[OPINION] In defense of democracy

(This is the keynote address delivered by Vice President Leni Robredo during the Banyan Tree Leadership Forum organized by the US-Philippines Strategic Initiative and the CSIS-Pertamina at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, on October 17, 2018.)

Good afternoon, everyone.  

Dr. Amy Searight; the other members of CSIS; the Deputy Chief of Mission, Patrick Chuasoto of the Philippine Embassy in Washington; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen: Good afternoon. Magandang hapon sa inyong lahat

Thirty-two years ago, a few months after the People Power Revolution elevated her to the Presidency, Corazon Aquino came back to the United States, no longer as the wife of an exiled opposition leader, but as the visiting head of state of a newly-restored democracy. Speaking before members of the US Congress, she narrated how a freedom-loving people threw off the shackles of dictatorship to re-establish a Republic founded on the principles of peace, democracy, and the rule of law. 

In that same address, President Aquino said, and I quote: “Has there been a greater test of national commitment to the ideals you hold dear than that my people have gone through? You have spent many lives and much treasure to bring freedom to many lands that were reluctant to receive it. And here, we have a people who want it by themselves, and need only the help to preserve it.”

Today, I address you with that same fervor and in the same spirit, to reiterate our continued commitment to those principles. 

The friendship between the Philippines and the United States has stood strong for over a century. Bound by a shared commitment in upholding the rights and freedoms of every human being, ours is a partnership that transcends immediate interests and that has endured through the best and the worst of times.

This firm friendship, as well as the common commitment to democracy and human rights on which it is built, has never been more important than today. Across the globe, democracies, both new and well-established, are facing fierce challenges to their legitimacy and continued relevance. The Filipino people fought long and hard to regain our freedom and democracy before, and let me assure you the same resolve persists in the face of new threats. In the midst of those threats, it is to our friends and allies with whom we share our most deeply held values, that we must look to for our most steadfast support. 

This support, I believe, is critical in a world that is witnessing a massive shift in the way societies are managed. The free flow of goods, people, and services over borders and across continents has changed the fundamental dynamic of how economies, and the societies that support them, behave. This has brought about the longest period of innovation, social and economic progress, the world has ever known. However, it has also failed to illuminate poverty, wars, and suffering in many parts of the world.

In this light, many scholars have come to question the ability of governments to keep up with the radical realignments brought about by an increasingly globalized world. In a world unhampered by borders and made smaller by interconnectivity, the global citizen has become the center for new forms of protest, governance, and citizen engagement. 

And while this has expanded the reach of social movements pushing for advocacies such as environmental protection and gender equality, it has likewise empowered groups championing ideologies of hate and exclusion in support of their sinister agenda. New modes of populism, protectionism, and extreme nationalism have emerged as supposed “alternatives” to “defunct” democratic values, pushed aggressively by networks that use the Internet and social media to bypass borders and institutional regulation. This has given rise to a new breed of populist leaders, seeking to reintroduce tyranny as a more alluring counterpoint to democracy.

In the book, How Democracies Die – I don’t know if you read that already – authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out how we would usually attribute the breakdown of democracies through the use of military power and brute force. 

But a bigger threat looms in the horizon, the book warned. According to the authors, and I quote: “There is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” 

Scholars say this current wave of global populism is a reaction to people’s frustrations with democracy and liberal values. More so, in some of their leaders, especially those who have been proven corrupt or out of touch with the realities of common citizens. In many states, liberal elites are accused of abusing power and influence, thus making populists who offer quick – even if impractical – solutions, a very attractive option. Many ordinary people may feel that democracy has had its chance—and it has failed them.

This frustration with liberal democracy is not something we should reject out of hand. In my own experience, interacting with the poor and the marginalized as a human rights lawyer for more than a decade, I can understand where this frustration is coming from. I, too, believe that we could – and that we should – do more in empowering citizens so that their voices would be heard and their needs addressed. We could, and should, make public institutions more responsive and promote good governance. We could, and should, do more in ensuring that democracy leads to more people living better lives.

