YESTERDAY was the 50th anniversary of the so-called “First Quarter Storm” (FQS), the huge anti-government youth demonstrations in the first three months of 1970 when a significant sector of the Filipino youth found meaning in their lives fighting for a cause — the Revolution — much larger than their little selves.
To this day, the FQS is romanticized by many of my generation as a glorious period of selfless heroism for them, perhaps in the same way the veterans of World War 2 do the ‘great war.’
I write this piece not to denigrate the nobility of FQS participants but to demythicize that period and to lay bare its reality. After all, as the cliché goes, the truth will set us free.
The FQS was in fact the hijacking of Filipino student power by the fledgling Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) led by Jose Ma. Sison, who had broken away two years earlier from the pro-Moscow Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP). Sison had been the head of the PKP’s Youth Section and his experience in that task made it easy for him to hijack the FQS’ unleashing of student power during that period.
Despite paying lip service to Marxist theory that the “proletariat” would be the vanguard of the Revolution, Sison since his founding of the CPP believed that the student sector could be the spark for the revolution. He therefore focused his first circle of cadres into organizing that sector. Thus the main organization of Sison’s CPP in its early years was the Kabataang Makabayan (Nationalist Youth) that focused on organizing cells at the University of the Philippines (UP) and then in the University Belt. This is in contrast to the old PKP that focused on organizing peasants in the countrysides.
It was the FQS that propelled the growth of Sison’s tiny group of mostly students into a major force in succeeding years, that it became the nation’s curse for 50 years. Without the FQS, the CPP would not have grown at all, and would have been just a footnote in our history.
In fact, two years after Sison founded the CPP, the military was on the verge of totally dismantling it with many of its leaders killed. President Marcos exposed his arch enemy Ninoy Aquino’s coddling of Sison’s group in Tarlac, so that the NPA had to move to Isabela, where it came close to being nearly crushed by the military.
The FQS though gave Sison many hundreds of recruits — youths radicalized in the violence of demonstrations — especially into the NPA, which his propagandists had depicted at the time as a people’s army that was on the verge of toppling the exploitative state.
As a well-researched dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley on the communist movement from 1957 to 1974 by Joseph Scalice put it: “A generation of students was radicalized by the FQS — some only briefly, but for others it was a life-changing experience — and many found their way into the ranks of the CPP.”
Indeed name any living or dead leader of the CPP in the past 50 years — the present chairman Benito Tiamzon, his wife Wilma, Romulo Kintanar, Popoy Lagman, Edgar Jopson, NDF leaders the former clerics Luis Jalandoni and his wife Connie Ledesma, why even Leoncio Evasco who would 45 years later become a top official of the Duterte government — and I can tell you they were radicalized to be full-time revolutionaries by the FQS.
It was Sison who coined the term First Quarter Storm to romanticize those student demonstrations in 1970. Seeing himself as some kind of reincarnation of Mao Zedong, he saw it as the equivalent of the January 1967 demonstrations in Shanghai that sparked what Mao called the Great Cultural Revolution that would rid the fledgling socialist state of its “capitalist revisionist” party leaders.
Mao called the Shanghai demonstrations the “January Storm.” Sison first called the Manila demonstrations in the first three months of 1970 the First Quarter Storm in his ecstatic congratulatory message in the party newspaper Ang Bayan. The term would be popularized in the Free Press articles (collected in a book Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage) of Jose Lacaba — one of Sison’s first recruits and the chief translator of his works then.
Sison and his CPP, ironically had nothing to do with the event that triggered the FQS: the violent dispersal of the massive student demonstrations in front of Congress when President Marcos went to deliver his state of the nation address. It was the biggest student demonstration at the time, since the “moderate” National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) — led by Jopson before he became a top communist — vigorously called for all chapters to attend it, to demand that Marcos, who was on his second term, undertake reforms to confront the increasing poverty and political violence of that period.
Sison’s KM and his other front organizations formed such a small group that it was easy for the NUSP organizers to assign them an area far from the Congress entrance. It was a moderate student group from Feati, which the NUSP organizers thought were with them, that managed to approach the entrance, just as Marcos with his wife Imelda were leaving. The Feati group surprisingly got to throw the crocodile effigy (the then popular depiction of corrupt politicians) they carried towards Marcos.
The commanders of the Manila police that was in charge of securing the area, panicked and charged not just the group that threw the effigy, but the entire crowd of student demonstrators, violently whipping them with their truncheons.
