Jovito Salonga: Pasigueño, Guerilla, Blast Survivor, Senate President

“The Nation’s Fiscalizer” was the title that the Philippines Free Press had given this rising vocal senator in 1968 who has voiced his opposition on the growing authoritarian ways of the Marcos administration in every step of the way.

His oratory skills in the Senate floor was legendary. He was but among the several cacophony of voices that were raised in the legislative chamber, if only in proportion to the growing discontent of people, manifested by the massive street protests that were ignored. At the time, the country has boasted then the freest and noisiest democracy in Asia, true to our brand as Filipinos. It was, after all, the Philippines before the proclamation of Martial Law. This senator would be injured by a bombing, subjected to threats, and imprisoned—not unique at all when you see the like-minded leaders of the time such as Ninoy Aquino, Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada, Eva Kalaw, etc.
Panic after the 1971 Plaza Miranda blast. Photo courtesy: Gerry Roxas Foundation
But perhaps the most unique feature of Jovito Salonga was his faith. He was, after all, raised in a robust Protestant faith that was rooted in the 16th century Protestant Reformation—that whirlwind that turned the church and state in Europe upside down and helped give birth to the modern world. And as we would see, in a nation that aspired freedom of religion, through Salonga, no matter what religious upbringing you come from, each one has a space and an opportunity to enrich our democracy and body politic. 2020 is the centennial birth anniversary of Jovito “Jovy” Reyes Salonga. He was born of humble parents on 22 June 1920 in Pasig. His father, Esteban Salonga, pastored a Presbyterian church, while his mother Bernardita Reyes worked as vendor. He was fifth and youngest of the five children. The classic Protestant work ethic as worship to God was imbibed by “Jovy” as he diligently studied while earning as a proofreader under his brother’s publishing company. With the outbreak of the invasion of Japan, Jovy was already a student in the U.P. College of Law. Under the Japanese occupation, Jovy postponed his plans on taking the Bar Exam, as he decided to join the underground guerrilla movement at great risk to his life, heeding the call to defend his country. Unfortunately, the Japanese captured him in 1942, and he was sentenced to 15 years in forced labor, which would be cut short when he was pardoned in 1943. The scars he bore from those days imbued him with a spirit of iron-clad courage. In 1944, Jovy decided to take the Bar exam. He became that year’s Bar topnotcher from the University of the Philippines, as his score tied with Jose Diokno, who was allowed to take the Bar even without a law degree. Their score, the highest at the time, was 95.3%. Able to obtain a scholarship from Harvard, Salonga studied for his master’s degree there in 1948 and was given a special recommendation by Prof. Manley Hudson (who used to sit as member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration) to Yale University. Salonga was conferred his doctorate in jurisprudence there in 1949. Such sterling credentials gave him an opportunity to become faculty of Yale. But once again, heeding the call of his country after the devastation of the Second World War, he declined, and opted to go back to the Philippines.
Jovito Salonga (on the far left) with his colleagues at Yale University, 1948. Esteban Salonga Collection.
Salonga’s entrance to politics in 1961 was only because of the encouragement of then presidential candidate Diosdado Macapagal. It was a steep challenge for Salonga, who ran as Congressman of Rizal’s 2nd district under the Liberal Party ticket, upon which he contended with a political dynasty. He clinched his win, as his party-mate Macapagal also won the presidency. Severely reduced in support with the 1965 win of the Nacionalista Party, Salonga still won the most votes when he ran as Senator at the time. From here on out Salonga and the like-minded senators, and even the independent ones, saw the gradual erosion of civil liberties under the Marcos administration, as people reacted in street protests that only intensified as years went by. Salonga, upon convening his partymates for the approaching mid-term legislative elections, invited the Nacionalista but independent-minded Senator Eva Kalaw to be LP’s guest candidate. On 21 August 1971, however, at the Liberal Party’s miting-de-avance at Plaza Miranda, Quiapo, Salonga was one of the LP candidates who was severely injured in the suspicious bombing blamed by the Marcos administration on the Communists.
Injured candidates of the Liberal Party from the bombing at Plaza Miranda, as featured in the Philippines Free Press, 1971. Presidential Museum and Library Collection.
Despite this, Salonga and his partymates won six of the eight senatorial seats. He was just one among the many loud voices of the opposition until the declaration of Martial Law on 23 September 1972.
LP candidates with Salonga (3rd from the left) campaigning after the Plaza Miranda Bombing. Presidential Museum and Library Collection.
Under the 1935 Constitution, Congress was set to open on 22 January 1973, but Salonga and the others found it padlocked. During those years of the dictatorship, Salonga understood that his Christian faith was inseparable from the morality that should be exhibited in the political public square. It was here, as a Protestant that he associated himself with like-minded church leaders from mainstream Protestant and Evangelical denominations, such as Rev. Cirilo Rigos of the Cosmopolitan Church Manila (United Church of Christ in the Philippines) and Rev. Isabelo Magalit of the Diliman Bible Church and Philippine representative to the Lausanne Congress 1974 (the largest Evangelical congress/synod composed in history). In 1973, Salonga, together with the Protestant pastors and church leaders drafted the document, entitled We Believe:
