No fear

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IN a remark that has since been condemned not only by the protesting students but also by engaged academics, thinking journalists and even half- asleep politicians, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte ventured the opinion that students should “concentrate on their studies rather than [walk] out of their classrooms to protest supposed budget cuts for their institutions”.

Valte’s a lawyer and a graduate of that Katipunan Avenue school that fancies itself as the breeding ground of “men (it doesn’t mention women) for others,” both of which facts, I suppose, make her statements no matter how repellent more excusable than most, in the same way that we used to forgive those of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s version of her, Lorelei Fajardo. Like Fajardo, Valte’s utterances have so far not been distinguished for either their civility, gravitas or even sense, although her telling protesting students to stay in their classrooms was a new low even for her.

Meanwhile, despite such statements as Valte’s, the Aquino government has scored brownie point after brownie point with the US government and its local centurions. The former has wholeheartedly approved its staying the course—i.e., not deviating from the policies of its predecessors—as far as its foreign and economic policies are concerned.

Mr. Aquino after all brought Philippine-China relations to their worst point in 34 years when his government called upon the US to stand by its supposed commitment to defend the country in the most unlikely event of an attack by China over the Spratlys issue despite the US’ not being a party to the dispute. That gave the US the opportunity to preen and prance on the Southeast Asian stage as the defender of the Philippine David against the Chinese Goliath.

In the process, Mr. Aquino demonstrated how firmly committed he is to sustaining the Philippines’ stature as a US client state, one of the results of this devotion being the country’s being named to the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) , despite his government’s antipathy to the passage of a Freedom of Information bill, its clumsy attempts to cloak the cuts in the budgets of state universities and colleges by actually claiming to have recommended otherwise (i.e., raised the proposed allocations rather than cut them)—and discouraging citizen engagement in governance issues through such asinine remarks as Ms. Valte’s.

Citizen access to government information, financial transparency and citizen engagement are among the OGP criteria for inclusion in its eight-country steering committee. But there was Mr. Aquino anyway, delivering the keynote during the OGP launch in New York, despite his government’s failure to meet those standards.

Upon his return Mr. Aquino was, among other delights, most enthusiastic over the prospect of US multinationals’ investing in, among others, the extraction of coconut water (“buko” juice). That earned him the silent approval of the US, although, as our experience over the last 60 years should by now be telling us, it’s really nothing new and would merely be one more case of the country’s resources’ being exploited by foreign groups rather than, as Mr. Aquino implied, alleviating the poverty that afflicts millions of Filipinos.

Mr. Aquino’s enthusiasm over buko juice as a solution to poverty may not have been dampened by the student and other demonstrations that took place in the country while he was kowtowing to Obama. But it’s likely that the spy agencies communicated to him their fears over the possible resurgence of student activism during his watch, thus Valte’s statement, which, we can assume, reflected that of Mr. Aquino’s own (she is, after all, his deputy spokesperson). Incidentally also all of a piece with those fears was the silly bill banning “planking” filed by Manila Congressman Winston Castelo before the House of Representatives.

If that’s the fear, Mr. Aquino, Ms. Valte, Congress, the military, the police and the entire bureaucracy need not fret. No repeat of the First Quarter Storm of 1970, when the country was rocked by demonstrations and strikes on practically every front as a result of the student protests of January that year, is in sight.

There was an apparent surge in student activism in the last weeks of September, but the surge is unlikely to continue as the first semester winds down and students leave their schools for the break. Although some 20,000 students took to the streets last month to protest the Aquino government’s continuing the policies of its predecessor administrations on SUCs, both mobilization and sustainability have been the most acute problems of whatever remains of the student movement since the end of the martial law period.

That period was successful not only in undermining the movement for change and democratization that was threatening to finally transform Philippine society in the 1970s. It also managed to instill into the hearts of thousands of young men and women enough fear of the arrest, imprisonment, torture and even death that’s among the price of authentic engagement in the effort at independence, progress and change in this country for them to foreswear activism. As a consequence, the student community that emerged after the martial law period was primarily focused on being successful within a system they no longer cared or dared challenge. Which was perfectly understandable, the choice being between success and a life of ease on the one hand, and engagement and a life of uncertainty and suffering on the other.

Although made open to alternative economic, political and social structures by their studies of other systems, students also have a stake in the existing scheme of things, in which their education gives them an advantage over other sectors. Even the poorest student from one of the state universities could end up a corporation lawyer, a congressman or the CEO of a reasonably successful business enterprise. That one fact alone has managed to defang even the most ferocious critics of the structures that have kept the country and its people poor and the country the doormat of foreign interests for centuries.

The surge of September could be interpreted as the result of the same self-centered concerns: of fears within the student community that continuing budget cuts could compromise the focus on a future of success and even privilege that drives the ambitions of the young men and women in the country’s network of both private and state universities.

Valte’s call for the students to concentrate on their studies will not necessarily fall on deaf ears. The Aquino government need only assure the SUC student community, as indeed Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda has done, that it will look into its grievances as the activism of September segues into the silence of October as classes end. Lacierda and Valte’s statements were in fact shrewdly complementary. Valte and cohort after all know whereof they speak.

(BusinessWorld)

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