President Benigno Aquino 3rd as he was sworn in as the 15th President of the Republic of the Philippines at historic Quirino Grandstand in Manila’s Rizal Park

The Liberal Party of Sri Lanka was delighted by the victory of Benigno Simeon Aquino III in the Philippine Presidential election. The Liberal Party of the Philippines has always been in the forefront of the struggle for freedom and social justice, and this enormous vote of confidence makes clear the appreciation of the Philippine people for its consistent stand.

As Chairman of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, I was also particularly pleased by the victory of our Philippine colleagues, at a time when some political commentators ignore the commitment of Liberals to equity. The Asian understanding of Liberalism is I believe closer than what sometimes passes for Liberalism now to Liberal roots, as enunciated for instance by John Stuart Mill at a time when explicitly liberal politics came to the forefront in the United Kingdom. We can recognize however that Liberalism must always be what might be termed a moving feast, since in following what in Asian terms is termed the Middle Path, it has to respond to changing circumstances. Thus, as we saw so obviously in the 19th century, at one stage liberals increased the involvement of government in the provision of services when these were in short supply, later they realized the need to limit such involvement when it became excessive and took away from individual responsibility.

We need to be clear nevertheless about the parameters of liberalism, though naturally emphases will vary depending on the particular circumstances of any country at any given moment. In a nutshell, whilst always rejecting a statist approach to social justice, the philosophy that state control is essential for social development, Liberals have never underestimated the importance of state intervention in ensuring a level playing field for the fulfillment of individual potentialities. As the great German Liberal thinker Otto van Lambsdorf once put it, Liberals want a small State, but they also want a strong State, in those areas in which state involvement is desirable.

Thus we believe that the continuing commitment of Liberals, in particular in Asia, to providing education nationwide, to ensuring adequate health care, to equitable land reform, needs to be recognized and celebrated. Whilst we believe that private sector leadership is essential for successful economic development, we reject the types of crony capitalism that pass for free enterprise in some quarters, and which were deterrents to freedom in the bad old days of the cold war when commitment to social justice was considered tantamount to statist socialism.

Thus the Liberal Party of the Philippines suffered during the Marcos dictatorship when elements in the West supported what they saw as ‘their bastards’, with no understanding that restrictions on democratic freedoms could never lead to a stable and prosperous society. In those days we in the Liberal party of Sri Lanka also suffered from accusations of being communist sympathizers, simply because we opposed government attempts to postpone elections, a measure that unfortunately was celebrated in newspapers such as the Times of London, which should have known better, but argued that capitalist tea tasted sweeter so it was acceptable not to have elections on schedule.

In those days the Philippine Liberal Party stood by us, and we should record our debt in particular to former Chairman of the Party, Congressman Raul Daza, who now once more returns to Congress after a successful stint as Governor of his home province. He, ‘Butch’ Abad with his sterling commitment to social justice, and Franklin Drilon, with his relentless opposition to corruption, have been models to us in their principled but varied approaches to politics. They have shown us too that disagreements as to particular issues are no barrier to shared commitment to fundamental principles.

We also at this stage recall the inspiration provided by Cory Aquino, whose leadership galvanized the Philippine people when they were permitted to vote after many long years, and the People’s Movement then ensured that efforts to subvert the results of the voting were defeated. She served the Philippines at a time of difficulty when democracy was still in danger, but left it safe by the time she finished her term of office. Since then the Party maintained its position as the voice of conscience in Philippine politics, though its Presidential candidates were unsuccessful.

At the same time, though we were not fortunate enough to know or interact with him, we cannot forget Benigo Aquino II, who laid down his life for his country. Since his death we in Sri Lanka have suffered too from political assassination, with Tiger terrorism laying waste both Sinhala and Tamil political leaders. Not entirely coincidentally, whilst the Tigers spared extremists on either side, their particular targets were those of Liberal inclinations, with whom the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka had enjoyed warm relationships. Thus the UNP Presidential candidate of 1994, Gamini Dissanayake, who had asked the Liberal Party to draft his election manifesto, was killed in the midst of the Presidential campaign. Five years later Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam, who had contributed actively to our seminars on Constitutional Reform, was also assassinated. More recently we lost our Tamil Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who had graced the previous conference the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats had held in Colombo.

In Sri Lanka we have at last overcome terrorism, and can look forward to peace and prosperity, with our Tamil fellow citizens no longer being dragooned into separatism. We recognize that the new government has to work hard to ensure reconciliation, and confidence that the political process will provide remedies for shortcomings which have adversely affected some of our people in the past. We need therefore to ensure pluralism as well as equitable development throughout the country.

The people of the Philippines will recognize some of these challenges, and understand the difficulties of overcoming them. We have much else in common too, a long colonial heritage which brought benefits but also deprivation, the advantages of a working knowledge of English along with an obligation to ensure that this does not divide our citizens from each other, large numbers of overseas workers who keep our economies going but sometimes need support to ensure that they are not exploited. To move forward in the midst of all this requires effort, but we are confident that, under President Aquino’s leadership, and with such a distinguished team, our colleagues in the Liberal Party will rise to the occasion. We hope that we will also succeed in our efforts, and that we will learn and benefit from the experiences of each other.

Rajiva Wijesinha, Member of Parliament, Sri Lanka                                  (Chairman, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats)

International Secretary, Sri Lanka Liberal Party