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Sunday Lifestyle

Ninoy’s unstated legacy — will his son pick it up?

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

The assassination of Ninoy Aquino this month three decades ago evokes so many memories primarily of Ninoy himself. He was a fabulous politician, articulate, affable and well informed; he had many acquaintances and admirers in the country, the region and around the world, in media, academe, in the enclaves of influence and power. I am just one of the many who had the opportunity to know him when he was starting out, at 17, as the youngest cub reporter in the old Manila Times where I was then working. He had come to me one early evening at the suggestion of the Times editor, Dave Boguslav. He showed me his copy, did this three times during the week. Soon after, Ninoy went to Korea to report on the war that had broken out in the peninsula and made a name for himself.

At the time I was working on The Pretenders, the first novel in my Rosales saga, I had a talk with former President Elpidio Quirino who had then retired in Novaliches after being beaten in the presidential election by Ramon Magsaysay. He had expounded on his economic plans for the country, the building of hydro electric dams, steel and industrialization based on agriculture. President Quirino confirmed what, early on, I realized — that steel was indeed the basis of modernization — and coal as source of power. All the industrial countries accepted these basics. So in The Pretenders, I had a major character, an industrialist, whose project in the novel is the building of a steel mill.

Though in my early twenties then, I already had ideas of what our country should be. Much of this thinking was brought about by World War II, which matured my generation, ahead of our time. From that primal experience of hunger, fear and barbarity grew this impulse to transcend the self — puny, inconsequential — and embrace the community, the disparate people of a nation, possibly united and moving as one, not just to be strong so it can defend itself, but so it can build a just society that can withstand the vicissitudes of man’s inhumanity to man.

Though much younger than I, Ninoy shared this ideal which can only be brought about by revolution. This many did not know — he believed in it. Remembering him now and our purloined past diminishes us. We see how our country has decayed, betrayed by our leaders. Manny Pelaez asked when he was almost killed by an assassin’s bullet during the martial law years: “What happened to us?” We must continually ask ourselves the same question.

We must look for models, recall the experiences of neighbors that outstripped us, which we can emulate in our attempt to answer Manny Pelaez’s nagging question. Six decades ago, Ninoy knew Korea, and so did thousands of Filipino soldiers — including former President Fidel Ramos who fought there. The real economic miracle of the 20th century is South Korea. When I first saw South Korea in the ‘50s, what was deeply imprinted in the mind was the bald mountains all the way down to Pusan in the south, the battered towns and cities, the pretzel remains of the steel bridge across the Han. Then came the modernizing general, Park Chung Hee who, immediately after his coup, summoned Korea’s powerful chaebuls (businessmen) and as I was told again and yet again, he warned them that if after 20 years and they haven’t modernized the country, he would “cut off their heads.”

He meant it. The Koreans immediately went to work, fired by the slogan “We will beat Japan,” and for the rich, driven as well by General Park’s threat. Look at Korea now — all those mountains are caparisoned with trees, the towns bursting with commerce, and some 20 bridges span the Han. Today, Korea’s giant electronics firm, Samsung, has defeated Japan’s Sony. The biggest most modern ships are no longer built in Scandinavia or in Japan but in the throbbing shipyards of Korea. And the most exhilarating change in that country is it has morphed into a thriving democracy. General Park was assassinated, but the Koreans themselves found out, he did not enrich himself. His only property was the apartment where he lived. It is no wonder that the Koreans elected his daughter president.

To repeat, there are certain basics in modernization and/or industrialization for any nation as history has so amply illustrated. The first, it must have a steel industry. Even if it is cheaper to import steel than produce it, its presence is still a necessity so that the country can be independent. A keen student of history, Ninoy knew this, too. He articulated his belief in revolution in several discussions we had in my bookshop.

Was he for real? He belonged to a rich haciendero family, his roots were entwined with the elite and his marriage strengthened his oligarchic ties. His father was a Cabinet official in the Laurel government, which collaborated with the Japanese. Was he just trying to please those of us who believed in revolutionary change and who, like him, were writers, too?

Or, in espousing revolution, wasn’t he like other members of the elite playing the old double game, siding with the angels just in case the angels win?

He knew of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the United States to end the Great Depression of the Thirties: he betrayed the Eastern establishment — his class.

I bring to mind Gilbert Teodoro, whom I endorsed in the last election — not PNoy. Gilbert was declared by Vicente Paterno as one of the two honest members of the Arroyo Cabinet. More than this, he is brilliant and of the manor born for his mother is a Cojuangco. I told him that to succeed as a leader, he must betray his class.

