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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 11 - The Philippines

                                                Beyond the greed, the pride, the insolence and the pretensions
                                                of those who rule us by force and fear and fraud, there is a living
                                                Almighty God who knows the dark mysteries of evil in the hearts
                                                of men.  I know his justice, truth and righteousness will reign and
                                                endure for ever …


                                                I believe the cause delaying our liberation may be found in ourselves,
                                                in our reluctance to assert our rights and frontally confront the
                                                forces of evil.  We are afraid to die and our fear has immobilized us.
                                                We have forged our own chains with our cowardice.

                                                                                    Senator Benigno Aquino


Having already seen much of south-east Asia, my first impressions of the Philippines were, “this is not Asia, - this is Latin America”.  The combination of American and Spanish influences on the islands of the archipelago dubbed “the pearl of the orient”, has led to the growth of a culture that resembles Mexico or Hawaii more than the far east.  The standing joke of Filipinos is that their nation emerged after spending 300 years in a Catholic convent, and 50 years in Hollywood !  Filipinos are delightful people; - friendly, out-going, happy, hospitable, and with a care-free attitude to life, even when poor and disadvantaged.  They are more willing to travel abroad for work than most Indonesians, Malaysians or Thais, and as a result you will find communities of emigrant workers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Rome, Vienna, Frankfurt, Paris, London, and throughout Canada and the USA.  Earnings sent home by Filipinos working overseas, are the largest source of national income for that country.

There is little cultural or trade connection now between the Philippines and Spain, except that a course in the Spanish language is compulsory for many university degrees.  Though I met many Filipino graduates from the Spanish course, I could not get any of them to speak a single sentence in Spanish. Relations with the United States, in contrast, are active and vital for the country.  To many Filipinos, a working visa to the USA is akin to a ticket to paradise !  Yet there is a strong latent resentment against the former colonial occupier which supported oppressive dictators like Marcos, and paid little attention to the poor peasants who suffered under his rule.  The more educated of the people dislike the intimidation of US governments which regularly pressure the country to toe the US foreign affairs policy line.  The most common description applied to America in that respect, is that of a bully.

Map of the Philippines

Its economy is stagnant, and it is difficult to understand why.  Corruption is probably no worse or no better than in other parts of the East.  The people are intelligent and hard working.  The islands are blest with good natural resources.  There is timber, sugar cane, coconut, pineapple, banana, livestock and fish.  Local mechanical skills and ingenuity are seen in the ubiquitous “jeepney” vehicles, and the “bancas” and ‘pump boats’ used for water transport. One reason for the decline in industry may be that multi-nationals find labour cheaper and more compliant in China and other parts of the region.

An Icelandic colleague who worked many years for the UN once said to me that in Sri Lanka he observed socialism at its worst, and in the Philippines he saw capitalism at is worst.  Like most generalisations it was only true in certain respects, and to be fair to both countries, there are others that are not far behind them in poor governance.  Certainly the Philippines has a real Laisser Faire attitude to business.  That business freedom however, is manipulated by an over-strong central government that has long been ridden with cronyism.  Some thought that the country did well under Marcos, but in hindsight it was only his family and close business colleagues that profited.  National economic decline began with Marcos before 1970, and has continued since.

Before going on to discuss the country’s recent turbulent Political history, let me share some personal experiences that might give a flavour of the lovely land and its happy, outgoing people.  They are natural extroverts, most of them being able to speak or perform in public without being self-conscious or embarrassed.  During my first week in Manila, I wandered into a small café for a light lunch.  It so happened I was the only customer in the place when I sat down.  A young girl appeared from the kitchen, and eyeing me carefully, began to sing and gesture and move around, as if performing on the stage.  She went through the whole act, then when finished, turned and ran back inside the kitchen. I assumed that her performance had been the result of a dare with the other staff members.

