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Sisyphus’ Lament

Teaching law beyond Imperial Manila

/ 12:11 AM December 15, 2014

For the first time since returning home from abroad, one midnight I found myself back on the road with my well-used backpack. Instead of another mysterious foreign city, I was headed to St. Louis University in Baguio City. Instead of a frenetic backpacking weekend, my mission was to lecture on constitutional law.

Jesus has not quite given up on my benighted soul. He dispatched Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of San Beda Graduate School of Law, to encourage me to teach in his master of laws program. It uniquely includes extension classes in select provincial schools. Father Rannie speaks with the voice of God, so with just one phone call, my backpack and I found ourselves in a Victory Liner bus on a predawn climb.

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I was soon greeting the mountain sunrise and grabbing a strawberry taho before my 9 a.m. lecture. I was stunned that my “students” were the region’s judges, prosecutors, law professors and government lawyers. When an attendee raised his hand and introduced himself as Dean Pablo Sanidad of the University of Baguio, it was I calling him “sir.”

I was equally there to learn from Baguio’s legal elite. All they wanted to know about the Disbursement Acceleration Program was why one large allocation went to Cordillera insurgents. They unanimously agreed that the people’s initiative against pork barrel was legally flawed and that the Commission on Elections lacked the resources to process it, but would sign it purely in symbolic protest. They were most provoked by the Reproductive Health Act decision’s rewriting the right to “decisional privacy” to require spouses’ mutual consent before one undergoes an RH procedure. One shared how she was pregnant when her doctor concluded that another pregnancy would endanger her health, and a hospital denied her application for a ligation shortly before she entered the delivery room. Another opined that the decision reinforces men’s patriarchal dominion over women’s bodies: the father’s before marriage and the husband’s afterwards. Terms such as “lowlander” lent a distinct local flavor to these insights.

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A sociologist took me into Baguio’s hidden “country music” nightlife. I watched teenagers and senior citizens sway to the disco versions of Kankanaey love songs with the disco versions of Igorot dances. University of the East painter Julmard Vicente from Benguet, whose mother is Kankanaey, texted to offer to introduce me to some friends, with the caveat that even the ladies could drink a seasoned UP Law graduate under the table. The next day, Bencab treated me to turon in his museum. He spoke of his artistic legacy, the need to protect the pristine mountain environs, and being at a point where he has said his patriotic pieces and can focus purely on aesthetics. On a later trip, I shared a pizza at Session Road with the SLU moot court team, whose ANC “Square Off” match I had judged.

A Manileño easily forgets that the capital is but a small part of a very large country. Beyond trying a meal at Café by the Ruins or Hill Station, we would all be enriched by appreciating how the Cordillera identity remains so strong today or how the bulul (Igorot rice guardian) is one of few visual cues that artists can use to signal our precolonial identity. I have visited some of the world’s most obscure corners but not my country’s nooks and crannies.

Thinking deeper, we must strengthen intellectual debates that link our provinces. Law is culture’s infrastructure, and cannot be built without all its facets. When we debate natural resources policy, for example, why do we rarely see a young SLU professor speaking in the national media instead of another opinion maker from Imperial Manila? Where were Negrense pundits when Dean Ralph Sarmiento of La Salle Bacolod flew to the Supreme Court to defend his bishop’s “Team Patay” posters on the city cathedral? After Senate President Franklin Drilon took the unprecedented, humbling step of testifying before his own Senate regarding the Iloilo Convention Center, why have we not heard the Ilonggo call to hold Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Iloilo? And in the drawn-out discussions on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, where are the young Moro voices?

I appreciate how “Square Off” showcases the best provincial law students such as those from SLU and Cebu’s University of San Carlos. The likes of Father Rannie’s traveling circus are important to push them to keep up with all the new angles from which to approach old problems and the new foreign and homegrown frameworks with which to organize old thoughts. Decisional privacy, for example, has been debated for decades in the US Supreme Court but ours has only begun to. When I judged a USC match, the home team easily won after its opponents failed to explain to me why they cited the constitutional provision for decisional privacy but argued a completely different concept of privacy (while USC impressed by answering my off-camera questions perfectly). Last season’s winner, UP Law, was the strongest at reframing issues to suit it. Real academic linkages must make schools across the country partners in developing such new frameworks while bringing vital local perspectives into the national debate.

We can be so parochial as to overlook that a country of 100 million is much larger than many peers. Each of our regions is the size of an average country, and by sheer statistics, must produce the same number of brilliant minds as one. Surely, not all of them have flocked to Imperial Manila. In law and other disciplines, as our economy grows and our society progresses, we must develop our regional centers of excellence to truly harness our country’s diverse strengths.

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