[OPINION] Breaking down doors, walls, and ceilings: A speech by Governor Kaka Bag-ao

The following speech was delivered by Dinagat Islands Governor Kaka Bag-ao for the 2019 Freedom Flame Awards on Thursday, November 14, at Whitespace Manila, Makati City.

I am Kaka Bag-ao and I come from Dinagat Islands, a small province in the Caraga Region in Mindanao. Our seas and mountains are beautiful and rich in resources, but our families are shackled by poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment. In nearly a decade and a half after being established as one of the newest provinces, Dinagat is currently the ninth poorest in the whole country. And based on our experience, I would like to begin by telling you not what freedom is, but what it is not.

For us in Dinagat, the opposite of freedom is poverty. I experienced this firsthand as I grew up in the small northern town of Loreto. When I was little, I gathered wood to use in cooking our meals as my mother harvested the vegetables that she planted. That was our everyday life during my childhood. That was also the everyday life of our neighbors. That was the only life we all knew because of the isolation not only of our island province, but of our town itself. Back then, I had no idea what the other municipalities of our province looked like since we weren’t connected by concrete roads. I had no idea about the difference of being poor and rich. All I saw was our reality, and that we were content with the way we lived even if we experienced hard times.

However, later on, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to travel to Manila so I can go to high school, college, and then law school through the help of scholarships. I was given the opportunity to learn, which allowed me to gain the opportunity to become a lawyer. And when I became a lawyer, I was presented with the opportunity to serve marginalized sectors, which then led me towards the opportunity to run for office, first as Congresswoman of Akbayan Party-List, and then as Representative of the Lone District of Dinagat from the Liberal Party. Door after door after door was opened right in front of me. 

A lack of opportunities

Many people escape the shackles of poverty because of one thing: opportunity. This may be true for many people, but "many" is not "all" – opportunity doesn’t always come especially to those who need it the most. For the people of my province, opportunity is rare and often reserved for those who wield power and those who serve them. This is true for the mother I accompanied in a boat as we rushed across the Surigao Strait to go to the Caraga Regional Hospital on the mainland. She gave birth prematurely while we were on board, and I held the dead infant before we reached the port. This is also true for a family I met in one of our far-flung sitios – their dinner consisted of water boiled in a pot with a stone from the sea so that it would almost taste like soup. 

We always hear that opportunity is a door that you need to hold open so that others can also pass through. However, some doors do not open for most Dinagatnons and most Filipinos. And some that do open are often slammed shut for those left behind. In the beginning, I believed that our role as progressives in power is to open doors and enable opportunities for our people. But as I continued my journey in Dinagat, I realized that in order to be truly successful in upholding the liberal values of freedom, social justice, and solidarity, our responsibility is not just to open doors, but to break them down – along with the walls and ceilings.

Don’t get me wrong, I am truly grateful for the opportunities that came my way. However, at end of the day, opportunities that are not experienced by all is a sign of inequality in society – and this inequality is both the cause and effect of poverty. Doors that open for some means that there will be people who will still be left behind. Inequality, along with poverty, is another opposite of genuine freedom.

Some want to open doors for economic growth and progress, but those doors are left shut for our farmers and fisherfolk – the backbone of our local economy. Some want to open doors for the equal protection of lesbians and gay people, but those doors are left shut for transgender women and men. Some want to open doors to help the poor, but those doors are left shut for those who don’t reside in vote-rich provinces in far-flung areas. The list goes on and on.

When we continue focusing on opening doors, we often forget that there are walls and ceilings, and that doors aren’t figuratively large enough for people to come through more than one at a time.

The importance of inclusivity

One of the best ways to break down those doors along with the walls and ceilings is by including the people in our development agenda, as what we have seen in Naga City – through the efforts of the late mayor and DILG secretary Jesse Robredo and Vice President Leni Gerona Robredo. People’s participation will always be the cornerstone of a democracy that works for the people. 

This is what we are also doing in Dinagat Islands since the day we set foot in the capitol. Part of our fundamentals of leadership include the following: (1) participatory governance rooted in the principles of popular inclusion, empowerment, and democratic processes; (2) equity and development for the people with preferential option for the poor and vulnerable; and (3) human rights and dignity as the basis for development. 

And because we are inspired by the Robredo brand of leadership and service, we are planning to send our local legislators and other provincial officials to Naga so we can study how their People’s Council policy can be applied in the whole of our province and in all levels of our government.

