SUYAT, Benjamen Buena
Pope John Paul II came to visit the Philippines in February 1981. With world media focused on the country, Ferdinand Marcos declared in January that he had lifted martial law and partially restored the writ of habeas corpus. He was seeking to justify his one-man rule. Nine years since he launched his dictatorship and promised a New Society, the country was instead mired deep in debt, deficit, and price increases. It was fighting a war against Muslims in the South that had claimed thousands of lives, both civilian and combatant, with no end in sight. Except for the Marcos cronies, most Filipinos found themselves in even a worse condition than before. The mood for protest was becoming increasingly bold in many parts of the country.
Marcos needed a fresh mandate. He called for presidential elections in June 1981.
But the announcement was met with national cynicism, for how could fair, free and credible elections be expected with soldiers terrorizing the population? A call to boycott the elections spread. It started with protest forums, small-town rallies, open manifestos, and painted wall slogans. By April, bigger demonstrations were being held, attracting many first-time protesters. By May 1st, Labor Day, not only labor workers filled the ranks of demonstrations, but a wide section that included bank employees, teachers, lawyers, priests and nuns and even traditional politicians. On June 12, Independence Day, a record number of protest rallies were held in 31 cities and towns, a coordinated movement not seen since Marcos declared martial law in 1972.
Nevertheless the elections pushed. Election day cheating and coercion were widespread as expected. Marcos “won” over his unknown opponent Alejo Santos, and he called his victory a fresh mandate from the people.
Then US President Ronald Reagan declared himself “pleased” with the election results and said the US government saw the Marcos regime in the “warmest terms possible.” US Secretary of State Alexander Haig and then US Vice-President George Bush came to the Philippines to show support. Bush attended the inauguration and later gave a speech in Malacañang, making the incredible and unforgettable statement, “We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process.” He also promised, “(We) will not leave you in isolation.”
Still, the boycott campaign was a success, with 60 percent of all qualified voters in Metro Manila staying away from the precincts. More importantly, it became obvious that the Marcos regime would not give up power voluntarily. Marcos had to be forced out. Filipinos were becoming convinced that the insanity had to be stopped, but it would go on until ordinary folks united in action. Thus each repressive act ignited another round of protests from local citizens.
The historic events of 1981 provided the fertile ground on which, five years later in 1986, at EDSA, the people would indeed drive Marcos out of Malacañang.
Protest movement in Bicol
In the months preceding the presidential elections, the southern Tagalog region had exploded with the red hues of protest. In February, farmers were in another protest march in Guinyangan town in Quezon when soldiers shot at the marchers and killed two protesters.
The 1981 boycott campaign thus reverberated across the Bicol region. It was coordinated by the Kilusang Mamamayan para sa Tunay na Demokrasya, or KMTD. On the eve of election day, KMTD organized rallies to be held in four population centers of Bicol: Daet in Camarines Norte, Sipocot in Camarines Sur, in Iriga City, and in Daraga in Albay. All except the rally in Daet pushed through. The Daet rally was cancelled on the hour it was supposed to start.
The morning of June 14, 1981, a Sunday, was bright and sunny. Thousands of protesters, mostly rural folk, were coming to Daet from various directions and expected to merge at the town’s Freedom Park beside the Catholic Cathedral, where there would be speeches and protest declarations. Some groups started the night before to escape detection by the authorities. They passed through little-known trails and used bright stones and white rice grains to light their way. Some did not converge immediately but waited until it was the right time for coming together.
But at Daet’s Freedom Park, thousands of protesters and protest leaders were already waiting with placards and streamers that said “Down with the Marcos dictatorship!,” “Raise the prices of copra!” and “Dismantle Cocofed.”
In Barangay Matnog in Basud town, most residents were joining the rally. They left their homes past dawn to begin their trek early. They had prepared their meals the night before. Rallyists remember they packed simple lunchesbut were told not to bring spoon or fork, because fork might be construed as a weapon.