However, the need to make our democracies more relevant and more responsive should never be an excuse to give up on its principles and values. Instead, it should inspire us to seek ways to make it better.

The Philippines, as you all know, is Asia’s oldest democracy. From our fight for independence from Spanish rule more than a hundred years ago, to the People Power Revolution in 1986, Filipinos have shown their love for freedom. It is what binds us as a people. It is what defines our hopes and aspirations. It is our protection against the return of tyrannical rule. And more importantly, it is this commitment to democracy that has brought our two nations – the United States and the Philippines – together.   

Looking back, our rich history has taught us that the enemy we face as a nation is not one person or office. Inasmuch as we had leaders who spewed grand visions for our country, it is the culture of apathy and complacency that have robbed us of a stronger state. When our people pin their hopes on modern-day saviors, doesn’t that tell us that we have failed in making them own their stake in claiming their own future? 

To be candid, it is painful to admit that democracy could have done more to benefit our people. It could have done better in preventing the deaths of thousands of my countrymen affected by the war on drugsIt could have generated more jobs in the countryside. It could have fed more mouths and educated more poor children in remote rural communities. Yet we do not despair. We look at these wounds as opportunities to heal and be stronger. We fight back, and we will continue to do so, no matter the darkness that seeks to engulf the world. Our people’s freedom and democracy is worth every struggle, worth every tear. 

We need leaders who will commit themselves to the protection of human rights. Leaders that draws strength, not through brute force or intimidation, but through acts of empathy and respect. This is the monumental task laid down before all of us today. 

Working together, it is best for both our countries to adopt policies that promote inclusivity in a time of ideological and economic polarity. Time and again, we have seen how it is only through collaboration that we can move forward as advocates of democracy in the international arena.

The Philippines is proud to be the oldest security ally of the United States in Southeast Asia. Since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951, our countries have worked closely together in enhancing our military capability and response to those who would dare threaten peace on our shores. 

For instance, the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, is an important step in enhancing our security alliance. Aside from promoting long-term modernization in the military, the treaty hopes to reinforce maritime security and maritime domain awareness, and increase the interoperability of our forces. 

Four years after the treaty was signed, we are now starting to reap the fruits of our collective labor. Last April, we witnessed the groundbreaking ceremony for a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief warehouse and command and control fusion center in the province of Pampanga, north of Manila. The facility, which will be used to preposition equipment and supplies needed for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, is a proud testament to our shared commitment to create safer and more livable communities.  

The path towards peace has been a long arduous process for many Filipinos, especially those in Mindanao. Their centuries-old experience of injustice and internal conflict continue to hamper economic growth and threaten our country’s democracy. The military continues to fight insurgent groups, but counterinsurgency needs a whole-of-government approach and not solely a military solution. 

Just recently, the Bangsamoro Organic Law was signed into law, creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. We hope that this leads to the end of conflict in the region. Last month, Washington and Manila agreed to increase the number of joint military exercises from 261 to 281 in 2019. This is a welcome development, especially after witnessing how members of the Maute-ISIS group ravaged the city of Marawi, destroying the homes and livelihood of thousands of our kababayans. I am certain that as we work together in strengthening military capability and operations, we can finally obliterate terrorists’ hold on Asia. 

We will forever be grateful to America for your assistance in battling insurgency and terrorism. Ending it allows our military to focus on other growing external challenges we face, such as the row in the West Philippine Sea. 

As many of you are undoubtedly aware, after our historic victory against China before the UN Arbitral Tribunal, the current administration took a different route in asserting the interests in the West Philippine Sea – adopting a less confrontational approach that involves economic partnerships in the form of infrastructure loans and joint development. This shift has also been accompanied by efforts to strengthen Philippine presence in the area. Despite the public and political rhetoric, the Philippines has taken steps to improve the existing infrastructure on the Pag-asa Islands, in line with the Declaration of Conduct we signed with other claimant-states. 

With your support, our Armed Forces and Coast Guard have also improved security by increasing presence of air and sea patrols that roam the area. Weekly meetings are led by an interagency task force, responsible in orchestrating different agencies to take on a unified action in the West Philippine Sea.

