Tale of a Young Rebel

I first read about  Edgar Jopson from books and articles dealing with the Martial Law period.  I then got to know much about his role in the student movement from Pete Lacaba’s Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, a collection of the latter’s reportage on the first Quarter Storm movement (notable in this book is the chapter about the January 26 clash between students and police in front of the old Congress Building along Burgos Drive, said to be the opening “salvos” of the First Quarter Storm). Jopson was pictured as the leading figure of moderation in a movement gradually being radicalized by Communist ideology and the worsening political situation at the time.

It was until he joined the “underground” movement, after Martial law was declared. (hence the title)

So, it was still with fascination and interest when I finished reading Benjamin Pimentel’s biography of Jopson, U.G.: the Undergroumd Tale of Edgar Jopson. The version that I bought was a revised one of the 1989 edition, this time added with some remarks by the former senator Jovito Salonga Joy Jopson Kintanar (Jopson’s wife), Ramsey Clark (former American attorney general, and Edicio dela Torre, a  former leading communist cadre) regarding Jopson’s life. Pimentel retold in the book the life and times of one of the well-known icons of student activism and then armed struggle through the narrative of literary journalism.

Basically, the book chronicles the life of Edgar Jopson tracing his career from a son of a grocer to becoming a nationally known student leader. Son of an Ilonggo grocer who founded one of the innovating supermarkets in Manila in the 1940s, the younger Jopson studied at the Ateneo de Manila university during his elementary high school and college years. While taking up a management engineering degree , Jopson was elected president of the National Union of Students of the Philippines which was then among the largest association of students. During his two-term helm at NUSP, the association was already being drawn deeper into in the student activism movement by its participation in meetings and mobilizations with other leftist groups. At the same time, Jopson would get to encounter the widening rift between moderates like him who called for reforms in Philippine society and governance by supporting the planned Constitutional Convention called at that time by President Ferdinand Marcos, and the more radical activists who were leaning toward armed struggle as the most viable means of reshaping the country’s “feudal socio-economic order.”

Then came First Quarter Storm. (Actually, the term covers the series of mostly violent and bloody clashes between students and police on the streets of Manila between January and April 1970. ) Jopson was coordinating a program in the middle of a rally on January 26 1970 when a clash broke out between students and policemen; the fracas was triggered when “unknown” hand tossed a cardboard model of a crocodile at Pres. Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos as they were going out of the Congress Building. Dozens were hurt in the hours-long battle between the two sides.

Jopson would later on miss another violent event of the First Quarter Storm known as the “Battle of Mendiola.” Together with some other student leaders, Jopson personally visited President Marcos at his office at Malacanang on January 30, 1970 to relay the students’ concerns about the economy, politics and a possible term extension of the President. As Pimentel writes in the book, Jopson also told the President that “he put down in writing that he will not run for a third term.” For which, Marcos replied with an angry rebuttal ” Who are you who will tell me what to do, you’re only  a son of a grocer!’

The discussion was never resolved as a Palace staff official came in and reported on the assault of student activists at Gate 4 of the Palace, using a hijacked firetruck and hurling fire bombs into the Palace grounds. Jopson and his companions were eventually whisked out of the Palace even as presidential guards eventually pushed back the students toward Legarda and Recto avenues. (According to Pete Lacaba’s narration, four students were killed in the “battle.”)

As things turned out, Pres Marcos eventually declared Martial Law in 1972, and ruled the country by decree. Jopson went into hiding, and contactedwith his activist friends. During the next two years after Martial Law was declared, Jopson was said to have undergone a change of heart and then joined the Communist Part of the Philippines. He worked first as a labor organizer, and was involved in organizing the strike by workers at the La Tondena plant in 1975, the first such strike since the imposition of Martial Law.

Pimentel also narrated in the chapters of the book how Jopson grew rose from the ranks as a cadre until becoming a high ranking member of the Party in 1978. One can also see the evolution of Jopson’s political beliefs from a voice of moderation to one advocating to an armed overthrow of the dictatorial regime. However, as he became one of the most important figures of the Communist Party, Jopson found himself caught in intra-Party politics  when during the run up to the 1978 Batasan Pambansa elections, the Party National leaders decided that cadres should boycott the elections. This was even as local Party members in Metro Manila had decided to join the elctions and had already allied themselves with opposition politicians. Jopson initially supported for participation but later followed the official line, to the chagrin and disappointment of many of his colleagues.

Jopson was later sent to Mindanao to  help Party members organize more military units as part of a strategy to take over the country side. Unknown to him, in 1982, he was already being followed by spies of the military who eventually found him in a rented house in Davao City. On September 22, 1982, Jopson was shot dead as he was trying to escape the apartment he and some colleagues were living in taht time. He was 33.

Reading the book amazed me with how Pimentel narrated and detailed Jopson’s life. Although generally chronological, except for the first and last chapters which served as prologue and epilogue showing the scenes of Jopson’ s funeral,  it was not boring because the narration was as though it was a short story or a nonfiction article. Details were supplied by the author on what Jopson had done or said during a particular instance, what he wore, what was the milieu of the time etc.  Pimentel also supplied  English  translations of Filipino phrases being used in then narration.

Personally, I am amazed by how Jopson stood by his decision to forsake a potentially more lucrative career as an engineer or manager and instead dedicate his life as a cadre. I’ve read somewhere in the book that you may not agree about his politics and  choice of joining the communist Party, but nonetheless Jopson has to be admired for making a difficult choice even if the price of doing so risk courting death at the hands of military men.

At the same time, the biography disabuses us of the tendency to romanticize Jopson, in the same mold that merchants have lionized Che Guevarra. Pimentel cites instances in Jopson’s life showing his weaknesses such as changing a decision at a critical time (as in the boycott issue), arrogance and  being pushy (as related to by an interviewed cadre).

Still, being a rebel at a young age takes nerves of steel and a mind of a mature man. And I think we need to ponder on these traits  in these times that choices are seemingly made based on comfort, accessibility and social approval.

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