Manila city, Makati district

The relationship between wealthy families and the ‘barrio’ people in their areas, is somewhat paternalistic.  I observed this on the island of Marinduque where I had gone to discuss some low-cost water filtration systems.  We were received and entertained by Mrs Reyes, wife of the Commissioner for Customs, who was the leading matriarch of the island community.  She was then involved in restoring an old Spanish church, and we saw how she took a personal interest in the welfare of all the workers.  One young man from another province had gotten his local girl friend pregnant, and Mrs Reyes was concerned to ensure that the situation was handled properly and the couple encouraged to marry and set up home there.  We stayed at her house which was beautifully furnished, and early next morning she invited us to visit and swim at, a small uninhabited island she owned offshore.  The boat carrying us took over half an hour to reach the place, but on stepping ashore we found that her staff had gone ahead and already prepared a breakfast of grilled fish, rice, salads, omolettes, pandesal bread rolls, mangos and coffee.  Only those who have enjoyed a full Filipino breakfast will know what a memorable experience it is.

But the wealthy oligarchy of islands like Negros, the once great sugar producer, also have a sinister record of exploitation and domination of the rural poor, aided and abetted by the military which often is a law unto itself.  Frustrated in their attempts to defeat the NPLA, the communist new people’s liberation army, have often taken their spite out on innocent civilians whose sole crime may have been membership of the left-leaning Catholic BCC, basic Christian community movement, which was led by priests with a social conscience.  Murders of peasants by Philippine army soldiers, or by the goons employed by plantation bosses to keep the workers in order, are reported as the work of the NPA, or if the military’s role was clear, the victims were ‘working for the NPA’.  The plantation owners and the military enjoyed special protection during Marcos’ time, but in truth, no President has been able to control them.  Most Philippine Presidents, in fact, come from large land-owning families themselves.

Manila slum

                  Typical Filipino “jeepney”                                                       Manila traffic

I had a narrow brush with death in Manila in 1985.  The Asian Development Bank had recruited me to advise on a project in Sumatra, and took me to the Philippines first for briefing.  A room had been reserved for me in the Regent hotel on Roxas Boulevard, just a few hundred yards from the ADB office.  (A new and much more lavish office complex was constructed shortly after in the Pasig City part of the capital).  There was a problem with the hotel staff some of whom had gone on strike.  I took little notice and went to bed in my room on the 6th floor, as with jet lag, I was quite tired.  I was awakened at 01.30 in the morning by hammering on my door, and the sound of confused voices.  There was no electric power and the telephone was not working.  I rose in the darkness and looked out the window.  The Pasay City fire brigade was there, already extending its ladder.  Opening the door to the lobby, even in the darkness, thick acrid smoke was evident.  Having taken no notice of the position of the fire escapes I realised that I would have difficulty finding them in the darkness and smoke.  A few inhalations of the smoke would have put me out of action.  So I turned to the window which was sealed and locked.  Feeling where the locks were, I beat them with a stool till they gave way and pushed the window open.  There was a tiny ledge I got to sit on and from there I signalled to the fire brigade.  The fireman acknowledged my wave and indicated they would get to me eventually.  I went back into the room to pick up some personal belongings, but had to climb back out the window as the room by then was full of acrid smoke.  The fire brigade ladder reached to the sixth floor and no further.  I got out safely, but 36 other unfortunate guests lost their lives.  Three days later I was allowed in to check for belongings in my room.  There was nothing to see there.  It had become a charred black hole.  The fire was probably started by an act of arson by disgruntled employees, then an unfortunately common occurence.

The Philippine President from 1970 – 1986 was Ferdinand Marcos, an Ilocano from the north-west of Luzon. A family museum there has an array of photographs and memorabilia about him, - and even more about his mother Donia Hosefa Edraline Marcos.  There is only one faint old oil painting of his father, Don Mariono Marcos, about whom little factual information is available.  Some say that he collaborated with the Japanese, and some say that he was not Marcos’s true father.  There is a school named after him in the province.  I visited it when it was in poor shape and seeking help for expansion and upgrading.  It is now a University, and the Province appears to be thriving under its present Governor, Ferdinand Romaldez Marcos III, or “Bong-Bong”, Marcos’s son.  At a party in Quezon City I met a classmate of Bong-Bong’s who had taken the rap for him in the UK for some misdemeanour, and was accordingly rewarded by Marcos with a job in his administration.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos

Marcos’s wife, Imelda Romualdez, was from the Province of Leyte.  Despite colourful and glowing accounts of her  family history, her background is somewhat obscure, as is the precise arrangement by which she married the then young Senator.  But I will spare readers further details of that gossip.