They marched north to Daet, taking the secondary roads to bypass military checkpoints. Other marchers from other towns joined in at the junctions. Over 300 marchers from Mercedes town turned up. They reported that some 1,500 started the march but the rest were stopped by the military. Another 500 marchers from Talisay were also intercepted by soldiers. Despite this the marchers to Daet had grown to some 3,000 to 4,000 men, women and children, sweaty and eager to join the bigger crowd waiting at the park.
Barely a kilometer away from their final destination, at the crossing called Camambugan, they were stopped by some 35 soldiers of the 242nd company of the Philippine Constabulary, commanded by a Capt. Joseph Malilay. The marchers were told to stop, disperse and return to their villages. But Freedom Park was now so near, the group would not disperse. The impasse lasted for half an hour while the marchers debated their decision. Then firm in their determination, the marchers decided to move forward, with the frontliners’ arms held tight to each other. There was pushing and shoving between the two forces, and then the order to fire was given, with Capt. Malilay himself among those firing at close range.The PC commander of the province, a Col. Nicasio Custodio, was also present at the incident.
The firing lasted less than a minute. But in that half-instant, four men were killed and more than were forty wounded. The crowd dispersed. Soldiers pursued the protesters and those they got they had them line up along the side of a road with their hands on their heads, threatening to shoot them all.
At this point a group led by KMTD leader Grace Vinzons-Magana arrived and confronted the soldiers. Magana was quoted as telling the soldiers: “Why did you do this? Those people were unarmed and could not defend themselves! You should have given them firearms (to even up the fight)!” She also demanded they bring the wounded to hospitals. The soldiers then loaded all dead and wounded on trucks. Mrs. Magana stayed until this was completed. Later she visited the wounded in the various hospitals and clinics.
No photographs survived what was later termed Daet’s Black Sunday. No journalist was present and everyone else was intent on the business at hand. FLAG chair Jose Diokno came the day after the massacre, and was himself detained a few hours in the military camp. There were unconfirmed reports that two more protesters died from their wounds weeks later (Rosita Arcega, 30, and Ernesto Encinas, 25).
Three weeks after the shooting, Magana, a radio station owner and coordinator of KMTD for Camarines Norte*, and KMTD chair Antonio Carpio**, a lawyer, were themselves put under arrest, on orders reportedly signed by Marcos. Carpio was picked up by the notorious Capt. Malilay himself. Malilay was also seen terrorizing the wounded confined in hospitals.
The dictatorship-controlled mass media reported the shooting as an encounter between rebels and government troopers. A team of military lawyers, sent to investigate the incident, promised action in due time. Magana and Carpio were released on bail later. (However, a Malaya report four years after the incident stated that Malilay and Custodio remained free and even enjoyed promotions.)
In its own report, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) made the following observations of the incident: (a) all the wounded and killed were standing at the front of the march; (b) all the four killed were from direct shots, not ricocheting bullets, and that their wounds and those of the wounded came from the direction where the soldiers stood; and (c) no weapons were found on the marchers. It was obviously a one-sided affair, the TFDP said.
In a statement, the KMTD said it denounced the use of soldiers to “stop and disperse Filipino citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional right to assemble and petition for redress of grievances in an orderly manner,” the “callous disregard for human life demonstrated by the Camarines Norte PC in resorting to guns to stop our citizens’ march,” and condemned as criminal act of the higher military authorities (the) covering up of the wanton slaughter of defenseless, innocent citizens of this Republic.”
The violent dispersal of the peaceful rally added to the growing national outrage against the dictatorship.
The four killed at the rally were all ordinary people, leading mostly uneventful lives. But they heard the call of citizenship at a time when it was most needed. In doing so, they gave their lives so that justice and democracy may be enjoyed again in this country. Because they were ordinary folk and lived in faraway villages, their names would not be remembered if the country that owes them their freedom would not put their names on the record.
By adding their names to its list, Bantayog shows the Filipino youth that life given for the heroic cause of justice and freedom, is worthy of emulation and edification.
The four martyrs of Daet are Elmer Lis Lagarteja, Jose Esteban Alcantara, Benjamin Buena Suyat, and Rogelio Salayon Guevarra.
