Jed M. Eva III
President, National Federation of Student Councils (1997-1999)
Information Officer, Sanlakas (1996-1999)
The last time I saw Ka Popoy was a day or two before he was gunned down on the steps of U.P.'s Bahay ng Alumni. I ran into him in the very same building where he would later fall, and to this day I remember every word of our final conversation.
Ka Popoy, seated at a table at Chocolate Kiss, was, as usual, doing two things that he always did: smoking and drinking coffee. After exchanging pleasantries, I noticed that he did not have a bodyguard, a sight I had grown accustomed to in the close to five years I had known him. "Pops," I said, "wala ka na atang bodyguard, ha."
"Di na kailangan yan," he said nonchalantly.
Ka Popoy would be felled by assassins’ bullets soon after.
Like most who received the tragic news that day, I trooped to the Philippine Heart Center hoping that the man who inspired me to join the movement would live to fight another day. Sadly, he didn't survive the attack. What did survive, however, were fond memories of a man many people––especially those in government––were not particularly fond of.
As a councilor of U.P. Diliman's University Student Council, I knew very little about Ka Popoy, my knowledge of him limited to the fact that he was a political activist and the feisty, controversial younger brother of two of my fraternity brothers at U.P. Law’s Alpha Phi Beta Fraternity, Edcel and Hermon Lagman. I would learn more later on as I became more involved in the National Federation of Student Councils (NFSC), an organization composed of student councils from universities and colleges across the country.
I heard Ka Popoy speak for the first time in the NFSC’s National Congress in Davao in November 1996. In that Congress’ major forum––which tackled globalization and its effects on the country––a surprised Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (then a member of the Philippine Senate) grudgingly welcomed Ka Popoy onto the stage she thought she would monopolize that afternoon. In a simple, straightforward, extemporaneous speech, he passionately argued for us student leaders to stand with the victims of globalization––the poor and the marginalized.
Certainly, the more conservative student leaders present had difficulty accepting the politics of Ka Popoy. Despite this, many gravitated towards Ka Popoy, who, despite lacking rock star looks, was treated like a rock star nonetheless. Perhaps it was his penchant for wearing leather jackets; maybe it was the romantic figure he cut as an uncompromising revolutionary in an age of trade-offs and horse-trading. Whatever it was, this much is true: that day, the majority of our country’s student leaders chose to pose with a leftist labor leader rather than a senator of the Republic.
That the country’s youngest generation of leaders would choose to stand for photographs with a known communist was remarkable in itself; what was downright extraordinary was how many student leaders would stand by the principles he espoused in that forum. In a spirited, animated debate on a resolution condemning the ill effects of globalization, student leaders––myself included––echoed Ka Popoy’s arguments, paving the way for the NFSC’s progressive position on globalization and its active participation in SLAM-APEC.
Shortly after his speech, upon his return to Manila, Ka Popoy would be apprehended and jailed on some trumped up charge (weren’t they all?) to keep him out of the public’s eye as the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, Sanlakas, and other SLAM-APEC orgs like the NFSC were in the midst of organizing a huge caravan that would make its way to Subic to protest the APEC Summit being held in the former American naval base. Rather than strike fear or discouragement in the hearts of us younger activists, Ka Popoy’s capture would instead galvanize us into action, the Ramos Administration’s obvious attempts to quell the waves of protest fanning the fire of idealism in our hearts. Our idol in prison, Ka Popoy’s youthful rebelliousness seemed to rub off us, as we were inspired by an image that would be captured for posterity on the front pages of the nation’s broadsheets: Ka Popoy giving the finger to the State that sought to quiet the country’s most influential labor leader by locking him up.
Despite Ka Popoy’s incarceration, the SLAM-APEC caravan was a success. I had––then or ever since––never seen so many jeepneys in my life. I slept on the roof of our mosquito-ridden jeep, and used a farmer’s untilled field as a toilet––and utterly relished some of the most uncomfortable hours of my life. This, however, would only be the beginning for me and other student leaders. Some like myself would turn their back on their education and begin to work full-time for the movement, organizing fellow student leaders and later on campaigning to put Sanlakas in congress during the first party-list elections. Others would graduate from the youth and student movement and organize other sectors––labor, the urban poor, women; all the while holding on tightly to our idealism in spite of the painful realities––hunger, empty pockets, angry families––that relentlessly dogged us.
While I would eventually leave the movement––as did many of my contemporaries––its lingering influence and that of its iconic leader, Ka Popy, would leave a lasting impression on many of us from the NFSC and other youth organizations. A few would enter government service; some would join NGOs and people’s organizations; others would lend their skills to foundations; none (to my knowledge) would become filthy rich. In June 2008, I celebrated my tenth year in government, my inability to leave for the profitable pastures of the private sector attributable to some of the lessons Ka Popoy passed on in his life and his death.
Most know that Ka Popoy was an aethist, and that he didn’t believe in the afterlife. I am sure, however, that wherever he is, he’ll agree that though he isn’t physically with us, his spirit lives on amongst us who continue to serve our countrymen in our own ways, and continue to take a stand for what is good, right, and just in this world.