Commentary

Opportunities gone forever

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Sixty-five years ago, from the deck of the freighter SS Willamette Victory, on the morning of July 30, 1946, I first set my eyes on the Philippines. The rigging of sunken ships protruding from the water of Manila Bay, and the fact that there was only one pier working attested to the fact that war had passed that way.

We were told that it might be a month before our ship would have its turn at the pier, so we 12 Jesuit passengers begged a ride ashore on the quarantine doctor’s launch. Down the side of the ship we went on a Jacob’s ladder. Let off on the breakwater, we found our way to the Customs House and surprised the staff: no ship had come in; moreover, we had no visas! When we left Jersey City on June 13, the Philippines was a Commonwealth; it had become an independent nation on July 4 while we were at sea. The customs officials scratched their heads and stamped our passports “Informal Entry.”

Our Jesuit superiors in Manila were just as surprised as the customs men; they had been told that there were no passengers aboard the Willamette. Nevertheless, by late afternoon our group was divided: the five priests waiting in Manila for their assignments and we seven seminarians on our way to Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches to begin three years’ study of philosophy.

It was dark and raining as our driver maneuvered over a narrow road torn up by American tanks rushing to Manila. The town of Novaliches was only a crossroads with a few shops lit by carbide lamps.

The welcome at the novitiate was warm, and we quickly settled down to studies with our Filipino brother Jesuits who were to become long-time friends and companions. Among them I mention only Teodoro “Teddy” Arvisu, who had been decorated for heroism after spending days behind Japanese lines in Bataan spotting targets for artillery. In his modesty he never spoke of that, and rarely of the Death March. Sadly, he died shortly after his priestly ordination, and so remains forever young in my memory.

Looking back now, I realize that in the years that followed, while we were puzzling over centuries-old philosophical issues, moments of kairos, of opportunity, were being lost and the seeds of massive problems were germinating just beneath the surface of Philippine society.

Manila was a shambles, second only to Warsaw in terms of wartime damage. That would have been the time for some serious city planning, to restore its pre-war beauty and prepare it for a future that was wide open. But short-term considerations prevailed, and it grew up as one big slum; the kairos, the moment of opportunity, was lost.

Politically also, moments of kairos were being lost. From our basketball court we could see Mt. Arayat to the north. Around there, Hukbalahap guerrillas who had fought the Japanese were waiting to “come in from the cold” and support the new government in return for agrarian reform and an end to the pre-war feudal system on the haciendas. The government would have none of it; three Huk leaders had been elected to Congress, but the latter refused to seat them. Weeks after our arrival, peasant leader Juan Feleo was kidnapped and murdered. With that, many of the former Huks returned to the hills and joined an insurgency which—65 five years later—still sputters on. The agrarian problem is, in large degree, still with us, festering beneath the surface.

A third moment of opportunity lost in those days, with consequences down to today’s headlines, was the handling of the collaboration issue: what to do with Filipinos—many of them still active in political life—who were accused of having sided with and aided the Japanese invaders. Strong but deliberate action at that moment could have established the citizen’s responsibility for the common good as the bedrock on which an independent Philippines rested.

The time seemed ripe for such action—there was a kairos—after the tremendous sacrifices made by many during the Japanese occupation. But strong action was impossible with some of those accused of collaboration sitting in Congress, and one whose wartime record required serious appraisal—Manuel Roxas—elected as president. Independence arrived not with a bang but with a whimper, a People’s Court made deliberately ineffectual and an eventual amnesty.

The handling of the collaboration issue may well have been the “Original Sin” which has blighted political life in the Philippines down to the present. When a fundamental value of a community is violated, the community must rise in protest. Punishment in this case is not an act of vengeance but a reaffirmation of the value that has been violated. If there is no such reaction, the value is downgraded, no longer a community concern but a matter of personal preference. The amnesty may well have conveyed the message that the effort to distinguish patriots from traitors was not worth the trouble, that the common good is not really important.

It would be easy to trace this line of reasoning down to the quick rehabilitation, and election to public office, of some of those closely connected with the abuses—including torture and murder—of the Marcos regime. And to the argument that the nation should now “move on” and not be preoccupied with cleaning up the moral debris of the past presidency and bringing to justice those responsible.

Years from now Filipinos may look back on this period as another kairos, a window of opportunity to turn the nation around and set it on the common good as a fundamental moral value. Whether it will also be another opportunity missed remains to be seen.
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Comments are welcome at jcarroll@ateneo.edu.

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you for reminding us that our country has missed so many opportunities to rise above these challenges… Sad but indeed it is quite difficult when all those people who should long have been in jail are now (and still is) enjoying the tax payer’s money as elected government official. But what makes things sadder is that majority of the Filipino now especially the youth are very complacent and have lost the passion to fight for what is right and what we really deserve… But I am still hoping for great things for my country. I just hope that the battle is not yet lost… New opportunities will come up; we will not let these pass again…

  • Guest

    This article is refreshing, bold, intelligent, and astutely calibrated unlike the usual platitudes that are delivered to the faithful by Father Carroll’s kindred. Had we acted willfully and decisively at the end of the war to punish those Japanese collaborators, we would not have inherited this “blighted political life.” The problem was that we went too easy on these collaborators by setting them free without making them account for their crimes.  Such a political and moral failure to punish the guilty set a precedent for future administrations: it emboldened them to break the rules a little at a time to see how much they can get away with. When the governed sat in passivity and detachment, the governing continued increasing its  trangressions knowing full well that the governed will not put up even a token resistance. In a big way, the people are to blame for the perpetuation of the culture of graft and corruption. The people stood and has been standing aside in passivity. Had the people been PROACTIVE, instead of PASSIVE & REACTIVE at the birth of the post-American republic, we would not have had this “blighted political life.”

