Ambeth Ocampo on Rizal, Luna, the rumored Antonio Luna-Ysidra Cojuangco money, judging Marcos, the misunderstood Aguinaldo and Laurel
WILL SOON FLOURISH - Wilson Lee Flores (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2016 - 12:00am

One of the country’s most accomplished historians, a popular professor, an award-winning columnist, book author, past chairman of both the National Historical Commission and National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Ambeth Ocampo has received many awards including the Order of Civil Merit with the Rank of Commander from Spain, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres with the Rank of Officier from France and the 2016 Fukuoka Prize from Fukuoka City in Japan.

Last Sept. 3 Ayala Museum held a successful, sold-out “History Comes Alive” talk titled “Marcos and Martial Law” given by Ocampo before a crowd of 500 people. A lot of details he mentioned in his interesting talk were new, such as his recounting that before the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, he claimed to have received signs from God months before at a Jesuit religious retreat in the Mirador Jesuit Villa in Baguio City. Fr. Roque Ferriols, S.J. and Fr. Jose Cruz, S.J. also spoke on the need for discipline in our permissive society. 

Ocampo also researched his subject in the US, where he read that of the three dozen World War II medals reportedly awarded to Marcos, the US State Department cabled to the US Embassy in Manila that they had no records of four or five of the medals. Also in his research, while poring over Philippine Constabulary papers at University of Michigan, Ocampo came across a file on a rape complaint against then Tayabas (now Quezon province) tax official Manuel L. Quezon  by an underaged girl, but this case was later settled out of court.

Unknown to many, Ocampo also shared that the late General Fabian Ver’s son recounted to him that in times of crisis, Marcos would have his political foe Senator Ninoy Aquino fetched from jail and they’d talk with one another until 3 or 4 a.m. Marcos considered Ninoy “talkative, boastful, ambitious, but it seems there was also some healthy respect.” Ocampo plans to write more about Marcos, the only Philippine president to have won reelection (he was inaugurated four times yet was deposed in 1986). Here are excerpts from our exclusive interview.

PHILIPPINE STAR: How did you become a historian? When did you first become interested in history and why?

AMBETH OCAMPO: Although I have always been interested in history, — then and now I read mostly non-fiction — history was not a career choice. Rather I grew into history after meeting the three most important people in my life aside from my parents: Doreen G. Fernandez, the pioneering food historian who was my freshman English teacher and who gifted me with the love and joy of research; E. Aguilar Cruz, diplomat, writer and painter, who gifted me with a love for Philippine history, culture and the men and women who figure in the birth of our nation; and last but not least Teodoro A. Agoncillo who gifted me with the need to see and express Philippine history from the Filipino viewpoint. From these three mentors the list grew just as a spider spins a fine web.

Your father is a successful businessman. Did your parents influence or encourage your love of history?

My mother Belen Raymundo was a jeweler who kept a well-run home with a near-legendary kitchen that provided me with a standard on which I built a taste and appreciation for good food. Her unfulfilled dream was to publish a book on regional specialties of the Philippines; she did not know how to write and used to say that she spawned one so that she could eat, taste and kitchen-taste while I wrote the book that never was.

My father Lamberto Un Ocampo was a civil engineer who studied at University of Santo Tomas and University of California Berkeley. He ran a successful consulting firm in the day and an architectural firm in the afternoon. His sisters told me that he made his first million shortly after World War II from home-brewed whiskey mixed in their bathtub. My father created the economic safety net for his children, enabling each to pursue the career they wanted.

My father is a closet writer. National Artist Virgilio Almario declared, after hearing one of his essays read at an event, “He is a better writer than you!” My father is the reader over my shoulder; his opinion matters to me and shapes the writing I do.

If you had a chance to interview five persons in Philippine history, who would they be and what questions would you like to ask them?

For Jose Rizal: If you had known what we would be like as a nation in 2016, would you still have allowed yourself to be shot at the Luneta on Dec. 30, 1896?

For Juan Luna: The fatal shooting of your wife and mother-in-law in Paris, was it really a “crime of passion”? Was it done on impulse, or was it premeditated?

For Antonio Luna: Did you really leave the money of the revolution with Ysidra Cojuangco before you were assassinated — this fund, believed to be the source of the fabled Cojuangco fortune?

For Apolinario Mabini: How did you maintain your detachment and integrity despite all the temptations that accompanied your position as Emilio Aguinaldo’s most trusted adviser?

For Ferdinand Marcos: Who really ordered the assassination of Ninoy Aquino?

Based on your studies of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, how should history assess him or do we need more time to study his life? I read in China, the government there assessed Chairman Mao Zedong as 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. Can we use a similar formula to assess the Marcos presidency? What is the percentage of good things he did versus negative things?

It is unfair to judge any man with hindsight. While we see the end result of one man’s actions and decisions, we must remember that he judged a situation based on what he knew at the time and decided based on what he thought best at the time.

