Allow me first to congratulate the Freedom Flame awardees tonight and thank you to the FNF for this tradition.
During Marcos’s martial rule, and even before the dictator and his family fled in February of 1986, as a student activist, I already knew the taste, the feel, and the smell of freedom.
I tasted freedom in the heated and intense debates with my family, friends, and comrades in the student movement, and in mass demonstrations against the dictatorship. I felt the value of freedom in the crackdowns that followed these instances of resistance. I experienced freedom precisely in the struggle for it, together with fellow, if I may borrow the term, berserkers and fellow disruptors.
And every struggle, from the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolt that toppled the dictator to all the succeeding peaceful protest actions against abuse and corruption and for good governance, freedom has been both the price we pay and the prize we win.
History has taught us of the cumulative effects of change, its ripples and its echoes, towards democracy, prosperity and freedom. But the journey, while focused on moving forward, is fraught with pauses, stops, and yes even reversals. Some would describe our time as a reversal.
The Liberal Party of the Philippines has been witness and participant to history. Witness to the suppression of freedoms, the plunder of the country, and even the killings of its members under the dictatorship. The Liberal Party in its commitment to democracy paid dearly during the years of one-man rule. Liberal Party stalwarts such as Senator Ninoy Aquino, Governor Jose Lingad of Pampanga, Mayor Cesar Climaco of Zamboanga City, and Governor Evelio Javier of Antique were all felled by gun-toting assassins of the brutal dictatorship without them seeing the dawn.
After the restoration of democracy in 1986, the party, through a number of its member-senators, led by then Senate President Jovito Salonga, cast the historic vote in 1991 that rejected the Philippines-United States Bases Treaty. In 2000, the Liberal Party made a valiant display against corruption by supporting the impeach and oust moves against the incumbent president, and in 2005, the party withdrew support from the sitting president following the controversies of her election into office.
Whether in quiet struggle or exuberant protest, Liberal Party’s every journey to freedom is invaluable. It reaffirmed that we, together as a people, shape our own destiny.
But, there are no shortcuts to freedom, and as a European philosopher said, “freedom is a conquest, always partial, always precarious, always challenged.”
Today, we ask these questions: Are we free? Does freedom have any value in a society tainted with the blood of thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings and impunity? Is freedom meaningful without security in the home and in the streets?
How do we reconcile freedom amid the feelings of despair, fear, and hopelessness among those overwhelmed by the enormity of our nation’s problems: grinding poverty; widespread hunger; massive unemployment; pervasive graft and corruption; horrible traffic especially in urban centers; neglect and waste of people and their potential?
Are we free to talk and express our views without getting demonized, branded, or trolled? Can we express our dissent without the backlash of political persecution, trumped-up allegations, or unjust imprisonment? Can we engage in healthy, intelligent debate without insults or vulgar, cuss words hurled towards us?
There are always challenges to freedom, to dignity and human rights, to our common aspirations to live decently.
Shall we, in the political opposition, throw up our hands in resignation and defeat, and pass the whole burden to society? Shall we simply sit idly by and wait for this partisan, violent tsunami to pass?
These questions bring me to the story of baby elephants. I am not exactly a fan of circuses — whether political or the actual acrobatic kind — but this anecdote can teach us a lesson or two.
At the circus, baby elephants are separated from their mothers early on. They are tied by a strong rope to poles. Instinctively, they would try to break free, twisting, turning, and pulling hard. But the rope keeps them in place. They would eventually give up and stop resisting and stay where they are. They learned to be docile.
This is why, full-grown circus elephants stand submissively with a rope around their neck even if this rope is not tied to anything. They have become accustomed to being held back by a rope. If these giant creatures only knew how big and powerful they have become, that not even a rope tied to a pole could keep them or hold them, they would break free — but at that point, they need to know how powerful they are and they have to try.
We are aware of the threats and challenges that lie before us. The anger, negativity, and pessimism can be infectious; the trolling on social media can be too vexing to ignore. The machinery of the entire state being used against us can crush us.
But, let us not be accustomed to being beaten down that, like the aforementioned full-grown circus elephants, we do not see the liberation that is within our power, that we are strong, that we only need to unite together and resist. The times call for us not to be too cozy in our offices or in our positions, heedless of the danger our people face, needing protection and inspiration. We must remind ourselves that in the end, we must learn to trust in the collective capacity of our people to choose freedom over tyranny, compassion and understanding over anger and hate, to seek the truth over lies and falsehoods. And in trusting our people, we must act to mobilize and organize them into purposeful action.
Last September, during the budget deliberations in the House, the strength of the people was felt when the Commission on Human Rights budget was slashed into P1000. Social media went on overdrive. Citizens started to write their senators and their congressmen. Organizations took position papers out and made it known to Congress that they would not take things sitting down. Individuals actually called members of Congress demanding that they explain why they slashed the CHR budget to P1000. And government backtracked.
This template of a strong pushback is necessary if we are to ensure that our freedoms are upheld and defended.
The Liberal Party is now in the process of redefining, leaning on its basic values of freedom, social justice, and solidarity. Freedom, social justice and solidarity — kalayaan, katarungan, bayanihan. Ours is an institution that serves the highest end of a free society, that is, to help our fellow men and women, empowered and acting together, find their fullest potential in a milieu that respects our rights and dignity.
It is because the woes of our world are so demanding that it becomes our critical, necessary task to stand up, to speak out, to defy, and to do something using our skills, assets, and time. Ours therefore is a work of great relevance.
Freedom will not emerge with a magic wand. Like any other value, freedom does not exist in a vacuum. It must be fought for and exercised. Ironic that when we were marching in the streets against the dictatorship, I remember the line: “Rights are not rights unless they are fought for.” 30 plus years later, our rights will not be rights if we do not fight for these rights.
Building democratic institutions, responsive governments, and robust civil societies is the work of generations, and it is up to us to keep the work going to chart the future we seek. We have to reverse the reversals, and continue the march forward — towards freedom, democracy, and prosperity.
They say the taste of freedom is sweet. But the comfortable and the protected, those who do not fight for freedom, they will never know how much sweeter freedom is, when fought for and won.
Like the elephant, we, the people, are big and strong. We need to realize that the shackles are only in the mind. In the coming months, the plan for the Liberal Party is to become a party of the people, bigger in number and stronger in unity, to the cause of freedom — to live a life of freedom, of dignity and respect for all. In ending, the future of our rights and our freedoms as a people lies in our hands and our collective ability to forge ahead despite the difficulties. Amidst the violence, the killings, the attacks in our institutions, and the threats of authoritarianism in our midst, I believe we will overcome. And yes to borrow and paraphrase the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that day will surely come wherein we will as a people, united and defiant, be able to say the words, “Free at last, free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last!”
Magandang gabi po sa kanilang lahat.