THE MAJOR WHO
A gentleman who sought change, he lived and paid for his idealism
Bonifacio Gillego (1921-2002)
Alfred G. Simbulan
I first met Rep. Bonifacio Gillego in 1992. He was 71 then, looking for a staff while I was desperate for a job.
He looked over my resumé and spotted a period of nearly 15 years that I wasn’t employed. I spent that time on “NGO work,” I explained. The old man smiled. “That’s good,” he said. “I spent that much, too, fighting the [Marcos] dictatorship.”
Giving me loads of books and materials to read, he immediately asked me to write a speech for him on the plight of overseas Filipino workers. I did an angry piece, which accused the labor and foreign affairs departments of callousness. The congressman liked it. Good speeches come from the heart, he said.
Ka Boni formed a political staff to assist him in his first years in the 8th Congress. One of the staffers, Eric Guttierez, would later on write, with Ka Boni’s support, the groundbreaking book on the 9th Congress, Ties That Bind.
‘Nothing to Lose’
“There are two kinds of legislators,” Ka Boni told us. “The specialist and the generalist. I would like to be a good generalist. The public must know what their government is doing, good or bad, so they can have an active role in reforming it. I am old and have nothing to lose. We will go into issues where our people need us.” He wanted our work to reflect three principles: nationalism, social justice and participative democracy.
Ka Boni’s policy of participative democracy saw us opening our office and resources to all nongovernment organizations without distinction. His hearings, as chair of the committee on human rights, were often fully packed and memorable.
Hundreds of victims and witnesses traversed mountains and rivers on foot, sometimes for three days to testify. Testimonies as well as gory pictures of dead mutilated victims and scorched villages were presented.
In those marathon hearings that started at 8 a.m. and ended 8 p.m., Ka Boni would take only a 30-minute nap during lunch breaks, snoring as he sat on a chair. I would sit near him, fearful that he would fall and break his head.
The hearings soon became dangerous. A peasant leader was shot dead by armed goons of a warlord after his testimony. Despite this, peasant leaders wanted the hearing continued, but Ka Boni did not want to endanger lives.
Boni the Maverick
For Ka Boni, insurgents were not the enemy but the conditions that bred them. It seemed strange for him to hold that view. He was, after all, a former military officer. A World War II veteran, he got enlisted into the Army and was assigned to the intelligence unit. As an intelligence officer in the 1950s, he spent a lot of time interrogating Hukbalahap rebels captured by the Army.
Those sessions turned into political discussions with his captives. The answers he got bothered him so much that he decided to take a scholarship abroad to take up advanced studies on Marxism.
He was a gentleman who sought change. But he was also a maverick through and through. That’s the reason he was stuck in his rank as a major in the Army. He had asked the forbidden question: why?
But what set him apart from other radicals was his belief that the people’s fate cannot and must not be entrusted to a single party. The people must decide their future every step of the way, he had said repeatedly, and that government must ensure that this right is protected.
Ka Boni lived and paid for this idealism.
As a parliamentarian, he stretched the limits of peaceful means to achieve change. But there were times when he had taken up arms, as a guerrilla in World War II and in the underground movement against the Marcos dictatorship. Those years span a third of his adult life.
Bus to Batasan
In Congress, the press gravitated toward him and voted him most outstanding solon. He never lied to reporters. His critical, independent mind made for good journalism.
Ka Boni lived a Spartan lifestyle. In his first years as congressman after his first election in 1987, he rode the bus to the Batasan, often standing, then took a tricycle from the highway. The 14 years he spent as an exile during the Marcos dictatorship had left him with nothing but his home.
Lack of money never bothered him for his real wealth was his family. At times, Ka Boni asked a young nephew with a car to drive him. There were times his nephew took a French leave and left him stranded. In the 9th Congress, he bought a second-hand Lancer, which he shared with his wife. Sometimes, I drove for him in my father’s 20-year-old Volkswagen. We talked about so many things. One time the car’s lock gave up, and the door beside him swung wide open as I made a turn, nearly causing him to fall. He laughed so hard as he held the door throughout the rest of the trip.
In his house on Katipunan Avenue, he would treat us to spicy sardines, laing, or ginataang langka. He often only had a few bills in his wallet and brought along his usual baon of two sandwiches for lunch..
A Lonely Moment
His campaign for reelection in 1992, however, proved to be one of the loneliest moments of his life. It appeared he was headed for political demise. His stand on the proposed agrarian reform law soured relations with his party, the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino. He found out that his party did not include him in their congressional lineup.
Ka Boni joined Lakas-NUCD in the 1992 campaign. He had no personal funds for his campaign. And even Lakas, probably anticipating his defeat, invested a measly amount on him, shelling out P50,000 for his campaign.
Many of his mayors abandoned him, too. He asked himself why he was being punished and abandoned for staying good. He could not even go to his district as people who he thought were supporters expected money from him. He had none while his rival had millions to burn. Only his family and his personal friends were behind him.
In those agonizing months, he drank alone most of the time. He nearly gave up. His only hope was to be heard by his constituents through the airwaves. He knew he had served them well. He decided that if he was to lose this one, he would lose it fighting. Ka Boni then motored to Legazpi or Naga, far from his native Sorsogon, whose second district he represented, and got interviewed on radio.
His constituents heard him and didn’t forget. They elected him again.
Tireless Seeker of Truth
Ka Boni was a tireless seeker of knowledge and truth. He read more books than we on his staff did, and he would share his books with us.
But the pressure of the job and his age began working against him.
His arthritis made walking painful, as he limped alone in the corridors of the Batasan. He collapsed during a congressional hearing about the plight of laborers. His high blood pressure increasingly became a problem, especially when debates were becoming intense. We began secretly cutting down our outputs to slow him down, but he would ask for more. We would stall.
Minutes before his turn to speak on a hotly debated issue on the plenary session, I would often see Ka Boni alone in his room, tense, contemplating, his knees trembling, but like a brave officer in Luna’s Bagbag fighting trench, waiting for the whistle signaling the final bayonet charge under heavy fire.
In 1998, Ka Boni finished his third and final term in Congress. He died last August 1 at the age of 81.
He taught us all that age shouldn’t temper the fire that keeps us wishing –and working –for change.
The author served as chief of staff for the late Congressman Gillego.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in 2002