It is tempting for us in our armchairs today to cast judgment on the past. For me, understanding why something happened the way it did is more useful than casting judgment, since we cannot change the past but we can use the past to influence both the present and the future.

What do you think about the persistent rumor that a female ancestor of the late President Cory C. Aquino and ex-President Ninoy C. Aquino — Doña Ysidra Cojuangco — was a secret girlfriend of the Philippine Revolution’s General Antonio Luna, and that much of the republic’s money was allegedly entrusted to her before his death and became the foundation of the clan’s fabulous wealth? Some claim this rumor supposedly originated with then First Lady Imelda R. Marcos because Cory Cojuangco Aquino was the wife of opposition leader Sen. Ninoy Aquino. The late historian Carlos Quirino visited me at home when I was a college student, and among the stories he told me was that he researched and wrote a commissioned private history of the Cojuangco family, He said this rumor was nonexistent in the early 20th century during all Tarlac elections contested by various Cojuangcos.

If that rumor were even half-true I would have found traces of it in the records. The Aguinaldo Government was careful about money and kept detailed accounting that forms part of the Philippine Insurrection Records now preserved in the National Library. History is based on written records, not gossip or hearsay. As the late Teodoro Agoncillo used to say:  “No document, no history!”

Who do you think are the most misunderstood or even unfairly portrayed persons in Philippine history, and why?

Emilio Aguinaldo is at the top of the list, and I believe that part of our dislike for him was the result of the demolition job when he ran against Manuel Luis Quezon and Gregorio Aglipay for the presidency of the Philippine Commonwealth. Put Aguinaldo in context: he was 29 when he became President, he was a college dropout, the farthest he had traveled abroad was to Hong Kong and Singapore. He fought against Spain and later the US to achieve the freedom and nation we enjoy today. What great things do 29-year-old Filipinos do today?

Jose P. Laurel has been labeled in history as a “Puppet President” during the Japanese Occupation, and that may appear to be true but Laurel was a true nationalist and patriot. Contrary to popular belief, he did not declare war on the US at the prodding of the Japanese. In order to save Filipinos from conscription he tricked the Japanese by “recognizing that a state of war exists between Japan and the US.” It may seem like the same thing but it is not.

In 1993, after you entered the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat beside San Beda College in Manila, you gifted me with several of your books and I recalled you wrote your dedications in French and signed them with your then new monastic name “Dom. Ignacio Maria, OSB.” Why did you leave the monastery? Do you plan to someday return?

For a historian, I have faulty memory. I don’t remember that! Do you still have the books or did you recycle them? They are worth something now as people try to complete their Ambeth Ocampo sets. While I entertain the dream of returning to the monastery in the future, and under our constitutions they are obligated to take me back and give me another chance, I think that some people are called to monastic life, or some profession not for a lifetime but for a short period.

Although I had a Jesuit patron, an active saint, I was attracted to the monastic life because of the silence it gives as a countersign to a noisy world, and also because it’s a reading order. We read all the time, and if you were too lazy to read, someone would read to you daily. It is a life that is characterized by a love for learning and a desire for God. History, despite my public image, has a solitary, almost monastic ring to it because people who listen to me speak or read my essays do not see the many hours spent in research, reading and reflection.

Do you agree that most people in Philippine society do not have a sense of history? Others say we have “historical amnesia” — that we easily forget the past, like our lack of remembrance about the wrongs by our colonizers, martial law, World War II horrors and the collaborators, etc.  

I think it is a gift not to be imprisoned by history, but we must remember it. From childhood we are taught that Rizal said: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, di makararating sa pinaroroonan (Those who don’t know how to reflect on the past, they cannot reach their destinations).” That quote is not by Rizal. The better quotation from his juvenile play El Consejo de los Dioses (Council of the Gods) goes: “I enter the future carrying a memory of the past.” We should liberate ourselves from the past not by moving on and forgetting, but by moving on and remembering.

If you were not a historian today, what do you think would have been your profession or vocation? Why?

I would probably be a writer, a journalist — that is the only thing I do well.

What are your hobbies? How do you unwind or relax?

Would you believe that I read for work, and I also read to relax? I travel for work and also travel to relax. I research for work, and I also research to relax.

Any dream projects, whether in the field of history or others?

I wouldn’t call them dream projects because I have started on them but have not finished. I want to do a Digital Rizal: to put all of Rizal’s writings online, with proper indexing, cross-referencing and annotation that will keep him current for the next century.

I am hoping to complete and publish an annotated edition of the diaries of Ferdinand Marcos that went on from 1969-1984.

I want to do a catalogue raisonné (listing of artworks) of my favorite artists — Juan Luna, Arturo Luz and BenCab — as a step towards art history and connoisseurship that will separate the real from the fake.



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