In the following we want to introduce a person of the younger Philippine contemporary history, whose life reflects exemplarily the religious embedding, the deep social rift and the propensity to violence within the Philippine society. Depending on point of view he was considered as misled priest, obstinate fighter and idol for social justice, as a practical sort of politician or as a criminal separatist.
Born in 1944 Conrado Balweg was the son of a poor farmer family in the northern Philippine Cordilleras Mountains. The family belonged to the tribal minority of the Tingguian, which was often scornfully regarded as primitive and underdeveloped. The tribe became also a target of mockery and the “people from the mountains” were also associated with the presence of headhunting and animism. The family wanted to reverse this prejudgment. The children were sent on mission schools. The parents favored the career of a priest for her son Conrado. In the Catholic Philippines the profession of a priest has usually a high social status.
Conrado Balweg attends a priest school of the international order of the Steyler missionaries, the "Societas Verbi Divini" (SVD). The SVD with its head quarters at the Dutch German border is at present the 7th largest Catholic male congregation of priest and brothers. In the seminaries Balweg gets also in contact with the teachings of Marxism and the Liberation Theology.
Now we should refer shortly on the teaching of Liberation theology because at this time it does not only cause a sensation particularly under the young theologians in the Philippines. It shattered also the orthodox Catholic Church teaching at least for a short period of time. The reference to the Liberation theology also delivers us the necessary help for the interpretation of Conrado Bowleg’s changing positions because now - in chronological distance to his peak - only few personal remarks of him can be found.
According to the teachings of the Liberation Theology the church has to focus its attention first and foremost to the poor and discriminated people, which have been deprived of their rights. The Sermon of the Mount is for example one biblical reference, which offers a lot of social dynamite. They say, it is not so important to preach a cleverly thought-out clerical theology - social work in favor of the discriminated people is more essential because Salvation should not only be expected hereafter but also in present time. Some - and only some - supporters of the Liberation Theology sympathize with socialist, also communist society models. Their social engagement has different degrees of intensity and readiness for a change. The spectrum reaches from socially critical writings (Leonardo Boff), intensive social work, political cooperation and mandate holding (i.e. Cardinal Ernesto Cardenal as minister of culture in Nicaragua). It finds its radicalization in the small group of priest which joins guerrilla underground movements propagating and exercising counter violence (i.e. the Colombian Camilo Torres).
And we should also consider the time historical situation in which the young priest candidate Conrado Balweg is. Already two years before the proclamation the "Martial Law" the country is in the "First Quarter Storm" in the situation of political disturbances. People criticizes the authoritarian government style of president Marcos, the nepotism and personal enrichment, the arbitrary arrests and an economic decline. Even the Catholic Church in the Philippines, traditionally side by side with the economic and political leadership elites, turns under Cardinal Sin first in a phase of a critical cooperation, later in that one of an opposition.
Already as a seminarist Conrado Balweg Already is not a friend of the cocoon of official church teaching, he likes more the practical social work. He is also criticized that he does not keep to the rules of the seminary and that he is dreaming from a "national, social rescue (1) “. He receives his ordination as a priest relatively late with 37 years in 1971 and becomes the first priest from the tribe of the Tingguian.
For a longer time he is working as a priest at the little baranguay Sal-Lapadan and he leads a relatively quiet life. But he is demanding for structural reforms. In 1977 the German journalist Rüdiger Siebert visits him. Balweg is complaining about multinational timber companies which bring along claims of ownership from Manila, and cut down precious wood, whereas the natives cannot prove their historical claims of ownership because of lack of documents. He is telling that the government is corrupt and uncontrolled and that elections are only a farce. Siebert asked him also, if he will follow the NPA in the near future but Balweg was evasive about his intentions (2). More and more he realizes that as a priest he is only preserving the deplorable status quo.
Two years later in 1979, he followed the NPA respectively the CPA, as it is also called in the north. „Ka Ambo" - his nickname - becomes the “Robin Hood of the Cordilleras”, a local idol. Instead with Bible he presents himself now with a storm gun and ammunition belt. He is ready to use violence and he speaks in his CPA-teachings about the necessary counter violence against the rulers and big landowners. He concedes, „Guns will not win the war, but the justness of the cause will … we have the support of the masses". In the same newspaper interview he adds, that his group killed in 1979 46 government soldiers and six armed forces informers in 29 collisions with the armed forces (3).
Balweg has blood on his hands now. With reference to early Christian characters we could in reverse say: “Paul” has become a “Saul”. The government puts a head money of 200,000 pesos on his capture - dead or live. However, the military did not get hold of him despite intensive aerial reconnaissance by helicopters. Balweg marries his comrade Corazon "Azon" Cortel which will give birth to five children. The Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Conrado Balweg as priest and church member before.
