Tomas Confesor: Fighter to the End

By Teofisto Guingona


Bombs fell. Bullets sprayed. Sirens peeled. It was December 8, 1941. In Baguio City, President Manuel L. Quezon has summoned Tomas Confesor to a vital conference. From, his quarters in Pines View Hotel, Tomas Confesor saw the Japanese bombers and Zeros attack their chosen targets: Camp John Hay and the Philippine Military Academy.

This was it! From the rabble of the excited radio, the people who flocked in the lobby learned of the devastating assaults on Pearl Harbor. The frenzy of war gripped the air and the populace stirred in uncertainty.

Tomas Confesor checked and found out that the conference was cancelled. He decided to motor back to Manila.

What to do? His home was not Manila but Iloilo. He was a civilian not a soldier, a former congressman who had ably served his district for three terms, a delegate to the 1935 Constitutional Convention, and a former governor of Iloilo, subsequently designated by Quezon to head the National Cooperatives Administration. Now that war had broken, what was he to do?

During the drive back, memories of yesterday kept flashing back.

He remembered his youth, his father Julian Confesor, his mother, Prospera Valenzuela, his brothers and sister. As a young boy … they lived in simple poverty. But times were also exciting because even in far away Iloilo, the ferment of revolution in 1896 touched the hearts of leaders like Quintin Salas in Dumangas, and soon Ilongos joined the revolution of Bonifacio against Spain. Tomas was barely ten but he saw blood flow, and even after the defeat of Spain, when America turned against the Filipino, he saw the horrors of war close hand. His own father had joined the fight. Eventually the Americans captured him and sent him to the gallows. Tomas Confesor was only eleven years old and it left a painful memory, a priceless lesson even then — that a man must fight and die if need be for the things he believed in.

From his car window, Confesor saw trucks of USAFFE soldiers: Where were they going? Where would the first battle be? How long would the fight be? What must be done?

He reminisced again. Cabatuan, Iloilo was a small municipio, and when the Americans finally triumphed at the turn of the century, they strengthened the school system. Tomas and his brother Valentin used to hike more than twenty kilometers to school and home, often with nothing for lunch except bananas. New words. New language. New ideas. Reading, ‘Ritting, ‘Rithmetic. He liked it and thought it was worth the hike. The wounds of war were healing, and young Tomas learned many things in school. He liked education.

How excited he stood when he graduated from Iloilo High, and when he was offered a teaching job as a maestro, he readily accepted. The poor boy from Cabatuan was receiving paychecks for helping boys learn the lessons in schoolbooks. From his teaching job, he was able to widen his horizons.

He liked to read a lot. Not only the classics and history, but the bible as well. It also made him realize that he needed to learn more. So he applied to become a pensionado to get higher education abroad.

He succeeded. He left for the United States in 1910, a skinny student from the rural areas but willing to learn or take on anyone. He attended the University of California and the University of Chicago where he earned the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, major in Economics.

He touched base with his countrymen by running a newsletter The Filipino Student, was a good debater and writer, building the tools of a future politician.

Confesor smiled as the car drove through Pampanga. The war seemed remote as they passed through picturesque rural areas. And only as they neared Ft. Stotsenberg, later renamed Clark Field, did the scurrying of Phil-American Forces show signs of war…

His mind wandered to 1912 when he was welcomed back to Cabatuan, Iloilo. This time as a learned graduate from abroad given appointment as a supervising teacher of several towns. His new position endeared him to the people, and without knowing it he was already winning their hearts each time he listened to their problems, each time he visited and ate with them, each time he would take up their cause.

Then the University of the Philippines appointed him instructor of Economics. He taught. He debated. He wrote — becoming business editor of Varsity News, working with men like Conrado Benitez and Carlos P. Romulo. He also joined an organization within the Philippine Columbian Association, Ang Bagong Katipunan, where the seeds of nationalism were watered by a common desire for independence amongst members like Miguel Cuaderno, Jose Abad Santos, Francisco Delgado, Maximo Kalaw, Camilo Osias, and Victor Buencamino.

The car carrying Confesor now entered Bulacan. He gazed out the window. Peaceful countryside again. Simple, like Iloilo. Why was this rustic place to be shattered by war? Why Japan? Japan represented the Mikado, the Monarch, the Empire. The people there had discipline but no freedom. The Philippines was an emerging republic, a Commonwealth dedicated to freedom. Confesor was a man who always enjoyed a good fight — for the right causes.

He blinked and closed his eyes. He had fought many battles in the past, not military but political. Yet did not political battles also require guts? Drive? Stamina? Organization? The battlefields lay in the precincts and the ammunition sprang from ballots. In a sense, it was like a war. One had to fight, and strive to win people. One had to stand by what he believed in — and do battle in order to win.

