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Don’t throw away a historic legacy, Mr. President

/ 12:06 AM September 04, 2015

With less than one year left in his presidency, Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III appears set to leave office assured that his economic and anticorruption achievements will ensure his legacy in Philippine history.

Mr. Aquino hopes that the people will yearn to elect subsequent leaders in his mold to ensure the continuance of his touted achievements. He expects the people to be infused with long-term inspiration from his years in office and that his achievements will influence them in their choice of presidents in the decades to come.

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Given the dysfunctional nature of Philippine politics, however, Mr. Aquino should know that it will take more than a morally upright president to excise the malignancies that prevent this country from attaining greatness. Even a popish president cannot single-handedly manage, much more defeat, these malignancies of Philippine society: 1) the deeply ingrained culture of corruption in crucial chunks of the bureaucracy; 2) the stranglehold of dynasties; 3) the debilitating clout of business monopolies; 4) the economic dependence of the masses on political warlords; and 5) the meddling propensity of religious groups. He himself has had to make compromises and even surrender concessions to these cancers.

Moreover, the reforms considered by President Aquino as his lasting legacy—anticorruption initiatives, infrastructure projects, rigid tax collection etc.—are all character-dependent reforms. The perpetuation of these reforms depends entirely on the character of each subsequent president. If society’s malignancies succeed in electing a president within their ranks, he/she can completely reverse course to bring back the old cabaret-dancing days of “What are we in power for?” Mr. Aquino’s hoped-for living legacy will then become a mere shibboleth, a memory of the good old yesteryears.

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Given these scenarios—societal malignancies prevailing to elect a president of their own or incapacitate a president not their own—the only antidote is a people vigorously active in scrutinizing the government. People must be armed with the right to demand information from the government in order to assist an upright president filibustered by malignants or to filibuster a malignant president. The constant threat of the public glare will always aid a filibustered president.

If Mr. Aquino is bent on perpetuating his hoped-for legacy, his refusal to push and shove, considering his vast presidential powers—for the passage of the proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is quite perplexing. If he wants to have a lasting legacy, the passage of the FOI bill will be the history-defining landmark of his presidency. The FOI law will have the impact of an Edsa revolution. With the passage of the bill, the people will no longer need to embark on a revolution to make their government accountable. They will only have to avail themselves of the FOI mechanism in order to demand documents, insist on information, and hold the government accountable.

If the President wants his character-dependent reforms to continue beyond his term, he must arm the people with the power to scrutinize every nook and cranny of the government. Allow the glare of public scrutiny to illuminate even the deep recesses of government because the malignants of society operate in these dark recesses, always avoiding public scrutiny. If the President does not work mighty hard for the passage of the FOI bill in these waning days of his presidency, history will credit him only with bragging rights, an ego trip—“This is how clean and good I was during my term, and this is how bad we are now”—and not a legacy.

Furthermore, more than 103 countries with a combined population of 5.8 billion have passed legislation on access to information. Do we cherish being lumped together with such countries as North Korea?

In 1986, Filipinos mounted a revolution because a dictator curtailed their right to information which enabled him to commit runaway pillage and murder (including, as widely believed, the murder of President Aquino’s father). In 2001, Filipinos mounted a second revolution because another president again curtailed their right to information in his impeachment trial.

Notwithstanding the people’s zealous devotion to their right to information and their willingness to risk their lives to assert it—for all the 30 years from Cory Aquino’s presidency in 1986 and up to Noynoy Aquino’s own term ending in 2016—no administration has removed the people’s heavy burden of still needing to mount a revolution to assert their right to information and make their government accountable.

In more ways than one, President Aquino has been a beneficiary of the revolutions mounted by the people. You may want to pay it forward, Mr. President. When you bestow upon your countrymen the right to demand information from their government, you will have gifted each Filipino born henceforth the right to exercise peaceful revolution.

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Joel Ruiz Butuyan is licensed to practice law in the Philippines and in the United States.

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TAGS: 2016 Elections, Benigno Aquino III, Freedom of Information Act, legacy, reforms
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