The morning mist hung over the mountaintops and drifted slowly with the wind. A lone carabao stood motionless in a fallow paddy. The dew on the spiders’ webs glittered in the early sunlight. A distant waterfall fed gurgling streams channelled in aqueducts of hollowed tree trunks through the rice enclosures. Plastic bags placed on the ends of pliant bamboo poles made a swishing noise when a breeze passed by, guarding the rice plants from unwelcome visitors. Small children sat one behind the other on a dike, in the middle of the rice terraces. Faded cotton shirts, red and blue, hung on shoulders of trimmed bamboo poles, dotted the quiet landscape, helping the plastic bags with their task.
Dulmog was whistling a gay and careless tune as he ambled down towards the hamlet from a mountain road above. The chickens marked the groovy beat, darting their necks forward left and right. He arrived at the square and squatted next to Abayaw, who was carefully arranging two panicles of precious tinawon sheaves.
“What are you doing?”
“I am preparing rice bundles for Pia and Keita-san.”
“That’s our highest expression of gratitude,” Dulmog remarked. “Do you think they will appreciate it in their culture?”
“Good question, Mog. But it’s the thought that counts.”
Dulmog then swayed to the right, putting his weight on one squatted leg, and peered behind his friend.
“How did that man manage to get in that box?” he asked.
“It’s called a transistor radio, Mog. I bought it in Tokyo. I’m listening to the news.”
The sun shined warmly on this slope of the Cordillera Mountains. The rest of the community was working in the rice fields and some women were weaving at their looms in the shade under their huts on stout stilts. Squatting on the other side of the square, a father chewing a betel nut, with a baby tied in a blanket-sling on his back, was quietly sharpening his farm tools with a stone.
“Nina seems to be sleeping all the time,” Dulmog noted.
“If sleep will make her forget, then let her sleep and sleep.”
Nina never really recovered from her ordeal. She stutters when she speaks. She walks with slow short steps, like a woman of ninety with rheumatic pain. She is often seen staring in front of her, but not really seeing. The stricken look on her face was painful to watch. At other times, she would be cowering in the corner of the agamang like a trapped animal.
Abayaw went to Baguio City to seek help from doctors there for Nina. Neuroscience, he was told, had traced the neural routes in the formation of memories, but had not yet fully fathomed the mechanisms of the brain to be able to remove that part of emotional memory that destroys innocence.
“Shall we go fishing when you’re done?”
“Yes, all right.”
“I’m going back to work, then,” he said, getting up. He took the familiar winding path through the rice paddies, going up the mountain, passing the small children and the carabao, this well-trodden path leading to the road above.
Vengeance is a family obligation, Abayaw recalled telling Pia. “It is considered disgraceful,” he explained to her, “if the family does not seek retribution.”
Pia replied by explaining that grievance courts and a system of laws provide just that.
“But,” Abayaw had replied, “your laws are different from ours. What you may consider unlawful is right in our society. Your society hangs people, and yet you look aghast when we behead them. Your society puts wrongdoers in box-like enclosures, thinking that this will reform them. If the crime is light, we seek property compensation from the wrongdoer. If the crime is serious, justice is only done when the wrongdoer or his family suffers a similar violation of their rights. The one who is wronged is the only one who can say when justice has been achieved. Your courts have no emotional link with the parties concerned, and are therefore a poor judge of whether justice has been justly met or not.”
Then Pia started to explain justice from a religious point of view, telling Abayaw that it was the Lord who would exact vengeance. Abayaw replied by remarking that there was no justice in Christian resignation.
“When you cannot right a wrong,” Abayaw remembered saying, “then the wrongdoer—who obviously has no conscience and no god–will continue. He knows that your Christian society shrugs off punishment, leaving it to an ambiguous vengeance-seeking god. Your god does not terrify me, and my gods do not terrify you. An intangible god cannot terrify an evildoer.”
Abayaw had also taken the time to see the Pangat of Kalinga to report to him what had transpired in Manila. The Pangat asked him to attend a meeting the elders of Kalinga-Apayao and Bontoc had called with people from Manila. There were over 3,000 Kalingans and Bontocs who attended. Village representatives took turns speaking, and all pleaded for the same thing: Please stop the Chico River dam project. You will bring to an end our heritage of rice terraces and desecrate our ancestral burial grounds–ancestral domains passed down from custodian to custodian, and now in our custody. We would rather die than allow you to destroy what has been entrusted to us.
Lawyers in the Manila group who were sympathetic to their plight, asked their permission to file an action in court. The elders, after consulting with one another, politely declined, saying that they would be honour-bound to respect the ruling of their courts. Besides, they said, your laws are different from ours, and judgment would most probably be against them. They said that they had reasoned countless times with the government, whose only response to their pleas had been violence. Our patience, they said, has given out, and that this would be the last meeting they were to call with them.
Abayaw listened to his radio daily, to keep himself aware of what was happening in that distant city. He learnt that one day in August 1983, Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. was assassinated on the tarmac of Manila airport. Suspicion fell on Fabian Ver, Marcos’s Mother-of-all-Do-This-Do-That men and former chauffeur–someone who could not tie his shoelaces without his mentor’s permission. Marcos announced that it was a “rubout job” by those nebulous communists–that convenient scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. Abayaw wondered how many more sacrifices the Filipinos would have to endure to make them wake up and unite together for much-needed change.