    • http://twitter.com/emigrea anonymouser

      passive = “let’s move on” “turn the other cheek” “let those without sin cast the first stone” “papangit ka lang” “huwag kang pa-affect, mananalo lang sila”…

      et cetera.
      walang maaapi kung walang magpapaapi.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_77VNFV773QXJLPLXMSGJOASMLI Yokwe

    World War II change the Filipino psyche forever not only on
    the collaboration issue.  For the first
    time in many years there was widespread hunger. 
    The Japanese troops killed 90% of the carabaos for food and there were
    no farming animals to help in planting rice. 
    Violence was widespread  with guerrillas,
    Makapili collaborators and bandits all vying for influence with the local community.
    Brothers and relatives were stealing against each other for survival.   The main business was buy and sell which was
    selling merchandise to the Japanese for their supply.

    Manila was literally obliterated during it’s liberation. To
    earn money people destroyed the remaining building to the get the remaining
    iron foundation to be sold as scrap metal.  It was survival of the fittest, and some became thieves in order to survive.

    It was more than the collaboration issue against the Japanese.  But most of them are landowners and punishing them would have change the Philippine society forever.

    One of them is named Benigno Aquino Sr.  Putting him to trial would have changed history.

    • Guest

      Mariano Marcos was an alleged collaborator while Ferdinand Marcos was allegedly involved in buying metal scraps and selling to the Japanese the much needed material which were made into munitions.
      Source:  America’s Boy by James Hamilton-Paterson 

      Had it been widely known that Pnoy’s pedigree (Benigno Aquino Sr) was a Japanese collaborator and had this fact been exploited by his opponents to the hilt during the election, Pnoy probably would not have been president.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XGRYJTY5W5U2NNQW74DFP3AF3M Manuel

    “…Manila was a shambles, second only to Warsaw in terms of wartime damage. That would have been the time for some serious city planning, to restore its pre-war beauty and prepare it for a future that was wide open. But short-term considerations prevailed, and it grew up as one big slum; the kairos, the moment of opportunity, was lost…” as lifted from the article above.

    Indeed, the opportunity to really solve the problem of slum dwellers rest upon long-term solutions. Consider the current move by the SM Group pledging Pesos 36 billion to develop Fort Bonifacio under the BCDA. This is shortsighted and does not really respond to the general upliftment of the economy as commerce is centralized once more in Metro Manila. In contrast, if this Pesos 36 billion is utilized to truly rehabilitate the PNR and extend its railway track all the way to Visayas & Mindanao, the economic impact would be much more far reaching.

    Slum dwellers I believe have flocked to MM mainly because they do not have opportuniites in the countryside. But with a railroad from Appari to the end of Zamboanga Peninsula, they just might be encouraged to go back to farming. Why? Because now it would be cheaper to transport their produce to the urban centres not only of MM cities, but also of Cebu, Tacloban, Catbalogan, Iligan, CdO, Davao, etc. Pesos 36 billion spent on the PNR would and could rid MM of its slum dwellers simply because opportunities exist in the countryside. It may not be guaranteed 100%, but newcomers to MM would be more encouraged to stay put wherever they are.

    Whereas Pesos 36 billion spent on more residential or condominiums or malls would only entice people from the countryside that in order to live one must migrate to the urban center, Fort Boni, at least the back of it in Taguig has a lot of slum dwellers already. It would only increase the slum dwellers some more, the opportunity to reduce their numbers as this article says, is gone.

  • http://twitter.com/yogon Camillo

    Sadly, the Philippine narrative is fraught with missed and wasted opportunities.

  • http://profiles.google.com/odredd Dredd Ofalexandria

    The lack of opportunity of our country’s development is on going. Our political system lacks vision and focus for industrialization and infrastructure development for the next 30  – 50 years down the road. Politicians see that improvements of their areas is for short term( for the next electoral term) and so their legacy can be remembered.

    Projects are too politicised as if it came from their own pockets. In other countries you seldom or you don’t  see projects created by so and so. You can’t even feel their is a politician governing. But you can see the system is well planned, organized and focused for future development. People are nationalistic and patriotic.

    We have been independent ahead of our neighbours and yet the country stagnated and left economically. Well it’s not yet too late.

    The whole system has to change. Including the mindset of the politicians.
           

  • Khristopher Sy

    It’s sad how the memory of true heroes are desecrated and forgotten in favor of traitors and thieves.  This article serves as a reminder of how truly blessed the Philippines is.  The rich natural wealth aside, opportunities, or kairos – using the author’s term, still abound. 

    Unfortunately, time and again, we let it pass us by.  The death of the Filipino as a nation and as a people will not come when resources are drained, but when opportunities no longer come.

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