Playing with fire

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If President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo intends to issue a “comprehensive” amnesty proclamation by next year, her proposal deserves serious discussion now. And if it is indeed going to be as she and other administration spokespersons have described it, it must be opposed.

Both will be increasingly difficult. Politics being what it is in the Philippines, its inevitable inclusion in partisan political debate could prevent its rational evaluation. As the political season heats up with the coming of summer, the bill authorizing an amnesty proclamation could be ram-rodded through Congress and implemented before the May elections.

While Mrs. Arroyo and company probably hope to benefit politically from such a proclamation, one of its implications is the further weakening of the rule of law in general, and of state institutions, particularly the justice system, in particular.

Mrs. Arroyo said last Wednesday that she would grant amnesty not only to members of the Moro secessionist groups as well as guerillas of the New People’s Army but also “those involved in past political conflicts.”

When asked if that phrase could include the Marcoses as well as Joseph Estrada, Mrs. Arroyo said in so many words that it could and would. “Well, precisely (they’re) called past political conflicts, that’s what (they’re) called,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

Estrada and Imelda Marcos (as the primary heir of Ferdinand Marcos) could thus be amnestied before the conclusion of the plunder and ill-gotten wealth charges still pending against them. This is implicit in the explanatory note in Mrs. Arroyo’s draft bill she will be submitting to Congress.

The note says in part: “… there is a need to shift the adversarial and antagonistic nature of judicial and extra-judicial (?) proceedings to a more conciliatory and compromising (sic) mode to make effective the government’s effort of wealth recovery and bring together different political groups/parties and pave the way for a comprehensive peace and reconciliation agenda.”

This mouthful is unique in the candidness behind its bureucratese: in its admission that the purpose of the amnesty is to work out a compromise outside the courts, in effect circumventing judicial proceedings.

Equally evident is the intent for the amnesty proclamation to apply to cases involving “past political conflicts” already in the courts. The most outstanding of these being the Estrada and Marcos cases, the reference to them in the note is unmistakable.

The implications of Mrs. Arroyo’s planned amnesty are thus not only immediate, and go far beyond whatever additional votes Mrs. Arroyo could get from Marcos and Estrada supporters. The implications are also far-ranging.

In the short term it would mean an end not only to the efforts to recover illegally acquired wealth, but also, and even more importantly, to demonstrate the capacity of the justice system to prosecute even the rich and influential.

In the long term, as Senator Sergio Osmena III has suggested, it would further undermine whatever public faith is left in the justice system by being one more indication of the double standard of justice which condemns petty offenders while favoring those who steal big-time.

The demonstration effect of such an amnesty would also encourage rather than discourage thievery and corruption (steal now, be amnestied later). At the same time, it will, ironically, further undermine the Philippine state’s capacity to enforce its will, in contravention of the declared Arroyo intention to create a “strong Republic.”

Mrs. Arroyo’s proposal is unique in other ways. While amnesty is usually given those guilty of offenses against the state, it would this time apply to offenses against a particular administration, meaning hers—which inevitably invites the suspicion that it is not so much driven by any purpose approaching the noble, but by the ignoble one of getting elected by whatever means possible.

An amnesty is a general pardon for certain offenses. While it has seen wider application in recent times in the case of political offenses such as rebellion and sedition, it has also been granted to non-political offenders like tax evaders. Past Philippine governments have declared amnesties not only to deal with the chronic state of rebellion in the Philippines, but also with the state’s inability to collect the taxes due it, mostly from the very rich and influential.

Although cloaked in the noble intention of giving political offenders a second chance, amnesty programs have been intended to weaken rebellion by enticing its fighters to lay down their arms. There is an amnesty program in place for those Filipinos who have taken up arms against the government, whether in the furtherance of the aim to establish a separate Muslim state, or a national democratic state in preparation for the creation of a socialist system.

For former fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front, integration into the Armed Forces is an added inducement. For so-called “returnees” from NPA ranks, there are cash incentives in addition to their past offenses’ being condoned, although, as usual, controversy has hounded the disposition of the funds.

By including “her” political foes—or, in Mrs. Arroyo’s political universe, offenders against her administration—Mrs. Arroyo’s amnesty program would invite their support. It is doubtful, however, if that support will be forthcoming.

The rift within the political elite—a reflection of the deep divisions within the ruling classes—has widened considerably over the last two decades to the extent of its exploding into violence or the threat of it.

The primary manifestation of this escalating antagonism is the continuing threat of coups d’etats and other attempts at the sudden and violent seizure of power. While it is the military that has fronted for such attempts, these have actually been orchestrated by disgruntled elements of the political class who no longer care for elections as the route to power.

In the last 20 years the many coup attempts the country has witnessed—including that of the Magdalo officers last July—have been encouraged and supported by elements identified, first with the Marcos camp, then by the Estrada group, and lately, from both.

If these Right-wing elements have tried to use the coup to gain power but failed, their rivals in the Center have used People Power and succeeded. Despite the vast array of justifications that has been marshaled in support of People Power, it is nevertheless an extra-legal measure that circumvents legal processes, a fact that was most pronounced in January 2001. As a result, there has developed among the political class and its adjuncts in the police and the military a sense that the legal processes can be ignored at will in favor of more direct means of seizing power.

Mrs. Arroyo’s proposal could thus fail to produce the intended results, and what’s worse, could further undermine whatever’s left of the justice system. This is playing with fire at the risk of the entire house’s burning down.

* * * *

Mr. Amado “Gat” Inciong’s comments in the Letters to the Editor section of the December 19 issue of Today are well taken, although when I said that Blas Ople was “responsible” for the no-strike policy during the martial law period, I did not mean that he himself ordered it. As labor minister he was not only involved in its making—he was certainly consulted by Marcos—but also implemented it. Part of my point was that we can’t blame Marcos alone for martial law. Like Hitler he had considerable help. On the matter of the wage freeze during the martial law period I stand corrected.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, December 20, 2003)

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