He recalled he first fight. He faces a rich haciendero, Maximino Jalandoni. At that time, the landlords dominated.

They had lands which meant kasamas. They had influence which meant suasions in key places. But Confesor stood undaunted. He was poor but had many friends and followers. No haciendas but many former students. No influence amongst the cacique but plenty of drive and determination. He was the forerunner of Ramon Magsaysay. He campaigned from barrio to barrio, house to house, person to person. He spoke the homespun kiniray-a and told them “I am one of you. No money but we have each other, and together we can beat this rich opponent of ours who does not even know life in the barrio”.

He won resoundingly. Inside the halls of Congress, he fought for his constituents, rising to denounce abuses, to defend the poor who had no means to defend themselves.

In 1923, people had to pay the cedula tax. Even those without jobs or incomes had to pay. Pay two pesos or go to jail. Two pesos meant a big amount then and a laborer in Iloilo named Entrenserado refused to pay. When threatened with jail, he gathered some followers and defied the authorities with arms. Governor General Wood, a military man who brooked no disobedience was mistakenly informed that the Entrenserado defiance represented simple banditry. He sent a naval ship to bombard Jaro.

Tomas Confesor intervened. He informed Wood that this was no banditry but the reaction to the unjust imposition of colonial cedula tax that represented an unfair tax system of the Spaniards. He volunteered to meet Entrenserado himself to pacify the incipient revolt and aver bloodshed. He succeeded. He met Entrenserado alone, without arms, convinced him to desist even as he vowed to work for the abolition of the cedula. The naval ship left Jaro, and what could have resulted in an ugly naval bombardment did not take place. The people of Iloilo rejoiced.

They were now nearing Manila, and Confesor continued to reminisce. He served three terms in Congress, consistently fighting for causes he believed in. He fought for independence and aligned himself with Manuel L. Quezon. He fought against the move to separate Mindanao and Sulu from the Philippines as proposed in the Bacon Bill, charging America with rank discrimination and a distorted desire to keep only the better developed portions of the country for herself. He fought against junkets, urging that the monies be channeled to agriculture instead. He even fought Manuel L. Quezon when Quezon opposed his move to grant more autonomy to the barrios telling Quezon that a strong centralized executive could lead to dictatorship and stifle people’s initiatives. He became known as the stormy petrel of Iloilo.

He authored vital legislations not only for his district but also for the nation i.e., the Cooperatives Marketing Law. It was in recognition of his concerns for Commerce that he was appointed, after winning his third term, Director of the Bureau of Commerce and Industry.

Tomas Confesor sighed as the car took the final turn to Manila. As Director of Commerce and Industry, he fought for more production, more diversified products, and more processing of raw materials. But the colonial trend swelled to oppose his efforts. The US would buy sugar. Never mind processing to chocolates or candy. The US would do that for us. Never mind diversifying. The US was a steady market. Confesor protested. He spoke out openly against an unbalanced trade where we supply raw materials in exchange for finished goods. Some listened. A few took heed. But the majority did not. The big sugar barons preferred the easy way.

Confesor recalled his frustrations. After his stint as Director of Commerce and Industry, his frustrations became compounded when he went back to Iloilo to run for Congress again. This time he lost. He lost to a former opponent, Atanacio Ampig. He was for Quezon; Ampig was for Osmeña. Quezon and Osmeña were vying for leadership in their quest for independence. Osmeña and his block succeeded in bringing home the Hare Hawes Cutting Bill which Quezon and his group opposed to secure another Independence Bill. Quezon led the antis, Osmeña headed the pros. Confesor was caught in the crossfire — and Osmeña being a Visayan, regionalistic sway swung to Osmeña candidate Atanacio Ampig. Confesor lost and at that time the future looked dim.

But only for a while. After Quezon finally got the approval of the Tydings-MacDuffie Act, the emerging nation called for a Constitutional Convention to forge a new Constitution. Confesor ran to represent his province. He won.

He served with guts, and with the independence of mind of a delegate beholden only to national interest. He faced Claro M. Recto in debates on accountability, tangled with Vicente Francisco over land reform, and eventually succeeded in sponsoring vital provisions in the new Constitution.

In 1937, Confesor returned to Iloilo and ran for Governor. He won. People realized that win or lose, Tomas Confesor did not stop fighting for causes he believed in.

