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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Deep underground in the Philippines: An interview with Nathan Quimpo

Deep underground in the Philippines: An interview with Nathan Quimpo

Daniel Rudin

Platypus Review 147 | June 2022

On March 19, 2019, Platypus Affiliated Society member Daniel Rudin interviewed Nathan Quimpo, a long-time political activist in the Philippines before his academic career, in which he is a semi-retired adjunct professor of political science and international relations at the University of Tsukuba and Hosei University in Japan. An edited transcript follows.

Daniel Rudin: How were you first politicized?

Nathan Quimpo: I was in my senior year of high school at San Beda College, in early 1970, when you had all these riotous demonstrations occurring right there on Mendiola where our school was. I had already been talking with my younger brother who was involved in activism in Philippine Science High School as early as 68. He would tell me about the protests they were having against the administration in the school, and against Marcos. I didn’t really join in the demonstrations until the First Quarter Storm of January to March 1970.

At that time there were many students demonstrating for a peaceful Constitutional Convention. On January 26, I went with a big group from our school. We went home early, as we were still high school students. Then we heard there had been clashes between the police and the demonstrators. There was another big protest on January 30, where some students were killed. Then the demonstrations became bigger and bigger.

After finishing high school, I went on to Ateneo de Manila University where I became more involved — despite it being an elite university. When martial law was declared in September 1972, sixteen of us radical activists were blacklisted. We were given what they termed “honorable dismissal,” not expulsion. An honorable dismissal allows you to at least continue studying in other universities. Instead of continuing with our studies, we went underground.

DR: Could you summarize how you and your family were involved in that period?

NQ: We were ten brothers and sisters. There were quite a number of activists in the family: seven joined the radical movement at one point or the other. We saw each other in the movement. Five of us were detained, as well as three in-laws. And some of us were tortured. Two of us went into exile. One of my brothers was killed as a New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla and then another disappeared.

DR: What were you doing in the movement when you were arrested?

NQ: I actually got arrested three times. The first time was when the writ of habeas corpus was suspended by Marcos in 71. That was just after the Plaza Miranda bombing. I was putting up posters in Marikina with some other students. That was just an overnight detention. The second time was a few months after martial law was declared. The house that our group was staying in was a “UG” or underground house. It was raided by the military. We were brought to Fort Bonifacio, and I was detained for one year.

The third time I was arrested was in Cebu, at the Colegio de San Jose-Recoletos, while talking with some students. I was brought to the army camp blindfolded. I didn't know where I was. I was tortured. Afterwards they put me in a regular detention center. I was transferred from Cebu to Manila when my father was dying of cancer. Fortunately, I was able to visit my father before he died and was also able to attend the funeral — with two guards both times. Two of my brothers could not come because they were being hunted down by the military. My third detention lasted ten and a half months.

The torture that I experienced was nothing compared with the torture of other activists. Mine was just for maybe a total of ten hours or so, of hot and cold treatment. Sometimes they would try to talk you over to indicate where your comrades were. They punched you and they even used electric shocks. They would pound your head on the wall, deliver karate kicks, and then they hit you on the shoulders with slabs of wood.

DR: What were you doing for the movement before that third time that you were arrested?

NQ: I was involved in organizing youth and students, and I linked up with cultural activists in Cebu City, but I didn’t last long. I was there only for less than a month and then I got caught.

DR: What kind of work would cultural activists have been doing for the movement? And how would you work?

NQ: Plays,sometimes a combination of choral numbers and plays. The group in Cebu was much more into plays. Since it was martial law, they would stage plays that were only just a bit on the critical side, about the situation in the country, of the poor, the peasants, the workers. Or plays about nationalism. But not very sharp yet, at that particular period. That was 76. It's very different from the films and plays and cultural presentations in the 80s because the situation had changed a great deal by then. In the 80s, artists were so much more outspoken in their criticisms against the dictatorship.

