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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Glancing Back

The Philippines' 100th anniversary is approaching.
Does anyone care?

By Ricardo Saludo / Manila


THOSE WHO NEVER LOOK back to where they came from will never get to where they're going. With that proverb in mind, the Philippines will be re-examining its past in the biggest memory-jogging effort of its nearly 100-year history. For the next two and a half years, Asia's first republic -- which obtained its freedom in 1898 and a constitution the following year -- will enlist tens of thousands of Filipinos in centennial activities spanning the globe.

The aim: to re-ignite not just interest in the victory over Spanish colonialism, but national pride in the men and women whose bravery and blood invested the Philippines with freedom. "The centennial is not just a fiesta," says former vice-president Salvador Laurel, in a voice burnished as speaker at dozens of election rallies. "There will be hoopla, singing, fireworks, speeches. But we want something longer-lasting. We want to arouse the spirit latent in every Filipino."

Scion of a prominent political family from Batangas province, south of Manila, "Doy" Laurel heads the National Centennial Commission. A high-powered body of 42 public figures -- including cabinet ministers, legislators and Supreme Court justices -- the NCC is overseeing an ambitious array of projects and activities, from an international exposition to a series of conferences whose findings could rewrite Philippine history. The commemoration begins with the 1996 centenary of the revolution against Spain and Rizal's martyrdom, and culminates in the centennial of Philippine Independence in June 1998 and of the constitutional republic in January 1999.

For Laurel, 67, cherishing the past comes as naturally as breathing. His father, Jose, was president of the Japan-sponsored 1943 republic. His grandfather, Sotero, led a Batangas delegation to the 1897 Tejeros Convention, which elected the revolutionary government of Emilio Aguinaldo. Sotero later became interior minister, but died in the fight against the Americans after his capture in 1902.

Laurel, though, has few illusions that his compatriots -- many of whom are consumed by material needs and pursuits -- take much interest in history. "Sometimes people grow up not knowing their past," the U.S.-trained lawyer says. "They join the rat race, they make a living, get a few pesos, many cars, a beautiful house -- that's all that matters." Indeed, during the centennial, most Filipinos may well feel like amnesiacs confronted with a hazy heritage full of forgotten forebears. Mention the word centennial even in Manila and chances are the listener won't now what you're talking about.

Compatriots abroad are even more in the dark. Ray Vargas is one of a group of young Filipino Americans who recently spent two months in the Philippines studying the language and culture. He says the experience "inspires you to learn more." But another in the group is daunted knowing that she has only touched the surface of what there is to learn.

The guardians of the national heritage say there is a lot worth studying. National Archives director Ricardo Manapat maintains that other Southeast Asians envy Filipinos for having so many heroes and centuries of written records. But the general lack of concern for the past may threaten the very records that are the foundation of the nation's collective memory. Most Filipinos do not realize that they nearly had to celebrate the centennial without the most precious relic of their hard-won freedom: the original Act of Proclamation of Philippine Independence.

The 21-page document, written in Spanish and signed by 145 leaders of the first republic, was among thousands of Philippine Revolutionary Papers stolen from the National Library and partly retrieved only in 1994. Some 400,000 of the historical documents were captured by U.S forces during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War and shipped to Washington. The papers were turned over to the Philippines in 1958, along with two sets of microfilms of the entire hoard -- the U.S. kept one set.

National Library director Adoracion Bolos got an anonymous tip about the thefts in September 1993. She launched a probe with help from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). But three years later, no one has been jailed for the crime. A former National Historical Institute researcher, Rolando Bayhon, who was caught with pilfered papers, is appealing a seven- to 12-year prison sentence handed down last month. Cases against an antique dealer and a Library staffer are bogged down in technicalities.

Bolos also appealed in the media for people to return or help retrieve stolen documents. In early 1994, more than 8,200 came back through mediators and the mail. University of the Philippines professor Milagros Guerrero turned over most of them, including the Proclamation. But when the NBI moved to investigate her and her associate, the retrieval of documents stopped. History experts believe as much as half of the stolen material has yet to be recovered. Even more disturbing, most Filipinos seem no longer concerned about the lost legacy.

