Back where I started

In UP medical school and in the Philippine General Hospital, I learned firsthand that the physical ills of our people will never be decisively healed without healing first and foremost the ills of our chronically debilitated and crisis-ridden society.

Streetwise/Business World
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Vol. VIII, No. 27, August 10-16, 2008

The revolutionary ferment in the late sixties and early seventies reached a historic peak in the First Quarter Storm of 1970. Students, many of them from UP and the University Belt or U-belt in Manila, made up the huge bulk of the demonstrators who massed in front of Congress against President Ferdinand Marcos’ state of the nation address on January 25, 1970. Their brutal dispersal by the police sparked a pitched battle in the streets leading up to Malacañang wherein scores of fearless demonstrators rammed a fire truck into the gate of the presidential palace in raging protest.

My brother, a former Engineering student at UP who had just transferred to the University of the East, was one of them. A UP freshman at the time, I marveled at his youthful audacity even as I quailed at the thought that he could have perished that night for a cause that was as yet nebulous to me.

The military and police armed assault on the UP campus in Diliman in February 1971, as students protested centavo increments in fuel prices and the “Seven Sisters” international oil cartel, shattered all my remaining illusions about the university’s ivory tower existence and the inviolability of academic freedom. The experience of the Diliman Commune led to the opening up of my mind and heart to revolutionary ideas and corresponding action.

A UP student’s possible reading selection included essays by various progressive and liberal authors in the Philippine Collegian, Renato Constantino’s nationalist writings, Jose Maria Sison’s Struggle for National Democracy, Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution, Marxist books on political economy and philosophy and, of course, the staple of the seventies activist, Selected Works of Chairman Mao. Most of this reading fare, however, could not be found in the ordinary class syllabus.

Teach-ins, rallies, demonstrations and strikes on a whole slew of issues from student welfare and democratic rights to the hottest issues of the day in the national scene as well as “DGs” or discussion groups on the deeply-rooted problems of the country – imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism as the radical activists named them — abounded.

By the time I ran for university councilor with the slate of the Sandigang Makabansa in 1971 and again as vice-chair in 1972, I had left behind the comfortable confines of UPSCA and its brand of half-baked political activism as well as my notions of scholarship insulated from social realities.

Campus politics then became inevitably framed in the “moderates” vs “radicals” contradiction. Most traditional organizations such as the Greek-letter fraternities/sororities and well-entrenched groups like UPSCA aligned themselves along these lines versus the national democratic or “nd” student organizations. A political party or coalition’s stand not just on campus issues but on national, especially political, issues became critical and defining.

The government’s intelligence agencies, especially their psychological warfare and dirty tricks departments, directly and indirectly intervened in campus politics. They used red-scare and smear tactics that resulted in their covertly-supported candidates winning the chair and vice-chair positions in the hotly-contested 1971 elections but failed miserably the following year when the “nd” activists scored a landslide victory just before the declaration of martial law.

All these things were happening as the crisis in Philippine society further developed and ripened, until the ruling elite, unable to rule in the old way and led by an ambitious, wily and ruthless politician in the person of UP alumnus Marcos, set up a US-backed fascist dictatorship with the declaration of martial law on September 21, 1972.

Many student activists went underground or to the hills. Student councils, school papers, all student organizations were banned. Students were not allowed to congregate more than three at a time and college buildings were literally fenced off with chicken and barbed wire. Security guards and plainclothes military agents made sure that there would be a tight lid on any rumblings of protest and activists were promptly apprehended if they dared undertake any kind of mass action.

Some, like me, were arrested after a stint in the underground. In June 1973, I had actually reenrolled after my mother had presented me to then UP president S. P. Lopez, as a chastened student leader reconciled to the reality of martial rule and the harsh constraints it imposed on everyone, including an academic institution like UP, tagged as the hotbed of student radicalism. Unfortunately, my family’s initial attempt to reintegrate me into a humdrum existence in a suppressed UP was interrupted by arrest, interrogation, torture and detention at the hands of the military.

After my release came the inevitable crossroad: go back to the underground or back to school. My parents won out and even talked me into entering medical school. They said I could be an activist in an acceptable way by becoming a doctor; I could even have more than the humanitarian doctor’s usual share of indigent patients. I thought about it in a slightly different way. I could do revolutionary organizing among the poor while I went about my work as a harmless-looking physician ministering to her patients.

In medical school, it was a struggle to keep one’s revolutionary political and philosophical moorings and pass yet another grueling exam in human anatomy or physiology. For all medical students, it is a struggle to keep one’s humanity; to be reminded that one is more than an empty vessel to be filled with the lore of medical science by diligently attending classes and poking one’s nose in one’s books or peering into our patients’ orifices.

For the truly humanitarian, and more so the activist, it was a struggle to sustain one’s pro-people orientation and one’s ties with the masses. So that you never forget what it all is for: service to the people. A key activity was doing social immersion, i.e. living and working in rural and urban poor communities, every opportunity we had, particularly during summer breaks.

Until graduation time and we reached yet another decision point: to go on for another three-to-five-year residency training program in a specialty and work in a hospital or jump into general practice and do community-based public health work. I chose the latter. I would fulfill my original reasons for becoming a physician: to go back to working with, among and for the exploited and oppressed and fight the dictatorship shielded by some kind of professional credentials.

It didn’t take long before I found myself doing more political – i.e. activist-political – work than work as a clinician. No matter. In UP medical school and in the Philippine General Hospital, I learned firsthand that the physical ills of our people will never be decisively healed without healing first and foremost the ills of our chronically debilitated and crisis-ridden society. Business World/Posted by (

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