Davao’s Democratic Space

It has been said that the most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. That is a famous quote from Lord Acton in “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” (1877).

Mahatma Gandhi also said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

On that note, I am so proud to be living in a city that knows the difference between ordinary criminals and true revolutionaries.

And that is why we have a “Luksang Parangal” for fallen rebel leader Leoncio “Ka Parago” Pitao today at the Davao City Recreation Center (more popularly known as Almendras Gym) to be participated in by various sectors in the city.

Of course, the military would downplay the whole thing by saying the public tribute is an initiative by Pitao’s family and not endorsed by the City Mayor’s Office. But the fact that such a tribute is happening at all in a government-owned center with the public welcome to participate is a huge deal, in my opinion.

And that is a healthy thing to happen in a democracy and a good thing for humanity.

One of the things I greatly admire in Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte is his promotion of inclusiveness. He does not only consider dissent a healthy sign of democracy, he even actively encourages it. Under his leadership, the entire city is actually an “all-rally zone.”  During city events and festivals, he invites the harshest critics of the government as his special guests.

It is no secret to Davaoeños that Mayor Rody leans a little bit to the left because of his pro-poor political beliefs. So it is not a surprise that he considers Kumander Parago a friend. But, of course, not all of his friends get to have a public tribute in Almendras Gym. So this is not about personal friendship or even his left-leaning political beliefs. This about allowing people, regardless of their ideological beliefs, access to public spaces. This is about making people feel they are part of the community, part of the city.

The military may strongly disagree with this view and that is expected. The New People’s Army (NPA), where Parago served as a commander, is still defined as an enemy of the state. So, as far as the military is concerned, they are waging war as part of a standing national policy of counterinsurgency.  Although there is an attempt to shift its focus on building peace, instead of waging war, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is clearly still at war with the NPA.

In a paper published by the Human Development Network (HDN) of a research funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) entitled “A Different View of Insurgencies,” Ben J. Tria Kerkvliet wrote: “What frequently drives people to resort to armed rebellion is the state’s own violence against them. The repressive machinery of the state commonly defends agricultural businesses, political monopolies, and large landowners against ordinary people’s efforts to rectify injustices and demand reforms.”

“In the face of violent repression people reach a point at which they say, there is no hope for change through peaceful organized participation in the political system and they turn to organizations ready to work illegally for similar goals, but explicitly through the use of violence — armed revolution,” the paper noted.

The report argued that the so-called communist insurgency is actually more about injustice, deprivation, exploitation, and repression than it is about communism. Because, in reality, how many NPA members and supporters actually understand and are committed to the communist ideology? It recommends the use of a more accurate label of “insurgency for justice” because talking about it as “communist insurgency” is “letting the unrest be relegated to the margins of society, sold by politicians as terrorism rather than seeing conflicts as a pressing question of human development and human security that touches all Filipinos.”

More accurate labeling of the insurgency would emphasize human development for its own sake and to counter rebellion. Calling it “communist” encourages military responses from the government instead of non-violent measures that will reduce deprivation and injustice.

So Mayor Rody may be on to something when he allowed the use of a government center for a public tribute to a fallen NPA commander. He is declaring that Davao City is committed to building peace and delivering justice. And that our city’s democratic space is wide open to include even those who are fighting the government.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, July 9, 2015