DR: You said you were in prison for ten and a half months at that point. What happened when you were released?

NQ: For a while, I did some part-time jobs. But I really intended to go back into the underground. Since I had been detained in Luzon, and detained in the Visayas, I decided to go to Mindanao. In 78 I was in Davao. I started with organizing students and middle forces again. Linking up with people working in the church sector, the religious. Later I moved into organizing urban poor. Then I was put in charge of the urban work in Davao City itself. By the early 80s I was put in charge of urban work for the whole of Mindanao.

DR: What would be your job description? In what sense were you in charge of all the urban work?

NQ: The main distinction in revolutionary work was between armed struggle, mainly waged in the rural areas, especially in mountainous forested areas, and the mass movement mainly conducted in the cities. Urban work involved organizing workers, urban poor, and students, and then organizing middle forces and the united front with other political forces — the traditional opposition, for example. I got in touch with all sorts of traditional oppositionists.

People in the underground as well as open legal activists worked together in organizing the open mass movements. Mass leaders emerged from the labor movement or student movement. But since they were identified with the radical Left, the military could easily pick them up, detain them. So the forces of the radical movement linked up with traditional opposition politicians and other personages, and with the religious. During rallies and demonstrations these figures would be the ones who would speak out openly. It was more difficult for Marcos and the military to arrest them because they were very well-known elite traditional oppositionists.

For instance, Soling Duterte, the mother of Rodrigo Duterte, was the Mindanao chairperson of broad anti-Marcos alliances. I cannot recall now which alliances she headed then — the Nationalist Alliance, the Coalition for the Restoration of Democracy (CORD), or Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN). Even Duterte himself was involved. At that time he was the state prosecutor, so he was working for the Marcos government. But secretly he was helping people in the movement, especially those who were victims of human rights violations. The underground was definitely in touch with him.

DR: What do you say when you’re doing this coalition building?

NQ: I was deep underground, and so, it’s only when we really were very sure of a certain opposition politician that those in the underground would directly talk with him or her. I talked with the likes of Assemblymen Nene Pimentel and Homobono Adaza.  Assemblymen, because there was no congress then, there was a National Assembly. I also talked with Mayor Cesar Climaco, and with Zafiro Respicio, another assemblyman. These were opposition politicians. I would identify myself as being with the underground, specifically with the National Democratic Front (NDF).

DR: The opposition was pretty well-organized?

NQ: The opposition politicians did not have much of an organized base really. They wanted to link up with us because they knew that in terms of mobilizations for protests, they could bank on us. But we also needed them, in the sense that leaders from the mass movement were too unknown. It was easy for them to get arrested if they spoke out.

DR: Strategically the Left was thinking of the national opposition as a partner or ally of sorts in the anti-dictatorship struggle?

NQ: Yes.

DR: How early did the split in the Left start to happen?

NQ: Well, we must go back to 78, the time when the Manila-Rizal Committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) went against the decision of the national leadership, the Central Committee, and participated and actively campaigned for Laban (Fight), the party that opposed Marcos. It was a slate of Laban headed by Ninoy Aquino. Against Imelda Marcos and twenty other candidates who ran under the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL).[1] The decision of the national leadership was that we should boycott this election, but then the Manila-Rizal leadership had negotiated with the opposition. They were hoping that there would be some sort of upsurge of the mass movement during and immediately after the election. There were massive protests, but after the elections, things simmered down. The Manila-Rizal committee was suspended, in fact, even demoted.

That was the first major rupture within the revolutionary movement, the first major internal debate. Then in the period of the early 80s there were some ideas about the three strategic combinations, and the idea about the ten theses: basically, that the situation had changed in the Philippines, that it is not as semi-feudal as once thought. The urban population was growing. There were a lot more workers and urban poor than before. There was also the importance of the middle forces, the impact of religion. Then there were the implications of all these on overall strategy and tactics. You would have to pay more attention to urban work, to work with middle forces. This had implications too for the forms of struggle, that the mass movement would play a bigger role. Those were ideas that started coming out in 1980–82. In my case I was pushing the idea of an insurrectional strategy instead of Mao’s strategy of the protracted people’s war. And then the Mindanao Commission adopted a politico-military framework, more akin to the strategy of Vietnam.

