Don’t put a deadline on ‘winning’ a war: Just go – and do it!

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
Meeting with the new president of the University of the Philippines, Professor Emerlinda R. Roman, I was impressed with her down-to-earth appreciation of our leading state university’s problems. The UP simply keeps on growing, she pointed out, and its financial and other problems, sadly, keep on growing, too.

Roman, aside from head of the university, the first woman president in 96 years, also proudly a professor of Business Administration, brought along with her Dean Erlinda "Ned" Echanis, who runs the College of Business Administration, and our friend (and Manila Overseas Press Club governor) UP Regent Nelia T. Gonzales.

Every year, Ms. Roman said, 56,000 aspirants apply and take exams for admission into the UP, but only 11,000 can be taken in. At present, the state university has 52,000 students, some 10,000 of that number graduate students.

As always, the UP’s major problem – aside from the encroachment of squatters and other campus headaches – is how to make ends meet.

In our day, the UP was such a bastion of independent, even defiant thought, that it was styled "The Diliman Republic." Well, that Republic is listing – like our own larger one – from the weight of its financial problems. Part of the problem is that the UP "lost P150 million from its annual budget which was lopped off by the Senate in the year 2000 – and it has never managed to get that suddenly deducted amount restored to its annual appropriation from Congress. It’s so typical of our country that the reason for this loss of P150 million seems so petty. It appears that the powerful Senator John "Sonny" Osmeña so thoroughly disliked then UP President Francisco "Dodong" Nemenzo (they come from Cebu, from the same province) that he simply took a pair of shears and allegedly cut that huge amount out of the budget, mostly taken away from the office of the university president.

Poor UP Former President Nemenzo has since retired, but the cut remains. The deduction of P150 million has been repeated, year after year since 2000 – thus depriving the university of 3.4 percent of its original budget – because our congressmen and senators in a rush to get annual government budget approval simply kept on reiterating the previous year’s UP budget! Imagine that: UP has had to limp along minus P150 million per annum in the years 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004! In short, it’s no longer "UP Beloved," but UP Neglected. And yet that school is supposed to be producing the leaders of the nation on a starvation budget.

I think it’s time the Palace and our legislators reexamined the matter and gave this institution of learning which has given us so many Presidents, Cabinet ministers, and political as well as business leaders – not to mention brilliant crooks, of course – a break.

For that matter, enthusiasm appears to be snowballing over the prospect of charter change "saving" our democracy and making things right in our country. There’s little doubt that the 1987 "Cory" Constitution, hastily cobbled together by a bunch of friends of President Aquino (many were well-meaning, others malicious) is kilometric, unwieldy and defective. However, why do we think that changing the Constitution to parliamentary or federal will be the "magic bullet" that transforms our country from the Sick Man (Woman) of Asia into a flourishing democracy? A Constitution is a piece of paper, and system-change may still see the same dynasties returned to power under different titles or disguises. Same dog, different collar. What we need is a change in men. A revolution – but a revolution of the heart.

How can we achieve this? Not by rhetoric or the re-writing of our organic law, but by education. An educated citizenry cannot be fooled, bought, bullied or easily manipulated. Yet, while we swagger around making patriotic noises and issuing grandiose press releases, the share of education in the national budget is shrinking year after year. We’re turning out people with nice-looking diplomas, but who’re abysmally ignorant. As for our buses, they’re being handled by drivers who never even got to first grade.

Fight jueteng we must – but we can’t win our fight against or for anything until we conquer ignorance. I keep on going back to what China’s ancient sage, Master Lao Tse said: "If you give a man a fish, he will eat once. If you teach him how to fish, he will eat all his life."

Our governments have always talked big about a "war against poverty." However, instead of teaching the poor how to work their way out of poverty, they condition our poor to a dole-out, gift-from-the-government mentality. In short, our poor – and remember, our orphaned family was once desperately poor so I know whereof I speak – get the impression that the world owes them a living simply because they are poor. Their reaction is "gimme, gimme." Work? Why work? When you can get things free? This sort of parasitism, with the few taxpayers footing the bill, cannot go on forever – which is why our government is in fiscal and budgetary crisis.