ELMER LIS LAGARTEJA
Elmer Lagarteja was born in Basud, Camarines Norte. His father was a farmer renting a piece of land from a landowner, and his mother a dressmaker and hairstylist. Elmer earned a few units at a local college in Daet. He left the college when his parents separated, and found work at a clothes factory in Angono, Rizal, to help his mother rear his four younger siblings.
Tall and lanky, family and barriomates describe Elmer as a happy person, usually clowning around, providing laughter in gatherings. He was back home for a short visit when he heard news about the rally. Most of his barriomates were joining, including his father and younger brother. He himself supported their causes and wanted to give support, and so he marched in high spirits that fateful morning.
Elmer was shot in the head, chest and left arm. He was 21 years old.
JOSE ESTEBAN ALCANTARA
Jose Alcantara was a few days shy of his 40th birthday when he was killed. The son of tenant farmers, he worked hard in doing odd jobs as a young boy in Payo, Catanduanes, where he was born. In search for greener pastures, the Alcantaras moved to Naga where Jose found work in a bakery, married a coworker, and moved to Daet.
In Daet, Jose rented farmland and provided for his growing family by growing rice and and vegetables for the family table and selling his coconut crop. Friends remember Jose as someone hardworking, and one who related well with his neighbors.
Life was simple in Barangay Matnog where Jose and his family settled, but the presence of soldiers terrorizing them was becoming a burden. He yearned for peace and freedom from military presence. Jose was all for joining the rally, although his wife feared for his safety. Jose said this was a chance to tell the government in Manila how he and others in the village felt. Jose was in the frontlines of the delegation from Matnog when the marchers met the soldiers in Camambugan, and thus provided an immediate target. He left behind a wife and five children.
BENJAMEN BUENA SUYAT
Benjamen Suyat, 47, was born in Tabaco, Albay but he and his siblings grew up in Matnog. Seeking sanctuary from the Japanese during its occupation of the Philippines in the 1940s, the Suyat couple relocated to mountainous Camarines Norte. Benjamen became a tenant farmer, and his wife Margarita sold farm produce in the local market. The couple had ten children.
With a big family to provide for, Benjamen was up and out to the farm very early in the morning but always made it a point to gather all his children late in the afternoon to ask about their day. He was kind but a bit strict with the children’s discipline. He was ever ready to dispense advice to them as well as to friends. The couple persevered to put all their children to school. One was in college and the rest in high school and elementary when Benjamen was killed.
Benjamen joined the rally with no trepidation. His children were looking forward to their daily afternoon talk with him. Instead they were told he had been killed in the rally. Later his family managed to retrieve his bullet-riddled body at the morgue.
ROGELIO SALAYON GUEVARRA
Born and raised in Daet, Rogelio Guevarra, 45, worked at several jobs in Manila during his bachelor days. He was sales clerk at an appliance store and then tailor at a shop in Sampaloc, Manila, where his father also worked. During visits to the province, he met Juana Abad, wooed and married her, and the two settled in Matnog, to farm on Juana’s father’s land. The couple had five children.
Rogelio engaged in copra production and was thus heavily affected when the price of copra dipped during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. An avid newspaper reader, he kept abreast of current events and was particularly angered by news of the political maneuverings of crony capitalists. He joined the rally to air his grievances against government’s wrongdoings and what he felt was an oppressive coconut levy.
Rogelio was a leader in the barangay, being once a barangay secretary. At the march to Daet, he was in the frontlines and thus was prime target for the soldiers’ bullets. His fatal wound was in the neck but witnesses say soldiers clubbed him on the head even as he fell.
He joined because he “wanted to say his piece,” his daughter says. “To this day I see in my mind my father holding a cup of coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other, and telling us his children of the urgent need for changes in government. ‘Kapit-bisig ngani, we must do it,’ were his words.”
*The late Grace Vinzons-Magana was the granddaughter of wartime hero Wenceslao Vinzons of Camarines Norte. The family operated a radio station in Daet.
**The late Jesus Antonio Carpio was a member of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and was in the forefront of the anti-dictatorship movement in the Bicol region. After the dictatorship was dismantled and the Cory Aquino government took over, he accepted the post of director of the National Bureau of Investigation.