Friday, October 21, 2005

Empire Strikes Back: Signs of Creeping Martial Law

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(2nd of 3 parts)

After the battlefield had been prepared, the next phase in any war involves preparing the mechanism that makes it possible to stage offensives. Arroyo, in her war for political survival, believes that her battle had already reached this stage. Her desperation to stay in power now compels her to use anything and anyone to strike at her opponents, even at the expense of being more controversial and unpopular.

Arroyo’s government at the moment, however, is hindered from striking decisively by our democratic laws. What she then needs is a law that legitimizes her reign of terror. Ironically, she chooses an anti-terror bill to accomplish this.

Preparing the Weapon: Anti-terror Bill

The Committee of Justice and the Committee of Foreign Affairs rushed the approval of the equally ominous Anti-terrorism Bill. Drafted in the light of the recent bombings in Bali, Indonesia which killed 25 people and wounded 125 others, the bill is supposed to be the strongest weapon of the government against terrorism.

The bill had long been pushed by the international community, particularly those participating in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. British Ambassador Peter Beckingham recently urged the government to pass an anti-terror law after London itself suffered terrorist attacks allegedly conducted by the Al-Qaida terrorist network.

According to the proponents of the Anti-terror bill, a legislative measure that will be able to protect us from terrorist offensives especially in the metropolis is an imperative. The country had already witnessed several of these assaults, including the famous Rizal Day LRT bombings and the recent Valentines Day bombings in Makati.

The bill, however, had been assailed regarding its motive and intent. The controversy lies on the contention that the bill expands the power of the Executive at the expense of civil liberties and political freedom. The Department of Justice, in fact, is given the authority to state organizations and persons that are to be listed as suspected terrorists.

Partido ng Manggagawa Representative Renator Magtubo expressed his opposition to the bill, stating that the anti-terror bill “will give extra license to military personnel to defy people’s civil liberties.” He believed that Filipinos who had been under martial rule and its excesses would not accept a policy that legalizes anti-democratic measures such as wire-tapping. Magtubo also claimed that there are enough laws and mechanism in the status quo to prevent terrorist attacks, owing to the fact that military budget constitute more than a fair share and that the President already has her own Intelligence fund.

Chairperson of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Rafael Mariano believed that implementation of existing laws is the problem, and that there is “no substitute for painstaking investigative work.” He further stated that “legal monstrosities like the Anti-terror Bill… will not solve the problem of sloppy police and military work.” Senator Ralph Recto affirmed this and said “we may craft the most comprehensive anti-terror law in the world but if our law enforcers are ill-equipped and ill-trained, then it will all be for naught.”

Several human-rights and militant progressive groups expressed fear that the bill could be used to stifle dissent against the Arroyo administration. The Anti-terror bill includes as an act of terrorism, “threatening or causing serious or unlawful interference with or serious unlawful disruption of an essential service, facility or system whether public or private”. This may pave way for the inclusion of street demonstrations as a terrorist activity as protests may result into disruption of services.

Alliance of Progressive Labor, in its September 20 press release, stated that the bill “offers nothing new, except the imposition of stiffer and graver penalties against crimes that are already punishable under the Revised Penal Code”. The bill states a punishment of life imprisonment and a fine of P10 million for offenders. If the act results in the death of a person, the violator could be meted with death according to the Senate version of the bill.

APL fears that the bill, instead of becoming a legal tool to identify and prevent terrorist acts, “shrouds” the definition of terrorism with a “cloud of ambiguity”, making the country a “virtual police state”. Gabriela Representative Liza Maza explained that “violence against civilians” as well as the “intent to create danger of panic”, which the bill includes as acts of terrorism are present in regular crimes. Maza then asked, “What is the inherent element or nature of terrorism that will differentiate it from other crimes, political and common crimes?”

Former Senator Vicente Sotto and Maza also raised the fact that there are no provisions regarding terrorism sponsored by the state or by its agents and institutions. The bills are dangerous, according to former Commission on Human Rights member Atty. Nasser Marohomsalic, because they “picture the government and its institutions as defenders of the people against terrorism.”

According to Makati Representative Teodoro Locsin, Jr., the bill implies that “the duty to combat terrorism devolves only on the state.” The bill assumes and thereby declares that it is the “policy of the state to safeguard and protect lives and properties against all forms of terrorist activities.” Locsin stressed, however, that “the state has been responsible for the most acts of terrorism, as defined by the bill [more] than any other entity we know of.”

Resurrected during the wave of government’s repressive policies, the anti-terror effort will be reducing people’s liberties and increasing government’s power on the very period the legitimacy of the government is in question. This may have been the reason why an anti-terror bill, which is supposedly a globally accepted need, is being opposed. Opponents of the bill may have simply been saying that a government incapable of ensuring a mandate and answering questions on its legitimacy would logically be incapable of preventing its own abuse.

Whether or not the government will be able to prevent itself of excesses or not lies on the democratic principle of checks and balance infused within our institutions. Checks and balance itself, however, is in peril now that Arroyo is slowly extending her hands of control over institutions of power.

Inspecting the troops: Solidification of the State and the Politicization of the Military and Bureaucracy

Insurance Commissioner Benjamin Santos had suddenly been fired by Malacañang early this October, further stirring controversies about possible attempts by the administration to politicize the bureaucracy. Santos, dismayed about the Department of Finance’s decision to oust him, believes that the action is politically motivated.

