It was during the early 1950s, when I was writing a series of articles on our agrarian problem, that I met then National Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay. Lt. Joe Guerrero, his Ilokano aide, told me that agrarian reform was Magsaysay’s main interest, his answer to the Huk rebellion which was then winding down. With the approval of President Quirino, he had opened the wilds of Mindanao, Palawan, and Northern Luzon for resettlement by the land-hungry farmers of the Visayas and Luzon.
Lt. Guerrero and Magsaysay spoke in Ilokano. It is my mother tongue so I spoke with Magsaysay in Ilokano too, but his Ilokano was far better than mine. He was tall for a Filipino. His manner was urbane but he had a common touch; he could speak to the lower classes in their own idiom, and he was quite direct. His questions were direct too.
His interest in the masa was not a political put on, it was genuine. Sure, he had his faults. He was imperious and impatient, and he often reacted impulsively. But when he committed a mistake, he corrected it immediately. The love of the people for Magsaysay was genuine and deep.
He was also the subject of some jokes – that he was going to repeal the law of supply and demand. My favorite is this: A group of farmers went to Malacanang to complain about the artesian well that Magsaysay had set up in their barrio. It had no water. Magsaysay said, “I promised you an artesian well. I did not promise you water.”
A narrative still current today is that Magsaysay was a CIA creation, that General Edward Lansdale was instrumental in his rise. After working in the Philippines, General Lansdale went to Vietnam to influence the South Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. He failed and the Vietnamese eventually triumphed.
The United States spent billions in the Vietnam War compared with the pittance that they spent in the Philippines to support Ramon Magsaysay. Magsaysay's success, however, is not due to American support. He was elected to office by a great majority. He campaigned personally in the villages. Before him, candidates for the presidency relied on their leaders to do that for them.
When Magsaysay was President, Malacañang was wide open, without the elaborate security arrangements of today. It would have been easy to assassinate him, particularly when he went to the provinces without bodyguards.
Magsaysay also gathered around him the best minds of the day and relied on them for advice. It is with these that he was able to create an honest government, at a time when politicians were already regarding their positions as sinecure. Mark the words of Jose Avelino, Senate President during the Quirino administration, “What are we in power for?”
Sure, we were only 30 million then. We are more than a hundred million now, yet so many of the problems that the Philippines faced in the 1950s are no different from those we face today. Which is why the forthcoming election is important. We must vote for the candidates who will revive Magsaysay's ideals, who will strive for transparency, for honest government, because at the root of our problems is the death of honesty and sincerity in the Filipino.
Magsaysay came from a comfortable middle-class family. He got to know poverty and the onerous tenancy system when, as a guerilla leader in Zambales, he lived with the farmers. He sympathized with the Hukbalahap who were demonized as communist in the beginning of the cold war. He was pressured by the Americans, and Taruc and the Huk leaders were jailed.
He was also shackled in his efforts to free the peasants from their bondage by a landlord-dominated Congress. Had he declared Martial Law, as one of his political allies, former Pangasinan Governor Conrado Estrella said, the people would not have objected. I have a feeling Magsaysay wanted to establish a new political party and a socialist government patterned after Scandinavian socialism. But there are no ifs in history and fate claimed his life too soon.
The day after Magsaysay died, corruption was back. The clean government that was ushered in by Magsaysay had not been institutionalized. It would have been very easy for his successor, President Carlos Garcia, to have continued his legacy, but he did not. This is an important lesson for us, and particularly for our political elite.
I visited President Quirino when he retired in Novaliches. Like Magsaysay, he was also very honest; all those stories about his expensive bed were concoctions to destroy him. He was responsible for plotting our economic recovery after our devastation during the war. And he was magnanimity personified when he forgave the Japanese for killing his family.
He was happy, he said, that Magsaysay had turned out very well. After all, it was he who appointed him Secretary of National Defense. But Claro M. Recto opposed agrarian reform because it was Magsaysay who had made it his major concern: "That ignoramus stole the presidency from me," Recto said.
It was not so much that Magsaysay defeated the Huk insurgency. He got a lot of help from the Huks themselves when their leadership broke up because of their egos. What he did was to show that we Filipinos, given the proper leadership, can have a very honest government.
It is almost seven decades ago that the best president we ever had died in a plane crash. His death anniversary on March 17 went largely unnoticed, and it may seem that he has been forgotten, too, like EDSA I.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 23, 2019