CULTURE

Dear hija, an open letter to the Filipino you might be

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While the world waits out a pandemic, you get to ask yourself some questions. Not just, How did we get here? But more importantly, What were you doing while this horrific thing was happening? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —

1.

The day after President Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act into law, you read about what happened to the 15-year-old girl from San Juan, Ilocos Sur, who filed a case against two policemen from her hometown whom she claimed raped her. Accompanied by her father and male cousin, Fabel Pineda went to the police station in Cabugao, a nearby town, to tell her story. She told them that the two cops had arrested her and her girl cousin for being out past the government curfew imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then the cops raped them. Feeling unsafe, she asked the Cabugao police to accompany her going home. The request was denied. Riding on the back of her dad’s motorcycle, she was shot five times by gunmen riding tandem. Her dad and cousin were left unharmed.

Senate President Tito Sotto has said the only people who should be afraid of the bill are terrorists. However, human rights groups have stated that the bill endangers journalists and activists, who are already killed at a higher rate in the Philippines than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, academics, lawyers, and the Catholic Church have repeatedly declared the bill unconstitutional, primarily because it legalizes warrantless arrests, which were used during the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., when they were called Arrest, Search, and Seizure Orders.

Of course, even before the bill was signed, warrantless arrests have already been happening. The Pride 20 (peaceful LGBTQ+ protesters). The Marikina 10 (volunteers of a community feeding program). The Balingasag 7 (indigenous anti-mining activists). The Piston 6 (decommissioned jeepney drivers). The public school teacher from Santa Cruz, Zambales, who tweeted an obviously empty threat at the president.

Terrorist. Drug pusher. Activist. An opinionated Manila netizen. Fabel Pineda was none of these things. She was a teenage girl from a provincial town who lost her life because she entrusted it to the Philippine government. Because she believed in its justice. Because she said no.

While the world waits out a pandemic, you get to ask yourself some questions. Not just, How did we get here? But more importantly, What were you doing while this horrific thing was happening?

2.

Growing up in Manila, even the most normal existence is haunted by a cognitive dissonance that a child can notice. You watched the same person who told you not to cheat pay off the traffic cops. The person who fed and cared for you could not also be called your mother; even to ask why seemed to offend your actual mother. Men whom you called tito went to mass everyday and spent weekends with their secret second family. Eventually, you came to understand how things work here. Reality is something to cry over, joke about, and then forget. After that, you say no more.

The National Geographic documentary "The Nightcrawlers" features "a small group of determined photojournalists on a mission to expose the true cost of the violent campaign."

You didn’t vote for Duterte, but when he won you felt a twisted sense of anticipation. Here was a man who actually did what he said he’d do. You listened to a Yolanda survivor, a business owner from Tacloban, tell you that Duterte was the first politician to come to his drowned city’s aid. In Anderson Cooper’s reporting for CNN, Duterte’s Davao City emergency response team can be seen in the background, clearing debris from the airport runway. As a proof of concept, Duterte worked. Your mother said he reminded her of her father; you almost liked the guy yourself. Maybe any change was better than no change at all.

It took the drug war’s first victim to remind you that this little thought experiment was being paid for in cold blood, and not just by “adiks” and “pushers.” 122 children have been killed in four years. The youngest was three years old. The government openly acknowledges this cost as “collateral damage.”

For the last four years, journalists and photographers like Aurora Almendral, Patricia Evangelista, Eloisa Lopez, and Hannah Reyes Morales have been documenting what is literally happening on your streets. Not that you didn’t know it was happening — in the Philippines, extra-judicial killings are normal — but this was the first time there were pictures, lots of them, all over the internet.

You got to visit, on your phone, the crime scenes. See the bodies of Filipinos you probably never would have crossed paths with, covered in cardboard and newspaper as if they were being segregated for recycling. In each image there’s always a gun, as if this were evidence enough that this body was asking for it, an assumption quickly becoming as commonplace as the belief that the sight of a woman’s flesh is probable cause for rape. But perhaps that’s just a joke, which is apparently less threatening than a story, like the ones told by Pepsi Paloma about our Senate President Tito Sotto’s brother. “‘Yan mga original fake news,” Sotto said, when he had the stories taken down. If you click the links, you get an explanatory statement from Inquirer instead.