Gilbert answered, “It is not so much my class as my clan.”

Was Ninoy ready to betray his class? To destroy the very instruments of power which he used in his climb?

As later events he himself initiated showed, the answer is yes.

He was loquacious and trusting, but I found out that in spite of his openness, there were many things he did not tell us, among them, his support for the New People’s Army (NPA). After he was released from jail at the conclusion of EDSA I, the renegade Army officer, Victor Corpuz, came to me. He confirmed that, indeed, Ninoy actively supported the NPA. Marcos was right then in his suspicions. But during his regime even I myself was for the New People’s Army as the only viable alternative to the dictatorship.

I had argued with the late Pepe Diokno who took on the defense of many of the Leftists who were in jail, the farmers, too. He had this standard riposte: he was against revolution because revolutionary violence cannot be controlled.

In my last visit with Pepe, which his wife Nena allowed because we were such old friends, Pepe — wan and dying — repeated the old injunction. I remember telling him that those 20 peasant demonstrators who were killed in Mendiola because Cory refused to see them — they will never get justice. To this very day, they haven’t. Revolutionary violence is the answer to that crime.

When Ninoy was given a brief furlough by Marcos, the writers Nick Joaquin, Nestor Mata, Greg Brillantes and I visited him in his Quezon City house on Times Street. The house was filled with the military. We were all photographed, our fingerprints taken. When I returned to the bookshop where several writers were waiting, I told them what happened. No one wanted to go with me when I visited Ninoy again.

As you enter the Times house, there is a small room to the right of the living room — a closet, I think. When Ninoy saw that no one among the soldiers in the house was looking, he dragged me into this room, closed it and said, “This room is not bugged. We can talk here.”

We did for about half an hour. From my bookshop, he bought a lot of titles on politics, economics, history. Now he wanted books on religion, philosophy. Most of all he repeated what he had told us in that bookshop meetings, that he still believed in the necessity of a revolution but that “We cannot afford what happened in Vietnam — a million killed. Perhaps, just 500.”

He must have had already in mind who those 500 would be.

I repeated what Pepe Diokno said, that once it starts, violence cannot be controlled. I said it is the risk we must take, so too, the outcome of a revolution may not be what we want but at least, the major obstacle to liberty will be removed — the oligarchs, the king, the czar, the mighty landlords--whatever. And the playing field will be leveled at last.

In that last meeting, I also told Ninoy to leave at the first opportunity so that he would survive Marcos for Marcos would certainly get him being his only rival for power.

I recreated Ninoy in my novel, Viajero, as the Filipino traveler who returns home for that is where his heart is. It is fiction, of course, but in literature are the inner and recondite truths that are often hidden or not obvious to us. It is the image of the man vibrantly alive, confiding and vulnerable as I remember him.

Through the heavy mists of our troubled past, Ninoy — because of his death — has been enshrined, considered a martyr even. The mythmaking that surrounds him will continue well into the future. I beg to disagree with so many of the hossanahs now heaped on the man. He certainly was not a martyr. Because of his ambition he was killed by people who stood to lose so much if he achieved power. Though he didn’t mention them, he had targeted those who would be destroyed. He certainly cannot be compared with Rizal but on his own, he deserved the obeisance we now give him. He was courageous and honest in his own way.

There are no ifs in history but we can speculate. If Ninoy became president, he would have surely declared a dictatorship. Those of us who knew him recognized his liabilities, his opportunism and ruthlessness, but those liabilities were offset by his leadership qualities and most of all, by his vision, sense of history and patriotism.

We are familiar with Diogenes who wandered the streets of ancient Greece with “a lighted lantern, “looking for an honest man.” And so it is to this very day, this unending search for honest leaders. Honesty is the most important quality of leadership, the honest leader is faultless in his dealing with others, with his people. He measures others with the same brilliant light which he focuses on himself. And because he is true, he searches for the truth as well, not so much in the surface appearances but the deeper truths in society. He identifies this “objective reality” and his decisions are based on it. This is what honesty creates in leaders — an unblemished vision as well.

So we now come to Ninoy’s son, whose leadership qualities were held in doubt. Not anymore, PNoy is honest; his father’s revolution — Ninoy’s unstated legacy — is now his. Will he pick it up?

ARROYO CABINET GENERAL PARK KOREA MANNY PELAEZ NEW PEOPLE NINOY PEPE DIOKNO SOUTH KOREA WHEN I WHEN NINOY
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