POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 10 February 2011, Thursday
Death Before Dishonor
This is now one of the Filipino equivalents of the American “Where were you when John F. Kennedy died?” the other being, “Where were you when Ninoy died?”
The suicide of the former Department of National Defense, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and Department of Energy secretary sent shock waves throughout the nation. People tuned in to the radio or TV or checked Internet updates to find out the details of the event.
Embroiled in a military payoffs scandal stemming from his time in the DND, Reyes was summoned to answer questions before lawmakers; the investigation proceedings were seen on television. He was asked to come to another hearing, scheduled for 9:30am last Tuesday, the day he took his own life. He drew up an affidavit asking to be excused from attending that hearing.
Early Tuesday morning, he sat beside his mother’s grave, shooed his sons and bodyguards away, and sent a bullet through his heart. What thoughts went through his mind as he mulled over the difficult circumstances he was in? How did he weigh life and family against the nothingness of death? What made him choose oblivion?
As expected, speculation is rife. A source said that the former secretary had been receiving death threats warning him not to disclose what he knew about the extent of the payoffs and who were involved. What if threats had also been made against his family? That would indeed be a compelling reason for him to sacrifice himself to ensure the safety of his loved ones.
And by all accounts, Reyes loved his family deeply. In an interview published a few days before his death, he said, “I can take everything they say against me but not against my family. They should not be dragging my family into this controversy.” He died gazing at his mother’s tombstone.
When public figures die through violent means, it always comes as a surprise because suicide is deeply frowned upon in Filipino culture. Through its emphasis on strong and tight-knit relationships between friends and family, society provides a network that may give comfort to the depressed and despondent, which is why psycho-therapy is not popular.
What, for Reyes, overrode adherence to cultural norms?
Reyes was a soldier, and his act of finality brings to mind the concept of honor, an idea central to military thought and philosophy throughout the ages.
Perhaps one of the most famous cultures of honor is the Japanese. Their code of bushido, “the way of the warrior”, a “code of conduct adhered to by samurai in the feudal medieval period” (Wikipedia), emphasized the seven virtues of rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, and loyalty, as well as the values of obedience, duty, filial piety, and self-sacrifice.
Disgraced samurai redeemed their honor by committing seppuku, ritual disembowelment that required utmost bravery in the face of extreme pain and a long, lingering, agonizing death.
Compare bushido to the PMA Honor Code and Honor System (text below taken from the Philippine Military Academywebsite):
“We, the cadets, do not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate among us those who do so.”
“A Cadet does not lie. He always tells the truth regardless of the consequences. He does not quibble or make evasive statements. A cadet does not cheat. He does not defraud others nor does he take undue advantage of them. Whatever credit he earns in any cadet activity is wholly his own. A cadet does not steal. He does not take the personal property of another without the latter’s consent.
“He does not keep for himself anything that he finds which does not belong to him. A cadet does not do any of these things and he does not tolerate any violations of the Code. He is bound to report any breach of the code that comes to his attention. He does not countenance by inaction any honor violation; if he were to, he becomes a party to such violation and he himself is as guilty as the original violator.
“The Honor System transcends all ranks and class barriers. No cadet, regardless of his rank and class is above the System. No violator of the Code is granted immunity. No cadet who violates the Code can redeem himself from the violation he commits.
The spirit of the Honor System is based on two basic questions: Do I intend to deceive? Do I intend to take undue advantage? If a cadet can answer “No” to both questions, he is not guilty of any honor violation.”
That text raises a lot of red flags. Bushido upholds seven core values and other virtues beside. But the PMA Code emphasizes only those values that are the antitheses of theft, fraud, and betrayal.
Why was the code written this way? The answer that comes to mind is – because these are the offenses that our armed forces feel they have to guard against the most. Corruption is the cancer that has afflicted our society for decades.
What about the Filipino concept of honor? This is manifested in the cultural values of hiya (sometimes translated as ‘shame’) and delicadeza (sensibility of feeling, knowing what is appropriate and proper and what is not).
We have felt the ill effects of the erosion of these values, superseded by a culture of impunity, where those at the top run rough-shod over the rights of others or take what is not rightfully theirs by virtue of their incumbency in positions of power. The strong take advantage of the weak, deliberately disregarding the responsibilities that come with power.
Secretary Reyes need not have taken his life. But he chose to take his secrets to the grave. The question of whether or not he was culpable of any wrongdoing is now moot, because he paid the ultimate price.
He chose death over dishonor. How many of us would be brave enough to do the same?