It’s time we reoriented ourselves. There used to be a popular song, The Best Things in Life are Free…" Yes, like love, laughter, faith et cetera. But other things, call them second best if you wish, cost – like food, shelter, opportunity. When we were kids we learned the maxims which hold true to this day: A penny saved is a penny earned. Honesty is the best policy. Pray as if everything depended on God, then work as if everything depended on you. In Latin, Ora et Labora. Prayer and Work. Ad Astra per Aspera. Through adversity to the stars. Or, as Robert Louis Stevenson stressed in the essay, Aes Triplex, which our Jesuit professors taught us in high school: The hard way is the only enduring way.

Nowadays, the only way to in instant satisfaction is to hit the jackpot, win at jueteng, go to the nearest politician for a job (non-working) and a hand-out. Change our Constitution? Sure, but let’s do it the right way. No instant fixes or remedies. But first we must change ourselves.

It sounds preachy to enjoin: Go back to the good old virtues. Being long in the tooth and old enough to recall them, I can only say that they were good.
* * *
We had a useful "Defense Night" dinner forum sponsored by our Manila Overseas Press Club (MOPC) Wednesday night at the Hotel Inter-Continental ballroom. It was instructive, but I hesitate to claim it was interesting. The problem with the affair which lasted till past 11 p.m. is that too many statistics were thrown at the audience of diplomats, journalists, businessmen, military and police officers (the latter were there in civilian camouflage, wearing Barong Tagalog), and other guests that it became a yawn. The two Defense Undersecretaries who presented the graphs and listings of steps taken in beefing up our military and in budget and procurement reform certainly did their homework, but boringly dumped all those facts and figures on the audience in a monotone, like the typical military briefings we used to endure when covering the armed forces beat.

The idea when you’re waging war is to confuse the enemy – not confuse your friends. I wonder why they insist on calling such expositions "briefings". They sadly are never brief.

That having been said, the real guest speaker, National Defense Secretary Avelino "Nonong" Cruz, demonstrated his savvy – although things didn’t perk up until the open forum. Nonong, who is both a brilliant lawyer and a mathematician, demonstrated what he does best: communicate. People came away from the forum, I think, finally convinced that the President had chosen the right man for the Defense job.

Cruz graduated salutatorian, with his degree in law cum laude from the UP College of Law in 1977, placing 7th in the Bar examinations the same year. (He had also been admitted to the practice of law by the New York Bar). Nonong, indicating his Renaissance qualities (no hidebound lawyer, he) also got a B.S. in Mathematics – of all things – from the Ateneo de Manila University. His leadership qualities were foretold by the fact that in the UP he was president of the UP Law Student Government, while in the Ateneo, he was head of the Student Council. He was also a senior editor of The Philippine Collegian, the student paper, and in the Ateneo, a member of the editorial board of The Guidon.

What gives Cruz extra clout is his closeness to the President who seems to trust him implicitly. For the first four years of her term, he was GMA’s Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and, on occasion, acting Executive Secretary. By coincidence, Nonong, like the late great President Ramon Magsaysay – distinguished both as President and Defense Secretary – hails from Zambales. While RM came from Castillejos, Cruz was born on April 26, 1953, in next-door San Marcelino, Zambales, another Ilocano-speaking town. A sidelight is that he spent much of his childhood in Baguio City, where he studied high school in St. Louis University – that well-known school run by the Belgian Fathers (Scheutists). Having grown up in Paco, in a Belgian-run parish, and gone for a while to Paco Catholic School, I appreciate what the Belgian Fathers stand for – and so does Nonong. It’s from them we picked up our early lessons in perseverance and common sense.

I would say to Secretary Cruz, though: beware of the flatterers. Already they’re comparing him to his comprobinsyano Magsaysay. Since he’s a handsome 51, some are even whispering into his ear that he could run like Magsaysay, for President someday – a suggestion at which he, of course, laughs merrily. And he means it. How easy it is, however, to be seduced by honeyed words and s.s.b.

