NOTEBOOK: Remembering Tony Zumel
In this issue is an article about the celebration held in Manila marking the 80th birthday of the late Antonio Zumel, revolutionary leader with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and once a journalist with Manila daily newspapers.
From those who spoke about him and his contributions to the progressive movement, it is not hard to notice that he was widely accepted before and after he joined the revolutionary movement. Among those who paid tribute to Zumel was the current Speaker of the Philippine Congress, Sonny Belmonte, who spoke fondly of his years with Zumel in their stint as reporters and editors of Manila dailies.
I wish to share my recollections of my association with Zumel.
It was in 1969 when, our group of four student activists from Manila and two activists in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental, all staff members of the newly-published Dumaguete Times, were arrested on false criminal charges.
Our publication exposed a landgrabbing case that was perpetrated by landlords who victimized peasants in Guihulngan, a town of Negros Oriental. Before that we wrote stories about the student grievances and demands in Siliman University after a campus strike.
I remember we had just published five issues in a period of about four months with stories and commentaries on national and local issues and we were already the subject of harassment by the local police and the military. Our rented house cum office was under surveillance and was stoned a few times at night.
After our arrest, four of us were brought by military plane to the Cadiz police jail in Negros Occidental. Police said we were involved in the armed ambush of police officers there, obviously to keep us in jail and scare the local population. Soon, the Manila newspapers published front page stories about our plight. Tony Zumel, then in his first term as president of the National Press Club, issued press statements denouncing our detention and the suppression of press freedom because our paper stopped being published due to the arrest of the whole staff. I remember reading his statement demanding our release. He came to Cadiz to visit and interview us. He came with Jose Lacaba of the Free Press magazine, lawyer Voltaire Garcia, Senator Salvador Laurel and the mother of my wife Mila.
Tony Zumel, as we learned to fondly call him from then on, clearly was angered by our stories of physical and mental torture. He engaged then big landlord and warlord Congressman Armando Gustilo, then president of the National Federation of Sugar Planters, in a war of words in the media. I recall Gustilo said to Zumel to put his foot in his mouth after the latter learned and exposed in the press that Mila was detained in the radio station in Gustilo’s mansion in Victorias, Negros Occidental.
Zumel initiated a fund-raising campaign in Manila for our bail. When Mila was released, Zumel brought her to various schools and universities to speak and raise funds that contributed significantly to pay for the bail of all of the remaining five detainees after one and a half months in jail.
Note that Zumel was not yet part of any activist or people’s organization at the time. Yet he risked his career and safety when he denounced our detention as suppression of press freedom and identified Gustilo, a powerful landlord politician and a close ally of President Marcos, as interfering in our interrogation.
It didn’t take time for Zumel to closely associate with student activists, progressive labor and peasant organizations, academic and professional groups who protested Marcos’s pro-U.S., anti-labor and anti-agrarian reform policies. He opened the doors of the National Press Club building in Manila to demonstrators being chased by the Metrocom police. The NPC beame a refuge for anti-Marcos rallyists. It became the venue for conferences and informal teach-ins.
I learned later that he became part of a group of journalists who started secretly organizing journalists and media workers for the revolutionary underground.
When martial law was declared by Marcos in 1972, Zumel left his journalistic career and joined the underground organizations to fight the U.S.-Marcos regime full time. He was among the first writers in the NDF official publication, Liberation, while also a part of Balita ng Malayang Pilipino (BMP), an underground news agency that provided news stories to various underground media nationwide. For the Liberation he wrote the column Point Blank where he commented on the follies of the Marcos regime in a light, witty style of writing.
We lived in the same UG house for sometime and I remember he would do more household chores than many of us like washing the dishes and sweeping the floor. He would even cultivate our small backyard, remove the weeds and do some gardening.
He must have been in his early forties then. He was the most senior in our group yet we didn’t feel any barrier in our relationship with him. He showed humility and willingness to learn from us who were activists longer than he had been and he deferred to our views and decisions.
But what we enjoyed most from his company were his many stories and endless anecdotes about personalities in the national and Manila society that we would never have known from anyone else. Whenever a prominent name was mentioned in our conversations, he would have stories about him or her. Whenever a significant event was mentioned, he had inside stories to tell. From him we learned the actual workings of power in Malacanang, in Congress and in city hall. He must have naturally understood these from his long stint as a reporter and editor who knew those who walked the corridors of power.
When he moved to another UG house, we missed these stories and we missed Tito Art (his pseudonym), his humor and his deep humanity. We used to kid him and called him “KP” (katawang pang-romansa or body built for romance) and he just laughed it off.
He continued to write for Liberation even as he belonged to another collective. That was also the time when he decided to start his marital relationship with Mela who became his life-long partner until his death in 2001.
It was in April 1974 when our UG house in Bulacan was raided by the military. I eluded arrest with another comrade, the late Nick Atienza. The raiding military team gave us a car chase with their military vehicle while shooting at our old Volkswagen Beetle. We entered a barrio road and disappeared into the roof-high dust produced by our speeding second-hand car. After a night’s rest in a house of a local sympathizer, we left on foot, tricycle and jeepney and went to the UG house of Zumel’s group. We saw their apartment with all the lights turned on and the door widely open. To our great relief, we found out later that they eluded arrest too.
Years later after my arrest in late 1974 and release in early 1981, I met Zumel again with familiar faces in the underground. We talked till the wee hours of the morning and parted ways. I never saw him again but I followed his activities. I was already in Canada when I read about his being part of the NDF panel in peace talks with the Cory Aquino government in 1987. I read his writings and his autobiography. Then the sad news about his death in 2001. I am proud to have known Tony Zumel, a great man and revoutionary. I am prouder to have been with him in the early part of his revolutionary life. His life inspires generations and will be emulated by thousands who choose a similar path.