The effect of reading about the horrific thing you already know about isn’t shock, but discomfort. The horror runs deeper because it is so familiar. The news may be telling the same old story, but now you are forced to respond to it. And whether you express outrage, defend the government, or simply look away, how you respond is a choice you make. It’s an action you’ve already done, and will do again.

3.

When you heard about Fabel’s murder, you felt anger take over your body. This was your body telling you that this matters. That the circumstances you have come to live with, however understandable the causes, are simply not good enough.

You look at Fabel’s photos on Facebook. Sassy pose, shy smile, the charming awkwardness of a girl learning what her body can do. Her selfies provide glimpses of the mundane drama of growing up. At 15 she would have been full of questions about what she likes and doesn’t like, why things are the way they are, what people think of her, and who she wants to be.

But you also know what happens to this feeling if you wait long enough. It goes away. Even with all the horrific things already happening in this country, you are the least likely to be affected by them. Because you’re not poor.

When something has been normalized, it is somehow very big out there, but very small in here. You’re educated enough to know better, but you’re not experienced enough to know what to do about it. Thanks to three generations of men with trigger tempers, what you are good at is keeping the peace.

In other words, you are safe. In a country where a girl gets rewarded for being raped by getting shot, her arms still hugging her father’s waist, safety is no small thing. This was the best your parents could do for you. Never mind justice. They just want to keep you alive.

But, here, in your parents’ house inside a gated village, the horrific things still reach you. Your younger sister’s kabarkada Nicole shared on Facebook that she was raped by their mutual friend, a boy who’s visited your parents’ house. Nicole told the police and a warrant was served. One year later, no arrest has been made, no trial has been scheduled; she sees pictures of him partying with their common friends.

The green-gated home of Alexis and Nika stands at 39 Times Street, in a photo taken in 2011. Photo by LAUREL FANTAUZZO

Or the morning you woke up to your mother screaming that your older sister’s best friend and his girlfriend had been murdered. Alexis and Nika had just gotten home. Your sister had dropped them off. She was meant to come in to watch a movie, but Nika was tired; she was flying home to Slovenia the next morning. There were bullet wounds in Alexis’s hands. Your sister called him Eggy, like his family did. Maybe he fought back; maybe he held them up to say, Please, no. The police ostensibly launched an investigation; Alexis’s family ended up defending the innocent guy they’d thrown in prison; your sister tried to write about what it means to survive when those you love do not.

Your family reminds you that you should be grateful. You are the cream of this archipelago’s cash crop; no longer abaca or sugar or coconut, these days, our biggest export is people. You do not know how to explain to them that the price of your safety is your shame, because when we settle for less than, we believe ourselves less than.

4.

Historically, Filipinos have been settling for less for as long as we’ve been Filipinos. The Act of Declaration of Independence entrusts our freedom to “the protection of our Powerful and Humanitarian Nation, The United States of America.” The historian Ambeth Ocampo explains that the infamous hotheads Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna would have never stood for it, but when our country’s first president Emilio Aguinaldo sat down to sign that momentous day, June 12, 1898, into history, he had already cheated his critics out of the room. Bonifacio was self-taught, self-made; the Chinese-mestizo well-to-do Aguinaldo had much more to lose.

With our independence conditional, our freedom becomes a fiction, a game of make-believe played by children. We aren’t the only nation to make a hobby of infantilizing Filipinos. Consider the words of US Senator Albert J. Beveridge on January 9, 1900:

“The Filipinos do not understand free speech…They are not capable of self-government. How could they be?...What alchemy will change the Oriental quality of their blood and set the self-governing currents of the American pouring through their Malay veins?...How dare any man prostitute this expression of the very elect of self-governing peoples to a race of Malay children of barbarism, schooled in Spanish methods and ideas?”

