Miyerkules, Enero 21, 2009

Popoy - by Conrado de Quiros



I MET Popoy Lagman under the strangest circumstances. It was at a press conference he and other leaders of the New People's Army and the Alex Boncayao Brigade held in the outskirts of Quezon City -- he was underground then. This was more than a decade ago during Cory's time. Popoy et al. had asked for the meeting with members of the media to explain their side on a raging controversy.

That controversy was the famous, or infamous, bus burnings. Its context was this: Some time during her term, Cory allowed the oil giants to raise oil prices despite widespread public perception that it was unjustified. The oil price increase swiftly triggered public protests, which snowballed into an entire movement called the Kilusang Rollback. Emboldened by this, and to "raise the struggle to higher levels," the NPA began stopping buses outside Metro Manila and burning them when their drivers refused to join the strike. As it turned out, the fires that consumed the buses consumed the protest movement as well. Overnight, the protest screeched to a halt. The bus burnings sparked angry protests from the public, the commuting masa above all.

Popoy wanted to explain their side. I had heard of him before. He was the stuff of legend and nightmare in equal measure, spoken about with awe and scorn by friends and enemies -- not necessarily respectively. The impression I got was that he was feared and respected but not worshipped or loved. None of it seemed to fit the flesh-and-blood version, who didn't loom larger than life and seemed reasonable and soft-spoken. He and his friends had laid their guns away for the press conference, but not so far that they couldn't get to them if some unpleasant surprise came their way. The atmosphere did not inspire ease and comfort.

The problem began during the open forum. Popoy and the others had taken a long time to explain what they stood for and how they saw the oil price hike in the context of the revolutionary struggle, which we listened to respectfully though impatiently. During the open forum, we, being journalists, zeroed in on the most newsworthy aspect of what had happened, which was the bus burnings. Popoy and the others answered our questions but kept begging us to look at the bigger picture, or the larger context, as they put it. The bus burnings, which they insisted remained basically a correct strategy, were just a small part of it.

I could see that after some time Popoy was getting pissed off by our seeming obsession with the bus burnings. The explosion did not take long to come. His tone grew sharper as he lamented the idea of people who just stood in the sidelines -- reporters and columnists especially -- feeling free to judge those who risked their lives in the struggle for a better world. In fact, he said, the journalists themselves were to blame for dragging down the protest. They had made a mountain out of a molehill, and not being in a position to know that the masses thoroughly approved of the bus burnings, had brought the world to share their myopia.

I disagreed, saying the media reports about the protest had a sense of proportion and fairly accurately reflected the public sentiment about the bus burnings. (I myself had called the people who wreaked them a bunch of terrorists in my column.) Popoy answered back, and before long I found myself arguing heatedly -- for the first time in my life in a press conference -- with the person I was supposed to be interviewing. Popoy was saying in a raised voice: "No, you people were wrong to exploit the sensational and draw public attention away from the real issues in the protest." I replied in equally heatedly: "People are watching a play, when suddenly someone darts out from nowhere and streaks in front of the stage. Whom do you think people will watch -- the characters on the stage or the streaker? That was what you did when you burned the buses -- you streaked while a play was going on. Don't blame the media."

We tossed a few more angry remarks at each other, and then he finally said: "It's your choice. If you want to remain on the steps of the bus of history (kung gusto n'yong manatili sa estribo ng kasaysayan), it's up to you." A reply leaped to my mind, but suddenly realizing that I was talking to the bosses of the NPA and the ABB, who had laid their guns away but could always get to them when an unpleasant surprise came their way, I decided that inarticulateness was the better part of valor. That reply was: "Well, if the bus of history is headed toward the cliffs, I would most assuredly prefer to be on its steps rather than inside of it. That way I can always jump."

I met Popoy several more times after that, particularly after he went above ground. But though we never became friends, I learned over time to give him grudging respect. The man was ardent in his beliefs to a point of, well, his enemies would say, lunacy, that his friends would call iron resolve. I can only say with certainty, to a point of his betting his life on it. It was a level of conviction that emboldened him, right or wrong, to say and do what he did. That he was fearless he showed again and again, and in ways that added whole new dimensions to the word. Only last week, I mentioned him in that column about how the Left was left out in Gloria's appointments: How he faced up to Erap one Labor Day in the very belly of the beast, at MalacaƱang and dared the most powerful person in the land to improve the country's peace and order by jailing Lucio Tan.

My friends at PAL also still tell the tale of how he refused to be cowed by black propaganda that he took money from Tan to sell out the PAL unions, and went with alacrity to a Senate hearing to answer those charges against him. Popoy brought with him a pile of documents that, he told the senators, would prove who in fact were receiving money from Tan. Nobody knows now whether he was just bluffing or not. Suddenly realizing that they were dealing with someone who had laid his ammunition aside but could always get to it when an unpleasant surprise came his way, the senators declared that since Popoy's accusers were not at the hearing, they were stopping it and excusing him.

Popoy Lagman was a strange man, in ways that both attracted and repelled. Definitely, he was strange in a way that makes us ask questions about the relative merits of a safe, comfortable, bourgeois life -- and not find any definite answers. He was a man full of contradictions, as plentiful as the contradictions of his time and place that his ideology or engagements in life brought him to glimpse. As plentiful as the life and movement he embraced.

He died a couple of years before his 50th birthday. I half suspect after living a life twice as long.

Walang komento: