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[IRL] Ang TIBAK in MIDLIFE:SAMASA 40 Years After

By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

In January 1981, Ferdinand Marcos lifted Martial Law, on paper at least. He needed the optics. The world was watching. Ninoy Aquino, leading the Philippine opposition in exile, kept the spotlight on the Philippines. Pope John Paul II was visiting Manila in February. This cosmetic lifting of Martial Law was preceded with a sop to the notorious hotbed of student unrest: the University of the Philippines-Diliman. Seven years after outlawing all university student councils (USC), Marcos permitted the UP to hold Student Council Elections once more. Philippine Collegian editor Malou Mangahas, of SAMASA, Sandigan para sa Mag-aaral at Sambayanan (SAMASA), won, becoming the first woman USC chair. She later co-founded and served as executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. SAMASA would become a UP-system wide alliance with 120-member student organizations.

Last July 24, 2021, SAMASA marked 40 odd years. Mangahas was among the speakers at their webinar on “Why Activism Matters.” It was a gathering of the best and the brightest, all worthy of the appellation Iskolar ng Bayan. In the spirit of inclusion and mature, sober solidarity, the moderator was Roby Alampay, from TUGON, a rival student organization. Also from TUGON, was Commission of Human Rights Chair Chito Gascon who dropped in to wish SAMASA well. The time has come to set aside any past petty differences. The impending 2022 elections call for all hands-on-deck to save our sinking ship of state.

Whoever 2022 might bring though, all Filipinos of good will must look beyond next year’s elections, and soldier on. UP College of Law Prof. Barry Gutierrez, better known as VP Leni Robredo’s spokesman, recalled how when he was much younger, he didn’t vote, cynically claiming that all politicians were cut from the same trapo. Clearly, this isn’t true. 180◦ set apart a Leni Robredo from a Sara Duterte, or a Noynoy Aquino from RRD.

Alampay observed that although the technological marvel of social media has connected us, it has also made us lazy. We have grown complacent in our own algorithmically set echo chambers. Gutierrez called for more listening, and going beyond our comfort zones to reach out in active community. Yesterday’s tibak are today’s tito’s and tita’s. They are responsible to some extent, for the way things are now, even for the continuing brokenness of our institutions which can and do keep good people down. Gutierrez acknowledged missed and lost opportunities: eg., institutionalizing reforms in the budget process was not prioritized during PNoy’s time because it was thought then that it was more important to ensure that the succeeding president would continue PNoy’s legacy. Thus do the Administration’s and the party in power’s best laid plans go awry.

As Mangahas noted, the changing construct of activism is no longer that of the rebel or the warrior, requiring the renunciation of family, or having to go underground. There is the more human aspect of caring. The “grim, determined” stereotypes of yesteryear’s student activists, which had caused so many Filipino parents to forbid their children from going to UP—baka maging aktibista—no longer apply. In reality, almost ¾ of the UP student population are unaffiliated with any organization, and do not attend political rallies. Take the gracious example of UP College of Fine Arts alumna Patreng Non whose simple, straight-from-her heart gesture of putting out a rattan cart of food, has spawned a nation-wide revolution in kindness and community. NOTE: Patreng’s mother Zena Bernardo is with SAMASA, and Patreng is an active member of Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP (STAND-UP).

Lawyer and engineer Joey Ochave, president of the pharmaceutical Rite-Med, believed one might even be an activist without overtly identifying as such. Alampay cited the late Carlos Celdran, a playwright, visual and performance artist, who was willing to go to jail to uphold Filipino women’s right to reproductive health. However, Engr. Tonette Tanchuling said that activists needed to take collective action. Much as welfare issues matter, a lone actor is just maawain. Atty. Raffy Aquino affirmed this in his 4-point definition of activism as being: constant or habitual (not a one-shot deal); targeted towards progressive change—hence right wing or reactionary activism is an oxymoron; for the betterment of mankind or society as a whole, and not of rent-seeking or narrowly self-serving, special interest groups; organized and communal. Just as Mangahas had pointed out that student activists could not be academic laggards, Aquino saw the mature activist as having the mental agility and cognitive adaptability to unlearn what doesn’t work and to learn new ways and means.

For Atty. Susan Villanueva, “Activism is borne out of the strongest and most powerful human emotion: love. It is love beyond self, for the country and people, that impels activists to put themselves out there, to change the world for the better. Because what greater cause is there for activists to go beyond their own comfort zones and take up causes for others? Activism as a preparation for life: I learned to always be brave, to do the right thing, to always act with justice and fairness every day, to always do my best in whatever I do, and to always strive or demand for accountability and transparency in my family, workplace, my organizations, my community and my country.”

SAMASA is acknowledged by the current student parties in UP such as the Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP (STAND-UP) and ALYANSA as their predecessor. #tindig.

Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (In Real Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction--but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.

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