Grassroots & Governance

This anniversary week for our martial law experience under Marcos is a reminder of how as our historical experience has confirmed that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Authoritarian governments seem to have been beneficial for many of our neighboring countries here in Asia: Singapore, South Korea, and even Malaysia have brought their once poor people (poorer even than the Philippines in the early 1960s) way above the poverty line. Our experience with “strong” governments has not been so blessed.

And incredibly, the families that benefitted from our misfortunes under the Marcos dictatorship are back in power, largely as a free choice of our voters.

Today, our electorate has once again opted for “strong” governance in a system that is becoming more a government of “man” rather than of laws. And, unbelievably, if we are to believe the political surveys, majority of the Filipino voters are happy with it.

Should we therefore sit back and let things be, since this is what the people want?

Because of the strategic error of opting for bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations with our mighty expansionist neighbor China, we are clearly losing more and more of our territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea, with even our West Philippine Sea being encroached upon by the economic and military power.

President Duterte, after broadcasting his intention to take up the maritime dispute and our victory at the UN Arbitral Court in the Hague during his recent meeting with Xi Jinping came home with his tail between his legs, and said what he had been saying earlier: that we cannot do anything because China has military might that we cannot match (surprise!)

Senator Leila de Lima remains in detention on dubious charges testified to by long-term convicts who now reside in cozier quarters at the marine military camp, rather than congested Bilibid prisons where they belong.

Some Cabinet members (Solicitor General Jose Calida, Health Secretary Francisco Duque, et. al.) remain in office despite revelations that they are violating civil service laws on conflicts of interest.


The duly elected Vice-President and her opposition colleagues are facing charges of sedition based on ludicrous testimony by an incredible witness who had earlier accused the President and his family of being “narcopoliticians.”

The President’s spokesman continues, almost on a daily basis, to reinterpret for our benefit “misunderstandings” on what the President meant when he talks publicly about having ordered assassinations, and other violations of Philippine laws and even the Constitution.

What is wrong with this confusing picture?

The business community is silent on these issues. The economic numbers are looking surprisingly good, thanks to Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and his team who, as the government’s saving grace, is allowed freedom on managing the economy by the President who had to beg him to take the job which he did not need or want. There is a new highly regarded Agriculture Secretary (William Dar) whom experts hope will make a difference in the poverty situation. Poverty is mostly rural; and he seems to be off to good start.

If the economy is beginning to look hunky dory, perhaps we should just leave things as they are, and sit on our fat haunches? What, we worry?

The damage that is being done to our society and democratic values if not bridled, can cause things to deteriorate so fast that we could really end up as a failed state, or in the future, who knows, a vassal kowtowing to our powerful neighbor, as a province of China.

The minority who care enough must continue to speak out and fight to defend our freedom of speech, the rule of law, and a free press. Courageous public figures like Senator Leila de Lima, former Senator Antonio Trillianes, retired Justice and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, former Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario, journalist Maria Ressa, justice advocate Chel Diokno, Vice-President Leni Robredo, and other activists need our support in continuing to express their objections to violations of Philippine Laws and the Constitution. Party List activists in Congress, contentious though they might seem to be, contribute to the push-back that we need to defend our freedoms from the abuses by the powerful.

Our tribal and insular culture has not blessed us with philosopher-king leaders who entered politics in order to serve our country. Perhaps they started out that way; but the pressure of expensive elections and traditional politics and fierce loyalty to family and tribe has brought plunder of our country’s resources to benefit a few, and depriving the many. The sad thing is, many of the abusers continue to occupy public positions of power instead of paying for their crimes in jail.

If we continue to be silent, then we are being complicit. We will contribute to the harm that these criminals inflict on our country and our people.

Even a minority, if we are loud and assertive enough, can help protect our national soul from the damage that an unbridled government of men rather than of laws can bring about. Not even if the economy survives, for that would only be caring for our bodies. What kind of a nation and people do we want to leave as a legacy for our children and their children? We cannot continue to sit on our fences.


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