Was the Diliman Commune of 1971 Spontaneous?

Militant students erecting the barricades at UP Diliman. Photo courtesy of Susan Quimpo, lifted from IT’S XIAOTIME!blog [https://xiaochua.net/2013/02/02/xiaotime-1-february-2013-diliman-commune/].
Stitched together with the memory of the “Diliman Commune” is the interpretation that it was a spontaneous and isolated event. From 1 to 9 February 1971, a number of students and faculty members of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman erected barricades using classroom chairs, chalkboards, tables, and tree trunks against intrusive “fascist [state] forces” à la Paris Commune of 1871, supposedly in support of a strike staged by jeepney drivers.

However, Joseph Scalice, in his recent article in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, challenges this long-standing, canonized narrative. Although individual responses and personal experiences of the activists and their sympathizers might have been spontaneous, the Diliman Commune, as Scalice shows, was a concerted and calculated action.

Using data from the documents and ephemera produced by the “communards” themselves (collectively archived as the Philippine Radical Papers deposited at the UP Diliman library), contemporary news reports, and the official investigation conducted by the university, Scalice—triangulating on the basis of “lies, half-truths, and honest accounts”—surfaces in Rankean fashion what, he argues, truly happened on the first week of February 1971.

The Communist Party in the Philippines (CPP) was founded by Jose Maria Sison on 26 December 1968 as a breakaway group from the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP). Diverging in their interpretations of Stalinist ideology, Sison’s CPP allied itself with the Liberal Party, then the bourgeois opposition to the Marcos administration. In contrast, the PKP “saw in Marcos and his machinations toward dictatorship this ‘progressive’ wing who would open ties with the Soviet bloc and move the Philippines away from subservience to Washington.”

The ultimate goal for both parties, however, remained the same: to secure the interests of the Communist bloc in trade and diplomacy by forging an alliance with the “progressive” capitalist elites. Not surprisingly, in the 1965 presidential elections Sison (then still with the PKP) campaigned vigorously for Marcos, only to oppose Marcos violently later after he left the PKP. The PKP and the CPP established their footholds mostly in universities across the country. The CPP-aligned groups, Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK), founded student political parties in universities all over the country to serve as their fronts.

The prelude to the “Commune” began in January 1971 when Marcos approved a set of oil price hikes to which disgruntled jeepney drivers reacted by staging transport strikes. On 13 January, police forces opened fire at protesters and strikers, killing four and injuring over a hundred. SDK members thought that subsequent protests would be more violent, but the protests during the State of the Nation Address of Marcos on 25 January 1971 turned out to be “peaceful,” much to the dismay of the SDK. At around this time, UP officials had intercepted information that the SDK were out to occupy UP Diliman and Los Baños campuses, which the SDK dismissed as a “fairy tale.” However, as Scalice points out, the claim was not entirely baseless. “Ericson Baculinao, chair of the UP Diliman Student Council and a leading member of KM, had threatened precisely such an occupation when presenting a set of fifty-seven demands from the students to UP Pres. Salvador P. Lopez in October 1970.”

Despite the repeated protest actions, Marcos did not roll back gasoline prices. “Ostensibly in support” of the strike of 1 February 1971, the KM and the SDK “launched a coordinated campaign of obstructing thoroughfares throughout the country . . . they erected barricades at UP Diliman and Los Baños and in the University Belt” of Manila. “Barricades were also set up by students in Laguna, Baguio, Rizal, Cavite, and other locations,” albeit only briefly. As the battles in Laguna and University Belt were raging, militant students at UP Diliman on 1 February went to the classrooms, disrupted classes, and gathered support for the barricades. Similar to Laguna and the University Belt, vehicles both public and private, were prevented from passing through in Diliman campus.

Thus, given that the barricades were set up not only in Diliman but simultaneously on several campuses even beyond the Manila area, Scalice deduces that there was a centralized plan.

At midday in the Diliman campus, an infamous UP mathematics professor named Inocencio Campos (known then for threatening student-activists with a failing mark) attempted to ram through the barricades. Students threw pillboxes (or handmade bombs) and Molotov cocktails (incendiary weapons) at his car. Campos went out of his car and shot at the students, injuring Pastor “Sonny” Mesina in the head (he died four days later). Campos was taken to the Quezon City Police Department, his car burnt by the students. Police and state forces attempted to suppress the uprising, but UP Pres. Salvador Lopez protested the intrusion of the police, although earlier that day he was assaulted by students enraged by his decision to have the UP police check on the barricades. Police and state forces, however, were still deployed by the government to dismantle the barricades.

