Kaka Bag-ao on speaking up against a supermajority

Bea Cupin
Kaka Bag-ao on speaking up against a supermajority

LeAnne Jazul

'Hindi ibig sabihin na tatalikuran ko 'yung mga paniniwala ko,' says the Dinagat representative on taking contrary positions as a member of the supermajority

MANILA, Philippines – Kaka Bag-ao does not hesitate.

She did not think twice when she chose to lawyer for farmers, fisherfolk, and the urban poor. She did not back down when she was picked to run against a well entrenched political family in her home province of Dinagat.

So it did not come as a surprise when Bag-ao did not hesitate to vote contrary to the “supermajority” in the 17th Congress, even if it meant losing a committee chairmanship and later on, funds for her legislative district.

Bag-ao, who is on her second consecutive term as Dinagat representative and third consecutive term as a member of Congress, says being part of the majority bloc should not mean saying yes – without reservations – to the decisions and whims of the House leadership.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Hindi ibig sabihin na tatalikuran ko ‘yung mga paniniwala ko. ‘Di naman por que member ka ng majority, ‘di ka na puwede maging dissenter. Hindi naman ako necessarily opposition for the sake of opposing but in very critical moments where I have to take a stand which may not be the same as that of the majority, tingin ko bahagi ‘yun ng role ko at trabaho ko even as part of the majority,” Bago-ao told Rappler in an interview.

(It doesn’t mean that just because I’m in the majority, I have to turn by back on the things I believe in. Being in the majority doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be a dissenter. I’m not in the opposition for the sake of opposing but in very critical moments where I have to take a stand which may not be the same as that of the majority, I think it’s my role and the job, even as part of the majority.)

Bag-ao stood defiantly against the majority when the committee on justice voted to find probable cause in an impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. She insisted on voting against the death penalty and the two extensions of martial law in Mindanao, where Dinagat is.

But she has also stood proudly with the majority when landmark legislation, including the divorce bill and the anti-discrimination bill, passed the PDP-Laban-led 17th Congress in the House.

As part of Rappler’s celebration of National Women’s Month, we talk to Dinagat Representative Kaka Bag-ao about representing the under-represented, growing up in the island of Dinagat, and why it isn’t necessarily difficult to stand up against a supermajority in Congress.

(Editor’s note: We’ve translated and shortened some of Bag-ao’s answers.)

Why she joined Congress as Akbayan and later, Dinagat representative

I was chosen as Akbayan nominee and in the party list, when they asked me to become a nominee, because I was the lawyer for the Sumilao farmers and the case had become prominent then. They also figured that I’m a woman, a lawyer, from Mindanao…so I could be the voice of those from Mindanao. In a sense, I was excited because this wasn’t about personality. I was not running; the party was. I just represent the party. And the advocacies I worked for when I was in the alternative law group, I’ll still be able to do it especially in Congress so I said yes.

Running as Dinagat representative was a different experience. The reason behind that was, it was an opening to run against an entrenched political dynasty. I am an advocate against political dynasties so it was applying in real life what used to be just an advocacy.

At that time, I thought it was a good thing to do because it was a move to go against the tide, against the trend that it would always be them (the Ecleos). And because I’m from Dinagat, I have relatives who are affected, friends and family, I thought to myself: If I have a chance of winning, why not?

Going up against the Ecleos

I think I’m a believer in right timing and the right opportunity. When I started in Dinagat, I did not run immediately. I became a caretaker because the incumbent congressman, who was an Ecleo, went in hiding. So that gave me the opportunity because he had yet to implement his PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund).

I submitted projects based on my analysis of what the problems in Dinagat were, which is actually a no-brainer because if you go to Dinagat, it’s simple: there’s no water, no power, no roads, no hospital, no school. You don’t even need to talk about theories of human rights.

So that was my motivation. There was a chance of winning but of course, I knew that it was slim. But my confidence came from the people of Dinagat who wanted to see new leaders but could not find anyone. When they saw me work as the incumbent, the caretaker congresswoman, they began thinking: why not?

My only goal then was to beat the dynasty so it really wasn’t a difficult decision-making process for me and a lot of leaders in Dinagat.