The order "Kill everyone over ten" was the caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

He was speaking to US President William McKinley and the Senate in support of the Philippine-American War, which Americans prefer to call an Insurrection. To the Americans, we were the Philippine Question — a question less about whether we deserved freedom and more about whether America, the land of the free, could live with the idea of being a colonizer. We were the mirror that Americans looked into to figure out who they wanted to be. And in the Far East, the young global power had discovered an even Wilder Wild West.

The Spanish crown had suffered similar ethical conundrums. Manila had become a bustling center for the trans-Pacific slave trade, but the Spanish were uncomfortable with the idea of enslaving their own subjects. So they stopped calling us Chinos, their generalized term for anyone from Asia, and officially labelled us Indios, another generalized population, but one protected from slavery under Spanish law. The thing about systemic oppression is that the oppressors need to make themselves believe it just as much as the oppressed do.

Unlike imperial Spain, America was a democracy with a free press. American writers like Mark Twain wrote essays of dissent, and liberal American newspapers published scandalizing exposes about the wanton killing and torture committed by American soldiers. Offending military persons, such as the infamous General Jacob E. Smith, who ordered his men to turn the island of Samar into a “howling wilderness” and to kill everyone over the age of ten, were court-martialed, and the expansionist dreams of American politicians were put on a leash. And as for the Philippine Question, Americans deflected their conflicted conscience by simply never answering it.

5.

#realnumbersPH is a hashtag used by the government to challenge the data that is coming out of the War on Drugs. Human rights groups say that around 27,000 suspects have been killed in the span of four years. The Philippine National Police says it’s more like 5,526. Under the Marcos government, it is estimated that 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and over 3,200 were killed. Typhoon Yolanda, the most powerful typhoon to make landfall in recorded world history, officially only claimed 6,300 lives, even though bodies were still turning up months after the government’s final report.

Even if we set aside EJKs, death in the Philippines is already chronically underreported. Road accidents. Maternal deaths. Influenza. Deaths in Muslim and minority populations. Suicides. Abortions. One 2018 study even states that our death registration coverage is only 66% complete and only 35% of those deaths medically are certified, which means that more than a third of all deaths are recorded incorrectly or never at all.

When the government can’t or won’t collect data effectively, we have no way of knowing how bad things actually are. This gives everyone plausible deniability, yourself included. Our urgent questions turn into speculation as idle as wondering how many people die from falling coconuts.

The physical distancing system observed inside the MRT during the first day of General Community Quarantine (GCQ) in Metro Manila. Photo by MOHD SARAJAN

Instead of solutions, our government gives us acronyms to assure us that something has been done. Take, for instance, their response to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. From ECQ to MECQ to MGCQ to GCQ, the adjustments to the longest lockdown in the world seem especially arbitrary considering that the DOH doesn’t know the whereabouts of 2 in every 5 people infected with COVID-19, as pointed out by Senator Leila de Lima in her critical papers on the pandemic. In late March, when the number of new cases was spiking, the death toll rising, the DOH was still insisting that there was “no need for mass testing, yet,” but never mind, we didn’t reach the number of cases predicted by University of the Philippines professors — “Panalo na tayo,” declared Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque. Meanwhile, health workers were reusing masks and couldn’t get a ride to work, and both private and public hospitals subsisted on donations and hot meals from private citizens.

If you’ve been following the DOH COVID-19 tracker, the daily reports from the testing centers are consistently incomplete: on July 20, for instance, the DOH displayed the results of only 62 out of 84 labs — that’s a discrepancy of 26 percent. So while Harry Roque might be right in saying that nobody actually expects the government to do mass testing, the government hasn’t put significant effort into other means of active monitoring such as community-led contact tracing and isolation, which is how the biggest slum in Mumbai was able to contain the pandemic’s spread in its population of more than 650,000. It’s also how a lone doctor in the provincial town of Bambang did it.

