21 February 2017
Speech at the Ateneo Forum on Social Justice and the 1987 Constitution
The years 1982 to 1986 were some of the most memorable years in my life. I was a college student, just like many of you, but uninitiated to the life in Manila. I was a painfully shy probinsyana, preoccupied with tests and papers and making it to my classes on time.
But 1983 quickly showed signs of becoming an extraordinary year. I remember reading a fearless white paper written by our professors exposing the true state of the economy. You see, our government at that time said that by all accounts, the Philippines was doing great. But the reality was that prices of basic goods and services as measured by inflation were rising at double-digit levels.
Government was borrowing heavily domestically and overseas—not for infrastructure, as stated in their press releases, but for corporate equity investments as the Marcos administration started bailing out large private firms. Economic services, public administration, and military spending grew at the expense of social services. From almost 35%, budget for education went down to 12% by the early 80s.
These are just some of the things that our professors wrote in the white paper. They used the power of their pens and the truth of economic numbers to defy an administration that controlled almost everything that was happening—including the media. Come to think of it, perhaps today’s era of post-truths and fake news is not a new thing after all!
Then, we woke up one August morning in 1983 to the image of Ninoy Aquino dead on the tarmac. Moved by that image, our professors empowered their students to fight for liberty by expanding our classrooms to include the streets.
There on EDSA, almost 3 years after the tragedy, we took our stand in a bloodless revolution that captured the attention of the whole world. The People Power Revolution, by the way, was also the reason I met the love of my life a year later. But that is entirely another story. Huwag ngayon. Mahabang kabanata.
It is this same revolution that we are celebrating four days from now. This anniversary is an event that to me deserves a more dignified treatment than a ‘quiet celebration’, in the guise of ‘moving on’. I believe that the truth of our past will ensure clarity of direction in our future. Moving on and forgetting may leave us in danger of making the same mistakes all over again.
As a young person then, I remember how we were full of hope because of the revolution. This feeling was amplified when the 1987 Constitution was ratified. It brought back trust in the government and hope in the future. It is one of the most human rights-centric constitutions in the world and many countries followed our model. The provisions on social justice and human rights in Article XIII ensure that those who have less in life should have more in law. They ensure that our people will thrive in a society full of empathy and respect for the dignity of every human being. The Constitution is not just a set of supreme laws and provisions for our compliance. It is the story of our nation, one that has fought hard for its independence, one that still fights for peace and justice for all.
My exposure to student activism urged me towards public service. After I became a lawyer, I worked for a while at the Public Attorney’s Office, where I defended the rights of indigent clients and then at an NGO called SALIGAN.
Pero alam ninyo na iyan sa SALIGAN kasi si Atty. Hazel nauna sa akin. Gaya ng sabi ko kanina, Atty. Hazel was our intern when she was a law student. Hindi na siya umalis since then. Binibiro ko siya kanina kasi naka blouse siya ngayon. Bihira iyan nakablouse. Noong nasa SALIGAN kami, parating kaming gusgusin. Parati kaming gusgusin kaya noong ako’y naging Congresswoman, doon lang ako nagsuot ng high heels.
We championed the foundations of our democracy, the fundamental necessity of the rule of law, and the basic premise that every Filipino deserves justice—no matter how poor they might be.
I know this sounds very noble and romantic, but I can assure you, working in SALIGAN was not glamorous. We trekked to remote areas to conduct training sessions with poor farmers and fisherfolk, as well as the urban poor, laborers, and indigenous peoples. Our clients had no money and even less legal knowledge.
They sought our help because they faced formidable names and wealthy corporations. Sometimes, during the course of our work in remote barangays, all we had was a flimsy shack to protect us from fierce storms. Other times, we would ask fishermen if we could nap in their boats while they took breaks. Maraming kwento ito pero again hindi kasya ang oras. Marami kaming kwento tungkol sa aming adventures bilang alternative lawyers.
It was difficult work. I can’t begin to describe to you the heartbreak of losing a case, especially when our clients’ meager livelihoods were at stake. There were moments, too, when we thought about our peers back in Manila, and their lives of ease and luxury. But we carried on. We believed that the poor deserved justice and equity, that the marginalized needed a chance to find their voices and fight for their rights.
When we did win cases, the rewards were tremendous. You may count the millions a lawyer can earn from an office in Makati, but there is no measuring the gains from the affirmation that the law could protect the most vulnerable..
Alternative lawyering is not a casual decision. It is a calling that makes serious demands on your character and integrity. It requires courage, passion, and commitment. And trust that there is always room for real justice in our country.
These lessons aren’t for alternative lawyers alone. These principles are at the heart of every cause that’s worth defending. As Vice President, I bring the lessons I learned at SALIGAN to bear upon my antipoverty and reform agenda.
Last year, my office launched our flagship program, which we call the Angat Buhay initiative. Under Angat Buhay, my team and I go to very remote communities, many of them the poorest in the country. We are already piloting Angat Buhay in 50 local government units across the country. Joining us in this effort are groups in and outside government, including the private sector, development organizations, and civil society.
As with SALIGAN, Angat Buhay is not glamorous work. In many of the areas we go to, the first sight we meet is that of poverty and deprivation. In one visit to Dona Remedios Trinidad in Bulacan, for example, I met the families of the municipality’s most undernourished kids. Their parents were laborers with no steady jobs, and they wept as they spoke of how hard it was to put food on the table, how they couldn’t always send the kids to school because they didn’t have anything to eat. All their lives, many of these families—mga pamilyang nasa laylayan—have felt mute and invisible.
Despite the appearance of economic progress, the Philippines has yet to experience inclusive growth. At the same time, there is increasing polarity in public discourse—even on issues where there should be no question.
How did we arrive at this point, where human rights have become an area of debate? How did we get here, where dictators and plunderers are revered, where bloodshed and executions are celebrated? What are we to make of the abundance of fake news, of every deliberate attempt to blind the public with misinformation? Is this what the Filipino people really are?
No, this is not what we are. Time and again, I have borne witness to the Filipino spirit and what it is made of. It is made of courage. It is made of passion and commitment. But above all, it is made of integrity and empathy, of a desire to help those who truly need it, of a love for country that runs deep and strong in our blood. Even now, I see it in you.
But it’s not enough for us to affirm these principles. We must be willing to defend our values wherever they are threatened.
In a recent letter, Pope Francis urged activists to stand up to populists, that any resolution to a crisis will—and I quote—”depend on people’s involvement and participation and, largely, on yourselves, the popular movements.”
It has been 31 years since the EDSA revolution and 30 years since the 1987 Constitution was ratified, but the challenges for our people remain. And you, dear students, will help steer this country to its rightful course of progress. But remember, there are no saviors in nation-building.
There is no single leader who can claim that he has all the solutions to our problems. Instead, the assurance of positive change—and the future of our democracy—are entirely ours to make.
So let us be discerning when the differences between right and wrong are forcibly blurred. Be vigilant when they try to lie and deceive. Most of all, be brave where they try to sow fear, and be fearless for those who have been silenced.
Thank you at mabuhay kayong lahat!