Huwebes, Hulyo 2, 2009

Suspects and Victims

by Annie Ruth Sabangan and Luis Gorgonio
The Sunday Paper, Vol. 2, No. 17, Feb. 11-17, 2001

The kind of life he led invites the kind of death he suffered.

Not even the supposed "safety" that the University of the Philippines, which prides itself to be the bastion of activism, was enough to protect Filemon "Ka Popoy" Lagman from the fury of his assassins on that fateful Tuesday afternoon.

It was not totally unexpected. Ka Popoy was a revolutionary, a man who fought the powers-that-be for many years, a man who wanted to change the system, a man who made a lot of enemies.

He may have known that death would come so soon. He was with his son Dante and partner Michelle walking towards the Bahay ng Alumni building along Balagtas Street inside the University of the Philippines Campus when the killers came.

Gunmen pumped four bullets into the labor leader's head before fleeing, leaving Ka Popoy sprawling, soaked with his own blood, on the pavement a meter away from the building's main stairway.

Ka Popoy's death has put everybody - from the left, center to the right of the political spectrum - into a situation where everybody could be both suspects and victims.

In and out of the underground Leftist movement, the maverick, tenacious and abrasive leader gained so many enemies. The mainstream Left led by exiled Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Ma. Sison branded him as "incorrigible" rebel when the former rejected Sison's call to rectify his "insurrectionist" behavior and reaffirm the Maoist revolutionary strategy of a protracted people's war.

As founder of the urban hit squad Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB), Lagman eliminated "fascist tormentors" from the military and the police. He brought agony to the "enemies of the people" - the usurers, capitalists and abusive local officials.

Seen as one of the biggest headaches of government, Lagman was put behind bars twice in the mid-90s: first for a murder complaint and second to prevent him from causing the country embarrassment during the Apec summit in 1996.

Even when he decided to work "above ground," Lagman was not spared from the indignation of those who thought that the issues he espoused - increased salaries for workers and the improvement of the plight of the urban poor - were mere form of extortions.

Such was the interpretation of Popoy's detractors when he entered into a deal with the PEA-AMARI on behalf of slum dwellers and when he helped workers at the Philippine Airlines during a labor dispute with management.

Added to Lagman's long list of enemies is the pro-Estrada clique whom he, along with other Leftist groups, brought down through the Edsa II phenomenon. The Arroyo administration could also be another suspect after Lagman's Sanlakas and BMP called for the ouster of the newly installed chief executive.

"It's payback time." This could probably be what was in the mind of Ka Popoy's killers. As he himself said a week before he died, "the likes of Popoy Lagman has only two destinations - in prison or in the graveyard."

While it could be ascertained that the mastermind of the murder did it out of revulsion, it is hard to pin down the perpetrator due to the number of suspects with varying motives. As what Ka Popoy's brother, former Rep. Edcel Lagman said, "We are not excluding any persons or any groups. We will have to make a thorough investigation."

Lagman had a rift with Sison and Nilo Dela Cruz, his former comrade in the Manila-Rizal committee of the CPP. He also caught the ire of the capitalists and the underworld, the military and the police, the government, and the Estrada administration. Each of these groups has one reason or another to silence a "stubborn" mass leader who refused to make compromises.

As there are many suspects, there are also many theories that try to explain Lagman's killing. First, Lagman could have been a victim of the factions in the Leftist movement. There are two suspects under this theory: Sison's New People's Army and Dela Cruz's RPA-ABB.

Both groups believe, however, the murder was the handiwork of the military to isolate the progressive block from wielding influence in government.

They claimed that Lagman's death could be perceived as a message to other Leftist leaders to "make it easy" on the Arroyo administration.

Crispin Beltran, head of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), said Lagman's "Resign All" call during the height of the campaign to oust former President Estrada was unpopular.

"HIs and his group's follow-up on the line, to wit: 'Gloria is not the people's choice,' and their anti-trapo campaign could have generated a political backlash."

Both Sison and Dela Cruz, however, accused each other of Lagman's murder. Sison said Dela Cruz might have settled a score with Lagman after their previous disagreements over the control of protection money.

Dela Cruz countered that Sison's group included Lagman in its order of battle for years.

"Who has a track record in eliminating former comrades who refused to follow the dictates of that man from The Netherlands? Who is very intolerant of their comrades' different views on how to wage a revolution? Isn't it that it was Sison's group who ordered the execution of Fr. Conrado Balweg and Bartolome Quizon?"

Other members of the RPA-ABB claimed that Sison's allegation could be part of a "smear campaign" to prevent them from entering into peace negotiations with the Arroyo administration.

Satur Ocampo, former spokesman of the National Democratic Front (NDF), however, said that "only a bitter war of words erupted, nobody was executed" when the split occurred in the Leftist movement.

"We also had tactical alliances with the other factions during EDSA II, thus I think there is really no basis for them to hurl those accusations."

Other militant groups and people from government also theorized that Lagman's killing might have been a signal for a start of destabilization plot by rightist elements against the Arroyo administration. They said that the incident was very similar to what happened after Corazon Aquino was catapulted into power after the 1986 Edsa phenomenon when labor leader Rolando Olalia and youth activist Lean Alejandro were killed.

Military sources also flaunted the idea that Lagman's killing could have been the handiwork of hit squads organized by pro-Estrada groups to destabilize the government. These groups are allegedly composed of the remnants of the Kuratong Baleleng gang and other criminals from Mindanao.

The original plan, military sources said, was to launch a coup d’├ętat against the Arroyo administration. When the plot failed, they decided to create hit squads that would sow terror in urban areas.

If there are many suspects, there are many victims, too. Lagman's family, of course, is the first to suffer the pain. The working class whose aspirations were articulated and fought for by Ka Popoy would be second. And, of course, the many factions in the progressive movement, whose wounds from the purges and splits have yet to heal, can become casualties.

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