Antonio Pajalla used to be a trade unionist before he went underground and joined the New People’s Army. He availed of the government’s amnesty program to lead an “ordinary life.” But not quite: he is a peasant leader who was recently arrested then released.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Antonio Pajalla sat placidly in a corner of the Balagtas Hall of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, as peasants and workers, along with students and faculty, gave fiery speeches and chanted slogans, demanding that genuine agrarian reform be tackled in the talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.
As one of the speakers called his name, Pajalla, 54, stood up and raised his clenched fist. The speaker then narrated to the audience of nearly a thousand his recent predicament: he was arrested in broad daylight by police forces last Aug. 12, and detained on rebellion charges, for which he has long been granted amnesty.
Pajalla was one of the victims of the series of arrests of peasants and peasant rights advocates within a week. On the same day that Pajalla was freed, Aug. 15, another peasant leader, Jonathan Moica was nabbed in the Bicol region and was released a day later.
Then, on the same day of the gathering in PUP on Aug. 19, peasant rights advocate and missionary worker Amelia Pond was arrested in Cebu City after attending the national congress of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. Pond, however, remains behind bars.
“I do not understand why peasants are being arrested under the present administration. This is not good and it must stop. These peasant leaders are only leading the farmers to assert their right to till and, for my case, claim the coco levy funds,” Pajalla told Bulatlat, referring to the taxes collected from small coconut farmers during the martial law years.
Pajalla, who was recently appointed as vice chair of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, is among those leading the fight in the Quezon province in pushing for the return of the multi-million coco levy funds to small coconut farmers, in accordance to the ruling of the Supreme Court in 2014, affirming its previous decision back in 2001 and 2012.
A unionist turned revolutionary fighter
Pajalla’s involvement in the progressive movement began when he became a unionist in a textile factory in Sucat, Parañaque City during the martial law days. He was motivated to join the union due to their low salary and poor working conditions in the factory.
But when authorities began the crackdown among labor activists, Pajalla went underground and joined the New People’s Army (NPA) in 1987.
As a breadwinner, his family appealed to him several times to return to the city and work as any other “normal” person. But he could not turn a blind eye to the social inequalities at the time and leave behind the masses he was serving and organizing in the countryside.
It was then that he met and married another revolutionary fighter. When they had children, his wife could not bear being away from them and decided to leave the NPA. A year later, in 1997, Pajalla joined his family and quit being a revolutionary fighter after a decade.
In the same year, he was granted amnesty.
Back in the movement
Back as an “ordinary” person, as he described himself, Pajalla said the same conditions that pushed him to be a revolutionary fighter continue to prevail in the country. Still, it took 15 years before he reconnected with fellow activists and returned to what he loved most – organizing and serving the people through the progressive movement.
He has been leading campaigns of peasants in the Quezon province for some 20 years today. He said his being a former member of the NPA is an “open secret” in their community and even with government officials he has dealt with. But he said he was never discredited in his involvement in the progressive movement.
Pajalla said, “When I was still an NPA member, there were already peace talks. And it has been going on now. I hope that this time it would succeed and result in uplifting the lives of peasants in the countryside.”