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Jose Rizal, Liberator Of The Philippines

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Jose Rizal, Liberator of the Philippines

In the early morning of December 30, 1896, 35 year old Jose' Rizal, an indio with strong oriental features but the bearing of a western intellectual, wearing a black suit and hat, stood erect and calm in an open field by Manila Bay. Ministering to him were two Jesuit priests. Wanting to be master of his own execution, he refused to kneel and be blindfolded. He asked to face the firing squad but was forced by the officer in charge to turn his back. A military doctor took his pulse. It was, strangely, normal. At 7:03 the bark of bullets rent the air. Rizal fell, and so, virtually, did Spanish colonial rule.

Born on the island of Luzon on June 19, 1861, Rizal studied under the Jesuits and then at the Dominican University of Santo Tomas, also in Manila. In 1882 he left the Philippines ostensibly for further medical studies abroad, but principally in pursuit of some vague political objective.

Something of a genius, Rizal was an unlikely political activist. He had been trained as an ophthalmic
surgeon by leading specialists in Paris, Heidelberg, and Berlin. At heart, however, he was an artist and a poet, and by conscious
choice a scholar, historian, researcher, and prolific writer. He wrote in Spanish, Tagalog, German, French, Englisg, and Italian and spoke a few other modern languages. In addition, he knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The references in his writings to Cervantes, Schiller, Shakespeare, and Dante are evidence of his broad humanistic interests and worldwide perspectives. Through Ferdinand Blumentritt, an Austrian scholar and personal friend, Rizal came in contact with leading European intellectuals and was admitted into two learned societies in Berlin.

The Enlightenment and Liberalism

No sooner had Rizal arrived in Madrid for studies in medicine than he was recognized as a leader by the Philippino students at the University of Madrid who were determined to work for reforms in their country. Enthusiastically reading Voltaire and the Enlightenment thinkers, Rizal took to the "Rights of Man" proclaimed by the French Revolution and to the new liberalism sweeping Spain, which had long been sheltered from the intellectual currents of the rest of Europe.

His first political advocacy was for the assimilation of the Philippines as a province of Spain. In a landmark speech, Rizal called Spain and the Philippines "dos Pueblos", two peoples, of equal standing and equal rights---a radical idea in 1884. This position angered the Spanish community in Manila and marked Rizal as a filibustero, a subversive. He also advocated a program liberal reforms that included two proposals for immediate implementation: freedom of the press and representation in the Spanish parlament.

The frequent objects of Rizal's caustic attacks were the "friars", namely, the Augustinians, the Recollects, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans. They opposed the advancement of the native secular clergy, whose leaders, Fathers Burgos, Gomez, and Zamorra were garrotted in 1872 for alleged complicity in a mutiny at the Cavite shipyards. Rizal accused these religious of encouraging superstition and of turning mercantile in their ministry. They had, he thought, prevented the teaching of Spanish (by which the indios could have learned new ideas), had exercised control on government officials, and had stopped progress and the intrusion of every liberal idea.

In the end, however, Rizal became convinced that the only viable solution for the Philippines was independence
form Spain. He did not forsee this happening soon, but thought the Philippinos should loose no time in preparing for it with determination. These ideas were to find stark and vivid expression in his two novels. What Victor Hugo did for les miserables of France and Charles Dickens did for the wretched of London, Rizal wanted to do for the poor and oppressed of his own country. In 1887 his first novel, Noli Me Tangere, was published by a small printing press in Berlin. It diagnosed the Philippines' as a malignant cancer in so advanced a stage that the slightest touch produced the acutest of pains. The title, "Latin for Do Not Touch Me", echoes the words of Christ to Mary Magdalene in John 20:17. Copies of the novel were smuggled into the country and read surreptitiously behind closed doors or at night by candlelight. The effect was nothing short of cataclysmic. What Abraham Lincoln said to Harriet Beecher Stowe---that her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin caused the Civil War---may be applied with equal truth to Rizal's novel and it's sequel. They set the fires of revolution.

In August 1887, Rizal returned to the Philippines, preceded by his reputation as a subversive and a heretic. Six months later, at the urgings of his parents fearful for his life, he left for london by way of the United States. This journy led him to speak admiringly of America as providing "a country to the poor looking for work." But he deplored the American predjudice against Asians and African Americans and was especially appalled by the ban against interracial marriages in some states.

