Fidel Ramos restored the Philippines' credibility and self-respect

Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos in a photo taken on Aug 12, 2016. The writer says Mr Ramos was perhaps the most accessible head of state he has ever encountered. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - On the day Mr Fidel Valdez Ramos died, July 31, several Filipino friends I messaged told me they were weeping.

Even days later, one texted me to say: "I am grieving."

The ink is still drying on the many obituaries of Mr Ramos, popularly known as FVR. And much will still be written about him decades from now.

But this is not an obituary.

In the 1980s, mired in the corrupt and brutal regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines had been subjected to the demeaning "sick man of Asia" description.

Following the People Power revolution of 1986 that transfixed the world, forcing Marcos out of power, then president Corazon Aquino brought hope; democracy was back.

Her successor, Mr Ramos, restored the nation's self-respect.

During my five years covering the Philippines (1994-99), I had the privilege of travelling with the seemingly indefatigable Ramos many times.

He was remarkably accessible and invited the media into his orbit. He always had a seat available for a foreign correspondent on his plane or on one of the helicopters, on his weekly trips to the provinces.

For journalists, and even more so for foreign correspondents, each provincial trip offered an important sense of the geography and the logistics of running such a vast country, and yielded a snapshot of people's lives and issues in the remotest locales.

Locals got a visit from the president, and he was briefed on their problems, their hopes, their aspirations; Mr Ramos was perhaps the most accessible head of state I have ever encountered.

As president of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, I also hosted him for his talks and was often invited to roundtables at Malacanang, the presidential palace.

Other journalists who, like me, had covered his administration and travelled with him, paid tribute to him on social media.

In a file photo taken on Sept 11, 1997, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos inspects guards of honour upon his arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo-II airport. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Journalist and author Marites Danguilan Vitug, who was writing for Newsweek at the time, wrote: "What stands out in my memory is this: FVR made us look outward, dragged us out of our insularity.

"He kept reminding us… that the Philippines should compete in the regional and global arena. He also wanted us to look beyond Metro Manila. He wanted us to reconnect with neighbours and revive old trading ties. On his watch, the East Asean Growth Area was born.

"As a journalist, I cherished the 'boring' years under FVR, his repetitive speeches that hammered the message of shaping up for global competition and the absence of murmurs in the formerly restive military."

Indeed, it was Mr Ramos who, as chief of the armed forces, fended off or neutralised multiple coup attempts against his predecessor, Mrs Aquino; without him her presidency would arguably not have survived.

And nobody attempted a coup against him.

Work ethic

His work ethic was remarkable.

In a Facebook post, former Reuters journalist Manny Mogato, another contemporary of the time, recalled how Mr Ramos would often say: "No soft jobs for Ramos."

"I believed him," Mr Mogato wrote. "He was in the trenches in the Korean war in 1950 as a young lieutenant, in some rural villages in Vietnam in the 1960s as young major, and created the army special forces with his Vietnam war buddies."

He added: "Ramos was a workaholic. Getting up at 4am to read news clippings… writing marginal notes with his red pen.

"He was a man of action. He even got down doing push-ups with 300 soldiers who took part in an attempt to overthrow Cory Aquino."

Mr Mogato added: "Ramos was the best president the country ever had, (he) guarded democracy, broke monopolies and made peace, ending right-wing rebellion, half finishing the Muslim secessionist war and almost reaching a peace deal with Maoist-led rebels."

"FVR left behind a legacy of peace, stability and prosperity," he wrote.

It had to have been an omen, the Filipina author Criselda Yabes said on Facebook, that an image of her book Boys From The Barracks popped up just hours before it was publicly announced that the former president had died at the age of 94.

Boys From The Barracks tells the story of the 1986 EDSA, or People Power, revolution; it remains a deep insight into the mind of the Philippine military.

Mr Ramos made a difference during the revolution when he switched sides from being then president Marcos' martial law administrator, to back the People Power uprising against the Marcoses.

Mr Ramos instantly became a hero to the people. After he thwarted multiple attempted military coups against Mrs Aquino, she endorsed him as her successor and he won the 1992 election.

Philippine President Corazon Aquino (left) and Armed Forces Chief General Fidel Ramos in file photo taken on March 22, 1986. PHOTO: AFP

"No matter what people say, there was no other officer (or leader) that came close to his calibre and he protected Corazon Aquino (even if she did not trust him) and that meant saving the freedoms we so blindly throw away these days," Ms Yabes wrote.

"Last night, I went back to reading a few pages of how he had quelled the mutinies and there was this quote when he was talking to reporters after his morning jog in Camp Aguinaldo. He was upset about talk belittling his record by officers instigating coup attempts."

She quoted Mr Ramos admonishing them to not allow the reputation of the armed forces to be destroyed by a few officers: "We're enjoying our freedom ladies and gentlemen. You are here. If the majority of the armed forces did not do their job, I doubt very much you'd all be here."

The Filipino political commentator Richard Heydarian wrote in an article for Reuters: "As with all presidents, his legacy was a mixed bag. And the bar is admittedly low, but Ramos will likely go down in history as the best president in contemporary Philippine history."

Indeed, Mr Ramos' legacy is secure as a general who sided with the people and never stopped listening to them, taking to the democratic process like a duck to water.

Under the man's laconic, unflappable demeanour that earned him the affectionate nickname Steady Eddie, and wry sense of humour was an authoritative, direct and steely doggedness - ingredients that made him probably the best president the Philippines has ever had.

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