At the entrance of the tree-lined park, the shiny black granite wall is farthest from view. Closer is the imposing 14-meter bronze statue of a woman with flowing hair, her right hand in the act of lifting a fallen man while her outstretched left hand reaches for the sky.
It is the afternoon of November 30, National Heroes Day. And between the Wall of Remembrance and the Inang Bayan statue of the late National Artist and sculptor Eduardo Castrillo, a white, tarpaulin tent shrouds the wide, open ground.
Inside the tent, more than a hundred men and women joined officers and members of the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation in the annual rite of memorializing individuals who lived and died defying the dictatorship of the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
A private foundation that sprung from the 1986 EDSA People Power revolution, Bantayog ng mga Bayani is a park-cum-museum-auditorium- and-library that stands on a 1.5 hectare property reserved for its use by President Corazon Aquino through Presidential Proclamation no. 132 on July 25, 1987.
“We visited President Aquino and through her were able to get a long-term lease on a one and-a-half hectare lot in Quezon City near the corner of Quezon Avenue and EDSA with the help of then President Deogracias N. Vistan of Land Bank,” wrote the late Bantayog founding chairman Jovito Salonga in his essay, “Keeping the Faith with our Martyrs and Heroes.”
In 1992, some six years after it was founded, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani honored its first 65 martyrs, which included victims of political assassinations led by Aquino’s late husband, Senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (killed in 1983), Zamboanga City mayor Cesar Climaco (killed in 1984), and Antique governor Evelio Javier (killed in 1986).
Also among the first to be recognized as heroes and martyrs were the following leading lights of the Left movement who joined the underground and the New People’s Army during the height of Martial Law: Ateneo University student leader and National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) president Edgardo ‘Edjop’ Jopson, University of the Philippines (UP) Anthropology graduate, poet, and essayist Maria Lorena M. Barros, and UP History student William Vincent A. Begg, to name a few.
The following year, in 1993, the Foundation noted that, “after long reflection,” they have decided to also include individuals who fought for freedom, justice, and democracy during the Marcos years but died in the years after the EDSA revolution.
Bantayog Foundation invites families of victims, members of civic organizations, and the general public to send the names and personal circumstances of persons who should be honored.
“Parties with interest can submit a nomination, providing (as specific as possible) the details of the nominee’s involvement in the struggle against the dictatorship, manner of death, impact of death, personal (details), family and educational background, and testimonials kung pwede [if possible]. Address to the Executive Director, or the head of Research and Documentation. This can be done any time of the year,” said May Rodriguez, Bantayog executive director.
Rodriguez stressed that “there is no selection committee,” adding that Bantayog has a research group and a screening committee.
“The screening committee is tasked to review the year’s nominations and make its recommendations to the Board. It has been headed by Atty. (Jose Manuel) Chel Diokno for the last two years. It meets once (rarely, twice) a year, between July and August. The Board then meets to receive the recommendations and to give its final approval. A good nomination is likely to get board approval at the first try, but still we cannot anticipate the Board action on individual cases,” Rodriguez explained.
She added that it is the Board who decides who will compose, as well as who will head the screening committee. There are no term limits for the members of the screening committee.
Fr. Edicio dela Torre, Bantayog board member, said the board decides by consensus. “Based on their research, pag-nag-agree yung committee, the board decides by consensus.”
In 2009, a Vera Files report posted on GMA news online questioned the non-inclusion of labor leader Felixberto Olalia and his son, labor lawyer Rolando Olalia in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani roster of martyrs and heroes.
Felixberto Olalia had died under house arrest at the age of 80 on December 4, 1983, less than four months after Sen. Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino, was assasinated.
Born in 1908, the elder Olalia is called “the grand old man of Philippine labor” for leading in the fight for labor rights and welfare beginning in the 1930s.
He formed the militant labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and became its first chairperson in 1980. Two years later, the Marcos government charged the elder Olalia with conspiracy to rebellion.
Felixberto Olalia died of rheumatic heart disease and pneumonia nine months after he was imprisoned.
His lawyer-son Rolando, followed in his late father’s footsteps and in 1986, was abducted— together with his driver Leonor Alay-ay—after attending a union meeting. The two were later found dead in Antipolo.
Various newspaper accounts reported that Rolando Olalia was “hogtied, his eyes gouged, his mouth agape and stuffed with newspapers, with multiple gunshot and stab wounds all over his body.”
Written by the late journalist and 2016 Bantayog honoree Lourdes ‘Chit’ Estela, the Vera Files 2009 report added that the Olalias had been nominated three times and each time, their inclusion was thwarted.
Rodriguez said that the two Olalias are on the Bantayog roster now, adding that, “those interested should give the Bantayog process a chance.”
Felixberto Olalia Sr. and Rolando Olalia were included in the Bantayog roster in 2014, a good 42 years since both Olalias began to actively defy the Marcos dictatorship in 1972.
Today, the Bantayog Board of Trustees are composed of former Sen. Wigberto Tañada, chairman; Carolina ‘Bobby’ Malay, vice-chairman; GMA network’s chairman and CEO Atty. Felipe L. Gozon, treasurer; and Ma. Cristina V. Rodriguez, corporate secretary and executive director.
It’s board members are Mary Rose G. Bautista, Edita Burgos, Edicio dela Torre, Jose Manuel I. Diokno, Ester C. Isberto, Myrna H. Jimenez, Alan T. Ortiz, Rafael Paredes, Marie J. Plopinio, Susan F. Quimpo, Solomon Y. Yuyitung, and Dr. Juan J. Perez III, M.D.