Ferdinand Marcos was a gifted and able lawyer, and grew to be a formidable politician.  He built himself an image of a Philippine war hero with a series of epic tales which few now believe had any genuine factual basis.  Marcos was elected as President in 1968.  He declared martial law in 1970 and ruled the land with a rod of iron thereafter.  Politics is a tough business in the Philippines and rarely does an election go past without some bloodshed or without serious manipulation of the vote.  Marcos’ chief rival was Senator Benigno Aquino who he jailed in 1970, and who was to be granted only brief periods of freedom till he went abroad for heart surgery in 1980.

Also jailed by Marcos was Roger (‘Bomba’) Arienda, a former radio commentator who had become a committed Marxist and revolutionary.  I visited Arienda regularly in Muntinlupa penitentiary, south of Manila, during 1978 – 1980.  At that time he was in minimum security, but with Roger’s help I was able to visit maximum and medium sections of the large prison that had up to 18,000 inmates.  So I got to know a number of political prisoners as well as some serious criminals including a few of those on death row.  Roger had gone through a spiritual experience in prison in 1975, and by 1978 had come to be a remarkable witnessing Christian.  Through his influence, hundreds of prisoners were to go through public acts of repentance and professions of faith.  They built a church in the grounds of minimum security and set up a half-way house to prepare prisoners for useful and remunerating work outside.  Some notable cases of physical healing took place under Roger’s ministry, - but that’s another story. I was able to get Roger’s story published in UK under the title “Free within prison walls”.  Publishers Wesley Owen sent a tabloid features writer, Dan Wooding, to Manila to interview Roger and edit his manuscript.  Dan went on to press work in California where he is still active.

Bilidad penitentiary, Muntinlupa, south of Manila

Muntinlupa, or to give it its correct name, Bilidad prison, was the largest penitentiary in the country, and often operated at up to 250 % capacity.  When I first went to the Philippines there were 18,000 men incarcerated.  Female prisoners were kept in the Correctional Institute for Women in Manila city.  What struck me was the strange mixture of criminals and political prisoners, and how wealthy prisoners were much better dressed and fed than the ordinary inmates.  Minimum security section was reasonably pleasant, and there was almost free movement in and out for visitors.  Medium security was strictly guarded, and had decidedly unpleasant aspects to it.  It held the majority of inmates, in separate sections as prisoners of different gangs that were identified by tattoos, had to be kept apart to keep them from killing each other.  But maximum security was grim. 

Prison guards allowed us in after we signed to say we accepted the risks, and once inside, they left us.  The high concrete walls topped with barbed wire, the narrow passageways, the roughly welded strong doors, the lack of paint, and the pervading smell of stale urine, added to to the dismal and forbidding atmosphere.  Death row where I met seven prisoners destined for the electric chair, was as can be imagined.  The seven I met were allowed out to spend time with us (still within maximum), but I will never forget the look on their faces as we bid farewell and returned to freedom and fresh air and to wives and families, and they walked solemnly beck to their cells.  Some will say ‘well they deserved it for taking other lives’.  But after talking to them, it was apparent that in almost every case there were extenuating circumstances.  One strong fellow from the Visayas, Joe Balaez, sticks out in my mind.  He had killed a man in a drunken brawl, which sounded more like manslaughter than murder.  But he had also killed a prison guard during a rebellion in Bilidad prison.  Whatever the provocation, it was reckoned that he would probably not escape the death sentence for that second killing.  But sitting beside him on a bare wooden bench, listening to fellow prisoner Arienda speak, I could feel only pity for a fellow human being.  Would I have fared any differently had I been born and brought up in his circumstances ?    As it happened, most of the seven I knew probably had their sentences commuted to life, and some were released after a period, for good behaviour.

The death penalty was and still is, in force in the country, though execution today is by lethal injection and no longer by the gruesome means of the electric chair.  The ultimate penalty was carried out on rare occasions only even during the Marcos era, with sentences often commuted to life imprisonment.  I met one prisoner a few weeks before he was due to be executed, and again later after his sentence had been commuted.  Apparently the warders knew the day before that he would not be put to death, but they did not tell him as they wanted to share the special meal that was offered to all condemned men the night before.  Understandably, the death row prisoner had no appetite for food, so the guards tucked in and enjoyed it instead.  Only after the meal was over did they pass on the welcome news.

