Tag Archives: Philippine history

Column: The unfortunate Justice Peralta

Published on November 15, 2016.

There is none so blind as he who refuses to see. Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s ponencia in the Marcos burial cases will go down in history as the cowardly rationalizations of a willfully blind man; he deserves the opprobrium coming his way. He still has six years to serve in the Supreme Court, but his legacy will be forever defined by this badly written, ill-thought-through, deliberately obtuse majority decision.

Peralta’s opinion begins: “In law, as much as in life, there is need to find closure. Issues that have lingered and festered for so long and which unnecessarily divide the people and slow the path to the future have to be interred. To move on is not to forget the past.” This New Age-speak is nonsense, misleadingly so, because closure does not come from any Court ruling but from a ruling that is truly just.

The opinion ends with a similar lame attempt at an overview: “There are certain things that are better left for history—not this Court—to adjudge. The Court could only do so much in accordance with the clearly established rules and principles. Beyond that, it is ultimately for the people themselves, as the sovereign, to decide, a task that may require the better perspective that the passage of time provides.”

That squeaking you hear? That’s the sound of Peralta and the eight justices who joined the majority trying to fit their bottoms on the fence they’re sitting on. The people had already decided: They ousted Marcos, supported the restoration of democratic institutions, overwhelmingly ratified the Constitution. It takes an extra amount of determination to ignore history.

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Column: Apolinario Mabini vs General Luna

The first of five columns provoked, or inspired, by two viewings of Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna.” Published on September 22, 2015. 

Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” is a masterpiece of filmmaking; we should all see it. But it is, primarily, art; only, secondarily, history. Learning to distinguish one from the other is an exhilarating, necessary, education.

The “but” in the lead is a testament to the movie’s persuasive power. Much of this power lies in the astute casting, in the sweeping cinematography, in the compelling pace of the storytelling; some of it rests on the familiar structure of the narrative: of one against many, of country before self, of nation above class, of good versus evil.

The movie begins, and ends, with a disclaimer about creative license. Tarog’s reimagining of parts of Philippine history has inspired spirited discussion in the classroom or animated conversations over coffee or beer, about the shape of our history and about our own role in the shaping. (I overheard one conversation between early-twentysomethings; they were hoping that, perhaps, just perhaps, box-office results would lead to a trilogy of movies—a trilogy about Philippine revolutionary heroes, not comic-book or Young Adult characters!) Continue reading

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A revolutionary movie

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Column: ‘A Filipino Tolstoi’

Published on December 9, 2014.

I wish to pay tribute to the great F. Sionil Jose, who celebrated his 90th birthday in ceremonies at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last week, by offering this early American glimpse of the writer “Manong Frankie” reminds me of the most: Rizal himself.

It is an outline of Rizal’s life, published in the Boston Evening Transcript of March 25, 1899 (some six weeks after the Philippine-American War broke out). We can see that the Rizal narrative is already in recognizable shape, though some details are distorted by distance and lack of knowledge (the “Island of Dapitan,” Rizal banished twice, and so on). The account, written by Erving Winslow and published under the headline “A Filipino Tolstoi” (the Russian novelist-turned-crusader was still alive at the time), reads as follows:

A biography of a patriotic Filipino, which has recently been published by a member of the faculty of the [Austrian] University of Leitmeritz, may throw some light on the native character. The pamphlet is a life of Jose Rizal, Filipino patriot, and is dedicated to General Emilio Aguinaldo, who is characterized as “the liberator of his country, a chivalrous and brave warrior.” Continue reading

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Column: Why Ninoy?

Published on November 25, 2014.

Let me begin with a basic question: Is Ninoy Aquino a role model of good governance? Millions of Filipinos see him as a modern-day martyr and (as a 2011 Social Weather Stations survey reminded us) a genuine hero. But is he the sort of political figure who represents the ideal that a school of government should aspire to form, to graduate?

When the Ateneo School of Government was renamed last August after Ninoy and his wife, the late ex-president Corazon Aquino, the reaction, or at least the response I was able to monitor, was generally positive. This reading may have been a result of the filter bubbles I am wittingly or unwittingly encased in, but as far as the Aquinos are concerned (in August 2009, for instance, I wrote a series of four columns on the legacy of this influential family), I think my opinion closely tracks that of a national majority.

