Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Romeo J. Intengan

‘People power practiced too often sends a message abroad that you’re an unstable country’

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Photos by Lilen Uy

THE FIRST time Fr. Romeo J. Intengan, SJ, was summoned by a woman who lived in Malacañang, he had to flee the country to avoid her wrath. The woman was Imelda Marcos; the year was 1980. More recently, in November 2005, he came under fire for supposedly presenting exit scenarios to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He admits she has sought his advice in the past regarding religious matters, but denies bringing up exit plans with her.

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Perhaps Someone Up There has been trying to tell Intengan to stay away from the Palace. Or from women in politics. It could well be both. But then the separation of Church and state has never stopped Intengan from seeking to influence politics. As an exile in Sabah, he trained cadres belonging to the political party he helped found. More recently, he has recommended the abolition of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Intengan is a man who embodies many seeming contradictions. While he endorsed the need for armed struggle after the declaration of martial law, he also had a moral dilemma because he was a priest and a doctor. He told his fellow activists, “Ok, I can be your chaplain, but I will not shoot to kill or to maim.”

But after he sought refuge in Sabah in 1980, following his brush with an angry Imelda, who was probably miffed at being told pointblank that corruption and cronyism existed during her husband’s rule, Intengan had to learn how to handle a gun because the camp where he stayed needed to be defended against wild monkeys. (Thankfully, he never had to kill any.)

Here is more interesting Intengan trivia: that Sabah camp was run by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). There the Jesuit priest served for more than a year as physician in residence, chaplain, and political officer. In 1982, when the Malaysian government could no longer ignore accusations from the Marcos government that it was harboring Filipino rebels, Intengan had to leave, eventually ending up in Spain, where he pursued further studies in theology. He was still there when the first people power revolt kicked out Ferdinand Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino as president.

In a heartbeat, Intengan hurried home, just like other so-called Marcos exiles who returned to the Philippines almost as soon as the Marcoses landed in Hawaii.Over the last 20 years, many of these ex-exiles have worked their way up — in some cases, literally from scratch — to positions of power and influence in their chosen fields. But there are those who came back and merely took up where they had left off, such as Eugenio Lopez III, heir to the Lopez family fortune and now chair of the ABS-CBN group of companies; radio station owner Ramon ‘RJ’ Jacinto, another rich man’s son who has since expanded his own businesses; and politician Sergio Osmeña III, now on his third term as a senator.

Others include the likes of Heherson Alvarez, who fled the Philippines as a political activist, came back to join the Aquino government, and later became senator; and his wife Cecile Guidote Alvarez, founder of the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA) and now executive director of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Then of course there are Intengan and his friend National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, with whom he co-founded the Philippine Democratic Socialist Party (PDSP) in 1973. Both would be thrown in jail in 1978 for leading a march protesting the fraudulent elections held in April that year. Two years later, Imelda Marcos, suspicious that the PDSP was involved in bombings attributed to the April 6 movement (it wasn’t), would summon Intengan to the Palace — and have him worried enough to make him hie off to Sabah by way of Jolo.

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GONZALES ONCE told Intengan, “You provide the theory, I’ll provide the action.” The reference was to the priest’s role as head of the PDSP’s Education Commission — a position the latter has held from the 1970s until today. Intengan’s main contribution to PDSP, as he sees it, was to “understand and develop and adapt to the Philippine situation the democratic-socialist and social-democratic… ideological continuum or spectrum.” During its early years, PDSP’s most important contribution to the Philippine political scene was to present a third alternative to the ones presented by Marcos and the communists. And so, it was not just the Marcos dictatorship that PDSP opposed, but the communist movement as well.

To this day, there is no love lost between the PDSP and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). In a recent article posted on its website, the PDSP said the CPP and its political and military wings deserve the terrorist tag because they refuse to give up arms. “The CPP/NPA/NDF (do) not want the terror and the violence to cease,” it said. “(They) mean to grab power at all costs, even at the cost of peace.”

Intengan himself explains the position taken by the PDSP in the 1970s: “Our activism was really a provision of an alternative, a progressive one, which goes for radical social change but a democratic one, not a vanguardist party claiming to have a monopoly of wisdom and aiming for a monopoly of power.”