However, data-based interventions would require trust and transparency, and you have personally witnessed how the drug war has been used to settle personal vendettas, and can create a culture of snitching even in a small, close-knit community. Instead, the police initially planned to help conduct house-to-house searches for those that are COVID-19 positive. As for the violators of the quarantine, our president tells his police officers to “shoot them dead.” Is our government mistaking action for action movies? The joke is an old one — it doesn’t ask you to do anything but laugh, the bitterness of the sound your only expression of dissent, however micro.

6.

We can’t imagine how things could be without first confronting the reality of how things actually are. So let’s start by accepting a simple, if difficult fact of reality: It is easier to believe that we are being controlled than it is to accept that we are complicit.

You’ve fucked up enough to know that our most elaborate attempts at explaining ourselves have the damnedest way of morphing into excuses. And the harder we try not to give excuses, the more obvious the excuse becomes. To avoid accepting this reality, you might feel the temptation to cling to conspiracy theories or utopian fantasies, but as long as you can get away from what is already happening, people will continue to get away with it. Because whether you stay silent or speak up, you are already participating in a great and devastating debate over what to do with this country.

If shame is keeping you silent, focus on your guilt, instead. Guilt, that is the awareness of the effect of your actions or inactions on other people, is considered to be the psychological gateway to growing up. As infants, the first crisis that we go through comes in the form of a question: how can the mother I love and the mother I hate be the same mother?

“It is easier to believe that we are being controlled than it is to accept that we are complicit.”

What we didn’t know we didn’t know burns a hole through our walled paradise; in our dawning awareness of a world outside of our desires and emotions, we come to realize our power to hurt the one we love most. This is what the Austrian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called the depressive position.

Our mother helps us through this disquieting ambivalence simply by existing. The sun of our little world sleeps, but she also rises. With her presence as the continuum, the conundrum within us gradually calms. We not only learn to co-exist with opposites, we learn that their difference is useful. We counterpoint the good against the bad, the fantasy and the reality, what we intend and what we end up doing, the self against the other. Just as we find our sense of balance somewhere in-between strength and softness, we learn to stand the ambivalence; “to hold the situation,” as the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott puts it, for ourselves and, when we can, for others.

Rather than random and unfair, perhaps it is better to think of such crises as necessary and transformative. After all, the void not only creates our sense of guilt, it also emboldens our sense of self. In the face of what we cannot control—no less and no more than the insoluble paradox of existence—we do what we can. We take a step, and leap forward in space and time.

7.

You are too young to remember the People Power Revolution, but you know how proud it makes you feel. Millions of Filipinos brought 14 years of martial law to an end without a single shot fired. And all they did was show up. Even your great-grandmother marched down EDSA, rosary in hand. Here were Filipinos, the world said, doing the right thing. And you could say you were one of them.

On that day, Filipinos vowed to never again allow martial law to happen. However, instead of reinstating martial law, the present-day Anti-Terrorism Act normalizes it. Now, everything from a bar fight to a Facebook meme can be legally described as a terrorist act. The bill broadens the definition of terrorism to the point of vagueness, including, for instance, the incitement to terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners, or other representations tending to the same end.” This makes the threat more insidious, like “pollution in the air.” If Rappler's Maria Ressa can get convicted of cyberlibel because of a single-letter typo, who else can be found guilty in this country?

On June 4, 2020, concerned citizens and progressive groups protested the passage of the Anti-Terror bill — while social distancing. Photo by JL JAVIER

Appointed by the president, the Anti-Terror Council will operate independently from the judiciary that keeps our government in check. If the council names you as a suspect, they can tap your phone, freeze your money, stop you from leaving the country. They can detain you for up to 24 days, re-arrest you, and do it all over again, without ever bringing you in front of a court, nor even risking sanctions for misconduct. You don’t even need to be in the country to be named a suspected terrorist.

But the bill’s open-endedness casts something else into the air as well: “What if?” a pair of words that are dangerous because they are unpredictable. What if you are called a terrorist? What if you are called an activist? The bill mirrors the Anti-Sedition Law that China swiftly imposed on Hong Kong without involving the islands’ own government. As you witness the Hong Kong people’s thunderous clamour for democracy, you realize that as a Filipino you are in a similar boat.

