MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A popular Mao cap-wearing Filipino guerrilla, who gave a voice and face to one of Asia’s longest-running Marxist insurgencies as its spokesman with a common-folk touch, has died of a heart attack, his comrades said Sunday. He was 64.
The outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines said Gregorio "Comrade Roger" Rosal died in a guerrilla zone in the country’s north on June 22, but delayed the public announcement of his death until his daughters were notified. Reaching them was difficult because of intense military operations.
The communist party and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, mourned Rosal’s death in a statement, saying "his life of service to the revolution will serve as an inspiration to the people to carry forward their revolutionary struggles."
All Maoist guerrillas will pay a tribute with gun salutes on Oct. 15, the party said.
"He was the effective voice of the revolution," Netherlands-based rebel leader Luis Jalandoni told The Associated Press by telephone. "He was so loved by the masses and members of the media. He was always easy to reach for interviews."
While it hunted Rosal for years, the 120,000-strong military offered its condolences to Rosal’s family Sunday, saying it once offered medical help when news of his failing health spread. Rosal turned down the offer.
A son of impoverished sugar plantation workers, Rosal became a trade union organizer and student activist before deciding to go underground in the mountainous Quezon region southeast of the capital, Manila, in the 1970s to join the fight for a Marxist state.
He was captured a year after dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial rule in the Philippines in 1972, but escaped a few months later. While considered a celebrity even among his comrades, Rosal was among guerrilla leaders who were subjected to an unspecified punishment by the rebels for failing to take a strong stand against an internal purge of suspected military spies in the late 1980s.
Rosal served as rebel spokesman from the 1980s to the 1990s, using laptop computers, two-way radios and cellphones to bring guerrilla statements using the Tagalog dialect to households through radio and TV interviews. He debated passionately with military spokesmen over the radio and often arranged visits for journalists to rebel encampments, regaling them by playing his harmonica and shaking their hands.
He nearly died of typhoid fever in 1995 then suffered a series of strokes in succeeding years, gradually removing him from the limelight.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Filipino guerrillas became a target of the U.S.-led global war on terror when Washington placed them on its list of terrorist organizations and urged nations to help wipe them out by denying them refuge and money.
But Rosal said then that the homegrown guerrillas were hardly affected because they survive on local contributions, attack government troops for weapons or buy guns from corrupt officers, and get "the best sons and daughters" as recruits from families suffering from poverty, landlessness and government neglect.
"The government is the No. 1 recruiter of the New People’s Army," Rosal said.
While dodging military assaults, Rosal never ran out of wit and humor and constantly countered the military’s portrayal of the rebels as murderous terrorists — a view shared by the U.S. government.
After a clandestine news conference in a pine-clad northern forest in 2004, Rosal pulled out a harmonica to entertain reporters.
"I’ll provide the caption for you: the singing terrorist," he said as photographers captured the moment.