THE NEED for closure was among the reasons Justice Secretary Laila de Lima cited to put in context her denial of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s petition for travel abroad. Closure is what has eluded Filipinos most when it comes to the most critical events and issues that have confronted this country since its independence was restored.
De Lima acknowledged that the decision was political, but based as well on legal considerations and an evaluation of Mrs. Arroyo’s medical condition: “It may be political. One thing’s for sure, it’s more than medical or legal. It may be a combination of all, but what’s important is that it will serve the ends of justice.”
Similarly political and driven by “a combination of all” were the government decisions on the cases of a former Philippine president and an opposition senator allowed to travel abroad for medical purposes. During the martial law period, the late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment that was available in the Philippines, while deposed President Joseph Estrada was allowed to have knee-replacement surgery in Hongkong in 2004 while his trial for plunder was ongoing, even if the operation could have been done in a Philippine hospital by Filipino doctors.
In both cases the primary reason was political. In Aquino’s, it was the Marcos regime’s perception that it could better deal with Aquino abroad rather than in the Philippines, where he was likely to remain a rallying point for the opposition. In Estrada’s, it was the Arroyo regime’s hope that it could appease and even win over Estrada forces through a calculated display of compassion.
The exact opposite of the Aquino Jr. and Estrada decisions, the de Lima ruling indicates the Aquino III administration’s apparent willingness to brave the political fallout from the opposition and the usual chorus of sentimentalists to whom even rape and mass murder deserve forgetting.
But as de Lima implied, the country’s need for closure is itself a political and legal necessity. The country has to address and credibly conclude allegations of corruption and election fraud during the watch of Mrs. Arroyo, against whom three plunder and two election sabotage suits have been filed. Without closure, these accusations will remain in the murky company of those events and issues that until now are unexplained and unresolved, from which no lessons can be learned to help move the country forward.
If proven, the corruption of which Arroyo and company are accused could help prevent similar occurrences. If the accusations are proven false, the process can strengthen the argument for full public awareness of government policies and transactions in furtherance of the development of the informed public authentic democracies need.
The second point is particularly crucial. The citizenry needs information not only to enable it to monitor government transactions and to compel official accountability, but also to arm it with the capacity to distinguish gossip from fact and falsehood from truth, and to shield it from the manipulation of political and other interests.
The Aquino III administration has so far balked at the passage of a Freedom of Information law. It needs to understand that as an instrument of transparency, access to government information cuts both ways. Access to information can help citizens combat dishonesty and inefficiency in governance. But it can also protect honest officials from mischievous, whimsical, or simply false accusations of wrongdoing. The Arroyo regime is a prime example. Its non-transparency did not prevent, and in fact made inevitable, the proliferation of those tales of corruption and other wrong-doing that haunted it for nine years.
Mrs. Arroyo has been accused of a number of offenses, but the Aquino III administration has solely focused on allegations of corruption and election fraud. While that focus, if the process is to proceed credibly, could finally put to rest the truth or falsehood of the alleged offenses — and is in that sense needed, given widespread perceptions of corruption during the Arroyo regime — it is hardly enough to achieve the closure the country needs on the Arroyo years.
There are widespread and credible accusations of human rights violations during the Arroyo regime that have so far been addressed only by non-governmental organizations. Because those accusations are even more serious than corruption and electoral fraud, the Aquino administration could do the country a lasting service if it were to devote as much attention to them as it is devoting to corruption during that period.
Mr. Aquino III did refer to the need to put an end to impunity when he created the short-lived Truth Commission in 2010. But that Commission was supposed to investigate corruption during the Arroyo regime, and was not meant to look into the more pressing need to address — and, assuming a credible process, put closure to — the multiple accusations of human rights violations that were part of the Arroyo regime’s counter-insurgency policy. Neither does there seem to be any indication now that the Aquino III administration will address those accusations, most likely out of fear of military displeasure.
And yet, if the accusations are accurate, the number and brutality of the human rights violations during the Arroyo regime would put it in the same company as the Marcos dictatorship, and in some respects put it ahead of Marcos’ vile record.
The violations, say human rights watch groups, occurred almost from day one of Mrs. Arroyo’s assuming the Presidency. Over a thousand activists, priests, farmers, human rights workers, judges, even local officials have been extra- judicially killed while thousands more have been abducted, tortured, and forcibly disappeared since 2001. The worst attack on journalists in Philippine history — the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre — also occurred during the Arroyo regime.
Despite protests from such local and international human rights groups as the country’s largest human rights formation, Karapatan, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Human Rights Council, Mrs. Arroyo never condemned the human rights violations that characterized her watch.
Instead, in 2006 she singled out for praise and promoted Army general Jovito Palparan, who is accused of some of the most brutal and most despicable crimes against humanity and civilization ever committed in the Philippines or elsewhere. The basis for those crimes, which the general coyly admitted could have occurred because the soldiers under his command were “inspired” to commit them, was the barbaric assumption that not only were members of legal organizations fair game like guerillas and other combatants, but that combatants and non-combatants alike could also be abducted, tortured and summarily executed.
The accusations are not only serious, but even more credible than the corruption and fraud Arroyo and company are accused of, for the number of witnesses and organizations that attest to their truth. They merit a pro-active government effort to look into the Arroyo regime’s human rights record so that the victims and their families, and all Filipinos, can draw the relevant lessons from that dark period to make sure that it will never happen again. For that eminently human goal, the Aquino administration should have courage enough to risk the political consequences, and worse — unless to expect that kind of commitment of it is to expect too much.