In the days since the Anti-Terror Bill was approved by the House of Representatives on June 3 until Duterte gave his State of the Nation address on July 27, Filipinos have been gathering in the streets despite the pandemic, the arrests. Signs, masks, voices, breath: anything they possess becomes an act of protest against the government’s use of “terror” as a nightstick.

Activism, dissent — these are serious, heroic words; words reserved for people who actually know and care enough to do something. Who aren’t afraid of anything, even failure. And now, through a turn of events you should not have found surprising, you find yourself possibly maybe affiliated with them.

8.

70-11. The ratio of representatives who voted in favor of shutting down ABS-CBN, the biggest news channel in the Philippines. Zero. The number of senators that were elected from the opposition party, Otso Diretso, in 2019. Three. The years Leila de Lima, Duterte’s biggest critic before Maria Ressa came along, has been detained in Camp Crame, awaiting trial. 15. The age Fabel Pineda will stay, because too many of us still don’t believe we can do anything about the horrific things happening in our country.

We only need to listen to the president himself to know what will happen next. After all, he’s been saying that he’d shut down ABS-CBN since March of 2017. He’s red-tagged Inquirer and Rappler, too. Now, in the fourth year of his presidency, he reiterated the promise he gave at his inauguration: “It is my job to scare people, to intimidate people, and to kill people.”

ABS-CBN News employees mourn the decision of the house panel to dismiss the network's application for a new franchise. Photo by ANJO ALMARIO

However we got here, this is the state of our nation. And soon, it won’t matter if you speak up. The freedom of our press may be under attack, but it’s your freedom of speech that is being stolen. All of the online noise — #JunkTerrorBill or #SupportAntiTerrorBill, #NoToABSCBNshutdown or #YesToABSCBNshutdown, #OustDuterteNow or #DutertePaRin, #HijaAko or #DDSForever, #DefendPressFreedom or #ProtecttheRepublic — will get cancelled. There will only be one voice, copy-pasted over and over, an absolute authority we won’t be able to block and report.

In this new normal, silence will not be enough. Maybe it never has been. As long as political impunity remains the rule of law, safety is the dream of the few, paid for by the uncounted many.

9.

Why are people so scared of questions? In Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary “A Thousand Cuts,” you watched the moment reporter Pia Ranada got banned from Malacañang Palace. Duterte seemed to like Ranada; he called her a smart girl. Until she asked him to explain himself.

In response to the ban, Ranada and her fellow journalists filed a petition with the Supreme Court. In front of clicking cameras, she spoke about the fundamental rights of Filipinos. When she was done, she smiled. “Yun lang...Okay na ba?” she asked. If most of our national heroes were under 40, surely courage can look like a young, chinita woman asking questions — who permits herself the uncertainty and the curiosity to find out.

You got into an argument with your father once about the idea of personal responsibility. About the cost of saying one thing, and doing another. He’s straight-edge, Catholic, self-made. You’re a free spirit, existentialist, entitled. It seems every generation comes up with its own strategy for living with itself. As you shouted at each other over breakfast, he told you that it wasn’t a matter of morals. The cost wasn’t your integrity, but your confidence. You’re left doubting what you’re capable of. What is possible.

People Power doesn’t begin on the street. It begins when an individual feels the unbearable pressure of an unlivable circumstance and says, “No more.” It begins over and over. The power of the status quo rests in the difficulty we have in stepping off it. The hero’s burial that President Duterte gave to the dictator responsible for martial law, reminds us that nothing is a given — not our history, not our rights, not even our defeat. We may have been the first Southeast Asian colony to gain our independence, but democracy isn’t the fulfilment of freedom; it’s the call to it.

Listen, hija, you are how the future happens. Everything beloved in you is everything this world needs. If 26 fake accounts can influence three million people, in the country with the highest use of social media in the world, what can 26 real ones do?

Let the Philippines be the question we ask ourselves. Let us answer the Philippine question, ourselves.