In the late 1970’s I led a World Bank / FAO team in designing and planning a new university – the University of the Philippines, Visayas, or UP Visayas for short. It was intended to provide tertiary education for the people of the central islands, and since their economy was mainly based on fishing, it was to focus on marine science and aquatic subjects.  Intended first for the port town of Ilo-ilo on Panay island, it was eventually constructed a few kilometers to the east at Miago. Coupled to the University were 7 marine institutes and 7 fishery training centres, but they were located around the country from Aparri to Zamboanga.

The gate to UP Visayas in Miagao

Benigno Aquino was released and permitted to run for election as Governor of Metro Manila in 1979.  That election was also contested by Imelda Marcos.  The vote count was running 2 : 1 in Aquino’s favour when there was a general power cut that affected most of Manila.  When the power was switched on again 2 days later, the government said that there had been a big swing in the count back in favour of the First Lady, and she was duly appointed.  No one was surprised.  Aquino was later permitted to go to the USA for heart surgery on condition he remained out of the country.

I was present during the visit of Pope John Paul 2 to the Philippines in 1981.  This was a huge national event which delighted the people immensely.  I watched on television as he shook hands with hundreds of official guests at a reception in the capital.  It intrigued me how he took time to speak warmly with certain persons, and gave others a mere cursory handshake – some of them known to be corrupt politicians.  He and Cardinal Sin, the leader of the Filipino Catholics, tried to curb the excesses of Imelda Marcos who made a pretence of great piety.  She wanted to build a church to match St. Peters’ but they would not approve of the project.

On one occasion I sat behind Cardinal Sin at a cinema showing of a film by the Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer of Switzerland, whom I’d also heard speak in Edinburgh. The film covered a range of moral issues from euthanasia to abortion. The Cardinal, a large corpulent figure, had drawn attention to his presence by marching out to the middle of the aisle and placing his hand on his heart during the playing of the national anthem. He also led in the applause at the end of the film.

Another of Imelda’s projects was construction of a Cultural Convention building and Fine Arts Centre on the seafront area.  Her project manager was a well-coiffured society lady Helena Benites, assisted by a neice-in-law, Jollie Benites.  The project was falling behind schedule and Imelda wanted it ready for a prestigious opening event.  It was to have been an international film festival to rival Cannes, but few of the major movie companies would participate, and it ended up as a rather tawdry exhibition of second rate and somewhat pornographic films.  Pressure was placed on the contractors to speed up the completion.  In the haste to pour a huge central concrete foundation, several workers fell into the mix.  The contractor wanted to halt work till their bodies could be retrieved, but Imelda and Helena refused to delay the progress.  So the building rose above the entombed bodies.  This was bad, particularly in a superstitious country like the Philippines. To this day the building (which like many arts / cultural centres is rather ugly), is regarded as haunted.

Jollie Benites was later killed in a road accident when she was a passenger in a car driven by Minister of Information Onofre ‘Odi’ Corpus.  It was rumoured that they were having an affair at the time.  Many Filipinos thought her death was somehow a revenge by the ghosts of the bodies she had entombed.  I had met with Onofre Corpus when he was Vice President of the University of the Philippines and I was working on a World Bank financed university project.  He was one of many Marcos loyalists whose career prospered during the period of the Marcos Presidency.

I met the President himself just once, in 1979 when he came to address a regional fishery gathering hosted by our UN South China Sea Programme and the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries.  He arrived on a chair supported by burly security guards wearing barongs – the national male dress shirt.  As ever, he spoke powerfully and with few notes for the best part of an hour.  As was his wont, he made a number of Presidential declarations in favour of the fishery sector.  Such decrees were largely meaningless since they were never backed up by genuine enforcement or implementation. The wife of the Commissioner for Customs, Mrs Reyes, the most prominent woman on her island of Marinduque, told me how she attempted to protect local fishers from the incursions of large trawlers and seiners from Manila.  Such was the power of the Marcos supported private sector, although Mrs Reyes had the law on her side, she was threatened with prosecution herself.

