The probable watch tower of the Biliran Commune, built on a hill near Biliran town.
(Photo courtesy of the Biliran Provincial Government.)

The Biliran Commune

By Rolando O. Borrinaga

(Updated from an article published in Bankaw News, August 9, 1995.)

The controversy, the seething tension, and the bloodshed in the Busali Farm in Biliran Province (Inquirer, July 18-20, 1995) highlight the hypocrisy of the country's agrarian reform program and its avowed social purpose. The ineptitude in its implementation, muddled by power politics and kinship with Pres. Ramos, has reduced Busali into a violence-prone frontier village.

Buried under a history of serial land-grabs and the current unrest was Busali's role in our hidden national and regional history.

Busali (corrupted from musali, "to join") was the probable entry point to the site, up in the mountain boundary of Busali Farm, of a native experiment in Utopian communal society living in the 1770s.

Perhaps patterned after a similar Utopian experiment by the Jesuits among the Guarani Indians in the mountains of Paraguay in South America at around the same time, the experiment in Biliran lasted almost a decade.

The leader of the "Biliran commune" was Padre Gaspar Ignacio de Guevara, a secular priest who hailed from Samar. Presumably trained by the Jesuits just before their expulsion from the Philippines in 1768, Padre Gaspar was the first parish priest of Biliran pueblo. His appointment as curate of San Juan Nepomuceno Parish was dated October 10, 1765. The original poblacion of the pueblo was located in the present Sitio Ilawod of Barangay Caraycaray in Naval town.

Perhaps immediately after the Jesuit expulsion, Padre Gaspar created a new poblacion in the forest of what is now Barangay Hugpa, up in the mountain of Biliran town, some 15 kilometers from the old site.

Padre Gaspar called the new site Albacea (Spanish for "executor of the testament"). Here he set up a sanctuary, enthroned himself in the "chair of Peter" with the royal throne in Biliran, and styled himself as the "first of the priests of the world."

The natives referred to Albacea as Manogsok, the ethnic method of seeding crops by digging holes in the ground with a wooden pole and throwing seeds in. Here the commune participants constructed a watch tower, a church, a tribunal (government house), and their own residential houses. They also raised animals and cultivated more land, probably in the present Barangay Pinangomhan (farmed area) at the edge of the Busali Farm.

From his sanctuary, Padre Gaspar spread his doctrines, granted indulgences, spread news of miracles in the Leyte-Samar region, and recruited and sent out disciples to incite revolts. He also conferred sacred orders, gave out offices, enacted laws, threatened those who opposed him and, together with a native alcalde mayor (governor) of Biliran whom he appointed, fought against the Franciscan friars in Samar and the Augustinians in Leyte.

Padre Gaspar ordained sub-deacons and attracted a great number of followers, especially among the women. He was also cordially treated and sheltered by the Spanish alcalde mayor of Samar (which included Leyte until 1577), who also worked with him.

Padre Gaspar was captured by Moro raiders and drowned to death near Tagasipol Islet off Kawayan town shortly before 1775. He was probably nabbed in a place appropriately named Pinamihagan (place of abduction), now a barangay of Culaba town.

The Franciscans at that time believed that if the Moros had not caught Padre Gaspar, "there would not today [1775] be a Christian left on Samar and Leyte."

With its leader captured, the commune was razed by fire and its members dispersed. The site reverted into a forest and was not resettled again until this century. The natives first called the former Albacea as Nasunogan (burned); now it is called Hugpa (sunken; shattered hopes).

The "Biliran commune" was the most successful native revolt against the Spanish regime. Yet it is not included in our history textbooks, which enumerated instead all the failed revolts. Its communal setup would be replicated elsewhere by the Pulahanes in Leyte and Samar in the 1880s, during the revolution that ousted the Spaniards from this region, and later during the Pulahan Wars against the Americans. This native model of communism, invoked by millenarian movements during dangerous times like the Marcos years, preceded Karl Marx's manifesto by nearly a century.