Jogging the Memory

Those who are keen to know and cherish their history will not lack for reminders during the coming years. In the past several weeks alone, there have been plays on both Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, founding supremo of the Katipunan society that mounted the revolution. At the end of July in the southern port of Dapitan, in Zamboanga del Norte province, President Fidel Ramos was among the guests to attend a grand re-enactment of Rizal's departure from the idyllic town a century ago. Matinee idol Albert Martinez played Rizal, taking a break from the shooting of one of two new films about the national hero.

On Aug. 23, Ramos is to lead the country in marking the start of the revolution in Pugad Lawin, now engulfed by suburban Quezon City near Manila. It is one of the 24 major historical sites that are to be refurbished. Many need urgent care. Until the Centennial staff attended to it, the Pugad Lawin marker was used to tether goats. Meanwhile, Aguinaldo's residence in Kawit, where he proclaimed independence, was hemmed in by property developments. The effort to preserve Philippine heritage has reached at least as far as Hong Kong. At the former site of Rizal's clinic in the Central business district, there is a push to restore a historical marker, which was removed by a developer.

From an academic perspective, perhaps the most important event is to begin this month at the Manila Hotel. Some 800 scholars on the Philippines are to exchange findings and insights on the revolution, Rizal and the founding of the first republic. With a closing address delivered by Malaysia's deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim, the conference will be part of a series held in various Philippine cities, from northern Baguio to Davao in the south. The objective, says conference organizer Serafin Quiason, is to compile new knowledge for future historical works.

Others will have a chance to reassess their nation's past in novel ways. For the high-tech, there are web pages on the centennial and Rizal. A CD-ROM on Philippine history is expected to go on sale by December. For those who somehow cannot get matters financial off their minds, there is a push to depict more revolutionary heroes and events in bank notes. In addition to two new films on Rizal by award-winning directors Mike de Leon and Tikoy Aguiluz, National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin is writing a Rizal biography.

Controversy: Academics and playwrights are reappraising the role and character of revolutionary Bonifacio

Playwright and educator Paul Dumol has "assembled" a dramatization of Rizal's interrogation, trial and execution based purely on historical documents, interspersed with scenes from the hero's novels and play. The dramatic recreation was first performed last month in Manila.

Nearly a century after executing Rizal, Spain will unveil its first statue of the hero in the heart of Madrid -- a replica of the one in Manila's Rizal Park. The Spanish capital will rename a street next to the site Avenida Rizal, which intersects the existing Avenida Filipinas. In Manila, Spain is restoring the former colonial administration building, La Intendencia, to house part of the archives. It is also putting all Spanish-era records on microfilm -- some 11 million documents. Spanish ambassador Herminio Morales sees a new era of bilateral relations ahead, adding, "We are a part of this country."

From December 1997 to June 1998, the Philippine Centennial Exposition, showcasing the country's past, present and future, will be held on a 60-hectare site in the former Clark air base, northeast of Manila. It will be a collaboration between Global Ventures, a private company, and the state entity administering Clark. Organizers say the expo will feature, among other attractions, 50,000 square meters of exhibition space, three islands in an artificial lake and the world's largest flag.

Debating the Past

The nationwide effort to rekindle the pride and patriotism that bound Filipinos during their revolutions may already be paying some dividends. Last year, says NCC executive director Luis Morales, a survey by the Social Weather Station found that Rizal has become a leading role model for boys. (Girls chose their mothers.) Previously, youths were only seen as interested in pop and movie stars. Such results buttress the centennial commission's aim of not only remembering events, but actually influencing the national character.

The number of Rizal admirers could rise further when movies and TV specials on the national martyr hit the screens. The highlight should be a televised re-enactment in December of Rizal's trial in Manila's Fort Santiago and his final walk from the Intramuros district to the execution site in what is now Rizal Park. Still, Morales, 53, worries the projects devoted to centennial-related events could well be drowned out by the gathering wave of regular TV fare. In general, he adds, "the global information explosion tends to bury national culture."

