Manila, Philippines – On August 21, 1971, Gillian Jane Perez was in transit to China for a three-week study trip to learn about socialism when a bomb exploded at a political rally being held by an opposition party in Manila.
The incident, which left nine people dead, set in motion a sequence of events that changed not only the trajectory of her life but the history of the Philippines.
Then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos used what became known as the Plaza Miranda bombing as a pretext to crack down on activists and critics and order raids on opposition groups.
It was a taste of what was to come under martial law – imposed a year later.
As a leader of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM), or Patriotic Youth, an activist Filipino group with a “socialist perspective”, Perez was among those in Marcos’s sights.
Marcos blamed the bombing on the communists and accused Perez and her group of masterminding the attack. The government also labelled KM a front organisation of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and a threat to national security.
Along with 55 other people, Perez was charged with violating the country’s Anti-Subversion Law. An arrest warrant awaited the 21-year-old if she were to return to the Philippines.
“We thought it might be temporary and we could go home,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview from Europe, where she has lived for the past 40 years. She has requested Al Jazeera to use a pseudonym citing security concerns if she returns to the Philippines.
“At the same time, we found it absurd. How could we, student leaders so far away, instigate something like that?”
Even before Marcos came to power, the Philippines had long been wary of communism and socialist ideas, which first emerged out of the country’s workers’ movements in the 1930s. Although outlawed in 1932, communist fighters played a key role in the guerrilla fight against Japanese occupation, as they did in other parts of Southeast Asia.
After World War II, the communists gradually lost their influence but they continued to push for social reforms. Then in 1968, the CPP re-emerged with a commitment to Maoist ideals and energised with socialist zeal in the same decade that Marcos rose to power.
As veteran political scientist Professor Bobby Tuazon explains, young people and other disenfranchised groups continued to find socialist ideas attractive.
“It remains a major topic of discourse in the academe, among students, researchers and scholars. So long as the systemic roots of why there is revolt are not addressed, socialism will make waves,” said Tuazon, who also serves as the policy director for the Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance, a public policy think-tank based in Manila.
As the would-be strongman started to clamp down on dissent, the party became a convenient foil for Marcos. The young activists who were calling for social reforms became the perfect bogeymen as he sought to justify his hold on power.
Against the backdrop of a deepening Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, anti-communist hysteria was rampant. Even now, attacking opponents as “communist”, known as “red-tagging”, remains a political tool.
The current President Rodrigo Duterte has also been accused of labelling anti-government critics as “communists” and “terrorist” threats that need to be “neutralised”, and the Philippines now faces the prospect of another Marcos running for the presidency.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the strongman’s only son, has announced he will be a candidate for the presidency in 2022, 50 years after the declaration of martial law.
“The nation remains under the authoritarian regime of Duterte who orders his security and police forces to go after activists. No change from Marcos,” Tuazon said, warning that the return of a second Marcos member will only exacerbate the state’s witch-hunt of political dissidents.
Marcos Jr himself is close to the Chinese government and has frequently held meetings with Beijing’s representative to Manila. When he was a senator, he supported talks between the Philippine government and the communist rebels. But he has also backed many of the policies of President Duterte, who has now labelled the communists as “terrorists”.
“There should be no repeat of the martial law years at the hands of another Marcos or a Marcos ally and they will not prevail,” Perez warned
Life in China
When Perez arrived in China as a young activist, the country was in a state of flux.
While supporting the Viet Cong against the Americans in Vietnam, at home it was struggling with the tumult caused by the Cultural Revolution.
Among Perez’s companions were Chito Sta Romana, now the Philippine ambassador to China and Jaime Flor Cruz who went on to become a Beijing-based reporter for the magazines Time and Newsweek. They were able to return to the country after Marcos was removed by a popular revolt in 1986.
Perez remembers last talking with Cruz as they both claimed compensation through the Philippines Human Rights Claims Board for damages resulting from their banishment or exile.
Their initial plan had been to travel and attend lectures on Chinese socialism for a few weeks. After the Philippine bombing, they were treated as refugees, given more permanent accommodation in Beijing, with their study tour expanded so they could integrate among peasant villages indefinitely.
Perez wrote often to her mother – she had not told her of her plans to go to China.