The next round came during the boycott. I remember back then in November of 85 when Marcos declared that there would be elections in February. People were saying, “It’s going to be rigged, it’s going to be rigged. We should boycott.” And I said, “I don’t question the point that the election is going to be rigged. What is important to consider is what happens after the election has been rigged.” I was telling people my prediction: one, there is going to be wide-scale rioting, or, two, there is going to be an insurrection or popular uprising. If that is what could happen after, then we should adjust our tactics accordingly, so that we are best positioned after the rigging to take the lead.

The leadership decided on a boycott. By deciding to boycott you separated yourself from the mainstream of the opposition, which was then of course headed by Cory Aquino. And you could not just get back into the mainstream without Cory reaching out to you. That Cory would link up with the Left was very possible, because she would not have been able to sustain the protest, the civil disobedience, after the elections. Instead of the Yellow and Red coming together after the election, however, there was a military revolt. And so instead of a coalition with the Reds, Cory went into a coalition with the military rebels: Juan Ponce Enrile (Defense Minister), Fidel Ramos (Chief of Staff), and the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM).

DR: In a sense they seized the leadership initiative from you.

NQ: You could put it that way. But you really have to be quite perceptive, sharp about how things could possibly go. Afterwards I came up with a series of papers criticizing the boycott  under the pen name of Marty Villalobos. Then others also criticized the boycott. But my papers had actually gone farther. I had argued that it was not just the boycott tactic that was wrong, that there was something much deeper: there was something wrong with the overall strategy. We should have shifted to an insurrectional strategy earlier, as happened in Nicaragua. The Maoist strategy of protracted people’s war was too fixated on the primacy of armed struggle, particularly military struggle. You had to look at the mass movement, which sometimes could take on something of an insurrectional nature. You had to be sharp in looking at where things were moving. I had correctly predicted that there would be an insurrection. What I had not quite foreseen was that unlike the Nicaraguan insurrection, the uprising in the Philippines could turn out to be unarmed or peaceful. Nonetheless it was an insurrection.

DR: Some go so far as to say that the Communist Party didn’t really have a theory of civil society.

NQ: To be fair to the movement, the term “civil society” was not really in vogue then. It became more popular as a term in the late 80s and 90s after the experiences in Eastern Europe and Latin America. The term that was being used then by the revolutionary forces was “mass movement.”

The Vietnamese came up with a term that is more apt: political struggle as contrasted to military struggle, and political forces as opposed to military forces. They did not have this hang-up of rigidly associating the armed struggle with countryside, and mass movement with the cities. The interpretation within the CPP was that armed uprising was just part of armed struggle. But a distinction has to be made between armed uprising and military struggle. Popular movements, mass movements could develop and become an insurrectional force separate from the military force. You have to see how the mass movement — the political struggle — develops. It could stay in the realm of the legal and the unarmed, but it could also go beyond that, turn insurrectional, it could turn armed.

There’s a difference between the Chinese protracted people’s war version and the Vietnamese version. The Nicaraguan strategy is also different. In the case of the Vietnamese, they saw political struggle and military struggle as being both fundamental and decisive. And it could go either way. In 1945 it was actually the political forces which were decisive; the August Revolution was basically an insurrection. In the case of the Philippines, in line with the Maoist strategy, the main force is the armed struggle and the people’s army, and then the mass movement supports the armed struggle and the people’s army. In Nicaragua, they had that framework early on, but later turned it around. They said no, it is the guerrilla force, the army which is going to be in support of the popular forces, which by then had turned insurrectional.

DR: What is the relationship of the armed struggle to the movement? If you use the Maoist framework the movement is a shield for the armed struggle.