Growing up in Dinagat

I had a very happy childhood, I would like to think. I grew up in an island. I grew up knowing that to eat lunch, we need to fetch water, get firewood. To cook our meals, we need to harvest vegetables. So I knew that life was not easy. My mother would sell fish or dry out the palay (unhusked rice) that she got as her share in farming. I knew that we had to stock up on palay so we would survive the typhoon season.

ADVOCATE.  Dinagat Representative Kaka Bag-ao talks about representing the underrepresented, growing up in Dinagat, and why it isn’t necessarily difficult to stand up against a supermajority in Congress. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

I grew up thinking life was not easy but it was always happy because it wasn’t that difficult. I grew up thinking it was normal, because that’s what everyone had to do. I thought it was like that in the entire country. Because a sea surrounded us, there was no way to escape. So if you find yourself in a disagreement with someone, you needed to engage.

I grew up knowing that trees are important because that’s where our water comes from. In the areas without trees because of mining activities, it floods a lot so I grew up knowing that without trees, we die. It came to a point that that became my advocacy, conservation. Even as a child, I saw that if someone does illegal fishing, the next day, there’s less fish to catch and the corals die. I knew that corals are where fish live so if they die, how will the fish live? My analysis of life was that simple.

Lawyering for the poor

First of all, I really did not want to be part of government. Back then, I didn’t believe in government. Because to me, the government was the reason why people were suffering even more.

But I became a community organizer for an urban poor community in Commonwealth that was trying to claim their rights to housing. I also volunteered when the La Salle brothers gave leadership trainings for fisher folks in Laguna de Bay, so I lived with fisherfolk for a while.

I also volunteered at the Ateneo Human Rights Center when I was in law school for a group of farmers as legal research. So all my experiences as a student led me to engage with the basic sectors. I understood why they needed proper housing, why farmers needed land because they were the tillers. That influenced me – on what kind of lawyer I wanted to be after.

I told myself, I could work in a law office and get rich…but so what? I’m okay. I don’t want a lavish lifestyle because my mother once told me that it’s hard to have a lot of money. So as long as you’re eating right, or you get to eat what you want [that’s fine].

I guess because my dreams weren’t lofty, it was not an issue that if your clients are the poor, you would get nothing back.

Working with the Sumilao farmers

I met the Sumilao farmers because I joined Saligan, an alternative law group. Saligan then had a project to provide paralegal training for farmers so that they are aware of the agrarian reform laws, land laws, and can assert their claims to their lands with basis.

So one of the provinces that we assisted was one of the organized groups in Bukidnon. When I first met them, we talked about the issue of them not having titles to their lands and being sued by the person who claimed to own the land. They asked me: “What are we going to do, they’re suing us, attorney?”

I told them that we could win the case because they own the land because there’s agrarian reform. We didn’t know then that the case would drag on for more than 10 years. I was very young, 1996 when the case started. That’s where I grew up, literally and as a lawyer.

We studied the case until they decided that they wanted to go to Manila. They had no money. I told them, “You can’t even pay for a lawyer, what more for airfare?” They told me, “Then we walk. Will you walk with us?” I told them, “No, I don’t want to walk, I don’t want to exhaust myself.” But of course I still joined their march.

They need to learn Tagalog because how would they explain the case in Manila if they can’t even speak Tagalog? Most of them spoke Higaonon, not even Bisaya. So we turned the roads into a classroom. When we reached the more quiet parts of the road, we started learning Tagalog. I would ask them: What’s Tagalog of agrarian reform, of land – things like that. They practiced public speaking. We would ask about the law, and they’d answer through the megaphone. We taught them how to be confident, we taught them administrative orders so in the end, they were the ones who argued.

I told them, when we reach Manila, I can’t do the interviews because I’m not the claimant. So when they got there, they knew everything. Anyone should be able to grant interviews. Nobody can back out of this because if someone does, we lose. Everyone was so tired. It was two months and a half of walking. They would not let go of the chance to argue their case. 

