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Meaning and history: UP History Dept. dismayed over P1,000 bill redesign, while a prominent historian defends BSP

By NICK GARCIA Published Dec 17, 2021 11:14 pm Updated Dec 17, 2021 11:16 pm

As the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) ruffled the feathers of many for replacing the P1,000 bill’s World War II heroes with a Philippine eagle, one prominent historian swam against the tide and presented the other side of the coin regarding a supposedly trivial issue or, as he calls it, a story that’s “definitely for the birds.”

“Much that I have read online since the weekend is either clickbait designed to get you angry or self-serving comments by politicians to make you angrier,” Ambeth Ocampo wrote in a Facebook post Dec. 15, followed by the link of his opinion column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

“As a historian I should join the lynch mob calling for the retention of our three World War II heroes on the face of the P1,000 bill,” Ocampo writes in his Dec. 15 column “’Mukhang pera’ redux.” In the said column, the popular historian described Filipinos as having “a culture that initially resists innovation,” after showing their disapproval over the impending disappearance of the composite portrait of Jose Abad Santos, Josefa Llanes-Escoda, and Vicente Lim.

Aside from institutions, historians, professionals, social media users, and other concerned citizens, the descendants of Abad Santos, Llanes-Escoda, and Lim especially didn’t take the redesign kindly.

Most of them condemned the seeming historical erasure and unfair treatment, among other negative sentiments, brought by the facelift of the popular bill. Some also wondered why the eagle can’t just simply coexist with the heroes on the said money.

In his Facebook post accompanying the column link, however, Ocampo said it’s “impossible” for the BSP to erase history. The central bank, he said, is simply pushing through with the redesign “to protect the integrity of our money.”

One can believe what one wants to believe these days

For Ocampo, the reason for the BSP’s redesign is more of a practical one: security. He noted that P1,000 “is a natural target of forgers” as the banknote with the highest denomination. The first line of defense against counterfeiting, he said, is the portrait on the obverse.

Ocampo also downplayed speculations about the redesign’s political subtext: That it’s a “quiet way” to get rid of the Aquinos and their “legacy screaming from the yellow P500 bill,” and that the Philippine eagle, “that appears in our passports by the way,” is a symbol “appropriated” by Sara Duterte.

“One can believe what one wants to believe these days,” the historian writes.

Going by your logic, it seems that we can destroy a façade of a historical edifice to make it more structurally sound instead of preserving it

In a reply to a Facebook user who questioned his take on the issue—stating that if forgery were indeed the consideration, it would've been better to just increase the details in the heads of the heroes—Ocampo maintained his position and defended the BSP, with whom he said he worked with for about eight years from 2002-2010.

"I trust in the decision of the BSP," said Ocampo in his reply.

Screencap of Ambeth Ocampo's reply

In a Dec. 11 press release, the BSP highlighted that the new series, which will already utilize the more environment-friendly polymer rather than previous cotton and abaca, will have additional security features.

Philippine eagle’s significance

The BSP also said that the redesigned banknote is the first in a new series “that will focus on the country’s rich flora and fauna,” with the Philippine eagle initially taking center stage.

BSP Gov. Benjamin Diokno told banking reporters that the new design has already been approved by the “NHI” (the National Historical Institute, the former name of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines or NHCP), as well as the BSP Monetary Board and the Office of the President.

When the BSP issued the first P1,000 bills in 1991, it said that Abad Santos, Llanes-Escoda, and Lim were meant to embody Filipinos who fought and resisted the Japanese occupation in 1941. In its website, the central bank explains that the trio represents three sectors: Abad Santos, the government; Llanes-Escoda, women; and Lim, the military.

Still, a P1,000 bill does not a hero make for Diokno, since “heroes will remain heroes whether they are in the notes or not.”

But not everybody is buying it.

The University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman’s Departamento ng Kasaysayan, for one, issued a statement on Dec. 16 about its “grave concern and dismay” over the redesign.

For UP’s history department, the BSP is “not only disregarding the Filipino symbol of its quest for nationhood and what it means through our heroes (but) is also trivializing this symbol.”

[O]ur heroes by whose genuine sacrifices have enabled us to take our place in the community of nations and in world history should be equally honored and given their rightful place in the symbols of our nation.

“A nation’s currency is a potent tool that can be harnessed to project a country’s heritage, tradition, and history to the public and the world,” its statement read. “For developing countries such as the Philippines where there is limited access to formal classes, books, and historical materials, our currency becomes an accessible platform, especially for the younger Filipinos, to display the best our country has to offer—an everyday reminder of the greatness of the Filipino nation and the Filipino.”

“[O]ur heroes by whose genuine sacrifices have enabled us to take our place in the community of nations and in world history,” it said, “should be equally honored and given their rightful place in the symbols of our nation.”

The UP history department also questioned how the design process “does not require consultation” with the NHCP.

While Diokno earlier announced that the redesign was “NHI”-approved, BSP Deputy Gov. Mamerto Tangonan told ANC that there was, apparently, “no need” to consult the commission since they didn’t add any historical element on the new bill.

In fact, Tangonan noted that the Philippine eagle design has already been approved before by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and that they’re just “reusing” it.

“We already have the facts vetted by (the) DENR when we reused the eagle,” ANC in its Dec. 15 report quoted Tangonan as saying.

"Let's say we're going to change something or were going to have a new denomination and we're going to put a hero or a new set of heroes, then we consult (the NHCP)," the BSP deputy governor explained.

Following the public backlash, the central bank has since clarified that the traditional P1,000 bill won’t be demonetized. Acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles also noted that the previous design will still remain in place.

The new P1,000 polymer notes are set to be issued in April 2022.

PhilSTAR L!fe has reached out to the BSP for further clarification on the redesign process.