Ferment and student activism in Iloilo and other provinces in Panay Island

Written by Ma. Diosa D. Labiste, Ph.D

Student activism and the subsequent revolutionary movement in the 1970s in Iloilo and the other provinces of Panay island probably emerged from a perfect storm of circumstances –the general dissatisfaction against the ruling elite and the authoritarian government of President Marcos, the palpable economic crisis that swept the country and, importantly, the emergent power of enlightened students who articulated social issues and the need for a radical social change.

These circumstances were present in the predominantly agricultural Panay island.

On examining student activism in Panay, one has to consider the circulation of ideas that saw the formation of critical minds among young people.

We cite student activism in Iloilo which was formally organized under the Federation of Ilonggo Students (FIST), formed on March 1970. FIST had benefited from the contribution of Ilonggo student activists from Manila who joined forces with Ilonggo student activists.

The Manila-based activists decided to return to Iloilo to conduct “teach-ins,” and organize students to join rallies and protests actions, just like in Manila in the summer of 1970. Thus a month after its organization, on April that year, FIST led hundreds of students in a demonstration that demanded fair wages for workers in Panay and Negros islands and called for resistance against the plan of President Marcos to declare martial law.

The Marcos martial law indeed drove many activists underground because they were subjected to manhunt by the military. In short, they didn’t have a choice. Many were arrested too. When Marcos intensified the crackdown soon after he declared martial law, the places where resistance organizing occurred were targeted. Curfew was imposed nationwide and the military might was palpable.

Panay was seen as one of the areas where defiance to the Marcos Constitution could take place, particularly in Antique province. Antique is strategic because it is where the sacada working in the haciendas or sugarcane plantations in Negros came from. The sacada, to this day, is one of the most exploited farm laborers in the country in terms of day wages, mandated benefits, and work conditions. Eduardo Legislador (Bantayog recognized martyr), a student activist exposed to the plight of the sacada, thought that Antique could provide a space in which the seasonal workers could be made aware of their exploitation in Negros. Organizing of the sacada has been taking place in Antique at that time and initiated by Evelio Javier (Bantayog recognized martyr). Javier organized roadblocks to prevent the hacienda laborers from leaving. His effort was supported by religious groups, led by Antique Bishop Cornelius de Wit, MHM, that also organized cooperatives and Christian communities of fishers and farmers who were being recruited as sacadas.

On July 1973, Legislador led a team of student activists that went to Antique to conduct research and investigation for possible organizing of the sacada, peasants and indigenous people of Panay, the Tumandok or Sulod-Bukidnon. It was timed when the campaign for “No” in the referendum was going on in Antique.

The violent treatment of the activists by the military by shooting them, exemplified the terror and repression under martial law. In the following days the death of five student activists, on August 11, 1973, four Western Visayas bishops, namely Jaime Sin (Jaro), Antonio Fortich (Bacolod), Antonio Frondosa (Capiz) and Cornelius de Wit (Antique) issued a pastoral letter condemning the harassment of church personnel and church-sponsored activities in Antique that took place on July 24 and the subsequent days. A priest was arrested and one of the churches was declared “off limits” to the public. Priests in Antique were also warned against doing pastoral work to the poor. The bishops’ letter said:

Why does all this take place? Is there resentment in certain circles that the Church of Antique has been taking side of the poor farmer and fishermen to give him a better share in the richness of our land and seas? Does the Church in her witnessing to truth and integrity provoke some who live by other values?

Although the pastoral letter did not make a direct reference to the death of five students, it was a sign that the Catholic Church in Western Visayas was vigilant enough to condemn the human rights abuses of the military and the harassment of Church people siding with the poor.