With these steps, it is my hope that in the coming years, our government will be able to secure our nation from any external threat; protect our fishermen, our food supply, our source of energy, and our way of life; and stand against any action that would flagrantly defy the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal. 

Today, we reiterate our commitment to a rules-based order within the region, founded on mutual respect of international laws, treaties, and agreements. The rise of China will no doubt usher in a new era of prosperity in Asia. But aggressive expansionism that threaten to trample on the sacred precepts of international law, and done at the expense of smaller, less powerful nations, must, at all times, be met with diplomatic resistance. 

Even as we remain committed to democracy, we continue to face challenges as a nation that also threaten democracy. We are thankful to the US Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which have launched programs that promote peace, livelihood, and development, especially  in many conflict areas in Mindanao. From what we have seen, these programs do not just build goodwill, but do much in helping ensure that democracy helps our people live better lives.

In the past decade, America has also been at the forefront of sending support and assistance in times of great need. As of July of 2018, the US has provided more than US$143 million in disaster relief and recovery when Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in 2013. Moving forward, I hope the Philippine government will be given the opportunity to pursue once again our application to receive grants from the Millennium Challenge Corporation. 

On the economic front, prospects seem to be looking brighter. The Philippine economy has been expanding consistently, and is now one of the fastest growing economies in the region. We have seen eight years of per capita GDP growth of at least 3.5%, and higher per capita income than ever before. Our debt burden has been going down and poverty incidence dropped from 26.3% in 2009 to 21.6% in 2015. 

While these figures paint a very optimistic picture, a lot still needs to be done to ease our people’s suffering, especially during these times, when inflation is skyrocketing. The government will release the latest poverty incidence numbers in 2019, but according to Social Weather Stations, self-rated poverty, as of  September 23, 2018, is at 52%; self-rated food-poor families is at 36%; and family hunger incidence at 13.3%. It can be surmised that the results of this recent survey is a strong indicator that many Filipinos are struggling to make both ends meet, given the rising price of basic commodities.

Meanwhile, Philippine sovereign debt is still considered investment grade across the three major credit rating agencies. Over the last six years, the Philippines has experienced an average growth of 32% in foreign direct investments. In absolute dollar terms, we are falling behind our neighboring countries like Vietnam, but we are working to overcome investment constraints. For instance, we have recently passed the Ease of Doing Business Act, which will make the process of putting up and running a business in the Philippines easier and more efficient. The National Economic Development Authority Board, which is currently drafting the Foreign Investment Negative List, has also been directed to ease or lift foreign investment restrictions in several key sectors, including public services and retail. This administration’s flagship program called Build, Build, Build, though off to a slow start, should continue to upgrade our infrastructure, create more jobs, and encourage investors to permeate the countryside. 

The business environment is notably better within special economic zones. The Philippine Economic Zone Authority is known for its regulatory transparency, no red-tape policy, and one-stop shop services for investors. 

The Philippines also continues to enjoy the confidence of the United States as an important trading partner, with over US$27 billion in goods and services traded in 2016. Moreover, the Philippines has been among the largest beneficiaries of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program for developing countries, which provides preferential duty-free access to the US market. Last year, our governments have agreed to hold regular discussions under the US-Philippines Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). This is an important step in strengthening our trade relations, as we look forward to the signing of a bilateral free trade agreement in the future. 

Trust and confidence – these are the two foundations upon which we nurture our friendship with America. As we forge a brighter path in economic, diplomatic, and security relations, we also acknowledge the need to fix our institutions and empower organizations, so that growth reaches those who need it most. We need to institute reforms and reach out to the far peripheries. 

This is the same philosophy that inspires the work that we do at the Office of the Vice President. You see, our office has one of the smallest budgets in the entire Philippine bureaucracy. It does not have the mandate to implement programs and projects. Unlike in other countries, the Philippine Constitution does not bestow upon the Vice President any special task or responsibility other than being the President’s successor. Some call the Vice President a “spare tire.” But when I assumed office, I rejected the idea of standing idly by, just doing ceremonial functions for the next six years. 

