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Looking Back

‘Bibinquera ng Presidente’

/ 01:41 AM December 21, 2011

Christmas is finally upon us and my columns should be light and cheerful to greet the dawn of 2012. I have drafted columns on gift-giving and food but there is room for just one more depressing column from Apolinario Mabini’s letters to bid 2011 farewell.

When I wrote about Mabini being considered for chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1899, I was not surprised that Congress and the whispering brigade around the President made sure the appointment was blocked from the beginning. Re-reading Mabini’s letters gave me a sense of déjà vu because the pressures around the president, any president of the Philippines, requires sound advice from people he trusts, people who, rightly or wrongly, think of the country above self. Mabini’s letters and memos to the President are over a century old, but the situations faced by the First Republic seem to mirror those in our times.

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In October 1898, the manager of the Hongkong Bank in Manila (the grandfather of today’s HSBC) asked the government for safe-conduct passes and permit to carry firearms to hunt snipes, presumably in the Central Luzon plains of Bulacan and Pampanga. These migratory birds came to bask in the warmth of the Philippines during the fall and winter in neighboring countries not knowing they would be shot and stewed into adobo. Mabini told the bank manager to provide details as to where and when they wanted to go on the bird-shooting expedition. He then wrote a short memo to the President that reads:

“I think it is difficult to completely deny such a plea from the Manager of the Hongkong Bank. There will be no danger if we take proper precautions on the day and place where the excursion is to be held. I fear that a negative answer will be considered a rebuff and will serve to show fear on the part of the government.”

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Mabini’s writings, especially his letters and memos to the President, require closer study because in these we see how the government was run and how they dealt with crises, both big and small. For example, there was an announcement regarding the issuance of licenses for firearms that passed through Mabini who made changes on the draft in pencil, “so that in case you disapprove I can easily erase them. I also advise that the announcement [in Spanish] be accompanied by a [translation] in Tagalog.” On Feb. 22, 1899 Mabini sent a note to the President regarding a bill of lading certifying that the chief in Dagupan had sent a quantity of poto seco. Mabini was not sure if the poto seco had been received. Based on this, we can presume that Emilio Aguinaldo liked kakanin because in one of the expense accounts of the President’s household from 1899 we find an entry for “bibinquera ng presidente.” The President had a personal bibingka cook!

When Mabini’s letters were compiled by the National Library, before the war, these came with notes by T.M. Kalaw. One of these easily overlooked footnotes reads:

“Mabini was not only the prime minister and legal counselor of the Aguinaldo government, but also the fiscalizer of the acts of the Revolution. He stood for the most strict moral conduct and he was a submissive slave of the law and rulings. His accusing finger spared nobody, from the highest leader to the lowest soldier.

“Several of his letters point out the abuses and irregularities committed by officials, civil as well as military. It gives us satisfaction, however, to know that, in such an abnormal situation, not many crimes were committed, compared to those registered in other countries under identical conditions.”

Textbook history oversimplifies the Revolution as a black-and-white situation of freedom versus colonization, of good versus evil. Naturally, we only see one side of the Philippine Revolution and our heroes—the dark side—the underside is often swept under the rug. We all think that our ancestors fought selflessly for lofty aims, but Mabini’s letters address cases of: land-grabbing, torture, rape, summary executions, looting, kotong, jueteng and much more. In one letter he rails against torture, against unjust punishment, against the rape of Filipinas by some members of the military.

Mabini’s letters do not mince words; he does not hide his anger or disgust. On Aug. 31, 1898 he wrote to a certain Colonel Montenegro after receiving a complaint from the mother of a certain Pilar Love who was against their romance and planned marriage:

“I deeply regret to know that persons in whom I have given full trust should abuse it and conspire against my authority by means of acts against the prestige of the government. In your hands I have entrusted an army in order that you may use it in helping our country in the enforcement of its laws but not in utilizing it for selfish and personal purposes. How could we ever form a solid organization if its own founders are the very first ones to weaken its foundation?”

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Then, Mabini issued this quiet but stern warning: “I hope you will, from now on, realize the great responsibility of your position and, thus, deter me from taking drastic measures against my will.”

Mabini’s letters make for painful reading because the picture he paints is not of the glorious Revolution hyped up in textbook history. Instead his writings demonstrate the slow and painful steps it took to forge the nation.

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Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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