On Feb. 7, five activists were arrested by the Philippine Army’s 8th Infantry Division on allegations that they are members of a communist terrorist group based in Tacloban City, Leyte. The activist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. denied the allegations, insisting that the five arrested are staff members of Bayan, Katungod and Sagupa in Eastern Visayas. The offices of Bayan Eastern Visayas were also raided.
Without going into the legal merits of this case which is still under investigation, I think this incident highlights the diminishing democratic space that Filipinos are seeing under the current Duterte regime. The wider context of the arrest is more telling and significant, coming in the wake of the continued red-tagging that the military and the Office of the President have rabidly launched in recent months. Consider the recent TV interview of presidential communications undersecretary Lorraine Badoy and higher military officials where they repeated unproven charges of terrorist activities to mostly members of student and farmers’ groups. The playbook is old and much used and Rodrigo Duterte and his generals fully know the dog-eared script that has worked in the last 45 or so years may yet prove useful again in these heydays of political sycophancy.
In a society living under a cloud of fear, where can its weaker members expect meaningful and lasting change?
Certainly not, or almost never, from the government whose goal is to preserve the status quo, or worse a government which has the propensity to simply replace ineffectual governance with equally ineffectual measures. The radical left or those advocating revolutions are sidelined, having operated in the extreme margins of society. Their fight takes place under conditions that are either anachronistic and hostile; the language of violence or combat is a hard-sell among people who are lulled by consumerist tendencies and the shallow but savvy-looking political messages.
Grassroots activism plays a decisive role, for activism is a logical development in the growth of democracy. Societal benefits and political maturity owe their resilience to civil activism. Unfortunately, our society is blind to the almost unseen work of social activists, and perhaps this is due to the fact that the true spirit of activism abhors self-aggrandizement. Their work is not about the doer, but about the communal good which has a truer and more lasting legacy.
This is where Rodrigo Duterte comes in, for he and his minions are the very embodiment of self-glorification. Just consider his recent speech to a broadcasters group where he was quoted as saying: “Don’t think twice even if the truth will destroy me.” These words are replete with the nuances of parochial power play, replete with the self-absorbed thoughts of the powerful but politically deluded. Journalists running after factual truth is not about destroying a leadership but about exposing the mechanisms of a society and the dynamics among its members. Ruining a presidency, if that happens, is simply collateral damage. The greater good in a society rests not on its leaders but on its people, for it is the people who do the dirty work in the ditches. The mud-slinging and social media pyrotechnics? Leave that to Duterte, Badoy and the Sassots of this world. Theirs is not even a footnote in history.
It is therefore curious that the pseudo-intellect of a Salvador Panelo will come to the defense of the president with useless words that Duterte’s threatening words to a TV station are part of his freedom of expression. Nganga, as they say in the vernacular. Let us remind Panelo that the freedom of expression he is yakking about is meant to serve the weakest members of a society. Guaranteed freedoms are precisely the last resort for the powerless.
The powerful and the so-called leaders do not have a higher or valid claim for more freedom since their high positions already grant them all the freedoms that they will ever need in their lifetime. Leaders are already imbued with vast powers and it is patently foolish to add to it by giving them more. Declaring that Panelo has unpalatable and a queer taste for clothing that looks like a cross between an Alexander McQueen high on steroids and a Karl Lagerfeld undergoing serious mid-life crises, that is freedom of expression.
Back to the red-tagging of social activists. To red-tag is not merely a juicy news quote of the week, or a TV soundbite for talking heads. Badoy and her ilk and the blood-thirsty generals who are red-baiting are grooming minds, insinuating unproven lies that damage the very fabric of critical thinking and societal discourse. It is my hope that the families of these activists will have the courage to defend their names, file cases in court and go to the people that they serve to prove that their work is the real work of change.
Joel Vega is the author of ‘Drift,’ winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry in English. He works as an editor in Arnhem, The Netherlands.