Luis General, Jr. (1921 – 2021): A Centennial Memorial - A book review by Greg S. Castilla
When Judge Soliman M. Santos, Jr., the editor of Luis General, Jr. (1921 – 2021): A Centennial Memorial, asked me to write a review on his latest magnum opus, I immediately agreed without any iota of hesitation. My reason for agreeing was because I wanted to know more about Luis General, Jr. – a name I heard from my father on few occasions when he was looking for a lawyer eons ago. Matibay asin marhay syang abogado (He is a skilled and righteous lawyer), my father would later confide to me.
Although the good judge and my father were years apart in age, they both seemed to speak highly of General: Santos, as General’s former law student at the University of Nueva Caceres (UNC); my father, as General’s former client. Thus, in a sense, both of them made me eager to get my hands on this book.
After reading the introduction, which I found to be quite lengthy though informative, I became concerned that there was nothing more to know about General. If one, like me, were just interested in knowing the man, the introduction had it made where General was described as “Renaissance Man of his time,” “the best essay writer in the land,” “a soldier, lawyer, teacher, writer, singer and community leader,” “Bikol historian, culturist, and local journalist (peryodista) par excellence,” and “the conscience of our community.”
Be that as it may, the introduction does a decent job of masterfully creating considerable hype about the book so much so that it piques my interest to continue reading.
As I continued reading, I was, at first, drawn into General’s experience, not so much as a lawyer or a journalist, but as a historian who wanted to show how things really were.
In the section “From the Bikol Martyrs to Angeles and Plazo,” the readers will understand how General was able to assess and connect various historical events while giving his own interpretation that views history from the perspective of the Bikolano revolutionaries and not that of the Spanish colonizers.
Peter Burke, the British historian, describes this approach as the new history that tends to look at events from “below” compared to the traditional history that looks at events from “above,” that is, of great men – such as statesmen, generals and the like. And, if I may add, colonizers.
The late Bishop Antonio Fortich of Bacolod, known as the Bishop of the Poor, once said that there is no room for neutrality when one group is oppressed by another; one is either on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed.
General may not be a trained historian, but he knew history. His writings are a ringing testament to how he viewed history not as a series of events per se, but as opportunities to discover the truth. And like Bishop Fortich, General knew where he stood and whose side he was with.
In describing the ordeal suffered by nationalist Bikolano martyrs, General deliberately exposed how the Spaniards would resort to falsehood – now known as “alternate reality” – to justify their ignominious plan. He wrote, “Nationalism is never the official reason for persecution. It may be the real motive, but the tyrant will always have a different excuse for bringing his enemies to trial, the torture rack or the scaffold. Thus, none of the martyrs was accused of nationalism, for, in fact, it was not a crime under the Spanish Penal Code.”
The book is also replete with accounts that show General’s passion to strengthen democratic institutions and to fight for justice without compromising his principles – something that many of today’s politicians should take to heart.
General’s desire to overcome insurmountable odds, like running as a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention without much resource, makes the book a stunning affirmation that no one could stop a person’s desire for change and do something good for one’s country. True, he lost, but he did not succumb to the temptation of joining well-moneyed organizations that could have assured his victory but may have soiled his long-established reputation.
Reflecting on his electoral defeat, General wrote, “One has to go thru the Calvary of candidacy to really learn how Pilate-like are our politicians. Knowing the few exceptions among them was one of the rewarding pleasures of the campaign. But to the typical pol, only money or the political advantage that could come his way would move him to help a candidate. The qualifications of a man for the office he seeks is least considered. Friendship, kinship, gratitude, and the common weal are used as mere adornments for their speeches and for justifying their positions in relation to any candidate, but the real motive factors are money and personal advantage.”
In another column, he wrote of the broken promises made by politicians during elections, “The only wealth of the poor of our country, because they are too many, is their votes. Every candidate—rich, not-so-rich, not rich at all—is always for the poor during the campaign… but we always end up with a government for the rich. After each election, the rich get richer, because they have been able to buy this wealth of the poor at bargain prices during the campaign.”