Imelda I met only once.  That was at the funeral of Senator Waldo Perfecto who had led national support for the World Bank project I worked on to establish the University of the Philippines, Visayas, which was to focus primarily on marine and fisheries subjects.  At the funeral, the First Lady was as ever, a focus of attention, charismatic, attractive and well-dressed, and publicly showing her condolences for the late senator’s family. 

Filipino ‘banca’ fishing boat

Below : with staff and friends of the South China Sea Programme.  This was a UNDP financed regional progragramme that served the Philippines. Malaysia, Thailand. Indonesia and Hong Kong.  Vietnam was nominally a member but could not participate due to the war.  I served as the senior regional extension officer. Art Woodland, the Director, is on my right, with his wife Elaine. The Deputy Direstor was Erling Oswald . 

The sugar sector was controlled by Marcos and the oligarchs of the Visayan islands, for their own advantage.  The President nationalized the sugar industry and hoarded thousands of tons of the commodity, gambling on a rise in the world price.  Instead, it fell to record lows and tens of thousands of cane workers lost their jobs and meager incomes.  In the sugar-dependent island of Negros, children went hungry and died as a result.  On his visit to the Philippines in 1981, Pope John Paul II spoke out against the greed and exploitation of the sugar barons of Negros.  At the island’s capital of Bacolod, in front of the wealthy elite of the island, he said:

“Injustice reigns when, within the same society, some groups hold most of the wealth and power, while large strate of the population cannot decently provide for the livelihood of their families, even through long hours of back-breaking labour in factories or in the fields. Injustice reigns when the laws of economic growth and ever greater profit determine social relations, leaving in poverty and destitution those who have only the work of their hands to offer.  The church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor, to become their voice, to ask for justice; …  because the land is a gift of God for the benefit of all.

The landowners and the planters should therefore not let themselves be guided in the first place by the economic laws of growth and gain, nor by the demands of competition or the selfish accumulation of goods, but by the demands of justice and by the moral imperative of contributing to a decent standard of living and to working conditions which make it possible for the workers and for the rural society to live a life that is truly human and to see all their fundamental rights respected.”

However, as local commentators later noted, the Negrense elite, like the owners of most huge estates using poor labour, was beyond shame or guilt, and the Pope’s words had little apparent impact on their behaviour or on their system of exploitation.

The country is a paradise for lawyers willing to fight the case of any crooked client that has enough money.  I recall one nautical case that concerned an inter-island ferry, the Don Juan, that was rammed and sunk at night by a local oil tanker in Tablas Strait, with the loss of 1,000 lives.  The tanker had no lights, its skipper was not qualified, and it hit the ferry on the port side under its red light.  In any other country the judge would have ‘thrown the book’ at the tanker skipper and owners, - but no, - instead they heaped all the blame on the ferry skipper on the grounds that he was carrying too many passengers, - whatever that had to do with the collision !   Interestingly, in view of the account of Negros Island, above, the Don Juan, owned by the Negros Navigation Company, had come from Bacolod, and had on board members of landowners’ families, as well as hundreds of rural peasants, heading for Manila to find work, or to visit relatives.

The Philippine’s great patriot

The “pearl of the orient” venerates as its greatest patriot, a man of remarkable intellect, integrity and ability.  Jose Rizal was a doctor, a writer, an artist, a poet, and a nationalist leader.  As an intellectual nationalist he stood in contrast with Andreas Bonifacio the leader of the Katipunan armed revolutionary organization, and with a host of more military nationalists from Lapu Lapu who killed Magellan in 1521, to the young general Gregorio del Pilar who fought against the American occupation in the early part of the 20th century.  Spain had occupied the Philippines for over 300 years, but by Rizal’s time was clinging to pockets of power and had lost effective control over much of the country while resisting the nationalists with brutal force.

