‘Filipinos should not shame their President on the world stage!’

Pres. Benigno Aquino t Columbia University. Photos and video by Elton Lugay

Pres. Benigno Aquino at Columbia University. Photos and video by Elton Lugay

By Elton Lugay

A heckling incident at Columbia University, where President Benigno Aquino III addressed the World Leaders Forum on September 23, spilled over to social media with Filipino Americans battling each other over how a Filipino leader should not be humiliated before the world stage.

It began quietly enough at Columbia’s Low Memorial Library where Aquino delivered his keynote speech spotlighting the challenges his government faces in terms of restoring integrity to public service and the simplification of the bidding procedures. All these, he stressed, are efforts to address corruption in the government.

“There are always challenges on the horizon,” said Aquino, who is in the U.S. September 20 to 24 to speak before the United Nations meeting on climate change.
He said his government vows to pursue “large-scale reforms” and implement changes in health care, the public transport system, and the modernization of the armed forces.

Halfway through the open forum, Jenab-i Pareja of the New York Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines boldly interrupted Aquino to ask a question, catching the audience by surprise. This was quickly followed by Joelle Lingat of Anakbayan New Jersey who asked successive questions about pork barrel, the rehabilitation efforts after Typhoon Haiyan, and the Philippines’s so-called “culture of impunity” in a manner described by some in the audience as combative. At this point, she unfurled a banner, “End impunity, stop the killings.”

It was obvious from Aquino’s look that he was caught off guard. He appeared to be smiling and tried not to look flustered.

The activists were later escorted out of the library, but the disruption has been created. The audience -– depending on how they view the Aquino leadership — was both amused and incensed.

Outside the building, about 35 activists were chanting and shouting as the forum was going on. Said activist Lingat. “Not only did he not answer (my question on Hacienda Luisita), he closed his eyes and shook his head. One audience member told me I should be ashamed of myself.”

Steven Raga, chair of NaFFAA-New York, applauded Aquino and came to his defense. “I’m glad that the President showed an openness for dialogue, while fielding the tough questions, something we haven’t seen in previous administrations.”

Lawyer Merit Salud said, “The one who shouted could have expressed himself/herself better if they waited for their turn. Hindi naman sila pinagbabawalan. As a matter of fact, nakapila na sila. The impact of the message was lost and in a sense, lumabas tuloy parang heckler.”

On Facebook, more netizens came out in support of Aquino, criticizing the “arrogant” manner by which the activists asked their questions.

“Kahit sinong Presidente kapag binabastos sa ibang bansa hindi maganda. Para rin hindi natin ginagalang ang ating bansa,” writes Shirley Asunto of New Jersey. “Maganda sana ang tanong pero hindi sya naka-antay.”

Georgio Alfeche Dano of Staten Island chimed in: “Whatever our concerns are, President Aquino is still a Head of State and deserves respect. Shouting does not get us anywhere.”

Journalist Marivir Montebon said speaking with courtesy “may have been better received and applauded.” Instead, it isolated the activists youth group. “Oftentimes, the message is muddled by the manner it is conveyed.”

Brushing aside the streaming commentary from both sides on social media, Consul General Mario de Leon Jr. said Aquino was “candid and frank” when he answered challenging questions on current issues from students of Columbia University.

“It would have been better,” he added, “if the few who disrupted the academic forum had engaged the President in a dialogue,” one befitting the prestigious academic platform as the World Leaders Forum.

Activist Joelle Lingat asks a question about Hacienda Luisita: 'He did not answer my question'

Activist Joelle Lingat asks a question about Hacienda Luisita: ‘He did not answer my question’

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