Presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor was into paroxysms of outrage over the heckling of his boss by a graduating student and some guests during last Friday’s commencement exercises of the Cavite State University.
The outgoing Student Government President shouted in the middle of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s speech that she should step down. Maria Theresa Pangilinan and some guests unfurled streamers demanding the same thing and protesting charter change. Although Defensor said the protesters should have been more polite, we can safely assume that he would have vastly preferred that they had kept silent.
Pangilinan’s act was reminiscent of what another student government president did at another time. Former UP Student Council President Fernando “Gerry” Barican unfurled a streamer proclaiming “no to martial law” when he graduated from the University of the Philippines College of Law in the mid-1970s.
Although what Barican could have cost him his life, Pangilinan was equally courageous. She may not have been hustled off to some undisclosed place for interrogation and torture, but we can be sure that the Arroyo regime’s police and military will be keeping an eye on her henceforth. Pangilinan violated no law. But there is no assurance that she will not be harassed or even harmed, a student activist of Bicol University having only recently been silenced by being murdered.
Meanwhile, Defensor wants a review of the security measures that failed to prevent the protesters from bringing in streamers. Like Barican also a former UP student activist, Defensor also had something to say about proper behavior, and took the opportunity to deliver a mini lecture on protest protocol, declaring that he and his fellow protesters “had more decorum then.” Defensor also said the protest against charter change could have been “conducted in a different place at a different time.”
Either Defensor didn’t know what he was doing when he was an alleged activist, or he’s making up rules to fit his current station in life. No one honestly expects people to say “excuse me” and “after you” when they’re shouting slogans or unfurling banners. And how decorous can a protest be considering how indecorous the Arroyo regime has been in its effort to stay in power? The regime has savaged so many provisions of the Constitution it has practically rewritten the Bill of Rights.
Regimes and governments get the protests they deserve. If there is anything positive about the incident, it is its being a sign that there are still people in his country capable of the indignation injustice provokes. But the bad news is that during the event itself, some of Pangilinan’s own school mates booed and hissed at her for “spoiling” their graduation. In contrast, when Barican unfurled his streamer at UP during martial law, most of his fellow graduates applauded while others kept silent.
No one has recently taken a survey on the subject, but the decline of student activism evident in the behavior of Pangilinan’s schoolmates is so obvious a survey would probably only confirm it.
At the University of the Philippines in Diliman, the decline is unmistakable in the pathetic turn-out during the mobilizations militant groups call for students to express grievances, protest a government policy, or simply to commemorate such events as EDSAs 1 and 2.
Forums on media repression, charter change or some other issue that should be of public interest and concern go begging for audiences. Professors are often forced to compel students to attend symposia and other discussions, not always to provide the captive audience such forums need, but also because awareness and understanding of public questions are part of the education a university should provide.
The news is only a little less depressing in other universities. In Manila, the fulcrum of what remains of student activism has shifted to the University Belt, where it is probably safe to say that the militant student groups manage to attract more members than in UP and the Ateneo.
The situation today is vastly different from that of the mid-1960s up to 1972. Thousands of students regularly came to demonstrations on issues ranging from purely local ones such as tuition fee increases to national concerns like Philippine involvement in the Vietnam War. Protests against increases in oil product prices could command student participation in the tens of thousands. In some of the pre-martial law protests at Manila’s Plaza Miranda the participation of 20-30,000, most of them students, was not unusual.
Martial law put an end to such demonstrations, but did not prevent either lightning rallies or such acts as Barican’s from taking place, often with the full support of the students. And of course there was EDSA 1, in which students were amply represented.
Among the reasons why student activists too often turn into the people they used to warn others about—Defensor has become the tacky bureaucrat student activists despise, for example—is a built-in one. Being a student is not a permanent state. Eventually the student graduates, and must find his or her way in society. When that happens the former student is usually armed with the credentials that could get him or her a job—or at least with the hope that those credentials can do so. In this sense, whether originally from a poor family or not, the former student becomes middle- class in hopes and aspirations.
But even while still students, some already display a disturbing willingness to merely be another wage slave in an unjust society where poverty is the fate of the majority. This is evident not only in the lack of interest in public issues. It is even more apparent in the attempt to redefine activism to include immersing one’s self in one’s studies as itself being a form of social commitment. It’s an asinine concept that takes the “active” out of activism. But it has become an article of faith in the present era of call centers and opportunities for working abroad as care-givers.
That this is a cynical and opportunist age that breeds people solely focused on themselves has also decimated student-activist ranks. Out there in the country’s schools are millions of students focused on nothing else but getting ahead. They share ex-activist Defensor’s pious advocacy not only of protest decorum, but also of silence in the face of the vast injustice and the great sufferings of our time.