Founding the Filipino Nation

Rizal's second European sojurn (1882-92) was the most productive period of his life. In London he did historical research for eight months in the libraryof the British Museum. One result of this work was the republication in Paris in 1889 of Antonio de Morga's Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1609), an eyewitness account of the 16th-century Philippines. To this edition, Rizal added his own copious notes and commentary.

At this time, the Filipino expatriates in Spain decided to form themselves into an association, called La Solidaridad; they elected Rizal, then in London, as an honorary president. They also founded a journal with the same name in pusuit of their political agenda. Rizal was a frequent contributor, answering in incisive language racial slurs by Spanish writers and in lenghty essays bringing his historical knowledge to bear on Philippine questions. In 1891 in Ghent, Belgium, he published "El Filibusterismo" (Subversion), the sequal to his first novel.

Rizal's scholarship injected historical consciousness into the nationalist movement. He asked his people to search their past and to think of what they had been before the Spaniards destroyed much of what was good in Philippine culture, restricted trade and industry, and racially reduced the population through conscription of the men to fight Spanish wars. In an article entitled "The Philippines a Century Hence", he turned the eyes of Filipinos to the future and forced them to look to the day when they should have shaken off Spanish rule. In a striking moment of clairvoyance, he speculated that the United States might one day think of acquiring the Philippines, but added that this would be against U.S. traditions.

Increasingly Rizal warned of separation
and independence and alluded to "the great law of history"----that colonies eventually declare themselves independent. While Rizal did not6 categorically rule out violent revolution, he articulated in his second novela philosophy of nonviolence---admittedly not as developed as Gahndi's. The Filipino people, he said, must be worthy of their liberties and prepare themselves for independence, principally through education and moral regeneration. "only love can work wonders, only virtue can redeem... What is the use of independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?"

Rizal's thought, developing far more rapidly than that of his Filipino colleagues, brought him into conflict with Marcelo H. Del Pilar, editor in chief of La Solidaridad. Del Pilar's strategy was to pressure Spanish officialdom in Madrid; Rizal believed it was time to work directly with his people and decided to go back home. In June 1892, entrusting to a friend a letter for the Filipinos to be opened in case of his death, he left Hong Kong for Manila.

Shortly after his return to the islands, a new association was formed, the Liga Filipina, whose statutes Rizal had drawn up in Hong Kong. The aim of this reform movement was to "unite the entire archipelago into a compact, vigorous and homogeneous body" through cultural, commercial and industrial activities. At Rizal's subsequent trial the prosecution would claim that the Liga sought the violent overthrow of the Spanish government, a charge Rizal flatly denied. However, Rizal did hope to form his people into a new national community in defense against and independent of existing colonial structures. But the organization was stillborn, since Rizal was arrested later in 1892 and sent off into exile in the small town of Dapitan on the island of Mindanao.

Trial and Execution

The exile in Dapitan ended after four long years, when Rizal was accepted as a volunteer physician to work with the Spanish army in Cuba. On July 31st, 1896, he boarded ship and was brought to Manila, where he remained on board under tight military guard for a month, waiting to be transported to Spain. Meanwhile, the Philippine Revolution broke out under the leadership of a warehouse worker, Andreas Bonifacio.

When Rizal reached Barcelona, he was brought back to Manila to stand trial by court martial. He was accuse of instigating and leading the rebellion, which as an exile and prisoner he was not physically capable of doing. Months earlier, moreover, when Bonifacio sent a messenger to Rizal in exile to ask for his support, the nonviolent Rizal strongly repudiated the plan as ill-prepared and likely to produce useless bloodshed. The court martial was firm, however, and expeditious. The trial itself, on Dec 26, took only one day. In the early morning of Dec 29, the accused was notified of his conviction and of the death sentence to be carried out the following day.

Soon after learning of his fate, Rizal asked some Jesuits to visit him, and they spent much time with him in his last hours. Disillusioned while in Spain by the church's opposition to liberal ideas and to his own politics, he had given up the practice of the Catholic faith. According to Jesuit testimony, Rizal received the sacraments, after much resistance and intellectual struggle, on the evening of his death and wrote and signed a document of retraction from Masonry. On the following morning he was married in a religious ceremony to a young Irish woman with whom he had lived in Dapitan. The Spanish press in Manila reported these events, but Spanish credibility was at its lowest. Many believed the story was sheer Jesuit fabrication, a view held by some historians to this day.

