[FAREWELL, KA BLAS: President Arroyo salutes the flag-draped coffin bearing the remains of Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople before his burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani at Fort Bonifacio in Makati City yesterday. - Revoli Cortez]

FORT BONIFACIO, MAKATI CITY, December 22, 2003  (STAR) By Nikko Dizon - Amid a shower of white rose petals, white orchids and floating white balloons and butterflies, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople was given a hero’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Makati City yesterday, drawing the curtain on a career of service to the Filipino people.

President Arroyo led the somber state funeral, which was attended by foreign ministers from across Asia, the entire diplomatic corps, leaders of Congress and the judiciary, ranking government and military officials as well as supporters and friends.

Mrs. Arroyo, wearing black, handed to Ople’s widow Susana the Philippine flag that was draped over his black and bronze coffin.

"This flag is presented to you in behalf of a grateful nation," Mrs. Arroyo told Mrs. Ople toward the end of the hour-long rite, only the second state funeral accorded to a Filipino foreign affairs secretary after Carlos P. Romulo in 1985.

The funeral cortege arrived at the Libingan from the historic Barasoain Church in Malolos City in Bulacan at exactly 11 a.m. and was met by the President and Armed Forces chief Gen. Narciso Abaya.

A 19-gun salute commenced the state funeral before Ople’s casket was placed on a horse-drawn caisson that brought the late secretary’s remains to its final resting place near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

An Army battalion in gala uniform marched along with the caisson as a military band played "Nearer My God to Thee."

Mrs. Arroyo and Mrs. Ople led other mourners in marching the 200 meters to the burial site where a priest said a brief prayer before his family gathered to bid their last farewells.

At high noon, Ople’s casket was lowered to the grave with the President dropping a white flower and saluting as the foreign secretary was laid to rest amid the boom of a 21-gun salute and the strain of "Taps."

The other mourners then followed the President in tossing white flowers on Ople’s casket as a military helicopter dropped white orchids and petals and loved ones released white balloons and butterflies.

The state funeral was attended by foreign dignitaries like Indonesian Foreign Minister Nur Hassan Wirajuda, Japanese Senior Vice Foreign Minister Abe Masatoshi, Chinese Vice Minister Wang Ying Fan and South Korean Vice Minister Kim Jae-sup, Malaysian Deputy Minister Leo Michael Toyad, Singaporean Second Minister Lee Yock Suan, Cambodian Undersecretary Sun Saphoeun, Vietnamese Vice Minister Nguyen Phu Binh and Thai Vice Minister Sorajak Kasemsuvan.

The Japanese vice foreign minister, in a statement, extended his deepest condolences to the Ople family and the Filipino people.

"Secretary Ople, despite his health condition, devoted his energies to furthering Japan-Philippines as well as Japan-ASEAN relations on the occasion of the Japan-ASEAN commemorative summit held recently in Japan," Abe said.

"Japan is determined to make further efforts to strengthen the relations of these two countries as well as other neighboring countries in the region, building on his contribution and achievements," Abe added.

‘A life of service’

The 76-year-old Ople died Dec. 14 in Taipei, Taiwan where a plane carrying him and other Philippine officials from Tokyo made an emergency landing after he had difficulty breathing and lost consciousness.

Afflicted in recent years with pneumonia and a bad cough, he remained an active diplomat and an unstoppable chain smoker.

Despite his frail health, Ople handled major foreign policy issues including the Philippines’ decision to allow American counter-terrorist training forces in the country, a feud with Malaysia over its crackdown on Filipino illegal migrant workers, and Manila’s support of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Ople led senators who approved the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement, which allowed the resumption of large-scale US military exercises and port visits in the Philippines.

He was also a vocal participant in the traditionally conservative Association of Southeast Asian Nations, backing democratic reforms and the release from house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in military-ruled Myanmar.

Mrs. Arroyo has temporarily taken over Ople’s post at the Department of Foreign Affairs while she looks for a permanent replacement.

A son of a poor boat maker from Bulacan, Ople started with menial jobs, working once as a stevedore, before rising to become a journalist and later a labor minister under Marcos. He began serving as an opposition party senator in 1992, and was Senate president briefly in mid-1999.

Ople relinquished his Senate post in July last year when Mrs. Arroyo appointed him foreign secretary, replacing Teofisto Guingona, with whom Arroyo had a spat over his opposition to the US military presence in the Philippines.

‘Man of the people’

In necrological services for Ople on Saturday night at the Barasoain Church, Mrs. Arroyo described Ople as "a man of the people" who played an important role in uplifting the welfare of the common Filipino.

"Secretary Ople (was) a man of the people who proved that a common man can go on to accomplish uncommon achievements," the President said during her eulogy.

Mrs. Arroyo said Ople was a man of passion and commitment "who put the interest of the Philippine nation first."

"He was born poor but rich in heart and grew up fighting to better the lives of the average Filipino," she said.

The President cited Ople’s various accomplishments even before he became foreign affairs secretary.

Among these are the establishment of the National Manpower Youth Council, now called the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, and the National Labor Relations Commission when he was labor minister during the Marcos administration.

The President said Ople also started the overseas employment program in the 1970s.

As early as 1992 until he became Senate president, Ople initiated and pushed for laws strengthening the rights of overseas Filipino workers, including the right to vote, and the increase in exports resulting in the generation of more jobs in the country, Mrs. Arroyo said.

The President said Ople also played a key role in the ratification of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT)-Uruguay Round that reduced the provision of safety nets for other sectors not yet ready to compete globally.

Under her administration, the President said Ople became the architect of Philippine foreign policy that resulted in good relations and diplomacy for the welfare of ordinary Filipinos.

"His legacy will be an enduring one. He fought to improve the image, respect and clout of the Philippines abroad in order to lift the quality of life here at home," she said.

The President said Ople fought to secure the rights and privileges of overseas workers and for peace in Mindanao with our allies abroad to bring stability, unity and prosperity for Muslims and Christians alike in the south.

Mrs. Arroyo said the Philippines also became Asia’s representative to the Security Council of the United Nations under Ople’s watch.

"For all these accomplishments, Secretary Ople will be remembered as the nation’s champion for the common man at home, and respect of the nation at the world stage," she said.

The President said she takes pride in Ople’s legacies and what he had done to uplift the poor as a result of his pursuit of economic justice and the Philippines’ and Filipinos’ rightful role abroad.

"He will be long remembered and his accomplishments will forever be part of the lives of the poor and humble and the rich and famous alike," she said. - With AP, AFP, Reuters

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved