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Long live the banners: The significance of the student movement

Words by Marl Ollave

The Duterte administration has long been criticized for its outright infringements on human rights involving extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and repressive policies such as the Anti-Terror Law (ATL). The United Nation Human Rights Council has even probed on the rampant human rights violations committed on individuals allegedly involved with the usage of illegal drugs, political activists, indigenous people, and journalists, among others.

As stated by Cristina Palabay, human rights alliance Karapatan’s secretary-general, “There is never any lockdown for people’s rights and our continuous struggle to defend and advance them, and it is in our collective action that we win this battle against tyranny and dictatorship.” Continuous violations on human rights may exhibit state neglect, manifest government incompetence, and signify misplaced priorities, especially now at a time of a pandemic.

Amidst all of these unlawful acts which cloud and trample on the masses’ genuine needs and advocacies, there is one undertaking which clears the path towards a better society, that is collective movement and activism. According to Amherst College, an academic institution from Massachusetts, United States, social activism is “an intentional action with the goal of bringing about social change.” An activist, on the other hand, is said to be “anyone who is fighting for change in society.”

Activism has been utilized even before today’s social injustices; our country’s history is deeply rooted in activism from the revolutions led by the Katipunan, the historic people power uprising in EDSA, to today’s continuous fight against oppression and tyranny. One common denominator of all of these significant events was that the youth played a vital role to keep the fires of the movement burning.

In the year 2020 alone, the youth sector faced several attacks and abuses; the Cebu 8 made the headlines for they were arrested for “breaching” quarantine protocols while having a peaceful demonstration against the passage of the then Anti-Terror Bill just outside the vicinity of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu. Serve the People Brigade UPLB (STPB-UPLB) volunteers also became victims of attack as they were red-tagged and bombarded by death threats while doing decent humanitarian efforts to help stranded communities in Los Baños during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But these human rights violations and attacks do not exist solely under the Duterte administration. History has shown that the government has always been hell-bent towards repressing the youth’s efforts in changing our retrograde system.

Recalling the chapters

A series of student-led movements sparked before the declaration of martial law in the country — it is commonly known as the First Quarter Storm (FQS). On January 26, 1970, while Ferdinand Marcos was delivering his State of the Nation Address (SONA), 50,000 demonstrators, several of which came from the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and the Student Cultural Association of UP (SCAUP), mobilized at Burgos Drive to call for constitutional reform; Marcos retaliated by leaving the scene without even hearing the needs of the masses.

The Kabataang Makabayan was vital in the youth’s fight in restoring genuine democracy amid the terrors of the so-called Marcos dictatorship. KM is a socialist youth group that heeds the call for democracy; it pioneered the expansion of the revolutionary movement since the 1970’s. The Katipunan-inspired group was forced to go underground during martial law.

Inspired by Bonifacio’s anti-colonial Katipunan, KM anchored its ideals on new-democratic revolution against imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. Various KM members led the FQS of 1970 and the Diliman Commune of 1971. These include founding chair Jose Ma. Sison, Monico Atienza, Satur Ocampo, Julius Fortuna, Bal Pinguel and many others.

The worst intervention in a student rally was reported on January 30, 1970. Demonstrators once again attempted to plead for change but the mobilization turned into bloodshed, resulting in the death of four student activists and 162 wounded individuals. On February 12, 1970, almost 100,000 dissenters once again gathered, this time in Plaza Miranda in Quiapo, Manila. The rally took place due to the death of the aforementioned students from the last rally. In the same month, the People’s Congress was held wherein individuals protested against US imperialism, domestic feudalism, and fascism. A month after Marcos’ SONA, there was another outcry and the police dispersal caused the injury of 80 persons while 120 were said to be arrested.

On the 3rd of March, the Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP) organized a People’s march. The march was accompanied by a partial strike organized by jeepney drivers. A second march was held on the 17th of March, this time branded as the “Poor People’s March” which tackled and shed light on the increasing poverty in the country.

As a bastion of activism, UP has its long history of movements and mobilizations. The Diliman Commune—a living symbol of collated dissent and resistance to oust a strongman—was one of the fruitful outcomes of activism. According to Joseph Scalice’s book, A Planned and Coordinated Anarchy: The Barricades of 1971 and the ‘Diliman Commune,student activists and faculty members of UP Diliman joined the jeepney strike and resisted against the Quezon City Police and the now-dissolved MetroCom troops for their intrusion inside the campus.

UP Los Baños hosts its annual February Fair, or colloquially known as “Feb Fair.” The fair is not just any other social gathering, with famous bands, variety of merchandise, and food booths, but it also serves as a form of protest action. The feb fair’s concept is said to have originated from the martial law’s regulations wherein three or more individuals were not allowed to gather. Fed up with Marcos’ anti-assembly order, students at that time resisted and organized a large protest rally in September 1978. Protest fairs are then regularly held in the UP Los Baños and UP Diliman campuses.

Student activists kept the fire of democracy burning during the People Power Uprising as they joined the revolution that made the Marcos ouster possible. In a span of four days, activists stormed the streets launching a protest to end Marcos’ 20-year-old reign. This served as a dark chapter in history not just for activists, but also for citizens, as democracy and human rights were stepped on. This year, 2021, marks the 35th anniversary of the momentous event.

In an interview by the Inquirer, Julianne Olivina, a student from the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), said, “The main goal of persistently telling these [EDSA] stories is because we don’t want it to happen again. It is now up to us, the current generation, to continue talking about the issues surrounding our past so that we may learn from them and be able to help shape a better future.”