As we prepare to mark Ninoy’s 82nd birth anniversary (it is to be held later this week), we can revisit the original question, and perhaps rephrase it: Was Ninoy a martyr in the mold of a Thomas More, who was by all accounts an excellent administrator before Henry VIII turned against him, or was he more like Jose Rizal, less a political personality than a heroic one, whose violent death sealed his fate as a national hero? Continue reading

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Column: Mabini in America

Published on November 18, 2014.

Late in December 1899, an advertisement appeared in the pages of at least two New York newspapers. It was a notice that the January 1900 issue of the North American Review, a journal of letters and opinion pieces, was already on sale.

The format of the advertisement included a package of six essays on the Second Boer War, which had just broken out in South Africa. There was a “character study” by the influential critic Edmund Gosse, an account of the Anglican crisis by the controversial Protestant theologian Charles Augustus Briggs, and a book review of the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, by the eminent novelist Henry James.

Between the essays on the Boer War, packaged under the rubric “The War for an Empire,” and the review by Henry James was “A Filipino Appeal to the American People,” by Apolinario Mabini. Of the 14 authors listed in the advertisement, only three were new or under-known enough to warrant an identifying label. Mabini’s is “Formerly Prime Minister in Aguinaldo’s Cabinet.” Continue reading

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Column: Recapture ignorance!

Published on October 21, 2014.

Last week, I had the privilege of taking part in two workshops on the importance of local history, organized by the redoubtable Mozart Pastrano and held in my hometown of Cagayan de Oro. Like the other journalists I joined in a roundtable discussion on the second day—Grace Albasin, Froilan Gallardo, Herbie Gomez and the Inquirer’s own JB Deveza—I was invited on the assumption that writing or editing the so-called first draft of history can shed light on the writing of history’s more permanent drafts.

I highlighted four strategies in writing, and illustrated them using sample texts from Cagayan’s own history. The first of two extended excerpts follows: Continue reading

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Column: Marcos was the worst (2): The SC

Published on September 23, 2014.

After the Aug. 21, 1971 Plaza Miranda bombing, President Ferdinand Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Proclamation No. 889, which allowed the police to make arrests without warrants and to detain the arrested without charges, took effect immediately but was announced to the public only after a few days. It seems clear now that the tactic was a dress rehearsal for the full-scale imposition of martial law the following year.

Marcos, entering the second half of his second and last term, was anxious about how the Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of the suspension of the writ, which had been immediately challenged. So he did what came naturally to him: He subverted yet another democratic institution. Continue reading


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Column: History lessons

Published on May 20, 2014.

The great chronicler of the Propaganda Movement died last Wednesday. That Fr. John Schumacher, SJ, was also the foremost authority on the history of the Philippine Church helps explain his appeal to generations of Filipino Catholics. As the man who succeeded him as Church historian at the Loyola School of Theology, Fr. Tony de Castro, SJ, said in his moving homily at the funeral Mass last Saturday, it was Father Jack who made him realize it was possible to be “faithful to both the Church and the nation.”

To my mind, Father Jack’s “Revolutionary Clergy” was the epitome of that integrated faith. In this underappreciated work, he used the documentary evidence to restore the Filipino clergy to their crucial role as nationalists and revolutionaries: mobilizing support, collecting war donations, advising rebels in the field during the Philippine Revolution.

One does not need to see the Filipino clergy in the same exact way as he did to follow or indeed accept his argument. That the book came out in the early 1980s, at the exact time the Philippine Church was not only hiding dissidents but active in the antidictatorship struggle itself, did not fail to make an impression on me.

I was one of the many whose lives he improved; he played a key part in the research and the publication of my book on Rizal. The other night I reread the letters we exchanged, and was moved all over again by his spirit of generosity. He was unfailingly fair in his scholarship (which is not to say that he minced words; when he had to, he called a spade a pseudo-Marxist, economically deterministic spade). He was also very helpful: thorough in his answers, prompt in his replies. What more could a mere journalist dabbling in history ask for?

