MANILA – Theirs is not an ordinary love story. They did not have the luxury of a long engagement while saving for the future. They did not aim to build a normal middle-class family. They did not experience the cycle of excitement, boredom, stagnation then renewal that most relationships go through. Instead their relationship was tempered by difficulties, hardships, living with risks, and the ups and downs of waging a revolution.
Wilma Austria and Benito Tiamzon are being accused by the Aquino government and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) of being high-ranking leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). They are currently detained at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center in Camp Crame.
But like most loving couples, one could see the intimacy in how they relate and communicate with each other. When receiving newspapers, books and documents from visitors, they would make two sets and take turns reading them.
“We never get tired of talking to each other,” Wilma said. When they talk, they stare at each other and almost in whisper, listening intently to what the other says.
If one is a hopeless romantic and believes that one is destined to meet his or her soul mate, then Wilma and Benito’s love story would be a perfect fit. They both attended Rizal High School, which has been named as the “largest secondary school in the world” by the Guinness Book of World Records since 1993. The student population in Rizal High School has reached 15,959 by school year 2000-2001.
During Wilma and Benito’s time, the student population might not have breached the 10,000 mark yet, but still, in all likelihood, it could have been in the thousands. They said they did not belong to one barkada (peer group) but were together for assignments, school projects and both of them were involved in the student paper, Rizalian.
They were, after all, among the top three in the batch. Benito graduated salutatorian and Wilma was the first honorable mention. When asked, they admitted shyly that both the valedictorian and Benito, the salutatorian, courted Wilma, but she, of course, chose Benito.
In their fourth year of high school, both were among the delegates of the Rizal High School for the National Secondary Schools Press Conference (NSSPC). After the acquaintance party, Benito waited for Wilma and confessed his love.
“That’s it,” Wilma said. “So, you answered him right away?” this writer asked. Wilma looked at Benito and asked, “Did I agree right then and there?” Benito replied, “That’s what I understood from your response to my proposal.”
Wilma admitted Benito was her longtime crush. She turned to Benito and asked, “How about you? Was I the one you really liked back then? The two laughed.
It was the beginning of their journey together.
Fighting the dictatorship
In 1969, both qualified for scholarships and entered the University of the Philippines (UP). Benito was a national state scholar and Wilma a provincial state scholar. Benito took up chemical engineering while Wilma was enrolled as Statistics major.
At that time, the student movement was flourishing in UP. The two got involved in activism.
Both became members of the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK) although they applied for membership separately.
“We had different schedules,” Wilma said. “We were not always together.”
If they wanted to see each other, Benito waited for Wilma after class. They would go to the main library and just talk and be together.
Asked if they went dating, the two said they watched one movie together before martial law. “It was a Bruce Lee film,” Benito said. “We did not go on regular dates. We did have the money to spend on that.”
When each of them narrated their life stories to Bulatlat.com, Wilma said she didn’t know some of the details that Benito was talking about. At some part of her life story, Wilma said she did not inform Benito of some of her plans due to security reasons.
When both of them decided to leave the university to organize full-time for the SDK, they saw each other during meetings. “That’s our kind of dates,” Wilma said.
Both of them fell in love with trade unionism and were enlisted as members of the SDK Labor Committee. They had different assignments. Before martial law was declared, Wilma was organizing in the eastern part of Metro Manila while Benito was assigned in Quezon City and Marikina.
A few months after Marcos imposed martial law, the two got married. “We never planned it in advance. It was my mother who demanded for a ceremony and a marriage document,” Wilma recalled. One midnight of January 1973, the two had their wedding somewhere in Cainta. They had Wilma’s mother as a witness and no other visitor. They were wearing ordinary clothes and had no reception after the ceremonies.
Four months later, Benito was captured. He and Wilma saw each other again after that at the Ipil Rehabilitation in Fort Bonifacio. Wilma was also arrested in July of the same year.
“The military did not know we were married and so we pretended that we were just getting to know each other in jail,” Wilma recalled. “After a few days, we were holding hands.”
Wilma was released first. While Benito was still in detention, she planned to leave Manila to organize peasants in Northern Luzon. Due to heavy military operations in the area, however, she was advised not to proceed.
When Benito was released, both decided to go to the Visayas islands to continue their revolutionary work. They were first deployed to Cebu to do underground organizing work among workers.
Their life in Cebu was difficult as they had no regular meals and no allowance. They had to walk long distances to reach some of their contacts. It was also the time that Wilma got pregnant. They were in their early 20s. They could start a family in a more convenient way but instead of retreating back to Manila, the two faced the challenges together.
After a year, they were assigned to Eastern Visayas. It was during this time that their commitment to the revolution and to each other deepened further.
“It was like we were freed,” Benito recalled. He said that while in Cebu, they had limited contacts; in Eastern Visayas, entire villages accepted them.
“The mothers would volunteer their children to join the armed revolution,” Wilma said. She said that in some areas, the military declared free-fire zones. “The soldiers would shoot anyone in sight, even the civilians,” she said. “That’s why it was easy for them to join the NPA [New People’s Army]. If they did not, they might end up getting killed anyway.”
For years, they walked barefoot as wearing slippers at that time was considered bourgeois. They travelled on foot for days, sleep on makeshift tents and use sacks as blankets.
“Wasn’t it cold at night?” the couple was asked. “It’s okay. We had each other,” Wilma said.
Together, they practiced the theories that they learned and drew lessons from their experiences in agrarian revolution and mass organizing. The couple had debates and these debates helped sharpen their assessment and analysis of their revolutionary work.
Wilma said that in a relationship, it is better that each one has his/her own individual development in the movement, especially the women. “Each should have his/her own standing and independent study. There must be a free exchange of ideas, too, ” she said.
After Marcos was toppled, the couple took on different tasks. There were many times that they were not together.
Asked about the criminal charges filed against them, Wilma said, “In the history of just struggles, revolutionaries were always branded as criminals. Review the pages of history and you’ll see that Jose Rizal, Macario Sakay, Andres Bonifacio were all charged with common crimes.”
“In the eyes of the ruling elite, revolutionaries are criminals,” Benito said.
Their movements are currently limited because they are in jail. They are also not able to do what they loved doing: organizing and living among the masses. But still, they are in high spirits. When they were being brought before the court, Wilma greeted the NPA on the occasion of its 45th anniversary, while Benito shouted that the struggle would continue.
Even during incarceration, their love and passion for the revolution and for each other never seem to waver.