Extraordinary Possibilities for Ordinary People II
A Reflection presented during the 2011 Year-End Retreat of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program
Rep. Kaka J. Bag-ao (Party-list, AKBAYAN/ Humphrey Fellow 2006-2007)
First of all, I would like to thank the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program for this opportunity to be part of this year’s Year End Retreat. This has provided me with a rare opportunity to take a step backwards to reflect and review the milestones of the past 4 years after my year as a Humphrey Fellow.
Looking back, I realize that my fellowship was really a kind of “calm before the storm,” for I came back home to face a whirlwind of challenges that made radical changes in my life. Little did I know then, that the workshops and seminars that I have attended as a fellow, my interactions with professors and my fellow Humphrey fellows, the cold winter in Minnesota, and the collage of experiences and encounters that made my fellowship year a wonderful year of learning, would cement and enhance my knowledge and skills to face the challenges back home.
When I left the Philippines in 2006, one of my pressing concerns back then was the case of a community of farmers in Sumilao, Bukidnon, whom I have been working with in the my first decade as an alternative lawyer. These farmers have lost the lands that rightfully belong to them as indigenous people and as agrarian reform beneficiaries. The 144-hectare land that used to be the home of their forebears was snatched from them and every hope for their return to that piece of land was dashed by a Supreme Court decision that made legitimate the injustice commitment against them.
When I came back home, these farmers were at the peak of their desperation and frustrations as they witness daily buildings and structures rising up in the land that was once theirs as the new owner, the giant Philippine conglomerate San Miguel Corporation begin their construction of huge and state of the art hog farm, the biggest and the most modern in the Philippines. Every square inch of land that the workers pour concrete on was a square inch of land the farmers that the farmers permanently lose. They decided to stop being helpless witnesses of this depredation and decided to make a dramatic protest that the Philippines has never seen until then. They decided to walk 1,700 kilometers from their homes in Bukidnon to the halls of power in Manila, the country’s capital, to argue their cause. They walked under the torturing heat of the sun, through the heavy rains and even amidst tropical storms. They walked on concrete roads and through ankle-deep mud, literally counting milestone markers along the way.
This desperate act of protest, this grand act of sacrifice, magnifies and highlighted the injustice committed against the farmers. It caught the imagination of the Philippine public which was scandalized by their fate. Their story snatched the headlines of every newspaper and news program and it stayed on the front pages for weeks. The Catholic Church and many other religious groups in the Philippines lent their support to the farmers. Ordinary students swamped the cyberspace with personal stories and photographs about the farmers. My co-fellows from the humphrey fellowship contributed significantly, in fact, Dr. Jojo Navarro volunteered to provide medical support to the farmers. He even walked with them. The public outcry produced tremendous pressure on the government at that time that by Christmas 2007, the Arroyo administration relented and the final compromise agreement was signed.
I take so much pride of being a part of their journey, sharing their frustrations and defeats, devising strategies and tactics both in and out of the courts and eventually celebrating their victory. I also take pride with the fact that the Humphrey Fellowship inspired me to become braver and more courageous to take risks because i know that i have friends i different parts of the world who believe that there should be human rights for all.
After another historic victory, we all thought we could take a step back and rest. But fate has other plans, we only had time enough to take a deep breath before meeting a challenge that would bring radical changes in our lives. In August 2009, the Akbayan Citizen’s Action Party of which I am a founding member, elected me to part of its party-list nominees for Congress. The May 2010 election, for my party, Akbayan and for the majority of the Filipino people was a historic election. Akbayan is a young political party, founded in 1998 by activists, progressives and reform advocates. Since its founding in 1998, Akbayan was able to win seats in the House of Representatives through the party-list elections. Through the years, it has also won a number of elective positions in the local governments.
Founded on a platform of political, economic and social reforms, Akbayan has consistently been in the opposition, especially during the 9-year administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Its staunch opposition stance has earned it the ire of the Arroyo. It is one of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in Philippine political history, comparable even to the Marcos regime and its dark years under Martial Law. The Arroyo administration even surpassed the Marcos regime in terms of corruption. In its struggle to remain in power, it has destroyed almost all of the democratic institutions in our country and abused all the democratic processes to the hilt.
The May 2010 elections mark many firsts for us in Akbayan, it is the first time that we fielded a candidate for Senator, the first time that we endorsed a presidential candidate – Noynoy Aquino and being one of the main targets of the Arroyo administration, we were fighting for survival in the party-list elections.
And so began my journey as a Member of the 15th Congress of the Republic of the Philippines, and I tell you it is not a walk in the park. As a representative of a progressive political party, my colleague, Rep.Walden Bello and I are tasked to shepherd our party’s legislative reform agenda in Congress. Our bills advance various political and economic reforms and address the problems of our constituents most of whom are politically and economically marginalized.
As part of our campaign against corruption and our bid to exact accountability against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who incidentally is also now a member of the House of Representatives, we have filed an impeachment case against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, who has frustrated all attempts to make the former president accountable for her graft and corruption scandals and those of her allies in the past administration. A month ago the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to impeach her and bring the trial to the Philippine Senate.
Actually, until about two weeks ago, I was not even sure if I could make it to this gathering because I was elected to be one of 11 prosecutors who will try the impeachment case for House of Representatives in the Senate. The trial was supposed to start last May 9, however, owing to the tremendous pressure, the Ombudsman resigned just a week before the trial.
Today, the Philippine Congress is in the midst of intense debate over a bill that my party has been authors of for the past 12 years – the Reproductive Health Bill. It addresses the problem of population, reproductive health, women’s rights and development issues. We are at loggerheads with the conservative Catholic church which has declared an all-out war against this piece of reform legislation. This bill has been collecting dust in Congress for a decade and a half because of the strong opposition of the Catholic church but we are confident that this bill will be finally be enacted into law under our watch.
I will not bore you with the details of our debates back in the Philippines but let me share with you mt reflections. I did not expect that my journey, after my fellowship year with Humphrey, will lead me from the muddy farmlands in Mindanao to the halls of Congress. In our paralegal trainings among the poor in the Philippines, we have always told them that the law is a doubled-edged sword, it can be used against them but they can also use it to defend, promote and strengthen their rights and their just claims. I never imagined then that I will part of the institution that forges these double-edged swords. I always thought that my mission in life was to teach them to wield these swords to their advantage. Today, I find myself sitting in the forge, making swords. I realize that my mission beyond teaching the poor to wield these swords now includes making sure that the edge that will be used to push for the interest of the poor will be sharper than the edge that can be used against them.
At the end of my fellowship year four years ago, my reflection for graduation was entitled: Extraordinary Possibilities for Ordinary People. It is only fitting, therefore, that after four years, that the title of the reflections that I shared with you today: Extraordinary Possibilities for Ordinary People Part II.
I am not really sure where this journey will lead me but I am very sure that the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Foundation has contributed significantly to prepare me to embark on this journey and fulfill my mission. Words are not enough to express how grateful I am but let me say Thank You – Maraming Salamat for giving Extraordinary Possibilities for Ordinary People like me.