Doc Soc: Palawan’s passionate crusaderBy Redempto D. Anda
Philippine Daily Inquirer
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—It was dawn when he arrived at my house by the beach and parked his car along the road right across the gate. He told a house helper who came up to him with an umbrella that he was just going for a swim. He left me a key ring with a note that it was a gift from his wife Cecille, a souvenir from the London Olympics they had watched recently.
Doc Soc never came back for his car. Early evening of that day, his body was retrieved by a police-led search party while floating on the bay.
Dr. Jose Antonio Socrates, 64, wasn’t by any means a regular chap. He was a passionate civic leader who ranted against government corruption and environmental abuse, in a place where the advocacy of such social issues had been mired in violence over the last few years.
“He had threats, lots of threats. He was just ignoring them,” muttered Palawan Bishop Pedro Arigo as the search for the missing doctor was going on at dusk. There was a police report that a body had been seen floating by fishermen on Puerto Bay, just off the public beach in Puerto Princesa City.
I had gotten worried that he left his car with windows open and unattended for the entire day. I tried calling him and he was not picking up his phone, prompting me to call his wife.
It was typical of him to show up at my doorsteps very early in the morning, with often funny ideas and kilometric essays about his advocacy. But it was not in his character to hold up a meeting he himself had called. Bishop Arigo decided to call off their meeting and most of them went to join the search.
Socrates had enemies and the manner of his death immediately alerted police investigators for a possible foul play. It was just a couple of years ago when one of his closest friends, radio broadcaster Dr. Gerry Ortega, was shot dead by a hired killer. They were both founders of the anticorruption group Kilusan Love Malampaya (KLM).
Massive heart attack
Socrates’ body was found on rigor mortis early evening of Sept. 23. It bore no external wounds or signs of struggle, according to the city police chief. Medical authorities took a day to conclude, upon autopsy, that the cause of death was massive heart attack.
At the time of his death, Socrates was attending to at least three different cases involving government corruption—a libel complaint filed against him by Palawan Gov. Abraham Mitra, a graft case he filed before the Sandiganbayan in connection with allegations of misspending of Malampaya funds that went to Mitra’s district when he was congressman, and a long-running feud with the head of the provincial hospital, who wanted to close down his free-to-the-public orthopedic clinic.
“He was supposed to deliver a presentation to civil society regarding the Commission on Audit reports about the misuse of the Malampaya funds on the day he died,” said lawyer Edward Lorenzo of the nongovernment group Environmental Legal Assistance Center.
When his body was brought to the mortuary, his wife hedged on allowing the pathologist to conduct an autopsy and determine the cause of death. “I dreaded the idea of them opening up his body but I decided to allow it in the end because the doctor who had already started doing the procedure after a bit of confusion happened to be a family friend,” Cecille said.
Doc Soc had fought against major odds, taking over from the work left by his friend, Ortega. He had defied the Capitol with accusations of fund misuse that he leveled against two successive governors, one of whom, Joel T. Reyes, had been in hiding since early this year with an arrest warrant for the murder of Ortega.
At the same time, Doc Soc pursued with equal zeal his free medical practice. He had established an orthopedic rehabilitation clinic he dubbed “Bahatala” with funding from the British Palawan Trust that allowed him to practice medicine without charging his patients.
“I never charged my patients, be they rich of poor. I’ve never worked my whole life. I just enjoy my profession,” he said laughing when I was interviewing him for a story I wrote about him after he won the prestigious Sasakawa Health Prize in 2007 from the World Health Organization.
The feather in his cap was all he treasured and the entire cash prize that went with his award he donated to his charity work. It turned out the Sasakawa prize was really just a passing fancy for Socrates, and he would go on with his work—unfettered and unadorned.
He would take on silently a personal project that he completed in about a year, wrecking his car in the process to scour the city outskirts for dead coral rocks that he had used to build a giant coral garden in front of his newly constructed rehabilitation center he called Bahay Sanay.
His professional resumé was sterling: the only Filipino fellow in the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Orthopedic Association, a graduate of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, General Surgical Residency Program, a Mashav scholar in plastic surgery in Israel, a specialist in neuro trauma acquired at Cambridge University, and a licensed geologist.
“As a geologist, he had proven that the continental shelf of Malampaya extended to the Underground River in Puerto Princesa and that we have a direct claim to the royalty share,” said Cesar Ventura, former provincial budget officer and current chair of the watchdog organization KLM.
Despite his academic achievement, Doc Soc relished playing around with acronyms (like he was the one who coined the awkward name of Kilusan Love Malampaya). In my last interview with him, he chuckled with the declaration that he will end up simply as a “d-o-g.”
“I’m getting old and one day I will be just another DOG—a dead old geologist.” Then his eyes flickered in delight.
“Once in our lifetime, we meet men whose life is not about themselves as it is about the vision they embraced. These people tend to be so dogged and stubborn about their beliefs to the point that they seem to neglect their own welfare and comfort,” Fr. Robert Reyes, another champion of Palawan civil society causes, told the Inquirer.
Dogged and stubborn were almost an understatement. He had fought even the silliest of causes, including a hotel establishment for refusing him entry just because they won’t allow him inside wearing his flip-flops. One morning during those days, he came to my house with a five-page essay haranguing the hotel and its management.
There was one time when he was a guest in a morning radio program to talk about his work. In the whole hour that he was on the show, the station received close to 500 text messages from people all over the province, mostly thanking him for the free medical services that he had provided them.
Not a lost cause
“There were four pillars in the KLM and with his death and earlier of Doc Gerry’s, there are just two of us left,” said Ventura. (Professor Oscar Evangelista is the other KLM pillar.)
Ventura said he was inspired at least by the strong support they have received from other NGOs, including church leaders such as Bishop Arigo, and that they have vowed to “carry on the struggle inspired by the legacy of Dr. Ortega and Dr. Socrates.”
“Dr. Socrates’ death has created a vacuum in our fight for Palawan’s rightful share from natural wealth royalty and its proper use for the benefit of the people. But we will fight on,” Ventura said.
A day after Socrates’ death, Bishop Arigo decided to reconvene the civil society and map out new plans.