In November 1987, I attended a seminar on Asian security in Bangkok, courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Foundation. For three days we discussed the problems affecting peace in the region.
To my left sat the eminent Henry Kissinger of the United States and to my right was Goh Keng Swee, Singapore's economic architect. I listened to these two men and the other participants expound on their ideas about how peace in Asia and elsewhere can be nurtured.
Kissinger was obsessed with power and how it should be used, saying that only powerful nations are secure. It was Goh Keng Swee from miniscule Singapore who empathized with the weak Asian countries and their aspirations for the good life.
In adhering closely to the power principle, North Korea's Kim Il Sung is therefore correct; he had achieved parity with the world's most powerful nations by possessing nuclear weapons with a delivery system.
Goh Keng Swee argued for political stability as a major requirement for the survival of the state. He explained to me the fragility of the prosperity of Singapore and why it was necessary to enforce strict discipline, to keep away from the rambunctious freedom such as what we have in the Philippines.
All the discussions at that meeting now come to mind as recently there have been discussions in media and academe on the future of peace, particularly in Southeast Asia, why ASEAN is relevant, and why we must all look at the new bully on the block -- China -- with apprehension and, perhaps, with understanding as well.
WE MUST LOOK AT CHINA from the perspective of the Chinese, its four millennia of continuous civilization, and its brief humiliation by the imperial powers. All the countries of Southeast Asia are heirs to the cultural legacy of Asia, much of it Chinese. With the exception of Singapore, all are struggling with economic problems exacerbated by divisive diversities, often tribal in nature. All are in great need of economic infrastructure, as well as a stable and competent government.
Given this condition, they are often competitors in trade rather than partners. Being poor and often divided, they were easy prey to the imperial West and now to China. In these countries, China already has an elite presence through its ethnic immigrants who, in almost all instances, control the national economy.
In the Philippines, for instance, 70 percent of the economy is effectively in the hands of ethnic Chinese. It is well-acknowledged that China is enforcing an important role for its overseas Chinese in influencing national opinion and promoting China’s global ambitions.
As Malaysia's Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir defines it, China is practicing a new form of colonialism. This is perhaps inevitable. And as the law of nations succinctly states, if a country is strong, it expands and looks for raw materials. If a country is weak, it contracts and looks for markets.
At the moment, China's economy has apparently slowed down. But China has already saved billions of dollars in its ascendancy and it must use that vast capital to further its reach and influence. It has to use it imaginatively: its Belt and Road program is a major attempt to gird the globe with its financial web. This includes us, our ASEAN, a most fertile region in need of investments in infrastructure projects.
The Philippines, with its very cooperative president, is easy to penetrate and exploit. And so today, a massive influx not only of Chinese money but of Chinese nationals are already in place. The Chinese flood has inundated the country and there is no stopping it.
HERE WE ARE, TRYING VERY HARD to shake off the crippling American influence and China, with its intransigence, is pushing us to welcome the American embrace. The reality in Asia, and particularly in the South China Sea, is that only the United States can counteract China's imperial ambition. And China knows this and is responding with increasing bellicosity.
It is ideal for us to be neutral in this United States-China contest but we cannot do this for the simple reason that we have an alliance with the U.S. And also because Filipinos trust America more than China.
I don’t think we can rely on the United States with great certitude. It is up to us to develop our own defense potential, not so much with a bigger Armed Forces, but to infuse in ourselves a sense of nation that will unite and strengthen us in our defense of our sovereignty, knowing that if we lose it, we can never regain it.
On those few occasions that I was asked to speak before the National Defense College, I have been asked how culture can contribute to security. It is easy to quantify a country's defense capability, but not its spirit. As the late Russian dictator asked, how many divisions does the Pope have. What art and culture does is endow a people with pride, a strong sense of nation and patriotism to stand for their country, even die for her. The Spartans of ancient Greece, for instance, built their society on a martial foundation; they trained their youth in the arts of war and gave them the valor and the skills with which they fought their enemies.
In the end, a nation's security is premised on several important factors -- the first is the national interest, its survival. Having established this, that nation must then be very precise in identifying the enemies that threaten its survival. And, finally, that nation must be able to look at itself honestly and realize whether or not it has the determination, meaning the patriotism and the unity, to protect its national interest.
It is extremely important that a people or a nation, particularly its leaders, must have the answers to these questions. Otherwise, it will be easy prey to the machinations of its enemies to colonize it or transform it into a failed state.
First published in The Philippine Star: https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/05/25/1920755/our-national-insecurity
Ask any of the new college graduates about their plans for their future, and you will find that most of them want to leave this country. They do not see their future here. I had the same feeling way back.
