President Benigno Aquino III’s Independence Day speech on Wednesday was unusual for two significant reasons: He read it in Liwasang Bonifacio, in honor of the revolutionary supremo Andres Bonifacio, and he based his current reading of the meaning of independence on the prospect of external security risks. In other words, on China’s escalating aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
The President adopted a measured tone (which is why it is incumbent on us to quote him in the original Filipino), but it would also be fair to say that his remarks helped more Filipinos realize the true stakes involved in the country’s maritime territorial disputes with (mainly) Beijing.
The choice of a Bonifacio monument as site of Independence Day rites, and then as backdrop for an important speech, was carefully calibrated. The nation will mark the 150th birth anniversary of the founder of the Katipunan in November; the President only did right in honoring Bonifacio’s undisputed but underappreciated role as a founding father in the fight for freedom. (He also chose the Liwasan instead of the Aguinaldo Shrine in Kawit, Cavite, the actual site of the independence proclamation.)
At the same time, he repeatedly and rightly invoked Bonifacio’s spirit of self-sacrifice, as a reminder of freedom’s true cost.
“Maliwanag po ang pahiwatig ng kanyang tindig: Karangalan ang magtaya ng buhay para sa bayan; taas-noo nating maipagmamalaki ang mga naiambag natin para sa kalayaan (The meaning of his stance is clear: It is an honor to stake our lives for the country’s sake; we can then proudly boast of what we have contributed for freedom).” Mr. Aquino spoke of the living lesson we must learn again and yet again from heroes like Bonifacio: that no one else can defend our rights, or fight for our future, or push for true freedom, except ourselves.
The true context of the President’s speech, however, was something very much in the news: the worrying aggressiveness of recent Chinese conduct. He did not need to mention the obvious to make his point. “Naninindigan tayo para sa ating mga karapatan bilang bansang may sariling soberanya, bilang bayang nagbuwis na ng buhay para sa kalayaan, bilang Pilipinas na may sariling bandila na kapantay ng lahat. (We are standing up for our rights as a sovereign country, as a country that has sacrificed for freedom, as a Philippines with a flag that is equal to all).”
In what context can his assertion of our rights as a sovereign country be understood, except as a reference to the continuing dispute with China? This marks the first time in many decades that the Philippines sees an active external security threat—not war, but the prospect of an increase in the number of hostile encounters, over conflicting territorial claims.
The President tried to strike a balance. “Wala sa lahi natin ang pagiging agresibo, pero hindi rin tayo titiklop sa anumang hamon. At habang naninindigan tayo para sa ating mga karapatan, at nakikipagugnayan sa lahat nang panig upang maghari ang hinahon at pagkakaunawaan, kailangan din nating iangat ang kakayahan ng ating Sandatahang Lakas (Aggression is not a trait of our race, but at the same time we will not fold before any challenge. And while we stand up for our rights, and deal with all sides so that calm and understanding will triumph, we also need to raise the capacity of our Armed Forces).”
This belated modernization of the Philippine military will be denounced in Beijing as unnecessarily destabilizing, but in fact it is China which is engaged in a massive capacity-building program for the People’s Liberation Army.
Given the stakes, and the limits of our resources, the true support for the Aquino administration’s three-track approach to the territorial disputes with China (political, diplomatic and legal) cannot lie in a better-equipped military. It must rest, instead, on unity of purpose. The President referenced Bonifacio’s monument to ask a question he has kept asking of Filipino citizens, but in a different vein: “Tila mapanghamon din ang titig ni Bonifacio. Tila ang sinasabi: Ikaw, Pilipino, ano na ang nagawa mo para sa bandila at kapwa mo?”
The difference is in the notion of fighting for freedom. “Bonifacio’s look seems to challenge us. It seems to say: You, Filipino, what have you done for flag and fellow citizen?”
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