The NCC has also been hampered by a lack of funding for the agencies that will implement its projects -- a common refrain among bureaucrats, from school teachers to embassy staff. One commission member has suggested that more use be made of the government machinery to bring its messages to people's attention. She fears the NCC may be spreading itself too thin. A better approach came from Defense Secretary Renato de Villa, who simply instructed military camps to promote centennial material and values.

If getting one's own government and people to move is hard enough, what about foreign nations? It took Laurel three top-level meetings -- one in Manila and two in Madrid, including one attended by Ramos -- to convince the Spaniards to participate. "They were cool" to the idea for so long, says Laurel. "Only after a few rounds of very good Spanish brandy did they bare their true sentiment: 'In 1898 we lost the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Marianas and the Carolines. How can we celebrate our own disaster?' "

The former vice-president says the Spanish finally came around when he took a positive tack. "Why don't you claim the credit -- that you produced our heroes?" Laurel recalls telling his hosts. "Without Spanish education, Rizal would not have become our national hero." He also pointed out that Madrid honors Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America. The Spaniards have since set up a commission to oversee their participation in celebrations in former colonies.

The American role in the centenary, though, has yet to be determined. Many Filipinos grateful for the U.S. retaking of their homeland in World War II are happy to forget the ferocious Philippine-American War. The U.S. gives little prominence to that episode; Filipino American Vargas recalls that his high school history textbook had less than a page on the Philippines, and then it was only mentioned as a World War II battleground. Most Filipino Americans know little of how the U.S. promised to help Aguinaldo win freedom from Spain only to unleash an invasion that left hundreds of thousands dead.

Laurel hopes this month's historical conference will help clarify the U.S. role in the Philippine freedom struggle. As of last week, organizers had scheduled sessions focusing on how various countries and regions affected the Philippine revolution. One prominent exception was the United States. Meanwhile, Filipinos in the U.S. have yet to take the lead of African and Native Americans who have pressed for fairer treatment in history books.

Other historical controversies seem likely to arise as the centenaries near. Among its commemorative events, the National Library is planning panel discussions about Rizal's much-disputed return to Catholicism in his final days. Other questions surround the due process in some well-known trials, including those of Rizal and Bonifacio. And historians like University of the Philippines professor Guerrero see room for further debate on such touchy topics as Bonifacio's role in the revolution.

For the most part, though, the centennial organizers would prefer to avoid contentious issues, which may go against their stated aim of promoting national unity and highlighting Filipino virtues. That is the reason, said one insider, why one place did not make the list of major sites: Maragondon in Cavite province, south of Manila. That is where Bonifacio was executed in 1897 for treason against Aguinaldo's government.

Who Cares About History?

In the end, though, the centennial organizers' biggest adversary may be apathy. Gloria Angara oversees the campaign to sign up Filipinos into the Centennial Movement, an organization raising funds and promoting activities among communities at home and abroad. She has been on weekly sorties across the country and to such places as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul earlier this year. The response to her visits is invariably enthusiastic, but the Movement has yet to get solid numbers showing that the initial interest is turning into warm bodies and cold cash.

Public disinterest is also a worry for writer and museum expert Felice Sta. Maria. "You can't just expect people to walk in," she says of cultural facilities, stressing the need for staff to be more assertive in marketing. But she also warns against lifting people's expectations only to let them down, creating "anticipointment." She urges more training to professionalize exhibitors and event organizers, and make them more responsive to the public's interests.

Museums, conferences, debates and commemorations would stand on flimsy ground, however, if the physical record of the past is missing. That is something that the National Library's Bolos knows well. She has continued her efforts to preserve the revolution records and pursue its thieves, for which she says she has received death threats. Headlines no longer chronicle her exploits; top officials, who once pressed for sweeping probes, have long forgotten the matter.

Even historians shrug when reminded of the thefts. "It's a good thing the documents have been microfilmed," they say, as if the centennial would be complete with strips of celluloid standing in for the Proclamation that countless revolutionaries defended with their lives. Plainly, in their campaign to instill a love of the nation's glorious past into the hearts of today's Filipinos, the centennial movers and shakers have a monumental task ahead.


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