Through television screens, streamed videos, and web updates, millions of Filipinos watched as President Benigno Aquino III climbed the steps towards the podium at the plenary hall of the Batasang Pambansa and began his sixth and last State of the Nation Address (SONA) last Monday, as protesters conducted their own People’s SONA along Commonwealth Avenue. Two hours and over twelve thousand words later, it is what the president did not say that resonates.
For instance, there was no mention of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill, which Aquino had expressed support for in the early days of his presidency but has languished in the 16th Congress, as it has for the last two decades. Aquino conveniently forgot the Mamasapano massacre and the efforts towards achieving justice for the fallen members of the special action forces. His description of his administration’s achievement in eliminating classroom shortage forgot a pertinent footnote — that the “shortage” only pertains to schools with no more buildable space with which to expand, meaning that students may still be holding classes under trees and other makeshift spaces this school year. There was no mention either of accountability for billions of pesos’ worth of Yolanda aid, continuing electricity problems in Mindanao, or the delays in land distribution under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPER) law.
For an overview of what has become of some of Aquino’s key promises since 2010, visit this link.
Aquino, known for his near-immaculate reputation in anti-corruption, has had a history of defensiveness when addressing his critics. Indeed, he has used his voice — both the physical and institutional — for majority of his SONA and his presidency countering negative commentary from political analysts and protesters alike, in an attitude that reflects an us versus them mentality that leaves no room for discussion regarding the grey areas of his performance thus far. This has only served to make his silences on certain issues all the more deafening.
To be fair, it is absurd to expect one president to be able to solve every single one of the country’s issues, let alone in such short a timespan. But what is problematic for me is his lack of concern for the issues raised above – apparent in their exclusion from a speech of carefully picked accomplishments and vague insults towards opposition members – and the subsequent backlash towards people who dare speak about these matters.
What bothers me the most about this year’s SONA, more than what Aquino had missed in his two-hour address, are the criticisms directed at the activist groups along Commonwealth Avenue last Monday. Demonstrators who were protesting the administration’s handling of the Pork Barrel Scam, continuing labor issues, K+12, CARPER, and the FOI bill, among others, were admonished by netizens relentlessly throughout the day. Comments accusing these rallyists of laziness and a lack of willpower to lift themselves from poverty, as well as patronizing advice to “work hard instead of complaining” were posted from left and right, punctuating SONA newsbits all over social media.
Many of these comments are from the hard-working middle class, and to an extent I understand where they may be coming from. The idea that you must work hard in order to achieve success has been ingrained in us since childhood, and rightly so. But here lies my issue: Preventing these people from airing their distress in the People’s SONA is negating their lived experiences and disregarding the very real issues many of them raise. To do so is to turn your back on Aquino’s highly problematic silences because “at least the president has achieved something!”
Well, of course he has. The government spends trillions of pesos for their projects every year. It would be an exceptionally brazen level of corruption to have spent so much and achieve absolutely nothing for the country. It is not a question of whether or not he has achieved something, because he has. (I no longer need to detail those achievements, because he has humble-bragged enough for himself so many times over.) But it is a question now of whether what he has done is enough.
Instead of complaining about demonstrators protesting the same things every year, consider the possibility that many of these issues are recurring and pervasive, but are consistently and tragically neglected.
Rather than lambast these protesters for spending their day in the streets instead of their workplaces, reflect on how millions of Filipinos still can not find adequate jobs, or suffer from continued contractualization of existing positions and the resulting lack of benefits and just wages, no matter how well these workers do their jobs. Reflect also on why many government officials get away with not doing theirs.
Instead of silencing protesters for “complaining too much,” consider weighing their hardships in everyday life. Ponder on whether Aquino’s feelings are important enough to silence thousands.
As an alternative to shaming protesters for a lack of education or understanding of many of the technicalities intrinsic to governance and economics, wonder instead why this information, along with quality education, was made unavailable to them.
Just because the president has an entire developing country’s worth of problems to manage does not mean their concerns are any less valid, their suffering any less real, or their causes any less important.
Activism has achieved so much for Philippine society, and to shame demonstrators while benefitting from the many things collective action has brought about in this country — among them the anti-violence against women and children act, the magna carta for women, the magna carta for OFWs, the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship and subsequent rise of the president’s own mother, the late Cory Aquino — is downright obtuse. The ability to do so is the surest mark of privilege and ignorance.
To insist that these people should just “work hard” to achieve success instead of complaining to the government is to be blind to the socioeconomic circumstances that have prevented upward social mobility for decades. It is being callous to the struggle of the millions of Filipinos who live below the poverty line, without access to education or health care and other basic services. But also, it is to deny them their much deserved right to demand better for themselves from a government whose number one concern should have been their welfare from the very beginning. Besides, working hard to achieve success and being critical of the government do not have to be mutually exclusive.
In photos: #SONA2015 Protests
Aquino’s silences on pressing issues should not and will not be glossed over. People who care about these issues will find ways to bring them to light, will start discussions and gather like-minded people, and hopefully, yield collective action. The entire country spent over two hours listening to one man’s voice last Monday. The least we can do now for those who are less privileged, those whose voices are heard only in groups, those whose silences were borne of systemized oppression and not of incompetence, is to give them the respect they deserve.
If you think they are asking for a lot, it’s because they should be.