of the party's fundamental doctrines, including its long-held theory of a protracted people's war. Somehow, amid all this tumult, Popoy was able to find a new wife, Bobbie, sister of another revolutionary martyr Edgar Jopson.

By the early 90's he and most of the leading cadres of the Manila-Rizal committee decided to break away altogether from the mainstream CPP. A bitter war of words erupted between the party orthodoxy, which reaffirmed the Maoist strategy of surrounding the city from the country, and Popoy's group, which would henceforth be known as Rejectionists. A word war was as far as the conflict went, however.

The RA-RJ schism soon spawned other breakaways and splits from splits. What once was a monolithic political formation was divided at least 11 different ways.

In 1994 Popoy was arrested on a murder complaint that was eventually dismissed for lack of merit. In 1996 he was again taken into custody by military intelligence operatives on orders of the Ramos administration, which sought to avoid any embarrassment as the Philippines hosted the Apec summit.

Detention gave Popoy the chance to go over his thoughts about revolution. After his release, he immediately went about setting these thoughts to paper. Soon afterward, the ABB under Nilo de la Cruz broke away from the Manila-Rizal committee. What remained of the urban guerrilla brigade then allied itself with the Revolutionary Proletarian Army, led by yet another splitist Arturo Tabara, based in Western Visayas.

When Popoy and his comrades launched the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino and Sanlakas in 1995, they were no longer fixated with guerrilla warfare. The organization of labor unions and squatter communities became their main preoccupation. Despite being neophytes in parliamentary politics, they were able to win a party-list seat in Congress. They organized scores of labor unions and led numerous campaigns for higher wages and other working-class causes.

Popoy's detractors have described him as an extortionist, but nothing in his lifestyle ever suggested that he personally profited from, say, a land deal, which allowed former squatters along Manila Bay to set up a resettlement in Cavite, and from the labor dispute at Philippine Airlines. He certainly never developed a tasted for disco dancing.

Popoy and his comrades campaigned for Joseph Estrada in 1998, with the hope that the ex-matinee idol would somehow fulfill his promises to the poor. But when evidence of Estrada's corruption began to grow, BMP and Sanlakas were at the forefront of the oust-Erap movement and even adopted the Resign All slogan.

On Tuesday a gunman fired at least four times and Popoy at close range. One of the bullets hit his brain stem.

On the many occasions I was able to interview him, Popoy never seemed all that concerned about his personal safety. Despite his notoriety as a hit squad leader, he didn't pack a gun. Even at the peak of ABB's liquidation campaigns, I never saw him move around with more than one companion, who, more often than not, was a woman.

Fearless was just one of Popoy's many attributes. Committed—even at the risk of his own life—was another.

The Filipino working class has lost a champion.