Where Are the Freedom Parks of Philippine Democracy?

Arab News

Where Are the Freedom Parks of Philippine Democracy?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Last Monday Manila had not one, but two ticker-tape parades (well, confetti parades, since no one uses ticker tape anymore). One was for Precious Lara Quigaman, recently crowned Miss International, and the other, for boxers Manny Pacquiao (WBC super featherweight champ), Rey Bautista (WBC Asia-Pacific bantamweight champ) and Bryan Viloria (WBC light flyweight champ). Both parades featuring — literally — a red carpet pit stop at the Philippine presidential palace for photo opportunities with a beleaguered president. On Tuesday, all hell broke loose.

A group of around 200 Filipinos of predominantly socialist sympathies decided they would lay a wreath at a place called Chino Roces Bridge, named after an old publisher who resisted Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, and was famously filmed being knocked down by water cannon in the early 1980s, in the vicinity of what was still then called Mendiola Bridge. The bridge happens to be very close to the presidential palace, where, after evicting Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s father, who lost an election in 1965, Ferdinand Marcos then lived for 20 years in increasingly splendid isolation.

A sight familiar to the socialist crowd met them, as they made their way to the bridge: Policemen. The uniforms, riot shields, and clubs worn and wielded by the Filipino policemen have changed since Ferdinand Marcos’s day, but their behavior towards the socialists harked back to the past.

The cops charged the (peacefully, mind you) marching ladies and gentlemen, and proceeded to attack them: In the ensuing attack, seven of the 200 were hauled off to jail. The marchers, it seems, had been yelling, “Oust Arroyo! Burden to the Masses!” And it seems, just like Marcos, the present president of the Philippines must have had the kind of humorless childhood that results in ignorance of that charming statement of kindergarten defiance, “sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” That should, in a democratic setting, including calling someone a burden to the masses.

While like any Third World (or is it Global South? My political correctness sometimes escapes me) writer, I tend to have, at the very least, socialist sympathies, I am not, by any means, a Filipino socialist, much less a communist. But I am an old-fashioned enough defender of the status quo to think that so long as one doesn’t carry a gun, as a civilian, one can shout whatever one wants, and not end up charged by a phalanx of riot-shield wearing, club-bearing, policemen. After all, so long as they can shout what they want, I can write what I want. Seems fair to me and everyone else concerned. Even the president.

She, after all, has a radio and TV station within her palace grounds (one temporary lent to her, by the way, by taxpayers like myself who technically collectively own it as that “mass” known as the “citizenry”). She also controls not one, but three, television stations. And I believe, a number of newspapers and tabloids that, if not actually owned by the government, then which can at least be considered quite favorably inclined towards her administration.

So why would the police treat 200 vaguely socialist, and even possibly communist, people, trying to lay a wreath on a monument, as if the marchers were wielding grenades instead of merely waggling around their clenched fists? You see, the president has recently proclaimed (or to be specific, one of her Cabinet officials announced), on the anniversary of the beginning of Marcos’ period of dictatorship, no less, that she was sick of people opposing her, and that there would be consequences for making that dislike public knowledge. It would have been nice if instead of the folksy-uncleish way in which the Cabinet official normally speaks, he’d adopted a stereotypical Hollywood Gestapo officer accent (“Ve haff vays of dealink vis you…”), but the Philippines had no such luck.

Instead, what the Philippines got was the trumpeting of a government policy of “calibrated, preemptive response” to public assemblies. Good old Ferdinand Marcos had passed a law (in the manner one passes a kidney stone, perhaps), enunciating a policy of “maximum tolerance” toward demonstrations during the twilight of his dictatorship. The policy served both he and three other presidents rather well. It’s obviously no longer enough. But what remains enough is a peculiar (by Filipino democratic standards, anyway) policy called “no permit, no rally.” It’s supposed to mean you can’t march around with a political message, unless you ask the local mayor for permission. Sounds reasonable. Traffic lowers industrial productivity. Except the same law — which dates to 1985 — says every city is supposed to have a “Freedom Park,” where you don’t need a permit to rally because, well, the park promotes freedom. In twenty years, most people still remain in the dark as to where, exactly, those parks are.

And so, the topsy-turvy life of the Filipino continues. Ticker tape parades on Monday, charging riot police on Tuesday, and phantom “Freedom Parks” in cities controlled by mayors who don’t believe in issuing permits to rally anyway, period.

Democracy can be such a crazy business, particularly, I guess, when a president who claims to be democratically-elected, has come to the startling conclusion that democracy is something crazy, indeed.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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