As I was disembarking from a Manila-Taipei flight that had just landed at the Taoyuan airport, a co-passenger approached me and asked: “Aren’t you Men? Do you remember me?” I couldn’t immediately figure out who she was though she looked oddly familiar. She then gave a hint: “I’m a high school classmate of Rey Casambre.”
I was still stumped, for even though Rey and I are friends, I am not exactly that close to him, and I am not connected to him on the basis of his high school alma mater.
Only when the lady mentioned the name of a relative did I finally recognize her: Ola, the ex-wife of my cousin Rick. The last time I had a conversation with Ola was more than 40 years ago, when she and Rick were still together. Luckily, we both had a long layover at Taoyuan and we thus had a lot of time to catch up.
She told me stories about her marriage and eventual separation, her relationship with her children who now have their own families, her interaction with favorite in-laws (my cousins Odette and Lynn), her completion of a doctorate degree in education, her running a school in Tanauan, Batangas for special children. I shared stories about my almost 26 years of marriage with Mae, Mae’s fragile health and her passing four years ago, the lives of my mom and aunts all named Paula, the state of my siblings and my cousins, and my past and present work.
And we talked about our youth. Only then did I learn that Ola was an alumna of UP High School. She graduated from high school in 1967, and she belongs to an illustrious batch that produced a who’s who: esteemed professors like Elena Mirano nee Rivera, Lyn Lorenzo nee Elegado, Inday Ofreneo nee Pineda, and Bobby Ochangco; former Binibining Pilipinas-Universe winner Vida Legaspi nee Doria, and Rey Casambre, the class valedictorian.
Curious, I asked her, “Of all people I am associated with, how come the first person you mentioned was Rey Casambre?” She replied, “I just thought you and Rey were together in activism.”
Ola then described Rey’s goodness and thoughtfulness. In one instance, to her surprise, Rey warmly greeted here on her birthday even though they had not seen each other for a long time. She said Rey was a natural leader — friendly and pleasant, wise and earnest, humble and exemplary. Rey’s scholarship and excellent academic performance did not prevent him from pursuing extra-curricular activities. He was the editor-in-chief of UP High’s newspaper; he was an officer of the student council; and he was active in socially oriented campus organizations like the Student Catholic Action.
Rey was radicalized in his college days. Ferdinand Marcos was polarizing Philippine society. His reelection in 1969 — characterized by guns, goons, and gold — was the prelude to the usurpation of power and the installation of Martial Law. Resistance not only to Marcos rule but to the whole ruling system became intense. The movement infected almost everyone among the youth. Even Ola, who was a non-joiner, sympathized with the cause.
As the protests peaked between 1970 and 1972, Rey, the student leader, became all the more immersed in activist work. But suppression likewise intensified. Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1971, leading to the detention of prominent activists, including Rey.
In September 1972, Marcos did away with all pretensions about liberal democracy, and established a dictatorship. It took almost 14 years to topple him. Rey was part of the great struggle that contributed to the rise of people power that ended the Marcos tyranny.
But Rey’s mission did not end with the demise of the Marcos dictatorship. His fundamental belief is that the roots of the armed conflict have not been fully addressed despite the nominal restoration of liberal democracy. Worse, three decades since the fall of the dictatorship, we fear not only the resurrection of the Marcoses but also the return of authoritarianism — with a new face — under the Rodrigo Duterte administration.
In the face of the alarming rise in violence and human rights violations, specifically the extra-judicial killings, the revolutionary movement that Rey is associated with has all the more reason not to lay down arms.
Still, Rey and the movement he represents recognize that the direction of their struggle is towards political settlement. Rey is a revolutionary, but it is best to describe him as a relentless peace warrior. As far back as November 2007, Rey emphasized in a paper on the rule of law and the peace process the following: “We cannot remain passive in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Rather, these only mean we must work harder to keep the peace negotiations alive and exert utmost effort to push it forward.” In the same vein, he said that the peace advocacy stems “from our faith and conviction that a just and enduring peace is possible and necessary.”
Yet, this man of peace is in prison. The military filed trumped-up charges against Rey. In the aftermath of the breakdown of the peace talks between the Duterte administration and the National Democratic Front, the military has launched an all-out war, similar to the war on drugs, against the revolutionary Left. More than a hundred activists have been killed, including extra-judicial killings, under the Duterte administration. Others like Rey have been languishing in prison for alleged non-bailable crimes, despite weak evidence. There are more than 500 political prisoners at present.
A pure military solution will not extinguish the armed conflict. The armed struggle of the revolutionary movement cannot win, but it cannot be annihilated either. The fact that it has endured 50 years shows its resilience.
In this light, a just and reasonable political settlement is the way forward. Toward this end, we value the role of peacemakers like Rey Casambre. Rey and his like-minded comrades are enablers and mobilizers for peace. They should be freed, and the peace talks should immediately resume.
In my conversation with Ola, I asked her to help mobilize Rey’s high school classmates to campaign for Rey’s release from detention.
My desire is to involve non-partisans to campaign for the release of Rey and his comrades. Ola’s high school class of 1967 can be the spark.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.