By the way, the number of the Philippine priests and nuns that followed revolutionary groupings like NDF, CPA or NPA was and is relatively small. The Marcos government estimated that its percentage is under one percent (4). The present international speaker the NDF L. Jalandoni which is at home now in the Netherlands was also a former priest. The archbishop of the diocese Lingayen-Dagupan Oscar V. Cruz told 2006 in a newspaper interview, he does not know the exact number of the clergymen who went underground and he mentioned again the limits which are set to a priest in the practice of his office (5).
In 1987 his group breaks up with the CPA/NPA. Balweg denounces the CPA/NPA as a totalitarian organization, acting against the interests of the Igorots and ruled by city dwellers in the lowland. Because of the different country structures he pleads only for regional struggles for liberations, no national ones. He fights for far-reaching autonomy rights of the Cordilleras region now. His paramilitary grouping is renamed in “Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army” (CPLA). Over more than a decade the two groups of CPA and CPLA take arms against each another and are involved in intense fights. Both sides accuse each another for having done crimes and they publish long lists with tortured and innocently killed persons. The CPA also reproaches the CPLA for drug traffic, marijuana cultivation and the acquisition of land in favor of mining companies.
The fight is at the same time a brother fight because the younger brother Jovencio fights on the side of the CPA against his brother Conrado. We quoted already the characters of Paul and Saul, now we can speak - perhaps a bit presumptuous - of a fight Cain against Abel, in which Jovencio will take the role of Cain. Already in 1986 the CPP condemns in a collective decision Conrado to death. But over a decade the CPP cannot seize him.
When in 1986 Corazon Aquino takes over the government it comes to a surprising turnabout. Conrado Balweg and his CPLA enter into peace negotiations with the government. Rosaries and sword axes are exchanged, when the two have their meeting. Against the promise of an amnesty and comprehensive regional autonomy the CPLA is ready to stop its fight against the government. Conrado is running unsuccessfully for a seat in the Philippine congress and he sells with regard to his biography the film rights. The film “Balweg - The Rebel Priest" has its first release in 1987. Over the years the CPLA fighters are partly integrated into the regular Philippine army. Others are becoming member of the paramilitary grouping “Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Units” (CAFGUs). The autonomy status of the Cordillera region becomes law in 1997. However, Conrado Balweg is already dead at this time.
He got shot in the New Year's Eve evening in1999. His murderer(s) are not sufficiently identified. But it becomes clear that his brother Javencio was engaged in his assassination. In an interview he justified the execution (6). According to a source of information (7) Conrado was tracked down in the house of the parents by his brother and a helper. The two brothers started an argument. A CPA/NPA helper - hiding under the house - then fired a bullet through the rattan ground in direction of the head of Conrado, which passed away immediately. Over the years several CPA/NPA members, also a head of a farmer organization and church employee have been suspected, to have done the fatal shot. However, they got release, because the guilt could not be proved beyond All doubt. At present a parish priest of the United Church of Christ is under suspicion (8) .
What are now doing the relatives of Conrado Balweg? It is told, that the suspicious younger brother Jovencio is still a local CPP/NPA leader and chairman of the "Abra Provincial Party Committee". Brother Crispin enjoys a good reputation as a successful healer in the province (9). Conrados wife Corazon "Azon" Cortel-Balweg was already compared with Gabriela Silang, a former pioneer of the independence of the province Ilocos, because she accompanied and defended the fight and the ideology on the side of her husband. Some find this comparison not quite adequate, however. She was and still is engaged in the social integration of the former CPLA fighters.
© Wolfgang Bethge, May 2007
(2) Rüdiger Siebert, 3 times Filipino. Munich, 1889, p. 70 f
(3) Priest drops Bible for of the gun, in: http://www.ibiblio.org/ahkitj/wscfap/arms1974/PRAXIS/1985/1985%20Q1n2/1985%20q1n2.htm
(4) The Huks and of The New People Army: Comparing Two Postwar Filipino Insurgencies, in: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1985/ARS.htm
(5) William B. Depasupil, Zero tolerance for rebel clergy, The Sunday Times, http://www.manilatimes.net/national/2007/jan/14/yehey/top_stories/20070114top1.html
(6) Inqirer news service, Jan 24, 2003
(7) Fray Balweg & liberation Theology, in: http://www.geocities.com/nymia20001/articles/FrayBalweg_01.html
(8) Vincert Cabreza, Arrest of pastor in Balweg case described as “old tunes”, Inquirer.net, 04.25.2007
(9) Wolfgang Bethge, Diego und Gabriela Silang - Los Indios Bravos, in: http:// www.literaturbruecke-philippinen.de/silang.htm