When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, I was not allowed to travel. I lost my journal Solidarity and, now censored, I lost income as a publisher, and was also harassed with fictitious lawsuits. But I should not complain too much. What I suffered was trivial compared to those who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
When I finally got my passport back in 1976, I went to the United States to look for a job. At the time, several Filipino expats in the United States were actively opposing Marcos. I was invited to one of their meetings in the Chicago area. I was amazed at the vociferousness of the meeting and I found it ironic and even comic -- these Filipinos shouting revolution in the comfort and safety of the United States.
In Washington, I saw Raul Manglapus, an old friend, who was in Tokyo when Marcos declared martial law. From there, he went to the United States knowing that, like many of his colleagues, he would have been arrested and jailed had he returned to Manila. He was anxious to go back to Manila but I said he was safer in the United States.
I looked up acquaintances in Washington and found out that Pat Kelly, the secretary of Henry Miller when he was Public Affairs counselor in Manila, was now the wife of General Edward Lansdale. I was asked to give a talk to Americans who had served in the Philippines.
They were anxious to know what it was like under Marcos, and I told them how it was to live under a dictatorship, that Marcos’s best supporter in the United States was President Reagan himself. They told me there were those in the State Department, however, who knew the score. When I was through speaking, General Lansdale came up to me and said affectionately, Frankie, you are not leaving the Philippines. You are going back.
And, indeed, I did go back. I walked away from two jobs and from a future with my family in either Washington or New York. I don’t want to call myself a patriot for returning to my home country. That was farthest from my mind. I recalled the two years I was with the Colombo Plan in Ceylon and my brief stint with the Asia Magazine in Hong Kong. In these places where I had the most comfortable job, I had not produced a single story. So back to Manila I went to suffer Marcos and witness his end, and to see the promise of EDSA I squandered and lost.
Marcos did something very important for us. He drew a very clear line for the country's cultural workers and identified those who were on the side of freedom and those who were not. For those of us who opposed Marcos, the choice was very difficult and hazardous. We felt so abandoned and helpless and, thank God, we had an organization like PEN to bond us together and help us survive. We also had visits by writers who sympathized with us and who understood our plight. Among them Mochtar Lubis, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Norman Mailer, who expressed admiration for all the Russians who defied their government. He said he would have conformed because he liked his comforts.
When I reached seventy, I decided to forgive all those who had done me wrong. It was a lifting experience, as I freed myself from a heavy, almost unbearable burden. It filled me with peace. I told a good friend, the writer Teddy Benigno, and he said I should not have done this for those who did us wrong would be unburdened of their guilt.
When she was on her deathbed, Kerima Polotan sent one of her daughters to me. She wanted to see me. Kerima became an aide to Imelda Marcos, and her husband became Marcos’s executive secretary. He was the old friend who put me on the black list.
It is difficult to love this country – thus lamented a young lawyer who was considering a future in politics. And, indeed, looking closely at this country and us Filipinos, how can anyone love this country? Look at the result of the senatorial elections last week, how unthinking Filipinos elected nincompoops. Look at how Filipinos themselves are their own worst enemies, look at them despoil their country, and betray and kill one another. Indeed, there are many good reasons why Filipinos today are leaving; it is not just for economic reasons for there are comfortable middle-class Filipinos who have joined this diaspora.
It is difficult to love this country. But it is easier to do so if we think of her as our motherland, the way our mothers nurtured us, embraced us, and gave us their warmth, their loyalty, and caring. Perhaps, it was this realization that made me return to a fate closely entwined with the land where I was born.
Every so often, I meet someone who has returned "to give back." Indeed, some have come back as masochists perhaps, to share the agony of their countrymen. As romantics, they take pride in their history of valor, they live with nostalgia, and see reason for optimism.
And so I go to the old hometown often, to look at immemorial vistas of well-cared fields and a people made enduring by work. I go there to listen to a language to which I was born but which I don’t really use anymore. Listening to it, I wallow in memory and I feel alive, keen to the sound of living, of memories of the past that I have read about which I know are now entwined with every fiber of my being as a writer who belongs to this unhappy country.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 18, 2019
In October 1967, I visited Moscow at the invitation of the Russian Writers Union on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was my first time in Russia. I was told there were shortages, but as a guest, I was treated warmly and was never in need. One of the high points of that visit, aside from meeting my translator, Igor Podbereszky, was a session with the editors of the literary journal, Novy Mir.
I had by then, of course, read a lot of Russian literature in translation -- Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, and of course Dostoevsky. I had also read Pasternak. I had compared the two English translations of Dr. Zhivago and was anxious to ask the Russian writers about him, particularly since he had been prohibited by the Soviet government from going to Stockholm to claim his Nobel Prize.