His first term was to dispense power justly on all, rich or poor. The business tycoons of Iloilo had supported him in the first gubernatorial fight, and so they expected him to protect and promote their vested interests. But Tomas Confesor did not. Instead of restricting business permits and licenses to a favored few, he opened up business to others. This angered the rich tycoons of Iloilo, and in the next elections they opposed him strongly. This was in 1941 — when most of the wealthy patrons and moneyed class of Iloilo fought Tomas Confesor.

But Confesor did not stand alone. Again, he went to the common folk. He campaigned from barrio to barrio, house to house, explaining in his homespun kiniray-a in mass meetings why the rich were against him and why the poor like them were for him. He won the election with the biggest majority since witnessed.

The car carrying Tomas Confesor was now entering Manila. The city seemed in ferment. The signs were all there: soldiers’ movements, trucks convoying troops, people crowding around radios, listening to news — feeling the jitters and war fever.

Confesor directed the chauffeur to proceed to Manila Hotel, his temporary quarters in the city. His main concern was the safety of his family in Iloilo. He wired them to evacuate to a safer place in the interior. He contacted his office and instructed them what to do, what records to destroy so that they do not fall into enemy hands. He brooded, consulted key officials, brooded some more concerning his future course of action.

The next few days saw an escalation of the war. Japanese planes by the hundreds bombed the American bases and Phil-American airfields like Zablan and Batangas. There were spectacular dogfights as brave Filipinos led by Captain Jesus Villamor rose to challenge the air marauders.

There were meetings, hectic conferences, Congress resolutions of support for the Allied cause, and plans. Then Lingayen was invaded. Consequently Manila was declared an open city; USAFFE moved its forces to Bataan and Corregidor.

When the Japanese forces entered Manila on January 2, 1942, Confesor was still in the city. The dreaded Kempei-tai detained all residents of that hotel to ferret out American and enemy “aliens”. Fortunately they did not discover Confesor’s identity as a high official of government. After four days of detention, he was released.

From then on, Tomas Confesor decided never again to become captive. He left the hotel, went into hiding, one night at his sister’s place in Sta. Ana, next in Novaliches at the residence of a friend, then in downtown Manila with another associate. He could not forever go on hiding, however, and when news reached him that Japanese authorities were looking for him, he decided to go home to Iloilo. He could not go by ordinary transport, for most ships had discontinued travel, and no planes were available. He decided to take a batel, a big sailboat with riggers on both sides. In doing so, he had his secretary arrange for other Ilonggos wishing to go home to ride with him. The voyage was dangerous, not only because of the rough seas, but also because of possible capture by the Japanese.

Confesor remained firm. He could not go to Bataan. He would go back to Iloilo instead. Because of the perils of the sea, he thought only a handful would brave the call. Fifty-four showed up, and they started out by land on an old hired bus which took them to Batangas on February 28, 1942. Confesor was incognito to the other passengers except to his secretary, and when the Japanese sentries stopped the vehicle, they only laid casual eyes on the passengers and flagged them on.

From Taal, Batangas, they boarded the batel “Agcauan”. Even as they began the journey, they could hear explosions from Calapan, Mindoro where the Japanese were landing troops. A Japanese plane circled causing momentary tension. Would the plane attack, or direct them back to shore? Fortunately, the plane left. On their first day at sea, there was practically no wind. The second day however challenged them with very strong winds, so strong many retched and got sick. The winds lashed and the batel rocked viciously, causing injuries to some. A few women fainted.

But they were still lucky and the strong winds slowly died away in the night. They continued their journey through Odiongan Strait, past Tablas, Romblon, finally reaching Buruanga, Capiz on March 3.

At that time, Bataan and Corregidor were still gallantly holding on, and the rest of the Visayas and Mindanao remained free. The officials of Iloilo were informed, and immediately transports were made available to carry Tomas Confesor and party back to Iloilo. The native son had returned.

In the interim, Manuel L. Quezon decided to transfer the Philippine Commonwealth to exile abroad. He had to leave Corregidor and proceed to the United States via Mindanao and Australia. He passed by Negros. Learning of Confesor’s dramatic return to Iloilo, President Quezon called him to meet him in Bacolod. The two warriors greeted each other warmly and Quezon instructed Confesor to resume his position as governor of Iloilo.

Quezon told him “You are the Chief Executive of the province of Iloilo and you should exercise your powers as such. Under the circumstances, you are my representative. You should use your common sense and sound judgment, bearing always in mind public interest and public welfare. I cannot give you specific instruction more than this, because times are uncertain and within 24 hours the situation may change for the better or for the worse.”

Then the two men said goodbye. Confesor would carry this instruction in his heart — for even then he knew that public interest demanded that he resist the enemy and continue against their abuses. Even then he knew he would never serve Japan, never abandon his province, never surrender.

