Long lines, bag checks, and selective admittance. Dozens of sentries in white polo barongs. The occasional chopper overhead. And at conspicuous areas, broadcast vans and a media platform.
It’s a rare prelude to any commencement rite. I hadn’t seen this much fuss when I went through this ceremony.
But this was no ordinary college graduation, in no ordinary college, and with no ordinary visitor.
President Benigno Aquino III was speaking to the University of the Philippines Diliman’s class of 2011.
It would be the first in 12 years. He would also receive an honorary Doctor of Laws from UP–the 13th after Fidel Ramos.
The potential conflict also made it worth checking out.
After all, a number of the university’s students and professors have not hidden their impatience at the Aquino administration’s delivery of campaign promises.
And wasn’t UP’s budget for 2011 one of the worst cut?
Protests would surely mark the ceremonies.
If you’re a President beginning to feel the heat of criticism and opposition, how do you approach a university known as a hotbed of dissent against sitting leaders?
Aquino raised his predicament in his Filipino speech.
“I admit: it is not easy facing you,” he said. “Sometimes we have to come from different perspectives. But, please, I hope we all want to reach the same end.”
The President still had to begin by buttering up his audience and appealing to the characteristic UP pride. Starting with the nearest connection–his father Benigno Jr., a proud alumnus:
“Even (he) himself once said: There is really just one university in the Philippines–only UP, no other.”
Cheers met him as he continued identifying with persons and issues close to the isko and iska’s heart, like his UPian appointees and UP’s stand against the previous administration.
And then he had to toot his own horn. It became a mini-State of the Nation Address, as some had observed.
“I sometimes get frustrated that the good news does not reach you. Please do not misread if I use this opportunity to reduce the negativism.”
Heads and cameras turned soon after Aquino began to tell how fighting corruption in car emission testing centers had helped clean up the air.
Some graduates had stood up, raising slogans written on Manila paper: Jobs not demolition. Stop contractualization.
Presidential Security Group (PSG) guards quickly grabbed the posters as another group of students at the right of the stage unfurled a red banner: No progress under Aquino.
After a struggle, 8 men in uniform seized the cloth from the protesters which included the incoming UP student council chair. Unfazed, PNoy kept on.
“Let us be part of the solution,” he appealed. “Join us so that we can reach our goals faster.”
With reference to the protests, Aquino entreated the graduates to give back while staying idealistic.
“If you are already in high positions, would you still remember the slogans you were shouting as you boycotted classes? If you could let off a brod, sis, or org-mate even if they were really guilty, would you?” he asked.
Whether this Atenean’s pleas reached the graduates remains to be seen.
Student regent Jacqueline Eroles presented the President with a “Letter from the Students” after the speech, and then chanted “Edukasyon, karapatan ng mamamayan! (Education is every citizen’s right)” onstage.
Without the President’s presence, the media would still be all over the graduation for another newsworthy element. Of course without the live coverage given his speech.
Summa cum laude John Gabriel Pelias delivered the valedictory address after PNoy. With a 1.016 general average, he set UP’s highest since World War 2. The feat had granted him the rounds of TV interviews the past 2 weeks.
More chants met Aquino as his convoy left the campus after Pelias’s speech:
“Noynoy at Gloria, walang pinag-iba, parehong tuta, diktador, pasista!” (Noynoy and Gloria Arroyo are no different–both puppets, dictators, fascists)
“Noynoy Aquino, pahirap sa masa!” (Noynoy, burden to the people)
“Si Noynoy mismo, babagsak!” (Noynoy himself will fall)
The commotion stalled the cavalcade as UP security shoved the protesters away. No one relented, and in the chase, one hurled his crumpled poster to a speeding PSG vehicle.
Their chanting continued even after the convoy had left.
The protesters called the President a “summa cum laude” in budget cuts, and the student regent said PNoy’s attendance was an “insult” to the students.
The university board apparently did not think so, as they glowingly cited PNoy’s anti-corruption election campaign, his “rallying” leadership, and his “serious desire to serve the public interest” and inspire hope.
The degree, however, was akin to US President Obama receiving the 2009 Nobel peace prize–too early and for largely immaterial moves.
But, as is said for Aquino’s currently high ratings, might as well make bold moves now than never get to later.
UP’s 100th graduating batch had a burden to hold the President accountable to the country’s social ills, says one journalism graduate who was there. At the least, the ceremony was not seriously disrupted.
Yet a management course grad who saw the protest thinks Aquino has only been President for less than a year, and change does not come that quick. The rallies always come whoever is in power.
As an alumnus reminds, protests welcome us to UP, and protests see us out.
Call it a uniquely-UP welcome. Yet it also remains to be seen if the students’ welcome message reached the President.