Keynote address by Philippine Secretary of Budget and Management, Former President of the Liberal Party of the Philippines, and Former CALD Chair, Hon. Florencio “Butch” Abad, on the occasion of the CALD 20th Anniversary Dinner, held on 09 November 2013 at the Maynila Ballroom, Manila Hotel, Philippines.
[Greetings]… ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to Manila. It’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to speak before you, fellow liberals in Asia, on the occasion of the 20th year of existence of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats. First of all, let us give CALD a warm round of applause.
Sometime in the early 1990s, a handful of Asian participants in the Liberal International conference in Sintra, Portugal—that included me, as well as (name those who were with you)—decided to go to Lisbon and wind down over bottles of beer. I remembered how out-of-place we were in that conference: we could not relate to the very continental topics dominating the conference; we were disappointed that Asian issues were not being discussed. After the alcohol had already “liberated” our thoughts and feelings, the idea to form CALD sprung about. A year later, in October 1993, CALD was born in Taipei, Taiwan. Today, after 20 years, CALD has become a crucial element of the global struggle for liberalism and democracy.
CALD is close to my heart, as its formation coincided with critical junctures in my own political career. When I was in Lisbon, I was still licking my wounds from a “political defeat:” stepping down as Secretary of Agrarian Reform of Former President Cory Aquino, after serving for only three months.
In 1990, I accepted President Cory’s offer for me to serve in her Cabinet. Even if I had to pay the price of giving up my Congressional seat, I wholeheartedly accepted because it gave me the opportunity to manage the President’s centerpiece program for agrarian reform.
At that time when the Aquino government—built after the People Power Revolution of 1986 toppled the Marcos dictatorship—was deeply under threat by military adventurism as well as the dominance of vested interests who were able to re-entrench themselves in our political life.
I took on the portfolio, fully aware of the powerful landlord interests which were against the success of agrarian reform. Such interests included my own former colleagues in Congress who rejected my appointment seven times. After three months and seven rejections by the powerful Commission on Appointments, I decided to pack up and leave in order to save President Cory from further embarrassment.
A few months after that, I found myself in a bar in Lisbon with fellow Asian liberals who were also faced with comparable difficulties in their own struggle for democratic transition.
I had learned, as an activist during the years of Martial Law, to never back out of great opportunities; to never give up even after falling so hard; to consider acts of stupidity in the eyes of traditionalists as acts of heroism. Perhaps, after having been rejuvenated by our sojourn in Portugal, I went back home to face another difficult yet important juncture in my political life.
That was the 1992 Elections, our first democratic Presidential elections. I ran for the Senate, not as part of the slate of any major political coalition at that time, but as the lone senatorial candidate of the Liberal Party. I supported the Presidential campaign of Senator Jovito Salonga: the candidate that activists like me had gravitated towards due to his heroism during Martial Law and his leadership to reject the US Bases.
The Liberal Party at that time was considered as a “Volkswagen party:” meaning, we were so few that we could fit into a Volkswagen Beetle. Still, we pegged our hopes on the support given by the civil society movement and other fellow activists in the anti-Martial Law struggle. Sadly, we didn’t have guns, the goons and most especially the gold. We lost.
The Liberal Party could have just closed shop after that massive defeat. I could have quit mainstream politics and just remained in the sidelines. But I held firmly onto my advocacy for transparent and accountable governance, and my belief in the free and democratic way of life. Today, I am still here in perhaps the most important point of my political career, during yet another critical juncture in our country’s democratic history.
All of us here in this room have faced gargantuan challenges in our fight for democracy in our respective countries, numerous defeats in the face of those who stood for authoritarianism, and even questions as to whether the liberal ideology is appropriate for Asia. But despite incarceration, humiliation and our own self-doubts, we prevailed and we are still here, fighting for democracy.
This is the beauty of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats: it is the tapestry of our collective struggles to establish democracy and to make it work in our respective countries. It is the hallmark of our belief that the free and democratic way of life is the Asian way of life.
The story of CALD is our ongoing story of our defeat and victory, of incarceration and liberation, of oppression and empowerment. It is the story of Sam Rainsy—our current Chairman—who, after being in self-exile from facing politically-motivate charges, has now been pardoned by the King and allowed to return to Cambodia. It is the story of Dr. Chee Soon Juan who has recently been discharged from bankruptcy and now able to contest the upcoming general elections in Singapore in 2016. It is the story of Aung San Suu Kyi who is now back in the Burmese parliament after the military regime finally surrendered to the process of democratization.
The story of CALD is likewise the ongoing story of the Liberal Party in the Philippines, which has risen from relative obscurity as “Volkswagen” party to national prominence, with the election of President Noynoy Aquino in 2010 due to his platform of good governance and poverty reduction. Ours is an ongoing struggle against the vested interests which have benefitted corruption and patronage deeply entrenched in our political life. It is our ongoing story of making democracy work and meaningful for our citizens.
Today, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of CALD, and as we envision our next 20 years, let us recall our individual and collective stories, and reflect upon the values that enabled us to persevere in our struggle for democracy.
Tonight, I look forward to hearing your own stories of struggle and success in your respective countries, for it is something that will inform my own ongoing journey as a leader and as a Liberal.
As I end this speech, allow me to recall the most un-free period of my life: the two decades of the Marcos dictatorship, when I was imprisoned twice: first, in 1978, after I took part in protests against electoral fraud; and second, in 1980, when I was charged with “conspiring to assassinate President Ferdinand Marcos.”
When we got wind of the news that I was about to be captured, my wife Dina and I tried to escape arrest. For days and months, we were running away, moving from one town to another, seeking refuge from relatives and friends. Finally, the Marcos regime caught us.
At that time, Dina was pregnant with our first daughter, Julia. My greatest fear at that time: that she would be born behind bars; that she would be raised apart from us; that she will never know how it is to be free.
We were luckier than most other victims of Martial Law, who were tortured and raped, who were incarcerated in military camps or summarily executed. Among the victims of the regime were Liberals like Evelio Javier who was assassinated in broad daylight; and of course, our President’s father, Ninoy Aquino, who, after arriving from the US was shot while coming down from the plane, before his feet touched his homeland.
Perhaps, it is the mysterious work of a Force greater than ourselves, the Creator of our history, our Greatest Ally in the heavens who is opposed by the dictatorship of man, has something greater in store for me and our nation. Who am I to allow myself to be disempowered by hardships and defeat, to turn down great opportunities to serve and lead as a Liberal?
Indeed, I am fortunate to be alive, to have been a key part to the growth of CALD and of our own Liberal Party, and to now serve under the Liberal presidency of Noynoy Aquino. And I believe I would not have been here in this moment today had I not met fellow Asian liberals in Sintra, Portugal more than 20 years ago: that critical juncture in my personal history which has irreversibly shaped my political career.
For this, I remain in deep solidarity to the struggles of liberals and democrats worldwide, especially in Asia: from those who are fighting to free their countries from authoritarian rule, to those whose democracies are under threat by corruption, populism and patronage politics. Rest assured, I and fellow Filipino Liberals are on your side.
Perhaps, this is the challenge to all of us in CALD and the liberal struggle in Asia: to never give up on our efforts to make the process of democratization work in our respective countries; to never surrender to the supposed hegemony of strong-handed rule in our region; to never waver in our belief that the human being—that the Asian person—is born to be free.
Thank you and good evening.
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This post was written by CALD