NQ: It is just a support, not really a shield. In a sense, it is a bit of a shield in the early stages. In the Maoist frame, you are supposed to move from guerrilla warfare to regular mobile warfare then to positional warfare. That means you must build up from a guerrilla force into a regular army. Regularization is a very tall order. That would have to mean that you have regular sources for your arms and ammunition. You cannot just do that by “agaw armas” (“seizing arms”), where you shoot a soldier and take away his gun. What do you do when you need such things as anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons? You cannot just rely on the usual guerilla style in getting those weapons. You really must procure them from abroad.

DR: Earlier on the imagination was that China would be providing these weapons.

NQ: By the 80s there was no more illusion that China was going to help us. That was already the time of Deng Xiaoping. It was Mao and the Gang of Four who had been more supportive of the idea of extending arms support to Maoist rebels in various parts of the world. The CPP tried to bring in arms from abroad — all three major attempts failed: MV Karagatan, MV Andrea, and then the North Korean attempt. If you are not even able to bring in arms by sea, how are you going to solve the problem of regular supply of arms and ammunition for regular mobile warfare?

DR: To the extent that this becomes a military ideology, what role does the Left play?

NQ: In the Chinese Revolution, the urban forces involved in protests were massacred. The nature of the mass movement there, if you can call it such, was to organize the peasants, who were the overwhelming majority of China’s population. You organize the peasants to provide support for the revolutionary army. They provide food and lodging and act as couriers. You have stable base areas maintained by the peasants where the army can grow. In China in the 1930s and 40s you could hardly talk about an open mass movement in the urban centers. It simply was not there. But in revolutionary movements in many countries after the 40s you saw a lot more of the urban struggle, the mass movement, the political forces.

DR: I wanted to jump to a point that you made in your book Contested Democracy and the Left (2008):“The Left has generally been used to refer to those who want change, favor more equality and resort to non-traditional even radical or revolutionary means.”[2] It seems a fair definition, but that brings up the ideological question. What is the Left’s utopia? What is it trying to change, and how? Is this something that the Philippines could have provided in the metropole in ways that China could not have?

NQ:  In the Philippines you have an elite or oligarchic democracy. Our objective was to change this into a more genuine and egalitarian type of democracy. The economy would be a mixed economy, as we could not move immediately into a socialist type of society. While aiming to put an end to elite or oligarchic democracy, we rejected the idea of a one-party type of dictatorship as you have in China. At least that is what the non-Maoist and non-Stalinist forces within the National Democratic movement felt should have happened.

DR: I want to bring up a point from Bobby Garcia’s book on the purges, To Suffer Thy Comrade (2001): “Within the movement we practice collectivism putting the highest premium on consensus and giving little space for internal dissent. Collectivism also meant subsuming the interests of the individual to the greater good and making sacrifices.”[3] Garcia’s examples include activists refusing a bed because they wanted to be sleeping on the floor like the poor. Or even going so far as not wanting to wear denim blue jeans because that was seen as Western.

NQ: There is the concern about the collective or the people in general, that democracy should be more inclusive. That is very true of the values that the movement tried to propagate. But this came in conflict with the operational, organizational mechanism within, which was, of course, democratic centralism.

According to Mao, you should be guided by the so-called “mass line.” Cadres and activists are tasked to get the scattered ideas from the masses and then they try to synthesize and systematize them. Then the party or higher organ would bring them back to the people. But the problem is that sometimes a decision made up at the top does not reflect what was said down below. Or sometimes you run out of time or you’re in a rushed situation and there’s no opportunity anymore to gather the scattered ideas. You end up with just directives or orders from the higher organ.

For example, the boycott decision. There would not have been much opportunity to really come up with a systematic gathering of opinions from all over the country before you decide to boycott the election. It was just the executive committee that made the decision to boycott.