I learned very many things from Father Jack (who elected Filipino citizenship in 1976). He was the most learned, most lucid explainer of 19th-century Filipino nationalism I ever met. Herewith, some of the most important lessons I took to heart:

Rizal, Del Pilar were leading a separatist movement. In his preface to the revised edition (1997) of his incomparable “The Propaganda Movement” (published in 1972 by his great friend F. Sionil Jose), Father Jack wrote: “There was a reform movement—not only that of [Fr. Jose] Burgos and his colleagues, but that which lasted from about 1880 to 1885, and a good number of Filipinos in Europe never moved or dared to express themselves beyond that stage. But after 1885, at least, there was also a separatist movement, led chiefly by Rizal, but not confined to him … It is true that the professed goal was assimilation—extension of Spanish laws and government to the Philippines. As the readiness of many later to collaborate with the Americans would show, this was undoubtedly all that some wanted, but for men like Rizal, Del Pilar, Antonio Luna and others, it was the only front behind which they could operate in pursuit of their real goal, independence of the Philippines from Spain.”

Lopez Jaena doesn’t make the cut. In the same preface, he also noted:  “I trust that it is obvious from this book how mistaken is the effort to put Graciano Lopez Jaena on the same plane as Rizal and Del Pilar as the ‘political trinity’ of the nationalist movement. The part Lopez Jaena played was small, and he contributed nothing of permanent value to the vision of a future Philippines. In the end he would renounce the Filipino cause completely in favor of Spanish politics.” [In my view, Mariano Ponce is the true third person of that trinity.]

Our heroes fought for a secular national civic ethic. In 1995, Father Jack called for a deeper study of “The Civil and Religious Ethic of Emilio Jacinto.” He began with some ground-clearing: “Some may question why a Catholic should look to a source of this type for moral values undergirding Philippine society, since the Katipunan was at least harshly anti-friar, if not anti-clerical and anti-Catholic. The simple answer is that, without fully granting that somewhat oversimplistic categorization of the religious attitudes of the Katipunan, the Katipunan was in fact the moving force behind the national revolution in which Filipinos as a people came to participate, and which they have accepted as the beginning of their national existence. Moreover, what the Philippines as a nation, and the Philippine Roman Catholic Church itself, are precisely in need of at this time, is a secular national civic ethic—that is, one not imposing on Filipinos of different beliefs Catholic moral doctrine, but at the same time taking into account the Catholic tradition which underlies so much of the national culture.”

Historians go where the evidence leads them … Footnote No. 30 of the Jacinto paper recorded for the first time a change in his viewpoint. “In the light of a more careful study of Jacinto, as well as of the early labor movement, I feel compelled to revise my criticism of [Reynaldo] Ileto’s inclusion of the Katipunan in his interpretation. Though the ramifications of the subject are too complex to be tested here, I would certainly have to concede that I have insisted too much on the fundamentally secular orientation of the Katipunan in my essay ‘Recent Perspectives on the Revolution,’ ‘The Making of a Nation,’ 186-189.”

… Even if the evidence is against them. In an e-mail exchange over the meaning of the initials Rd. L. M., Father Jack reiterated the Masonic interpretation found in “Propaganda Movement.” I pursued the Malay angle, and when I finally reported to him that I had tracked down the original source, he replied: “If you can find the reference in Leoncio Lopez, that has good prospects of being reliable.”

Truly, as eminent scholar Jojo Abinales wrote after the news of his death spread on Facebook,

Fr. Jack Schumacher was “an exceptional historian.”

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Column: Political accommodation: a lesson from 1890

Published on March 11, 2014.

The more things change, the more they remain the same—especially in politics. I was reminded of this constant truth all over again when I reread an unusual letter Marcelo del Pilar wrote Jose Rizal in 1890. The letter is out of the ordinary not because it is written entirely in Tagalog (as I have noted before, Del Pilar, Rizal and Mariano Ponce, the real third pillar of the Propaganda Movement, exchanged about 50 letters in Tagalog, the subject of an on-again, off-again book I am writing), but because it details an attempt by the friars in Manila to enter into a political accommodation with the propagandists. Continue reading

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Column: The most important book of our time

Published on December 3, 2013.

