Unforgettable Ramon Magsaysay

Mr. G. H. Peiris of No. 77, Keells Housing, Jalthara Ranala, had hand copied out this article from a 13-year old Readers Digest and sent it to us requesting that it be published "before the coming general elections for all dishonest and unpatriotic candidates with corrupt intentions of private gains to see."

By former Senator Manuel
P. Manahan
On December 30th 1953, in the grandstand by Manila Bay, Ramon Magsaysay had been sworn in as the third president of the Republic of the Philippines. Now he was to take a short trip to Malacanang, the presidential home. When offered his predecessor’s massive cadillac, he waved it away, selecting instead a borrowed Ford convertible with its top down. Earlier Magsaysay had asked me to leave my job as a newspaper publisher and join his administration. Now, at his request, I climbed in the Ford. In Manila’s heat and humidity, we inched our way through a crowd of at least 500,000 countrymen cheering, waving, clutching at the president, the throng following us to Malacanang. Magsaysay arrived sweatdrenched, exhausted, his shirt in tatters. So he retired to his private quarters to change.

Within minutes he re-appeared and asked, "where are the people"? "I locked the palace doors" his security chief explained. "Open all gates and doors" Magsaysay ordered angrily. "You have no authority to bar the people from me". Later another outburst further outlined his leadership style: "Don’t called Malacanang a palace," he told his aides. "Kings live in places I am not a king". Indeed, this former mechanic was no monarch. But what a president in my view, the greatest ever we have had Magsaysay taught us how a freely elected presidency could work in a troubled, developing nation such as the Philippines. Above all, he showed us how grandly we Filipinos can respond, given the chance, to dynamic, democratic incorruptible leadership.

Ramon Magsaysay was born August 31, 1907, in a small town in Zambales, the improverished province that includes the US Subic Bay naval base. His origins were middle class. His father owned a general store and blacksmith’s forge. The only remarkable thing about the boy’s arrival was an unusual fold of skin on his head, which lasted a few months. The ‘halo’ prompted some superstitions well wishers to predict greatness in the infant’s future. Ramon — or "Monching" — was a restless youth. He was chosen to deliver the class oration at his higher school graduation. But at Manila’s University of the Philippines, where he was enrolled in a pre-engineering course, he was an indifferent student. Eventually he dropped out and took a job as a mechanic in a bus company in 1931. The work suited him. Soon his bosses discovered that he could manage labour well and was scrupulously honest. After a series of promotions, he married Luz Banzon, an attractive 17 year old whose parents owned a small bus company. Then on December 8th 1941, Japanese planes bombed US bases at Clarkfield and Sudic Bay. Within weeks, young Filipino males faced onerous choice collaborate with the Asian invader or join with the Americans. Believing in the allied cause, Magsaysay signed up with US lead irregular US forces.

In search of Magsaysay’s unit, the Japanese made repeated sweeps through Zambales. On at least four occasions, Magsaysay narrowly escaped arrest. But he remained true to his American friends — first as a supply officer code-named "Chow", later as commander of a 10,000 man force. Soon as the Americans and their Filipino allies recaptured Manila in February 1945, Magsaysay was appointed Zambales military governor. Some months later, Washington announced that the Philippines would receive its independence on July 4th 1946. Magsaysay’s young exuberant ex-guerrillas encouraged him to run as a Liberal Party candidate in Zambales for the forthcoming congressional elections.

With their help as campaign workers, Magsaysay, then only 39, won his seat handily. Despite the heady pleasures of freedom, however, those were not good times. The economy was in ruins. Starvation was commonplace: banditry, widespread. But by far the biggest threat was an ominous legacy of the guerillas fighting — a communist dominated army, the Hukralahap. (Tagalog acronym for People’s anti-Japanese army) when the war ended, four regiments of ‘huks’ as they were called, refused to lay down their arms. Commanded by a popular peasant leader, Luis Taruc, the communists were assassinating oppressive landlords and officials and ambushing troops. When Magsaysay was appointed chairman of the house national defence committee in 1948 the Huk problem became his most urgent concern. As the army argued with the police and they both fought with the national defence secretary, the insurgency continued to grow.

By 1950, the communists had some 30,000 under arms and at least a million supporters. President Elpidio Quirino, convinced that he, not the army and the police, should direct the anti-Huk effort, looked for a man through whom he could administer the national defence portfolio. Magsaysay was selected for the job. On his first day in office, Magsaysay received word that a notorious Huk leader known as "Commander Arthur" wanted to see him under a true flag. Was it a trap? Against the advice of aides, Magsaysay went alone at night to a house in a Manila slum. "Is anyone home"? he called as he pushed the door. "Yes I am here", said Arthur. The man’s real name was Taciano Rizal, a great nephew of our martyred patriot Jose Rizal.

"I have heard so much about you", he continued "I wanted to find out what was true." "I am surprised at you" replied Magsaysay. "How can a Rizal fight on the side of a foreign ideology? If your ancestor were alive, he would surely seek peaceful reforms". After an hour of inconclusive discussion, the two men parted. Years later, Magsaysay would learn that, that meeting had indeed been part of Huk assassination plot.

