NEWS FEATURE | Never Too Young: Activism Chooses No Age
Students gather for International Students’ Day 2020, seek to ignite voice of youth
By Danna Gonsalves and Ysabel Vidor
In 1939, the Nazis attacked Czech universities after students held protests against the Hitler regime. Since then, the International Students’ Day (ISD) is marked as a day of commemoration to the numerous students who were brought to concentration camps and were murdered for expressing political dissent during the holocaust. In today’s crucial times, the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) recently hosted the ISD Summit 2020, last November 21, gathering students from different institutions, to ultimately embolden the voices of today’s youth in fervently toppling acts of despotism perpetrated by the state.
In a nutshell, the celebration of the ISD reminds the youth of their crucial and indispensable role in forwarding social change worldwide. As is proven by history, it is the youths who often ignite the sparks that set mass movements aflame. ISD encourages students in particular to utilize their education not only for their self-preservation, but also in working towards resolving relevant, societal issues. Upon the inauguration of the ISD, the goal to protect the rights and interests of students worldwide was settled, and thus to this day, student activism in its theory and its practice, continues to be celebrated.
The Vice President of the Philippines, Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, delivered the commencement speech by reiterating the value of the youth as effective members of society and the importance of nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented education. “There is no such thing as being too young to make a difference,” VP Leni declared. In her speech, she thanked the youth sector for their creativity and determination in crafting creative responses which have helped fill the gaps left by online and distance learning. Thanks to the youth’s energy, idealism, and volunteerism, training programs for teachers, along with other independent facilities and practices, have been established.
Furthermore, VP Leni opened the event by reminding everyone of education’s crucial role in shaping the future of the Philippines. “Education becomes more fundamental in these times, as it grants people the power to self-determination and the capacity to liberate communities from poverty,” Leni said. The COVID-19 crisis and all its aftereffects resurfaced the urgent need to reimagine Philippine society now more than ever. “If we are to emerge as a stronger, more adaptable nation…” Leni stated, “… fresh minds are needed for policy-making. Talent, courage, and grit — the youth have them all. To achieve a free-er, better, more compassionate normal, we must all work together.”
Role of the Youth
Worldwide, students are heeding the call to serve the people. From Hong Kong, Tracy Cheng Hoi Ying, VP External of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union (HKUSU), shared rousing stories of mass movements led by students in their collective pursuit for genuine democracy. Hoi Ying recalled two recent yet momentous uprisings in Hong Kong history. First, the 2014 Umbrella Movement (also known as the 2014 Occupy Movement), wherein students enacted large-scale class boycotts and entrenched government offices to display their demand for transparent elections. Second, the 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, wherein the fear and outrage over China’s possible abusage of the proposed bill catalyzed for millions of Hong Kong citizens to take to the streets. Class boycotts ensued among high school and university students as a manifestation of their solidarity with the cause. In-campus marches and rallies were also conducted to raise greater awareness on the issue. Despite the government’s response of violence and suppression, by means of police abuse and brutality, Hong Kong protests did not waver, and still have not wavered, in their pursuit for genuine democracy.
Currently, however, the youth of Hong Kong struggles over the recently implemented National Security Act of 2020, which legalizes the intensified arrests of any protestor or political dissenter over ambiguous provisions which rival even that of the Philippines’ Anti-Terror Law (ATL).
Isa Carlin of Sulong UBC, Anakbayan Canada, also detailed the issues faced by the youth and other sectors within Canada today. These issues include but are not limited to those surrounding workers’ unions, racial discrimination against migrants, and the struggle for indigenous peoples’ sovereignty. Youths in Canada are battling these sectoral issues, along with their own concerns regarding low wages, precarious work settings, and stigmas surrounding mental health, with the help of national campaigns and cross-country alliances. Carlin further disclosed how Canadian youths are also directing their efforts towards addressing national issues such as environmental racism, police brutality and racism, and of course, the anti-imperialist movement.
Suchada Hnoonpakdee, member of United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) in Thailand, likewise encourages the youth to fully defend democratic processes and human rights. For Hnoonpakdee, one’s right to “freedom of expression” remains to be an unparalleled and indisputable core value. Hnoonpakdee shared how Thai university students continue to face arrests simply because of censorship. Although the arrests may be growing in its numbers, and the police are resorting to violent dispersals in their defense of the monarchy, Thai protesters do not find themselves losing heart. Democracy activists remain fervent in their calls to have the Prime minister resign and the Constitution changed. Protestors, activists, and youth leaders, such as Hnoonpakdee, proudly and boldly claim that Thailand remains to be one of the countries with the most number of accomplished and successful coup d’etats. Bearing their history in mind, the people of Thailand take heart in the power of their collective action.
The Philippines, of course, is no stranger to student activism. In fact, for decades, the Philippines has been at the forefronts of student-led movements worldwide. Vinz Simon, Deputy Secretary of Anakbayan National reminds the students that the Filipino youth remain “keenly interested in social change” and that youths, forming a third of the entire population, have the greatest organizing power as they are able to cut across all social classes and mobilize as one. He then listed a number of remarkable student-led movements throughout the recent years, beginning with the 2017 Pandi Occupation, moving on to the 2018 Education Rights campaigns and 2018 Solidarity with Striking Workers, up until the recent campaigns for healthcare, livelihood, and rights, and ATL Protests in 2020. Most recent of all would be the heated student strikes materializing in universities throughout the nation. Simon ended his presentation with a gentle, yet parting manifestation that, so long as genuine independence for the Philippines and genuine democracy for the people is not yet achieved, the Filipino youths will continue to strike and mobilize.
Activist crackdowns are deemed to be more rampant than ever as seen in the ATL of the Philippines and the Critical Infrastructure Defense Act of Alberta. Carlin highlighted how there is an increase in successful state crackdowns due to organising which led to the systematic trend in implementing anti-terror policies by the state. Carlin emphasized, “It reflects the advancing and consolidation of worker consciousness here.” “Basically, the trend is our government is scared.”
With the success of demonstrations such as the Black Liberation Movement and the Indigeneous Sovereignty Movement, it compels the state to heighten civilian surveillance and increase activist crackdowns. In Hong Kong, the National Security Act was enacted for civilians who intend to topple the regime. Police suppression escalated and life imprisonment is charged on protesters who exercise condemnation against the government.
Meanwhile in the Philippines, the passing of the ATL which seeks to penalize terrorism drew condemnation from activisits all around the nation. Provisions in the law posit that anyone who expresses vilification against the state is automatically purported as a terrorist. Kabataan Party-list representative Sarah Elago pointed out, “In many instances, we have also seen the youth and students especially those belonging in minorities and marginalized groups have been characterized as a threat that is to be contained. We have the right to demand, act, and organize for change, yet we still face prosecution for exercising our rights to do so by sharing our situation and raising our voices.”
While the Duterte administration intensifies its attack on the youth who keep the government in check, Elago believes that the youth shall continuously demand change and accountability from the state. “We must persist in hopeful defiance against abuse, corruption, injustice, and tyranny whether it be in social media or to the streets,” she concluded.