Last Friday, among several other titles, the Ateneo de Manila University Press launched “The Light of Liberty: Documents and Studies on the Katipunan, 1892-1897,” by the historian Jim Richardson. It is, in my view, the most important book of this generation.

I base my conclusion on three premises. First, and in the words of the Inquirer’s Bonifacio Day editorial last Saturday: “The Philippine Revolution of 1896 is the primary and formative experience of Philippine nationhood, and that revolution was principally [Andres] Bonifacio’s doing.” A work that allows us to reclaim this truth with all the innocence of rediscovery, while at the same time connecting other nation-forming experiences of our history in one integrated narrative, is important by definition.

Second, the true character of the Katipunan, the revolutionary organization Bonifacio founded, has been obscured by what Richardson describes as “a paucity of sources,” into which abyss ideologues and popularizers have willingly entered. This “crying shortage of reliable sources,” he writes in his preface, “has tempted historians to write history as they wish it had been, and has allowed every species of fallacy to flourish, from wild conjecture and fanciful exegesis to hagiography and myth-making; from simple error to outright fabrication.” A work that succeeds in offering “a corrective to the worst excesses,” then, to use Richardson’s own modest phrasing, is not only welcome but necessary to the national project.

Third, Philippine society continues to be divided according to ideological constructs that would have made no sense to the Katipuneros and revolutionaries themselves: reform versus revolution, Rizal versus Bonifacio, ilustrado versus plebeian, rich versus poor. A work that shows convincingly just how much Bonifacio, Emilio Jacinto and other organizers of the Katipunan saw themselves as continuing the work of Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and other propagandists, one that demonstrates beyond any doubt that those who joined the Katipunan were not only the “unlettered” but also the learned, that its membership came from all classes, a study above all that proves that the Katipuneros knew what they needed to do not only to fight for liberty but to conduct themselves according to liberty’s highest standards, is consciousness-altering. Continue reading

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Column: When the United States lost its way

Published on July 2, 2013.


In 1981, the diplomatic historian Robert C. Hilderbrand wrote a pioneering study of the first attempts by the US government to “manage” public opinion. The book’s early chapters focus the spotlight on William McKinley, the president who prosecuted the Spanish-American War and launched the American conquest of the Philippines.

I found the following paragraph in the first chapter (titled “In the Ways of McKinley,” an allusion to one of the standard accounts of the McKinley years, Margaret Leech’s “In the Days of McKinley”) all but revelatory.
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Column: Rizal in the Catholic Encyclopedia

“Rizal, hidden in plain sight.” Published on June 4, 2013.

The first Catholic Encyclopedia was published about a hundred years ago; preserved inside this monumental work, like fossil in amber, is an unlikely and dated entry on Jose Rizal. Make that “carbon-dated.” The errors and emphases of this 1912 entry allow us a close, specific look at a particular era, when Catholic Americans in the Philippines had all but rationalized the national hero as one of their own.

The encyclopedia was a milestone in Catholic apologetics; it remains a favorite of many. The first edition in particular, published in 16 volumes (including index) between 1905 and 1914, has its online fans; two versions of this landmark reference available online are worth noting. The New Advent is a lovingly crowdsourced version started by Kevin Knight; the Original Catholic Encyclopedia is a massive scan done by the valiant apologists at Catholic Answers.

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Column: Quezon on the 5 Philippine Republics

MLQ3’s official response to questions I posed in a previous column; published on March 19, 2013.

Manolo Quezon, Malacañang’s resident thinker, was kind enough to respond in detail to my column questioning the constitutional basis or historical warrant for the 5th Republic. Since his reply is over twice as long as our letters page permits, I am running it in this space; however, I have had to delete about two paragraphs’ worth of detail to make it all fit:

… [W]hat is produced by the government is bound by what the government itself has proclaimed to be its official history. Official history is more rigid in many ways, than the free-flowing and thought-provoking debate among those interested in Philippine history. Official history is bound by Philippine laws and executive issuances, which dictate official policy or the public consensus on historical questions.