Cruz is in the hot seat in a vital job – with our country beleaguered by rebellion on many fronts, from the resurgent communists, the vicious New People’s Army, from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (even though there are so-called "peace talks"), the Moro National Liberation Front redux, and, most deadly of all, from the hoodlums-kidnappers-cum-Islamic-jihadis of the Abu Sayyaf and the al-Qaeda linked terrorists of the Jemaah Islamiyah.

One thing alarmed me, I must say, in the course of Nonong Cruz’s otherwise straightforward and well-conceived remarks. He declared at one point that the government will defeat the NPA and the Abu Sayyaf in six to ten years. Where does he get such a timetable? Did he pull it right out of his hat, like a magician’s rabbit? Upon being pressed for an explanation, he reeled off a number of "reasons", which I found to be non-sequiturs. Having covered several wars and rebellions, here and abroad, my belief is that you can never calendar events. When an unknown Zambales Congressman, Magsaysay, was designated Defense Secretary right out of the blue by then President Elpidio Quirino in 1950, we were all aghast. Magsaysay – who he? We collectively asked. We heard that Magsaysay had started out as a "mechanic" in the bus company owned by the Banzons, his wife Luz’s family, had fought as a guerrilla against the Japanese (his only military experience), and his academic record in Jose Rizal College had been undistinguished.

When Magsaysay assumed the SND post, the Communist rebels – the Huks or Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan (People’s Liberation Army) were winning. They were maneuvering on the outskirts of Manila. Yet, Magsaysay went in, revitalized the Army and the Philippine Constabulary, with American help "invented" the Battalion Combat Team (BCT), got Rocky Ileto to organize a unit patterned after the Alamo Scouts and the US Rangers, which Ileto called the "Scout Rangers", fielding deadly seven-man teams into the heart of "enemy" territory – and relaunched a military offensive. He promised the people redress of injustice and of their grievances, by inventing the ten-centavo telegram of complaint. Aksyon agad on their complaints and problems, he vowed. And he made good on his pledges. Within three years the Huks were on the run. The rebellion was soon squelched. Now, it has reared its ugly head again.

Nonong Cruz has a challenge before him to do no less in these even more perilous, terrorist-ridden times. There, too, is a wave of violence, killers spreading death "with impunity" across the land. I’m not worried exclusively about journalists being killed – we should be concerned about more and more people, big and small, from every walk of life and strata of society, being brutally slain. That’s why our President has tapped somebody like Nonong Cruz for the defense! (That’s a play on words, hopefully not cheap – for, after all, he was a trial lawyer).

With our democracy and its viability on trial, this is his most important case yet.

As for that rash statement about defeating the rebels in six to ten years, forget it. I’m astonished this government has a propensity for setting deadlines – which it never meets. Just go in there and fight. Just do it! Save the press releases or praise releases for the day after victory is gained.
* * *
We must be the only country in the world, thanks to Fortunato Abat and Rex Robles, that people issue press releases about an impending "coup" and overthrow the government. Coups, mutinies, and uprisings are supposed to be plotted in secret.

Those announcements are a joke – but a sick joke. They make our country the butt of jokes all over the world.

The only "coup" that succeeded, if you ask me, was the Oakwood Mutiny of July 27, 2003. Those young officers and men who staged the failed putsch looked silly for having called for a "revolt", but nobody came. Yet, did they really fail so completely?

As you already know because I’ve reminded you ad nauseam, this writer was one of the negotiators who went in and in a four-hour dialogue negotiated their surrender. Haven’t you noticed? Wednesday night, when the two Undersecretaries of Nonong Cruz were reeling out the lists of reforms and procurement changes in the armed forces, many of those reforms announced had been among the demands of the youthful Oakwood mutineers. The must pay the penalty, as agreed under military justice, for what they rashly did. But they accomplished something, at least.

That should be some comfort to them in their court martial and imprisonment. They embarrassed our country, but out of that embarrassment came some urgently needed reforms.

As for General Carlos Garcia, who’s still on the griddle, what we do to him for his transgressions is vital. The verdict will show whether we are seriously embarking on cleaning up our act.

Just do it.

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