August 30, 1998
The National Centennial: Who cares?
Filipinos will have nothing to celebrate but every reason to curse the government for yet another great waste of taxpayers’ money
by Manuel L. Quezon III
ITS logo can be seen everywhere: a stylized red, white and blue ribbon forming the number 100, surmounted by three gold stars and bearing the legend “Freedom, wealth of the nation” underneath. You can see this logo emblazoned on the aircraft of Philippine airlines, on vanity license plates, on stickers and in advertisements on television and newspapers.
The logo is that of the National Centennial, which Filipinos will be celebrating in 1998. Well, some people in government at the very least.
The Centennial and the patriotic events leading up to it are the concerns of the National Centennial Commission, headed by Salvador H. Laurel, an honest and decent man who, obviously, is not much of an executive. The commission over which he presides with well-meaning good humor is attached to the Office of the President. In keeping with the nature of the administration under which it was created, and to whose largesse it owes its existence, the centennial commission has found itself the subject of criticism for such things us fact-finding missions to observe the Tournament of Roses parade in the United States, for saying some very nice things that are then made a mockery of by its actions, and for generally allowing itself to be dragged into controversies as a result of the President’s tendency to unilaterally announce hare-brained schemes without warning his subordinates that they should expect some heat. In other words, the centennial commission is a characteristically Philippines 2000 institution, headed by people who have their hearts in the right place but who end up befuddled by the shady politicking that swirls around the administration.
The vague nature of the centennial commission’s mandate is at the root of the impression many people have that Laurel’s agency is adrift, and thus incapable of focusing its energies, much less mustering the popular support needed to make the Centennial meaningful.
Laurel’s commission is supposed to come up with programs and events to commemorate the Centennial. But what the Centennial actually is remains unclear. At first, sensibly enough, the commission said that the Centennial, which will take place on June 12, 1998, is no less than the hundredth anniversary of the proclamation of Philippine independence from a window of the Aguinaldo mansion in Kawit, Cavite.
Sounds clear enough. But every Independence Day since the creation of the commission—that is, the five June 12th’s celebrated since President Ramos took his oath of office—featured enormous placards and billboards proclaiming that June 12th to be the 94th, 95th, 97th, 98th, or 99th anniversary of independence.
Now there is very clearly a difference between commemorating the anniversary of the proclamation of independence and observing the anniversary of actual independence. The first is the anniversary of the particular moment in time when, with flags waving, bands playing and people cheering, Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed that the Philippines and the Filipinos were, and ought to be, free. The second is the ritual commemoration of a reality that began at a certain point and has continued existing up to the present without interruption.
So which is it? Will we, in 1998, be commemorating the proclamation of our nation’s freedom, or will we be joyously celebrating four generations’ worth of emancipation from colonial rule?
To commemorate the former would be justified and grand; to commemorate the latter would be a self-induced deception and a lie. And yet, after the simple and lucid definition of purpose made when Laurel’s commission was created, it has done nothing to clarify this issue.
And this issue is vital. If the commission cannot even figure out its true mandate, how can the nation be expected to have a sense of purpose? A nation and a people should not be made to expend their energies in a nationwide fiesta celebrating an ambiguous state of affairs. One doesn’t need a degree in Philippine history to realize that our country has been independent for only two generations, that is, since July 4, 1946. In fact, a serious case could be made for dating our independence to an event as recent as the removal of the US bases. To assert that we have enjoyed the blessings of freedom uninterruptedly since 1898 is to go against the experience of the generation that fought the Japanese in anticipation of the independence promised—and fulfilled—in 1946. A generation whose members are still very much around to challenge any claims to a century of freedom.
There’s more. Apparently unsure of its true purpose, lacking the will to grapple with the problem, content with trying to please everyone and thus alienating almost everyone, the commission has spent the past five years on the defensive, trying to wriggle out of controversies instead of taking up the initiative. It has devoted its time to planning colorful events that have fallen flat because they were extravaganzas without a crucial component: the Filipino people.
With less than a year to go before the grand finale of the Centennial effort, it would be useful to look into the other reasons why the Centennial effort has been an unqualified flop.
The master plan hinged on the commemoration of a series of events, particularly the centennial of the beginning of the Philippine Revolution and the martyrdom of Rizal.
In both of these great anniversaries, the commission immediately handicapped itself by placing too much importance on the descendants of those who participated in the Philippine Revolution, among them the relatives of Rizal and ardent Rizalists. Not that the descendants of our freedom fighters should have been ignored; far from it. It is both necessary and proper that their patriotic legacies should be honored. But in settling for organizing reunions among the families that formed Kaanak and similar organizations, the commission set itself up in a position for which it was manifestly unqualified: arbiter among the factions that started to squabble over star billing in the Centennial celebrations.
