Monday, August 25, 2008

David Balondo of Tondo (1922-1988)

Commentary : David Balondo of Tondo (1922-1988)

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: August 25, 2008

MANILA, Philippines - Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino led an army of rich and poor heroes who were willing to give their lives for their people during the night of martial law. One of the lesser known persons was David Balondo of Tondo who was once a guerrilla in Samar against the Japanese, once a fisherman in Isla Puting Bato, Tondo and for a long time the vice president of the Zone One Tondo Organization (Zoto).

Twenty years ago when he was 66, Balondo was shot dead by young radicals in front of his new house in the Dagat-Dagatan Relocation Area of Navotas. It was a mindless decision to kill the old man. His wife heard noises in the street; as she ran out expecting trouble she heard shots, and then she found her husband on the ground dying of wounds to his head. Two young gunmen stood around and announced they were NPA. They looked nervously at the old woman and her dying husband and then ran off.

From the 1960s on, Balondo led the people's efforts to resist government attempts to throw them off the Tondo Foreshore land. In the end the people succeeded. The original government plan called for all 30,000 families in the Foreshore area to be relocated to some far off place like Sapang Palay. The Tondo land was planned to be a commercial, up-scale housing area and support zone for the new international container terminal. Instead, after a long struggle with the help of the World Bank and the German government, only 10,000 families had to move and these were relocated only a few kilometers north to Navotas; the other 20,000 families had their land upgraded and titled.

It didnít come easily. Hundreds of Zoto people went to jail; a number were tortured, including ìTriningî Herrera, the Zoto president. Balondo was arrested five times. Despite all this they struggled through the 1970s and won.

In Dagat-Dagatan they received a 96-sq m lot with toilet, light, water and a cement platform for their house. They paid P1 per sq m each month for 25 years and then they owned the land. Most importantly, they were only five minutes from their jobs. One day in Dagat-Dagatan I asked a Zoto woman leader how she liked her new house. ìIím in Paradise,î she told me.

Balondo never had the chance to grow old peacefully, with time to sit around chatting with the other old men and women and watch the children playing in the street, as the Prophet Zechariah promised the faithful would do one day in the future. (Zechariah 8:4-5)

He was happy in his new home in Dagat-Dagatan. I doubt if anyone now remembers the specific incident that caused the assassination, and it doesnít matteróhe didnít deserve to die like that. Nor did he deserve the movie made of his life, starring Ramon Revilla. It made Balondo a swashbuckling action star with a special agimat. His devout Methodist wife became a starlet in a miniskirt. Instead, he deserves the gratitude and respect of people because of his contribution to solving the problems of the poor in peaceful ways.

There were leftist influences on Zoto as there were on nearly all social action groups in those days, but Balondo was more interested in the concrete issues of the poor more than ideology. He was a simple man who talked slowly as if words themselves were very valuable. He always looked worn out and weary.

One night at a Mass said by the late Archbishop Mariano Gaviola, I was with the German government official in charge of overseas funding. We were in the back of a huge crowd. Balondo came over to us and the three of us talked while the bishop gave his homily. Later the German said to me, “He was like Job.” That night Balondo even had boils on his face as Job had.

He was Protestant and the most honest of all the people involved in Zoto, including the other officers, the organizers and the priests and Protestant ministers who helped the organization, the late Jesuit Fr. Joe Blanco, who was part of the Zoto organizing team for several months, once said.

Everything about the long struggle of the Tondo people, except the prison and torture, has lessons for today. People must always struggle together for what they consider their vital necessities in life. There is no other way. The government of President Ferdinand Marcos realized after years of hostility to Zoto that it was easier and more productive to negotiate with peopleís groups than to insist on fighting them. In the final years of the 1970s the government did negotiate and compromise. The value of genuine negotiation still has to be learned by many in government today.

Finally the World Bank and the German government chose the good of the poor of Tondo and not the plans of government as their priority. They told the martial law government that they would fund the development of the container terminal and harbor but only if the people were treated fairly. Such a stand on conviction is seldom seen these days.

Every group needs courage; the poor need the determination of a David Balondo to struggle. The government needs courage to slow down and negotiate: the officials who do so will be criticized by hard-liners inside and outside government. Finally the multinational and national donors need courage to prioritize the good of the poor, since the good results of such choices often take years to become visible.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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