Sunday, August 9, 2009

Who is Cory? What is Philippines?


It’s true that the average Indian is far more knowledgeable about the world than the average American. But “world” here means the West. We are less familiar with countries to our east.

Thanks to our new-found holiday habits, Malaysia and Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia have lately come into our area of acquaintance. But what about the Philippines? Many of us do not even pronounce it correctly, making the last syllable rhyme with “lines” instead of with “beans”. And how much do we really know about Laos and Cambodia, about New Guinea (sprawling between Indonesia and Australia), or about Taiwan?

If we say it is the hangover of our colonial past, the Filipinos will be the first to agree. Not only does their country bear the name of a colonial conqueror, Philip II of Spain; they have been under continuous colonial domination for longer than any other country in the east – 333 years under Spain, then 50 years under America.

Spanish colonialism was unique in its all-out, absolutist finality. It transformed the civilisations it conquered and possessed the very souls of the peoples it ruled. See how total is its linguistic-cultural domination of South America to this day. Even half a century of American rule could not loosen the Spanish hold on the cultural identity of Filipinos.

Thus the Philippines became something of an odd man out. It is the only Christian country in the east. Its democracy is modelled on Washington DC but functions more like a Hollywood wildwest movie. Its media is uproariously free and editors and reporters get shot rather often.

It was from this turbulent cauldron that Ferdinand Marcos rose, first as a war hero, then as a popular President, and finally as an autocrat. As autocrats go, he wasn’t too bad. Nor was his wife Imelda, though she was a cross between Mayawati and Mamta Bannerjee. The problem was their military chief, Fabian Ver, who masterminded the murder in cold blood of Benigo Aquino on the tarmac of Manila airport.

Aquino was no ordinary politician. He was a visionary, wildly popular and acknowledged rival to Marcos. His ruthless killing outraged all Philippines. The famous “People Power” rose like a tidal wave in Manila, swept away the Marcoses, and installed Aquino’s widow Corazon (Cory) as the President.

Cory knew nothing of politics. She was quite happy being a housewife and serving tea to those who visited her husband in their house. But she was a great symbol and the masses fell in love with her. That is why another tidal wave of emotions rose in Manila when she died a few days ago. It was an occasion for the mourning multitudes to remember their shattered dreams. Aquino was a great white hope. So was the People Power that put Cory at the helm. Both came to naught as the country went back to its customary mess and corruption and rich-poor disparities.

Generations have come and gone since independence in 1946. But an enlightened leadership has not emerged to take the Philiphines anywhere near its full potential. Which is ironic because this is a country that could have been a model for Asia. Its financial experts and corporate entrepreneurs occupy high positions in international board rooms. It has a great literature. Its artists and musicians are world-renowned. It’s one of Asia’s most beautiful countries. Its people are among the friendliest. It’s a pity that such a heritage, such natural beauty and such talents remain untapped and largely unknown. The Philippines deserves to be at least on our holiday maps.