Under the Marcos dictatorship, Mindanao was a harsh place to live in, especially if you were poor and defenseless.
The island’s rich resources – its forests, minerals and fertile soil – were being plundered, with the blessings of the regime. Settlers tilling their small farms, as well as the original inhabitants of Mindanao, the lumad, were being harassed and evicted so big corporations could take over the land.
In the area where Crisostomo Cailing lived and practiced law, the people in the rural areas were suffering under the government policy called population and resources control. In practice, it was a food blockade, meant as a counter-insurgency measure. Residents were allowed to store enough rice for only three days, as the military was suspicious that the supplies would make their way to the rebel guerrillas in the mountains. The people found the policy very oppressive, as they had to spend more money and time in buying limited quantities. They also had to endure the indignity of having their purchases inspected.
Cailing was not one to make fiery speeches, but he consistently defended the victims of such abuses. He went to court to protest against illegal arrests, and he looked after the rights and welfare of the numerous political detainees. He shunned opportunities to become rich, never owned a car, and chose to live a simple life. His clients were invariably poor, and at times it was he who gave them money for their needs.
In the 1980 local elections, he ran for mayor of Balingasag under the Mindanao Alliance party, but lost to a candidate fielded by the Marcos party, Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.
He joined the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in 1982, extending his services to seven municipalities in Misamis Oriental subjected to harsh military policies. As an elected member of the board of directors of the area’s electric service cooperation, he looked out for consumers’ rights too.
He participated in local actions launched during the May 1984 campaign to boycott dictatorship-sponsored elections. On election day itself, hundreds of protesters gathered on the beach and cheered as Tommy Cailing crowned a "Miss Boycott."
As the military terror tactics worsened in Balingasag to include the burning of houses, stealing of crops and household goods, assassinations and abductions, Cailing tried to get the help of more city lawyers and human rights advocates from Cagayan de Oro city to investigate the situation.
One evening in early July 1985, Cailing was at home, seated in front of an open window, when a gunman took aim and killed him before walking away to get aboard a motorcycle waiting one block away. His daughter, 15, witnessed the murder.
About 5,000 came to bury Tommy Cailing. The storm of anger caused by his death caused the military to temporarily suspend the food blockade policy in the rural areas nearby. But no one has been prosecuted for the crime.