Keynote Address at the Freedom Speech 2018
The Shell Philippines Centennial Courtyard,
National Museum of Natural History, Manila
Sec. Mar Roxas, our 2018 Freedom Flame Awardee; His Excellency, Franz Jessen, European Ambassador; Mr. Moritz—you told me not to pronounce your family name anymore, so I’ll stick with that—our FNF (Friedrich Naumann Foundation) Regional Director for Southeast and East Asia; Mr. Wolfgang Heinze, FNF Country Director; our party president, Sen. Kiko Pangilinan; former Sen. Bobby Tañada; members of the Senate and the House of Representatives who are here with us tonight; representatives from the different FNF partner organizations; my fellow workers in government; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang gabi sa inyong lahat!
Basilan is a beautiful province way down south in Mindanao, known by many as the bailiwick of terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, and a place where random street bombings are commonplace. What is not known by many is that its islands have sand finer than that of Boracay, and beaches that are more exquisite than other well-known tourist destinations. More importantly, the people of Basilan have beautiful traditions and a rich culture of courage, commitment, and love for country.
There, I visited a town called Sumisip just last June, to check on a program for out-of-school youth that we are doing under the Office of the Vice President’s anti-poverty intervention called Angat Buhay. It was my first time there, and it was like nothing I expected. The people were warm; the place was peaceful. But the experience that stuck with me was when I met an 11-year-old boy, who had lived most of his life in an Abu Sayyaf camp.
He was very small for his age. To say it was difficult to break his shell was an understatement. Honestly, he looked stern and angry all the time—and for good reason. His early life was unbelievably traumatic. At two months old, he lost his entire family, except an older brother, to rido, where clans kill each other to the last member because of a perceived slight. It was this older brother who wrapped this little baby boy in tattered blankets and ran to the mountains in search for protection.
In the mountains, the boy learned how to shoot an M16 rifle when he was not fetching water for the rebels and doing other chores. Once, he had been shot in a heated encounter with the military and sustained an injury in his hip. Instead of holding pencils, paper, and toys in his hands, he held anger and frustration in his heart for a government and a system he believed deserted him and his family.
But strengthened military presence and aggressive operations in the whole province of Basilan, plus an inspired Mayor and local government leaders, opened the doors for this boy’s return to society’s waiting arms. Tight coordination and cooperation between the military and civilian leaders made it easier for rebels to surrender themselves and their guns. The Mayor and his team provided housing, food, education, jobs, and livelihood for those who were willing to end a life of conflict.
The boy surrendered with the first group of Abu Sayyaf leaders in 2016, with his hip wound still fresh. By the time I met him this year, he’s already enrolled in Second Grade.
A few weeks after our first meeting, we flew the boy to Manila and brought him to Kidzania, an indoor amusement park where he could pretend-play doing any job he wanted. We wanted him to see a world bigger than conflict, a world with many doors leading to many possibilities. We also wanted to listen deeply and understand what he had gone through, that we might better appreciate the complexities surrounding the issues of terrorism and extremism. All over the world, extremism and the hate and anger that it brings, is putting invisible prisons around individuals, races, and even nations. In a very real sense, it is one of freedom’s biggest enemies.
In the amusement park, there were so many choices for the boy for his pretend play: airline pilot, ice cream maker, race car driver, carpenter, mason, doctor, teacher, firefighter. And you know what he chose? He chose to be a policeman. By the end of the day, he looked like a kid again. He was already smiling. He had tasted his first McDonald’s burger and fries. Even the whole Kidzania team was moved by empathy and presented him with a gift of their own: a pair of shoes, something to replace the worn-out slippers he had on all day.
Millions of children, teenagers, and adults in our country today may not have experienced the pain of rido like this boy, nor lived as a member of a known terrorist group, but their struggles in search of different kinds of freedom are also daunting.