Santos is known for his aggressive push for a well-capitalized insurance industry and exposition of corruption in the area of comprehensive third-party liability insurance for motor vehicles. Santos believed that administration congressmen with connections to vehicle insurance firms affected by reforms and by the exposition of irregularities “asked for” his “head”.

The pruning and position swapping by Arroyo clearly manifests her effort to solidify her control of the bureaucracy. Reminiscent of the American machine politics of the mid 1900’s, patronage jobs are rewarded and undesirable bureaucrats are fired in exchange for political support and backing. Arroyo seemed to be mindful now of her choice of appointees after her cabinet officials known as the HYATT 10 called for her resignation weeks ago.

In fact, Malacañang earlier terminated education undersecretary Juan Miguel Luz. Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas offered Luz a post as an assistant secretary in the Labor department. This position vacated in the process can then be offered to someone whose loyalty to her is already assured.

Arroyo’s revolving door policy for several key positions in the Armed Forces also served to politicize the military to her advantage. Her policy of appointing generals near their compulsory retirement age to be AFP chiefs clearly aims to increase the number of retired generals indebted to her, consequently increasing the number of retired generals who are willing to support her.

Even other ranking officials are not spared. Recently, the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) head post left by Lt. Gen. Alberto Braganza had unexpectedly been given to AFP Deputy Chief Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan, a known staunch Arroyo supporter, instead of the Board of General’s (BOG) choice Maj. Gen. Samuel Bagasin. The 80,000-strong SOUTHCOM is the largest of all military installations outside of Metro Manila, and is at the forefront of the military’s fight against the separatist rebellion, communist insurgency, terrorism and organized crime in Mindanao.

The military, particularly the junior officers, expressed disgruntlement on Arroyo’s decision to appoint as a SOUTHCOM an officer known for his office boy/swivel chair image. Furthermore, Adan’s stint as SOUTHCOM chief will be limited by the fact that he will be retiring January next year, or barely four months after his appointment.

Senator Panfilo Lacson believes that the appointment of Adan was made on the light of rivalry for SOUTHCOM post between Bagasin and Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon, whose named was mentioned in the “Hello Garci” tapes used as a proof by the opposition of Arroyo’s cheating to win the 2004 May elections.
Lacson suspected that Habacon had been promised the post in reward for his contribution during the elections and the canvassing, but with the BOG recommending Bagasin, Arroyo had to appoint Adan to the post as a compromise.

In another controversial move, Arroyo then appointed Bagasin to be the AFP Deputy Chief of Staff, in effect swapping positions with Adan. This clearly aims to mollify the already agitated and restless AFP hierarchy and to retain the favor of Bagasin, who apparently had been disappointed with Arroyo’s decision to “bypass” him.

The police force is also not insulated. Makati City Police Chief Sr. Supt. Jovito Gutierrez was sacked and reassigned as Deputy Director for Administration of the Southern Police District (SPD). Supt. Efren Ysulat took over as OIC of the city police. After the appointment, Malacañang then outlawed all street mobilizations and protests in Makati City. This completely overruled the authority to issue rally permits of Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, the United Opposition (UNO) leader.

After the show of Lower House’s support for her by trashing the impeachment complaint, Arroyo also seems to be gaining control of Local Government Units (LGU). Mayors belonging to the Metro Manila Mayors League, including Manila Mayor Lito Atienza and Quezon City Mayor Sonny Belmonte, explicitly called for the continuation of the president’s term and her fiscal, economic and social reforms.

Atienza was backed up by Manila Reps. Benny Abante (6th district) and Jimmy Lopez (2nd district) while Belmonte was affirmed by Q.C. Reps. Mary Ann Susano (2nd district), Matias Defensor (3rd district) and Nanette Daza (4th district). Parañaque City Mayor Florencio Bernabe, Parañaque City Vice Mayor Anjo Yllana, Marikina City Mayor Lourdes Fernando, Mandaluyong City mayor Neptali Gonzales, Taguig City Mayor Freddie Tinga, Muntinlupa City Mayor Jaime Fresnedi, Pateros Mayor Rosendo Capco, and Las Piñas City Vice Mayor Louie Bustamante also promised all out support for Ms. Arroyo.

Provincial leaders also allied themselves with the administration. Agusan del Sur Board Member Santiago Cane, Jr. (Secretary-General, Provincial Board Members League of the Philippines), La Trinidad - Benguet Mayor Nestor Fungwan (President, Mayors’ League of Benguet), Iloilo City mayor Jerry Treñas (National President, League of Cities) cited the need for the Chief Executive to stay in office. The Metropolitan Iloilo Development Council also passed a resolution of support for the President along with the city government of Passi, Isabela, Mati and Baguio.

Such display of support from local and regional leaders despite Arroyo’s worsening public image is an indication of how far these leaders can go without consultation of their constituents. Arroyo’s call for a Federal Republic and her hand on the disbursement of PDAF and IRA may have earned her a temporary backing from the so-called local legislators and executives – but the continuous worsening of living conditions may very well exhaust what is left of her political capital.

Arroyo’s actions are logical. Leaders use institutions as refuge when the people are already against them. Arroyo’s obvious tactic of politicizing the military and the bureaucracy together with forming collusions with local and institutional leaders is merely a part of a menacing plan of solidifying the state. With no one to stop her, and all power-holders agreeing to her, democratic checks-and-balances cease to exist.

A dictatorial regime may only be inches away.

Next: The declaration of war against democracy

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