In the days of Bantayog founder Jovito Salonga, the Foundation raised funds from their own pockets to meet operations expenses. “But our resources were very meager and limited—we needed contributions from friends and sympathizers. We got a big boost from President (Cory) Aquino who donated her one-month’s salary to start the fund-raising campaign,” Salonga wrote.
Board member Marie Plopinio said that today, Bantayog still sources its operating funds from benefactor donations, as well as visits to the museum, and funding for projects from some government institutions.
This year, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani elevated 11 individuals to the roster of heroes and martyrs which now total 298.
First to be recognized is the late billionaire industrialist Alfonso Yuchengco, trustee of Bantayog Foundation, who later became its chair and chair emeritus until the time of his death on April 15 of this year.
Yuchengco is the founder of the Yuchengco Group of Companies (YGC), a conglomerate anchored on banking and insurance, with business interests in Grepalife Insurance, Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC), Manila Memorial Park, and Mapua Institute of Technology, among others.
According to veteran journalist and editor Tony Lopez, the Yuchengco Group of Companies, in 2009, already had resources of about P215 billion ($5billion), with P22 billion in equity.
As stated in the Bantayog souvenir program handed out during the memorial, Yuchengco’s “quiet involvement, in the form of moral and material assistance, gave hope in particular to those oppositionists in the Light-a-Fire movment,” a group that had “drawn up plans to destabilize the Marcos regime by planting explosives in selected government buildings and properties owned by Marcos cronies.”
Dr. Rey Vea, Mapua Institute of Technology President-CEO and this year’s Bantayog ng mga Bayani guest speaker, remembered a quip once made to him by Yuchengco: “Ako, Light-a-Fire, ikaw, saan ka [I am with Light-a-Fire, who are you with]?”
Yuchengco opposed the Marcos dictatorship, later serving as the country’s ambassador to China, and later Japan and the United Nations under the first Aquino administration.
Other honorees at the 2017 Bantayog ng mga Bayani memorial are the late Catholic priest-activist Jose ‘Joe’ Dizon, tribal leaders Tayab Aboli and Lumbaya Gayudan, Cesar Cayon, Coronacion Chiva, Dalama Villaron, Pablo Fernandez, veteran journalist and National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) founding chairman Antonio Ma. Nieva, academic Sabino Padilla, and student leader Francis Sontillano.
Francis Sontillano was one of the first casualties of the First Quarter Storm (FQS). At 15, the Philippine Science High School student and member of the Malayang Kilusan ng mga Kabataan, was fatally injured when a pill box bomb thrown by a security guard during a 1970 protest rally hit Sontillano directly in the head.
Fr. Joe Dizon was a militant church activist in Southern Tagalog who championed the causes of oppressed workers and resisted Martial Law. He died of diabetes complications in November 2013.
Antonio Ma. Onrubia Nieva was one of the leading lights of Philippine media. He fiercely opposed Martial Law and championed press freedom through his writings and his organizing of media workers’ unions. In and out of detention all throughout the Marcos years, Nieva was founding chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and was secretary-general of the Prague-based International Organization of Journalists (IOJ), the first Asian to hold that position in 1995. He served in this post until his death from natural cases in 1997.
Sabino G. Padilla Jr. was an academic, anthropologist, artist and organizer who sided with Navotas fish port workers and Isabela farmers opposing abuses committed during the days of Marcos rule. Detained in 1973 and again, in 1982, Padilla later taught in UP and the St. Scholastica’s College upon his release. He died of natural causes in 2013.
Pablo Galvez Fernandez was a reserve Army 2nd lieutenant who became one of the leaders of the student movement in Iloilo in the early 1970s. As mentioned in the Bantayog souvenir program, Fernandez was supposed to be deployed in Mindanao when Martial Law was declared. But he refused to take part in the war in Mindanao and to avoid court martial, Fernandez left his home in October 1972 and joined the NPA. He died in an encounter with the military on June 9, 1973.
Coronacion Chiva, known as Kumander Waling-waling, joined the resistance against the Japanese during World War II as a member of the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap). The organization was later outlawed because of its communist ideology. In the 1960s, Cayon became part of the militant labor movement and later the New People’s Army (NPA). She died in an encounter in 1977.
Tayab Arthur Aboli and Lumbaya Gayudan belonged to the Kalinga indigenous people (IP) of northern Luzon. Together with tribal leader Macli-ing Dulag, they launched the two decades-long, but ultimately successful struggle to stop the construction of the World Bank-funded Chico River Dam, a project of the Marcos government in the 70s that is now considered a landmark case study concerning ancestral domain issues in the Philippines.
Gayudan joined the New People’s Army (NPA) in 1980, the same year Macli-ing Dulag was murdered by the military. Gayudan died in 1984 after succumbing to pneumonia.
Tayab joined the NPA in 1982. In 1986, he was part of the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) that entered into a peace pact with the Aquino government. He died of natural causes in 2007, at the age of 57.
Like Gayudan and Tayab, Cesar Tiaga Cayon, a Davaoeño, became a member of the NPA to resist Marcos rule. He worked among the Higaonon tribe in Mindanao.
Dalama Elma Villaron was from the Sulod-Bukidnon tribe of Panay known as Tumanduks. She joined the NPA to resist military abuses committed against their tribe during Martial Law. Her underground involvement persisted even after the ouster of the Marcos government. In 1987, Dalama and her companions were overpowered by government security forces. No details on how she actually died or where she was buried were released.