I've always wondered how long the Dutch government would allow Joma Sison to run the nearly four-decade old insurgency in the Philippines from the relative comforts of Utrecht. I guess they've answered that question with Sison's arrest, reportedly for the assassinations of former New People's Army chief Romulo Kintanar and erstwhile lieutenant Arturo Tabara.
I've never met the man because I joined the Fourth Estate in Manila after he had fled the country and sought sanctuary in The Netherlands. But Sison always struck me as ambitious, egocentric. He was a political science professor when I was still wearing short-pants to school, I learned later, a man enamored with Mao, Marx and Lenin as the Cold War quietly raged on, who decided action spoke louder than words.
I was introduced to the UP "commune" through a cousin who was studying there, watched intently the unfolding First Quarter Storm at the gates of Malacanang, and struggled to comprehend what Martial Law was all about. I noticed the graffiti, Marcos and Ninoy but admittedly was more preoccupied learning the "12-step" and "swing" (where I failed miserably). The insurgency war hit closer to home when a distant cousin joined the underground and decided to bolt. In hushed tones, I could hear the family discussing how they've moved her from one relative's home to another because her erstwhile comrades were hunting her down. Even then, the intrinsic brutality of that conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives seemed distant, alien.
Joma was a name I heard often, his face as familiar to me as those of Nixon, Imelda or her brood, Bongbong, Imee and Irene. But it wasn't after I started working for the Philippine Star -- covering the defense beat -- that I'd be compelled to study him closer. I met Ariel Almendral, one of his former cadres, who'd been gathering witnesses and other evidence pointing to Joma's deep involvement in the Plaza Miranda bombing, which everyone was blaming on Marcos. I learned about Olympia and Ahos Zombie -- the feral pogroms triggered by the arrest of top party leaders.
Letters from "Armando Guerrero" -- I always thought Joma chose an apt pseudonym -- provided a glimpse about his totalitarian mindset. I thought, here was a man so thoroughly convinced about the superiority of his ideas, so ruthless in his predilections that I was ready to believe the worse of what was being said about him. I shuddered at the thought of this ideologue running the Philippines.
Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, even after China started experimenting with her brand of neo-socialism, and with much of the world shifting away from armed struggle, Joma doggedly held on to his convinction that "political change only came from the barrel of a gun".
Until now, I marvel at how he could, in his mind, repudiate reality so articulately. But even his genius is suspect, at least for me, when the CPP-NPA failed to exploit the opening of the 1986 People Power revolt. They were at their peak, armed partisans were inside the capital, the military was in flux -- and yet they did nothing. Pinulot sila sa pancitan. It was all downhill after that.
Joma's time, along with his idea of armed struggle, is long past. He would be irrelevant were it not for government's corruption, the military's excesses and the Filipinos' own reluctance to openly reject violence as an instrument of change. But I believe Joma had vision ripe and compelling for his era; it just failed to evolve with changing realities. If he were a dinosaur, I would certainly count Joma as a T-Rex, formidable and fearsome but extinct, nevertheless.
What makes me sad is that no one has come up since that time, to offer Filipinos a new political alternative, an ideology of change that doesn't have to come with a steep price in blood, but one that nevertheless promises a better Philippines.