Should we celebrate Independence Day?
Last month, Lea Salonga took flak for her criticism of Independence Day. She tweeted: “Our country is not yet debt-free, poverty-free, crime-free, or corruption-free. So what are we free from exactly and why do we celebrate it?” As the United States was celebrating its own Independence Day, I thought it was fitting to answer her question, because the two holidays are so closely linked.
For starters, did you know that we used to celebrate Independence Day on July 4? To coincide with its own, the United States granted the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946. In 1962, President Diosdado Macapagal declared June 12 a holiday. But it was only in 1964 that July 4 was demoted to “Philippine Republic Day,” and June 12 was officially proclaimed “Philippine Independence Day.”
After declaring martial law, President Ferdinand Marcos wanted to overshadow Republic Day by moving Philippine-American Friendship Day from Nov. 15 to July 4, not even mentioning Republic Day during the proclamation. Marcos did this because after declaring martial law and discarding the 1935 Constitution, he probably didn’t want to remind people of the old republic.
In 1987, President Cory Aquino abolished the Philippine-American Friendship holiday, probably due to pressure from nationalist groups who hated having a colonial holiday. On July 4, 1996, President Fidel Ramos proclaimed July 4 a special day nationwide.
Today, our official government website has a feature on Republic Day, stating that “as of July 4, 2015, the Philippines has been an independent nation for sixty-nine years.”
But as Lea Salonga asked, have we been truly independent? “What are we free from exactly and why do we celebrate it?”
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I recently spoke at the Asian Humanism Conference held in Singapore, and most of the delegates—even those from Singapore—were envious of our country.
By Lea’s measures—debt, poverty, crime, corruption—Singapore certainly has more to celebrate. Its economy is better: In terms of GDP per capita, Singapore is third and we’re 119th according to the International Monetary Fund. Its public transportation is better: To supplement its already impressive subway system, it ordered an additional 91 trains last year. We’re barely managing our eight. Its government is less corrupt: Singapore is ranked seventh while we’re 85th in the 2014 Corruption Perception Index.
So why would the Singaporean delegates be envious?
Because there is something we have more than Singapore and the rest of our Southeast Asian neighbors: religious freedom. The Pew Research Center uses the Government Restrictions Index (GRI) to measure how much governments restrict their citizens’ religious beliefs and practices. Of the 18 countries with a “very high” level of religious restriction, five are from Southeast Asia—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), and Singapore. Only the Philippines and Cambodia were ranked “low.”
In Brunei, citizens are banned from celebrating Christmas for fear of Muslims being led astray. According to that country’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, Christmas and other “propagations of religions other than Islam” are prohibited in public.
In Indonesia, the Setara Institute has recorded 220 cases of violence against minorities, mostly Christians and Shia Muslims in 2013 alone. In 2012, Alexander Aan was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for expressing his atheism online. Although the government guarantees religious freedom, it recognizes only six religions (nonbelief is unrecognized) and blasphemy is illegal.
Singapore’s restrictions are certainly more subtle, but they’re definitely there. The organizers of the humanist conference I attended had to clear so many hurdles for the simple reason that religion was going to be discussed. Initially, speakers from outside Singapore were required to get work permits. The organizers had to make the event members-only to remove that requirement. But upon arrival, speakers still had to fill out a government form agreeing not to say anything that criticized religion. Throughout the planning, preparation, and execution of the event, the organizers apologized for what was quite clearly government censorship.
Yet all this is an inconvenience compared to what Amos Yee has been through. In March, Yee, a 16-year-old blogger, was arrested for criticizing Lee Kuan Yew and Jesus on YouTube. On June 23, Yee was sent to the Institute of Mental Health for “reformative training” because prosecutors argued that simply putting him in jail would have no rehabilitative effect. On July 6, he received a backdated (June 2) four-week jail sentence, which means he’s finally free, albeit with a criminal record at 16 years old.
Yee is free, thanks in no small part to those who criticized the Singaporean government for not respecting his basic freedoms—particularly freedom of religion and freedom of speech—freedoms we in the Philippines often take for granted. Together with the freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition, these five freedoms make up the First Amendment to the US Constitution, after which our own Constitution is patterned. Compared to Catholicism, I believe this colonial legacy is far more valuable.
The Philippines may be poor, but we can take comfort in whatever religion or belief system we so choose. Our government may be corrupt, but we can curse and criticize our leaders without fearing harm or imprisonment. We may not be as developed as Singapore or Malaysia, but we have more freedom to fight for better conditions than either of those countries. That battle is far from over. But the fact that we can fight is a freedom worth celebrating.
Red Tani is the founder and president of the Filipino Freethinkers.
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