Refighting the fight for freedom

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Memorializing historic junctures ritualizes a practice that relives the national spirit. The declaration of Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898, and the birth of the First Philippine Republic on Jan. 23, 1899, are two phenomenal events in our country’s struggle for independence and democracy. In the struggles that preceded these events, we must also consider the importance of the leadership provided by outstanding individuals in awakening and galvanizing the awareness of Filipinos at the time.

In particular, those events demonstrated the Filipinos’ capacity toward self-determination. But, today, the values and ideals embedded in the declaration of independence are once again being put to the test.

Self-determination or self-rule manifests a nation’s aspiration to chart its own destiny. An independent body politic, free from foreign control, prioritizes its policies and institutions over the conditions set by external powers. Inasmuch as the conditions of independence and national existence have changed tremendously over the past 100 years, still, no country has the right to meddle in the affairs of another country, or encroach on its territories. A country subjected that way should, by all means, defend and promote its sovereignty and national integrity.

The South China Sea is a case in point. The continuous military buildup of China in the area challenges the sovereignty of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Regardless of the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (to which it is a signatory) and the adverse arbitral ruling on its “nine-dash line,” China has laid claim over contested territories by sheer muscle, without the benefit of consultations and negotiations, or any respect for a code that would consider the welfare of the other claimant states.

The international arbitral ruling was a victory not only for the Philippines; it was also a victory for the claimant states and even nonclaimant states, as it upheld the rule of law over the waters of the South China Sea. However, the current administration has been timid in the face of that victory, with President Duterte incredibly saying, “Why should I go to war [when] I cannot win?”

The point is not necessarily going to war with China. Malacañang can, for instance, protest China’s moves and pursue all possible multilateral and bilateral consultations and negotiations to resolve the matter. But, as a national leader, the President is ill-advised to signal at once a gesture of surrender, to ignore the capacity of his people to stand for national integrity, and to jettison history altogether.

While independence movements flourish and succeed due to the competence and abilities of strong leaders, the other important step is to uphold the rule of law through a constitution. The Malolos Constitution of 1899 was the first in Asia, making the Philippines the first Asian constitutional republic and signifying the Filipinos’ early, trailblazing embrace of freedom.

A constitution embodies the sovereign will of a people. The 1987 Philippine Constitution, aka Freedom Constitution, is not only about the recognition and promotion of civil liberties. More broadly, it is about the Filipino people’s commitment to uphold and defend national aspirations. On this count, the elected officials of government are mandated to do all they can to defend the country’s sovereignty at all times.

Thus, offering to share with another country what is ours by right is a grievous mistake. A mendicant attitude, not to mention sheer capitulation, only reproduces the blunders of past leaders and administrations.

Capitulation undermines our history and regional role as a pioneer republic in Asia. Though short-lived, the establishment of the Philippines as the first Asian constitutional republic showed our potential leadership role in the region. But the actions and pronouncements of the current administration in the South China Sea dispute simply relegate our historic struggle for freedom and independence to the sidelines.

History tells us that we can be the vanguard of independence and democracy in the region. However, the inherent lack of strategic leadership at present has, thus far, only shown why we aren’t.

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