The Filipino Youth and Social Transformation [1]

In these times of national crisis and global upheavals, there is a need for an active youth that can unite with the oppressed in struggle against injustice and tyranny.

But if one looks at popular portrayals of the Filipino youth, it would seem that our concept of social involvement has been reduced to liking facebook causes or volunteering for some charity drive.

Nationalism itself has been diminished to being dutiful citizens, graduating on time and finding work in some call center, or sending remittances from abroad.

Collective politics, mass actions, and revolutionary causes, it is said, are already a thing of the past. But is this the only horizon for the contemporary youth?

Our nation’s own history shows how the younger generations of every epoch are confronted by two choices: either to side with the oppressors and exploiters or to struggle side by side with the toiling masses for social transformation.

Revolutionary Beginnings

It was the younger generations who formed the core of the Katipunan, the anti-colonial revolutionary movement of the late 19th Century. These patriotic youth led the liberation of the country from 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. The young revolutionary leaders of this period envisioned the establishment of a truly independent Filipino nation.

But the American colonizers came and stole the country’s independence after a genocidal war that the cost the lives of more than a million Filipinos. The colonizers installed local puppets from the ranks of ilustrado families whose sons and daughters would come to dominate the country’s political scene up to the present.

This did not prevent the rise of a new generation of young Filipinos, however, who would take up the struggle left by their forebears.

Young workers, peasants, and intellectuals would have a big role in the rise of the Philippine labor movement, the founding of the old Partido Komunista Pilipinas, and the revival of armed anti-colonial struggles against the American and Japanese occupations.

Indeed, many of those who became anti-Japanese guerrillas during the Second World War were mere teenagers when they took up arms.

A Gathering Storm

Defiant students clench their fist in the 1971 Diliman Commune.

Formal independence was finally declared on July 4, 1946. But the indirect control of the former colonizers over the country’s politics, economy, and culture persisted.

The American colonizers may have departed, but they left behind a whole generation of loyal puppets from the same haciendero classes to run the new republic. Various unequal agreements, the U.S. military bases, and an acquiescent government became the hallmarks of the country’s new semi-colonial status.

It did not take long for the youth of this period to begin questioning the prevailing social order that continued to concentrate the country’s wealth to the ruling elites and foreign powers while the masses remain mired in poverty.

A rejuvenated nationalism and a strong conviction to correct historical injustices pushed a generation to go beyond the confines of their classrooms and integrate with the peasant, workers, and urban poor communities in pursuit of genuine freedom and social justice.

As the whole world rose up in the 60s and 70s from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the American and European anti-war movement, to the Third World national liberation struggles, the Filipino youth also led massive weekly protest actions that are now collectively famous as the First Quarter Storm of the 1970s.

These empowered youth pointed out the need for their sector to unite with the country’s exploited masses in struggle to root out the three basic problems afflicting the country:

  • Imperialism that subordinated the country to the interests of foreign powers,
  • Feudalism or the persistence of land monopoly amidst grave landlessness and rural poverty, and
  • Bureaucrat Capitalism or the use of government as a business enterprise.

Going Underground

A company of New People's Army guerrillas in Eastern Visayas.

But President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in the year 1972 to contain this unprecedented upsurge of the mass movement and ultimately protect the interests of his own clique and class.

Marcos had student councils and publications closed. He had both radical organizations and the traditional opposition parties suppressed and their known leaders, members, and supporters imprisoned, killed, and tortured.

Human rights organizations have recorded 70,000 political prisoners, 35,000 victims of torture, and 3,257 extrajudicial killings. [2] The cases of tens of thousands of other victims have not been fortunate enough to be documented.

This only stoked the fires of defiance all the more. All democratic spaces for resistance may have been curtailed but this only push thousands of youth of this time to go underground and join the armed struggle in the countryside. The tyranny of the Marcos dictatorship did not prevent these young revolutionaries from risking their lives for the Filipino people.

The reestablished Communist Party of the Philippines-led revolutionary movement emerged as the most dedicated, unswerving, and respected opposition to Marcos. It attracted some of the most talented and idealistic youth, who with their boundless energy, commitment, and creativity, became the core of a broad anti-dictatorship struggle.

The Radical Tide Ebbs

A portion of the mammoth EDSA 1 mobilization that toppled the Marcos dictatorship.

The fall of Marcos in 1986, however, signaled a shifting interest among the youth. Many who grew up under the dictatorship believed that Marcos is the root of all evil and his removal would already usher in genuine social change. With Marcos gone, many in the post-EDSA generations would thus become less inclined to be socially involved.

Grave errors and internal weaknesses in the revolutionary movement also led many activists to become disillusioned. Some would form NGOs that seek to institute minute changes within the system instead of endeavoring for far-reaching social change.

A whole generation was fed with the mistaken belief that the time of collective struggles is long past and a world centered entirely on the self and an ever expanding consumer culture has no alternative.

But the basic problems afflicting Philippine society did not go away with the deposed dictatorship. Peasants marching to Malacanang to demand genuine land reform would be shot by Cory Aquino’s soldiers in the infamous 1987 Mendiola Massacre.

