By creating a commission to look into the political killings that are making the Philippines an international disgrace, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is inviting comparisons with Ferdinand Marcos. That she chose to create her commission on the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of the late senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino didn’t help any.
Like Marcos in 1983, who initially created a commission headed by then Chief Justice Enrique Fernando to look into the Aquino assassination, Mrs. Arroyo created her own commission (headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo) in response to national and international outrage. It was Ninoy Aquino’s assassination then that drove Marcos into creating an investigating commission. It is the killing of over 700 political activists and the shock waves these have generated that have forced Mrs. Arroyo to do something beyond mouthing platitudes and creating token task forces.
The de facto president of the Philippines then (his term was supposed to end in 1973) was widely suspected to be behind the assassination, or to at least have approved it. Today the putative president of the Philippines is under the same cloud of suspicion–except that it’s not just one killing but several hundreds some 60 percent of the population thinks she’s responsible for.
In both cases we have the principal suspect him/herself creating a commission to look into a murder/murders, which by itself implies his/her innocence or lack of involvement. In both instances, we also have the same suspect naming close associates to head the commission. (Fernando was widely known for his closeness to the Marcos family. Melo served in the law office of Mrs. Arroyo’s father, the late Diosdado Macapagal.)
In 1983 Marcos was forced to disband the Fernando commission precisely because of its lack of credibility. In its place Marcos created the Agrava Commission headed by retired Court of Appeals Justice Corazon Agrava.
Although Agrava was an old friend of Marcos, the five-member commission she headed was able to proceed despite public skepticism. The Commission released minority and majority reports in late 1984. Both reports rejected the military version of the assassination–that a New People’s Army assassin had killed Aquino–and instead found that the killing was a military conspiracy. The minority report by Agrava named seven conspirators, and cleared then Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver of any involvement. The majority report named Ver among 26 conspirators.
Although the 26 were indicted, it soon became evident that the trial that followed would exonerate all of them by legitimizing the military version of the assassination. It took EDSA 1986 and a change in government to prosecute the military men responsible for the planning and execution of the assassination. But the masterminds are officially unidentified till today.
It should be obvious that for the Melo Commission to be anything but window-dressing to make it appear that the regime is not only innocent of the killings but is actually doing something about them, several conditions will have to be met. The first is Commission impartiality. The second is its being sufficiently empowered. The third is its recommendations’ leading to indictments of the conspirators.
There is a fourth condition for the entire process to be credible, and that is, the fairness of the trials that could follow, assuming that the Commission names those responsible. That would be the responsibility of the justice system as well as the Commission’s. Given that system’s record under its current stewards, however, that kind of neutrality could be doubtful.
Commission impartiality would depend on the extent to which its members would be committed to seeking the truth rather than concealing it in behalf of the regime. While, as the Agrava Commission demonstrated, this is possible, whether it will really happen is something only its actual performance will show.
Mrs. Arroyo has declared that the Commission will have broad powers. It can summon witnesses, government agencies, and even suspects to appear before it, and recommend the prosecution of the latter. But she has also introduced a disturbing note this early. She has declared that the Commission would be the only government body that would henceforth have anything to say about the killings. This would muzzle of the Commission on Human Rights, which has been critical of the regime for its failure to protect the citizenry from the death squads.
If we assumed the worst, the CHR’s being silenced would only be among the benefits the regime could reap from the creation of the Commission. The Commission could also exonerate the regime despite whatever evidence there may be, and validate the military’s version of events. If that happens, not only will the killings continue; they will also multiply into the thousands. As in 1986, the only hope for some justice would then be a change in government.