What was Boris Pasternak’s status in Russia? The editors of Novy Mir said he was best known as a lyric poet. And Dr. Zhivago? They said one reason he was not allowed to go to Stockholm was that, from his novel, it appeared he did not love his motherland all that much.
I told them then that his writing showed exactly the opposite, that the most evocative descriptions of the Russian winter and spring, the likes of which I had never read before, were in Dr. Zhivago. It would not be possible for any writer to write with such affection if he did not love his native land.
While I was saying this, I recalled Manuel Arguilla who, to my mind, had written the most beautiful descriptions of the Ilokos countryside. Arguilla's life was cut short at the peak of his artistic genius; in 1944, the Japanese executed him for being a guerilla.
Jose Rizal also came to mind. At 34, at the height of his creative powers, he was executed by the Spaniards. His two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, vividly illustrate his affection for his country and his disdain for Spanish tyranny.
AND SO WE WRITE THE LAND, celebrate its width and breadth, its foamy beaches, emerald islands, the majesty of our mountains, our golden plains, the cozy lethargy of our villages, the spanking shine and glitter of our sprawling cities. We remember the stench of our slums, the fragrance of newly harvested fields, and the sharp odor of a parched earth drenched at last by the first rain. We give our writing a sense of place, our characters distinct faces, our history its heroism, our people an infallible identity. And with all of these, hopefully, we invoke a sense of nation as well.
But is there enough celebration of the land in our literature? Why are we not writing? Why are we not producing literature as much as we should? Is it because our writers are simply too comfortable to care? Or, distanced as they are from their own kin, they cannot understand or empathize with their trials and their griefs?
I brought these thoughts to a recent visit by Samuel Chua, the poet who now teaches at the University of Oregon. He had just attended a writers meeting at the Cultural Center, and the questions asked led him to realize that Filipino writers are not writing as much as they should. Yet there is so much material around us -- in the very front page of our newspapers, and in our history, where so much is yet to be unraveled. I agreed with him.
We tend to view others in the light of our own perspective, and I told him that when I was thirty, I had already written three novels, all of them serialized in a weekly magazine but not published in book form. I always knew writing would be hard work. I also knew writing does not pay. But just the same, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was apparently driven, which is not so with many of our brilliant young writers, whose language is superior to mine. Is it because they are comfortable? Is it because their roots in this country are shallow and fragile? Or maybe they haven’t suffered at all, or if they have, they cannot remember.
I do not know; it is for these writers, particularly the very young, to probe deeply into themselves, and realize the reasons why.
ALMOST ALWAYS, literature is remembered pain or sorrow. In all of us is an essential loneliness, a melancholy that is the essence of art and literature itself. In that solitude wherein we immerse ourselves, we come face to face with the transience of our very lives and our puny efforts to live beyond it. What have we made of the life, the poetry, the music, the art that we will leave behind?
Pasternak recorded with brilliant faithfulness the pathos and heroism of the Russian people in that cataclysm that changed Russia forever. So did Rizal record the last years of Spanish domination -- history come alive so we will know what it had been like, and also realize who we are.
And so I ask myself and so should all of us who write – why write at all? I look deeply into myself and find no abiding reason, other than writing seems so natural, like breathing, because writing and reading, thinking and imagining have become my life.
It is all ego and vanity of course, and the hope that somehow someone will read me and appreciate what I have written because they see themselves in it the way I see myself in what I write. And I realize then that I belong to something bigger, something beyond myself, and that by writing I have brought meaning and purpose to my life.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 11, 2019
Gina Apostol’s latest novel, Insurrecto, reminds me of what my Russian translator said: "Not to read Dostoevsky is a crime, but to read him is punishment." Reading Insurrecto is difficult, but to read it is to be rewarded with knowledge and insight not usually available in much of Filipino contemporary fiction.
The narration of the story is not linear, but it is a very clever way of juxtaposing the past with contemporary events, and Gina’s prose crackles all over the place with its freshness and cleverness.
Her characters appear opaque in the beginning, but since every chapter is a revelation they develop solid surfaces. It is obvious that a lot of research went into this book, but the rendition of contemporary happenings also proves that the author is grounded in the often sordid and gruesome realities of this country today.
This book might not be popular primarily because it is not interesting in the manner that contemporary fiction – and its plots – are often satisfying and predictable. But it should be read precisely because it illustrates what an excellent writer can achieve not just with the imagination but also with language.
Insurrecto is a commentary, too, on our relationship with the United States and the suffocating influence of American culture on the Philippines. The historical roots of this influence and the love-hate relationship that Filipinos have with America gives Insurrecto its meaning and significance. But, as Gina concludes, Insurrecto is a misnomer and Revolution is a dream.
