March 17 - 23
During World War 2, the atrocities of the invading Japanese soldiers forced young Luis Taruc to go to the hills and establish the Hukbalahap, a communist insurgency army. After the war ended, the charismatic peasant leader continued his struggles – this time against abusive government officials and cruel landowners. But when he saw the sincere efforts and the incontestable integrity of the new President – the former Defense Secretary who was his mortal enemy – he then finally bid farewell to arms: “I no longer have any reason to continue,” he told the then 21 year old Ninoy Aquino, the President’s emissary. “Most of what I’ve been fighting for is now being done.”
President Ramon Magsaysay has become the symbol of good government. That a man like him became Chief Executive and Commander-In-Chief is testament that God used to love the Philippines. Like Dwight Eisenhower, his extraordinary valor in wartime was followed by a presidency marked by decency, progress and principled leadership. Like John F. Kennedy, his untimely death plunged the entire nation in mourning the loss of what is and what can be. Like the Rock of Gibraltar, his place in history is solid and immutable. He is our Camelot – the vision of a glorious and romantic past.
But history moves in cycles. Condrado F. Estrella wrote in an article in March 1998: “As the May elections draw near and as the people have once again primed up to choose their national and local leaders, Magsaysay’s qualities come to mind as timely guideposts in selecting who is genuine and worthy.”
Immediately after his Inauguration on Dec. 30, 1953, Magsaysay created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee. The staff was deluged by cries for help. Then, as now, they had a recurrent refrain: corrupt officials, unemployment and poverty.
One of the supplicants is Hermogenes Antonio, a farmer-tenant in Muñoz who was beaten up by his landlord. The PCAC quickly sent a telegram to the provincial police commander. There was no reply. “Send another telegram saying I am interested,” Magsaysay said quietly. Two hours later, there was still no reply. Slamming his papers on his desk, Magsaysay got up furiously and shouted, “Come on, let’s go!” – and the President rushed all the way from Malacañang to Nueva Ecija.
His presence spread like wildfire. The whole village went out to welcome the beloved leader. “Where’s Hermogenes Antonio? He wants my help,” he told the adoring masses. They found Antonio – and discovered something else. Apparently, the sadistic landlord was one of the biggest contributions to Magsaysay’s election campaign
The President was livid. He whirled to Manahan and roared, “MANNY, SEE THAT THE MAN IS PUT ON TRIAL!” The landlord was eventually found guilty and thrown in jail.
Magsaysay was the quintessential family man. He believed that strong family ties act as shelter against the world’s cynicism and indifference. However, he will not let anyone – even his family – to take advantage of his position. After the elections, the President and Manahan were having lunch at his parent’s home. Manahan saw firsthand how close the Magsaysay family was to each other – so he was embarrassed when the President boomed: “MANNY, REMEMBER THSES FACES! IF ANYONE HERE TRIES TO USE HIS CONNECTIONS WITH ME TO OBTAIN FAVORED TREATMENT, THROWN HIM IN JAIL!”
In the most amazing electoral triumph in local history, he won with an overwhelming 68.9% of the votes in an honest, orderly, peaceful election. Ramon Magsaysay was now the President of the Republic of the Philippines.
A record crowd of 500,000 from all walks of life gathered at the Luneta for his Inauguration. When it was time to go the Palace, the President refused Quirino’s Cadillac and instead borrowed a Ford convertible. The entire crowd was cheering as they escorted our country’s most beloved President all the way to Malacañang. The scene was eerily similar to the Quiapo procession of the Black Nazarene.
After Magsaysay took a quick shower, he was surprised to find the crowds gone. His security officer explained that he locked he place doors. The President then gave his first executive order: “OPEN ALL GATES AND DOORS! YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY TO KEEP THE PEOPLE FROM ME!”
The legend is true: Magsaysay literally threw open the gates of Malacañang and embraced the people. His immortal dictum will reverberate forever: “Those who have less in life should have more in law.”
“One other trait that endeared Magsaysay to the common folk was his policy of transparency in government,” according to Estrella. “Not a whiff of scandal or charges of corruption tainted his governance because he had nothing to hide and was decisive in thwarting wrongdoings.” Magsaysay exemplified the glory of a morally ascendant leadership with a clear mandate, and he proved that the presidential-bicameral form of government is perfect for the Philippines.
“After the Huk threat diminished, the economy improved, and money saved from military expenditures was used for education and social services,” recalls Manahan. “The 1957 presidential election approached, and candidate after candidate, eyeing Magsaysay’s unmatchable popularity, withdrew from the running. His friends began nurturing a dream: Magsaysay as the candidate of both major parties. But it was not meant to be.”
Destiny moves in mysterious ways. On March, 17, 1957, the unthinkable happened. After being in office for 3 years, 2 months and 17 days, President Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash in Mt. Manunggul in Cebu.
The news stunned the nation into immobility. The outpouring of sorrow was palpable and gut-wrenching. In Malacañang, somebody told Manahan, “Manny, we’ve got a problem. What can we do about Luz and the three children? We’ve just learned that Monching doesn’t even own a house!”
His legacies live on. Every year since Aug. 1958, The Ramon Magsaysay Awards has been honoring the most outstanding men and women of Asia, those “exemplary of the ideals and spirit of service personified by Ramon Magsaysay.” Some of the honorees include Mother Teresa, Haydee Yorac and the Dalai Lama.
Today, Magsaysay is more relevant than ever. As I wrote an Op-Ed article: A great change will happen to the country if President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo studies the life of the late President Ramon Magsaysay. It was The Guy who earned back the people's trust in the government in the aftermath of the golden orinola issue. How? By proving -- in word and in deed -- that he does not tolerate shenanigans even from his closest allies. That was leadership-by-example at its finest, his greatest achievement and most enduring legacy. That's why people still honor his memory -- he never used his powers to protect those who abused theirs.
Manahan has eloquently summed up the intangibles that made Magsaysay great – and timeless.
“Magsaysay taught us how a freely elected presidency could work in a troubled, developing nation such as the Philippines. Above all, he showed us grandly we Filipinos can respond, given the chance, to dynamic, democratic, incorruptible leadership.”