PASSION FOR REASON
Jovito Salonga as Magsaysay laureate
By Raul Pangalangan
In his memoirs, “A Journey of Struggle and Hope,” the latest Filipino awardee of Asia’s Nobel Prize wrote that as a young student at the Central elementary school in Pasig, he wrote his name as “Jobito,” thinking he had been named after Job of the Old Testament, who persevered in his faith despite incredible suffering. He corrected the spelling to “Jovito” only before he reached high school.
He was so poor that decades later and while campaigning for Congress, an old classmate showed him a sixth-grade class picture that showed an unshod Jobito, unable to afford to buy a pair of shoes.
He chose to become a lawyer after hearing a “spell-binding” speech by then Speaker Manuel Roxas at the Pasig town plaza, and he proceeded to take up his law at the University of the Philippines, where he was a working student whose day-time job was editing and laying out proofs at a printing press.
He was in his last semester in law school in December 1941 when World War II broke out, and in April 1942, instead of graduating from law school, he was arrested and tortured by the Japanese military police, the kempetai. After being beaten up at the Pasig municipal jail, he was transferred to Fort Santiago and eventually to the New Bilibid Prison, where he became part of a “brigada” that included the brave members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce who had led an anti-Japanese boycott, including Alfonso and Albino Sycip.
He was released in 1943 and began his preparations for the bar examinations, in which he placed first, in a tie with another future senator, Jose Diokno. When the war was over, the collaborator who caused his capture by the Japanese was brought to him for punishment. Jovito recalled: “He could have been maimed on the spot, but I was in no mood to wreak vengeance -- I let him go and he was very thankful.”
Another of Salonga’s life-shattering ordeals was the Aug. 21, 1971 bombing of the Plaza Miranda proclamation rally of the Liberal Party. Two fragmentation grenades were hurled on the stage where the senatorial candidates, led by Salonga, were sitting. A medical report described his condition: “There was an open fracture of the left leg; open mangling injuries of both the hands and forearms. The opposite leg was littered with shrapnel. [He] had abdominal, thoracic and facial injuries.” Another doctor remarked that his “wounds were so extensive … that an associated eye injury ha[d] been considered relatively minor up to this time.” He had to learn to walk all over again, using parallel bars, and eventually a crutch and later a cane.
(After the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, a former New People’s Army rebel came to visit Salonga who was in exile in the United States then. Ariel Almendral had gone to the Sierra Madre in Isabela where he witnessed the trial of an NPA cadre, Danny Cordero, who spoke of his own role in the Plaza Miranda bombing, implicating the highest levels of the communist party. This was later corroborated independently by Victor Corpus, who as a faculty member of the Philippine Military Academy, led the raid on its armory. The senator wrote in his memoirs that, after hearing yet another corroboration from a friend, he “did not doubt the truth of his revelation. He had no motive to lie [n]or did he ask for any favor.”)
But this was not the last. After Marcos declared martial law, Salonga was arrested in 1980 and detained at Fort Bonifacio’s Maximum Security Unit, in the same isolation room where Ninoy Aquino had been imprisoned. He was released when Marcos hosted an Asian jurists’ conference at the Philippine International Convention Center, and used the occasion to win propaganda points on his dismal human rights record. Marcos issued a release order which stated: “Salonga is ordered released from military custody and placed under house arrest under the custody of his wife, Mrs. Lydia Busuego Salonga.” The irrepressible Rene Saguisag would later quip that Salonga was thus subject to both martial law and marital law.
Today Salonga continues to work through citizens’ groups, chief among them, Kilosbayan, Bantayog ng mga Bayani, and Bantay Katarungan (of which I’m the current chair, and he is emeritus chair). In one of our quiet conversations, he said that working with the law student volunteers of Bantay Katarungan is by far the most gratifying job he’s had. I was surprised to hear that from a former congressman, senator and Senate president who has weathered both Fort Santiago and Fort Bonifacio, and on whom our national nightmares had brought personal pain and lifelong scars.
The trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation couldn’t have chosen a better time to honor his life and work. That by his career and his character he is worthy of the honor -- that is self-evident. That the next generation of Filipinos need to be told that there are living exemplars of values we hold dear -- for responding to that need, we must congratulate the Magsaysay trustees. How many of my students, after all, know that Fort Bonifacio had a maximum security isolation cell, when today all they would see is The Fort, a high-class neighborhood of malls and fancy residences? Ninoy Aquino always addressed him as “Prof.” Indeed, he teaches best who teaches by his example.
i met jovito salonga twice and shook his hands at one point. it's amazing how he manages to make his way up to the third floor of the malcolm hall despite his age and the shrapnels in his body. he may have difficulty hearing, but his mind is still sharp and keen. what a life he's lived and is living.
dean pangalangan, on the other hand, is one of the nicest profs around. yesterday, upon seeing a blockmate of mine cry, he asked me what the matter was. talk about concern for your students. and he wants me to be part of a media-related conference. i don't know if i have the time but if it's what the dean wants, i'd be happy to be part of it. (btw, he's not even my prof now.)
and then there's ninoy aquino. he left law school to be a journalist. then a senator. then a hero.