Rizal himself received a Jesuit education, and completed doctoral studies in Spain, then in Paris and Germany.  He also visited the USA and England. His academic record was outstanding, and in addition to medicine and philosophy, he excelled in languages, learning Spanish, Latin, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and French; plus some German and English as well.  His thirst for education extended to religion.  In Germany he wrote : “I am going from town to town, visiting schools, parishes, churches; and after listening to a Catholic sermon, I go to a Protestant church, and sometimes to a synagogue of the Jews”.   Back home he had been President of the Academy of Spanish Literature, and Secretary of the Academy of Philosophical and Natural sciences.  Rizal’s writings were voluminous during his short life of 35 years, his greatest books being the allegorical novels, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (the Filibuster). 

A tagalog speaking native of Laguna in Luzon, he had witnessed first-hand the oppression of his people including the imprisonment of his mother Dona Teodoro who had supported the secessionist Friar, Padre Burgos.  Later when in Hong Kong, he formed ‘La Liga Filipina’, a society of intellectual exiles.  In 1892 he was exiled to Dapitan, Zamboanga for four years, a time he used to practice medicine and to help develop that community.  He volunteered to go to Cuba to work as a doctor but was sent back from Barcelona on suspicion of revolutionary activities and was confined to prison in Fort Santiago, Manila.   Following a mockery of a trial he was sentenced to death, and at 7.03 a.m. on December 30th 1896, refusing a blindfold or bonds, he was shot by firing squad.  His last words were, “Consummatum est”. [“Consummatum est”, - ‘it is finished’, - the last words of Christ on the cross, from the Latin Vulgate Bible.]

Jose Rizal, poet and patriot

The Marcos era had begun auspicially as he brought a degree of discipline and respect for law and order during the first few years of his Presidency.  But these improvements began to lose respect as the corruption of his family and cronies became ever more evident.  The end of the Marcos era began with the return of Benigno Aquino on 21st August 1983.  He was shot by General Fabian Ver’s military men as he descended the steps from his flight from Taipei.  Ver’s troops had selected a small-time criminal, Rolando Galman, to be the fall guy.  Galman was also shot, possibly beforehand, and his body was dumped on the tarmac beside that of Aquino.  Ver claimed that he had been a lone communist activist who had amazingly penetrated the intense airport security.  Those who knew Galman doubted if a single political thought had ever passed through his mind.

Two strange things then happened. The military took Galman’s mother Saturnina and his sister Marilyn into detention, and attempted to get them to support their story.  They were just simple peasant women, but they absolutely would not lie about Rolando.  The two unfortunate women were taken away by some of Ver’s officers and were never seen or heard of again. Galman’s girl friend who had been with him in a hotel near the airport just prior to the assassination, had already vanished, along with her sister.  Then some weeks later when Galman, the unknown petty gunman, was buried, over a million Filipinos turned out for his funeral thus expressing their total disbelief in his guilt.  Other characters on the periphery of events were to die, including Rosendo Cawigan, a ‘star’ witness the government produced, who began to contradict himself.

Benigno Aquino, murdered by Marcos’s military on 21 August 1983

It is believed that Imelda Marcos and General Ver planned the Aquino assassination between them when they heard that Benigno was en route for Manila, as Marcos himself was undergoing a blood transfusion that week for his liver disease.  A friend of the family told me that when he got back from hospital the President threw an ashtray at Imelda, cutting her on the head, and shouted that she had brought about their downfall, and had ‘killed them all’, or words to that effect.

Anti-Marcos resentment and protest grew over the next three years.  Marcos called an election in 1985, and this time he was opposed by Mrs Correzon Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino.  She had no political skills or experience apart from supporting her husband throughout his political life.  All over the country, the lead-up to the election was marked by public prayer meetings large and small as the people sought an end to dictatorship, and a peaceful transition to truly democratic government.  Aquino won the election but Marcos refused to concede.  President Reagan supported him in this stance, but the U.S. State Department eventually got him to accept the inevitable.  The country was brought to the brink of civil war when General Ver ordered tanks onto the street, but Filipino people came out in their thousands to block their way to Fort Bonifacio where General Fidel Ramos, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, and other military officers had pledged their support to Mrs Aquino.

