The Long View: To be born free

To be born free

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 23, 2004

MY father used to say he envied my cousins and me, because we were born free Filipinos. To him, it was a marvelous thing, a proud thing. I myself envy those old enough to remember what life was like before martial law; but I envy those born after 1986 the most. To have been born and raised in a free country, and have no memories of what it is like to live under a dictatorship, is a marvelous thing.

One of my earliest memories is of the curfew sirens. Childhood was a constant tug of war between the propaganda of the New Society in school, where in grade 1 we were all obliged to bring home and sell Green Revolution raffle tickets, and listening to my father rant about the same tickets. Every year, the school would embark on an “English speaking campaign,” and when I’d brag about the points our homeroom racked up, my father would furiously retort he wasn’t interested in raising a member of the Hitler Youth –one of my first lessons in history, because then I had to look up who the Hitler Youth were and found out they used to snitch on their neighbors and parents. Life was all about warnings -be careful what you say over the telephone, be just as careful when talking to people you don’t know- and all about precautions the warning entailed.

Television after school was an odd (though in retrospect, perhaps fitting) combination of Loony Tunes cartoons and Ronnie Nathanielsz singing the praises of the conjugal dictatorship. In school we were taught that President and Mrs. Marcos had saved the country; at home I’d hear about people being arrested or under surveillance, and of chief justices holding up the first lady’s umbrella.

When I was eight years old, the interim Batasang Pambansa elections were held. It was the year of the noise barrage, something I didn’t quite understand, but which was definitely such a big deal as to be dangerously exciting even to a small boy. I recall a mimeographed manifesto ending up in the hospital room in which I’d been confined for pneumonia; of the grown ups speaking in excited whispers. And then nothing but year after tiresome year, during which colonels continued to be elected to head PTA’s, and something called Light A Fire which made going to Ali Mall dangerous, and deprived Nonoy Zuñiga of one of his legs.

Everything changed in 1983. We had just moved to the States in that year, and it was in Washington, D.C. that we heard the news that Ninoy –a man I’d never heard of until then, oddly enough- had been killed. When we’d come home for the summer, I’d voraciously read bound copies of Mr. & Ms., and watch betamax tapes of the Japanese coverage of Ninoy’s assassination. There was the Parliament of the Streets, stories of Lorenzo Tanada and Chino Roces being knocked down by water cannon; you heard Forbes Park matrons discussing the best way to distribute sandwiches at rallies, and of Communists and businessmen finding common cause against Marcos.

I will never forget New Year’s eve, when 1985 gave way to 1986. The government had sternly warned people not to explode firecrackers, and yet I cannot recall a night when so many firecrackers were defiantly exploded. It was like being in a war movie, and I remember telling myself, “Marcos will lose.” We were in the United States when that happened; the day began with a jolt when American classmates rushed into my room yelling, “he’s gone!” Marcos had fled. A school assembly was held, and the priests offered up a prayer for the Philippines; and afterwards, the school secretary came up to me with a note: “your father called to say that your country is free again.” Afterwards my father told me he attended a thanksgiving mass for the Filipino community, and when the national anthem was played, he was in tears. How the whole world admired us then.

Life was not all roses after Edsa. But things were improving; the economy was growing by leaps and bounds –but the growth was cut short by the coup attempt of 1987, and the economy made comatose by the coup of 1989. In our selective memories, we dwell too often on the disappointments since Edsa and not enough on the military adventurism that really set the country back.

Time and again I tell people younger than myself that they shouldn’t focus on the politicians that troop to the Edsa shrine year after year. Edsa was about a nation making a decision, absolving itself of the complicity it had in accepting the dictatorship in the first place. We wouldn’t have had a dictatorship if the people hadn’t supported it, in the beginning, regardless of what the military or the Americans would have liked. Marcos didn’t last very long when his people finally rejected him. And the disappointments since Edsa are as much the fault of a public willing to leave things in the hands of the politicians as it was the result of military meddling.

But it is the absence of an all-pervasive feeling of fear, that we should appreciate the most. We have only felt real fear in recent years when the military, backbone of martial law, tried to impose itself on us, or when politicians try to use the tactics of the parliament of the streets and of Edsa in support of their thoroughly selfish interests. In both cases the fear is, mercifully, short-lived, because the efforts of putschists and politicos always fail, because they only really have the lust for power as their motive force -nothing great enough to make you want to cry tears of joy when your national anthem is sung.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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