Oxymoron country

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“MILITARY intelligence” is the preferred oxymoron — the contradiction in terms most favored — by activists, human rights workers, and some academics. But that martial law classic may yet yield to these more recent gems, courtesy of the Bureau of Corrections: “living-out prisoner,” and the even more intriguing “sleeping-out prisoner.”

That there are indeed such prisoners in this earthly paradise of fish kills and illiterate congressmen who trivialize discussions on reproductive health and divorce seems to have caught a lot of bureaucrats, most of them from the Department of Justice, by surprise. And yet it’s one of the worst-kept secrets in this country, which means it’s hardly a secret at all: a convicted felon can still enjoy the amenities of home in his own made- to- order condo-hut without being locked up in a cell, and in some cases can even leave the prison compound for his Makati office to check his mail, or even to implement the terms of a murder contract.

It doesn’t matter what the felony for which the privileged prisoner was convicted, whether rape, murder, arson or burglary. Anyone with the means to have a hut constructed and to pay off guards and their superiors for various privileges including permanent conjugal visits can practically breeze through a 30-40 year reclusion perpetua, or even life sentence.

Filipinos have notoriously short memories, but it’s not as if they’re not reminded often enough that the penal system itself is a prisoner of injustice through a network of privilege for the already privileged, well-placed, or just well-connected.

One such well-connected murderer, a member of a vigilante group who killed a priest in the 1980s and then dipped a finger into his shattered brain and tasted it, who was supposed to be detained in the Davao Penal Colony, was for example once espied among the men and women massed at the Davao airport tarmac to welcome then President Fidel V. Ramos.

Other killers who’re supposed to be in jail have also been spotted murdering someone else, as well as sampling the nightlife of Philippine cities and cavorting with their favorite GROs, after which they return to prisons that might as well be, for them at least, five-star resorts and hotels.

On the other hand, poor inmates who don’t have the stomach for murder or anything else equally foul have to make do with stinking cells crammed with ten times the number of prisoners for which they were intended, where they inhale each other’s foul breath, stand knee deep in bacteria-tainted flood waters when it rains, and eat food even a dog won’t touch, serving sentences that in too many cases are even undeserved, having been earned because they couldn’t afford a lawyer.

For the nostalgic who still think that the martial law period was a time of impartial law enforcement, it wasn’t. Smugglers arrested during that period were detained in air-conditioned comfort, for example, while others sweltered in the gyms and even offices that had been converted into detention areas. Wealthy detainees could also bring into some military camps masseuses and lechon every Sunday for both their and their guards’ enjoyment.

Then as today, the bottom line was capacity to pay: the kind of treatment one gets in prison depends upon one’s place in Philippine class society, where some of the most corrupt and the most criminal, no matter their origins, have morphed from enforcers and henchmen into full members of the ruling elite.

But while the contradictions of Philippine class society are reflected in the way the law is habitually mocked by privilege, lawlessness has become the only recourse of the powerless. At the root of the oxymorons the expose of former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste’s privileged status at the New Bilibid Prison has made current is a level of lawlessness that has spread like a virus throughout Philippine society, thanks to the demonstration effect on the governed of the lawlessness of those charged with governance.

Not only do Filipino motorists, whether jeepney drivers or car owners, defy red lights, or pedestrians cross streets anywhere they please, or motorcycles flit in and out of traffic lanes. Many Filipinos also violate the simplest laws, and ignore the most basic rules of civilized behavior whether by jaywalking, burning their garbage despite an ordinance prohibiting it, cheating in nursing exams, paying off a traffic enforcer, or stealing electricity and even TV cable programs. It’s a lesson in cynicism they’ve learned at the feet of their supposed betters, whom they know are the first to violate their own laws while paying lip service to them.

Lawlessness among the powerless is a mere indicator of state failure. But lawlessness among the very people charged with enforcing the law is a major factor in the decline of state capacity to enforce its will, and therefore critical to its weakening.

What Filipinos have been witnessing in the Philippines since the martial law period is the unmasking of the state as the instrument of a lawless and rapacious political class. But the paradox is that the very bureaucrats and politicians who benefit from it are also the main contributors to the deterioration of the Philippine state, and, without knowing it or caring, presiding over its eventual demise. Include among these creatures former military comptrollers who’ve made the military the refuge of scoundrels; congressmen convicted of drug trafficking; police officers on the take, or even laundering euros and getting away with it; and other worthies, such as jail wardens who’ve made a business out of selling various perks to the prisoners supposedly in their care, who’re steadily chipping away at the foundations of the very state of which they claim to be the custodians.

They’re occasionally exposed, and their enterprises dismantled. But they go on to fashion other, even more lucrative schemes elsewhere in the bureaucracy. After all, even those who’re made to resign once exposed end up in some other post where they can continue to be as enterprising. Include in the growing list of oxymorons in this troubled and troubling country one more entry: the “dismissed reappointee”.

(BusinessWorld)

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