The Politics of Institutionalizing National Memory - Blueboard by Oliver John C. Quintana

December 27, 2019

These past few years, we have witnessed a renewed and resurging interest inFilipino history and heroism. This is most evident in popular culture, with the release of semi-autobiographical filmssuch asHeneral Luna and Goyo, and works that depict the tumultuous‘70s and ‘80s, such asLiway, ML, and Respeto. In many universities, theater productions such as Dekada ’70, Desaparesidos, Nana Rosa,and The Kundiman Partyinvite audiences to reflect and revisit our wellspring of memory as a nation.
 
Three years ago, thesecret burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani rekindled the burning question of what and who a hero is within our national narrative. In a time when societies are being bombarded with fake news, alternative facts, and historical revisionism, the politics of institutionalizing national memoryhas become a pressing issue we all have to grapple with. It has deeply divided our people, and made us ask important questions, such as: Is this administration honoring the right heroes?
 
This year, we are commemorating the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Republic of Korea. Designated by President Duterte and President Moon Jae-inas a “Year of Mutual Exchange,” 2019 recalls how these two nations have journeyed together, working on various levels of cooperation (such as culture, trade, tourism, security, education, etc.), harnessing economic growth, and shaping future policy directions within the Asian region.
 
Amidst all of the celebrations, however, let us not forget the reason behind this close partnership and long-standing friendship: that almost seventy years ago, Filipino blood was offered on Korean soil in the name of brotherhood.
 
It is an unknown fact for many Filipinos that, when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, the Philippines was the first Asian country to send contingent forces to aid South Korea.
 
Under the leadership of then President Elpidio Quirino, the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (PEFTOK) was organized. A total of five Battalion Combat Teams (BCTs) were deployed to South Korea from 1950 to 1955. Enduring the rough terrain, harsh weather conditions, and homesickness, 7,420 Filipino soldiers fought side-by-side with combat forces from 15 other foreign nations. The creation of PEFTOK was an unprecedented move on the part of our government, a powerful gesture from a Southeast Asian country which was still recovering from the destruction brought about by the horrors of the Second World War.
 
In 1955, the PEFTOK Veterans Association, Inc. (PVAI) was formed. Aside from leading annual commemorations, the organization aims to “uplift through self-reliance the economic well-being of all PEFTOK Veterans, their widows, orphans and dependents,” and improve the relationship between Filipinos and Korean communities in the Philippines.
 
Since its inception, PVAI hasbeen the recipient of financial assistance from various Korean government institutions, private businesses, and local communities in the Philippines. At present, it continues to reach out to more than 300 students through its scholarship program.
 
However, despite the existence of a veterans’ organization and a small museum in Taguig, one cannot deny howimportant events in history, such as the participation of the Philippines in the Korean War, are slowly being forgotten, slipping outside of the boundaries of national memory. This slow, painful process is continually being felt up to this very day.
 
Recently, we have seen a growing interest in hallyu among many Filipinos – especially teenagers. Now is the perfect opportunity toreintroduce this unfamiliar episode in Philippine and Korean history.
 
In the book Uses of Heritage, Laurajane Smith explores how the passing on and the receiving of memories helps us to “make sense of and understand not only who we ‘are’, but also who we want to be.”As the last few remaining veterans face the sunset of their lives, the challenge of preserving and passing on their stories becomes more and more difficult.It becomes crucial then to ask: How is this important piece of ‘Philippine history’ reproduced in the everyday lives of Filipinos? What lessons can we learn from them? What can be the role of NGOs and private organizations in pushing forth this advocacy? 
 
Last October 24, the City of Marikina and PVAI led the restoring ceremony of the Marikorea War Memorial Monument in Marikina Heights. Built in 2005, the monument is the country’s first structure honoring Filipino Korean War veterans.
 
One of thosewho spearheaded the restorationproject was Mr. Jong Sub Lee of the United Korean Community Association in the Philippines (UKCA). For three months, he sought help from various donors by posting announcements on newspapers and organizing fundraising events. After this, he reached out toMayor Marcelino Teodoro of Marikina City to propose said project. Thelocal government of Marikina agreed to collaborateby providing technical support and shouldering labor costs. The UKCA, on the other hand,donated materials such as cement, hollow blocks, paint, and tiles. According toMr. Lee, local Korean communities wholeheartedly take part in these activitiesfor one sole reason: it is their humble way of showing their gratitude for all the sacrifices made by Filipino soldiers during the Korean War.
 
As we enter a new decade in Philippine-Korean relations, the task of immortalizing the role of PEFTOK veterans in Korean history becomes a responsibility placed on everyone’s shoulders. Both Philippine and Korean governments must continue working together to ensure that this great Filipino legacy will never be forgotten. In a time when many Filipinos look up to self-proclaimed saviors who offer brutal and brazen solutions, perhaps it is time for us to remember and turn our gaze to real heroes who, in the face of death, championed freedom, peace, and democracy.
 
Oliver John C. Quintana is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. He is the grandson of Ret. Col. Melecio S. Quintana (+), Korean war veteran and member of the 14th BCT of the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (PEFTOK).