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Independence Day 2023 Series: Bill of Rights

When the celebration of the country’s independence was moved to June 12 to jive with the 1898 Declaration of Independence in Malolos, the 1987 Philippine Constitution should have been framed contextually to the original aspirations of our revolutionaries during the Spanish occupation, but it was not. Instead, it was a remake of the 1935 Philippine Constitution that was patterned before the U.S.

What was it about the Malolos declaration that is significant in terms of nation building? Foremost is the fact that it was declared before Spain ceded the Philippines to the Americans after the signing of the Treaty of Paris and ratified by the United States Senate on February 6, 1899. This date officially marked the American occupation of the Philippines.

This event provides important historical contexts as to the evolution of constitutionalism in the Philippines. The Malolos Constitution only lasted for two years (1899-1901) and was suspended and replaced by the laws of the United States beginning with the Philippine Organic Act of 1902, followed by the Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916. Both Acts served as the “Philippine Constitution” until the passing of the Philippine Independence Act of 1934.

The Act paved the way and set the parameters for the creation of the 1935 Commonwealth Constitution through a Constitutional Convention composed of Filipino delegates. A committee of Seven who belonged to the society’s rich and elites, drafted the Constitution that met the approval of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and eventually ratified by the Filipino people through a plebiscite.

From this historical transformation, it is clear that there was no historical transcendence from the Malolos Constitution. The U.S Constitution which the Philippine version was copied from, has two transcendent events to boot that shaped American thinking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – The American Revolution and the Civil War. By patterning Philippine Constitutions (1935 Commonwealth and 1978 Freedom Constitution), Filipinos borrowed their inspirations from the Americans.

In the process, it deprived themselves of the transcendent value of Filipino revolutionaries’ aspirations for nationhood as borne by the Filipino-Spanish and Philippine-American Wars. The Spaniards gave Filipinos a whip of what democracy ought to be but did not teach them freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for obvious reasons. The Malolos Constitution attempted to develop an organic “Bill of Rights” but was overshadowed by American dictates.

To cement such a strategy, the Americans sent educators to the Philippines to complete the Filipino transformation into their image. Filipinos were taught about American history but not their own. It is therefore not surprising that president after president’s unity calls fall on deaf ears. Filipinos know about Philippine history but could not fully grasp what it was the Filipino heroes of past revolutions were truly fighting for.

The pervasive colonial mentality that afflicts Filipinos makes them think like Americans about democracy and capitalism. Such an attitude or mentality is clearly manifested with their lack of support when confronted by significant events like the Huk/Communist movements fighting for Filipinos’ self-determination, EDSA Revolution, the Oakwood Mutiny and the continuing bloody revolution by the New People’s Army. Consequently, such a mindset continuously deprives Filipinos of self-determination and continues to look up to the American government for deliverance in a range of issues.

The Bill of Rights in Article 3 of the 1987 Constitution echoes the equality of all that is divinely given. In practical terms, this article establishes the relationship of Filipinos to the State, and limits the lawful powers of the State by defining the rights of individual citizens. Yet in practice, many of these rights, unalienable included, are constantly transgressed.

Section 1, for example, states that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.” These are powerful words with their own splendor but have lost their majesty from government’s own action or inaction. These are constitutional mandates that no government or man can take them away. Yet, inequality abound throughout the land that hinder the dispensation of justice, fair distribution of wealth, and pursuit of happiness.

Is there fair dispensation of justice in the Philippines? The resounding answer is “no.” The poor who could not afford expensive lawyers are normally the ones who get to jail. The government has not come up with the right net to catch big fishes in government or those in narco-politics. Due process, for some reason, is hard for law-enforcement people to live up to and would rather resort to short cuts.

Based on World Bank’s 2017 figures, the country’s wealth distribution tilts in favor of the rich where one percent of earners capture 17 percent of national income. The bottom 50% shares about 14% of the nation’s income. Unequal opportunities, lack of access to college, lack of skills, lack of access to basic services (healthcare, safe drinking water, basic education) are persistent reasons for unequal distribution of wealth.

Philippine poverty statistics has shown a downward trend over the past decades, but these are improvements that are hardly felt by those living below the poverty line. Corruption and mismanagement of the nation’s wealth keeps poverty alive. Most people from both sides of the spectrum have developed high tolerance to poverty and are resigned to the fact that poverty is here to stay.

During the pandemic, nearly 60% of the Philippine government budget accounted for government programs. These government dole outs have become the poor’s saving grace that any news of an increase on the seniors’ measly pension is an opportunity to thank Jesus.

Government’s massive anti-poverty, hunger alleviation programs do work in a sense that the poor get a respite, albeit temporarily. When a legislator promises to increase the monthly pension or rewards if they live a century long, they will get a hefty bonus of P100,000, which is praised to high heavens. Poverty is indeed about exploitation because it accommodates poverty without disrupting it. The roots stay in place, and like a plant, it will continue to grow.

It begs the question, “who benefits from poverty?” Politicians, of course, by promising the moon, a balm for their miseries. Although, the usual suspects will be the rich because they recognize that there is plenty of money, a fortune actually, to be made from the people at the base of the economic triangle. The air-conditioned malls were not built for the rich but for the poor and the middle class (if there is such a thing in the Philippines) who frequently shops there.

Religion is another suspect because poverty keeps people on their knees begging for manna from heaven. It is a religious group’s interest to keep churches full. Yes, they do their occasional sermons on the immorality of poverty but beyond that is like the deep frontier beyond man’s ability to explore. I have yet to hear them connect poverty to high population, poverty to higher mortality risk, poverty to higher malnutrition, and the strong positive correlation between poverty and moral development of people. (To be continued)


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