September 21, 1996
Our Centennial diplomacy
THIS, the first year of our Centennial celebrations, has served to highlight the gravity of our collective historical amnesia. This loss of memory would be pardonable—because, after all, amnesia is often reversible—if it weren’t exacerbated by the selective amnesia of our officials. They seem to think that making a lot of noise about Rizal will distract the public from pondering on the gruesome legacy of the Revolution he condemned.
Mercifully, this attempt to blot out the disquieting aspects of our past has been noticed by enough journalists and academics to ensure that instead of the bland Centennial festivals hoped for by the government, a sort of guerrilla war on the cultural front is taking place. And so we are content with the fact that our commemoration of the Filipino struggle for freedom will benefit from the nation’s conscience in the schools.
But the government’s efforts on the diplomatic front seem to have escaped serious criticism. This is lamentable in that the Centennial face presented by our Republic’s leaders will often be the only aspect of our country to be noticed by the rest of the world in the next few years. And that face is one of bumbling confusion, which would be pitiful if it didn’t smack so much of the mendicant foreign policy we’ve had since it was criticized by Claro M. Recto almost two generations ago.
Our diplomatic tradition is one of subservience, and while we have ceased to expend our energies on reaming Uncle Sam, apparently we have gotten to enjoy the habit so much that we just had to start reaming someone else: if not Singapore for its authoritarian method, then Indonesia for its spectacular graft-ridden progress, of which, you would think, we had had enough under Marcos. And now it is Malaysia.
Indeed in the case of Malaysia, our diplomatic tack has tended toward finding choice morsels to praise.
The Centennial is supposed to be the commemoration of our country’s struggle for freedom, a struggle that, as Jesuit priest Jose Arcilla pointed out, was the culmination of one great historical cycle and the beginning of another.
Our Propaganda Movement and Revolution were the last of the great upheavals generated by the European Enlightenment, which gave birth to the American, French and South American revolutions and came to end with ours. On the other hand, our Revolution and the Filipino campaigns for autonomy that followed it were the beginning of a worldwide movement to bring an end to Western colonialism—a struggle that had its parallels in the great Indian struggle under Gandhi.
This is a commemoration that obviously calls for the highest dignity, independence of mind and seriousness by our people and our leaders. And it should be marked with greater resolve by everyone to demonstrate pride in our past and present achievements. Instead of this, all we have seen is the usual sycophantic and maladroit behavior on the part of the people entrusted with planning the Centennial celebrations.
Characteristically, to celebrate our Centennial we spotlight on Malaysia: a country that has had the chutzpah to lecture us on democracy while almost every critic of Mahathir is in jail, and that had the nerve to preempt the Philippines in commemorating Rizal, to the extent that it hosted an international conference on our national hero, which humiliated the Philippine government. And yet Malaysia was not even conceivable as a separate country at the time of the freedom struggle in which Rizal figured with glory. A man who has been mistaken as the Great Malaysian—when, at worst, he might be called the Great Malayan; although, the best superlative for him might be the First Filipino.
At any rate, the Malaysian Rizal conference was splendidly organized, serious discussions were held, and it took place a full year before anything concrete was scheduled to take place here (our Centennial energies being wasted, at the time, on Centennial Tower stupidities).
And what did our government do to make up for this slap on its face? Why, it organized an International Conference on the 1896 Philippine Revolution. This may have been international, but it was hardly a conference—and, worst of all, it essentially failed to take up the 1896 Revolution.
The conference took place over three hectic days, the end of which was marked by a speech by Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister of Malaysia who had organized the Malaysian Rizal conference the year before. But the high point of the conference was the signing of a resolution that criticized the utter (actually merciful) lack of media attention on the conference.
From the start, it struck some observers as strange that on August 23, the centenary of the Katipuneros’ tearing up of their cedulas, Ibrahim was being honored with the distinctions pertaining to the Knights of Rizal in a ceremony that marked the conclusion of one full day of lectures on Rizal, during a three-day affair meant to commemorate the Revolution he had, at best, bewailed for the loss of lives its threatened, and, at worst, condemned as counterproductive of higher national aims.
The reason for this strange event was simple. The Philippine government had to find a way—any way—to quid Malaysia’s quo, and the conference on the Revolution was the most convenient way.
Never mind the true purpose of the conference—never mind the incongruity of honoring Rizal to the extent of overshadowing Bonifacio and the Katipunan. Malaysia had to be fawned on, and if some people wrinkled their noses at the brown noses of our officials, tough. Pride and nationalism—simple self-respect and dignity—do not build Proton Wiras. And besides, Rizal has been so often honored in the past, a commemoration honoring him yet again would be easier to pull off than one honoring the less celebrated and real heroes of the 1896 Revolution.
In the event, they didn’t even honor Rizal, because the Philippine representative just compared himself to the national hero and confined his speech to drawing parallels between Rizal’s life and his own failures. The Malaysians again ran off with the prize with a well-prepared, if not entirely credible, interpretation of the national hero.