Juanito Rivera, respectfully called Ka Juaning, was born to a peasant family in Bacolor, Pampanga on 29 August 1934. He and his four siblings were raised at the time when World War II had been pounding the country leaving everyone scared and hungry. He did not attend formal school but learned how to read and write with the help of a katon, a volunteer community teacher who teaches Catholic prayers in far-flung areas.
His family had fled to Sta. Rita, Tarlac to escape hunger when he was eight. He had known poverty and fought tooth and nail against peasant oppression in all years of his life though he had chosen a different lane now. He still dreams, however, of a better future for the generations to come.
Ka Juaning’s life story begins in this harried town that remains to be a fourth class municipality to this day. Sta. Rita, a seedbed of peasant unrest, is the place where the New People’s Army was formally established in 1969. He is a second-generation member of the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB; Army of Liberating People) who, during Martial Law years, organized the landless tenants and conscientized the barangay captains of this town 110 kilometers away from Metro-Manila.
This peasant leader’s countless imprisonments at Camp Makabulos in Tarlac, Camp Olivas in Pampanga, and Camp Crame in Metro-Manila are his medals of valor – proofs of his courage in defense of a noble cause. He opines he can easily be accosted because everyone knows him. There was no more safer place for him than the vast expanse of sugarcane and palay fields where all he had to do was lie down, the first military lesson he learned, to evade arrest.
It was at this time that organized kasama (tenants) in Sta. Rita had pulled off a 75-25 sharing deal in favor of the farmers, with the help of Ka Juaning, from the oppressive 50-50 sharing where the kasama spends for the seeds and other concomitant expenses that go with farming plus the difficult labor on field. This has always been the source of irritants, oppression and deaths leading to an agrarian revolution in the plains. Tarlac’s vast tracts of privately-owned lands stretch up to the boundaries of Pampanga on southwest, Nueva Ecija on southeast and Pangasinan up northwest.
He says that the number of NPA members increased tremendously when President Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972. Students from both the urban and rural areas came in droves to hide in the Sierra Madre mountains. But the Ninoy Aquino assassination in 1983 brought the biggest wave of recruitment to the NPA with students and professionals alike wanting to take up arms against the Marcos rule.
Ka Juaning reveals a four-by-four tunnel inconspicuously hidden beside a pig pen that was built in the middle of a farm. It was in this tunnel, he points out, where Jose Maria Sison had held office. When Bernabe Buscayno was captured, Sison had to leave the area in 1976. The tunnel became storage for documents of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). They also keep a wide screen projector here where they watch revolutionary movies, among them about the life of Che Guevarra, an Argentinian Marxist revolutionary.
The unassuming peasant leader became a member of the CPP’s Political Bureau, the only peasant besides Buscayno, who had risen to the top CPP leadership that is mostly composed of the middle-class petty bourgeoisie, intellectuals and academe.
In his heyday, he was so popular among the peasants and has proven himself to be an able leader that he was chosen to lead major campaigns in Central Luzon. He had been Buscayno’s right hand man that when the latter was arrested, he replaced him becoming the CPP’s Military Commission head.
Ka Juaning supervised the team he formed to do a first-ever NPA raid on the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) barracks that increased the NPA armory. It was on the headlines – quite a memorable feat – when they brought along with them during their retreat the PMA officers Victor Corpuz and Crispin Tagamolila. They were the first military officers to defect to the NPA in 1971.
The peasant leader cum NPA strategist likewise led sea expeditions involving sizeable arms that the People’s Republic of China donated under the leadership of Mao Zedong. They pretend to be fishermen on fishing expeditions while on small boats they have to scoop water from the floor to prevent them from sinking. Some expeditions succeeded; some failed when they got stranded in China due to bad weather conditions.
The biggest and the most known Operation Plan Karagatan should have made the NPA more powerful with its supposed to be cache of 1, 200 M14 rifles and 8,000 rounds of ammunitions. It failed, however, when the navy suspected the unscheduled ship coming from nowhere. Military helicopters had been hovering around that before the ship could dock, Ka Juaning disclosed, they decided to sink it with a mortar. Not long after, the military jet came but Ka Juaning and his team had already brought 200 rifles safely to the shore.
One of the grand old men of Central Luzon, Ka Juaning’s spirit never wanes although he contracted lung ailment while he was in prison and was freed in 1991, the last prison experience he had, so far. Neither prison nor old age can put his spirit down. He still believes in the need to take up arms if need be. He admits though that he will pass the baton to the younger generation.
Ka Juaning now lives with his family in his farm cultivating the land and sowing seeds of his wisdom at 78. (Gloria Esguerra Melencio)
Lachica, Eduardo. Huk: Philippine Agrarian Society in Revolt. Solidaridad Publishing House: Manila, 1971.
Castañeda, Dabet. Armed Struggle still Relevant – CPP Founding Member. http://www.bulatlat.com/news/6-9/6-9-armed.htm