The first time I saw Benigno Aquino III, he was standing on the front steps of Palma Hall at UP Diliman, struggling to be heard with what looked like a beat-up megaphone.
It was late 1983, and the 23-year-old Noynoy had just lost his father in a gruesome assassination. He was a featured speaker at one of the many rallies that followed Ninoy Aquino’s murder. But the megaphone was making it hard for him get his message across.
Finally, one of the organizers, a militant UP student activist, handed him a bigger megaphone. Noynoy smiled, thanked the activist and began to address the crowd.
Fast forward 31 years.
Noynoy is president. Feeble megaphones are no longer a problem. In fact, he’s surrounded by people who make sure he is heard. Even if it means shutting up and jailing a young activist who disagrees with him.
Pio Mijares, a college student in Naga City, disrupted Aquino’s Independence Day speech by yelling slogans like, “Out with the pork barrel king! There is no change in the Philippines!”
Heckling is one of those odd, quirky features of a democracy. Hecklers can be annoying, rude, impertinent. But in a democratic system, they play a role.
A good political leader would not be fazed by them. A smart one would even engage them.
Aquino could learn from US President Barack Obama who has had his fair share of hecklers for a long list of controversial policies — deporting immigrants, drone strikes that kill innocent civilians, government spying — for which he probably deserves to be criticized, even heckled.
Occasionally, he gets disrupted by people who don’t even necessarily disagree with him or who bring up issues in which his administration is not even directly involved with.
That’s what happened last month in San Jose. Obama was wrapping up his speech, gearing up for his dramatic ending, when he was interrupted by an Ethiopian expatriate pushing for freedom in his homeland.
“Hold on,” Obama said, according to media reports. “I agree with you, although why don’t I talk about it later because I’m just about to finish?”
Now compare that to the way the Ateneo De Naga student was treated.
Mijares was arrested, thrown in jail and charged with “tumults and other disturbances of public order” and creating “alarm and public scandal,” as the INQUIRER reported. The young man found himself in legal trouble for apparently messing up a police officer’s uniform.
Malacanang denied that it initiated the filing of charges. But Team Noynoy should have stepped in to prevent the filing of what seems like silly charges that did nothing more than paint a picture of a president who simply could not take being criticized in public.
And there’s the context of the Naga encounter.
His team has been pushing hard to paint an image of a clean, incorruptible presidency. To some degree, they have succeeded.
But with the Napoles/pork barrel scandal spinning out of control, engulfing, not just the likes of infamous trio of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada, but also some of Aquino’s allies, that image has eroded.
The last thing Aquino would want to do now is to come across as a beleaguered, vindictive leader, hitting back at critics as he reels from allegations that his allies are just as dirty as the corrupt trapos who are the targets of his anti-corruption crusade.
Instead, Aquino should understand what Mijares, the activist-heckler, represents.
For this young man is probably one of many young Filipinos who have grown weary of the pork barrel saga, who have become disgusted with the tit-for-tat between trapos who increasingly look and sound alike, and who understandably are becoming increasingly worried about the kind of future they’ll have in a society dominated by such leaders.
At the height of his latest heckling encounter, Obama drew laughter and cheers by telling his heckler, “I love you back … You kind of screwed up my ending, but that’s OK … We’ve got free speech in this country, which is great, too.”
Aquino could have taken a similar approach. He could have perhaps returned the favor of the young UP activist who helped him out by offering a bigger megaphone.
He could have let the activist-heckler speak, and let him and other young Filipinos know he is not afraid to hear what they have to say.
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