IT WAS the night of February 22, the beginning of what would become Edsa 1. There, in the midst of a sea of protesters that would later swell to nearly a million people, was three-year-old Alfonso Tomas ‘Atom’ Araullo. He wasn’t alone, of course. The little boy was riding on his father’s shoulders, while his mother walked alongside, their young family enjoying what many remember to be a lovely evening, the air brisk and cool and a full moon washing the street with light.
Listen to the interview with Atom Araullo
Araullo himself has no memory of that night, but one of his father’s favorite stories is how he had been part of history 20 years ago. Today at 23, Araullo refers to the first people power uprising as “one of the shining moments of the Filipino people” and an event that has helped shape his life.
But he also says the country has not progressed since the 1986 revolt. “I realized that the same things people were fighting for in 1986 still exist today,” says Araullo, who calls himself a full-time activist. “There’s a need to continue the struggle until we achieve a true and fundamental change.”
A recent graduate of applied physics at the University of the Philippines, Araullo spends part of his time nowadays co-hosting Studio 23’s morning show “Breakfast” and the youth-oriented “Kabataan News Network” of the Probe Media Foundation.
But most of his day is usually taken up by his work in political activism, which is about to kick into higher gear. He remains a member of the League of Filipino Students (LFS), but now that his term as education research officer of UP’s Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights (Stand UP) has ended, Araullo is looking forward to joining “broader alliances.”
In the current Starstruck and Pinoy Big Brother world of his generation, Araullo — whose matinee-idol looks could compete with those of television’s pretty boys — is quite the oddity. He admits himself that many in his age group do not know what Edsa 1 was all about, and what it stood for. It worries him that many youths have grown indifferent, preferring their own private corners to the world beyond. They have no interest in what Karl Marx once called their “political existence,” and Araullo thinks that is a shame. He says there is a need for the youth to “historicize,” to know and learn from the failures and victories of the past so they could offer solutions to current problems.
“The youth has a big role in this kind of social formation,” he stresses. “It really is true that we have the biggest stake in any change in society.”
Still, it’s not like Araullo himself realized this just by listening to his father’s story about their evening stroll at Edsa 20 years ago. Although he knew that Edsa was “important,” it was not until he entered UP that he came to understand what it was all about. And so, he says, “I decided to join different organizations that seek to uphold the same ideals that were present during those times, that up to now we are still fighting to achieve.”
THE SON of Carol Pagaduan Araullo, who heads the left-wing Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN, New Patriotic Alliance), Atom Araullo sees Edsa as a culmination of the struggles of the people during that period. It was a fight not only against the dictatorship, he says, but also against the things the strongman Ferdinand Marcos stood for and the policies he upheld — “his close ties with foreign powers, the United States, his style of governance. And political repression was rampant at that time.”
Filipinos throughout history have proven that they are willing to fight for their ideals, says Araullo. He thinks 1986 was the peak of that kind of struggle. For his part, he believes it is only through the militant struggle that society can progress, as it aims for a “genuine liberation and democracy.”
We are living in a false democracy, he says. As he sees it, “genuine democracy” is to have the rule of the majority, where equal rights and opportunities are afforded everyone. He points out that this isn’t the case in the country right now, since the larger section of the population is still not reaping the full benefits of its labor. He sounds almost embarrassed to admit that he is lucky to have had a good education and land a job that pays relatively well. To his mind, an ideal society would be one where any opportunity that comes would be based on merit and how much one contributes to society.
“Compared to what others do, which is more difficult, which contributes more to nation-building — factory workers, farmers — they really don’t have a ‘return of investment,'” he says. “And here I am, I don’t have to do much…but I have a lot of benefits.”
The young man doth sells himself short. For someone his age, he has already done a lot. At 15, he won his first triathlon competition, a sport that involves swimming, running, and cycling. Araullo is also trained in soccer, tennis, volleyball, taekwondo, and platform diving. Nowadays, he does mountaineering and underwater diving.
Araullo, who has had a stint in theatre, plays the flute, guitar, and an Australian folk instrument called digeridoo. He does computer graphics and travel and street photography. This year, he plans to learn filmmaking, painting, sculpting, cooking — even breadmaking. And all of those are just for fun.
