Philippines: A History Of Shared Values


Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

When Prime Ministers Howard and Shipley asked their Filipino compere Estrada at the recent APEC meeting to help persuade Habibie to accept a UN peacekeeping force for East Timor, the Filipino President seemed rather ambivalent toward the Australian initiative. On the one hand, he accepted the need to support democratic initiatives in East Timor (the Philippines had in fact contributed a police contingent to UNAMET), but at the same time he would not take any action without Indonesian consent. He was sympathetic to Habibie's desire to have more 'brown ASEAN' faces in a UN force. A few weeks later, the Philippines would vote against a UN resolution (which nevertheless passed) for an international human rights investigation in East Timor.

The guarded response by Estrada and other ASEAN leaders towards Australian-led UN initiatives has only reinforced the sentiment in Australia that allegedly universal values of democracy and human rights have not taken firm hold in the region. By this logic Australia, with its 'European heritage,' must come forward as the guardian of such values, playing the role of America's deputy sheriff if need be.

The virtual mapping of the East Timorese crisis onto the familiar opposition of East versus West rides roughshod over the messy artifacts of history. Long before European values reached Australian shores, the petty chiefs of Timor and Luzon had made their blood compacts with Iberian conquistadors. The peoples of Filipinas, Timor, and other fragments of the archipelago were converted to a Catholicism that bound them together loosely as a religious community traversed by missionaries and pilgrims whose ultimate destination was Rome.

This long history of shared religion is bound to impact upon the present. Look carefully at news photos of priests and nuns leading Timorese refugees to safety, or standing behind bishop Belo, and you find individuals of different nationalities. The majority of these activist priests and nuns are not from Europe or Australia; they are Filipinos.

Catholic congregations such as the Italian-founded Canossian Daughters of Charity, the Salesian Fathers, the Society of Jesus, the Carmelite Missionaries, the Daughters of Saint Paul, and the Missionary Dominican Sisters of the Rosary, have been active in Timor for some time now. Their link to Rome is largely via Manila which, as the Spanish missionaries used to say, is the almacen de la fe, the warehouse of the faith, in Asia. One purely Filipino congregation, the Religious of the Virgin Mary, has a thriving branch in Kupang.

These Catholic congregations led by their superiors were in fact the first voices to call for the upholding of democratic choice in East Timor and to condemn the atrocities of the pro-Jakarta militia. They opened their houses to fleeing refugees and mobilised worldwide support through religious channels. Some lost their lives for being identified with the resistance forces.

This is not surprising if we go back to recent history. Indonesia's takeover in 1975 happened only three years after martial law was declared in the Philippines. Suharto and Marcos were bit actors in the grand Cold War drama of buttressing the capitalist world against communism. Both the Indonesian and Filipino martial law armies were armed by the United States, and both easily secured the blessings of Australia.

Timorese and Filipino opposition to the US-Marcos and US-Suharto forces in the mid-70s took their ideological cue from Catholic liberation theology generated in Latin America. This fusion of the teachings of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ cut across national boundaries and reached out from one Catholic outpost to another, inspiring the likes of Filipino priest Edicio de la Torre and East Timorese Jose Ramos Horta to mount their armed liberation movements against the forces of dictatorship and global capitalism. In the context of the Cold War these were doomed to non-recognition by Australia and the 'free world,' and no amount of historical rewriting today can affix the blame to a single individual or party at that time.

Perhaps the coaxings and proddings of Howard and Shipley did have their desired effect on Estrada, for the Philippines managed to cough up its share of peacekeepers: several hundred members of the Army's Special Forces (including medics and nurses), with a thousand more to come. They have arrived in Dili with a special mission to promote rehabilitation and 'civil-military relations,' not to engage in firefights. How lukewarm this Filipino involvement seems when compared with the massive Australian force, who are characteristically labelled in the Australian press as 'freedom fighters'. This scene has naturally climaxed with Xanana Gusmao delivering his triumphant address with a white Australian digger by his side.

But let us look beyond Estrada and Howard who represent nation-states with their narrow histories and regional agendas. Think, instead, of Bishop Belo and his Filipino aides. Think of the manifold implications of these words from Jaine Cardinal Sin at a recent Manila charity appeal: 'Our brothers and sisters in East Timor are in severe crisis. They are our fellow human beings, citizens of this world. They are our brothers in race, they are Asians like us, and they are Christians too.'

WATCHPOINT: A reassessment of national and regional values in the light of globally shared aspirations may follow the East Timor crisis.


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