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‘Why we need to change the 1987 Constitution’ — CJ Puno (Part 1)

I have posted in Facebook former Supreme Court Chief Justice  Reynato Puno’s speech when he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of the Philippines on January 11,  2011.

It is a very eloquent speech with a plea that should not go unheeded. I have resurrected the speech to be read by Filipinos whether in social media or not and to begin the process of crowdsourcing a new Constitution.

After I had written in my column his acceptance to be the symbol and advocate of constitutional reform, I received an emailed response from Cesar Torres who communicates regularly with this column.  He called on his colleagues (UP alumni abroad?) to respond to the challenge and persuade others to commit themselves to this latest move to change the 1987 Constitution.  He ends his email to me with the words, “I will end this now with the famous declaration of our UP President Alfredo Pascual: “Padayon! We cannot afford to fail. We have a nation to serve.”

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The speech has 4,000 words. So I have had to excerpt and divide it into parts. In doing so I hope I do not minimize the importance Puno gave to this endeavor.

We can learn from his speech but must open our own minds so each of us can contribute to the discussion for a new Constitution for a New Philippines.

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He begins with history. “In the last few decades we have witnessed the birth of many “democratic states.” Statistics tell us that in 1914, with the disintegration of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires there were only 55 honest-to goodness states. Their number jumped to 59 in 1919, to 69 in 1950 and to 90 in 1960. When the Cold War ended, the number of democratic states skyrocketed to an unprecedented height.

After the independence of East Timor in 2007, their total number is now 192. Some of these democratic states are now classified as failed states. Freedom House categorized most of these new states as only “partly free.” In the case of the Philippines, some scholars have started to cast a doubting eye on our capacity to comply with the essential requirements of democracy. As early as 2003, they warned against what they call as our “incubus of failure”. They noted our accumulating democratic deficits.

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The observation is far from flattering considering our checkered history of fighting for freedom and our elongated experience as a democratic nation. If we look at Asia’s pantheon of ideas, we will find that Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar, and other Filipinos espoused the ideals of democracy ahead of their cerebral counterparts, Mahatma Gandhi included. Indeed, social scientists regard pre-Spanish Philippines as one of Asia’s early hatching ground of natural rights where the embryo of human dignity was nurtured even by its indigenous people.

It is thus no happenstance, that in Asia, we were among if not the first, to constitutionalize the basic rights of man, rights that were to define democracy. A blast from the past will refresh us. In November 1897, Aguinaldo declared our independence from Spain at Biak-na-Bato and adopted a constitution whose principal features were lifted from Cuba. In a month’s time, however, the Pact of Biak-na-Bato was signed and pursuant to its terms, Aguinaldo agreed to surrender, got exiled to Hongkong in exchange for amnesty, an indemnity of Php 1.7 M and the promise of rosy reforms. Thus, our first written constitution came to an end before we could savor our freedoms thereunder.

As fate dictated, the United States and Spain came to war and Aguinaldo and company were caught in the middle. Lured by a false sense, Aguinaldo fought side by side with the Americans against Spain. With the defeat of Spain looming as a certainty, Aguinaldo repaired to Kawit, Cavite on June 12, 1898 and boldly read the document entitled “Act of the Proclamation of Independence of the Filipino People,” which ruptured every relationship of the Philippines with Spain. At the foot of the Proclamation, it was curiously stated: witnessed by “the Supreme Judge of the Universe” and protected by “the Mighty and Humane North American Nation.” The new Philippine flag was unfurled and the newly minted national anthem was played.

Aguinaldo’s dream that the “mighty and humane North American Nation” will recognize Philippine independence quickly metamorphosed to a nightmare. The US defeated Spain and declared its sovereignty over the Philippines. Thence on, all efforts of Aguinaldo to preserve the Philippine Republic went down the drain. But to his credit, Aguinaldo did one great act of significance to the development of constitutionalism in our country.

He convened the Malolos Congress that drafted a new constitution patterned after the constitutions of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Belgium, France and Brazil. It was principally prepared by Felipe Calderon with the sage advice of Cayetano Arellano. The Malolos Constitution was promulgated by Aguinaldo on January 21, 1899. UP historian, Teodoro Agoncillo, hailed the Malolos Constitution “as a great monument to the capacity of the Filipino people to rule themselves in a democratic way, “I quote him:

“The Malolos Constitution was the first important state document that Filipino people, speaking thru their representatives, ever produced. Democratically oriented, the Congress worked hard to have a Constitution for the people, which was democratic in its aspects. According to this Constitution, the government established was ‘popular, representative and responsible.” It was divided into 3 branches: The executive, the legislative and the judicial. The Constitution also provided for national and individual rights not only of Filipinos, but also of foreigners.

 The Assembly had only one house… it was unicameral. The President was elected by the Assembly. The department secretaries were responsible not to the President but to the Assembly.

It is worth noting that under the Malolos Constitution, the Assembly was made more powerful than either the executive or the judiciary. ( CNP: That is the essence of a parliamentary system but as some critics have exclaimed Huh? you mean make the robber senators/congressmen in charge? No. the robber senators/congressmen we have now are products of the presidential system we want to discard. In a new constitution we will work hard so we elect new legislators who are real legislators and representatives of the people.)

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Puno continues: “Next, we orbited around the sun of sovereignty of the United States and we have to undergo the whitening of our brown democracy. “(CNP: An interesting metaphor but aptly describes what happened.)

 (Read Part 2 here)

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