Ramon Magsaysay and the Philippine peasantry is a subject rich in resources both for the political scientist and the story teller, as earlier publications have indicated. Miss Starner has avoided story telling. This book is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Philippine politics. Nevertheless, it is not entirely without a touch of romantic idealization of the subject more appropriate to the story teller’s medium.
Magsaysay was a colorful figure who charmed not only the peasant but the foreign observer. But four years after his death we are able to see his true role with some perspective. This book was apparently written, however, in 1956. It includes almost no material from that year and makes no mention of Magsaysay’s tragic end. Furthermore, its tone, aside from a properly cautious concluding paragraph, is the essentially optimistic one which followed his 1955 election triumph. It makes no attempt to trace the administrative implementation, or lack of implementation, of the reform legislation, passage of which is so carefully described.
Partly because of the locus of her field research, Miss Starner has defined the agrarian problem almost exclusively as it relates to Central Luzon. After a brief survey of the agrarian system in that region and the history of peasant movements there, she launches into a detailed review of the agrarian issue in the 1953 presidential election. Then follows a loosely structured report on peasant political attitudes and the status of peasant organizations in Central Luzon. Nearly half of the 199-page text is devoted to a description of Magsaysay’s agrarian program; a majority of this, and nearly a quarter of the entire book, is a lucidly written blow-by-blow account of the enactment of the Land Reform Bill of 1955, a first-rate piece of legislative history. Appended to the text are nearly forty pages of useful material, including election statistics for 1949 and 1953 and texts of the three most important agrarian reform laws passed during the Magsaysay administration.
Even with an abundance of primary sources, however, Miss Starner has reached conclusions which are not justified by her own text. This is possible partly because of failure to define terms. Nowhere has she defined “agrarian reform,” the most important concept in the book. She has, in fact, used this term interchangeably with, “broad program of social and economic amelioration” (p. 39), “rural improvement” (p. 77), and at one point seems even to confuse “agricultural reform” with increased efficiency of production (p. 112). Terminological vagueness and the previously noted tendency to idealize Magsaysay have resulted in such generalizations as “The significance of rural reform as an issue in the 1953 presidential elections can hardly be overestimated” (p. 23).
But Miss Starner, in more cautious moments, does not persist in this view. She adds, “it is by no means certain how much weight the rural voters attached to [Magsaysay’s] program” (p. 39), at one point, and “it would be difficult to overestimate the strength of personal factors as a basis for political choice in 1953,” at another. Elsewhere the conclusion is reached that Magsaysay’s “strength throughout Central Luzon appears to be more readily explicable on the basis of his contribution to peace and order than on the basis of any political promises he had made” (p. 69) In fact, this conclusion would seem the wiser; the contention that Magsaysay was “the one political leader who pressed most relentlessly for radical reform of the agrarian system” (p. 56) is nowhere substantiated.
Nor could the reference to the Nacionalista Party as “the party of reform” (p. 23), be supported. Miss Starner herself admits that the Nacionalistas mentioned agrarian reform in only one of the fifteen planks of their platform, and even then failed “to come to grips with the question of means.” “In contrast, the Liberal party went to some length to enumerate specific measures to assist the rural areas. . . .” “As a description of a multi phase rural improvement program, the provisions of the Liberal platform were much more adequate than those of the Nacionalista platform” (p. 42).
To be sure these platforms were not an adequate reflection of the true intention of the respective parties and candidates (p. 46), but what Miss Starner seems not to grasp is the fact that Magsaysay was able to convey his intentions to the people without relying on platforms or programs. She makes only passing reference to the charismatic character of his leadership (p.37); it needs more emphasis. It was a sincere and intense concern for the peasants’ welfare, expressed through a warm and dynamic personality, not a precise program of reform, which won Magsaysay his mass support.
Even after his election Miss Starner fails to call attention to Magsaysay’s rather considerable disinterest in the specifics of policy, though she does not conceal the facts. She maintains that Magsaysay’s first eight months in office revealed his “continued determination to carry out the program of rural reform he had outlined in his presidential campaign” (p.141). At the same time she correctly reports that Magsaysay’s first State of the Nation message “embodied few concrete proposals for agrarian legislation, and that the few it did contain were peripheral to the central issue of tenancy” (p.132). Even when agrarian legislation was presented, Magsaysay’s failure to take advantage of the prerogatives of the presidential office permitted long delays in its passage and a serious weakening of its provisions.
Concerning Magsaysay’s second year in office, when the major event in agrarian policy was the passage of the Land Reform Act, the author continues to insist that, “Without doubt, the enactment of the land reform bill was a tribute to the persistence of the President. . . .” Yet, alongside this statement is put the admission that “the evidence seemed clearly to indicate that the President would have accepted a compromise with the House at crucial points in the discussions” if it had not been for the insistence of Sen. Montano and other presidential advisors (p.182). In fact, though Miss Starner warns that “it would be a mistake … to underestimate the role played by the President’s advisors on land reform,” her account does seem to underestimate their importance. Only Sen. Montano is given adequate recognition.
Errors or lack of clarity in analysis can often be redeemed by ending on a true note of the prophetic trumpet. Miss Starner’s trumpet is loud and clear. “The expectations of the peasantry have been raised and it is no longer possible to turn back the clock” (p.199). The failure to meet those expectations could threaten “Philippine economic and social stability.” The threat has now become real.
International Christian University