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How did 'activist' become a dirty word?

The world needs to hear, see and not silence those fighting for peace, love and unity

Edita Tronqued-Burgos, Manila

Edita Tronqued-Burgos, Manila

Published: November 26, 2020 10:21 AM GMT

Updated: November 26, 2020 10:32 AM GMT

How did 'activist' become a dirty word?

Zara Alvarez, an activist from Negros province in the central Philippines, signs a manifesto signifying her commitment to work for human rights in this August 2019 file photo. Alvarez was shot dead in Bacolod City on Aug. 17, 2020. (Photo: Mark Saludes)

“I'm just an activist!” my son Jonas Burgos shouted over and over as he was being alternately dragged and carried by four armed men along the corridors of a mall in Quezon City into a waiting van. 

A restaurant supervisor who saw the abduction testified to this. It was the last time Jonas’ voice was heard, 13 years ago. He remains missing.

This cry for help keeps ringing in my ears and there are times when I wake up in the middle of the night wondering why no one among the hundreds of mall-goers helped my son. Could it be because now in the Philippines the word "activist" has taken on a negative character because of the national leadership’s self-serving spin?

After 13 years of unceasing search for truth and justice, I am now known to many as a simple mother turned activist. To be called so was not a matter of concern until this current administration focused its sights on activists. 

In numerous speeches, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has labeled outspoken critics as activists. In its July 2020 report, the Commission on Human Rights said that Duterte has created “a dangerous fiction” against activists and defenders.

With activists and members of civil society as instruments in keeping government abuses in check, demonizing them helps to neutralize their credibility.   

The increasing incidents of the government red-tagging and harassing, arresting and even killing activists and rights defenders, as recorded by groups and published by the media, have been reported to authorities, but no relief seems to be in sight.

With the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, activists and human rights defenders in the Philippines fear for their safety.

But what is an activist? Simply put, he or she is a person who works with extraordinary commitment and action to bring about changes, be they political or social, in society. 

The root word of "activist" in Latin is actus — a doing, a driving force. Thus, an activist is one who has strong sentiments about a belief, a principle, a cause, a vocation, a creed, a conviction, a value, and does something about this to convince people to change. 

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The environmental activist works for the protection of the natural environment from destruction and pollution, such as American Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. 

The civil rights activist is one who seeks equal opportunities for a minority group, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mahatma Gandhi was an activist who believed in obtaining independence for India from British rule by employing non-violent resistance. This inspired numerous movements all over the world. 

An animal rights activist such as Anita Roddick believes in justice for all animals. Roddick founded the Body Shop, a cosmetics firm, with strong ethical principles. Roddick showed that entrepreneurs could succeed in business and maintain an ethical profile. 

A child rights activist is a person who is actively involved in the protection and nurturing of the rights of children and minors who may be subjected to various kinds of human rights abuses.

Malala Yousafzai, a 23-year-old Pakistani education activist, was the youngest recipient at 17 to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala fought back against oppressive, cruel and tyrannical cultural practices of Islamic fundamentalists in her country, inspiring many young girls to stand up for their rights.  

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was an activist for the poorest of the poor. An Albanian Roman Catholic nun, she established the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkota to help the sick and the poor, the destitute, orphaned and dying people in the Indian city, which later expanded to other parts of the country and the world.  Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work in 1979.

The newly Blessed Carlo Acutis, a millennial who died at 15 years old in 2006 in Monza, Italy, was passionate about his love for the Holy Eucharist. He used his internet skills to create a website that traced the history of Eucharistic miracles. 

The website has been used by no less than 10,000 parishes all over the world. His passion made him ask why stadiums were full of people and churches were empty. Then he declared: “They have to see, they have to understand.” 

Then he went to work with a driving force to make them understand. With 160 panels, the work of Blessed Carlo can be downloaded and used to aid in changing people’s minds about the Holy Eucharist. He was an activist for the Holy Eucharist driven by love for Jesus. 

With the encyclical Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis proposes a post-pandemic blueprint where “fraternity and social friendship are the ways … to build a better, more just and peaceful world, with the contribution of all: people and institutions. With an emphatic confirmation of a ‘no’ to war and to globalized indifference.”

This is a letter addressed to all people arguing that “politics should be re-evaluated to focus on serving the common good and not economic interests. It addresses conflict, racism and situations faced by migrants and refugees.  

An activist who offers one of St. Francis of Assisi’s radical counsels, Pope Francis chooses “the one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him ... In his simple and direct way, St. Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.” 

The world needs activists. To be activists for peace, love and unity — that is what we are all called to do. 

Edita Tronqued-Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen believed to be soldiers abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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