Lest we forget: Lessons from the Diliman Commune

“My memory is not that sharp anymore,” Dr. Judy Taguiwalo confesses. With her recollection weathered by time, she has taken to writing and archival research as a means to preserve her memory. For the former UP-Diliman professor, forgetting would be an unforgivable crime. And so if you ask her about the events of the Diliman Commune, she would tell you the razor-edged details burned indelibly on her mind—the stomping of MetroCom soldiers as they entered campus grounds that fateful day in 1971, the hot pandesal the students joyously shared as they manned the makeshift barricade, and the crackling of the firecrackers they hurled at the enemy. 

No stranger to protests herself, having been part of the First Quarter Storm just the year before,  Taguiwalo hadn’t seen anything like the Commune. The campus had transformed into a war zone, and the war they waged was one that was tempered by rage and injustice. “The physical assault on the university transformed many of us,” she shares, reminiscing how all the sectors in the university—fraternities, religious groups, militant students—stood together as one.  

The military force’s blatant disregard for the freedom of the students and the whole campus would set into motion the fiery nine-day resistance of UP students and staff alike as they fought to take back their autonomy.

A worthy cause

The early 70s was marked by social unrest caused by increased debt, inflation, and other social ills, creating, as Taguiwalo described it,  a “hotbed of student activism.” She continues, “The Diliman Commune was but the latest of a series of student and youth activism in the country. It was not an overnight thing, and it was not something that was planned or [had] a conspiracy behind it.”

It began as a show of solidarity with transport workers on strike due to the increased gasoline prices during that time, with students coordinating to put up barricades spanning the length of Katipunan and the University Avenue. The cooperation between the different sectors of the university was particularly important to sustain the efforts of resistance.

Cordoning themselves off from violent soldiers, the barricades became a prime space for “creativity and determination” in putting together defensive weapons. Physics and chemistry professors created Molotov cocktails, while engineering students repurposed firecrackers to defend against invading military aircraft. Taguiwalo’s spot was near the Chemistry Pavilion, and so they placed huge LPG tanks from the building along their part of the barricade. She explains, “These were our defensive weapons in case the military entered UP again.”

The radio station DZUP was also taken over by the students and was renamed Malayang Radyo ng Diliman. In partnership with the publication Bandilang Pula, they regularly gave updates on the situation, arming the public with crucial information that would help them navigate the dangers on campus. Taguiwalo states, “Cultural forms of protest whether through the use of the DZUP, the publication of the Bandilang Pula, the protest posters were important in broadcasting the justness of the Diliman Commune and the demands of the communards.”

With everyone coming together demanding democratic reforms, there was a shared understanding of the struggle’s importance. Taguiwalo emphasizes, “There comes a time that you have to fight back—either you die, or you die fighting.”

In the struggle

“I have this picture of my legs sticking out of the UP Ikot jeepney and being hit by the police,” Taguiwalo remarks. She had not expected there to be violence that day, and so had worn a miniskirt. As the police began to beat her, she had only one thought running through her head—“Oh my God, my underwear is showing.” The next day, her leg would be so swollen she almost couldn’t walk. 

While some details may be painful, Taguiwalo firmly believes that it’s important to remember the atrocities committed and how the people fought back. Simply painting the Commune as “violent” or “anarchic” would be missing the point of the whole thing—that throughout our history, the state has never played fair in using violence to inflict oppression. “Violence is a day-to-day experience of many of our people—even if they are not protesting,” she asserts. 

And so in the case of the Commune, Taguiwalo concurs that the students’ response was purely in defense. Faced with forces that do not possess any qualms about utilizing firearms against unarmed civilians, there was no choice but for the students to fight back with force. “The question of violence is something that is not a choice,” Taguiwalo ruminates, “Who would [want violence]?”

On February 9, 1971, after nine days of protests and violence, the university students began to disband and voluntarily take down the barricades, a task that was not brought about smoothly. Students remained adamant about their demands—gasoline price rollback, deterrence of any military forces on campus, and the freedom of their university press. Though these demands were not met straight away, the Diliman Commune sent a very clear message. “I think it is important as an early warning that the students of UP won’t take tyranny sitting down,” says Taguiwalo. Just one year later, Martial Law would commence, and the fiery embers of the Commune would serve as a reminder of the power of a united people. 

Degradation of freedom

Danilo Arao, who would end up gracing the halls of UP Diliman both as a student and an associate professor, imparts that the importance of the Commune lies in the message it was able to project to our fellow countrymen, saying “The Diliman Commune is a testament to the strong resistance against oppression.” 

For one, the events of the Commune brought about the establishment of the 1989 UP-DND (University of the Philippines-Department of National Defense) accord, a resolution that was able to deter further military presence on campus. “If the students, faculty, staff, residents, and alumni know that [the military and police] are just around the campus, they could be discouraged from speaking and thinking freely for fear of reprisal,” Arao reasons. 

However, with the recent dissolution of the accord, the danger of the aforementioned predicaments becomes more of a reality with each passing day. “With the unilateral termination of the UP-DND accord, there is no legal impediment to the unauthorized entry of the military and police,” Arao remarks. He even goes so far as to predict possible accounts of espionage, surveillance, arrests, and detention.

Break the cycle

Our country now faces a dilemma that could potentially bring about a repeat of history. The ongoing, constant red-tagging of individuals—with some being erroneous and random—poses a dangerous predicament for Filipino constituents, particularly for those who do not possess privilege and wealth. “It’s martial rule without martial law. It has a chilling effect already,” Taguiwalo gravely expresses.

Arao speculates that the dissolution of the accord is fueled by authorities demanding blind obedience from the youth, saying, “The powers that be want to discourage or even kill activism—this is the reason for their decision to unilaterally terminate the accord.” 

Though dark times may be ahead, Taguiwalo is quick to remind the current generation that the fight is not over. She voices, “Resisting injustice or fighting for the country and for the people should be continued by the youth.”

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