People power non-violent revolution, EDSA, February 1986

Eventually a U.S. helicopter took the Marcos’s from Malacanang palace to the U.S. base, and from there they were flown to Hawaii via Guam.  It is believed they had to drug Marcos to get him on the flight as he wanted to go to his home province of Ilican Norte from where he might mount a counter-revolution.  It is believed that Marcos and his cronies had robbed the Philippines of billions of dollars.  Some of the money was later located in Swiss bank accounts and is presently being re-credited to the country, but it has been a long, slow process.

Before leaving Malacanang palace, Marcos held a hastily organised inauguration party, and broadcast an acceptance speech over the radio, (since by this time, television stations were closed to him).  I read the speech in its entirety and concluded that it was either a clever ploy to lay the basis for a possible future return to power, - or else it was the incredible naivety of a head of state who had listened to his sycophants for so long, that he believed all their flattery and lies about the true state of affairs.  He had lost the election.  He had lost the support of the people, the military, the media, and erstwhile foreign allies like the USA.  Yet he talked over the radio as if none of that was real.  He “accepted the honour and the responsibility offered to him by the Filipino people in free and fair elections”.  “The task ahead of him the next five years, was formidable, but he had the strength and courage to undertake it to the best of his ability for the benefit of the nation.”  All this while Imelda was running around filling suitcases with gold and valuables, and wads of dollar bills, political cronies were pressing for seats on the flight to exile, and as American helicopters were warming up outside in the palace grounds.   It reminded me of Adolf Hitler in his bunker during the last weeks of the war, moving symbols on maps and ordering non-existent battalions and divisions to counter-attack the allied forces on all fronts.

Memorial to Benigno Aquino in Ayala Avenue, Makati, Manila.  It shows him descending the steps from the aircraft at the moment he was shot by the Marcos military.

I was in Manila shortly after Marcos’s departure.  One evening, walking along the main road, Rizal Avenue, that runs from the south end of the seafront to Fort Intramuros and the Manila Hotel (where General Douglas MacArthur had his headquarters during the latter part of WW 2), two truckloads of soldiers passed by.  The people on the sidewalks stopped and broke into spontaneous applause at the site of the troops.  This was in recognition of their role in the “people’s revolution” when they refused to carry out Ver’s orders to open fire on the people.  I have never seen soldiers feted so much anywhere else in the world, though I guess it was so for our soldiers coming home from war.

Corrie Aquino came to the Presidency on a wave of popular support that many observers thought gave her the moral authority to take some of the difficult steps the country deeply needed.  Unfortunately, she hesitated, and the country languished as a result.  It is also believed that some of her advisers (not all) gave her poor guidance.  She had to face at least one major coup attempt during her Presidency.  This was led by one of the soldiers who had been in Fort Bonaficio with Ramos and Enrile.  He was Lt. Gregoria Honasen, later a Colonel, and afterwards a Senator.  The coup attempt failed, but some Filipinos believe that Honasen had been encouraged by the CIA and the Reagan administration.  After the coup failure, the soldiers marched out publicly, behaving like heroes, and their leader Honasen was never brought to court.

Mrs Aquino came into the Presidency in such a wave of popular support, many believe she could have pushed through the much needed agrarian and human rights reforms in her first year in office.  Initially she made a number of speeches and pledges to that intent.  But tragically she hesitated, and her land-owning oligarchy relatives and colleagues saw their chance.  Those entrusted with justice and reforms delayed and watered down the measures proposed.  In the end the whole movement died, and along with it the hopes of millions of Filipinos and the supporters of the “people’s power ”bloodless revolution. Several coup attempts reduced the President’s policies to one of survival.

Aquino was followed by Fidel Ramos, who though having some personal integrity, also protected the establishment. He in turn was followed by a complete disaster in the former film star, Joseph Estrada, (supported, strangely by, among others, the powerful Iglesia de Cristo church of the Philippines).  He was later imprisoned for a period, though by all reports, he lived in relative comfort and under a relaxed regime.  Big crooks are rarely punished properly, - only the small ones.   Estrada was succeeded by a former President’s daughter, the diminutive Gloria Magapagal Estrido whose administration has been fraught with internal and external threats expressed in impeachment attempts and rumours of pending military coups.  For such a lovely people it is all so sad and unjust. 