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Column: Sabah and the limits of history

Published on March 5, 2013; the crisis began when the so-called “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” landed in Lahad Datu on February 11.

Among the many commentaries and perspective-setting pieces I’ve read on Lahad Datu and the crisis in northern Borneo, I found five particularly useful. Some conflict with others on crucial points; each has a different emphasis—but all agree that history is alive, kicking dust in Sabah.

Last Sunday’s Talk of the Town featured a bracing survey of the historical and regional background by the eminent scholar Jojo Abinales: “It’s borders with long(er) histories, stupid.” The opinion columns that same day carried retired Chief Justice Art Panganiban’s distinction-making crash course between ownership and sovereignty, “Understanding the Sabah dispute.” Randy David’s “Who owns Sulu?” a column which ran a week before Panganiban’s, anticipated the inevitable follow-up question, about the impact of ownership claims on issues of sovereignty.

Two outstanding journalists who have done work in history have also written on the subject in other places: Ed Lingao’s “History catches up with Sabah,” on the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism website, is a reflective attempt to dig up “the roots of the dispute”; while Glenda Gloria’s “Sabah, Merdeka and Aquino,” in Rappler.com, trains the spotlight (rightly, in my view) on the role of, and our country’s relationship with, our “stern neighbor” to the south, Malaysia.
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Column: Forward, attack, lunge!

A modified lecture, with poem included. Published on August 2, 2011.

To accompany his own Indonesian translation of “Ultimo Adios,” which appeared in the Dec. 30, 1944 issue of Asia Raya, Rosihan Anwar wrote “Jose Rizal,” a short poem of 21 lines. My dictionary-enabled, Google-translated modified free version of the poem reads as follows:

The rifle explodes, a single bullet

Penetrates the body; the man falls!

So too fall noble ideals;

independence, its spirit flickering,

As the man closes his eyes.

The man’s body lies on the earth’s lap

That precious man

Broken, shattered into dust

But the spirit which the man showed

Is incarnate in the fragrant bloom.

Years pass and now and then

Air rustles across the man’s grave

O, poet, hero of the nation.


Now the man rises again

Incarnate in the body of the nation

In the breast of every youth,

I hear the man’s voice

Loud, powerful, mighty,

Inviting the nation to continue the struggle:

“Philippines, forward, attack, lunge!!!” Continue reading

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Column: The 10 most important letters Rizal wrote

The third Rizal column, published on June 28, 2011.

I thought it might be an interesting experiment: In the country’s most important correspondence, which letters are the most historic? Several years ago, I came to realize that the best way to introduce a new reader or a new student to Rizal is through his letters. The Rizal correspondence runs to several hundreds, and almost literally there is something in it for everyone. But if one had time only to read the 10 most consequential, what would the short list look like?

It would probably not include some of the more personally interesting letters, such as Rizal telling his sisters that inviting their friends to resettle in Dapitan, where he had just been deported, was “a delicious idea”—in English. Or the letter, in German this time, where he explains to his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt how to use his new invention, a “sulpak” or cigar lighter. Instead, a short list would probably include those letters that explain Rizal best: how he came to write his subversive novels, how he came to part ways with Marcelo del Pilar, how he came to find himself, for the third time, on board a ship bound for Spain. Continue reading

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Column: Criticizing Rizal

The second of three Rizal columns written in June 2011. Published on June 21, 2011.

The idea that Rizal was prickly, sensitive to slights and quick to take offense, was a criticism he himself heard again and again. On Oct. 9, 1891, for instance, while preparing to leave for Hong Kong (and eventually to return to the Philippines), he declined his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt’s suggestion that he resume writing for La Solidaridad. “I have suggested many projects; they engaged in a secret war against me. When I tried to make the Filipinos work, they called me ‘idol,’ they said that I was a despot, etc. …. They said that Rizal is a very difficult person; well, Rizal clears out.” Continue reading

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Column: ‘Ualang dao ga sino’

In June 2011, celebrations to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal reached a crescendo. I was not immune to the power of that patriotic music; all three of my columns that month dealt with the national hero. The first of the three columns was published on June 14, 2011.

