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Opinion | National

MEL STA.MARIA | The presidential conspiracy theory on Sabah, his critics and democracy

Pres. Benigno Aquino III speaks on the Sabah crisis during a Marchy 4 press conference in Malacanang. Behind him are (left to right) Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan, ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman, Tawi-Tawi Gov. Sadikul Sahali, Basilan Gov. Jum Akbar and Lanao del Sur Gov. Mamintal Adiong, Jr. (Photo by Benmhur Arcayan,Malaca�±ang Photo Bureau)
The online news portal of TV5

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”  - Winston Churchill

On March 4, 2013, President Benigno Aquino III again made a prepared press statement on Sabah. He alluded to a conspiracy, insinuating that this whole Sabah tragedy was a well thought of plan by known and unknown individuals. This is serious. Surely, if there are indeed criminal troublemakers who have instigated this event, they should be meted “the full force of the law.”

But then the disturbing part of his speech manifested itself. President Aquino referred to another set of individuals: his critics. In the context of this conspiracy theory, he said:

“Kapansin-pansin din ang nag-iisang linya ng mga kritiko para gatungan ang malubha na ngang sitwasyon. Pinalubha nila ang  isyung ito, at ginagawa nila ito habang inilalagay sa peligro ang daan-daang libong Pilipino.”(“Also noticeable is the unanimous line of the critics to further fuel an already grave situation. They made this issue grave, and they did this while placing in danger hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.”)

These “critics” can only be those who opined, stated and wrote that the government has not managed the Sabah situation very well. They are those who dare say that the government must do something more. President Aquino referred to their “unanimous line.” And then he stated their purpose: “para gatungan ang malubha nang sitwasyon.” President Aquino went further and accused the critics of making  “this issue graver.” And, to complete the recrimination, he stated, “they did this while placing in danger hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.”

I do not know who is actually advising President Aquino or drafting his prepared speeches. But  whoever these persons are, they are doing a great disservice to the President and to the country. And if the President truly intends to denounce his critics as part of a grand conspiracy to just cause trouble, then he is wrong. The President must know that without acknowledging the value of criticisms and understanding their importance in decision-making, sound judgment may not be achievable. Critical decisions to be rational must always take into consideration the opposite and, at times, scathing position.

And for the President to observe that it was a “nag-iisang linya” (unanimous line) on the part of the critics, his advisers must be so naïve as to think of only one reason for this: a sinister conspiracy to cause trouble. Surely, if every critic is already communicating his/her animadversions, there must be more substantial reasons for expressing them. It’s about time that government, particularly the advisers of the President, listen to public opinion and listen very carefully. 

To find fault with critics by saying their statements make the issue grave and place “in danger hundreds of thousands of Filipinos” is simply irresponsible talk. It diverts the identification of the real source of the problem. It misdirects and does not address the root cause of the bloody events in Sabah. On the other hand, critics do not make regulations, rules and the laws. They do not implement policies. Their power lies only in their perceptive observations of events, their skill in making an idea clear, and the media platform to relay them. It would be irresponsible and unpatriotic for these critics not to share them, regardless of what others think. Their sense of duty to the nation impels them to openly, and even publicly, criticize. Margaret Chase Smith said “moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk."

More fundamentally, Section 1 Article 2 of the Declaration of Principles and State Policies of our Constitution provides that “the Philippines is a democratic and republican state. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from it.” The people have entrusted enormous powers to the public officials in government.  There will always be a great temptation to misuse, not use and, worse, abuse these powers. When this happens, public servants become despots. And the people become subjects of a ruler. The constitutional principle that “sovereignty resides in the people” becomes an empty statement and the Constitution desecrated. This is where the role of our freedom of expression comes in. It is the duty of all citizens to speak up and to remind the “powers-that-be” where sovereignty resides. The people must do so without fear of reprisals. They must all be critics to prevent the non-use, misuse and abuse of power.

A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute... is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest. (US Associate Justice William Douglas in Terminiello vs. City of Chicago, 377 US 4-5)

Government action or inaction will necessarily generate public opinion. It may be good and it may be candidly annoying. But speaking out ideas and opinions must not be discouraged. It is in fact the responsibility of our elected officials to listen to the people’s criticisms. They were entrusted with a great privilege to serve the people, they must listen. They may or may not heed the diversity of the people’s views and they may choose one from the other, but they must always be given a measure of scrutiny. Public opinion may be unpredictable, presumptuous and erratic but its intrinsic value in a democratic society outweighs its fickleness. 

The first Prime Minister and acclaimed founder of the State of Israel, Mr. David Ben Gurion, said it perfectly: “The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.”  Gurion accepted criticism even at a time when Israel was in its precarious formative stage. He studied them, learned from them and made decisions after taking them into consideration. President Aquino should learn from Gurion. It is wrong to regard critics as necessarily enemies of the State or conspirators who have no purpose other than to foment chaos. During the Martial Law period, anyone who spoke against the government was labeled a subversive. In this administration, are we already seeing the nascent stage of a period where anyone speaking against the government will be labeled as a conspirator? I hope not.

In one episode of our radio/TV show RELASYON, Luchi Cruz Valdes, head of TV5 news and current affairs, and I talked about “criticisms.” I asked her what, for her, was the value of criticism. She succinctly replied: “Criticisms make one humble.” Indeed, their expression may painfully sting and hurt one’s sensibilities. But, at the same time, criticisms can shake people from their know-all-attitude, making them realize their own fallibility as any other finite human being. And when this humility sets in, they listen. And when they listen, they open up their minds to the universe, thoughts and ideas of their critics, whose most likely reason for speaking up is precisely for the good of the people criticized.

My unsolicited advice to the President is this: Mr. President, we sincerely want you to succeed. Our prayers are with you and our people. We are with you in finding a solution to this Sabah problem. Step back for a while, take a deep breath and listen to your critics, for, in the end, they may turn out to be your best allies, in finding a solution to the Sabah problem. Let the essence of democracy guide you in solving the problem.