The descendants of the Katipuneros from Tondo began to fight with the descendants of the fighters from Cavite; Magdiwang and Magdalo divisions sprang up once more with a ferocity intensified by a century of familial resentments. The commission, sensibly enough for a body tasked with focusing its attention on the proclamation of independence at Cavite, featured a number of descendants and sympathizers of Emilio Aguinaldo. Only to find itself being taken to task by admirers and relatives of Andres Bonifacio. To complicate things further, contending ideological points of view that have already been boiling since the 1960s, the last time the nation focused its attention on the revolutionary heroes, come to the forefront once more. The commission accused of being cozy club of ilustrados who were pointedly playing down the importance of the proletarian revolution led by Bonifacio.
The enormous amount of energy and media attention focused on these intramurals diverted attention from the fact that other than the Aguinaldistas and Bonifacionistas, the Caviteños and the Department of History of the University of the Philippines, no one else seemed to give a damn about what was going on. This marked the derailment of the Centennial effort from what should have been its primary purpose: to excite the majority of Filipinos who cannot trace their family trees to a veteran of the Revolution so that they will be inspired to proclaim that while they may not be able to trace an ancestor to the fight for freedom, they are prepared to exult in the fact that they are around today to enjoy that freedom.
In yet another example of how close the commission came to fulfilling its greatest task—only to swerve away from it—it got as far as proclaiming 1996, the year in which Bonifacio’s revolt and Rizal’s sacrifice were commemorated, the “Year of Filipino Heroes.” This took the spotlight away from personalities and finally gave recognition to the legions of heroes whose names have been lost to us. The commission’s lack of focus made the proclamation an empty slogan.
To make things even worse, the commission ended up holding the bag for the President, who decided he wanted a tower erected in Rizal Park ostensibly in commemoration of the Centennial but actually to glorify his incumbency. The resulting furor from artistic circles, gleefully echoed by the media, alienated the commission further from the very people in the best position to help it achieve its aims. Things went downhill from there. A convocation of scholars from around the world was held in Manila to tackle the significance of the Philippine Revolution. It ended up being a convention of Rizalists who delivered papers on every subject conceivable, except on the Philippine Revolution, and, most of all, Andres Bonifacio. Which further alienated the groups already convinced that the August 1896 anniversary was deliberately being turned into a nonevent, a suspicion confirmed on the centennial of the start of the Revolution when the deputy prime minister of Malaysia was made a Knight of Rizal in an official, face-saving gesture to make up for the embarrassment inflicted by Malaysia when it convened a conference on Rizal ahead of the Philippines.
Creating a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Knights of Rizal was the least the admirers of our national hero and the government could do to thank Malaysia for its friendly interest. But it was absolutely the worst thing anyone could do as far as slighting the admirers of Bonifacio was concerned. The commission became a party to this highly undiplomatic act undertaken in the name of diplomacy, which achieved nothing internationally while making enemies of a significant section of the already small number of people who cared about the Centennial in the first place.
The commemoration of the martyrdom of Rizal was accomplished with a little more success and less bruised feelings, something owed to the long-standing cohesiveness of the admirers of Rizal than to any effort of the government, whose single strike of genius was to put the ceremonies under the direction of Zeneida Amador, who managed to pull off a moving reenactment of Rizal’s final moments.
Since the storm and stress of 1996, things have been quiet, almost comatose, as far as the Centennial front is concerned. The most newsworthy Centennial-related event was a negative one—a tongue-lashing from a fuming Ramos offended by the apathy of the tiny audience that listened to his proclamation of the Centennial theme for this year. (What’s the theme for 1997? Can anyone remember? Anyone?) A presidential scolding that Laurel mercifully missed because he was out of the country.
The good news this year is courtesy of the Armed Forces, which raised the funds for the purchase of the house where the Tejeros Convention took place. The happy event was negated, however, by the scandal associated with the “restoration” of the Malolos Cathedral.
Patriotism and nationalism cannot be conjured from people’s hearts at the drop of a hat. All the balloons and brass bands in the world will never be able to evoke feelings of pride in one’s country, of solemn appreciation for the long and bloody history of our struggle for freedom. A people must understand that a nation’s history, like our lives is a combination of the sacred and the profane, the noble and disgraceful, the silly and the sublime. Instead of fostering understanding and an appreciation of our past and its contradictions and unifying themes, what was sown was division and discord. Instead of reaping public support, the commission has found itself subjected to derision and active opposition. It has provoked discord among intellectuals and factions, without achieving the mobilization of the majority of citizens as part of the effort to render homage to our heroes.
