The brothers Zumel
In April 1955 during the second year of President Ramon Magsaysay’s abbreviated presidency, a group of 98 young men from all corners of the country reported to the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) summer training camp in Polo Fields, Baguio City. By the time graduation came around on April 17, 1959, their numbers were down to 33. Carlos P. Garcia was the new Chief Executive of the nation, Jesus Vargas was the secretary of national defense, and Gen. Manuel Cabal, the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff. The unusually high casualty rate experienced by the Class of 1959 was brought about mainly by academic failures particularly in math subjects. The old problem of hazing also reared its ugly head and on this issue, class members were at times, victims and other times, perpetrators.
The class valedictorian was Sebastian Arrastia of Baguio City, while the first captain or regimental commander of the cadet corps was Jose Ma. Carlos Zumel of Laoag, Ilocos Norte. One of their classmates was Antonio Trillanes, known as “Trilla,” father of former senator Sonny Trillanes IV.
The Zumel family of Laoag, Ilocos Norte, was middle class, not rich but well-off by the standards of the place. Antonio Zumel Sr. was a respected lawyer with a thriving practice that provided a comfortable life for the children. Early on, they were taught to distinguish between needs and wants, brought up to value hard work and inculcated with a spirit of generosity toward others.
The death of the father brought about an unexpected financial crisis and so, as the eldest boy, Tony Zumel Jr., also known as “Ching,” went to work as an unskilled construction laborer. For some reason, he was not paid adequately and for the first time, he tasted the bitter fruit of exploitation by unscrupulous employers. It was an experience that changed his life forever, and explains why as he grew up, he would cast his lot with the poor and the weak.
After a year at St. William’s College in Laoag, his younger brother Jim would turn to a scholarship at the PMA to ease the family burden, perhaps also inspired by two province mates, Gerardo de la Cuesta and Ignacio Paz, both members of PMA Class of 1951. Aside from being the corps commander, Jim was also the class president, and here his leadership skills and abilities were honed and sharpened, preparing him for greater responsibilities in the military organization.
Prior to the martial law years, Tony Zumel joined the Philippines Herald as a copyboy and all-around messenger. This brought him in touch with some of the best news reporters and editors in the business, and soon he himself became a respected figure in media circles, while all the time championing the rights of the weak, the oppressed and the exploited. He served as National Press Club president for two terms during a period when the club was known as a haven for rebels of all kinds. When martial law was declared, he joined the underground just as military intelligence agents were set to arrest him. Tony served as the first chair of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, and later became its senior adviser.
After graduation from the PMA, Jim Zumel would steadily rise through the military ranks, becoming a key figure in the Presidential Security Command during the martial law years. At the Palace, he gained the trust and confidence of the Marcos family. Even while serving as superintendent of the PMA in Baguio City, he would be pulled out to accompany Mrs. Marcos on many of her overseas trips. But he never abused this closeness to power.
Like most of the senior PMA classes during the crisis years following the Aquino assassination, there were divisions in each class and the Class of 1959 was no exception. When Edsa came around, some were on the side of Gen. Fidel V. Ramos and Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile; some including Jim Zumel, stood by the Marcos administration, while others waited to see which way the wind would blow.
Tony Zumel passed away in August 2001, in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It was Jim, a general of the AFP, who represented and spoke for the family during necro services for his brother. He thanked all those who took care of Tony during the period of his illness, and expressed a deep admiration for his older brother who had shown “that he was willing to die for his principles and for a vision that he believed in.”
Last May it was Jim’s turn. After many years spent in the United States, he decided to come home, knowing he had so little time left.
Two brothers with completely different outlooks in life.
One was a professional soldier, mission-oriented and accomplishing his duties and responsibilities with efficiency and integrity; the other, a rebel struggling to change an unequal system of governance with weapons of words and ideas.
To the very end, both stayed true to their principles even as their causes may have been marked by imperfections.
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