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The people’s challenge and Aquino’s first SONA

(Article for Philippine Online Chronicles)

Protest activities are expected to hit the streets as President Noynoy Aquino delivers his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday.

According to Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), lead organizer of the multi-sectoral rally, the protest aims to highlight the “people’s challenges to the new administration.” The rally will carry the theme: “Katarungan, Karapatan, Kabuhayan at Kalayaan (Justice, Rights, Jobs, and Freedom).”

As with the previous SONA rallies, an effigy will be featured. This year, the visual artists decided to make a magician a-la “Harry Potter,” with the objective of posing the question of whether the Noynoy’s “magic” will be able to solve the people’s problems or will he instead come up with illusions to cover them up.

A shocker SONA

According to Malacanang spokespersons, the SONA will be a “shocking expose” of anomalies in government brought about by the past administration’s misgovernance.

It is well and good if the president wants to detail further the crimes of the past administration. But more than that, the public is now expecting concrete steps to make Arroyo accountable, and programs to reverse the damage done by the past president.

Aquino may have set the tone for a different kind of leadership in his wang-wang speech and symbolic “simple man” gestures, but these good first impressions may not last if he doesn’t follow them up with substantial reform policies. The surge of political killings, water shortage, power rate hikes, youth education walkouts, Mikey Arroyo taking a partylist seat — these are clear indications that there is no time for “chit-chat” and that the need for major reforms is urgent.

In her Facebook status message, UP Faculty Regent Prof. Judy Taguiwalo asks PNoy to shock her:

I will be happily shocked if Aquino announces the prosecution of Arroyo, the release of the Morong 43 and all political prisoners, distribution of Hda Luisita to the farmers, a review of the VFA, significant increases in the education and health budgets and the resumption of peace talks.

She adds that another simple corruption expose would not be sufficient, “aksyon na ang kailangan, itanong mo pa kay Jun Lozada (we need concrete actions, you can ask even Jun Lozada).”

People’s challenge

A week before the SONA, people’s organizations and groups convened to come up with a “People’s Challenge” to the new administration. The groups expect Aquino to address these issues during his SONA.

The demands from different sectors are focused on issues of national sovereignty, social justice, genuine democracy, economic development, human rights, protection of the environment, and forging of just and lasting peace.

Among the moves asked of the new administration are 1) the immediate prosecution of Arroyo government, 2) the reversal of Oplan Bantay Laya, release of political detainees and prosecution of military men involved in human rights violations, 3) upholding national sovereignty, repeal of unequal agreements, and reversal of globalization policies, 4) P125 wage increase, land reform and an increase in government spending for social services, 5) resumption of peace talks with the MILF and NDFP based on miutual respect of previous agreements.

Concrete steps that aught to be taken during the first 100 days of the new administration were also presented. PNoy’s SONA will be gauged by people’s groups based on these demands.

The need for an active citizenry

Given the fresh mandate and relatively high trust ratings, not a few are asking why groups are trooping to the streets to rally. Despite clear demands being forwarded, institutions allied with the current administration are insinuating that the rallies are without just reason or logic.

Aquino himself seems to echo this position when he made a “novel” suggestion that the rally should be conducted in Quezon Memorial Circle, far from Batasan Pambansa where he is set to deliver his SONA.

In AsianCorrespondents, blogger Tonyo Cruz explains why staging the protest rally is justified. The Arroyos still enjoy freedom and power; political killings are again on the surge, demanding a strong statement on human rights which PNoy has yet to deliver; no major reform agenda for the economic upliftment of the people have been announced, and instead we are bracing for an additional tax burden.

He compared the current situation to the moments after Edsa 1 and 2:

We must learn from the erroneous assertions made then that we need to exercise as a people unquestioning collaboration and cooperation with the new governments then. We must always be vigilant and assertive of our rights and welfare as a people because narrow-minded and selfish interests are always closer than the rest of us to whoever holds the presidency. Vigilance exercised through mass actions, demonstrations and rallies are potent tools to inject our issues in the realm of national consciousness and to remind the President that he cannot run away from his oath to “do justice to every man”.

Indeed, it would be a betrayal to important lessons of history if the citizens would simply “sit back and relax.” We have been through past regime changes and we have learned as a people that significant social change and reforms will not be brought about by the changing of the faces and names in government. We have been promised to and lied to several times before, and it will be helpful to remind ourselves of the promises of the first SONAs of the past presidents and how they were broken.

Cruz reminds even those who voted for Aquino that good citizenship demands more than casting a vote, it is also about speaking out and reminding the president what needs to be done.

Some who choose passivity justify their acts by saying that while the new president might not really bring significant change, he is “at least better or relatively okay” than the Arroyo government, so let’s just do nothing. If we think this way, we lower our standards, we lose idealism, we settle for nothing, and thus we get defeated by the Arroyo-type tyrants whose message for that people is that of hopelessness and passivity.

Will Aquino betray his class?

The decision to act should also come from the realization that while Aquino won by presenting himself as the alternative to the hated Arroyo government, the “default” of the current administration will, largely, still be influenced by his class background.

Aquino is from the ruling landlord class, an image of which he tries to wash away by presenting himself as a simple PNoy. A look, however, at the cabinet appointments, relations with the US and policy pronouncements (or lack of which) on important issues, will tell that the new administration tends to defend status quo than push for nationalist, pro-people reform.

It is interesting to note that while Aquino enjoys an 88% approval rating, only 14% believes that he will be able to fulfill his promises. Only 53% believes he will be able to fulfill some of his promises. Is this an indication that most hold no illusions of genuine change under the new administration? If so, then all the more reason for organized groups to call on the people to assert their demands, make themselves heard, and fight for genuine change.

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