Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Empire Strikes Back: Signs of Creeping Martial Law

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(1st of 3 parts)

Blaise Pascal once stated, “Law, without force, is impotent.” Arroyo may have misunderstood Pascal when she used law, and now force, to conceal and ultimately protect her from her impotence against the tide of questions on her legitimacy. In an effort to thwart the upsurge of protests and mass actions, Arroyo does a repeat of what had happened weeks before the dark days of Marcos dictatorship.

After a tactical success in the Lower House, when her allies voted overwhelmingly to quash the impeachment complaint against her, Arroyo is now on a roll. Dismissing the calls for her resignation as mere noise that weakens the nation’s economy, she called on the nation to unify and help the government survive the brunt of the oil crisis and the continuous threat of terror.

Arroyo’s series of controversial policies, however, betray the modus operandi she had now resorted to take. Expecting that her calls for reconciliation would prove to be futile, Arroyo quickly pulled her hand back and responded with a closed fist. The administration, knowing that it lacks support from anywhere but its allied institutions, is now more determined than ever to go it alone.

Playing its remaining and most powerful cards, the Arroyo regime now plans to set the stage for a brilliant comeback after being trounced by a series of political, fiscal, and economic predicaments – at the expense of our civil liberties and political rights. We are now in a state of a de factor martial rule, and a formal declaration might only be days away.

Radio silence: EO464

The issue of Charter Change, itself a notorious and unpopular Arroyo survival strategy, had been put to a greater controversy when the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) revealed a questionable million-dollar contract signed by National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales on behalf of the Arroyo government.

The contract is to retain the services of Venable LLP, an American law firm, to lobby for Philippine Charter Change in the U.S. Government and to “secure grants and (US) congressional earmarks”. The Senate blue ribbon committee investigated on the matter, and questioned Gonzales regarding the controversial $900,000 contract. Norberto Gonzales withheld some information, compelling the Senate to cite him in contempt and put him on detention.

In an effort to stem collateral damage, Malacañang promptly issued Executive Order 464, barring ranking government officials from appearing in congressional investigations unless authorized by the President. Press Secretary and Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said that EO 464 is designed to keep Congress from abusing its oversight powers to advance certain personal or political agenda.

The EO specifically covers the following: (a) senior officials of executive departments who in the judgment of the department heads are covered by the executive privilege, (2) generals and flag officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and such other officers who in the judgment of the Chief of Staff are covered by the executive privilege, (3) Philippine National Police (PNP) officers with rank of chief superintendent or higher and such other officers who in the judgment of the Chief of the PNP are covered by the executive privilege, (4) senior national security officials who in the judgment of the National Security Adviser are covered by the executive privilege, and (5) other officers as may be determined by the President.

The Executive Order had used as its legal basis Article 7, Section 22 of the Constitution which states that “heads of department may, upon their own initiative, with the consent of the President, or upon the request of either House, as the rules of the House provide, appear before and be heard by such on any matter pertaining to their departments.”

This prompted former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez, the party-list group Bayan Muna, and the Alternative Lawyers Group (a coalition of 17 organizations working with the poor and marginalized all over the Philippines) to file three separate petitions seeking the ruling of the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the said order.

Chavez stated that Article 6, Section 22 had been “mutated” by Malacañang. He clarified that what the constitution states is that heads of the departments are only required to get the consent of the President if they are to appear to a congressional hearing by their initiative and not if they are summoned by the Congress. Thus, Chavez said, the EO expanded the scope of the Constitution without any legal basis.

The order quickly spurred reactions from both houses of the Congress. Even her staunch ally, Speaker of the House Jose de Venecia, maintained that the Congress has an “inherent duty to invite the executive heads and officers in aid of legislation and by virtue of the people’s right to public information.” Senator Rodolfo Biazon stated that the EO could precipitate constitutional crisis, as it is an interference of one co-equal branch of the government to another.

