The People's Lawyer

Posted at 09/21/2012 9:12 PM

*** “With miles to go before he sleeps” was the subhead in this story/interview published in the Philippines Graphic in 2004.)

It is a young man’s voice, pitched low but musical. It is a donnish mien. Lawyer Romeo Capulong reclines on a lounge chair, legs crossed, one gently swinging. His is an old world charm; strangers could be forgiven for mistaking him as the owner of the old-wood furniture gallery cum café.

Romy Capulong’s wake at the Church of the Risen Lord, UP Diliman. Photo by Rolando Rico Olalia.

Yet for the last two decades, Capulong, who turned 70 on February 15, has borne the tag, “The Communist Lawyer.”

It is a title at once prestigious and dangerous, depending on your place in the political spectrum.
Capulong has straddled all sides. This farmer’s son from Nueva Ecija has gone through traditional law practice, a constitutional convention, electoral politics, and high-powered bourgeois fraternities and organizations.

He is more better known, however, as legal counsel to the National Democratic Front negotiating panel. That makes him a key actor in a peace process that takes flight or stumbles according to the political fancies of rulers and rebels.

In 1999, as a member of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines national directorate, Capulong joked about his Red credentials, playing coy and sardonically aping the US government’s “neither confirm nor deny” pronouncements.

Now, in the autumn of his life, the man who at 65 awed then Senator Loren Legarda with his swift ascent of rugged mountains – in the cause of freeing prisoners of war – repeatedly invokes his independence from his famous client.

Ringside seats

As he deals with the latest round of movement in the Public Interest Law Center, Capulong muses about the changing norms of commitments and struggles. His eloquence hints at long hours of thought. Showing full grasp of the changing times, he discusses what the Left (legal or underground) needs as it struggles with increasingly alienated middle forces. He rubs his palms and jiggles a leg. The subject matter is familiar. It is a major theme of the present imperfect.

Capulong is arguably the Left’s most famous outsider, though military sleuths claim otherwise, noting his services to fringe sympathizers (the late Ninoy Aquino, for one) and underground stars who have since become each other’s deadly foes.

One might fault Capulong’s politics but even critics shake their heads at his staying power. He has mentored many lawyers: Alex Padilla has assumed high government posts; Jong Olalia, son the slain leader Rolando, is now labor attaché to Canada. (*Jong has since returned to practice law in the country.)
The young ones come and go, according to life priorities and shifting ideological views. Capulong remains the grand old man of people’s lawyers. It is a lonely position. His sad eyes belie statements of optimism. But Capulong is no stranger to the ups and downs of struggle. He knows there is a time for everything, including moving on.

Lost friends

Despite his gentle voice, he displays a relentless will that screams, “Alpha Male”. He openly and unrepentantly admits to “authoritarian” tendencies. Like any patriarch, he has loss as constant companion.
Capulong has occupied prime ringside seats into the Left’s turbulent history.

In the years just before martial law, he remained friendly with old communist party cadres even while attending the discussion groups of the young turks who went on to preside over Asia’s longest home-grown leftist insurgency.

He and other traditional lawyers braved martial law captors to forge links with the revolutionary underground. His passions blazed and waned, until a second brush with dictatorship set him full course on alternative law.

The lawyer saw the Left grow from a gaggle of academics stumbling across limestone cliffs, to become a national movement of activists and cadres that chipped away at a dictator’s power base.
The leftist underground expanded in the turbulent post-EDSA I years that saw pitched battles with the Right.

Success brought its dark side. Capulong and other human rights workers scrambled to clean up the mess as adventurism and over-expansion opened the Left to backlash. He would later stand helpless as a new split convulsed the new Communist Party of the Philippines split. He was one of many believers and sympathizers who remonstrated – often futilely — with both sides. He still grieves over the murders of former clients.