Missing the moment
It took some effort to sustain enthusiasm for the “prayer rally” originally called by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) last Sunday to protest the brazenly illegal and undemocratic maneuvers of the Arroyo-de Venecia-led House Majority to convene a constituent assembly (con-ass) in order to revise the Philippine Constitution for their dubious political ends. Something had gone terribly awry after the beacon call was first issued and before the actual rally took place. The proof lay in the disappointing turn-out after organizers themselves had projected half a million Metro Manilans would take part in the protest.
What had gone wrong? It is not difficult to come up with the most plausible reasons.
One, days before the rally, the de facto president, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, finally backed off from the con-ass scheme she and Speaker de Venecia had plotted to carry out using the dominance of her allies in the Lower House. Malacanang clearly meant to douse cold water on the widespread anger. Thus the sense of urgency to stop the convening of the constituent assembly was undercut. This was unremarkably followed by Mr. de Venecia’s own abject about face after attempting to shift the blame on the immoveable senators with a challenge for the Senate to call for a Constitutional convention within 72 hours.
Two, the psychological warfare launched by the military and police, exemplified by the Armed Forces Chief General Esperon’s dire warnings of “terrorist” mayhem -- completely baseless, malicious and part and parcel of the authorities’ standard bag of tricks to dissuade people from joining mass protests -- served to scare off a number of parishioners, students and the more conservative faithful from joining the rally, despite their pastors’ exhortations.
The first two reasons would be enough to dampen the enthusiasm of most of the unorganized or the spontaneous throng from going out of their way, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, to the Rizal Park to join the rally. But a third reason was ironically provided by the organizers themselves, the bishops and most especially, the high-profile lay leaders, who acted as the bishops mouthpieces with regard to the event.
The apparent softening of the stand of Their Eminences, with the declaration that the theme of protest would be supplanted with “thanksgiving”, turned off many people, particularly those who were itching to deliver a categorical message of rejection of all the hare-brained schemes by Malacanang to push Charter change (Cha-cha), the con-ass only being the latest of these, but including as well any further rehashing of the so-called “people’s initiative” and the hasty election of a Constitutional Convention.
For what was there to be thankful for except that the fear of another people power uprising had stopped the much ballyhooed Arroyo-de Venecia Charter change Express in its tracks. There was still much that was wrong with the current political leadership that had to be exposed, denounced and fought against by an awakened and aroused people.
The political forces that have been consistently active in the Oust Arroyo Movement, from Left to Right, and much of the middle class who watched the live coverage of the House deliberations on con-ass and were pissed off by the pro-administration congressmen’s shenanigans, were also very much turned off by the organizers’ penchant for putting up obstacles to the unencumbered participation of people from all walks of life, religious beliefs or politics in the CBCP-initiated rally.
The prohibition against protest paraphernalia such as placards, banners and streamers, against organizations’ identifying insignias, against supposed “politicians” and “show business” personalities mounting the stage, etc. was uncalled for and counter-productive. The tendency to counterpoise “prayer” and “protest” served the ends of Malacanang to diffuse, diminish and blunt the political impact of the broadly-supported action against con-ass, Cha-cha and, verily, against the Arroyo regime itself.
At the mammoth rally called by Cardinal Sin in 1996 against then President Fidel V. Ramos’ Cha-cha, activist and other organizations were merely asked that banners and streamers be lowered when the prayers started. There were no loud announcements about who was welcome and who was not although it was par for the course that those politically attuned to Cardinal Sin and former President Corazon Aquino would be given prominence.
With regard to government red-baiting, including supposed plots by the New People’s Army to disrupt the protest, Cardinal Sin merely pooh-poohed these and said that he and “Joma” (Professor Jose Ma. Sison, the founding chairperson of the reestablished Communist Party of the Philippines) had already written to one another and he had the latter’s assurance that the communists were not planning anything that would spoil the objectives of the gathering.
Not a few non-Catholics or the more ecumenical and broad-minded among them were embarrassed by the ill-disguised preeminence given to the Catholic religion, for example, by having the stage prominently reserved for the bishops, priests and their lay assistants. Many wondered about the declared “inter-faith” nature of the event.
Unfortunately, last Sunday’s prayer rally failed to write finis to Malacanang-led schemes to overhaul the 1987 Constitution for its diabolical ends. Sadly, it appears to have even emboldened Mrs. Arroyo and her equally power-hungry cohorts to try again, once the furor dies down and the institutional and socio-political forces ranged against Cha-cha appear to be faltering.
Mrs. Arroyo did not waste time in serving notice that she is still bent on pushing Cha-cha, although she is coy about when and how, in light of overwhelming rejection of the Congressional con men’s attempt to foist the constituent assembly on the nation. This is certainly reminiscent of her infamous "I will not run" declaration before the 2004 presidential elections. (Hmm, didn't the good bishops say something about the quest for truth?) Meantime Mrs. Arroyo’s allies have given the CBCP a veritable “up yours” to show what they think of the bishops’ limp-wristed attempt to rally the faithful against con-ass and other unresolved issues.
At the end of the day, the Arroyo regime is still around, badly battered but seemingly able to undertake some more clever moves to avoid a knock-out punch from its opponents.
Lessons for all regarding leadership in the anti-Cha-cha struggle and indeed, in the movement for genuine and meaningful reforms, short of a sweeping social and political revolution, are there to be learned.
The good bishops, witting or unwitting heirs to the savvy religio-political leadership earlier displayed by the wily Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, were neither calling for a revolution or even just a revolt.
They didn’t have to, but clearly, they had squandered a moment of kairos*.
* The term "kairos" is used in theology to describe the “appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts. In rhetoric kairos is "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved." (E. C. White, Kaironomia)
**Published in Business World, 22-23 December 2006