For Whom The Charter Change

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I had taken a firm stand against Charter change initiatives when three presidents pushed it. My reason was simple. They seemed and smelled to me like they used all kinds of alibis to hide a crime – the extension of their official hold to power. They all claimed economic reasons, dangerously saying that certain provisions of the Constitution weakened our competitiveness. More specifically, charter change pushers wanted foreigners to own land.

It had always puzzled me why politicians with all the pomp and perks of office would want to be real estate salespeople. I know that there are commissions involved in selling land, and you can double or triple your earnings if you buy low and then sell high. With inside information, this is easy. There are a few local phrases to describe these, such as lutong makaw, ginisa sa sariling mantika, and even bantay salakay. But are thirty pieces of silver really worth it?

Today, President Noynoy Aquino is not the proponent of another stab at changing the Constitution. He never did and he does not want to. So, who is pushing?

They are Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Speaker Sonny Belmonte, both very senior in age and obviously not presidential material anymore. Since PNoy is not for charter change and not interested to extend his term, and since Enrile and Belmonte are not aspiring for the presidency, the power motive for this new attempt to amend the Constitution is probably not present.

If this time, the economic reasons are truly the cause of their push, even I have no reason not to listen. But I just cannot even begin to consider changing the Constitution to make foreign businessmen qualified to become landowners when millions of Filipino families are born and remain squatters all their lives. How is it that victims of a wholesale landgrab can be forgotten, can be treated as though they never had rights to their land – simply because the theft happened in the Spanish times?

Yes, all natives were victims of that landgrab. Some got lucky, had an ancestor or two who found a grateful foreign master, or were smarter than the rest, and they managed to get some land back. But the good fortune or success of some does not erase the theft or the right of all victims to have justice and compensation.

Why is it that the powerful, the rich, and the learned are afflicted with amnesia? Or did they just never question why there are public lands that there is no evidence that they inherited or bought them? Land did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. They came from somewhere, were occupied and used by people, and then became public land. How?

The story is very simple. It is in our history. The Spaniards came in the 16th century, invaded and occupied the country, conquered and ruled the natives now called Filipinos. All lands were declared as property of the throne of Spain. With one document, with one signature, a people who had lived in, and had managed, those lands became squatters.

What is so hard to understand about that story? Someone comes, steals your land by force, is forced to leave those lands behind at a later date, and everyone just forgets what happened?

This is the reason why I shudder to think that politicians and economists can combine to think of changing the Constitution so foreigners can own land but remain clueless why there are so many squatters in the Philippines. Now I understand why a brilliant nationalist, Professor Emmanuel Yap, kept insisting that Filipinos must be made aware of the historical truth.

The greater irony is that indigenous peoples in our country have been given back their ancestral domains when most of these were never occupied by the different foreign masters. The government can think of giving back public lands to their original owners because they are indigenous peoples but cannot think of giving back lands to mainstream Filipinos who were landgrab victims?

I am amazed that at the militants in our society who have always screamed about landlessness and created a revolution to get the lands of the rich so these can be given to the poor. They want to penalize victims of that horrible wholesale landgrab who had to buy land that they may have deserved to get for free but cannot remember as well to demand that public lands belong to all the people.

There is an opening today to change, not the Constitution, but the wayward path of our history. There is an opportunity today to make squatters dignified sons and daughters of a motherland, not from a sense of charity but from a sense of justice. And it begins with the simple journey of remembering a lost history. It begins with wiping out a historical amnesia to understand why poverty continues to exist in a land considered one of the wealthiest in the world.

Are we not ashamed that we can think of what foreign businesses want but cannot think of what our people need? Are we not insane thinking about upgrading a whole educational system but are unable to remember what could be the most vital historical fact of all?

What does it take to remove the curse that was imposed by greedy conquerors on an innocent people and extended by a forgetful present government? Removing squatting does not require vast tracts of land for the landless, it only needs a place where a home can be built which no one can ever take away. Removing squatting is not only an act of justice, it returns two of what are most precious to man – dignity and security.

We have lived so long when many, if not most of our people, have had to do so as less than human without dignity. We have forced the same people to live without security and then wonder why they do not have the energy to perform, to achieve. We should not look at their landlessness, their homeless state, their struggle against hunger and pity them or, much worse, look down on them. We should look at ourselves as the mindless, the forgetful, and be ashamed.

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