What has never ceased to surprise me is the impunity with which a small band of military officers, police and wealthy businessmen, get involved in coup attempt after coup attempt, over many years and through the reigns of different Presidents, - yet still remain employed and seemingly immune to prosecution.  Names like Gregoria Hunasen and others feature regularly in these events, plus behind them, businessmen like the Cojuangco’s.  Their arrogant behaviour and treachery would lead one to conclude that either their loyalty belongs to another government, or they are protected by powerful external forces.

Behind every government in the Philippines lies the power of a handful of wealthy families.  They are extraordinarily rich, and control the major corporations in the country, like San Miguel, Mercury Drug, and the Supermarket companies, as well as the sugar plantations, logging businesses, and mining companies.  Outside of the country there is the interest of its former colonial ruler, the U.S.A. which regards the land largely as it does the South American states – part of its own ‘backyard’ and of strategic military importance.  Sadly the combination of these forces too often results in the formation of governments that serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and leave the population trapped in a stagnant economy with little hope of improvement.

Among Estrada’s many blunders was a macho-type military incursion into Camp Abubakar, a Moslem centre in Mindanao. This provoked MILF the extreme Moro liberation movement into counter-attacks and a series of kidnappings.  I have visited Mindanao several times and discussed the insurgency problems with a number of residents.

Most Mindanao Christians sympathise with the feelings of injustice and neglect felt by the Moslem community.  Attempts by successive governments to achieve a military solution without counter-balancing this by genuine efforts to address economic and social problems, are doomed to failure, and succeed only in exacerbating the problem.  President Ramos developed fairly good relations with the Mindanao Moslems during his tenure, but this good work was undone by his successors.  As Jose Rizal often observed, the Filipinos are sometimes their own worst enemies, and the fiercest opponents of their own true patriots.

To give an example of how things really are in the interface between Moslem and Christian communities, let me relate an account of a school near Zamboanga, run by a group of Carmelite nuns.  The school has both Moslem and Catholic pupils.  Occasionally the MILF exercises in the area, but they are always careful to inform the nuns, - not that they would be hurt in any way by MILF forces, but they might get caught in crossfire if national troops attacked as was likely.  This happened on a particular occasion.  One of the nuns, sister Filomena, was respectfully warned to get to a safe place.  An MILF soldier was to guide her.  Imagine her surprise to discover that the young soldier was one of her own students.  She was taken to a safe resort till the hostilities were over, then escorted back to her school and convent.

This kind of story I have heard recounted in a number of forms.  All the Filipinos I know who have direct dealings with the Moslem community speak of them with sympathy and respect.  That is not to ignore the atrocities that have taken place, but to explain that the Mindanao Moslem issue needs to be looked at in the wider context.

Zamboanga, SW Mindanao

Aboard one of or training vessels fishing off Zamboanga.  The instructors and officers had to be equipped with firearms owing to the very real risk of attacks by the MLF.

In his lifetime, Benigno Aquino was often to call for reconciliation, and a sane end to the internal conflicts in the Philippines.

The blood-letting must stop !  This madness must cease ! 
 think it can be stopped if all Filipinos can get together as
true brothers and sisters, and search for a healing solution,
in a genuine spirit of give and take.  We must transcend our
petty selves, forget our hurts and bitterness, cast aside thoughts
of revenge, and let sanity, reason, and above all, love to country
prevail during our gravest hours.

Close on a century before Aquino’s death, another Filipino martyr penned ‘Mi Ultimo Adios’ his farewell to his native land:

                        Farewell, beloved land, region of the sun caressed,
                        Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost,
                        Gladly I give you my life, sad and repressed;
                        Were it more brilliant, more fresh, more pure,
                        I would more gladly yield it for your good.


                        Pray for all others who died,
                        Who endured and suffered, and
                        For our mothers who shed tears,
                        For the orphaned, widowed and imprisoned,
                        That we might know redemption.

                        My native land for which I pine,
                        Dear Philippines hear my last goodbye;
                        I leave you, parents, loved ones, all;
                        To go where are no tyrants, slaves or executioners;
                        Where faith lives on and God reigns all supreme.

Jose Rizal [Jose Rizal, doctor, poet and patriot, born at Laguna 1861, died by execution in Manila, 1896.]   Farewell to my Native Land    (selected lines, translated from the Spanish).

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