JUST a little over a year ago today, we lost one of the of the most colorful individuals of our generation.
Feisty, strong-willed, articulate and brilliant.
That was Miriam Defensor-Santiago -- one of the very few individuals who hold the rare distinction of having served (and let me stress, with distinction) in the three branches of government – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.
Owner of several local and international awards, she was one of the 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees for public service.
But like most outstanding individuals, she was a complex woman, with many dimensions to her person. She had her legions of fans (especially among the students) but she also had her share of detractors and critics.
She could be very gentle, but she could also be fiery. Just ask any one of those who came ill-prepared during Senate hearings.
She could also be conceited (with her self-praise of her pretty legs.) In onepresidential foreign trip in Saudi Arabia, which we both joined, she noticed the Canon slung around my neck. She asked me to take photos of her in the middle of the desert. I gladly obliged by continuously presssing my shutter as I walked around her. I sent to her senate office blown up copies of two of what I thought were the best shots. I entitled them “Miram of the Desert”.
She could also be funny as shown by her humorous books (e.g. Stupid Is Forever) which have become local best-sellers.
Whatever you think of Miriam, whether you love her or hate her, she will forever be etched in the national consciousness.
Eduardo Ermita – Soldier Peacemaker
I first met former Executive Secretary “ES” Eduardo R. Ermita years ago in Tay Ninh, part of what was then South Vietnam.
ES was a Captain serving with the First Philippine Civic Action Group (Vietnam) or 1st Philcag V. I was with members of the Defense Press Corps, led by Libertito Pelayo of the Manila Times, who came over to report on the activities of our troops.
Like ES, many other members of Philcag later rose to national prominence, e.g., General Gaudencio Tobias, General Godofredo Carreon, Lieutenant Colonel Fidel V. Ramos and Major Jose Magno.
Philcag -- a non-combat team under General Tobias – was the Philippines’ contribution to help “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.
Although most of the contingent were like ES, who were trained as combat soldiers, PHILCAG concentrated on civic action and other humanitarian activities. They went on medical missions and helped rebuild destroyed roads and bridges.
One of the Philcag’s signature projects was the establishment of a huge resettlement site at the Thanh Dien Forest, specifically built for the conflict-affected families and communities.
Philcag made such a positive impact on the South Vietnamese that everywhere the Philcag went, they were followed by children, flashing the thumbs up sign, and shouting: Phil Luat Tan, Number One. (Filipinos Number One).
I sort of lost track of ES after my two successive visits (1967 and 1968) in Tay Ninh. Next time I heard about ES was sixteen years later.
In 1984, ES came out of the jungle fastnesses of Basilan. Walking alongside ES was one of the most feared MNLF fighters – Gerry Salapuddin. ES successfully persuaded Salapuddin and around 1,200 of his armed followers to return to the fold of the law.
Five years later, ES paid me a surprise visit at the Alabang junction. ES was then among the loyalist forces defending the government of President Cory Aquino. It was at the height of one of the most dramatic (almost successful) coup attempts by Gringo Honasan. Overhead, I could see rebel-flown Tora Toras circling, probably poised to do another strafing run at Malacañan. At the back of my mind, I feared the worst.
With the help the local police, firemen, barangay officials and some gung ho Alabang residents, we blocked the entrance of the South Expressway. Our objective: to hinder rebel forces expected to come from the south. We were successful because a long column belonging to the Southern Luzon Command (Solcom) got stalled in Biñan and were backed all the way to Sta. Rosa, Laguna.
ES came to inform me that we had unintentionally blocked friendly troops. Immediately, we lifted the blockade and the SOLCOM were able to proceed to Camp Crame to reinforce Gen. Fidel Ramos.
My next meeting with ES was inside the halls of Congress. And guess who was in the same batch. It was none other than Commander Gerry Salapuddin who now represented the Congressional District of Basilan.
ES and I met again as both members of the cabinet of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. ES first served as Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, then Secretary of National Defense and later as Executive Secretary or “Little President”. At some point, he also served as Presidential Spokesperson. Members of the Malacañang Press Corps had a field day regularly ambushing him for interviews.
But all throughout his stint in Malacañan, he was in one way or another, involved in pursuing back channel peace talks with the MILF. This he did together with, among others, Secretary Silvestre “Yong” Afable and Congressman Nur Jaafar.
To me, ES represented the best of what a public servant can and should be.
I had the honor of being invited to his book launch a couple of weeks ago. Summarizing his very colorful career both in the military, in the legislature and in the executive department, the book was aptly entitled: “Soldier Peacemaker, the Life and Work of Eduardo R. Ermita, A Memoir.”
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