I wrote this commentary for the Philippine Online Chronicles.
We can only imagine the irate reaction of President BS Aquino to the disruption of his Independence Day speech by Ateneo de Bicol student Em Mijares in Naga City last week.
Video footages showed the President pause a bit, perhaps shocked by the sudden shouts of “walang pagbabago sa ilalim ng rehimeng Aquino” (“There is no change under the Aquino regime”), in the middle of a speech intended to highlight the supposed improvement of governance under his regime.
We were not made privy to the President’s personal reflections as the corporate mass media, usually very graphic in describing every detail of his alleged accomplishments and each little tidbit of his romantic flings, was largely mum on the matter.
Yet it is not too hard to envision BS Aquino, the leading representative of the landed and moneyed elites in government and himself a pampered scion of the powerful haciendero Cojuangco-Aquino clan, berating his men for allowing the youth activist to slip through the heavy security.
The crime of heckling
Mijares is described by detractors as a heckler, a scandalizing person who embarrasses by rude questions, gibes, or objections. Press reports largely subscribe to this framing, thus reducing the act of dissent to a mere question of etiquette or the lack thereof.
And yet the manner of his arrest is anything but polite. He was dragged by the Presidential Security Group and police, brutally forced to swallow the banner he carried, dumped in jail for 24 hours and was freed only after paying a bail of P8,000.
This and the criminal charges slapped by the government against Em Mijares give us an accurate gauge of the fascist sensibilities of President BS Aquino and his clique.
Mijares is charged with violating Article 153 and 148 of the Revised Penal Code for “tumultuous disturbance,” including the interruption of “public performances, functions or gatherings, or peaceful meetings” and the “assault upon an agent of a person in authority.”
But it is ridiculous to even consider the shouts of a lone Mijares a “serious disturbance.” The Revised Penal Code itself states that such can only “be deemed to be tumultuous if caused by more than three persons who are armed provided with means of violence.”
Ironically, he was in fact the victim of assault by state security forces rather than the assailant.
The spurious charges against Mijares do not hold water even according to the government’s own laws. But it is shoved down our throats with self-righteous cries on the inappropriateness of heckling.
The emperor has no clothes
The emperor has no clothes but those who point this out must be punished. There really is no significant change under the Aquino administration but this is of no consequence at all. The powers that be are displeased and the spoiler must pay with a jail term of up to six years.
After all, there is truth in the statement of Mijares and other activists: there is just no change under Aquino. The pork barrel system and corruption, landlessness, unemployment, soaring food prices, inaccessible education and other social services, human rights violations, and widening poverty persists.
Pork barrel or discretionary lump sum funds are simply diverted to line agencies and utilized by BS Aquino allies for the pet projects in their districts. This is in spite of the Supreme Court’s ruling of the Priority Development Assistance Fund as unconstitutional.
Administration figures involved in the pork barrel scam continue to remain unscathed in spite of the fanfare surrounding the arrest of Senator Bong Revilla and the prosecution of other opposition personalities such as Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile.
BS Aquino is himself the creator and defender of the disbursement acceleration program or DAP, one more form of pork barrel.
Given these glaring realities, disrupting the President’s speech cannot anything be but justified.
Proper place for protests
There are some who declare affinity for Mijares’ sentiments but disavow the form chosen by the youthful activist. We respect his opinions, they say, but there are proper venues to express dissent.
But what constitutes the “proper place” for protests? Are protests not symbolic assertions of the right over a certain space?
To begin with, we must first dispel the notion that the deeming of certain spaces by government as appropriate for protest is neutral: It is against good manners to hold protests on certain occasions, for instance during the President’s speech. Etiquette dictates against certain forms of actions, especially militant protests (of course, it is best not to protest at all).
We have for the most part adapted ourselves to the expectations of this idea of appropriateness. But appropriate for whom?
The Philippines is run by a neocolonial government composed of bureaucrat capitalists who use public office for the interest of accumulating profits for the landlord and big business elites and their US imperialist masters. This system is the root for which the pork barrel scam and other forms of official criminality are but symptoms.
It is also this system that has largely regulated space in support of unequal social relations favoring the dominant classes. It is in their favor to limit the spaces for the assertion of individual or collective discontent: All places for congregation should be either spaces for conspicuous consumption (as in shopping malls) or spaces of passive reception of pre-packaged messages (as in the President’s speech).
Turning the tables
To protest in this context therefore means taking back dominated space. It means breaking the barriers set by those in power to curtail people’s resistance. It means waging a tug of war over the space in which the assertion of the people’s rights and interests can be made possible.
Mijares was not alone. On that very day, thousands all over the country took to the streets to call for the complete abolition of the pork barrel and to decry President Aquino’s blatant covering up of the extent of systemic corruption. He is part and parcel of this mass movement.
The daring disruption of the Independence Day speech turned the tables on the regime, transforming an official ceremony seeking to deodorize a rotting dispensation into an occasion for demonstrating the unwavering resolve of the Filipino people to struggle for national liberation and genuine democracy.