Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may have intimidated many around the globe with his firey rhetoric and bloody drug war but one youth congressperson hasn’t been bowed in making necessary criticisms of those in power.

“What will happen if he kills those four million people he claims are addicted to drugs or are drug pushers? Nothing. Because he did not solve the root of the problem: poverty, joblessness, landlessness. As long as these remain, he can’t win this war,” Kabataan Party List representative Sarah Elago said.

“His statements are chilling. The President really does not care for the poor. He targets them on his war on drugs, yet he does not do anything to uplift their lives to keep them away from such vices.”

Kabataan (Youth in Tagalog) Partylist Congresswoman Sarah Elago is a 26 year old former student activist elected to the Philippine House of Representatives last year.

Her statement was a forceful challenge to a President that had presided over a “war on drugs” policy that is said to have killed thousands through direct and indirect means since his election last year.
But more than simply making forceful statements like the one above, organisations affiliated to Kabataan Partylist are involved in organising communities to fight for their rights, including in those areas directly affected by the “war on drugs”.

Kabataan Partylist are a unique political party specifically representing progressive young  people and students.  The partylist describes the unique role of the youth as representing the “pag-asa ng bayan“, or hope of the nation, to signify their central role in the progressive movement’s struggle throughout history until today. Since colonial times through to the resistance against the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s, youth have been at the forefront of the movement for fundamental social change.

During my recent visit to the Philippines, I met with Elago at the Congress during an attempt to introduce death penalty bill supported by Duterte – a bill Elago and the progressive movement continues to oppose.

Elago described her political awakening as a process of learning and involvement in the progressive mass movement. In particular, the experience of integrating with peasant farmers.

“It’s not an automatic thing. You need the conditions for you to really open up yourself to serving fully the masses. So for me it was my experience of an exposure to Hacienda Luisita where I learned that the peasants there earned a little less than 10 pesos in a week. And they were trying to make a living with such a megre amount. So that was such an eye-opener … that there is these hard-working people, these peasants, that are working too hard but get too little from the work they do because they don’t own the land they till.”

“Meanwhile, the big landlords, they don’t work under such scorching heat of the sun, while they are in their air conditioned houses, living such comfortable lives on the backs of those who serve them: the peasants who till their land.”

It is experiences like this that open many Philippine student activists up to the wider struggles of the society around them and the importance that their advocacies go far beyond the university gates.

Elago had started out like many as a part time activist but that all changed in 2013.

“There’s no such thing as a part-time activist. You’re pushed by the circumstances, by the crisis to decide to go full-time,” Elago said

The following year she became the President of the National Union of Students. A role she fulfilled for two years before being elected to the Congress.

Elago and Kabataan Partylist see their struggle in congress as only one part of a broader struggle in society. While initiating campaigns around issues of importance to youth and students like free education, against compulsory military service and for anti-discrimination laws, they also help bring more youth support to other sectors, particularly peasant farmers’ and workers’ campaigns. In summary, they are a youth organisation that realises the struggles of the youth are not divorced from the struggles of the whole society.

In congress, this means aligning with the Makabayan coalition, which includes six other progressive partylist members representing workers and peasants (Anakpawis, 1 member), teachers (ACT Teachers’, 2 members), women (Gabriela, two members) and national sovereignty (Bayan Muna, 1 member).

While participation in the congress allows for the progressive movement to reach a wider audience, its primary struggles remains through collective action in communities throughout the country. It is only through this that the congress can be used as a venue to expose the true nature of the system and help force change.

“The system serves the ruling elites. At the Philippine elections it’s controlled by what we call the three Gs, gold, goons and guns. We don’t want that to continue. While elections are supposed to be an exercise in our democratic right to choose,  we need to expose the fact that that is corrupted already,” Elago said.

Even a listing of the founding organisational members of Kabataan Partylist show the centrality of the struggle beyond the congressional chambers. Organisations like Anakbayan, League of Filipino Students, Christian Student Movement, National Union of Students and the College Editor’s Guild of the Philippines have helped Kabtaaan Partylist build a base of support and involvement. This has ensured that not only have they been able to maintain their seat in the congress since 2007 but brought their message of hope, structural change and the importance of political involvement to a wider range of people.

“The key importance for us is the strengthening of the student and youth movement. So we open spaces in which we can inform and educate the young people about current issues.

We call for youth to be involved in politics because they know how corrupt the system is. We don’t want them to just rely on us to make changes on different issues. But we want them to act themselves and take action, take initiatives to change the system.”