‘Kanlungan ng aktibismo’: UP commemorates 50 years since Diliman Commune in virtual exhibit

Story by Christina Quiambao

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains a graphic description of a gun-related death.

“I felt oblivious to the dramatic events that were happening around me. I concentrated on my fallen comrade who was lying on the pavement in a pool of his own blood,” Rolando “Dodoy” Soncuya said in his 2015 essay “The Death of My Unexpected Hero.” 

Soncuya was a UP sophomore when the Diliman Commune erupted. He witnessed the first fatality that occurred during the nine-day uprising, when one of the university professors shot first-year student Pastor “Sonny” Mesina in the forehead. 

On Feb. 1, 1971, students, faculty and residents barred private vehicles from entering the campus in support of transport workers who were protesting the three-centavo increase in oil prices during the Marcos administration’s second term. 

Mathematics professor Inocentes Campos attempted to enter the university but was stopped by protesters along University Avenue. Seeing the professor was armed with a pistol on his hips and a shotgun on his hands, Soncuya never thought of a teacher shooting students in broad daylight. Little did he expect the terror that followed. 

Soncuya vividly recounted how Campos, who was known by students for ignoring boycotts and continuing his classes despite threats from boycotting groups, went back to his bantam car which was damaged from a pillbox explosion and got his calibre .22 rifle.

“Since my group was nearest to him, he started firing at us while we continued to walk, carrying the roadblock,” Soncuya wrote. “I felt something move my left collar. I then realized that Campos had fired his first bullet and that it hit my collar!” 

Mesina, who was a mere two feet away from Soncuya, was then shot by Campos who fired a second bullet. 

“First, there was a depression, then blood spurted from the bullet hole. He staggered, and was only able to walk three steps before he fell to the asphalt road,” Soncuya said, describing the injured first-year student’s last few moments. Mesina was rushed to the nearest infirmary but died three days later. 

What was at first a protest against the oil price hike became one of the hallmarks of student activism and the fight for academic freedom. 

Soncuya’s essay is only one of the features in the virtual exhibit “ENGKWENTRO: Sa(lay)say ng Diliman Commune” launched by the UP Diliman Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts for the 2021 Arts and Culture Festival. The exhibit harks back to the historical events that took place within the university 50 years ago. 

Found under a section called “Sa(la)ysay,” former UP students recount the nine-day barricade in a series of comprehensive narratives. 

Ito ay paglalahad ng mga kaganapan batay sa arkibong pananaliksik tungkol sa Diliman Commune at mula sa mga panayam sa mga lumahok at naging saksi sa mga pangyayari noong 1971,” the virtual exhibition’s description stated. 

Each part includes audio descriptions narrated by UP alumni Atom Araullo, Rep. Sarah Elago, Shan Abdulwahid, Gio Potes and Rex Nepomuceno. Included as well in this section are articles, posters and documents written and published about the Diliman Commune. 

One periodical that emerged on the fourth day of the siege was the radical “Bandilang Pula” after five students seized the UP Press. Upon this discovery, the late Student Affairs Dean Armando Malay sent more staffers to help release articles about the barricades and military invasion on the following day. 

In its first issue, “Bandilang Pula” headlined the killing of first-year student Mesina by the first day of the Diliman Commune. 

Front page of Bandilang Pula’s February 5, 1971 issue. /Courtesy of UP library posted on ENGKWENTRO virtual exhibit

Mesina’s untimely death sparked a full-blown student revolt against authorities. As the outrage in the university spread, the government sent in police and military forces agitating even the then UP president Salvador Lopez to protest the “violations in academic freedom.”

Soncuya, who witnessed the killing of Mesina, said in his essay, “What kind of society would create a monster that pretended to be a teacher but had the ruthlessness to murder a student and get away with it?”

After eight days of the uprising, Lopez released a statement saying that if the barricades were not removed and the police forcibly entered the campus, he would resign. 

“I cannot in conscience sanction any police action which would violate the freedom and integrity of the University, and result in serious loss of life and destruction of property,” he added. 

After consulting with the provincial directorate and his dialogue with Lopez, former University Student Council Chairperson Ericson Baculinao along with other UP students, agreed to tear down the barricades. 

The ninth day marked the end of the Diliman Commune after barricades were demolished and classes resumed despite the lack of tables and chairs destroyed during the conflict. 

The virtual exhibit also featured two other sections: “Tagpo” and “Tugon sa Pamana.”

“Tagpo” contains an interactive map walking readers through the sequence of events in specific areas of the university. According to the website, the map aims to recognize the value of places that were involved in this chapter of UP Diliman history, serving as spaces of physical and ideological encounters.

No description available.
Courtesy of UP Diliman Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts

“Tugon sa Pamana,”the last section of the exhibit, includes laws passed, musicals, poems, documents and essays produced after the Diliman Commune wherein UP continued to stand as a haven of activist principles and participative democracy.

No description available.
Courtesy of UP Diliman Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts

The nine-day conflict led to the signing of the 1989 UP-Department of National Defense (DND) Accord — a bilateral agreement restricting military and police access and operations inside the university. This agreement recently grabbed headlines as DND unilaterally abrogated the accord Jan. 15. 

The UP community was quick to denounce the termination of the accord, sounding the alarm of threats to academic freedom. 

“Academic freedom is enshrined in the Philippine Constitution; it is not a privilege which can be revoked when it is deemed inconvenient,” UP Diliman Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo said in his Jan. 19 statement.

Mesina’s death strengthened the call for the students’ right to academic freedom and even more so when the 1989 abduction and torture of Donato Continente, former staff of the Philippine Collegian, led to the signing of the accord two weeks later. 

The UP Diliman Arts and Culture Festival is held annually from February to April to enrich people’s artistic and cultural experiences within and outside the UP Diliman community. This year’s virtual exhibit commemorates two historical encounters: the 50th year of the Diliman Commune and the 500th year since Ferdinand Magellan came to colonize the Philippines. 

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