After seeing how poverty has crippled the lives of many Filipinos, we decided to come up with an anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay, which means “to uplift lives.” Since we have very little resources to implement programs, we positioned ourselves as a conduit between communities needing help and organizations wanting to help. We focused on six key advocacy areas, namely: hunger and food security, universal healthcare, public education, rural development, women empowerment, and housing. Every week, we would spend two to three days going around, visiting the poorest, farthest, and most unheard of towns across the country. 

LIVELIHOOD ASSISTANCE. Vice President Leni Robredo in August 2018 turns over kitchen tools and equipment to Lourdes National High School in Panglao, Bohol, for its feeding program and vocational course. The assistance is under the OVPu2019s Angat Buhay program.

LIVELIHOOD ASSISTANCE. Vice President Leni Robredo in August 2018 turns over kitchen tools and equipment to Lourdes National High School in Panglao, Bohol, for its feeding program and vocational course. The assistance is under the OVPu2019s Angat Buhay program.

Since Angat Buhay was launched in October of 2016, we have already partnered with more than 250 organizations, transforming the lives of more than 155,000 families in 176 cities and municipalities across the country. 

Guided by the belief that the youth of today plays a special role in promoting peace and development, we also organized the Angat Buhay Youth Summit – Mindanao. Last July, we gathered 30 youth organizations for a four-day conference, which aims to spark ideas for community-based projects and peace-building initiatives to counter violent extremism. We were very lucky to have the US Embassy in the Philippines as a partner in this project. Through its generosity, 20 seed grants worth 600,000 pesos – which is roughly around US$1,240 – were awarded to the top ten winning organizations. These amounts may seem small to us, but the mood during the awards night rivaled the Oscars. There were a lot of tears and laughter. 

Let me close my address before you today with a very personal story about a young, 11-year-old boy I met in Sumisip, Basilan when I went there for our Angat Buhayprogram. 

He is just in Second Grade at 11, in a local elementary school, and he looked very small for a boy his age. Basilan is known to be the lair of the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group once known for its ties to al Qaeda, and now, with allegiance to the Islamic State. 

This boy was only two months old fled those who killed everyone else in their family due to ridoRido is a local custom where clans kill each other, to the last member, due to a wide nature of grievances. Thinking there was nothing and no one to protect them, they both joined the Abu Sayyaf – with this boy still wrapped in torn blankets. 

A couple of years ago, the mayor and vice mayor of Sumisip started a successful reintegration campaign, through close coordination with the military and the police forces. Local leaders sent out feelers and used the local media to tell members of the Abu Sayyaf that if they wish to return to their families and surrender their ammunitions, the local government will provide them with housing, education, and protection. This boy’s brother had died in one confrontation, and he was the only one who survived. And he surrendered. 

After I met him, we decided to fly him with us to Manila, and I personally showed him around, and brought him to an indoor amusement center called Kidzania, where he can play at being a firefighter, an airline pilot, and even a policeman, among others. There, he tasted his first McDonald’s fries and burgers, and in a shopping mall, made a beeline for Iron Man. 

Personally, it was an amazing experience to see that by the end of a couple of hours, we saw his uncertainty turn into joy, his withdrawn countenance turn into childlike wonder. He discovered a world bigger than conflict and pain, and saw opportunities that he never thought before were possible for someone like him. Most of all, he saw that the world is not a polarized one, and that he can claim a future that used to be out of reach.

So we thank the Local Government of Sumisip for being inspired enough to start this reintegration program. Truly, it takes a whole-of-government approach to address everything – from insurgency to terrorism, from poverty to wars.

With continued strong relations between our two nations, I am confident that democracy will always flourish, especially in the hearts and minds of men and women who remain true to its cause. And what better way is there to honor our friendship and help the likes of this boy, and many others like him, than by protecting this great legacy. 

Once again, thank you very much for having me today. And as we say in Filipino: Mabuhay po kayong lahat! Rappler.com