Ambeth Ocampo asked me the other day why I am still always angry. Another old friend asked me, again, when I would write a novel with a sunshiny ending. I get asked these questions often, and I look back and recall what the late Anding Roces said, that we both would leave a country in far worse shape than when we were young.
When I was thirty, I had already published three novels, novels that I built with short stories written when I was still in my teens. One of these novels is The Pretenders. One of the main characters in it is an entrepreneur who sets up a steel mill. That early on, I already knew that the production of steel was the beginning of industrialization; that is the story of all industrialized countries.
In the 1950s, two naval officers, Commander Ramon Alcaraz and Captain Carlos Albert, and I went to Sandakan in North Borneo. We cruised first around the Sulu Sea, to the Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi, and then Balabac in the southern tip of Palawan on a hand-me-down patrol boat from the U.S. Navy. We discussed then the possibility of our having a maritime industry, that we would build ships in the finest maritime tradition. After all, Filipinos built the galleons, the best ships ever built. Their hulls of solid molave withstood the canon of British buccaneer ships.
I remember having a talk with then President Elpidio Quirino, who envisioned a maritime industry. I also discussed this with Mike Magsaysay of the Magsaysay Shipping Company and Carlos Fernandez of Compania Maritima. We were not going to build battleships or aircraft carriers, just merchant ships and a fleet of patrol boats that could not be out-raced by the Moro kumpits in Sulu.
We needed, aside from a steel industry, metallurgists and ship designers.Then, in the 1960s, shortly after the Korean War, South Korea started a shipping industry from scratch. Today, they are the world's biggest builder of ships. If we had started building those patrol boats in the 1950s we perhaps would be able to defend our sovereignty today, the sovereignty that China has mocked.
In the 1950s, as a staff member of the old Manila Times, I covered the Kamlon campaign in Sulu. Hajji Kamlon, with some hundred Tausug warriors, had defied the government. He brought the smoldering Moro problem to the surface. The government sent battalion combat teams and navy boats to blockade Sulu. They failed; the solution was not military. A negotiated settlement ended that uprising, and an incompetent government continued its military response. The problem worsened, culminating in the recent Marawi siege.
OUR MORO PROBLEM has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and billions of pesos, all of which could have been avoided had we looked at the root of the problem and given our Moros the active participation in the development of their own region. This is the solution not just for the Moros but for all Filipinos, particularly our ethnic minorities in the depressed regions.
In the month that I was in Jolo, I visited Maimbung and met with Sultan Ismail Jamalul Kiram and Princess Tarhata Kiram. Both told me that Sabah-North Borneo was ours for it was leased by the Sultan of Sulu to the British North Borneo Company. I remember that in the early fifties, the British governors asked our government to send Filipinos to settle there, and that much earlier, Rizal had suggested the same. But instead we lost Borneo to Malaysia.
I knew personally some of the communist leaders who led the Hukbalahap uprising in 1949. The origins of their grievances go back deep into our past, when the ownership of land was not available to the farmers who tilled the land itself. The agrarian problem too could have been resolved earlier on, by a government responsive to the aspirations of the peasantry.
Then Marcos came. He decimated a whole generation of leaders and wasted that generation, too, although he had gathered around him some of our very best technocrats. He could have modernized this country as the leaders of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan modernized theirs. Like him, they were autocrats. And the leaders who succeeded Marcos? What was wrong with them, and what is so wrong with us?
Many of our past problems were imposed upon us by colonization. But we are no longer oppressed by a foreign power; we are colonized by our own elites, by our own leaders and politicians. I see all these past opportunities they had failed to grasp and I see how we ourselves are to blame for enabling them to belittle and abuse positions of power that are meant for those committed to service of people and nation. We are truly our own worst enemy.
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of vision or of expertise to change this country, to make it truly just and sovereign. But we must all transcend ourselves, our petty personal ambitions, and think of the larger community, the nation to which all of us belong.
So I am asked why am I angry? Why are my stories sad?
I am angry because I have seen us squander all our opportunities. Anger can keep us alive for if we are not angry, it means we are dead and can no longer respond to the challenges that portend to wipe out this unhappy country.
Nationalists of the post-Marcos era like Oscar Orbos say that we are waking up, that there’s a new consciousness that now pervades the country and our people — our young, the Catholic Church. Is the long night about to end?
And what about that novel with a sunshiny ending? I am working on one, its title is Esperanza, and I struggle to be hopeful.
First published in The Philippine Star, November 24, 2018