Bunye defended the constitutionality of the EO, stating that it is similar to Memorandum Order No. 112 issued on September 29, 1987 by former President Corazon Aquino which lays down the ground rules on the attendance of members of the executive branch in legislative hearings. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales said that the EO is just to protect the “dignity” of the President’s key official which may be lost due to humiliation during congressional investigations.

The full blow of the EO, in fact, had already been felt by the Marine Officers Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani and Lt. Col. Alexander Balutan. They had been dismissed from office after allegedly testifying in Senate without the President’s consent. Military investigators, however, contended that the two violated Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz’s directive prohibiting military officers to appear in legislative hearings without the President’s consent, but not the EO itself.

The refusal of Malacañang to let its minions be subjected to legislative investigation is not just a mere display of dominance after its allies in the Senate staged a coup against her, but rather also a indication that from now on it would be willing to do things in covert and outside the scrutiny of the public. The silence of Malacañang has thus been taken as a manifestation of more frightening things to come.

Setting the battlefield: Calibrated Preemptive Response

The administration announced a shift of policy from “Maximum Tolerance” to a stricter “Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR)” for street demonstrations following the non-stop mobilizations by militant groups and the opposition in protest of the failure of impeachment proceedings in the lower house and of the Expanded Value Added Tax (E-VAT). Under the new policy, rallies without permits would be dispersed outright and protestors would be arrested and charged.

Arroyo claimed that “rights have become licentious, to the detriment of the peace and order and welfare of the greater majority”. Ironically, the shift to Calibrated Pre-emptive Response policy for street demonstrators was enacted on the anniversary of Marcos’s Proclamation 1081, which placed the entire Philippines under Martial Law.

In a speech addressing a regional congress of local government officials in Clark Special Economic Zone, Arroyo declared “I am tired of chasing the bully around the school yard… Those who will accept my call for unity… are welcome, but those who reject it and continue making troubles… we will enforce the law.”

Members of the militant group Kilusang Pambansang Demokrasya (KPD) first felt the full force of the new policy after 27 of their demonstrators had been brutally arrested by the Manila Police. Days after, House Deputy Minority Leader Joel Villanueva, Akbayan Reps. Risa Hontiveros and Loretta Ann Rosales said they were hurt when police tried to disperse their rally in front of the University of Sto. Tomas along España.

The new policy later came face to face with a united wall of opposition. Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Chair Purificacion Quisumbing said that the government’s CPR and the “no permit, no rally” policy are illegal. She said that with or without permit, government forces should respect the right for speech and peaceful assembly as it is guaranteed by the 1987 constitution.

Various political groups and the civil society also reacted against CPR. Sister Cres Lucero of the human rights group Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) condemned the excessive force used by elements of the Manila Police District (MPD) against rallyists. She said that CPR is “but a legal jargon contrived by government to legalize arbitrary application of the police powers of the state.”

House committee on human rights by Representatives Satur Ocampo, Teddy Casiño and Joel Virador of Bayan Muna Crispin Beltran and Rafael Mariano of Anakpawis, and Liza Maza of Gariela Women’s Party, filed a resolution at the House of Representatives seeking an investigation on the constitutionality of the CPR and the “no permit, no rally” policy. They cited Article 3, Section 4 of the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution, which states “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

Fearing that the spate of sporadic attacks and criticisms, if done in the light of an economic crisis, may cascade into another near-fall for Arroyo, the politico-military machine of the administration is now doing the best it can to strike at street demonstrators at the first opportunity. Arroyo seems to be hoping that the end of visual display of discontent might ease if not eventually erase the antagonism of the public against its illegitimate president.

CPR, however, is not just a damage control mechanism of Malacañang. Several and other anti-democratic policies by the administration tells us that the CPR, among other strategies recently employed by Arroyo, are just precedents i.e. launching pads, for more atrocious and brutal measures yet to be implemented.

Next: The Anti-terror Bill and the Solidification of the State

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