Commentary: Student activists reflect on the legacy of the Filipino student movement

Isa Carlin is a national democratic activist with Sulong UBC and a recent graduate from the UBC iSchool. They have been part of the Filipino national democratic movement since 2019.

This past spring, students marched to the UBC President’s office to call on the university to divest from corporations complicit in human rights abuses, including abuses committed in the Philippines.

As on-campus activism continues to ramp up, Sulong UBC reflects on the lessons and legacy of Filipino student organizing and that we can draw from this history to respond to contemporary issues.

Today, students are agitated about issues that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — the skyrocketing cost of food, exorbitant rent increases and ever-rising tuition fees.

These same issues were present in the 1960s and 70s, driving the conversation on campuses around the world, including in the Philippines.

Sulong UBC — an organization of Filipino students and allies — is an affiliate of Anakbayan Canada, which launched a campaign in January to honour the legacy of recently- passed Filipino activist Jose Maria “Joma” Sison.

Joma was the founding chairperson of revolutionary political organizations and contributed greatly to the historic Filipino and international proletarian movements.

In the 1970s, Filipino students like Joma united with workers and peasants in the Philippines to demand changes in the face of socioeconomic inequality.

Peasants faced landlessness a situation where landlords own the land where peasants work, characterized by minimal payouts from harvested crops, poverty due to high land rent rates and usury to cover their basic needs. workers faced union-busting and low wages, and students faced high tuition rates.

Filipino activists identified that these distinct issues are rooted in an economic system defined by subordination to US imperialism, domestic feudalism and the corrupt profit-driven management of the government — what is called bureaucrat capitalism. (Interested readers can find more in Selected Readings from the works of Jose Maria Sison or the Anakbayan Canada orientation).

After the Second World War, the revolutionary anti-colonial movement in the Philippines was suppressed by US-backed counterinsurgency measures. It took two decades for this spirit to be ignited. In the streets, this reawakening took the form of mass actions, strikes and critical press; in homes, schools, and workplaces. In the countryside, it appeared as the launching of organizations including the Kabataang Makabayan, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.

After the declaration of martial law in 1972 by dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the father of current Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Mar- cos Jr., many of the people’s organizations formed during the 1960s and early 70s were forced underground.

In 1989, martial law ended. The Philippines saw new organizations, like Anakbayan in 1998, take to the streets and participate in legal civic actions like protests and popular education to organize against the exploitative and oppressive economic system.

A Marxist analysis of society developed in the Philippines during the 1960s and 70s, expressed in publications like Philippine Society and Revolution; this analysis remains the basis of Filipino revolutionary organizing in the Philippines and across the diaspora.

As members of Sulong UBC and the national democratic movement, we apply these lessons from youth organizing of the past to present issues at UBC. “The [Filipino] student movement is very principled,” says Grace Ma, a Sulong UBC Executive Committee member. Through work focused on both the rights and welfare of students and workers at UBC and the organization's “national and international connection” to the Philippines, Sulong stays “grounded on the real issues,” Ma says.

The need for strong solidarity between students and workers remains relevant and evident at UBC. On campus, many workers and students alike face food insecurity (especially since the AMS revoked staff access to its food bank) or live far from campus to cope with the broader housing crisis.

Many also bear the double burden of supporting themselves in Canada and sending remittances to their families in the Philippines or other semi-colonies around the world.

Lovely Ranges, another Sulong Executive Committee member, notes that “for us to read theory and calling ourselves leftists is not enough. Vancouver is full of people who are ‘radical, but something I learned from the Filipino student movement is that being radical means to actually go out of your way to build a community where everyone collectively cares about each other. When we say ‘for the masses, we want the exploited masses specifically to be the ones to lead us.”

The revolutionary potential of students hasn’t gone away — now more than ever, we can change our conditions if we take the time to learn from the lessons of the revolutionary student movements of the 20th century.

Through the decades of cumulative experiences that Filipino youth have gained through our own organizing and the revolutionary action of our parents and grandparents, class analysis has led to a powerful Filipino youth movement that can link up with the struggles of the broadest exploited masses. History has shown that solidarity across sectors and peoples based on an anti-imperialist class analysis leads to revolutionary victories.

In the Philippines, this worker-student solidarity led to the formation of powerful mass organizations and major political victories throughout the 1970s and 80s, like the ouster of Marcos Sr. 

Sulong UBC uses the same strategies today.

Through a deep connection with exploited people, principles of international solidarity, the study of political theory and a focus on tangible political campaigns, Sulong members aim to raise our consciousness and achieve concrete victories. Victories like increased awareness and material support for Filipino political prisoners like Karina dela Cerna; a growing connection with Filipino workers and other student organizations on campus in response to rising tuition rates, climate change, food insecurity and the global political and economic crisis; and the expansion of our organization as well.

"When students and workers unite, we can change our classrooms, our homes, our campuses and our world."

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