Call it a theory of refraction. Even when Spanish clerics or officials criticized Rizal, their criticism was often formed (refracted) by certain assumptions about the most famous man in the Philippines, assumptions both hidden and visible which we can use today to paint a vivid portrait of Rizal in the last 10 years of his life.

After the “Noli” reached the Philippines in 1887, for instance, many Spaniards and not a few Indios were scandalized. We can get a sense of the scope of the scandal when the Augustinian friar Jose Rodriguez published a series of pamphlets the following year. Originally written in Spanish, the eight pamphlets were translated into Tagalog posthaste; the most famous of them carried the title-and-subtitle “Caingat Cayo! Sa manga masasamang librot, casulatan”—which we can render as “Beware! Of evil books and writings.” Continue reading

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Column: Willie, and patterns of sin

In which I criticize a noted lawyer’s scorched-earth approach to litigation; I was able to include his detailed answer, which he sent in the middle of Holy Week, in the succeeding column. Published on April 19, 2011.

AN “UNETHICAL lawyer,” now “relishing his return to the limelight,” in the process “betraying principles he fought for in the Estrada impeachment”—if I were to describe Leonard de Vera, Willie Revillame’s counsel, in these terms, he would feel offended, and rightly so. Continue reading

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Column: Crooks in the “daang matuwid”

Published on April 12, 2011.

AFTER THE filing of charges against the former crown prince Mikey Arroyo, the former court jester Prospero Pichay and the former Palace tribune Merceditas Gutierrez, hopes are rising that the all-out campaign against corruption—the standard under which the Aquino presidency’s election mandate was won—has finally been launched. The Inquirer editorial yesterday spoke of the possibility of a genuine “momentum” in the war on corruption, but only if the charges and first legal victories are closely followed by others of the same kind. Continue reading

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Column: Rizal in FHM

Published on April 5, 2011.

IT IS 75 days to Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary, and I thought I’d mark the date by reading FHM magazine—the February 2011 issue of the Philippine edition, to be exact, with Misa Campo on the cover and a great tease of a sub-headline: “Jose Rizal was pro-Spain—and 12 other historical facts you must know.” Continue reading

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Column: Gringo vs JimPa, and the sense of exceptionalism

A skirmish on Twitter. Published on March 15, 2011

ALMOST THREE weeks ago, Sen. Gringo Honasan and musician Jim Paredes traded taunting tweets. That doesn’t sound like much, but in fact the harsh exchange turned out to be both controversial (it animated online discussion and was reported as news) and consequential (it raised substantial questions, for instance about the nature of historical awareness and public discourse in the Age of Twitter). It also drove home the point that the legacy of Edsa 1986 remains very much a work in progress. Continue reading

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Column: Fact-checking people power

The third Egypt + Edsa column, in which I try to make sense of something unexpected that Teddy Locsin, a writer I deeply admire, wrote, for a new website. Published on March 1, 2011.

AT FIRST I did not know what to make of it. Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s rambling essay on the Egyptian revolution for the new TV5 website, Interaksyon.com, manages the unlikely feat of praising people power while burying the spirit of Edsa. Having admired Locsin’s elegant prose and muscular reasoning for a long time, I kept looking for hints, in the essay that bears the time stamp “21-Feb-11, 7:13 PM,” that he was merely joking. I regret to say, however, that “People Power in hieroglyphics” seems to have been written in earnest. Continue reading

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Column: The start of something unprecedented

The second column on Egypt + Edsa. Published on February 22, 2011.

WE ALL “know” Jaime Cardinal Sin called the people to Edsa exactly 25 years ago today. But he wasn’t the first to do so, and it wasn’t Butz Aquino either, the first leader of the so-called “parliament of the streets” to bring a sizable delegation to Camp Aguinaldo, where a military breakaway group led by Juan Ponce Enrile, then the defense minister, and Fidel Ramos, then a lieutenant general and second-in-command of the Armed Forces, had retreated. It was a group of civic-spirited friends, who rushed to the AFP headquarters to show their support and, once inside, found a reporter from Radio Veritas, who put them on the air. Continue reading

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