Right now, they have P8 million in capitalization, at least P4 million of cash in the bank from the capital build up. They’ve planted on 144 hectares. Their children are college graduates. So over 20 years, I’ve seen the effect of the case and what it means when farmers win a case. Before, when we’d have meetings, they could only walk to the venue. Now, they own motorcycles, bicycles, even multicabs. When we have our anniversary, they don’t need to solicit. They have funds for a yearly celebration.

When you see that kind of output from your work as a lawyer – I mean, even if you’re not the reason for everything, you somehow contributed – tingin ko, parang kering-keri yung pagiging abugado ko (my being a lawyer is worth it).

Even being a congressman because even if it’s hard, I think of them and Dinagat islands.

From Sumilao to Batasan

One of the biggest differences is, well, I’m always in airconditioned rooms now compared to before and now I have to wear makeup. Here, you have to dress up, speak English. Those are the more difficult adjustments because in terms of substance, the advocacy, it’s just the role that’s changed. Instead of a lawyer that represents the needs of specific groups, now I represent the needs of bigger groups.

One big adjustment is the kind of people that you talk to on a daily basis. I learn much more from farmers compared to the people I speak to in Congress. It’s not because the people here aren’t good at their jobs but I’m talking about learning the fundamentals that, to me, are the most important things. Sometimes, there are debates in Congress that I think are unnecessary.

Best and worst parts of Congress

The best part is when you see your bills moving and getting enacted into law, like the Reproductive Health bill, Carper, Sanggunian Kabataan law, even those that just pass on 3rd reading here – land use, HIV/AIDS, SOGIE/anti-discrimination bill…and you’re the principal author. I think those are the best moments. The best moments too are when I’m able to bring to national government the issues of Dinagat and I’m able to bring home projects through department agencies.

EVERYONE'S WELCOME. Bag-ao poses in front of gender-inclusive bathroom inside her office. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

I always tell the people in Dinagat that it’s not my own money. It’s government money, which they have difficulty understanding. All this while, they believe that this is the money of the politicians.

The worst, I think, is having to deal with the expectations of people from Dinagat because I’m different, my experiences are different, I should be able to deliver more. But if you have experiences like when your budget is removed because of the way you voted on major issues…what can I tell the people of Dinagat?

I told them, “We don’t have a budget because I voted against death penalty, I voted against the extension of martial law in Mindanao.” You know, they told me: “Cong, money comes and projects will eventually come. But your stand on issues not many are able to do what you did. So why would we let go of you?” Sabi ko sa kanila, sabi ko…etchos (I told them…you’re flattering me).

In Congress, I think the worst is how to play the game. You have to go with the tide just to put forward your advocacies but at the same time, you have to stand for your beliefs. [You have to figure out] how you won’t be tainted, how to avoid [certain issues]…and how to do all of these well with you still victorious in the end.

Why she chose to join the supermajority

When I decided to be part of the supermajority, the reason then was…I don’t want to become part of the minority because I don’t believe that that’s the real minority. That’s the minority created by the majority.

I also believed that since the President was from Mindanao, the Speaker is from Mindanao…they might be able to understand what Mindanao really needs so I joined that wave. But that doesn’t mean that just because I’m in the majority, I need to turn by back on the things I believe in. Being in the majority doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be a dissenter.

I’m not in the opposition for the sake of opposing but in very critical moments where I have to take a stand which may not be the same as that of the majority, I think it’s my role and the job, even as part of the majority.

I was removed as a chairperson of a committee because [those who voted against death penalty] cannot have leadership roles, supposedly. That’s okay. My district’s budget was slashed because of my position of key issues. I explained to the people in Dinagat and told them, “If you don’t think I deserve this position because you’re worrying and want a representative who won’t put you in this position, just tell me.” But they don’t want me to go. So keri lang ako (So I’m okay).

To me, a woman is…

To me, a woman is a person who embodies the principles of empowerment, believes in her right as a human being, who speaks her mind even though we are silenced all these years, to be the voice of other women who are victims of violence, of oppression, because most often, they will not be able to speak for themselves.

I think a woman is a person who treats everyone, including the men as equals and have equal opportunities but we always have to assert that more women will always have less power until such time that we will be able to understand the meaning of equality and respect.

– Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.