“Why should one stop when a lot has to be done to attain radical change not only for Filipinos but for other exploited and oppressed peoples as well?”
By EMILY VITAL
MANILA – At 61, Wilma Austria looks frail but when she begins to speak, one would know why the powers-that-be is afraid of this woman.
The nation was surprised when, even with government troops guarding her closely at Camp Crame, Wilma raised her fist and said, “Binabati ko ang Bagong Hukbong Bayan sa ika-45 anibersaryo nito. Patuloy na lumalakas sa buong bayan. Hindi matalo-talo ng AFP!” (I greet the New People’s Army on its 45th anniversary. It continues to gain strength nationwide. The AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] could not defeat it!)
Later, Wilma would tell Bulatlat.com in an interview that there was a continuation to that sentence, which was not captured on television. “I added, ‘at kahit kailan ay hindi matatalo ng AFP!’ (and will never ever be defeated by the AFP).”
Wilma and her husband Benito Tiamzon, together with five others, were arrested on March 22 in Carcar, Cebu. The military has repeatedly claimed that the Tiamzons are high-ranking leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Why is this woman undaunted in the midst of incarceration? Where does her strength come from?
The foundations of her character were shaped early.
Born on December 21, 1952, Wilma grew up in San Joaquin, Pasig. She is fourth of five siblings.
Her father was a clerk and her mother a housewife. “My father’s salary was P4 per month and we had to make do with that,” she said.
She was exposed to nationalism during her childhood. Her paternal grandfather fought the Japanese invaders as a guerrilla. “I remember how during reunions my father and his siblings would talk about my grandfather. My grandfather was arrested, and tortured by the Japanese but he was able to escape,” Wilma said.
She even learned some guerrilla songs, taught by her Grade 3 teacher. Asked if she remembers one, Austria did not hesitate and sang, “Ang maging gerilya’y napakahirap/ Lagi sa bundok at parang/ Ang puhunan ay buhay/ Para sa kalayaan.”
“Of course, at that time, I could not fully understand the meaning of the song,” she said. She never thought that she would choose the same kind of life later on.
She later learned that her teacher who taught guerrilla songs was a daughter of a guerilla fighter. She later on encountered other nationalist teachers at the Rizal High School.
Her inquisitiveness was already evident then. Asked to join an oratorical contest celebrating the centennial of Emilio Aguinaldo, Wilma did her research and wrote her own piece. She wrote the truth: that Aguinaldo betrayed the country when he signed the Pact of Biak na Bato and that he ordered the killing of Andres Bonifacio. “My teacher said, ‘Even if this is true, we could not possibly use this because the occasion is the centennial celebration of Aguinaldo.’ But she was happy that I did a research and wrote my own piece,” she related.
She graduated first honorable mention. She entered the University of the Philippines (UP) in 1969 as a provincial state scholar.
Wilma dreamt of becoming a doctor. “But we could not afford it even with a scholarship,” she said. She took up Statistics instead.
At that time, the student movement was already flourishing in the university. Wilma and a classmate enlisted themselves in discussion groups (DGs) organized by the Nationalist Corps and the UP Student Council. They studied the writings of Renato Constantino and Claro M. Recto and later on revolutionary writings.
She later joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK), first as a member of Gintong Silahis, its cultural arm. She played the lead role in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Mother” during the SDK Congress.
Wilma said she enjoyed the ideological discussions at Gintong Silahis. “We discussed every composition, deciding which parts to keep and which to revise,” she said.
It was not long before she joined the SDK’s labor committee. She frequented picketlines of striking workers.
Wilma recalled that one time, a wife of one of the workers threw a stone at one of the policemen near the picketline. “The stone hit the policeman and he was so angry he fired at us,” Wilma said. They were fortunate no one got hurt.
“Such experience had a huge impact on me, and even on my fellow activists at that time,” Wilma said. She learned how workers and their families were being exploited as wives and children of the workers helped man the picketlines.
After the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in December 1971, Wilma decided to leave the university to become a fulltime organizer.
“I felt suffocated inside the university. My mind and my heart were no longer there,” she said.
Besides organizing workers, Wilma had the opportunity to organize the fisherfolk in Navotas. “They gave me fish, which I took to our HQ [headquarters] and shared among comrades,” Wilma said. She was staying at the SDK headquarters at Albany st. in Cubao, Quezon City.
Later, her work expanded to cover district-level comprehensive organizing work. They formed groups of the youth, women, urban poor and built alliances with positive sectors.
“There was an upsurge then,” Wilma recounted. “It was easy for the people, especially the workers, to embrace the national democratic struggle.”
Before the declaration of martial law, Wilma said they were all set to form a broad alliance of workers from different unions at the district level. It would have been a major breakthrough.
On the eve of martial law, she was at one of those picketlines when assailants fired at them. Two workers died and two others were wounded.
She continued being active in the underground revolutionary movement even when activists were arrested left and right.
One day, she went home to get some of her things. A few minutes later, elements of the Philippine Constabulary came to their house. “My mother was so nervous when she opened the door. She denied I was home. I hid under the bed, behind the newspapers,” she said.
The authorities left. When it was already dusk, she rode a tricycle, literally covered by several relatives; she managed to leave the place safely.
In July 1973 though, she was not as lucky. She and two others were arrested when the Philippine Constabulary raided a worker’s house in San Pedro, Laguna. They were first brought to a safe house before they were transferred to Ipil Rehabilitation Center at Fort Bonifacio.
Wilma was subjected to physical torture. She was slapped repeatedly and made to squat for hours. Her captors also beat her legs until they became sore. The following day, the torturers repeated the beatings. It took three to four months before it stopped.
Luckily she was not raped but one time, a military officer ran his pointing finger from her throat down to her navel. “I pretended to lose consciousness,” Wilma said.
She was released in March 1974. Undaunted, she decided to go to the countryside to continue her revolutionary work. Benito Tiamzon was released in June of the same year and both of them went to Cebu first. They helped in the underground organizing in the city for one year.
“Those times were difficult,” Wilma said. “We had few contacts.” They walked for several kilometers to get to the workers and sometimes were hungry.
“We had no regular meals. We usually had lugaw (porridge). Sometimes, we picked up shells by the shore,” Wilma recounted. “The workers sometimes gave me tamarind to eat.”
Even when she became pregnant, she continued her work. In 1975, she and Benito went to Eastern Visayas to plant the seeds of the revolution there. She gave birth in the barrio.
Wilma said her commitment to the cause deepened even more as she immersed herself in the anti-feudal struggle. For five years, she and Benito lived among the peasant masses. “We walked barefoot. In those days, wearing a pair slippers is considered bourgeois,” Wilma recalled.
She was later assigned to another region in Luzon and Benito was assigned elsewhere.
She was arrested again in October 1989 and was able to escape after less than three months.
She was captured for the third time in 1994 and was released on recognizance due to the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
At the time of their recent arrest, she and Benito were monitoring closely the rehabilitation and relief efforts being done by revolutionary forces in the Visayas provinces. The arresting team never returned the cash donations they were carrying, which was sent via the NDFP, a portion of which came from NPA units, amounting to P1.5 million.
Even as she complained of several illnesses, Wilma said there’s no stopping her from doing what she has done for nearly five decades.
“Why should one stop when a lot has to be done to attain radical change not only for Filipinos but for other exploited and oppressed peoples as well?” Wilma said. “Being with the masses, in their everyday life-and-death struggles has strengthened our links to them.”