According to this year’s Freedom in the World report, democracy faced its greatest crisis in 2018, as its most basic foundations, such as free and fair elections, minority rights, press freedom, and rule of law, are at risk around the world. This year also marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with 71 countries falling back in terms of political rights and civil liberties.
When repressive regimes take over, marginalized communities suffer the brunt of their destructive policies. When countries turn to autocratic forms of government, friendships and camaraderie between nations crumble, and diminish their economic growth rather than improve them. Under repressive and extractive regimes, a fulfilled, progressive life is beyond the reach of the most disadvantaged of the human family.
But isn’t it also true that during the long stretches of history, when democracy and freedom expanded around the world, when liberalism, free thinking, and free markets created unthinkable wealth, poverty has not declined? Until now, hunger continues to plague continents. The poor remain poor; perhaps even poorer and less free. And with technology at their fingertips, they can tell the world about their frustrations, preferring to vote into power those that would pander to their anger and frustration and promise them quick-fix solutions.
This, I believe, is at the heart of our most persistent problems regarding the rise of authoritarianism and populism in the world today. Throughout time, autocratic regimes have always manufactured reasons for people to throw away their freedom. This was true during the time of Ferdinand Marcos prior to Martial Law. Raising the spectre of “communist insurgency,” and claiming a need to “save the Republic,” he subjected our nation to over a decade of rampant abuse and unrestrained tyranny. This was true of Adolf Hitler, who seized upon widespread discontent and uncertainty to establish a regime founded on hatred and terror, that would destroy the lives of millions.
Nowadays, populists and authoritarian leaders who are winning free elections no longer have to manufacture reasons for people to reject freedom. The people themselves are throwing freedom away. Why? They are frustrated with free thinking, free markets, and free press. They say that in the end, these institutions have not made their lives better.
Which is why it is so important for us to stand our ground and have a unified response to the challenges we face. It is no longer enough to fight for freedom for its own sake. While for some, freedom from tyranny and political repression are unquestionably ends in themselves, it is undeniable that a significant portion of populations and electorates all over the world are increasingly frustrated with freedom that gives them the right to vote, but keeps them poor and hungry. To keep the freedom agenda alive, we have to make it work for the last, the least, and the lost. That is the ultimate battle. That is the ultimate test.
This is not a new concept. Three quarters of a century ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined four fundamental aspects of freedom that must be upheld in the struggle against tyranny: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The lesson is clear: civil liberties are critical, but so is economic justice. To be truly free, and to be inoculated against the allure offered by tyrants, all these freedoms must be upheld.
No other public servant epitomizes these things than Sec. Mar Roxas. [applause] As one of the leading figures in the Liberal Party, Sec. Mar embodies what it means to keep fighting the good fight, even if the odds are against him. In his work as a public servant, he exemplified not only the attention to detail and commitment to excellence required to make sure that public funds are spent well, but he also walked his talk, never afraid of calling a spade a spade if it means finding solutions to the problems our people face daily. During the 2016 elections, he ran on the promise of ensuring that every Filipino family live decent, dignified lives, free from hunger and poverty. And even after the elections, he did not, for a moment, give up on his dream, keeping it and bringing it with him as he offers his life to public service again in the coming midterm elections.
The goal then, and will always be, that our people should experience every fundamental freedom we hold dear. The freedom to live dignified lives; to speak the hard truth without being persecuted for it; to defend people’s rights in the law, especially those who have nothing else but the law. As liberals and democrats at work, our agenda should be as clear as day: that our freedoms are theirs, too. And that their fight for these freedoms is ours, too.
Our gathering today strengthens our belief that we are not alone in this fight—that we have partners in FNF, as well as our friends and allies from different organizations who are with us today, ready to join our cause. May we all be inspired by each other’s work, standing together to defend the fundamental rights of our people.
Once again, congratulations, Sec. Mar, for being this year’s Freedom Flame Awardee, and happy 60th anniversary to FNF! Maraming salamat po. Magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat! [applause]