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Protests and inertia

/ 05:06 AM June 17, 2019

Hong Kong, known more for its high cost of living and cubicle apartments rather than patriotic sentiment, surprised us last week. More than a million people joined the protests opposing a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, seen by many as yet another move by Beijing to encroach on Hong Kong’s liberties. Many are wary of the bill as they distrust China’s opaque legal system, the terrain of torture, forced confessions and arrests without trial — things which are, to our Filipino ears, beginning to sound awfully familiar.

Protesters occupied the streets last week, filling up the city’s arteries. “China: Hands Off Our Home,” said one poster; “Hong Kong is Not China,” said another. If the count of one million is true, this will have been the biggest demonstration in the enclave’s history, surely bigger than anything we’ve achieved in Metro Manila. The protests, gathering momentum from word of mouth and social media platforms, began quite peacefully and did not budge the government at all, but with escalations into violence, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, was forced to relent and suspend the bill indefinitely.

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The protests, surely, must put some of the spark back into the hearts of those who have tired of protesting in the Philippines, in the face of a government which is at turns hostile and indifferent. We’ve all heard it, and every state university student has been on its receiving end: “Puro lang kayo rally”; “Wala namang nagagawa ang rally.”

Whatever inspiration we may have gathered from the days of student activism in the time of martial law and the Edsa revolution, there’s nothing in recent history to suggest that the government would listen to our concerns, or that we are united enough to actually voice them in massive protest. We had an opportunity recently to rise against irregularities in the last elections. Noise on social media was made, and remained nothing but that. There were no big protests and we resumed life as usual, welcoming thieves and felons once more into our Senate. We have an opportunity now to voice the way our government is handling its relations with China, and its failure to reassure the public; in this respect we have much to learn from Hong Kong.

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“China is dead set on making Hong Kong more like it. Not taking a stance will mean less freedom for all,” writes Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, from prison. He also quotes John F. Kennedy who said that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Analysts have cautioned us on the role of violence: there’s a danger that the public may learn from this episode that violence is the only way to voice out against unwanted policies. But one wonders what the alternative is. As the initial peaceful protest would show, sheer numbers were not enough. Not even the protest and shutdown of local businesses were enough to move the government. Must every political victory be won with blood and tear gas? It’s certainly food for thought. We do have outrage and dissatisfaction here. How much more outrage will we stand before we mount our own version of that Victoria Park protest? What issue is big enough to make us angry, so that we don’t simply continue to allow the government to erode into our most basic freedoms, and into the framework of our legal system? One fears that no such threshold exists, and that the apathy of the Filipino is more powerful than any threat.

We’ve been defeated by this learned helplessness that we won’t be able to achieve anything, by protest or by any other means. I am conscious of this fact as well, since we have been writing about outrage and horror since President Duterte came into office, but have achieved little by way of political change. But: “Even if we don’t achieve anything,” protester and leader Claudia Mo told Time last week, “we need to do this to be answerable to history … [so] there will be a record saying ‘they put up a heroic fight.’”

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“The Whole World is Watching,” says yet another protester sign. Your move, Filipinos.

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