Saddest of all, all along it has meant well.
The hollowness, the emptiness of the Centennial effort is best demonstrated by an event that was reported to have taken place recently when a new monument to Andres Bonifacio was unveiled in Manila.
A few news reports mentioned that during the unveiling ceremonies, the descendants of Andres Bonifacio and the descendants of Emilio Aguinaldo came forward and publicly declared that they were putting an end to the animosity and resentment between their two clans as a consequence of the execution of the Supremo. And that they were calling on all their friends to forgive and forget in the name of national unity.
This declaration should have been an occasion for national rejoicing. In another era, it would have been reason for a Te Deum to be sung at the cathedral. For the declaration marked one of the noblest, most admirable, and meaningful events of the Centennial period.
And yet, no further mention of it was made in the papers. NO effort was made to propagate this joyful news in the media. The commission did not say a word.
Why not? Because the event took place at a ceremony under the auspices of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim? Perhaps. A pathetic, petty reason, if true. Reason enough to understand why the Filipino people will not be filled with pride and awe on June 12, 1998. What will they have to celebrate? Pomp and circumstance at a scandalous cost, of no relevance to themselves and their loved ones, and of no consequence for a country that will be witnessing one more example of official extravagance.
To understand why no one cares about the Centennial is to understand why no one cares about the government, save those who directly benefit from it. It does not belong to the people. It belongs to a different world that feeds off us.
The reader may be tempted to ask, at the end of this catalogue of lost opportunities and squandered resources, if such an analysis isn’t counterproductive, leading to a feeling of cynicism that does nothing to salvage what must surely be one remaining opportunity to sort things out in time for the Centennial.
The answer would be: It is precisely to try to salvage something out of this sad state of affairs that harsh criticism such as this need to be made in public.
If it is important—and most people will agree it is important—to commemorate the anniversary of the proclamation of our independence, on the eve of the birth of the Malolos Republic, then we cannot leave such an important event in the hands of elected officials. It would be as futile as waiting for reforms from Spain in the time of the Propagandists. It is up to ourselves to make the Centennial meaningful just as it was up to ourselves to wrest our freedom from Spain and cajole it back from the hands of the Americans.
The Centennial of the beginning of our Revolution against Spain (which, incidentally, was the centennial of our first declaration of independence, reiterated in Kawit two years later) resulted in a marvelous musical, 1896, staged by Peta and which owed nothing to official support. It was a triumph in all respects, and lifted the hearts of the young and old, without glossing over the more sordid aspects of our freedom struggle. Watching it, one experienced in an hour and a half the exhilaration, the tearful pride, the compassion, the joy, anger and resolve that well all should feel when we think of the Revolution and the Centennial Feelings made possible by the songs and acting of a small group of young men and women. One saw what a true love for our past combined with dedication to make it mean something for people here, today, could accomplish.
So let those whose hearts and minds are in the right place take over. Stop waiting for the parade. Seek those who are doing the things that count and make people think.
As for the National Centennial Commission, its only legacy to us, besides the millions of pesos in taxpayers’ money wasted on its account, will be a concrete and ignoble one: the alteration of our flag.
On flagpoles everywhere, a new and different flag is masquerading as the emblem of our country. The color of its blue stripe is a neither-here-nor-there shade of blue lighter than that of the flag that three generations had honored; its red stripe is different, too. The proportions of the white triangle, with its sun and three stars, however, continue to be those of the flag specified by executive order during the Commonwealth, making this new flag neither a restoration of the slightly different proportions of the flag raised at Kawit nor a complete abolition of the flag we all know. These, without any enabling law, without public consultations, without even bothering to inform the very people who swear allegiance to it every morning.
The bastardized flag may owe something to the flag that went down in defeat under Aguinaldo, but it also harks back to the same flag raised at the inauguration of the Puppet Republic in 1943, and a variation of which was inflicted on a subjugated nation under Marcos. A flag dishonored through association, and whose legitimacy was long supplanted by the flag Filipinos fought for in Bataan, raised in triumph in 1946, borne at Ninoy Aquino’s funeral, waved at EDSA, and finally raised over the former US bases in 1992.
This is not the sort of legacy Salvador H. Laurel should want to leave us.