Through young eyes: The Philippines and East Asia in 1956
CROSSROADS (Toward Philippine Economic and Social Progress) - Gerardo P. Sicat (The Philippine Star) - December 29, 2015 - 9:00am

In 1956, our president was Ramon Magsaysay. Our country was surging with confidence. We were doing well on the 10th year of our political independence as a nation.

Almost 60 years ago, in 1956. Only recently, I became aware of the memoirs of Rodolfo T. Reyes who published his book, Memoirs of a Newsman, in 1990 while I was living abroad.

To celebrate the end of 2015, I use an episode in this memoir that happened in 1956 as the starting point of my piece today.

Chapter 7 of Rod’s memoir, “Four Hours in No Man’s Land,” told of the tense adventure of a group of Filipino students as they were entering the border of Vietnam from Cambodia on a goodwill visit. A Chinese communist flag was found in the bag of one of the students by a border guard as they were entering anti-communist South Vietnam.

I was a member of that group of student leaders. The four of us from UP included Rod Reyes (who became a journalist par excellence), Homobono Adaza, and Amado Luis Lagdameo. Rod and Bon were student editors of the Philippine Collegian. Louie and I were from the UP Student Council, the elected UP student “politicians.”

Nine other student leaders came from the University of Santo Tomas, University of the East, Lyceum, Philippine Women’s University, Philippine Christian Colleges, and Centro Escolar University.

The trip was sponsored by the Office of the President of the Philippines and suggested by Rafael Salas, then adviser on student affairs to Ramon Magsaysay. (Our accompanying adviser, Ifor Solidum, was from the Office of President Magsaysay.)

In 1956, I had just turned 21 years. I was just four months away from graduation with my bachelor’s degree. I survived the academic interruption of five weeks from my studies but was the better for it. I learned first-hand experience the classroom did not provide.

East Asian itinerary. Our student leaders mission visited Japan (Tokyo), Taiwan (Taipei and Kaoshung), the British territories of Hong Kong, Malayan peninsula, including Singapore, Indonesia (Jakarta and Bandung), Thailand (Bangkok), Cambodia (Pnom Penh) and then southern Vietnam (Saigon, Hue, Tourane [Danang], Qang Tri).

Our principal hosts were counterpart student groups in the host countries. Aside from opportunities to engage in discussions with the local students, the trip became an occasion to observe historic and especially interesting tourist sights in the countries visited.

Our most intensive meetings were held with student groups in Tokyo (Aoyama Gakuin University and Keio University), at the University of Malaya in Singapore, at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and to some extent, at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Success of our visits in terms of organized contacts depended so much on local readiness for our group. Not all countries were endowed with equally well-developed university counterparts.

Political turmoil. It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times, either. Political turmoil in the countries we visited reduced intense meetings in some places.

In 1956, the countries of East Asia were experiencing a prolonged period of political uncertainty and internal unrest. That unrest was further aggravated by the Cold War – the contest between East and West, that is, between Soviet and US power and influence.

The Korean War had just ended in 1954. South Korea was in shambles (the reason it was not part of our 1956 itinerary). French control of their colonies in Indochina had collapsed with the defeat of French forces in a last stand at Dien Bien Phu.

British colonial influence in East Asia was under severe challenge between the demands for political independence of East Asian colonies and dealing with the challenge from China’s emergence. US influence was just forming a new political front, evidently.

Japan was a defeated nation, its people humbled. Whenever we met elders, they spoke to us with a sense of profound guilt for the war. The young people of our age exuded confidence and were very friendly. The marks of war bombing were visible in that city.

Formosa (or Taiwan) then was still undergoing an internal consolidation, Chiang Kai-shek was driven off to this island by the triumph of Mao Tse-tung from the Chinese mainland in 1949. The island was quite poor almost everywhere. It was typically like the Philippine country side. When we visited Kaoshung – today a highly developed industrial port – in southern Taiwan, the town reminded me of Laoag, Ilocos Norte, only somewhat poorer.

The British colony that was peninsular Malaya included Singapore. In those days, the colony was being challenged by a local rural communist rebellion and urban discontent, especially in Singapore. Independence from the British was still an issue needing resolution, even though the British empire was in its waning days.

The poorest countries in the region appeared to us to be Indonesia. Yet, its destiny then was being shaped by President Sukarno whose ambition was to become a leader of the “non-aligned nations”, a grouping of countries who were veering off the US-Soviet Cold War.

Thailand was in shaky shape, wedged in by the turbulence in the Indochinese side and by internal turmoil in government that was run by military cliques that unleashed coups upon coups.

Cambodia was a fragile kingdom threatened by the partition of neighboring Vietnam into north and south in 1954.

Vietnam itself – South Vietnam in our itinerary – was in danger of a continuous civil war. The South Vietnamese government was under serious challenge from within – the communist Viet Cong.

A progressive, different world in 2015. What a difference a lifetime – 60 years in all – can make for nation building! Today, all these countries are in varying stages and levels of progress.

Each nation has followed a unique path toward its own development. What led to the positive turn of events in favor of economic development were historic forces that overshadowed the domestic tensions dividing these countries – the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the emergence and integration of China into the world community, and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the triumph of capitalism.

These nations would learn to settle the issues that tended to break each one apart. Finally, they would foster collective regional actions as well as make domestic decisions that that are more helpful in bringing them economic growth rather than fragmentation.

My email is: gpsicat@gmail.com. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/

ACIRC ALIGN COLD WAR COUNTRIES EAST ASIA EAST ASIAN LEFT QUOT RAMON MAGSAYSAY STUDENT UNIVERSITY
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