The Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA) joins the global outpouring of grief and sadness at the news of the tragic death of our good friend and comrade, Congressman Crispin Beltran, universally known as Ka Bel. In a life of death defying militant political activism spanning half a century, there was no greater champion of the oppressed Filipino workers and the wretched poor who comprise the great majority of that country’s people.
If there are any positives to be taken from his sudden death, they are that he lived to 75 (despite everything that that the Filipino State and a variety of serious health problems threw at him); that he died at home, a free man and a serving Congressman and from natural causes (none of which seemed likely to be his fate as recently as this time last year when he was the Philippines most high profile political prisoner, facing the prospect of life imprisonment – if he didn’t die first). He did not die as a result of brutal torture and murder, which has been the fate of so many Leftwing activists and union leaders, including Ka Lando Olalia, his immediate predecessor as head of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU – May First Movement trade union confederation). He was not abducted, never to be seen again, which has also been the fate of so many victims of the systematic regime of State terror.
Ka Bel was well known to many in New Zealand because of his two decades as leader of the KMU, which included indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial during the Marcos martial law dictatorship in the early 80s (he escaped and lived underground, organising workers and the poor, for a couple of years until resurfacing after Marcos had been overthrown). He was visited in detention by veteran Kiwi unionist Ken Findlay and they forged a lifelong friendship – when PSNA toured Ka Bel through NZ in 1999, it was Ken who hosted him in Wellington and drove him all round the North Island.
I’d known Ka Bel since I first went to the Philippines, in 1987. I have a vivid memory from one 80s trip of a group of Kiwi anti-bases delegates having a rip roaring night out in a Manila karaoke bar with Ka Bel and colleagues from the KMU Executive. In 1991 I and Paul Watson (of the NDU and a colleague on the PSNA Committee) were the NZ delegates to the annual KMU International Solidarity Affair. As I’ve already mentioned, PSNA hosted Ka Bel for his fortnight long NZ speaking tour in 1999 – he spent several days staying with Becky and I in our Christchurch home, plus I accompanied him to Nelson. He was an absolute pleasure to host.
And just last August Becky and I, while in Manila visiting family, had the great honour of being able to attend the official event to celebrate Ka Bel’s release from 16 months of utterly false imprisonment on trumped up charges. He was delighted to see us again and we were just glad to see him free again and so obviously in fighting spirits. Nothing frightened him – he got the biggest laugh in his typically stemwinding speech when he detailed how he’d seriously contemplated escaping by disguising himself as a doctor (because of his age and poor health, he was detained in hospital – at his own expense. PSNA raised several thousand dollars to help with the extortionate hospital bills). Sadly, that was to be the last time we will see him but he was in unforgettable form when he spoke that day and if that has to be our last memory of an old friend and comrade, it’s a great one.
People have expressed disbelief that a 75 year old would be up on the roof of his house (he died as a result of falling off it – he was up there to fix a leak). But that doesn’t surprise me. He was very much down to earth and hands on. When he stayed at our place in 99, the car decided to play up the day we had set aside to take him sightseeing. Proclaiming himself to have been a Manila taxi driver for 16 years decades ago, he plunged under the bonnet in an attempt to fix it (in the end the AA did the trick). Just as many of our discussions were about everyday practical things as they were about the high octane politics of the Philippines. He had an insatiable curiosity about all manner of things and he found both New Zealand and its people fascinating.
The Philippines has lost a great man who was a much finer leader than any of the Presidents who make it their mission to oppress, exploit, assault, abduct, torture, imprison, frame and murder workers and the poor. The world has lost one of the finest exponents of genuine grassroots activism and leadership, a man who lived what he preached, namely to be at one with the people and to serve the people. His friends and comrades in New Zealand have lost a mate, one who exemplified working class internationalism and whose courage and principled militancy made him an inspiration to all who had the privilege of knowing him.