Doors, walls, and ceilings are those that prevent our people from being heard. These obstacles are broken down when we have leaders who are willing to listen and provide venues for the people not only to speak, but to act. 

A great initiative that is one of a kind in the Philippine political arena is Project Makinig, developed by the Liberal Party and spearheaded by no less than our Party President, Senator Kiko Pangilinan. It is a technology-driven listening campaign that enlists volunteers to hear the stories, experiences, problems, and aspirations of the people at the grassroots level. Project Makinig is a way for our party to say that we do not have the monopoly of solutions and that those who are most affected by social issues are the ones who have the best ideas when it comes to developing policy responses.

Listening will always be the first step. It renders doors, walls, and ceilings intangible. For us to completely break them down, we need to ensure that the people are given the space to participate. When we fail to do so, as what happened in the past, the doors, walls, and ceilings become stronger, and when they become stronger while the people grow more and more hopeless, traditional political dynasties become more and more powerful and dictators emerge, spewing promises of doors broken by their iron fists.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we tear down the doors of selective opportunity, the walls that divide the rich and poor, and the ceilings of seemingly unreachable aspirations because these contain and prevent hope from being felt by the marginalized.

This is what we try to do in Dinagat. We seek to create programs where the people themselves will be key players and empowered stakeholders, not just beneficiaries. We show them that leaders are one with them – we talk to them face-to-face, we sit where they sit, sleep where they sleep, we listen and seek their commitment to lead with us. Most of all, we always remind them that the impossible can be made possible. 

Democracy at work

We displayed this for the first time when I ran and won against a member of the most powerful political clan of the province – and we did this 3 times. This prompted citizens to believe in themselves; some of them ran in the recent barangay elections and defeated members of the same dynasty. Little by little, we are creating spaces for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. 

I was dubbed as the Dragon Slayer by local media for my consecutive electoral victories against members of a well-entrenched dynasty, but for us in Dinagat, for the citizens of our province, we are one in the understanding that the dragons are not the politicians – the dragons are poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment. And in our context now, at the national level, these 3 are the doors, walls, and ceilings that prevent our people from enjoying and experiencing genuine freedom. 

Let me now take this time to express gratitude to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) for their active presence in our country since our democracy was restored after the dark days of Martial Law. Through the FNF, we have built a solid global network that allowed our liberal leaders to become better equipped in the battles we are facing and the battles that are yet to come. Democracy may have been restored, but there are elements that still seek to undermine and weaken it in order to acquire, maintain, and abuse power. With the help of the FNF, we are able to strengthen our ranks as freedom fighters who are ready, willing, and able to soldier on against the enemies of democracy.

When I received the Freedom Flame Award in 2015, I said that “[t]he fundamental strength for pushing a liberal agenda is to have an active citizenry. Being the change themselves, becoming leaders in their community and not waiting for government to do the work for them are keys to sustaining reforms.” Now, more than ever, I stand by those words as we chart a better and brighter future for Dinagat Islands, which can hopefully become a good example for the rest of the country.

Right now, we may be few and still battle weary since the previous elections, but when did that stop us from pushing forward? Back when I was congresswoman, I remember the times when Cong Kit and I were the only ones who would always stand together to vote against repressive measures and bogus impeachment complaints in the House committee on justice hearing, as the only Liberal Party members of the panel. We were only two who stood against 20 or 30. Talo man sa boto, pero panalo sa prinsipyo (We may lose the vote, but we win with our principles). We count our losses as a victory of principle, which will hopefully inspire others to press on.

Like Ka Bobby, let us tear down the walls of oppression by being active citizens. Like John Nery, let us use the truth to break the windows rendered opaque by disinformation. Like the Philippine Competition Commission, let us ensure that opportunities become available to all without being monopolized by the already wealthy few. And like Philippine Educational Theater Association, let us educate our people through the most creative means in order for them to shake the foundations of traditional politics. 

Congratulations to all the awardees. Thank you to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. After tonight, let us continue breaking apart the doors and walls and ceilings that prevent all our people, especially the marginalized, from being truly free.

Mabuhay kayong lahat! Mabuhay ang Inang Bayan! Itaguyod natin ang tunay na kalayaan! Magandang gabi at maraming salamat (Long live all of you! Long live the Mother Land! Let us uphold freedom! Good evening and thank you very much)! – Rappler.com