Seven of ten farmers do not own their land. Poverty remains widespread as the price of basic commodities and unemployment continue to rise. Around 4.5 million workers are jobless [3] while 4,030 Filipinos go abroad to find work daily. [4]

Marcos left behind $26 billion of debt, a figure that has now ballooned to more than $100 billion after a few successive administrations. The economy remains backward agrarian, and dependent on foreign capital.

The social divide remains as deep as ever, with the 25 wealthiest Filipinos possessing a net worth equal to the combined earnings of the poorest 55.4 million, [5] and political repression continues to be used by those in power to promote and protect their interests.

Current Challenges

Jubilant crowds during the 2001 EDSA 2 popular uprising.

It is the force of persistent social realities that continue to inspire significant sections of today’s youth to reaffirm our commitment to serve the people.

Using new technologies alongside classical modes of political organizing and mobilization, youth activists were at the forefront of the popular uprising that removed Joseph Estrada from Malacanang in 2001.

However, because the same social order persisted despite the change of leadership, the next president only continued the rotten policies of the past administrations. Gloria Arroyo would even overtake the rapaciousness and brutality of the regime that it replaced.

Her regime would be hounded by mammoth corruption cases, electoral fraud, and human rights violations as epitomized by the brutal Ampatuan and Hacienda Luisita massacres. There are over 1,206 victims of extrajudicial killings under Arroyo. [6]

The Arroyo regime outraged the people, but the mechanical attempts at repeating the EDSA-formula failed to draw millions into the streets like in 1986 and 2001. Arroyo would stay in power until 2010 when another landlord would be elected into office.

Noynoy Aquino would handily win by playing with the people’s anti-Arroyo sentiments and getting the support of foreign powers and local elites.

Underneath Aquino’s flimsy anti-corruption and reformist rhetoric is the continuation of long-discredited policies from budget cuts for social services, disdain for genuine land reform, to subservience to foreign powers.

The most serious crisis of the world capitalist system since the Great Depression of the 1930s is now wreaking havoc on the lives of millions worldwide. This global catastrophe will further worsen the domestic crisis in the Philippines.

Budget cuts on social services, pushing down of workers’ wages, massive unemployment, and rising costs of living in the US, Europe, and Japan is breaking the Hollywood-manufactured delusion that life is getting better under the present system.

These sorry conditions are once more reaffirming the truth that our collective action is our most potent weapon against social injustice and oppression.

Reaffirming the Struggle

Thousands join protest actions against Aquino's budget cuts for education and social services in recent months.

There are popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, massive anti-austerity strikes in Greece, Spain, and other parts of Europe, months-long campus shutdowns in Chile, and a now global Occupy movement.

The systemic nature of the problems facing the nation show that simply swapping leaders every few years cannot meet the genuine aspirations of the Filipino people. Without fundamental change in the system, there is no bright future for the youth of today.

We are hence confronted with the challenge to partake in the collective struggle to transform an unjust social order that benefits a few while reducing the majority to poverty. Only by winning the people’s national democratic struggle can we attain this.

The youth should stand with the Filipino people in asserting our national sovereignty against foreign control over our politics, economy, and culture. We should push for genuine land reform, national industrialization, and the democratic rights of peasants, workers, and all marginalized sectors of society.

The present generation must overcome the apathy, indifference, and individualism promoted by the dominant system to do this.

Being at the prime of our physical condition and possessing a strong sense of justice, boundless optimism, creativity, idealism, and openness to new and radical ideas, the youth are the most ready to serve the people and fight for a better world.

If we can prevail over our weaknesses and integrate ourselves with the toiling masses, then we can become a most vital force for social transformation.

Only with the participation of thousands of young men and women can the struggle for national liberation and genuine democracy achieve victory.

Notes

1. I presented different variations of this piece in the first-ever 26 November 2011 Panay and Guimaras State Universities and Colleges Student Summit, and other occasions. This discussion is indebted to the “State of the Youth” primer being prepared by the Kabataan Partylist National Office for much of its points.

2. Alfred McCoy, “Dark Legacy: Human Rights under Marcos Regime,” Hartford Web Publishing, 18 October 1999. Retrieved 15 March 2011 from http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/54a/062.html

3. Praymer sa Pambansang Kalagayan: Matuwid na Landas ng Pakikibaka (Quezon City: IBON Foundation Inc., July 2011), 6.

4. Philippine Overseas Employment Administration in Praymer sa Pambansang Kalagayan: Matuwid na Landas ng Pakikibaka (Quezon City: IBON Foundation Inc., July 2011), 6.

5. Forbes Asia in Praymer sa Pambansang Kalagayan: Mga Pangakong Napako (Quezon City: IBON Foundation Inc., January 2011), 4.

6.2010 Year-End Report on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines (Quezon City: KARAPATAN Alliance for the Advancement of Human Rights, 2010), 16.

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5 Comments

  1. Alfred McCoy is a typical HISTORIAN who loves to label filipino fighters. he describes the Panay labor leader NAVA as DEMONIC and the great Pampango anti imperialist dramatist AURELIO TOLENTINO as a DOUBLE-AGENT. ENOUGH OF THIS REVISIONIST HISTORIAN!

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