Are The Filipino People Truly Free?

Featured Artwork: Thea Torres

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On June 12th, the Philippines celebrates its 122nd year of independence: a feat we achieved thanks to our forefathers who wielded their pens and swords and revolted against our colonizers. But given the recent turn of events, our country seems to be doing them a great disservice by allowing a tyrant to take away what they have fought so hard to uphold.

Since the start of this pandemic, we have become more and more exposed to the glaring flaws in our country’s social structures: our government’s grave underestimation of COVID-19’s severity, our healthcare sector’s inability to meet the demand for facilities and frontliners, and even our education system’s blatant disregard for class differences that affect accessibility to online learning services.

Times like these require comprehensive plans of action centered on the immediate implementation of medical solutions, the provision of safety nets for those at the lowest rungs of society, and complete transparency of fund allocation, especially with the exorbitant loans we got from the World Bank. But President Duterte clearly had other ideas in mind. 

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On September 21, 1972, former president Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081 which placed the entire country under Martial Law. What followed was nearly two decades of human rights violations and illegally amassed wealth and to this day, our country suffers the consequences. After the dictator was overthrown through a peaceful revolution, amendments were immediately made to the Constitution to serve as safeguards that prevent any large-scale abuse of power from happening again. 

Unfortunately, Duterte and his cronies seem to be masters in maneuvering their way around the jurisdiction, placing the country under a pseudo-state of martial law, characterized by the militarization of the lockdown response and the suppression of free speech.

Upon placing the entire island of Luzon under enhanced community quarantine, Duterte deployed thousands of policemen and soldiers to checkpoints strategically placed at boundaries. They would be in charge of soliciting IDs and proof of employment from approximately 3 million workers outside of Metro Manila, using thermal scanners to measure their body temperature, and generally instilling discipline. 

Cops have shot people dead and planted evidence to make it appear as if what they did was an act of self-defense. They’ve mauled civilians for violating curfew hours and demanded sexual favors from women before allowing them to pass through checkpoints. Meanwhile, compassion is extended to government officials and police chiefs who breach protocols, go to membership shopping superstores and throw birthday parties. Looks like they had no problem incorporating these injustices into their job description.

Thankfully, citizens have taken it to social media to spread information about these injustices and mobilize people to rage against the system. People can now use their accounts to educate followers through exhaustive Twitter exposé threads, webinars on video conferencing platforms, and protest art — the possibilities are not only endless but they also double as an effective call to action. This authoritarian regime has sensed its potential to incite the masses to take part in a revolution and thus they’ve been pulling out all the stops to bring this movement to a standstill.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) kickstarted this by issuing subpoenas to ordinary citizens airing their grievances regarding the incompetence of the government. Civilians who jokingly offered 50 million pesos in exchange for the president’s head or openly called him an asshole on social media were arrested and charged in court for sedition. Meanwhile, Duterte gets away with making sexist comments and sending death threats on national television because apparently, they’re not meant to be taken seriously.

In addition, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a cease-and-desist order against ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network, and demanded its immediate shutdown last May 5th. Despite the numerous excuses crafted to justify this action, it’s blatantly obvious that it’s Duterte’s personal vendetta against them running the show and getting in the way of their franchise renewal. As a result, millions of citizens have lost their primary source of information and thousands of employees are left without a job while a health crisis looms over their heads. 

To top it all off, Duterte sent a letter to the Speaker of the House which classified the Anti-Terror Bill as urgent, significantly cutting down the time needed to debate on its provisions and paving the way for its speedy passage. Should this be signed into law, the state will be granted the power to determine what constitutes terrorism and who participates in acts of this nature, leaving plenty of room for abuse of authority. The mere expression of grievances against the government could easily be deemed as a terrorist act and a threat to national safety, and lead to a warantless arrest and an extended period of detention.

It is clearly stated in Article III, Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution that no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech or expression among others. And yet the administration remains adamant on ratifying this within the shortest amount of time possible, when the only threat to our safety at present is the virus that continues to claim lives and destroy our definition of normalcy. We are only left to wonder who they are trying so desperately to silence and what secrets they are so hell-bent on hiding from the public.