The current political condition in the Philippines continues to struggle with this ugly reality that General described in his writings way back in the early 1970s. He may be gone, but his insights remain relevant and timeless because he had seen the problem from the perspective of a former Con-Con candidate who lost to moneyed candidates. The book gives a glimpse into a principled way of campaigning that future and current politicians can strive for-- not selling or losing one’s soul, win or lose.
General’s writings also made me understand what it is like to advocate for justice. General was fearless when he criticized and demanded an answer to the desecration of the body of Alexander Belone II, a member of the New People’s Army (NPA) killed by the military in Balatan, Camarines Sur. The military disfigured his face beyond recognition after he had been killed as his body was dragged by a trimobile and paraded around the town.
Wrote General in a Balalong stinging editorial October 17, 1980, “A rebel is not a common criminal. The former’s crime is political, and he is not moved by the desire for personal profit but for the advancement of his ideals: His method may not be legal, but his objective could be as noble as those of his opponents. Besides, criminal or not, a dead man’s body deserves the respect of all his fellowmen.”
General had the same tenacity of conviction when he denounced the Daet Massacre in 1981 where 4,000 unarmed demonstrators, including women and children, were shot at by the military killing four and wounding scores of other demonstrators.
Calling the massacre “a weapon of tyrannical regimes,” he wrote, “It is again the old Red Bugaboo —any word or act against the regime is classified as communist, thus justifying repression. Even atrocities. It is a weapon of tyrannical regimes, not of one that avowedly seeks the erection of a “compassionate society.” Excuses and coverups cannot exonerate the perpetrators of the Daet Massacre. Only a-no-holds-barred, truly sincere investigation of the case, to the end that the guilty will be fully meted what they deserve in law and in justice can save the regime itself from being equally condemned to be as guilty of the murders as those who actually pulled the trigger.”
Reading General’s accounts about Belone II and the Daet Massacre took me on a journey that led to a greater awareness of what is happening today. Twenty-four years after his passing, nothing has changed much in terms of how the current government views those who constructively criticize the government.
Being an activist today is still fraught with dangers. The military continues to kill activists with complete impunity. The March 7, 2021 “Bloody Sunday” massacre that killed nine indigenous farmers and human rights defenders was a big loss for activists in the Philippines. One can add to the list the killings of Zara Alvarez of Karapatan and peasant leader Randall Echanis in 2020. There are many more victims, all documented by reputable human rights organizations. Many of them had been red-tagged, a form of political harassment against activists.
Sadly, for a good number of writers, writing about government abuses and repression is not a popular topic to write about for they fear being charged in court or harmed or even killed. And, understandably so. Of course, there are a few exceptions. But for General, writing about issues that matter and affect the common good appeared to be part of his DNA.
General commented that “one of our major weaknesses as a people is that we talk too much but write too little. We waste so many bright ideas in barber- or coffee-shop talks, but even the most articulate fail to reduce their most brilliant thoughts into writing—and the idea is lost almost as soon as the barber is paid or the last cup of coffee is consumed.” Writing for a cause was one of the ways he had remained relevant until he died.
General’s writings help me understand what it is like to be a man of conviction. By reading the book, I become aware that there is no limit to fighting for one’s conviction no matter how difficult the conditions are. In fact, for General, it’s almost a solemn obligation.
What makes the book so powerful is that it makes the readers see what General was all about from his own experience. It takes the readers through real events as General shared his experiences in ways that one cannot ignore. What emerges quite clearly is a man who really cares for people, who really is after the truth no matter what the cost is.
At the end, what makes the book thought-provoking and captivating is that it’s really about life, how to make one’s life meaningful amid challenges, uncertainties, and difficulties.
If, as Santos wrote in the introduction, the book is “meant to spark interest” in General’s selected writings, he might be pleased to know that in my case it went beyond sparking my interest. It made me see the world better because I can now see the world from inside the experiences of a man worthy of emulation.
There’s a lot to learn from reading this book – one of the best I’ve read.
Copies of the book are available at the UNC Resource Center in the Gym for P500 each. For further inquiries, contact the UNC Press at 4726100 or 0917-156-6898.