ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Students on the Frontlines: Student Activism in the Disaster-hit Philippines

Student activists have played crucial roles at key junctures in the nation’s history.

By Franz Jan Santos for
Students on the Frontlines: Student Activism in the Disaster-hit Philippines

Students from Ateneo de Manila University protest the reburial of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos at Manila’s Cemetery of Heroes, on November 19, 2016.

Credit: Flickr/Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

Last November 17, I was contacted by a former student who wanted to ask my opinion on a proposed academic strike by students from the Philippines’ Ateneo de Manila University. She told me that she was still undecided on whether or not she would join the strike. There was a lot at stake if she did. Strikers pledged not to submit academic requirements as a gesture of protest against what they termed the government’s “criminal negligence” in its handling of recent natural disasters. She also currently enjoys a full scholarship at the university, and there is no guarantee that she can maintain her scholarship if she skips classes to take part in the strike. My former student is just one of the thousands of university students who are currently demanding drastic action from the national government.

The second week of November saw a number of student protests in the Philippines. The demonstrations began when a group of students from Ateneo de Manila threatened to hold an academic strike to protest the government’s inadequate preparation for and response to the series of typhoons that struck the country this month, as well as its poor record in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Garnering more than five hundred signatures as of writing, the students pledged to withdraw all academic submissions until the government acts on their demands.

In a matter of days, other universities and student groups showed support for the movement and made more context-specific demands. Students from the University of the Philippines, for example, supported their faculty’s call for an immediate end of the semester and for the university to implement a “no fail policy” in consideration for members of the community who are still unable to recover from the effects of the recent typhoons. More radical demands from other student groups include calls for an academic freeze, and even the ouster of President Rodrigo Duterte. Students from the country’s oldest university, the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, garnered more than a 1,400 signatures calling for the president’s resignation, accusing him of incompetence and negligence. Despite some differences in specific demands, the striking students have all asked for the same thing: accountability.

The protests are reflective of the growing student discontent with the government’s performance, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the Duterte administration’s inability to control the spread of the virus, most of the Philippines has been in various states of lockdown since mid-March. This failure had a serious effect on education. The opening of public schools was delayed twice, and all educational institutions have had to adopt some form of distance learning. This has given rise to a range of challenges, including sporadic access to the internet, the uneven availability of gadgets, and the lack of opportunities for guided instruction, especially for students who belong to the lower socioeconomic bracket. The two devastating typhoons that hit the Philippines in November have compounded these access problems, and also made government negligence more pronounced.

The call for student strikes was not without its opposition, however. While certain faculty groups within the universities pledged support for the movement, other educators called for moderation or distanced themselves from the movement. A group of parents calling themselves the League of Parents of the Philippines also staged an indignation rally in front of different universities on November 18 and 19, to protest the proposed academic strike, grading freeze, and even the alleged recruitment by leftist organizations from colleges and universities.

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The protest movements happening today may be viewed as part of the long tradition of student activism in the Philippines. Activism in the country’s universities stretches back as far back as the 19th century, when the country was still under Spanish rule. Despite the colonial character and perceived conservatism of the Catholic educational institutions of the time, some clerics and Spanish officials observed that universities had become breeding grounds for radical ideas, which led one Spanish official to propose the closure of these institutes of higher education in 1834. These fears materialized in the late 1860s and early 1870s, when university students joined ranks with secular Filipino priests and other progressive Filipinos who were demanding radical reforms from Spain.

Student activism had a resurgence under President Ferdinand Marcos in the late 1960s and 1970s, influenced by the growing wave of student unrest in other parts of the world, as well as problems at home. The movements became even more pronounced in the first three months of 1970, and exploded in what was to be known as the First Quarter Storm.

Student activism was in the spotlight again in 2000 and 2001, as numerous educational institutions joined strikes, calling for the resignation of then President Joseph Estrada. The movement continued until the president was finally forced out of office in what was to be known as “EDSA People Power 2” in January 2001. Refusing to recognize the validity of his removal, Estrada has repeatedly blamed collusion among certain groups for his ouster, including the academe.

The ongoing student actions, while relatively minor compared to the aforementioned examples, represent both a catharsis and an articulation of the sentiments of a frustrated generation. Many students have joined political movements over the last few months in protest against repressive government actions, from the passage of the draconian Anti-Terror Bill in July to the closure earlier this year of a major media network that had reported critically on President Duterte. The latter in particular was felt in the lack of news coverage and information dissemination after two strong typhoons hit the Philippines in November. Students have also expressed growing concern about the government-led “red-tagging” of activists.

Will the national government listen to the students and act with urgency this time? History may serve as a guide, for both the government and the students protesting. While not all past student movements immediately led to the desired ends, students have always been a potent force in social organization and social change in Philippine society. They have often served at the front lines of civil society movements, which have proven time and time again that they have the ability to challenge those in power, once even toppling a dictator.

Franz Jan Santos is a lecturer at the History Department of the Ateneo de Manila University, and Subject Area Coordinator for Social Sciences in the Ateneo de Manila Senior High School.