‘The line of fire is a place of honor’: Activism is not a crime
The right to dissent is one of the most important rights guaranteed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Nevertheless, Filipino activists have every reason to fear for their safety as they have been regularly subjected to red-tagging, political persecution, and state violence since the downfall of the Marcos regime. Slain student leader Leandro “Lean” Alejandro, whose 60th birth anniversary we celebrate on July 10, knew the risks of working as a full-time activist. But as he pointed out, “The line of fire is a place of honor.”
Lean was one of the key figures in the struggle against the fascist Marcos dictatorship during the 1980s, alongside senators Lorenzo Tañada and Pepe Diokno, and labor leaders Ka Bert Olalia, Lando Olalia, and Crispin Beltran. He became the first secretary-general of the multisectoral group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) when it was established in 1985. In the same year, the charismatic leader, together with JV Bautista, was arrested while negotiating on behalf of student demonstrators. For two months, he was detained in Fort Bonifacio where he said, “The struggle for freedom is the next best thing to actually being free,” in his letter to then girlfriend Lidy Nacpil.
In 1978, Lean entered the University of the Philippines Diliman at the peak of martial law. He took up BS Chemistry as pre-medicine course, but eventually shifted to Philippine Studies where he learned about Marxism in his history and political science subjects. After martial law was lifted in 1981, he led a student mobilization in Manila to protest against tuition hikes and was among those violently dispersed. He was elected chair of the University Student Council in 1983.
As a mass leader, he earned a reputation for his eloquence and wide array of knowledge—from politics to films. Aside from his nationalist fervor, he loved playing chess and was an avid fan of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Indeed, Lean exemplified the qualities of a principled and well-rounded leader, which enabled him to form alliances with workers, urban poor, professionals, the business sector, and politicians.
Despite losing his congressional bid in his hometown Navotas against Tessie Aquino-Oreta, sister-in-law of then President Cory Aquino, in 1987, Lean was able to maximize the electoral campaign by introducing a new brand of politics—one that veered away from traditional politics and promoted nationalism and genuine service to the people.
On Sept. 19, 1987, Lean was gunned down in his car while approaching the headquarters of Bayan in Quezon City, by suspected elements of the military who were hell-bent on preserving the ruling system. He had just come from a press conference where he called for mass protests against the increasing military influence in the Aquino administration.
Lean may be gone too soon, but he left an indelible contribution to the national democratic movement. His legacy remains an inspiration to freedom-loving Filipinos. Had he lived today, he would find himself facing a familiar adversary in President Duterte, who is on the verge of criminalizing dissent by signing the draconian anti-terrorism bill.
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