Endo, militarization, TRAIN law: The social ills José Rizal fought against still exist

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Through his legacy, José Rizal reminds us how tyranny can never fully suppress legitimate democratic aspirations. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Michael D. Pante is an assistant professor at the Department of History at Ateneo de Manila University. He teaches Rizal and the Emergence of the Philippine Nation, Philippine History, and Philosophy of History, among others. The opinions in this piece are the author’s.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — José Rizal’s “Noli Me Tángere” and “El Filibusterismo” depicted the most important social ills that gripped Philippine society under Spanish colonial rule. These novels were scathing critiques of friar domination and corrupt governance. At the same time, Rizal showed in these works how some Filipinos were complicit in the colonial enterprise: from middle-class professionals who remained silent in the face of wrongdoings to ostensibly religious churchgoers who perpetuated repressive social structures.

The Noli and Fili were not eye-openers in the sense that Filipinos during Rizal’s time did not have to read about colonial abuses in a novel that was barely in circulation (colonial authorities banned the book, and only a small number were smuggled into the country) and written in a language that limited its accessibility to the educated elite — such abuses were everywhere.

However, what made the novels powerful was the very act of writing; Rizal displayed courage by publicizing his criticisms of colonialism at a time of intense repression against dissent. He used his real name in his novels’ bylines and was not afraid to return to the country to act on his political beliefs despite the certainty of reprisals from state and church reactionaries. When he could have just stayed in Europe to further his medical career or in Hong Kong to be with his family who was forced into exile, he chose to practice what he preached. As he mentioned in one of his private correspondences, the medicine must be brought to the sick man.

Contrary to popular misconception, for him, the arena of struggle was in organizing Filipinos in the Philippines and not asking for piecemeal reforms from Spaniards in Spain. It is not an exaggeration to say that his ideas fueled the revolution that gave us independence from Spain less than two years after his execution.

How Rizal’s works are still relevant today

Rizal therefore remains relevant to 21st century Filipinos. Unfortunately, this also means that many of the social ills he fought against continue to afflict Philippine society, more than a century after his martyrdom. The unequal treatment of colonized nations is still the predominant feature of neocolonialism, which is nothing but a rearrangement of old colonial ties. Foreign powers, like the U.S., treat our archipelago as though it is its own backyard that needs to be fortified from enemies, which explains the presence of American troops through the Visiting Forces Agreement, Balikatan Exercises, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

At the same time, imperialist aggression by upstart colonizers like China has also compromised the integrity of our national sovereignty, as it gobbles up islands and atolls in the West Philippine Sea. Uncannily, Rizal’s warnings about dealing with established and new colonial powers in his essay “The Philippines a Century Hence” are applicable to this very day.

The challenge for today’s educated Filipino middle class who regard Rizal as a model is to shun this growing tendency to view the masses as lazy freeloaders but as partners in forming a progressive Philippines.


Meanwhile, the state attacks against dissent and democratic rights that Rizal saw in his lifetime as he dealt with censorship, the guardia civil, and a sham justice system, seem to have been replicated in the current Duterte administration: the judiciary’s independence now in question due to the former CJ Maria Lourdes Sereno’s ousting through quo warranto, the forces of our Philippine National Police roam the streets as modern-day guardia civil that prey on the helpless in the guise of maintaining peace and order, and Spanish-era censorship has morphed into the disinformation of fake news and attacks on press freedom.

Nonetheless, Rizal’s heroism is a testament that tyranny can never fully suppress legitimate democratic aspirations. Although many remember Rizal for emphasizing the importance of education and the intellectual growth of a society, what is often left unmentioned is how he viewed knowledge not in terms of an individualistic pursuit of greatness, enlightenment, or socioeconomic mobility, but in terms of its value to a collective.

Rizal, an organizer of people

Rizal should not be viewed merely as the sole authorial figure in the novels that sparked revolutionary ideas, but as an unwavering organizer of people. This side of Rizal is most apparent in how he worked with fellow ilustrados in Europe to further the Propaganda movement and Philippine scholarship, how he founded La Liga Filipina, an organization that included the likes of Andres Bonifacio and Apolinario Mabini, in a short span of time, and how he helped the residents of Dapitan improve basic services in their far-flung community without the help of the colonial state.

He gave his most lavish praises to the young women of Malolos who decided that they would take the initiative in establishing a night school for themselves so they could learn the Spanish language despite stiff friar opposition. He even rallied the people in his hometown in Calamba against the Dominicans’ abuse of their position as hacienda owners.

At a time when expressions of democratic aspirations, especially among the middle class, are more or less confined to social media posts and individual acts, Rizal’s life should remind today’s Filipinos that actual organizing efforts, especially at the grassroots level, are needed to achieve the changes we want to see in the country. Rizal was aware that a single person cannot by himself carry the heavy load of improving a society beset by corrupt social structures; he had to work with the likes of Marcelo del Pilar, Graciano Lopez Jaena, Antonio Luna, and Ferdinand Blumentritt.

More important, he made it a point to collaborate with ordinary folk, the townspeople of Calamba and Dapitan for example, because he recognized that overturning such corrupt social structures would not happen at the level of those occupying the topmost social strata but from the people themselves desiring these changes.

Viewing Rizal as a model for a more progressive Philippines

Thus, the challenge for today’s educated Filipino middle class who regard Rizal as a model is to shun this growing tendency to view the masses as lazy freeloaders but as partners in forming a progressive Philippines.

As the economic squeeze created by policies of the present and past administrations tightens, those of us who are most economically vulnerable will all the more resort to radical measures: louder and bigger rallies against ‘endo’ and the TRAIN law, further labor strikes and disputes such as in NutriAsia, more incidents of vacant and dilapidated NHA housing being occupied by Kadamay members, Lumad fleeing ancestral lands to escape militarization, and peasants joining the New People’s Army in the face of the state’s hollow agrarian reform program.

What the haves view as parasitical, unethical, and unfair are desperate measures for the have nots. As Rizal himself acknowledged in his classic essay “On the Indolence of the Filipinos,” the Filipinos’ laziness is but a byproduct of the repressive social structures that deny them the fruits of their labor.