Heckling Mrs. Arroyo

Sta. Ana is the coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, April 24, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

It was a daring and stunning feat—students heckling Mrs. Gloria Arroyo while she was delivering a speech in a graduation ceremony.  It was an open act of defiance to embarrass Mrs. Arroyo and embolden others to do similar adventurous acts.

Heckling is par for the course.  In the US, presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had been jeered, but they took all these in stride. Ten years ago, student protestors taunted Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he spoke at the oldest and arguably the most prestigious university in the US, the Harvard University. In her recent trip to the UK, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a woman much more powerful than Mrs. Arroyo, unexpectedly faced a stern crowd who told her that she was unwelcome in their territory.

Heckling is an accepted form of non-violent protest.  It is tame in comparison to other acts such as hurling an egg or tomato.

In the world of opera, booing or heckling a lead singer for a poor performance is an acceptable behavior.  Even a superstar like Luciano Pavarotti, who had his share of bad nights, suffered such fate.

In Mrs. Arroyo’s case, the majority of us find her performance unsatisfactory.  In the first place, she should not even be on the stage.

For some, heckling the invited speaker at a solemn commencement exercise is bastos.  But this kind of heckling pales beside the fact that “Binastos din naman ni GMA ang boto ng mga Pilipino,” as said in one newspaper account.  The former simply challenges etiquette; the latter violates ethics.

That the heckling happened in the fairly obscure Cavite State University does not diminish its national impact.  Who would have expected that Cavite—a province that its officials claim is “strike-free”—harbors a core of student activists who have the guts to confront and unsettle Mrs. Arroyo?

Gaining prominence is the graduate who led the heckling, Maria Theresa Pangilinan.  Probably, the oust-Arroyo movement will make this student council president in an unknown school a national mass leader.

But I wish a business titan like Maria Theresa’s namesake, Manny Pangilinan, would listen to this piece of advice.  If I were Manny Pangilinan, I would try to change the course of Maria Theresa’s future.  I would immediately recruit her and give her responsibility in one of my big companies.  Whether I agree to her act of heckling is no longer the issue.  What stands out is her extraordinary character—her readiness to lead a dangerous mission, take risks, and be accountable for whatever happens.

The heckling incident during the commencement exercise at the Cavite State University was not novel.  I recall our batch’s graduation at the University of the Philippines (UP) in 1977.  The commencement speaker was Imelda Marcos.  The activists saw an opportunity to embarrass the dictatorship by staging a mass action that intended to disrupt Imelda Marcos’s speech.  Mrs. Marcos had barely begun her talk when scores of graduates, including myself and other classmates from the School of Economics chanted   “Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta!”   Other student activists unfurled anti-dictatorship banners and distributed manifestos.

However, the operational plan was deficient; it assumed that the mass of graduates would clap upon the introduction of Imelda.  The idea was to transform the clapping into a rhythmic pattern that was in unison with the chant “Marcos, Hitler, Diktador Tuta.”  But the overwhelming number of graduates did not clap; that was their form of protest.

The military’s reaction to the chanting of slogans and unfurling of streamers was swift.  Several activists were arrested, including a summa cum laude graduate, Alfredo Robles.

A year before that, the activists were successful in another kind of creative and bold mass action.  At the time, Imee Marcos was an undergraduate UP student.  Her burly and armed bodyguards followed her every footstep on campus.

And so the plan was to stoke the anti-Marcos sentiments of the students by targeting Imee, not physically but through propaganda.  Activists fanned out to the different colleges and distributed a mimeographed manifesto titled “Patalsikin ang Anak ng Diktador sa Kampus.”  The crudely printed manifesto, which included Imee’s caricature that accentuated her sharp jaw and big, pointed boobs, was subversive.  Imee herself received a copy of the manifesto.  A few weeks after, Imee was no longer attending classes.  Whether her leave was connected to the manifesto remains a matter of conjecture.

Now it can be told:  the writer of that manifesto is our colleague, Carlito Anoñuevo, an associate professor of economics at UP Los Baños.

In short, the tactics being employed by the anti-Arroyo movement are a replay of the tactics developed during the period of the Marcos dictatorship.  They are daring, lightning, and innovative, catching the enemy flat-footed.

Henceforth, Mrs. Arroyo would have to take such expressions of dissent in stride, as befits all democratic leaders (remember that it is her legitimacy as leader that is under question). Or she can continue, as she has been trying her best to do, to quell any and all forms of legitimate protest. In any case, her place in the country’s history has long been tainted, and she has no one to blame—not even Jose Pidal—but herself.

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