DR: How about the broader ideas of cultural revolution in the Maoist framework? For instance, Mao’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art (1942).[4] He talks about this idea of the artist’s self-transformation through struggle, into the working class — a literal transformation instead of an intellectual one.

NQ: Early on, even before the Maoist CPP was founded, there was already the idea of a cultural revolution, where people would remold themselves from the bourgeois way of thinking and think more in terms of the people, find out what exactly the problems, interests and demands of ordinary people are, and think in terms of the history of the country, nationalism, etc. You have to remold yourself, because you were fed with all sorts of very bourgeois ideas in school, you’ve grown up in a very class-divided society and may have imbibed the values and ideas of the ruling classes. But later on, the problem was that these instruments of so-called cultural revolution became instruments for indoctrination.

You  were supposed to be exposed to liberated ideas, revolutionary ideas. For example, the protracted people’s war. It was even propagated in the party documents that Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought has universal application.

DR: How did the movement approach this idea of self-transformation?

NQ: Let’s examine the Marxist and the Maoist way of looking at things. Mao insisted on concrete analysis of concrete conditions. Only on the basis of a proper social investigation should you come up with a plan. For Marx, it is not just interpreting the world but also changing it. The element of agency is very important. But along the way there is a great deal of dogmatization.

For example, concrete analysis of concrete conditions. All those communist parties in Southeast Asia that turned Maoist, what do they say? “Our society is semi-colonial and semi-feudal.” “The exploitative classes are the big landlords, comprador bourgeoisie, and bureaucratic capitalists.” “Armed struggle is the principal form of struggle.” All these formulas being propagated as something universal — these are contradictory to “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.”

DR: Insofar as the movement’s “National Democratic” identity was overtly nationalist, rather than communist, was it appropriated by the government’s nationalism?

NQ: Joma Sison (founder of the CPP) and company tried to make some sort of a parallel with China. Before you reach communism, which would be far, far away, there would be socialism. And before socialism, you would have some sort of transitory stage which in China, they called “people’s democracy.”

In the CPP, the transitory stage is also sometimes referred to as people’s democracy. But because we had been saying that the Philippines is semi-colonial, it was important to highlight anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. To emphasize the element of national sovereignty, national independence, the term that became much more in-use was “national democracy.”

DR: In “‘People Power’ 1986 in Retrospect: A Conjunctural Analysis,”[5] you set up a framework for thinking about the different forces present in the years leading up to EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the main thoroughfare after which the 1986 revolution was named). They are the Marcos camp, the revolutionary Left, the traditional elite opposition, and then disgruntled military officers, maybe 300 men in RAM, a very small but capable and vocal force within the military. Could you explain how these forces related to each other in the several years leading up to EDSA?

NQ: Of course, there was the Marcos dictatorship and the forces that were aligned with it. But let me focus onthe forces that opposed the dictatorship. There was the radical Left represented by the Communist Party, the New People’s Army (NPA), the National Democratic Front (NDF), and the open, legal National Democrats (NDs). Then you have the traditional, legal opposition. And then, the military rebels or disgruntled military officers.

Each of these groups was angling for a different type of regime that would replace the Marcos dictatorship. For the military rebels, that would be a military dictatorship, but they would have been open to the possibility of linking up with the traditional opposition, but certainly not with the Left; they were very much opposed to the radical Left. The traditional opposition wanted to bring back a democracy similar to that before Marcos declared martial law, basically, a return to elite or oligarchic democracy. And then the radical Left, which wanted to set up a people’s republic patterned after that of China, which of course many regard as having been — and as still being — a one-party dictatorship.

These were the forces that were competing for power. Let me make a comparison with Nicaragua again. The struggle to replace Somoza was basically between the traditional elite opposition and the Sandinistas, with one force trying to outdo the other. Eventually it was the Sandinistas who were able to take the lead in the insurrection. They brought in the traditional opposition as a partner in the government afterwards. Later the  elite politicians got out, because they believed that the government had gotten too much under the control of the Sandinistas.