There was growing criticism, reported on the radio, of excesses committed by Marcos in order to amass his ill-gotten wealth. Foreign debt had now reached US $25.6 billion in 1984; it was $2 billion in 1972 when Martial Law was declared. Government policies favoured the crony network, Marcos’s fronts and dummies, disrupting the economy and disillusioning legitimate businesses. There were widespread injustice and violations of human rights. Seventy-five percent of the population now lived below the poverty line.
Then one Saturday afternoon in February 1986, during a contested presidential election between Marcos and Aquino’s widow, Abayaw heard on his radio that a minister and a general were defecting from the Marcos government. But what Abayaw did not learn from his news box was that there was a plot in the making by Ver to murder the apolitical economist Cesar Virata, the noble and civic-conscious Chairman of Benguet Corporation Jaime Velayo Ongpin, his brother Roberto, Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile. The defectors had discovered this plot and being on the list, the minister and the general had no choice but to defect.
This was the news that Abayaw had been waiting for. He asked Dulmog, Iwa, and others from Kalinga-Apayao and Bontoc, to accompany him to Manila and help the people there remove that chief from his throne.
“But what can we do?” they asked Abayaw.
“The power of the powerless is powerful,” he replied.
They took a bus early Sunday morning for Manila. There they joined thousands of unarmed people gathered on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, participants in a shake-up that toppled a despicable greedy little man, who was bloated with wealth beyond recognition. Marcos called a curfew that day which nobody heeded. The Filipinos stayed all day and all night on this Avenue.
On that Sunday, Ver ordered the military to disperse the crowd. The people surrounded the tanks with their bodies. Marcos ordered helicopters with machineguns to strafe the camp holding the defecting minister and general. The pilots defected instead. That evening, Marcos sent for a barge on the Pasig River and loaded it with three hundred heavy crates, possibly containing gold, and everything else looted from the country. Taken from palace vaults and warehouses, the cargo was then transferred to his yacht.
On Monday, fighter planes flew over the city, firing at the grounds of Malacañang as demonstrators surrounded the palace, in an attempt to force the Filipinos into submission. Ver was reportedly nervous about these fighter planes; it seems that someone else, other than his mentor, had ordered them to fly in Philippine airspace. Marcos called a press conference but not many journalists came. He declared a state of emergency, to the few who listened. A cameraman recorded Ver asking permission to bomb the camp. The request was denied in public, but Ver sent a helicopter assault team, naval units, and a detachment of jet fighters–all of which defected, to the other camp.
On Tuesday morning, Marcos and Mrs. Aquino went ahead with their presidential inaugurations. On the palace grounds were over 2,000 paid supporters to which Marcos and Imelda sang a love-song. In the evening, when the Americans realised the strength of People’s Power, they sent several helicopters to Malacañang to rescue Marcos, his family, and some cronies–in total, 89 passengers. They were brought to Clark Air Base and then to the sunny beaches of Hawaii.
An initial estimated $10 billion were unaccounted for, the equivalent of three years State budget, covering more than one third of the country’s external debt. Foreign debt had now reached $27 billion. About $475 million stashed by the Marcos family, representing a fraction of the billions of dollars the Marcoses took from the country, was located in some Swiss deposit accounts.
Later on, Imelda Marcos, in a speech, disclosed that the Marcos fortune was larger than anyone could imagine–more than enough, she said, to pay the country’s entire foreign debt. During those twenty debilitating years of authoritarian rule, Marcos looted the Philippines, leaving behind very serious economic problems. Equally abominable as this, which time and effort will find difficult to heal, Marcos decimated the national psyche of a people just barely making it to survive.
Meanwhile, the Americans were eager to return the Philippines to the way things were before: The rule of the elite enforced by private armies of killers. They wished to continue to exploit with abandon the country’s rich natural resources without contributing much to the national economy. They also wished to continue their military presence with inconsiderably minor restrictions. So they seek out Filipinos who are servile, those who can be bought to do their bidding….
In December 1986, President Corazon Aquino cancelled the Chico River dam project that was begun in 1974. Plans for the dam had started in 1962 but the government could not establish economic viability for the project. In spite of it, Marcos went ahead with the dam project with loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The European Economic Commission and the Asian Development Bank have now jointly funded an agricultural project in the Cordilleras. But the Cordillera mountain dwellers will forever be wary of and hostile towards outsiders, friend or foe, in their territory.
There was other news on Abayaw’s radio that he found interesting: The volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 buried Clark Air Base in ash and the Americans abandoned it. They also withdrew from Subic Bay Naval Base because of widespread opposition to renewing the agreement when the treaty allowing the Americans to occupy it expired in 1992. Abayaw deemed that the destructive alignment with the United States could only cause mistrust and enmity among neighbours. National security, he considered, can be assured by means of friendly ties with peoples of other nations.
But what Abayaw did not learn from his news box was that the US Armed Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency continue to operate and maintain other military and communication installations, as well as secret facilities throughout the archipelago. In the event of any conflict involving the United States, the Philippines is a huge potential battlefield.
Abayaw also learnt from his news box that among the many countless victims of human rights abuses during the Marcos regime, there were 75,000 people detained, 35,000 tortured, 3,257 killed, and 1,637 documented missing political dissidents. These guardians of ideals now pass the relay torch to those in front, to carry on their noble struggle of etching out an ambitious vision for country and fellow man.