MAX SOLIVEN: A NATION'S 'BRAVEHEART' FINALLY GONE TO REST

MANILA, NOVEMBER 18,  2003   (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Farewell, Cousin Joe. That’s what I’d like to say to Jose G. Burgos Jr. today now that he’s winged his way to heaven, a newspaperman-farmer (a strange but edifying combination) gone home in the gloaming. There will be a lot of words said about Joe’s bravery, his defiance of the Dictator Marcos, in the days to come. I would like to add that he was a "happy warrior", smiling even in the throes of adversity or the humiliation of setback.

We were happy in the International Press Institute – during our 50th Anniversary celebration in Boston in the year 2000 – to award Joe Burgos a golden trophy as one of the "50 Press Freedom Heroes of the Century". Truly, he deserved this recognition given by an international board of judges, and his being in the forefront of the heroes’ list made our country proud.

When a pathetic few stood up to the martial law despot and his military goons and police torturers, Joe was in the front ranks of those freedom fighters. While others cowered in fear, or begged for crumbs from the tyrant’s overflowing table of looted riches, Burgos continued to fight the good fight, with publications like We FORUM and later Ang Pahayagang Malaya (The Free Newspaper). When this writer was released from Fort Bonifacio prison, nobody would dare employ me and almost all former "friends" would avoid me, in order not to incur the ire of the regime. It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario of fear, shame, and persecution today, especially with the Marcos clan not only back in the political swim, sunnily smiling, and cavorting with the best society (and perhaps Imee Marcos, now a congresswoman, even headed next year for the Senate). But in those days, when the Dictator and Superma’am Imeldific frowned on you, and you were a condemned "un-person" from the Gulag, you were shunned like a leper. Somehow, by a feat of legerdemain, Joe got the National Press Club to honor me – of all things – with the Pammadayaw Award as an Ilocano writer! Talk about moxie and chutzpah.

Then, Joe and then Ilocos Sur Governor Luis "Chavit" Singson (who’s now being immortalized in a movie with a sexy cast) conspired to rehabilitate my image by scheduling my getting an award at a gala ceremony in Plaza Burgos (where else?) in Vigan, as one of the "Ten Outstanding Sons of Ilocos Sur". In that none-too-subtle way, the message was conveyed to President Marcos (also an Ilocano from Ilocos Norte, anak ti Batac) that despite my "disgrace" as an enemy and former prisoner of the regime, the "Ilocano nation" still stood with me. In his sponsoring speech in the public plaza, the Vice Mayor of Vigan declared to the crowd in the plaza that the people of Ilocos Sur were proud of me, and, he roared, if "the truth" I’d written was "what had brought me to imprisonment in Campo Crame and Bonifacio", the Ilocanos of my province continued to stand up for those same truths and stood "foursquare" with me. That was a brave speech, and it encouraged this writer immeasurably in that period of darkest despondency. (The vice mayor died a few months later.)

No doubt, Joe and Chavit had engineered the entire "awards" affair, although the latter (Chavit), a former Ninoy devotee, was already edging towards an accommodation and friendship with Macoy. (Ninoy Aquino understood this "accommodation" fully, since he, too, had once been a provincial governor of Tarlac, and knew that without the "blessings" of Malacañang, no province could survive).

Now that those days of liberty enchained and the press "muzzled" are long past, and nobody gets dragged off to jail, anymore, or to torture, or to execution or murder for his convictions, it’s not easy to appreciate the guts it took for guys like Joe Burgos to keep the torch of free speech and journalistic integrity aflame. We hail him and his mighty pen, and his undaunted heart which so inspired many to fight again. The recovered freedoms we enjoy we owe to men of courage – "bravehearts" – like Joe. Ave atque vale, my dear Primo!

May we be true to our ideals, as you were – to the final drawing of breath. May God keep you forever in His loving embrace!

* * *

Why is Tourism Secretary Dick Gordon trying – by all means (including "mobilizing" his friends in the press) – to torpedo the Port Modernization Plan of Subic? Dick should have "modernized" that port when he was Chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), but he dithered, then attempted hurriedly to turn the project over to Hutchinson’s, which belongs to Hong Kong’s super-taipan Li Kai Shing (the winning bidder, Ricky Razon, angrily protested). In sum, Gordon failed. Now that his former arch-political-rival, Felicito "Tong" Payumo, as a successful SBMA Chairman, is succeeding in pushing through a well-funded modernization project, Gordon has been moving heaven and earth to scuttle the undertaking, by rousing the Olongapo City government officials, led by his wife, Kate Gordon (who’s city Mayor) to protest the plan.

Why is Dick doing all of this? Because he hates Payumo? If President Macapagal-Arroyo permits her Cabinet men and their dynasties to turn her administration into a government run by spite, how on earth can she win re-election? (Unless she gets, as earlier quipped, the outstanding help of God and the Comelec.)

I thought that Dick subscribed to the logic of his own giant propaganda posters, one of which hangs from a front façade of the Megamall on EDSA. The immense blurb features a smiling Gordon, posing with GMA, and several faces representing various occupations, above the catchword: "Tourism Means Jobs." (If you ask me, that was a rather silly blurb since everybody already knows this, and the slogan gives the tourist the reinforced impression that he or she is just a cash cow, not a valued guest.) Yet, by the same token, doesn’t a modern and bustling port in the SBMA also mean jobs – specially for the Olongapo folk? Gee whiz, Dick. Make up your mind. Is it true you’re planning to run for Vice President? If this sordid squabble keeps on, Dicky Boy may not even qualify for dog-catcher.

 * * *

I can’t understand why the city government of Olongapo should be so dead-set against the SBMA modernization scheme. On "environmental" grounds? The Gordons are questioning the "location" of the project, insisting that the projected Container Port be transferred from Cubi Point to the former Naval Station Depot.

The alternative site, proposed by Dick’s brother, Zambales Congressman James "Bong" Gordon, Redondo Beach across the Bay, moreover, has no access road, and all pier traffic would have to pass through the traffic-clogged Subic town and Olongapo City.

What’s destructive about Gordon’s objections is the fact that the site set by the SBMA was determined by a JICA study conducted by the Japanese which was the basis of the approval of the US$157 million earmarked by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) to fund the project, in addition to the $30 million provided by the private sector, bringing the total to $215 million.

What we fear is that if Gordon succeeds in getting the project scrapped, even the $425 million in funding for the Subic-Clark-Tarlac toll road might be imperilled, because this fund is dependent on the port modernization deal. Indeed, why build a road to Subic if it will only "connect" with an antiquated and inadequate port?

In short, we would once more be the object of ridicule in the international community. Japan’s JICA studied the matter between 1998 and 1999, finally securing the endorsement of our National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) and the ICC (International Control Commission). Payumo signed the loan agreement as early as 2000. The design and engineering tender documents were duly issued.

Now that bids are coming in, will our government sheepishly inform the JBIC that we made a mistake, and would now wish to select a different site for the project? Salamabit. We can’t even get a NAIA Terminal 3 out of mothballs – and put it into operation at the airport. Now, at this late stage, will our Subic port plan be aborted, and be pronounced kaput? Give us a break.

When all is said and done, we Filipinos have no one to blame for our troubles but ourselves. Our besetting sins are malice and selfishness. We are queer birds, if might even be said, with the deplorable propensity of fouling our own nests.

I think Subic port modernization must be speeded on its way – without delay.

See? It even rhymes.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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