When he was still head of Stand UP, he led the campaign against Senate Bill 2587, which proposes a new UP charter. He and his co-protesters argued that the change would result in the “commercialization” of UP education. They took their protest as far as the grounds of the Senate, and were rewarded with blows to the head and body by the stick-wielding guards. Fortunately, he did not suffer any serious injuries.
Araullo was also one of the convenors of UP SIGAO (UP Student Initiative for Gloria Arroyo’s Ouster) and TXTpower, a citizens’ group that saw the potential of text and the Internet for mobilizing people into action. Primarily concerned with shielding consumers from the abuses of telecommunications companies, TXTpower turned political at the height of Gloriagate last year, posting different versions of “Hello, Garci” ringtones (with downloads reaching 350,000), along with jokes, anti-Arroyo placards, and posters.
“My interests are very varied,” he allows. “I’d be the first to encourage my fellow activists to try out other things. It’s important for me to develop (one’s) personality in all aspects, to be a well-rounded person.”
NEARLY EVERYONE had expected Araullo to win in the bid for the student council chairmanship in 2004. But Stand UP suffered an overwhelming defeat, getting only one seat in the 14-person slate, and he wasn’t even that winner. It was a humbling experience from which he and his partymates learned some hard lessons. It was also one of his lowest points, “a rude awakening,” he calls it, but that which has equipped him with a deeper appreciation of things.
Araullo says he considers failures, even unwise decisions he may have made, as all part of the process. Obviously, he doesn’t shy away from challenges either, and he believes in hard work and discipline. These and his strongly held convictions, with a full sense of who he is and what he would one day want to become, are what set Araullo apart from many of his peers.
To be sure, his mastery of multitasking is something he shares with many other young people, although he may not be as interested in the latest gadget or the next killer app as the next twenty-something. His is a generation that is both producer and consumer, a maker and seeker of all sorts of stimuli. But it is also a generation that has been dismissed as “lost,” or at most spoiled by the freedom regained by its elders at Edsa 1, a generation said to be trapped in its own ambivalence and apathy.
Araullo says he understands why others see his generation this way. His opinion is that the youth, because of the sheer number of issues they are assaulted with, oftentimes choose to simply turn inward and worry only about what they can deal with directly: themselves. Especially now that many Filipinos — young and old alike — seem to be having mounting apprehensions about the future. “Everybody feels it, things are so bleak,” he laments.
The government has stolen from the young people their aspirations for a better future, Araullo says, offering them nothing but empty promises amid a foundering economy and brewing political crisis. For him, this is an example of a glaring contradiction that the youth must learn to recognize. He says they must question why, for example, this nation wallows in poverty despite its very rich marine biodiversity.
He adds that the youth should use their talents for the benefit of the people. They should strive to be experts in their respective fields, he says, but the crucial questions they should ask are: “What am I doing this for? Who will benefit from my efforts?”
Reminded that many of his peers seem to lack the kind of nationalism possessed by previous generations, Araullo argues that that the youth today face a different and more challenging task. Though the same kinds of problems exist, he says, they have a more “developed and prepared enemy” in the ruling elite.
He is not about to give up on his generation, insisting that youth and activism are always directly related. “Once young people start figuring things out, they have a tendency to shake things from the foundation, they’re not afraid to turn things upside down,” he says. That’s why it’s important for the youth to realize that their potential can only be maximized through militant struggle. At the very least, says Araullo, young people have to become more interested in issues beyond their own.
“If we will pin our hopes on one thing,” he says, “it must be in our capacity to shape the future, in the capacity of the youth to take an active role in changing the things they think are wrong.”
He also insists, “This so-called lost generation would still be able to redeem itself…just you wait, this generation will be able to prove itself as a generation that has something to contribute to overall change in society for the better.”
Everything may look bleak now, Araullo agrees, but he believes a different world is possible. He says this is not just based on some romantic illusion. “(It is) definitely achievable,” he says, even if he adds that it may not happen in his lifetime.
Or could it? — Avigail M. Olarte