My friend had been saved only because the jeep carrying the killers broke down on the way to the meeting place. Magsaysay worked 18-hour-days as secretary of national defence. He cancelled all planned purchases of staff cars and spent the savings on trucks and jeeps for combat teams. Operational headquarters located in towns were moved closer to their units. Moreover, he would visit the front line and military camps unannounced to soldiers’ morale and ensure that their basic needs were met. Magsaysay also ordered the engineering corps to install irrigation pumps, pipes and artesian wells in deprived rural areas. The need for the armed forces to be loved and respected was his constant refrain. "I want every soldier to serve as a public relations man for the army and government", he would say. "The army should bleed for the people and not the people for the army".

The phrase "all-out friendship or all-out force" summarized his Huk counter-insurgency policy. If a Huk was willing to surrender, Magsaysay made it as easy as possible for the rebel to rehabilitate himself. For example, the Huk sent to Manila to assassinate Magsaysay turned out his gun and grenades to his would be victim — and was promptly put to work in the secretary’s office. To this day the man remain a devoted Magsaysay family friend. As the armed forces popularity grew and Magsaysay became a national hero, Huks began surrendering in increasing numbers, many lured by safe-conduct passes air dropped in jungle areas. Magsaysay had many of these defectors return to their comrades as government emissaries. Gathered information was used by crew members of loud speaker- equipped aircraft to broadcast the names and personal details of Huk guerrillas lurking below. Increasingly swayed by Magsaysay’s case for the government’s development efforts, Rizal requested repeated meeting with him. One day, the Huk blurred out.

"Okay, I’ll work for you" Rizal explained that a courier delivered messages from guerrillas bases to Huk leaders living in Manila. For weeks, military intelligence followed her to various addresses. Then in 22 simultaneous raids, the police not only found weapons, money and two truck loads of vital communist documents, but picked up 105 suspects. These successes soon sparked a Magsaysay for President movement. The opposition Nationalist Party attempted to recruit him as its presidential candidate. At first he rejected thoughts of higher officer. But when Quirius sneeringly referred to him as nothing more than a "Huk killer" Magsaysay’s mind was made up. He resigned and joined the opposition. He went on to defeat the incumbent in the 1953 presidential election with an astonishing 68.9 per cent of the votes. To a nation weary of corruption, Magsaysay seemed like a man from another planet. Shortly after the election, he asked me to join him for lunch at his parent’s home in Zambales. At the end of the meal, the president stood pointed to his closet-relatives. Then to my embarrassment, he roared, "many, remember these faces. If anyone here try to use his connections with me to obtain favoured treatment, throw him in jail". During the campaign, Magsaysay declared repeatedly: "Those who have less in life should have more in law." He had promised that voters would have the most responsive government in their history. "If you’ve got a problem", he told his countrymen, "Just let me know". To fulfill that promise, Magsaysay created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee (PCAC) and put me in charge. Each day hundreds of people and an avalanche of mail poured into Malacanian with tales of misery; starving families: corrupt officials: cruel landlords. By the end of the first year, we had received 59,144 appeals for help and had resolved 31,876. At one of our daily meetings, I mentioned Hermogenes Antonio, a tenant farmer who had written to complain that his landlord had beaten him up during an argument over division of the crop.

PCAC had sent a telegram the previous day asking the provincial police commander to investigate. There had been no reply. "Sent another telegram saying I am interested" Magsaysay told me. Two hours later the president asked me whether I’d yet heard from the police commander I had not. He slammed his papers on the table. "Come on" said the president. "Lets go"! Off we drove to Barrio Bantug, Munoz, Nuera Ecija, 90 miles from Manila. In the village crowds gathered. "Where’s Hermogenes Antonio?" Magsaysay asked. He wants my help." When they found Antonio, he told about his beating. The culprit was a wealthy aciendero who had made large donations to Magsaysay’s recent campaign. The president and I looked at each other. "Many" he boomed "see the man is put on a trial". A court later put him away for three months. Word of Magsaysay’s visit spread through the countryside like fire through bamboo. When village headmen began volunteering information on Huk guerilla activities,to PCAC teams, I realized that the insurgency was all but over. After Magsaysay implemented socioeconomic reforms to help the peasantry, Taruc himself surrendered. "I no longer have any reason to continue", he told me "Most of what I’ve fighting for is now being done". As the Huk threat diminished, the economy improved, and money saved from military expenditures was used for education and social services. The 1957 presidential election approached, and candidates 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 to be. A phone call at 5 p.m. from Malacanang was my first chilling hint that something was wrong.

"The President’s plane from Cebu is overdue", said the under secretary of foreign affairs "please come over".

Then at 9 p.m. the news came — the president had been killed when his aging C-47 had crashed because of engine failure. It was March 17, 1987 — he had been in office just three years, two months and 17 days. Shocked relatives, friends and aides gathered at Malacanang to mourn Magsaysay’s abrupt passing. Some one took me aside and whispered, ‘manny, we have 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 net assets were valued at just 86,000 pesos then about ($40,000). Free for the first time of Magsaysay’s strictures on private gain for his family, many offered help. A real estate developer donated a suburban manila lot. Gifts of wood, cement and labour followed. Some 7,000 Manila stevedores each contributed a tile for the building’s floor. The only capital the Magsaysay family accumulated came not from the nation’s coffers but from the heart.

For Ramon Magsaysay was a president who drew strength from selfless service, honesty and a confidence in what a country may accomplice when its democratic leadership is responsive to the people. He was as the late senator Ciprians Primaicias eloquently put it, "a bright glorious meteor across Philippine skies, displacing gloom, bring faith, hope and charity into his countrymen’s hearts.