HERITAGE advocates defended University of Santo Tomas (UST) after Malacañang criticized the 400-year-old institution for refusing the proposal of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to build a catch basin under the school’s football field to contain flood waters.
Ivan Henares of the Heritage Conservation Society said that the open campus grounds of UST—and its Main Building, Arch of the Centuries and Central Seminary—had been declared by government itself as National Cultural Treasures (NCT).
“It is the duty of the Philippine government to preserve and protect National Cultural Treasures,” Henares said.
The criticism of UST was made by President Aquino III during his State of the Nation Address (Sona) on July 27.
The President said in Filipino that, to check flooding in Manila, his government had sought to construct a “catchment area but it was opposed by a big university.”
“They said they have old buildings that may be affected by the project,” he added.
In a television interview later, Malacañang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the President was referring to UST.
Lacierda called the open grounds a “prized soccer field” and urged UST to value public safety more.
“Would you forgo safety over a prized soccer field?” he asked.
But Henares said DPWH and “Malacañang speechwriters” forgot that the government itself had declared UST a heritage zone.
“They placed President Aquino in a position of criticism,” said Henares.
Section 20 of Republic 10066—the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009—states that “immovable national cultural treasures shall not be relocated, rebuilt, defaced or otherwise changed in a manner which would destroy the property’s dignity and authenticity, except to save such property from destruction due to natural causes.”
Henares said that DPWH Secretary Rogelio Singson had given a directive to regional directors to avoid destroying heritage properties.
“But it seems the engineers need heritage-sensitivity training to fully understand their responsibilities as government engineers to protect Philippine cultural heritage,” he explained.
Government men and women, he added, should be required “to undergo heritage and cultural sensitivity training” by the National Museum or National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), to avoid incidents like these from happening in the future.”
Architect Richard Reyes of the NCCA National Committee on Monuments and Sites said Malacanang was “insensitive” to culture and heritage.
“For the President to even put in his speech a snide remark about UST not cooperating, and for [his spokesperson] to call [UST] Open Field a ‘prized soccer field’ just show they are insensitive to cultural heritage and they don’t value things,” Reyes told The Varsitarian, UST’s student organ.
Heritage experts said UST Open Field was named an NCT because of several historic events that took place there, in particular the papal youth rallies of Blessed Paul VI in 1970 and St. John Paul II in 1981 and 1995.
“And in using the UST Open Field, what is their (DPWH) plan to discharge water there?” asked Reyes. “The fact that Pasig River overflows, touching UST will be a waste of money and heritage.”
“It is not ethical for a president to take a swipe at an educational institution just because it declined his proposal,” said Eric Zerrudo, vice chair of Unesco National Commission of the Philippines (Unacom), who added the innuendo made during the Sona was “unbecoming of a president.”
“The more you complain, the more you reveal your ignorance,” he said.
Zerrudo, who also teaches for the Cultural Heritage Studies program of UST Graduate School, said the government should study first the geo-hazard characteristics of Sampaloc, the Manila district where the UST campus is.
“Is that their only option? I’m sure there are lots of options. Why was UST singled out? How sure are they that it (catchment) is going to be effective?”
Zerrudo said the DPWH plan “is not addressing the flood problem of Manila, it’s a palliative. We should address people’s attitude toward the environment instead.”
Heritage advocate Rona Repancol said government was showing the low priority it placed on culture and heritage.
“What is the assurance that a flood-control project will be worth the sacrifice of culture and heritage?” asked Repancol.
UST administration has not commented on the issue, but The Varsitarian in an editorial called the Sona “unpresidential, philistine, and bitter.”
The Sona and Lacierda’s remarks, said The Varsitarian, “revealed the historical ignorance that has led to cultural disasters such as Torre de Manila and Admiral Hotel, all of them taking place during the Aquino administration.”
“Indeed, philistinism reigns in high places,” the editorial said.