He went back to Iloilo. And when the Japanese invaded, they found the Capitol empty. Confesor had transferred personnel and property to the mountains in Leon. He became a civilian guerrilla governor. He kept the civil government intact, organized a disciplined police force, insured the supply of food for the island of Panay, and began a newsletter to tell the people the truth.

The Japanese wanted Confesor, not as prisoner but as their collaborator. They had made inquiries and came to the conclusion that the best man to swing the Ilongos to their side was Confesor. They wanted him for that in Manila, when he was still there hiding. Now that they occupied Iloilo, they had hoped to harness his services there. They were doubly disappointed. Not only was he gone — he was also reported to have organized the civilian resistance against them.

The Japanese had to settle for Dr. Fermin Caram, whom they appointed governor of Iloilo.

But as the crisis of war deepened, and as the resistance against the Japanese led by Confesor strengthened, the Japanese themselves devised all means possible to lure him out of the mountains, make him abandon resistance and join the puppet civil government.

Dr. Fermin Caram and Tomas Confesor were old friends. They had served in the government together, had been colleagues in the 1935 Constitutional Convention. So they corresponded. But crisis brings out the truth in men. It was a time of trial, and while Dr. Caram chose to join the civil government under Japan, Confesor chose to fight them from the mountains of Leon.

The basic difference between the two began to show. In January of 1943, Dr. Caram wrote Confesor a vital letter asking him to surrender because (1) there was no ignominy in surrender and that (2) the people were suffering and they needed him to help bring about peace and tranquility to Iloilo. It took more than a month before Tomas Confesor received that letter.

He responded. Not just an ordinary answer but a stirring comprehensive historic response that electrified the resistance in Iloilo and all those who read it. Quezon lauded Confesor. MacArthur congratulated him. Even Roosevelt expressed gratification.

When he received the letter of Dr. Caram, Confesor was moving about in the mountains. From time to time he was stricken by fever, but he did not allow personal inconvenience to deter him from his duties. He responded to the letter on February 20, 1943:

He wrote:

You were decidedly wrong when you told me that there is no ignominy in surrender. That may be true in the case of soldiers who were corralled by the enemy consisting of superior force with no way of escape whatsoever. For when they gave themselves up, they did not repudiate any principle of good government and the philosophy of life which inspired them to fight heroically and valiantly — to use your own words. Should I surrender, however, and with me the people, by your invitation and assurance of guarantee to my life, my family and those who follow me, I would be surrendering something more precious than life itself; the principles of democracy and justice and the honor and dignity of our people.

I wish to thank you for reminding me what General Bell wrote to Mabini that “only the possibility of success is the sole justification of war and as soon as that possibility disappears, civilization demands that for the sake of humanity the vanquished should submit to the victor.” In calling my attention to the above content of the letter of General Bell, you make the affirmation thereby that there is no “possibility of success” on the part of America and the Allies to defeat Japan and colleagues. Here again you are evidently wrong. You people who have surrendered to the Japanese do not know of any news that you are ignorant of what is going on. For your information and guidance, let me tell you that Japan is digging her grave deeper and deeper everyday in New Guinea. In China and in Burma, she is on the run and is losing extensive territories which she formerly conquered. In Europe, Germany is in flight pursued by the Russians. In Africa, Tripoli and Tunisia have fallen into the hands of the Allies. Everyday the cities of Italy are being bombed and smashed to pieces. The Italians will soon demand separate peace. By June, next, the Philippines will be redeemed from Japan, definitely. What are you going to do next, revise your convictions again? Thank you, once more, for reminding me of the words of Genera Bell to Mabini. They serve to fortify my convictions more that ever, for the possibility of success of America and the Allies over the Axis is as clear as the day…

I hope I have made myself clear enough to make you understand my position. I will not surrender as long as I stand on my feet…

It pains me to read your letter saying that you and I one time nursed devotedly identical convictions on democracy and liberty, but that you have to revise your own for the sake of “peace and tranquility.” How can you honestly and truthfully say that you may enjoy peace and tranquility when you are unfaithful to your own convictions? Do you mean to tell me that you revised your convictions because you believed that they were not righteous or because you considered your personal conveniences over and above that of the Filipino people? You may have read, I am sure, the story of Lincoln who held firmly to the conviction that the secession of the Southern States from the Union was WRONG. Consequently, when he became President and the Southern States seceded, he did not hesitate to use force to compel them to remain in the Union.

