The ‘Limasawa 6’ case: criminalizing research?

I write this on our country’s 123rd Independence Day, which got me thinking about this year, 2021, its significant historical milestones, and other history-related matters.

While this year happens to be the second year of the pandemic, it is also the 500th year since Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed up our blue waters, since the first circumnavigation of the world, since the first Easter Sunday Mass was celebrated on our shores.

To mark this historical event, President Duterte issued Executive Order No. 55 that created the National Quincentennial Commission (NQC) to take charge of commemorative activities. Finding out where to hold the celebrations now gained even more significance—among them, the actual site where the first Easter Sunday Mass was held on March 31, 1521.

For decades, Filipino historians have been arguing whether the site of that sacred event was Limasawa Island or Butuan. Thus three research panels were convened to try to settle the argument: the Workshop Panel of 1980, led by Samuel Tan; the Gancayco Panel, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Emilio Gancayco; and the Legarda Panel, headed by Dr. Benito Legarda Jr.

All three panels found the site of the First Easter Sunday Mass to be Limasawa Island. Yet for some historians, the issue remains undecided.

In line with the NQC’s mandate, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) formed a panel to re-evaluate the matter, primarily on the basis of new evidence presented, and come up with a judgment whether the evidence is enough to overturn the decisions of the previous panels.

What is now known as the Mojares Panel comprises six historians who are eminent and well-known PhDs in their fields, with combined accomplishments, book authorships, degrees, and output that would fill the pages of a telephone book:

Dr. Resil B. Mojares, called the ‘Titan of Visayan Letters,’ is the head of the panel.  He is also our National Artist for Literature.

Dr. Antonio Francisco B. De Castro is a prominent church historian and a Jesuit priest who was nominated by Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to be a member of the panel. 

Dr. Danilo M. Gerona is a recognized historian, the author of a definitive book about Ferdinand Magellan, and a history professor at the Partido State University, Camarines Sur. 

Dr. Jose Victor Z. Torres is a multiple Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature recipient and a full-time history professor at De La Salle University.

Dr. Carlos Madrid Alvares-Piñer is a well-known historian in the Philippines and Spain who is now the director of the Micronesian Area Research Center in Agana, Guam.

Dr. Francis M. Navarro is a full-time history professor at the Ateneo de Manila University whose specialties are paleography and Spanish Studies.

The Mojares Panel, now known in history circles as the ‘Limasawa 6,’ was constituted by National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) Chairman Rene Escalante and given the task to investigate whether the Easter Mass was held at Limasawa or Butuan.  

They also found for Limasawa.

However, according to reports by the Philippine News Agency (PNA) dated March 19 and the Philippine Star on March 21, both this year, physician Dr. Potenciano Malvar filed a case for libel and falsification against the scholars of the government panel. He asked for civil damages in the amount of P20 million.

The Mojares Panel, inter alia, besides ancient books and documents, considered the submissions made by Malvar and three other historians. The panel’s ruling was arrived at after months of deliberation and study.

After the panel delivered its report, they were criminally charged by Malvar.  My one-year residency at the University of the Philippines’ School of Law, however, tells me that because they are a government panel, they are immune from suit.

Herodotus, according to John Barrow in his book A History of Histories, was the first to use the term historia (inquiry) for what we now call ‘history.’

He said Herodotus himself paid tribute to the Egyptians for their preservation of knowledge of the past: “By their practice of keeping records of the past, they have made themselves much the most learned of any nation of which I have had experience.”

It is for this reason that the result of historical research should not be the subject of a criminal investigation, neither should it be criminalized, since to do so would produce cowering historians whose conclusions will be dictated by the fear of facing criminal prosecution.

The conclusions made by the Mojares Panel were the very same conclusions made by the three previous panels specifically constituted to determine the site of the first Easter Mass. 

Reading the panel report, which was adopted by the NHCP and which appears on the NHCP website, I found it absorbing, scholarly, and judicious in its findings. It is hard to envision scholars standing before magistrates denying or affirming their scholarly research, and letting the magistrates determine through judicial fiat the truthfulness or accuracy of events which should be the subject of study by historians.

There is no personal benefit to the historians now being criminally investigated to find for one site over the other; rather there is only great responsibility on their shoulders to do the job right, not only for themselves but for the nation.

These criminal cases filed before the Office of the City Prosecutor of Butuan were docketed and filed as NPS Docket No. XIII-01-INV-216-01071, according to a picture of the “Investigation Data Form” appearing in the PNA article. 

The mere idea of being criminally charged because of one’s intellectual curiosity casts a ‘chilling effect,’ defined by an online source as “the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction. In the United States, the right that is most often described as being suppressed by a chilling effect is the constitutional right to free speech.”

Research is free speech. Filing criminal charges against researchers and historians sends a message to them that if someone disagrees with their findings, they can be sued. This could cause fewer people to take up historical studies or research in general out of fear.

I called panel member Dr. Francis M. Navarro through Viber to ask about the status of the case.  He said they have just filed their counter-affidavits despite the pandemic. 

I asked him what the NHCP is doing about their case, because upon checking the agency’s website, I could not find that they have come out with a public statement on the matter.

Dr. Navarro said they are being represented by a private lawyer, Saul Hofileña Jr., a former law dean, law professor, and a historian like themselves. Knowing Atty. Hofileña’s track record and accomplishments, I did not ask any further. The fabled ‘Limasawa 6’ is in good hands.


FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: Independence Day , Philippine News Agency , National Historical Commission of the Philippines , Philippine News Agency , Limasawa
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