Leni Robredo
Vice President Leni Robredo at a press briefing. (OVP Photo)

Elvis Presley faked his own death in 1977, and at the ripe old age of 81 still lives today as a grounds keeper in Graceland, the home he purchased in Memphis, Tennessee at the height of his film, music and television career in 1957.

The military-industrial complex — the alliance between the US military and the arms industry driven both by profit as well as the aim of maintaining US military supremacy — has the potential to undermine individual liberties and the democratic process.

Both are conspiracy theories — attempts to explain an actual or possible event as the result of a secret undertaking by groups or individuals to further their own purposes or interests. The first example above is patently false and the result of wishful thinking among some of the more devoted Elvis fans. But it can be argued that the latter possibility, since then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about it in his farewell address in 1961, could very well happen or has already happened.

Conspiracy theories are often more dismissed as absurd rather than taken seriously. But time and experience have established the validity of even some of the more complicated ones.

The belief that the US Central Intelligence Agency — which originally coined the term to discredit claims that it is involved in elaborate schemes to further US strategic and economic interests — will support and even foment and fund the overthrow of governments hostile to the US or whose policies are contrary to its interests, qualifies as a conspiracy theory. But events all over the planet have demonstrated its validity over the last 70 years, as the CIA and other US instrumentalities intervened in some fifty countries and overthrew or helped oust various “unfriendly” regimes.

Duterte partisans have described the email conversations among several US-based Filipino personalities critical of the Duterte regime as a conspiracy to remove Duterte from power. Although only six personalities are involved in the exchanges, a Manila newspaper not known for the quality of its reporting and copy editing went as far as to describe the group — in a news report (!) on its front page — as an “international propaganda machine” and what it’s supposedly doing as “a sinister plot against the President.” The same newspaper also concluded that Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo is “caught at (sic) the center” of the “propaganda machine.”

The emails were leaked by a blogger and by “news sites” supportive of both the Duterte administration as well as the political ambitions of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. The leaks were exquisitely timed to coincide with the next hearing of the Philippine Congress’ Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), before which Marcos, Jr. has contested the results of the May 9, 2016 vice presidential elections that Robredo won by some 200,000 votes.

The Duterte regime apparently believes that individuals and groups identified with the past administration are preparing Robredo to replace Duterte, while some activists tend to identify her with everything they despise about Benigno Aquino III and his gangmate regime despite her many virtues as a public servant. But whatever one may think of Robredo, the attempt to link her to the supposed plot seems to be solely based on the fact that she knows the people allegedly involved in it.

At work is the same “guilt by association” fallacy which was so effectively used against dissenters during the 1950s and 1960s in the United States as well as in this country to suppress criticism and free expression by labeling as communists people who associated with or who knew alleged communists.

But the email exchanges themselves, although they do say that Duterte should resign — which he vowed during the campaign he would if he fails to live up to his more sanguine promises — don’t even prove that the senders are involved in, or advocating, a plot to remove Duterte through violent means.

As Congressmen Edsel Lagman has pointed out, what the people involved were doing, rather than conspiring to overthrow the Duterte regime — while talking about it in emails! — were merely exercising their right to free expression.

Free expression is indeed what it’s all about. US-based business tycoon Loida Nicolas-Lewis, whose riches have led Duterte and Marcos partisans to imply that she is funding the “conspiracy,” has argued that overseas Filipinos have not lost the right to comment on what’s happening in their former homeland. But the reality is that anyone, whether Philippine citizen or not, has that right under both US and Philippine law.

It is true, however, that criticism of governments through the exercise of the right to free expression, by predisposing the citizenry to approve of, or at least to be indifferent to, the overthrow of governments, can be a factor in the making and outcome of political events. But that possibility can justify the suppression of the right to free expression only when, as Philippine and US case law has established, there is a clear and present danger to the State and the people.

There is patently no such justification, the supposed conspiracy being more of a scheme hatched by Marcos die-hards to demonize Robredo in preparation for Marcos, Jr.’s replacing her as Vice President in case the PET decides in favor of Marcos’ protest. The sheer number of troll-infested, fraudulent “news sites” and even one Manila broadsheet’s concentrating on “exposing” Robredo suggests that there’s a concerted campaign afoot to further discredit her among Duterte supporters.

This is not to say that if and when an attempt to oust Duterte does occur, Robredo, Lewis and company, as well as the Liberal Party and its allied pseudo-“left” group, won’t support it; only that the initiative to oust Duterte will probably not come from such unlikely sources.

The more likely instigators of any coup attempt are more powerful and more concerned with protecting interests other than human rights and the rule of law — and are more likely to succeed.

They include the officer corps, among whose members the appointment of presumed leftists to the Cabinet, the resumption of peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, (NDFP) and the release of some political prisoners have been deeply resented. The military and defense establishments have in fact so resisted Duterte’s making good on his promise to release many more that it has become a major obstacle to the progress of the peace talks.

Also among the likely plotters are the political dynasties and local economic interests who fear the loss of their monopoly over political power and economic preeminence should the peace talks progress to include agreements on authentic political and economic reforms.

But most of all should no one forget the country’s longtime overlord, to whom Duterte’s noises about an independent foreign policy, diatribes against US intervention, and overtures to China and Russia are growing indications that his foreign policy will jeopardize US strategic and economic interests in Asia enough to push the only remaining superpower in the world to replace him with someone more docile and more predictable.

An alliance of convenience among these forces would be more than plausible. That, of course, is just another conspiracy theory — although one that could prove more valid than the supposed Robredo conspiracy the Duterte regime and its online and other hacks are paying such close attention to.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Office of the Vice President.

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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