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[OPINION] Does it matter if we are not truly democratic now?

An important question is being revisited in light of the gravity of recent events: is the Philippines truly a democratic country?

This is not an attempt to volunteer an answer, as the answer has been, at least to my mind, painfully obvious since 2016. I will leave it to better educated citizens to surmise the truth of this matter. (WATCH: Rallies for democracy, press freedom on Duterte's 5th SONA)

Instead, I’d like to pose a counter-question: does it matter if we are not truly democratic now?

The truth of the matter is that we are a young Republic. No, I don’t mean to count as far back as the Malolos Republic. To count that far back is to hark on a history that is now as divorced from the present as the Spanish are divorced from present-day Filipinos. No, our enemies today have taken on a different face; they now use more sophisticated tools, even if they are impelled by the same self-interest.

My reckoning starts from the birth of the Fifth Republic, the one that rose from the ashes of our famed 1986 EDSA Revolution, the one we are living in now. Yes, the one the Supreme Court wants us to move on from, as if it were one of our exes. The same Republic whose Constitution our beloved President, our Juvenile-in-Chief, quipped is good only for wiping butts (never mind that he is the very person commanded to ensure the faithful execution of our laws). The same Republic whose DNA Congress now wants to gut, the same Congress made up of our dear Representatives who seem to be representing only themselves these days. 

This Republic is just 32 years old, counting from the first day of the effectivity of the 1987 Constitution. For all intents and purposes, it is just starting its life and is now discovering what "adulting" truly entails. 

I emphasize the youth of our Republic because youth has the inimitable quality of not letting itself be encumbered by the weight of tradition. We are not the United States whose government traces its history to 1776, when a ragtag group of twenty-somethings signed the Declaration of Independence, and whose Supreme Court now cites case law that is hundreds of years old. We are not France, whose people had to snatch their own freedoms from the guillotine of King Louis XVI. We are not England, whose ancestors had to live and die by the temperament of monarchs as fickle as Henry VIII.

We have yet to write the most important passages of our history.

Remember your own awkward teenage years. Duterte’s Philippines is exactly that, writ large. The tens of thousands of murders in broad daylight, the hundreds of thousands of illegal arrests, the daily warrantless raids, the uneven hand in the implementation of laws – these are the zits, the stretch marks, the growing pains of our youth as a People. Every single evil is painfully avoidable, but the totality is necessary for the growth of our collective conscience.

Democracies older than ours don’t speak lightly when they claim that every right, every phrase, every word in their own Constitution was written by the blood of their ancestors, in broad strokes by the force of history. They say that rights only matter when the people to whom they have been bestowed are brave enough to wield them. 

The reason is beguilingly simple: words have meaning. And, sometimes, meaning only allows itself to be infused into the word when it is preceded by death and despair. 

The right to be presumed innocent and the right not to be deprived of one’s life, liberty, and property without due process of law both make sense now that more than 30,000 have been executed and now that ABS-CBN has lost its franchise. The right to freedom of expression, which heretofore had the quality of an ancient magical incantation – mysterious, but not to be taken too seriously – is material now that enforced silence and self-censorship are the rule. Who would have thought that in the year 2020, freedom of association, the middle child of the Bill of Rights, would be the very air of a People drowning in grievance?

Rights make sense only when they have been taken away. All of these freedoms were mere words in our recent past, yet now they take on the gravity of life and death.

No matter. 

This period in our history can only lead to our growth. Painful as it is, it can only make us stronger. 

We, the People, are young. We are free to determine the trajectory of our shared fate. So, my dear fellow youth, don’t give in to despair. Stay the course. Democracy is not a mere word on a piece of paper. It is the lesson we learn only when there is blood in the streets. It is the habit we form only after we have witnessed the tragic apathy of our fellow countrymen. It is our shared morality, now that we know what it means to suffer. (READ: Dismay, disgust, dissent: How Filipinos online reacted to issues during Duterte’s 4th year)

So is the Philippines a truly democratic country? Does it matter when we are resolved to make it so? – Rappler.com

Michael de Castro is a lawyer who practices human rights in the trenches. He is the founder of Leflegis, a network of lawyers dedicated to the cultivation of democratic principles within and without the confines of legal practice.