Alas, my unhappy country!

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - November 24, 2013 - 12:00am

First, last month, a massive earthquake toppled the ancient churches in the island of Bohol, marmoreal symbols of our Spanish past which transformed, 400 years ago, a disparate and pagan people into the region’s first Christian nation; so too, the battered schools set up a hundred years ago by the Americans. Now, this super typhoon, Haiyan, lashed our central islands and littered the earth with debris and bodies of thousands who died. No typhoon of such strength had hit us in all these years that we were punished by war, peasant uprisings and most of all, the unremitting greed of our own leaders who, as our native colonizers, plundered our country.

I bring back to mind recent and similar tragedies that have occurred in our part of the world, the tsunami and earthquake that devastated Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka. My recent houseguest, Nany Wijaya, the Indonesian journalist who visited the island of Bohol the other month said that what hit Bohol couldn’t compare with the catastrophe that flattened Aceh, in Indonesia—the hundreds of thousands who were killed and buried in mass graves.

And, of course, the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan two years ago. I remember seeing TV footage of both disasters and particularly in Japan: how bravely, stoically the Japanese reacted to their tragedy. They lined up for aid, they preserved order. They were such a disciplined people in the face of that tremendous challenge of deprivation and death. There was no looting in Fukushima by hungry and desperate victims. There was no looting, too, said Nany Wijaya in Aceh.

Immediately after the disaster, government couldn’t act; the officials themselves were victims. For all of President Aquino’s campaign against corruption, government is not trusted. Honestly, integrity—they are not enough. Now, this government, even the President, is reaping anger and hatred. The victims asked that aid be given straight to them and not channeled through politicians and government.

In their greatest travail, Filipinos looted the shops and supermarkets in the city of Tacloban — all this was recorded on TV for all of us to see. Many of us were not shocked. Some even expected it. This is what we have become: we failed to be moral in this, the mightiest typhoon ever to batter us. The looting is also the latest evidence of how, as a people, we have sunk. Anarchy is in the wings.

How did we become like this?

The answer is in our history, in our colonization, in our incapacity to become a nation although we have the institutions of a modern state. Visit our bursting cities, their central business districts, studded with glass and steel monoliths. The tony restaurants are here, fat and glossy cars jostle in the streets, the palaces of the rich preen in gated suburbs, and the huge shopping malls burst with imported goods.

Read our newspapers — in them, the pictures and stories of our glamorous women including Imelda — yes, she has returned and is gloating, sneering at our credulity, our amnesia. And right now, read, too, about the corruption of our highest public officials, how they looted the public coffers through their pork barrel allotments. And the heinous crimes — that Moro datu who massacred more than 50, including so many journalists four years ago — the trial is dragging on. In other countries with functioning justice systems, he would have been sentenced to death a while back.

My tiny bookshop in Padre Faura is now surrounded by skyscrapers, progress all around it, too. But now two families sleep at night in front of the shop. They were not there 10 years ago. In my boyhood, the poorest Filipino ate twice a day but only during the planting season. Now, the poorest Filipino eats only once a day, at high noon, and that meal is called altanghap, short for almosar (breakfast), tanghalian (lunch) and hapunan (supper).

No solid foundation supports this so-called progress because underneath is malignant rot — the Filipino elite who have no sense of nation, no moral commitment to Filipinas, only to themselves and their families.

I once had dinner with three of our most powerful tycoons and one of them asked, “Whose fault is it?” I pointed to all three and said, “It is your fault — instead of modernizing, industrializing this country, you sent your money to Spain, Switzerland, China.” They had imbibed the attitudes of the imperialists with whom they collaborated — they exploited this country then sent their loot abroad because they did not trust us.

So we also sent abroad our thousands of educated unemployed, our women to cities in Asia to work as housemaids and even as prostitutes. We are now everywhere, even in the pitiless deserts of the Middle East, the icy wastes of the Arctic.

It is so obvious then — our truest looters are our very own leaders.

But our poverty is also our own making. We didn’t rise against this elite; as hypocrites, we welcomed them to our cozy gatherings, convocations. We made them our compadres. We elected them.

So then, as a people, so the leaders.

In the near future, it is not a massive earthquake or a vicious typhoon that will hit us. It will be an implosion — not an explosion — that will destroy us and bring about the same anarchy that befell Tacloban.

As conditions become normal in Tacloban so many stories of individual heroism and sacrifice are emerging; verily, as our history has amply shown, we are also a heroic people. What has continued to confound visitors, too, is our resiliency, our attitude to life. The TV coverage tells it all — our people submerged in doomsday gloom — they still managed to smile.

The possibility of renewal, of hope is in the many young Filipinos who care. I know of them, talked with them, urged them to pick up that power which is in the streets, in their youth, numbers and idealism.

As is said in the army, there is only one direction the buck private can go — up!

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