That was in an era when the growing political and societal crises led some priests and nuns to became either supporters of the CPP or its full-fledged members. Luis Jalandoni of the CPP’s political wing, the National Democratic Front (NDF), for instance, was a former priest. His wife and fellow NDF member Coni Ledesma was a former nun, as well as one of the founders of the Christians for National Liberation, the underground organization for subversive priests and nuns.

Many of these radical religious supported liberation theology, which interprets the Catholic faith through the eyes of the poor and sees Jesus as a “liberator.” In fact, the Society of Jesus’s 28th superior general in the Philippines, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, was himself a champion of liberation theology and the Jesuits themselves became identified with the movement, which promotes the active participation of the Church in bringing about social justice.

But Popes John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) frowned on it because of its perceived Marxist leanings. Intengan himself belonged to a less radical tradition, as did many of his fellow Jesuits in the Philippines, who were kept under the watchful eye of the Marcos regime.

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UPON HIS return to the Philippines, Intengan proceeded to conduct training sessions for cadres of the now-legal PDSP. He rejoiced at the “restoration of democratic space, where groups which were within the democratic-political spectrum… could now operate freely.” He also appreciated the dismantling of the communications and transport monopolies, which allowed the economy to flourish. But he did have a few regrets.

Recalls Intengan, who eventually became the provincial superior of the Jesuits in the Philippines from 1998 to 2004: “There was this relapse to reliance on traditional politics… I (did) not like it on the level of heart or gut, but I understood the reason.” Intengan allows that President Corazon Aquino needed the support of the military and politicians to survive. But it was unfortunate, he says, that the social revolution he was hoping for — “where the livelihood of the poor would have been uplifted, where basic equality would have been established, where the political system would have matured to a politics of ideas, of worldview, of real societal models… where culture in the high sense would have been available to all the people” — did not take place.

And while Intengan agrees that there was no one who could have taken the place of Jaime Cardinal Sin in 1986, he observes, “It might also be a mistake to adulate Cardinal Sin.” He believes Sin may have erred in endorsing the candidacies of Ramon Mitra and Alfredo Lim in the presidential elections held in 1992 and 1998, respectively, because, he argues, it wasn’t made clear to the people why there was a need for such “drastic Church intervention.” Intengan also says, “Cardinal Sin’s way of doing things was extraordinary in… at least many senses.” Filipinos, however, have come to expect the kind of leadership the late Sin provided. That may be why many were surprised when, in July 2005, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines did not ask for Arroyo’s resignation and instead called for discernment.

The 63-year-old Intengan says neither Arroyo nor Gonzales had asked him to “influence” the bishops. “The more you try to influence (the bishops), the more resentment you will get,” he says. “That might have been part of the reason why they decided not to call for resignation.” He also doesn’t believe Pope Benedict XVI had anything to do with the bishops’ pronouncement. The present pontiff, he says, is actually “much more tolerant of dissent and pluralism than the previous pope.” Besides, Intengan believes the Church should not get into “a habit of making very detailed and specific and peremptory political orders to Her people. That’s the role of the lay people to discern.”

The difficulty at this point, according to Intengan, is that in 1986, “the immediate problem was clear: to restore democracy and respect for human rights… Now the problematic is much different. The lines are not clearly drawn.”

“Ethics has at least two aspects,” he explains. “You have the ethics of principle and the ethics of responsibility, which considers consequences. And that’s where people are divided now. We all know how flawed our ruling class is. But what do you do after? Who will take over?”

He says the Church hierarchy is right in not advocating a position for Catholics to follow in the current political impasse. Yet he doubts the Church’s ability to shepherd its flock in the future, noting that the proliferation of Catholic and non-Catholic groups such as El Shaddai and Iglesia ni Kristo is proof that “the Catholic Church has not been effective in handling or responding to very concrete needs of Her flock.”

The Church, he says, has failed to communicate effectively with the faithful. As for the government, Intengan cannot help but be amused by charges that the current administration has all but imposed martial law. He says that under Marcos, “running priest” Fr. Robert Reyes would have been arrested and detained a long time ago.

Intengan, though, doesn’t believe people power is a viable means for change at this point. “People power practiced too often sends a message abroad that you’re a very unstable country,” he says. He prefers that institutions are strengthened, “so that even in an emergency they can take care of transitions more effectively than in the past.” — Vernon R. Totanes