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By F. Sionil Jose
We are on the brink of war – not us, but China and the United States. At any time now, World War III may start. Both countries are confronting each other in the South China Sea. War is man’s greatest folly.
Even in so-called just wars, victor and loser suffer alike, and with them, the smaller nations that are their allies are buffer states. As that old Burmese saying goes – when the elephants quarrel, the grass gets trampled. That’s us. India and China are already killing one another high in their disputed Himalayan borders; I pray this does not escalate further. In the arms race that precedes the conflict, billions are wasted on war material and armies. Billions that could make the world safer if all that money is spent in enormous development. There is more to be gained in peace. I remember a Japanese scholar visiting me in Honolulu in 1981 when I was there at the East-West Center. Honolulu then was simply flooded with Japanese tourists. He said facetiously, “If we knew we could take Honolulu in 1941, we would never have attacked Pearl Harbor.” This month, 75 years ago, Japan surrendered aboard the American battleship, the USS Missouri. We were occupied by the Japanese for three years. Most Filipinos have no experience of what occupation was like. Some worrisome conditions we are now experiencing in this pandemic are but a fragment of what we lived through. Will there be a repeat? I hope not, but let us look closely at the realities today. Sure, the United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty, and the United States has proclaimed it will come to our succor if attacked. American naval strength in the Pacific and the South China Sea is far superior to China. But China is just next door; it could overrun our puny Armed Forces in a matter of days. What will our response be?
In World War II, Thailand did not fight the Japanese; the Thais opened their doors to them, and Thailand survived. The conquest of the Philippines will be facilitated by Filipino-Chinese collaborators – this is a certainty. For one, it is official Chinese policy to use the overseas Chinese to promote China’s hegemonic ambition. We must understand China’s compulsion to expand. It has to feed its tremendous population of a billion and a half, lift them up from famine, disunity and colonial hangover. The Communist Party which holds the country together knows it is ringed by American bases and a hostile world. It faces many internal problems – corruption, restive minorities, this pandemic itself. There is nothing like a war to make the populace united; this is so true even in ancient times – it could very well work today for leaders who see their countries breaking up or seeking reprieve from poverty. War also makes money for those who produce weapons.
A Philippines occupied by China is not a remote possibility, and Filipino-Chinese collaboration will most probably be different from our Japanese experience. For one, it will not be stigmatized so much considering its volume and the fact that so much Chinese influence pervades almost all aspects of Filipino life. As I have already written, all of Southeast Asia will soon be Sinicized.
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I now bring to mind what it was like during those three years that we were occupied by the Japanese and why they were so hated and despised. Japan’s early victories amazed us; we believed so much in American power – this belief really never left us all through those perilous years. The first months of the Occupation were relatively peaceful, but soon after the surrender of Bataan in April 1942, Japanese brutality surfaced. Slowly, we realized it was not just the shortages that were precarious – it was the reality that anyone of us could be killed anytime. Food was the greatest need in those days. Every plot of land in the city was planted with camote or talinum. Basic necessities were difficult to come by. With cigarettes, some smoked dried papaya leaves using thin paper pages from the Bible as wrappers. Laundry and toilet soap, medicines most of all, construction materials like nails all had disappeared. Only the Japanese and the powerful Filipinos had cars. Manila, however, still had street cars, and the trains to the Ilokos and Bicol still ran though used mostly by the Japanese. Coconut oil replaced kerosene for lamps. The distribution system was disrupted, and the flight to the provinces began. In Manila, Divisoria was the center for the barter trade. It was here where secondhand clothes, furniture, watches, books were traded, and dried meat and fish were rarities. Carved wooden shoes were popular. I was fortunate to have had a sheet of canvas – a shoemaker made me a pair of shoes with car wheel tire as heels. Cotton was rationed; in the last days of the Occupation the poorest farmers were wearing sack cloth – the rough jute, not the sacks today made of synthetics. Hunger was in the faces of people – the skin pallor, the emaciated bodies. Even the Japanese who were living off the land were hungry. Our house in Rosales, Pangasinan was next to the school house. In early December 1944, it was occupied by a company of retreating Japanese. One morning, while I was in the yard, a Japanese soldier came to the fence and gestured that he wanted food. I brought him a plate of leftover rice which he wolfed down in my presence.
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Many Filipinos are hungry now, but this hunger cannot be compared to the hunger we experienced during the Occupation and with it, the fear of death from an enemy that had gone berserk. Looking back, did that war really unite us? I don’t think so. In that anarchy, each man was for himself, civic morality was thrown out of the window, private grudges were settled and the guerrillas themselves fought each other. I dare say that so many Filipinos were killed by Filipinos themselves. There are no statistics on this tragedy and I have not seen any study on the guerrilla war over turf.
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All over the world today, when there is so much need for global cooperation to combat this pandemic, divisive populist nationalisms are on the rise, abetted by rightist leaders mouthing motherhood creeds. Who is not for social justice? Three meals a day? A roof over our heads? Peace and security? But the people, particularly those beguiled by nationalist and populist passions, are not always right for these passions are the harbingers of dictators, of governments that oppress. If anything, I hope that this pandemic will teach us to value life and freedom and to sustain and nurture the civic virtues which constitute the strongest foundation of any nation.