THE “American official” President Benigno Aquino III quoted in his speech at the University of Fordham in New York as complaining that “the problem with the Philippines is that it has 40 million cowards and one SOB (son of a bitch) ” was most probably the outspoken US Senator J. William Fulbright, who chaired the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974.
A member of the Democratic Party, Fulbright was critical of US foreign policy, whether as expressed in the invasion of Cuba (1959) during the Kennedy administration, the US presence in the Philippines (in one US Senate hearing, he described US military bases in the Philippines as simply in furtherance of US, rather than Philippine, interests), or the US war in Vietnam (1960-1975). He described the latter as an indication of “the arrogance of power,” or “the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue.”
Fulbright made the comment on cowards and SOBs in connection with the seeming invulnerability of the Marcos dictatorship because of what he perceived was the absence of popular resistance to the declaration of martial law, the 39th anniversary of which the country marked last September 21.
Fulbright was wrong on both counts, however. Not all the, at the time, 40 million Filipinos were cowards, although there is no doubt that many were, choosing to close their eyes to the attack on their rights and the corruption that assumed massive proportions during the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship. From 1972 to 1986, thousands braved arrest, detention, torture and even death in opposing the dictatorship, among them the country’s best and brightest sons and daughters.
UP engineering student Antonio Hilario, for example, joined the armed anti-martial law resistance as a political officer, and paid with his life for it in Samar. Wounded and captured by a unit of Marcos’ military goon squad, Tonyhil was buried alive, but went to his death with defiant cries of “Long Live the Filipino people.”
Neither can the poet Emmanuel Lacaba be accused of cowardice. Lacaba took the less traveled path of revolution, joining the New People’s Army in Davao, where he too was captured by Marcos’ mercenary troops and summarily executed. Before his death Lacaba had described to other artists his choice to fight with the poor—the road many of his generation had chosen to travel by—as a coming home:
We are tribeless and all tribes are ours.
We are homeless and all homes are ours.
We are nameless and all names are ours.
The road less travelled by we’ve taken-
And that has made all the difference:
The barefoot army of the wilderness
We all should be in time.
Awakened, the masses are Messiah.
Here among workers and peasants our lost
Generation has found its true, its only, home.
Neither coward nor SOB was Lacaba, nor were those others like him who chose over a life of comfort and safety the uncertainties of fighting a brutal foe.
On the other hand, neither then nor now has Marcos ever been the only SOB in the Philippines. Certainly in that category also belonged his military, civilian and foreign co-conspirators whose collusion in savaging the Philippine Constitution, robbing the country blind and condemning it to its present state of penury, political instability, corruption, and the continuing peril of authoritarian rule qualifies them for that term of endearment.
But include in the same category today the government officials, congressmen, senators and judges who call themselves democrats and even defenders of human rights but who demonstrate through their acts and statements that in their benighted souls continues to reside the virus of authoritarianism.
Include in that category those who, despite Article III Section 4 of the Constitution (“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”) are constant only in their attempts to restrict free expression.
Include in the same group those who, transformed into overnight art critics, threaten to cut the budget of the Cultural Center of the Philippines because of an art installation, and those who would make it illegal to sit on the streets during demonstrations. Include among them too those burning to restrict press freedom by insisting on a right of reply bill, or who’re into the plot to pass an access to information law that would restrict access to information.
But include too among the cowards those who fear change because they benefit most from the injustice and misery that define the lives of the many, and who imagine the end of the world in every attempt at the redress of grievances and the littlest expression of protest, and who torture and kill to preserve that world of injustice and elite privilege.
Thirty-nine years after Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081 placing the entire country under martial law, though Marcos himself is dead, the very same impulses and motives that drove him and his military, civilian and foreign accomplices to commit that terrible crime flourish still in the institutions and individuals who wield power in this country.
Those impulses include an antipathy to openness and democratic participation they cloak in pious statements affirming their commitment to democratic governance, the mindless focus on self-aggrandizement at the expense of the country and its people, and a fundamental opposition to any change, no matter how small, and no matter how, in the context of this country’s galaxy of problems, relatively insignificant.
No anniversary of the declaration of martial law or the end of it should ever be an occasion for celebration, not until what the Marcos dictatorship sought to stop—democratic participation and the revolution in the lives of the people of this country—have finally been realized, and until both the number of those who fear change and who would do anything to prevent it including torture and murder, has been so diminished they can no longer define what the Philippines is, as they did during the martial law period and as they still do today.