Now in the case of the Philippines, after the Aquino assassination in 1983, there was the Justice for Aquino Justice for All (JAJA) movement. There was a big debate about this JAJA when it was still being formed. One idea was just to name it “Justice for Aquino.” But many, with the influence of the Left, pushed for the movement to focus not only on Aquino, but on all victims of repression. On the big banner that was shown during the protest march, you will see Ninoy Aquino, Macli-ing Dulag, Edjop, et al. In fact, the four figures alongside Aquino in that banner were from the ND movement. JAJA was a combination of the two – the traditional opposition or Yellows, and the NDs or the Reds. Through the years, because of the hardline way that the NDs handled alliances, friction grew between the Yellows and the Reds. In the meantime, there were all those secret goings-on in the military.

The Left was on the rise. There was a spike in the tactical military offensives of the NPA, but still at the guerrilla level. And then we had the so-called Welgang Bayan (“people’s strike”). I was heading and coordinating these Welgang Bayans in Mindanao. These were multi-sectoral strikes, general strikes; in Mindanao, we saw these as leading to, and preparing for, popular uprising.

But then came the boycott. If the ND forces had not boycotted, it would have been Cory together with the Reds — Yellows and Reds together. Marcos would have used that as a pretext for a bloody crackdown on the opposition forces — the Reds possibly together with the Yellows. And that could have led to something like the Sandinista dénouement.

But instead, because the Left had boycotted the elections, it was only Cory at center stage. Immediately after the rigging of the elections, Cory called for civil disobedience. For a while the civil disobedience worked, but then it began petering out. And so, there were negotiations for Yellow and Red again. The call would have been for Welgang Bayan all over the country. The idea was that it was going to start on Monday, because if you are going to call for a Welgang Bayan, it would need to be on a weekday. But towards the end of the week (Saturday), the military revolt occurred. Thus, instead of Red and Yellow getting together, it became the rebels and the traditional opposition working together. And then Cardinal Jaime Sin called for support for the rebels. That sparked off the popular uprising. So, the Left was left out.

DR: I imagine Juan Ponce Enrile had anticipated this Red-Yellow coalition.

NQ: Possibly, but in their case, they had to revolt simply because their coup plot had already been uncovered. They had no choice but to rebel and find some way to get out. That precluded the start of a formal Red-Yellow combined action. If the military rebel forces had not rebelled at that particular time and the Welgang Bayan had started, the dynamics would have changed. It would have been something more like what happened in Nicaragua. That would have been quite bloody.

DR: On the question of the traditional elite, you write “the civic uprising after the Aquino assassination involved not just the popular forces, but also large sections of the middle class and the oppositional forces.” The subsequent revolt of 1986 is elite-led, but at the same time it is a culmination of the long popular struggle which the radical Left is leading. Why did the Left not anticipate that the traditional opposition would snatch the victory from their grasp?

NQ: This is due to the fixation on a Maoist framework. Even at the time of the boycott, party leaders and NDF spokespersons were still thinking in terms of moving from strategic defensive to strategic stalemate, and from guerrilla warfare to regular warfare. They were associating a victory against Marcos with a military victory of the NPA. They were so far off. Even up to now the NPA has never really gotten beyond guerilla warfare.

DR: At another point in your book you mention that the Left contributed to EDSA but in a way that they did not anticipate.

NQ: For a long period during the development of that anti-dictatorship movement, it was the Left that was leading it. It was in the home stretch where the Left just made so many mistakes. And of course, the overall strategy was wrong.

DR: According to Patricio Abinales, Joseph Estrada and the other so-called “magnificent twelve” senators who voted out the American bases (in 1991) did what the Left had dreamed of doing for decades. Abinales says the senators “did not invoke the CPP as an authority. Instead the majority of the magnificent twelve paid homage to the nationalist struggle of the late Senator Claire M. Recto, the father of Filipino nationalism and his successors Senators Lorenzo Tanada and Jose Diokno.” Why was the Left not able to seize hegemony over the ideological question of nationalism by this point?

