Farewell, Sonny

I have been covering Central Luzon for Ang Pahayagang Malaya for more than a year when the news desk told me that Angelo “Sonny” Lopez had been accepted as correspondent for Angeles City. That was sometime in 1984 and Malaya was by then fast emerging as the nation’s No. 1 opposition paper.

I was a 17-year-old student journalist while Sonny was a 27-year-old columnist for the Pampanga Eagle, a weekly tabloid. I did not know Sonny before that but I found out later he was several years my senior at Sacred Heart Seminary and a graduate of the University of Sto. Tomas.

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I got the chance to meet Sonny a few weeks later when he agreed to join me in covering a protest in the neighboring town of Porac, then one of the strongholds of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) in Pampanga. The barrio folk of Pulong Santol were demanding the pullout of the Air Force detachment in their barangay because of the abuses committed by the soldiers stationed there.

Barangay leaders accused the soldiers, who established their detachment inside the local elementary school, of terrorizing villagers by breaking into their houses in the middle of the night ostensibly in search of NPA guerrillas.

That day’s protest was supposed to be no different from those I have previously covered. That was until the obviously intoxicated detachment commander emerged from one of the classrooms that serve as his quarters, cocked and aimed his M16 and threatened to open fire at the crowd demonstrating outside.

Sonny and I were out there in front, sandwiched between soldiers with fingers on the trigger and demonstrators clutching home-made placards. We were in the line of fire along with human rights lawyers Edgardo Pamintuan and Arlene Buan, Sister Celine Saplala and Wilson Velasco. I mustered a quick prayer and waited for the guns to fire.

Ed and Arlene carefully approached the agitated Air Force captain and tried to pacify him. Ed saw a native puppy peeping from the door of the officer’s quarters and asked if it was his. “Ay, ang ganda ng tuta mo,” Ed said. “Mahilig ka pala sa aso.” The captain nodded.

And that’s how they were able to pacify the detachment commander. We would all have been goners had the two lawyers not defuse the situation by talking sense into him. The situation could have easily ended in the Pulong Santol Massacre that would actually predate the infamous Escalante Massacre by several months. In that incident in the town of Escalante in Negros Occidental, police and militiamen killed almost 30 people when they opened fire on protestors.

In 1986, at the height of the EDSA Uprising, Sonny and I joined Ed, Alex Cauguiran and Lt. Col. Amado Espino in taking over Radio Station DWGV-FM in Angeles City to urge Kapampangans to rally behind the revolutionary government of Corazon Aquino. Hundreds of Kapampangans heeded our call and barricaded the Bamban Bridge in Mabalacat to prevent loyalist troops from proceeding to Manila.

“This is the revolutionary government taking over this radio station,” I remember Sonny announcing over the radio. Hours later, we would hear United States Air Force helicopters fly over the Jao Building towards Clark Air Base. On board were ousted President Ferdinand Marcos and members of his family. Together with our colleague Ody Fabian, Sonny and I would later see the C-9 Nightingale carrying members of the Marcos family fly above us shortly after it took off for Guam for the first leg of their exile.

Aside from chasing countless stories together, Sonny and I also fought many battles together. Sonny was with our group of cause-oriented journalists—Jerry Lacuarta, Jay Sangil, Bong Lacson, Kiko Sison, Titus Toledo and Lyn Lumanlan—who put together the Angeles Sun in 1988.

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We wanted to make a difference in the local media landscape and make a difference we did with the kind of journalism the Angeles Sun would eventually be known for. We were fearless and for us, there were no sacred cows. Right after our first issue, then Angeles Mayor Antonio Abad Santos sued Sonny, Ody and me for libel. The case was dismissed a few weeks later.

Sonny and I covered not only the cause-oriented movement but also the communist insurgency. Our coverage was so extensive that Sonny, Bong, and I would eventually be told that our names were on top of the list of candidates for liquidation by right-wing death squads.

On the day we were supposed to become martyrs for press freedom, Sonny and Bong were separately whisked off to safety by some friends in the intelligence community. Nobody came to take me. I guess I was just lucky I was not in Angeles when the order was given. Otherwise, I would have ended up as another statistic in the bloody tit-for-tat between the Left and the Right that was raging in Pampanga at that time.

Sonny would later enter politics while death threats forced me to move to Manila for a job at the news desk of the Philippine Daily Globe and later to Jeddah as a reporter for the Saudi Gazette, Manila again as national editor for Today and finally in Jakarta as executive editor of the Indonesian Observer. After I joined the Foreign Service, Sonny, who was then already with the Clark Development Corporation, actively supported our work in the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement. We continued to work together even during the time I was assigned to the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in New York and the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C.

In the latter part of 2014, I consulted a few trusted friends about my plans to volunteer to serve as head of post at the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad. Sonny was among those I asked if it was a good idea to go to Iraq taking into account the serious security challenges I would face there. He told me to go for it. I knew that was what he was going to tell me. That’s why I made sure I asked him.

Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to personally thank him and say goodbye before I left for Iraq a few months later. I told myself I would do so the next time I was home. I never get that chance. On 10 June 2015, Angelo “Sonny” Lopez Jr. wrote his final 30 dashes.

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