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Weaponizing the law… against history

/ 03:59 AM June 15, 2021

The issue of the true location of the first Mass celebrated in the Philippines is an old one. Is it Butuan, as a Spanish tradition held, or is it Limasawa, as historical research asserts? As part of the preparations to mark the 500th anniversary of Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in the Philippines and Lapu-Lapu’s victory in the Battle of Mactan, the National Quincentennial Committee (NQC) convened a panel of experts to investigate the controversy, yet again.

This wasn’t the first time that the Philippine government conducted an official expert inquiry into the issue.

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The first one took place in 1980; the second one, called the Gancayco Committee after its chair, former Supreme Court justice Emilio Gancayco, convened in 1995; the third attempt, a committee headed by historian Benito Legarda Jr., met in 2008. All three found that the evidence supported Limasawa.

Just the same, in late 2018, the NQC formed the Mojares panel, named after its chair, National Artist for Literature Resil Mojares.

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The memorandum read: “Notwithstanding the possibilities that reopening this controversy may open old wounds or even create new ones, the [National Historical Commission of the Philippines] and the NQC want everyone to be somber, respectful, and professional. Moreover, all must follow the basic rule of doing historiographical studies, i.e., every assertion must be supported by credible, authentic, and verifiable primary sources. Second, everyone should be guided by the fact that no one has a monopoly on truth and all must be given equal opportunity to articulate his position on this issue. Lastly, we should be prepared to accept the possibility that the NQC may not be able to settle this issue conclusively because of the unavailability and ambiguity of the sources.”

And yet in fact the Mojares panel, which included eminent experts Dr. Danilo Gerona, Dr. Francis Navarro, Dr. Carlos Madrid Alvarez-Piñer, Fr. Antonio de Castro, SJ, and Dr. Jose Victor Torres, reached a robust conclusion.

After a calibrated process that took a year and included a focus group discussion “done solely for the Butuan proponents” in November 2018, three exhaustive meetings of the panel (in Cebu in December 2018, in Tacloban in April 2019, and in Manila in July 2019), and four site inspections, the Mojares panel concluded that, “based on the evidence presented and the research it has conducted in aid of the evaluation, the evidence and arguments presented by the pro-Butuan proponents, while commendably serious and substantial, are not sufficiently conclusive as to demand a repeal or reversal of the current government ruling on the case of the First Easter Sunday Mass. The panel therefore recommends that Limasawa Island, Leyte, be sustained as the site of the First Easter Sunday Mass of 1521.”

The well-written panel report is a compelling read; it can be downloaded as a PDF file from the NHCP website. It reached other conclusions, including a grace note for the Butuan tradition:

“The panel, however, recognizes the deep historical significance of the greater Butuan area as a precolonial trading center and base in the Christianization of Mindanao, a significance that transcends the question of whether or not it is the site of the ‘first mass.’ The panel therefore recommends that the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) initiate and support the promotion of Butuan as a one of the country’s premier historic sites.”

But one of the Butuan proponents, Dr. Potenciano R. Malvar, rejected the findings of the fourth government inquiry. And in March 2021, just before the new wave of COVID-19 cases struck, he filed suit.

Alleging libel and the crime of falsification, he accused the members of the Mojares panel, as well as an expert who served in an advisory capacity, of having “maliciously concluded, without any explanation and basis that my presentation or position paper was based on conjectures and fictional account.”

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What exactly did the Mojares panel report say about Malvar’s presentation?

“The evidence presented by Malvar in his paper that Pigafetta’s latitude measurement of 9°3/4’ was part of a plan to conceal the actual location of the First Easter Sunday Mass to protect the route to the Moluccas is based on conjectures from ideas derived from secondary sources including a fictional account of the Magellan Expedition.

“The panel contends that if there was such a plan or intent to conceal the route of the expedition, the part of the route that should have been hidden would be the coordinates to the passage through the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America and not that of the Philippines. It was this passage to the West that was one of the primary objectives of the expedition as it was the way to get to the Spice Islands through a western route beyond Portuguese territory.

“Malvar’s thesis was, therefore, not accepted by the panel.”

To this carefully reasoned, evidence-based refutation of Malvar’s position, he responds in extraordinary fashion: by filing criminal complaints against the experts in the panel. This is dangerous nonsense; when Malvar joined the NHCP’s Call for Papers, he willingly accepted the parameters of a scholarly inquiry. Now that his claims have been judged—by a panel of experts—as unworthy of further consideration, he cannot run to the courts to enforce his own view. That would be to weaponize the law against historical truth.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand; email: [email protected]

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