Magsaysay is my guy
On Thursday we mark the 65th anniversary of Ramon Magsaysay’s death on the slopes of Mt. Manunggal in Cebu. He was the leader of the nation for just over three years. More than 50 years later, he is considered by many as the most beloved of all our presidents. As we ponder over our choice for the next president, it might help to reflect on the life of Ramon Magsaysay to get some idea why he was so loved by the people.
At the time of the accident in 1957, we were student officers taking up flight training at the Philippine Air Force Flying School in Fernando Air Base, Lipa City. All flight activities were suddenly suspended as people gathered in small groups awaiting news of the missing presidential plane. When word finally arrived that the aircraft had been found, with only one survivor, a pall of deep gloom descended on the base, and soon it felt like Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
Ramon Magsaysay was a man in perpetual motion, working to accomplish what he set out to do. As an ex-guerilla fighter, he had no formal training in military science. He had no experience in government administration except for a brief stint as military governor of Zambales shortly after World War II ended. He was a man who was interested not in explanations, only in results. If the results were good, nothing had to be explained. We must keep in mind that before he became defense secretary, the communist forces then commonly known as Huks were on the offensive and beginning to secure the upper hand in their bid to overthrow the government. AFP units suffered frequent ambushes and military camps were being raided with little or no resistance from demoralized military elements. When Magsaysay stepped in, he provided strong and vigorous leadership to a military organization that was drifting and had no sense of direction. He shook up the armed forces, organizing mobile Battalion Combat Teams (BCT) and deploying them in search-and-destroy missions against the enemy. He led by example, visiting troops in remote areas of the country, at times catching unit commanders asleep or neglecting basic security measures. Inspiring his soldiers, he rewarded those who performed well while punishing those who failed to meet his standards. My first assignment after graduation was as a platoon leader in the 4th BCT operating in the jungles of southern Luzon.
In office for only a few months, he caused the relief of nine PC officers in Tarlac and ordered their court-martial for various offenses—extortion, trafficking of firearms, and falsification of official documents. He ordered the court-martial of a BCT captain in Zambales for his failure to assist a beleaguered garrison only a few kilometers away. The fear of being discovered followed by swift, disciplinary action, became an important deterrent to misconduct in the armed forces.
In the 1953 presidential elections, the two candidates vying for the highest position in the land were both Ilocanos. The incumbent Elpidio Quirino from Ilocos Sur was running as the Liberal Party candidate, having succeeded to the presidency after the death of President Manuel Roxas and later defeating Jose P. Laurel in the 1949 contest. His opponent was Ramon Magsaysay, a native of Zambales, a former Liberal Party member who had been appointed to the position of defense secretary by Quirino, and now was running under the banner of the opposition Nacionalista Party. Magsaysay would score a landslide victory, taking almost 70 percent of the total votes cast. He won in 48 out of 52 provinces. Only four provinces, all in the Ilocos region, stood by the president.
My father was a strong supporter of President Elpidio Quirino. His wife, Doña Alicia Quirino, was my godmother in baptism years before he became president. After Quirino’s loss, the many friends who were usually around suddenly disappeared or were difficult to contact. At that time, I was a third-class cadet at the Philippine Military Academy. One of his letters would indicate the loneliness that he felt. But a few months later, Magsaysay would appoint him the nation’s first commissioner of tourism, a position that has now been elevated to Cabinet level as tourism secretary. People were flabbergasted that a supporter of Quirino would get such a highly-coveted position. We remember him for his magnanimous and generous spirit.
Ramon Magsaysay had a gift for imparting to people a sense of optimism that better times lay ahead. Today with COVID-19 still around and a growing war in Europe, the nation needs a leader with that gift.
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