Civil Resistance and our History as a Country
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Today marks the close of what seemed to be a whirlwind week of learning at the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Non-Violent Conflict at Fletcher School in Tufts University, Massachusetts. Together with more than 50 participants and speakers – journalists, academics, and activists – various examples of non-violent resistance were discussed and analysed in a course designed and funded by the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict. The event also afforded me the opportunity to reminisce the activism of my heyday – the activist’s theatre I was a part of when I was 10, the street protests against tuition fee increases, and the tactical planning sessions for farmer’s rights to name a few. The activist sessions, with the likes of Mkhuseli Jack, Oscar Olivera, and Jenni Williams, made me ask questions again, whether I have done enough, whether how I view my arena of struggle these days is justified, and whether there are still opportunities to do more.
I firmly believe that one does not stop being an activist. Though my friends would say, that as you grow older, you lose your idealism and start to become real, I disagree with them. I believe that the enemies we face, those that trample on our rights and personhood, just change face as we grow, brought about by the changes in our state of life, in our beings, and in the environment. From oppressive tuition fees in my college days, it has now mutated into structurally violent systems of political, economic, and social governance that rip the people of their rights. Maybe they have not changed at all; it is my consciousness of how they look, exist, or operate, that has deepened.
Jack duVall, one of the founders of the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict, defines civil resistance as an “emerging force for rights and justice.” In our history as a country, we are not strangers to this form of struggle, as it was through nonviolent resistance that we were able to oust the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled this country in fear for more than 20 years. In their book “Why Civil Resistance Works”, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan showcased that part of our history, long forgotten by this generation maybe. In the same book, they argued, using data for violent and nonviolent resistance across the world from 1900 to 2006, that nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more effective in achieving their goals than those that primarily relied on violence. The argument finds strong proof in our history since in this country, all violent forms of resistance since 1901 have failed, while EDSA 1 and EDSA 2 showed the strength of the Filipino people against oppressive and unjust adversaries.
However, what concerns me is how little we remember of our recent history. EDSA 1, for example, was fought against Ferdinand Marcos, but her widow Imelda is currently a member of the House of Representatives while his son Bongbong is still in the Senate. EDSA 2 ousted Joseph Estrada, but he is now mayor of the City of Manila while his son Jinggoy, like Bongbong Marcos, is a senator aiming to run for Vice President in the next national elections. This, needless to say, excludes the many cronies of Ferdinand Marcos and the many confreres of Joseph Estrada who remain unscathed until now. I wonder whether this means that our country conferred legitimacy again on the very people against whom we expressed our dissent. I wonder too whether we will need again another civil resistance at EDSA if this collective amnesia persists.
Maybe it’s not that people forget. Maybe it’s a case that people have not experienced both events in our history at all, that is why there is nothing to remember. These historical events, happened and are accounted in its detail in the capital city of Manila, but nothing much has been said of the effect or even the participation or people elsewhere in the country – the northernmost tip of Batanes, the summer capital of Baguio, the whole Bikolandia, the islands of Visayas, and the conflict-ridden south of Mindanao. It does seem, that EDSA 1 and 2 were not expressions of civil resistance of other people who lived outside Manila, in the more than 7,000 other islands who could not be physically present at EDSA.
I remember the time that I participated in a rally in Tagbilaran City, Bohol’s capital, (1.5 hours by plane from the capital of Manila) at the same time that the bigger rally was held in EDSA to demand for President Estrada's resignation in 2001. We were only very few, compared to the total population of Bohol, and what made the crowd were students from schools whose teachers were asked to help in the cause. That time, I skipped my classes and invited my students to come. But I only saw them watching from the sidelines along CPG Avenue when the march started. I know that there were rallies also held in Davao, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod, among others, but then again, the number of attendees in these gatherings was only a small fraction of the total population. For the people who attended these rallies, there could be an “EDSA experience”, but for those in their homes or doing things elsewhere, that shared experience could be fictional, if not inexistent.
This is probably one of the reasons why descendants of our once oppressors are occupying seats in our democratic government. For the most part, we do not have that shared memory. For example, in the May 2010 elections that put both sons of Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada to the senate, a total of 38 million Filipinos casted their votes, representing 75% of the total number of registered Filipinos. Of this number, 80% reside outside Metro Manila. Further, fifty percent of those who voted in the May 2010 elections were aged 18-33, according to the Commission on Elections. This means that half of the voting population were not yet born when people marched in protest at EDSA in 1986 or were too young to remember. This means too that in May 2010, 80% of those who voted did not have that kind of an experience protesting against Joseph Estrada. This, besides the fact, that there is still an argument made by others that EDSA 2 was a civil resistance of the elite than a revolution of the poor who still believes that Joseph Estrada was unjustly removed from power.
In one of the dinners at Fletcher Summer Institute, I had the privilege to sit beside the inspiring Rev. James Lawson, one of the wise strategists of the civil rights movement in the United States. I asked him a rather naive question – “How do we make sure that we all remember our history so that we do not commit the same mistake of letting the same breed of leaders occupy top positions in our government?”
Rev. Lawson looked at me and asked, “Is it important that all of us have the same memory?” I was taken aback because I did not expect a question as an answer, and more so because the question he raised was so profound that it needed time for introspection. After a long pause, he said, “I do not think so. All of us, distinct as we are, will always have different views and recollection of things and events. But as activists, our role never changes. We have to make sure that we resist oppressive leaders, structures and systems, those that trample on our rights and our dignity as a people. Whether that is done by a descendant of an autocrat, or by a new leader we have previously conferred legitimacy on, it does not matter. What matters is that we resist when the time calls for it.”
Very well said. As I leave Fletcher School today, I bring Rev. Lawson's words with me. I also bring with me the many words, feelings, thoughts, ideas, experiences shared during the week. The journey home will be long and tiresome, but like all good journeys, they will always lead to somewhere we call home. Thanks ICNC. Thanks FSI. Till we meet again.