To fight for freedom
The Passing of Jovito Salonga on March 10 bereaves this nation. The statesman and patriot lived a life of achievement and commitment, and though his last years were hobbled by illness and advanced age, his contributions to his country have served to etch his name in its history.
He ranked among the country’s finest lawyers, and his long shadow is confirmed by the Supreme Court’s statement on his passing: “He was an intellectual mentor and role model to many generations of lawyers through his courage and integrity. The Court recognizes his contribution to the shaping of modern jurisprudence in basic human rights and fundamental civil liberties especially during martial law and after the restoration of democracy.”
Salonga’s life story did not lack in drama. He was born in 1920 in Pasig, and lived his early years in humble surroundings. He pulled grass for his mother to sell as horse feed, he was an “ice drop” vendor, he fetched water from a well to sell to neighbors. He was not only hardworking but also intelligent: He graduated from the University of the Philippines and, with his worthy contemporary, Jose W. Diokno, topped the 1944 bar exams (each scoring 95.3); he earned his master’s degree from Harvard and his doctorate from Yale. Then began his long years in public service: He was elected and served as representative of his home district in Rizal before going on to clinch the top spot in the 1965, 1971 and 1987 senatorial elections. Among the important legislation he sponsored were the Anti-Plunder Law and the Anti-Coup D’Etat Law. He was Senate president from 1987 to 1991.
But it was Salonga’s presence in the significant moments in our history as well as his principled stands that made him so important. He was active in the resistance during World War II. Though one of the critically injured in the Plaza Miranda bombing in 1971, he was an undeterred and articulate critic of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Like his good friend Ninoy Aquino, he stood up for a people prostrate under the heel of tyranny, and endured arrest and military custody.
Even after the Marcos dictatorship was toppled, Salonga remained at the frontlines. President Cory Aquino named him chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which was tasked with recovering the Marcoses’ hidden wealth. His book, “Presidential Plunder: The Quest for the Marcos Ill-Gotten Wealth,” detailed how and how much the Philippine treasury was looted.
He was Senate president during a historic moment: when 12 senators voted to end the century-long presence of US military bases in the Philippines.
Salonga ran for president in 1992, deemed the intellectual’s choice. He lost badly (ranking sixth among seven candidates), and thereafter was a consistent critic of whatever he deemed as bad governance, working closely with sociocivic groups. He received the Ramon Magsaysay Award—Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for government service in 2007.
In expressing its grief at his passing, Malacañang said his “life stands as a reproach to those who would put personal gain ahead of public service, who would lower the standards of public discourse, and who would sacrifice human rights and the rule of law either for personal or partisan advantage.”
It is to this country’s detriment that Salonga suffered from failing health as he grew older. Due to a debilitating stroke in 2012, he spent his final years apart from the public that he had so ably defended through political turmoil and uncertainty. Perhaps even then he dreamed of a Philippines greater than what it is. After all, he never wavered in thinking it could be done.
“We should always be ready to sacrifice our talents and fortunes, even our lives, for our children and grandchildren and for those who will come after them,” Salonga said in 2009. He lived a life devoted to that ideal. It behooves everyone to remember his service when considering who to vote into office in May.
With pillars of the elder generation inexorably cut down by mortality, we are witnessing a changing of the guard.
Let Salonga’s life be a trove of lessons for those left behind. “We cannot and do not deserve freedom unless we are prepared to fight for it,” he once said. These are words to remember in the crucial and continuing struggle for a better nation, a nation that should not forget how it lost and regained its freedom.
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