Newspapers the next day would fill their front pages with dramatic photos of police brutality. Why, even the moderate NUSP members witnessed the “fascist state” in action.
The violent demonstration in front of Congress that triggered student outrage was the equivalent of a spontaneous combustion in a dry forest. The succeeding demonstrations were the equivalent of arson: Sison ordered his top CPP cadres to scramble after that to lead the succeeding demonstrations, turn them into violent ones so as to provoke more police brutality, implementing Sison’s Machiavellian strategy of depicting the state as a brutal, fascist regime.
In the scores of demonstrations the KM undertook since its founding in 1964, mostly in front of the US embassy, Sison in fact had been striving for that kind of scenario — for the police to attack helpless student demonstrators. Sison often accused the police of deploying what he called agents provocateurs to infiltrate the demonstrators’ ranks, who would assault the riot squads, in order for the authorities to disperse the crowd and arrest their leaders.
The truth though is that Sison’s KM and its other front organizations had cadres — in several instances NPA trainees who happened to be in the city — with a mindset of attacking the police in some way during demonstrations to provoke their violent reaction. We even got to have a term for this kind of activists: utak-pulbura (“gunpowder-minded”). This referred to the very crude grenades they improvised, which we called “pill-boxes” thrown at the police. These were fashioned into balls consisting of gunpowder and match heads mixed with bottle caps and iron screws, which would explode when they hit the ground or a policeman’s riot shield — provoking the police to retaliate.
I know this since as a “party candidate member” I got to be friends with many of these utak-pulbura activists, whom I was assigned to indoctrinate into Marxism. They mostly came from the slums of Tondo and Caloocan, who would later join the NPA or the urban guerrilla units such as the Alex Boncayao Brigade. There was also a particularly audacious group called the Kilusang ng Kabataang Demokratiko from Tondo, sons of PKP members who had been imprisoned or captured in the 1950s,
Out of the original 12 founding members of the CPP that made up its central committee, four were in Manila during the FQS in order lead the demonstrations, with the twin aims of provoking more police brutality and recruiting participants into the KM, for eventual recruitment into the party and the NPA.
This core group was led by the late Monico Atienza, then the party’s organization department head; Hermenigildo Garcia, the first secretary of its Manila Rizal Regional Committee; the late Julius Fortuna, tasked to raise funds from opposition politicians as the demonstrations required money; and Manuel Collantes, in charge of the Party’s trade-union work, who was tragically ordered executed by the Party after his arrest by the military. (I, with three others, was in this group’s next-in-line.)
Mao had his Shanghai Commune of 1967, from which Mao’s Red Guards launched their Great Proletarian Revolution. These four communist cadres — perhaps hilariously — got to create the Philippine equivalent, the Diliman Commune of 1971, in which the radical student organizations managed to control the UP for several days.
Of course, these people are hardly familiar to activists of that period who continue to romanticize the FQS. Indeed, many activists and even party members were baffled why Sison wrote a long eulogy in the party newspaper glorifying Atienza, an obscure Pilipino Department instructor at the UP, as a great revolutionary leader when he died 2007.
That California University dissertation had a cynical conclusion about the FQS:
“The greatest short-term beneficiaries of the FQS sat in the board rooms of Meralco and the political headquarters of the Liberal Party. For Lopez and Aquino and their allies, the protesting students were an ideal proxy in their fight against Marcos. These forces aspired to destabilize and overthrow him, and the blood in the streets served this purpose.
They did not succeed in this, however. In the end, the events which began on Jan. 26, 1970 set in motion a countdown to martial law.”
The FQS had another major consequence for the communist movement. Sison and his core group were so amazed by its role in recruiting the gullible youth into its ranks, and especially the NPA, that when the revolutionary flow dissipated by the end of 1970 and into the early months of 1971, they were looking to replicate that kind of event to reignite the Revolution. The party was desperate as they had succeeded in getting Mao to agree to smuggle thousands of assault rifles to arm the NPA, but there were not enough recruits to use those weapons.
Sison and his core group conceived of an event they thought would replicate the impact of the FQS: the bombing of the Liberal Party rally at Plaza Miranda in August 1971, which they calculated would trigger so much outrage against Marcos as the police brutality at the FQS demonstrations did.
Well it did, but it also convinced Marcos that he had no choice but to declare martial law, to save the Republic from the “Left and the Right,” he claimed. It also of course installed a one-man regime that lasted for 14 years.
The FQS indeed played a central role in our history, which triggered a chain of events that made us the Sick Man of Asia, and which seems to have recovered only in the past two decades.