The immediate result was civil war that involve the country into the throes of a terrible armed conflict that, according to the reliable historians, produced proportionately more loss of lives, hardships and miseries than the first World War. The sufferings of the people of the South were terrible, but the Union was saved and America has become thereby one of the strongest and respected nations on the surface of the earth. If Lincoln had revised his convictions and sacrificed them for the sake of peace and tranquility as you did, a fatal catastrophe would have befallen the people of America.

With this lesson of history clearly before us, I prefer to follow Lincoln’s example than yours and your fellow puppets. In other words, I sternly refuse to revise my own convictions for the sake of temporary and false promises of peace and tranquility.

I noted that you emphasized in your letter only peace and the tranquility of our people. I do not know whether by omission or intentionally, you failed to refer in any way to the honor and dignity of our race. You seem to have forgotten these noble sentiments already, despite the fact that Japan has hardly been a year in our country. It appears clearly evident, therefore, that there is a great difference between the manner you and me are trying to lead our people during these trying days. You and your fellow puppets are trying to give them peace and tranquility by destroying their honor and dignity, without suffering or, if there is any, the least possible. On the other hand, we endeavor to inspire them to face difficulties and undergo any sacrifice to uphold the government thereby holding up high and immaculate their honor and dignity at the same time. In other words, you are trying to drive our people to peace and tranquility on the road of IGNOMINY, to borrow your own language. Peace and tranquility are easy to achieve if you choose the easy way but, in that case, however, you would be living beneath the dignity of human being. You would be reducing our people as a result thereof to the status of a dumb animal like the good carabao which lives in peace and tranquility because it is properly fed by its owner. Is that the peace and tranquility you are talking about — that of a carabao? Would this not be clearly ignominious?

Tomas Confesor was guerilla governor of the resistance. Yet he faced many challenges not only from the Japanese but ironically from the military guerilla forces under Macario Peralta.

It is to the credit of both men that they strove to patch up difference by delineating responsibilities. But war breeds more abuses. Confesor fought these abuses. When army officers ransacked certain homes in Dingle for food and women, he responded by sending police units to stop them. When they repeated the same offenses in Lambunao, he wrote a scathing letter to Col. Macario Peralta himself, denouncing the abuses.

He said:

Might is never right. The interests of individual army men are never superior to the rights of citizens even in time of war. The soldier does not have any right any day to maltreat a teniente del barrio or ronda just because he was not given camote to eat the night previous, because the teniente del barrio or ronda are not hired men of the Philippine samurai.

I stand by these precepts and will oppose any wicked proposition to the contrary.

When liberation came, President Sergio Osmeña appointed Confesor Secretary of the Interior. Subsequently, he became senator of the land. As senator, he continued to fight. He vigorously opposed parity – that unwarranted imposition by the United States for US citizens to exploit the nation’s natural resources in the same manner as Philippine firms and citizens. He refused to take it as the high price exacted for supposed rehabilitation. He fought for the farmers, in the wake of the brewing Hukbalahap uprising, and warned the nation to adopt radical reforms in agriculture before it is too late. He fought corruption already rearing its ugly head in the early years of independence: the surplus scandals, Tambobong, and overpriced purchases in agriculture.

Tomas Confesor carried on his duties gallantly, but because of failing health, mainly the result of the pain and agony of war and having to serve as a guerilla governor holding office in the mountains, he had to go abroad for treatment.

It was abroad where Tomas Confesor again stood to fight personal affront. He had decided to live in a rising subdivision in San Francisco but was denied access because he was classified as colored. He protested. He fought the injustice, and somehow word got to no less than the White House that Tomas Confesor was being denied the right to live in that subdivision because of racial prejudice. Without Confesor’s knowing it, the White House intervened and sent word to the subdivision owners: “The man you are denying access to is a war hero. He is a brave Filipino who served as guerilla governor during the dark days of the occupation in the Philippines. He has gallantly fought for freedom, and deserves admission.”

When the message got to the subdivision, the entire residents rose as one not only to apologize but also to welcome Tomas Confesor into their neighborhood. A gallant Filipino we can all be proud of.

In 1951, Tomas Confesor passed away, but he lives on in the heart of the nation. He was a teacher, congressman, governor, guerilla, senator, fighter for freedom, and a gallant Filipino.

Guingona, Teofisto. The Gallant Filipino. 1st Edition, Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1991.

Reprinted in this website with the permission of the author, Hon. Teofisto Guingona, Vice President of the Philippines.

Tomas Confesor’s wife, the former Rosalina Javellana Grecia, and former Senator Teofisto Guingona Sr., the Vice President’s father, were second cousins.

Published on March 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm  Comments Off on Tomas Confesor: Fighter to the End  
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