My Dear Friend -- You are in your early twenties, you have just graduated from college, you are a writer, and you want to teach. And perhaps, without realizing it, you may have doomed yourself to fail when you decided to be a revolutionary.
It is a very brave and ambitious decision; revolution is nearly impossible to achieve. Not many young people these days talk like you do, aware as you are of our political system and the gross injustices that prevail all around us. Writing is not enough, or teaching, or whatever profession you choose, because there is this entity that’s bigger than us and it is this unhappy nation.
The real objective of revolution is the transfer of power from the oppressor to the oppressed. It is easy enough to see who the oppressed are, but who is the oppressor? This is one of the first things you must realize, that the enemy, the real power holders in this country, are the very rich, the oligarchs. And then you will also realize that we ourselves are also the enemy, and that revolution demands we transcend our clan, even ourselves.
Revolution is often a lengthy process, and you may not even notice it until it is exploding all around you. Here I am, 94 years old, and still wondering why the revolution has not yet happened, when so many of us have long accepted its necessity, its inevitability even.
ALWAYS UNDERSTAND THE OBJECTIVE REALITY. In what condition are we in today? Is it anarchy? Anarchy destroys a people, polarization ushers civil war, and revolution unites a people. We have never really been united. But can we not make use of our own diversity to mount that revolution?
There are many important elements that you should never miss – that revolution requires heresy and conspiracy, that it may be necessary to use naked power and violence to usher it in. One thing is sure – there must be a cabal, an organization of like-minded people to usher it in, to manage it, and to fulfill its promise. Where can these people be? In the army? In academe? Among the business elite? Wherever they are, they must believe in the revolution and, most of all, they must love this nation.
Persevere, endure. It was easy enough fighting the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese. They were not us. But now the enemy is our own elite, Filipinos like us. They have inherited the vices of the colonialists, who are now our exploiters and, like the old colonialists, they exploit this nation and salt their loot abroad, in Europe, in China, and elsewhere. Remember they also flaunt the flag and announce themselves as patriots who support noble Filipino causes. But never, never forget that they are very rich, and our people are very poor.
ALWAYS REMEMBER TOO THAT YOU DON"T HAVE TO BE A COMMUNIST TO BE A REVOLUTIONARY. The communists as ideologues are contemptuous of the objective reality. And this objective reality is that the Army is vicious towards the communists because so many of its officer corps and rank-and-file have already been killed in the communist pursuit of protracted war. But this country can no longer be dismembered, either by the New People's Army or the rebel Moro movements. Primarily, the Army is here to preserve this nation and it is an Army of the people, its officer corps and its rank-and file come from the masa, the very poor.
This Army, too, is profoundly aware that it is fighting an enemy from the same class. So ask yourself, when the poor kill the poor, who benefits? It would be wonderful if the army, given its social origins, were to side with the Revolution. It was what kept the country together during EDSA, or else anarchy would have gripped this country, resulting in the deaths of thousands as had happened in Indonesia with the downfall of Sukarno in 1965.
Beware of making revolution fashionable or a cliché. When it becomes popular, then it loses its essence, its sting. You now know the enemy. Work towards its destruction, its emasculation, or help transform it into what is called the modernizing elite. And never, never take revolution for granted. It must be lived, not bandied about in cocktail parties, and discussed endlessly in academic fora.
Learn from history, that revolution is not a modern phenomenon. It is an important element in humanity's search for freedom, for opposing slavery and dictatorship. This search for freedom is almost as natural as breathing. It is the very essence of life, the blood that is continuously pumped by the heart for that is where freedom also lives.
Learn from past revolutions, whether they succeeded or failed. Beware of following the examples of other revolutionary leaders, by other rebelling peoples. The Filipino Revolution must be organic and not an artificial construct. It must grow from our deepest aspirations. This is what history also teaches us -- the unique successes of other peoples because they trusted themselves and were true to themselves. Remember this when your mind is waylaid by foreign examples: We are not Cuba, or France, or Russia, or least of all, China.
In my youth, I also thought of revolution. I read all I could about it, and wandered on its fringes. But it was not until I was 35 years old that I accepted it heart and soul. I remember that moment very well, even where it happened, how suddenly free I felt. Yet with the soaring of the spirit came the realization that I may have to die for it.
But even then I knew that a dead revolutionary is a useless revolutionary. So then, my brave, young friend, live for the revolution, for your unhappy country. Work hard for her, sweat blood if necessary, and always remember, the objective of revolution is freedom, the building of a just and sovereign nation by a people who have finally established their place in the sun.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 4, 2019