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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Red-tagging UP

Editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer / November 25, 2020

To see what is and to demand what should be: This is the stance of the students of the University of the Philippines that is provoking all manner of criticism from those frightened of what it could lead to. UP students are trained to examine the society in which they live, to identify and understand the roots of inequity and impoverishment, and to refuse to bow to the superior force that protects the status quo and the few that benefit from it. Thus the flurry of brickbats they generate when they protest; thus the swift red-tagging by both high officials and minor bureaucrats when they raise their voice at governance they deem inefficient and unjust.

“Academic freedom is essential for the life of the mind and for UP’s dual role as knowledge producer and social critic. We play the role of social critic from a position of evidence-based scholarship and moral courage. This role is a distinct service to the nation,” UP Diliman Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo said last week. He issued the statement in response to President Duterte’s threat to defund the premier university for supposedly doing nothing but criticize the government and serve as a recruitment base for communists.

“In keeping with its tradition of academic freedom, UP is a safe haven for civilized and intelligent discourse,” Nemenzo said. “But it has no place for intolerance, bigotry and red-tagging. Red-tagging in particular is dangerous, because it focuses on labels over substance and encourages intimidation and violence.”

The President’s spokesperson Harry Roque caused his boss’ tirade at last week’s Cabinet briefing when he reported that certain students were planning a strike to protest the government’s supposed anemic response to the devastation caused by Typhoon “Ulysses” and others that came earlier. The former human rights lawyer apparently grown soft on the cushions of privilege used the term “loko-loko” — crazies — in referring to the students in his report to Mr. Duterte, as though protesting government behavior or policy were an act of the deranged. The President initially said that the students were “taking [up] the cudgels [for] the poor ahead of your time,” that it wasn’t their problem but the government’s, and that the government was on the job. But he soon worked himself into a rant, saying UP students should drop out of school and spare their parents payment of their tuition—and he would “stop the funding.”

In fact, it was Ateneo de Manila University students who had called for an academic strike beginning Nov. 18, saying they would stop submitting class requirements “until the government heeds the people’s demands for proper calamity aid and pandemic response.” UP itself had called for a weeklong academic break to allow students, faculty, and other personnel to get their bearings after the violence of the typhoons; eventually, more than 3,000 students and faculty called for an end to the semester, saying it was “pointless” to continue in the face of the widespread devastation. But the Commission on Higher Education would have none of it.

Roque later explained that his boss “confused the proponents of the academic strike,” once more illustrating how badly served the President is by his inner circle. That “confusion” pushed him to take a defensive mode and to issue a threat to counter a perceived threat from the students. He said they shouldn’t even think of scaring him: “Huwag talaga kayong manakot kasi I will oblige you.” (The weary observer will recall other instances when the President took that defensive mode to utter stuff that will long be remembered, with a wince. Last August when a medical community exhausted from ministering to Filipinos stricken by COVID-19 pleaded for a break, he said that if health care workers wanted higher pay, they should join the police force: “Magpulis kayo.” At the Wallace Business Forum in December 2016, he bristled at the temerity of the Maute bandits who, he said, had threatened to attack Marawi City if the military operations against them were not stopped. “Go ahead,” he said. “Be my guest. I will wait for you there.” In May 2017, the five-month siege of Marawi began. The rehabilitation of the once-vibrant city and its people continues to plod along.)

The President’s threat to defund UP elicited sharp rejoinders from the public at large. Here’s one from law dean Mel Sta. Maria: “No single person can threaten the ‘defunding’ of UP. To defund is against the law.” Section 28 of Republic Act No. 9500 states that the lump-sum appropriation of UP “representing the responsibility of the national government for the continued growth, operation and maintenance [of UP] shall be included in the annual General Appropriations Act.”

All these while the problematic state of Philippine education was progressively worsened by the pandemic and the recent typhoons. Last heard from on the matter, as though he were on another planet, Roque said public schools “are not that affected very much.”#

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