Tumultuous disturbance

by Carlos Maningat, originally posted at Philippine Online Chronicles

It was not the usual platitudes at the podium by the President, who seemed to be caught off guard during his Independence Day speech in Naga City by a brief chanting some 40 feet away. The words “Patalsikin ang pork barrel king! Walang pagbabago sa Pilipinas” rang through the mass of civil bodies and involuntarily filled in the two-second gap. In that brief moment, 19-year-old Ateneo de Naga student Emmanuel Pio Mijares seemed to deliver a dagger that disrupted Aquino’s thoughts and disturbed his imagined peace.

em mijares

It was tumultuous disturbance but not in the way conjured by the President’s security personnel and the local police. It was tumultuous because there’s the precise political context that made Mijares’ statements extra explosive.

At that precise moment when President Aquino was weaving independence, freedom, democracy and justice into nine-minute speech, Mijares stood out as real-life test of such grand concepts. On the same day, various groups launched protest actions to demand justice and accountability over the pork barrel scam. Ironically, the powers-that-be chose the hard-line treatment, making injustice and imprisonment of a heckler the theme of the day. Mijares was forcibly dragged out of the venue, was thrown to jail, and slapped with two criminal charges (on tumults and other disturbance, and direct assault). It couldn’t be more ironic.

Yet in a society where political opposition, especially as expressed by activists in Mijares’ mold, are met with ferocity, the consequence of the Independence Day “disturbance” is not surprising at all. The incident presents a preview of the Aquino government’s treatment of anyone sharply questions the status quo, even if not expressed in a chanting fit amid a presidential speech. Even under this regime, critics are not just manhandled. I know several activists who have been killed or abducted under Aquino’s watch for their advocacies on human rights, labor, and environment. As Marocharim wrote:

“What Pio Mijares did is still a political act, a political expression, and it speaks volumes about the kind of political action you can expect from those who share his beliefs. Yet the treatment of him speaks something about the kind of politics that this administration subscribes to. The latter is far more damning than the former.”

Mijares could have just been ushered out of the venue and maybe verbally reprimanded. President Aquino could have just done an adlib, citing Mijares’ acts as indicator of democracy. He could have just requested his defenders on social media to lecture Mijares on Proper Decorum 101. But the highest official of the land was clearly caught off guard. While Mijares was prepared to face the consequences, Aquino seemed to be unprepared to handle the permutations of democracy which he ceremonially cites. And probably too, “pork barrel king” hurt him, because it is somehow true. Remember the first time President Aquino reacted to the “pork barrel king” tag? He was fuming mad.

The fact that Mijares was charged with tumultuous disturbance and direct assault for merely chanting and holding out a banner tells a lot about Aquino’s leadership. Why on Earth should he be charged as such? Like a hurt big guy, Aquino seems bent at making the kid suffer and at parading him as example of how speech disruptors would be treated. But rather than create an image of a trustworthy leadership, such response to Mijares’ heckling clearly presents a threatened childish leadership. It’s the kind that heavily values political alliances and friendships in this trying pork scam crunch time, yet imposes the full force of law on young unarmed hecklers.

What’s at stake in Mijares’ case isn’t the foundations of civility and respect for those in positions of power, but the very foundations of our free expression and democracy. Mijares presents a fine litmus test, in which his loss would mean criminalization of heckling. Conversely, it’s not as if letting Mijares scot-free would encourage rebellion and make public institutions and the head of state less worthy of respect. It is the President’s soft handling of allies tagged in the pork barrel scam that make the Palace less worthy of respect. Mijares’ bold move was just an expression of the public trust deficit to institutions right now.

The short supply of public trust to public officials isn’t something that will happen following Mijares’ acts. It has been around since the pork barrel scam erupted last year, and it is not hard to sense it in the buzz in barbershops and campuses. If this government is indeed worried about losing any semblance of authority and respect, then it should diligently pursue a case against its allies in the same depth and extent as that of the anti-Pogi, Tanda and Sexy crusade. President Aquino should spare no one in the pork barrel scam, not even his close friend Budget chief Butch Abad.  He should order the dropping of charges against Mijares, to at least assure that this government still values free expression and tolerates dissent of citizens, even in heckling form.

But heck, the Aquino administration finds it really hard to prove its “Daang Matuwid.” At the current rate of things, the young heckler activist’s slogan trumps the bankrupt yellow rhetoric. And in pursuing the prosecution of Mijares, the Palace, with the Naga police as proxy, is waging a political battle it can never win.

Photo via @xianneangel. Some rights reserved.