“I apologised for leaving without telling her, but I wanted her to know that this was part of my conviction,” she recalled. “She wrote back saying that it felt like she’d lost one of her children.”
Despite the sudden change, Perez was excited by what she found.
“We were young, we were students and activists. We went to China because we wanted to see for ourselves what socialism is,” she said.
“At the time, Mao’s China foreign policy stood for supporting the people’s struggles all over the world. They believed that countries want independence, nations want liberation, and the people want revolution.”
The group travelled across China, trekking the Jinggang Mountains that were hailed as the “the cradle of Chinese revolution” and spending time in Yan-an, famed as the end of Mao’s Long March.
By 1973, Perez and her companions found themselves at a factory at Dayudao village in rural Shandong province.
“Most days were partly spent working in the factory. I was hammering away at metal,” she recalled.
For another year, she and her “comrades” stayed in a commune – a group of several villages sharing an economic plan – to focus on agricultural work.
Each commune member earned so-called “work points” in exchange for income. The points were determined by the local party cadres. Perez remembers, however, that greater value was placed on attitudes towards nurturing socialist ideas.
“I thought about how wonderful it would be to see these same practices transposed to the Philippines as a result of revolutionary struggle,” she said, reminiscing about her hopes to eventually rejoin the movement in the Philippines.
But with the Philippines under martial law and an arrest warrant out, there was no chance of returning home.
In 1974, Perez decided to study medicine at the Bei Yi Xue Yuan or Peking Medical College.
Perez was at her dormitory in September 1976 when loudspeakers on campus broke the news at sundown that Mao Zedong had passed away. Funeral music followed the broadcast as students sat and waited outside their dorm rooms motionless, and weeping quietly, she recalled.
The next day in Beijing, everyone was wearing black armbands. None of them knew it yet, but Mao’s death also signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Perez admits there were “excesses” and says she learned of cadres who were dragged into the streets to be publicly criticised for their mistakes. She remembers that state propaganda used the Cultural Revolution to convince the public that its excesses were endemic to socialism.
“I didn’t know it then, but trouble was already brewing behind the scenes in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the government,” said Perez. Soon after, Deng Xiaoping rose to power.
The new leadership wanted “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Perez said the slogan masked Deng’s desire to emulate western capitalism.
By early 1977, “the authorities were already telling us that we ought to look for ways to leave because the foreign policy was changing,” she said.
Perez was now an assisting physician in Hunan, and increasingly homesick. She dreamed of becoming a doctor in the villages of the Philippines. But with Marcos still in charge in the country, it was still impossible to return home.
“Prolonged exile took a toll on my physical, mental and spiritual health,” she said. “I was uprooted from my home and country. I felt lost. I was torn away from everything familiar and separated from people close to me,” she said.
During the post-Mao upheavals, she says she came to feel increasingly unwelcome in China.
In 1981 she managed to apply for exile in Europe and was able to visit the Philippines briefly to visit her mother five years later after Marcos was forced from office in the so-called “people power” revolution in 1986.
She likens her current situation to the millions of Filipinos who go overseas to work and has an unwavering belief that she will one day be able to return permanently and reunite with her remaining relatives.
“The motherland is in the heart just like the millions of Filipino immigrants, forced by circumstances to leave home. Just like them, the day will come when going home is the most natural thing to do.”
Celebrated playwright and activist Bonifacio Ilagan, however, said that a Marcos restoration will further muddle any chances of Perez’ homecoming.
Ilagan was a student activist with the group KM alongside Perez during their youth. Now, he is one of the leaders of a coalition called the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law or CARMMA.
He told Al Jazeera, “If the Marcoses come back, it will be difficult for Gillian. It’s a very real possibility that old cases during the Marcos years will be revived as well, putting her at risk. Who knows what they could do? They could make the whole situation more volatile.
“The Marcoses will try to get unenlightened people on their side of contentious issues in history like the Plaza Miranda bombing.”
On Perez’s alleged involvement in the 1971 bombing, Ilagan said, “It’s really far-fetched, blaming activists for a dirty political move by the administration in 1971. Gillian and I were both young activists at the time, I know her. She was implicated because of the regime’s political agenda.”
Today, Perez still longs for a homecoming.