Independence Day Address
Twin Cities, Minnesota
8 June 2013

2012-2013 Fulbright/ Humphrey Fellow
University of Minnesota

I am very, very honored to have been invited  to be the  Guest Speaker of Minnesota’s biggest Filipino-American community as you celebrate Independence Day.  I had spoken  in various forums with diverse audiences during the past one year that I was a Fulbright-Humphrey Fellow in the United States. I do not know why it is in this particular gathering in this beautiful park  that I feel very nervous. Maybe it is because an Independence Day Address must   reawaken or reaffirm one’s commitment to the ideals that inspired the Philippine Revolution. This is, unarguably,  a tall order. Understand then why  I am overwhelmed.

But yesterday, I asked a friend who had been a United States resident for the last 20 years, “If you were to listen here in the United States to a speaker  who is based in the Philippines, what would you like this person to talk about?” I was half-expecting him to say that he would like me to update him on the love life of Vic Sotto, or summarize the latest Aga Muhlach movie, or discuss Vice-Ganda’s popularity or loss of popularity after mocking Jessica Soho’s (over)weight to trivialize rape, or if Nora Aunor already looks like a grandmother.  But his response was  a far cry. He said  he would like to know developments  in the country of his birth. He also said he would like to know how he could contribute to the improvement of conditions back home. I was blown away. This person cares for the country some people might claim he abandoned like a hot potato, or more realistically, a hot ‘camote’?  It is not that I never believed that my friend was capable of possessing social conscience. It is just that to me he represented the Filipino born and educated in the Philippines but chose to move to the United States in search for greener pastures. He represented you- you who would have to listen to my ramblings this morning as your ticket to  lunch.    It had been more than two months since I accepted  Madam Lita Malicsi’s invitation to give the keynote address for today’s celebration. And it had been more than two months that I agonized over what to say to you. But I had an   epiphany after consulting my friend. I hope he was right, otherwise, I will pillory him if you throw tomatoes at me later. I sort of  prepared for the eventuality of tomatoes thrown at me by wearing this tomato-colored suit.

It is very auspicious that we are celebrating the  115th year of Philippine independence the same year that the United States is celebrating the 150th year of the end of the civil war. In different parts of the world, there are other Filipinos like you who are commemorating or who will commemorate Independence Day. It only means you have not forgotten home. It is perhaps incontrovertible that you can take the Filipino out of the Philippines, but you can never take the Philippines out of the Filipino. Jose Rizal,  one of our  national heroes, the so-called greatest person ever produced by the Malayan race,    said that those who  do not care  to look back to where they came from can never get to where they want to go. Which means you who are here today will get to where you want to go for not forgetting your roots.

Allow me therefore to  bring us back further home - back to where we came from, back to the Pearl of the Orient Seas.

In the last years, the Philippines has had gains in the political front. It became stable when measured against the political situation under the Arroyo regime. The conflict in Mindanao de-escalated and there seems to be bright prospects that the insurgency of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will at last  become history. There were some accomplishments in the campaign against corruption, at least on the rhetorical front. The controversial Reproductive Health  Bill was finally, finally passed into law after years of debate that seemed to lead nowhere. Investor confidence surged upwards. The public trust rating of the President remains high although it has been declining.

Here is one more good news: There has been a steady increase in the gross domestic product. You probably know that the Philippines right now is jubilant over its very recent  economic gain. In the first quarter of this year,  it registered a phenomenal  economic growth of 7.8%  which is actually the highest among the major East and Southeast Asian countries including China. Indeed this is spectacular. Even the Philippine government was surprised- shocked perhaps is a better word-  because its target of 5 to 6% was surpassed. This also impressed  major international financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank  and the International Monetary Fund  which projected 6%. Although the growth this last quarter is the highest, there has actually been a positive economic trend under the Aquino administration. And so things look rosy in the Philippines.

But what does this growth really mean to the masses of Filipinos? What is hidden under economic statistics are dismal facts. Domestic consumption and spending including predictably vote-buying during the last elections fueled the unprecedented  rise of the “Sick Man of Asia”  to the rising tiger  of Asia. (I think this is a stupefying evolution. Imagine a man becoming a tiger! And I thought human beings were first lower animal forms before becoming human.) Also,  your remittances- every dollar you sent to your families and extended families back home- contributed much to this growth. About 10 million overseas Filipino workers remitted  $24 billion to the Philippines last year. This represented 10% of the country's economic output.

Which means that the growth- and I mean the steady growth of the economy under Pres Aquino’s dispensation- did not really trickle down to the country’s poor. Jobs have not been created and so the unemployment rate remains high. In fact, even the Asian Development Bank reports that  almost half of the workers in the Pearl of the Orient Seas are unpaid family workers and the self-employed. The rate of poverty is still high. One-third of the population is surviving on  $2 a day.

On the human rights front, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances are still happening. Majority of the targets are indigenous rights defenders and environmentalists who are resisting large-scale mining corporations. We are all probably aware that mining is responsible for many of the environmental disasters in the country- from flashfloods, soil erosions,  and the sinking or subsidence of some communities, to the biological death of bodies of water and pollution of farmlands. These have resulted in losses to life and property, loss of livelihood, and displacement especially of indigenous peoples. What is very dangerous is that in many mining communities, the military is serving as the private security force of mining corporations. What is more dangerous is that the government allowed mining corporations to convert the CAFGU as their private  militias to quell community opposition to destructive mining.  This is very disappointing since Aquino, while on the campaign trail in 2010,  promised to dismantle private armies which were strengthened during the Arroyo regime. Instead of dismantling private armies, he gave them a legal status to serve the mining corporations. 