Scalice argues that the jeepney strike “was but a pretext” to the ultimate agenda of the KM and SDK: “they needed to foment street battles and provoke state repression Thus, given that the barricades were set up not only in Diliman but simultaneously on several campuses even beyond the Manila area, Scalice deduces that there was a centralized plan. Scalice pointedly avers that “[t]he students at the barricades . . . continued their protests and campus occupations despite the fact that the strike, which they claimed to be supporting, had ended days earlier.”

Protesters resorted to violent means of obstructing not just traffic but public utility vehicles attempting to go past the barricades. “[A]bout 60 per cent of public vehicles, including jeepneys, buses and taxicabs continued operating that Monday in Manila and the rest of the Metropolitan area,” said a contemporary news report. “The students, however, barricaded streets, solicited strike funds from drivers of passing vehicles, stoned buses and cars that did not stop when they directed them to turn back and . . . set up pickets in Manila and Quezon City for the jeepney drivers.”

On 2 February, a “street battle raged between protesters and the police in front of the University of Santo Tomas” (UST). Pillboxes and Molotov cocktails rained as police forces and drivers battled the militants. At the Diliman campus, students engaged in more skirmishes with the police. The latter withdrew after Lopez argued against the presence of state forces in the university. Battles continued until the night, however.

On the following day, 3 February, oppositionist senators Benigno Aquino Jr., Salvador Laurel, and Eva Kalaw-Estrada went to UP Diliman to speak with the students. They expressed their grave concern over the militarization of the campus under the control of Ferdinand Marcos. By the end of Wednesday, UP Diliman was exclusively occupied by militant students as all police forces were withdrawn, after Marcos personally called UP President Lopez that he would withdraw the police. This, after the senators called for the withdrawal of the police force.

Eugenio Lopez, the brother of Vice Pres. Fernando Lopez, sent his DZMM Radyo Patrol station crew to UP Diliman on 3 February to help the militants with their media arm. The influential Lopez siblings were opponents of Marcos, and with the help of DZMM, which extended the 5-kilometer radius of DZUP, student militants made their way through the air waves on 4 February. The Dovie Beams tapes which contained audio recordings of Marcos’s love affair with the American actress, were played through DZUP, much to the humiliation of Marcos.

Another battle raged at the University Belt area on 5 February 1971 with the jeepney drivers now retaliating against the students. Although the jeepney strike ended on 1 February 1971, students at UP Los Baños created sets of barricades on 4 February and 8 February that sealed the main entrance to the university. The students allowed jeepney drivers to “operate up to the barricades.” A lone driver who tried to infiltrate the barricades was assaulted by students with pillboxes thrown at his vehicle.

The commune started to dwindle on 5 February, eventually coming to a halt on 9 February. Scalice’s research reveals that the narrative of the Los Baños uprising as reported in UP Diliman’s The Philippine Collegian ended on 7 February, when, threatened by impending police assaults, the students fortified their barricades and armed themselves with more Molotov cocktails and pillboxes.

Scalice busts another myth concerning the Diliman Commune: not all students at UP were for it. In fact, even the leftist Malayang Pagkakaisa ng Kabataang Pilipino (MPKP), the rival group of then SDK within the Left, denounced the radical uprising, saying that the militants should have waged war against government oppression and not “against UP.” Moreover, as early as 2 February, leaflets signed by “decent elements of the UP Student Council” also criticized the violence of their militant confreres.

Although the university administration allowed the continuation of the commune, with UP President Lopez seeing the whole issue in terms of the “militarization” of the campus, student support for the protests was not unanimous. With the UP Diliman campus deserted by the majority of the student population, the communards themselves voluntarily tore down the barricades as a result of declining student support and manpower. In fact, Rey Vea, the KM and SDK candidate during the elections for the student council in July 1970, lost the elections.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur argued that history is a trope that must be interpreted. In the case of the Diliman Commune, Scalice offers another reading of the primary sources that surfaces a narrative involving alliances between unlikely parties and coordinated efforts in what seemed to be a spontaneous outpouring of protest. History is filled with ironies and contradictions that must be appreciated rather than subsumed under static narratives.


Read the full article of Joseph Scalice in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints volume 66, number 4, December 2018.

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