As a college freshman in 1970, I found myself joining a growing throng of Filipinos marching in the streets to protest the emerging excesses of the Marcos regime, whose ambitions would be laid bare with the declaration of martial law in 1972. We were forced to go underground; many were killed or imprisoned, as I was for seven months in 1973. It would not be until 1986 when a massive but peaceful street revolt turned the tide against the dictatorship, driving Marcos to flee with his family and untold billions in ill-gotten wealth.
I tell this story because, for my generation, we had only two options: to support the regime, actively or complicitly, or to oppose it, which for many meant forsaking any sense of normalcy in their lives and even bearing arms, with a great likelihood of losing one’s life. I recall sitting down one All Souls’ Day and counting 21 friends and comrades who had died for the cause.
Today that’s no longer the case. Indeed, with much irony, we have another Marcos as president, and face many of the same issues we took up against his father. But our range of options for dissent and advocacy is much broader, thanks to civil society, which has allowed our people to express themselves in far more positive and productive ways.
We often associate civil society with NGOs—at one time, in the democratic space left by the downfall of the Marcoses, the Philippines was said to be the ‘NGO capital of the world’, given the thousands of organizations attending to scores of issues left behind by two decades of misrule. Today we count about 60,000 registered NGOs in the country, devoted to everything from mass housing to good governance.
But I’d like to think that an even larger, if somewhat amorphous, civil society exists out there—on the Internet and social media, the one big change brought in by the 2000s—debating issues, identifying solutions, and mobilizing people to action. True, this sphere has been inundated by trolls and shameless lying. But below the froth remains the true and rich substance of serious discourse, of Filipinos creating virtual communities of concern—from electoral politics and guarding against corruption to holistic wellness and sustainable farming.
Filipinos now rank fourth in the world in terms of social media usage, and about 68% of our population of 114 million use the Internet. That’s a lot of space and opportunity for talking to one another, without anyone telling you what to think or say. So even as we speak truth to power, it’s important to keep talking among ourselves, and to keep enlarging our circles of discussion—on Facebook, Viber, Messenger, and Twitter—to settle on points of agreement and to find a way forward. Some sharp words will be exchanged, for sure—but no gunfire. If that isn’t civil society to me, I don’t know what is.