Villains as heroes

Fri, 02/05/2010 - 00:00

reprinted from SCMP February 5, 2004

by Alan Robles

The government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may not have brought down the cost of living, but it has cheapened one thing: the standard for national heroism.

Last week, Mrs Arroyo decreed seven days of national mourning, and the flying of flags at half mast, in honour of former vice-president Salvador Laurel, who died of cancer. She said that Laurel's death was "a great loss to our people, stirring deep sorrow ... intense admiration and profound gratitude".

Who could she be talking about? This Salvador "Doy" Laurel - who will get a state funeral at the National Heroes' Cemetery - could not be the same Salvador Laurel who, from 1987 to 1989, was linked to attempts to overthrow Corazon Aquino. Could it? The same politician who, at the time of his death, was being investigated for corruption?

It is true that Laurel, who fought against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, had his merits. His one shining moment came in 1985 when he - begrudgingly - conceded that perhaps Mrs Aquino was more popular than he was and agreed to be her vice-presidential candidate against Marcos. For this, the nation should truly be thankful, because it was spared the possibility of a Laurel presidency. In the words of one writer, the man was "Philippine politics-as-usual".

After Marcos was overthrown, things went downhill for Laurel. As vice-president and foreign affairs minister, he chafed at being a subordinate and intrigued against Mrs Aquino. He called on her to resign, fomented discontent and declined to support the government when it was repeatedly assailed by coup attempts.

In fact, during the worst, in 1989, he condemned his president's asking for American military help against the rebels. The official report on the coup noted how Laurel "contributed to the instability of the situation", sounding as if "Aquino, and not the rebels, was the lawbreaker".

Thankfully for the Philippines, as a plotter, Laurel turned out to be of the cartoonish Dick Dastardly variety, always tripping up and never realising people saw him as a laughing stock instead of a deadly threat. After the 1989 coup was crushed, the government held a rally where an incensed Mrs Aquino, playing to a huge and approving crowd, tauntingly asked: "Should I even bother to mention that "Doy Laurel". Or should I just flick him away like a fly?"

Laurel's political career was finished, but under the Ramos administration he became head of the National Centennial Commission. One of its projects failed to account for billions of pesos and Laurel was charged with graft. This is the politician the government wants Filipinos to venerate.

At least it is being consistent, because last year, similar honours were ordered up for foreign secretary Blas Ople, who died in the service of the administration.

It did not seem to matter that Ople was a long-time and notorious henchman of Marcos. Or that during the 1989 coup attempt, he supported the rebels. And that he took the side of disgraced president Joseph Estrada during the impeachment trial which led to Estrada's overthrow. Apparently, Ople redeemed himself, and earned hero status, when he decided to throw in his lot with the Arroyo administration.

With heroes like this, it is little wonder that Filipinos have lost so much faith in their traditional politicians.

There are probably any number of well-calculated political reasons why the Arroyo government - in desperate need of allies - would laud Laurel and Ople. But if opportunism and overarching ambition are going to be the standards for entry to the National Heroes' Cemetery, they had better send bulldozers in now - there is not enough ground to accommodate the candidates.


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