The youth sector has once again faced the limelight as it also dictated the fate of former President Joseph Estrada after facing a series of plunder and corruption charges. The clamor for Estrada’s removal from the presidency sparked the People Power Revolution II which ultimately led to his downfall. Educational institutions joined strikes to oust his corrupt governance. Student movements and demonstrations continued until Estrada was finally forced out of office in January 2001. (Read: Looking back at EDSA II: The political paths of Estrada and Arroyo)

Extracting the essence of activism

The student movement is now in grave peril as the newly signed Terror Law may consider dissent and opposition as an act of terrorism. This also gives room for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) to red-tag not only left-leaning individuals and organizations, but also civilians, as part of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) without any concrete evidence. Several petitions have been filed from different sectoral groups to counter the said law, yet the government continues to persist.

According to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers  (NUPL) President Edre Olalia, “The 2020 anti-terror bill could punish or at least discourage legal activity and exercise of freedom of speech and association in any form or platform, inside or outside the country, because of the broad and vague definition of what terrorism is.”

“In its fight against terrorism, the government must not be the source of terror and impunity itself. We must never let reason continue to escape us.” These were the words of former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, implying the weaponization of the law to silence those who dare to speak against the Duterte administration—the very essence of activism.

Ateneo De Manila University’s (ADMU) Director of Development Studies, Professor Jayeel Cornelio highlighted the major significance and relevance of student-activism. “We need alternative voices to discern the best way forward. This can sometimes come from the most affected communities,” he said.

The important role of youth activists is not solitary in our country as it spreads across the globe. Overseas, revolts and pro-democracy movements led by the student power are flourishing. First sparked in Hongkong, the concealed national security law, which endangers the lives of those who express dissent, outraged the people leading to various movements all over Hongkong.

Student-led movements were also instigated in Thailand, defying the section 112 of the Thailand Criminal Code that imprisons those who express defamatory speeches and opposing remarks towards the kingdom’s military-aligned government.

Recently, a coup d’état in Myanmar against the newly elected President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, enraged the Burmese that resulted in mobilizations dominantly led by the youth as a defiance to the authoritarian rule.

Various movements are already in place as oppressive governments continue to push its citizens to the edge.

The significance of activism lies on amplifying the voices of the victims of oppression, and abuse. It does not end with solely fighting for their rights;  it is unraveling the root causes of social injustice to be able to eliminate them. Activism is holding those at fault accountable for their heinous crimes; and it is the act of being one with the community, learning of their daily struggles, and communicating to be able to forward the same advocacies needed for genuine development.

Trampling on the oblation

It seems like history is bound to repeat itself again as the Department of National Defense (DND) unilaterally abrogated the UP-DND accord, endangering the lives of faculty and students that considered UP as a haven. Students fear that opening UP campus grounds to state forces will only intensify militarization and increase crackdowns, given the latter’s history of human rights violations.

The said accord was originally rooted from the “Soto-Enrile accord”, an agreement between student leader Sonia Soto and the then defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile. It bars state forces from conducting operations inside the university; it also prohibits them to enter and interfere with peaceful mobilizations and protests held by the scholars.

The UP-DND accord was signed after the abduction and gruesome torture of Donato Continente, a staffer of the Philippine Collegian, official student publication of UP Diliman. He was kidnapped on June 16, 1989 by the military and police at Vinzons Hall for the crime of allegedly assassinating U.S army colonel James Nicholas Rowe. (Read: EXPLAINER: The 1989 UP-DND Accord)

Now that the accord is pushed to lose its validity, UP President Danilo Concepcion said, This Accord grants our students and faculty the freedom to be creative and passionate in their thought and works, because they know that no one will suppress them, or monitor their every move, or stop them from the free expression of their views and intellectual debate.”

Newly elected Student Regent (SR) Renee Louise Co also uttered her dismay and cited the history behind the accord and its significance not only to the UP community but also to the student movement. “The termination of the UP-DND Accord is a huge insult to the many iskolar ng bayan who sacrificed and struggled to serve the people.”

With the accord nullified, it is much easier for state machinery to infiltrate campuses, sowing fear and alarm among constituents as it attempts to trample on the university’s backbone—activism and academic freedom.

Many argue that the youth generation of today are idealists. Individuals who strive to change a system that has been running for decades, if not centuries. But what really differs from today’s generation to the older generations is that we are exposed to a more liberal and understanding society. What’s different is that the youth is more aware of the starving families in poverty, the farmers who are deprived of their lands, the political prisoners arrested for manufactured trumped-up charges, and the ordinary citizens who are stripped of their basic human rights. Years of continuous student movement allowed us to enjoy the liberty and democracy we experience today.

The endless battle that the youths are constantly fighting has always been for the nation, and for the people—for those who barely have the strength to assert their rights because they are busy tending to daily living responsibilities; and for those who are deprived of education which results in exploitation and the violation of the basic rights they should be granted.

We must bear in mind that we have an obligation bigger than ourselves. The actions and steps we take today will determine the freedom we get to relish tomorrow. 

It is undeniably tough to be an activist and student at the same time—from the academic burden, responsibilities, and threats. But all the more should we move from the comfort of our homes because collective action is vital for change; and solidarity amplifies student power.

Now backed with millions of voices, the youth can certainly fight for democracy and break the shackles of injustice anew. The same voice that once overthrew a dictator, the voice that woke people up from their slumber.

Thailand, Myanmar and Hongkong have mobilized thousands and have already  brought their fight to the streets, who says we should wait?  [P]

Photo by Dianne Sanchez

1 comment on “Long live the banners: The significance of the student movement

  1. Pingback: Biguin ang diktadura – UPLB Perspective

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