Which bring us back to what we are celebrating today: the 115th year of our independence. Andres Bonifacio and the other revolutionaries paid with their blood to free the Filipinos from the bondage of oppression. They paid with their lives to release their country women and men  from the shackles of hunger. They paid with their lives so that their fellow men and women would live with dignity, and not be forced into labor or be treated as inferior beings in their own homeland. They paid with their lives for our independence.

What is independence? How does it translate into a value for every Filipino? The simple definition  of independence is that it is the condition of being free from hunger or  want and fear from fear. In a country where 75% of the economy is controlled by only 40 families, how can people be freed from want? How can people be freed from hunger if only a few control the land? If people are forced into laziness (or indolence) simply because of the absence of economic opportunities, how can people have freedom of choice?

The reason some or even more of our fellow Filipinos- some of them our country’s best and brightest like you who are here- left the country and moved to other  countries is because  the Philippines did not have space or while there was space, it was not big enough for them to grow,  to live happy and peaceful lives secure that they  would always have something to eat or have roof above their and their family’s heads. As someone  said,  “nothing testifies better to deep poverty than the export of slaves or the persistent exodus of job-hungry migrants.” Our OFWs   did not abandon our country. You did not ship out of our country. Like the migratory birds, they- and you-   escaped from harsh conditions. And just  like migratory birds, we will always go back.

Independence Day will have meaning to the majority of our people back home if economic  gains will give them freedom from want, the freedom of choice. When 75% of the economy is controlled by only 40 families, when economic gains that make the Philippines the rising tiger of Asia do not change the lives of more than half of the Philippine population, when  thousands upon thousands of children beg on streets, when many families do not have adequate to eat, when Manila is the “Gate to Hell,” when the gap between the likes of the very wealthy Henry Sy and Lucio Tan   widen every single day, our heroes who spilled their blood for the so-called independence we are marking today will continue to turn in their graves. But when economic gains mean jobs for the poor and  food on their tables, children inside classrooms from Monday to Friday instead of on the streets, then Independence Day will be significant for everyone.

The struggle for independence did not end on June 12, 1898. I believe that independence is  not just a state or condition, but it is also a  process of making sure that the death and sacrifices of our heroes would not be senseless. Bonifacio and his friends imperiled and even lost their lives because they wanted hunger to end, because they wanted distributive justice for  every Juana, Paula, Francisca, Pedro, Procopio, and Jose. Their deaths, their sacrifices will be trivialized if we allow  the Philippines to become a country that is  paradise for profiteers but hell for the vast majority of citizens. And every Filipino has a role to play to ensure that our heroes did not shed their blood in vain.  We who are here have a role to play. Every hunger, every problem suffered by an individual or by a  community is our business, especially if that community is the Filipino nation itself.  And, we should always mind our business. We may be here now, but the Philippines is still our home. A lot of you will probably go back to the country of your birth when you will have retired. I am sure you will not rest easy  spending your hard-earned retirement dollars in the midst of a sea of children begging for alms. You will not be happy living in comfort  when you know that many people are struggling to make both ends meet, are living under bridges, or are scavenging garbage bins for food.

And so let us prepare for happy retirement. Aside from your remittances which have been keeping our economy afloat and sheltered the Philippines  from the recession that hit this country badly, we can do much more.  How we conceive that role is up to us. But let me appeal that you use your voice to raise the issues of the vulnerable, the weak, the indigenous, the poor, in the Philippines. Here, you can speak and bring to the attention of our government the evils of mining to life, property, and the environment, without fear of the paramilitary groups and the  State security forces killing or abducting  you or members of your family. The Philippine Study Group of Minnesota headed by Meg Layese has been doing that. I joined them and the Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines in lobbying efforts to ask the United States to stop sending military aid to the Philippines which the Armed Forces only uses to strengthen paramilitary groups used by mining companies. We traveled to Washington and lobbied with Senators and Congressmen, as well as officials of the United States State Department. We got positive actions and assurances of support. We are working on convincing the United States Congress to convene the Lantos Commission to look into the human rights issues in the Philippines. To my knowledge, no one from PSGM  ever got killed or kidnapped for activism, for lending its strong voice to express the issues of the poor, the weak, the marginalized, and indigenous back home.  In the Philippines, I personally know people – my friends and co-workers- who lost their lives or who disappeared without shadows because they dared give a voice to the issues of the weak and marginalized. I have had security issues myself. And last year, Congress passed a law criminalizing online libel. In its wake people were arrested for Facebook posts. The only reason the government was not able to arrest more people is because the constitutionality of that law was questioned before the Supreme Court. The case is currently  pending.

And so, while I am here, let me enjoy the freedom we have in this Great Country- the Home of the Brave. Allow me to articulate what I think Andres Bonifacio would say to all of us if he were around to witness the current economic and socio-political milieu. I will share with you an excerpt from a poem I wrote years ago titled “Andres Bonifacio’s Cry:”

His agitated  spirit upbraids us  with a cry

“The walls are back and   higher than what we tore down
The masters are much worse; they too were slaves at dawn
Is this the freedom for which  comrades  had to die?
The vanguards’ empty spots  await you or you fall 
Rush! Take the places of brave  forebears  before
Bore into  slavery,  as in the days of yore
The times demand sacrifice; please, you heed the call.”

The voice is hoarse now; from our apathy we rise
Hunger’s   plea for salvation demands our urgent action
The people’s purse was robbed again; we struggle  on
Resist sharp thorns and swords; our  freedom is the prize
For while we bite our tongues and cry our silent tears
We give the foes the whip they crack to make us slaves
Submission is  the source of power   tyranny  craves
The streets beckon us! Now! Let us triumph over   fears!

Mabuhay si Andres Bonifacio at ang iba pa nating mga bayani. Mabuhay  ang Pilipinas. Mabuhay tayong lahat!

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