For 300 years Spain had imposed political unity on the disparate tribes, village clans, petty kingdoms and linguistic groups to which the inhabitants of the Philippines belonged. This cohesion was the product of Spanish force backed by the church, which was at that time tied to the Crown by the "patronato real". The intermittent uprisings that had punctuated Spanish rule had been localized and ineffective---until the Revolution of 1896, which was national in character. That national revolution was founded on the awareness of a people living in a vast archipelago of some 7,000 islands that they were one nation bound by a common culture, history and destiny. Before the late 19th century there was no such general consciousness, and "Philippines" was nothing more than a geographical term. By reason of his brilliance of mind, courage of conviction and forcefulness of language and imagination, Rizal was the Filipino who contributed most to this national consciousness.

Philippines and Asia

Rizal's execution further srtenghtened the resolve of the revolutionaries. They declared independence on June 12, 1898, in a document echoing phrases from the U.S. Declaration of Independence and established a republican form of government. The Philippines was the first colony in Asia to stage a national revolution, declare independence, form a republic and, thereby, send a discomforting message to the colonial powers in that vast area.

The republic, however, was short lived, because the United States of America, in fulfillment of its "Manifest Destiny", embarked upon its own colonial enterprise. While the new Philippine Republic was consolidating its governance of the entire country, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. The American military then successfully subdued the islands in a bloody conflict kinown in American records as the "Philippine Insurrection", but called by Filipino historians the "Philippine-American War." Though the aim of independence was frustrated by the American intervention, the execution of Rizal ands its aftermath awakened the peoples of the rest of Asia to the essential fragility of colonial rule and to their own capacity to form themselves into modern nations. The message was not lost on Rizal's contemporaries, Gahndi (1869-1948) and Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), or on a much younger man, Nehru (1889-1964).

In recent decades, historians of Marxist orientation have characterized Rizal as a bourgeois thinker repudiating a proletarian revolution. They also attribute his apothesis as a national hero to the new American government, which preferred the non-violent Rizal over the revolutionary Bonifacio, as a model for the Filipinos. But Rizal, weho defies Marxist molds, has survived such iconoclastic efforts. The fact is that Bonifacio's rebel band of common people had idolized Rizal even before his death, using his name as a password in their secret meetings and as a rallying cry in battle.

In Rizal's writings, particularly the novels and the farewell ode to his country, "Ultimo adios,"written just before his death, Filipinos see themselves, their history, culture and ethos. A case in point is the "little revolution" of 1986 against Ferdinand Marcos, when tanks on the Epiphania de los Santos Avenue, a thoroughfare in Quezon City that runs between the military installations Camp Auginaldo and Camp Crame, were stopped by prayers, flowers and people power. Suddenly concrete meaning was given to Rizal's words: "I do not mean to say that our freedom must be won at the point of the sword.... But we must win our freedom by deserving loving what is just, what is good, what is great to the point of dying for it. When a people reach these heights, God provides the weapon, and the idols and tyrants fall like a house of cards, and freedom shines with the first dawn."

Rizal's political thought is critical to the current peace process in Mindanao, as Filipino Muslim schloars point out. His search for the common past, for what Filipinos had been before Spain stopped the advance of Islam and set clear demarcation lines between Christianized inhabitants and Muslim communities, provides a historical perspective within which to search for a common ground between Muslims and Christians. The recent peace agreement with the once secessionist Moro National Liberation Front is, in fact, an effort to integrate the Muslim minority into the nation.

What is particularly distinctive in Rizal's concept of the Filipino nation is its emphasis on education. While some nationalist movements in 19th-century Africa and Asia assigned primacy to the state, which was often viewed as a means to nationhood, Rizal considered the basis of nationhood not to be race, ethnic origin, religion or language, but a commonality that derives from education. The binding factor is the broadening of the mind.

That quest invariably links the Philippines to the rest of Asia, which today has the world's fastest growing economies and is moving, after five centuries of marginalization, to center stage in world affairs. What Asia needs for its "renaissance," stated Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in an international conference on Rizal held in Kuala Lampur, is the humanism of Asian thinkers like Rizal. Economic prosperity and political stability, Asia's twin obsessions, must be guided by those universal moral principals and human values, ancient and ever new----the dignity of the human person, equality, justice, human rights---for which Rizal gave his life. The pursuit of prosperity within the context of freedom and democracy, against the contrary advice of such sages as Lee Kuan Yew, the long time leader of Singapore, and the tempting examples of some neighboring countries, flows from Rizal's political philosophy. It may likewise be the unique contribution of the newly emerging Philippine economy to the growth and development of the Asia Pacific region.


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