NQ: Of course, the open, legal National Democrats were also involved in the anti-bases campaign up to the very end. But in the case of traditional oppositionists (anti-Cory politicians), including Juan Ponce Enrile and Joseph Estrada, there were certain elements who were critical of the U.S. In the case of Enrile, the relationship he had with the U.S. might have been colored by the experiences he had during the Marcos period. Of course, he himself was angling for a top job — the presidency itself, at one point. One of the major factors why the radical Left could not play a much more prominent role in the home stretch of the anti-bases campaign was that it happened during the split. The movement was just on the verge of splitting.

DR: But the point Abinales makes here is that even from the very beginning the Left had not resolved the national question. Is it an ideological problem for them?

NQ: Well, no. The anti-bases position had been strong from the 1940s. The Left was very consistent all the way until the bases were closed. If the objective was really to kick the bases out, it was very good tactics in the home stretch to let traditional politicians, even the likes of Estrada and Enrile, speak out. That was fine. I would say that in this period the Left might not have been as militant or as vocal or as outspoken because of the problems within.

DR: In another chapter you write, “the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP, the old Communist Party) and the CPP actually played both positive and negative roles vis-à-vis the democratization process.” The chapter is entitled “Threat to democracy or democratizing force.” It seems like you structure it as a contradiction.

NQ: Yes, in the sense that you want democracy to be really the rule of the people, for the workers and the peasants who are the majority. You want them to be more involved — not just in participating in political processes, but also for their voices to be heard, and their decisions to be put into practice. In that sense, you had the democratizing influence of the PKP and the CPP, and also democratizing in terms of developing democracy from a formal democracy that is much more concerned about individual freedoms, into a broader type of democracy, a higher level which goes beyond just the political frame but also goes into the social and economic arenas.

On the other hand, the Left was working towards an alternative that would have set up a one-party dictatorship. That is a negative, the opposite of what you want democracy to be. Within the Left’s own internal processes, decision-making was being manipulated. The higher bodies, especially the party leadership, dictated what should be done in the programs and strategies. That is a negative for democracy.

DR: Did the Left at that time have the wherewithal to draw the broad masses into a democratic process in a way that was not happening through the ordinary venues of parliamentary democracy?

NQ: Yes, in the sense that you try to mobilize workers or peasants. You make them aware of certain issues. This is what is going to happen with this particular law, for example. Or this particular practice or policy that the government is trying to institutionalize or implement. And then the masses come out protesting and insisting on their rights, advocating for certain alternatives, certain programs. That is the democratizing role the Party played.

DR: You also cite Walden Bello’s idea of popular empowerment — a process of building up a parallel power in civil society that would eventually alter the exercise of state power. Bello says that “transforming the formal structure of the state would be the objective … to make it less resistant to the attainment of people’s interests.”[6] Is Bello here characterizing the democratic engagement of the broad masses as a political process?

NQ: It is a sort of Gramscian thinking where you have civil society as an arena for contestation between ideologies or between the thinking of the ruling class and the thinking and organization of the popular forces — the workers, farmers, the masses. It is a contestation for hegemony in civil society and eventually also in overall power.

DR: You quote Ricardo Reyes in the same chapter along similar lines. He says “we stand for autonomous development of social movements and civil society vis-à-vis the political movements” and again, it seems like there is some sort of difference.

NQ: I think it has to do with the relationship between a political party or a political movement, but most especially a political party, and civil-society groups — NGOs and mass organizations. One of the problems that the movement had to confront is that, at a certain point, the so-called ND organizations were just following the party line. In a mass organization, there would be a UG group inside — a party branch or an ND cell. Before a meeting of the organization would take place, there would be meetings of this cell or the party group. The cell would draw up what it wanted to get the organization to do. There would be a lot of pre-planning and things getting fixed. The organization in effect just gets to follow the party line.

