Ernesto Lacbao was of the Kalanguya, an ethnic people living in the mountains that join the three provinces of Ifugao, Benguet and Nueva Vizcaya. The people lived simply, subsisting on rootcrops, vegetables, and some palay. They grew livestock like pig and chicken for food and for ritual use. Up to the mid-70s, the Kalanguya area was accessible only by foot and people had to hike to go to school, to the market or to visit relatives.
The Lacbao family lived in Tukucan, a barangay in the town of Tinoc in Ifugao. Ernesto grew up in these chilly and foggy fastnesses, with the tallest mountain in Luzon, Mount Pulag, always in his horizon. (The area lies so deep in the Cordillera ranges it is where the Japanese forces made their last stand during the Second World War.) With school a good distance away, Ernesto stopped schooling after the fourth grade and started to help in the family’s farming chores.
At 15, Ernesto (called Isko) married a Kankana-ey girl from Badayan, a Benguet village on the other side of the mountain. Following tradition, the marriage was arranged through a go-between (mungkalon). The bride, Lumina, was even younger at 12 years old. When they were married, the couple had previously seen each other only once at a village feast.
The couple settled in Pakawan, a small and sparsely-populated sitio of Tukucan, where they farmed, and had eight children. Living was a struggle, but the family flourished. They built a small house along an old Spanish trail, and hiking travelers often stopped by to rest and quench their thirst, or even stay the night, partaking of the plain fare offered by the Lacbaos.
HISTORY OF POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT
Into these surroundings came the New People’s Army in 1972 when it started to do political work among the Kalanguya. A team of four or five guerrillas would come in the evening, share a meal, and discuss with the local folk about national and local politics, urging the villagers to organize for an armed struggle that would eventually bring change in society and make life better for the poor.
Ernesto listened intently to these messages. Government to him was a hardly visible presence, notable only through the school. How could their life in the mountains be made better by taking up arms?
But suddenly, the government started making its presence strongly felt in Tukucan. Soldiers came raiding, looking for the guerrillas. They set up military detachments near the communities. The area was becoming militarized although no battles had yet erupted. Because the Lacbao house stood along the trail, it became a preferred stopover for both army and guerrilla troops. Ernesto was friendly with the NPA but he kept his peace whenever the soldiers were about.
Then in 1974, military authorities ordered all residents in the boundary regions to leave their communities and to camp near the military detachments. This was the “hamletting” policy that would later be implemented in other parts of the country, a move meant to deny the NPA its access to the population.
Around the military camp, people had to build makeshift houses, but with no ready source of food or water. In order to tend to their farms or to go anywhere else, they had to ask for permission from the military, and permission was not always easy to get. As a result, houses and farms became neglected. Those who fell sick received no medical attention. Worse, those who protested the evacuation were seen as rebel supporters or even rebels themselves. Soldiers resorted to roughing up the “noisy” ones. They arrested anyone found outside the camp without permission, beating them up to get information about the NPA movements.
The evacuation policy greatly alienated the military from the local people. People started comparing their predicament to the “bakwit” of the Japanese period. They even adopted the NPA term for the soldiers, Japanese (Hapon).
Isko was one of the outspoken who complained of the growing abuses. He was not a barrio official but the people respected him because he was a local religious leader, a mumbaki, someone who interpreted the signs and interceded with the spirits. His voice carried weight in the community. They also admired his courageous criticism of the evacuation policy. For this outspokenness, Isko was arrested in 1974, together with eight others, tortured and sent to jail at the military camp in the capital town of Lagawe. There he would stay seven months.
The gentle Ernesto later told his wife that one night, soldiers brought in the head of an NPA guerilla they had earlier decapitated. It was placed next to Ernesto’s bed, and the following morning, Ernesto was told to throw it in a nearby river. Ernesto’s ethnic belief regarded that a dead person’s body had to be whole when returned to its creator so the act was to him utterly disrespectful of the dead. But left with no choice, he had to do it, praying to the spirits for appeasement and for the body to be made whole again. He also performed cleansing rites after he was released from prison.
After his release in 1975, Isko found that military operations in the areas around Tukucan had further intensified. Relatives and neighbors told him his life was under threat. Unfazed, Isko began a strong campaign against the worsening militarization of Ifugao. He joined the NPA guerrillas as they trekked the trails and visited the communities around Tinoc and Buguias towns. He became known as Ka Pablo. He spoke about the military abuses and of his personal experience in prison. His counsel and assistance was sought over how to address the trouble with the military and other community problems. By this time, he had become a marked man in the military’s eyes. Military spies were told to watch for him and he had to see his family only secretly.
In 1977, a second order for forced evacuation was imposed over an even wider area of Ifugao and Benguet. The seven sitios of Tukucan were again herded to live near military camps. For Isko’s strong activism, soldiers burned the Lacbao house. His wife took her one-month-old child back to her family in Benguet, leaving the older children among relatives in Ifugao. The soldiers pursued her, however, and hauled mother and child to Camp Holmes in La Trinidad, Benguet, and kept her incarcerated for a month.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF DEATH
Isko evaded a second arrest, but up in the mountains, disease started to slow him down. His body began to bloat and his skin to turn yellow. He was brought to a Manila hospital where he was diagnosed with diseased kidneys. Realizing the futility of finding a cure, Isko asked to be returned to his hometown.
Weakened by illness but unable to return home because of the military’s ongoing operations, he and his family, along with those who continued to resist forced evacuation, moved into the forests of Namal, in what is today Asipulo municipality. The family cleared a part of the forest and planted camote for the family’s food. It also took up a new identity.
Isko’s health continued to deteriorate, but he continued to provide leadership to his neighbors, urging them to always strive for freedom, to never give up. When he knew he was certain to die, he told his family to bury him in the new place but to go back to their old homestead, and to return for his body once when peace prevailed again. The family did as told and returned for him in 1986, after soldiers had left the area.
Today, his widow and all his children and their own families live in Pakawan where they had put down their roots. The local people still speak of Isko with respect and admiration. They talk of his kindness, and they also remember his courage and strong leadership.