Monday, January 22, 2007

Protest, protest, and more protest

As a young developing nation, the Philippines has been struggling since becoming independent well over half a century ago. Its early beginnings and the next two decades that followed certainly contributed to the current dismal condition that the country is in today. Prior to its independence, the Philippines, a nation of islands and a commonwealth of the United States at the time, was a paradise in the making. With the guidance of the US, the Philippines was going to be a model for a democratic state with a very strong free-market economy sustained by its own abundant natural resources. But the onset of World War II quickly turned the developing paradise into a living hell, sites of fiery and bloody battles resulting in thousands of deaths of innocent lives as cities, towns, and villages were razed. Its independence halted and was put on hold infinitely as the Japanese occupied the country during the war. The country was completely devastated by the time it was liberated from Japan. The rebuilding years that soon followed coupled with being on the unfavorable side of a treaty it signed with the United States proved to be trying years as well. But those struggles that the country experienced would not compare to what it would endure under the Marcos regime in the years to come. As a fledgling nation, the tyrannical Marcos prevented the Philippines from ever spreading its wings as he quashed the young republic. With his equally greedy and ambitious wife at his side, they systematically raped and plundered the country for over two decades. The country and its people suffered greatly. But even after Marcos was overthrown, the damage he had done had longstanding effects. His legacy of establishing the most corrupt government in modern times entrenched a corrupt system in their society, in their culture, cementing the fate of the Philippines as a Third World country. It has not changed nor recovered since. From being toasted as the Pearl of the Orient as a commonwealth of the United States, the Philippines has been reduced to its current state as the Doormat of China and Japan. Today while it’s neighboring countries are enjoying rapid progress and economic growth, the Philippines is being left behind, continuing its slow decline and establishing itself as the Kangkongan of Asia. The future of the Philippines is bleak. In the last three decades, there had been countless demonstrations, protests, including a handful of coup d’etats. The people of the Philippines are very much aware of their problems. They are discontent of the wide spread corruption, injustice, social ills, and poverty plaguing their country. They want solutions, changes. With their awareness, as a nation they should have been able to make some improvements. But they don’t. All their previous attempts to reform themselves, their country, including several so-called revolutions, did not amount to anything. Presidents have been removed and replaced but conditions have remained the same, deplorable as ever. But year after year, the cycle of attempting to make changes continues. Nothing learned, nothing gained, and nothing changed.

If the people of the Philippines are aware of all the problems and have made attempts to change with protests and even ‘revolutions’, why have the conditions remained the same?
To casual observers, the demonstrations - or the revolutions - might look very impressive. But looking impressive is the extent of the protests in the Philippines regardless of whom or what they are directed to. They are either fleeting, essentially ineffective, or staged, lacking substance. Most protests are genuine but never sustained to come to fruition, eventually fading. There is this particular habit, a kind of attitude, unique to the people of the Philippines that they themselves refer to as ningas kugon, a burst of passion that fades immediately. (Kugon is cogon grass. When ignited, it bursts into flame quickly but burns out just as fast.) There is always that initial zest, that high level of enthusiasm to fight for a cause but it loses steam as soon as it gets underway. This has been their practice when it comes to their internal struggles. A few protests did result in some sort of revolution where a sitting president which included Marcos was removed and replaced. But the change in leadership did not bring about the anticipated revolutionary change. No change at all. The people failed to sustain the movement for reform. As a result, the conditions remain unchanged.

The staged protests might look just as impressive but they are just as ineffective. They are just a political ploy. Mga palabas lang! This particular display is never more real when protesting against the United States. Just a few weeks ago, this particular Filipino practice of staging phony demonstrations was displayed to the world when Daniel Smith, a US Marine lance corporal, was transferred to the US Embassy. Smith was recently sentenced to 40 years to be served in a Philippine prison after being found guilty of raping a Filipino woman. He appealed the sentence. And as he waits for the decision, he was transferred to the custody of the Americans in the US Embassy. The Filipinos then reacted and showed their apparent disgust over what seems to be a perversion of justice and a blatant and utter disrespect of the US over the sovereignty of the Philippines. Hundreds of outraged Filipinos protested in and around the US Embassy. They united. They stood up for themselves, for the sovereignty of the Philippines. They had neatly made placards bearing colorful anti-US military slogans. Some even went to all the troubles of painting US flags and caricature images of Bush and Arroyo on posters; they burned them. Point made? With the media attention and world-wide exposure it received, the US should have been feeling the pressure. Not quite. The US knowing this particular Filipino practice simply ignored it until it went away. It did.

Who participates in the demonstrations, staged or not?
There are some genuine protesters believing and fighting for a cause, in this case, against the US and its intrusive military. But the majority of the protesters are hired and paid or even coerced. Most of them are unemployed (and there are many!) and even indigents rounded up from the many slums in Manila. They are desperate; they will do anything for money. So getting offered a couple of hundred of pesos (if they are lucky) for a few hours work of protesting appears very attractive to them. They easily go along. They end up getting bussed in. Mga hakot. Bussing in paid people to an event is an all-too-common practice in the Philippines not just for demonstrations but also for elections, especially. Many are also college students that would appear to be active in civil affairs, young political activists. They are not. Many, if not most, are just cutting classes. Instead of going to school and attending classes, without a purpose or a sense of direction they participate in the demonstration. They yell a few derogatory and anti-US chants, burn a couple of US flags and effigies, and then they go home. At the end, the demonstration did not do anything for Philippines. Nothing learned, nothing gained, and certainly nothing changed. So much for having a cause to believe in and worth fighting for, let alone standing up for the sovereignty of the Philippines.

