Beyond a scandal

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Remember Bata shoes?

It’s a footwear brand founded by Tomas Bata in the 19th century when its place of origin was called Moravia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – an area that would later be called Czechoslovakia.

Bata Shoes set up shop in the Philippines in 1936, with a production facility opening in 1941. During the war, its workers served with US forces, with about half of them getting killed.

The Bata facilities did not recover from the destruction of World War II. Limited retail operations resumed in Manila only about four years ago.

Today the ambassador of the Czech Republic, Jaroslav Olsa Jr., who wasn’t born yet during the war, wants to improve the two nations’ awareness of each other. Naturally the ambassador (call him Jun Olsa, Pinoy style) wants the awareness to be positive.

That means moving away (although not setting aside) the almost automatic association of the word “Czech” in this country with “extortion” and the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) 3.

Olsa’s predecessor, Josef Rychtar, memorably accused a group led by MRT general manager Al Vitangcol of demanding $30 million from Czech firm Inekon in exchange for a government-to-government train supply contract for the MRT 3.

Vitangcol has since been sacked, mainly over a related complaint that may have something to do with the growing string of glitches in the MRT. But the daang matuwid administration is apparently not amused by the Czech complaint. Recommendations of the National Bureau of Investigation on its probe of Vitangcol, et al, are gathering dust in Malacañang.

The Czechs of course want to see the issue settled with finality. But Olsa, since arriving in Manila four months ago, has been trying to steer bilateral relations away from the MRT mess, pointing out that there’s more to the ties than one alleged extortion case.

*   *   *

The first Czech missionaries – about seven or eight – arrived in these islands 334 years ago through the galleon trade, sailing from Spain to Mexico, Guam and Manila. There are records of Czech Jesuit missionaries working on Negros island way back in the 18th century, says Olsa, who worked as a journalist before joining the foreign service in 1992.

Today the Czechs have launched a student exchange program with the Visayas State University for agriculture courses in Brno City.

With Typhoon Ruby still lingering, it’s interesting to note that Czech NGOs are among the groups helping fishermen recover from Super Typhoon Yolanda on a small island near Guiuan in Eastern Samar.

The Czech Caritas (Charita) is also helping rebuild schools in the typhoon areas, while an NGO called Adra is assisting in livelihood and house reconstruction. Another NGO is providing assistance to a research center in Negros to save the endangered local hornbill called Talarak from extinction.

There are only 500 Filipinos living in the Czech Republic and about 300 Czech expats here. Still, as in much of Europe, there was a “huge” interest among Czechs in Yolanda, Olsa said. One of the top Czech photographers stayed for three days in Tacloban and sent home images of the devastation and the people’s suffering.

At Duhovka Elementary School in Prague where Olsa’s six-year-old son Sebastian is enrolled, a charity bazaar was held for Yolanda victims. Olsa’s first trip outside Manila upon his posting here was to Tacloban, shortly before the first anniversary of Yolanda.

The ambassador is no stranger to Manila; he was with Vaclav Havel when the Czech president and leader of the Velvet Revolution visited and exchanged notes with then President Fidel Ramos on democracy movements.

Contrary to what some Pinoys may believe, the 1986 people power revolution did not inspire the Czech uprising, said Olsa. He explained that during that time, Czechs perceived the world mainly as a bipolar one, divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. He said the Czechs who were aware of the 1986 Pinoy people power revolt saw it as an uprising against a US-backed despotic regime.

Olsa said their awareness of the Philippines started growing only after communism collapsed and Czechs began traveling around the world.

Strengthening bilateral ties, which were formally established only in 1973, can start with tourism.

*   *   *

Czechs love traveling, says Olsa. But when they go to Asia, the top destinations are Thailand, China, Indonesia and Vietnam, with wealthier travelers going to Japan.

When they travel, the Czechs tend to favor cycling tours and exploration of historical sites rather than beaches. Olsa sees a big potential for the Philippines in these areas.

A history buff, Olsa says there are published accounts of the Philippines written by Czech travelers in the 19th century and in the 1920s and ’30s. But global events cut off ties, with the two countries becoming preoccupied with post-war concerns.

The Czechs opened an embassy in Manila only in 1980 and appointed a resident ambassador only in 1996. Olsa, whose wife’s sister once headed their Manila consulate, is only the fourth resident ambassador.

He’s looking forward to his first Christmas and New Year’s Eve here, when he can see from the embassy’s condominium residence the fireworks all over Metro Manila. The Pinoy Yuletide season reminds Olsa of home, where there is also a strong Catholic presence. He says that as in Manila, Czech households also set off firecrackers during New Year’s Eve, apart from common fireworks displays sponsored by the government.

In his business card, the Czech Republic “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary” has translated his title (with a nod from our Department of Foreign Affairs) into “sugong di pangkaraniwan at may ganap na kapangyarihan ng Republika ng Tseko.”

The ambassador shares his father’s love for languages. During the Soviet occupation, Olsa’s father worked as a pop singer while getting his masters in Indonesian Studies. Why Indonesia? Olsa has no idea. But the father has translated several Indonesian books into Czech and put together a Bahasa-Czech dictionary. When the father entered politics, he became Havel’s expert on Indonesia.

“I’m very much connected with Southeast Asia,” Olsa told us during a visit to The STAR last week.

He is a fan of my favorite Filipino writer, National Artist F. Sionil Jose. There are Czech translations of the works of Nick Joaquin and Manong Frankie, notably “The Pretenders.” Olsa hopes to include the works in a Czech anthology of Philippine literature.

Jun Olsa believes one problematic case will not get in the way of improving bilateral relations.










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