We believe that over and above all things, over and above all loyalties, is the primacy of God’s sovereignty; We believe that God is concerned not only with spiritual matters but with things that are material to man–food and clothing and shelter, his government, his institutions, and his society. To confine God to purely spiritual things is to separate Him from the world He made, the same world for which Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, gave His life. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being created in God’s own image, and because of this He is entitled to the respect and concern of His fellowmen; We believe that the Great Commandment—love of God and love of fellowmen–can be fulfilled only if society is just and free. Wherever there is injustice or oppression, there is need for redemption not only from the evils that produce them but from the structures that make them possible. We believe that the Christian Churches have a prophetic ministry to perform. We believe that this prophetic ministry means— that the Churches must deal with specific problems, not with platitudes and pieties if they are to be faithful to their task. They cannot pretend to be blind and dumb in the face of poverty, exploitation, and injustice. By their silence, they become involved in the very injustice they fail to speak and do something about. —that we shall respect the laws, but in the event of conflict, prefer to obey God rather than man. We desire order but only when it is balanced with the human aspiration for freedom, equality, and human dignity.
This “statement of faith” is nothing short of extraordinary, comparable to the Barmen Declaration of 1934 that German churches drafted in opposition to the Nazi regime. Salonga would initiate conversations even from the leaders of the Marcos leadership, inviting AFP generals and Marcos technocrats to be guests in forums of lay ministers and evangelists of Protestant denominations. Several times did the Marcos regime try to shut down church events that tackle on socio-political issues. Even the National Council of Churches in the Philippines office was not spared from military raids. But in those difficult times, these denominations looked to Salonga for support. After the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship through EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986, Salonga’s advocacy was not yet over. After having been the first chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) serving from 1986 to 1987 tasked to sequester the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses, he ran for the Senate under the new 1987 Constitution, and won and became President of the Senate. It was perhaps the utter expression of the Senate’s independence from the Chief Executive, when in 1991, despite President Corazon Aquino’s push to renew the U.S. Military Bases Agreement, the Senate (as ratifier and reviewer of all treaties entered into by the Philippine government with other foreign governments) rejected the renewal. The rejection of the agreement which authorized the presence of U.S. military bases in the Philippines and a byproduct of the 1946 negotiations, had come full circle, for Salonga, at the time fresh from law school, firmly opposed the agreement.
Jovito Salonga in his office as President of the Senate of the Philippines, 1988. Esteban Salonga Collection.
Summing up his life, one gets the impression that when a Filipino stands on what it is right and true with faith, courage, and conviction, that person would not be bound or boxed by petty partisan categories. For Salonga, his ultimate loyalty and faith is to his God and to his country, and always in the defense of freedom. Considered as one of his famous words, and echoing Rizal on the concept of freedom and human dignity, Salonga said:
“Freedom is the bedrock of human dignity, the one value we should never compromise or surrender. Freedom is the catalyst in all our efforts toward national development; it is the precondition and the objective of our collective endeavor. For a nation of sheep can never be great.”
As Rizal would say, true love for country is, as painful as it might be, being brave enough to expose our own malignant “cancer” to “the steps of the temple” so that anyone can “present a remedy.” As Salonga demonstrated in his life, loving the country the right way is not becoming a “nation of sheep” but becoming a nation where truth is adhered to and where justice reigns. In one of the clearest exposition of his political philosophy was the short essay Salonga wrote in 1966, on what it means to love the Philippines, in light of Marcos’s “New Society” propaganda. He said:
“In other places, love for country can so blind the eyes of men—to their failings, to their weaknesses, and to their vices. Love of country is indeed a virtue—but the matter does not end there. The more important question is whether we have the capacity to love our country in the right way. We do not love our country in the right way when we magnify our vices, extol our follies, and surrender the day to the demagogues who cater to our baser appetites and to our wildest passions.”

Original publication: Indiohistorian

[Entry 328, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Kristoffer Pasion the resident historian of Team He is a public historian working for the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. He has been serving in government for almost a decade, having worked as cultural officer for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2011-2013), and as history researcher for the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines (2013-2016).

He runs the blog Indiohistorian, and does active history writing on social media. He is finishing his masteral studies in History at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, pursuing research on the history of government institutions.

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