AS THE CONCEPT has evolved, a truth commission is tasked with investigating and revealing wrongdoing by a past government, or a succession of governments. Its formation, as in Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Peru and El Salvador — the countries where truth commissions have been most successful — is driven by the scale of the misdeeds. Because of these offenses’ impact on society they have to be documented, their perpetrators identified, and if necessary prosecuted.

In Chile, South Africa, Argentina, Peru and El Salvador, the mission of the truth commissions was to determine the extent, causes and cases of state-sponsored crimes committed against the citizenry so that they may never again be repeated. They were also meant to identify and recommend prosecution of the guilty, and compensation for the victims and survivors, or their kin.

The need for a truth commission was evident in all the above countries. In Chile, only through a truth commission could the extent of the crimes of the Augusto Pinochet military regime — which was replaced in a 1990 election 17 years after seizing power in a 1973 coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende — be established.

The Pinochet regime was aided by University of Chicago economists in drafting its economic policies. Corruption among the US-backed Chilean military once these policies were in place was rampant. But the 1990 truth commission focused on the human rights violations the regime committed in behalf of the local elite and US multinational interests, among them the arbitrary arrests and detentions, the summary executions, enforced disappearances, abductions, torture and assassinations that targeted leftwing and church activists, trade union and student leaders, artists and journalists, and members of opposition groups.

Of particular concern were the disappeared, or desaparecidos — those abducted by the military, and about whose fate their kin needed to be certain. Once what happened to the victims of repression was established, they themselves or their surviving kin filed charges against those responsible. A number of military officers were prosecuted and imprisoned for their roles in the repression. Until he died, Pinochet himself was hounded by criminal charges filed in Chile and other countries.

The prosecution of those responsible for some of the worst, most systematic and most extensive violations of human rights in recent memory was necessary not only for the sake of justice, but also to provide some assurance, through collective remembrance, that the same crimes will never happen again.

In the Philippines, the need for a truth commission occurred after the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986. But the need for one today, in the aftermath of the Arroyo regime, is as evident, on the same urgent grounds as in post-EDSA 1986.

At the end of the Marcos regime, a truth commission could have performed exactly the same role as the truth commissions of Chile, Peru, South Africa, El Salvador and Argentina: that of once and for all establishing — and disseminating among Filipinos so they will remember — that the acts the past regime had committed in the name of democracy and order were indeed crimes for which those responsible had to be prosecuted, and how and why they occurred, so that the country could put that period behind it in the certainty that it will not happen again.

The alternative was for the country to remain divided on what happened during the dictatorship; confusion on who were responsible for it; uncertainty as to what happened to those the military abducted; and worst of all, to risk its repetition. That is exactly what has happened since. The uninformed maintain that it was a period of peace, stability and relative prosperity. The torturers and killers of that era are unpunished. The fate of scores of the disappeared has not been established. And the country remains in peril of dictatorships.

Part of the reason why what happened during the martial law period is still debated even today is because the late President Corazon Aquino did not create a truth commission to establish the truth about that dark chapter of history. Instead she created a poor copy of one, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), with a limited mandate and limited powers.

The PCGG mandate of looking into cases of ill gotten wealth and corruption during the Marcos regime was similar to that of the “truth commission” Benigno Aquino III created last week, apparently on the twin assumptions that corruption was the most outstanding offense of the Arroyo regime, and that corruption is a stand-alone offense against the nation.

And yet, equally evident, together with the many corruption scandals the Arroyo regime generated, were the human rights violations that could be laid at its door. These violations — the disappearances, assassinations, torture, massacres, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, among others — were part of the regime’s counter-insurgency strategy. But they were at the same time the instrument of regime determination to prevent exposure of its misdeeds and to silence criticism of the corruption that has metastasized throughout government. At the same time that they were, and still are, part of a brutal anti-insurgency policy, the extrajudicial killings and other crimes against political activists, progressive church people and local officials, lawyers, labor, student and farmers’ leaders, and even journalists also had the effect of terrorizing regime critics.

Mr. Aquino can do worse than to widen the mandate of the truth commission to include an inquiry into the extent of the human rights violations committed during the Arroyo regime as an instrument in its effort to conceal corruption; whether they were indeed state policy; the fate of the abducted and disappeared; and who were responsible. The truth commission could thus live up to its name, rather than being limited to duplicating the functions of the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice, and open to complaints as to its legality.

The country missed an opportunity to understand what happened during the martial law period. It shouldn’t miss the opportunity to understand what happened during a regime that’s been justly compared to Marcos’ own.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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