From Inquirer Opinion: Passing by Conrado de Quiros
The picture is almost iconic. A man with a brown peasant face wearing a Mao cap with a bright red star pinned to it, a plaid kerchief dangling from his neck. Sometimes an assault rifle would be slung on his shoulders, at other times laid down on a table. Always a hammer and sickle would frame his head like a halo, sometimes a furious red, at other times a bright yellow amid a sea of red. That is the picture of Rogelio “Ka Roger” Rosal. He died last June.
Over the last couple of decades, he became the face of the New People’s Army. He was its spokesman in ways that redefined the word.
That we know of his death only now we owe to his party’s strange ways of handling the truth, a thing it has subjected to the vagaries of time and place. The official explanation is that it took all this time to inform Ka Roger’s family, personal and political, about his demise. Which, if true, can only add new dimensions to the concept of “protracted struggle”: At this pace, it would take 10 lifetimes to finish, if it could be finished at all.
The simpler, and probably truer, explanation is that his comrades worried about the effect of his passing on public perception, quite apart from the morale of the troops. Though Ka Roger had been ailing for some time after a series of strokes and had given up some of his duties, which had brought him out of the limelight, he remained the face—and voice—of the NPA. And though he had been reported wounded or killed in the past, he had always managed to prove that news of his death was grossly exaggerated, thereby investing him with legendary undying-ness and the movement along with it. Alas, some things are more implacable pursuers than a bullet.
It’s easy to see why his comrades might have wanted to delay the announcement of his passing. His own enemies looked up to. It is no surprise that the military itself has sent condolences to his loved ones: He was the honorable enemy. No small irony for a movement that has always believed in the power of the collective, in its ability to survive the loss of its brightest minds, its most heroic fighters. It is a movement in fact that has advanced tremendously because of them, and that has suffered the greatest setbacks from the loss of them. Ka Roger will not be so easy to replace. And even if he could, his death might very well have sounded the beginning of the end for the very movement he served.
Ka Roger embodied the strengths and weaknesses of the longest Marxist revolution in Asia. He came from impoverished roots, the son of sakadas, eventually becoming an activist, trade unionist and a guerrilla fighter. He embraced that life till the day he died, seeing a succession of leaders take over government only for the poor to have gotten poorer.
That was the strength of the NPA, or its lifeblood, the horrendous impoverishment and deprivation of the majority of the population, the unrelenting oppression and marginalization of the masa. So long as that persisted, so long could the NPA reaffirm its validity. WikiLeaks recently revealed that the US Embassy did not believe the Philippine government could end the insurgency. It is probably right. It can’t, not without hacking down its roots. You can always isolate the rebels from the people by hamletting the latter, thereby denying fish water. But you can’t always isolate the people from the rebels by keeping them hungry. Water will continue to flow to the fish. Maybe in trickles, but it will flow.
Hunger and desperation are the best recruiters of all. Oppression the best driver of the hungry and desperate into the arms of rebellion.
But the NPA’s weaknesses are also patent, and have been so for a couple of decades now. Chief of them is the other element in Ka Roger’s iconic picture—the hammer and sickle in the background.
The capacity of the Marxist vision to keep the fires of revolution burning—it was once called a prairie fire and it did spread like one to these islands—is gone. Popoy Lagman, the firebrand who was gunned down in early 2001, gave me a glimpse of it when he told me some 10 years earlier how the movement could barely recruit students anymore where it once had to stem the flow of them. The bulk of new entrants came from the down-and-out in the villages. It wasn’t hard to see why.
The movement has always prided itself on being self-sufficient, Ka Roger himself scoffing at the US’s decision to include them in the roster of terrorists to deny them aid from outside. They were never dependent on aid, he said, they had always made do with what they had here. That might have been so as far as arms and physical sustenance were concerned, but it wasn’t so as far as the ideology was concerned, as far as the animating force of the movement was concerned. The movement had always been dependent on the health of the communist world to affirm the luminousness of its cause.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR pulled the rug out from under it. Their impact was not immediate, but it was felt in time. That impact was not physical, it was moral. But then the movement had never really grown to become the fearsome thing it was during the twilight of martial law, enough to ring alarm bells in Washington, by branching its arms, it had done so by occupying a high moral ground. More and more as the ’90s unfolded, the movement became an echo of what it once was, till it can only show signs of life today by attacking the mines at the cost of the public scoffing at it as an act of banditry and not of revolution. Indeed over the decades, it would distinguish itself as the longest revolution in Asia that has managed to be untouched by all the revolutions that have swept the world.
I grieve for Ka Roger, in more ways than one.
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