Monday, May 9, a record number of Filipinos came out to vote for the next leaders of the country. The unofficial election returns show that the tandem of Bongbong Marcos for president and Sara Duterte (daughter of incumbent president Duterte) for vice-president is leading by an overwhelmingly wide margin over the popular contender, Leni Robredo, and is paving the way for the Marcos family to be in power once again. If so, what could this mean?

A Wake-up Call to Prepare for the Long Haul

An Opinion Piece by Marites Guingona-Africa

I had pinned my hopes on a Leni Robredo presidency. Now that what I dreaded would happen has happened, and I see on television the son of the former dictator thanking the Filipino people for their votes, I shudder. What hope is left to our country and people?

The sight of him speaking with poise and confidence added insult to injury. How could we have let this happen again?

How could we have allowed ourselves to forget the horrors that we suffered for 14 years under martial law? Where is the pride that held our head high when we succeeded in ousting the dictator before the eyes of the whole world?

I was there when it happened. I kept vigil with the multitude of other Filipinos along the Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue (popularly called EDSA) in February 1986. It was there where we ate, slept, and prayed for days in silent protest, fortified in spirit as we stood resolute against the atrocities of martial rule that we endured for too long.

The People Power Revolution was our shining moment. We succeeded in driving away the dictator and his family from Malacañang Palace, and from our country! That moment was a beacon of light that shone brightly against what has been regarded by many as one of the “darkest chapters in Philippine history,” the martial law years. Those were years filled with blatant human rights abuses, and fake news that obfuscated the truth about what was happening on the ground. Amnesty International, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, other human rights monitoring groups, and historians reported some 3,257 known extrajudicial killings, 35,000 documented tortures, 77 “disappeared,” and 70,000 incarcerations, not to mention the over 25 billion pesos worth of assets that, in July 2003, the Supreme Court considered ill-gotten wealth.

We endured all that, until February 25, 1986, when we could no longer.

But today, for reasons I cannot fathom, we have brought the dictator’s son and his family back to power. We have elected him to be the 17th president of the Philippines.

Why? What happened?

Did we bring the Marcoses back because we had forgotten about the atrocities we suffered in the past (although we continue to experience the consequences to this day)? Or because we choose to forgive them out of the goodness of our hearts? Or is it because the changes that we wished to see in our government have not come about even after 36 years, and we are beginning to think that a dictator is what we need for those changes to happen, after all?

But my instincts tell me that it was not entirely because of us that he won. He who lost the vice presidency to Leni Robredo by a small margin in 2016 did not want to take any chances. Wanting this badly, he must have pulled out all the stops and used his wealth to secure his win of the presidency by a wide margin this time. His cocky ways and refusal to attend the presidential debates seem to indicate confidence in the election outcome. But we cannot prove that any such machinations have been done. To focus our time, energies, and resources on trying to do so would be counterproductive. We must, instead, focus on being proactive.

This is a second chance at being the change that we wish to see in our country. We must take it. We must wake up and get our acts together for the long haul because change cannot happen overnight.

Change is not merely a goal to be aimed for, but an eco-system of different aspects of our human life and environment that must be nurtured individually and collectively over time.

I have learned this from two decades of experience in the field of interfaith/interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding. They taught me that the change we wish to see cannot happen unless it begins in us individually and collectively.

But the conversion of the heart is essential to change. What the heart can see becomes the vision that the mind can work on and realize with others in co-creative actions. While I admired and appreciated the tireless efforts of friends and family who actively campaigned for my candidate Leni these past seven months, I wondered whether their efforts were not in fact 36 years too late…

This nagging feeling was with me throughout the campaign period even while I was writing reflections on grief. What surfaced starkly in my awareness was the aphorism that I had come across years ago. It said: IT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENS TO US BUT WHAT HAPPENS IN US THAT MATTERS MOST IN LIFE. It was only when my husband died that I began to fully appreciate its meaning.

It made me realize that I had a choice. I could either give up and succumb to despair, or I could make something good out of his love that remains. I chose the latter and have decided since then to be the change in my life that he would want me to be.

Today, as I face the painful reality of having the Marcoses return to power in our country, I reflect on what this is making of me.

I realize that we all have choices that we can make here. We can either continue to rant and rave, or we can leave the country and settle elsewhere (if we have the means to do so), or we can remain where we are and begin from here to move to where we want to be.

The third option is the most challenging of all, but it is where true and lasting change can happen in our country.

Change begins with a choice that comes with the conversion of the heart that enables us to relate with those who are different from ourselves in ways that humanize, not demonize them. It deepens when we can see that we are all in this together–one and interconnected people in this country despite our diversity—needing each other if we are to live our lives with equal dignity, bridge the gap between the rich and poor, and have everyone enjoy fair opportunities together. When we do, then our moral imagination can come alive and help us turn “what happened to us” into an opportunity for creating something good in our midst. We can then be “responsive” and not merely “reactive” by constantly sharing our talents and resources with those in need.

We are all in this together. We must wake up and be vigilant. We cannot allow those who have assumed power in government to be solely responsible for the change we wish to see happen.

I have grown weary of “reacting” to things and events that challenge me at any given moment of my life. My husband’s passing made me see and appreciate life and its meaning more clearly against the backdrop of the afterlife. I now choose to keep my sanity by pinning my hopes (for my children and grandchildren’s future) on being able to live my every day in ways that help nurture the eco-system of change as best and as responsibly as I am able.

About the writer:

Maria Teresa Guingona-Africa, PHD, holds a doctorate in Applied Cosmic Anthropology and a master’s degree in Theological studies. Author of Breath of a Stone God: A Journey of Awakening Faith to Interfaith Dialogue and a founder of The Peacemakers’ Circle Foundation, Inc. (TPCFI), a non-profit, interfaith organization established in 2001. She served as a Lecturer on Muslim-Christian Dialogue for Nation-building and Conflict Transformation Among Religions at the Ateneo de Manila University from October 2014 until her husband passed away in March 2020.