Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Review of Ka Bel: Mga Liham

“Can you imagine a tricycle driver being able to draft a law?” Commission on Elections Chairman Jose Melo asked the petitioners who wanted to disqualify Mikey Arroyo as a partylist representative. This remark can be dismissed as sheer intellectual elitism but it is a popular thinking among the chattering classes which is why we have to correct this myopic view of the poor and uneducated.

So can the poor really speak for themselves? Can workers excel as legislators? Answer: Crispin Beltran.

Beltran or Ka Bel was a veteran activist and legendary labor leader who became a partylist representative in 2001. His outstanding three-term stint in Congress should have already convinced us that the poor are more than capable of articulating their own beliefs and aspirations.

For those who still need more persuading, though, I highly recommend the new book about Beltran, Ka Bel: Mga Liham, which presents his ideas and political principles through a studied selection of his letters and speeches. It is an impressive follow-up to the first biography about Beltran written by Ina Alleco Silverio which provided readers a glimpse of the remarkable struggles that the ‘Grand Old Man” of Philippine labor fought in his lifetime.

Ka Bel: Mga Liham will shock readers who expected to read a dry collection of political manifestos. Ofcourse, a book about Beltran will have to unavoidably discuss politics and labor issues. (Readers who wanted a fresh perspective on the labor movement will not be disappointed.) However, by including Beltran’s revealing and ‘instructive’ letters to his wife and children, the book offers much more, allowing readers a glimpse into the private (but nonetheless political) life of Ka Bel.

This book will be appreciated too by non-activists, especially students of history, since Beltran’s letters are filled with amusing historical vignettes. For example, Beltran mentioned the cost of sending money through telegraphic transfer in 1969 or that moviegoers can choose to watch movies in the orchestra section of cinema houses (Beltran wrote that he watched Bastards and The Great Catherine).

Beltran’s letters are valuable in helping clarify the decisions made by the labor movement in the past forty-years. For example: Why did it oppose Marcos’ democratic revolution? Why did it reject Franklin Drilon as Labor Secretary? Why did labor unions stage a walkout against the retention of US military bases? What caused the split in the labor sector in the 1990s?

Hopefully, Beltran’s letters will enlighten the public about the meaning of working-class consciousness. What does it really mean to wholly embrace the proletarian viewpoint? The big capitalists and their apologists who liked to denounce Beltran as a heartless communist might be surprised to read what Beltran wrote about his military escort after escaping from prison: “Kaawa-awa naman siya. Kahit siya military, mahirap din siyang tulad natin…at dahil sa pagtakas ko siya rin ay tiyak na makukulong. Ngunit nagkataon lang na siya ang aking guwardiya.”

Beltran is a fine example of a working-class leader who remained loyal to his principles and a militant advocate of democratic politics until his tragic death in 2008. How did he envision the emancipation of the poor? Definitely, he didn’t ask for charity. This passage is worth quoting: “Isa tayo sa angaw-angaw na mahihirap. Tayo rin ang papanday sa kinabukasan natin….Turuan sila na kaya tayo mahirap dahil sa may nagpapahirap sa atin. Hanapin at itakda ang paraan ng pagbaka sa kanila.”

While in detention in 2006, Beltran issued this short handwritten note to media in response to the declaration of a state of national emergency in the country: “The hungry and angry must kill this [PP1017] animal of gluttony and tyranny. The imposition must be swept away by the democratic human tsunami into the dustbin of history. I am committed to partake in this rare lexicon for national freedom and democracy.” A rare lexicon indeed!

Beltran’s entry into Congress didn’t stop him from speaking out what he genuinely feels and thinks about the anti-labor institutions in the country: “Mr. Speaker, namaos na ang kinatawang ito sa kakapaliwanag kaisa ng mga manggagawa tungkol sa pagiging walang hiya at inutil ng mga regional wage boards. Mula nang itayo ang mga taksil na wage boards na yan noong 1989, wala na silang ginawa kundi ipako ang sahod sa sahig at tiyaking hindi ito itaas, ayun na rin sa kagustuhan ng malalaking negosyante at kapitalista.”

This book also pays tribute to Beltran’s family who supported him and embraced his advocacies until the end of his life. His wife, Ka Osang, actively campaigned for his freedom during the Marcos dictatorship (she called the police “komikong tutang tuliro sa sirkus” in an assembly); and many of his children became activists as well.

The ‘public’ Beltran may be the outspoken critic of the bad government conniving with big business but the ‘private’ Beltran is a familiar father figure in a typical Filipino family. He is the head of the family who is constantly worried about money (“Ako’y uuwi kapag mayroon nang sapat na pera”) and the situation of his wife and children. Beltran, who was one of the early settlers in Payatas, remained poor even after becoming a congressman, , a story that is the cause of amazement for many in a country where dipping into the public treasury for personal gain is almost a norm.

It can be gleamed from the letters that the ‘public’ Beltran and ‘private’ Beltran are both political. Beltran consistently reminded his family to live simply and to struggle hard with the masses. Even his New Year’s Resolutions for his family reflected his political standpoint: “Iwasan ninyo ang kayabangan o pagmamalaki. Laging mapagkumbaba at kaisa ng mahihirap – mabangis (ayon sa prinsipyo) sa mga mapang-api at kaaway.”

It is not often that the writings of working-class heroes are compiled and published which makes this book a gem in Philippine political literature. The publisher should be commended since this book can raise awareness and revive interest about the lives and struggles of other working-class icons.

The next book about Beltran should tackle his accomplishments inside the House of Representatives. At one point, Beltran filed the most number of bills and resolutions in Congress. Researchers can access the House journals and official transcript of records to check how Beltran argued his points and debated with other members of Congress.

Hopefully, this book would target the international audience since it is about time that we share and spread the story of the late great Beltran. I am particularly interested too about Beltran’s activities in the 1980s, the most strike prone decade in the history of Philippine labor.

Beltran died almost three years ago but his political legacy continues to be relevant. Traditional politicians have many things to learn from Beltran’s principled life. Remember, for instance, his last shining moment in Congress, when he divulged in a privilege speech an attempt by the Arroyo government to bribe him. A fellow legislator,
ridiculing the attempt, publicly said it was “like bribing the Pope” – a testament to Ka Bel’s record of incorruptibility.

Recall, too, the manner by which Congressman Beltran died, hammer in hand – a working man to the very end; and compare it with how many others who claim to be “public servants” enrich themselves through corruption and greed.

Truly, this country lost a great and honorable leader in 2008. Though future generations of Filipinos will no longer see Ka Bel addressing thousands with a fiery speech in the parliament of the streets, or debating in congress as a representative of the toiling class, his legacy as well as the principles he fought for remains, to be read in his letters.

Related article:

Tribute speech to Ka Bel

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