Published September 9, 2007
Until recently, Gloria “Joy” Asuncion – a.k.a. Joy Jopson and Joy Kintanar – has played a bit role on the Philippine political stage, her life a sad footnote in our country’s often violent history.
Although she spent many years as a cadre of the underground movement, the UG, she was not one of the women icons of the kilusan, like Lorena Barros, Lidy Alejandro or Carolina “Bobbi” Malay. Neither was she one of the outspoken advocates of women’s rights.
In fact, staunch feminists would likely frown on her public image: the grieving widow who lost two men she loved to acts of political violence. She was the poor woman in a news photo splashed on front pages of major Manila dailies four years ago, crying in agony next to the bloodied body of her husband, Romulo Kintanar.
The newspaper headlines underscored her image as a victim. "Lighting strikes twice for Kintanar widow," said the headline of a Philippine Daily Inquirer story then, referring to the assassination and death of Joy's first husband, Edgar Jopson, in a military raid in Davao City in 1982. Later Joy was the subject of a cover story in a Manila magazine with the headline, "Tragic Joy."
Until recently, Joy Asuncion, the soft-spoken colegiala-turned revolutionary-turned businesswoman, was viewed largely as a tragic figure, weak and helpless.
With her decision, (together with Veronica Tabara) to file a case before a Dutch court against Joma Sison, the exiled founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines who has been accused of ordering the murder of her husband, the soft-spoken former activist steps back onto center stage in a fighting stance.
It was a daring and courageous move. But also extremely risky – here is a single mother, a woman in her late 50s, who is not in the best of health, taking on a gargantuan challenge. She is not a political figure, and has no political organization backing her up. She has no army of supporters, no powerful allies, no influential network. Joy is waging this battle virtually on her own.
And she is wading onto a convoluted political scenario.
Initial reactions to Sison’s arrest highlight the complexity of the situation. The UG and other groups have condemned the arrest as a plot to derail the peace talks between the National Democratic Front and the Arroyo government. In a pathetic bid to portray itself as a key player in the U.S.-led war on terror while distracting the world from its own atrocious human rights record, the Arroyo administration cheered the arrest and even tried to portray itself as having played a key role in the case against Sison.
By taking on Sison, Joy has made herself vulnerable to a serious charge: That she has become an unwitting tool of a government accused of gross violations of human rights. She is also taking on a powerful symbol of a movement known for using violence to silence critics and opponents.
An online message board post last year attacking my book, "UG: An Underground Tale" about the life of Edgar Jopson, had earlier accused Joy of being "a professional witness" of the Philippine military.
It was cynical, cruel and dangerous accusation. For just as Amnesty International blamed Arroyo’s sweeping call to root out the communists for a spike in political violence against community organizers and activists (including those not affiliated with the UG) branding Joy a “professional agent” – a bayarang testigo (paid witness) – could just as easily lead over-eager cadres to consider her an “enemy of the revolution” and therefore a legitimate target.
By filing the case against Sison, Joy was also taking on a revered, though controversial, icon of the UG Left. To his followers, Sison is a heroic revolutionary who created a great movement for social change in the Philippines. To his critics, he is a ruthless political figure who would not hesitate to use violence against his critics and rivals.
Joy’s cause is complicated by another fact: Her late second husband, Romulo Kintanar, had been accused of being involved in criminal acts when he was commander in chief of the New People’s Army, including kidnap for ransom operations.
Even some of his friends, and Joy herself, sadly admit that some of the allegations were true. But they were quick to dismiss the UG’s claim – that he committed these crimes on his own – as hypocrisy and a distortion of the truth, for they say Kintanar acted based on collective decisions made by the UG leadership.
Still, the challenge before Joy is daunting. It is fair to ask: Why take on this fight?
Sison’s arrest has been deconstructed in many ways by political observers, UG partisans and others as justice catching up with Sison or a sinister imperialist plot.
I offer an alternative view based on what I know about what moves Joy Asuncion: This fight is being waged by a mother wanting to do right by her child, and an activist wanting to do right by other victims of violence who spent more than 20 years fighting for, and with those who have very little power in Philippine society.
“I did this not just for my family, but also for the other victims of extrajudicial killings, whether by the movement or by the government,” she told me. “I hope this will encourage other victims to come out. I hope this helps in our healing.”
She is particularly hopeful that it helps her teenage son Gabby Kintanar heal. He was 10 when his father was killed while having lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Quezon City. Another photo published in Manila papers showed him in front of his father’s coffin.
“Gabby was always asking me: ‘Mama, what has happened to Papa’s case?’” She would be the first to admit to her husband’s checkered record as a revolutionary. “I know Rolly also committed mistakes,” Joy said, quickly and firmly affirming that she rejects all forms of extrajudicial killings “whether it’s by the government or the movement.
“I feel that prime importance should be given to the sanctity of human life,” she said.
She turned to the Dutch government because mounting a fight in the Philippines has become too complicated. How indeed can one ask for justice from a government accused of being behind hundreds of extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations?
“I hope the Philippine government will stay out of the case,” Joy said. “Let us put it in the hands of the Dutch judicial system.”
It is in Holland, where Sison has lived in self-exile for 20 years that Joy feels she can effectively fight for justice. “I cannot fight him in the hills,” she said. “I cannot fight him with arms. The only forum left for me is the legal venue.”
This fight in a Dutch courtroom could well be the most dramatic chapter in the odyssey of Joy Asuncion, the young woman who once had the typical middle class dream: to marry, have a family and a simple, quiet life. Instead she joined Edjop, as Edgar Jopson was known, to pursue a bigger dream: to overthrow and dictatorship and build a more just social system.
It was a difficult life of assumed identities, limited contact with family and constant fear of arrest and death. But it was a life of meaning spent helping the poor and powerless fight for themselves.
It turned joy into a stronger, and quietly daring, person. After Edjop’s death, she challenged the UG leadership’s order not to attend his funeral. She had to change her appearance to attend the memorial service and had to watch the funeral march from a sympathizer’s house on a hill overlooking Katipunan Avenue.
Edjop’s death offered her an opportunity to return to her old life aboveground. But she decided to honor his memory and his heroism but continuing her work as a revolutionary.
She faced the same choice after Kintanar was murdered by his former comrades. Again, Joy Asuncion opted to continue fighting.
In many ways, it’s not surprising. Her years in the UG left her with a strong sense of justice. The movement she and thousands of young Filipino men and women helped created in the ‘70s and ‘80s had taught those who have been historically disenfranchised in Philippine society – the farmers, factory workers, tribal minorities, women – that it is they themselves who must fight for their own interests. They cannot rely on the politicians, the church, the rich, the patriarchy.
“No one else can file this case expect me,” Joy said. “I owe it to my children.”
She is fighting in her own way, with the quiet gentle strength that sustained during her years in the UG. No lashing back in anger or hatred even. No bitter rhetoric. Those are not part of her style.
To her former comrades in Holland, who have been affected by Sison’s arrest and upcoming trial, she said, “To them, my prayers for your understanding and for enlightenment to be true and honest.”
“I’ve gone past the hatred and anger,” she added, saying she has even asked her family and friends to pray for Sison. “I just want the truth out and hope that justice can be served.”
And in doing so she is casting away the old headlines about the pitiful widow who is always getting hit by lighting, about Tragic Joy, and she is letting emerge a new public image of Gloria Asuncion as mother, activist, Filipina warrior.
Copyright 2007 by Benjamin Pimentel