DR: They would edge out any dissent?

NQ: Something like that. As what happened in the Soviet Union or what still happens in China — corporatist arrangements, or even worse than that. There would be secret or clandestine cells or party groups within organizations that the general membership would not know about. They would pre-discuss things, pre-arrange things. They would try to get the discussion going their way, so that eventually what they pre-discussed would come out as decisions of the organization.

DR: It was not necessarily a clash of ideas, but rather a pre-determining of the conversation.

NQ: Yes, that's the problem that arose within the movement. Quite a number of the NGOs and the mass organizations reacted to this way of doing things.

DR: You mentioned in your book that around this time the party was seeking belligerency status. Was that some sort of strategic retreat from what it was doing before? What did that mean for them?

NQ: This was a particular fixation on the part of Joma Sison. To be able to eventually attain victory — revolutionary victory — there might be a stage in the diplomatic struggle, where you could try to gain recognition as some sort of a quasi-state — a political force that is capable of running a state. Under international law, which may already be outdated, a rebel force may be looked upon as an insurgency. Then the next stage is belligerency status: you are seen as almost equal to a force or party in power. And then finally you are the actual state already.

Talk of belligerency status was quite common in the 19th century, perhaps even up to the early 20th century, but the concept has become outdated. Over the last seventy years or so I do not know of any rebel force that attained belligerency status. Biafra nearly attained that status at one point. Joma had this illusion that through the peace process, with negotiations, the more that you are treated almost as an equal to the Philippine state, the closer you are nearing belligerency status. The way he puts it is that the NDF already has belligerency status, and this only needs to be recognized by state entities. This is wrong, but that is what he has been angling for in the peace negotiations.

Through the peace process, you do gain higher international recognition. Back in 1990 when I was still in the Party and in the movement, I could still go to Brussels without having to get a special permit. We campaigned among the European Parliament members along these lines: the civil conflict in the Philippines has been a long struggle; it has been going on for over twenty years now. So many people have been killed, so many human-rights violations committed. It is important that the two sides should work out a negotiated political settlement. The resolution that we were able to get passed was one in which the European Parliament called for the Philippine government and the NDF to work out a political settlement of their long-standing conflict.

For the very first time you had the European Parliament, a prestigious intergovernmental body, calling on the NDF in a formal resolution, in a sense granting the NDF a certain level of international recognition. The thinking then was that the more you have such resolutions from international bodies, the higher the international reputation of the NDF would grow. In the mind of Joma, this would eventually contribute to recognition of belligerency status.

In line with this, one of Joma’s goals has long been to bring in a third party in the peace negotiations, preferably a government or an important intergovernmental body. In 2001 the Arroyo government actually approached Norway to act as a third party, giving what the NDF wanted on a silver platter. Not long after, the Arroyo government realized its mistake, that the NDF was just playing around with them. Eventually, when they could not get the NDF to come up with a final agreement with the government, what did they do? They resorted to extrajudicial killings.


NQ: Of NPA and the radical Left in general. |P

[1] “New Social Movement.”

[2] Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, Contested Democracy and the Left in the Philippines after Marcos (New Haven: Yale South Asian Studies, 2008).

[3] Robert Francis B. Garcia, To Suffer Thy Comrades: How the Revolution Decimated Its Own (Mandaluyong City: Anvil Publishing, 2001), 36.

[4] Available online at <>.

[5] In Remembering/Rethinking EDSA, eds. JPaul S. Manzanilla and Caroline S. Hau (Mandaluyong City: Anvil Publishing, 2016).

[6] Walden Bello, “The dual crisis of the Philippine progressive movement,” in Reexamining and Renewing the Philippine Progressive Vision: Papers and Proceedings of the 1993 Conference of the Forum for Philippine Alternatives (FOPA), eds. John Gershman and Walden Bello (Quezon City: Forum for Philippine Alternatives, 1993), 21–22.