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This doesn’t even begin to cover all of the atrocities this administration has committed since Duterte assumed power. We remain victims of rampant corruption, misplaced Chinese influence, and a system that would rather watch us die than put the rich and powerful in an inconvenient position. With all this being said, isn’t it imperative for us to question if we are truly free as a people and reassess our notion of independence? The word itself means emancipation from the control of another, like the power-hungry Spaniards, the abusive Japanese, and the Americans with a raging savior complex. But our oppressors are not limited to our colonizers. We have yet to be freed from the self-serving despot perched on the highest seat of power and the officials who enable him. As long as all these forces are in place with little to no signs of resistance, our sovereignty remains a hostage held at gunpoint.

It is only right to feel this dangerous cocktail of anger and frustration and helplessness during these trying times but we must remember to channel all of this into something productive. Emotion and intention alone cannot push for the reforms we need: these must translate into action. 

Though it may not seem like it can effect any significant change, education remains one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal. This government thrives through the proliferation of fake news and the supposed ignorance of the masses. Very few things can scare them more than an intelligent citizenry who are critical of what they do, aware of what they deserve, and unafraid to make demands.

Maximize the repository of information that is constantly glued to your hand: consult books, videos, and documentaries. Participate in online forums, and don’t be afraid to question any contradictory points or poorly constructed arguments. And for the love of God, make it a habit to fact-check before spreading any sort of information.

Be vocal about what you learn and use the platforms available to you to engage in discourse with others: deepen your understanding of a topic or impart your existing knowledge to others, either works wonders! Although, do remember that not everyone is born socially aware and politically correct, so you must be gentle in helping them fill in the gaps of their knowledge. Refrain from speaking in jargon or appearing condescending — we don’t want to scare away the people we plan to educate.

At the same time, don’t engage with anyone who isn’t willing to listen: although reasoning out with a hard-headed conservative seems like a modern-day civic duty, our time and effort are too scarce to waste on matters like this. Duterte’s social media army of trolls make a livelihood out of putting up abrasive and ill-informed posts: they are paid per response and are given a quota for the day. They even incur bonuses if their rage rants land a spot on the list of trending topics. Snapping back literally feeds them — the last thing we’d want to do is give them more fuel to fight.

Join national democratic mass organizations (NDMOs), alliances of progressive individuals seeking comprehensive reform. Members learn to immerse in the struggles of the masses through educational discussions, basic mass integrations, and protests, among many others. Life as an activist is often misunderstood and frowned upon especially by older generations but this proves to be an excellent avenue for the youth and other sectors of society to join forces in the fight for liberation.

Talk to your government officials. As of this writing, the Anti-Terror Bill has not been transmitted to Malacanang, thus giving us the opportunity to convince more Congress Representatives to withdraw their votes and overturn majority. Thankfully, concerned citizens have released directories of politicians’ contact details, making it easier than ever to single out who said “yes” to the bill and convince them to think otherwise. Remember to take the necessary precautions: use a VPN and a burner email, and change the subject of your message to ensure that it does get through!

Of course, please register to vote if you are already of age. Though the Philippines does not allow re-election like the United States, Duterte is already grooming the next line of incompetent politicians to take his place and continue his plans. We are currently looking at his personal assistant-turned-senator, an ignorant and immature former police chief, and a boxer who brought the nation great honor during his career in sports but definitely won’t do so if made chief of state.

During flag ceremonies, Filipinos say the patriotic oath right after they sing the national anthem. They raise their right hands and mindlessly recite the lines they have been forced to memorize since childhood, failing to understand what these passages truly entail. The last line reads: “Iaalay ko ang aking buhay, pangarap, at pagsisikap sa bansang Pilipinas” — “I will offer my life, dreams, and success to the Philippine nation.” With this, we are called to put everything on the line to serve and protect the motherland. Given the current state of our nation, we have every reason to answer.