Luis Taruc, hero
Twelve years after his death, the peasant leader and Huk founder Luis Taruc has been inducted into the nation’s hall of heroes. At the unveiling of a historical marker in Taruc’s hometown last week, the executive director of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines summed up the meaning of the ceremony: “The national government recognizes Luis Taruc as a hero.”
This pronouncement may strike some as belated but deserved recognition; others may criticize it as insufficiently historical or an affront to the memory of other heroes; still others may wonder what all the fuss is about. But over the course of his long life, Taruc was, as the NHCP phrased it, a “nationalist and defender of the rights of farmers and workers.” He believed in civil liberties and democratic participation; he sought and won a seat in Congress (and was ultimately ejected for opposing parity rights for Americans); after his ejection from Congress he returned to the hills; after he finally surrendered, he spent almost two decades in jail; all his life he remained devoted to the peasants’ cause. Above all, he cofounded and led the most successful resistance movement against the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (People’s Army Against the Japanese), or Hukbalahap.
The NHCP measures the scale of the Huks’ achievement against the Japanese invasion: By January 1945, most of the central plains of Luzon were under Huk control. It quotes the scholars Bernard Seeman and Laurence Salisbury: By the end of the war, the Huks had grown to 20,000 regulars with a reserve force of 50,000, fought 1,200 engagements with enemy forces, and inflicted some 25,000 enemy casualties, “mostly local puppets.”
The historian Keith Thor Carlson offers a fair assessment: “Luis Taruc was a master of public relations and mass mobilization. An articulate and passionate speaker with a humble sincere demeanor, he retained until his death at age 91 a strong public following, especially among the peasants of Central Luzon. He was also a controversial man, critiqued by those on the extreme left and right of Philippine politics as being ideologically inconsistent and politically opportunistic—accusations he rejected.”
He died, a few weeks short of 92, in 2005, the year after Facebook was founded and a year before Twitter was born. In his prime, he would have cut quite the figure on social media.
His erstwhile allies on the communist left as well as his critics on the right took him to task for his affinity for publicity; he had his shortcomings. But any controversy provoked by the NHCP’s declaration should be welcomed—calling him to account, for instance, for surrendering to President Ramon Magsaysay (a decision that roiled the leadership of the insurgency) or for entering into an arrangement with President Ferdinand Marcos after Marcos released him from jail (a convenience that rankled the political opposition to the martial law regime). Patriots are real people who lead complicated lives.
In our review, however, we should remember the complicated biographies of our other heroes. We continue to consider Artemio Ricarte a hero, for his role as a fearsome general fighting Spanish colonial authorities and American occupiers during the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War — despite his misguided embrace of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. We continue to revere Apolinario Mabini for his role in steering the newly launched ship of state between the second phase of the Revolution and the American occupation—despite his rejection of the first phase and his unsympathetic treatment of
Gen. Antonio Luna. We now hold Luna himself in the highest regard—despite his initial opposition to the outbreak of the Revolution (like Jose Rizal, he did not think the rebels had the necessary military means) and even his betrayal of members of the Katipunan.
But in the end, these men and women lived their lives, and many of them even offered theirs on the altar of sacrifice, to help create a nation. Carlson writes: “For Taruc, the principal society was the Filipino nation, not the underclass.” Enough time has passed for that nation to welcome him to the hall of heroes.