Who is organizing and initiating the protests?
There are a few groups that truly dislike the US and harbor anti-US sentiments. But most of the time, the demonstrations against the US are organized by the opposition to the current Filipino administration, currently President Arroyo and her loyalists. The protests by the Opposition are not an expression of anti-US sentiments, but rather a political ploy to undermine the current Filipino administration. Historically, dating back from the commonwealth time and especially after the Philippines became independent, past (with the exception of Estrada, he was never acknowledged by the US for obvious reasons) and the present Filipino presidents have always reached across the Pacific Ocean and aligned themselves with the US rather than with it’s neighboring Asian countries. There has always been that special relationship – strained at times - between the two countries and has been fading in recent years since the closing of the US bases. But regardless of the extent of the relationship or whether or not the US treaded on the autonomy of the Philippines, throughout the history the Opposition has always used this to discredit the current administration. It is an obvious and often-used political tactic of the Opposition. The Opposition has always managed to inject anything involving the US into their political arena like the ongoing rape case against a US Marine. Once the Opposition has politicized a US related incident, baseless or not, they will then accuse the current administration as a tuta, a lapdog - a puppet of the United States, following orders and giving in to all the demands. And in the other half of the accusation, the US has always been vilified and portrayed as the imperialistic, constantly meddling, puppet-master of the Philippines. This cycle of accusations continues. The Opposition of the Arroyo administration will most likely come into power next. The once-Opposition will align itself with the US. And they will now be accused by the new Opposition as the new puppet of the US. As result, the two opposing groups, political parties, just discredited each by using the US for their political gain. At the end, the change in leadership did not do anything for the Philippines. The country remains stagnant with its squalid conditions. Nothing learned, nothing gained, and certainly nothing changed.

Daniel Smith was brought back to the Philippines to stand trial for the rape of a Filipino woman. He stood trial. He was convicted. He was sentenced. But he is now back in the custody of the United States. It will not be surprising if he wins his appeal and his conviction overturned. Within days everything will go back to the way they were as if Daniel Smith never set foot in the Philippines. And just like before, everything that is in need of change will not change. Everything remains the same. The Philippines is still viewed as a corrupt country with corrupt institutions. So even before the Philippines can influence, let alone exert pressure on other nations, they must learn to exert pressure on themselves, their government to reform a corrupt society. Simply displaying to the world that they are capable of protesting or going through its motions does not prove that they can make changes, reforms. They must prove to themselves the integrity of their institutions. Smith’s transfer of custody to the US does not undermine the credibility of the Philippines because the Philippines has not been credible since Marcos’ dictatorship. As a commonwealth, the US gave the Philippines the most precious gift a government can give to another. The US exported to the Philippines its own democratic institution, a time-proven, effective system that protects its people from the powers of the government and its elected leaders. And in no time, the Philippines showed its ingratitude to the US by slowing transforming the system. The Philippines proved that it lacked the capacity to appreciate the workings of such civil institution as its early elected leaders utterly dishonored its processes. Then Marcos’ rise to power and his declaration of marshal law completed the transformation. Under Marcos, the Philippines remained a republic with a face of a democratic government, but his totalitarian rule which led to the abysmal condition of the country proved the opposite. The world witnessed the Philippines mongrelized a hand delivered democratic institution system and bastardized its processes. Today, the democratic institution of the Philippines is in the name and its bureaucracy only, not its function. Incidentally, the current government officials are trying to change its form of government to counter the corruption and to safeguard for potential abuses of power. If they succeed, the Philippines will prove that it can desecrate not one but two or maybe even several forms of government. It appears that the government officials have not learned anything from the way they corrupted and have continued to corrupt its current form of government. A particular form of government does not corrupt itself, its people do. As long as the people have no respect for the institution and do not abide by the law of the land that protects it, the integrity of the system will be compromised rendering it ineffective, essentially useless. At the expense of the country, personal relationships at all level of the society driven by personal gains rule the Philippines. Its constitution is a meaningless piece of legal document that does not apply to the privileged elite and the elected few. And the country is merely a chessboard where they play their personal and/or political battles.

In light of Daniel Smith’s crime against a Filipino woman, it would appear that the big fight is against the United States. But the fight, the struggle, has never been against the US. Even before the Philippines became a republic, the bigger fight, the real battle, has always been amongst and within them. That battle has not been fought with a clear victor emerging as the united people of the Philippines, Filipinos. The people of the Philippines were never united even now. They have always identified themselves proudly as citizens of the region of their ancestral origin first rather than as Filipinos. Incidentally, this affiliation with their ancestral origin not only prevents them from becoming whole as the people of the Philippines, but it also sacrifices the leadership of the country. Loyalty is given to their fellow citizen of the same ancestral origin that might not necessarily be the best and most qualified person to lead the nation. In that same token, the allegiance is to a region of the country, never to the Philippines, the republic. There is no vision, no dream for the country of the Philippines. Changes do not occur not just because of social and economic divisions but also prevented by the people’s provincial bias and myopic vision. Not until the state of the Philippines becomes paramount and not the individual citizens, the country as a whole especially the majority of its people will continue to suffer. As of now, nothing learned, nothing gained, and certainly nothing changed. The demonstrations - maybe more ‘revolutions’ - with the hopes of bringing about change continue.

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