Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon said the other day that it was the people who didn’t want the party list groups in their communities. Apparently he didn’t mean all party list groups, however.

Esperon was replying to claims that the AFP has fielded troops in 27 metro Manila communities to harass, and campaign against, the left wing party list groups that the Arroyo regime insists are “communist fronts.”

The AFP has indeed deployed troops in some metro Manila communities, but the deployment, said Esperon, was in response to requests by local officials to “curb drugs and to stop… groups always seen on the street” from recruiting members. But it’s not the troops that are campaigning against such party list groups as Bayan Muna and Gabriela, said Esperon. It’s the people who don’t want the party-list groups in their communities.

Esperon’s saying that the military is engaged in stopping “groups always seen on the street” from recruiting members invites questions like which groups are these specifically, and whether they’re engaged in illegal activities like drug dealing. If the groups Esperon is referring to are Gabriela and Bayan Muna, and if the answer to the second question is “yes”, it would invite other questions–among them whether these groups are illegal, and if the military has the legal mandate to do police work.

Gabriela and Bayan Muna are not illegal. They even have representatives in Congress, are registered political parties, and are in fact running for Congress again this year. It’s true the military can do anything during martial law. But the country isn’t supposed to be under military rule. And the Philippine National Police, a civilian agency mandated with the maintenance of law and order, doesn’t seem to be incapacitated in any way either.

The statements of AFP spokesmen, as well as Esperon’s own, however, assume that maintaining “peace and order” is among the AFP’s mandates, whereas its main function is to preserve the national territory and defend the country against foreign invasion, “peace and order” being the police’s responsibility.

As for the claim that the communities “don’t want the party-list (groups)” to campaign amongst them, Esperon seems to be implying that the AFP is just obliging them by keeping the party list groups out–which if true would mean that the AFP is in violation of the letter of the Omnibus Election Act. Among other provisions, the Act declares it an offense for “any officer, employee or member of the Armed Forces of the Philippines…who, directly or indirectly, intervenes in any election campaign or engages in any partisan political activity except to vote or to preserve public order, if he is a peace officer.”

As it is, witnesses say that in the metro Manila communities where they have been deployed, heavily armed AFP soldiers have harassed members of party list groups, and even threatened them with harm. But the mere act of keeping party list groups out of the communities is itself already a form of intervention. In addition, the term “peace officer” means policeman, and not a soldier, which means that only police officers can “preserve public order.”

The AFP would also be in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Party List Act, which implements the party-list provisions in the Constitution. The party list system is supposed to broaden democratic representation by enabling marginalized and unrepresented sectors to be represented in the House of Representatives, which the Commission on Elections candidly describes as being “traditionally… dominated by parties with big machinery.” The AFP campaign against some party list groups amounts to a campaign against the system itself, and in behalf of the “parties with big machinery.”

Of equal relevance is the recommendation by UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston that the regime and the military accept the need for providing legitimate political space for leftist groups. The Alston recommendation is based on the assumption that pluralism is the essence of democracy, and that to deny leftist groups space in the democratic debate is not only illegal. It would also validate the view that reforms are impossible without taking up arms. The AFP would in effect be encouraging rebellion.

It is of course doubtful if the military or the leading lights of the Arroyo regime have either the capacity or the willingness to recognize the need for pluralism in a democratic polity. Not only is democracy merely a word that falls from their lips whenever convenient. It’s also doubtful if there’s much democracy left during their watch.

Their vague responses, their hemming and hawing, their twisting in the wind in trying to explain what they’re doing–all suggest that Esperon and company are fully aware that their deployment of troops in metro Manila, and these troops’ campaigning against some party list groups and in favor of others, are as much in violation of Philippine laws as these troops’ threatening and intimidating members and potential members of the party list groups they love to hate.

The AFP claim that its troops are in some metro Manila communities to guard these against lawless elements is completely without factual and legal basis. The spectacle of soldiers roaming barangay, intimidating everyone with their presence, and stopping anyone they please should make it clear who the real lawless elements in this country are.

(Business Mirror)

Luis V. Teodoro

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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