Grassroots & Governance

When I was in college, I heard an Englishwoman say at a university symposium that if you are not left-leaning when you are 20 years old, you have no heart. But, she added, if you are still left-leaning after the age of 25, then you have no head. Of course, at the time the United Kingdom was one of the leading colonial and industrial powers, and health, education and basic human rights must have been assured its citizens by the State. From time to time, to this day, the left-leaning labor party defeats the right wing Conservative or Tory party in running the UK government. Today, many Northern European countries can be classified as socialist (“left-leaning”) systems, guaranteeing free education and health services. Not surprisingly, these nations (Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) tend to come out as among the happiest on earth, according to global surveys on the happiness index. Bhutan has advocated the concept of Gross National Happiness as a measure of national well-being, beyond the traditional GNP (Gross National Product) advocated by capitalism.

We are a developing country where almost a third of families experience involuntary hunger. An insignificant minority (no more than 10%) are classified as high or middle income; and the vast majority hardly manage to eat three meals a day. Our country has one of the most extreme, if not the most extreme gaps between the rich and the poor, according to global studies based on what the economists call the Gini-coefficient. Since the Marcos dictatorship, government corruption has reached billion-peso magnitudes, and few politicians can be trusted with the people’s money. The justice system, if you can call it that, is controlled by the moneyed few. A few families control the majority of the nation’s wealth. Obviously, something is very wrong with the system.

Lito “Promdi” Osmena once told me that when he was governor of Cebu, the leftist KMU labor union staged a massive strike; consequently, salaries were increased by the companies in the industrial parks. This led to broadened purchasing power in Cebu which triggered an economic boom. Surely, we can learn some lessons from this.

It is therefore surprising and sad that today, only a small minority represent the “left-leaning” Opposition. Surveys indicate that the largely uninformed and poorly educated majority are “satisfied” with the way the government is running things. Not surprisingly, many university graduates and students tend to be vocal or assertive in advocating social justice, and opposing government policies. The existence of an active opposition should be accepted, nay, encouraged as part of a democratic electoral system. It is only fair, since the privileged minority who control government and economic power are complacent about the way things are.

Our 1987 Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and of speech. Its framers, who happen to be among the best educated Filipinos, can be said to be in some sense “left-leaning” since they tended to favor protection of human rights and socio-economic egalitarianism. In a country like ours, obviously, unbridled capitalism and government corruption has not delivered a truly democratic system that assures equitable access to opportunities. Fortunately, many of the so-called oligarchies do have philanthropic programs to help address some of the inequities; but it clearly has not been enough.

Government has failed to effectively address them.

So, why do military generals like Antonio Parlade openly accuse advocates of egalitarianism and freedom of the press and of speech of being criminals? I happen to be a Gabriela voter myself because I consider them constructive in fighting for women’s rights. Initially, I also voted for Bayan candidates. And yes, I happen to be a liberal democrat, but a left-leaning one. But unless I am actually committing a crime, I am certainly entitled to expressing my “left-leaning” beliefs. This is why I valued my enlightening debates with my old friend the late Horacio “Boy” Morales when he would hide in my house during the Marcos era Martial Law. At the time, Boy Morales was chairman of the outright leftist — not just left-leaning — National Democratic Front. I think we agreed on objectives, but differed only on approaches.

Right after the EDSA Revolution, President Cory Aquino released both radical leftist Jose Maria Sison and moderate leftist Boy Morales from detention. In 1992, then President Fidel V. Ramos, former head of the military Philippine Constabulary (now the civilian police) repealed the Marcos-era Anti-Subversion Law. Being a Communist is no longer considered a crime. You would have to actually be proven in court of violating some law in order to be convicted of committing a crime. Do our soldiers know this? Does General Parlade know this?

Obviously, our uniformed armed forces need to be reoriented on the difference between expressing ideologies and committing crimes. They are supposed to be crime fighters, not ideology police. They need to understand the context in which the ideologies are developed and advocated; that there are certainly understandable and justifiable reasons for them. Government and civil society have to compete with these ideologies in order to prevent them from becoming criminal and destructive.

The radical left have two alternatives for expressing their opposition: the armed struggle and the parliamentary struggle. The armed struggle (the active National People’s Army or “war freaks”) is what the military are supposed to be fighting. The “Parliamentary struggle” waged by some Party-list members in Congress includes Gabriela, Bayan, Akbayan and the like. These are the Peaceniks who assert their rights as elected legislators to advocate policies that promote and protect human rights and socio-economic egalitarianism. Of course they consider university students and other activists ripe for recruiting into their peaceful “struggles” in our horrendously unjust society. Thank God for them because it seems to me, they have helped prevent our traditional politicians from being even more destructive of our society. The citizenry should support some of these Party-list legislators because if they are effective, there can be less and less reason for the “armed struggle.” Instead of condemning and threatening, for example, Gabriela and Bayan, we should support their advocacies, which tend to be pro-people and pro-women. How can those be crimes? Bravo Neri Colmenares, Etta Rosales of Akbayan and other left-leaning Peaceniks. These heroic activists have suffered torture and jail time for their advocacies. May your tribe increase! May you be more successful in your advocacies! Bravo as well to Liza Soberano, Catriona Gray, Angel Locsin and her sister, who are activists because they love our country!

Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año and his ilk, including his superiors in government, need to think about the situation in more breadth and depth, and not be so trigger happy in their pathetic ignorance. Otherwise the recently signed Anti-Terror Law can be abused and used against human rights. I hope the Peaceniks in Congress will remain alert. Otherwise, with the broadened implications of the IRRs, tragedies like what happened in the case of jailed activist Reina May Nasino and her late infant baby River will happen again and again.

Nevertheless, it is not all hopeless. A lawyer’s group has filed an appeal to stop the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020. There are still some enlightened thinkers in government who have not forgotten that we are, after all, supposed to be a Constitutional democracy. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and Senate Minority leader Frank Drilon have both expressed their opposition to Secretary Año’s proposal to reinstate the harsh Marcos-era Anti-Subversion Law of 1981 which had been repealed. Guevarra has stressed that mere membership in the Communist Party does not constitute a crime. Being leftist is far from being a terrorist, he says. “As long as activism remains in the realm of ideology,” Guevarra is reported to have added, “There is nothing to be alarmed about.” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has tapped General Parlade’s wrist for criticizing activists before he finds proof of a crime being committed. Is this all he can do?

I say, tell that to the marines, including your boss who guides and inspires the uniformed armed forces. 


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.