The past in the present

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IF those who fear martial law are “living in the past,” it is because much of that past, with or without martial law, is still very much in the present. Human rights defenders are still under threat, and farmer leaders, indigenous people, protesters and political activists harassed and even killed, even as a brutal “war on drugs” that presumes guilt rather than innocence continues to claim dozens of lives every week at the hands of a police force emboldened by President Rodrigo Duterte’s frequent assurances of impunity, or exemption from punishment.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla accused those raising fears of even worse human rights violations in Mindanao, which Mr. Duterte placed under martial law last May 23, of that offense against military revisionism — of assuming that martial law today will share some of the characteristics of military supremacy during the Marcos terror regime (1972-1986).

Although no one has said that Mr. Duterte’s martial rule in Mindanao will be exactly like that of Marcos’, Padilla pompously declared that “under the new basis for (sic) which martial law is (sic) declared, those (sic) of the past are very different from the way it (sic) is going to be implemented today.” But the statement of his commander-in-chief himself before declaring martial law that “it will not be different from what President Marcos did; I’d (sic) be harsh” gave the lie to that claim.

As if to demonstrate that Mr. Duterte meant every word of that threat, two farmers were killed in an aerial bombing by the Philippine Air Force in Compostela Valley a few days after his declaration of martial law, preceded by another aerial bombing of communities in Cotabato and Bukidnon on May 25. The areas bombed, said human rights group Karapatan, “are at least 100 kilometers from Marawi City.”

Either he doesn’t remember or never knew it, but even Padilla’s attempt to soften Mr. Duterte’s threat was straight out of Marcos’ martial law grab-bag of semantic tricks. Padilla declared, in the same way that Marcos and his military and civilian bureaucrats did in 1972, that “only those committing acts of rebellion” have anything to fear. The Marcos kleptocracy and its military goons were saying the very same thing from Day One of the effectivity of Presidential Proclamation 1081. Over television, Marcos himself assured the citizenry that they may go about their lives without fear, because only those in rebellion had anything to worry about.

The Padilla, and indeed, the 1972 Marcos statements not only assume that without the protection of the Constitution, only those in rebellion will fall victim to a situation in which the military alone — not the courts, not any other government institution — can decide the guilt or innocence of anyone they choose.

The same statements also presume that what is at issue during martial rule is simply the question of an individual’s guilt. But what is primarily in question during such dangerous times for the citizenry is whether, guilty or innocent, the rights of those accused of rebellion, rumor mongering, spreading fake news or whatever, will be respected in terms, for example, of being presumed innocent, being provided competent counsel, and protected from torture and extrajudicial execution.

Padilla himself demonstrated how much martial law as the military and the Duterte regime understand it is in conflict with the fundamentals of human rights. In a later press statement, Padilla warned the millions of Filipino Netizens who communicate through social media that they can be arrested — without charges, since the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus has been suspended in the whole of Mindanao — for posting anything “harmful” to “national security.” That threat against free expression demonstrated how meaningless and insincere are regime assurances that the rights of the people will be respected during martial rule. Indeed, the use of “national security” — a term that in the Philippines has been applied to anything from a demonstration against the high cost of utilities to a protest against tuition fee increases — to justify repression is itself straight out of the Marcos dictatorship.

To demand that a vastly empowered State respect human rights during martial rule is to expect the impossible, the concentration of power in the hands of the police and military being the fundamental and inescapable basis for the violation of individual rights. The police and military are undemocratic, command institutions whose outstanding capacity for abusing citizens is based on their monopoly over the use of legal violence and their panoply of bureaucratic, political and ideological support that in any society are invested in the security apparatus as the protector of the ruling system.

The Philippine experience validates this reality by demonstrating that authoritarian rule — of which martial rule is a variety — is necessarily the instrument of stasis rather than change. Marcos justified seizing power in 1972 by claiming that it was for the purpose of “saving the Republic” and “reforming society” even as he was erecting a dictatorship predicated on the retreat of the country into a social and political Stone Age. Not only Marcos’ anti-democratic impulses and greed for power and limitless wealth made that regression inevitable. Of equal worth is the fact that the fundamental function of the coercive instruments of the ruling system is to preserve rather than transform society, thus the military’s enthusiastic, unquestioning support for his putrid regime for 14 years before the EDSA mutiny.

And yet the assumption that putting the country under martial rule will enable any regime, particularly his, to change Philippine society for the better has been a constant subtext in many of Mr. Duterte’s public statements.

When the Supreme Court, through Chief Justice Sereno, balked at the regime’s focus on judges supposedly involved in the illegal drug trade, Mr. Duterte issued one of his first threats to declare martial law. On several other occasions, he told the entire country that he might indeed declare martial law to address and solve the drug problem as well as corruption. Only recently has he reiterated that he would ignore both Congressional and Supreme Court decisions on whether martial law in Mindanao — and presumably anywhere else — is justified or not.

Mr. Duterte apparently presumes that the good intentions he repeatedly claims drive his actions are enough to cure the country’s ills, and completely ignores the lessons so painfully learned during the Marcos dictatorship when corruption and plunder flourished, some 100,000 men and women were arrested and detained without charges, thousands were tortured and/ or forcibly disappeared, hundreds extrajudicially executed, and the country ruined.

All indications nevertheless suggest that Mr. Duterte is likely to eventually place the entire country under martial law on some wild pretext or the other, and on the mistaken assumption that he can, as he has repeatedly declared, “solve all the country’s problems” via the authoritarian route.

Unless there is widespread resistance to it, martial law in Mindanao is likely to be extended, despite the military’s own declaration that it has things under control, and despite the lameness of the argument that because the Maute Group “intends” to seize control of all of Mindanao, that intention, rather than the facts, is enough reason to declare martial law in the entire region.

Expect martial law to be declared as well in the Visayas, where the Abu Sayyaf has supposedly established a presence, and eventually in Luzon, where a bombing here or an ambush there can easily be manufactured to justify a return to authoritarian rule nationwide.

And expect as a result a surge in human rights violations and military and police abuse and corruption, that even today persist as the dark legacies of the past that the AFP and its spokespersons dismiss as no longer worthy of our worst fears.

First published in BusinessWorld.

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